Abby did not want to go in that box. Abby wasn’t frightened. Abby wasn’t frightened of anything. But she was displaying more than a certain amount of reluctance, she was twitching at the thought of it, she clearly couldn’t understand why Johnny would want her to go in a box at all, not when Johnny loved her so much – and she did love Johnny, that was obvious, she worshipped him with all her little heart. Why would he want her somewhere there was no food to eat, no toys to play with, not even the space to turn around?
“Come on, Abby, it’ll be all right,” said Johnny, and so saying he held her down, he stroked her to make her feel calm, he could feel her little body all over quivering at the indignity of it all. And Johnny put the lid on, and carried the box to the freezer, and shut it inside. He waited a few hours. He went to play games in his bedroom, he kept looking at his watch to see whether he’d waited long enough yet, he couldn’t concentrate for the thought of it and kept blowing himself up – and only then, then, when he was sure it was all over, and Abby would have stopped wriggling, he went back downstairs to the kitchen to retrieve it. He smeared the moisture from the clear plastic, looked inside, and Abby wasn’t moving, Abby was as hard as a rock, she was safe now, Abby was safe. “I’ll see you soon,” Johnny promised her, and that wasn’t strictly speaking true, now, was it? It’d be soon for him, but an awfully long time for Abby. And then he went to the back of the kitchen, lifted up the loose tile he’d discovered, the tile Mummy didn’t know about, and buried the box beneath it.
He’d wanted to take Abby with him, of course. “Now, don’t be silly, Johnny,” his Daddy had said. “We’re not taking anything with us, that’s the whole point! This is us getting back to our roots. This is us, with the bare essentials, connecting back as a family.” Mummy and Daddy had sold it to him as a holiday, but it didn’t sound much like fun to him, sleeping rough, no one his own age to talk to, and in the daytime all that digging to be done. “It’s only for a few days, Johnny,” said Mummy, and she had smiled wide, and Daddy had smiled wide too, “and it’ll be so good for us.” Johnny knew that this holiday would have been either Mummy’s idea or Daddy’s idea, but not both of them’s idea – but they were trying so hard not to argue these days, and all their smiles now were so very wide, and Johnny couldn’t tell which one of their smiles was sincere and which one through angry, gritted teeth.
And they were all ready to go, and Mummy and Daddy were waiting by the front door, no suitcase, nothing. Just the family toothbrushes, and a little bit of lipstick for Mummy, she couldn’t do without that. They stepped out into the garden. “How long will it take to get there?” asked Johnny. Daddy said, “Oh, no time!” and Mummy said, “No time at all!” And so it turned out to be, because there they were, right where they’d left from, the same town, the same hill in the distance, just the same, look – but so different too, the same town three and a half thousand years later.
There was sand everywhere. And not the sand Johnny played with on the beach sometimes, on proper holidays, on fun holidays, no – there was something hard and gritty about this sand, and there was a reddish hue to it that made it look somehow angry. The front garden was gone, no grass, just that sand – and no house either obviously, though there had been some excavation work done, and there was brick rubble poking out of the ground. There was no trace of the neighbourhood, the little newsagent’s on the corner, the road that led up to the high street, no one had bothered to excavate any of that, that was all buried beneath the dirt. And the sun was beating down on them so very hard.
A big smiling woman bounced over to them, took Daddy’s hands, took Mummy’s, pumped them hard. “Welcome, welcome!” she said, and she seemed so enthusiastic it was impossible not to be enthused right back at her. “So, you must be the Pecks, yes? Welcome, welcome, and I do hope you enjoy your time with us here! I’m Janice, and I’ll be your guide for this, the digs are so much fun, and so instructive! We’ve got all the equipment laid out for you, and we’re here to help, anything you might need, we’ll be right with you through this adventure twenty-four-seven. I’m a trained archaeologist and have a doctorate, and my assistant there, Virgil, he studied archaeology in America.” Mummy and Daddy looked impressed. Virgil, unsmiling, and really very large, there was an awful lot of Virgil, raised his hand in mute acknowledgement. In spite of the heat he was wearing a jacket and black trousers, and hadn’t even broken a sweat. Janice was wearing slacks and shorts, and her arms and legs had tanned a chocolate brown, and her face had freckled, and each time she got excited her breasts jumped up and down, jiggle jiggle jiggle.
