“When the apocalypse comes” you said, “I’ll come to meet you, to take you to safety.”
“When the war breaks out, as the borders are being built and as people are being made homeless ” you said, “I will smuggle you into my country. I have a place ready, I’ll bring you there.”
“The world is becoming more dangerous by the day” you said, “but I won’t leave you, alone and afraid. You will come with me, you need not be afraid.”
“I will be there for you” you said.
When it became certain that the world was changing irreparably, when the borders were closing and the mobs gathering, when the apocalypse was howling down upon us; I waited.
As I waited, alone; I was not afraid because I knew that you were coming to take me to safety.
I looked at my garden. “I will prepare for the winter just in case” I thought; and I dug and I planted, and in time I harvested.
As I waited I collected wood for the fire and dragged it home. I was ill at first and it was difficult for me, but little by little I brought it, and I cut it, so that we could be warm together when you came.
As I waited I looked hopefully towards the north, but the horizon was empty.
“Soon” I thought, and I returned to my weeding.
“Soon” I thought, and I baked bread.
“Soon” I thought, as I washed clothes.
“Soon” I thought, as I secured my home against the mob.
“Soon” I thought, “Soon”.
I burned my wood and was warm. I collected and cut more; indifferent now to the hardship. Sometimes I still looked to the silent North, but rarely now, I was too busy.
Occasionally a traveller would stop and I would offer water which I had collected in the barrels which I had scavenged; also perhaps some freshly baked bread and a handful of fruit from my now productive garden. Before they left and moved on, the travellers recounted news of the outside world, the main currency of the nomad. I asked about you of course, had anyone seen you, were you well, but never had a reply. Occasionally I would get a strange look, which brought a sudden sickness to my stomach and the subject would be swiftly changed.
A small community grew around me, but I always kept myself slightly apart, saving a space in my heart and my home for when you would come. Still, it was a comfort knowing that somebody would be close by if I needed to reach out.
I preserved vegetables, bottled fruit, and dried wild mushrooms and apple rings. I saved potatoes in a clamp in the ground, and I dug a small root cellar. I repaired, and what could not be repaired I repurposed. Sometimes I still looked to the North, sometimes my heart was heavy, my eyes wet, but I would lift my fiddle from its case and play something bright and happy, until I regained my equanimity.
A day came when my neighbours banded together to travel to what had been, pre-apocalypse, a local town, known for its market.
Before the apocalypse I would have driven there without a thought to visit a friend who was staying there. These days it was a long journey on foot or by horse, if you had one. Walking alone could be dangerous now, roaming thieves would attack and steal from, or even kill the lone traveller; so we set off together for comfort and safety.
It was dark when we gathered, we were chilly and still half asleep, but as the sun rose people began to chat together, to laugh as we walked. There was the air almost of a festival, the day being warm and sunny and the usual chores of the day being put to one side for this outing.
We reached the town around midday. It was slow going as we headed towards the market site, seeing people we had not seen for a very long time. Often we had not known whether they were still alive or victims of the apocalypse. There were tears and hugs as folk reunited for the first time since the dark days.
The town, which had seemed nondescript in memory, appeared huge after living in a tiny, rural community for so very long. The noise of so many people gathered together, of children shouting, dogs barking, vendors clamouring their wares, horses clattering across the cobbles; the sounds assaulted the ears and the smells assaulted the nose. So much sudden stimulation was tiring, and after discussing where we would meet for the journey home, and when; I slipped away.
I knew that my friend had not survived but still headed towards the quiet lane where she had lived. I thought that there might be someone there who would remember her, and reminiscing about her would make her live again if only for a little while. I rounded a corner where a group of people stood, and it was then I saw you.
My heart stopped, my knees almost gave way beneath me with the unexpectedness of it, my face brightened and my mouth curved into a smile as I called your name.
You turned and looked at me. The shock of recognition was in your eyes as I started towards you, but then a young woman appeared. She took hold of your arm possessively and looked at me, hostile, as she spoke to you. Your eyes became blank and I heard you answer her.
“Nobody. Nobody at all.”
You took the hand of a small boy and walked away, never looking back. I felt nauseous, heat prickled my face, sweat gathered on the back of my neck and spread down my shoulders, down my back. People moved away from me, afraid that I might have the sickness which had already claimed so many lives.
“I’m ok” I stuttered to the silent onlookers. “I had a shock, saw a ghost”, and I left quickly, almost running.
I cannot remember what happened for the rest of the day. I suppose that I must have walked around, met up at the agreed time with my neighbours and walked home; arriving late and falling into my bed without even undressing. I probably kept an eye longingly on the crowds of people in the hope of seeing you again, but my last view of you had been your back as you walked away, your arm around the woman’s shoulder, the last thing which I heard you say had been, “Nobody. Nobody at all”.
I tortured myself with this scene, with your voice denying me for a long time, but I managed to keep to my daily routine. I saw less of my neighbours than normal, hiding from them, hiding my pain, until I could once again look at them without your image hovering behind my eyes, threatening to undo me.
It must have been perhaps a month later when I saw the husband to be, of a girl from the village who I often spoke to. He was walking up my path, carrying a sack. I supposed my friend had sent him to check up on me as I had been more silent than usual, so although my inclination had been to hide away from the contact, I opened my door to him.
“A bonny day, you look healthy”. I spoke politely, the new greeting which the survivors had adopted. I did not like the man, but it would be rude to let him stand on the doorstep so I ushered him in and offered him herbal tea which he declined with equal politeness.
He opened the sack and lifted out a squirming puppy, holding it by the scruff of it’s neck.
Looking at me slyly, directly into my eyes, he said, “You must be lonely, living out here by yourself”. He made no move except to thrust the puppy back into the sack.
My heart was suddenly racing in my chest. I did not look at the sack but instead, almost defiantly, straight back at him.
“I am lonely, yes.”
The transaction was as simple as that. He pushed me against the wall, groped my breast and lifted my skirt. I made the noises he wanted to hear as he grunted and thrust into me, and I kept my mind on the puppy.
It was over with quickly enough and he soon turned away, rearranging his clothing as I did likewise. Both of us decent again, he spoke indifferently.
“Marissa is short of flour, perhaps you have some spare?”
He would need, of course, a valid reason for giving me the pup.
“Of course” I answered, and filled a sack similar to his own with nearly all of my own supply of flour. I saved only enough to make pancakes for myself and the puppy for breakfast. We exchanged sacks and he left. I closed the door behind him and locked it, leaning against the wall, hardly believing my fortune.
I lifted out the puppy, my puppy, a fine, chunky dog; and buried my face in his coat, smelling his warm, baby smell. For the first time since the apocalypse, and certainly since I had stopped waiting; I felt a joy so great it could barely be contained, and I spoke to the dog.
“I shall call you, ‘Friend.’ ”