He opened his eyes.
He checked his phone.
“Shit!” Half past one in the afternoon. Not that he’d missed an important appointment or anything. Just half a day. Another one. Same as yesterday. And the day before. And the one before that too. Not that he can remember properly. Manon’s fault, for sure. And the booze. Not to mention the drugs, of course. A shitload of pills, fuck all thrills. He stared at the piss-yellow ceiling and tried to find the necessary energy to drag his body from the bed. He rolled his tongue around his mouth. It felt like sandpaper. Or a sun-dried slug. His teeth were covered in a layer of plaque so thick that he could almost feel the bacteria attacking his gums. He made a mental note to buy a toothbrush. If he could afford one, of course. He turned to face the curtain-covered window. The daylight was doing its best to penetrate the cheap material, but thanks to the lovely view of a narrow back alley and the wall of the neighboring building, the effort was all too much, even for the sun.
He got out of bed a little too quickly, his lower back on fire, making his whole body convulse. He ground his teeth. He breathed deeply and surfed the soreness; his eyes closed tightly to stop the room from spinning. The pain abated. For a split-second, he considered doing some stretches, but what was the point. He looked down, glad to see that he was still wearing yesterday’s clothes. Especially the socks on his feet. These days, putting on socks was one of life’s main challenges. That and making enough money to pay for the essentials. A new toothbrush, for example. And food. Not to mention his medicine of choice: whiskey and slimming pills.
After emptying his bladder, he came face-to-face with his own features. In the mirror, he looked much older that his forty-one years. Manon’s fault, for sure. And the booze. Not to mention the drugs, of course. Under a nest of unkempt curls, his eyes stared out at him from their caves. A lack of nutrition had caused them to start sinking into his skull. A common feature in the world of today, a decade after the vote. A world full of mayhem, where almost all hope had been lost, leading to almost daily disturbances and arson attacks across the city. A world where little old Wales had been isolated from the rest of Europe and anchored to England’s asshole, like a malignant tumor, beyond all redemption.
In the windowless kitchen, he reused yesterday’s tea bag to make a cuppa. Weak as piss. No milk or sugar. He used to take two sugars in his tea. Before the vote. Before the unnecessary and voluntary segregation. Before all of the predictions and warnings came to pass. Food rationing was now commonplace, while the goods for sale were so expensive that people like him could not afford them. Food banks are one of the country’s main industries now; having replaced actual banks, who fled the island like rats from a sinking ship. In line with their forewarnings.
He made his way to the lounge, crouching to pick up a letter from the floor near the flat’s front door. His right knee crunched, but his lower back thanked him. Gingerly, he sat in his favorite chair. The only chair. He picked up the remote, turned the telly on and, as he rolled the first fag of the day, bad news spewed from the screen. He watched the disturbing images of armies assembling on the other side of the globe.
America threatening China.
America threatening North Korea.
And Russia watching everything from the shadows with a sly smile on its lips.
He heard familiar words. Words that used to terrify him. But words that were so common these days that they’d lost all of their meaning and edge. The threat of nuclear war was very real, no doubt, but, considering all the desolation and despair outside his front door, it was very easy to ignore what was going on in the South China Sea. With the perpetual poverty and day-to-day violence, the incessant racism and xenophobia, part of him thought “bring it on” every time he heard another report about the inevitable apocalypse.
Ten years after the vote, everything had changed in the world of T. Lloyd Lewis and the country’s Welsh-speaking population in general. Where once there was honor and dignity, today they were forced to hide their true identity. Thanks to the power of the hatred that came to light as a result of the vote, the Welsh-speakers of Wales had now been marginalized, ostracized, and pushed to the edges of society, to such an extent that any semblance of a “Welsh-speaking community” had disappeared. This was particularly true in the city, although things were a little better in rural Wales. Apparently. You heard rumors of people meeting clandestinely to keep the language alive. To keep the fire burning. To pray, to sing, or just to have a chat. But the only sign of life that bubbled to the surface from time to time in the capital was the defiant pro-Welsh graffiti that would appear overnight. Of course, these words would soon be replaced by hateful, anti-Welsh messages, but at least some hope remained. According to urban legends, there were gangs on the loose that hunted the natives, burning any Welsh-language tattoos that they found before turning the unfortunate individuals over to the secret police. T was terrified that someone would clock the words to one of his favorite songs, which were inked on his left shoulder, before reaching for the blowtorch.
You don’t need a girl to break your heart,
When you live in Wales.
