Please take a moment to review Hachette Book Group's updated Privacy Policy: read the updated policy here.

Read an extract from A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

 

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C. A. Fletcher

 

Perfect for readers of Life of PiThe Girl with all the Gifts and Station Eleven – Griz’s tale mixes sadness and hope in one unforgettable character’s quest amid the ruins of our fragile civilisation.

 

Read an extract:

 

Dogs were with us from the very beginning . . .

When we were hunters and gatherers and walked out of Africa and began to spread across the world, they came with us. They guarded our fires as we slept and they helped us bring down prey in the long dawn when we chased our meals instead of growing them. And later, when we did become farmers, they guarded our fields and watched over our herds. They looked after us, and we looked after them. Later still, they shared our homes and our families when we built towns and cities and suburbs and lived in them. Of all the animals that travelled the long road through the ages with us, dogs always walked closest.

And those that remain are still with us now, here at the end of the world.

And there may be no law left except what you make it, but if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you. If we’re not loyal to the things we love, what’s the point? That’s like not having a memory. That’s when we stop being human.

That’s a kind of death, even if you keep breathing.

So. About that. Turns out the world didn’t end with a bang. Or much of a whimper. Don’t get me wrong, there were bangs, some big, some little, but that was mainly early on, before people got the drift of what was happening.But bangs are not really how it ended. They were symptoms, not cause.How it ended was the Gelding, though what actually caused that never got sorted out, or if it did it was when it was too late to do anything about it. There were as many theories as there were suddenly childless people – a burst of cosmic rays, a chemical weapon gone astray, bio-terror, pollution (you lot did make a mess of your world), some kind of genetic mutation passed by a space virus, or even angry gods in pick-your-own-flavour, for those who had a religion. The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ slowly became less important as people got used to the ‘what’, and realised the big final ‘when’ was heading towards them like a storm-front that not even the fastest, the richest, the cleverest or the most powerful were going to be able to outrun.The world – the human part of it – had been gelded or maybe turned barren – perhaps both – and people just stopped having kids. That’s all it took. The Lastborn generation, the Baby Bust as they called themselves – proving that irony  was one of the last things to perish –  they just carried on getting older and older until they just died like people always had done.And when they were all gone, that was it. No bang, no whimper even. More of a tired sigh.It was a soft apocalypse.  And though it probably felt pretty hard for those it happened to, it did happen. And now we few – we vanishingly few – are all alone, stuck here on the other side of it.

How can I tell you this and not be dead? I’m one of the exceptions that proves the rule, an outlier. They estimated maybe 0.0001% of the world population somehow escaped the Gelding. They were known as outliers. That means if there were 7,000,000,000 people before the Gelding, less than 7000 of them could have kids. One in a million. Give or take, though since it actually takes two to make a baby, more like one in two million.

You want to know how much of an outlier I am? You, in the old picture I have of you are wearing a shirt with the name of an even older football club on it. You look really happy. In my whole life I haven’t met enough people to make up two teams for a game of football. The world is that empty.

Maybe if this was a proper story it would start calm and lead up to a cataclysm, and then maybe a hero or a bunch of heroes or even a gang of not-so-heroes would deal with it. I’ve read plenty of stories like that. I like them. Especially the ones where a big group of people get together since the idea of a big group of people is an interesting thing for me all by itself, because though I’ve seen a lot, I’ve never seen that.

But this isn’t a story. It’s not made up. It’s just me writing down the real, telling what I know, saying what actually took place. And everything that I know, even my being born, happened long, long after that apocalypse had already softly wheezed its way out.

I should start with who I am. I’m Griz. Not my real name. I have a fancier one, but it’s the one I’ve been called forever. They said I used to whine and grizzle when I was a baby. It must have been annoying. So I became the Little Grizzler and then as I got taller my name got shorter, and now I’m just Griz. I don’t whine any more. Dad says I’m stoical, and he says it like that’s a good thing. Stoical means doesn’t complain much. He says I seemed to get all my complaining out of the way before I could talk, and now though I do ask too many questions at times, mostly I just get on with things. Says that like it’s good too. Which it is. Complaining doesn’t get anything done.

And we always have plenty to do, here at the end of the world.

