There were only two things about her friend Alison that Fran didn't know.
One of them was the fact that, since she was little, Ally had had a morbid fear of the End of the World. Maybe it was growing up in the eighties that had done that. With the prospect of nuclear war on telly all the time.
The other thing was chipshopness. Ally had often demonstrated her skill in front of her mate. But Fran had never really got that there was something that went much further than intelligence and judgement going on in Ally's head.
The two things went together, of course. She got that. One produced the other.
This Autumn morning, Ally was walking in to work from her flat on the Upper Bristol Road, and her head was full of shit.
Normally, Ally really liked Autumn. It was hard not to, when you'd lived all your life in Bath. The city seemed to relax when the sun was low and the golds and reds of nature matched the buildings. In Autumn, even when it was raining, it was usually like the rain in a black and white movie shown on a Sunday afternoon. Lights would come on in unexpected places, and the little covered streets near the library would become full of people. The pubs would fill and the deep brown local beer would go down well. Bath was designed by the old and the drunk and the Luftwaffe, and their combined efforts resulted in a city of Autumn.
Normally, Ally loved Bath too. She didn't know why. Because she didn't know why was probably why she loved it. It was a continual relief. Just for once, just in this one case, she couldn't see the wood for the trees. Bath usually was just a bunch of great things set up and down a slope in a lovely valley. Wa-hey! Who could think about that?
But today it was raining in great sheets, like it had been doing for days. It made the hills above the city look dull green, and the buildings of the city look dull brown. Today the Autumn held no promise of anything but Winter, like it had done for weeks.
Today, her thoughts were full of death. Like they had been for weeks.
Ever since she'd got back from Edinburgh, in fact. Fran had gone home to see her folks, and had packed for Staffordshire that night, and had been gone in the morning. Just two weeks ago. But in those two weeks Ally had wilted. Maybe it was her nature to wilt. Maybe it was just Fran that kept her going.
As she slopped along through the puddles, past the kebab shop, heading towards the bottom of town, where she worked, she thought about last night's dream. Jesus and his Disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. Where had all those details come from? Something her Dad had told her in one of his late night rants. She'd always wanted to talk to him about other stuff, towards the end. But he'd just go on and on. Dreaming about Judas. At least it hadn't been as dark as some of her dreams lately.
Dreams used to be good too. Like another life where stuff happened that she couldn't explain and didn't have to. But since Fran had left... Everything seemed to be since Fran had left.
She stepped over last night's chicken cartons and stomped chips and a thrown up something, which she knew instantly before she looked away was Chicken Chop Suey. This was the little square with the tree, where the homeless hung about in the evening.
Maybe her depression was because of Patrick. Because she couldn't decide whether or not she ought to chuck him. Still. Continually. But it had got to a point this time. The arguments for and against reared up in her head again, and she shoved them back down. It was just a boyfriend, just one tiny relationship.
It wasn't the end of the world.
But it felt like it.
Just like this Autumn felt like an Autumn for the world.
She stopped to look into a shop window, and saw a weekend assistant drop a school cap onto the head of a tiny mannequin.
She turned and went on her way.
Tonight, all this shit was going to come to a halt, because tonight Fran would be back in Bath. And just seeing her would make everything okay. And maybe the two of them could laugh about the thing which had appeared in Ally's future in the last two weeks, which, like some childhood ogre, was now haunting her every thought again.
'The end of the world,' she said to Ted.
He unlocked the door of Linley's Racing and let her in with a grunt. There were times when you could say anything to him, and he wouldn't notice.
'I can't get it out of my head,' she said. 'I'm certain of it now. The end of the world is coming.'
'Oh ah? You'd better go and change your board, then.'
Ted was an independent bookmaker, a pouch-cheeked master of racing, with the face of someone who spent his time exactly divided between the windy downs of the stable runs and the smoky interior of the shop. He'd done well with Linley's Racing, and had decided to branch into football, cricket, and, to some extent, spread betting. You could pick a figure as to how many runs Nasser Hussain would make in the Test Match, and take a bet on him getting less or more than that, losing or winning money with every run that took you away from your target.
