Nikki, the temp from HR, has prominent collar and cheek bones; has beige skin that looks airbrushed; is Manga-eyed; wears her dirty-blond hair jagged; wears lamé tops which fall off one shoulder and expose her back with its down which, when it catches the office light, looks like the last trace of a feather of a giant golden bird; and is about nineteen, or so Wilbur reckons.
Wilbur, forty-one, from Facilities, is starting to show scalp; has moist black curls feeding around his nipples and the balloon knot in his gut; is of ‘average build’, meaning breasted; has hands that are long but not elegant, gaps between his teeth, teeth with honeycomb decay; is pale; breathes nasally and loud; also, walks up on his toes.
Nikki and Wilbur were evacuated with the rest of the office, by helicopter to a frigate, which headed for the ocean since the worst place to be now was near other people, but they didn’t get out fast enough and when it happened, the frigate was lost and the passengers raced one another for the lifeboats, and theirs had washed up on an island, on whose rocks they’re now trying to balance as they look at the wide water and the horrible clouds and start to take it all in: they’re the only ones who got out, the last two.
During the first weeks, with their standard shelter-building & foraging type activities, Wilbur catalogues the following: her sullen look of concentration when eating cockles; the jag (dirty blond for real now) that keeps falling back over her forehead despite her unconscious shooing of it; the way she scratches the back of her thigh with her other foot, showing a day-glo yellow instep with its lines brought out by sand and dirt. So, after a month of no rescue, false starts and blushing, he finally brings it up:
“We might be it.”
“How can you possibly know exactly?”
“You heard the same things. It might behove us two. Befall on us. Keep the flame.”
“Let’s work out how to make a fire first.”
That’s what he means, he says. He shows her his library: leaflets he’d taken from the lifeboat, train tickets in his wallet, some receipts and gym flyers; he’s dried them out and been experimenting on them with a biro, which had washed up beside him. He says they need to start recording everything they know. Either that or start composing epics and songs that are easy to remember about maths and hygiene.
“Our… Posterity. I mean I think my feeling is we have a responsibility.”
“I thought you were the gay one?”
He shakes his head hard. She winces, hissing, and wrings her hands then drops them open to say: “See, but I am though.”
Wilbur slouches as if deflated by his laughter: oh the corny irony of it all. He jokes that well it’s good things aren’t the other way round at least. In that situation, despite her best efforts, there’d be simple physical obstacles to any attempt at restarting the human race.
Sick of cockles, she goes as far inland as she dares. The island offers through successions of trees views of its interior, waiting. To her relief she’s soon found a tree with ripe edible fruit, and he has to give her a leg-up, and she wriggles on him, and he feels almost delirious. He asks: “Even though, you’re, you know. Shouldn’t we at least try?”
Hands again in a bad news clutch. “Yeah, I don’t know.”
“Think of all that civilisation.”
“Or we’re supposed to not. It’d just go to shit again. All that darkness of the heart of man blah.”
She goes back to the beach, fruit held close to her chest.
At the office Christmas party, he’d walked in on her and other colleagues in the post room playing faux-ironic Spin the Bottle, and he rolled his eyes and bantered with them but waited at the door patiently, but they eventually zoned back into one another. She’d noticed he’d begun at some point after the Christmas party not breaking off from looking at his screen when answering a question of hers.
Sometimes, when he insists on pulling open her fruit for her, or when he says of something she said, ‘I never thought of that’ or ‘that’s so true’, or when he explains his hobbies and what sandbox and roleplay games are, or he tells her that the flashes are just lightning storms somewhere, or he climbs crags, terrified, because she thinks she saw birds with eggs, she looks at him for longer than usual. She even starts asking questions, kind and interested ones, about him – laughing at how weird it was that she never knew him in the office though she’d seen him around, saying that she thought he was a consultant or something – his childhood, whether he’d always wanted to be a Facilities Manager, what he wants to eat and wants to watch when they get off the island, to the point that when they go to sleep that night and he complains that he must be sitting on a rock or shell and so comes to sit nearer her, she looks at him with a serious, self-possessed expression that he’d not expected on that childish face.
She says good night; she notices though that he stays sat up instead of rolling over to stare at the sea like usual. She makes out like she’s pining, saying she misses some girlfriend or other. Out at sea, more flashing lights.
Nope, just couldn’t. Things aren’t as desperate as all that. Sure she had heard the news like everyone else, saw how quick it happened, and lost hope like everyone else, not even thought of it any more as a situation of hope v. despair, but just accepted, without any strength or grace, that this was it. She has every right to choose her future without referring to situations she didn’t make and can’t be blamed for. She chooses to wait and hope and if not really hope then at least accept, like everyone else did, like he himself full well did, beforehand, before the lifeboat, on the other boat, in the nightmare at sea.
