I like this book. I have no idea where I found this book, but I would guess someone recommended it to me via BookRiot on some new release book list, because I've given up reading the classics for the moment, and going with whatever post-apocalyptic universe some author wants to provide.
And I got it.
The crazy part of this book was its setting in Edinburgh. I was in Edinburgh last month! I really like Edinburgh, and I keep hoping to find Troggie, three years later.
Anyway, it's lots of fun to be able to imagine the exact place where parts of the book are happening, even the part where "Yes, there were three strip clubs on the corner" and I stayed in a hotel all of 40 meters from that corner.
The story, oh boy, the story is great. The transformation of Ed, the main character, from the soft, modern man to the self-sufficient one at the end is the epitome of the hero's journey.
I enjoyed the book. I recommend it, it is worth reading if you like post-apocalyptic survival tales.
The line between any two points in your life is liable to be strange and unfathomable, a tangle of chance and tedium. But some points seem to have clearer connections, even ones that are far from each other, as if they have a direct line that bypasses the normal run of time.
I believe what I believe to make life less terrifying. That’s all beliefs are: stories we tell ourselves to stop being afraid. Beliefs have very little to do with the truth.
Don’t get me wrong—I loved my wife and I loved my kids, but that doesn’t mean to say I had to be happy about it.
We’re idiots. Creatures of denial who have learned not to be afraid of our closets. We need to see the monster in the room before we scream. The monster
I had made it very clear to Beth, very early in the proceedings, that I was the one who had to get up for work in the morning, that I was the one who needed my sleep, so no, I would most certainly not be helping with night feeds. I don’t think I’m the first man to have ever pulled this one. It’s a common enough shirk, one that conveniently ignores what work actually means for most men—i.e., comfy seats, tea and coffee,
cookies, nice food, adult conversation, the occasional pretty girl to ogle, the Internet, sealed toilet cubicles where you can catch a few winks without anyone noticing. Work. Not like being at home breastfeeding a newborn and entertaining a two-year-old all day.
I made it easy on myself, very easy. And that made it hard on Beth.
I have to keep telling myself not to look back so much. I’ll always regret not being a better father, a better husband, but I have to look forward or else I won’t get to the place I’m going, and I need beyond everything else to get there. The past is a foreign country, someone once said. They do things differently there. My past—everyone’s past—is now a different planet. It’s so different it almost makes no sense to remember it.
You want to know how long it takes for the fabric of society to break down? I’ll tell you. The same time it takes to kick a door down.
Ask anyone who has been in a crowd that becomes too strong, where bodies begin to crush you. Is your first instinct to lift others up, or to trample them down? That beast inside you, the one you think is tethered tightly to the post, the one you’ve tamed with art, love, prayer, meditation: it’s barely muzzled. The knot is weak. The post is brittle. All it takes is two words and a siren to cut it loose.
“Swap,” said Beth. She released Alice from her arms and lay her down against the damp pillow. We both stretched our numb legs as we stood up to change places. I passed Arthur across, and Beth released her right breast for him to suckle.
Doesn’t even know how his own house works… I sat back on the upturned box and switched off the flashlight. I watched the flame of the candle flicker in a breeze that could be either poisoning us or keeping us alive. I stared at a pipe that held either our salvation or our doom.
The world had designed me to be something. I was supposed to be a survival mechanism, a series of devices and instincts built, tested, and improved upon over billions of years. I was a sculpture of hydrogen, evolution’s cutting edge, a vessel of will, a self-adjusting, self-aware machine of infinite resource and potential. That was what the world had designed me to be. A survivor. A human being. A man.
To me, running was just showing off, a way for self-obsessed pricks to show how much more focused, disciplined, and healthy they were than you. How much more average they were than you—the subaverage gibbon who watched from a park bench with its prepacked lunch. Gyms were just as bad, except in gyms you had it coming at you from all angles: weight lifters out-lifting one another, cross-trainers quietly tapping up their speeds to match their neighbor’s, treadmillers pounding their feet to some nauseating soundtrack of their own puffed-up lives. Entire, windowless rooms crammed full of sweaty, unashamed, Lycra-clad peacockery.
