Once his ears stop ringing, once the ground stops shaking, he casts a startled glance around the panic room. It’s a small room, but it had taken some time to build. There are two mattresses and a sleeping bag, and there is some food and drink. There is a radio. There is a shovel. There is a small electric light bulb, but of course that has gone out now. He lights a candle. There are several candles.
The shock takes a few minutes to dissipate. He is breathing heavily. It’s hot, cloying in here. He would have expected it to be cold. He suddenly wonders whether he should breathe more slowly, to conserve oxygen. He’s not sure.
He is thirsty. He takes a sip of water. It doesn’t taste stale. He doesn’t know why he expected it to.
He has a wife. Of course, he should go outside and try to look for her. Of course he should.
He slumps down on a mattress next to the wall. The wall is rough, cold. He takes a deep breath and expects to start sobbing, but he can’t. He just can’t.
Half an hour passes, maybe. He is just staring into space. He can hear wind, but only vaguely. He is not entirely sure whether it is coming from inside or outside his head. He feels so tired.
He thinks about his wife. Lorna. He half-expects a knock on the trapdoor and for her to join him down here. Ridiculous, of course. He is buried. He is, living, in the tomb. At this moment, he is the last man in the universe. Alone, in the small, blank space between existence and extinction. He wonders if it is something he should savour, or something that should terrify him.
She had always been the practical one. The sensible one. The supportive one. She had gone into work today, although it was a Saturday, to finish something. Is she dead? He doesn’t know.
He realises he has been holding the candle and hot wax has encased several of his fingers. In spite of his predicament, he chuckles to himself. There is a metal spike candle holder that he uses, extracting his waxy hands from the source of light, and fixing it in the middle of the floor.
It’s ghostly here, now. Light dancing on the walls. Precious little in here to cast shadows. You are here with him, but he doesn’t realise this. He slumps back down onto the mattress.
You see him. He has a mop of salt-and-pepper hair, lank because he did not shower today. It is a Saturday. It’s around 2pm. He has a beard, well-kept, with a patch of hair missing on one side. It’s from a faded scar.
He wears old, ripped jeans and a dressing gown. He is shirtless. He is wearing mismatched socks. He is a forty-one year old man who has nothing left except the contents of this dark, close hole in the ground.
After about an hour, sitting, staring into space, listening to the wind which may or may not be coming from above, he suddenly feels the need to piss. This is not an eventuality for which he has planned.
He eyes the water bottles. Too precious. He can’t sacrifice the water. Maybe he will just have to piss in the corner. He is reluctant to piss in the corner. He has only been bereft of civilisation for an hour and a half. He can’t start pissing on the floor already. Surely.
After a few more minutes, the urgency of the matter overcomes his indecision and he pisses in the corner. Clumsily. Tentatively. It’s a long time since he’s pissed in a corner, or against a wall. Absurd memories of drunken youth. This is how it begins he thinks. He feels bad. He moves one of the mattresses to soak up the piss on the basis that it will cover the smell.
He finds himself in a ridiculous position. He is standing, stooping just a little, in a hole in the ground, having tried to cover the smell of his own urine. It is a Saturday afternoon and he is potentially the only living being left in the whole world. No, he thinks, surely not in the whole world. That would just be mental.
Of course he isn’t. He knows he isn’t. Other people will have found shelter. The government, presumably. The military. People on other continents. It’s not clear.
He wonders whether he should go outside. It can’t be safe. But there again, will it ever be safe? He can’t stay down here forever.
He doesn’t know how to feel. In a way he feels a little liberated, and he reproaches himself silently. If he can come to terms with the certainty of his impending death, he reasons, he can just relax.
There isn’t enough room to pace – not properly. The floor is mostly earth. He didn’t put a floor in. He could dig, he could broaden his new home. He could escape. He wonders idly about the beginnings of an underground civilisation. He decides instead to try the radio. He feels obliged to try to find out what is happening.
It is a battery-powered radio and the batteries are new. He only built this hole a few weeks ago. He turns on the radio and tries to get reception. There isn’t much. He turns the dials, reassuring plastic, eventually breaking through the crackle and hiss to hear a human voice.
‘-can confirm that nuclear explosions have hit across the United Kingdom. We can’t be sure… exactly what has been the result, but at this point it looks as though there is significant damage and loss of life across England and Wales, and much of Scotland.’ There is a pause, a pained sigh. ‘God protect us.’
The channel then reverts to static. He looks down for a moment – you can see his face creasing a little – and he returns to the radio, twisting the dial again. He finds what he thinks is something BBC-related.