He grabbed the remote and turned the telly off in the middle of a report about the appearance of Comet Read in the sky. T could remember watching a few firmamental phenomena during his life. Comet Hale-Bopp in ninety-seven, in the company of his classmates. The solar eclipse of ninety-nine, when the whole country lost its collective mind for a few days and spent millions on special specs to watch the event. As he sparked his cigarette, he heard a loud bang on the door, which made him choke on the smoke, but he stopped himself from coughing up a lung because he knew exactly who was there.
“Mr. Lewis, I know you’re in there!” bellowed Mr. Smith, his landlord. “Mr. Lewis, this is getting out of hand.”
T owed him two months’ rent. Money he didn’t have.
He smoked his roll and waited for him to fuck off.
“I can smell you, Mr. Lewis.”
That made him smile. Thanks to the government’s austerity measures and cuts to the national budget, the whole country stank, especially urban areas such as this one. The streets were awash with litter, while the fires that burned every day polluted the air and the environment.
At last, the knocking and the shouting stopped. T rolled another fag and turned his attention to the letter on the coffee table. His nicotine-stained fingers looked like radioactive chipolatas against the envelope’s whiteness. He noted his publisher’s stamp in the upper right hand corner. This gave him a lift and filled him with hope. Momentarily, at least. He took a deep breath before proceeding, and prayed to a God he didn’t believe in for some good news.
However, he was soon overcome with disappointment.
Disappointment and shock.
He was disappointed by the total amount and shocked by the number of books he had sold during the past six months, since the release of his latest tome. The royalty statement noted that his novel, A Better World, had sold a measly fifty-two copies and, as a result, Gwalia Publishing had deposited £62.32 in his bank account.
Better than nothing.
But nowhere near enough to pay the rent.
His four previous novels were also listed on the statement, although none of them had sold a single copy. T knew that people had to prioritize, but he was still a little disappointed, especially when he considered the effort that went into writing them. But the simple truth is, when there’s no food on the table, no one’s really thinking a great deal about literature.
He remembered the excitement he felt when his first novel was published. Manon was with him all the way. Good days, full of creativity and love. Before the vote. Before the threats. Before the country imploded. Before Manon left him for another man. She was so proud of him as she watched from the front row at the launch party, smiling with delight, her eyes overflowing with admiration. But the respect she had for him soon wilted, as the novel failed to find an audience. And although the publishing company supported T through it all, Manon wasn’t so faithful.
There was a handwritten note attached to the statement, the words written in Welsh.
T, call in when you get the chance.
We need to have a little chat.
“J” for Joe.
The founder and head of the publishing company. An old man nearing eighty. A man with a vision. A man who believed in T and gave him a chance. A man who probably regretted that decision.
“J” for Jesus fuckin’ Christ!
A little chat. T can easily imagine the way it’ll go. The end of his career. But, with the end of the world around the corner, was there any point worrying about it?
He choked the stump in the overflowing ashtray.
He blew smoke toward the ceiling.
He coughed like an old man suffering from bronchitis.
He searched in the usual places for some powder and swore when he couldn’t find any. He pulled on his anorak, grabbed his rusty bike and left the flat, keeping his eyes peeled for his landlord. He heard shouting in the flat next door. A man and a woman really going at it—the pressures of life on the margins reaching boiling point. This reminded him of Manon’s last few weeks in the flat. Days of silence, punctured by unexpected emotional explosions followed by tears.
He still missed her.
He descended the stairs of the old Victorian house, which had been divided into four flats, opened the front door, and stepped outside. The drizzling rain made him stop on the stoop, where he considered going back inside. After all, he didn’t have to go and see Joe today. The note was pretty vague. He could return to his flat and . . . and . . . what exactly? Watch telly? Go back to bed? Hang himself? Fuck that! Right then, the sun tore through the clouds to tickle T’s milk-white skin. He smiled as a rainbow appeared over the roofs of the terraced houses opposite. He hadn’t seen anything as beautiful in a long time. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he saw a rainbow. He almost cried, but in the end the spectacle lifted his spirits and spurred him on.
T lived in the middle of the city.
By the river.
By the stadium.
A nice place. At one time in the not-too-distant past. But now, the city was like a dystopian scene from one of T’s novels, not a nation’s capital. Or a region, as was now the case. Cycling around town these days was a little like playing a game of real-life Mario Kart. You had to avoid all types of obstacles—human, natural, and man-made. In fact, it was almost impossible to go anywhere without getting a puncture. Litter covered the ground, and nobody came to clear it away. Glass. Cans. Paper. Plastics of all shapes and sizes. Everything being pushed around by the wind, piling up in corners and collecting down alleys. T could remember the political and social campaigns to create “plastic-free communities,” and the endless stories of plastic islands floating in the oceans, laying waste to aquatic life, stealthily and relentlessly.
