A couple of years ago, I revisited the short story Humanity Behind that I wrote in 2007 and published on this blog last week. My idea was to try to make it work as a novel and I got around 40,000 words in before I decided I had no idea what I was doing and shelved it. I still think there’s a book in there somewhere and I hope to revisit it one day, but in the meantime, I thought I’d show you the existing version of the prologue, which sort of functions as a short story in its own right. It introduces the character of Izzie, the main protagonist both of the original short story and of the intended novel.
Humanity Behind: Prologue (written 2011, I think)
She remembered, only very dimly, being told about the end of the world. She accepted it easily, as if her parents were discussing a trip to the dunes, or a visit to the doctor, or the weekly pilgrimage to church. She was too young to understand, much less respond. She might have been excited, but certainly not surprised. She was still little more than a passenger in her own life and had yet to understand that reality had its norms. Things just happened. Last week, she had been taken to see grandma without a moment’s notice, and the week before that, dragged to a shop full of brown, dusty shoes, and forced to try them all on. What was there to be surprised about? For all she knew, the world was quite prone to ending on a leafy Tuesday afternoon, and no-one really cared that much at all.
Indeed, what she remembered most about that afternoon was the autumnal winds. She had been playing in the garden since her afternoon nap while her mother mowed the grass, running around with bin bags to collect the cuttings strewn across the lawn. She owned a zoo, and the grass was food for the animals. The giraffes would eat it happily, of course, and she supposed the lions could eat some of the giraffes afterwards. At first, collecting it was easy. She simply stalked her mother up and down the garden, tracing the same methodical steps across the small, neat turfs and tightly squeezing tiny fistfuls of grass into her hands. But then the wind picked up, and the thin green strands refused to lie calmly and await their fate. They rolled and danced and even flew, sprinkling themselves lightly through the air, rising and falling with each new gust of wind. She had chased them then, giggling with delight as they evaded her clumsy fingers and tangled themselves in her hair. She ran erratically through the garden, as if being buffeted by the winds herself. Her hands stretched out and grasped at air, her eyes fixed firmly on the fluttering grass. And then the wind found new crescendos and added golden leaves to the swirling matter. It ripped them off trees and pirouetted them before her, tantalisingly out of reach. She collided with trunks and fences and a ceramic plant pot that grazed her knee, but still she chased the food, for the animals would die without her, and what else was a zoo-keeper to do?
Her father had come home and interrupted this delightful reverie. He called her inside with a sombreness that chilled her, even though she couldn’t remember doing anything wrong. She sat on her chair in the kitchen and stared mutinously at the yellow beech table, her eyes tracing patterns in the spirals and rings of black. It had just been the three of them in that cramped, humid kitchen, when he told her about the end of the world. He had been serious and her mother had been sad, but she was merely impatient. The animals, daddy! They need me to feed them! She was too preoccupied to really listen, because there would be animals wherever they went, and she would grow up to look after them. The end of the world made no difference, because her parents would make sure that everything was still the same. They needed to let her go back outside, because she had to chase the leaves.
And soon she returned to the garden, and that was the rest of the afternoon. The kitchen long forgotten, she was just a little girl, catching dying trees in a warm autumn haze.
She went to school, and only then did she understand. They were all united by the same question. They asked it at home and in the classroom and on the playground and at church. It brought adults and children together, even teachers and pupils. There was solidarity and a common purpose to life. The answer to the question was the only thing that mattered, the only meaning in those early days. It held your family together and determined your friends. For what was the point in knowing someone who held a different answer to the question than you? Her class had formed cliques based purely on the question, as had all classes, and all children, and all people throughout the world. It was the most important thing to ask, and the most important thing to know.
You didn’t get to decide your own answer to the question. That was chosen for you by lottery. It seemed perverse, that something so momentous could be so arbitrary. That your friends and your future could be decided on your behalf. That your life could be affected so drastically by something so small. Her father had told her that, at certain points in history, armies had used similar methods to choose people to go to war, and the knowledge had kept her up all night. To win something so awful was incomprehensible. You couldn’t let random chance decide who lived and died. It simply wasn’t fair. She cried all night, until her father found her sobbing in the toilet, and told her gently that only men would have had to go. After that, she stopped crying for herself, and cried for her father instead, until shards of light cut through her curtains and she realised it was day.
