The End Can Mean Such Different Things, With We Such Different People
David sat on the floor, preoccupied with the beam of light cutting through the room, remembering childhood visits to the cinema. Back then, each screen was like a proper theater, and people were allowed to smoke. David would find himself distracted, looking up there toward the high ceiling, seeing the film caught and reversed in a bright beam of light above him, the story caught in smoke that you didn’t even realise was there. Until later, when it was gone.
His eyes prickled and he found himself sniffing involuntarily. He rubbed the back of his arm across his nose as he snorted, looking up at her.
“Oh, please, don’t cry. Don’t.” Sally said. She paused. Then asked, not unkindly. “Why do you think that I left you?”
She looked away from him, looked out of the window onto the night, with it’s huddled, clamouring, tiny clusters of people – the shouts, and the squeals. A mist rolled through the streets, thick enough to catch the light, but still thin enough that you could see the groups as they ran and jumped and laughed and cried.
“I don’t know.” David spluttered. “Because I’m weak?” More petulant than weak.
It looked like bonfire night, come a few days early. In places, in the distance, the sky glowed orange. It was midnight, but the streets were white. You had to look up to see the darkness in the sky, the blank slate of the streets dissipating like steam, up into it.
“No, darling. You’re not listening. I’m asking you to think really hard about it, because I really want to know the truth. Why do you think that I left you?” She looked back around at him momentarily, fixing him with sharp green eyes. “I need to know. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”
She looked back out into the bright and hazy night.
“Hey,” she said, and he could see the bright smile on her face in the set of her jaw, and the shape of her eye, as she faced away from him, “do you remember New Years? The Minellium?”
He let the mistake go. It even brightened him a little. It was a fondly remembered foible. He nodded, and started to push himself up off the floor. She caught the movement on her periphery, and half turned to grin at him.
“It looks just like it, out there. Remember? All the smoke from the bonfires? The chaos and the joy?”
Somebody on one of the nearby streets started screaming – a high, persistent and sustained effort by somebody to shred their own throat. Sally’s face creased in discomfort, a shudder of vestigial fear running through her as the sound echoed hollow off the semi-detached rows.
Standing and watching her close, now, David was struck by how beautiful she still was, even after all these years. Her long arms and slender wrists pale as ever, and he knew they’d be cold to the touch, because they always were. Her face and neck a Modigliani, white in this light.
The spasm that ran through her sent a fine cloud of what looked like talc in a wave across her body, a momentary halo around her.
It didn’t remind him of the end of the century.
Instead, it made him think of that other end of the world, when the planes hit the towers, and the streets of New York became a world of ash. He had felt weird saying it, but in among all the horror of that day, the sight of the people walking out of the hell of it, an outline of chalk over every one of them, seemed beautiful to him. The white of it, seen on a TV across the ocean, seemed pure somehow – and it mingled with the cold relief that anyone could survive.
He had felt weird saying it to everyone, except Sally. And her love had distilled her response down into a raised eyebrow, before burying her face back into the endless embrace that the day pulled them into.
Later on, he’d read that the dust had killed a lot of people, years later. Made a lot of others ill. By then, he had a new insight into the thing, a knew understanding of how the world worked.
The rarified beauty that you found in the world would always kill you. Or else, it’d die. He had learned that when his own world ended – the more personal apocalypse, after time, and then society, got their mortal blows.
He looked at Sally, the dust finally settling again, her lovely smile complete, and he knew what she was really asking. A different “why?” from the one that he had been asking the universe, since those long weeks in the hospital.
“Why did I think that you left me?” He said, his voice cracking as his fingers reached up to cup her cheek. “Because you went away, and I was still here.” His other hand moved to her hip – slid around to ease her into a hug. She felt softer than he thought she would. He half expected her to fall apart under his touch – he had watched it happen once before.
“I would never leave you, silly man!” She smiled close into his ear. “… And even if I did, you know that it doesn’t count, as long as I come home to you.”
Sally’s arms went around him, strong and sure, and if any of the smoke and ash of her fell away as they held each other, it didn’t matter. As the dust fell away, they breathed her back in.
“Pretty soon, we’ll all have come back…” She whispered, dry lips on his skin. “… And then we’ll all go away. Maybe somewhere better. And we’ll go together.”
A siren began it’s whine, and echoed hollow, somewhere outside. Outside, the city screamed and ran and laughed and danced and cried – the chaos of a million and more wishes and nightmares come true.
This is a repost of a piece that was originally posted back in November 2008. It was originally presented here, and you can see other writing from the same week here. We’ll be sharing Elephant Memories with you for the next few weeks, while we break for Christmas.
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