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The first few days after were indistinct and elastic. Hours felt like days, some days like minutes. If he glanced quickly out of the window he could convince himself that the city was merely under construction; there were great plumes of smoke, the skeletons of buildings – concrete clinging to metal – and the occasional rumble of heavy vehicles passing in the distance. It was only when he looked more closely, and noticed the buildings were in fact still crumbling, that the fires he’d seen a few days before were still burning and the sky was darkening, turning an unhealthy shade of yellow, that he remembered what had happened. It was like watching a timelapse, only out of order. His mind would sometimes rebuild things, change colours and textures and then, the next moment, everything had fallen apart again.
It was times like this that they didn’t need to talk. A shared sense of panic would take hold; their combined nervous energy having nowhere to go but to bounce around their compact two bedroom flat on the 15th floor. Were they doing the right thing by staying put? They had seen wave after wave of people leave in the first 24 hours. Watching from their window they had seen people scurry around the courtyard below hauling suitcases, wearing makeshift masks; some in boiler suits and homemade overalls. They looked a little like game show contestants, he had thought at the time, like they’d been challenged to wear all of their clothes and to carry as much as they could through an assault course in order to win. He had imagined some beaming sequin-clad host waiting just out of sight to congratulate them, a canon of golden confetti ready to explode at any moment.
It was a bit like waiting for a delayed flight that would never arrive, but would never be cancelled either, the board just constantly updating, delaying everything by another hour every time they looked. In their enforced state of limbo they’d somehow forgotten how to function, how to occupy themselves. Under normal circumstances he could lose hours just sitting in silence devouring a book, but now, he found he couldn’t concentrate, the words would instead blur and rearrange themselves in front of him. He had read and reread the same few paragraphs of a novel over and over and no longer cared what happened next.
There was an otherworldly confusion where the days seemed to have lost their punctuation too, and there were times where he would stop, just for a moment, either mid-sentence, or with his hand hovering motionless over the kettle, and think, ‘what day is it today?’ She would always be there to reply, swiftly, with both the day and the date, which would comfort and annoy him simultaneously. How could she be right all the time?
Then the power cuts and headaches came and it wasn’t as easy to remember the date anymore, and she had taken to writing out a calendar on the back of a large envelope that had once contained a brochure for a postgraduate programme she would never take. This was a few weeks afterwards when the skies had begun to show signs of recovery – less streaked with fluorescent anger – but they both knew, as the news reports consistently reminded them, that there was something still out there, invisible and deadly that meant that they still couldn’t leave.
When they had first moved into the flat, nearly five years ago, they had had grand plans; none of which ever came to fruition. They had quickly gotten used to the dated bathroom and compact kitchen and found themselves caring less and less about the yellow lino floors, or the mismatch of furniture they’d filled the spaces with – although the fact he had moved furniture straight from his university house to their flat had always annoyed her. The lounge chair that had seen countless late-night video game sessions and weed-fuelled after parties still sat in the corner of the lounge by the window. The dark grey heavy canvas was still stiff in places where unknown liquids had seeped in, and the odd cigarette filter or scrap of paper occasionally worked its way to the surface too, like it was slowly undoing itself.
They had only been colleagues for a few months before they decided to move in together. She had found the flat first and, in an attempt to make friends at her new job, she had posted a notice looking for a housemate, to which he was the only person to respond. A few weeks later they were in. He had helped move her little upright piano up in the service lift, which had broken down briefly between the 3rd and 4th floor, and she had played an Alicia Keys song which had led to a long night of drinking and karaoke. Any reservations either of them had had about moving in together had dissipated completely after that night.
The first week after it happened had been full of sound too. To begin with it had been the reassuring rumble of engines – trucks with hazmat-clad orderlies loading and unloading boxes of something nondescript in and out of the ground floor of their building and the one opposite (both tower blocks built in the ’70s). TVs and radios continued to blast loudly, people had parties, bottles of champagne that had been gathering dust, saved for special birthdays and anniversaries, had been drunk unceremoniously, their thick glass carcasses thrown onto the tarmac below leaving behind tiny jewels of shattered brown and green glass.
There were sounds in the building itself for a while too. Laughter, arguments, someone dropping a glass or plate, the occasional moan, sob or cough. The unmistakable sound of the lift doors opening and closing, the satisfying “shhck” of the fire doors and footsteps echoing down the hall.
