It is impossible to understand my place in all that has unfolded.
I might be the most fortunate, the luckiest of everyone who has lived these last four years. But I might, equally, make the opposite assumption, and believe myself to be the least fortunate. There is, as yet, no way to measure, and either conclusion could break the keel of my boat and pitch me mad into the black water.
The things that used to mark the points between certainty and risk are still there. The old buoys are marking the sea-roads – from here, where my desk in the top room of this Georgian townhouse looks out over the sea, I can see them blinking at night – but the tidal waters have shifted the vast sandbanks under them, and nobody from Trinity House is coming to move the buoys to mark the change in circumstances.
After all, there is no need. The tankers between here and the horizon haven’t moved for years. It is possible some of their crews are still alive, building a new life from whatever was packed into the hundreds of shipping containers from China and India, but it seems unlikely. Early on, some crews came ashore in small boats to ask for help from the locals, but like the Hartlepool Monkey, they were met with misunderstanding. What we had in common wasn’t enough to bridge the wide sea that kept us apart.
Out on the moored ships, the Plimsoll Line measures buoyancy in salt water, but the salinity of the seas has changed and the line is off.
We imagine that, with study, we can know the past, much as the ship’s captain knows the safe passage along the coastline to the harbour by studying maps and taking compass readings. But nautical charts change, year after year, and magnetic north swings one way and the other. And for historians, as every year another batch of papers were released from government storage, the past shifted.
Is anybody adding new papers to the secret archives now? It is possible that some Civil Servants, working with old muscle memory, are making sure that there are minutes and these are filed. The Thirty Year Rule may still stand.
The Prime Minister disappeared, though, after a broadcast in which he looked particularly unwell, and the Ministers at the weekly government press conference became more and more obscure after that. By the last broadcast there were Ministers I had never seen before, and it seems certain they had been given minor posts in return for some favour, not for their natural ability, and had no idea about how to manage the country in collapse. But there hasn’t been a broadcast for well over a year now. It is possible that government still functions, but if it does, it is hard to believe that it has any real centre, certainty or control.
And if the shifting past is hard to understand, if the real truth was obscured by time all along, well – even the greatest clairvoyant in all Europe cannot know the future. I remember, two weeks into all this, the local paper printed an apology. Our horoscopes, they said, were written before we were told to stay at home, and some of our advice should not, now, be followed. This wasn’t, then, written in the stars.
I have tried to read the tarot, but The Fool comes up, time and time again. A dancing figure, dressed in motley, in the painting on my cards holding an old pocket-watch.
So if time past and time future are of little use to us, all we can really know is time present.
Years ago, before this, the now that we knew about was wide and deep and fast, like the estuary mouth at spring tide with a storm wind coming in. If there were bushfires in Australia, or a storm in Japan, or floods in America, we would know in minutes. But, one after another, the nodal points in the network of knowledge that underpinned our understanding of the whole world have collapsed. First, it was the news reporters, moving first from London studios to isolation and an ISDN line from their kitchen tables, but they blinked out one-by-one as local infrastructure failed and nobody came to repair it.
Then, one server after another went off line, and the social, real-time version of the internet we had come to take for granted slowed, became sluggish, like the silting-up of a river mouth that cuts off an old harbour. By the time it became as slow as a semaphore network, it seemed that most people had given up. The alternative, that most of them are just not there anymore, is harder to imagine.
It is possible to believe that the ships no longer come to your town because the river flows have changed. It is awful to think that there are no longer any ships, and nowhere for them to come from.
For a long time, we would be momentarily thankful once a week that somebody was still maintaining the barest of power networks, and there was the broadcast from the Her Majesty’s Government, which had left a Westminster that flooded after staff abandoned the Thames Barrier and was now broadcasting from ‘Somewhere in England’.
In a broadcast a few months before the last one, I remember a passing mention that the Queen, the last senior member of the Royal Family, was ill. It seems certain that she, like her husband and oldest son, has gone: but who is going to organise a Coronation now? So, I presume it is still Her Majesty’s Government. It is another of the things that we not only don’t talk about, but never think about, because thinking about them would be too much. To write ‘Here Be Monsters’ on the chart, to mark it and never go there, is far easier than to face the uncertainty of sailing across that piece of the sea.
I think it might soon be time to face the uncertainty, though. Four years in, and I am the last person in the town.
This place used to fill at the weekends, with Londoners. The Georgians came by steamship down the Thames, huddled under blankets with bread and cold meat in a wicker basket, then the Victorians followed on the railway line that threaded the North Kent towns together, and then between the World Wars a new crowd came, couples by car, with a thick RAC guide in the glove-box and a Thermos on the back seat, or whole works outings together in a coach.
