A Glimpse into the future and adaptation
I sat on the step my legs astride but drawn up as a support for my elbows. My head rested between two clenched fists. I’d shut my eyes and tipped my face towards the sun, drinking it in.
Martha sat a little way off on the corner of the concrete rise. Her baggy old skirt billowing out over her knees. Her straggly grey hair lank on her shoulders.
‘He didn’t get nought for nought’ Martha trestled on.
The lightning had ripped through the field at the bottom creating a scorched mark through the corn stubble. The ferocity of the strike had been blamed on global warming, as had the wind that followed laying several trees flat.
‘He didn’t get nought for nought that boy,’ Martha cackled showing a mouthful of yellowing teeth, some missing. I was glad she was that far away – more than two large paces, otherwise her breath would have laid me flat. Martha was neither old nor stupid, but a product of global warming I supposed. Like the large pig with two tails in my next door neighbours garden.
Martha had arrived one night in a hailstorm wearing an old grey trenchcoat done up with a nappy pin, and she’d taken over my shed – just like that. She came to the door the next morning asking for a bucket of water to heat up for a cup of tea. ‘And a wash’ I said; not realising at the time that the lightning had brought her out of her hole. A little known makeshift shack nestled against the cool north facing wall of the old quarry. The ascending sheer cut stone harbouring ferns in the shade – a rare piece of land. The shack had been split wide open in the blast leaving the shelter more open than she cared for. Naturally it had displaced her, so she’d packed up her things and headed for the nearest available hideaway – my shed.
Curiously I’d just accepted her, but then things were strange now, at this time.
The “nought for nought that boy” was her son, who’d hanged himself at thirteen and she’d set light to his body believing him to be dead anyway. Burning him on a bonfire at the bottom of her garden.
‘We all gonna burn up anyway’ she said ‘burn in the hellfire’s of damnation.’ It was probably true I thought, as the sun burned a hole in my night-dress that I’d forgotten to take off. What was that about the righteous shall inherit the earth. Nothing righteous about Martha, or me for that matter.
She lifted her skirt sometimes to show me her fanny. She’d just lift her skirt and cackle, hiding her face with the thin floral print. She never wore underwear – not Martha, and she always revealed a disgusting caked up matt; she never washed either. Her scrawny mottled leathery thighs extended into these little squinty knock knees. I’d often wondered about her former body – the one that had pleased her husband.
I don’t know why she showed me like this? – And I’d stopped looking anyway. Sometimes when Martha sat on the ground with legs akimbo the cat would come sniffing round, and, with some encouragement from Martha, would wander in under her skirt. Then Martha would cackle and capture it under the cotton folds, pressing its warm fur against her. She held it tightly. I was never sure what kind of satisfaction she gained from this. Maybe memories of the warmth of her husband between her legs.
Martha was as dry as the rest of us now.
Dry like the land.
When she’d done with the cat she’d let it go and it would escape in some sort of disorientated frenzy. Well who wouldn’t be in a frenzy pressed against Martha’s fanny?
The cat flopped in the shade of a large pot. She was now bald in places, the sun having singed off patches of her fur so she looked mangy. No more the sweet sensation against Martha’s erogenous zones, the cat was long past care, soon she’d turn on her back with her legs in the air and die.
The searing heat of the sun was now blistering my nose – but this always happened. I’d put a hat on, it shaded what was left of me. The sun didn’t bother Martha, its why she looked so old. The sun had tanned her skin till it was like leather, impervious to everything. She was swaying backwards and forwards humming to herself. A small pool appeared on the concrete, she’d peed herself again. It didn’t matter though it evaporated almost instantly.
‘It’s why you look so old Martha. It’s the sun.’ I pointed heavenward, she cackled.
‘Stupid bloody sun,’ she said.
‘They give you two minutes these days,’ I said to her, thinking she’d know.
‘Who’s they?’ She said, squinting at me.
‘Them on the telly – it used to be half hour, now it’s just two minutes.’
Two minutes of sun exposure before you fried. They’d even warned us against using oil because it sizzled. Hospitals were full of cooked bodies.
There aren’t any leaves on the trees either. The ground gets so dry around July that the leaves are shed in June. They come early though, around January when there’s some rain. It’s quite tropical. It monsoons. The rain just pours out of the sky and runs off the land swelling rivers and lakes. It disappears though just as quickly as it comes.