As time went on though, the sounds grew fewer and farther between. Not necessarily because there weren’t as many people, he reasoned, but because everyone had started to retreat, to look inward a little more. The fear of letting something in had made people fearful of making too much noise, of letting others know they were still there, still alive. The initial rush of people they had seen outside had all but disappeared.
Their flat was small but with big windows, two decent-sized bedrooms and a living room that looked out over the city in what was now quite an enviable part of town (at least it was before). The only downside, which was more apparent now than ever, was that the kitchen was tiny. Not really big enough for more than one person at a time, with one small window that only opened a few inches, which meant that every time someone did something more complicated than boil water, the whole room would more closely resemble a steam room than a place to prepare food.
The news reports had started to become more sporadic after the first week. The pre-recorded message advising people on the telltale signs of radiation poisoning and the current state of the “situation” never stopped, but occasionally a live broadcast would punctuate the monotony and a strange new human voice would fill the room. They had been lucky, they agreed, that they’d both been shopping the day before everything fell apart, and still had food left in the flat. No deliveries were allowed, not that they had any way of ordering anything, but so far they’d been able to ration out tins of beans, concoct stews with scraps of pasta, rice and the remnants of the store cupboard, and still had enough for at least a week or two more if they followed their plan. There was still running water too.
“If you could save just one piece of music, what would it be?” He had asked her, a week after it happened, whilst lying on his back in the middle of the living room staring at the swirls in the ceiling above. She had been sitting at her small upright piano trying to play something by Bach from memory now that the internet no longer seemed to work and she had no sheet music in the flat.
“You could learn to play, you know,” she replied flatly, her fingers snaking over the keys, feeling their way around. “I’ll teach you.”
“Answer my question and I’ll take a lesson.”
“Something by Glass, or Eno probably. Something awkward.” They both smiled as she switched effortlessly from Bach to a jazz interpretation of Blondie’s Atomic – frenetic, bouncy and unpredictable.
“One of the first things you need to do when learning how to play the piano is the layout of the keyboard,” she explained. “The black notes, for example, are either in groups of two or three and the white key to the left of a group of two black notes is always the note C.”
He sat with her, squashed onto the tiny stool, his left leg pressed firmly on the floor to keep his balance, as she ran through the position of the keys. A clatter of something (smashed glass?) rang out from one of the floors below them, followed by a short, painful whimper. They both stared straight ahead and waited for it to pass.
He watched with interest to begin with, even taking notes and nodding enthusiastically as she progressed to show him simple chords, “C Major is a good one,” she said, “it has no sharps or flats, no black keys.” She pressed lightly and a satisfying swell of sound filled the living room.
He mirrored her movements and tried to make his fingers fill the same space as hers, but it felt alien to him. She would laugh and try to rearrange his position, but he would go limp, or giggle. He did eventually learn to play a simple duet with her, which they had played on repeat for an entire day, stopping only for scraps of food, but his mind would wander, and he’d find himself thinking about his sister or the girl at work he’d spoken to once, or the lists of early warning signs that were on the leaflets that were dropped in the first few days (one of which had stuck to their window in the rain) – unexplained rashes, hair loss, blurred vision, confusion.
“I’ll die before I learn how to do this properly.” He had joked.
When the first attack came there had been very little warning. He had been buying coffee when suddenly everyone around him looked at their phones at the same time.
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
He stared blankly at the barista who was too busy in a cloud of steam and concentration to have noticed anything else. He handed him his coffee before noticing the whole place had gone quiet and people were rushing out the door.
There had been eight bombs in all, each with a much smaller warhead than expected, but they were different somehow – dirty – which was why the lockdown was so swift and absolute. It was carefully orchestrated, they said, with the targets spread out in such a way that the area of damage would be as large as possible, which in turn allowed the radiation to leak into the farthest reaches of the city, including fully enveloping their building and a few miles around it.
