I held my breath as the silhouette of the little old lady turned around at the sound of my veranda door opening, then sighed internally when she waved cheerfully in my direction. Okay for one more day, I thought, as she shuffled over towards the guardrail that separated our balconies. One more day, please, God, and another after that. If it’s not too much to ask.
“Oh, James, how are you this wonderful morning?” she cooed, pleasantly as ever, her deeply creased face scrunched up in a grandmotherly smile.
I grinned at her, squinting in the early morning sunshine, hoping that my previous anxieties hadn’t shown. There was a knot in my chest that had only eased up slightly, and it somehow felt as if there were invisible waves of worries emanating from my heart to hers. “Oh, you know, surviving,” I said, with a smile. I used to look forward to these pre-breakfast chats, hair still messy, sleep still in our eyes. Well, I say our eyes, but I’m sure Mrs Pobbet got up at the crack of dawn and waited for me to rise, watching the sun doing the very same. The thought tugged at my heartstrings, making me happy and sad in equal measures.
In recent days, a second, nastier feeling had begun to creep in, tainting what had been a pleasant daily ritual. Not caused by Mrs Pobbet (Please, James, call me Mary) in any way; she was always delightful, and I sincerely doubted that a mean thought had ever occurred in her mind in all her eighty-three years on the planet. No, this gnawing, scraping feeling was caused by an event that had occurred last week.
She chuckled at my response. “Oh, yes, surviving,” she said, warmly.
“And how are you today, Mrs Pobbet? Feeling a bit better?”
Now, I’m not sure if I imagined it, but I could’ve sworn that a brief shadow passed over her face. It was quickly replaced by her beaming smile. “Oh, you know me, James! Making a fuss over nothing, that’s all. Yes, yes, I’m fine,” she said, ushering the subject away with a wave of her wrinkled hands.
“Glad to hear it, Mrs Pobbet!” I didn’t believe her, of course, but I didn’t want to push the subject. If she wanted to keep that part private, then I wouldn’t infringe — I respected her too much to demand on her sharing beyond her comfort zone. I was aware that people of the older generation had different attitudes towards health and matters they deemed ‘private’. I didn’t want to upset or offend my only friend. “If you ever need anything, all you have to do is ask,” I added, just to let her know that if the thought ever crossed her mind…
Mrs Pobbet shooed me away. “Oh, don’t you worry, James! I’m fine and dandy.” I sometimes thought that she began every other sentence with an oh. “There’s still some life in this old girl yet!” I laughed at that — a real laugh, not a pretend one I’d occasionally throw her way, in order to reassure her that I did enjoy her company, and it wasn’t just out of having no other options.
Some might think us morbid for spending time on our balconies, or — at the very least — tempting the cruel hands of fate. Perhaps they’d say we were teasing or taunting those who stood below in an undulating crowd, hands raised upwards towards us as if in prayer. But what else were we to do? Stay inside all day? Not speak to each other, sitting in isolation? The fresh air was wonderful, the company friendly (and, as it would turn out, necessary for the preservation of an intact mind). No, we had every right to be outside — it was all we had left. Well, that and each other.
Our balconies were on the fourth floor of 42 Beachley Street, facing north-east. Every morning, we were bathed in the rays of the rising sun. More so on the days that it wasn’t raining. Funny, isn’t it, that when confined to your home, the weather takes a turn for the beautiful? No use bemoaning the fact, much better to be grateful for the piece of safe outside space, no matter how confined. Plus, not everyone gets the luxury of a sunrise-facing balcony. The only flip side was that, from the late afternoon onwards, we were cast into a cold, stretching shadow, as the orange-red sun sank into the horizon, bleeding its colours across the cloud-laden sky.
It was a seven-storey building — an odd number of floors, in both senses of the word, I often thought — built in the early twentieth century, located not too far from the city centre. It had been a great place to live, close enough to everything to be highly convenient, far enough from the pulsing heart of the city to not cause irritation from excessive sound levels.
It still was a great place to live, I guessed. After all, it’d kept us safe when the great pandemic of the twenty-first century had ravaged the population, and even safer when the diseased deceased started to reanimate. Thank God for thick stone walls and solid oak doors. Or, rather, thank the architect of 42 Beachley Street. Our safety had been compromised once, and only once.
42 Beachley Street was split up into apartments, as were most multi-storey buildings in the area. Ours had two apartments per floor: fourteen in total. Each apartment had its own balcony — which was hard to find in affordable housing in the city. The only downside, if you can call it such, was that balconies were, essentially, shared between the two apartments of each floor — split up by a divider.
