By Charles Etheridge-Nunn
The shout pierced him back into consciousness, his cigarette dead between his fingers and the next one tucked away on top of his ear.
Tony flicked the burned paper corpse off the fire escape. Since his girlfriend had given up smoking he was banished to the black metal balcony outside his living room. Tony didn’t mind. This was his sanctuary, his throne.
His legs dangled between the bars: bare feet, hairy legs and week-old khaki shorts on the warm fire escape.
A week ago, when the meteors came and the people on the ground died, Tony felt it was a sign he was right not to have left his upstairs flat for three months.
Inside was not part of Tony’s kingdom. It belonged to Tony’s girlfriend and their son. It had been his kingdom, you could tell because of the stains. Her mother’s house and her mother were both turned into a large crater, so Tony’s girlfriend moved in with him. Her name was Tina, but he always called her Babe. Even Tony’s only friend called her Babe, but he was dead now, dead or his phone wasn’t working.
Babe shouted again through the glass door, still cracked from an accident many years ago.
Tony tilted his head backwards and his body slowly followed, until he saw Babe slouched on his sofa. She had been thin and athletic when she studied Leisure and Tourism at university, but she’d gained more weight and bad clothing each year she was with Tony, as if his sloth was a sexually transmitted disease.
“We need milk.”
Tony looked down through the grille at the ruined pavement below. “Everyone’s still dead out here. The newsagent’s not gonna be open.”
Babe shifted, still sat on her expanding backside but facing him now, “They’re even open on Christmas Day. Of course they’ll be open now. They’re Muslim or something.”
“Have you seen my lighter?” Tony ignored Babe while he patted his pockets down. He had a lighter somewhere. There had to have been a lighter, he was smoking just minutes ago.
Babe glared at him, a rhetorical answer from someone who a zealous non-smoker.
“I don’t care. Jennie’s coming round and I need milk for the tea.”
Tony was surprised, “Is the gas working?” he moved the cigarette from his ear to his mouth in anticipation.
Six, maybe seven days ago the meteors had hit. The electricity stopped, and with it the phones and the television. Practically everything was gone now.
“Yeah, but I drink my tea white. So does Jennie.”
Tony rolled his eyes. Jennie was the friend of Babe’s who hated him the least. She was unaware of his new found godhood and apparently was not bringing milk for the tea. She was also one of the only people he knew to still be alive. Tony, Babe and the kid weren’t the only survivors, but the least damaged.
Tony wiped his clothes, as if he could brush away the stains. “I’ll light my fag off the oven.”
“No!” Babe shouted, “You can’t smoke in here! Do it outside when you’re getting the milk.”
Tony frowned, annoyed Babe would exploit one of his weaknesses for another and wilfully ignore his lack of a lighter. He had to smoke, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave the flat. Babe smiled and went back to her slouching.
“Then I’m coming in to find my lighter.” Tony made the brave move of getting up, opening the door and stepping inside. The room was as he’d left it: Lego, pizza boxes, mouldy cups, a soft toy’s arm. One day he would fix the son’s bear. If he had a needle and thread he could do it on the fire escape. The biggest difference was the lack of cigarette smell, which meant the stench of old food, beer and unwashed clothes was free to run riot amongst the well-worn flat.
Tony’s only friend had brought a ton of supplies from France before the meteors hit. A whole drawer full of tobacco, papers and a box of lighters, now mocking him with its emptiness.
Tony shoved aside the sofa cushions. After finding thirty pence, a blue jelly bean and several nail clippings he put the sofa back together. Babe, dislodged by this activity and annoyed by Tony, went to check on Jake, their son.
Jake had been occupying himself with a colouring-in book this morning. Babe didn’t like him being near cigarette smoke, so Tony didn’t see much of his son any more. They watched television together from opposite sides of the glass door before the meteors, it was their father-son activity. Now there was no television and there were no books, Tony’s son wanted to explore what was left of the city. Babe had gone out twice but it was still dangerous. Tony knew. He’d seen people looting and drinking, but it had died down after four days.
Tony poured bits of a half-built Lego X-Wing off the table and sadly, there was nothing underneath.
“You sure you’ve not seen a lighter anywhere?” Tony gave a muffled shout, his cigarette bouncing in time with his words, wedged tightly in a gap where a tooth once lived.
Babe came out of Jake’s room, “No, and get out of here while you’ve got a fag on.”
Tony smiled, “It’s not lit. You can’t get mad. I could go everywhere in this flat with a fag in my mouth. I could even go to sleep with it and you couldn’t get mad.”
Tony strutted victoriously around the flat with his new way to wind Babe up, there was a knock on the fire escape’s open door. Tony would have run and hid on the fire escape, but it was the only way people could get up to his flat any more. The only disruption to his kingdom. He froze, there was no escape from company. Jennie let herself in.
“Awright?” Babe asked Jennie.
“Alright?” Jennie parroted, leaving the ‘l’ in. She was classy like that, but not too much to shun Babe like the rest of her friends did once they met Tony, so he waved politely at her.
“He’s inside then?” Jennie asked Babe, rhetorically.
“I’m looking for a lighter,” Tony replied for Babe.
Jennie looked around for a moment, put her clawlike red-painted fingernails into a bowl of pennies near the sofa and plucked a pink plastic lighter from the copper.