Then I filled another, and another, before the flow finally began to stop, and I fell to my knees, sobbing in either relief or grief. I don’t know to this day which. There’s a fair chance I had been hoping for gas.
Behind us were the remains of the city center. Princes Street, Rose Street, George Street, Thistle Street, Queen Street, all now just black stumps and rubble. Cathedrals, churches, tenements, and houses, all gone.
If you’re reading this, then you’re probably in a better time and place than the one I’m in now. You probably didn’t witness the extent of the devastation. You probably don’t know how it feels to see that everything in your world has suddenly stopped, died, or vanished.
My own boundary was the size and shape of a small, stinking cellar for a little over two weeks after the strike.
Bryce laid down his glass. “Oh, I get it. I’m a big man, so I must be unfit?” “No, wait, that’s not what I…” He prodded one of his immense fingers in my direction. “I walk everywhere, sunshine. And I do a lot of shaggin’. What about you?”
“Knew it. Parents, you’re all the same. You’re all ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that’ or ‘I can’t get my arse off the sofa; I’m tired’ or ‘My kids are so fuckin’ demanding, I don’t have time for anything else.’ Fuckin’ pathetic, the lot of youse. You chose to have the wee bastards.” He jabbed another finger at me and sat back in his seat. “You take your medicine!”
This, combined with a road that disappeared into the horizon, always made me think of driving through the midwestern states of America, despite the fact that I had never been.
“What about your wife?” I said.
“Died a few years back,” said Harvey.
“I’m sorry,” I said with that useless spasm we give to another’s grief.
“You don’t know what protection means,” she said. “You don’t know what not having protection means. You don’t know how important that is. That simple thing: to look after someone. To put yourself in front of someone. To say you’ll die for them and mean it. You don’t know what that means because all you do is look after yourself.”
Nothing came close to what Gloria had been through, so why had we found them so hard? Why was the process of bringing life into the world, even in a bubble of middle-class comfort, medicine, and relative safety, so fraught? Why did it take so much emotion? Why did this process keep perpetuating itself, generation after generation going through the same thing, time after time? Why did life bother?
I just felt the same mixture of confusion and inability to cope as always, only this time compressed into microseconds.
But it wasn’t an escape. It wasn’t a return to a simpler life; it was a version of a simpler life. A version that replaced cholera, dysentery, freezing winters, lost harvests, frequent stillbirths, domestic violence, incest with underfloor heating, solar panels, and plump trust funds. It was just another decoration: wallpaper, not a return. Perhaps I’m being unkind or just jealous. But
One day, two other boys and I found a pornographic magazine hidden in the seat. As young boys, there was no other option available to us but to read it.
I remember running, running everywhere without thought. And yet I don’t remember actually running. Not the effort of it. I remember lightness. I remember speed. I remember the earth seeming to bounce beneath me as if it were a giant balloon I could push away with my bare feet. I don’t remember stiff, slow limbs or tight lungs or the feeling of concrete pounding through my bones.
“Striding on,” he said. “You’re trying to pull the road under you, trying to turn the earth with your heels.”
Yeah. This is how I run. Dammit.
“The planet’s much bigger than you, son,” he said. “It’s not going to work.”
“Think of it this way: you’re turning a flat road into an uphill climb. You should be turning it into a descent. Look at my feet. They never go past my waist. They only take little steps. It’s like I’m falling—see, that’s all running is, controlled falling.”
“Losing dogs,” he said. “Hardest fuckin’ thing. My grandad died when I was twelve. I remember Mum telling me when I got in from school, and she might as well have been telling me what was for dinner. I didn’t give a shit, fuckin’ alcoholic old prick. Our dog died a year later, and I cried for a week. It’s hard.” He punched his chest. “Harder than losing a person.”
“We can’t run that far in that time, or I can’t at any rate. I’m just not capable.” He fixed me with his bright blue eyes.
