This is a short story I wrote just after I finished university in 2011 and thought that writing short stories might be an idea. It was not to be, as I struggled pitifully to keep ‘Rooks’ down to 120,000 words–about the top end word count for a YA book–and that’s after what I had originally envisioned as being a stand alone had to be turned into three books because of its length.
The point is that I am not skilled in the art of brevity, so even my short stories were scarcely able to be restrained by 2k or 3k word limits. But this is one of my successes (in that regard at least), so if you like short stories or something then read this while you wait for my book to become available on kindle. It’s more verbose than I’d write nowadays, but everyone grows. I mean, you should try reading the first thing I ever wrote–
The first thing I ever wrote…
Hmm. Well, I know what I’ll be treating you all to later on in the week! For now, enjoy ‘The Window Cleaner’.
Twelve years, seven months and seven days after that abrupt apocalypse had seen an end to all life on earth, there was a knock on my bedroom window.
Instinctively, my eyes pointed themselves in the direction of that window, and behind the dark blue curtains I could see the silhouette of a man in the afternoon sun. The shadowy figure was distorted and slanted by the direction of the light, but even after I blinked several times it did not dissemble and reveal itself to be a figment of my imagination, so I didn’t try to move.
There shouldn’t have been anyone out there, of course. That was the thing about there being no life on earth; objects that were not alive were unlikely, no, unable to knock on your window, so logically there was no one knocking on my window. And yet I could see a man-shaped figure right in front of me, ostensibly alive and as I said, knocking on my window. Given that there had been an apocalypse I suppose it could have been a mutant zombie vampire or something, although that would just be all I needed in my current state.
As I tried to think this through, there was another knock at the window, a little louder this time, and I could see the head of the figure turn around to look behind them and back again, as if seeking some kind of assistance. I was afraid, I suppose. I hadn’t spoken to or seen anyone in almost thirteen years, so I had good reason to be, but now that I think about it the person at the window was strangely un-frightening for someone who shouldn’t have existed. It was constantly moving its head, stretching out to try and get a better view of its surroundings in a way that I thought, as ill-positioned as I was to make this kind of judgement, made it seem confused.
It knocked a third time. I was quite sure I wasn’t imagining such sounds by now, so I flinched away from it as any sane person would have. The figure still refused to expose itself as a ghost of unreality, and I could have sworn I heard a voice say, “Hello?” come from roughly where the figure was.
“Excuse me,” I thought I heard it say. “Is there anyone in there?”
It spoke with a west country accent. I didn’t think that if I was having a hallucination it would speak with a west country accent, so I pushed myself up and out of my chair, brushing away the cobwebs that had been keeping me there. I didn’t go to the window immediately, I was too nervous to do something like that, but once there was another knock, even sharper than before, I folded my arms around myself and took a few steps forward.
My legs were awkward, slow to move and weak enough to make me worry that if I stood on them too long they’d snap. I cringed and held onto the wall for support, my skin crawling with each footprint I left in the heavy build-up of dust. I don’t think I’d left that chair in at least six months—there hadn’t really been any point in doing so until now.
It seemed to take far longer than it should have for me to reach the window. I still didn’t want to draw attention to myself so I only drew the curtain back far enough to get the tiniest glimpse of the other side, but I had to push it back immediately because I hadn’t seen the sun in about two years and had been unprepared for the shock. I hadn’t had much cause to look at the sun, and it was bad for your skin anyway. For all I knew I had only survived as long as I had because I had stayed away from it.
The figure had obviously seen me though, despite my not being able to see it in turn. It called out to me. “Hello? I’m sorry to disturb you like this, but can I talk to you for a minute?”
I shielded my eyes and pulled back the curtain again. The light was still strong, like the white-out effect of a nuclear bomb, but I persevered as I had always done and pushed the curtain so that the rings slid across the rail with a little rustling sound, slowed down so much it was almost a squeak.
Eventually, my eyes began to acclimate. I could see that the figure at the window was about forty, chubby and with no visible hair beneath the helmet he was wearing. He had one of those faces which made other faces look uncooked, with nervous little grey eyes and a plastic smile. His hands were holding onto a rope suspending him from the top of the building, which I supposed was how he was able to knock on my bedroom window despite me being quite a few floors up. I didn’t remember the exact amount. On the outside windowsill was a bucket with a rag half hanging out of it, and from that and his bright orange jumpsuit I guessed he was there to clean the windows.
