Brighton After the Bomb (2008): Part Two
In this, the second part of ‘Brighton After the Bomb’, we meet the one responsible for the dreadful mess made of Brighton and Hove in part one. It is possible that the destruction has overwhelmed the city’s refuse collection capacity.
Part one of ‘Brighton After the Bomb’ can be read here.
Brighton After the Bomb (Part Two)
The old man called Great Gatsby is sitting on top of the peace memorial at the Old Steine, looking down the way towards the sea, watching the pier and the glassy sea beyond. There are a few other people about but they are moving without purpose, clearly unsure of what has happened.
Some buildings have been completely destroyed, levelled. The organic supermarket and some of the neighbouring shops flanking the bottom of St. James street, just to Gatsby’s left, are rubble. On his other side the branch of Natwest is untouched, through a neat ring has been scorched around it, passing right through a bus stop and several fences.
But there is also a lot that is still standing. Many buildings have suffered only light damage – the ratty old YMCA building for one – and some have escaped entirely unscathed.
Great Gatsby chews on a tooth pick and picks at the dirt under his nails. He stares down at the pier as though expecting something, but it does not react. The neon lights do not blink. The rides do not move. The little stalls have little blank wooden faces that tell him the prices of things that are not for sale, although he can’t make out the prices from here.
He sighs and looks up. The sky is a vibrant, unhealthy orange. Black clouds swirl around a central point that is still uncomfortably bright to look at. However, further away, perhaps just a few miles, the sky is typically overcast, an ordinary and grey British day.
It’s just Brighton, then. Gatsby sighs again and looks back toward Palace Pier. It remains motionless.
A voice calls out: ‘Hey! You can’t be there!’
Gatsby looks down. In front of him, on the other side of a fountain filled with dead seagulls, there is a middle-aged man wearing suit trousers and a white shirt with no tie. He has a mobile phone in his hand.
‘Walk on,’ Gatsby tells the man, in his most gravelly frontman voice. The square looks confused as the charisma hits him, blinking stupidly at Gatsby for a few seconds, but then he turns and walks away toward North Street.
Gatsby resumes watching the sea. After a few minutes he climbs down, hops the fence, and walks toward the pier.
Khassan rubs at his shoulder where the guitar strap bites into it and looks out over the beach. He can see more than a few dozen other people, more young than old, strung out along its length, all carrying instruments of some sort. Guitars are most common, followed by bass guitars and drums like bongos or djembes. Some of the musicians are standing around talking and others are watching the sea.
Khassan is feeling a little light-headed, partly because he hasn’t eaten any of the snacks in his rucksack, but also because parts of his city have been destroyed, the streets are strangely empty, and he hasn’t found Ellie, who he had hoped would be hanging about by the new pier.
No such luck. He checks up and down the seafront again, just in case, then sighs and walks toward the closest guitar-wielder.
‘Have you seen a girl?’ he asks the old man. He holds his hand up to his neck. ‘About yay tall, pretty, brown hair and eyes, wears little skull earrings?’
‘I surely have,’ he replies. ‘Twice.’
‘Once last night, and once just now, over there.’
He points back over Khassan’s shoulder. Khassan turns and sees Ellie instantly, just now rounding the corner by the ruined Sealife Centre. He whistles and waves and she catches sight of him, running over in an endearingly clumsy-looking lope. They hug and they kiss, and then Ellie buries her head in Khassan’s chest.
‘I was worried about you,’ he says.
She has her eyes squeezed tightly shut, but the look on her face is one of happiness.
‘Did you feel the bomb?’ he asks her, and the look disappears. She opens her eyes and looks up at him.
‘Wasn’t a bomb,’ says the old man with the guitar, itching his nose. ‘Not rightly sure what it was exactly, but it hit the city in lots of different ways. Affected people differently, too, from what I can see. Probably just meant to sow discord and confusion, some game like that.’
Ellie raises her eyebrow at the old man; Khassan stares at him with his mouth hanging open, perplexed. He looks back at them both and shrugs.
