It was like watching a flood. Water with nowhere to go: blocked drains, overflowing shelves, limited floor space. The piles of books were growing before their eyes, rising with the passing of days. They were building inner walls, learning to be bricklayers, calculating their ability to absorb. At first, Lottie marked their progress on the door frame, a little line and the date, but they were growing too fast, well beyond her outstretched arms.
“We can’t go on like this,” she said.
But Will was caught in the manic grip of ultimate organisation. He was like a beaver, his nose twitching in anticipation of higher piles, greater insulation, a dam of such immense proportions that it could halt the leakage of knowledge into fresh air. He wanted to be ready when the rechargeable batteries for electronic readers stopped working and supplies of replacements ran out.
He was concerned with size and shape. Subject matter became irrelevant. Titles had to be visible, the right way up, but that was all. The triumph of appearance over content: Henry the Fourth part 2; The Last Train Out of Birmingham; The Hungry Caterpillar; Love on the Mediterranean; The Da Vinci Code; Princess Crocus and the Dandelions…. Greedy for space, insatiable. Only one picture remained on the wall: a portrait of Lottie’s great-grandfather and great-grandmother, painted in oils between the first two world wars. They gazed out with a calm, bright-eyed optimism which appeared ridiculous from the perspective of their descendants’ brave new world.
“It’ll have to go,” said Will.
“Over my dead body,” said Lottie, standing in front of him, hands on hips, fixing him with the best Lady Hollyhock glare she could summon.
So he left the picture in place and stacked the books round it, using an illustrated volume of Neo-Postmodern Masterpieces to create a shelf over the top, lining up the surrounding books carefully, making sure there was no overlap on the edges. Lottie was losing track. Once they
started to trail out of the living room, setting their sights on the hall, with a clear view up the stairs and into the bedroom, she realised that Will had lost it and they were doomed.
“Do you think perhaps we might have enough now?” she asked, as he started to unload a new batch from his trailer and carry them through the front door, staggering under the weight as he tried to carry too many. As over-ambitious as ever. Lacking balance.
He stopped, blinking in the cold light of the real world, his beaverish brown eyes wide with astonishment. “How can you even ask such a thing? When the electricity fails, books will be our only access to knowledge.”
“The electricity won’t fail. And even if it did, we’d have far bigger things on our minds. Fridges, freezers, lights. Operating theatres, schools, train signals – ”
He stared at Lottie, genuinely puzzled by her lack of vision. “Are you serious? You don’t think we’ll need knowledge? No one will know how things work. And once they realise that they need books, they’ll come knocking on our door, offering us vast riches.”
Or they’ll come with guns and take them anyway. “Stop worrying,” said Lottie. “The lights won’t go out.”
Exactly how essential were The Hungry Caterpillar or Princess Crocus?
The responsibility of it was starting to wear Will down. When Lottie woke in the middle of the night and found him standing at the window, looking towards the east, at the emptiness beyond, she knew that he was deteriorating again. She remained still and watched him, listening to his uneven breathing, hearing his inner agitation as it disturbed the rhythms of the night. She could see through the window from where she lay, the same view that was absorbing Will’s attention. The moon was coating the land with silver, a cool, benign hand that knew how to stroke and smooth without causing any damage. They’d moved to Wales for the silence, away from the pressures of the city because Will had needed space, a calm environment which allowed him to breathe. It had
proved to be a wise decision, but now, after a period of blissful calm, the monster of his obsession had redefined itself, grown a second head.
Lottie climbed out of bed and went over to him. She could feel his urgency, the trembling of an engine ticking over inside him, ever ready, never switched off. “Come on Mr Beaver, back to bed,” she said gently. “It can wait until tomorrow.”
He sighed and rested his cheek on her head. “We’re going to run out of space,” he said.
“We can’t store all the books in the world,” she said. “We must let other people share the responsibility.”
“But nobody else realises how close we are to disaster.”
“I’m sure they do,” she said, looking through their double-glazed window at the dark, uninhabited landscape beyond the hills, where there were no lights. “You will not be the only person to have thought about it.”
