Fiction (Dystopian, Coming of Age)
England is dying. Following the collapse of aged, childless Europe, eighteen-year-old Englishman Brandon Frewer seeks young people. In Northallerton, he finds youngish Englishwoman Laura Trimm.
With much of England having become dangerous, they’re confined to the towns, villages, and castles Laura knows in North Yorkshire. England’s future depends upon people like her and Brandon bearing children, but not necessarily with each other.
A Young Man’s Tale is the sequel to Swansong of a Childless People.
Chapter 1: Sometime from Now
Springtime was somewhat unconvincing that year, through the throes of England’s end. Leaves of every season lay rotten on the ground, where a generation or two earlier, children would’ve swept them with their feet; childlessness had been a choice that Europeans made and one they’d not realised they were making. Riding his bicycle through Darlington before the rain came, eighteen-year-old Brandon Frewer was the youngest Englishman around.
Recent years had seen the last of the old time and beginning of the death. Older public clocks of revolving hands read fifteen minutes past nine o’clock, as they read every minute every day. Most houses and apartments in north-east England were deep dark and long forlorn, without residents to nourish them. Abandoned cars stood parked at kerbs, where they would always be, making no impression on Brandon as he passed.
Brandon’s mother, Hollie, had cut his thick blond hair neater than his father Alec cut her blonde hair. More than just a winter had passed since customers last patronised the shops, or waiters and the waited-upon last occupied the restaurants. Scampering along the sides of empty buildings, rats ate food that larger creatures left behind, much as they always had. The rolling wheels of Brandon’s bicycle slipped a little on the leaves, when he wasn’t careful.
Other peoples prospered elsewhere, while the people without progeny had aged. Much of Europe once grandiose and grand, a conquering continent, was almost dead. What wasn’t dead was no longer European. None of Europe’s reasons for not bestowing newborns endured, leaving a young man on a bicycle behind.
Brandon’s mother had asked him to meet her and his father at their friend Tarpin Hobbs’ apartment; Brandon was never in a hurry to see Tarpin. More often than Brandon’s parents had visited Tarpin before the winter, Tarpin visited their home in Hummersknott, when Brandon waited in another room until he left.
Looking out from a corner of Coniscliffe Road, Tarpin’s penthouse apartment was unmistakable; he was the building’s final resident. Rain began to fall as Brandon reached the building door, in which a key hung from the lock. Inside were his parents’ bicycles; if they’d not been there, Brandon would’ve headed home. He left his bicycle with theirs.
Windows admitted enough daylight through the lashing rain to lead Brandon trudging up the stairs. “That change in accounting standards helped us,” he overheard Tarpin saying as he approached his apartment; Tarpin spoke of business as old soldiers once spoke of battles.
Tarpin in his single chair sat facing Brandon’s parents in a sofa. Glasses of rainwater stood on the coffee table between them. Sixty-something years of age, tall Tarpin seemed much older than that, with his grey-white hair that could once have been any colour and his skin made rough by outdoors work too late in life. Since then, he’d become increasingly ample. That day dressed again in a suit, jacket, and tie, Tarpin’s shirt was ironed as well as he could’ve ironed it with an iron heated in a fire. Brandon sat in a spare chair near his mother.
“Our results could’ve been mediocre that year, poor even,” Tarpin continued, “poorer than mediocre was poor, but the changed standard allowed us to report good numbers, and do it truthfully.”
Brandon leant towards his mother’s ear. “Doesn’t he know it’s over?” he whispered.
“Shush,” she whispered back. Lives had become primitive again, without the worlds of wealth and work that gleefully abandoned them. “Memories are all he has.”
Brandon looked around the room. Standing on a sideboard was a silver-framed photograph of Tarpin with his business colleague and occasional mistress Valda. It must have been decades old.
Alec puckered up. “We’ve decided to leave,” he told their host.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“We’re moving to Cornwall, Tarpin.” Brandon’s few friends from school who’d headed there were cause to hope that he might find a home. They alone weren’t reason to know he would.
Tarpin hesitated, as he rarely did in Brandon’s presence. “What happens to me?” he asked.
“You’ve got Valda.”
Tarpin shook his head. “She hates me now.”
“We need to find young people for Brandon,” explained his father. Brandon listened attentively, with the vested curiosity of anyone in the presence of somebody talking about him.
“Aren’t I young?” asked Tarpin.
“We all need more than just the few of us,” interjected Hollie, placing her arm around her only child. “We don’t know how else to protect him from growing old alone.”
“You could stay, while he goes?”
“He’s a boy.”
“I’m eighteen!” Brandon insisted, before realising he should have remained silent.
“Do you want to come with us, Tarpin?” asked Hollie. Brandon looked horrified at her.