I don’t precisely know what happened, all I know is that I woke up to Mrs Pobbet screaming. Well, perhaps ‘woke up’ is rather a grandiose expression for being stirred from my reverie, for sleep rarely favoured me, even before the pandemic. Like I said, I don’t know what happened exactly — Mary didn’t tell me, and I didn’t want to force her to relive the event.
If I had to surmise, I guess it went down as follows.
As Mrs Pobbet and I lived on the fourth floor, we had three floors above us — six separate apartments, each with a shared balcony divided in two, all of them directly above ours. Now, I don’t profess to understand how this new plague of the twenty-first century works. Do you have to be infected prior to death, in order to reanimate? Will all of us come back, regardless of how well we avoid contamination? I have no idea.
His name was Mr Jameson. I can’t remember his first name — was it Garret, or Gareth, or Gary? It feels like it shouldn’t matter, and yet, it feels like it does. I don’t know if he died first, and it happened by chance, as his shambling corpse shuffled about his apartment. Perhaps he’d had enough of it all, and decided he wanted out, as many had done. Perhaps he’d been infected but hadn’t yet turned and decided to have done with it before it happened, hoping to prevent what might have otherwise been an inevitability. Hell, maybe it was just an accident, and he’d been neither reanimated, infected nor suicidal.
All that matters is that he lived on the sixth floor.
And that he fell from his balcony.
When I arrived on the scene, clad in naught but my underwear, I found Mr Jameson draped over Mary’s side of the balcony rail, back broken, legs sticking out over the drop.
But he wasn’t dead.
He was snarling and growling, blood and spittle frothing at the corners of his mouth. One of his gnarled hands was gripped around Mrs Pobbet’s wrist, his other hand was clawing in her direction. He was trying to pull her closer, towards his gnashing teeth.
Mrs Pobbet was screaming and crying, trying to free herself from the dead man’s death grip, beating at his arm with her free hand — to no avail.
I’m ashamed to say that I froze. It was as if my mind tried to process a billion thoughts at the same time, each fighting for a way through the jammed bottleneck of my brain. What should I do? How do I get rid of him? Over the edge? What if he takes her with him? How do I kill him? How do you kill someone? The kitchen knife? In his eye or through the back of his skull? What if he bites me? What if, what if, what if?
My paralysis broke when Mrs Pobbet stumbled forward with a wail. I’ve never been an athletic man, but the sound of that sweet old lady crying got me moving. I remember thinking, Who cares if he bites me?! It’s Mrs Pobbet!
I scrambled over the divider — a somewhat dangerous feat in itself, even if done slowly — and ran to my flailing neighbours. First, I tried hitting his arm, as Mary had done, to break his vicelike grip. That didn’t work — I’m not a strong man, admittedly. I then tried to pry his fingers from around her wrist, all the while trying to avoid his claw of a hand that was swinging erratically towards both of us. In my mind’s eye, I saw his dirty fingernails ripping through my skin, depositing bacteria and infection into my system.
I didn’t know I was screaming at the time, but afterwards, I had a sore throat, so I must’ve been. I pulled at Mr Jameson’s fingers, using every last bit of energy I had, wishing I had a knife or a baseball bat or anything. I was just about to tell Mrs Pobbet that I was going to grab a knife, and to hold on, please, hold on, but then I broke his grip around her arm, along with several of his fingers, I believe.
Both Mr Jameson and Mrs Pobbet screamed — the former in rage, the latter out of relief — and Mrs Pobbet tumbled backwards, landing hard on the tiles of the terrace. I wanted to help her up, I really did, but before I could pay her attention, I had to get rid of this snarling, half-paralysed monster from the balcony.
I grabbed the first thing I saw: one of Mrs Pobbet’s deck chairs. I folded it up — crazy, I know, to fold up a goddamned deck chair whilst there’s a very literal zombie trying to kill you, but, as I said, I’m not a strong man, and I needed to make it easier to manoeuvre as a weapon — and rammed it into his head. He snarled as his neck snapped back, but he didn’t stop struggling.
So, I did the first thing that popped into my mind — use the deck chair as a lever to unstick him from the balcony rail, like gum pried from a surface with a butter knife. I positioned the chair, threw my back into it… and then he was gone, an echo of a growl filling the still night air. A second later, an awful, snapping, splattering, thud came from far below.
I dropped the deck chair and saw to Mrs Pobbet, who had been understandably very shaken up. She insisted she was okay and wouldn’t let me check her over. A mistake, I know, but she really didn’t want me to, and I didn’t want to force her. She did, however, allow me to sleep on her couch, to let me keep an eye on her for the night.
Not before drowning me with blankets and cushions, however.
