Brighton After the Bomb (2008): Part One
This story started out as a vague effort to write about a post-nuclear Brighton; perhaps an irradiated Sussex situated below the glowing crater that was once London. I had probably been playing quite a lot of Fallout at the time. Fortunately, after a while I switched over to writing something a bit different that touches upon some of what makes modern day Brighton what it is: weird residents and visitors, a lot of musicians, and the occasional otherworldly invasion.
Part two of ‘Brighton After the Bomb’ will appear soon.
Brighton After the Bomb (Part One)
‘She sings to me,’ he whispers, leaning in close enough that his breath feels hot in her ear. ‘Tells me stories.’
‘Stories?’ she asks. ‘What kind of stories?’
‘Stories yet to come to be,’ he replies, and he leans back to look at her. She looks back at him, too. She doesn’t think he is quite as revolting as she did, this ungracefully aging old man with his guitar as worn as he is. She realises now that this man has chosen to look the part he plays: roving troubadour, underworld minstrel, busking wastrel. The ratty denim jacket, festooned with badges and patches of forgotten bands and political causes that cry both victory and failure; the guitar similarly decorated with peeling, cracked stickers. He has long hair beneath an old Trilby, with a lighter tucked in the band. His stubble is uneven and grey. So are his eyes.
He is still watching her watching him. She wonders how she looks to him. She imagines that her youth must stand out by comparison. Her clothes are new, untorn, mostly undecorated. Her only jewellery is her ear studs –little grinning skulls, a gift from her boyfriend – and the friendship bracelet she still wears out of sentimentality. Her hoodie says THE SLITS in big letters, and she wonders if he might appreciate the classic punk reference, or resent it on someone who wasn’t even born when they mattered, or if he just doesn’t care at all.
‘It’s pretty insignificant,’ he says, and she starts. She opens her mouth to say something, but he puts a finger to a badge on his chest to tap it and she realises she’s been staring at it. ‘But I remember because we won. They came to tear up an old Saxon burial site, to run another road on through.’
‘What happened?’ she asks.
‘Same as always. Many of us gathered, proved that people together can make a difference, with D-locks and chains and solidarity. That time we stalled the work long enough that the local residents got themselves a good lawyer. They stopped the council going against the will of the people.’
She nods. She imagines tree houses and ropes, people locked to construction equipment and lying across roads. She has never seen this, but has read about it a few times.
‘So tell me again about those stories,’ she asks the old man.
He shakes his head slowly and looks out over her shoulder, towards the sea. He looks to the first pier, east, and sighs, then looks at the second to the west, and frowns. She almost repeats the question, but opts to wait a little more patiently.
‘They’re not stories in words, young lady,’ he says, his voice cracking as he says “words”. ‘They’re sensations in song. Aberrances in the air. Broken strings when they ought not break.’ He looks straight at her. ‘An exceptionally attentive audience.’
She smiles a half-smile, then shivers as a sea breeze tickles the back of her neck. She smoothes her hair back into place as she replies.
‘Something does feel a bit weird.’
‘How do you make that?’ he asks. He draws a long, slender joint out of some hidden pocket. ‘You smoke?’
‘Sure,’ she replies. ‘And I dunno. People just seem more on edge tonight. My friends all went home, said they weren’t in the mood to be out. Maybe it’s just air pressure.’
‘You shouldn’t,’ he says. ‘Smoke.’
She shrugs and he shrugs, and he sparks up. He takes a big draw, closes his eyes for a moment, and exhales as if he’s sighing a river.
‘That’s it,’ he nods, eyes still closed. ‘People know something’s coming. And old Bessie here’ – he pats his guitar – ‘is many times as sensitive. The songs tell me something’s going to happen, and it’s not going to be so good.’
She shivers again, and pulls her hoodie closer around her neck. ‘Why’s it called Bessie?’
‘Bessie? She’s not called Bessie. That’s a stupid name for a guitar.’
He grins and offers her the spliff. She takes it and pulls a tentative toke. Her eyes water almost immediately; it’s rolled strong. She exhales carefully, trying not to cough. She thinks the old man is still grinning at her – she does the same thing to her little sister – but when she blinks her eyes clear she sees that he’s looking out to sea again.
‘Things are going to get weird,’ he tells her. ‘Stay indoors and cover your windows tomorrow morning. It will be for the best.’
‘What about you?’ she says. She swings between worrying that this poor, mad old fool will end up getting his head kicked in by someone looking for an easy fight, and wondering if she’ll be better off with him if he proves to be right in some way.
‘I’ll get by,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen weird stuff before, and though I don’t think this is my fight I want to keep an eye on whosoever steps up.’
She takes another toke and hands the spliff back. ‘What’s your name?’ she asks him.