To risk getting into that business, you needed carefully selected limits (£10 per run, for instance) and good sources about your sports, people who lived and breathed football and cricket and could tell who was likely to do what. Such people could formulate tempting looking baits for the window that were actually much less value than they looked. Newcastle win 2-0 over Bradford, Alan Shearer scores first. You'd put a tenner on that. But someone who knew that there were six guys in the Newcastle squad more likely to score than Shearer, that he got his goals these days through lurking around the goalmouth, rather than in that initial fifteen minute adrenaline rush when goals were usually scored in Newcastle's game, that the Newcastle defence usually let one through even when they won bigtime... add that to Bradford, who might let five or six in... it wasn't really worth a pound, let alone a tenner.
Alison hadn't paid any attention to sport before she'd seen the advert in the Guardian. But she'd instantly seen that this job, based in Bath, was the one she was best suited for in the world. She'd been in her last year at the Uni then. She'd sent off the letter of application, carefully weighted with all the local reassurance that someone from Bath who advertised nationally would be after, and spent the week between sending it off and getting the answer watching and listening to sport all day.
That had been enough to get her past Ted's audition, although she'd made a couple of blunders. The Sunderland striker Kevin Phillips had been injured, during her week of research, so she'd been unaware of his existence. But two weeks later, during which she'd kept up with her homework, Ted called back and offered her the job.
Only then had she told him that she still had three weeks of university to go. But he'd been willing to wait. And so, to Fran's amusement, Ally had gone from mathematician to oddsmaker in one move.
The twenty thou a year was a side issue. She could have made five times that, following her swift education, playing the odds of the other bookmakers. Being in a shop doing something mathematical, meeting people, using her talent... This, Ally had thought, was one of the few jobs where she could have fun. Where chipshopness could be a positive thing.
For the first few weeks it had been. Until she'd learnt everything. Until she started to be able to do it automatically. Until she'd met all the people, and they were mostly old and young old men, that were ever going to come through the frosted, nicotine-plastered door.
Out of that moment of frustration had come her first big idea. The Long'uns. Big chain betting shops, like Ladbrokes, took on huge, stupid bets with very long odds. Life on Mars; Elvis still Alive; Aliens land. An independent like Linley's couldn't afford the huge wacks that'd result if any of these came true. But Alison had persuaded Ted that some of these mad things attracted bets and just weren't going to come true. The Elvis one, for instance, went on her slate. She called around the chains and got their sample odds on the Alien ones, and cut them in half. Ted spent a Sunday morning in the backroom talking it over with her over tiny cups of paper coffee, and finally he'd nodded and said they'd give it a go. Alison got her own wipeboard in the corner for Long'uns, and a display board in the window.
The board did what Alison wanted. It brought in new trade. But that didn't keep her head up for very long. The guys who came in to make stupid bets on these things weren't the intellectual bandits she'd hoped for, the guys with the hotline to NASA and the subscription to New Scientist who'd run in to grab those odds as the saucer hovered above the Whitehouse lawn. They were, instead, men who didn't care about keeping their money. They were usually there with a gang of other blokes, and they'd put some normal bets on the horses, or more often on one of Alison's spreads, and then they'd look up and smile at the board and slap down their money and say 'and a pony on Elvis!' like they were proud to be chucking it away.
These were the sort of men that Alison stayed away from. She could read all of what was on their faces. She peered out from the backroom where she was bent over the sports pages, and would wince at the sounds of the board going into action again.
When she asked him to take it down, Ted said she was mad. They were making money they'd never have to pay back. These lads wanted to give it to them. If Alison didn't want to call odds that were never going to be used, he'd do it himself.
So the board had stayed put.
She had met Patrick in the betting shop. She could have said to him, as he stood there, that they were going to have dinner twice, and go for a ride in the country in his Jaguar, and shag at his place, and then slump into the most pointless relationship ever. Because the world was going to end and she wanted someone to hold onto and rich was good in those circumstances. And that she was never going to feel close enough to him to tell him that that was why he was in her life. Patrick was her End of the World Boyfriend.
