'The Shudder' - Chapter 1

PDFPrintE-mail Written by Paul Mount Thursday, 14 July 2011

Original Fiction

So you’ll want to know about the end of the world. That’s why you’re here, that’s why you’ve picked up this... well, I suppose chronicle is as good a word as any. I’ve been asked to set down my thoughts and recollections for the sake of posterity so here they are, warts all present and correct. I suppose I could be pretentious and call it “the diary of a survivor” but it’s really not a diary at all and I’m barely a survivor. Days and weeks and months don’t seem to matter any more and these days it’s hard to remember why and when they ever did.

So this is it. My story of the shudder, the event which changed the world forever. The event which ended the world forever; well, it ended my world forever, my old world at any rate. And when it happened, this thing, where was I? I’m only slightly embarrassed to have to admit that when the world ended – the night of the shudder – I was completely and utterly pissed. You may not be familiar with the term because it’s not a condition many of us have time for these days. It’s all to do with alcohol and the imbibing of too much of it. You may need to ask someone else for more details. No, the fact is I was out of it that night and as the world slipped away into the darkness I was sprawled in my marital bed, a tangle of arms, legs and bedsheets.

I suppose I’d better introduce myself. I’m Paul Moorland and my name is just about the only thing I brought with me from the old world. What I did for a living back then isn’t really important now but I think we’ll get on better, you and me across the printed page, if I tell you a bit about myself, contextualise myself so you can get a perspective on my old life and then, as they used to say in school in my day, compare and contrast it with the not-exactly whoop-de-do lifestyle I enjoy these days. Way back then, in a very different world, I worked in the legal profession. Nothing cutting edge, I was just a rather lazy and unambitious junior solicitor in a bargain basement bucket operation High Street law firm. Day after day rolled by, filled with the detritus of what passed for humanity; drugged-up shoplifters and wife-beaters at court in the morning, company searches and land registry enquiries in the afternoon with the odd bit of will-drafting and personal injury thrown in to add a bit of spice to a rather stodgy legal diet. It means less than nothing to you, I realise, but believe it or not I spent seven years studying to reach such dizzying heights of tedium. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, a career to aspire to because, as my old Dad used to say “You can never have too many lawyers.” By the time I realised he was taking the piss I was wearing a cap and gown and shaking hands with some ancient geezer from the Law Society.

Let me tell you a bit about Lis. I can say her name now, I can even write it down without feeling cold in my heart. It wasn’t always that way. I still want her, of course, possibly even more now than I did when she was... well, I can’t really bring myself to say alive because I won’t let myself believe she’s dead. It’s been... wow, three and a half years now since the shudder and I’ve spoken to countless poor bastards who feel much the same way; their loved ones aren’t lost they’re just mislaid. I think it’s one of the few things that helps keep some of us sane amidst all the madness.

Lis was my wife. We were married and I was proud of it. None of that smug “my partner” bollocks for us; we were man and wife and had been for over four years. Lis was my soul-mate and without wishing to bore you with the history of our courtship and our relationship because I know you’re here for the good stuff, the end-of-the-world stuff, I knew I wanted to spend my life with her within twenty minutes of meeting her in a bar on a Friday night. Who said romance is dead, right? Anyway, Lis was a graphic designer; it means nothing now but back then she was a fantastically-talented and imaginative illustrator and she earned a good wedge providing pretty pictures for kids’ books, mainly pre-school stuff about talking rabbits and unfeasibly-large and over-friendly bears. She did book covers too, and that paid the money that sent us on nice foreign holidays two or three times a year. Her job (she called it a vocation and I think she was serious) afforded her the luxury of staying at home all day, working in her attic studio avoiding all the high-pressure stress which made my working life such unbearable purgatory. But I never really resented it or her, even when I staggered home from work night after night crushed by the unfairness of it all to find her relaxing in front of the TV with a nice glass of chilled white wine in her hand and a couple of sketches of robot rats to show for her day’s labours.

Which sorts of leads me back to where I started. You remember; me, pissed, end-of-the-world. Lis and I had been out celebrating her commission to provide some sketches for a proposed high profile run of books about magic dwarfs. It was going to be a good earner, a very good earner indeed. We went out with a couple of close friends - God, I can’t even remember their names now, how fucked-up is that? – and a quiet Indian meal and a bottle or two of red wine turned into a noisy night in some flashy out-of-town restaurant with what felt like a crate of monstrously-overpriced champagne. I can still remember Lis and I blundering home in the wee small hours, attempting a bout of celebratory sex and then falling into bed sweaty and exhausted and laughing at our good fortune. I can clearly recall the boozy euphoria as I drifted into a deep and contented slumber, a feeling that everything was right with the world and couldn’t really get much righter. Yes, Lis was doing so much better than me professionally but at the time I was feeling so selfless I didn’t really care; she was happy and, by association, so was I. That was really all I ever wanted.