After the initial blackout, when all the radio and TV stations sprang back into life, one of the main topics of speculation was the precision of the attack. There were theories that it had been planned for years, decades even, like some hangover from the Cold War. Some believed it to be a hoax, and some thought it accidental. The thought that somebody could accidentally end the world seemed beyond laughable at first, but it became the prevailing story amongst the online theorists for a while, until the internet went dark. Nobody really knew what had happened afterwards other than we had fought back. The Americans too. There had been occasional rumbles in the distance ever since; new clouds of smoke and the occasional blinding flash of light. Sirens would sound in the small hours sometimes, and, although they never saw anything directly, they both had the sense that there were still people out there, still fighting.
“Can you hear that?” She said one day, a week after giving him another piano lesson and a few days into the longest power cut they’d had so far. They were both lacking energy, but he looked much worse, gaunt and defeated. The rash on her arms had gotten worse and she had bandaged them up with old T-shirts to try and stop herself scratching.
“No. Nothing.” He had replied, as he let his body slump further into the sofa, his eyes falling onto the spot where the small red light of the TV used to be, absently willing it to spring back to life.
“It’s repeating itself, can’t you hear it?” She stood by the window, her finger gently caressing the pristine duct tape that surrounded the frame and pressed her head against the cold glass. “There’s a melody, it’s barely there but I can hear – can’t you hear it at all?” She spun around and stared at him, incredulous.
“No, I really can’t.”
“You’re just not listening hard enough,” she sounded exasperated and pushed her head back up against the window, “come over here and listen.”
“There’s someone over there,” he mumbled, as he awkwardly craned his head up to look out the window. She squinted, trying to bring focus to the amorphous shadow that she could now see too.
She stared, transfixed, at the tower block opposite them. It was almost identical in every way to theirs, but a perfect mirror image – both buildings were “L” shaped, with one limb jutting out at opposite ends creating an enclosed courtyard below. They were brutal in every sense of the word – all concrete and sharp angles – their towering facades unforgiving and now, with a thick blanket of fog that refused to shift, they had taken on a more menacing, fortress-like quality too. You could no longer see the roof, and you got the sense that it just kept going, up and up forever.
She watched the unmistakable shape of a person sitting, in silhouette, at a piano and felt her pulse quicken. She hadn’t seen another person in weeks and felt a bizarre mixture of excitement and repulsion – was this man safe? Was he alone? She noticed a few strands of hair stuck to the tape on the window frame, were they hers?
He heard it then too. It was a simple, beautiful melody repeating itself like an SOS. He dragged himself off the sofa, his eyes taking a moment to catch up with his body, and joined her as they watched in silence as the figure dipped and swayed with the rhythm of the tune that seemed even clearer to him now. His mind wandered again, this time to the last few remaining packets of snacks they had left (from Christmas a few years before), the empty freezer, the last few sips of brandy that neither of them wanted to drink at first, but was now one of the highlights of their evenings.
“I have to go,” she said, with sudden clarity, “maybe he has food?”
The door had closed before he could even muster a response and for a long moment he wondered whether she had ever been there at all. He couldn’t remember what she was wearing either; did she take a coat? Was her hair up or down? How tall was she? Looking at the now unoccupied space she had left behind, the make-shift tape seal they had put around the door frame still intact, he couldn’t even formulate a shadow. She had gone.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed, because she was no longer there to cross off the days on the calendar and he had been sleeping a lot, so couldn’t trust he hadn’t missed out entire days.
The sky always seemed to be the same shade of near-dusk, cloudy and angry looking and he kept the blinds closed everywhere but in the living room. The bag of pistachios that he’d found wedged at the back of the cupboard (behind a brand new, unopened box of icing sugar) had given him a little energy and so, in a moment of defiance, he had hauled himself out of bed and into the living room. It looked sad and dim and he had to fight back tears before a wave of dizziness came over him and he made his way to the piano stool to sit down, letting himself slump over the keys for a moment, a dramatic battery of notes filled the quiet. He hadn’t heard from her at all since she had gone. What was she hoping to do? How long did it take to walk across to the other building? Maybe she had found food and shelter and had simply forgotten him?
He pulled himself upright and stared at the keys, trying to focus his mind and remember the few lessons she had given him. He let his fingers move over them, willing something to take hold, to guide him. For the first few minutes nothing happened other than a few perfunctory, atonal flourishes that lead to nothing. Suddenly though, a melody was forming. Just the beginnings of something, a few strands of a thread of something bigger that he couldn’t yet reach. A repeating pattern of notes. He felt a small tingle of excitement and continued to play, enjoying the physicality of using his hands for what felt like the first time in months.