“This is my home.”
“We’re only leaving so we can eventually come back again. The north of England is our country. We’re not giving up on it.”
Tarpin pulled his arms around his chest, hugging himself. “You don’t understand,” he said. “I don’t mean that rudely, it’s a compliment, but you don’t understand.”
“Brandon will keep us in his life as we’ll keep him in ours,” said Alec, “but his relationship with us can’t deter him from new relationships.”
Alec, Hollie, and Brandon watched Tarpin for a time, before Tarpin again spoke. “However much you recover England, you won’t forget how short you are.” They again sat silently. “You better go.”
Hollie, and then Alec and Brandon, quietly stood up. They moved towards the open apartment door, where Alec paused and turned around. Thus Hollie and Brandon turned.
Tarpin stood up from his chair. He moved towards the glass-panelled balcony door, as if preparing to watch them riding away along the streets below, before again facing Alec and his family.
Alec raised his hand, as much an acknowledgement he had seen him there as a wave of parting. Tarpin raised his hand. Their parting was brief.
“I haven’t brought a raincoat,” said Brandon.
His parents and then Brandon moved towards the balcony door, looking past Tarpin up at the dark clouds for any hint of how long the rain might last. “We can wait,” replied Hollie.
“I don’t mind getting wet,” said Brandon.
“There’s a man in Larchfield House,” interrupted Tarpin, looking through the glass. “He watches me from a window every time I use my balcony, every time I climb part way over the balustrade and dangle my foot. He’s not sure what I’m doing, but he’ll watch me until I go back inside. I don’t know if I hate him, or I recognise myself in him. I think he recognises him in me.”
“Dying won’t help anyone,” said Alec.
“Living doesn’t always help either,” sighed Tarpin, “not the way I lived. Earning money because I could, buying things I didn’t like, dating women I wouldn’t love, they were proper ways of killing us and ensuring we’d stay dead.”
“Being alive is its own good.”
“I can help you now,” said Tarpin, “Brandon, all of us.” Tarpin opened the balcony door, admitting the cooler air and roar of stormy rain.
“Ah,” gasped Hollie, as a gust of wind blew a curtain draped near the door.
Alec grabbed Tarpin’s arm. “If you die,” yelled Alec above the splashing rain, “you die for you.”
“I’m already dead,” yelled Tarpin. “I’ve always been. Don’t let me kill us too.”
The big man pulled himself away, as Hollie rushed into the rain bearing down upon them. She grabbed Tarpin’s arm that Alec wasn’t holding, but still Tarpin dragged the rain-drenched three against the wind to the wetted balustrade. Brandon followed them, prodding his hands one way and then another, with no space for him between his parents to hold Tarpin too.
Tarpin’s hands held the balcony balustrade, while his writhing arms and back pushed Alec and Hollie away. Tarpin raised his foot from the balcony, whereby Alec wrapped his arm around Tarpin’s chest. The falling water made him hard to hold and Alec slipped, as Tarpin’s leg twisted over the balustrade. That leg pressed rigidly against the outside balustrade, his arms leveraged his unbalanced body over the balustrade while Alec and Hollie wrestled with him, their waterlogged faces red with the commotion.
“You’re a fool, Hobbs!” screamed Alec, trying to pull Tarpin back to the safe side of the balcony.
“I know, Frewer!”
What happened next was very confusing, and no less confusing every time Brandon revived it in his mind. A burst of rain might’ve made it worse, or a gust of wind disorientated them. The balustrade around a balcony so high above the pavement should never have been so low.
“Now and never,” screamed Tarpin, releasing a deep breath. Mustering his last resolve, he pushed himself out into the air with Alec and Hollie holding him, but he then wrapped his arms around them, grabbing them to save himself or lift them over the low balustrade with him. Whatever he was doing, he jettisoned them all away.
Brandon rushed forward, his arms stretched out. “Mum, dad,” he screamed, but they fell away from him and down. He reached the balustrade and began to fall over it himself, before he grabbed the wet retention and held himself back, staring down at three people unravelling in the air. They fell through rain and storeys towards the rotten leaves. One or more of them were screaming, before they thumped against the pavement.
Brandon barrelled back through the lounge room, swinging around the doorway to the stairs and every corner downwards. The stairs were much too long however quickly he whisked around them, until he threw open that wretched building door and was back inside the rain. “Mum,” he said, as he rushed towards her on the pavement.
Amidst her rumpled clothes, among the quilt of rotten leaves in splattered tones of brown, he pushed her hair from her face. “Mum,” he cried, holding her wet head in his hand. Against the rain washing down against her eyes and skin, her face was motionless. Blood oozed from her head between the fingers of his hand holding her. “Oh, God!” he wailed.