She shook her head to get that thought out of it. Without Fran here to prop her up she was getting so cynical. Chipshopness did that to her. But she kept on putting herself in the way of it. There was lots that was good about Patrick. He was kind, and caring, and absolutely honest. An open book. She wouldn't be so shallow as to hang onto somebody for their money. Would she?
He did not cheer her up. Like Fran did. But maybe no man could do that.
As Ted bent now to pick up the letters from the mat, she went to the board and looked long and hard at her most tasty Long'un.
The End of the World: 5000/1.
It was tasty for Ted because of how it was defined. The extinction of all human life, by any means. The ultimate bookmaker's bet: one that could never be collected.
They told them that, and they still put money on it.
That was one of the reasons she'd started to become convinced it was about to happen.
Patrick had put money on it, on the day she met him.
She grabbed the cloth, and worked the marker pen off the board. Then she wrote the new odds, the odds she felt this morning, into the fuzz of old felt tip where they kept changing.
Ted looked up and smiled. 'Summat going on in your world, Ally?'
'Not,' said Alison, throwing down the cloth, 'for very much longer.'
The end of the world.
Alison stared into her glass.
She was in the Garrick's after work, waiting for Fran, with her first pint of Bellringer. The day had been grey, rain, smokey men, racing noise, newspaper print on her hands. As all her days were now.
Why did she think the world was going to end? What did that mean?
It wasn't three thousand to one. It felt like a dead certainty. She would have bet on it, like Patrick, and laughed at the absurdity of it, but for what Fran meant in her life. Fran would never bet on anything.
She had no idea as to how it was going to happen. She didn't consciously work out what was chipshoppy and what wasn't. She didn't know how reading about a football player in Hello! gave her information about how he was performing on the pitch. She fed match statistics, interviews and profiles into her head, and out came what she needed. She asked the thing questions, without really knowing she was doing that, and it gave her answers, and only in the most simple cases could she walk back through the process and say that's why I thought that. She could train herself, like she'd done for the oddsmaking job, by exercising the skill in a particular way. She'd heard that tennis players reached for balls before they could see them coming, that cricketers at the highest level had their eyes closed when they hit a six. It was a samurai thing, a performance beyond herself.
She'd often had cause to hate it. It was what made her dark to Fran's light.
But never before, in her whole life, had it led her here.
The end of the world. It felt like a great folding in. Like an equation that defined a certain set of things that could happen and no more, with the parameters getting smaller and smaller. The image in her head was of origami going the wrong way, of paper vanishing into her hand.
Every new detail of Britain now seemed to turn back on itself. The News of the World 'naming and shaming' paedophiles. The fuel protestors and their pickets and convoys. The World Climate Summit breaking down. That had been when she'd cried and could take no more, and had decided not to look any more. She'd given up on newspapers, the TV news, even the radio on the hour.
Fran would have said these things were awful. She did, in her postcards. But she wouldn't see them as steps. Slippings. The way the world would slide into itself and die.
Ally told herself that it was just the rain, just her despair at how the dream job had been another trap... there had been many traps. Just her politics. She'd taken to buying St. John's Wort at the chemists and popping one of the sweet brown pills every morning. She felt the effect, smoothing the edges of the place where she could have fallen down the pit that she'd got so used to.
The shock had been that that wasn't it. She wasn't depressed right now. She was right.
She drained her pint in one long swallow.
She was always right.
Which was bad news for the world.
She heard Fran walking up to her from behind as she lowered the glass, and found that she had a great big smile of relief on her face at the familiar footsteps. Thank God. 'Hiya,' she said, getting to her feet to give her a hug.
Fran smiled back at her. 'Hi,' she said.
But Ally felt it then. Felt it in the hug.
She stepped back from her. 'What's wrong?' she asked.
'Nothing,' said Fran. 'Why?'
Ally looked her up and down.
There was something. Something terrible. Ally knew as her friend looked at her, that her returning to Bath wasn't going to bring the relief she needed.
Because now there was something of the End of the World about Fran, too.
© Paul Cornell 2002
British Summertime is published in the UK by Gollancz.
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