I Saw Him Again

I saw him again just the other day, striding purposefully across Southwark Bridge in the direction of St Pauls. Even in that briefest of moments I knew without a doubt it was him – the full-set beard, the horn-rimmed spectacles, the shabby raincoat, the flat cap not quite straight atop his head. There was no mistake. My father was not the sort of man you could forget in a hurry, even though he’d been dead for 30 years.

It had been a long while between sightings. The first occurred 10 years to the day after my mother signed the consent form to turn off his life support. That experience – not his dying, but seeing him alive all those years after watching his casket being lowered into the ground - had left me shocked and perplexed. That I had not managed to track him down afterwards made the encounter easier to bear for I had convinced myself that it had been a case of mistaken identity; a trick of the light, a moment of irrationality or confusion on my part. And yet here he was again, wearing the same raincoat, the same hat, the same beard, the same determined look.

I shifted uncomfortably in the hard hospital bed. The nurse adjusted the canula in my arm and smoothed the blanket over my feet. Rest, now, she said. I struggled to speak.

‘Hello, Dad – I’m coming to join you,’ I whispered quietly to myself before drifting off into that final, impenetrable sleep.

- Peter Mason

The Hounds of the Noosa’villes

Howling penetrates the windowpane. The sound is long, mournful, and has been intermittent by night and day for the previous week. We work from home, unlike we suppose, the owners of the offending creature. Each morning we stand on the balcony and try and locate its direction amongst the sloping roof tops that descend away from us to sunrise beach. We grumble. We complain. Periodically we pace, disturbed by the sound. We bemoan bad owners, we discuss cruelty to animals, we contemplate thicker glass windows. We should knock on their door later and, ‘have a word’, we decide. We don’t. I try to call home in England, where there are moorlands, wide, weatherworn, and where mist rises and hangs between the dales and the moonlight. Baskervilles. Haunted manors. Howling.

The time difference makes it awkward, when I finally connect it is to hear my family are held in stage three lockdown due to Covid. Later, standing on the balcony I listen to the howling. This time I really hear. I am alone here, and I don’t know why. The next day I push a note beneath the suspected house’s door, leave, and wait. Day’s go by.

Finally, a phone call. A happy voice, relieved, apologetic, grateful. The following morning, I begin my new morning walk. Beside me is Gravy the Boxer dog. Brown, tall, fast. We explore the beach then run home together, sand covered and exhilarated, with promises to see each other tomorrow. Later, there is no howling, just quiet satisfaction in having done something other than complain.

- Peter Lee

A Handful of Hope

The small Unit for Living we now have closes in on us every day. Our statutory two chairs, table, bed, small kitchenette, shower corner and toilet room can be no more in total than fifty square meters. Our old house is now a mere shell in the garden. It has been gutted of everything and anything of usefulness and is home to our chickens and goats. The windows have been barred for five years to keep out looters. We moved out as soon as we had our new unit delivered by the Housing Department.

The International Regulatory Commission for Global Resuscitation clamped down on the manufacture of footwear twenty years ago, on the grounds that mass production and marketing of synthetic goods, and global distribution from China, was neither sustainable nor possible any longer. The only method for all international supplies is now by trailer shipment operated by SusTrans, the global consortium for sustainable transport. Long, towed lines of goods make their way slowly from one continent to another, hauled by concentrated solar-powered tugs. The few countries qualified to engage in any form of industry have to be certified by the Commission - mainly because of their knowledge and expertise in ecological conservation, together with their clever ability to devise new environment-enhancing machinery. The footwear controversy still remains high on everyone’s agenda. Stocks are warehoused by most governments now, and the Quota Qualification Selection is hitting us the most – anyone over fifty not able to work on the land is forced to retire and pecuniary rationing is imposed. We need to conserve whatever we can in order to make what we have, last.

The Commission’s ploy is very cunning. No shoes, no walking; no walking, no contact with others; no contact with others, no knowing what is happening in the world. Our bicycle tyres disintegrated two years ago and after riding on the rims for a while they, too, buckled. We have not been to a Global Information Seminar in our section for months; it is always the same old propaganda, and we need to conserve our last pair of shoes. The ripple effect of these fiscal measures is deliberately choreographed. It is designed in the long-term to cause illness and eventual early death through lack of exercise and access to food supplies and medical treatment, thereby reducing the population and enabling further conservation of resources. People aren’t stupid, and the authorities are as transparent as ever.

The pathway to our allocation of fertile land is well-trodden. Surprisingly, the patch had yielded more this year than last. We had noticed a slight change in the weather for the better - and supposed, with hopeful conversations, that the turning point we had all been waiting for, and promised, had come. For the past twenty years my husband had toiled and succeeded in playing the soil to our advantage by clever rotation of crop and preservation of seed, compost and organic fertilizer rations. Last year, he collapsed inside our store shed. He was lucky I heard him call. We managed to get him back into the unit, and I walked to a neighbour whose air bubble was still serviceable, and we went to collect the district nurse. No more digging or heavy work for my husband for the foreseeable future. Since then he has improved slightly, but any sudden or excessive movement leaves him breathless. I have tried to make herbal medicines from memory from a recipe in a book I once had. I know, and he probably knows, although we don’t talk about it, that it is only a matter of time.

