The orange sky in the big window says it’s late afternoon when I wake up. It’s not dark yet. Even for April the room’s freezing; probably a heat cut. I should have closed the curtains to keep the heat in before I went to sleep, but I don’t remember it seeming so cold when I got back this morning.
Where’s Jo? I say out loud and then half wonder who I am talking to.
It’s probably too late for him to still be out. I hope he didn’t turn up and end up standing outside without a key; we’d argued about that before. I said he was making a big thing about nothing at the time, but I knew he was right, even if I never admitted it. I never admit when I am wrong because I hate saying sorry.
I take one hand out from under my duvet and layers of blankets and press the backs of my fingers flat against my cheek. Fuck that’s cold. My entire face is so much colder than my hand that it sort of feels as if it’s been detached from my body. I feel that familiar sense setting in, of disorientation that comes with waking up and not remembering exactly how the night ended. The familiar sense of unease.
What time is it even? Where is my phone?
I see it sticking out of my shoe, by the bottom of the bed. I turn it on and it says 17:07 is the time: the night we were at would have ended a few hours ago. There are a few which party are you at? messages, but nothing from Jo. At least that means he probably wasn’t stuck waiting outside in the cold. I get up to go and see if Katia or Ana is around to come for a coffee. Now that I am properly awake and I know what time it is, I want to do something with the rest of the day. I want to leave the flat, at least. I knock on Ana’s bedroom door first and there is no answer so I knock again, a few times, and then bang the middle of the door once with the palm of my hand. When she still doesn’t answer I open the door anyway, just to check, but the room is empty. She really is out.
I get a glass of water from the kitchen and then try Katia’s room. She answers on the first knock, Yes, yes, come in.
When I open the door she apologises for the mess and I laugh out loud because, of course, her room is completely pristine. It always is. She even has a rule that you have to leave your shoes in the hall outside her door before entering.
What mess? I ask and she laughs and nods at a single shirt, crumpled on the bed beside her, with a coat hanger beside it. I think of my own room, and the pile of things I brought back from the clothes bank weeks ago, or even months ago in some cases, and still haven’t decided what to do with. All in a heap in one corner. I laugh even more.
This isn’t mess, I say, as I sit down on her bed. This is like the base level of disorder that someone generates by existing in a space.
She laughs and says I am the authority on mess so she will take my word on that.
So, what time did you get in this morning? she asks. I remember she left before me, sometime around dawn.
Maybe midday? I say. Around then anyway. I left the party before then, but I walked back with Pete and smoked at his for a while before I came back here.
What, so five hours’ sleep? She laughs. Why didn’t you take a valium?
Her face is full of deliberately exaggerated fake concern. More than anyone else Katia needs things like a full night’s sleep, hot meals, and for everything to be tidied and ordered. She has no patience for the heat cuts, or when there’s a shortage of anything at the food market. We are opposites in that sense, and the way I go about things seems as ridiculous to her as her fussiness seems to me, so she just shakes her head as if to say: what are we going to do with you?
I tell her I accidentally left my valium with Jo. I took them out with me in a little purse I use for speed and then gave it to him when I left. But it’s fine, you know I actually feel fine. I came to see if you want to get a coffee or food or something?
I wait outside her room while she gets dressed and, as we’re leaving, she says she was in the nice café last weekend and there was nobody working. I’d noticed the same the Sunday before that, so we walk the long way, that takes us past a food market, to pick up coffee on the way.
Inside the market is as cold as the street so it is definitely a heat cut and not just something wrong with our building’s boiler. Although I don’t point this out to Katia because I don’t want her to start going on about how there should be a rota for everyone who works in the plant. We have had that conversation a hundred times and it never goes anywhere. If there are not enough people working at the plant to safely run every generator then we only run the ones that supply electricity and there is no heat. I think this is a good enough compromise, but I can never get her to see it that way.
We walk around the aisles, full of neatly stacked standard-issue packages and tins with nearly identical black and white labels, and collect a few packets of coffee from the very back of the shop, a few minutes’ walk from the tills near the entrance. The food market is almost empty. The only other people shopping there are a pair of older women, one holding a basket containing some tins and the other consulting a list and directing them towards the aisle with grains and pulses. I recognise one of them and I say hello as we walk past and they both nod and smile in response, almost in unison.
Lennie, a girl who we know from parties, is working on the till. She is sitting on a tall stool dressed in a long leather coat, black gloves with holes for her fingers, and a scarf wrapped around her face so it covers everything below her bottom lip. The sections of hair that frame her face have been cut short, so they just meet the top of her scarf; the rest is tied back. We put our packets of coffee down and she asks us how we are and what we’ve been doing because she hasn’t seen us out in a few weeks. Her and Katia speak for a few minutes and I don’t say a lot because they know each other better. Katia explains that the coffee is not just for us, and that we are taking it to the café, and asks if we can take two packets even though our ID cards have the same address.
