Rust was what did it. People noticed their cars’ wheel arches rusting away at a speed that could no longer be explained by air quality, rain frequency, or pollution. Suddenly Bert Miller was no longer the madman in the corner of the pub boring everyone with his pet theory. Suddenly, everyone began to catch up with the awful truth.
Entropy was increasing.
No, that won’t do, thought Bert, as he scrawled notes on his napkin in the corner booth of The Red Lion. He must be more precise. As his nephew Iain—the physicist—would explain, entropy is always increasing. That’s what entropy does. Time and the physical forces work to gradually reduce form and structure to undifferentiated matter. Given enough time, Iain had explained to Bert over the latter’s last ever pint, the universe would become a static, infinitely distributed, web of fundamental particles frozen in nothingness. There would be no events anymore, and the temperature of the universe would be the same all over—absolute zero. Time itself would stop.
“Cripes,” Bert had exclaimed with remarkable understatement. “So, when’s this likely to happen?”
“Opinions differ. There are competing theories. But at least not for 1.7 times 10 to the power of 106 years.”
“Phew,” said Bert. “That doesn’t seem too urgent, then.”
“It’s a very long time,” Iain had said, humouring his uncle.
Except that reassuring prognosis was no longer true. For several months Bert had suspected that the rate of entropy (or of proton decay as Iain insisted on calling it) was accelerating. What were the tell-tale signs?
Things were falling apart in Bert’s life. He’d bought a new hoover recently, and it was irreparably damaged already. It’s motor had conked out halfway up Bert’s carpeted stairs. The repairman had shaken his head, screwdriver deep in the guts of the vacuum. He’d muttered, “time to retire this old girl.” The device was scarcely five months old.
Two separate sets of shelves had collapsed in Bert’s flat, shrugging off their loads of dusty pot plants and unread books. True, Bert didn’t know how long they’d been there. A lifelong renter, he’d inherited a previous tenant’s DIY. But examining the holes the screws had left behind, the plaster seemed as dry and soft as chalk. Prematurely aged.
The bottom had fallen out of a mug last week. A crack had formed at the base, spread around the circumference, and severed it from the rest, mid slurp. A cascade of hot tea had plunged into Bert’s lap. At the walk-in clinic, where Bert had received embrocation and a bandage, a harried female doctor named Nirmal Gupta had apologised for the 40-minute wait he’d endured. Their booking system had given up the ghost.
“We’ve had a flood of patients in the last few weeks. It’s odd. In springtime we generally see a drop-off, but it’s ramped up,” she explained. “Seems like everyone’s knees are knackered or their discs slipped.”
She tried to make light of it, reassuring her patient, but the furrows in Dr Gupta’s brow told a different story.
Bert’s friends were among the afflicted. Alice, 63, had suffered a heart attack. Ravi had had a second stroke. He was only 58. Even nephew Iain was complaining about his “iffy ankle,” although he blamed his marathon training program for the wear and tear.
“I tell you…,” Bert said to nobody in particular, supping his lime and soda disconsolately (a lifetime drinker, he’d finally been persuaded to quit; after all, why invite entropy in?) “…things are falling apart.”
The pretty young bartender, Emily, blew her pink fringe out of her eyes, while rolling them. She’d heard it all before.
“It does feel like that, some days,” she offered, trying to be generous to one of the Red Lion’s oldest regulars. Although Bert had only just turned 70, he’d been a fixture in that corner booth since the late 90s.
“What happened to your window?” Bert asked, gesturing to one of the stained-glass door panels, which appeared to have replaced with a square of chipboard. “Laughing Lucy kick off again?”
Emily gave a thin laugh. “Not this time. It was weird. Fell out, middle of the afternoon, all by itself. Smashed on the floor. It’s off for repairs. Turned out the lead stuff between the bis of glass had just crumbled away.”
Bert nodded sagely. “I need to call my nephew.”
He ferreted the old, cracked iPhone 7 out of his pocket. Remarkably, that hadn’t succumbed to the laws of entropy just yet. That’s Apple for you, he thought admiringly. That said, the glass was cracked and held in place in the corner with a strip of peeling Sellotape.
Iain answered after seven rings, sounding tetchy.
