The first bus had left and the suitcase was still empty. Not a single item had gone in yet. But what could one do? Of all the material spread out over the bed, there was no one piece that had preference over another. That’s what Richard thought, as he stood there, in front of the bed, smoking his pipe. He pulled on it with his wrinkled mouth and puffed a few clouds of smoke, staring at them as they dissolved into the air. Surely he was allowed to take his grandfather’s pipe with him? His dry, red eyes begged for some sleep and he rubbed them with the back of his hand.
How little time there was left. The second bus was about to leave. Time to go over it all again. He took hold of his volumes of Arthur Miller plays. What to do with those, he wondered, as he was weighing The Crucible in his left hand and comparing it to John Williams’s Stoner in his right. His eyes wandered over his lifetime collection of culture, spread out like a blanket and even covering the floor all the way to the bedroom’s door. There was his DVD box with Kurosawa films at his feet, leaning against his Billy Joel CDs, which in turn were lying comfortably against the Louis Armstrong records. There were old photographs, three large bundles of diaries and a whole closet of manuscripts.
What to do? Scan and store it on his computer? He never thought about it before. But what about his wooden toy collection, his precious gems or…
A loud voice echoed from far away, reaching Richard’s house and drowning out his thoughts. The countdown from ten to zero had started. The old man shuffled to his window and opened the blinds. He glared into the light of a fading sun, sneaking its way down the horizon. The count ended and a deep rumble followed up on it. The whole house was shaking and he located the source of the sound. One of three enormous rockets, less than a mile away, had taken off and left Earth for good, into the silence of space. Richard kept watching until it had shrunk to an undetectable size. On board were a few thousand people, fleeing whatever was left of this planet – and with good reason. Earth was no longer what it used to be. There wasn’t a single tree nearby, nor rivers or lakes to replenish the dehydrated land. Earth was done with us but the feeling was likewise. A host planet was chosen for the species called ‘man’ and whoever was useful got a one-way ticket to the colonising projects outside of our solar system, away from an out-of-control greenhouse effect.
Richard didn’t follow details like that. He had been briefed on the situation many times before, but the present was not of interest to him, nor was the future. What counted had already passed long ago and the artefacts of those times were lying on his floor and covered the bed.
It didn’t even occur to him to discover the world out there at any point, not even before it all came crumbling down and its ruins had formed the landscape he saw through the fortified glass of his window. He was a writer, whose access to outdoor inspiration came through novels and films. Not even plays could tempt him to take a walk outside.
He contemplated this and looked at his hands. Writer’s hands, but old and shrivelled now. He felt them telling him a last novel was still on its way. The last one had been completed ten years ago, before experimental methods to curb the greenhouse effect had got out of hand and landed every living being in the situation they were in today.
What choice do I have, Richard wondered, what to do? He was only twelve days from his 72nd birthday, one he would be celebrating in space, on the longest journey he’d ever undertake. Not that it was difficult to beat the distance to the post office.
He’d been puffing an extinguished pipe for a few minutes now and only now took notice. He removed the pipe from his mouth, looked in his pocket for the passport the authorities had given him and put both objects on what little space there was near the typewriter on his desk.
His first and only adventure that lay before him would leave him filled with questions and uncertainties. Was it worth it? Richard’s neighbours had all left and the last bus for that handful of hesitaters was about to make its final ride. Getting on that bus would give him the near-certainty of life for another decade. Yet, it was more than the comfort of home that was preventing him from grabbing what he could and making a run for his transport. His hands were itching and he felt the urge to sit down and write. Could he do that on board a rocket, in a cramped spaceship full of unknowns? Out of his comfort zone and short of inspiration.
Richard picked up the pipe again, lit it with the last match in his matchbox and shook his head. No, he thought, it’s not worth the risk. He had a fridge full of food and water that would last him for some time, a bundle of old paper sheets and an urge to get on with the last novel he had within him.
Richard puffed away, looking out of the window. He stared at the bus, as it finally turned on its engine and made its ultimate journey to the two remaining rockets. Richard closed the blinds. The outdoor world was gone now.
“So,” he said, as he walked up to the typewriter, “it’s just you and me now. Let’s make it worth it.” Richard smiled as he thought about it: the last novel written on earth for an audience that was no longer there.
Ewout Buckens graduated from Oxford University and now lives in London. He spends his working days at an educational publisher and his evenings inside his East London flat, writing both short fiction and novels.