Ten years from now
Malcolm and Linda and the ones with no names, the old folk whom they picked up on the road, went down into the woods. The cold of late September reinforced the constant hunger. They picked their way down the slope, zig zagging to keep their footing. Malcolm and Linda each had a small orbiting system of elderly men or women, each one emaciated into androgyny, clinging to them.
Picking up the old people had had an energising effect on both of them. For the first time in a long time they felt competent, in control. The authority they used to exude unthinkingly, the confidence in their clinical experience – it all came back, and they looked on these aged, sexless, helpless creatures benignly.
They had found them by the side of the road. Staggering along, going blackberrying. They knew that Massey woods was a good place for blackberrying, and even at this stage of the year finding greenery to chew on. There were no walkers there now, and if there were any dogs they would almost certainly be eaten.
Platoons of old, confused pensioners, former residents of nursing homes abandoned overnight by their staff, were a common sight on the roads. The week before, walking along the Dodder to find other blackberries, in the heart of what would have been very respectable and suburban Donnybrook, Malcolm and Linda had come across a pallid corpse, aged and ravaged. They said a quick Our Father over the body. There seemed little point informing anyone, and they felt too cold and hungry to stop long.
Hunger ruled. At times they remembered the years of plenty – remembered them viscerally, with their stomachs. Rarely Malcolm thought how quickly it all had happened – how only two years of wet summers and biting winters had managed to throw the world’s food supply system into chaos. It was one of those thoughts – like how strange it now seemed that the phone or the fax or email had existed, had been so common and accepted, how everyone completely took it for granted that press a button and click, fizz, you could talk to or send a piece of paper to or a massive wad of text to the other side of the world – that he would contemplate and feel somewhat remote from the contemplation. For hunger dominated.
Oddly, hunger did not kill the sex drive – if anything the opposite. But sex was joyless, strangely unreal. It seemed reduced to the level of evacuating the bowels, or voiding the bladder. Malcolm and Linda – who had married the spring before everything had fallen to pieces, on a beautiful early April day, though that very evening squally showers presaged the deluge to come – had not had children, just as none of the Thin had. Only the Fat – those from the clinics, people who Malcolm and Linda had treated and prescribed for and phlebotomised and lectured at and given out to and laughed at behind enormously larded backs – had children anymore.
They weren’t quite so fat anymore. But they were substantial, the only people of literal substance around. Only they had the energy, from their slow-burning fat stores, to think for any length of time about anything other then the next meal. Thus they had assumed what authority there was left.
They scrambled down the slope to the stream. The last few steps they took paddling the ground, collapsing onto the earth to slurp up water with their faces down in the icy flow. They all fell down onto the earth with no particular pattern, so that Malcolm found himself wedged in by two – or might it be three – elderly bodies. They felt cold, to Malcolm’s dim dismay as cold as any corpse. When he had slurped his fill of water, he propped himself up slightly, and noticing that the elderly bodies simply rolled over, tried to rouse them. No response. He checked one neck, the one of the nearest body, for a pulse. None.
“There’s no pulse” he said dully.
Linda had propped herself up too. She looked at him, an old intensity coming into the grey face. They raised themselves up gradually, and very slowly the ancient protocol kicked in.
Feeling dull resentment, Malcolm went through the motions of resuscitation. Tilt the head back, look in the mouth, put your
face down low above the mouth, wait for a breath on your cheek for ten seconds as you look down on the chest for the rise and fall. Nothing. Tilting the head back again, he breathed twice into the ancient lips, and then Linda was compressing the chest, rhythmically pressing down on the sternum fifteen times. Then Malcolm breathed into the old woman again, and then Linda began again, but they were flagging.
“Let’s give us,” said Malcolm, as Linda came to the end of the next cycle of compressions.
They noticed now that none of their old companions was stirring. Checking them all, each one was pulseless. They thumped them all on the sternum, but made no further efforts at resuscitation.
Over the next two hours they slowly dragged the bodies to a slight depression, a little further up the ridge they had descended from the stream. There were five of them. When they had put the corpses in this hollow, Malcolm and Linda listlessly kicked some leaves on top of the pile. They gave up with the bodies barely covered. Then they muttered the Our Father, and out of habit Malcolm went on to recite half of the Hail Mary.
Then there was an odd moment. They looked at each other, and Malcolm knew what Linda was been thinking. For he was thinking the same thing. The thought of meat, the great rarity. They looked at each other again, and this time their mutual look was to reject the possibility. They shuffled off, along the stream towards the blackberry bushes.
There were only a few little buds of berries of the bushes, each still red and hard and unripe. Nevertheless, they ate them all, straight from the bush. Afterwards they staggered back to where they had buried the old people. It seemed like something that had happened long ago. Malcolm could barely remember that it had happened at all, or where they had buried them.
The lean times had brought a great economy to communication. By just looking at each other, they knew that they both wanted to stay here for the evening, being too exhausted for the climb up the slope again. One didn’t even just need a few looks or gestures anymore – a simple posture was enough to express even quite complex messages.
They collapsed by the side of the stream again, drank some more water. They both rose slightly, then slumped back slightly, so their heads were just out of the water. Malcolm rolled over onto his back. Then he realised they were not alone.
Bursting out of an old uniform of the Garda Siochana, with the jacket stretched, barely covering the pectorals, John Paul McCabe was standing over them. Linda had rolled over too.
“John Paul. John Paul McCabe.” The words barely came out of Malcolm’s mouth. He felt like vomiting suddenly. Why do I feel like vomiting? he thought. I’m glad to see him.
John Paul weighed half as much as he had five years before, as they would have discovered if they still had a scales to weigh him on. He was still an enormous man, and in a time when everyone seemed emaciated and wasting away, he seemed mythical, beyond belief. Malcolm suddenly saw that vast chart, with John Paul’s name and date of birth in suitably outsize letters on the front, and realised that he was only twenty-one. He seemed older, immemorial, imbued with the authority not just of his uniform but of the very forest itself.
“Dr Kelly. Dr O’Brien.” John Paul glanced at each in turn, as he said their names. He spoke softly, with the easy-going friendliness of before a sort of subharmonic under his voice of quiet, slightly sad authority.
“Hello, John Paul,” said Linda. “You look very well.”
“Thank you.” A pause. “I’ve lost weight.”
“So it seems. You’re a guard now, then?”
It was silent again. Once again, Malcolm thought how hard it was to find anything to say to the man.
Just after he thought this, he recalled the five corpses in the hollow. As he the memory came into his mind, John Paul spoke again.
“It’s good to see you both, Doctors. I thought about you a lot the last few years. I’m sorry we can’t talk more. You see, I have to take you with me. I have to talk to you about the five bodies behind me.”
“They just died, John Paul. They latched onto us on the road. They came down with us, it must have been too much for them. They just died.”
“Thank you, Malcolm. I’m sure it’s as you say. But I’d just like to talk to you about it first. Just come with me, please.”
“John Paul, we did nothing wrong. We tried to revive them. We did everything.”
“Dr Kelly, I’m sure. Just come with me.”
Both Malcolm and Linda were on the point of tears. But tears would not come. Finally Linda spoke.
“John Paul, I… we… we… can’t… I… can’t…”
“I’m so sorry, Dr O’Brien,” John Paul spoke quickly and apologetically, “and Dr Kelly. Let me help you. Let me pick you up.” With great deliberation, the big man leaned forward and picked up Malcolm and Linda, an arm cradled under each, and began to carry them up the slope.