Four Days (Short story)
They said we’ve got four days, and I just started walking, moving, travelling finally, like I’d been glued to the spot all these years and suddenly my feet were free. So I’m making another change — putting pen to paper for the first time since I left school and went to work for my old man. See, I thought I’d better write things down, keep a diary, a record, just in case anyone survives and wants to know how it all went down. What really happened.
I work — worked — at Doyle’s of Leicester, managing a handful of sales guys out on the road pushing our brand of cheap and cheerful plumbing supplies. ‘Gets the bodge done’ — that’s our little inside joke. Worked from an office, enjoyed it, paid the bills, ever since I moved up from Romford five years ago. I suppose it doesn’t matter.
I’m now sat in Dubai International departures waiting for my connection. Half wondering how I managed to convince myself to get on the train to Birmingham and spend the last of my savings boarding the last flight to New Delhi; half wondering why I never convinced myself to do it before. Doing my best not to stare at the jumble of different races and cultures making their way across the airport. And we’re all in the same boat — everyone knows it’s nearly over. Doesn’t matter where you come from, the news in every language says our time is nearly up.
Flight has been called — will write in more detail when on the plane.
Plane is nearly empty — a very strange feeling, just myself, a young family of four and a man in his sixties sitting towards the back. Flight attendants said we can sit wherever we like as long as we’re wearing seatbelts. A few hours ago, my plane from Birmingham was packed full, mainly with last-minute passengers that must have dispersed in Dubai or decided their onward trip wasn’t worth the trouble.
I made some notes about the course of events, according to some scientist on the news on one of the TV screens at the train station (not sure what this all means):
N. KOREA LEADERS THREATEN NUCLEAR STRIKE ON U.S.A. OR CHINA
N. KOREA LAUNCH BM25 NUCLEAR STRIKE ON U.S.A. & CHINA
U.S.A. WEST COAST IN STATE OF EMERGENCY
EASTERN CHINESE PROVENCES IN STATE OF EMERGENCY
U.S.A. THREATENS TO RETALLIATE
N. & S. KOREA IN STATE OF EMERGENCY
N. KOREA ALL COMMS DOWN
S. KOREA ALL COMMS DOWN
NATIONS ACROSS WORLD RECORD DAYTIME DARKNESS
TEMPERATURE RECORDED FALLING RAPIDLY AT KEY METEOROLOGICAL SITES
‘NUCLEAR WINTER’ EFFECT SUGGESTED BY LEADING SCIENTISTS IN FIELD — TEMPORARY BUT MAY LAST FOR SEVERAL WEEKS
NUCLEAR WINTER CONFIRMED — 4–5 DAYS UNTIL ‘SHUTDOWN’
So it’s finally happening, days before Christmas, and we’ve brought it upon ourselves. After a power struggle between what newsreaders have been describing as the ‘economic centres’ of the U.S.A. and China, in which North Korea was shown to be a significantly minor state with little or no effect on either country, North Korea’s leaders threatened a nuclear test, then a nuclear attack. The notes I made read like a story — an action movie where the North Koreans must be stopped. But it is really happening, and has all happened so quickly.
I woke up in Leicester yesterday morning, started making my toast like any other day, turned on the television and forgot about breakfast altogether. While we’d been sleeping on our safe little island, the rest of the world had started launching rockets towards one another and we were heading towards the end of human civilisation. And they can’t even call it what it is on Sky News and the BBC — all this talk of ‘Shutdown’ — it’s like they’re in denial. I haven’t even had time to be terrified.
The last plane was noisy, passengers panicking and a general scene of chaos. This is the complete opposite — calm, serene. Like we’re the ones who have accepted our fate. We’re on the last flight that will ever fly from Dubai to New Delhi, and the pilot isn’t even talking to us.
Woke up from a deep sleep as we started descending into New Delhi. It looks like night outside, but the clocks on our screens read 07:34. I have set my watch — India is waking up. Am now sitting writing as we wait for the attendants to let us off the plane. Louise always wanted to come here, I never gave her the chance. I was never bothered, but now it’s the only thing that matters. They’re opening the doors .
Mind spinning. Have just got to my hotel room on the first floor, after taking a taxi from the airport through the city centre. There is a cold light cast over everything, as if it’s the early hours, the crack of dawn, but with a hustle and bustle that could rival London at rush hour; busy-looking people moving quickly from building to building. I saw a few shop fronts being boarded up, fortified. Protection against looters, I suppose. The driver refused to mention our impending doom, instead assuring me that it was “business as usual here in Delhi, Sir.”
Jet-lagged, beyond tired. At the hotel reception, the young man informed me that the rooms are “not being cleaned, for the time being. Usual rates apply, but all meals are complimentary. I would be happy to recommend — “ I cut him off, just asking for my room key. We used to explore England, the best holiday we could afford. We’d spend our time wandering the streets of new cities and places we hadn’t been before. I lost my inspiration — my itchy feet — after the accident, but this is for her. The only way I can do this properly is to go it alone and roam New Delhi.