Far be it from me to guess why anyone would want to clean windows after the end of the world—perhaps he’d found it difficult to kick the habit?
He smiled wider when I managed to look up far enough to meet his eyes. “Did I wake you up?” he asked. “Sorry about that. Can you hear me all right? Maybe opening the window would be better?”
His voice was indeed muffled, but I didn’t know if my hands had the strength to pull the handle down and push the thing out. I supposed it would be rude not to even make the attempt and I gave it a try. It was surprisingly easy for windows which hadn’t been opened since before the apocalypse. (I had never opened my windows. You never knew what might get in).
“Ah, that’s better,” said the figure. “As I say, I’m really sorry to disturb you, but I need to know—is this the Eliot building?”
I hesitated in answering him, firstly because I wasn’t sure and secondly because I’d stopped talking a very long time ago. This was simply the building I’d been holed up in for the last thirteen years, and I hadn’t left it in any time recent enough for me to remember what it might have been called.
My silence was clearly awkward for him however. “Um…” he said slowly. “Actually, maybe this is the wrong place…”
When I opened my mouth to try and answer him I swear I heard my jaw creak. “I…” I said. “I don’t know.”
“Oh?” He continued to look around, periodically returning his gaze to me but for the most part looking anywhere else but. “Is there anyone else inside?” he asked.
I frowned at the question which had such an obvious answer. “No,” I told him. “I thought I was the only survivor.” My curiosity piqued, I leant forward a bit to try and see if maybe someone else was out there. There wasn’t, of course, just the endless flat miles of devastated wasteland, charcoal and maroon in the light of the too-bright sun, stretching out as far as I could see and no doubt even beyond that. “What’s your name?” I asked the man.
“Jim,” he said, managing to bend his lips into a smile for a moment, “I’m Jim. I was just up here to clean the windows, but I think I might have got the wrong building. I’m sorry if I woke you up.”
I didn’t think any hallucination of mine would call themselves Jim either. I suppose that meant he was really there. “How did you survive?” I asked him. I think it had been too long for me to conjure up much excitement.
His eyes went wide and he was completely still for a few seconds, then he looked around once more and then back at me. “Same way we all do, I guess?” he said. He made it sound like a question, which was understandable. I too had long since forgotten how I’d survived.
“It’s not too dangerous out there, then?” I wanted to know because this incident was making me feel like maybe it was time I left the room again, even if only just the one more time, but I wasn’t going to do it if it was dangerous out there.
“Dangerous?” the word was spoken almost as a laugh. “I guess you could say it’s as dangerous as it ever was!”
A somewhat philosophical answer, I thought; not exactly the kind I was looking for. Still, I couldn’t expect myself to muster up enough strength to ask the same question twice. I tried to think of something else to say that might be useful.
It was Jim who asked the next question, about the same time as I became acclimated enough to the light to drop one of my hands. “Were you having some kind of nightmare?” he asked.
I shook my head a little, as much as I could. “No, I was awake,” I said.
“Oh.” He looked past me and into the room now, not even trying to disguise his peering. “How long have you been cooped up in there?”
It took me a while to remember that the word I wanted to answer him with wasn’t a word at all, but a gesture. I shrugged.
“Well, that’s probably too long then—if you don’t mind me saying so of course, I mean I’m only a window cleaner, aren’t I? Why don’t you come outside, enjoy the sunshine for a while, that sort of thing?”
“Bad for your skin,” I informed him.
“Eh?” he said.
“The sun,” I said. “The ultra violet rays cause skin cancer. Even a little exposure can cause damage.”
“Well, that may be,” said Jim, though he didn’t look like he believed it, “but you can’t stay shut away forever, can you?”
I don’t know, I’d been doing pretty well so far.
“Tell you what,” he said, glancing at his wrist, “it’s almost lunch time. Come on up to the roof and have a sandwich with me, eh?”
The roof? I’d never been to the roof of the building before, wasn’t even sure how to get there. Sure, I think I could have been forgiven for slacking off from my very important task of staring into space for weeks on end, but the thought of leaving the room honestly frightened me. Of course, I didn’t get much of a chance to explain that.