He shrugs. ‘Most folks I see on the road know me as Great Gatsby.’
‘Some old joke. I forget. Doesn’t matter. So what did your parents call you?’
‘That what you like to be called?’
He nods, and she turns a little to look out to sea where he still gazes. They share the rest of the joint and then, not exchanging any more words, they stand and walk back towards town, towards the gaudy light of civilization.
Charles Teece, twelve-year resident of Brighton & Hove, ex-student turned minimum wage slave turned benefit dependant, is obsessed with atomic weaponry.
He sits upright in bed at night, a dole-thin roll-up clamped between yellow-stained fingers, staring out of his grimy window towards the vista of his seaside town. From his home he can see much of the city: to the west lies the commercial bohemia of the Laines and the central station with the beginnings of affluent Hove just beyond; Moulsecoomb is visible to the north, and the piers and sea to the south.
Charles thinks that this is a good view to soak in whilst imagining his annihilation in a nuclear holocaust.
He likes to roll these words around in his head, and occasionally whisper them as though divulging a wicked secret. Nuclear. Holocaust. As he thinks them he imagines what they mean to him. One means brilliance and thunder and simplicity. The other is darkness and silence and simplicity. They follow one another so perfectly.
A flash of divine judgement, he thinks, to wipe clean the slate of mewling, self-destructive and self-pitying humanity. A firestorm to purify.
Charles Teece does not think much of other people.
At first he used to discuss his opinions with others, and had been pleased to find that he was not alone in his growing hatred of humankind. At first he had laughed and joked about the stupidity of others. The banalities they gossiped about. The trivialities they entertained themselves with. The ennui-inspiring pointlessness of their cherished lives, careers, and relationships.
But it had not taken long for Charles’s contempt to spread to these whining, preening oafs who professed to despise the weaknesses of humanity, but were too proud or stupid to recognise that they did so for their own flaws. How they enjoyed the pedestals on which they placed themselves, waving the little titles and trophies that differentiated them from the braying masses surrounding them.
Charles knows that he is different. He recognises and fully accepts how pathetic he is. How deeply unnecessary – damaging even – his own existence is.
So he took to the worship of the Bomb, the most feared of humanity’s creations, above even God. He likes to imagine that the purity of the Bomb can even eradicate a sinful soul, tearing it beyond the reaches of any afterlife, dissolving it into blissful nothingness.
He has opened his heart to destruction. He has offered up the last days of his body and mind that the day of destruction might come sooner. He has invited that angelic light that sneers at redemption.
So it is that when the breaking dawn over East Sussex is torn asunder by the radiant fury of a nuclear fission reaction, Charles watches from his window until his eyes burn out, and his final thought is “at last.”
It’s the end of the world.
Ellie is gone, and Khassan is panicking.
He woke with a start, arms swinging like threshing sticks as he fought off an illusory assailant. Then he realised that the ground was shaking, that plaster dust was falling from the ceiling of the cellar, and that there was an empty space in the bed beside him where Ellie was not.
He did the only thing he could have done under the circumstances: he fell out of bed, catching a nerve in his elbow as he landed, and vented his vestigial god-belief in general shock and confusion.
Khassan lives in a basement flat. The window is boarded up after being shattered by drunks the previous week. He can see that it is bright outside, as light creeps around the splintered edges of cheap plasterboard. Khassan thinks that it is too early to be that bright, but he isn’t sure of the time because the face of his clock-radio is blank and he does not own a watch.
The ground, the walls, the ceiling, Khassan’s bones: all are still rumbling, trembling, shaking, but it is becoming softer and gentler now. Khassan’s teeth are chattering, though, because he feels cold and scared and alone. He wants to look for Ellie, but he doesn’t want to go outside.
At first he elects to curl up in a little ball on the bed and whimper. He does this for a few minutes and finds that the boredom calms him. He still has no idea what is happening, and is still scared and alone, but his thoughts come a little easier now.
He walks over to the small kitchen, little more than a dead-end corridor lined with cupboards and cheap utilities, and opens the fridge. It is dark and silent, but still cool. The power has not been off for long.
Khassan picks up a bottle of milk, sniffs the open neck and pulls a face. He puts the bottle in the sink beside a stack of plates and swigs from a carton of grapefruit juice instead.
He returns to the front room, walking over the bed, and tentatively peers at one edge of the boarded-up window. Light is still shining around it. The rumbling has all but gone. The wood feels slightly hot to the touch.
Khassan turns away from the window, walks back to the kitchen sink. The tap is still running so he splashes water on himself, a cursory scrub aided by a tea towel displaying a pictographic list of British woodland birds. Then he collects up clothes and shoes and puts them on. After looking at the door for a few seconds he returns to his wardrobe and retrieves a small rucksack. This he stuffs with items from the fridge: juice, a bottle of mineral water, Dairylea cheese triangles, shrink-wrapped salami, a half-packet of biscuits that shouldn’t be in there.
