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Matthew Hurt

Joyce had never thought about the end of the world before. Then it was suddenly everywhere. It began that morning with a knock. Even though it was before ten o’clock Joyce’s mum had started. Joyce could tell from the way she flung open the door and said, with over-the-top panache, Hello cunts! 

The short man and tall woman in dark blue didn’t acknowledge the unusual gusto of the welcome. Both held books. Neither smiled. As the man talked, a crown of sweat gathered on his forehead. The woman just stared. 

Joyce couldn’t tell how her mum was reacting to the description of sinners writhing in the flames. (She made a note to ask Mrs Lewis what “writhing” meant.) But now this picture had been painted, she was burning to know what it was these sinners had done to have been sent to the eternal fire in the first place.

Joyce’s grandma pressed flowers. She’d place them in the dark middles of hardbacks. Years later they’d float out of the pages like ghosts. Joyce imagined shaking the stern man and woman’s books and phantom smiles fluttering out. 

Midway through an account of skin being ripped off in strips by demons Joyce’s mum walked back into the flat. It was only Joyce and God’s soldiers now. They re-focused their stares on her. Suddenly, so suddenly Joyce let out a yelp, the tall woman dropped into a squat. They were eye to eye. 

You can save your mother’s soul, she said. The woman handed Joyce one of their books. Then she nodded at the man, who gave Joyce a second copy. They marched four paces to the next flat along.

Joyce took the book down to the back of the Towers where the skips were. Even on cursory reading of the Good News Bible, she realised she had no desire to move on to its Bad News sequel. She was unhappily absorbed in Revelations – which she’d incorrectly assumed was something like Harry Potter, based on a picture of a dragon – when she heard a meow and a rustling of paper. 

Underneath a tent of newspaper, behind one of the skips, was a kitten. Its eyes were black as print and Joyce felt that those two eyeballs had somehow seen exactly the same things she’d seen. She was about to pick it up when she heard a yowl and turned to see its mother. 

Joyce wasn’t patient enough to wait for the lift and ran all the way up to her flat, throbbing with the news of her discovery. When she got to her door, she could hear Zee’s shouting coming from inside. So she sat on the landing, knees pulled up, back against the wall, and examined the sheet of newspaper she was still holding. 

It had been the roof of the kitten’s tent and in her thrill at discovery she’d forgotten to let it go up sixteen flights of stairs. There was a photo of a sea. And Big Ben was poking his head out above the surface of the water. The article was about the climate apocalypse. Luckily, Joyce had just learnt the word “apocalypse” in her Good News Bible’s glossary. 

The fact that extreme heat and flooding was going to make life on earth impossible had been kept from her. Joyce had never thought about the end of the world before then suddenly it was everywhere and she was stunned that no one, not her grandma, not Mrs Lewis, not her mum or Zee, had even mentioned it. Perhaps they didn’t know?

When it was too cold to stay outside, Joyce opened the door. She smelt burning. Zee was asleep in the armchair, his cigarette flickering in the carpet. She noticed a cut of bright blood on his face. 

Joyce picked up his cigarette and put it in the ashtray. She couldn’t understand why she was the only one who ever used it. It was a desert island. Palms trees around the edges and an open treasure chest overflowing with jewels. Whenever Joyce added a glowing butt to the mound she imagined the island’s volcano was active. Pirates could see the rim of lava from across the seas and that’s why, she reasoned, the treasure remained unclaimed.

She got into her bed, which was the sofa, and couldn’t sleep. London would be flooded and there would also be hellfire. Humans would be sorted into sinners and non-sinners. The definition of sinners in the glossary was complicated. The world was ending but the details were foggy. And it was unclear what would happen to cats. 

Joyce sat at the side of her mum’s the bed with a plate of biscuits and tea she’d prepared and waited for her to wake up.

What’s a sinner? Joyce asked. 

Zee would scream I never know what you’re thinking bitch because her mum’s face was like a mask and for a few seconds it was impossible to know how she’d react to the question. 

Then, simply and clearly, Joyce’s mum said: I am. 

A tear drop plopped into her mum’s tea. 

It’s the fucking booze, she added. 

Mum, Joyce said, can we get a cat? 

Fuck off.  

That night Zee passed out on the sofa so Joyce wrapped herself in two towels and lay in the bathtub. What a way to start my birthday, she thought at midnight. And when she finally dreamt, she was on the ashtray island dragging all Zee’s burning cigarette butts into a pile on the beach like Robinson Crusoe trying to attract the attention of a passing ship.

It was the card Joyce’s grandma had left the day before that reminded her mum. Apparently, there’d been cake too. But Zee had worms, they liked to joke. What had started as a bad birthday turned into the best day of Joyce’s life. When Zee came back with the kitten Joyce named it Jehovah, which made her mum screech with laughter. 