She remembered watching the lottery on TV with her parents, remembered the tatty piece of paper that her father had been holding, remembered that it was a Saturday evening and that she was eating fish and chips. Her father had tried to act relaxed for her sake, but she remembered his white knuckles gripping the paper tight, and remembered that he had spent all evening pacing circles around the room, ignoring his favourite armchair entirely. The numbers had come up, but they were too complicated for her to understand, and even her parents had needed to use the computer to work out their own answer to the question.
Their piece of paper had read: 1138 (One, One, Three, Eight).
That put them in Group 400. There were four hundred groups in total. That meant that, out of all the people in their country, they would be last. That was her answer: last.
The question was: when are you leaving?
She was the only person in her school in that last group. Her friends were those who had also found themselves in later groups, but even they were few and far between. Being a 400 made her feel different, ostracised, but also special. She would still be there, long after the others had left. She was privileged to be one of the final guardians, even if it would be a somewhat lonely end. The others were jealous perhaps, or too excited about their own, more imminent departures. Sometimes she minded, and sometimes she didn’t. With time, it didn’t matter.
A new society formed itself out of those four hundred numbers. Meetings and clubs and retreats sprung up around the country, exclusively for those in the same numerical group. While she was still in primary school, she travelled south with her parents on a six hour car drive to attend a huge conference with her fellow 400ers. There had been thousands of them there, and at the time, it had felt like millions. There, she had found solace and acceptance and the glorious reality that the end of the world would not be lonely at all, but sweaty and noisy and crowded. She made good friends who she wrote to often. It was like having a secret club. It was a simple password to enter, and once you were inside, you found reflections of yourself. People who shared and understood your future, who had the same purpose as you and kept their eyes fixed on the same prize.
In time, she found friends closer to home as well, in a local 400 club in a nearby town. In many senses, they were like any group of teenagers: there was laughter and flirting and drinking and sex. But they were tied to one another by a much deeper bond than attraction. Since they were already destined to be together; it was pointless to fight or resist. If you were to find a man to love, it would have to be here. He would have to be someone with the same number as you, the one number in four hundred that still allowed you hope. She had a fling with an attractive seventeen-year-old from the city, but ended it wistfully the moment she discovered he only had two digits. Her friend fell in love with a similar man who was barely into triple figures. She warned sternly of the inevitable heartbreak, and congratulated herself on her own stoic prudence. Shunning love, she found a perfectly respectable Christian man in her own clique. She knew, in time, she would grow to love him, or someone else whose integer matched. There was no point to love otherwise. For all its grand desires, it could not possibly escape her destiny. Love itself, if not with her kind, would be cruelly and pragmatically annihilated by the end of the world. This did not concern her, for it was pathetic and insignificant, paling in the light of the only real meaning to be grasped. The promise of 400 was all that mattered: she would be amongst the last to leave her world, but the day would come when, surrounded by family and friends, she too would take her place beyond the planet.
She grew up. She waited. At first patiently, then with growing exasperation. Bureaucracy became the one immutable truth. Launch dates were endlessly rescheduled and postponed. Politicians spent weary years concocting ever more desperate rationalisations. Some people left, eventually, and she wept with relief. But the delays only mounted, and the technical and economic setbacks only grew. The day she moved to Compound 400 was the happiest day of her life. But still the excuses came, until the propaganda and lies outnumbered the very sand dunes that lay beyond the horizon.
Time passed. Her parents passed away. She married the man she did not love. He became more religious as she became less. The compound became a prison, and departure was the only escape. She worried that she had misunderstood what it meant to be free; she started to fear that the end would never come. More left, eventually, and she clung to their hope as hers. Only when she gave birth to a baby girl did she realise that she had entirely failed to notice the passage of her life. She had devoted herself to waiting, and forgotten what she was waiting for.
One night, she stood outside and held her precious daughter up to the sickly sky. There was no longer any wind to ruffle her baby’s hair. She looked out, beyond the wire walls, to the empty distance. The sand dunes were very close now. See, she whispered to her child. That was where I grew up. That was my home. She thought back to her childhood and remembered one warm autumn afternoon, so many years ago, when she had chased green grass through a golden dusk. Now there was no grass, no autumn, no dusk. Now there were not even giraffes.
She held fast to the conviction that she would eventually leave, and only relented when, like so many others, she fell desperately ill. Then, at last, she accepted that she would not see the end of the world, nor take her place amongst the stars. The ground would be her final resting place, and no-one would stay to mourn. She made peace with this too, so that the word last became a new and different badge of pride. She was a 400, and she would be the last generation to truly call the Earth home.
She dedicated her final moment of life to her young daughter.
Wow, Izzie, she said quietly. You are one lucky girl.