“Are we going to start digging right now?” said Daddy.
“Oh dear me, no,” said Janice, and grinned. “No, archaeology’s a painstaking process. Painstaking! We’ve got to teach you how to do it first, how you can excavate the ruins without damaging them, how to tell the difference between real life history and lumps of limestone. Then, and only then, we’ll set you to work with your trowels! But don’t worry,” she said, perhaps catching sight of Johnny’s dismayed face, “it’s all fun, really fun, we make it fun for the kiddies, we turn the whole thing into such a game, just you wait and see! No, today will be mostly orientation, and the chance for you to unwind a little too. The journey can be a little tiring, and the temperature so hard to adjust to. Let’s show you to your tents.”
There was one large tent for Mummy and Daddy, one smaller tent alongside it for Johnny. “That’ll keep the heat off!” said Janice, and Johnny supposed it did that, there was shade inside, but the baked canvas smelled funny and made his head swim. “The brochure said basic amenities,” said Mummy, and Janice agreed, and laughed, and her breasts jiggled up and down, and she said, “Very basic, yes, a tent!” And Mummy didn’t look very happy at that.
Then it was time for what Janice called the preliminary induction to their archaeology orientation, and she was wrong, it wasn’t fun at all, it was just like being back at school. Except Johnny had friends at school. Janice told them which end of a pickaxe they should hold, and Virgil would demonstrate, grimly gripping it by the handle and bringing it down in a big lazy swing. “Now, uncovering your own past is a great historical adventure,” said Janice, “but it can also be a highly emotional one. Coming face to face with who you are, and who you’re going to become. And so I want to tell you now that Virgil and I not only have doctorates in archaeology, but also in counselling and basic therapy. If you’re moved or touched in any way that causes you distress, be assured, we’ll open our arms wide, we’ll hug you.” Daddy said he’d heard that these sorts of holidays were therefore ideal for families who wanted to find their way out of difficulties, to make a clean fresh start, and he smiled at Mummy, and Mummy smiled back, and they held hands. “Indeed,” said Janice, “yeah, we get lots of that. We get lots of repeat bookings.” Mummy asked how that was possible – once a site was excavated, it was done, how could they do it again? And Janice explained that families would return to the site a week before their last visit, there really was no end to the number of times you could dig up your own remains, and that’s why they had a discount for those wanting to take advantage of their special offer, get three archaeological digs for the price of two. “All the sand you see around us,” said Janice suddenly, “even that’s history, even that’s your past. It could be the remains of civilisations millennia before ours, or the remains of people you once knew, the postman, your neighbours, the chappie who’d come to read your gas meter, and this is all that’s left of their bodies, this is the ravages of time, and this is humanity, reduced to dust blowing in the wind.” And she said, “Anyone moved by that, anyone need a hug?” Mummy told Daddy, slightly too loudly, that she didn’t think Janice was wearing a bra, and that it was rude for him to stare, and Daddy assured her blithely that he hadn’t noticed. And Johnny was bored, Johnny had got hold of a stick and was drawing patterns idly in the dirt.
Johnny settled in his tent that night. The ground sheet did little to soften the lumps and bumps of the ground beneath him, all that sand, all that corpse dust. Mummy and Daddy popped their heads in to kiss him good night, and told him to sleep well, it would be a long day tomorrow. Then they went to their own tent, and they had sex. Johnny knew it was sex, he was seven years old, he’d learned about it at school, and Mummy and Daddy were trying to be so quiet and he didn’t quite understand why, they didn’t need to sound so furtive and awkward and sad for his sake. And Johnny felt lonely, and wished he’d brought Abby with him after all.