The farmer who owns the field at the bottom always sows his corn in January and collects the water for irrigation. The corn ripens before June, before the lightning and the hot winds. Then come August, it’s like this. The whole pattern has changed – people die in August.
Martha’s up now doing her little dance, her rain dance she calls it. Her breasts flopping around under her baggy floral dress, her eyes still blue but narrowed now. She’s annoying me a bit, her shadow is dancing around and she’s strobing the sun. It’s not like the dappling of the trees if they had leaves on, its harsh and irritating. She’s chanting now and turning in circles. The pig next door is squealing.
Martha stops dancing. ‘Stop that bloody pig, from that noise,’ she hurls the abuse over the fence. ‘Can’t get into my stride with that racket,’ she tutts and looks put out.
‘Oh shut up yourself you silly old crone,’ comes the rough re-course.
I feel a little indignant that the fat old cow next door should call Martha names, but indignation isn’t enough. I ought to shoot the pig and put it out of its misery. Perhaps I should shoot Martha, but then Martha’s not stupid. This kind of bantering could go on all morning – when Martha gets a bee in her bonnet. Instead she turns on me and comes in close, a little too close for comfort. I lean back. She wags her finger.
‘Shouldn’t be allowed that squealing, poor creature out in this sun.’
‘Mutation’ I say – ‘its mutated. Besides pigs have got skin like you Martha.’ She squints one eye at me dragging the corners of her mouth down. She’s trying to focus on me. Then she pauses.
‘What people on the telly – who tells us it’s two minutes?’
‘The meteorological guys – the weathermen.’
‘Oh’ she says, moving away from me, looking at me with a frown. It’s funny how she suddenly thinks about things long after they’ve been said.
‘Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean, and so between the two of them they licked the platter clean,’ she sings in a high squeaky voice. It’s her favourite rhyme. It always makes me think of next door’s pig – perhaps that’s why Martha sings it? She lifts her dress and wiggles her scrawny bottom at me, I have to laugh and she cackles too shuffling off down the steps to the shed. I guessed she was going to siesta and dream about her dead husband, and her nought for nought son, and her once youthful body and her brilliant mind.
When I went down to the shed later with her bucket of water, she’d gone. Just cleared out. I sat down on the ground which was supposed to be grass, instead was dried earth like concrete. My nose felt hot again and I thought – shit. So I raced back to the house and got my hat, then returned to sit in vigil.
I saw the old garden trowel laying on the ground near the shed so I tried to dig a hole but the trowel bent. There was a thin blade of grass poking out of a crack – maybe Martha had peed there and left a smidgen of moisture. Then I caught a glimpse of my pink wobbly neighbour, and her pink wobbly husband sitting in the shade of an umbrella. Their pink wobbly pig mutation was there as well, and it all seemed pretty sickening that Martha had gone and left me in this desert where only cactus grow now. The corn field was bare, and soon the rain would come, then the lightning, then the wind, and then the sun again; and our exposure would be down to thirty seconds. The acceleration of geological evolution – the sea would soon be lapping at our toes.
The very next day the shed burnt down. I suspected my neighbours cigarette. The fat old bird may have had a twinge of conscience as she waddled down to the bottom of her garden in her flip flops, to ask me if there was anything she could do. I feebly threw a bucket of water at the glowing embers.
She folded her arms which caused the crease of her cleavage to extend to her chin. Her skin was pink, but in her fatness, impervious, like Martha’s. ‘I ‘ope the old crone weren’t in there?’ She said in her coarse voice, nodding her head in the direction of the pile of ashes, trying to sound concerned; but her stifled smile was righteous. God help us all, I thought, if she inherits the earth.
I think this is why Martha left, she knew that I was doomed and that my neighbour wasn’t.
The fire had displaced some orange and green lizards which now scuttled around my feet. It was all right for them – they liked the heat, and I had too – once. I’d felt happiest viewing acres of dry landscape, when I could bask. But basking was out of the question now, and the lightning frightened me and I hated the wind; and I wanted to roam like Martha. To find somewhere where dryness wasn’t all consuming.
It was global warming that had taken hold with a hint of self destruction, and only the righteous would inherit the earth. Maybe we had to adapt like the seasons. Maybe Martha was a sign. Maybe I was righteous after all and would find someone else’s shed more comfortable than my own. Besides, I couldn’t stand the noise the pig made and knew Martha would make it rain somewhere.
by Jane Bregazzi