“We’ve built our whole way of life on inventions from the past, on the discoveries of clever men who died ages ago,” he said. “Knowledge is accumulative, but it’s not much use to us if it’s stored on dead machines and nobody can remember how it all started in the first place.”
“Let’s worry about it in the morning,” she said. “The lights will stay on for the foreseeable future.”
He’d started off by raiding abandoned houses, holiday homes whose owners hadn’t returned. It made Lottie nervous – afraid that he would get caught. How could he be so certain that no one would come to claim their possessions. But his expeditions were becoming more frequent. He was doing three journeys a day on his bicycle now, setting off as if each time would be his last, his trailer behind him, empty and ready. He would return a couple of hours later, overloaded, bent over the handlebars, straining on the pedals, barely able to pull the weight of the books: Treasure Island, The Importance of Being Earnest, Diary of a Journeyman, Revise A-level German, The Physics of Music….
“Where are you getting them all from?” asked Lottie eventually, after watching this intensity for several days without let-up. It was seven o’clock at night, darkness was settling in and she wanted to close the door and make the house cosy. “They’re holiday homes. Who’d want A-level German when they go on holiday? I thought the idea of a holiday was to have a holiday. Not to plough through text books.”
“I’ve found the skips,” he said. “Behind the old library, where they chucked out the books when it closed. The ones on top have been damaged by the rain, but I’m going underneath, mining for gold. Nobody cares. Can you believe it? But they’ll change their tune when the electricity goes off and it’s too late. We’ll be the ones with the bargaining power then.”
“The electricity’s not going to go off,” said Lottie automatically. “And if it did, how would we see to read anyway? Wales isn’t exactly a land of sunshine and blue skies.” Was he being entirely honest with her? “They’re not contaminated, are they? You haven’t been – ?”
He started blinking again, twitching his lips as if there were whiskers attached. “I may be bonkers,” he said, “but I’m not mad.”
Tricky one, that. Lottie usually equated bonkers with mad, and she’d associate them both with Will. “I really would prefer to keep the bathroom clear.” she said. They couldn’t make the stairs any narrower without blocking access, and if the piles expanded upwards by only a few centimetres, stray books would tip over the banisters. There was very little space left. “What have you brought this time?”
An enormous grin spread over his face, transforming him into the easy, happy-go-lucky man that she used to know. “Encyclopaedia Britannica,” he said. “Thirty-two volumes. 2010. Last edition before it went digital. Give me a hand.”
Lottie sighed. “Wonderful.” There didn’t seem to be much point in fighting him. He was carrying four volumes at a time, so she picked up three. The books were dark blue, leather-jacketed, gold-lettered, heavy with unread knowledge. Maybe they would mark a fitting end to his project. A grand finale.
“I’ve hit the jackpot,” he said, his voice almost cracking with excitement. “The very heart of civilization.”
“I know,” said Lottie. “The jewel in the crown, the jam in the centre of the doughnut – oh!”
She’d caught her foot on the stair carpet, the edge that had been sticking up since they had moved here, the annoying ripped threads that Will had been promising to repair for the last six months. She staggered and dropped her three volumes, which flew through the air, straight into Will’s upturned face. His books slipped out of his grasp and he stood swaying, struggling to keep his balance. Lottie tried to remain upright, groping desperately for the banisters that were hidden behind the books, but after a couple of seconds tipped slowly over, following the books down, colliding with Will, knocking him off his feet. They tumbled down together, arms and legs tangling, bouncing against the tightly packed volumes of stories about family life in Bangladesh, fugitives who’ve stumbled into government conspiracies, missing children, the American Dream. The makeshift walls of books were collapsing around them, disintegrating into sharp-cornered missiles. Knees in faces, feet in stomachs, fingers in eyes –
And then the lights went out.
Clare Morrall is an acclaimed writer who achieved success with her first published novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, which reached the shortlist for the 2003 Booker Prize. She has since published a further four novels. Clare’s work has been translated into German, Spanish, Italian, French, Polish, Croatian, Russian, Dutch and Greek. When the Floods Came is Clare’s most recent book and writing the short story ‘The Lights’ gave Morrall the confidence and inspiration to tackle this post-apocalyptic world, set about 50 years from now.