A DISCREET CLICK and the images and chaos disappeared into darkness. Beth lowered the remote.
It was a moment before Jay frowned at her across the sofa, as if the light of what Beth had done had been delayed, reluctant to reach his eyes. A moment before his “Why did you do that?” cut through all the other questions, the fears that had flooded in to fill the silence.
“Do you really want to spend the last few minutes of your life—the last few minutes of everything—watching TV?”
Jay scrunched his mouth in a way Beth recognised, a way that meant he knew she had a point but he didn’t know how to acknowledge it.
“I always thought that, you know, if something like this happened we’d have more than a couple of minutes,” Beth said, looking out at the sky, sharp and blue and as clear of clouds as it was of premonition. Nothing to justify or hint at the fate that would soon rain down.
“I always thought the answer would be obvious,” Jay said, staring at the floor.
“To the question of what I’d want to do at the end of the world. How would I want to spend my last few minutes? The answer from most adult males is probably still the same as any adolescent’s — an answer too obvious to even question. Or so I thought.”
“Uh… that hadn’t actually crossed my mind.” Beth turned from the window and scowled at Jay, crossing her arms.
“Nor mine, really.” Jay looked up, offering a smile in apology. “So where does that leave us?”
Through the floor came the dulled sound of television. From the flat above came gentle sobbing. The street outside was as still and free of foreboding as any perfect Sunday morning. No cars, no people, no sound. Silence. Perhaps resigned silence, pensive and reflective. Or perhaps, unaware, blissful, and unknowing, the silence of those still asleep enjoying a lie-in or lost in recovery of a hangover.
Jay sighed. “I could really do with a cigarette.”
“Bit late for that now! Unless you kept a secret stash from before we met or, you know, you took up smoking again on the sly, you’ll never get any in time.”
“Well, there is a stash of sorts, but not from the land that time forgot.” Beth raised an eyebrow. “And nothing behind your back. Remember when Yuri stayed with us a few weeks back?”
“Yeah, smoked like a chimney—a terrace row of chimneys.”
“He left half a packet behind. I put it away for…well, I don’t know what, but I guess the end of the world is as good an excuse as any to light up. It’s not like I’ll be able to get the habit again—won’t even finish the first one.”
Jay got up and went to the kitchen. Never doing today what could be put off until tomorrow had filled the small space with Jenga towers of recycling, washing-up and last night’s debris — two pizza boxes, his-and-hers not-quite-finished wine bottles and the lingering air of the row that had stormed from kitchen to living room and into sleep. Nothing that would ever be cleared up now. He rummaged at the back of the odds-and-ends drawer.
Returning with a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches, Jay’s lips pulled a stale cigarette from the pack as the tick-fizz-hush of a match brought to life lit the silence. In the still air of the living room, reflex called habit out of retirement to cup his hands around the newborn flame, as if he and he alone could shield it from the coming storm.
Jay lit up and took a drag that went deeper than all the troubles the world and its end could ever reach. He held it a moment. Breathing out, his eyes closed, his shoulders sloped to calm, his body loosened.
Beth watched the release, entranced by this unfamiliar ripple through a body whose movements she knew so well. She reached across and drew a cigarette from the packet. As Jay raised an eyebrow, she lit up. The breath she took came back at once, convulsing her, eyes wide.
“I’m guessing that’s your first time.”
Beth coughed and laughed and coughed again. “You guess right. Not something I’ve ever wanted to try—not at school, not at uni, not at the office party. But we’re here, just you and me, at the end; I wanted to share something. I thought, no harm in trying, nothing to lose. You know, how hard could it be?” She coughed. “Harder than I thought. And less pleasant. Not sure I want to try that again.” She smiled. “But at least we both have cigarette breath.” She leant over towards Jay.
Jay pulled back a moment, took another drag, then drew Beth to him, looking in her eyes as he parted her lips with his, breathing into her slowly as she drew on him. When their lips drew back she breathed out to one side, pausing a moment but not coughing. “Again,” she said. They had all the time in the world.
All those moments, moments in countdown…
Another drag shared and released. Then another kiss this time smokeless and slow. A kiss from memory, the silent explorations of new lovers.
Few moments, few moments were left between them…
Her cigarette fell; reflex moved her hand to rescue it and the carpet. With a smile Jay dropped his cigarette next to hers. “Mañana, mañana,” he whispered. She laughed and whispered back, “Ashes to ashes.”
One last moment, there was one last moment…
They closed their eyes. They embraced. They kissed.
And then… and then there were none.