The television network here has stopped transmitting, so I’m left with word of mouth for any news or progress. I don’t know what I’m expecting to hear — “it was all a joke” or “the damage isn’t as bad as we thought”? I just feel like I should stay up to date. My mobile phone was dropping in and out of signal in Dubai, and here it has lost it all together. The landline phone next to the redundant widescreen television does have a dial tone, so some communication systems are holding up. I keep thinking about trying to call home, but I can’t think of anybody I’d want to talk to enough to actually pick up the phone and do it. Not that I have any idea what I’d say.
I have pulled down the blind in my small room. She would have hated it, orange and green thick stripes. She was always complaining about the lack of co-ordination in places we’d stay or at friends’ houses. Ours was like a show home while she was around, shiny surfaces and colour themes in every room. She’d hate this blind, but I just needed to keep out the strange, cold light and rely on the artificial glow from the lamps in here.
Time seems to mean less now, the light outside just changing from black at night to the eerie grey of the daytime hours. The world seems to be grinding to a halt. I have not seen any panic, or looting, or the chaotic scenes you see in apocalyptic films. If anything, life is slowing, calming down. By my count we are two days from Shutdown, if that scientist was right.
Yesterday I walked down Connaught Place and found an open book shop full of English-language books on aviation and Sikhism. I struck up a conversation with the man behind the counter, who introduced himself as Saran. I told him where I’d come from, and he smiled — “You have come a long way to witness the end of the world”. I spent an hour or so in the shop talking to Saran, about his two daughters, my family, Louise, God. We talked about it without talking about it. He explained he was not a religious man, but believed this might be the only way for the world to find peace. He seemed more like a philosopher than a shopkeeper, with a lot of wisdom and thoughts to share. I asked him how long he was planning to keep the shop open — many of the shops here are closed or bricked up — and he told me he would come to work as long as he had customers to serve. He told me the hospitals are getting full, but the doctors are starting to give up. What’s the point in fixing someone when we’re all about to be beyond fixing? I told him I will try to call in again tomorrow.
The streets here are still quite full, but quieter than they were yesterday. The excited chatter and friendly shouting we drove through yesterday has changed to a murmur. The urgency to get to work, meet deadlines, buy and sell and hit targets has gone. I can picture the Doyle’s office on Enderby Road, empty and silent, perhaps a phone ringing occasionally but all my colleagues elsewhere waiting for the final BBC broadcast and the Shutdown of the lives and homes they’ve built up.
India — Delhi — is not what I imagined it would be. I don’t know what it was like before this, but the shops and huge office buildings could be any other city in full swing. Parts of this place could be London. Perhaps I was expecting something smaller, different smells, more crowded. I suppose when the days were bright and the sun was burning, this was the India I always promised we could visit.
I have taken off my watch and left it in a drawer in my room. I kept looking down at my wrist, counting down hours. If those news reports are to be believed, tomorrow is the day. It’s certainly getting colder, and darker.
This small hotel is now near enough empty. The only other guests I’ve seen are a young French couple staying a few doors down — I have spoken to the woman a couple of times passing in the reception. The man never seems to say anything, and his eyes are red as if he has been crying. We made eye contact briefly this morning and he quickly looked down at the floor.
I have just woken up, freezing — checked my watch and it is just past 3:45am. The window is shut, blind is down. Outside is pitch black. I tried to turn on the light, but the electricity doesn’t seem to be working. Tested phone — no dial tone. So I am shivering in my coat writing this by the light of my mobile phone. In my impulsive rush to leave England, I stupidly didn’t pack for cold weather. I have been thinking about going and meeting Saran if he is still in his shop, and leaving this notebook with him. It seems like the most appropriate thing to do, leaving my short diary in a bookshop. Will have to brave this cold though.
I must have fallen asleep again for a few hours, woke up to some shouting outside. I looked out of the window, now a very dark greyscale, and I couldn’t see anyone. Still bitterly cold — colder than any winter back home. I’ve just wrapped up with several layers of clothes and been downstairs to the reception to find out if there is any breakfast, but there doesn’t seem to be a soul around, let alone anything to eat. The office door behind the reception desk was open, but there was nobody in the room, just an empty chair sat at a tidy desk, and a computer with a blank screen. Aside from the shouting earlier, everything is silent this morning. I opened the door to look outside — even colder — and the street was empty apart from a few figures moving about outside other darkened buildings across the road. I saw ice on the motionless cars. The creak of the hotel door sounded like it was echoing for miles.
It’s strange to think about the way things have gone over the last few years. This so-called Shutdown could have happened on any day of any year since I lost Louise. I’ve worked hard, been promoted a few times, had a few friends I could go to dinner with, but mainly been alone, and missed her; talking to her, just knowing she was there. The one that got away and is never coming back. If only I’d taken her where she wanted to go when I had the chance.
I’m not scared, I’m not even sad. I’m calm, and for the first time in a long time I’ve felt a sense of purpose, and now accomplishment, or something. This was the right thing to do. I’m going to use the rest of my t-shirts to make a scarf and protect my head from the cold, and go to the bookshop to say goodbye and leave my book. My only regret is that I didn’t start writing sooner — I suppose I had nothing to write about, but I believe it’s kept me going, keeping my thoughts in order as I put them down on paper. Writing was always something someone else did. Like dancing, or playing the guitar.
If anyone ever finds this on the shelves in Saran’s shop and picks it up, know that the end was dignified and quiet, not chaotic and confused. It’s been a good life.
Copyright © Luke Roberts, 2014, All Rights Reserved.