Last week, I wrote about intrapocalyptic fiction (my label for “not-quite-post-apocalyptic”) which inspired the stories in my next ebook, Absences: Dark Matters Volume 2. The first was The Birds, the second The Death of Grass. This week, I’d like to share a couple of excerpts from each of my stories as teasers ahead of the release date – that’s next week, so mark your diary. If you were born before the 1940s.
The first piece was inspired by The Birds – it’s a quartet of short stories that explore a different form of avian madness, hinting at a number of celebrated movies, and each features a cameos from a vaguely familiar gentleman. It ended up taking the 2013 Dark Horse Prize in the annual “flash suite” contest on Defenestrationism.net, and very proud I was too.
The lines, the trees, the cliffs, the eaves
Mrs. Johnson reaches her bus stop in her suburb of London and settles in under the shelter for the wait. There’s a queue—two teenaged students, chattering; a young mother with baby and pushchair, prattling on at a short, fat, balding businessman out walking two small white dogs—but Mrs. Johnson doesn’t attempt to join in a conversation.
Once upon a time, people waiting in line might bob their heads to strangers, perhaps exchange a smile before they stood there, facing across the road, shoulder to shoulder. If it was just one, another lady like Mrs. Johnson, maybe they’d share a word about the weather, nice and friendly. She misses that. The effort people go to nowadays just sounds forced.
She hears the businessman say “One year since, my dear,” and knows they are talking about The Absence. The news on every channel had been counting down to the anniversary for weeks, but when she passed the newsagents just now the headlines on the stands were about soap stars, scandals, sports and politicians, just like always. Like they don’t feel comfortable mentioning it after all. Unless she got the day wrong, sometimes she gets the day wrong.
She looks up: it’s grey, the clouds indistinguishable from the sky, only the sharp black arcs of bare telephone lines cutting across from this side to the other. They remind her of skipping ropes, sagging, held loosely. The lines shift in the humid breeze. Mrs. Johnson thinks of being a girl in summer, back when girls still played with skipping ropes, singing and taking turns to jump. Except it isn’t summer, it’s a February in London that feels the way Augusts used to.
The telephone in Mrs. Johnson’s large handbag vibrates. It will either be her son, or her daughter-in-law, or one of the ladies of the Women’s Institute to ask if she can help out at the parish hall making tea or manning the cashbox for the books sale. She’d be happy to. There is always a nice bit of conversation over tea or when giving out change.
When she opens her handbag the trilling of birdsong emerges. The talking around her falters and she feels their sudden tension, doesn’t have to look to know disapproving glances are turned her way; but she also feels a flicker of defiance. She doesn’t care if her ringtone is considered passé, or inappropriate somehow. She likes the sound and wishes more people called her so she could hear it play more often.
The picture on the telephone’s screen shows her son. The birdsong pauses, starts again. The pouting, jowly businessman clears his throat. The young woman with the baby says something rude in a quiet voice. The teenagers mutter and giggle. Mrs. Johnson presses her son’s face and the lovely birdsong stops.
“Thomas?” she says. “It’s mum.”
“Where are you, mum?” He sounds distant, but his voice is turned up high because her ears aren’t so good these days. “Are you at home?”
“No, dear, I’m going to the supermarket.”
“I want you to go home, mum.” He sounds rather urgent.
“But I need all sorts of things. And I’m halfway there already, just waiting for the bus.”
“No!” She pulls the phone from her ear with a wince, but she’s more surprised than pained. Thomas never raises his voice, at least not to her. “Go home, right now!”
“Don’t shout, Thomas!” Mrs. Johnson fights the temptation to check if the people standing beside her are listening in. “So rude!”
“Oh, god, mum,” he says, “you have to get off the street. They’ve come across the channel at last, they’re heading for London. Brighton’s swamped already.”
She can’t remember ever hearing such a tone to his voice. “Who are?” she asks, but the young woman beside her lets out a squeal of disgusted horror and Mrs. Johnson turns to look, just like everyone else in the queue.
The thing squats on the baby’s knee and the baby goggles at it. They all do. It looks like…
…and if you want to know what “it” looks like, you’re going to have to buy Absences: Two Tales of Impending Apocalypse – it’s out on Monday, April 6th!
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I’d like to end with a “thank you” to the person who provided the great cover image – Flickr user Sundaram Ramaswamy, who generously makes his work available via Creative Commons.