Janice was standing at the window, chewing the inside of her cheek as she peered up and down the street. A loud crunch from behind caused her to spin around.
“Will you stop snacking?!” she barked.
Griff, a tube of Pringles dangling from one hand, gave her a wounded look. “But I’m hungry!”
“You won’t have any room left for your dinner!” His wife snatched the crisps off of him and swiftly replaced the lid.
“I’m not five,” Griff grumbled, sinking into his arm chair with a sullen pout. “Besides, they’re late.”
“That’s no surprise,” Janice said, returning to her position by the window.
“Probably not even coming.”
“Give them a few more minutes.”
Silence bloomed in the living room for several seconds. And then there was the distinctive crunch of a Pringle being eaten. Janice gave a weary sigh. Her eyes suddenly lit up. “They’re here!”
She swung the front door open and almost dragged the pair inside. “Come in, come in,” she said, herding them into the living room. “Griff! Look who’s here!”
“Yeah, yeah, I heard you,” the old husband announced, shuffling into the kitchen.
“Hi dad,” Chris boomed.
Amanda gave her husband a quick elbow.
“Oh, yeah,” Chris murmured, holding out a bottle to his mother. “Got you this.”
“Ooh! Chardonnay!” Janice said excitedly.
“Actually, it’s Chadonnay,” Amanda said with a trace of embarrassment. “Without the R.”
“It’s all they had left, mum.”
“Oh. Never mind. It’s the thought that counts,” Janice murmured, now holding the bottle like it was something she’d fished from the drain. “Your dad will have some of the good stuff left, hopefully.”
“We’ve been getting through quite a bit the last few days. Well, your dad has at least.”
“You’re late,” Griff stated, returning with a handful of cashews.
“We got stuck on Whatley Street.”
“We ended up walking the rest of the way.”
“What have I told you about Whatley Street? Jan, what have I told them about Whatley Street?”
“They should have taken Billett Drive?”
“You should have taken Billett Drive.”
“I’ve told you, dad, Billett Drive adds another ten minutes!”
“Not if you don’t stop at all those bloody crossings!”
“It doesn’t matter which route we could have taken!” Amanda snapped, a lock of hair pouncing down in front of her red-rimmed eyes.
An awkward silence descended.
“What’s that?” Griff asked, pointing to the white wine in Janice’s hand.
“Amanda and Chris got it for us,” she answered with a brittle smile. “Isn’t that nice?”
“Wasn’t anything nicer?” the dad asked, giving the bottle a critical stare.
Amanda rolled her eyes. “It’s all they had left.”
“Literally. That was the last bottle.”
“Really? Where’d you go?”
“Oh, for the love of God . . .”
“Where’s Leslie?” Chris asked, raising his voice.
“Late,” Griff grumbled.
There was a brisk rat-tat-tat.
“There she is!”
Janice bounced out of the room.
The trio stood together in the middle, stewing awkwardly.
“So . . .” Chris mumbled.
“Nothing, it’s just –”
Amanda gave an uncomfortable cough.
“Look who I found outside!” Jance said with a strained laugh. She was dragging Leslie along like a reluctant balloon.
The quintet stood in a clump in the centre of the room. The only sound was that of the hollering and the partying from outside, muffled slightly by the double-glazing. “So,” Janice eventually said. “Who’s hungry?”
“I am!” Griff sullenly exclaimed.
“Are you all right, Leslie? You’ve barely touched your Chow Mein!”
“Not hungry,” she replied, absently pushing the bits of greasy chicken around her plate.
“Why are we having Chinese anyway?” Griff asked, not allowing his confusion to stop him from tearing into a plate of spring rolls.
“I told you,” Janice said impatiently. “This is a special dinner. We’re having everyone’s favourites tonight.”
“Not everyone’s,” her husband moaned.
“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a dozen times, we are not having jellied bloody eels!”
“But I like –!”
“You’re the only one who does, dad.”
“And? No one else likes bloody quinoa, but we’re still having it!”