The day was a love affair. Joyce took Jehovah to all her favourite places. The bridge by the canal with the bright pink graffiti. Under her mum’s bed. The very top of the tower from where – until the boys in the gang chased you away – you could see all the way to the London Eye. Jehovah liked it there best. Joyce had brought the second copy of the Good News Bible with her. She ripped pages out and folded them into airplanes. Noah’s face now had the head of giraffe sprouting from it, and – unlike Job covered in blisters – Noah’s plane didn’t spiral then nosedive into the carpark. Noah transforming into a giraffe flew straight head, without losing altitude. 

He kept going. And going. They briefly lost sight of him when he veered into the sun, but he passed across it and, although now sun-blind, they saw he was still flying until eventually he became a dot and then nothing.  

All the laughter at the naming of Jehovah had encouraged Zee and Joyce’s mum to start early. They were both in the bedroom until Zee came out to look for his cigarettes. Jehovah was engaged in combat with a torn bit of the armchair. Zee’s cigarettes were on the arm of the chair. Zee saw them, took a fag from the box, then slumped onto the chair.

You’re squishing him! Joyce shouted. 

Zee slowly lifted his lighter to his mouth, lit the fag. From the bedroom, the sound of what could be crying or maybe singing.

Please, Zee?!

Still moving slowly, he reached behind him. Found Jehovah. Put the kitten on his shoulder, where it started to tug at his earlobe with its tiny teeth. 

You think it’s me makes her drink.

Joyce had never thought that. But now that Zee had said it, she realised it was true.

Then he took Jehovah off his shoulder and held him in the air, two fingers around his neck, so he was dangling. 

Joyce had only been to the sea once. She, her mum and her grandma had taken the train to Brighton. It wasn’t nice weather. While Joyce played with her grandma on the pebbles, her mum huddled by a games arcade where every time the door opened, trills, boings and fanfares blurted out. Slowly, Joyce’s mum became curious about their game, which was only making pyramids that the waves couldn’t knock over, and edged closer. It turned out Joyce’s mum was a natural born builder of pyramids. And Joyce hadn’t noticed it before, but when her mum and her grandma laughed, they could have been sisters. 

Moving bottles around the flat was dangerous. Unless you moved them one at a time they’d clink together. Joyce couldn’t tell if her mum was asleep or not and she didn’t know how long Zee would be gone. She still had two bottles to hide when she heard her mum come out of the bedroom and had to abandon her mission. 

They started with those two and didn’t ask where the others were until Joyce was already half-asleep on the sofa. Jehovah was purring, draped across her neck, warmed by the underside of her jaw. But even Jehovah woke up when Zee threw open the bedroom door. 

She fucking hid them!  

By now Noah with a giraffe’s head could be in another country, Joyce thought. She knew France was closer but she liked to imagine Brazil. She wondered if that plane would finally land in a jungle and if another animal – an animal with hands, a monkey – might pick it up, unfold it and… What would it think? Would it understand the story from the picture? The animals saved, two by two. The Good News Bible!


Joyce felt a hand on her thigh, just above her knee. Zee was sitting on her sofa, looking away from her.

I’m a good boy, he said, voice high and delicate. He sounded like a man again when he said, You’re still a girl. 

Joyce thought about the wet blackness of Jehovah’s eyes, as black as the letters in her books. She wondered if Jehovah’s eyes and the words in books were oversights by God. The places where he forgot to finish painting in the world. And through these forgotten spaces you could see into the darkness behind everything. 

Get off, Zee said. I’m sleeping here.

Joyce jumped up and knew that she’d avoided something. 

Peeping through a crack in the bathroom door, she saw him struggle to find the end of his cigarette with the flame of his lighter. Once he managed, he flopped down on the sofa and disappeared from her view. 

Joyce heard it. The cracking of glass. The crevice between the cushions and back of the sofa had been the best spot she could think of to hide the bottles. 

She didn’t watch long enough to see if there was any writhing involved (she would have to wait for school to re-start before she could even ask Mrs Lewis what that meant, anyway). But she was surprised how much of the sofa was on fire before he even seemed to stir. 

Joyce sat on the floor of the ambulance. Its back doors were open and her legs dangled over the edge. Inside, paramedics were insisting on looking at her mum’s hands – she’d burned them trying to save the now deceased sinner. 

It started to snow. 

Joyce held Jehovah to her chest. She looked up and thought that instead of the flakes falling it was as if they – her, Jehovah, this ambulance, her mum – were rising. Floating upwards towards the ink. The short man and tall woman had described hell. Joyce had no picture in her head, though, of what heaven might be like.