Earlier this month I appeared at the Huddersfield Literature Festival with legendary inventor and TV personality Wilf’ Lunn for a show we put together called The Utterly Awful Catastrophe, for which I wrote this short story, which I read out, and Wilf’ presented some post-apocalyptic steampunk bicycles and blew up a chicken.
All that Jenny knew was, she wanted a bike for her birthday.
There was a hill that began gradually at the top of her street, and rose up through fields and knots of trees until its highest point, from where you could see the entire county on a clear day.
Wouldn’t it be a thing, Jenny thought, to ride down from that hill, the wind at your back, all the way from the top and right to her house at the bottom of her street.
All that she needed was a bike. So, for a full six months before her birthday, she began to lay the groundwork. She did her research on the internet, she looked at bike magazines in the newsagents, she printed out photographs and left them around the house. She espoused the health benefits of bike riding. She explained how much more quickly she would be able to get to and from school. If there was a basket on the front, she hinted, she could even go to the shops for the family. And finally, finally, she got through to her parents the idea that a bike would be a wonderful present.
So it was a very big disappointment all round that the world ended just a week before Jenny’s birthday.
The world itself didn’t end, of course. The Earth didn’t explode, or get swallowed by the sun, or spiral off into the freezing depths of space. What people meant when they said the world had ended – when they stopped running around and screaming for long enough to explain to Jenny what they meant, that was – was that civilisation had ended.
Exactly why, no-one was completely sure. Nor was anyone truly certain just what had actually happened. Some people said it was the Russians. Others said it was the Americans. Someone said it was the Belgians, but he was largely ignored. There were those who were convinced it was nuclear fall-out. Some other people thought it was a devastating virus. Someone else said that it was aliens, but no-one listened to her. She went off with the man who had blamed the Belgians and they set up a commune somewhere near Pontefract. The last anyone heard of them was that they had painted themselves green and started eating chips with mayonnaise, in order to welcome “our new overlords”, whether they turned out to be Belgian, alien, or perhaps both.
Meanwhile, the arguments continued as to just what had brought about the end of the world. It was only when everyone agreed to disagree, and settled on the fact that whatever it was, it had been an Utterly Awful Catastrophe, did the arguing stop and people began to think about just how life could continue in the post-Utterly Awful Catastrophe world.
And life, after a fashion, did go on. Apart from the fact that it was completely different. Although people had decided not long after the Utterly Awful Catastrophe that it would be in everyone’s best interests to work together and try to be nice to each other, that didn’t mean there weren’t arguments and disagreements.
For example, there were some things that just didn’t exist any more. These included, but were not limited to, the Government, EastEnders, Sunday shopping, the internet, credit cards, General Elections, the Reader’s Digest, Sing-Along-A-Frozen, football, self-service checkouts at supermarkets, any sort of checkouts at supermarkets, and supermarkets.
Some of the people left thought that this was A Shame. Other people thought that this was A Good Thing. There was an argument about it which raged for a day or so.
But the world after the Utterly Awful Catastrophe had a lot of new things in it, too. These included, but were not limited to, roving gangs who, for reasons best known to themselves, had decided to dress up in black leather and roam the wasteland comandeering dwindling supplies of unleaded petrol; a complete and total lack of electricity, gas and those portable halogen heaters you used to be able to buy on the market for a tenner; and the emergence of some rather strange creatures. The latter gave weight to the theories of those who suggested the whole thing was down to nuclear holocaust or some terrible virus, which had caused horrific mutations in animals and people. There were more than a few people who thought that this suggested evidence of aliens, and one or two went off to Pontefract to find out whether the people who painted their skin green had any chips and mayonnaise left.
No-one, in all honesty, could really blame the Belgians for the strange, mutated creatures that roamed the night.
What they could do, though, was band together into even tighter groups to defend themselves against these fresh menaces. Thus, the townsfolk organised themselves a little bit better, stopped arguing, and thought of new ways to keep themselves warm, find things to eat, and keep each other safe. After the Utterly Awful Catastrophe, though, that was often easier said than done.
Jenny never got her bike, but she didn’t feel too bad about walking because by now all the petrol had run out – or been stolen by the gangs in black leather – so nobody’s car worked either, not even Mr Johnson’s BMW at the top of the street, which he had only had for a month before the Utterly Awful Catastrophe and which had been his pride and joy.
Mr Johnson was now using the BMW as a chicken coop.
Jenny liked to walk up the hill and look out across the county. It was all very different now. Quiet. No cars, no aeroplanes, no distant hum of industry and transport. Occasionally she spotted roving gangs, or staggering mutants, and ran down the hill to tell everyone else. Mostly, though, nobody really bothered them, and Jenny got to work on her Very Secret Project.
The Very Secret Project had been assembled from bits and pieces Jenny had found in and around the streets and abandoned houses. She kept it covered up under a bit of tarpaulin by a tree, though no-one would have bothered about it. Mostly, people were intent on growing potatoes or milking cows, or trying to build transistor radios on the off-chance that civilisation was rebuilding itself somewhere, or maybe that the Archers was somehow still broadcasting.
Jenny removed the tarpaulin and surveyed the Very Secret Project. It was very nearly complete. All that she needed was–
“A sprocket,” said a voice.
Jenny jumped and made to run away. It had been a long time since a stranger had come to their village. She looked at him curiously; he wasn’t dressed in black leather, which was a bonus. In fact, not dressing in black leather had been a bonus even before the Utterly Awful Catastrophe. And he didn’t have two heads, or eyes on the end of his fingers, or teeth like butcher’s knives, or any other signs of mutation. He did, however, look somewhat unusual.
He was wearing a very dapper pale cream suit and the sort of hat that Jenny was sure was called a straw boater. He had glasses with little round coloured lenses, and his facial hair suggested that while roving gangs of marauders had been hoarding the remaining drops of petrol, he had been doing the same with moustache wax. Behind him he had several large trunks on wheels, connected with ropes which he pulled along as though it was an oversized child’s train-set.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Wilf.”
“Hello,” said Jenny. “I’m Jenny.”
Wilf handed over a jagged circular piece of metal. “Here. You need a sprocket to finish it.” He stepped forward for a closer look at the Very Secret Project. “That’s a fine bicycle. Did you make it yourself?”
Jenny nodded. “I was going to get one for my birthday and then the Utterly Awful Catastrophe happened. So I decided to make my own.”
“Very wise,” said Wilf. “And that means that this might just be the place I’ve been looking for since the… what did you call it?”
“The Utterly Awful Catastrophe,” said Jenny.
“Yes, that. Since that happened. Look, Jenny, there’s mutants and marauders and all sorts of unpleasantness out there, and I might be the only person who can help. I’ve been looking for the right sort of place to set up shop, looking for the right sort of people to offer the benefit of my experience and knowledge to. And this bike of yours makes me think I’ve found the right sort of people.”
“Do you want to speak to the grown-ups, then?” asked Jenny.
“Not really,” said Wilf. “But I suppose I better had.”
“Follow me, then,” said Jenny, covering up the Very Secret Project, which wasn’t really a secret any more.
“Aren’t you going to give it a go, now you’ve got your sprocket?” said Wilf.
Jenny bit her lip. “Do you think I should?”
“Definitely,” said Wilf.
So Jenny dusted down her brand new bike and stood it up at the top of the hill. “Oh,” she said suddenly. “I’ve just remembered what day it is. It’s my birthday.”
So, one year and one week and one Utterly Awful Catastrophe after she should have done, Jenny got on to her new bike and rode it, screaming with delight, all the way down the hill, while Wilf followed after, towing his mysterious collection of trunks and the delights that were within.