There was something to say, something that had to be said, and if neither of them said it, thought Kevin, he would notice, and so would Shirley. There was a little time yet, though, and the thing that remained to be said should be the very last thing to say. If it were said now, that would be awkward. It would make everything else afterwards superfluous.
BBC News said that there were eighteen minutes left, and that was difficult, Kevin thought, because it was too much for small talk, if small talk really had any place now that they had known one another for so long; but for debate, for stories, for questioning, there was not enough time. Not enough time to truly get to know one another.
Shirley spoke. “My nephew was so funny…” she began, breaking off as though Kevin had been about to say something. He had not been; of course he had not been, and she knew it. He was only glad and surprised that one of them had broken the silence, and regretful that it had been her and not him. He jerked his chin upwards to say go on.
“Well, I was at my sister Tricia’s house last week… you know how I see her every Sunday. And we were talking about how the world’s going to end. And Tricia said, what do you think they’ll show on the TV as the world’s ending, or will they show anything? And I said, you know probably some sort of montage of the world’s best moments- you know, cultural moments concerts, animal migrations, things like that, with music.” There was nervous scorn in her voice. “And she said, what kind of music do you think they’ll play? And my nephew Niall, he’s coming up to eighteen.” She paused, looking down. Kevin nodded, trying to suggest sympathy without interrupting her to make a trite remark about how sad it was that Shirley’s nephew would never be eighteen, never go to university or college, never work in an office or a factory or IT support.
“What’s he like, your nephew?” Kevin had nephews too.
“Well, he straightens his hair in a way that…” She took a long pause. “I suppose it’s about five years ago now that it was in fashion, you know, swept across his forehead, and he’s always in the kitchen when I’m there, drinking tea. And his friend Robin is usually there with him- you know, they’ve been friends since Niall started school, and it’s nice to see him round there. So often when you’re seventeen you can’t imagine spending time with your friends from when you were five any more. Anyway, he said –we were talking about music – he said, Wonderwall, it’s always fucking Wonderwall. Our heads’ll be blowing off, and how’ll the world react? And the two of them looked at each other, and they both put on this funny whiny voice – exactly the same, without prompting each other at all – ‘And after all… YOU’RE MY’… well, you get the idea, anyway.” She looked down at the table.
Kevin appraised Shirley. Overall, he was pleased with that story. He was annoyed that she had let herself down at the end by tailing off like that, because the content of the story had been acceptably funny. He doubted that her impression of how her nephew had sounded was very good, but that was fine. Not everyone could do impressions. And she had not flinched when she had mentioned the end of the world. That was good.
Then Shirley gasped, a real spontaneous cry of pain, and Kevin’s heart jumped in his chest. He looked across the table at her, then rose to his feet, pushing his chair out to get to her. Perhaps he should have moved faster, perhaps he should have knocked the chair to floor, to show that he cared. But as he began to step around the table, wondering what he could do for Shirley, she waved a hand in front of her face, dismissing him.
“Oh, that must be the gas now,” she said, taking deep breaths.
They looked up at the sky in unison. The air outside had definitely taken on a greener tinge now, but these things happened gradually; the change from last night to now was less noticeable, he thought, than the one that had happened a month ago. He got used to everything so quickly these days; he was already starting to feel that the sky had always been a dull, soupy green. He walked to the window. A pigeon paced up and down at three times the normal speed, head bobbing inanely; either it could find nothing to eat or it had no appetite. He could not tell whether it made a noise. He wanted to snap its neck to stop it from moving so fast, then put the body far away and out of sight.
Then the smell hit him and he felt as though something in his chest had collapsed, whatever it was that held up his heart and lungs, and that they were about to fall into his churning stomach. He made an embarrassing uk noise in his throat and managed to stagger forward a couple of steps before he dropped to his knees.
“Are you all right?” Shirley was doing her best to sounds concerned and he almost laughed. It was exactly the situation they’d been in half a minute ago, reversed. He pushed himself back to his feet, using his hands, and sat down on the chair. Facing Shirley again, back to square one. Half a minute ago the thought of Shirley dropping dead in front of him had been horrifying; it had seemed as though it might have actually mattered if she were to die fifteen minutes before the rest of the world. Still, it would be difficult if she had done; he would be compelled to leave the café, just in case there was an afterlife. He could hardly admit to spending his last moments with a corpse. He would have to find somewhere else to sit, on the curb somewhere, getting to know strangers as though their impending death was enough to make them assume the best about each other.
As it was, Kevin and Shirley were not in the café of choice. The owners had gone to see loved ones, or at least family, or perhaps they were drinking on the beach. For some reason, they had bothered to lock up behind themselves. So Kevin and Shirley were in the next-door café instead, one that they had often walked past and remarked that they should try some time. The doors of this one were open, and there was a handwritten note in the window;
Take anything you like, my lovelies! Caz xxx
The skies were changing now, becoming a paler, brighter shade of green. From his reflection in the mirror, Kevin knew that they were the same colour as his own eyes. He did not choose to point it out, nor to draw attention to it. It was not really a talking point.
“Where is my mind” he said, then flushed as he realised that he sounded as though he was talking about himself. Worse, he sounded as though he was trying to sound profound. So he said:
“For the song. It’s the name of a song. But I’m only thinking of it for the end of a world because it was played at the end of a film. Buildings falling down and stuff. Not that the gas is going to make any buildings fall down.”
Shirley nodded and said; “Fight Club. Wasn’t it?”
“I think so,” he replied. They both knew it was Fight Club. Of course they did.
The TV had explained that the atmosphere was like the skin of a peach, only many times thinner, and that the earth was the flesh, and the skin had been pricked, with the result that the flesh slowly filled up with poison. It had been forecast that Mexico would be the first place where the effects would be felt, and that the wind would then blow the green gas south, over Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, then down over Colombia and Brazil all the way to the Southern Cone; and that from the Antarctic it would spread out equally over the rest of the world. Now the scientists had recalculated, and thought that everywhere in the world would go at the same time, which, Kevin thought without much conviction, was nice.
There were seven minutes left and what remained to say had not yet been said; so it might as well be said before one of them died unexpectedly; just in case. Kevin did not want to make a big deal of it, but of course his body betrayed him. He was convinced that if he did not clear his throat, look at me, I’m about to make an announcement, he would not be able to speak properly. He cleared his throat.
“I’ve enjoyed knowing you, Shirley. I’ve had a better –better weeks for our – Tuesday meetings.”
She understood and she smiled back sadly. “I’ve enjoyed knowing you too, Kevin. I’ll… it’s a pity to go like this.”
He answered with a smile of his own and leaned back in the uncomfortable plastic chair. His eyes had started to burn as Shirley had been speaking, and his tongue felt leaden. The sky was a brighter green than ever, but he could no longer smell the gas. So there they sat, across from each other, and waited to die.