We stood in silence for a while, looking out across what remained of the city and its citizens. Columns of smoke rose on the skyline, some fires still raging. In the streets below, amongst the burnt-out shells of cars and rubble, walked the people we’d once lived and worked alongside. Now, they stiffly shuffled along, movements twitching, clothes ragged, flesh and skin torn and shredded, the blood they were coated in now dried to a dark maroon. Some were burned, from the great fires that had swallowed buildings and traffic jams in one big, ferocious gulp — fortunately, our district had been spared from such infernos, at least, for the time being. Others had rotted, leathery skin pulled taught across their skeletons, skulls visible beneath the thinly stretched membrane, ribs protruding sickeningly; they had, evidently, succumbed at the very start of the collapse.
It was a companionable silence, each content to simply be in each other’s presence. I’ve come to think that it’s a special type of relationship that doesn’t require forced conversation to fill the gaps — to be comfortable with no words being exchanged. Then again, I think that Mrs Pobbet was a special type of person.
“Did you know that my name comes from the word ‘baker’?” she said, eventually.
I did, as she’d told me on several occasions before, but I feigned ignorance each time. I don’t know if she’d forget after informing me each time, or if she just liked telling me. I just liked hearing her talk, especially on subjects which she enjoyed talking about. “Back home, many names come from what that family used to do. So, I suppose there was a baker in my family, hence the name — Pobbet.” I thought that was how all names were done throughout most societies, but I didn’t say so.
“Hmm,” I pondered aloud. “That’s really interesting. I suppose that’s why your cakes are so good, Mrs Pobbet!”
“Ha! You should’ve tried my nana’s cookies. Now she was a good baker. Nobody cooked like she did, back home. We’d take her biscuits to the beach, as kids, munching on them as we watched the waves, waving to the sailors on their boats, listening to the seagulls crying, smelling the sea air.”
She often spoke of her native home, a place I’d spent a great deal of my own life in, too. I think that’s one of the reasons Mrs Pobbet took a shine to me — even before all of this went down. Perhaps she saw something of her home in me, something she remembered, something she wished to hold on to. Or perhaps I’m thinking too highly of myself, and she was the kind of woman who treated every living thing with unrestrained kindness.
She sighed, reminiscing. “Oh, how I miss the beach.”
And so, life went on, at 42 Beachley Street. Or as close an approximation to life as one could achieve, in the post-apocalypse days.
I sit, chair pulled close to the separation between my balcony and Mrs Pobbet’s. I am holding her hand through the rail that divides our respective verandas. I sit there and hold her hand, knowing that she is dying, knowing that she knows she is dying, whilst both of us pretend that she isn’t. I can see the dark, purple green of her other hand. I don’t need her to say that Mr Jameson broke her delicate skin — any fool could surmise that.
“We’ll go to the beach, Mrs. Pobbet,” I croon, stroking her hand. How cold that tiny hand feels, placed within my own. As if she’s already dead. “Tomorrow. We’ll go to the beach tomorrow.”
“Oh, yes, James, that would be lovely,” she says softly, in a voice barely above a whisper. We sit there, me lying to her about how I’ll take her to the seaside, up until the point that she lets out a very long breath that seems to go on forever. I never want that breath to end, and yet I want it to be over quickly.
And then it is over, and I’m sitting here, on my balcony, crying silently whilst the dead beneath me are crowing for my blood, begging for my flesh, whilst the little old lady is sitting beside me, heart no longer beating.
I don’t know for how long I’ve remained here, but it’s probably for too long. They say it takes an hour after death. Well, who cares if I play it a little riskily? Who the hell cares? Who is left to care?
Eventually, I get up and take one last look at the perfectly still woman, sitting in her deck chair. Her head is tilted gently to one side, and if I don’t fixate too much on the fact that she’s not breathing, I can almost pretend that she’s sleeping.
I’m not stupid, and I know what will happen next. Perhaps if I were a stronger man or a colder man, I could do what needs to be done. But I cannot. I know I cannot, there’s no use trying to fool myself. I’ve always felt things too deeply – the type of person my teachers and father used to call ‘sensitive’.
“Goodnight, Mrs Pobbet. Sleep tight,” I say, smiling at her one last time. I hope wherever she is, she can see that smile. I hope she’s smiling back.
I step through my veranda door — for the last time, I know — and close it behind me. After a second’s hesitation, I draw the curtains, too. I also know that I will never step foot on my balcony again. I never want the morning to come, as it’ll be the first in which I must dine alone in the stale air of my flat, not feeling the cool breeze ruffling my hair or the rising sun warming my skin, not enjoying the pleasant chit-chat with my kindly neighbour.
I stand there in the darkness for some time, letting the tears fall, feeling the deathly quiet shufflings and groanings throughout 42 Beachley Street.
24th April 2020
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest