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époque press
pronounced: /epƏk/
definition: /time/era/period

Philippa Holloway
Short Story

The Last Morning

She is making her first cup of tea of the day when she notices the pot plant has died. As she drops the steaming spoon into the sink she sees the plant from the corner of a raw, sleepy eye: a dark shadow that should be hope green. The leaves that last night stood firm and soft as a rabbit’s ears now curled like an ancient, angry fist.

     She pulls her husband’s dressing gown tighter around her, feeling the belt squeeze her stomach like a hug, and looks closer. Each leaf is shrivelled, sunken into itself, clawed at the tips. She rubs her gritty eyes with her free hand, tucks a tangle of hair behind her ear and mutters a curse at her month-in-law for buying her a plant so hard to keep. African violets. Her mother-in-law’s sunny lounge is full of them: wide thick leaves and healthy blossoms. But hers has died. Despite the water, the plant food, the partial shade and soft whispers of encouragement. Despite the love she’d transferred to its dependence on her, and how much she’d needed it to flourish.

     She leans back onto the hard edge of the kitchen counter and considers it, thinks about taking it outside to tip into the bin or the border, wonders if it would nourish the summer flowers there or kill them too. But she is too tired to take action, and instead treads slowly across the cold slate tiles of the kitchen towards the stairs, feels the thud of her weight on each step. No need to creep now.

     Their bedroom is empty, dark, and she slides back into the safe, still warm hollow of the duvet on his side, nearest the door. He’d insisted on sleeping on that side, to protect her, he’d said. Now her side is cluttered with half-read books and half-dirty clothes. She wallows in the shape of him left in the mattress, unable to get comfortable, and glad of it. Every time she wakes she fears his side of the bed will have remoulded to her own shape as she slept.

     Tea steams from his cup on the bedside table. She watches it rise and disappear into the thick stale air above, listens to the sounds of the house: the wooden floorboards creaking and settling, the fridge humming in the kitchen below, the absence of breathing.

     There is no birdsong outside.

     The silence is choking her.

     There is no air in her chest, nothing to cry with.

     The curtains are heavy, designed to facilitate weekend lie-ins, but now she needs light, to open the window and breathe in fresh air, feed her starving lungs with something other than the fading, stale smell of him on the unchanged bed sheets.

     Her footsteps are swallowed by the deep bedroom carpet, her ears assaulted by the clatter of the hooks on the rails as she yanks back the curtains and stands blinded in the swirl of dust motes, feeling her irises constrict, willing them to sting to tears.

     When she opens her eyes she sees the trees.

     Autumn overnight.

     Each tree dead and the leaves discarded like yesterday’s soiled clothes. Black commas on the patio.

     The grass beyond the patio, yellow and dry.

     She leans forward, presses a cheek to the glass pane to look sideways across the neighbours’ gardens. Sees the stencilled shapes of dead trees fade into the distance like a recurring nightmare. Confusing. Unfinished. An abstract fear flourished between the branches. Late April and not a speck of green in sight. She watches as the lady two doors down stands on her stricken lawn and turns, a slow scarecrow rotating in an absent wind, staring around her at the dry wooden fingers of her shrubbery pointing at an empty, blue sky.

     Retreating to the bed, gripping his cup until it burns her palms, she switches on the radio, listens to a soft twitter of expert analysis and apocalyptic warnings that fill the swirling light between her and the window. Already there are reports of violence in supermarkets. eBay is flooded with frozen vegetables at caviar prices. If she walked downstairs and found the remote from its hiding place between the sofa cushions, if she pressed the button with her skinny thumb, she would see worldwide footage of withered crops and skeletal forests.

     Instead, she sips from his mug, feels the snag of her lip on the chipped edge and listens to a report about oxygen levels. A man with the soothing voice of an expert explains how humanity will asphyxiate on its own exhalations. Calculations are being made as to how long there is left. She sips and listens and feels the emptiness of the bed beside her. Feels nothing for the trees in the rented garden.

     Outside, doors slamming, a car engine revs and accelerates away. Beside her on the bed her mobile phone vibrates. Another missed call, another voicemail. She closes her eyes and tries to conjure his voice, but only hears her neighbour sobbing through the thin wall that separates their houses.

     The tea is cold, a last inch like a lost thought in the bottom of the cup. She throws back the duvet and carries the mug to the kitchen, the soft thumps of her weight on the stairs muted in contrast to the shouts from outside.

     The pot plant is dead. She’d tried to love it and it had died. She pours the cold tea into its thirsty soil and watches for a sign, a rush of chlorophyll. She feels the tears break through her dry eyelids and pour fire down her cheeks. She weeps and mutters an apology to her mother-in-law for not trying harder. Bows her head, laces thin fingers through the angry fist of brittle leaves and holds tight, waiting for the oxygen to run out.

Philippa Holloway is an author and academic, teaching Creative Writing at Staffordshire University. Her debut novel, The Half-life of Snails, is out now with Parthian Books, and her short fiction/non-fiction is published internationally. She has won prizes in literary awards including the Fish Publishing Prize, The Scythe Prize, and the Writers & Artists Working Class Writer’s Prize. She is the co-curator of a global writing project responding to the pandemic and the collection 100 Words of Solitude: Global Voices in Lockdown 2020 (Rare Swan Press), and is currently co-authoring a textbook on Creative Writing and the Anthropocene.


Twitter:  @thejackdawspen


Of the short story featured here, Philippa states:


‘I wrote this story having just just come back from a fascinating conference run by The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, in which many papers were discussing how literature can address issues of the Anthropocene, especially those of climate emergency. When dealing with a Deep Time issue like this, I believe that storytelling is a vital part of communicating the risks of our present to our futures, and while the Great Acceleration is in full swing, highlighting moments of change/disaster/impact through tiny, personal narratives can be highly effective for generating contemplation and action. The story attached is fiction, revealing an impossibly accelerated ecological crisis (or a tipping point reached, perhaps?) through the lens of personal loss. A bit weird, yes, but such compression can heighten our realisation of what is lost on a global and personal scale. In this case, the sudden death of all flora precedes a shortage of oxygen while the protagonist mourns her partner.’

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