The city sprawls like a dropped jigsaw, fractured lines running through broken architecture. Sewers overflow and drown the streets in filthy water.
The world is only ending, as it sometimes does.
In the midst of this nauseating collapse sits the remains of the Bright Lights Arts Centre, which used to be named the Bright Lights Arts Building until somebody on the city council woke up to the fact that BLAB wasn’t the best of acronyms. Once the heart of everything artsy-cool, its exposed timbers protrude from a partially burnt structure like crisp ribs in a soggy carcass.
Still, when you are a woman of not-quite-forty (because it isn’t your birthday till next Thursday and you’re going to be thirty-nine for every last second, goddamnit) with a broken leg and internal injuries and blood matting its way through your grey-striped hair, then you might well look at that Centre—where, ten years ago, you played your best ever gig with your last ever band—and think, That’s where I want to die.
So you pick yourself up in your wrecked jeans and shredded blouse and you stagger across a detritus-strewn street towards the poor old Arts Centre shadowed with memories, that only you can recall. You’re gonna get to the auditorium stage and write ASTRID STARJAMMER WAS HERE in your own blood because that’s the kind of drama-loving, never-gonna-grow-up bitch you have always been.
Then, and only then, will you rest.
On the last day of everything, Saleem Hassad woke to see an angel standing over him with a sword in each of its six hands.
‘Greetings,’ said the angel. It looked like the Hallmark Christmas-card variety except for the seraphic limbs and a distinctly Islamic flavour to the clothes; some weird kind of cultural mash-up.
Saleem sighed. ‘Aw, come on. Not this again.’
‘The other times, you were hallucinating.’ The angel waved its swords in sync. ‘This time, I am very real.’
‘Whatever you say, Saint L-S-D.’
‘I have a message from God—’
‘—saying that your friend, Astrid, will shortly destroy the world.’
Saleem sat up. ‘Astrid is not my friend. I haven’t seen her since the band split and anyway, friends don’t abandon you without a word or ignore your calls for ten years.’
‘You and Grace Devine are the only two people who can help.’
‘…Come again?!’ Mention of his other bandmate sparked a sense of nostalgia in Saleem. He had a vague sense that you weren’t supposed to argue with hallucinations and/or angels, because it was either spectacularly impolite or beyond pointless, probably both. But this thing was taking the piss. ‘How the fuck am I supposed to do that, then?’
‘Finish your show,’ said the angel, and disappeared with a microwave-style ping.
‘Fucksake.’ Saleem rolled out of bed. There wasn’t enough space in his bedsit to do more than sit on the floor, wedged between single bed and radiator with his knees slowly going numb. He took a Valium from the filthy nightstand and swallowed it dry, then sat for a moment and waited while the drug took effect.
Finish your show indeed. Like hell. First of all, Astrid had walked out on her bandmates ten years ago, with one song left to play. Absolute cunt. Second, what did any of that have to do with the world ending? Definitely the worst hallucination he’d had in some time.
There was a time, he recalled, when everybody had thought civilisation was going to end. Something about ecological disaster and climate problems and—
A fog settled over his brain and Saleem rubbed his temples, grasping after the train of thought. His memory was hazy these days, probably due to the drugs.
Saleem went looking for his phone and found it under his bed, holding 13% charge. The time read 7:10 PM; the weather app suggested 14 C and partly cloudy. No unusual news stories popped up. Nothing about planetary demise, anyway. He skimmed through his contacts, pressing the call button with faux confidence.
‘Grace?’ He coughed into the receiver, and yawned. ‘Sorry I know it’s early, um, late even—’
‘Saleem? That you?’ On the phone, her possible states of tired or annoyed or cautious were impossible to pick out.
‘Who else would it be?’ he said, then realised that he could in fact be lots of people. Grace had friends, a life, a job and they’d not spoken in years. ‘Anyway, uh, how are you doing?’
A moment of silence on the line.