He walks back to the front door but pauses again, hand resting on the handle. He feels that there is still something he is forgetting. He turns his head, inexorably, until he is facing the far corner of the room, where his electric guitar sits on a stand. A discarded sock hangs inelegantly from the string-ends that sprout from the head.
The guitar is a 1990s Fender Thinline Telecaster, a model that was discontinued after just a few years in production. Despite its relative youth the guitar has seen better days. According to the salesman Khassan’s brother bought it from it was toured hard for two years straight by a heavy-drinking group of punks. It’s chipped and scratched and covered in torn and worn stickers, but the alder wood body is visible beneath all that. Appearances aside, the guitar is light and well-balanced, and its tone is still as bright and strong as one would expect from a Telecaster.
Without knowing why, or even being able to rationalise carrying an electric guitar without an amp, Khassan picks up the instrument, slings the strap over his shoulder, and reaches out for the door handle. This time he grasps it, twists it, pulls it, and walks out into the bright new day.
It is the night before: Ellie is walking home from the beach, her head full of thoughts and concerns. She wonders if she should go to her parents’ house in Moulsecoomb, or if she should go to Khassan’s place, which is much closer. Of these two options she chooses neither, realising that she wants to sit and think rather than discuss any of her preoccupations with someone else.
Besides, she reasons, explaining her conversation with Gatsby to Khassan would be difficult, and she wouldn’t dare even mention spending time with the old drifter to her father.
To this end she walks to her dealer’s house, stopping en route to buy a bottle of cheap no-brand cider at a local Pakistani-run off license. As it turns out her dealer is away, out of town at a factory rave, but his girlfriend his home and knows Ellie well enough to weigh out a tenbag for her.
Thus equipped she finds a quiet, sheltered, hidden area near St. Peters’ Church, and begins to get drunk and stoned and worried about the end of the world. The drunker she gets the more upset she becomes, and the more frustrated that she does not know what is going to happen. Conversely, the higher she gets, the less significant these concerns become and the more resigned she feels to… anything. Whatever might be coming.
Eventually she resolves that she should go wake Khassan, and then passes out.
It is the morning after: Ellie wakes with a start at a terrific rumbling sensation that surrounds her above and below. Her eyelids flick open momentarily and she cries out, throwing up her hands, for the sky is afire. Even through tightly-shut eyes and her hands the light remains visible through the pinkness of her lids and fingers. She cries out again, in fear this time, and rolls over. She curls into a foetal ball and presses her face into the grass. It is soft and has edges and feels real and cool against her skin. She feels heat beating down upon her back and thighs.
The light still creeps into her awareness, and she thinks nuclear bomb! Nuclear bomb! But there is no rush of air or fire or debris washing over her, just this bright, bright light.
As though the world is punishing her for her doubt, she hears the roar of collapsing masonry. It seems to go on forever, and she imagines row after row of terraced houses tumbling down like dominos made of sand.
Ellie remembers the church, then, and her heart begins to race still faster as she hopes it isn’t about to fall on top of her. She tries not to think of heavy stone blocks crushing her into the soil, or a weathervane piercing her heart. The church doesn’t even have a weathervane.
She keeps her head down and whimpers, quietly, hoping irrationally that someone will come to help her. Her parents, Khassan, unhinged old Gatsby, anyone.
No one comes but eventually the light fades. After a few minutes she takes her arms off the back of her head and peeps out at the world. It is painted a dull orange hue and dust is gusted this way and that in thick clouds, but much of what she can see is still standing, so she stands up and makes a show of brushing dirt off her clothes.
She is lucky: she can see that the roof of the old church has collapsed, caving inwards. Dust rises up through the rent like brown-grey smoke. But the walls have held, and this is what matters to Ellie right now.
A few other buildings look to have suffered; pubs, clubs and gig venues seem to have been hit particularly hard. The Pressure Point, the old Brighton Barfly née Gloucester, the Hobgoblin and more distantly Hector’s House – they’ve all been smashed beyond recognition, but in many cases the houses or cafes beside them still stand.
Ellie has never heard of a nuke this specific, or of cruise missiles being fired at pubs, but she does remember an old man sharing cryptic warnings, and a boyfriend she has begun to worry about. She thinks of her parents briefly, too.
‘Sorry, oldies,’ she murmurs. ‘That boy needs me more than you do.’
She sets off toward Khassan’s bedsit, leaving a ruined church and a half-bottle of cheap piss cider behind her.
['Brighton After the Bomb', Part One, Shaun Green, 2008. Cover image from the Brighton Argus.]