“That’s the worst thing about the end of the world,” Elsie said, staring mournfully into a teacup that had long ago been licked clean of every last drop of Tetleys and soggy crumb of custard cream. “Routines go straight out the window.”
Harry glanced away from the TV, which was showing aerial footage of a tiger chasing pigeons in Trafalgar Square. “Really? That’s the worst part? It’s not the deaths of millions and the imminent fall of civilisation, it’s that nobody’s been round with the tea trolley for a couple of hours?”
“Six hours,” Elsie said. “I’m spitting feathers over here.”
“So’s that tiger,” Flora said, nodding at the screen.
Harry gave her a disapproving look. “Not funny, Flo. That’s the one that ate Jeremy Clarkson, you know.”
“Is it? Oh well, there you go. Silver linings, and all that.” She watched the tiger make a particularly spectacular leap. “With any luck, it’ll bag Danny Dyer next.”
Harry tutted loudly and went back to the TV while Elsie wheeled herself across the room to the jigsaw table. Young Justin was still curled up in a ball underneath.
“Justin? How you doing, pet?”
There was no response.
“You know what would make you feel better? A nice cuppa. And a plate of Hobnobs, maybe. Don’t you think? Justin?”
“Leave the poor boy alone, Elsie,” Flora said. “I told you before, we can’t get in the kitchen. It’s full of baboons. And one of them funny furry things, what are they called?”
“No, no. Llamas, that’s it.”
“Oh, right. I suppose they are pretty funny. Spit at you, too, if you get too close.”
“That’s why I didn’t, not even to look for Hobnobs. Although no, hang on, isn’t that camels?”
“Is it? I’m not sure. Could be. Better watch yourself when you go to the ladies, then, because there’s a couple of them in there.”
Under the table, Justin let out a faint, plaintive, “Oh God,” and began to cry quietly.
Flora bent down, slowly, and landed a pat on his shoulder. “This, see, this is the trouble with the younger generation.”
Elsie nodded. “No resilience. No backbone. No Blitz spirit.”
“That as well, yeah. But I was going to say they get paralysed by despair when they realise they’re going to die without having had much sex. I mean, look at him, poor lad, he’s barely grown out of his bumfluff and acne. And now here we are, and his only chance of a last-night-on-Earth shag is with one of us lot. Or the llama. It’s just tragic, that’s what it is.”
“Shush,” Harry said, flapping his hands. “The Prime Minister’s going to be giving a speech in a minute. I want to listen.”
“Pfft,” Flora said. “The tiger can have him next, after Danny Dyer. Although there’s no chance of that happening, is there? He’s not going to be out there on the streets. None of them are. All the bloody government are going to be holed up in a nice bunker somewhere chomping on a year’s supply of tinned tuna and prostitutes while the rest of us poor buggers are left to get on with it.”
Harry turned around in his armchair and directed another scandalised, “Shush,” at her.
“Shush yourself, old man. It’s only going to be the usual bollocks — don’t panic, stay indoors, everything’s under control, blah blah blah. I’d rather carry on watching the tiger, at least he’s interesting. And better looking, come to that.”
“We could always play a game,” Elsie said. “How about charades? I’ll go first.”
“Oh no, you don’t,” Flora said quickly. “All you ever do is pick Gone with the Wind and use it as an excuse to let rip. I’m wise to your game, madam. And the air fresheners are all in the supply cupboard, which is infested with garden snails. So no, we’ll do Twenty Questions instead, and I’ll go first. Question one: which of the beasts in here is most likely to kill and eat us first?”
“Ooh, I know that one,” Harry said, raising his hand. “It’s the baboons. The rest are all herbivores.”
Flora pointed at him. “One-nil to Harry.”
Elsie frowned. “I don’t think that’s quite how the game works, you know.”
“Call it the apocalypse rules version. Elsie, your go.”
“Oh. Okay then. Errr… what happens to us after we die?”
“Hmm.” Flora rubbed her chin. “I’m going with total existential annihilation. Do I get the point?”
“No, no,” Harry said, waving his hand in the air again. “I know this one, too. It’s whatever you believe happens.”
“What happens is whatever you believe happens,” Harry said patiently. “I read it in this book once. Self-determined something or other. Basically, it said that if you believe you get reincarnated, or go to heaven, or whatever, then you do.”
“That’s the nuttiest thing I’ve ever heard,” Flora said.
Harry glanced back at the TV, where a harried-looking weatherman was forecasting light winds and a shower of badgers over the Brecon Beacons. “Really?”
“I rather like the idea,” Elsie said. “It makes sense when you think about it. Explains all this, for a start.”
Flora hiked one bushy eyebrow. “It does?”
“It’s Beryl. You know, from Room Fourteen? She always liked animals better than people, and she died on Tuesday — right before this whole thing started. I can definitely see her believing animals should inherit the earth or whatever.”
“You might have something there,” Harry said, nodding. “She always used to nick my rice pudding and feed it to next door’s cat. So if she managed to believe in this idea hard enough by the time she snuffed it, bingo. Instant animal planet.”