‘Did you have the dream, too?’ she said. ‘With the angel, and Astrid ending the world.’
Unknowable emotions buzzed Saleem like an electric flytrap. ‘Maybe? I mean, yeah. Alright. Yeah, I did.’
He switched the phone to his other ear, the receiver already sweaty. Grace had lived a clean life, discounting alcohol. No hallucinations for her, no fake angels; the vision was real.
He could hardly breathe for momentary panic.
‘I’m glad you called,’ she said. ‘I wanted to talk to you but I couldn’t find your number.’
‘You uh, you believe it, then? What the angel was saying.’ He tried to absorb her calmness through electronic osmosis. ‘About the world ending.’
‘Oh, I believe, alright. Look outside, Saleem.’
‘What?’ He ducked down to peer out the window, permanently open because it didn’t close well. Still and calm, with a smell of wetness that foretold of rain. The sky hung heavy, the stratosphere lurid.
‘Nothing’s wrong,’ he said. ‘Not here. Just a quiet evening.’ Those clouds, though. They looked fucking unnatural with that reddish tint.
Grace made a noise somewhere between a snort and a hiss. ‘Look for the people, dolt! Where are the people?’
He stuck his head all the way out the window, mobile hard against his ear. This time, he saw it.
Cars sat driverless and idle, abandoned in the middle of road without drivers or passengers. The traffic lights signalled futilely. Houses echoed with emptiness. The sidewalks were barren of people. Saleem could only see a few hundred yards in either direction but it was enough, because there was no one here: all the humans were missing. Like the Rapture had struck and accidentally taken everybody, instead of only the righteous arseholes.
‘Ah, shit,’ he said.
Saleem first met Astrid during an eight-person fight in a Mancunian children’s care home. They were both seventeen. He could never for the life of him remember what the fight was about or who kicked it off. After a certain point, only two of them were left standing and by mutual agreement they called it quits.
In the spirit of peace, he sat on the stoop in the evening drizzle and offered her a cigarette, this six-foot purple-haired girl with shoulders like a lion and a boxer’s punch. He’d only transferred here the day before, and could already tell she was Someone.
‘Cheers,’ she said.
‘You a dyke or summat?’ Saleem produced a lighter, handing it over.
‘No.’ She lit up and spat smoke. ‘I’m Astrid Starjammer.’
‘The fuck you are. That’s not your real name.’
She shot him a dirty look. ‘It’s my stage name, ya freak. I’m gonna be famous.’ Her knuckles were dark with bruises, the nails chipped.
‘Famous?’ Saleem was nonplussed. ‘What for? Whatsit you do?’ Nobody did anything particular in the care home, except wait for shit to fall apart.
‘That’s not the point,’ she said. ‘You can be famous for anything, right? The point is that I can’t use my real name, because women called Norma don’t get famous.’
‘Neither do women called Astrid,’ he said, although he later found out they were both wrong. ‘I’m Saleem, by the way.’
‘You hit pretty hard.’ Astrid flicked her cigarette even though it wasn’t finished. ‘Wanna join my band? Bet you’d make an alright drummer.’
‘Uhh…’ He had no money, an occasional drug habit, was of no fixed address, and— ‘I’ve never played an instrument.’
Her scornful lip-curl could have withered a Tory. ‘I didn’t ask if you knew how to play. I asked if you wanted to join my band.’
He shrugged. ‘Alright,’ he said.
In this manner was ASTRID AND THE SPACEFREAKS formed.
The revolving doors of the Bright Lights Arts Centre don’t revolve. They no longer have glass, just twisted frames hanging off a pivot. Jagged metal catches on your jeans as you step through. Floods have savaged the ground floor and you cannot avoid sploshing in puddles as you pick your way through the ruined foyer.
There was a time when everybody thought this kind of environmental disaster could be prevented. But the closer things got to a crunch, the more humanity fought with itself and now you know this was inevitable. Endings can’t be prevented.