“We’re having it because poor Amanda’s a vegan,” Janice declared, glowering daggers at her husband.
“Actually . . .” Chris murmured.
Both parents rounded on him.
“I’ve given it up,” Amanda announced, spearing a piece of meat from her husband’s dish. “After everything that’s happened, I just thought: bollocks to the cows.”
“Could have had my jellied eels.”
“I blame the government.”
“Here we go again,” Griff grumbled, spooning up the last globules of lasagne.
“Les is right,” Chris stated.
“Oh, that is just not fair,” their mother cooed, heaping up her husband’s empty plate. “They’ve been doing the best they can.”
“That’s not an excuse,” Leslie pointed out. “A leprosy-riddled lemur could have done a better job.”
“Now that is just silly,” Janice said. “What have the government been able to do, anyway?”
“They could have done something!” Amanda exclaimed bitterly.
“Got to admit,” Griff said, spraying bits of mince across the table, “they have been a bit shit.”
“Griff! Do not use that sort of language, please!”
“If I can’t use that sort of language, today of all days, then when can I use it?”
“I don’t know, just not at the dinner table.”
The old man rolled his eyes before pouring the last dribble of wine into his mug. He stared at the empty bottle. “Do we have anything else?”
“We have our Chadonnay,” Chris said.
“Don’t you mean Chardonnay?” Leslie asked.
“No,” Janice said with a sour twist to her lips.
“White wine is white wine,” Amanda declared. “Only an alcoholic can tell the difference.”
“I can tell the difference,” Janice whined. “What does that make me?”
“Err – well –”
“Amanda didn’t mean anything by it, mum.”
“She just said only an alcoholic can tell the difference,” Janice reminded him. “But I can tell the difference, can’t I? Griff? Can’t I?”
“Yes, you can, love. One of your many talents.”
“So, does that make me an alcoholic?”
“I didn’t say you were an alcoholic –”
“Yes, yes, you did!”
“She didn’t, mum!”
“I heard her! I heard her, Chris. Les, you heard her, didn’t you?”
“More garlic bread, dad?”
“What’s wrong with being able to tell the difference between a pinot and a sav?”
“This is about the bloody wedding reception again, isn’t it?” Amanda murmured.
“Wonder if it’s any good?” Griff mumbled, unscrewing the cap. He gave it a cautionary sniff, before pouring a sizeable measure into his cup. “This tastes like cat’s piss,” he soon announced.
“And how do you know what cat’s piss tastes like, dad?” Leslie asked, not entirely joking.
“Your dad’s been very experimental the last week,” Janice said.
“Well, if you don’t want it . . .” Chris said, reaching for the bottle. Griff placed a protective hand around it. “I never said that.” He took another long appreciative glug.
“How’s your mum and dad, Amanda?”
“They’re stuck in Mallorca.”
“I thought the government had evacuated everyone abroad,” Leslie said.
“There were riots outside their villa,” Amanda murmured into her wine. “They missed the last plane.”
“Oh, that is a shame.”
“Well, at least you’ve got us!” Griff said cheerfully.
Amanda chose to remain silent.
“Who wants crumble?” Janice suddenly chirped, bouncing out of her chair. There were some mumbled yeses, followed by Griff’s boisterous: “Damn right I do!” as he decanted a measure of wine into his jug.
“You know, we shouldn’t be surprised,” Leslie commented to her brother and sister-in-law. “Our generation has had the shittest time. We’ve lived through wars, the economy getting fucked, we have one of the most corrupt governments, we’ve only just survived a global pandemic, and Love Island exists. Why shouldn’t all this be happening as well?”
“I’ve got custard!” Janice trilled, balancing on a tray a stack of bowls, a barely-burnt crumble, and a jug of lumpy yellow liquid that was, by her own accounts, the best custard this side of the equator.
“She’s right,” Amanda said, nodding to Leslie. “Life has always been shit for us. I don’t know why, but . . . well, that makes me feel a bit better.”
Griff, who had been unusually quiet for the last few minutes, suddenly slammed his jug of white-wine-flavoured drink down. “You think you’ve had it bad?!”