On their morning walk down the beach, it’s her turn to answer his questions, monosyllabically if she can help it, about those girlfriends she’d never mentioned before, who they were, what their names were, how long they went out for, why they split up and when – when she sees a pair of feet in the surf. The man they pull out from under the sea they recognise from the crew of the frigate.
Bradley is twenty-five; he has faint squiggle veins under the thin skin at his hips; has very blue eyes and very black hair; talks in a posh accent but in a quiet, gravelly, careful way; looks like a mix between confused, distant and grumpy, but with a slow monodimpled smile which appears if you catch him staring into space, which he does often.
Now that he’s had water and food and slept a day, he starts talking. He tells them about the lifeboat he was in, how he had to outrun the lights with just a paddle and improvise a fishing line from shoelace, fend off sharks and whatnot. They show him the fruit and cockles and their shelter, and he at one point claps Wilbur on his back, saying ‘quality work mate.’ The first moment they have by themselves, Wilbur tells Bradley, in a pleading tone, that he is in love with Nikki.
When Bradley has his strength back, he makes plans to confirm that they are actually on an island. He suggests that they circumnavigate; Wilbur suggests cutting across. Nikki takes one look at the tree-line and sides with Bradley; Wilbur says ‘yeah I guess’ a few times so that she asks him what could be in there anyway and is confused when he replies ‘everything’.
They skirt the coast in the morning, and in the evening they watch the empty horizon for ships or planes. Nikki listens to Bradley’s navy stories, happy to just listen, never asking follow-up questions to fill the silence like she had done of Wilbur. She lies near Bradley on her front, bouncing her crossed legs towards her back. He treats her like most of the guys he once knew treated girls they fancied, like she’s a dumb, pretty child. Wilbur follows suit, trying to ignore the sense of disappointment at her and himself accompanying his newfound teasing of her, which he teams up with Bradley in, which she seems to enjoy, which they all form camaraderie out of, which she takes in a sibling fashion is all.
Wilbur too does bonding with Bradley, every day suggesting a new survival task. The two of them venture a little inland to try scale the highest cliff, leaving Nikki behind, at Wilbur’s insistence and to her relief, to check whether anyone will be able to see whether a signal fire’s still going from down there. Wilbur tries to keep up with Bradley. Even Bradley’s back, bulging like there’s more skeleton in it, shows effort and attention. Several times, he offers back his hand to Wilbur, when crossing scree or mounting a ledge, but each time Wilbur waves it away and manages himself, after about a minute of nervous bounces and gritty slides.
Panting, clapping hands clean, nonchalantly surveying: “Ironic really.”
“That I’d fall in love with a lesbian.”
“Really? Didn’t get that.”
Further up, with Bradley holding branches for him like holding doors, Wilbur stops again to survey: “When it comes to it, Brad, it probably should be the both of us who carry the fire.”
“Yeah so I don’t get what you mean.”
“Genetics fella! If we’re to have any chance to re-er-kindle. The embers of. We need to both have a go. Spread the pool.”
Bradley looks at him intently. Then he walks off, branches snapping closed. “Fuck’s sake Wilbur.”
Bradley and Nikki have started punching each other. Wilbur watches and forms an avuncular smile at her attempts to push Bradley as he’s leaning into her, laughing and half-heartedly resisting, his back-foot gouging back a trench in the sand; or smiles to himself, rolls his eyes to himself, even thinks about saying ‘what are they like!’ to himself, when at night he hears her crying ‘no’ then a sudden splash and squeal and his cheer and the slaps of his running back up the beach and her coming after him shouting ‘right’.
Everyone’s free to do what they want, so’s she, and as for the old man, well he’s done really well for himself, and for her, he should be really proud of that, bet he’s glad enough to have shown himself he’s capable of stuff, that this situation’s made him have to act and achieve for the probably first time, like you had to do in the navy all the time. Because now you’re in my world and putting on a good show, but in my world, I’m there too, and if things are going to go a certain way, so be it. Just because the world’s gone doesn’t mean it’s changed.
Jokes round the fire Bradley made. Wilbur says he’s heard that one. And that one. He points out again the luck of Bradley finding grass smouldering from the last lightning storm. To an earnest question of Nikki’s, Bradley says no he never saw combat but admits, wearily, head shaking sadly, that if he had to he could (pause) kill a man, and she almost passes out right there. Fire crackling, floating embers, sound of the surf and so on. Presumably put in the mood by all this, Bradley just up and declares: “I love those who redeem the men of the past and justify the men of the future for they shall die by the men of the present.” Then at the look on her face: “Song lyric.” Wilbur turns away from the look to stare at the fire.