The last time you walked through this foyer, it’d been heaving with people. The earth was terminally ill and with ten years on the clock, the arts and music industry flourished like fungi on a corpse. People wanted to spend their money and rack up debt and go to amusement parks and concerts. They didn’t want to go into work to save for a future they were never going to have.
You were happy to oblige them by providing entertainment. Go out with a bang, not a whimper, and all that.
Step, drag. Step, drag. Right leg not doing too hot. The auditorium doors are missing. Just as well, they’d have been heavy to shove open. Inside, white plastic seats extend in all directions from the main aisle like a mouth of dirty teeth, the roof yawning above. Your hands leave crimson imprints on the rail as you climb to the stage.
Memory hits you like a bin truck at five-AM.
The heat of spotlights on your flushed face. A sea of audience eyes, watchful in the dark. A keyboard for a shield and a microphone for a weapon because there are monsters to conquer and hearts to win.
Spacefreaks, Take Flight! It’s a command to bandmates, an announcement of the song, and a rebuke to listeners all rolled into one. It’ll impress them, you know it will. This is the biggest gig you’ve ever done and it will get you signed—
Sangford, that was his name. James Sangford, or you could call him Jim if you fancied getting blacklisted in the music industry. After your first set, with the crowd outside baying for an encore, for one final song, he’d oozed himself backstage and cornered you away from your bandmates.
And then he offered you a contract, with money. A lot of it. ‘’Course…’ He pulled at an ugly tie, shoulders squeezed by a too-tight jacket. ‘Course, this offer has some conditions.’
That word sank through you like a rock. ‘Conditions?’
‘Simples, Astrid. If you’re going to fly, you’ll have to be a solo act. So lose the Muslim kid, because he looks bad and he can’t hit those drums for shit. And lose that what-the-fuck-ever he is that you have on guitar.’
‘She,’ you heard yourself say. ‘Grace is a she. And Saleem is an atheist.’
He waved your comment away. ‘Fine, whatever. Point is, lose the Arab atheist and the tranny. You’re the talent in that bunch; you can be a star, darling. The planets will revolve around you.’
Then—while you were still reeling from his vile generosity—he said a thing, an awful factually-true thing that you’ve never forgotten: ‘Listen, this chance won’t come again because the world is ending. Climate change, innit? They say the Mediterranean countries will be swept away this year but I say, I say, Go out with a bang, with a boom, with money in your pocket and coke up your nose and a few good songs under your belt. Go out filling a hall with people desperate to not think about their inevitable deaths, eh?’
And he grinned like the fucking devil because you couldn’t argue with that kind of a logic. London already flooded, the seas rising, refugees pouring across borders. Developing nations starved and now the shop shelves here were running out of food. How much longer did you have? How much longer did anyone have?
One shot at fame. Like the flash of a camera bulb, followed by darkness.
So you signed the contracts like a coward and didn’t tell anyone, also like a coward. Instead of going back to play the encore, you left by the back exit, out into the night while a taxi carried you onwards to greater things.
No more ASTRID AND THE SPACEFREAKS. In their place was a lone figure: Astrid Starjammer the Pop-Glam Sensation, a rising star of the music world. Friends couldn’t be allowed to get in the way. There would never be another chance.
You turn a slow circle on the empty stage, struggling to stay on your feet. Blood loss is kicking your arse, weakness setting in, and you fold to your knees in front of a broken mic stand.
‘I’m famous,’ you tell the derelict auditorium, and your voice bounces from the pillars before ricocheting off the cracked dome roof.
The emptiness echoes back, Famous.
Saleem drove to meet Grace. He didn’t have a car, or in fact a license, but that was alright. He borrowed a double-decker bus sat forlornly in the street, since the driver had disappeared like everyone else in the town—in the country? In the world??—and because, since it was a bus, it didn’t need keys to start up.