He leaned into the melody, allowing it to continue to build in his mind. A string of notes, working their way up and down a few octaves, no complex chords. It was childlike, like a nursery rhyme, but oddly reassuring. A repeating pattern of notes.
If he closed his eyes he could see the city from above, could see the missiles moving silently across the sky before falling. His fingers repeated the pattern, faster now, as if something were in his way, like he had to wade through quicksand to reach the next note. The bombs would transform from elegant machines built to fly into a devastating flash of Universe-building light that would rip through the city. From high up above, as his fingers continued to play, the impacts looked like notation in his mind, like a message he was firing out into the void.
He imagined himself a concert pianist tackling one of the greatest piano solos of all time. He was in Berlin, New York, and London. He had an orchestra around him sitting in silent awe. She was there too, in the front row, a tear in her eye.
He tried to imagine the insides of the bombs, the nuclei fusing and releasing vast amounts of energy before being destroyed and then recreated. There was beauty, he decided, in the repeating cycle of those tiny little particles. He zoomed out in his mind, from the atomic dance and scaled up to a tiny insect, a tree, a building, a city. He pictured two planets colliding, fusing. His hands grew tired and the cascading energy that had filled him for a few moments quickly dissipated. He stopped playing. The room felt cold again.
He stumbled to the window and looked out over the courtyard. He couldn’t tell if it was dawn or dusk, but there were new fires out in the distance that gave everything an orange glow. He leaned his head against the glass and closed his eyes for a moment, letting himself remember things from before: text messages, cheap drinks in loud bars, sunbathing in Spain, sneaking cans of Gin and tonic onto the tube. All things he would never do again.
A movement from the other side of the courtyard caught his attention. His eyes slowly focused on a flat in the building opposite, on the same floor as he was. He could see, through the hazy orange fog, a silhouette of a figure sat in profile. A small upright piano sat in front of them. The figure seemed to have noticed him and slowly they turned, before standing and walking to the window. He raised his right arm slowly, and so did the figure opposite. Was it her? Had she made it over to the other side? He couldn’t quite make out the details of the room around the figure, couldn’t tell if it was the same as his, but there was something about it that felt familiar. Had he been there before?
He closed his eyes, willing them to refocus and remembered the fight they’d had – was it a few days ago? She had been thumbing through an old free local newspaper, transfixed by an article about a local football team. There was a photo of beaming faces staring straight at her which had seemed too much for her to take and she’d thrown it across the room sending sheets of thin, heavily-inked pages into the air. He’d told her she was being childish, and she had shut herself in her bedroom as a result. Did they clear the air? He couldn’t remember. He had eaten the last packet of crisps in secret, he remembered that.
The figure opposite was back at the piano now, hunched, as if about to play. He squinted again, trying to make out their features, clothes or anything that would help him figure out if it was her. Nothing. A familiar melody filled the air, but he couldn’t place where it was coming from. It wasn’t in the flat, but it didn’t sound like it was coming from outside either.
He opened his mouth to call out her name, but just before he could, he noticed the figure looking back over at him again, this time eyes locked onto his and, for a moment, his blood ran cold. His heart pounding, he waved again and the figure mirrored his movements. He tilted his head, raised his left leg and finally put his palm flat against the glass – each movement was copied, perfectly.
Panicked, he let his arm fall, awkwardly smacking into the frame. The sting of pain drew his attention away for a moment and, when he looked back across the courtyard, the figure had gone. Blurred vision and headaches were to be expected, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was losing something much more important. He scanned across the building, checking each window thinking they may have moved, but he saw nothing. The floors above and below were empty too. The blood drained from his face and he felt suddenly nauseous, where had they gone?
His eyes darted around, down to the courtyard below. There were bin bags everywhere that had burst after being hurled from windows, swathes of rubbish slowly swirled and danced around, reminding him of a movie he had seen once and then, amongst the plastic and the rotting remains of food, he saw her.
He couldn’t see her face but, in the melancholy half-light of the new world she was momentarily bathed in light and he noticed how small she looked, almost child-like, surrounded by tiny jewels of glass.