A shortlisted piece in the Fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2021.
This is the end of the world. That is what my mother says: my mother, who also says that the woman down the street is having an affair because she paints her nails red and is prone to long absences on Friday evenings. I am not saying my mother is wrong about these things, but merely that she has a tendency for exaggeration, which is exactly what I told her when she sat us down one morning and said, the world is ending. Everyone you know is going to die. Her voice was so serious then that I couldn’t help laughing: a mean little laugh that mocked her grave silence, and she shot me a look of contempt that said, you have no idea what is coming. Or, I am a mother, you are not. And what could I say to that? You can’t argue against a mother’s will to protect you from the world’s end, imaginary or not. Beside me my little brother was rubbing sleep from his eyes, as if still trying to apprehend why she’d woken us. “The world’s ending?” he asked. “People will die?”
“Yes,” she replied. “Yes.”
“Don’t believe her,” I told him later. “Don’t believe her, she’s insane.” But honestly, there was a moment when she was speaking when I hadn’t been so sure. I had turned toward the window and seen council bins in rows and tired-looking yard plants outside, and for a second everything appeared so worn, so close to giving. When I turned back to her she was looking right at me with a gaze so knowing I had to look away. The truth is that I have always suspected my mother knows something more than me, that she is smarter than she seems. This still is not especially smart, but it is something.
England. A rainy, miserable island at the edge of the world. Crammed inside my mother’s car as we left the city, I began to contemplate the unspeakable possibility that I could die, at sixteen, in fucking England. The longer I sat considering this the more I felt compelled to open my door and make a rolling-dive for it; I could be a hundred metres away, I figured, by the time my mother stopped the car, and what was she going to do, come in after me? That’s a shame, she’d say, watching me flee over the moor. Let’s carry on then. But I sat pondering the prospect for too long. Soon we arrived at a grubby, tin-roofed house whose slanted structure gave the whole thing a look of exhaustion, as if it had been longing to fall over and die since first erected. There was an expired smell in the air that seemed to be coming from a muddy-looking river beside us. “When it happens, we won’t even know from here,” said my mother from the driver’s seat, and I realised with horror that she was right.
My mother thinks the world is going to end at 12am on January 1st, 2000. She believes this not on the basis of any religious nuttery but rather on the grounds that at the turn of the millennium every computer in the world will crash, and every human structure run by machine will come down with them. As for my brother and sister, who have had five years less the privilege of observing our mother, they appear all but sold: they ask things like, what about people who are on planes at midnight? or where will all the money go?, to which she replies somberly, I don’t know guys, or, breathing out deeply and shaking her head, really, I just don’t know. As for myself, I really haven’t thought about it too much. I’m not sure, in my heart, that I care if the world ends or continues; either I will be dead in the ground in a year or I will still be in England, and the way I see it, these fates are not so different. My main suspicion is that my mother herself doesn’t believe it, that for all her exaggerated maternal commotion, she knows not a word she’s said is true. I see her working outside our window sometimes, pausing every now and then to gaze reverently at the muddy little river by our house as if standing at the mouth of the Thames itself, and think, god help us. She has lost her mind.
When we first arrived, our primary work was forgetting the past. This was especially difficult for my siblings, who grieved for everything we left behind – believing, as they did, that all of it would soon be rubble. But I faced a different kind of grief, namely that of a sixteen-year-old girl who is ripped from the burgeoning world of adult sexuality and dropped in a corner of the earth where the closest thing to a male presence is the badger in the reeds. In short, I missed men. I longed to be looked at by them, and to look at them back; I missed everything that was implied in that exchange, all the hesitation and superb, awkward theatre, which really is the only fun we English can have in our otherwise squat, domestic, endlessly prosaic lives. I was back in the orbit of my mother, the undifferentiated state. I watched her at night in the bed across from me, her mouth stupid and wide open in sleep, producing guttural noises that kept me awake in the darkness. “Why do you sleep with your mouth open?” I asked her one morning. “I’m just saying,” I went on, “it’s not that hard to close your mouth.” For a second she looked like she might kill me, right there. My siblings stared at me over their breakfast as if they feared for my life. But then she just turned back to the sink and kept on cleaning. “You can swap with your sister,” she responded flatly. “She can sleep with me.”