‘Thanks for the ride,’ he said to no one in particular, pressing the ignition switch. His nearly-dead mobile rang. Saleem fished it out and cradled it against his shoulder, steering erratically. ‘Heyup, Grace. I’m on my way. Got some transport.’
‘Jesus bloody Christ,’ said his phone. ‘Are you driving while you talk to me?’
‘What? I have both hands on the wheel.’ Saleem wrestled a tight turn. He’d done this loads in video games and was surprised to find the real experience rather harder. ‘Anyway, the streets are empty. Not like I’ll hit anyone.’ The bus squealed in protest.
‘You absolute tool,’ she said, without any malice. ‘Don’t crash, yeah?’
‘Do me best.’ He hung up, nearly dropped his phone, then nearly lost control of the bus when he scrabbled to rescue the phone, and casually hit a post box while trying to correct. The wing mirror snapped off.
Still, the bus was large and the postbox relatively small so it was all fine and Saleem, sweating a little, plowed onwards. He rolled up to Town Street at last and parked awkwardly across a couple of spaces, pleased to have only clipped three curbs on the way over.
But his mood ebbed as he stepped from the vehicle. The emptiness oppressed his senses.
‘There you are!’ Grace walked towards him in the fading evening light, wearing her trademark high-waist jeans and neon jacket that she apparently still liked. Just as he’d last seen her, years and years ago. She’d brought her guitar bundled carefully in its case, the strap digging into her shoulder.
Saleem went to give her a friendly peck on the cheek, thought better of it, offered his hand, thought better of that, and jerked around like a rubber chicken before sticking his hands in his pockets and saying, ‘So uh, you haven’t aged a day, then.’
‘You haven’t changed either,’ she said, then looked embarrassed because that wasn’t really a good thing, and they both knew that. But with usual Grace-ish graciousness, she recovered and gave him a friendly peck on each cheek. Always knowing the right thing to do and the right way to be.
‘What now?’ He surveyed Town Street with mild unease. He’d never seen it so empty, especially this time of evening on a Friday night.
‘You’re very calm,’ Grace said. ‘Given that this might be the most terrifying, surreal experience of our lives.’
‘Saint Valium looking after me.’ He patted a shirt pocket. ‘Want one?’
‘I’ll pray at that altar,’ she said dryly, then added while he fished the packet out, ‘We need to figure out what the hell is going on, and what we’re going to bloody do about it. It feels… personal, what’s happening, which doesn’t make sense because—’
A clunk sounded in the distance and the city lights went out like a stack of proverbial dominoes. Town Street was the last to go and the afterimage of withdrawn light momentarily blinded him. Like the flash of a camera bulb, followed by darkness. The sun had set while he was driving.
‘Fuck!’ Saleem hissed. He stood frozen next to Grace, chilled and frightened. The darkness called him back to his bedroom in the care home: the lights being switched off by indifferent adults hands at 7pm sharp, and five-year-old him laying still in the dark so the monsters would not see him.
One solitary building remained illumined; the Bright Lights Arts Centre, shining in the distance. A web of glowing pinpricks sketched out the shape of its domed roof.
‘Personal indeed.’ Grace’s features were lost in the dimness. ‘Saleem, I know what’s going on.’
When Grace was almost six, her Grandad died in a sad little retirement centre some sixty miles away. Her parents took her to the funeral to see him. They’d almost never seen him while he’d been alive, except for that one terrible Christmas which nobody talked about, so it seemed strange to only go when he was dead. But that was adults for you.
At the service, the priest drank too much communion wine and announced with red-eyed confidence that those who died would live on forever in the hearts of those who were left behind. Grace pressed a hand to her chest, unnerved by the idea that Grandad of That Terrible Christmas might be burrowing into the flesh of her beating organs for as long as she failed to forget him.
It was strange, too, to think about copies upon copies of Grandad existing in every head, carried like a tiny spark. Maybe there were copies upon copies of her, a bajillion of them, everyone carrying copies of each other everywhere they went for as long as everyone lived, one great endless network creating a universe of private worlds—
The stupid shit you believed as a kid.
