It was as she entered the butcher’s shop on Tuesday morning that Mrs Mote finally realised that something was wrong.
Usually, Mr McKendrick’s produce was the best in the district – always fresh and clean and sparkling under fluorescent lights. Today, every slab of meat behind the polished screen was putrefying. Flies buzzed and settled, and a sickly sweet stench filled the air. The strangeness was not so much the condition of the meat; rather, it was the noise that Mr McKendrick produced as he jovially insisted to Mrs Mote that all was well.
Perplexed, Mrs Mote moved on. That afternoon, her errands completed, she started home along the narrow lanes that led up to the older part of the town. As she passed the green, an immense aureate sun lowered itself towards the horizon, silhouetting the church against a vermilion sky. Like the eyes of a psychopath, the glowing stained glass windows followed Mrs Mote as she cut past the church portico. Unaware of this indifferent scrutiny, Mrs Mote could not help but notice that the group of Sycamores was looking rather dowdy for the time of year. Ominously, most of the leaves had already fallen, while the bark was turning white. Mrs Mote enjoyed these trees, and she wondered if they were sickening for something.
That night, Mrs Mote had a curious dream.
The sky blacked out. It began to rain, but she didn’t move. Bigger droplets and more of them fell ever faster as she stood in front of her son’s grave. The stone darkened in seconds, even quicker than her clothes. The big sycamore beckoned her. It beckoned her and it offered her many minutes of shelter beneath thick green leaves. She briefly considered this offer. It was a kind offer with no strings attached, but she graciously declined. In part, she declined because she was already soaked by the rain, but mostly she declined because she wanted to remember her son, and she required continuity of thought to achieve this. Her son had died thirty-nine years ago. She was now seventy-two and starting to forget what her son had looked like. This saddened her deeply, but it was an inevitable fact of life, memory, and ageing. For the rest of her life, memories of her son continued to blur, despite this visit. On her deathbed though, she remembered her son with a vivid and wonderful clarity, and she took this memory into the next life.
Assuming there is such a thing, sighed Mrs Mote, as she awoke to the metallic flap of the letterbox.
That morning, after finishing her ironing and washing up the breakfast dishes, Mrs Mote walked down into town. On her way to the Post Office, she was disturbed to notice that the green was no longer green. Now completely brown, the grass was quite evidently dead and yet for some bizarre reason, it was being manicured as usual by the municipal mower. Meanwhile, the Sycamores had shed all of their leaves. Naked now, their exposed branches formed a gleaming alabaster latticework that reached for the sun.
At the Town Hall some kind of commotion was taking place. As she drew closer, Mrs Mote could see a small pulsating crowd, flowing indecisively back and forth like a noontide. The focus of their attention was a casually dressed young man leaning against one of the entrance balustrades. While clearly of Caucasian origin, the man was exhorting the crowd in an Asiatic language, possibly Japanese. Taped to the balustrade was a large rectangular board, the words WE CANNOT COMPROMISE ON ANDROMEDA stencilled neatly in a crimson script.
Almost forgetting the reason for her visit, Mrs Mote left the crowd and turned towards the Post Office. When she arrived, she found the premises boarded up. A badly scrawled message painted in white on the door said GONE AWAY, BEST YOU DO TOO. GOD BLESS. Confused now – for she was sure that the Post Office had been open on Saturday – Mrs Mote stood looking at the message. Why would Mr Parker go away?
A kindred soul, the Celebrity Chef was nowhere to be seen. Save for a malnourished cat, the vast interior of The Quantum Café was empty of all mammalian life. Mrs Mote felt a hot wind tumble through the smashed windows, and she watched it blow the frothy head from a recently gestated cappuccino. Behind the serving counter, exotic vegetables sprawled on worn sycamore chopping boards, their random distribution an indecipherable message to the stars. Nearby, the mummified corpse of the proprietor leant stiffly against the kitchen door like a discarded mannequin, while outside, the trees continued their relentless transformation into Ghost gums. Hearing a squeal of tyres and a series of hollow metallic bangs, Mrs Mote tiptoed unhurriedly out of The Quantum Café and into the bright morning.
Steam was hissing from the front of the upturned car as Mrs Mote looked on. Behind the red splashed side window, an indistinct figure hung from the seatbelt, moving feebly in the webbing like an assassination-botched pig. Mrs Mote looked away, vaguely aware that there was nothing she could do. Arriving at siren enriched speed within thirty seconds of the crash, the rescue appliance completed the transformation from car into coffin by tenderly crushing the wreck into a steel cube with its compressor ram. Mission accomplished, the rescue appliance floated silently away like a scarlet hearse. Mrs Mote knew that throughout the world other crashed cars and their occupants were being similarly converted.
Beyond the town lay the bubbling motorways and abandoned toll-booths, the mirrored glass that shrouded these automotive sentry posts a potent enticement to adventurous drivers.
That afternoon, as they sat outside The Quantum Café, Mrs Mote and Mrs Jennings both relaxed as they sipped self-served peppermint teas. Mrs Mote was in a reflective mood after the earlier unpleasantness. The crowd at the Town Hall had dispersed and it was quiet again. She had no idea when the Post Office would re-open, but she no longer worried – she could always ask somebody to post her letters. The enormous sun was at its zenith in the orange sky, and Mrs Mote knew with a quiet certainty that it illuminated every hidden corner of the town.
