Exclusive short story: Lucky We Live Now, by Kate Atkinson
IT BEGAN WITH THE MOTHS. GENEVIEVE woke up early but in these times of austerity it was too cold to leave a warm bed and too dark to do much anyway. She wished she had a boyfriend to keep her warm in the bleak midwinter. Her boyfriend walked into the freezing fog one night and never came back. Genevieve liked to think of it as a mysterious disappearance but she knew he was living across town with an actress called Melanie who did throaty voice-overs for public information broadcasts, telling people how to cook with hay boxes and emphasising the importance of sealing up draughty windows.
"The theatre is needed more than ever in times of austerity," thieving Melanie had declared pompously in an interview that Genevieve listened to on her wind-up radio. Where other celebrities' fame had dimmed and faded, Melanie's star now shone brightly (the "Voice of Austerity"). She was right, though, people craved entertainment now that there was no more getting and spending. They huddled in theatres, flocking to opera, to pantomimes, to mystery plays – anything that provided government-subsidised spectacle.
Or a dog. A dog would keep her warm at night. You didn't see too many about, now that it was no longer illegal to sell dog meat. The dog shelter had been emptied overnight when the law was rescinded. Any day now, Genevieve expected to hear a purring Melanie on the wind-up radio giving advice on the best way to spit-roast a Labrador.
Genevieve fumbled in the dark for the box of matches that was somewhere on her bedside table. The match flared reluctantly into life and Genevieve lit the stub of a candle. The sight of a naked flame flickering in the dark made her feel strangely hollow inside. She thought fondly of electricity, the way you thought of an old, dead, friend. She was sorry she had taken it for granted and not paid it more attention. The flick of a switch and it had gone.
The candle flame fluttered wildly in a draught from the window that she had not – in rebellious defiance of Melanie's admonition – sealed up. It was at that moment that the moths appeared, an angry mob of them suddenly bursting out of the wardrobe. Genevieve had a brief glimpse of their thick, hairy bodies (a surprisingly lovely colour, like Jersey cream) before the downdraught from a roomful of frantically beating wings extinguished the light. Moths to a flame, she supposed. She would have screamed but she imagined the moths swarming into her mouth and suffocating her, their papery wings stuck in her throat, so instead she slid under the bedcovers and hid there until daylight.
When she finally dared to look out from the sheets, there was no sign of the moths and Genevieve supposed that she must have dreamt them. When she stepped out of bed, however, her feet crunched on something underfoot and she found that the carpet was covered in what looked like hairy, white mints. It took her quite a while to identify them as cocoons – coffin and casket, winding-sheet and swaddling clothes, all rolled into one.
She realised that she was being watched, and experienced an icy, horror-movie chill spill down her spine. Looking cautiously round the room she realised that she hadn't dreamt the moths. They were everywhere – perched on the picture rail, clinging to the mirror frame, folded into the curtains. Hundreds of little, unblinking black-bead eyes observing her. Here and there, tiny antennae twitched. Genevieve spotted the occasional slow-motion beat of a wing as a moth opened and closed itself like a small, fragile book. They seemed to be waiting for something.
"Clothes moths?" her mother asked.
"Well, they seem to have eaten all my clothes, although they looked like silk moths."
"They ate all of your clothes?"
"No, just the things made from silk."
"Silk," Genevieve confirmed.
"That's almost like cannibalism," her mother said thoughtfully.
CLOTHES WERE PRECIOUS, FINITE THINGS. After all the mills and factories closed, women knitted through the night by candlelight and wished they had listened to their grandmothers who had tried to teach them to darn. The streets were filled with people wearing misshapen knitted garments.
There was a fashion for spinning wheels. Some women pricked their fingers on spindles and fell asleep, the yarn spooling their bodies until they were like bobbins. Like cocoons. Clothes maketh the woman.
People bought treadle sewing machines in auctions. In the time of austerity everyone looked as if they had been patched together from rags. "Handmade is the new high fashion," Melanie's voice intoned over the airwaves. "Make jam, not war. Knit someone you love a scarf." ("Oh, please," Genevieve's mother said to Genevieve, "don't.")