Years later, she told this story—including her ruminations—to a half-drunk Astrid as they sat by the riverbank on some weekday afternoon, writing songs and getting smashed. They were supposed to be in school, not that anybody bothered when the world was ending.
‘Priest was fucking right.’ Astrid threw an empty beer bottle into the river. She was strong as hell and the bottle nearly made it to the other bank. ‘That’s why everyone wants to be famous. You live longer if people remember you.’
‘No, you’re just dead when you die,’ Grace said. ‘The memories of you live on for other people but those are memories. Not the real you.’
Astrid said with a scornful laugh, ‘Naw. Listen, we only know we’re real cause other people answer when we say summat.’
Grace blinked. ‘Huh?’
‘I mean,’ said Astrid, with all the patience of a foul-mouthed saint, ‘that we see each other. We recognise each other. We kind of… have these ideas about people, and they have ideas about us. So even if you die, the ‘you’ that people see, doesn’t know you’re dead.’ She wrenched another cap off.
‘Planet’s dying though, innit?’ Grace said. ‘When we’re all gone, no one will remember anything.’
Astrid took a long sip. ‘Then we really will be dead.’
‘Hmm.’ Grace dug out a pencil. ‘Could work that into a lyric, I think.’
‘Cool, we’ll use it. Oh and speaking of, I think I found someone else for the band. Short kid, called Saleem.’
‘Yeah?’ Grace tried to hide her surprise; very few people could get on with Astrid for more than a day or so. ‘You’re well keen on this band idea, then.’
‘What else are you gonna do with them lyrics?’ Astrid tipped back her bottle. ‘Yeah, I’m fucking keen. Let’s get remembered by as many people as possible. And then we won’t die till all of humanity does.’
You are dying. This is how it ends.
What was it for? Nothing. You have nothing except regret that in your quest to live life before all the things fell apart, you forgot about the people who made life worth living.
Grace and Saleem saw you as ASTRID STARJAMMER and so, when they were looking, you could exist as her. Without them you were just some dumb idiot tottering on a stage, way too tall and still out of her depth.
You destroyed your own world, and now your world has destroyed you. Fitting, that.
With hindsight, it’s plain to tell that eventually the audience would figure out you were a fraud. Three bloody years after going solo, hitting one multi-platinum right out the gate. Then those stratospheric sales figures fell off a cliff. You couldn’t fill a bar anymore, nevermind an auditorium. Sangford blocked your number and pretended you didn’t exist.
Maybe in time you could have recovered, could have found your feet. But there wasn’t any time. Society fractured. All the booze in the world couldn’t block out the increasingly severe effects of ecological disaster and somehow, at some point, you gave up like everybody else. Joined the seesawing waves of humanity as they looted, plundered, tore each other apart.
‘But I came back,’ you tell the empty seats, and what sounded like a defiant retort in your head tumbles from your lips like a plea. ‘I came back to find you all!’
The emptiness doesn’t answer. The emptiness doesn’t care how you hit rock bottom, nearly died, and had a drug-fuelled dream about an angel telling you to find your spacefreaks.
It doesn’t care about the magnificent, heroic journey you took through flooded cities of Northern England for the sake of a whimsical dream.
It doesn’t care about the violence and the terror of these past few months as you crawled step by step back to the only place you’d ever called home and the only people you’d ever clicked with—only to find you were too late. There was nothing and nobody left.
Soon the tides will rise and your island nation will finally sink but you won’t live to see it. Because you are Astrid Starjammer, famous and alone and bloody fucking dying on an empty stage, too weak to even write your name in blood.
If you’re very, very lucky, you might go out with a whimper.
Curiosity drags your chin upward so you can survey—without a drop of surprise or a bat of an eyelash—the bizarro angel-creature who floats in front of you.