“What is it, Uncle Bert?”
“Protons. How are they doing?”
“What? I don’t have time right now for…”
“Have you noticed anything odd about the protons?”
There was an unnaturally long silence. Had Iain dropped his phone? Or hung up?
“How did you know?”
Bert grinned, for the benefit of nobody but himself. “They’re decaying more quickly, aren’t they?”
Iain’s next response came in a kind of low hiss. “You can’t tell anyone this but… yes, it’s not actually possible, at least as we currently understand the laws of physics. Somehow the collisions dissipate more quickly, the particles are more short-lived. Christ knows how…”
“And that’s a problem?” Bert said, already knowing the answer.
“Actually, the electrons are more of an issue. Atomic clocks, upon which all modern devices depend for their accuracy, rely on the regularity, throughout space, of the energy required to cause electrons to jump… Look I can’t go into it now, but it’s no longer a constant. In fact, it’s all over the place. Look, I gotta go…”
And with that, Iain did hang up. Bert sat back in his booth, swirling the ice cubes in his now empty glass. He’d recognised that tone in Iain’s voice, a tell-tale catch. It had been the same tone he’d used when calling from the hospital to inform the family that his wife Julie’s childbirth “complications.” It had turned out well in the end, and Alexis was a perfectly happy, healthy little boy, but Iain’s crisis tone was unmistakable.
The universe’s inevitable, eventual, collapse was approaching. Sure, it would probably still require dozens of zeroes to describe how much time they had left, but time was no longer a concrete, predictable resource.
When Bert had hit 70, he’d realised that he was now in the last decade that he was statistically entitled to. People born in 1953 weren’t expected to reach their 80s. He’d accepted that truth with alacrity. From there on in, everything was entropy. His body and mind would slowly begin to fail him. Aches and pains and medications would proliferate. Friends and family would age and die. Entropy was an inevitability that this new revelation wouldn’t change. It was merely hastening on the inevitable.
Bert felt sorrier for Emily. Scarcely 25, he guessed, her life a blank journal in which she’d scarcely written the first chapter. How would she cope with an exponential increase in natural disasters, with accelerated aging, with the breakdown of the electronic components upon which modernity depended?
Emily would live Bert’s decades in reverse. The slow dissolution of the modern world, shrinking life expectancy, much-reduced international travel and commerce, once navigation across skies and oceans had to return to using sextants and compasses. Motor cars would become historical artefacts like stagecoaches, once complex electrical components and even reliable old combustion engines failed. Would Emily drive a steam-powered car in the future? A pony and trap?
Bert was almost delirious with worry. Not for himself. He’d go home and take everything off the shelves and pile it on the floor. He’d cope.
“Emily. You know what? I might have a wee pint,” he said, squinting at her like a small child requesting a lollipop. “What could be the harm? Have one for yourself too. Anything you like. On me.”
Emily smiled one of her rare guileless smiles. “Thanks Mr Miller, that’s nice of you.”
The pint of Directors was the most delicious Bert had ever tasted. He was enjoying it so much that he didn’t bother get involved in the conversation about rust that the only two other afternoon inhabitants of the pub were having in the neighbouring booth.
The sharp-featured lady in the elegant woollen coat was banging home a point on the sticky wooden tabletop.
“So, I told him, it’s just not good enough! You sold me a pup. You painted over the rust! Made him strip the Bentley right down and remove every speck, then respray it.”
“And did that work?” murmured her subtly accented, Italianate male companion.
“Did it hell! Three months later, it was rampant again. I don’t know what the world’s coming to.”
Entropy, thought Bert to himself smugly, wiping froth from his upper lip.
Gavin is a Scottish writer and filmmaker living in Margate, Kent. He has published two travel memoirs about running ludicrously long distances, Downhill from Here and Running the Orient. The latter book charts his 2300 mile run from Paris to Istanbul, following the 1883 route of the Orient Express. Gavin’s stories have been published in Constellations, Blueing the Blade, DIAGRAM, Riptide, The Closed Eye Open, Bright Flash, La Piccioletta Barca and Freshwater Review. He is also the writer-director of the 2015 independent film Sparks and Embers.