"Remember Selfridges?" Genevieve said dreamily to the moths. "And the Top Shop mothership on Oxford Street? Liberty's. Peter Jones. Harvey Nichols." The names were like poetry in the mouth, like chocolate on the tongue. Genevieve thought about the layers of department stores, like big cakes filled with lovely things. It used to feel so good to hand over a credit card and get something in return.
Genevieve was a garden designer. She used to design beautiful gardens for a lot of money, but no-one wanted expensive, ornamental gardens in the bleak midwinter. Instead they were digging them up and planting cabbages and potatoes in the mud. Genevieve's mother didn't have a garden but, a practical woman, she kept an Eglu in her spare bedroom. People grew vegetables in window boxes and in tubs on balconies. There were pigs in back gardens in the New Town. No ducks on Blackford pond any more; they were all laying eggs in people's bathrooms and cellars.
Genevieve fell asleep to the faint, fairy rustle of moth wings. There didn't seem to be any way of getting rid of them. There were no mothballs in the shop, no camphor, no lavender sachets or cedar chests. There were, let's face it, no shops. Things could be worse, her mother said. It could have been hornets.
NEXT IT WAS GOATS. A MEDIUM-SIZED flock that must have arrived in the middle of the night because they were already there when Genevieve woke up, grazing on the carpet and nibbling the bedspread. When she looked in her wardrobe all her cashmere had disappeared. She phoned her mother.
"Goats have eaten all my cashmere."
"They eat anything," her mother said. "How many?" Genevieve counted them. "Nine."
"You know it takes four years for one goat to produce enough cashmere for a sweater," her mother said. "The very best cashmere comes from the underbelly and the throat. You should get shearing."
Genevieve tried to imagine shaving a goat's throat. It seemed like an overly poetic act.
"Come to tea," her mother said. "I've got an egg."
THE NEXT DAY HER MOTHER arrived with a small, sharp, silver knife in her pocket and slaughtered the goats in Genevieve's back garden, cutting their shorn throats. "Don't worry," she said, handing Genevieve a handkerchief for her tears. "We were given dominion over them. Every creeping thing that creepeth upon earth and so on. You look like you're wearing an old pair of curtains."
A COW NUDGED HER AWAKE WITH ITS HUGE wet nose. Only one, thank goodness. Its tragic, brown eyes gazed mournfully at her. Perhaps it knew about Genevieve's mother and her small, sharp, silver knife. Genevieve still felt bad about the goats, even though they had tasted delicious. A flurry of moths flitted around the cow's head, like an animated halo. When she got out of bed Genevieve discovered that all her shoes had disappeared. She wondered if it was like the seven plagues of Egypt. Would there be locusts?
No locusts, just a bee. In the kitchen cupboard the sticky film of honey left at the bottom of the jar had turned into a small frustrated bee. Genevieve was beginning to see a pattern. She took the jar outside and unscrewed the lid. The bee flew away. No-one else, she noticed, seemed to be having this problem.
When she came back in the house she found an entire flock of bleating sheep shouldering each other down the stairs. They streamed around her and pushed their way out of the back door into the garden. The cow bellowed in soft surprise at the sight of them. Genevieve was left with no knitwear, no Uggs, no blankets, no carpets.
Reivers took all the beasts in the night before her mother could come over with her small, sharp, silver knife. The smell of barbecue hung over Morningside for days. Genevieve's garden was nothing more than a muddy field of hoofmarks.
A kangaroo and a deer lurking in the hall cupboard proved to be an Armani jacket and a Jill Sanders coat bought in a Harvey Nichols' sale.
"You had a jacket made from kangaroo skin?" her mother said. "How extraordinary. Did it have pockets?"
On the wind-up radio, Melanie warned people about the illegality of hoarding livestock or buying swans' eggs on the black market.
Genevieve wondered if it was illegal to hoard moths.
A FLOCK OF GEESE FLEW, ON lumbering wings, around the living room. Some of them barged into the windows and fell like sandbags onto the bare, carpetless floor. Genevieve shooed them out of the front door and watched them take off into the sky. Upstairs, her Siberian goose-down duvet from John Lewis had vanished into thin air. A few white feathers drifted slowly on the draught of air from the unsealed window.
