The button is merciless future-blue and it stares, Cyclops-like, from the lid of the Armageddon Kettle. This is the Terminator of kitchen appliances. Relentless and malevolent, it ticks off the minutes to the end of the world and it absolutely. Will. Not. Stop.
From my station in the maze of partitions and screens that make up the offices of SafeGuard Inc, my view of the kitchen area is partially obscured by a plastic fern, so I can’t be sure precisely who keeps pressing the button. Every time I pass, I turn it off but someone always switches it back on.
As any broken-backed camel will tell you, there is always a final straw. For this world, that tipping point hangs suspended in the gleaming, pitiless eye of the Armageddon Kettle.
I do what I can. There’s not much time.
I reckon I’ve bought the world a few extra hours with my diligent disarming, but I can do no more without alerting my colleagues, including my boss, to the nature of my mission. Whatever they might make of it shouldn’t matter now the world is about to end, but I do need to keep this job. I need to be here. If I wasn’t, who would deal with the kettle?
So I click and scroll my days through the company systems, following procedure. I answer the phone and do my best to sound efficient and reliable. Insurance seems especially pointless next to impending global annihilation, but in truth the whole concept has been bothering me for a while now. The plain fact is: s*** happens. It will happen to everyone and there is no way of telling which particular pile has your name on it. One day a small, unthreatening portion, say the approximate size of a Hobnob, may roll into your life. Another day it could be a towering tsunami of effluent engulfs you, your family, your house, your dog and your car. The point is, no one gets to choose. And no one gets to stop it.
“I’m really sorry to hear that, Mr Smith. If you can get your completed form to us as soon as possible, we’ll be able to process your claim.”
What all the devastated Smiths really want to believe is that their premium is protection against disaster. More than a remedy, they seek prevention: health insurance to prevent cancer; car insurance to prevent crashes; house insurance to prevent weather.
“But I paid all my instalments!” wails the distraught Mr Smith. I picture him like King Canute, on the threshold of his home, brandishing his policy documents as the advancing brown floodwater licks at his slippers. All I can do is read from the script presented by the company computers. I can’t deviate and say anything more helpful because “Calls may be recorded for training purposes”. Which really means, “Anything you say can and will be used in evidence against you.”
Customers’ reactions to the events precipitating their claims are seldom in proportion to the size of the catastrophe. Some people can bear the loss of their life’s work with stoic calm; others break their hearts and cry like babies over ruined carpets. Carpets.
The office carpet is bluish-grey, too indistinct to be either one or the other: a blue without conviction, unlike the intense sapphire of the button on the Armageddon Kettle. It glares defiantly at me as I approach, mug in hand. I flip the button up, turning it off and feel a small surge of victory as the blue light is extinguished, leaving a dull, cataract-glazed orb. I take a deep breath and relax just a little, roll my shoulders and circle my head, listening to the muscles in my neck pop and snap like bubblewrap.
No point worrying any more. Stuff like: is there a global capitalist conspiracy, does your neighbour secretly despise you, or is everyone looking at that weird lumpy freckle on the side of your nose? All of these things are now officially rendered meaningless. All of the things you always wanted to do – climb an Alp, learn to unicycle, dance the Argentine tango – don’t amount to much of anything when faced with the end of everything.
Travelling to and from the office, I have searched the faces of the people I pass for any awareness of the coming apocalypse. Surely someone else must know what’s going on. It’s not fair, or remotely practical, for me to deal with this alone. That old man, surely he must realise, as he offers his wife another mint, that the story of their long days and nights together is about to come to a final full stop. The dour bus driver that huffs and grumps at his passengers, scolding them like naughty children; I bet he’d treat them more kindly if he knew he was overseeing their final journey. Or would he simply park his bus in the middle of the street, leave his baffled passengers behind and stride away, making a straight line of the streets to his home and family? Would he throw open the door that no longer needs painting, take his startled-but-pleased wife and puzzled-but-excited children in his arms and hold them, hold them close and breathe through their hair, kiss the tops of their heads and say, “I will never, ever, leave you’.
Perhaps this happens on another route. On mine, the driver resolutely closes his eyes to the truth and shoves his bus through its gears.