“Oh, no, Griff, not again . . .”
“I worked my fingers to the bone for forty years!” the patriarch announced. “Forty years, and then, with one week – one week! Before I could retire, this happens. And you think your lives have been unfair?”
“Come off it, dad,” Chris said meekly. “It’s not like the comet decided to kill us all just to piss you off.”
“It certainly feels that way,” Griff grumbled. “You spend forty years working in a key-cutting shop and then, when you’re seven days away from packing it all in, the world decides to end. That feels like a personal attack to me. Oh yes.” The old man stared sullenly into his drink. “Could’ve been living in Bognor Regis if it weren’t for the apocalypse.”
“Well,” Janice said quietly, “every cloud, eh?”
The dessert was done, the plates were cleared, and the coffee was poured. The family now sat around the table, waiting for someone to fill the vacuum of silence.
“Why don’t we play a game?” Les suggested.
“Yes!” Janice exclaimed, practically flying out of her seat. “I’ve got the Monopoly tucked away somewhere!”
The remaining three members of the family shot Leslie a venomous glare.
“Maybe not that, mum.”
“No, not when we’ve only got half-an-hour before all life gets wiped out.”
“Right, right,” Janice said with visible disappointment. She suddenly perked up. “How about charades?”
“What? And spend ten minutes watching dad try and mime out Fifty Shades of Grey?” Chris spluttered, turning one shade of pale white.
“It’s the only movie your mother can guess.”
“How about confessions?” Leslie suggested.
“Never heard of it.”
“Is it a board game?” Janice asked, slowly sitting back down.
“No, it’s not anything like that,” their daughter explained. “I just thought, now that the world is going to end and we’re all going to die –”
“Oh, don’t be so morbid, love.”
“– Why don’t we tell each other things we’ve always kept secret?”
The family members swapped silent, awkward glances.
“This’ll end well,” Amanda murmured.
“I’ll go –”
“No, you will not, Griff!” Janice exclaimed with an icy glare. Her husband meekly sank back. “I have one,” the matriarch stated. “I’m actually glad I don’t have grandchildren.”
“Here we go again.”
“What? I said I was glad! I can’t imagine what people with young children are going through right now.”
“The apocalypse is the same level of shit for everyone, Janice,” Amanda said.
“I didn’t mean it wasn’t,” the mother-in-law said with a sour twist to her lips. “But it must be terrible for young mothers. And grandmothers.”
The two women locked eyes, and the air between them began to sizzle with tension.
“Chris has a confession,” Amanda suddenly announced. “Don’t you?”
He caught sight of his wife’s dagger-tipped glare and then blanched.
“Remember?” she hissed. “We talked about it in the car?”
Chris’s mouth opened and closed like a fish that had been plucked out of the sea. His eyes widened with horror. “R-Really?” he stammered. “That?!”
Amanda nodded. To her husband, she looked even more menacing than the comet that was about to kill them all. With trembling hands, he snatched up his glass and drained it. No, he thought, he’d need something stronger than that to get him through the next few moments. But there was nothing close by. Fear would have to do it.
“I . . .” he began with shaky breath, “I . . . don’t always think . . . that mum’s cooking . . . is the best.”
Silence smothered the dining room like an avalanche.
“What?” Janice asked.
“I’m gay!” Leslie suddenly declared.
“That’s lovely dear,” her mother said without sparing a glance. “Now, what was that about my cooking?”
Sweat had begun to trickle down Chris’s forehead. “It’s not – it’s not like it’s – it’s terrible!”
“My cooking’s terrible?!”
“No, I didn’t say that!”
“Griff, did you hear that? Your son just said my cooking is terrible! How’s that for gratitude?”
“I once saw you put baked beans into a carbonara.”
“It thickened the sauce!”
“I’ve just told you all that I’m gay!” Leslie barked, throwing her hands onto the table. “Do none of you care?!”
“Oh, that’s not news!” Chris snapped.
“Yeah, we’ve always known.”