“Ed,” he said. “You have no idea what you’re capable of.”
I felt an odd respite, cocooned from the road ahead, as if there were no more distance to go, that the journey itself was just in this small bubble. There was no longer any great expanse to endure.
I said nothing. Caught my breath. Carried on.
“Nothing. It’s all this nonsense going around your noggin. All the doom and the gloom and the guilt and woe. All the stuff that doesn’t really exist. That’s what brings you down.”
“I know what it’s like to miss someone, mate,” he said. “Burns you up inside. Makes you think bad things, feel bad things—guilt, fear, despair—like you could have done more or shouldn’t have done anything.”
“Keep talking,” he said, winking. “And keep running. Keeps the mind away from the dark places."
Sometimes I’d listen to the noise my feet made on the road and the noise my breathing made on top of it, and I’d make a word out of it, sing it all day. Becomes a bit like a mantra, very soothing, hypnotic.
“Clear your mind and things start working out for you,” he said. “You can’t run five hundred miles just by clearing your mind,” I spat. Harvey shrugged. “You can’t do it without it either.”
But don’t get into the habit of letting people tell you what to believe, son. That’ll get you into all sorts of strife. Hey, Ed?”
Harvey told me that the resistance I faced wasn’t something I could ever beat. The best I could hope for was to learn how to fight it daily, to parry and lunge and keep it at bay by learning about how it worked. Some days it would win, others it would lose.
I should learn not just how to fight it, he told me, but, like every enemy, how to love it.
“Entropy,” he said. “Entropy and decay. Everything turns to dust. Everything is constantly trying to return to the dust from which it came.” He frowned and picked up his tumbler. His face twisted into an attempt at a smile. “So why all the struggle?” he said.
I could taste it immediately, as if a door I’d never seen had been flung open onto a long, wide landscape of forest, earth, and ocean, tall stone pillars clawed with brine and weed, cold starry skies, ancient, candlelit rooms, deep eyes, short lives, and whispered promises. I felt as if somebody had filled my head with a thousand years of secret, guarded memories.
We think that language binds us, keeps us close, but sometimes I wonder how far apart we really are. We can make a million assumptions from the movement of an old man’s hand. Most of them are probably incorrect. All we have to go on is our own skewed window on the world. We’re like hermits living in the attics of big houses on lonely hills, watching one another with broken telescopes.
“Medicine, clean water, sanitation, midwifery, roads, transport, everything that pulled this world out of the dark ages and took the nasty, brutish, and short out of life.”
“I’m saying society has evolved, Ed. It’s not what it used to be for one very good reason: it was shit and people weren’t very good at staying alive. We got sick and died daily. Childbirth usually ended in death for the child, the mother, or both. Pain, filth, famine, and war were everywhere, and you were lucky to reach thirty without being stabbed, shot, tortured, decapitated, hung, drawn and quartered, burned at the stake, or thrown in a dungeon to rot.
We killed each other because we were starving and terrified most of the time.
Other people’s problems, even those of your friends, are a great and terrible distraction from your own.
The living would run through the dust of the dead, just as they always had done.
Hope became my drug.
“I heard this story once,” she said, zipping up her jacket and burrowing her hands into her pockets. “About how the future would turn out. The future back then, you know, not the future now. All the people who know how things work, the people with degrees who can make computers and toasters and that, they’d all live on the hills behind electric fences. Everyone else would live and die in shit.” She turned to us. “They wouldn’t need us anymore, you see. Wouldn’t need our money.”
“Didn’t think I was capable of it,” he said, lighting another cigarette. “Turns out you don’t have a clue what you’re capable of. Not a clue.”
I felt all that terrible love flood through me, but it was like an undercurrent to something else. Something…something old. Something that had been around too long. It was like…when those big, wet, unseeing eyes found mine and locked on for a second, it felt like something was saying, Is this it? Again? We’re doing this again, are we? Another child? Another life? Another turn of the wheel? Another struggle?”
Apathy arrives very quickly.