‘Fuck the man,’ he says, and pulls a rollup from the band of his hat.
‘This is, um, Great Gatsby,’ says Ellie. She slips a hand into Khassan’s pocket and pats his leg. ‘He’s a friend.’
‘Okay,’ Khassan says. ‘Sure. What the fuck did you just say about the bomb, man?’
‘I said it wasn’t a bomb, son, and that I don’t know what it was. But it wasn’t a bomb. Look around you, at all these livin’, breathin’ folks. If ground zero had been within a few kilometres that wouldn’t be happening. See? Not a nuke.’
Khassan shakes his head and looks away. ‘Whatever, man.’
Ellie pipes up now: ‘Gatsby, is this what you were talking about yesterday? You said something was coming?’
‘Bessie said something was coming. But no, no, I think that was just a precursor to what’s coming.’
‘Bessie?’ asks Khassan. ‘Precursor?’
‘It’s not the name of his guitar,’ says Ellie. ‘Don’t bother asking. And prec-‘
‘I know what precursor means,’ Khassan snaps, but before Ellie can react he hugs her. ‘Sorry.’
‘Young ones,’ says Gatsby, his voice cautionary. His hand is tight on the neck of his guitar, and he spits out his smoke.
Khassan and Ellie turn to see dark figures coming out of the gentle waves of the sea. From a distance they are hard to make out, but there are a half-dozen of them already. They are shaped like men but no living man is death-blackened and water-bloated, and no man makes noises like these things, and no man comes from out of the sea and lurches toward-
One of the dead men has laid a hand on a kid down near the shore, a kid too dumbfounded to turn and run. The boy screams and tries to recoil, but the dead man has too tight a grip and he can’t get away.
The hard edge of a heavy Washburn Lyon bass smacks into the dead man’s temple and passes straight on through. The kid screams as he frees his arm, and the dead man keeps screaming as half his head slops onto the stones like black bile. The girl with the bass stares for a few seconds, but lifts the guitar again when the dead man doesn’t fall.
There are similar scenes up and down the beach. The dark zombies, fat with putrification, are attacking anyone they see. Some brave folk fight back, smashing them with stones from the beach, with instruments, plastic restaurant furniture, anything that comes to hand.
‘Jesus Christ,’ Ellie whispers, trembling. ‘What the fucking fuck. The fuck.’
‘Praise Allah,’ Khassan whispers back. ‘I think they were Special Boat Service.’
Gatsby looks over but says nothing as Khassan continues. ‘I think I recognise the uniform. My old man knew a few in the service.’
‘Christ,’ repeats Ellie. She watches a dreadlocked man flailing his bongos at a pair of the SBS zombies, screaming curses as they weather his blows and fall upon him.
‘We’ve got to get the fuck out of here,’ Khassan says. He takes a step away from the sea, pulls Ellie by the arm. ‘Come on.’
‘You ain’t going anywhere.’
Khassan and Ellie both turn to look at Gatsby. The old man isn’t watching the struggles on the seafront. He’s staring out to sea, still, just past the pier.
‘You going to try and stop us, old man?’
Ellie slaps Khassan’s chest and glares at him, but Khassan shakes his head at her. ‘Hey, I know he’s your friend, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna stay here and get… eaten, or whatever the hell those things plan to do.’
‘You can’t go,’ said Gatsby, ‘because whatever’s coming? Bessie tells me it’s here.’
Ellie stares at him, aghast.
Khassan says: ‘A nuke and zombies aren’t enough?’ He tugs at Ellie’s elbow.
Gatsby points at the Palace Pier.
The thing emerges from the sea, the surface breaking over its head with an audible pop. The beast’s many mouths roar in anticipation of triumph. It flexes those angular, distorted limbs that have pulled free of the dark prison, and surveys all that is arrayed against it.
The roar becomes a laugh, a terrible chorus of unholy mirth. There are only a scattered few children in body or mind standing along the waterfront. There is nothing here that can threaten it.