In the kitchen, the linoleum on the floor had been replaced by a field of cotton. In the cupboards, instead of plates and cups there were lumps of clay. Where there had been table linen in the drawers there was now flax sprouting. Genevieve's mother arrived with her spinning wheel.
The moths still remained. Inedible, neither toiling nor spinning, merely decorative. "We could kill them and pin them into pretty shapes," her mother suggested.
"No," Genevieve said. "Let's not do that."
GENEVIEVE AND HER MOTHER WALKED into town. They couldn't stay in Genevieve's house. Where the furniture had once been was a small forest, and the floors were carpeted in a litter of prehistoric zooplankton and algae that felt like biscuit crumbs underfoot. "What is that?" her mother asked and Genevieve said, "All the plastic stuff, I think."
"Back to nature," her mother said. "Everything reverting back to where it came from?"
"Looks like it," Genevieve said.
"Are you doing this?"
They walked across the Meadows and over George IV Bridge. A small contingent of moths followed at a discreet distance. As they passed the Bank of Scotland headquarters on the Mound, the windows fell out and turned to quartz and the walls disintegrated into great piles of sandstone.
"Maybe you should have stayed indoors," Genevieve's mother said as they watched the North Bridge rattling down into its constituent elements. The spine of the Old Town collapsed. Buildings everywhere turned back into rock and haematite and water and other things that made Genevieve wish she had paid more attention in chemistry classes at school.
"Who knew there was so much rock?" Genevieve's mother said. "Have you noticed that there are no people? Anywhere."
"What do you think happened to them?" Genevieve said.
"I don't know," her mother said. "Where do people come from?" Later, the night sky gave an answer. Thousands upon thousands of new constellations, brighter than electricity. Genevieve could swear that she could make out the contours of Melanie's face in one of them.
"How does that Joni Mitchell song go?" Genevieve's mother murmured.
"We are stardust?"
"That's the one."
It didn't take long for everything to grow back green. Plants rambled over the ruins, creatures bounded and crept and swam and flew and tried to keep out of the way of Genevieve's mother's small, sharp, silver knife. Civilisation disappeared. "Back to the garden," Genevieve's mother said. "And that's a good thing. Although I miss gin. And a good orthopaedic mattress."
"DO YOU THINK WE'RE GODS OR SOMEthing?" Genevieve mused. "Wouldn't we know if we were?"
"What should we do about the future? Will I have to mate with the animals?" Genevieve tried to imagine herself in the heartless clutches of a bear, a tiger or the infamous wolfkin. She'd had some terrible boyfriends in the past. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad.
The bleak midwinter had been replaced by a permanent balmy midsummer. Peach trees reached their branches out to them, offering lush fruit; ripe apples dropped at their feet; they stumbled on melons. Moths flitted enigmatically around.
"I really don't know what the future holds," Genevieve's mother said, "but you're the garden designer. I suppose you'd better get on with designing a garden. But the whole Adam and Eve thing? I'd give it a miss if I were you."
Genevieve picked up an apple that had fallen at her feet and peeled it with her mother's small, sharp, silver knife. The apple peel spiralled like a helter-skelter to the ground and turned into a snake that slithered away into the long, green grass beneath an apple tree.
"OK," she agreed. "No people this time."
Kate Atkinson from Ox-Tales, published by Profile Books, priced 5, paperback.
OX-TALES: THE SCOTTISH LAUNCH
This story is taken from the Earth volume of Ox-Tales, one of four anthologies published by Profile Books today, priced 5 each.
Kate Atkinson and Michel Faber will be launching Ox-Tales in Scotland at a special event in Edinburgh. The launch takes place at the Playfair Library, Edinburgh University, South Bridge, Edinburgh, on Friday, 10 July. Doors open 6:30pm for 7pm. Tickets cost 7.50 (from all Edinburgh Oxfam shops).
The event is part of Bookfest, Oxfam's festival celebrating books and reading, which runs from today until 18 July and involves more than 280 events nationwide. For more information, visit the festival website at oxfam.org.uk/books.
The Ox-Tales anthologies bring together original stories by extraordinary writers. Published to coincide with the first Oxfam Bookfest, every copy sold raises at least 50p for Oxfam.