The creature is me. I am the same angel from your magic mushroom trip, all those months ago. And you recognise me instantly, of course. Somehow, on some level, you’ve expected my presence.
‘The name is Astrid, you sodding toolbox. I told you that last time.’
‘Greetings, Astrid,’ I say, politely. ‘Since you are, by some lottery ticket of destiny, the last person alive on this planet, I am here to read your sins before you die.’
‘Well hurry up, mate. We don’t have all fucking day.’
‘The list of sins is very short,’ I say, unrolling a pristine parchment on which absolutely nothing is written. ‘Astrid, you are guilty of the sin of not finishing your gig. By divine decree, you must atone before you die.’
Grace tucked strands of hair behind her ear. ‘None of this is real.’
Even as she spoke, the city broke down around them. Cracks fractured the pavements, unwholesome liquid flooded up from nearby sewer grates, and cars crumpled into wrecks. Ten years of climate collapse happening in mere minutes; flickering presences of people and glimpses of screaming faces.
Saleem said, ‘What?’ He thought he might know what she meant, but he wanted her to say it first.
‘Think about it,’ she said, and behind them every glass shopfront shattered. A couple blocks down, a small fire burst into life. ‘Ten years ago, when Astrid abandoned us, the planet was doomed, right? Everyone knew it. So what happened? Why has everything been normal? Tell me about your past few years, Saleem. What do you remember about it?’
‘I…’ He paused. ‘I was living in a bedsit, and then, uh…’ Saleem rifled through the years of his life with growing panic. Like playing blackjack, but where every card was blank.
‘I have a job,’ Grace says. ‘The same job I had ten years ago, when Astrid ditched us. I used to always gig with you guys on weekends, remember? You and I are exactly as Astrid remembers us, from ten years ago. Because she never saw us again and doesn’t know what happened to us.’
‘None of this is real, Saleem. We are inside Astrid’s head. That’s why there are no people; Astrid is alone. That’s why everything is insubstantial, because nothing lasts. Everything crumbles. We are her ghosts, her memories and her guilt. Every person is a world, and this, this is Astrid’s world.’
Perhaps he should have been shocked or horrified, but being unreal felt no different from being actually real. As he already knew from trying a variety of drugs across his lifetime. He experienced instead an odd sense of grief for some other self, who’d gone away and lived another ten years somewhere else.
And behind that wall of grief… a burgeoning wave of anger.
‘For fuck’s sake.’ His own bitterness surprised him. ‘She can’t just die quiet, can she? Has to fuck around with this imagination, life-flashing-before-eyes shit. And she has to drag us, whatever we are, in with her.’ Dampness tickled the soles of his feet and Saleem looked down.
Around them, floodwaters crept across the street, lapping at doorfronts and licking the tires of the bus. His shoes were getting wet.
‘Shit,’ Grace said, retreating towards the bus. ‘I think we should get going, or we’ll wash away. Imaginary or not, I don’t want to wreck this guitar in any sense.’
‘What?’ She paused to look at him, one foot on the step.
Saleem shoved his hands in his pockets. ‘Fuck Astrid and her mental charade. Fuck Astrid and her need for forgiveness. If she wants forgiveness, she can beg it from the real me. If she wants me to show up to her imaginary BLAC, she can fucking teleport me there or summat. I’m not real and I don’t owe her shit and I’m not going anywhere.’
The wind whipped Grace’s hair around her face. ‘If the world is dying, that means Astrid is dying. Up in real reality. When she goes, we’ll go too.’
‘So?’ Sogginess crept up his slacks, fabric absorbing the foul-smelling water. ‘I’m not real anyway. What’s the loss.’ Saleem could feel his face heating. ‘She fucking ditched us. Why should we help her out?’
Ignoring the obvious sentiment that they were both imaginary, and so technically should have felt compelled to help, but that was Astrid for you. Even her own imagination didn’t like her.
