Snap-Shots of the Apocalypse
Min despised the Tate Art and Refuge Centre. It contained little art and, in her opinion, more refuse than refuge. She’d been approached by pimps in the café there, had witnessed fist-fights over chocolate, and had once seen a small artwork used as a frisbee. But today, staring at the empty food cupboard in her squat in central London, she knew she’d have to go to the place if she wanted to eat. “Damn,” she muttered, slamming the cupboard door.
Cursing the guy who’d yet again failed to deliver the bootleg provisions, Min grabbed her bag and slung on her black PVC cape and beret. She then padlocked her squat’s front-door and marched down the long staircase. The cast-iron banisters had not merely rusted but, in the humid atmosphere, had seemingly taken on a life of their own, throwing out antennae-like shoots, as if insects were gestating within. Min, as always, kept her hands clear of the banisters.
In the hallway downstairs, she glanced up at a familiar chipped sign: ‘THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF URGEONS’. If anyone asked ‘what she did’ these days, she answered: I’m an Urgeon. A reasonable word, she thought, for her life, for how she kept urging herself on, despite all the crap around, and within, her. Fortunately, few asked her ‘profession’ these days. She wondered: had it really taken an apocalyptic world to end small-talk?
Outside it was, as ever, raining, but she felt relieved the rain was the Cameron kind–light, unobtrusive. There were now a dozen official sorts of rain, all named after previous Prime Ministers. Min’s favourite was Blair–in which swirling eddies made the drizzle spin; she wasn’t keen on Winslet–gushing, warm; but the worst was Thatcher–hard, unforgiving.
Min strode across the deserted square, glancing towards a familiar London 2058 sight: a decaying building, the cracks in its walls colonised by moss, like furry veins. She hurried on, taking a short-cut through a passage-way with a dead oak in it. Her eyes widened as she spotted two large birds with azure plumage on the tree. Probably migrants, she guessed, drawn to England’s humid rainy climate. Their feathers were kingfisher blue, defying the grey day. How Damien would have loved them, she thought. Remembering him, Min felt as if she were falling. But she steadied herself, clenched her teeth and continued on.
She turned into Chancery Lane, her boots splish-splashing through endless puddles. She then scurried down to the Embankment, where she was relieved to find more people. London often seemed like a mausoleum these days, many having fled the city, many having died. She continued to the Millennium Bridge and crossed it, frowning at the building once known as Tate Modern, now the Tate Art and Refuge Centre or TARC. Its tower poked into the sky, like a one-fingered gesture at an unholy cosmos.
She bit down on her lip, then entered TARC. An armed guard ran a Digital Weapon-Detector over her, then nodded for her to carry on. At Reception, a woman scowled at Min, but stamped her ration-book and gave her a free token for the café.
Min veered right, up one side of the huge Turbine Hall, avoiding the hoard of refugees and their beds in its centre. She looked uneasily at the dozens of identical, cast-iron statues of children which stood neglected along the wall; each held up a cast-iron egg in its palm, like some arcane offering to nothing in particular.
Ahead, Min noticed a man hanging washing on one statue. She stopped. The man turned to her. “What the hell are you looking at?” he asked.
“That’s a sculpture. From the 2020s I think!” she exclaimed.
“So what,” he said, draping boxer shorts over its head.
She walked past with a grimace, then made her way to the café on the second floor. Handing over her token, she was given a tatty tray containing: soup, bread, cheese, an apple and tea. She made a bee-line for an empty table, sat, and wolfed down the food. She was drinking the tea when a man with a neat blonde pony-tail approached. “May I sit?” he asked.
He sat, sipped his coffee. “I’ve seen you here before.”
“Bully for you,” she said.
“I thought you’d be the ‘bully for you’ sort.”
She took a gulp of tea. “Bully for you. Again.”
He laughed, the first genuine laugh she’d heard in ages.
“Sorry. It’s just you seem different,” he said.
