Book Extract: Everything Falls Apart by Nathan O'Hagan

Birkenhead writer Nathan O'Hagan offers Big Issue North readers an exclusive glimpse at his forthcoming book of short stories

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The man awakened to the sound of the child, who was making a low, anxious sound in his sleep. The man stood up from his mattress and walked over to him, placing his huge hand gently on the child’s tiny, bony shoulder.

“Ssssssh, Michael. It’s alright, son. You’re okay. Dad’s here.”

He settled instantly. His father removed the hand from his shoulder and let him rest a short while longer. It was almost dawn now, so he’d be awake soon enough. Standing, he stepped towards the door of their cabin and gently opened it, stepping outside and breathing in the cool pre-dawn air. He turned back to look at his son, now probably ten years of age, though it was hard to know for sure. They kept track of the days as best they could, but could only estimate the date. He now gauged his son’s age as much by his bodily growth as anything, and tracked his own age in relation to that.

Michael slept in the corner farthest from the door, his mattress on the floor, a large hunting knife on the floor next to it, a small pile of clothes folded neatly beside it. On top of the thin blanket was a small wooden toy his father had carved for him over a period of weeks from a single piece of firewood many months ago. It remained in the boy’s bed, the one remaining concession to childhood.

He himself slept in the middle of the room, directly between his son and the door, fully dressed, his own hunting knife, even in deep sleep, clasped tightly in his left hand, his rifle loaded and within reach of his right.

He stepped back into the cabin and watched over his son as he slept, his beauty in sharp contrast to the horror of what his father had to protect him from. Again he began to murmur, and again a strong hand was placed onto his shoulder, but this time it shook him gently awake. He opened his eyes and gazed up.

“Dad,” he said. It was not a question, nor an indication of surprise, but a simple reiteration of the one thing he knew for sure, the one thing he could rely on. He reached up and placed his hands around his father’s neck, pulling him in close. They kissed each other on the cheek, and the boy let go, rubbing the last of the sleepiness from his eyes.

“Are we going out?” he asked, sitting up and reaching for his clothes.

“We are. Let’s go and find some breakfast.”

“Can I do it today?” Michael asked.

The man nodded and smiled. “Get your knife.”


The man watched on, sharpening their knives against a rock, as the child carefully laid the snare trap as he had been taught many times.

“Good work,” he said when the trap was ready. “Now, let’s go and wash.”

Together they walked down to the stream. Naked, they stood in the freezing water, washing as the rapid water crashed noisily around them. He looked at his son; still skinny, but with muscles beginning to develop across his chest and upper arms, growing out of the daily hard work that a boy of his age shouldn’t have to experience. The man looked down at his own body; the muscles large and taut, his hands grown huge and calloused from the life he now lived, one a million miles away from his previous life. The life he lived before the world changed, leaving him no choice but to change with it.

When they had cleaned themselves, they cleaned the pile of clothes they had brought with them, holding the garments against the flow of the water, rubbing them against each other, then whipping them against a large rock to remove the excess water. As the man shook out a pair of trousers, he felt something slap hard against the side of his face. He looked down to see a wet sock lying on the rock, and looked back up to see Michael grinning at him. The man raised an eyebrow, and quickly hurled a wet shirt of his own in his son’s direction. It landed with a satisfying slap against his chest. The child chased him around the rocks, throwing item after item of sodden clothing at him.


After they’d hung the clothes up to dry outside the cabin, they walked back to the trap. A rabbit hung upside down in the snare, its legs twitching and kicking violently.

“It’s a big one,” Michael said, trying to contain his pride.

“It is,” said his father, putting his arm round his shoulder. “Well done.”

“Thank you.”

“Okay. You’ll have to finish it off now.”

The child took a deep breath and nodded his head, and without hesitation, stepped forward and did what needed to be done.


“Remember,” the man said, back at the cabin, “you only need a small cut with the knife, then you can just rip most of the skin off with your hands.”