“My son,” groaned Alec, lying near them on his back, “my son.”
“Dad,” cried Brandon. Carefully, he laid his mother’s head back against her hair. “Dad?” he crawled towards his father, placing his open hands against his father’s cheeks. “Oh dad, my God, what can I do?”
His father’s pained eyes gazed up at him. His blood trickling from him, glowing, he strained his voice to speak. “By right, you succeed us,” he whispered, advising or assuring him.
Brandon gently lifted up his father’s head, nursing him, taking more blood on his hands but hoping he helped his father breathe. “I can save you,” cried Brandon.
“You will,” gasped Alec, choking on the blood in his throat. He closed his eyes and died.
Kneeling on the pavement and cradling in his hands his father’s face, Brandon threw his head back in the air and screamed a raucous, bilious squeal with his parents in their deaths. The rain was right to lash his face pointed up before it, a choral throng of wailing fears. His scream tortured their dying market town as he too was tortured, blazing between the bleak and barren building blocks in their moribund decay with the strength and rage that youth afforded him and demanded that he vent until, his throat sore and burning, Brandon dipped his head; he’d failed to save them.
Tarpin’s head hung upside down over the kerb, his eyes frozen open. Blood flowed into the gutter.
Brandon held his father’s head and wept. The rain tried but couldn’t wash them all away.
When his father’s head became too heavy for his hands, Brandon laid him back against the melded leaves. His head bowed low, he remained in the rain, however long that was. Used to thinking thoughts aloud and hearing his parents’ spontaneous replies, he had no reason to speak without anyone to hear. If he spoke, his parents might reply. Kinder than he deserved, he feared how little they might scold him.
The rain slowly cleared. The sky remained overcast. If crows ate Tarpin’s body, then something good would come of him.
Appearing with a wheelbarrow, the man from Larchfield House offered to help Brandon bury his parents in the nearest park, amidst the clusters of wooden crosses falling in the grass and slowly levelling mounds. Brandon declined.
In his penance most available, he alone wrapped his parents’ bodies in blankets he took from Tarpin’s cupboards. His mother first, it seemed to be polite, he lifted and placed in that wheelbarrow. Often pausing for rest, Brandon pushed the barrow between the puddles and the ponds to Hummersknott.
Along another street of once fashionable abodes, with empty trees and nests for birds, theirs was the house from which white paint wasn’t peeling from the windowpanes. The flower boxes contained flowers, in spite of the cruel winter, instead of dust and dirt or mud and mire, because his mother had set them there. An ordinary little home, of any mortal man and woman, save only for the presence of a child, it remained curiously peaceful, without the sense of death that empty houses acquired.
Then Brandon brought his father, much heavier to push along the streets, distracting him. Forgetting his father was there became easier, until his arm swung out from beneath his blood-soiled blanket. Brandon pushed it back again, not to disturb his father’s sleep. Finally, his parents lay in their garden behind his childhood home.
Few men or women would’ve risked their lives as they’d done trying to save their friend, of sorts. Brandon hadn’t conceded his dear life to save theirs if the choice had been which of them would die that day. Hopes for his future might’ve martyred them, but the life their son needed to make was much harder left without them, his only company his mind.
Brandon pushed aside wet soil for carrots and potatoes, which seemed suddenly too much. He took a shovel and began to dig their final resting place, dispelling the last energy in him, straining muscles he’d not already strained. His parents lay silently, threatening to speak or sigh. When the light began to fade, Brandon took a candle from the house; he’d become accustomed to firelight in the half year since electricity ceased flowing. Interring his parents in one grave would mitigate his toil, but lying together might also be romantic, if death could be romantic.
Through the low clouds that night, the light from stars was much too weak to reach Brandon’s little eyes. If the moon shone overhead, then it didn’t shine on him.
Unable to bear seeing them again, their gravedigger son rolled them in their blankets to the earth. He shovelled dirt across them, covering them, without anything to say. In a town with so many epitaphs, there was no point in any more. Only Brandon needed to know that they were there.
With the candle nearly gone, Brandon sat on the patio, in a chair that seemed always to have been there. His eyes closed in deference to a custom, he wanted to recite a prayer, conducting a funeral service he could not imagine for himself, but could not recall well enough his father’s words or mother’s sentiment. The parents who might’ve taught him to pray had died before they did. The night should have been colder than it was.
When his eyes opened, the candle had expired. Brandon could’ve been anywhere, for all the molecules he saw. He could’ve been facing cliffs that he could never breach, or been trapped inside a crater on another planet’s moon.
