It’s always the apocalypse somewhere.
Today, it was at fifty-three Milton Place. Catalyst? An unanswered text. No, not an unanswered text. The jolt of realisation, upon looking for an answer, that most likely none would come. If one did, the realisation continued reasonably, could it possibly improve the situation that culminated in the original message?
‘Ma’am? Are we picking up one more?’ Jen jumped, remembering all at once that she was standing on the curb outside her flat, one foot in a taxi. The driver peered at her through the window. ‘The call said to go to another address after this one, but it didn’t say where?’
Jen blinked rapidly, staring at her phone. Are you coming to the party? There was no way to tell if he’d read it. If she gave the cabbie the address of Nicky’s favourite bar, she knew how the evening would go: the trip across town in late rush hour traffic; a quiet plea to come along just for an hour; I signed the card for you, there’ll be food, they’ll be so pleased to see you; an increasingly loud refusal; replacing cried-off eyeliner in the cab; an evening of rolled eyes from Aunt Daisy and positive aphorisms from Ned’s wife and hissed arguments about who should have tried harder to get him to care.
Jen’s phone rang. She pulled her foot out of the cab and steadied herself.
‘Is he with you?’ The party must be in full swing: Jen’s mother sounded like she was making the call in the Clairemont’s notoriously echoey loos.
‘Can you get him?’
Several years ago, a man at a house party told Jen, ‘You are living in the Ten of Swords.’
‘Is that bad?’ Jen asked, gin glass floundering a little. Her mate Chantal had been into magic at the time, and she vaguely recalled that in the tarot, swords were something to do with stabbing, or being stabbed.
Then she remembered that swords had something to do with stabbing in real life too, and nearly giggled.
‘Look at it this way,’ the man shrugged, seemly oblivious to her smirk. ‘There’s no eleven.’
At the time, Jen scoffed. Twice: once when the man was out of earshot and once when she googled the tarot with Chantal. Pretty much as bad as it gets seemed to be the basic meaning. Jen wasn’t bothered; it was always the apocalypse somewhere. Besides, no one could live in the Ten of Swords for long, could they? Maybe those refugees who washed up in Greece all those years ago and couldn’t leave, maybe those poor lost souls trafficked into the country for sex, maybe her mother with her never-ending arthritis appointments. Not well-educated twenty-somethings with good health and their lives in front of them.
‘You have to admit, your life feels a little stabby at the moment,’ Chantal mused.
Jen rolled her eyes. Nicky had sought and was receiving professional help; her dad’s surgeon was optimistic about his treatment; her new job was easy but promising. There was not, after all, an eleven.
A car honked as it manoeuvred past the taxi. Jen jumped. What reminded her of that conversation? In the eight years since that party, Jen hadn’t thought about it once.
‘Jennifer. Can you get your brother?’
‘You are living in the Ten of Swords.’
‘Your life feels a little stabby…’
Jen glanced at her phone again, still on the screen with Nicky’s messages. Walls of text (her), one-line responses (Nicky). She looked back up at her flat. One bedroom window (hers), one much-coveted office window, converted into a bedroom (Nicky’s) when he left his shared house. Even from here she could see used glasses crowding his windowsill. Five or six at least, the number of years he’d lived with her rent-free while he sorted himself out.
‘Jenny, can you hear me?’
Life in the years since the Ten of Swords conversation: an eternity at a job so simultaneously boring and high pressured that she couldn’t believe no one she worked with had ever been crushed by the weight of contradiction. Multiple conversations with several doctors that her skin problems were stress-related, her heart palpitations were stress-related, her sleep pattern was stress-related.
Life since Nicky moved in: nights of scrolling through Chantal’s pictures of her hostel in Bali, alternately straining to hear silence and jolted awake by noise. Mornings of checking in with Dad while she waded through pizza boxes and empty bottles and dropped crockery, feeling absurdly guilty that the phone conversation might wake Nicky, who could actually be dead this time anyway, so why did it matter if she put their parents on loudspeaker while she made breakfast?
Jen’s life: stagnant since her early twenties, when the earth began to shake and she fled under the nearest table.
‘Are you all right? Jenny?’
It’s always the apocalypse somewhere, she’d mused as she looked up artsy illustrations of the Ten of Swords. But there were two stages to the apocalypse, weren’t there? Everyone who’d watched TV, or a Bond film, knew that. There was the end of the word, and there was the thing that caused the end of the world.
Are you coming to the party?
‘Jennifer, are you still there? You’re worrying me.’
How did they cause the apocalypse on television? Nukes, right?
‘Ma’am, are you okay?’ Jen hadn’t noticed the taxi driver get out of the car. ‘You look like you need to sit down.’
‘No, you’re not there? Jenny, I can barely hear—’
‘No, you’re not okay? Do you need me to call someone?’
‘No, Mum, I’m not collecting Nicky. He knows where we’ll be. It’s his responsibility to get here. And I want him to move out. I’ll tell him tomorrow.’ Jen waved off the cabbie with that universal finger waggle.
‘What do you—’
‘One sec, Mum, I’m literally getting into the cab.’ Jen climbed into the back seat and leant forward. ‘Sorry about that, I didn’t mean to be rude. Just straight to the hotel, please.’ She clicked on her seatbelt and turned her attention back to the phone.
‘Mum, I’ll see you in a bit. Won’t be long. Don’t let Daisy near the whisky, remember.’
Jen ended the call and sat back, strangely giddy. Nuke number one, detonated.
‘Special event?’ the driver asked as they crawled out of Milton Place onto the main road. As if Jen’s sparkly, haggled-to-thirty-quid-on-Depop mini dress hadn’t given it away.
‘My parents’ anniversary.’ Jen reread a final text to Nicky before she sent it: nuke number two. Hope to see you later. I need to talk to you tomorrow, it’s urgent. Be up by eleven. AM.
‘Big year?’ the cabbie asked.
‘You don’t look old enough to have parents who’ve been married forty years!’
‘They’ve been together forty years, they met when they were teenagers.’
‘It’s a big do, then? The Clairmont is a fantastic venue.’
‘Mm. My dad just got the all clear for his stomach cancer, so it’s kind of a double thing.’
The cabbie was talking about his wife’s uncle’s stomach cancer, or something. Nuke number three: a message to Chantal. Is that offer to help you out for a season still there? I’ve now learnt to burn toast in SIX WAYS but can bring English biscuits, gossip about at least three of your exes and a chirpy-ish attitude. xxx PS I think I’ve finally seen the light about everything. In dire need of some space, some sun and a change of pace.
Nuke number four: a draft of an email to her boss. Dear Paul, please could we schedule a meeting next week? I’d like to discuss some personal matters with you.
Jen put her phone away and looked out the window, content to finish the email tomorrow afternoon. She didn’t want Paul thinking she’d made any hasty late-night decisions, although she sort of had.
It was dark enough that shop and bar lights glowed merrily, and the car was finally going fast enough for all the colours to blur together. Jen felt like she’d downed half a bottle of champagne, drunk on the realisation that she’d had it so wrong, all these years. The first time the world ended: her dad’s diagnosis, Nicky’s initial breakdown, a creeping understanding that her job was not the career she anticipated. Jen, under her table, content to sit amongst the ashes and fallen buildings, scanning the horizon for a baby tree or dove or whatever was a sign of good things to come.
She had not expected the second time the world ended to be her own doing.
She should have done it sooner.
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Copyright © 2020 by Francesca Burke
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