Therefore I have been the one to sow the seed and grow the crops. This I do thoroughly, but as quickly as I can. I take refuge most days in our storage facility because, in between the sacks of grain and racks of drying fruit and vegetables, lie the last vestiges of our past lives.

Moving to smaller living spaces, we had no option but to jettison belongings. Some were sold, but what good the money did is questionable – it perhaps helped us to bribe a few officials along the way. Money is useless now – bartering is the thing now. Find a need for things you have and exchange with things you need. Nothing has any value save in its necessity. We were only able to keep a few remnants from the past.

I brush the soil from my hands and stand my worn-out boots next to the huge water storage tank. Then I go through the wide timber door, checking as usual for what havoc the inevitable hoard of rats has wreaked during the night. My simple stool stands by the high misty window. Alongside it is my pride and joy, my beautiful box of memories I am still able to cling on to - my secret treasure chest. I need this more and more as time goes by. It keeps me sane. I have the same routine. Lock the door before lighting the candle, pull out the stool, sit upright and comfortable, take a deep breath, and lift the lid. I try to alternate the opening display of items by placing the last ones viewed underneath, before I close the lid. This, I find, gives me a fresh sense of discovery.

So it is this afternoon that my fingers touch a scrap of once-white cotton cloth – fine lawn, edged with exquisite handmade lace. I spread it out carefully to look at the beautifully embroidered initials ‘EJS’ in one corner. As I hold it, I close my eyes. I see the tiny hanky tucked into my mother’s blouse. Her delicate hands grip the handle of the silver tea pot, pouring tea in the drawing room on a sunny winter’s day. My little brother is already tucking into the cakes and sandwiches as I show him how to balance his plate on his lap.

My father comes into the room with more logs for the fire. As soon as he replenishes it, the flames light up the room with warmth and love. I remember my mother’s knowing smile as I refuse another helping of cake. I am growing up. It is the winter of 2031, one of the coldest on record.

When our parents died my brother and I sold the family home and both took what we wanted of the family heirlooms. The Georgian furniture looked lovely in our home. The pictures of my ancestors which hung throughout the hall were familiar reminders of our illustrious past to our own son as he grew up.

We were all aware of the impending catastrophe, but nothing had prepared us for what transpired as my son reached the age of eighteen. Communications and science and technology were at their zenith, yet the planet was suffocating. Wrong decisions by successive governments, too little and too late, were now beginning to take a strangle-hold. After the excesses of consumerism had nigh-on exhausted the world’s fuel supply, in feeding the greedy mouths of Western civilisation, the population of the third world was becoming an unknown quantity.

We were told then that people of the African continent were on the verge of extinction – previous warring conflicts had been abandoned years ago in the wake of drought, famine and mass starvation. Suddenly, the so-called crack-pot banner-carrying doom-mongers of my youth announcing that the ‘End of the World is Nigh’ didn’t seem so mad after all.

People frantically engaged in looking for greener pastures, new lives and a viable future. We encouraged our son to go whilst he could. He wanted us to go with him. His father was too busy finding solutions, working with the Home Department of Resources. My place was with him. Securing a seat on one of the last international flights out of the country our son left home to travel to New Zealand, where it was known they had sustainable supplies of water and food and where land was still available for immigrants with bioskills. At the departure gate we both clung to him in despair, half-hoping that he would not leave but knowing that we could only wish him Godspeed and a good life. After the plane had disappeared from view and we made our way back to our now-seemingly empty home, we sat on his bed and wept. We did hear that he had met a girl and now had a son of his own. That was ten years ago, before global communications finally collapsed, and now, even mail by sea is so unreliable that no-one uses it. Delivery is impossible.

Today I seek solace in a few old glossy prints of our family. Our home computer, containing all our photographs for the past forty years, is now obsolete without electricity. I reach down into the chest, between books, jewellery, old passports and scrapbooks, and take out a shabby biscuit tin with a Christmas tree on it. From its hallowed centre I remove pictures of us in happier times. Holidays far and wide, the limousine we loved so much and treasured even up to the time we were forced to take to the skies in compulsory solar sky bubbles because the roads were too littered with rusting vehicles. Those hilarious fashions in sleek silver and gold fabric; a good idea at the time, reflecting, as they did, the sun’s dangerous rays, on a planet without an ozone layer. And there he was – our long lost son, a baby being cuddled by both of us on the sofa in our now empty house. Do I like to make myself cry? Perhaps emotion is crucial to survival now - a link with the past, the tattered remains of humanity.

Light is fading fast and I have to take today’s pickings to cook our meal. The Curfew Clearance teams will soon be sweeping through. I shuffle the contents of my box and close the lid slowly. Placing my stool carefully next to it, I unlock the store house door, pull on my boots, and as I make my way home look hopefully at the sky and notice that black rain clouds are gathering to the west.

- Rebecca S Mason