I don’t know if I dreamed that night but if I did I reckon my dreams must have been so, so sweet.

But the next morning the nightmare began.

It should have been seven a.m. My eyes rolled open like shop window shutters and the ceiling and its discrete silver light fitting swam with unnecessary clarity into my field of vision. It took me a minute or two to work out who I was and where I was and what I was doing flat on my back wearing just a pair of boxer shorts and a grubby old T-shirt. I wondered why I felt so groggy – and then I remembered the night before, the glasses of champers, the ill-advised vodka chasers. I groaned and tried to raise my head but I felt as if the entire weight of my body had rushed directly to my cranium, leaving my body just a lifeless dried-up husk. My aching brain spewed out a name – Lis – and I tried to contort my mouth so that I could actually speak it. Instead I gave a weak, heaving gasp and I settled out to reach out across the bed with one hand. Lis wasn’t there. Her side of the bed was empty and the sheets were neat and apparently undisturbed. You’d think a bell would have rung even then.

Then I managed it. ‘Lis?’ I croaked through Sahara-dry lips.

She’s up and about, I concluded. She’d be there in a minute or two, ready to force strong, hot coffee down my arid throat. I'd resented/hated her for it in the past but it usually did the trick and got me back on my feet and into the shower where I'd begin my slow recovery from my alcoholic excesses. So all I really had to do was just lie there until she came creeping through the door, that mischievous-yet-sexy grin on her face. Lis never got hangovers no matter how much vodka she slung down her neck - and she could sling a lot. So while I usually spent the day post-bender wishing I belonged to some order of religious zealots which didn’t believe in alcohol, she’d be buzzing around the house as if a drop had never passed her lips. I suppose it was all part of her irresistible charm. Now where’s that coffee...?

As I lay there patiently waiting I noticed how quiet it was. It wasn’t just the normal quiet of the room, relieved only by the steady tick-tock of Lis’s old-fashioned Mickey Mouse bedside clock and the odd creak from the house itself; it seemed peculiarly quiet outside too. We didn’t live in an especially raucous part of town but there was usually something going on, even early in the morning; the whirr of a milk float, the stutter of a stubborn car engine, the wail of some neighbouring baby, the excitable yapping of a distant dog. But this morning there was nothing. Not a whisper, not a sigh. You get the general idea...

I didn’t like it. It made me feel uncomfortable. Even my befuddled brain couldn’t get a handle on the absolute absence of sound. You see, my generation - the last adult generation of the old world – lived in an era where there was rarely any real silence. Our background soundtrack was the early twenty-first century itself, the sounds of life, an ambient throb which is so difficult to explain to those of you who didn’t live with it. Nowadays, if you’re really careful and you’ve got plenty of ammunition along with your death wish, you can walk for miles and miles and miles and you won’t hear a sound except for the chatter of Nature herself, and I’ve lately noticed that even that seems a bit muted these days. Sometimes, though, it’s as if Nature is laughing at us, at the state we got ourselves into, at the state we allowed Her to get us into. But back in the days before the shudder life was one big bloody constant racket and it was a shock to the system when the volume was turned right down.

I forced myself upright. Bad idea. My body screamed 'Lay down, you are still very drunk!' My brain chimed in with 'You are pissed, please return to your previous prone position. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible'. My vision swam, my eyes rolled in their sockets, my stomach churned. I shivered and shook and felt a damn sight worse.

‘Lis?’ I said again, a bit louder. I glanced across at the clock. For a moment I couldn’t make any sense of the enormous face and the numbers Mickey’s extended gloved hands were pointing towards. Ten-something? In a rush I remembered how to tell the time and I realised what the time I was telling actually meant. Somehow I was able to spring to my feet. I felt sickeningly dizzy and I clutched at the edge of the bed for support.

‘Ten thirty-five? Jesus!’ I croaked. A word popped into my head. It’s never been a favourite of mine but it’s still there and it comes back to haunt me every now and again when I really don’t want it to.

Work.

