The Secret Autobiography of JG B******

A short story by JG Ballard

On waking one morning, B was surprised to see that Shepperton was deserted. He entered the kitchen at 9 o’clock, annoyed to find that neither his post nor the daily newspapers had been delivered, and that a power failure prevented him from preparing his breakfast. He spent an hour staring at the melting ice that dripped from his refrigerator, and then went next door to complain to his neighbour.
     Surprisingly, his neighbour’s house was empty. His car stood in the drive, but the entire family – husband, wife, children and dog – had dis­appeared. Even more odd, the street was filled by an unbroken silence. No traffic moved along the nearby motorway, and not a single aircraft flew overhead towards London Airport. B crossed the road and knocked on several doors. Through the windows he could see the empty interiors. Nothing in this peaceful suburb was out of place, except for its missing tenants.

     Thinking that perhaps some terrible calamity was imminent – a nuclear catastrophe, or a sudden epidemic after a research laboratory accident – and that by some unfortunate mishap he alone had not been warned, B returned home and switched on his transistor radio.  The apparatus worked, but all the stations were silent, the continental transmitters as well as those of the United Kingdom. Disconcerted, B returned to the street and gazed at the empty sky. It was a calm, sunfilled day, crossed by peaceful clouds that gave no hint of any natural disaster.
     B took his car and drove to the centre of Shepperton. The town was deserted, and none of the shops was open. A train stood in the station, empty and without any of the passengers who regularly travelled to London. Leaving Shepperton, B crossed the Thames to the nearby town of Walton. There again he found the streets completely silent. He stopped in front of the house owned by his friend P, whose car was parked in her drive. Using the spare key that he carried, he unlocked the front door and entered the house. But even as he called her name he could see that there was no trace of the young woman. She had not slept in her bed. In the kitchen the melting ice of the refrigerator had formed a large pool on the floor. There was no electric power, and the telephone was dead.
     Resuming his journey, B systematically explored the neighbouring towns, circling them all as he approached central London. He was no longer surprised to find the huge metropolis totally deserted. He drove down an empty Piccadilly, crossed Trafalgar Square in silence and parked outside the unguarded Buckingham Palace. As. dusk fell he decided to return to Shepperton. He had almost run out of fuel and was forced to break into a filling station. However, no policemen were out on patrol or in their stations. He left behind him an immense city plunged into darkness, where the only lights were the reflections of his headlamps.
     B passed a disturbed night, with the radio mute beside his bed. But when he woke to another luminous morning his confidence returned. After an initial doubt, he was relieved to see that Shepperton was still deserted. The food within his refrigerator had begun to rot; he needed fresh provisions and a means of cooking for himself. He drove into Shepperton, broke a window of the supermarket and collected several cartons of canned meat and vegetables, rice and sugar. In the hardware store he found a paraffin stove, and took it home with a tin of fuel. Water no longer flowed in the mains, but he estimated that the contents of the roofdstern would last him a week or more. Further forays to the local stores furnished him with a supply of candles, torches and batteries.
     In the following week B made several expeditions to London. He returned to the houses and flats of his friends, but found them empty. He broke into Scotland Yard and the newspaper offices in Fleet Street, in the hope of finding some explanation for the disappearance of an entire population. Lastly, he entered the Houses of Parliament, and stood in the silent debating chamber of the Commons, breathing the stale air. However, there was not the least explanation anywhere of what had taken place. In the streets of the city he saw not a single cat or dog. It was only when he visited London Zoo that he found that the birds still remained within their cages. They seemed delighted to see B, but flew off with famished cries when he unlocked the bars.

     So at least he had a kind of companionship. During the next month, and throughout the summer, B continued his preparations for survival. He drove as far north as Birmingham without seeing a soul, then drove down to the south coast and followed the road from Brighton to Dover. Standing on the cliffs, he gazed at the distant shoreline of France. In the marina he chose a motor-boat with a full tank of fuel, and set out across the calm sea, now free of the customary pleasure-craft, petroleum tankers and cross­ channel ferries. At Calais he wandered for an hour through the deserted streets, and in the silent shops listened in vain to telephones that never replied. Then he retraced his steps to the port and returned to England.

     When the summer was followed by a mild autumn, B had established a pleasant and comfortable existence for himself. He had abundant stocks of tinned food, fuel and water with which to survive the winter. The river was nearby, clear and free of all pollution, and petrol was easy to obtain, in unlimited quantities, from the filling stations and parked cars. At the local police station he assembled a small armoury of pistols and carbines, to deal with any unexpected menace that might appear.
     But his only visitors were the birds, and he scattered handfuls of rice and seeds on the lawn of his garden and on those of his former neighbours. Already he had begun to forget them, and Shepperton soon became an extraordinary aviary, filled with birds of every species.

    Thus the year ended peacefully, and B was ready to begin his true work.

Buy Ambit 96 to see Mike Foreman’s illustrations.

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