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Excerpt: 'The Gone-Away World'

by Nick Harkaway
Jun 19, 2009

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Cover: 'The Gone-Away World'

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The lights went out in the Nameless Bar just after nine. I was bent over the pool table with one hand in the bald patch behind the D, which Flynn the Barman claimed was beer, but which was the same size and shape as Mrs. Flynn the Barman's arse: nigh on a yard in the beam and formed like the cross-section of a cooking apple. The fluorescent over the table blinked out, then came back, and the glass-fronted fridge gave a low, lurching hum. The wiring buzzed—and then it was dark. A faint sheen of static danced on the TV on its shelf, and the green exit lamp sputtered by the door.

I dropped my weight into the imprint of Mrs. Flynn the Barman's hams and played the shot anyway. The white ball whispered across the felt, came off two cushions, and clipped the eight cleanly into a side pocket. Doff, doff, tchk . . . glonk. It was perfect. On the other hand, I'd been aiming for the six. I'd given the game to Jim Hepsobah, and any time now when the power came back and everything was normal in the Nameless Bar, I'd pass the cue to my hero pal Gonzo, and Jim would beat him too.

Any time now.

Except that the lights stayed out, and the hollow glimmer of the TV set faded away. There was a small, quiet moment, the kind you just have time to notice, which makes you feel sad for no good reason. Then Flynn went out back, swearing like billy-o—and if your man Billy-O ever met Flynn, if ever there was a cuss-off, a high noon kinduva thing with foul language, I know where my money'd be.

Flynn hooked up the generator, which God help us was pig-powered. There was the sound of four large, foul-smelling desert swine being yoked to a capstan, a noise pretty much like a minor cavalry war, and then Flynn let loose some of his most abominable profanity at the nearest porker. It looked as if it wanted to vomit and bolted. The others perforce followed it in a slow but steady progression about the capstan, and then pig number one came back around, saw Flynn ready with another dose and tried to stop. Lashed to the crosspiece and bundled along by its three fellows, it found it couldn't, so it gathered its flabcovered self and charged past him at piggy top speed, and the whole cycle accelerated until, with a malodorous, oinking crunch, the generator kicked in, and the television lit up with the bad news.

Or rather, it didn't light up. The picture was so dim that it seemed the set was broken. Then there were fireworks and cries of alarm and fear, very quiet but getting louder, and we realised Sally Culpepper was just now turning on the sound. The image shook and veered, and urgent men went past shouting get back, get clear, and ohshitlookatthatfuckerjesus, which they didn't even bother to bleep. In the middle distance, it looked as if maybe a figure was rolling on the ground. Something had gone absolutely, horribly awry in the world, and naturally some arsehole was present with a camera making himself 10k an hour hazard pay when he could have been rolling up his arsehole sleeves and saving a life or two. I knew a guy in the Go Away War who did just that, dumped the network's prized Digi VII in a latrine trench and hauled six civilians and a sergeant from a burning medical truck. Got the Queen's Honour back home and a P45 from his boss. He's in an institution now, is Micah Monroe, and every day two guys from the Veterans' Hospital come by and take him for a walk and make sure the medal's polished on its little stand by his bed. They're sweet old geezers, Harry and Hoyle, and they've got medals of their own and they figure it's the least they can do for a man who lost his mind to giving a damn. Harry's kid was in the medical truck, you see. One of the ones Micah couldn't reach.

We stared at the screen and tried to make sense of what was on it. It looked, for a moment, as if the Jorgmund Pipe was on fire—but that was like saying the sky was falling. The Pipe was the most solidly constructed, triple-redundant, safety-first, one-of-a-kind necessary object in the world. We built it fast and dirty, because there was no other way, the gone-away world and then after that we made it indestructible. The plans were drawn up by the best, then checked and re-checked by the very best, and then the checkers themselves were scrutinised, analysed and vetted for any sign of fifth columnism or martyr tendencies, or even a serious and hitherto undetected case of just-plain-stupid, and then the contractors went to work under a scheme which emphasised thoroughness and adherence to spec over swift completion, and which imposed penalties so dire upon speculators and profiteers that it would actually be safer just to throw yourself from a high place, and finally the quantity surveyors and catastrophe experts went to town on it with hammers and saws, lightning generators and torsion engines, and declared it sound. Everyone in the Livable Zone was united in the desire to maintain and safeguard it. There was absolutely no chance that it could imaginably, conceivably, possibly be on fire.

It was on fire in a big way. The Pipe was burning painful white, magnesium, corpse-belly, nauseating white, and beside it there were buildings and fences, which meant this wasn't just the Pipe, but something even more important: a pumping station or a refinery. The whole place was wrapped in hot, shining smoke, and deep in the heart of the furnace there was stuff going on the human eye didn't know what to do with, weird, bad-news stuff which came with its own ominous soundtrack. On the screen something very important crumbled into noise and light.