“Wow,” Tony said, snatching the lighter, then, “This isn’t mine. I don’t have a pink lighter.”
“It was buried pretty deep in there,” Jennie defended the lighter.
Tony was about to argue, but Babe’s glare stopped him in his tracks. “Just get out, and don’t light up in here.”
“I know, I know,” Tony quickly fled to his metal throne but left the door open to listen in.
Jennie twitchily brushed off a chair covered in a patchwork blanket and sat down while Babe prepared the strong tea for them both.
“What’s it like down there?”
“S’alright. Looting’s stopped and people are just glad to see each other.”
Tony smiled, he was better than them, clamouring for food and company when he had both. And he had the fire escape. He leaned against the railings, only his scrawny, hairy legs visible to Babe and Jennie, he tipped ash down towards the rubble.
“Graham’s said he’s opening the pub today, they’ve been making it look nice for the big reopening. I slept overnight back when it rained.”
Tony tutted. Two days ago the rain had kept going all day and night, so he got very wet. The elements wouldn’t stop him, after all. He used an old duvet to hide under and smoke in until he burned himself three or four times. He threw the duvet over the fire escape and sulked indoors in his boxer shorts, waiting for his clothes to dry.
“Did the building just creak?” Jennie asked, clutching at the sides of her armchair, nails digging into worn cloth.
“Yeah,” Babe answered, smoothing the creases on her sleeve, “but s’okay. The front of the building was torn off, but our side’s fine.”
Unseen, Tony nodded in agreement. It was meant to be. The world, keeping him alive. Their five-story block of flats damaged, but stable. He rolled a victory cigarette on his lap, finishing the current one. They were the twenty-ninth and thirtieth victory cigarettes today. Jake had rolled his first for him, as he was only half-awake at the time. Jake had been trained to fetch a bagel, coffee and a cigarette as Tony’s breakfast meal.
Tony became lost in his own world. All that existed was tobacco, Rizlas, his roach-poking-match and the fire escape. The world became red as the sun set. His sun.
There was a second creak. Part of the fire escape, lower down and to the left. It hadn’t made noises before. He lolled his head over to face the ground. The road had three crashed cars and pieces of rubble covering it. He couldn’t see which part of the fire escape had creaked. The squared-off spiral of rusty, black-painted metal rose up to his level and was bolted onto the side of the flat. There was another creak from inside the building. Unsure what to do, Tony finished rolling his cigarette.
“Oi, Tony!” came from inside, louder than needed as the door was open.
“Jennie and me are going to the pub.”
Jennie playfully added, “Want to come along?”
“No.” Tony replied, his mind elsewhere. He tucked the cigarette behind his ear. He was sure the ear had changed shape due to years of being his cigarette holder. Like his yellowed fingers and the tar he coughed up for fifteen minutes each morning.
“We’re taking Jake. He needs some time outside with the other kids. We might be a while.” Babe was already packing her handbag, desperate to get outside.
Tony made no effort to move when Jennie, Babe and Jake walked over his legs and down the fire escape. He gave a smile to Jake as he turned the corner to go down the stairs. Jake didn’t notice, he was looking at the city in the early evening. No more light pollution meant that the city was only lit by the moon and the light of the pub.
When he could no longer hear them walking away, Tony relaxed and started to doze off, having grown immune to the noise of seagulls after a life by the seafront.
A short time later, he was woken up by a loud bang. Tony looked around. Were there invaders in Tony’s kingdom? Was it looters? The air was cool but the sky was only a little darker, it couldn’t have been long. The door to the lounge was open and swaying in the wind. Babe and Jake hadn’t returned. He was alone.
Tony looked down. One of the bolts holding the fire escape up had come loose from the building. He cocked his head, trying to work out if all of those windows on the lower floors had been broken already. Deciding they had not, he took drastic action and stood up.
Tony realised the fire escape was at a slight angle. Not enough to see, but he was attuned to his kingdom. After a few more seconds there was another bang. And another.
Tony watched as his poking match and tobacco pouch slid along the smooth grilles and dropped all the way to the ground.
“My Tone’s in there!” he heard from somewhere in the below-land. It was Babe. She stood outside the pub, just in his view. Jennie, Jake and a few other people were all staring at him. They seemed so distant. The building made a rumbling noise further away. It must have been the other side, where the hole was. The Rizlas slid past his feet and down the gap between the fire escape and the building. The gap which wasn’t there before.
Tony gripped tightly onto the rails. Then checked his lighter was still in his pocket, then gripped the rails again.
“Tone! Get down from there!” Babe shouted.
“I can’t!” Tony called back.
“Tony. You are on a fire escape!” Babe called slowly and simply. As if he’d never noticed, or was some kind of moron.
He could have run down the fire escape. Watching the building and the metal gantries separate, he still had time.
As the building slowly fell away and the fire escape stood in place, Tony sat down and pulled the lighter out of his pocket.
People were calling to him, he didn’t care. The fire escape, his kingdom, wouldn’t forsake him.
As if reading his mind and mocking him, it twisted and buckled until both Tony and his kingdom dangled at a forty-five degree angle. The balcony barely cradled him in it’s safety rail. He couldn’t get down, not without breaking anything, and certainly not without leaving the kingdom.
With nothing else to do, Tony reached for the cigarette behind his ear. His thumb bumped against it too early, it tipped out from its resting place, hit the safety rail and drifted gently to the pavement below.