This is the most important climate fiction short story you will ever read in the 21st century. I created it after a 10-year process of studying the issues, observing media reactions to global warming and ”sampling” world literature. Is it hopeful? You decide. And your reactions are most welcome. How did you feel after reading this?
The story goes like this:
[The year is 2096. The setting could be anywhere. You won’t be alive then.]
On Tuesday morning her husband went into town on his bicycle. His boss had messaged to him to meet him at ten forty-five at the office, or what was left of it. Word of mouth started up that morning by spreading for the first time the incidence of what was being called “warming sickness” was infecting people in the village. Sylvia had been concerned about her husband going there. “Do be careful, Bernie,” she said. “I mean, about all this infection. Do you think you ought to go?”
But Bernie could not bring himself to tell her again that the infection was there all around them; either she did not or she would not understand. “I’ll have to go,” he said. “I won’t stay longer than I’ve absolutely got to.”
“Don’t stay there for lunch,” she said. “I’m sure it’s healthier down here.”
“I’ll come straight home,” he said.
A thought struck her. “I know,” she said. “Take those throat lozenges with you that we got for my cough, and suck one now and then. They’re awfully good for all kinds of infection. They’re so antiseptic.”
It would set her mind at ease if he did so, she implied. “That’s not a bad idea,” he said.
He biked to the office deep in thought. It was no longer a matter of days now; it was coming down to hours. He did not know what this office conference was to be about, but it was very evident that it would be one of the last military duties of his career. When he biked back again that afternoon his service life would probably be over, as his physical life soon would be.
He put his bicycle against a wall and went inside to the office. There was practically no one in the building; he walked up to the anteroom and there he found his boss in uniform, and alone. His captain said cheerfully, “Hi, fella.”
Bernie said, “Good morning, sir.” He glanced around; the secretary’s desk was locked, the room empty. “Hasn’t anyone shown up?”
“Not that I know of. I’d say they’re all taking the day off.”
The door into the chief’s office opened, and the big boss stood there. The smiling, rubicund face was more serious and drawn than Bernie had remembered. He said, “Come in, gentlemen. My secretary isn’t here today.”
He went in, and was given a seat before the desk.
They all stood in silence for ten minutes. Finally the captain said, grey faced. “Very good of you to wait,” he said. “I’ve been a bit unwell. . . .” He did not resume his seat, but remained standing by the desk. “This is the end of a long association here,” he said. “We have had cause to be grateful to you very many times, and in return I think we’ve taught you something out of our experience. This is the end of it.” He stood in thought for a minute, and then he held out his hand, smiling. “All I can do now is to say good-bye.”
Bernie took his hand. “It certainly has been good, working under you, sir,” he said. “I’m speaking for the whole group when I say that, as well as for myself.”
They left the office and walked down through the desolate, empty building to the courtyard. Bernie said, “Well, what happens now, sir? Would you like me to come down to the village?”
The captain shook his head. “I’d say that you can consider yourself to be relieved of duty,” he said. “I won’t need you any more up here.”
“If there’s anything that I can do, I’ll come very gladly.”
“No. If I should find I need anything from you, I’ll get in touch with you somehow.
“How are you two holding up,” the boss asked. “I’m all right. So is Sylvia — I think.”
The boss turned towards Bernie’s rusting bicyle. “You get back to her, right now. There’s nothing now for you to stay here for.”
“Will I see you again, sir?”
“I don’t think you will,” said the captain.
There was nothing more for them to say or do. They shook hands, and went their separate ways.
In the village, Bernie visited his mom and stood by her bed. He himself was not unwell, but the old lady had fallen sick on the Sunday morning. He had managed to get a doctor for her on Monday but there was nothing he could do, and the doctor had not come again. The daily maid had not turned up, and Bernie was now doing everything for his sick mother.
She opened her eyes for the first time in a quarter of an hour. “Bernie,” she said. “This is what they said would happen, isn’t it?”
“I think so, Mom,” he said gently. “It’s going to happen to me, too.”
“Did the doctor say that was what it was? I can’t remember.”
“That’s what he told me, Mom. I don’t think he’ll be coming here again. He said he was getting it himself.”
There was a long silence. “How long will it take me to die, son?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It might be a week.”
“How absurd,” said the old lady. “Much too long.”
She closed her eyes again. He took a basin to the bathroom, washed it out, and brought it back into the bedroom.
Later, in the bedroom Bernie found his mother lying on her back with her eyes closed, the bed very neat and tidy. He moved a little closer and touched her hand, but she was dead. On the table by her side was a glass of water, a pencilled note, and one of the little red cartons, open, with the empty vial beside it. He had not known that she had that.
Tuesday night the baby began crying at about two in the morning, and it cried almost incessantly till dawn. There was little sleep for the young father or mother. At about seven o’clock it vomited.
Outside it was raining. They faced each other in the grey light, weary and unwell themselves. Sylvia said, “Bern — you don’t think this is it, do you?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “But I should think it might be. Everybody seems to be getting it.”
She passed a hand across her brow, wearily. “I thought we’d be all right, out here in the village.”
He did not know what he could say to comfort her, and so he said, “If I put the kettle on, would you like a cup of tea?”
She crossed to the cot again, and looked down at the baby; she was quiet for the moment. He said again, “What about a cup of tea?”
It would be good for him, she thought; he had been up for most of the night. She forced a smile. “That’d be lovely.”