I stared into the fire and out at the others burning around the demolished town and thought about gravity, about how it holds everything, even things with no weight, like thoughts, dreams, love. Even flames struggle to escape it. Everything is weighed down. Everything is pushed down toward the sea. Everything is kept at bay.
Thoughts became intangible and disconnected. They were like explosions of ash. Each one that arrived lasted only moments before it fell away and disintegrated, as if nothing supported it, nothing held it together.
I know now it’s certainty itself I have a problem with. Certainty doesn’t feel like something we’re supposed to have.
It’s hard being a human. Most of the time we’re just blind idiots seeking joy in a world full of fear and pain. We have no idea what we’re doing, and on the rare occasions when we get things right, we’re just lucky. Our lives are filled with the humdrum: dust and noise with no meaning. And yet they contain moments that seem to mean something, something we can’t describe but want to. Those moments leave holes we want to fill. We want to name them, paint them, teach
We want God. We want this life to end, for the curtain to go up and a kind, loving face to smile down on us, a warm voice to call us through and explain everything to us. The hole is everything we don’t know and everything we suspect, and we need a truth to fill it.
Pain from the present. Pain from the past. Pain in the future. Suffering and regret with little hope to alleviate either of them.
“Do you know why people tell stories, Ed?” he said. He waited for me to speak, but I didn’t. He sniffed and went on. “Because the truth doesn’t really have any words of its own. They’re not enough, see? Stories work—good stories—because they make you feel something like how the truth would make you feel if you could hear it.” I closed my eyes, shivering a little at the
He stretched out his arm and laid a warm hand, full of goodness, onto my shoulder. I felt tears in my sick eyes at his touch. It disarmed me—not because I thought he was real, but because I knew the opposite. I was creating this. I was creating this thing of hope. It was already inside of me; it didn’t come from anywhere else.
How hard did this have to be? How hard to simply exist, to move, to twitch muscles, to think, hope, accept, move, love, and be loved.
“Anyway, just saying: I’ve seen a few things myself. I know how weird it can get. We’re not really supposed to be on our own, Ed, we’re not built for it. Spend too much time running away from reality and that’s exactly where you get.”
“When I was a boy my father told me that life was like being on a boat,” he said. “You can’t control the wind and you sure as hell can’t control the ocean. One day it’s calm and the next it’s a storm, and there’s nothing you can do about that. All you get is a tiller and a sail and the weather you find yourself in.”
“I think we like stories,” he said. “I think we like hearing that we’re just little boats lost at sea, all alone, fragile things at the mercy of some darkness we can’t fathom, but solid nonetheless—enclosed and separate. It makes sense to think of things being out there.”
“And things being in here. But just because it feels right, doesn’t make it true.”
“We’re all born screaming, Ed. The moment we pop out our throats open, and the same scream bursts out that always has. We see all the lights and faces and the shadows and the strange sounds, and we scream. Life screams, and we scream back at it. After a bit of time we learn to be quiet; we learn to muffle it. But life doesn’t stop. It just keeps screaming. All. The. Time.” He tapped his finger on the table three times and sat back. “I reckon it does you good to remind it that you can still scream back once in a while,” he said. “So that’s what I do. I wake up and tell the sun I’m still here. Still screaming.”
You don’t run thirty miles; you run a single step many times over. That’s all running is; that’s all anything is. If there’s somewhere you need to be, somewhere you need to get to, or if you need to change or move away from where or what you are, then that’s all it takes. A hundred thousand simple decisions, each one made correctly.
That other beast inside you, the one you rarely see? You have it tethered tight. It watches and waits while you mess up your life, fill your body with poison and muddy your mind with worry. For some it takes just one call to free it. For others it takes five hundred miles of agony.
We never stay constant, no matter what we promise; the world has its way of pulling you about the way it wants.
What do you love most about writing? I spend a lot of my time thinking and daydreaming, so writing means I get to do this for a living. It’s also a way of exorcising fears and neuroses. If I didn’t write, my head would be full.