The beast crawls a little further from the sea, dragging itself upright with talons sunk into the structure of the pier. Wood and metal cracks and breaks under claws and fingers as flat and wide as surfboards. Maws loll open, hungry for victory; tongues lash teeth in anticipation of sated hunger. Tentacles wave freely from joints and eyes, delicately writing patterns in the air with their tips.
And this impossible thing pauses, for a moment, as a small group of tiny people sally forth from a nearby building, lances over their shoulders and power trailing behind them.
The beast’s many eyes narrow.
Khassan and Ellie watch in horror as the thing rears from the sea and bellows. It defies description. Its bulk is as yet only partially visible, half-pulled from the sea’s embrace. The monstrosity’s sharply-angled arms and fluidly contorting tentacles wave around its body – and what might pass for heads – in a regular pattern that it hurts to look at.
Gatsby stares at the beast, neutrally, carefully, and then looks over towards a small nearby café from which a band of men and women are hurrying.
They’re carrying all the equipment a band could need; guitars, a drum kit, mics and stands, amps, and a small speaker stack. Everything is set up above the sea walls with impressive speed, as though the band and their roadies have been drilled with military precision. Leads connect instruments to heads and cabs, which are powered by extension cables trailing back into the café. The drum kit is arranged and mic’ed up in seconds by a team of four, who then hurry back towards the café, to safety. There’s a popping noise as a switch is flicked. The hum of mild feedback is audible over the screams and fighting from the beach below.
Gatsby still watches the band, but he has taken his guitar from his back and now leans on it like a crutch. Khassan and Ellie hold each other, terrified, glancing alternately at the towering monster and the madmen who have set up before it.
The band wait motionless, expressions hidden behind hair as they face down toward the ground. A few dead seconds are soundtracked by the feedback hum as the musicians stare at the pavement, and the demon stares at them.
The drummer raises his arms, knocks his drumsticks together in a four-beat rhythm, and the seafront comes alive with music.
It’s rock and roll, a shredding math-rock rhythm that stomps and cuts with buzz-saw riffs. The demon recoils and screams, its limbs breaking their patterns and coming together protectively over what must pass as its ears. The frontman of the saviour band sings low and soulfully, the vocals complementing the marching-band meticulousness of the music. Down on the beach the SBS zombies are motionless, locked in position. The kids and musos that have yet to flee take advantage of this respite to lay in some blows, crushing the limbs of their dead opponents so that they can no longer move. They shout curses and threats to the tune of the saviour song.
For a precious minute the great beast struggles, its progress slowed if not stopped, and the zombies fall.
But now there is a faltering in the melody. One of the guitarists has broken a string. He is trying to hold the song together, but he has somehow snapped the A and its absence is all too obvious.
The demon unfolds its terrible limbs and glares balefully at the struggling band, who with the introduction of discord have begun to fall apart. It turns its gaze on the building behind them, the little café that sprouts electricity leads.
A mouth opens and exhales. The café is gone in an instant and with it goes the force of the song. The band stop playing as the speakers die and the quicker of them drop their instruments and flee. None of them make it to safety before the demon turns its attention back to them.
Khassan cringes as the veil of fire descends, but feels a grip on his shoulder and a hand in his, and he looks at Gatsby and Ellie.
‘Your turn,’ says Ellie, firmly.
The demon raises its arms and eyes to the skies, shouting triumph at the heavens in a dozen dead languages. It begins to draw segmented centipede legs from the sea, climbing up and onto the slowly collapsing pier. The beast rejoices at the snapping and popping sensations as its underlimbs emerge fully into this fresh new world.
For a moment it believes it has won, that soon it will be totally manifest. But before all of the centipede legs are extricated from the morass of seawater and unbeing another song is struck up, and it screams at the unbearable pain. It feels its hard, sharp, precise, ordered edges begin to warp and crack as they are assailed by this intolerably sloppy music.