The vote buried all hope of reversing the situation.
In fact, the vote buried all hope.
He crossed the bridge and looked down at the brown water flowing slowly toward the barrage. He could remember swimming in the river when he was younger, some four miles upstream from here, by Radyr Weir—the water full of fish, herons and kingfishers hunting them in the reeds. But the birds won’t go near the water these days. The gulls had moved permanently to the built-up areas, slaying every pigeon that stood in their way. T didn’t have a clue what happened to the ducks, swans, and cormorants. All he knew is that they’d disappeared.
There are people everywhere, and no cars on the roads, thanks to the fuel shortage—another knock-on effect of the vote. The shortage was going on four years now, with no end in sight. The only vehicles you saw today were owned by the rich and powerful, the police or the armed forces, when things got out of hand. The situation had no major impact on T’s existence, mainly because he’d never owned a car, although the fuel shortage had led to many riots, disturbances, and deaths, not to mention the damaging, and in some cases fatal, impact on businesses and the economy in general.
As T approached the castle, the former home of a pride of concrete animals peeping over a wall, which had been demolished and destroyed in the not-too-distant past, he saw a pack of wild dogs watching him from the shadows of the ancient trees.
Seven pairs of eyes, staring in his direction.
Seven tongues licking their lips.
Seven hungry bellies.
He got the hell out of there, as fast as his legs would take him.
The castle walls were covered in graffiti. The local authorities completely incapable of stopping the practice or even cleaning the ink off the elevations. One piece of art in particular caught T’s eye.
He turned the corner and aimed for the civic center, which had long lost its sheen and grandeur, thanks mainly to the graffiti that covered the walls, but also because of the tent city that had established itself on the lawn in front of the city hall and national museum, where T could remember watching Chumbawamba perform live a lifetime ago. The smell that rose from the tent city was bad enough to make T retch, so he put his head down and kept going.
Joe lived about six miles away, on the slopes of the mountain that rose like a turtle’s shell beyond the motorway, to the north of the city center. But before reaching his destination, T had to cycle through the area where the city’s student population used to live, before the vote changed everything. All of the flats were empty now. Well, they didn’t house students anymore, although every room was occupied. To the rafters, too. The tent dwellers would kill for the opportunity to move into one of these blocks. The Beverly Hills of the city’s homeless population.
T struggled on to the suburbs. He cycled through the area where he grew up, although he barely recognized the place. The green lawns and the glistening cars had long gone. And in their place: tall fences and barbed wire, security cameras and signs warning potential home invaders of the electric nature of the fences. He saw bars over windows and mean-looking dogs guarding most properties. He was glad that his parents had died before the world turned to shit.
He passed the home of one of his childhood friends and remembered playing footy in the street. He recalled a sense of community. He remembered being happy.
“No cycling!” He heard a voice from behind a bush, and then saw a man in his sixties running toward him waving a spade above his head. “Can’t you read?”
T pedaled away from the loon, his heart beating fast and his eyes looking around for a No Cycling sign. He couldn’t see one anywhere. Madness. Another common side effect.
He crossed the bridge over the motorway. A graveyard to a bygone era. Abandoned vehicles as far as the eye could see. To the horizon and beyond. Left to rust when the fuel ran dry. He watched a human form move between the vehicles and then noticed faces staring out from behind the dusty windscreens. The homeless had moved in here too. Either that or a zombie apocalypse was about to start.
T could see smoke rising from a chimney in the trees. This was his destination. His salvation. Less than half a mile away. He tried pedaling up the hill, but gave up and pushed, keeping one eye over his shoulder at all times. Soon, he was out in the countryside, where nature was busy reclaiming the land—trees, hedgerows and grass growing wildly all around.
He was soaked in sweat by the time he reached the estate’s entrance, and he stopped for a rest before pressing the button. His breathing slowed as the thunder rose. A low rumble, drawing nearer. He grabbed his bike and hid behind an ancient oak, where he watched from the undergrowth as an armored truck drove in his direction, with one man behind the wheel and another beside him holding an M16, the rifle’s muzzle pointing out of the open window, ready to fire, ready to kill.
“2026: In the Beginning” © Llwyd Owen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by George Jones. All rights reserved.