Min shrugged. “Everyone’s different.”
“No, everyone in this café’s pretty similar. They either live as refugees downstairs, scared of what’s happening, or they come in groups from outside and hang out for hours. But you–a woman, alone, probably early 30s–waltz in with that outlandish black cape, eat, then disappear.”
“And your point is?” she asked.
“You seem fearless. Or reckless.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You seem full of bullshit.”
He paused, scratched his neck. “Would…would you let me show you something?”
“If you want sex, the answer’s No,” she snapped.
He glanced away. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that…Really…I’d like to show you some art.”
“Aren’t the galleries all closed for preservation purposes?”
“Yes, but I’m a doctor here. Well, the only doctor at present. Which means I get the keys to the kingdom.” He jangled keys in his pocket.
She hesitated. “No funny business, right?”
“I’d never make a pass at anyone with such a silly cape,” he said.
She smiled. “What’s your name?”
He led her upstairs where he unlocked a door. Entering the room, she heard a dehumidifier humming. He switched on a light and she saw large framed photographs on the walls.
“This exhibition was ‘Snap-Shots of the Apocalypse, 2055’ by Lucy Winehouse-Hirst,” he said. “Do you know her work?”
Min perused some of the photographs. A skeletal man dressed in a black bin-liner gazed at the boarded-up Harrods store. A girl sat hunched in a rowing boat outside Brixton Tube, her face as pale as a bone. A tower of piled-up tyres in Trafalgar Square had ‘Monument to Bugger-All’ painted on it. A woman in a black PVC cape and beret sheltered from rain under an archway, cuddling a boy with a black PVC coat and cap.
As she looked at the last image, Min felt she was spinning. She took a deep breath and turned to Max. “You knew that was me?”
She stepped back, her eyes narrowing. “Why the fuck did you bring me here? Did you think a trip down memory cul-de-sac would be nice?”
He spoke gently. “Sorry. I thought you might tell me about the boy.”
She glared at him. “Why would I tell a stranger?”
“Because you come here alone, so I assume you lost him. I lost my child too.”
Min felt tears, willed them back. “You did?”
A muscle twitched in his neck. “There was a flash flood in 2055,” he said. “Anya was swept away, her body never found.”
“Christ!” Min exclaimed.
“What about your boy?” he asked.
She moved close to the photograph, touching the child’s face. “Damien died in the malaria epidemic of 2056.”
Max went over and put a hand on her shoulder. “Damien was my baby,” she whispered. Max held her while she cried.
Eventually he asked, “Do you have family left in London?”
“Why do you stay here then? A single woman could get a refugee passage up north quickly.”
She pulled away from him. “London’s my home. My memories of Damien are here. And anyway, I can look after myself.”
Max shook his head. “There are nasty people and horrible diseases out there.”
“I’m not sure I care anymore,” she said.
“You know, every day in my job as a doctor, I see how life’s been reduced to subsistence, suffering. Life’s hard–inconceivable, relentlessly hard.” He paused, gazing at her face. “And yet, even when things are utterly shit, I still find moments of strange magic.”
Min remembered the iridescent birds and looked into Max’s glinting blue eyes. “Perhaps I do too,” she murmured.
His digi-pager beeped loudly. “Damn. I have to go,” he said.
He led her out to the hall, locked the door, and then turned to her. “If you need anything, Min, come to TARC. Ask for Dr Max Linneker. I’m here for you.”
She felt a tear in her eye. “Thanks,” she said, turning away quickly and setting off downstairs.
“Goodbye, Min,” he called out.
“Goodbye, Max,” she said, glancing back.
She was almost at the bottom when he rushed down and handed her a box from his pocket. “For you, my brave caped Londoner,” he said. “Just in case.”
She looked at the gift: antibiotics. “Thanks, you old Romantic.”
Placing the box in her bag, she walked through the hall, then strode outside alone into hard Thatcher rain, clutching the bag as if she was hanging onto a life-buoy.