It falls back a little, giving some ground as it tries to think through the pain, to will those last few parts of itself into being. It is not easy. This new song is so much more offensive and powerful than the last. Another few legs sink back into the soup of its ancient prison.
The demon grits billions of teeth and brings its immense, terrible force of will to bear.
Khassan is playing like he has never played before, like he never believed he could play. He’s jamming freely, hammering out licks and riffs with abandon, letting his fingers do the walking and the guitar do the thinking.
Somehow the unamplified instrument is roaring like a lion, the strings not ringing tinny and flat but rich with life and vigour. He doesn’t question this, any more than he questions the presence of the giant horror before him. He is beyond questioning, his attention focused only on his audience.
‘It’s working,’ says Gatsby beside him, dirty fingernails rapping nervously on the neck of his own guitar. ‘The lad’s got the spirit of it in him.’
Ellie is standing off to one side, watching her boyfriend as he stands in rockstar pose, feet apart, right heel slamming the ground in irregular rhythm. His fingers flow over the fretboard and his hand slides along the neck of his beaten old Telecaster as though it were the most natural thing in the world. She can’t see the pick he has clasped between fingers and thumb, only a blur of colour as it dances over the strings.
The demon has its forelimbs clutched close and protectively, hiding eyes and ears from the song that assails it. For a moment it teeters, unbalanced, and it looks as though it will topple back into the sea. Khassan roars jubilantly, chorusing “fuck you!” to the tune of his song.
It is not victory: the monster recovers balance, spreading its limbs forwards, sinking talons back into what remains of the pier. A thousand eyes fix on Khassan; a thousand mouths drop open, and each of them squeals rage.
Khassan misses a beat, hits a string of bum notes as his fingers slip.
He recovers near-instantly, but the momentary weakness is enough. The demon hauls itself to a more stable position, and now it is almost entirely out of the sea. It begins to cackle, the foul rumble just audible beneath the song. It has beaten Khassan for a second, and if it can force one more mistake it will be free.
Ellie knows what she has to do. She turns to Gatsby and lifts Bessie from his grip. He doesn’t look at her. His attention is fixed on the demon, and for the first time Ellie can see fear in the old man’s eyes.
There’s a pick jammed beneath the scratchplate. Ellie fishes it out, stands beside Khassan, and begins to tap her foot to the beat. She waits, settling to the rhythm, seeking the song.
She lets go of herself, closing her eyes and sinking into the sound. It washes around her, hot and passionate and familiar. Soon it feels as if even her heart has caught the beat, adding gentle arrhythmia to the song.
It is at this point that Ellie hears the guitar begin to sing to her.
Her eyes snap open and her hands begin to move.
The demon’s cackle is broken instantly, washed away in this new tide of music. Mouths open to scream fury once more, but their voice has been taken. The grip of its claws and pincers on the pier loosens. Forelimbs flail uselessly, trying to both protect sensory organs and find a hold.
Black blood, dark and foul like that of the dead soldiers, jets from half a dozen of the snub ears that dot its heads. Broken capillaries run black across its eyes: one detonates spectacularly, flinging jelly and filth outwards. The demon screams and begins to topple.
The song senses weakness in its opponent. Khassan and Ellie push toward crescendo, he now laying a ferocious, squawking solo over her chords and licks. As the penultimate notes ring out the demon screams and releases its talonholds. At the song’s zenith, it ceases to be.
It is anticlimactic. There is no great splash as a monstrous carcass hits the water. The demon is just gone.
The song spent, Khassan and Ellie falter to an unsteady stop. The pier creaks and groans unsteadily, threatening an imminent collapse. On the beach a few awestruck survivors stare at the space where the creature was, or at the vile messes that were once men that lie lifeless about them.
Khassan and Ellie feel a hand on their shoulders. They turn to look at Gatsby and he grins at them.
‘Nicely played,’ the old man says.
[‘Brighton After the Bomb’, Part Two, Shaun Green, 2008. Cover image from the Brighton Argus.]