Elsie nodded. “Exactly.”
“You two are as bad as each other, you know that? Pair of barmpots, the both of you.”
“Shush,” Elsie said, closing her eyes.
“Oh, not you and all. What’s the matter now?”
“Shush, Flo. I’m trying to believe.”
“I don’t know yet. Something nice.” She sighed. “Although all that’s coming to mind is tea and biscuits, and I can’t help thinking the afterlife ought to have a bit more substance to it than that.”
“I want to be twenty-five again,” Harry said. “I was a lovely lad, at twenty-five. Full head of hair and everything. I don’t want to go back to the nineteen-fifties, though. I’d miss high-definition telly and pot noodles. And all the internet porn, of course. Can’t forget that.” His eyes brightened. “Here, can we have our afterlife in the future? Get jet packs and flying cars and stuff?”
“I think you can do whatever you want,” Elsie said.
Flora shook her head. “Listen to yourselves. You’ve gone bonkers.”
Elsie shrugged. “In case you hadn’t noticed, everything’s gone bonkers. You said it yourself, Flo — it’s the apocalypse. Normal rules don’t apply.”
“Hmm,” Flora said, watching the TV. Outside Buckingham Palace, a shrieking reporter was going down for the third time under a tidal wave of hamsters. “You might have a point there.”
“Beryl loved hamsters,” Elsie said, following her gaze.
“And dinosaurs,” Harry said. “She must have made us watch Jurassic Park at least ten times a week.”
“True,” Elsie said, and Flora nodded. Then all three of them glanced rather nervously at the door.
“It’s got to be worth a go, don’t you reckon?” Elsie said. “It’s not as if we’ve got anything to lose, after all.”
Flora huffed. “Well, I suppose if it’s all bollocks then we’re back to the concept of existential annihilation and there’s no harm done. Well, apart from the actual annihilation itself, of course, but you know what I mean.”
“Not really,” Elsie said cheerfully. “Weren’t they a punk band, Existential Annihilation? I think I saw them supporting Cock Sparrer at the Marquee, once.”
“Can we get back to the believing in jet packs and internet porn?” Harry said. “I want to be ready by the time the baboons eat me. Or the velociraptors.”
“Not a bad idea,” Flora said, with another glance at the door. A large furry caterpillar slithered underneath it. “So, how do we do it then? Make ourselves believe in things, I mean?”
She looked at Elsie, who looked at Harry. Who looked alarmed. “I don’t know, do I?”
“You’re the one who read the book.”
“Yeah, but it was, you know, philosophical and stuff. Not an instruction manual.”
“Okay, so we’ll just have to work it out ourselves,” Flora said. “Don’t suppose either of you were in the CIA, were you? I’m sure they did brainwashing and mind control.”
Harry nodded. “I saw that film. I think it was on goats, though.”
“I was in the Women’s Institute for a while,” Elsie said. “Does that count?”
“Did you learn how to brainwash people?”
“No, but I can make a cracking Victoria Sponge. And fold napkins to look like flowers.”
Harry’s stomach rumbled. “I could murder a nice slice of Victoria Sponge.”
“Focus,” Flora said, snapping her fingers in front of his face. “We need to think about feeding our minds, not our stomachs. Think. How do you go about believing something?”
“I believed Father Christmas brought presents down the chimney when I was a kid,” Harry said. “Because my dad said so. And we didn’t even have a chimney. Or presents, come to that.”
“Trust in authority figures,” Flora said, nodding. “That works. Parents, teachers, bosses, coppers. Film stars and celebrities, even. It’s why they get them to advertise stuff.”
“Trouble is,” Harry said, ‘my dad’s been dead for fifty years, and we’re a bit short on any of those others right now.”
“We’ve got Justin,” Elsie said brightly. “He’s got authority. Kind of. He’s got the key to the potting shed and he can fill up the tea urn on his own, so that’s got to count for something, hasn’t it?”
They all looked at Justin, who was still curled into a ball under the jigsaw table.
“Justin, pet?” Elsie said. “Do you think you could pop out and be authoritative for a bit? We’d be ever so grateful, love.”
The only response was a slight increase in the volume of weeping.
Elsie sighed. “All right, what else?”
Flora scratched her head. “Hypnotism? Like that Paul McKenna bloke? I saw him once, he was ever so good. Made this lad think he was a naked kangaroo.”
Harry frowned. “How would you know a kangaroo was naked?”
“Well, they haven’t got clothes on, have they?”
“Focus,” Flora said. More caterpillars were wriggling under the door and the TV was now just showing static.
“Sorry,” Harry said. “What about affirmations? You know, where you keep telling yourself something — like, every day in every way I’m getting better and better.”
“Hmm,” Flora said. “Autosuggestion. That’s a kind of self-hypnosis.”
“There you are, then,” Elsie said happily. She took off her gold locket and began swinging it in front of her eyes. “I am getting sleepy. I am getting very sleepy.”