The next morning the Peck family were each given a shovel, a bucket, and a trowel. Johnny’s bucket was a special child bucket, and was decorated in bright stripes. Janice explained that the dig had already done all the long, boring work for them. All the topsoil was uncovered, and the shape of their house was clearly marked beneath, they had something exciting to work on from the start. “We’ve surmised that the room beneath us is probably the bedroom,” said Janice. “This is where thousands of years ago the husband and wife would have retired for the evening, we think that space in the corner may have been a wardrobe.” And Mummy said it had once been a bedroom but then they’d moved the bed out, it had been a bit too close to the road and the traffic had disturbed them of a morning, it was now the room in which they’d just stick all their junk. And Janice didn’t stop smiling, but she did sniff a bit, and said that Mummy’s was an interesting theory.
And she warned them as they set to work – no one still could quite understand the apocalypse that had destroyed the human race. When precisely it had taken place, whether it had been a natural disaster or the result of some terrible war. But the moment of extinction had created just the right conditions for archaeological discovery, it had left bodies preserved in fine condition, the process had mummified most of the corpses. And there was not an unreasonable chance that as the excavations continued they would find themselves there, kept quite intact. “Your bodies would be quite robust,” she suggested. “They’ll have ossified a bit through the millennia, but that doesn’t mean you can bash away at them with your trowels, you can still cause damage, you may still chip bits off.” Mummy said it might feel odd coming face to face with herself, so still and dead, and Janice had laughed. “Don’t be spooked by them!” she said. “They’re not ghosts, they’re not going to come back and bite you. They’re just you, and you wouldn’t hurt you, would you? That wouldn’t make any sense!”
They worked all day beneath that sun, that unfeeling sun that had seen humanity perish but kept right on shining down regardless, and it was hot and it was hard. And once in a while Daddy would look up to Johnny and grin a raise a thumb quizzically, are you having fun? And of course Johnny wasn’t – but it was strange, there was a rhythm to the work, a satisfaction in chipping out his home from all the rubble and all the sediment. No one talked very much. But Daddy would once in a while find a bit of pottery, or some glass, or some plastic gizmo or another, and he’d run over to Janice to see if he’d done well, and she’d tell him he had, and he’d beam from ear to ear. And they’d sing too, they’d all join in, even Virgil – and Virgil had a big booming bass voice, rich and black, and Mummy might pause from her digging and look at him, he was really a very good singer indeed.
It wasn’t until the third day that they found a body. It looked a bit like a statue, but a statue with knobbly bits, sharp stones jutting out of where the skin had once been, the face a featureless boulder, no eyes, no nose, no mouth. “I think it’s a little boy,” said Janice, “or maybe a girl?” But they all agreed it was probably a boy, what would a girl be doing in the house, it was probably just Johnny. “I think this would be his bedroom,” said Mummy, and that more or less confirmed it. “What do you think of that, eh, Johnny?” asked Daddy, and clapped his son on the shoulder with pride – he was the one who had excavated it, he was glowing with pride, Janice had said that Daddy was a very talented excavator and she wouldn’t say that to just anybody. Johnny didn’t know what to think, really. “Can I touch myself?” he asked, and they all looked to Janice, and she said he could, but he had to be careful, he had to remember he was a priceless piece of antiquity. So Johnny prodded at his body – but there was no recognition to the touch, he might just as well have been fingering any other ancient corpse. “What’s he doing, do you think?” asked Mummy – “He appears to be bending downwards.” Janice explained that a lot of children they’d uncover were bending downwards, and they couldn’t decide whether in their last breaths of life they were begging to God for mercy, or just playing with a toy. “Oh, it’ll be a toy, I expect,” said Daddy, and Mummy agreed – “Johnny does like his toys! Oh, it’s nice to think Johnny died enjoying himself!” Johnny thought it was unlikely he was playing with a toy; all his toys were useless and boring, that’s why he liked playing with Abby. And then he remembered that Abby was behind the loose tile in the kitchen, frozen and waiting for him – and he felt a little tug in his heart, a regret that he’d died alone, but an excitement too for what he’d soon be able to excavate.