Grace shook her head. ‘Mate… You know Astrid. She makes mistakes and she can’t fix things, but she also can’t let shit go. So we have to let go of this stuff, for her.’ She put a hand on his shoulder. ‘Listen. If we’re not real, what’s it to us, the things she did? And if we are, it was ten years ago, yeah? We’re all dust anyway, now and always. Let it slide. Bygones and that.’
Fuck. How did you weigh up a friendship, the goods and the bads? Saleem had never done well at maths but equally, he wasn’t sure that relationships fit into equations like that. Some people said Astrid was kind of broken, but Saleem knew better. She’d just been made that way. You either rolled with her or you didn’t.
And the great thing about Astrid is that she never saw him as Saleem the junkie or Saleem the short Asian lad, but as Saleem the Spacefreaks drummer. Was that enough, both to cherish and to overlook the things she’d done? Perhaps. Possibly. He really, truly wasn’t sure.
‘Fucking hell.’ He took off his sodden shoes and flung them vehemently. ‘I’ll drive us to the BLAC, because you won’t make it otherwise. But I’m not sticking around.’
‘Good enough for now,’ Grace said. ‘But I think I will drive, if you don’t mind.’
They boarded the bus, both of them soaked to the skin and a galeforce wind at their backs.
You were never supposed to be famous.
But maybe that’s why it worked.
No one had ever taken you seriously. Not your family, your transitory ‘friends’ through the years, your handful of lovers, or any of the children’s care staff; not even your social worker, Mary, who always bought you birthday presents. Why should they? You were just another under-educated, perpetually drunk teenager who wanted everything the world didn’t owe her.
The thing about being nobody, though, is that you had nothing to lose. People who haven’t got shit lay every card on the table. Cheat, lie, steal, fight if necessary, but never fucking back down. And that’s what you did.
Two years after picking up Saleem, two years of practicing and fooling around, you played at an open mic night–and sang so badly the pub owner asked you to leave.
‘Now what?’ Grace said afterwards. She stood in the alley, packing away her guitar and looking disgruntled.
You rolled your eyes, hoped it hid the disappointment that bit your insides. ‘We try again, obviously.’
‘Obviously,’ Saleem groaned.
So you did—again. And again. And again. And again until, somewhere around the five year mark, ASTRID AND THE SPACEFREAKS started doing alright. Not great, but nobody asked anyone to leave and sometimes the places paid.
Life shifted around: Grace got an office job, easy to get when people were abandoning their careers in droves. Said she liked the free corporate coffee, and her desk gave her a quiet place to write lyrics. Saleem did a bit of everything and a lot of nothing. You chose to steal and live in an abandoned council flat as a point of principle. Why the fuck should capitalism be the last thing left standing, right?
Spacefreaks moved from open mic nights to paid pub shows and even the occasional ‘event’ gig. Oh, and there was that punkrock contest at Manc Uni, which you won. Absolutely fucking thrashed the competition, musically of course, but also physically because they were sore bloody losers and stupid enough to think they could take you in a fight.
All the good shit built up like rainbow steps in the sky until, at last, the call came. For the whole of your life you will never forget walking into the decrepit living room and saying Hey freaks, I’ve got us a gig at the BLAC.
For those were the glory days, my girl: when you were young and you had hope even though you shouldn’t have; when you were moving so you thought you were going up; when the world was ending and you thought that was exciting, just fucking dandy, because you had 100% experience of existing and 0% experience of not and so could not imagine….
The world is only ending, as it sometimes does.
And if you are a woman of not-quite-forty who once had a band and a platinum record but is now the last living person on earth, you might well look across the slow, soft ruin of a tumultuous life—as you totter in an empty auditorium on a decrepit stage in your post apocalyptic rags with your probably-fatal wounds—and think, I’m just fucking done.
‘I can’t play. I don’t have a band, an audience… I don’t remember my music.’ You haven’t sung for seven years. Not even whistled. ‘I don’t have anything.’