Harry leant back in the armchair, took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “When I die I will be twenty-five. I will have all my hair, a jet pack, and superfast broadband. There will be no velociraptors. When I die I will be twenty-five, I will have—”
“In the afterlife, I will have better magical powers than Beryl Arkwright,” Elsie said, swaying in time with the locket. “In the afterlife, I—”
“Hold on, hold on,” Flora said. “What about Justin? We’d have to hypnotise him too. We can’t just leave him to get annihilated.”
“Fair point,” Harry said. He got up and crouched beside the jigsaw table. “Justin? You need to come out and get hypnotised, mate. You need to believe in good things — like — like—” He beckoned to Flora. “Come and help me out here, Flo. What do kids think is good, these days?”
Flora sighed and carefully lowered herself, knees creaking, to the floor by his side. “iPhones? Beyonce? Junk food?”
“That’ll do.” Harry shook Justin’s shoulder. “iPhones, mate. Beyonce. Cheeseburgers and pizza. No dinosaurs. Come on, you can do it. Everything comes to he who believes.”
“Pretty sure it’s usually waits,” Flora said. “But never mind. Apocalypse rules.”
Justin moaned softly as a caterpillar tried to crawl into his ear. Flora inched closer and peered at it warily. “Are caterpillars herbivores?”
“Not always,” Harry said. “Some eat other insects and stuff. And some have hairs with venom in. It can give you dermatitis. Or kidney failure and brain haemorrhages.”
“Jesus,” Flora said, snatching back the hand she’d been going to flick the caterpillar away with. “Start with the fatal ones next time, will you?”
“That’s in Brazil, though, normally. Not Croydon.”
“Apocalypse rules,” Flora said again, darkly. “And this is Beryl we’re talking about, remember? If anyone’s going to believe we’ll get besieged by poisonous caterpillars, it’ll be her.”
Harry sat down on the carpet next to the curled-up Justin and put his hands over his ears. “When I die, there will be no velociraptors, poisonous caterpillars, celebrity-eating tigers, or misanthropic old arseholes who steal your rice pudding. When I die—”
“Wait, wait,” Flora said, putting a hand on his arm. “Do you hear that?”
Harry took one hand away from his ear. “What?”
“Sirens. Sounds like an ambulance. Haven’t heard one of them for ages. And the baboons have stopped barking.”
Carefully, they crawled out from under the table. The ambulance siren howled in the distance, but nothing else did.
“Is it over?” Harry said.
Flora brushed dust and biscuit crumbs — but no caterpillars, which had all disappeared — off the front of her dress. “Do you know, I think it might be. Elsie? Elsie, wake up. We made it.”
Elsie didn’t move. Her mouth was open, and the golden locket had fallen from her fingers.
“Well, bugger,” Flora said, after a while.
Harry picked up the locket and put it back around Elsie’s neck. Then he stepped aside and almost collided with the tea trolley, which was sitting beside the table.
“Huh,” he said. “Who put that there?”
On the trolley sat a pot of Tetleys and a large plate of chocolate Hobnobs. Harry’s stomach growled, and Justin’s head poked out from under the table.
“There you go, lad,” Flora said as he clambered to his feet. “Nice cup of tea, that’s what you want. Much better for you than cheeseburgers.”
She pushed the trolley over to the sofa and they all sat in front of the TV, which had clicked on again. It was showing the Buckingham Palace reporter on his hands and knees, coughing up clumps of golden hamster fur. Justin gazed at it with a dazed expression.
“She did it, didn’t she?” Harry said wonderingly. “Our Elsie. She did it.”
Flora plucked a Hobnob off the plate and dunked it in her fresh, steaming hot tea. Then she raised the cup high.
“To Elsie,” she said, around a mouthful of biscuit. “Who managed to believe in some truly bonkers gubbins, and did it a damn sight better than Beryl Arkwright.”
Harry wiped his eyes and clinked his teacup against Flora’s. “Lovely epitaph, Flo. If she’s watching, I reckon she’s well pleased with that.”
“To Elsie,” Justin whispered. His hands were still shaking too hard to hold a cup, so he took another Hobnob. They’d all had a couple each, but the plate was still overflowing.
“I reckon you’re right,” Flora said, and put her feet up with a satisfied sigh.
I was skeptical and a bit lost on the first read-through – the character voices are roughly interchangeable, and it’s not clear what ages they are initially (although quite clear on a second read-through – the young aide/caretaker’s tools of authority are a sly touch, and the first names are a hint that, again, was eventually clear). On second reading, I could appreciate the originality and humor, the larger point on competing, wish-based afterlives, and the minimalist middle-of-the-action approach. Very engaging and interestingly written.
This story hit so many of my personal gotchas I stopped counting. As a lifelong Anglophile I was tickled by the attitudes, language and references. As a fan of Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice I was fully prepared for the alternate afterlife scenario. As a fan of the absurd I scared my cat laughing out loud at the rain of badgers and flood of hamsters. Delightful!