“Why do you think we call you ‘Les’?”
“You can’t say stuff like that!”
“Yes, I can, I’m her dad,” Griff decided. “But if someone like Steve from next door says something, you kick him in the teeth, got it?”
“Somehow, I don’t think I need to worry about Steve from next door.”
“Ah, you never know,” her father sagely said. “Some people won’t even let the end of the world stop them from being arseholes.”
“I don’t know; I try and I try, but it’s never appreciated.”
“Oh, mum . . .”
“No, no, don’t you worry about me,” Janice said, pursing her lips. “I bet you all hated tonight’s dinner as well, didn’t you?”
The others shared guilty glances.
“My lasagne was a bit undercooked.”
“Really? Mine was overcooked.”
“What was that black gristly stuff on the top?”
“I think that was the cheese.”
“Fine! Fine! I’m a terrible cook, and I ruined everyone’s apocalypse, are you all happy now?”
A frosty silence glazed the room.
“Maybe we should stop . . .” Amanda mumbled guiltily.
“But I haven’t had my go yet!”
“Be quiet, Griff. No one wants to hear it.”
“But it’s a good one!”
“What about Amanda then? She hasn’t done one yet!”
“I’m good, thanks.”
“Can I have her go then?”
“But there hasn’t been a really good one yet!”
“Really?” Leslie exclaimed.
“He’s not going to drop it, Amanda.”
“I can’t think of anything.”
“I literally came out!”
“There must be something!”
“Don’t push me, Chris!”
“I’m sure little Miss Perfect has never done anything,” Janice muttered just loud enough to be heard from the next room.
“Come on, girl,” Griff said. “It’s the end of the world! There must be something you want off your chest.”
Realising that she was trying to fight against a mountain, Amanda heaved a sigh. “Fine,” she said. “But you’re not going to like it.”
“Here we go,” Griff murmured, allowing the last dribble of wine to escape into his glass.
She gifted her husband and his family a guilty look, then gave them all a resigned shrug. “I cheated on Chris.”
You could almost hear the eyes widen with shock. There was a tense five seconds where no one said a word. Chris’s mouth slapped open and closed as he tried to work out where to start.
“What? When? Why? How?! What?!”
“Now things are getting juicy!” Griff murmured happily.
“I knew you’d be like this, that’s why I didn’t want to say anything.”
“Who was it? Hmm? Was it that bloke from your office?”
“Ted? Of course not! He’s married.”
“So are you!”
Chris dropped his head into his hands, hoping that would stop the sensation that the whole house was crumbling.
The whole house was crumbling. The lightbulb above skittered and danced, sending mad shadows skating across the room. A rumble like the worst thunderstorm in history boomed outside.
Janice gasped. “It’s happening!”
“Time for my confession!” Griff bounded drunkenly to his feet. “Just wait a mo’!”
“I can’t believe this. My wife cheated on me!”
“I think there are bigger things to worry about, Chris,” Amanda said, her face a pale masque of terror.
“I spent my whole life in the closet, and no one even cared,” Leslie said quietly.
“I – I need to get out of here!” Chris suddenly leapt out of his chair, and then the room.
“Chris? Chris?! Where are you going? The world’s ending, you should be with your family!”
“I need to get out as well,” Amanda said, barging past Janice.
“If I’m about to die –”
“– I want to at least snog someone first!” Ignoring her mother’s outstretched arms, Leslie too made her escape.
“I had another bottle of champagne hidden away! That’s my – where’d they bloody go?”
“They’re gone,” Janice said, honking into her hanky.
“Oh, well, I think that went pretty well.”
The house gave another sickening lurch. The cork fired from the bottle and shattered the window.
High above, the comet continued to tear its way through the stratosphere. It barrelled down to trample the human race like a boot coming down on a slug.
“All I wanted,” Janice said, nursing her pint of champagne, and fighting to be heard over the roar of oncoming doom, “Was a nice, quiet family dinner.”
“Yeah, but,” Griff said, savouring that last drop, “where’s the fun in that?”