I was late for work. Not just ‘Oops, sorry, got stuck in the traffic, I’ll make it up at lunchtime’ late for work, but two fucking hours plus late for work. My boss Mr Clarke was a stickler for punctuality; there’d be terrible reprisals - docked pay, a verbal and/or written warning, my balls on a chopping block if I was lucky. Something in my battered body clicked into gear and I found myself moving around the room like one of those speeded-up silent comedy films. Suit out of the wardrobe, shirt and tie out of the cupboard. Decision: shower or rush into work stinking of last night’s good times? All the while I was talking – loudly and croakily – to my absent wife.

‘Lis, why the Hell didn’t you wake me up? It’s not bloody Sunday, for Christ’s sake. I’m supposed to be covering that sodding trial today, the one I told you about. Oh God, oh Christ, I’m stuffed, I am history. Clarke’ll take me apart and put me back together in the wrong order – if he puts me back together at all. Lis, why’d you let me sleep? You could have made some coffee or something, yeah? You could have bloody thrown it over me. Lis? Lis?? LIS???’

My T-shirt was off, a towel was in my hand. I was ready to throw myself on the tender mercies of the shower and then it occurred to me that I could always phone in sick. But then I remembered that Clarke and all my so-called friends at work knew I’d been out boozing the night before. So surely by about eight forty-five when my tardiness must have become a bit of a talking point one of the miserable bastards could have picked up a phone and rung to ask me if I intended to grace Carter, Markham and Clarke with my presence today?

‘Lis??’ Now I was getting annoyed. But I thought I’d worked out what had happened. Lis had woken up supernaturally early, wandered downstairs to make coffee and toast and then fallen asleep watching the dishy chef on morning TV, the one I delighted in telling her was gay just to annoy her even though I had no idea or interest in whether he was or not. She’s down there now, I thought, covered in toast crumbs and snoring contentedly while some TV ponce in a hat is smugly making cheesecake as if he’s found the cure for cancer.

I went out onto the landing, towel over my shoulder. It sounded even quieter downstairs. Still feeling distinctly queasy I tottered down the stairs and wobbled into the living room. It was just as we’d left it the night before; coats were thrown haphazardly across the leather sofa, a newspaper was splayed across the glass coffee table, DVD cases were strewn about the floor, last night’s half-consumed mugs of coffee on the windowsill.

I went into the kitchen – the breakfast room as Lis liked to call it when we had visitors. The square white room was spotless, crockery and groceries hidden away in wall-units and cupboards, work surfaces gleaming. The portable TV was off and I soon discovered that the kettle was cold and the toaster hadn’t seen serious action in a couple of days.

I shuffled across the kitchen and pressed my nose up against the glass of the door leading out into the garden. It was a small, pretty garden; a little patio outside the door and a neat lawn split by a narrow path, a small shed huddled against the far wall. I didn’t really know what was in the shed; a lawn-mower, a few plant pots and the odd bottle of Baby Bio I expect. How should I know? The garden was Lis’s domain; neither of us had green fingers but hers were rather greener than mine. She liked to potter around the garden wearing ill-fitting rubber gloves on Sunday mornings whereas I preferred to sprawl on the sofa covered in supplements and with half-an-eye on the goings-on in Hollyoaks. But there was no Lis out in the garden on this particular morning.

This is the moment at which, it’s probably worth pointing out, I first felt a sense of genuine dread, a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. It certainly hadn’t occurred to me yet that something might be wrong with the whole world but certainly my little bit of it wasn’t working properly. I know I had a sense of foreboding, a feeling which, as you can see, I’m making a pig’s ear of trying to describe.

My panic at being late for work had receded. I decided that it I was going to be hung for a lamb I might just as well be hung for a sheep (or something). I needed to find my wife more than I needed to go to work so I decided to phone in sick and to Hell with the consequences. On the way back out into the hall I filled a beer glass with cold water and swilled it back in one gulp. My system began to judder back into life so I filled the coffee machine and flicked the switch. I noticed that the red light didn’t come on. I flicked the switch on and off again. Then I flicked the wall switch a couple of times.

Bloody fuses.

It was early September and there was a chill in the air. As I picked up the telephone receiver I noticed that my nipples were like bullets (thought you ought to know; the devil's in the detail, after all) and I could do with putting a shirt on. Let’s get this done first.