He sat and watched as Michael made a small incision with his knife, before sticking both index fingers inside, ripping the skin down the middle, and peeling it back and down. The skin became stuck halfway down, leaving the carcass with the unbefitting absurd look of a skinny man with his shirt stuck over his head, and he became frustrated that he was unable to remove the skin in one go.

“That’s okay. If it gets stuck, just stick the tip of your knife back in and make another little cut.”

He did as instructed, and was able to pull the skin the rest of the way down, where it again became stuck at the animal’s feet and head. This time, he wasn’t frustrated, he just took his knife back out, and cut off the feet, followed by its head. He threw the skin to one side, knowing it could be utilised, and placed the carcass onto the stump of a tree which often doubled as a table or seat, and began to butcher the animal with a skill far beyond his years. While he did this, the man walked to the far side of the clearing where they had built their cabin, and picked some wild mushrooms, burdock and purslane.

“We’ll cook outside, shall we?” the man asked.

The child looked back over his shoulder, smiled and nodded.


Later, they walked south of their cabin, the man carrying his rifle slung over his shoulder, his knife in a holster around his waist, a hatchet hanging from his belt. The only sound to be heard was the sound of their feet falling softly against leaves and twigs. But in an instant, each of them stopped dead, and turned their ears towards the same thing.

“Dad,” Michael whispered, “what…”

His voice trailed off. He didn’t need to complete the question. They both knew what they were hearing. Though distant, the sound was unmistakable. The child had seldom heard it, but could identify it easily. It was the sound of an engine, a bike engine. More than one, in fact.

“Run,” the man said, grabbing his son’s hand.

They sprinted up the hill and along the top of it, into an area thick with bushes. They dropped onto their bellies and crawled to the edge, where they were still well hidden, but had a view of the area below and ahead of them. He took out his rifle and looked through its sight. In it he saw, twenty feet down and five hundred yards away, two small bikes coming to a halt. The riders stepped off their bikes to investigate. They kicked at the huge log that blocked the track they’d been on.

“I thought we blocked the paths off lower down,” the child said, still whispering in fear of his voice carrying on the wind.

“We did,” the man replied.

They watched as one of the riders took off his helmet. The man could see through his rifle that he was young, maybe seventeen years old. He could feel the vibrations of his son’s heart pounding against the ground. He spoke quietly to reassure the child, but realised it was in fact his own heart pounding.

“What are they, Dad? Scavengers?”


He froze as the rider without his helmet looked in their direction and stopped, his face pointing right at them. The boy saw it too.

“Does he see us, Dad?”

“I don’t think so. But don’t worry. Even if he does, I see him. I’ve got him in my sights. If he takes another step towards us I’ll take his head off his shoulders.”

The rider looked away and went back to conversing with the other. For a few minutes more they stood there, passing something back and forth to each other, something they were eating, or perhaps smoking. Eventually, they shrugged and mounted their bikes, revving the engines before moving off. The rider at the back, the one who had removed his helmet, turned back briefly in their direction before he disappeared from site. Even after they had vanished and the sound had dissipated, the man kept his rifle aimed in their direction.

“Will you give me some more lessons with my rifle, Dad?”

“We’ll start again in the morning,” he nodded.


That night he put his son to bed. When he was sure he was sound asleep, he left the cabin, locking it from the outside, knowing Michael would signal as they had practiced if needs be. He walked out behind the cabin, the side they rarely accessed, and walked up through the thick trees, forcing his way through the jungle-like bush and out into the clearing where he had been only once before, and where the child had not yet trod. He looked out through his rifle sight at the distant monstrosity; the tall buildings billowing smoke and chemicals, the vast structure of glass and steel, the freeway with its metal animals scurrying around upon it.

“Civilisation,” he said to himself.

He squeezed the trigger, and fired into the distance.

You can pre-order Everything Falls Apart: A collection of short stories here

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