Sure, that’s fine, Lennie says. Go and take another packet if you want. It’s a good idea. It was the same the last time I was there, a few Sundays ago, there was nobody working. I suppose they’ve all decided they want weekends off.
We say goodbye, and that we should try and see each other soon. Katia and I leave and walk towards our favourite café. I think it is probably everyone who lives in this area’s favourite café; it is in a very grand old building, with huge windows and lots of plants. I remember someone, maybe Ana, saying the building used to be a church, when religion was more of a mainstream thing, but I never looked it up to check. If it wasn’t a church it was probably a museum or something similar.
We turn on to the street the café is on and I notice some new graffiti on the wall of one of the first buildings. It has letters in red, swirly writing and there is a crude outline of a skull and a list of dates and a phone number.
I elbow Katia and point to it. This is definitely new? I think I know what it is but I don’t want to be the one to bring it up.
I think so. Yes, I’m almost certain I haven’t seen it before.
When we are closer it is obvious the swirly letters say DC. We stop to look at it. She asks me if I think it is an advertisement for one of the Death Clubs.
That is what it looks like, I suppose, I say.
Do you think it’s real? she asks.
I don’t know. Maybe.
They might not exist at all; everything we know about them is from rumours. I only know of one person who has gone to one, and I’ve never met him. He’s a friend of Jo’s called Marc. Marc was very anxious about The End; the way that some of us get but nobody really talks about. He was so bad he was barely getting out of bed. The Death Club he went to was in one of the old farm buildings in the forest at the edge of the city, where they used to keep animals before meat-eating was phased out. He went during the months of incessant, torrential rain, and had to trudge in the dark through waterlogged soil. It was not easy to find.
When he arrived a pair of security men gave him a token with a number on it and took a photograph of him holding it. They did that for everyone, as a record of who had which number. Later they locked the doors. All the Death Clubs have a version of this process in common, or at least that’s what the rumours say.
After the doors were locked they picked one number out of a box. From what I know about these clubs, if the person whose number it is does not come forward, then they go through the photos to find out who it is. Jo said this person did come forward though, he didn’t make a fuss. They hanged him that time, but apparently the methods differ.
It was exhilarating, Marc said, according to Jo. He was very frightened while he waited and he had not expected to be and that gave him perspective. There is something interesting about the idea of waiting like that. But I don’t know if I would admit that to anyone. Maybe Katia thinks the same thing and wouldn’t admit it to me. People do talk about them, the Death Clubs, but as a joke, or in a way that makes it hard to tell if it is a joke or not. Maybe other people we know have gone and don’t want to say. It is hard to talk about and hard to admit to. And they might not even be real.
I reach for my phone to take a picture of the numbers, just as a record, but then remember I left it at home. I don’t really want to ask Katia to, and I know where it is, I suppose, if I want to look again.
We were right; at the café there’s nobody working. But someone who clearly had the same idea as we did has already brought coffee so we leave our bags in one of the cupboards. Someone else, or maybe the same person, has used one of the large industrial pots to make soup, so I heat some up for us. We sit down on one of the worn old sofas to eat.
When we start eating I realise I am hungrier than I thought I was, and we don’t speak for a few minutes until Katia points at the window. Three guys who were at the same party as us last night are coming towards the café. I look to see if Jo is with them, but no. I tell myself that doesn’t necessarily mean anything because this isn’t his group of friends, but I can’t help making a note of it. I say to Katia that I haven’t heard from him this morning, and she asks me if I think that means anything and I say no and then she asks why I brought it up. She is always so blunt.
I laugh slightly too loudly, in a way that sounds very fake even though I don’t mean it to. No reason. He was supposed to stay at ours and I was worried he was locked out. I never gave him a key.
She asks if we had an argument—again she is as blunt as possible—and I tell her no, we did not, but that for weeks he has been cagey, or on edge, or something that I can’t exactly identify or describe, so I didn’t want to do anything that might start an argument, like accidentally leaving him locked out. She says she has noticed the mood too, but I can’t tell if she’s just saying it to agree with me.
Max, Peter, and Sven, the guys who were at the same party as us last night, walk into the café and Katia waves them over to join us. Peter drags another sofa and Sven picks up two chairs. Max, the one I know best from working together at The Plant, gives us both a hug and sits on the chair arm next to Katia, causing the entire sofa to slide backwards under his weight. He is far too tall, in a gangly way, like a normal-sized person who has been stretched out on a bigger axis, but always happy and smiling so that his size does not seem imposing.