Here is home, and home is an island, and we are my family. My parents, my brother and sister, Ferg and Bar. And the dogs of course. My two are Jip and Jess. They’re brother and sister. Jip’s a long legged terrier, brown and black, with a rough coat and eyes that miss nothing. Jess is as tall as he is but smooth coated, narrower in the shoulders and she has a splash of white on her chest. Mongrels they are, brother and sister, same but different. Jess is a rarity, because dog litters seem to be all male nowadays. Maybe that’s to do with the Gelding too. Maybe that’s a downside for the dogs, punishment for their loyalty, some cosmically unfair collateral damage for walking alongside us all those centuries. Perhaps whatever hit us, hit them too, but in a lesser way. Very few bitches are born now.

We’re the only people on the island, which is fine, because it’s a small island and it fits the five of us, though sometimes I think it fit us better and was less claustrophobic when there were six. Anyway. It’s also called Mingulay. That’s what it was called when you were alive. It’s off the Atlantic coast of what used to be Scotland. There’s nothing to the West of it but ocean and then America and we’re pretty sure that’s gone.

To the North there’s Paabay and Scalpay, low islands where we graze our sheep and pasture the horses. North of them is the larger island called Barra but we don’t land there, which is a shame as it has lots of large houses and things, but we never set foot on it because something happened and it’s bad land. It’s a strangeness to sail past a place so big that it even has a small castle in the middle of its harbour for your whole life, and yet never walk on it. Like an itch you can’t quite reach round and scratch. But Dad says if you set foot on Barra now you get something much worse than an itch, and because it’s what killed his parents, we don’t go. It’s an unlucky island and the only things living there these days are rabbits.  Even birds don’t seem to like it, not even the gulls who we never see landing above the wet sand below the tideline.

North-east of us are a long low string of islands called the Uists, and Eriskay, which are luckier places, and we go there a lot, and though there are no people on them now, there’s plenty of wildlife and lazy-beds for wild potatoes, and once a year we go and camp on them for a week or so while we gather the barley and the oats from the old fields on the sea lawn. And then sometimes we go there to do some viking. ‘Going a-viking’ is what dad calls it when we sail more than a day and sleep over on a trip, going pillaging like the really ancient seafarers in the books, with the long-ships and the heroic deeds. We’re no heroes though, we’re just scavenging to survive, looking for useful things from the old world, spares or materials we can strip out from the derelict houses. And books of course. We take the useful books. Books turn out to be pretty rugged if they’re kept away from damp and rats. They can last hundreds of years, easy.  And reading is another way we survive. It helps to know where we came from, how we got here. And most of all, for me, even though these low and empty islands are all I have ever known, when I open the front cover of a new book, it’s like a door, and I can travel far away in place and time. Even the wide sea and the open sky can be claustrophobic if you never get away from them.

So that’s who I am, which just leaves you. I mean in some way you know who you are, or at least, you know who you were. Because of course you’re dead, like almost every single human who ever walked the planet, and long dead too.

And why am I talking to a dead person?  We’ll get back to that. But first we should get on with the story. I’ve read enough to know that I should do the explaining as we go.

 

CHAPTER 2

The traveller

If he hadn’t had red sails, I think we’d have trusted him less.

The boat was visible from a long way off, much further than white sails would have been against the pale haze to the north west. Those red sails were a jolt of colour that caught the eye and grabbed your attention like a sudden shout breaks a long silence. They weren’t the sails of someone trying to sneak up on you. They had the honest brightness of a poppy. Maybe that was why we trusted him. That and his smile, and his stories.

Never trust someone who tells good stories, not until you know why they’re doing it.

I was high up on Scalpay when I saw the sails, busy trying to rescue a ram that had fallen and wedged itself in a narrow crack in the rocks above the grazing. It wasn’t badly injured but it was stubborn and ungrateful in the way of most sheep, and it wasn’t letting me get a rope round it. It had butted me twice, the first time catching me under the chin sharply enough that I had chipped a tooth half way back on the lower right hand side. I had sworn at it and then tried again. My knuckles were badly grazed from where it had then butted my hand against the scrape of the stone, and I was standing back licking my fist and swearing at it in earnest when I saw the boat.

The suddenness of the colour stopped me in my tracks.

I was too shocked to link the taste of blood in my mouth with the redness of the sails, but then I have little of that kind of foresight, none at all really compared with my sister Joy who always seemed to know when people were about to return home just before they did, or be able to smell an incoming storm on a bright day. I don’t much believe in that kind of thing now, though I did when I was smaller and thought less, when I ran free with her across the island, happy and without a care beyond when it would be supper-time. In those days, which were happier ones as they say they are for all small children, I took her seeming foresight as something as everyday and real as cold water from the spring behind the house. Later, as I grew and began to think more I decided it was mostly just luck, and since she disappeared forever over the black cliff at the top of the island, not reliable luck at all.