"Fuuuuuuck," said Gonzo William Lubitsch, speaking for everyone.

It was a funny feeling: we were looking at the end of the world— again—and we were looking at something awful we'd never wanted to see, but at the same time we were looking at fame and fortune and just about everything we could ever ask for delivered by a grateful populace. We were looking at our reason for being. Because that thar on that thar screen was a fire, plus also a toxic event of the worst kind, and we, Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together, were the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County (corporate HQ the Nameless Bar, CEO Sally J. Culpepper, presiding) and this was the thing that we did better than anyone else in the entire Livable Zone, and therefore anywhere. Sally was straightaway talking to Jim Hepsobah and then to Gonzo, making lists and giving orders.

She set Flynn the Barman to brewing his chews-through-steel espresso, and at last even Mrs. Flynn was up off her on-board cushions and moving at flank speed to make provisions, prepare tallies, and take letters for loved ones and estranged ones and people glimpsed and admired across the floating ash of the Nameless Bar. We ran to and fro and bumped into one another and swore, mostly because we didn't have anything important to do yet, and there was hubbub and brouhaha until Sally jumped up on the pool table and told us to shut up and get it together. She raised her phone above our heads like the thigh bone of a saint.

Sally Culpepper was six feet tall and much of her was leg, and on her right shoulder blade she had an orchid tattoo inked by some kid a quarter-inch shy of Michelangelo. She had strawberry lips and creamy skin and freckles across her nose where it'd been rebuilt after a bar fight in Lisbon. Gonzo claimed to have slept with her, to have had those legs wrapped around his hips like conjoined Italian calf-skin boa constrictors. He said she left him all but dead and grinning like a crescent moon. He said it happened one night after a big job, beer running from the rafters and everyone shiny as an egg yolk with success and soap-scoured skin. He said it was that time when Jim and Sally were trying not to be a thing, before they just gave in to the inevitable and got a place together. Every time we all met up, me and Gonzo and Sally and Jim Hepsobah and the others, Gonzo'd throw her a wicked grin and ask her how her other tattoo was, and Sally Culpepper would smile a secret smile which said she wasn't telling, and maybe he knew what that other tattoo looked like and maybe he didn't. Jim Hepsobah just pretended he hadn't heard, because Jim loved Gonzo like a brother, and love like that recognises that your buddy can be an ass, and doesn't care. We all loved Sally Culpepper, and she ruled us with her transparent lashes and her milkmaid's face and her slender arms that could drop a punch on you like a steam hammer. So there she stood, and there was a reasonable facsimile of calm and attention, because we knew that if the call came it would come on that phone, and we knew she had five-offive reception here, and that was one of the reasons why the Nameless Bar was our place of business.

So we stopped hunting for lost socks and packing bags, and fretting that we'd somehow miss the starting gun, and settled in to Mrs. Flynn's provender. After a while we got quietly chatty and talked about small domestic chores, like cleaning gutters and chasing bats out of the loft. When the phone did ring (any time now), we could go and be heroes and save the world, which was Gonzo's favourite thing, and perforce something I did from time to time as well. Until it kicked off, we might as well not fuss. And then the Nameless Bar went quiet again; in little groups and one by one we fell silent as we beheld a vision of awful destiny.

The vision took the form of a small child carrying a snot-crusted and elderly teddy bear. It marched out into the room with much gravitas, surveyed us all sternly, then turned to Mrs. Flynn the Barman to gather in details for the prosecution.

"Why was it all dark?" it demanded.

"The power went out," Mrs. Flynn the Barman said cheerfully.

"There's a fire." The child glowered around the room.

"These are loud men," it said, still annoyed, "and this one is dirty."

It indicated Gonzo, who winced. It considered Sally Culpepper.

"This lady has a flower on her back," it added, having found conclusive proof of our unsuitability, then sat down in the middle of the floor and helped itself to a cheese and bacon roll. We goggled at it, and tried to make it go away by rubbing our eyes.

"Sorry," Mrs. Flynn the Barman said to us in general. "We don't let him in here normally, but it's an emergency." She eyed the child without approval. "Sweetie, you can't eat that; it's been on the floor near the dirty man."

Gonzo would probably have objected to this, but he didn't seem to hear her; he was still gazing in mute horror at the kid in front of him, and so was I, and so was everyone else. It was unquestionably a human toddler, and from the context certain conclusions had to be drawn which were uncomfortable and even appalling. This infant, swaddled in a bath towel and presently attempting to jam a four-inch-diameter granary bap into one ear, was the Spawn of Flynn.

Excerpted from The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. Copyright 2008 by Nick Harkaway. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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