What are the chances that inside a week I would read two books where the protagonists end up at the Nag's Head in Edale. It was the final destination of Simon Armitage on his walk home and it is the venue for an assignation in 'I have waited and you have come' by Martine McDonagh that I have been reading over the last few days.
In this story we have gone back from utopia to dystopia. It is set at some future point, in a world that is post-climate change and the population has been devastated by disease and starvation. It appears to be set somewhere locally as she mentions the Bridgewater Canal in passing (the author did a creative writing course at MMU) and it gave the book that little edge of reality because she had imagined the local environment as she wrote it. Our protagonist is Rachel, who has been abandoned by Jason, for reasons we learn later, and who seemed to have had some kind of premonitions about the end of the world as we know it, but then having mentioned it in passing the author does not make anything else of this idea; maybe it was something she planned to develop but then abandoned. Rachel has obviously been hiding from the world inside her fortress but is forced out it seems by sheer loneliness. Life is conducted by barter, mostly at a local 'market', run by Noah, who just happens to be the person Rachel decides will help her with her loneliness problem. By a twist of fate the person she meets instead in the Nag's Head is Jez White. At first you believe him, then things start to get a bit creepy. Nobody admits to knowing who he is, even at the equally creepy 'New Dawn' community. You begin to wonder if there is not some kind of conspiracy going on, no wonder it feels like Rachel is going a bit mad. Rachel's narration of her existence is punctuated by very brief excerpts from what turns out to be Jez's diary, and that really ups the creepy factor, until you would really rather she went back behind her barricades and stayed safe with the chickens. It is a study in survival, and the extremes that might be asked of the human race, but also the devastation of isolation. It is interesting that the people who appear to be functioning best are those who have chosen to live in communities rather than the weirdos who shun the world and try and make it on their own.
"As the heavy blinds creak up into their rests, a movement on the canal towpath catches the corner of my eye. I turn my head in its direction expecting to witness the languorous swoop of the heron, but instead my curiosity is rewarded with a rare sighting. Up on the path is a man, his coat, luminous against the grey sky, flapping in the breeze. Raindrops race across the windowpane like sperm towards the unfertilised egg; a living, moving curtain that separates me from the outside world and distorts and bends the stranger out of shape. I daren't open the window for fear of being seen, but peer across. At this distance I cannot tell which way he is looking. Nor is there evidence in any direction of anything likely to attract and hold his attention so. He has no umbrella. Maybe he is lost. I could call out, offer him shelter, but don't." (p.40)
Most of the book is foreboding and darkly atmospheric, life offers few compensations or pleasures. Then little moments of humanity creep in, but still tempered with the reality of the situation:
"I check the bedroom window, half expecting to see the return of the stranger. Nothing and no one is there, but a single great soft white flake rides an unseen current like a delirious fairy. Snow. It dithers towards the river below as if aware of its fate. What use is such precise individuality when faced with imminent dissolution?
Snow can lift my heart in a way that sunshine never could. I run downstairs, pull on my outdoor things, and rush out into the yard. Snowflakes catch on my eyelashes and tingle soft against my cheek. I look for a job that will keep me outdoors.
All that remains of the log pile are a few chunks of apple wood; as good for burning as a pile of wet leaves, useful only for filling the house with sweet-smelling smoke and therefore not useful at all.
I load the axe into the wheelbarrow and manoeuvre it out into the yard. The cold of the handles penetrates the loose knit of my gloves, stinging my hands; the axe bangs out a jumble of rhythms as we go, drums a half-remembered melody into my head that goes in one ear and out the other. I don't know when there stopped being music." (p.56-7)
All in all an excellent book. Short, you could read it in one sitting. I found myself sucked in to Rachel's world and her mindset, feeling her fears and irrationality, the rising tension is well sustained. Little things confused me, or seemed incongruous; why would there be telephones, and electricity? You would have to work much harder than she did or simply starve to death. It felt as if the author had a much bigger story in mind, one that encompassed more of the community Rachel lives in, more background, but that as she wrote it became about one thing, the 'relationship' between Rachel and Jez. In a way, while nothing like as good a book, it reminded me of The Road; she did manage to achieve something of the same sense of hopelessness and emptiness and desolation. I will leave you with the Nag's Head, not as cosy as it no doubt is nowadays:
"One brave step forward reveals that a log fire is still blazing away in the snug. Two men on high stools sit at opposite ends of the bar. One of them directs a murmured comment towards the other via the barman who, leaning with his elbows on the bar reading a news-sheet, catches the word and passes it on verbatim, as if the language is no longer strong enough to manage the full distance unaided. No one looks up. With no talking or action to move it around, the air is as still as in a painting; a Hopper revisited in yellow and brown. I am the character you cannot see, just out of frame." (p.33)