On the end of the fourth day Janice said they’d all made excellent progress. They’d exposed all the rooms on the top floor of the house (except the laundry room, because Mummy said that wasn’t worth the bother), and the ground floor was now opening up before them – the television room, the hallway, the toilet under the stairs. Janice said they deserved a party. They all sat around a campfire under the stars that night, and Janice produced a little whisky, and even Johnny was allowed a swig. And she lit up a fat joint and passed it around. She told them all about her first husband, who had been a brilliant archaeologist, everything she knew she’d learned from him, but he’d been too brilliant for her in the end, it just couldn’t last. And Daddy asked her how many husbands she had had, she didn’t look old enough to have had one husband, she was still gorgeous. Janice said she had had three husbands. She had had three. Three husbands. She had had three brilliant husbands, they had all been brilliant in their own ways. And they asked Virgil whether he’d sing them all a song, and he did, and Mummy and Daddy lent into each other and kissed. Janice said she’d never had any children, did Mummy and Daddy think they’d try again, children were such a beautiful thing, they were the future – and Mummy said she didn’t know, and Daddy said maybe, and Mummy said it was such an uncertain thing, the future – and Janice said that children were such a beautiful thing. Johnny piped up and asked if Virgil was going to be Janice’s fourth husband, and Janice looked so surprised, and Mummy and Daddy laughed, and Janice said that she and Virgil were just friends. “We’re fuckbuddies,” corrected Virgil; “That’s right,” said Janice, “it’s just fucking, there doesn’t have to be any love at all.” And that’s around the time Johnny was sent to bed, but the adults stayed up late, talking and singing loud, and for a long time the noise kept Johnny awake, until even that acquired a certain rhythm, like the digging it was just a matter of finding a rhythm and giving in to it. And then he fell asleep.
And on the sixth day they broke into the kitchen, and there they found Mummy’s body, standing up, preparing dinner. “Or maybe doing the washing-up?” hypothesised Janice – “Do you have a dishwasher?” And Mummy just stared at herself, and went very quiet, and Daddy touched her arm gently, and said it was all all right. And Mummy said, very quietly, that it wasn’t all right. Where was Daddy? Where was he? They’d been through all the rooms in the house now, where was his body? Daddy wasn’t in the house – unless he was lurking in the laundry room, which seemed highly unlikely, he wasn’t with his family, where was he? And Daddy shrugged. And Mummy hit him. She said he’d gone back to her, hadn’t he, he’d gone back to her. And Daddy said that was nonsense, he could be anywhere, he could be at work for all she knew, but she was crying, she was demanding to know what the fuck was the matter with him, why couldn’t he keep his fucking dick in his trousers? Why had he married her at all, what was so wrong with her, look at her, no, just look at her! And Daddy wasn’t sure which one he should look at, his wife in tears, or this hunk of stone that looked so dry it seemed water had never touched it and was so sharp and misshapen and grey and dull – he told her the affair had been a moment’s weakness, and she said four fucking months wasn’t a moment’s weakness, describing four months as a moment was a bit of a fucking stretch. She couldn’t do this; she couldn’t do this; it was over; it was all over, and the love had gone; and look at her, she would die alone. And she clambered out of the kitchen and out of the dig, she slapped his hands as he tried to help her up, she was out in the sand and the wind and she was running.
She came back eventually, as the sun was setting. And she went to Virgil’s tent. She said it wasn’t even revenge, what would be the use of that? But there was all this sand, and it was all death, and it was all around, and she felt so empty. And Daddy spoke to Janice. Johnny could see them, he spied on them through the flap of his tent. He couldn’t hear what they said, but Daddy looked so serious, and Janice was just laughing – and Daddy wasn’t laughing back, though the joke was clearly a good one. And Janice walked away, and Daddy looked deflated like an old balloon, and tired, and sad. And he went back to his tent alone.
And Johnny knew this was his chance! Whilst everyone was distracted! Time to do a little excavation of his own!
He’d been told not to be on site by himself. It was too dangerous, the rocks were too sharp, the fall down the shaft too steep. But this was his home, wasn’t it? He’d lived in it every single day of his life. He knew it so well. Even like this, as something from history, as something that felt broken and dead. He picked up his little trowel, and his little striped bucket, and beneath the moonlight climbed down deep into the ruined kitchen.