He knows he has to be careful. He has to play to his strengths and Bradley’s weaknesses. Weakness: he sleeps a lot and deeply, unmoving and unsnoring sleep, frowning with his arms folded, showing off his muscles even when not meaning to. At most, his mouth sometimes flops open, with its big strong teeth.
Maybe if Wilbur is fast enough he can stuff it with sand. When they go back up to rekindle the signal fire, he considers pushing Bradley off a cliff but gets a horrible feeling, can even simulate it in his mind, of Bradley twanging into action, gripping his forearms so tight and taking him too over the edge. No, Wilbur has to wait for night at least, but Bradley and Nikki sleep closer by the night, if top-to-tail, and even if he does manage to break Bradley’s skull with a rock or shell (will it shatter?) there’s the risk of a scream, or of blood hitting Nikki’s bare calves (grazed by her attempts lately to shave them with coral). And she cannot know it was him.
However he manages to figure out how to do it, he plans on dragging Bradley’s body out to sea, and claiming that he must have drowned, and he starts mentally preparing himself for the bloated body and having to dig a grave in the sand and look sad.
He is woken by the sound of crying, and he runs down a beach under horrible clouds and a girl points out to open water. Daintily pulling up his trousers, he goes in but not to his waist. Like a nightmare come true, Bradley appears again as a pair of feet in the surf. Nikki is balanced on the rocks, hands hard over her mouth, crying like a sneezing fit.
He tells her it wasn’t her fault. He thinks it was her fault. She’d been talking about hunger and Bradley had claimed he could catch fish. The next morning he was gone, his clothes left on his trainers. She doesn’t talk much any more, not after they bury him in the sand. They stare at the fire. They don’t check the horizon any more or carry on skirting the coast.
Stuffy, his eyes stained from the fire so that a blue-green blot keeps getting in the way of everything like a rude reminder, Wilbur starts going to sleep, into it at its shallowest end, the three levels of it: awareness of his surroundings, his nonsense thoughts, and his occasional lucid commentary on them – all pressurised in a general stoned headache sort of woozy feeling.
He thinks / dreams of the cosmic fucks of giants and snakes, creating froths that become the world. Gods whose families’ schemes and plots kick-start history: toying with mortals, abducting maidens, contriving wars.
The new world is waiting to be born here! It has to be born. Ten thousand years from now, in a new future, their story will be being taught to bored schoolkids, wittily adapted for stage then screen, the inspiration for paintings and crossword clues, explored in academic papers on politics and gender – yes there’ll be papers again, and crosswords and ideas and fairytales and schoolkids and schools and kids. The other stuff? It was a different time, a different era, who are we to etc. His sons shall start and preserve the story, sons who’ll have his granddaughters by his daughters and so on for one long and so and lo until what happened between her and him (on the island stays on the island) was only ever symbolic. He is an archetype. She is an archetype. It is a myth.
The founding myth. He can do that for her. Immortalise her, how’s that for posterity. Why, even Bradley too (vanquished demon maybe?).
He unglues himself awake and gets up from the fire. He bobs the blue-green over the features of his island.
And if tomorrow Nikki were to wake up because Wilbur was not there, and she went up and down the beach, calling his name, wondering why he’d left his clothes and his trainers, and the fire was out, and there were no tracks in the sand, and starting to worry she’d find him feet up in the surf, but not finding him, not after weeks, never even after months, until she decides one blue hot beautiful morning to march straight inland without planning her route back, and so, thirsty and hungry, bitten, finds the parts of the island where the palm trees are in their own forest, going way back but spaced wide in corridors, and the only sound is the occasional distant rustle then thud of a coconut, and parts further uphill where the forest is just pine, with little to no undergrowth, dim, just a carpet of brown pine needles, and the pine trunks like pillars or posts, bringing out the dip and rise of the hills of the forest, and the wind through the pines like the sound of the sea? The silence of the island. The sea no longer being visible. Both fires out and at her back. Her thinking one year in the tall grass of another valley she’d found how that must have been where the fairytale idea came from, of the haunted forest out to get you – the tall grass. Because when she walked too quick, it tangled round her baggy trainers so much that she couldn’t walk at all eventually, and to let the panic pass, she’d think that that was not where the idea had come from and it was not where the idea would come from.
Photograph by Cameron Daigle via Creative Commons