‘Nothing? Nothing at all?’ I point to a keyboard that you’re fairly certain wasn’t there a minute ago. ‘Are you sure?’
Stubbornness pushes your feet forward, a black hole sucking you towards a mundane destiny and you approach the keyboard. The plastic is cracked and the keys a little crooked. Still works, though. Great thing about electric: always in tune. Your fingers run a practice scale, which morphs into Beethoven’s 9th. Classical music is your guilty pleasure.
Outside, a rainstorm begins its assault on the city. When you were a child, the rain was a beautiful percussion on the skylight but these days, rain is a dangerous foe and has been since hurricanes became the norm in England. The roof in here is already weak and won’t last much longer. You should be playing, but—
‘It’s not enough.’ The words crawl out of your throat, soaked with shame. ‘I can’t do this on my own. It wasn’t just my show. It wasn’t just about me.’
‘That’s right.’ I sheathe my six swords. ‘It wasn’t.’
A guttural roar as a double decker bus crashes through the wall. Seats go flying, debris puffs out, and you cough out wet plaster. The domed roof sags dangerously, its walls and supports weakened.
The bus doors creak open and out steps Grace, tall and angular. Her jacket is the colour of a construction worker’s safety vest, oddly fitting because she is a safe kind of person.
‘You’re alive!’ The words don’t go far so you grab the mic above the keyboard, and try again. ‘How come you’re are alive?’
‘Those who die live on forever in the hearts of those who are left behind.’ Grace ascends the steps to the stage, adjusting the strap of her guitar. ‘A priest told me that, once, and you agreed with him, years later. Can’t take it back now.’
You laugh. ‘Not literally. I didn’t believe it literally!’ The laughter turns to tears; the climate of your heart warming like the planet outside.
‘Friendship doesn’t have an expiry date,’ Grace says, serene. She casts a glance my way, gaze taking in the sheathed swords and my six arms. I give her a wink.
Saleem emerges from the bus, looking awkward. Your eyes meet and he says, awkwardly, ‘I’m not staying. I’m just here to drop Grace off.’ Rain pours into the auditorium.
‘I came back.’ You can’t not tell him. Even though it sounds like begging. ‘I did, honestly. But I’m sorry it took so long. By the time I got here…’ You shrug broad shoulders, once strong and now tired. ‘It’s too late, anyway. Everything is ending.’
‘Oh for fuck’s sake,’ he says. ‘It’s not about things ending, you toolbox. It’s about things ever having been in the first place.’ To your surprise, he stomps towards the stage towards the drum kit that sits behind you, waiting for him.
‘I figured you’d change your mind.’ Grace says to him. She tightens the straps on her guitar, tuning the strings and plugging in leads.
‘That’s Saleem,’ you say, wiping your eyes. ‘Always reluctant and always last—the last to join but also the last to leave, and the last to give up. I mean that as a good thing.’
‘It’s not that,’ he mutters, adjusting the drums. ‘It’s just… you both see me as Saleem the drummer. Not some washed-up loser kid, or…’ He sighs and nudges a kickstand into place. ‘If I’m gonna die and none of this is real, that’s how I want to go. That’s how I want to be seen. With you two idiots, problems and flaws and all.’
‘It’s enough,’ you say. Somehow, the sight of them lifts you up, smooths away the pain of your wounds. ‘You’re enough. We’re enough.’
He twirls a drumstick and smirks back at you. Grace gives you a mock salute, her guitar resting against rain-sodden clothes.
The storm spins faster, rattling the roof and whistling through the holes in the wall. Water pools on the auditorium floor; if you don’t play soon, you will drown. You tap the mic in that way the techies hate and cough to test the sound. No feedback, no crackle; just clear, crisp tones and a well-mixed amp.
‘It’s time,’ I say, wings extended, and take a seat in the audience.
You lean into a mic and announce: This song is dedicated to the end of the world.