Latterly, the town had discovered all this heritage, repackaged it, and become the favourite place for Londoners looking for the modern version of the dirty weekend. At weekends, the pins on the map on apps offering casual sex would blink into existence, one after another, as the people looking for momentary comfort in strangers would mingle in the cafes along the front with the couples, down from London on a first date, each with a tick-list and such certainty that they knew what they wanted already that it precluded any opportunity to find common ground over time.
All that stopped, quite suddenly, in the first week of the lockdown. The news showed the beaches and parks in other places still full, the government’s ask that everyone stay home ignored, but here it was like a light was turned off.
And as the shops and cafes closed, the people who had survived those first dates and moved together from London – ‘oh we love the calm, the quiet, the vastness of the sea, the cold wind and the emptiness in winter. It is the perfect place to start a family.’ – packed cases and boxes, sent ex-industrial table with four French chairs and old lamps and the comfortable reupholstered sofa ahead of them, and drifted back to London. As it dwindled, humanity drew closer to humanity, huddled together for warmth, the cities collapsing in on themselves until they became like the oldest circles of stone houses in Orkney, and that final closeness only hastened the spread and the end.
For a few of us, though, this new life seems entirely natural, as though this is exactly how we should be living.
I stayed, watching as the town emptied out. I left the small flat I owned, off the High Street, and found this abandoned four-storey townhouse on the front, the rooms mostly empty but the Farrow & Ball walls, built-in bookcases and the basement kitchen made from old teak school cupboards a clear indicator of the type of people who had left. Then I collected and gathered; food, books, medicine, and clothing.
Like a captain planning for a long voyage, I laid down provisions and worked out how to navigate from the land we had known, and took to be real and certain, for the new one. A land that appeared on the horizon, first as a faint smudge that could be either cloud or land, but which then became more certain, more solid not as new things were added to our knowledge, but by a process of removal. With the loss of each old thing, with the fading of certainties, the new land became clearer. I made new charts.
This house was built, at least in part, from the timbers of old ships. The wood in the roof smells of pitch and salt. And it holds, in its construction, the memory of a ship, and so it groans and shifts and twists when there is a storm. From up here, the highest point, I can watch the storms move in, west to east along the coastline, until they hit here.
As the house starts to come adrift in the salted wind of a good storm, I move downstairs, riding out the roughest weather in the basement, closer to the wet warmth of the Aga I salvaged and carried here, piece by piece on a trolley made from an old bicycle trailer that belonged to some middle-class family who had fled, and once carried nothing heavier than children on the way to the Montessori nursery, or the vegetable box from the local farm.
I have everything I need here. I have rooms full of food, wide and empty countryside to forage for more, and can catch fish, crabs, and lobsters easily in the abandoned tidal pools where people used to swim.
On the old radio programme Desert Island Discs, castaways got a book, the complete works of Shakespeare, and the Bible. I have a library with enough books to read for the rest of my life, and many are beautiful editions, too. Bill Brandt’s The English At Home, a first edition of The Waste Land, The Snow Goose signed by Paul Gallico, a shelf of Charles Keeping picture-books, rows of old Penguin paperbacks, and leatherbound local history books, found abandoned in the library.
And I have music, more than the eight discs I am allowed. A wind-up gramophone, and a Dansette wired up to a wind turbine from a caravan, parked in the drive of one of the well-off 1930s suburban houses a little way inland. The best record collection I have ever owned, scavenged from closed record shops and left behind in empty homes. Old 78s, psychedelia, classic jazz, and – perhaps the records I treasure the most – poetry readings, old Open University tutorials, and recordings of radio broadcasts, Churchill and the Apollo astronauts. Voices, speaking, the sound of other people.
But with all this, with comfort and safety, I am hankering for a real sea. There are boats, in the harbour, and one – a sailing boat from the 1930s, when sailing became the pursuit of a certain class, she looks like something from a Nevil Shute novel – is still afloat, sound, straining at each rising tide to leave the safety of the stone pier.
From here, if I keep the coastline to the port side, I should be able to reach the Orkney Islands.
Four thousand years ago, it seems, a new culture arrived there, in the very north of the British Isles, and spread to the south. Scapa Flow was always the country’s safest harbour, the place the Royal Navy retreated to, for safety, and sailed from, in times of war. It is the start and the end of this country. What was here, for a few thousand years, has ended. I might sail north, and start again.
Sailing: Dan Thompson 05/04/2020