“See you there!” said Jim, and with a little wave he began scaling back up the wall, and I was too unused to speaking after such a long time to ask him to wait.
Thus I was compelled to go to the roof. To do otherwise would have been rude. It was easier than I thought to open the door to my room, I hadn’t locked it the last time I came in and although it creaked horribly it was actually even less stiff than the window had been. A few dust-ridden cobwebs drifted to the floor as I stood there, peering out at the corridor. My room had been right at the end. Fifteen point five, it said on the door, so I suppose that meant I was on the fifteenth floor. I couldn’t remember how many floors there were altogether, but I hoped it wasn’t that many more than fifteen. Taking the lift would have been incredibly stupid after twelve years without servicing after all, and in my experience lifts had been unreliable enough even before the apocalypse.
I shuffled slowly through the dust and bits of peeled paint towards the door to the stairs, having to use almost my whole body weight to push it open. The stairs were the hardest part—it turned out the building had eighteen floors and with my having been sitting in a chair for at least half a year or so before this, climbing them was gruelling. The top floor had a little door marked ‘access to roof’ with a bar across it, and on my third attempt I managed to push it down and get up to the stairs to the roof.
Despite having just parted company, I was still surprised to see Jim there, undoing the straps of his harness with a frown of concentration. He looked up and waved to me when the door shut. “Hello, there!” he called.
There was a box on the ground which was open, and I could see sandwiches wrapped in Clingfilm inside it from where I was.
“I, uh, didn’t bring anything,” I said awkwardly. I wondered vaguely where he’d got the bread from. Where he’d got anything at all from was a mystery, come to think of it.
“No worries,” he said with a laugh, stepping out of his harness. “I don’t mind sharing!”
I couldn’t think of a reply. While he poured a cup of steaming liquid from a thermos I inspected the rest of his lunch box. There must have been at least two sandwiches in there, the box was quite deep. A packet of crisps, a Kit Kat, a Pepperami—which I personally wouldn’t have eaten, I was pretty sure those things had to be kept refrigerated and since they probably stopped making them around about the time the world ended, that one would have been lying around for who knows how long. Then there was a separate box of what looked to be raw carrots, and a sprig of grapes.
Grapes were nice. I used to like grapes, I remembered. These were the red kind. I reached forward for one then stopped and checked to see if it was all right with Jim. “Go ahead,” he said, smiling at me. I picked one off the branch and sat back. I wasn’t really all that hungry, so I just concentrated on the feel of holding a grape, how cool it was, and firm, but I knew it was liable to be crushed if I pressed it too hard so I was careful. It was a nice shade of red too.
“Thanks,” I said, as soon as I remembered to say it.
“No worries,” Jim replied. He patted me on the shoulder lightly and a cloud of dust swirled into the air. I flinched at the impact, it was so unusual for me that I think I blocked it out immediately after. Then after a brief pause, the odd man started up conversation again. “Isn’t it nice to be out here in the fresh air?” he said.
I looked up at the yellow sky and red sun. Being in the fresh air after so long was indeed… refreshing, but I couldn’t help but be nervous about the consequences.
“You can have some of the carrots too, if you like,” Jim went on. “I hate the buggers. And a quarter of the Kit Kat, seeing as how that’s not good for me anyway, and I can spare at least half a sandwich and a few crisps. You like prawn cocktail? I wish I had another cup with me, I could give you some tea, but I have a bottle of water in the bag…”
He went on in that vein for quite some time, talking about nothing in particular and nothing that made any sense to me at any rate. My answers were monosyllabic at best, and sometimes I forgot to answer altogether. But it was strange, because sitting up there on the roof with the window cleaner from the west country whose name was Jim and who was sharing his impossible lunch with me put this odd little thought into my head.
It was a thought of little substance and less common sense, but it popped into my head all the same, and even though it might have been best to ignore such a frivolous notion, I couldn’t help but entertain it—even if only as idle fancy. I don’t think I’d ever had much sense.
And yet, as I sat up there with that strange man and listened to his chatter, it did somehow occur to me that perhaps it was not the end of the world after all.