‘Good afternoon Britain. We are broadcasting to you now from an underground shelter near Westminster. While the full extent of damage is not clear, it’s evident that above ground, the United Kingdom is burning. To those of you who are listening, please stay in whatever safe places you’ve managed to find. If and when there is more news, we will… oh God. Oh God…’ the announcer appears to break down in tears. After a moment, another voice. ‘This is the darkest of times. But everybody, please stay calm, stay strong and let us all pray that somehow, we will be able to rebuild.’
The voice disappeared, to be replaced by a recording of ‘There’ll always be an England’. It’s absurd. He smiles, he laughs with unexpected force. And then he cries. He hunches over and cries. It’s strange crying – it feels a little forced and even as the tears wet his face he wonders if he is forcing himself to cry – if it isn’t a little contrived.
You are watching this man. This faintly comical, but utterly pathetic figure, crouched down in an underground room crying. It’s still warm. The piss still smells.
The song finishes and there is dead air. He is unsure whether he should leave the radio on in order to hear more news, or turn it off for the time being in order to conserve battery. He turns it off. He suddenly feels very lonely.
He sits for some time, maybe another hour. He sighs heavily from time to time. He is thinking about his wife. He feels like he needs to confirm whether or not she is living. Without being able to do this, he feels somehow frustrated – as though he cannot settle. It is an itch inside his head.
You are sitting here with him. Part of you wants to reach out and touch him, he looks so alone.
He stares into space, having retreated incrementally back to his place on the mattress by the wall. He feels oddly numb. From time to time he rubs his eyes. He is thinking about what the next few days will bring. He is trying to think practically.
He has eight large bottles of water. He has ten tins of beans and six tins of peas, as well as two tins of spam. He has a bottle of scotch. He didn’t think this through. Cautiously, and mindful of the fact that these are his last living provisions, he sips water. He doesn’t know when it will be safe to go outside but he suspects his supplies will run out some time before he can safely leave the hole. What then? Does he dig? His last ditch plan of action?
He must try to save the scotch. That will be the last thing he consumes. Before he goes outside. That’s how he’ll go.
Well… he reasons a whole bottle of scotch is a bit much. Half a bottle and I’ll be pretty well able to go painlessly. He reaches for the bottle, feels the cool glass in his hand. He reminds himself what a rough day it’s been and opens the bottle, taking a long, desperate slug. The warmth of the alcohol sliding down his throat is comforting, familiar.
Suddenly, as he is almost, bizarrely, feeling comfortable, the sudden thought hits him – what if they’re going to send help? How will they know I’m down here?
He frets. Should he go upstairs and try to leave some symbol that there is a survivor down here? No, of course not… absurd. I’d be dead within minutes. He thinks back to the instructional videos and messages that have been broadcast in every public place for the last year, searching his memory for anything that he could hope to do to radiation-proof himself with the contents of the hole… but there is nothing. Of course there’s nothing.
There’s a certain tension to the silence. He doesn’t know if he should hum, or tap, or make some noise to try to give himself comfort. One moment, he almost feels that his breath is getting short, feels that he is suffocated, the next, he is lolling against the wall of the hole, numb, tired, with a mind empty of thought.
Where is Lorna? Is she okay? He doesn’t even have his phone. He doubts he would get signal under here anyway. He notices that the candle is getting low and he switches it for another, lighting it from its dying relative and placing the crisp new wax torch on the spike. Briefly – just briefly – the light in the hole is a little more stable, flickers a little less, and he feels a little more secure.
What should he feel right now? He is so taken up with what he should feel. Why should he be? There is nobody else here. Nobody is going to tell him off. He is ridiculous. Like a child.
He scratches a vague itch part-way down one leg and looks idly at the food. The absurdity of the situation is that he knows he should not eat any yet – he had breakfast this morning, after all – but he is bored. His life as he knows it, everything, has been destroyed and he is bored underground. He finds himself wondering idly what would happen if he opened the trapdoor.
More time passes. He is pathetic. He sips a little more water and, some time around what must be 8pm, he turns the radio back on. It’s just the crackle. He changes stations two or three times but can’t find music, or a voice. He feels lonely. He turns it off, sadly, and turns to the food. He opens a tin of beans (he had, if nothing else, remembered the need for a tin opener) and sits, munching slowly and without appetite, feeling the texture of the beans on his tongue and the inside of his mouth. They feel slimy, strange. He has nothing with which to heat them. He doesn’t think he has ever had cold beans before. He remembers meals. Hot food. The smell of his Mother’s cooking. He remembers life. It already seems so far away.