He went through to the kitchen to put the kettle on. She was feeling terrible, and now she wanted to be sick. It was being up all night, of course, and the worry over the baby. Bernie was busy in the kitchen; she could go quietly to the bathroom without him knowing. She was often sick, but this time he might think it was something else, and get worried.
He could not keep up a guise. “I’ve just been sick,” he said. “I don’t suppose it’s anything.”
“Oh, Bernie! So have I.”
They stared at each other in silence for a minute. Then she said dully, “It must be those pies we had after dinner. Did you notice anything about them?”
He shook his head. “Tasted all right to me. Besides, the baby didn’t have any pie.”
She said, “Bernie. Do you think this is it?”
He took her hand. “It’s what everybody else is getting,” he said. “We wouldn’t be immune.”
“No,” she said thoughtfully. “No. I suppose we wouldn’t.” She raised her eyes to his. “This is the end of it, is it? I mean, we just go on now getting sicker till we die?”
“I think that’s the form,” he said. He smiled at her. “I’ve never done it before, but they say that’s what happens.”
The doctor tried to calm everyone’s nerves.
“How long is a bit?” Bernie asked.
“You might get ten days. Then you’ll get it again. I don’t think there’s a second recovery. Tell me, is Sylvia very bad?”
“She’s not too good. I’ll have to get back to her pretty soon.”
“She’s in bed, is she?”
A spasm shook her, and he helped her to the bathroom. While she was in there he came back to the sitting room and stood looking at his baby. It was in a bad way, and there was nothing he could do to help it; he doubted now if it would live through the night. Sylvia was in a bad way, too, though not quite so bad as that. The only one of them who was healthy was himself, and that he must not show.
Presently she said, “Bernie, how is our child?”
He got up and crossed to the cot, and then came back to her. “Jen’s quiet now,” he said. “I think she’s much the same.”
“How are you, yourself?” she asked.
“Awful,” he said. He stooped by her, and took her hand. “I think you’re worse than I am,” he told her, for she must know that. “I think I may be a day or so behind you, but not more. Perhaps that’s because I’m physically stronger.”
She nodded slowly. Then she said, “There’s no hope at all, is there? For any of us?”
He shook his head. “Nobody gets over this one, dear.”
“What do we do, Bern?”
He thought for a moment. “I’ll go and fill the hot-water bags and put them in the bed,” he said. “Then you put on a clean nightie and go to bed and keep warm. I’ll bring Jennifer in there. Then I’ll shut up the cabin and bring you a hot drink, and we’ll have it in bed together, with the pill.”
She looked up at him with tears in her eyes.
“Will you do what has to be done for our baby?”
He stroked her hair. “Don’t worry,” he said gently. “I’ll do that.”
He filled the hot-water bags and put them in the bed, tidying it and making it look fresh as he did so. Then he helped her into the bedroom. He went into the kitchen and put the kettle on for the last time, and while it boiled he read the directions on the three red cartons again very carefully.
He filled a thermos jug with the boiling water, and put it neatly on a tray with the two glasses, the brandy, and half a lemon, and took it into the bedroom. Then he wheeled the cot back and put it by the bedside. Sylvia was in bed looking clean and fresh; she sat up weakly as he wheeled the cot to her.
He said, “Shall I pick her up?” He thought that she might like to hold the baby for a little.
She shook her head. “She’s too ill.” She sat looking down at the child for a minute, and then lay back wearily. “I’d rather think about her like she was, when we were all well. Give her the thing, Bernie, and let’s get this over.”
She was right, he thought; it was better to do things quickly and not agonize about them. He gave the baby the injection in the arm.
Bernie had this premoniton:
He was to get into bed with Sylvia, mix the drinks, and take the tablets out of the red cartons. “I’ve had a lovely time since we got married,” she would say quietly. “Thank you for everything, Bernie.”
He would then draw her to him and kiss her. “I’ve had a grand time, too,” he would say. “Let’s end on that.”
They would then put the tablets in their mouths, and drink.
She slept very little. In the course of the night she visited the bathroom four times, and drank half a bottle of brandy, the only thing she seemed to be able to keep down. She got up when the alarm went off and had a hot shower, which refreshed her, and dressed in the red shirt and slacks that she had worn when she had met Bernie first of all, so many years ago. It seemed like an eternity. She made her face up with some care and put on an overcoat.
With the other women in the village, Sylvia knew they were doomed. “There’s nothing now to go on living for,” she said.
Sylvia opened her bag; the red carton was still there. She uncorked the bottle of brandy and took a long swallow of the neat liquor; it was good, that stuff, because she hadn’t had to go. At some point a new spasm shook her suddenly, so that she had to stop for a minute, white as a sheet, and took a long drink of her brandy.
Sylvia sat there dumbly watching the sea on the horizon, holding the medicine bottle on her knee. This was the end of it, the very, very end.
Presently she looked at her little wrist watch; it showed one minute past ten. Her childhood religion came back to her in those last minutes; one ought to do something about that, she thought. A little alcoholically she murmured the Lord’s Prayer.
Then she took out the red carton from her bag, and opened the vial, and held the tablets in her hand. Another spasm shook her, and she smiled faintly. “Foxed you this time,” she said.
She took the cork out of the bottle. It was ten past ten. She said earnestly, “Bernie, if you’re on your way already to the next life, wait for me.”
Then she put the tablets in her mouth and swallowed them down with a mouthful of brandy, sitting in front of the wide wide window.