If she’d really had foresight she would never have tried to rescue her kite and fallen out of life in that one sharp and lonely moment. If she’d had foresight she’d have waited until we returned to the island to help her. I saw the kite where it was pinned in a cleft afterwards, and know we could have reached it with the long hoe and no harm need have come to anyone. As it was she must have tried to reach it by herself and slipped into the gulf of air more than seven hundred feet above where waves that have had two thousand cold sea-miles to build up a seemingly unstoppable momentum slam into the first immoveable object they’ve ever met, which is the dark cliff that guards the back of our home.

We never found her body. And with her gone, so was my childhood, though I was eight at the time and she only a year more. Two birthdays later, by then a year older than she would ever be, I was in my mind what I now am, a man. Although even now, years after that, Bar and Fergus still call me a boy, but they are six and seven years older than we were. Joy and I were always the kids. Our mother called us that to distinguish us from the other two, even when they were technically still children as well.

Though after Joy fell, mum never called any of us anything ever again. Never spoke at all. We found her halfway down the hill from the cliff edge, and we nearly lost her too. Far as we could make out she must have been careering down the slope, running helter-skelter, maybe mad with grief, maybe sprinting for the dory with some desperate doomed hope that she could get it launched and all the way round the island against the tide to rescue a child who in truth could not have survived such a fall. She never spoke because she all but dashed her brains out when she stumbled forward, smacking her head into a rock as she fell, temple gashed and watery blood coming from her ears.

That was the worst day ever, though the ones that followed were barely lighter. She didn’t die but she wasn’t there any more, her brain too wounded or too scarred for her to get out of herself again. In the Before she’d have been taken to a hospital and they would have operated on her brain to relieve the pressure, dad said. But this is the After, so he decided to do it himself with a hand drill: he would have done it too, if he had been able to find the drill, but it wasn’t where it should have been, and then the bleeding stopped and she just slept for a long, long time and no more fluid leaked out of her ears, so maybe it was best that he didn’t try and drill a hole into her skull to save her.

I hope so, because I know Ferg hid the drill. He saw me see him, but we’ve never, ever spoken of it. If we did I’d tell him I admire him for doing it, because dad would have killed mum and then had to live with the horror of that on top of everything else. And, even though she’s locked away inside her head, you can sit and hold her hand and sometimes she squeezes it and almost smiles, and it’s a comforting thing the tiny ghost bit of her that remains, the warmth of her hand, the skin on skin. Dad said that day was the darkest thing that ever happened to us, and that we’re past it, and that now we have to get on and live, just like in a bigger way the worst thing happened to the world and it just goes on.

He holds her hand sometimes, in the dark, by the fire, when he thinks none of us notice him doing it. He does it privately because he thinks we would see it as a sign of weakness, a grown man needing that moment of warmth.  Maybe it is. Or maybe the weakness is hiding the need, which is something Bar said to Fergus one evening when she was upset and no-one knew I was listening.

I’d had enough time to leave the ram, whistle in my dogs from their rabbit hunting and sail the narrow sea-mile back home to warn the others long before the traveler came ashore. I could have taken my time, because sharp-eyed Bar had seen the red sails too and they were ready and waiting, which meant that she and Dad were at the shoreline and Ferg was nowhere to be seen. Bar was not sure it was necessary for him to be hiding and watching over us with the long-gun because she thought the boat under the red sails looked like the boat the Lewismen used, and that maybe they had just found new sails. The Lewismen were a six person family who lived five islands North, the closest people we knew, and we knew them well. Bar would, in time, pair up with one of the boys, this was understood, though Bar, being Bar and thus contrary in all things, said she did not see why she should be in any hurry making a choice as to which of the four it was to be. It was not as if they were going anywhere, or as if there were four other girls they might pair up with instead. They were a practical family, and we sometimes joined together to do things that needed more than four pairs of hands, but we never took up their suggestion that we move to be closer to them, and they never thought of moving south. Or if they did think of it, they did not think well of the idea. But they were our neighbours and the only other people within a hundred miles. They were just the Lewismen to us, though they had a family name which was Little. And when the red-sails got closer we all saw Bar had been wrong, that it was a different boat beneath them altogether. It was bigger and the man at the tiller had hair that streamed behind him like a banner in the wind. All the Lewismen cropped their hair close to the skull for cleanliness, even Mary the mother did so, though she was in fact more mannish than woman, for all that she’d borne four boys.