The telephone was dead, of course. I barked ‘Hello, hello’ about three times into the mouthpiece and then I gave up. I went back into the sitting room and looked around again. ‘Lis?’ I said as if I expected her to burst out of the TV cabinet. I’m not sure what was running through my mind at the time; whatever was happening was illogical, way beyond my immediate comprehension, certainly in my addled state of mind. I wasn’t yet terrified – that came later - but I was certainly getting increasingly cheesed off. I turned on the radio on the shelf above the television. The sound of static filled the room. I winced, turned the volume down, turned the tuning dial. Static. Nothing but static.

I picked up the radio and shook it about a bit. I went up and down the dial a few more times; once or twice I thought I could hear the sound of voices, distant, desperate garbled words that I couldn’t even be sure were English. But they were gone almost as soon as I heard them and then there was just the static again. I turned the damned thing off and stood there, scratching my sore head.

‘What the Hell is going on around here?’

It was all getting a bit much for me. If I was going to get to the bottom of all this I’d have to start dealing with things one at a time. It wasn’t getting any warmer in the house so I sloped back upstairs. Out of interest, I tried the taps in the bathroom. Water was running but the pipes were sputtering and rattling and the actual flow was becoming a half-hearted trickle. There seemed to be no hot water and I couldn’t yet face a cold shower, much as it would probably have done me some good. I raided the bathroom cabinet, doused myself in body spray, deodorant and Lis’s talcum powder and splashed my face with as much cold water as I could tolerate and went back into the bedroom to get dressed.

I ignored my working clothes and fished out a thick sweater with some fashionable symbol splashed across it and I struggled into a pair of old jeans. I went to the window and threw open the curtains. Bright daylight dazzled me for a moment but I managed to look down into the street. Nothing exceptional down there; a row of semi-detached houses, red-brick, almost identical, three-up, two-down, garage, drive, cars dotted here and there. Suburbia in microcosm.

But there were no people. There was nothing moving. The very fact that the road was full of cars was disturbing in itself. I'm not and have never been a snob (to the best of my knowledge) but Shackleton Drive wasn’t a cheap and nasty estate; the houses were fairly expensive and the area was full of bright young professionals with good jobs and two cars or else retired couples who’d invested in nice new homes for their twilight years. By now - and a quick glance at the clock reminded me we were creeping towards eleven a.m - half of those cars should have gone, their thrusting young owners busy doing whatever it was they did to keep their identical roofs over their heads - and there should have been some sign of life out there, someone out in their front garden, someone walking a dog, someone going out shopping. But it was Wednesday morning and yet the street looked as if it thought it was Sunday.

I tried to put the pieces of this fractured jigsaw together. No electricity, no telephone, precious little in the way of running water and, most disturbingly, no Lis. Options? Maybe there’d been some sort of massive localised power cut and Lis had gone out to investigate. But where could she have gone? And why had everyone else in the neighbourhood gone too? Maybe I’d been in such a state Lis hadn’t been able to rouse me…maybe she’d gone to find help. No, it just didn’t make sense, there was too much which didn’t ring true. What about other options? Number two was a bit more fanciful. Perhaps there’d been some sort of accident at a nearby nuclear power station (there must have been one out there not far away) and a radioactive cloud was rolling across the countryside and Shackleton Drive, right in its path, had been evacuated in the night. In the excitement and panic – and most probably still half-drunk herself – Lis had forgotten all about me and was now cowering in some nuclear bunker, slapping her forehead and cursing her lousy memory. Not incredibly likely, in hindsight, but you must understand how confused and disorientated I was, not just from the after-effects of the drink but from the sheer illogicality of what was going on, the simple fact that I had awoken to find myself in a situation I just couldn’t rationalise in any real way. It’s not surprising my imagination was running away with me. Right about now it found its second wind and set off like a marathon runner.

Option three occurred to me in the shape of a scenario where there had been sudden, unexpected suburban kidnappings by political extremists. They’d crashed into the house, swept up Lis in their muscley tattooed arms, taken one look at my recumbent, insensible form, tongue lolling out of my mouth and drooling onto the pillow, and decided I wasn’t likely to raise much of a ransom. Hmmm…Bruce Willis movie, maybe, but real life? No, I didn’t really think so…