How was the rest of your night? Katia says, addressing them as a group, as the others sit down.
Peter says it was good. We haven’t been home yet. I’m kind of wrecked actually. Sven goes to get the three of them coffee while Katia and Peter talk.
I lean back on the sofa to avoid talking across Katia and ask Max if he saw Jo when they left, but he says he doesn’t think so. Although I wasn’t really looking for him, he adds. He could have been there, I suppose.
Then I interrupt Katia to ask Peter and he says the same, more or less. Out of habit I put my hand in my coat pocket to check my phone and then remember I left it at the flat. I let my hand rest on my knee instead, so the movement looks purposeful.
We sit at the café talking for a while. Me and Max and Sven, who also works at The Plant but on the mechanical side of things, agree to go in tomorrow but not till late, around 11ish, and then go for a pint after, sometime early afternoon. Katia and I walk back to the flat the long route through the park; it’s a nice evening, despite the cold. The air smells of smokey frost.
At the flat I check my phone. There are a few messages from people asking if I plan to come to work tomorrow, which I don’t bother replying to. There are no messages from Jo, so I call him and it rings and rings and then goes to voicemail.
Hi, hello. I speak very quickly after the tone and then stop because I don’t know what I want to say or why I called, even. Give me a call when you can, I say, and then hang up.
I wake up in the middle of the night and my room is freezing. I had terrible, frantic dreams about being chased and afraid. I sit up in bed and find my cigarettes but I can’t see my lighter anywhere and I don’t want to smoke enough to bother looking properly so I set the packet back down on the floor. I check my phone and there is nothing.
I think about the things I have to do tomorrow. Or today, technically, but later. I really don’t have to do anything if I don’t want to. But I know I will feel better if I go to The Plant for a while and do some work, even if it is just for a few hours, so I will do that. It will be good to see people and to feel useful. Jo might phone by the time I am finished, but if not I can walk over to his flat and see if he’s there. Just to check that everything is fine, which I am sure it will be.
I remember the first time I met Jo, through friends at a party in a glass building near the river. It used to be an office, or something, and it can’t be used as flats because it floods too much. I was so down at the time I didn’t want to be out, or to do anything, but Katia and Ana kept forcing me, which in hindsight was kind of them.
That night I planned to wait until they were too busy to notice me leaving and then slink back to the flat. But then I started talking to Jo, and I had the feeling there was something interesting about him, even if I couldn’t say exactly what. He seemed to be slightly removed from everything that was going on around him. He asked me if I was having a good time, and I said no, and he said, good, because he wasn’t either. That was such a line, looking back on it, but it seemed funny at the time. It actually seemed like the first genuinely funny thing someone had said to me in a long time, despite all the time we all spend laughing.
We walked back to his after the sun came up. I remember the walk very well because we saw a man on the way with a little boy. They were holding hands; the fresh perfect skin that children always have made the man’s look worn and used. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. Is he real? Jo asked. I remember saying that I could see him too, but that was all the reassurance I could give.
I still think about that man and his child often. Having one, now, is a brave thing to do, and I am not that brave, but I am jealous of the sense of purpose that man must have. Or maybe he just feels even more scared than I do, with someone else to look after besides himself.
That night was the end of that phase, for me; of feeling so angry and overwhelmed, all the time, about the life we have been condemned to on this dying planet. Angry at everyone who came before and carelessly made this a place with no future. And angry with myself, at the same time, for not being able to cope with it. Meeting Jo was a distraction. I still don’t know what to do with myself beyond getting up every day and trying to keep busy and to have fun. The difference is that now I want to get up every day and do something with myself more than I want to lie in bed, feeling despondent. Maybe everyone always felt like this but there were more distractions.
I can’t get to sleep again and I don’t want to read, so I lie and think till morning. Max calls me around half ten in the morning and I tell him I’ll be in later, I have to run an errand first. I walk to Jo’s flat and stand outside phoning him. I phone him three times and get voicemail each time so I ring the bell and his flat mate Beth lets me in. She says she has not seen him in a few days but she lets me into his room. His bed is made, the covers neatly folded back on themselves, and his phone is on top of his pillow.
Beth stands behind me and says it’s strange that the room is so tidy.
Yes, I say, and I must sound more alarmed than I intend to because she seems to realise that was the wrong thing to say and starts talking about how he often goes out without his phone. And how he likes to be alone sometimes, and will just disappear. Does he do that? I think. Without telling anyone?
I don’t want to be in the flat anymore so I tell her I have to go to work and half run down the hall. She is polite, or disengaged enough not to shout after me. I can’t think of anything else to do so I walk towards the café, to find the graffiti we saw yesterday. Just to see.