The other form of work, which was mainly my mother’s, was to outlast the rest of the world. This meant self-sufficiency, which meant food, and if she found transforming our sodden patch of land into the source of our livelihood a daunting task, she didn’t show it. All day she plowed into the earth like some mad settler, leaving us to wander along the river for hours on end. “Don’t go too far,” she told us once, in lazy fulfillment of her maternal obligation, but honestly, what did she suppose we might find? We were alone for miles in every direction; she had ensured this herself. We were so alone that while
we waited for her sad-looking crops to grow we faced a three-hour drive each week to the closest Sainsburys. “Would you come find us if we got lost?” my sister asked, in her annoying, guileless way. At this my mother paused. “Of course I would,” she said seriously, then kept digging.
Nature has a strange quality here. Things seem dreamlike, suspended, and I can never say exactly why. As we walked along the river that day the October light was pale and buttery. I watched a fly lift off the tip of a reed and disappear over the water, where my brother and sister were wading up ahead. I trailed behind, listening to their laughter and answering the occasional questions they stopped to ask.
“When do you think we’re going home?” my sister asked me. My brother was poking his head into a washed-up log somewhere ahead of us.
“I don’t know,” I replied. She looked at me as if waiting for something more. “Why?” I continued, “You don’t like it here?”
My sister considered this for a moment. Her face was thoughtful, her mud-stained hands still at her sides.
“What about dad?” my brother said, running back toward us. “If the world is ending, maybe we should find him.” My sister nodded in agreement beside him. “Maybe he could stay here with us.”
To this proposition I had no response, so I turned away and kept walking. The truth is that my siblings haven’t seen our father since they were four years old, when he left my mother for a woman who worked at the hairdressers and wore cheap body spray. I have this information from a monologue thrust upon me at the age of eleven, which is the only time in my life I have seen my mother cry. From the backseat of her car I watched her grip the steering wheel so hard her nails went white, and listened, dumbfounded, as she related the story of the woman our father left her for. It was around this time that she developed a disdain for all the women in our neighbourhood, including the one with the
red nails. It is also then that she began the project of erasing our father’s existence from our lives, to enter a state of disavowal so consistent it continues to be almost admirable. And so I couldn’t answer my brother’s question because in a way, our father does not exist. As far as our mother is willing to acknowledge we are three random homunculi, spawned into existence by the same force of will she was using at that moment to make crops grow from the most destitute English soil I have ever seen.
Thankfully, my brother seemed to have already forgotten the question. My sister shot me a last meaningful look and seemed to accept that it would not be answered, running ahead to join him in her baggy mud-stained jeans. The river was turning a pale, cloudy colour, I noticed then, almost mossy, like a fly’s wing. I had the sense that somewhere else, somewhere miles away, the world was burning.
It was early November when we found it. My brother came into the house looking breathless, with an urgency in his manner that made us turn towards him. Maybe we were bored. News of any kind, after all, was news we weren’t getting elsewhere. Maybe we were eager for action, or beauty, neither of which the English countryside was supplying in abundance. Whatever the reason, when he spoke we stood up and followed him through the yard, each pausing when we saw it. “There’s a swan in the river,” he’d told us. We blinked at him stupidly. “No, it’s caught,” he said, “it’s caught in the banks.”
It looked as if it had been there for days, lying in the reeds with its enormous wings laid beneath it. In the city I’d seen birds dead from cold, but in this slower, muddier death I saw something different, something less haunting and more strange. It seemed not to be breathing, its neck draped across the bank like something within it had snapped loose. But the river was misty that morning, the light so otherworldly, and for a few backward moments none of us could be sure if it was dead or still dying.
“Should we help it?” my brother asked.
“No,” said my mother. “Don’t touch it. It’s already dead.” She was right, of course. And its body itself, the physical cage, was also dying. There was a hole in its chest where a wound had been, and out of it was tricking a clear liquid that wasn’t blood, more like rusty water. It had been shot, I figured, or maybe attacked. Maybe it had struggled, or just surrendered, knowing its fate was already ordained. Suddenly my sister reached down and touched it, stroking its huge muddy wing with the back of her hand. When I glanced at my mother she looked almost tired. “It’s dead,” she said again, but we had already heard her. We already knew why we were here. This was the outer edge, the furthest point away, as far as our lives could carry us. This was the boundary at the end of the world.