Mavis Tuddenham couldn’t remember when she first realised the world was shrinking – really realised that it was really, actually shrinking, to be precise. Mavis always liked to be accurate about things.
She couldn’t recall any indication whatsoever of a diminishment in its size during her childhood and early adulthood. The world just was, and the universe, well, that was even bigger, mind bogglingly bigger, so mind bogglingly bigger that your mind couldn’t grasp just how humungously big it actually was, however hard you tried.
The first inkling of shrinkage, maybe, was when Mavis gave up her job as a typing pool supervisor to become a stay at home housewife. Bernie had wanted her to. He thought it was nicer, more middle class. She hadn’t minded that much. The job wasn’t particularly exciting or rewarding, but her world definitely seemed to shrink once she gave up work. Then again, it was her personal horizon that shrank, not the world itself. At least, that was what she had assumed. The world itself was still out there. She and Bernie visited it from time to time when they took a foreign holiday in search of a little bit of sun. She had the mementos dotted around the well-dusted shelves in her lounge. Life continued. The world was largely unchanged.
When Bernie took early retirement their joint horizons shrank somewhat and the house certainly seemed to become smaller. Mavis was always tripping over Bernie or something he had left lying around, but, again, that was just in her head. It wasn’t for real. Then Bernie became ill.
It took him six years to die. The world definitely shrank during that time, but that was to be expected. It was just a further contraction of her personal horizon. She was almost sure that was the case. Then again, she was so focused on Bernie and his needs, feeding him nutritious meals, making sure that his medicine doses were accurate, she would never have noticed if anything had happened to the wider world to make it less wide.
With Bernie finally gone, the world felt emptier, less giving of itself. Mavis focused on home, keeping it nice and all, and on things going on in and around the local community. She didn’t go abroad these days (it didn’t seem such an attractive thing to do when there was only one of you), but she wouldn’t have said that abroad wasn’t there anymore. If all those foreign places had disappeared, somebody would have said something on the TV. It stood to reason.
Nevertheless, the world slowly continued to contract. The area Mavis considered to be her neighbourhood somehow became smaller. She found herself doing less and she stopped listening to talk about places she no longer went to. Eventually, it seemed the information and news about them dried up, as if they had never been.
The world was now limited to her spotless house and garden, the slow and increasingly painful walk to the supermarket and the shorter walk to the doctor’s surgery, which was on the way to the supermarket, so didn’t really count as an additional slice of the world. Then Mavis fell ill.
Fortunately, with the help of the very nice woman at the surgery, she discovered her doctor would do home visits and the supermarket could deliver her shopping straight to her front door. She was so glad the woman had helped her. She doubted she’d have worked it out for herself. The world might have been getting smaller, but it was becoming denser and increasingly complicated. All those new ways of doing things were invariably beyond her.
Anyway, the doctor helped her to get better physically, but as she recuperated her world, in effect, became her house and increasingly untended garden. Still, Mavis knew outside and beyond her garden gate existed because people from outside routinely delivered her shopping from there and came to check on her. Though, as she became better, the latter visits became more and more infrequent and then dried up altogether. She missed the visits a bit, but she had her house and that was good enough.
Fortunately the shopping continued, but as her needs grew less (her appetite wasn’t what it once was), she found she was having to order more and more stuff she didn’t really need in order to qualify for the free home delivery service. Her stockpile of foods and cleaning products grew until she reached the stage where she didn’t really need to order anything.
It was about that time that she started to feel unwell again and the pace of world shrinkage got a hurry on.
She didn’t want to bother the doctor. She wasn’t exactly ill enough for that and she didn’t want to make a fuss. She didn’t feel up to getting herself round to the doctor’s, however, so she stayed indoors in the warm. That seemed like the best thing to do.
When her arthritis started to play up big time and the stairs become a bigger and bigger problem to climb, it was the easiest thing in the world (well perhaps not that easy, but she did it anyway – no point in complaining) to move herself downstairs. She had her armchair and the settee to sleep on. There was the downstairs toilet and, of course, the kitchen was downstairs, so that was all right. There was no need to make a fuss or be a nuisance to others. The telly in the lounge kept her company, but all it seemed to be these days was an endless loop of repeats. For a while she enjoyed watching the old shows, remembering the ones she had watched with Bernie and how things had been, but in the end that became boring, so she turned the telly off. When she next tried to turn it on she found it no longer worked. There used to be someone who repaired things like that, but she only had an old phone number and an actual, physical phone directory with paper pages that had been delivered long while ago. She hadn’t received an updated version since. She tried the number a couple of times, but no one ever answered. It was the same one as in the phone book. So that was that. She couldn’t think of anyone else to ring. She had lost touch with so many people while Bernie was ill and everyone else she knew had grown old and died.
She could still see to read a bit. He husband had left her plenty of books. She could read about the world from a distance. She didn’t feel confident enough to venture out into it.
Reading too much at one go was bad for you, at least that was what Bernie had always said. Turned out he was right. It didn’t seem long before she realised she could no longer see beyond her windows or even read the large letters on the page before her. Somehow she managed to sort through her stockpile of food. For convenience she piled it in mealtime heaps in the lounge so she could find almost the right things to eat without needing to read the labels.
With all the food in the one room, along with her favourite chair, she only needed to shuffle between the downstairs loo and the lounge. When the toilet cistern packed up, she brought the bucket she’d used to wash the floor in the toilet into the lounge and used that. Not very nice, but needs must.
Life became the lounge, which was when she finally realised that that was all there was. The entire world, and probably the whole universe, had shrunk and shrunk until it was no more than a small frail bubble, a shabby remnant of domesticity cowering in her front room.
She thought hard, but she couldn’t remember when she had first noticed the world was shrinking and here it was, almost gone. The world was contracting like a drying grape and she was the wizened stone at the centre of the raisin. She didn’t know if the diminishment of the world was shrinking her with it, or whether she had caused its decline by slowly forgetting about it, but there was no one to ask.
She wondered if she was the only one left or whether there were other, slowly contracting pockets of the universe like hers. The last bubbles of a once effervescent creation, each one with a solitary human soul at its core: lost, isolated, locked in. Of course, she had no way of knowing and no way of reaching out to any others, even if they existed. She was scared, but there was nothing to be done about it. Mavis sat and gripped the worn and faded arms of her armchair with wrinkled and arthritic hands. The world was steadily shutting down and she was trapped inside it like a reverse egg, waiting to be unborn.
Then the electric packed up and the world, or what was left of it, turned dark and cold. Now all there was was her and the chair she was sitting in. She gripped it for reassurance, as tight as she could manage, which wasn’t that tight any more because of the arthritis. Her bubble was shrinking and tightening. When the chair went there would just be her, a small squeezed dot trapped within herself and that didn’t bear thinking about.
Another thought she didn’t want to think about kept repeating in her head, filling up all available space: were there other tiny bubbles of what was once the world still surviving out there, separately – each a tiny trapped beating heart, or was she really the last one?
And then she could no longer feel the chair under her and for one horror-struck moment she sensed herself to be all that was left: the full stop at the end of the world. She tried to scream, but all sound had gone. All there was was alone and then there wasn’t even that.
J.S. Watts is a UK poet and novelist. She has had eight books published: four of poetry, Cats and Other Myths, Songs of Steelyard Sue, Years Ago You Coloured Me and The Submerged Sea and four novels, A Darker Moon, Witchlight, Old Light and ElderLight. Her new poetry collection, Underword, is due out from Lapwing Publications just before Christmas 2022.