Brandon didn’t need the light; his familial home had long been familiar to him. He was again so much a child, the only product of that house surviving. The darkness was much deeper than had been night-time around the small boy in his bed, wrapped in sheets and blankets trying to be warm. “Mummy?” he whispered, “Daddy?”
Slowly, he imagined his parents’ souls hearing his mortal voice. He would’ve been more frightened than consoled if they replied.
His parents might’ve been the last people with whom he would be close, beyond the dark reflections in greying mirror glass of a young man getting older. Life was a privilege they’d reserved for him not yet repaid. They’d given him the only life he knew, although he no longer knew what to do with what remained. Perhaps he could not do anything. His shoulders shivered.
Clouds passed into mist, revealing a weak crescent of the moon, too meek to shine. The lights of heaven were again the only lights at night.
His parents saw faces in the round lunar light, but all Brandon ever saw was the imprint of a hand. That night, the hand was hidden in the shadows.
Sitting there a child, the moon had been near enough for him to dream of being among the stars. The flags and other tiny toys that astronauts had left on the lunar surface were probably still there, in the otherwise lunar void, where Brandon couldn’t see them. Another era of humanity might presume that it was clever and return there to discover them afresh. Brandon knew he never would.
With the mist clearing, stars slowly brightened. Soon, they were in their thickening thousands across the long expanding sky. Stellar multitudes in their millennia filled the spaces between brighter stars with litanies of lesser ones. Each tiny light cast by flames almost an eternity away was a universe. Their activity he couldn’t remember seeing before that night beguiled him, when all around was still.
He didn’t need so many. In the morning, they’d be again invisible.
Electric lights and living once obscured the sky at night, but the night had always been there. The universal sky was that of anytime, the heavens flickering as they’d done before the earth was born. Ancient students of the sky construed constellations in the stars: a little sense of logic in so big and random a sparkling space. New man never found such images of imagination: the lights of Orion and signs of a zodiac waltzing past that reason had dismissed.
Brandon’s father taught him to distinguish a planet from the stars because a planet didn’t twinkle; a planet reflected the sun’s light without emitting light itself. Brandon tried to discern a planet among the stars above him, but couldn’t. The only certain planet was the one on which he sat. If he was searching for something more, then he didn’t expect to find it.
His family were further from him than were those little stars. The lives they’d shared were further from him still. His abundance of good fortune was ever being alive. His misfortune was coming to be alone, and bound to being so.
The steady light of an orbiting satellite appeared, gliding towards the near horizon. The satellites of distant populations remained at their control, with little call to pass through English sky. The satellite he saw was probably launched long ago at Europe’s behest: blasted in a rocket into atmosphere. It might reflect television or telephone if there were anything to send. It might collect and transmit data for weather forecasts that nobody would make.
Trekking around the Earth in its long rhythm, the light cast made Brandon smile, for the short time the satellite passed by. Beyond a rooftop, the satellite disappeared from view. The heavens were emptier than they’d been before it came.
Its orbit would decline and someday end, burning apart. No merchandise that human beings had made would last forever, and a time would come that Brandon would no longer see satellites above. There would be only persevering planets, stars, and phases of the moon: forever every moment. From the vantage of the stars, one man was very small among the grooves and ruts of earth.
Comets would return, in orbits some longer than human lives, shining between the stars as they passed close to Earth. Men and women didn’t make what they recognised and mapped among the skies. In another era of a science, astronomers might again recognise the images from old tapestries and name the comets in their honour. The names that later eras gave patterns in the sky mightn’t be the names that Brandon knew.
His life and solitude were those of the last Englishman born in Darlington. There was no answer as to why little he was alive. His might be aged England’s final family, but nothing more or less was special about his parents’ only child.
If Brandon were to choose the only Englishman, then he would not have chosen him. He’d been neither the most brilliant nor diligent. He’d not been the strongest, fastest, or most agile. He’d not been anybody’s hero, even if his parents thought so well of him. His life would not make him a hero for ordinary men were not heroic, except that Brandon’s parents had been heroic for bearing him.
Trying to fathom why he was born was too draining an indulgence. The converse was no less problematical: why his generation was so few. If there’d been reasons, then he wasn’t smart enough to notice.
Brandon had no more reason to be born than other English people of whom he’d been a part, but England’s older children aged. Older people usually died before younger people did. His fortune was to have survived thus far by the chance of being the last one left in line, but he too would grow old. He didn’t know how good or bad the fortunes his could be, undeserved on him. Such was his fate, that lonely astronaut in an English market town.
His parents were closer than childless Europeans to immortality, but still they died. They would die again if Brandon died, as everybody died, without a child to bury him or mourn him. Deferring England’s death only until then, whittled down to one poor person, England would be dead when the last Englishman was dead.
If England was dead, time was burying her. The grave that England made might be all to endure.