Beyond them, towards the sea, an airliner was sedately cruising in an endless circle. Below their feet, worms tirelessly aerated the cool soil. At this moment, Mrs Mote was reminded of a vanished time, when she played with her young son on the Cap-de-l’Homy Plage.
“Look, over there.” Mrs Jennings pointed towards the War Memorial. Mrs Mote tucked away her precious memory, shielded her eyes with one hand and peered. Two figures were sitting side by side on the War Memorial steps, with what appeared to be a dark suitcase between them. Mrs Mote stood up to obtain a better view. By a shift of perspective, the suitcase resolved into the bloodied and naked trunk of one of the Nigerian immigrants. The two figures were Mr McKendrick and the Celebrity Chef; both were completely engrossed in their meal. Mrs Mote and Mrs Jennings continued to watch – Mrs Jennings with terror in her eyes, Mrs Mote quietly and calmly. In less than an hour the suitcase had disappeared, followed soon afterwards by the two diners.
Two weeks later, the War Memorial had almost vanished beneath stacks of dismantled wooden furniture. Bundled newspapers formed an anticipatory basal necklace.
That evening, they sat together in The Quantum Café: Mrs Mote, Mrs Jennings, Mr McKendrick and the Celebrity Chef. The few remaining townspeople stayed away – they were not yet ready for cannibalism, and the Celebrity Chef frightened them. By now, most of The Quantum Café’s roof had caved in, but with the hot, dry nights this was a blessing. Mr McKendrick had assembled a screen and attached it to the kitchen wall so that they could watch the speech. The reception was far from perfect, but it was perfectly adequate.
Mrs Mote sat next to the Celebrity Chef. He still wore his chef’s whites, although they were no longer white. Blood, oil and dust vied for her attention. Mrs Mote wondered how much of the blood belonged to the Nigerian. She liked the chef, though, and held no pious or hypocritical thoughts towards him.
She had often watched the Prime Ministerial broadcasts, and she was sure that the conference room had always had green walls and matching soft furnishings. Now, it appeared as if the room had been redecorated, although with what Mrs Mote couldn’t be sure. Blood and offal by the look of it – a long tracking shot delivered what appeared to be an exquisitely upholstered abattoir. A new colour to reflect a new situation, she thought with a momentary flash. After the Prime Minister had spoken, Mr McKendrick turned off the screen and said “Well, that’s that then.” He took Mrs Jennings’s hand and led her gently towards the door.
Mrs Mote turned to the Celebrity Chef.
The following evening, the remaining townspeople set fire to the dismantled furniture that surrounded the War Memorial. In the heart of the flames, the stone became a miniature sun, glowing red and orange, the colours reflected in the surviving glass of The Quantum Café. As the flames danced higher, the crowd began to sing.
Two days later, Mrs Mote discovered the body of Mrs Jennings lying in the churchyard. Mrs Mote was not shocked, for she had expected this. Mrs Jennings had apparently suffocated herself with the clear plastic bag that was tied tightly around her neck. Despite such an awful death, Mrs Jennings’s face was unperturbed – her eyes were closed and she looked at peace. Mrs Mote wondered if she would ever see Mr McKendrick again.
She meandered towards the church hall. The door was open, so she entered the empty building and looked around. Still adhering to most of the wall space were faded pictures drawn by young children – houses with smoking chimneys, trees, flowers, mothers and fathers, birds in the sky, the sun with a happy face. Mrs Mote stared at these pictures for a moment, breathing in the still present scent of childhood. A moment of silence descended, a silence when all internal and external noises simultaneously ceased, just for a second or two, before intruding again. Approaching the sprawled body of Mr McKendrick, tears ran down her cheeks as she hummed a tune whose name she could not remember.
By now, the sun filled almost one-quarter of the sky at noon. Every day beyond this, it grew steadily larger. By now, no less than the top third of the sun was visible above the horizon at night. Every night beyond this, it grew steadily larger. Soon the sun would be so large that it would seem to never move in the sky. Then the sun would have become the sky.
Mrs Mote was reading in her poor withered garden when the Celebrity Chef came by. She was glad to see him, glad of the company.
“Since your beautiful garden became looking so sad, I’ve bought you something to make you smile,” he said quietly in his broken, accented English. One large hand appeared from behind his back holding a bouquet. Cornflower, Lavender, Eucalyptus and Foxglove.
“They’re beautiful,” said Mrs Mote. And they were. She found herself crying softly. “But…where did you get them?”
“I’ve been keeping them safe especially for you, Mrs Mote. For this moment.” The Celebrity Chef’s other hand appeared, clutching an opened bottle of red wine and two glasses. He tilted his head and smiled in a shy and very European manner. “Mrs Mote, there’s nobody else I would more gladly spend the end of the world with than you.”
“I’m an old lady and you’re a young man whose name I can’t even remember,” whispered Mrs Mote, after returning from the kitchen with a pitcher of water. “I’m losing my memory, you know,” she laughed, wiping her eyes. She placed the flowers carefully in the water.
“You’re a special lady, Mrs Mote.” He set down the glasses on her table, filled them both and handed one to her.
“Good health and a long life to you, Gerhardt,” said Mrs Mote, suddenly remembering his name and laughing again.
Gerhardt the Celebrity Chef responded with a similar toast.
Then, relaxing in Mrs Mote’s easy chairs, they held hands across the table and prepared to embrace the approaching sun.