He mulches through the beans, bringing the tin to his lips at the end in order to drink the remaining juice. He resumes his position at the wall. What to do? The truth is, that there is nothing to do. In order to survive, he needs to wait down here, in the dark, until the radiation is at a safe level. He does not know how long this will take.
Will he sleep? He looks warily at the mattress. Sleep seems like a logical thing to do in order to expedite the passing of the time, but he doesn’t know if he can bring himself to sleep. He feels too tense. He thinks about the act of extinguishing the candle and lying down, closing his eyes… it’s terrifying. For so many reasons. The physical vulnerability – what if someone… or something… finds me here, breaks in… and of course, the psychological – what will I dream about? Will I have nightmares and wake up all alone in a hole…?
He wonders whether he should just stay awake until he collapses. That might be the easiest thing. It seems strange to think so irresponsibly, as though he still has work on Monday. Once again, he feels that guilty feeling of being liberated.
How does one live alone without access to the surface of one’s planet? How does one start afresh, underground? You watch him, a numb, expressionless face and wringing his thin hands, and you feel relief that it is not you in that situation.
Perhaps he should dig. Slowly, a little warily, he crouches forward to retrieve the shovel, heads to the corner diagonally opposite his mattress and starts chipping away at the dirt. He can’t even remember which direction this will be. But he scrapes and pokes and begins to dig. He’s trying not to push himself too hard, but then wonders what he would need energy for, anyway?
An hour passes. He is looking at the earth as he moves it, fascinated. This is his world now. These grains, clumps, this muck. He picks his way. His progress, after an hour, is appreciable. He has gotten earth everywhere, but he has dug down and out a little – a fair sized compartment.
He continues, the shovel sometimes hacking, sometimes gently moving. He becomes automatic. The thrill of getting to know his surroundings wears off. He is sweating and has long since removed his dressing gown. He does not know why he is doing what he is doing. It is an exercise in futility. He is occupying his time.
He becomes short of breath after a protracted bout of hacking at some resistant soil, and briefly wonders again about oxygen, and whether he has enough of it. As he looks about him, breathing hard and wiping sweat from his brow while crouching in his corner, he looks right through you. It’s almost as if he sees you, as he winces, grimaces, and turns back to his digging. But no. He doesn’t see you yet.
You’re torn between pity and admiration. But then again, you always were conflicted.
He’s thinking, now, as he hacks and pushes and plunges. Thinking about Lorna, about his life. He supposes that they are ‘the old days’ now. A different time. He’s worried by the lack of the intensity of his feelings. His wife is dead, and he just feels numb. He is already remembering her as though she were a picture on a postcard – distant, someone else’s life. He doesn’t know whether such recollections are helpful. But it nags at him.
It builds quickly, this feeling of annoyance and guilt. Why? Did he ever love her? Really? Truly? He remains digging throughout this traumatic thought process, with increasing vigour and bile. Who were you, Lorn? Who was I? What should I feel? He moans aloud and is suddenly surprised by the sound of his own voice, but still he feels uncomfortable, as though his own skin were simply a bag to contain all of these ill feelings and itches. Why is he worried about what he ‘should’ feel when there is nobody left to judge him? What does it matter? Maybe it was all just a dream – no, maybe that’s taking it too far. You could almost embrace him.
Maybe it’s the train of thought, or maybe it’s the physical exertion, but he bares his teeth as he continues ploughing on with his digging. It’s not progressing slowly – he’s doing okay. To what end, nobody knows, of course. Well, there’s nobody here to know, except for him.
He shakes his head violently, still forcing his way through the soil. He is sweating now, heavily. Lorna – you must be dead. You must be dead. Could I have done anything to prevent it? He is forcing himself to visit tropes of grief because he cannot summon up sufficient genuine feeling. The feeling of the soil, of the earth, though, feels more evocative. In it he feels his time with Lorna, he feels his childhood, playing in the back garden and out on the grass in the centre of the estate. And it’s this weight of memory, this dredging up not just of soil, but of the distant past, that really brings it home to him that everything is gone.
After a moment he stops, the soil running down between his fingers. This was his life. It is gone. It’s hitting him. It’s quite suddenly, that the energy drains from him and he collapses back onto his haunches and, after a moment hovering, onto his back, lying awkwardly on the piles of dirt and earth he has created. And he just passes out.
You watch him, for a little while. Once or twice he almost looks as though he has stopped breathing. He looks peaceful, calm, for the first time since it happened. You don’t want to wake him.
Some time passes, the way it always will. The candle flickers and dies. You light another one for him. And then, suddenly, you’re gone, leaving him finally, truly all alone.