He could barely make out the familiar tile patterns through the cracked stone, but he knew roughly where to look – he paced the distance he would have made from the cupboard where he’d have got down his Coco Pops to the fridge where he’d have fetched the milk, and then a few extra steps for good measure; he trod methodically, leaving new footprints in dust undisturbed for thousands of years. And here were the tiles, and not a one was loose, time had made them hard and unmoving, and he smacked down fiercely on them with the edge of his trowel. Janice would have been appalled, he was damaging the equipment, he was damaging too priceless historical treasure – Johnny didn’t care, he wanted something for himself now, he’d waited long enough.
And there it was – he caught a glimpse of it. Something plastic, and soft. A box. He pulled at it with his fingers. The rock cut the skin, it made them bleed, he didn’t care, he yanked the box free.
“Abby!” he said, together they had cheated history, he and Abby would be reunited. “Abby!” – and he ripped off the lid.
Abby wasn’t there.
There wasn’t even dust. There wasn’t even a trace of her.
He looked around desperately, as if he were the victim of some thousand years old practical joke, as if some adult (even now, even after all these months of shouting and tears and silences over the dinner table) would produce his fossilised hamster for him, would give it to him with a smile, would revive it, would make everything all right. …He looked under the rock to see if maybe there were another plastic box hidden there. But of course there wasn’t.
Johnny cried. Just for a little while. He couldn’t help it. He felt the tears stream down his cheeks. What was he crying for? Because Abby was dead, but surely not, everything was dead. Because Abby was lost? But everything was lost.
And he decided he’d never cry again.
He dried his eyes with his sleeve. He climbed out of the kitchen. He went back to his tent. And he took with him the plastic box he had buried so very many centuries ago, empty now, and pointless.
The journey to the future had been instantaneous. But the past was so very far, and getting there took much, much longer. And no one talked on the way.
When the Peck family arrived home at last, and the house was still standing, and the lawn still had grass, and the newsagents still sold sweets on the street corner, Mummy and Daddy entered the house, and Mummy went upstairs, and Daddy stayed down, not knowing where to go.
Johnny went straight to the kitchen. He went to the loose tile. He went to Abby. He lifted up the plastic box, he wanted to be reunited with his pet, he knew he could warm her up again. And the box was empty, just as the future had said, it was empty. The lid was still sealed, neat and airtight, Abby couldn’t have got out.
He almost broke his vow. He almost cried. But he remembered in time. He didn’t.
He went to tell Mummy and Daddy, perhaps they could make it better. But Mummy and Daddy were in the sitting room now, together, and they were the ones who were crying, both of them, and they were holding each other tight. Then they let go. And then Daddy left, he walked right out of the front door, and he was still crying, and he wouldn’t look at Johnny so his son wouldn’t see, but Johnny did see – and then Mummy went into the kitchen, and she wasn’t crying at all now, but her face looked peculiar and strained, as if she were about to tell a strange joke, or let out a big fart, and she closed the door on Johnny, and Johnny knew that meant she didn’t want to be disturbed.
So Johnny went to his bedroom. Upon the floor he placed carefully the plastic box he’d taken from the archaeological dig. And right beside it he placed the other plastic box – the same plastic box – the one he’d just retrieved from the kitchen.
Abby had escaped. Abby was still alive. And if she were still alive, well, then anything was possible, and everything could still be made all right. And it meant that she were still in their house – he couldn’t find her here, not if she were running about, but in that distant future – he just hadn’t known to excavate her – that’s where he’d find her – he’d go back, back to the future, he’d poke around with his trowel, and he’d look for her little rock carcass, and then he’d make her safe. One day, he’d go back, he’d go back on his own, he wouldn’t need his Mummy or Daddy, he’d go back, he’d dig her up, she’d be safe.
And in spite of himself, he called for her. Not in the future, but in the here and now. “Come on, little girl,” he said. “Come back to me.”
He stared at the boxes on the floor, and willed her to appear. Bent over like that, just for a moment, just for what would be the longest moment, he looked as if he were frozen in prayer.