My mind was racing so fast now I was starting to feel sick again. I went up to check on Lis’s attic studio, just in case she’d been struck by a sudden bout of early-morning creativity, only to find that the attic’s retractable ladder was still flush to the trapdoor in the ceiling, just as we’d left it the evening before. I decided I needed some fresh air and, while I was at it, maybe I could see if there was any sign of life next door. Having established that Shackleton Drive was filled with young upwardlies (as they were once known) our next door neighbour, inevitably, was a shrunken old lady called Mrs Gerrard. She had a plastic hip, and, so she said, she suffered ‘something chronic’ in the cold weather. Personally I found her hard-going; she was, after all, an old person and I wasn’t and I didn’t think I functioned on the same wave-length as her. She also kept forgetting to switch on her hearing-aid which tended to make even the simple business of saying ‘Good morning’ a performance not unlike a sitting of the United Nations. Lis was a bit more tolerant; there were old biddies dotted around her family so she was used to talking down to pensioners. She’d even been known to spend an hour or so in Mrs Gerrard’s company of an afternoon when work was sluggish and she felt like a bit of a natter. So the chances were that Mrs Gerrard, if she was at home to visitors, would be sitting in her dusty living room with her hearing aid off. I’d probably be wasting my time but I had to do something to try and find out what the Hell was going on and the house next door seemed as good a place as any to start.

I went to the front door and I saw, with an ever-sinking heart, that the safety catch was still in place from the night before. The back door was locked, the windows firmly closed. Unless Lis had developed the uncanny ability to pass through solid walls it was beginning to look as if my wife hadn’t left the house after all. I threw open the front door and wandered halfway down the path, pausing only to stop and listen, my head cocked like a curious dog listening for the mewl of next door’s cat.

The silence really was awesome. I’d never imagined anything like it. There wasn’t a sound to be heard; even Nature seemed to have fallen silent for once. It was still morning with just a touch of breeze but even so sound always carried from the main roads which led onto our estate and sometimes, when the wind was in the right direction, you could hear the roar of traffic from the motorway five miles away. But today there was nothing; just a silence so absolute it was painful.

‘This is bloody ridiculous,’ I muttered, more from the need to hear some sort of sound than any particular need to say those particular words. It was time to see what was going on at Mrs G’s. I sprang over the low wall separating our properties and rapped determinedly on the old-fashioned lion’s head brass door knocker. The sounds echoed up and down the street like gunshots, shattering the silence like a big bull let loose in a well-stocked china shop. As I waited for some response from Mrs G I glanced over my shoulder, hoping against hope that my racket would have roused my deeply narcoleptic neighbours. I would have jumped for joy if bedroom windows had been flung open and angry red faces had emerged, shouting at me to keep the noise down and reminding me about the Bank Holiday. But it was Wednesday. It was eleven a.m. It wasn’t going to happen. It didn’t happen.

After a few moments which might as well have been hours, it became obvious that Mrs G wasn’t rushing – or even shuffling – to answer the door. I crouched down, pushed open the letterbox and squinted into the hallway. It was dark and dank and full of curios accumulated during a long and probably unremarkable life. I could smell the mustiness even through the letterbox. As I let it snap shut I realised that I knew nothing at all about Mrs G except that she was old, she was deaf and she had a dodgy hip. Her life had come and almost gone and I knew next to nothing of it. Had she been married? Had she ever worked? Did she have any family? Where the Hell was she now when I needed her?

I went back indoors. I felt a little better, a little less exposed. It was as if by shutting out the silent world it had somehow ceased to exist. Maybe I could just go back to bed and hide under the covers until everything put itself right again? I was about to slink upstairs when I saw the car keys on the shelf of the hall table. My confused brain made the connection with surprising speed. Keys on table+car outside house=means of transport.

I abandoned the ‘back to bed’ option. There was obviously nothing to be gained by twiddling my thumbs and waiting for everyone to jump out of a cupboard and shout ‘Surprise!’ at me. It was time to grip this situation by the scruff of its inexplicable neck and get out there and try to find out what the Hell was going on. I’d take a little spin around the estate, check out the neighbourhood. Then I’d go a little further, into the city centre itself. I’d find some answers there, I was sure of it. Wednesday morning? Shoppers galore. Idling business types preparing for their extended lunch-breaks. Bleary-eyed students wandering from Starbucks to Costa and back again as they waited for that irritatingly-timetabled midday lecture to start. Gangs of surly teenagers in unfeasible trousers and hooded tops – the uniform of youth – lurking on street corners. As I busied myself for my little expedition I rallied a bit, certain I’d find the answers once I got into the city.

Answers? Well, as it turned out, not as such. More questions though… oh, yes. Plenty more questions…

THE SHUDDER continues in the next issue of Starburst Magazine.



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