The long haired traveler proved to be the only person on the boat, though at first sight it seemed too big for one person alone to sail. He neatly drew into the shallower water in the lee of the small headland that topped our beach, showing a good eye for a sound anchorage, and hailed us as he dropped anchor. His voice was hoarse but strong, and he said he was alone and wished to come ashore if we would have him. He had things to trade and indeed had been told of our whereabouts by the Lewismen, who he had left two days before. He bore a letter from them, which he waved in the air, the paper white against the darkening sea behind him.

Dad beckoned him in, and he dropped a small dinghy over the side and rowed in to the beach. I helped him ashore, and we pulled the boat above the tideline.

You’ll be Griz, he said with a smile that I liked the moment it split his thick red beard in a flash of white.

And then the dogs barreled down to surround him before I could ask his name. The traveler loved dogs. You could see it in the way he greeted our pack as they barreled down the slope to meet him as he came ashore. They barked and snarled and arrived in a great tangle of teeth and tails and then, as he knelt to meet them, the tails started thumping and the snarling turned to whines as each dog seemed to want to be patted and petted by this stranger from the sea. He had the way of dogs, and he told us he had lost his own one only weeks ago, over the side in a storm around the North Cape and he missed him like an arm. He was a half Husky crossbreed called Saga, clever like a man he said, white, black and brown with a brown eye to match his ears and a blue one to match the sky. He’d had him safely kept below in the small cabin, but when he fell and hurt himself as the boat slammed into the trough of an unusually big wave, Saga heard him cry out in pain and – being a clever dog – pawed the latch and came to help him. The next wave took him over the side and he never saw him again, not even a head bobbing on the face of the mountainous seas piling up behind the stern as the wind blew him beyond any chance of finding him. He showed us the scar on his head, and we could see in the gentle way he ruffled the fur of our dogs as he spoke that the hurt was deeper than the healed skin.

Like I said, it was a good story. And – as I found out later – some of it was even true. The dog with one brown eye and one blue one being clever as a man, that was true as death itself.

Looking at a new person is not something you would have found as interesting as we do, I expect. You lived in a world full of new people all the time. If you lived in a city they must have flowed round you like a great mackerel shoal and you’d be just one of thousands or millions, still yourself alone in your own head no doubt, but part of something much bigger too. Here every fresh face is an event, almost a shock, every new person rare enough to seem like an entirely new species. The traveler looked like no-one I had ever met. His long hair, for a start, was thick and wavy and the colour of flames. A redhead. Something I’d read about and seen in faded pictures but never met in in life. The hair was a startling colour, as alien and abrupt as the explosions of orange flowers we found on the other islands, always close to old gardens, flowers my mother called crocoz, when she still spoke. She knew all the flowers and plants. Bar told me she said crocoz weren’t native to the islands, but were tough survivors, like us.  And he was not just a redhead, but a redbeard too, a slab of a thing that jutted as far down in front of his face as his hair hung behind it. His skin was pale but weather-beaten and his eyes, which peered out at the world from beneath the high cliff of his forehead were dangerous blue. I don’t know why I thought the blue was dangerous, but that was the word that jumped into my head as I saw them. Maybe it was because they turned on me in the same instant and just for a moment, as he caught me looking at him I saw them without the smile that followed, but dangerous blue is what I thought, and I do know I thought it then and that this is not something I added later, after things happened: I definitely thought dangerous blue, but then I thought better and discounted it.

Maybe you, swimming in a world full of difference and choice were better tuned to believing your gut when it came to people. I had, still have, little to compare people with. So I discounted the dangerous blue in his eyes when he smiled at me an instant later, and decided it was just different, the blueness, only having seen brown or green eyes before. And when he smiled it was hard to think of those eyes as cold, but maybe that was part of why he was hard to keep a hold of in the mind, juggling the two things at once, the fire in his hair and the shiver of ice in his eyes. The face that was hard as a hammer when it was not smiling and the smile that seemed to warm the world when it found you.

You look like a Viking, were the first words I said to him. And he did. I had seen him, or faces like him in history books and old pictures, men in horned hats carrying axes and plunder.

And the second words he said to me, this man who had sailed out of the north, were: What’s a Viking?

Which shows that even a question can be a lie, if asked in the right way.