I phoned my mother to attempt some kind of goodbye. I felt I owed her that much. As usual, she knew something was up straight away. All I said was, “Hi Mum,” and her voice ricocheted back.
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong, really. I just phoned to say hi.” Even my professional phone voice fails.
“You may as well tell me. What is it this time?”
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS
The question wouldn’t be so dispiriting, even given her tone, if it wasn’t for the complete lack of follow through should I be optimistic enough to answer honestly. My mother invariably reacts with an exasperated, “Well, I don’t know what you expect me to do”. Or one of her favourites: “It’s hardly the end of the world!” It isn’t what mothers are supposed to say. Not only does, for example, your job suck, or your boyfriend leave, or your dad die, but now you’re an emotional incontinent, burdening those who never could do anything to help anyway. So, it’s not surprising that when it really is the end of the world, I decide, on balance, that Mother is best left in the dark.
I might’ve told my dad. He may even have believed me, but he’s been gone for a year now. Broke his ankle falling off a ladder while putting up a satellite dish, had to go to hospital to have it set and contracted a superbug. “Necrotising fasciitis,” they said. Fascist bacteria, well organised and ruthless. I imagined an army of hate-filled bugs wearing colour-coordinated and disturbingly stylish uniforms holding rallies in my father’s leg, burning pyres of antibodies before marching on the internal organs, laying waste to everything in their path.
I went back to the hospital the day after he died. I couldn’t help thinking about the dirt building up and worrying about the bug he may have unintentionally left behind. What if they didn’t clean properly after they’d taken his body away? Did they ever? Perhaps they’d miss a lurking death bug and it would get the next person to use that bed, like the one they missed before, the one that got my dad. But when I turned up with a selection of scouring pads and a bottle of bleach, they turned me away. A nurse presented me with a clear sandwich bag with everything that’d been in Dad’s pockets when he was admitted with his broken ankle – £1.28 in change, a screwdriver, a half-empty packet of Victory Vs and a pencil.
So I took everything home and I cleaned there. But I never could get the place clean enough. It did help when Steve, my boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, moved out since he had been one of the main sources of mess. But still the dirt finds a way in. It’s a question of vigilance, of not letting your guard down. And hand cream. Lots of hand cream.
“That’s the Keep Warm Function. You should leave that on.” Scary Bob’s voice is so close it makes me jump, immediately locking the tension back into my shoulders. I didn’t hear him approach, but then, nobody ever does.
Scary Bob moves silent as swamp gas through the office and materialises at your side without warning. In his position as office manager this is especially useful for instilling a proper sense of fear in his subordinates. A person could be staring into space, picking their nose, updating their Facebook status and then realise Bob is right next to them, and what’s worse, they’ve no idea how long he’s been standing there, watching. Has he, in fact, been reading over their shoulder and is now intimately familiar with their online shopping habits? He never lets on. That’s where his real power lies – in the unknown. And he knows it.
“But it wastes power. It just sits there and boils, over and over and over again. Is anyone really so busy they can’t wait for a kettle to boil? Are any of us really that important?” I’m aware my voice has climbed an octave from its normal pitch and I know I shouldn’t say things like this, especially not to Scary Bob.
“It’s a feature,” he says and goes back to making his cup of tea, pedantically stirring in far too many clinking circles, like a tone-deaf child given the triangle to play in the school orchestra. When he finishes, he refills the kettle, presses the button down, gives me a warning look and glides silently away.
So, it’s him. Bob of the Apocalypse. I should have known.
But still, for now, the world fails to end. I close one eye and fix the other on the blue light, staring it out. The Armageddon Kettle stares back. It has all the time in the world. I wonder, is this really how it all ends? Not with a bang, or even a whimper, but a hollow click and a wet exhalation of steam.
Don’t worry. I know what to do.
I make my coffee and flip the button back up, saving the world one more time before heading back to my desk.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Vicki Jarrett lives and works in her native Edinburgh. Her first novel, Nothing is Heavy, was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year 2013. Her short fiction has been widely published and broadcast, shortlisted for the Scotland on Sunday/Macallan Short Story Competition, Manchester Fiction Prize and Bridport Prize. The Way Out is her first story collection.