Photo credit: Alexander James
I have been camping on the same small patch of scrubby beach every summer since I was in utero. Ever since the days when my parents didn’t need inflatable beds, sleeping instead on flat green mats, their backs feeling every bump in the earth. In those days, the campground was filled with young people who turned up in minibuses and danced naked around fires. I might be imagining the last part, but I like to think of them spinning on the freezing tip of the site, those dunes where the rough illusion of civilization gives way to stones and sea. I can see them very clearly, wearing stout boots but otherwise bare, their hair twisting in the coastal wind.
We called it the nuclear coast, and at certain anxious points in my life I couldn’t watch planes fly above the campsite. I was convinced they must be headed for the pale egghead of the power station, just visible at the crest of the horizon. At night we would lie and watch the stars and I would see the blink of the planes moving to destroy us all. The station seemed vulnerable in the dark, surrounded only by a circle of spotlights, a hazy purple ring.
In the morning, everyone would change into their swimming costumes in the greenhouse and walk, without stopping for tea or food, into the freezing cold Atlantic. The summers were rarely hot, and the practice was marked by screams, as the grey sea slapped our bodies, making us jerk up to the murky loom of the sky. Once we were in the water, the ocean was never as cold as we were expecting, as it had seemed the previous year. It’s been warmed
, we said without failure, fixing our eyes on the white dome, a perfectly round intrusion amidst the jagged breaks of the land, our flailing limbs at the edge of everything.
I grew up and brought my husband there, a kind of test. To see if he would like sleeping next to the sound of the waves, which up close were no longer a breathlike rush in and out but simply a continuous crushing boom, the noise of unending quantities of water hurling rocks at the base of the world. Would he find it strangely exciting, as we had been taught to, that there were no showers and that the only toilets were a walk away, at the end of the village? We had friends who stayed for weeks in these kinds of conditions. As the years passed, their innovations increased: solar showers, special organic shampoos that foamed in seawater. It seemed as though the need for comfort increased with time, as though people could no longer tolerate the musty smell of their own unwashed selves, the crawling itch of unwashed hair. My husband passed the test, but was also one of the first to bring a portable shower, to stand in his swimming trunks under its trickle of water, gasping.
There were foods that had to be eaten every time, and cooked in the same way. Grey prawns, with insides as complicated and unknowable as planets, their whiskers still, conquered. We fetched thousands of them in plastic bags from the harbour, a massacre held shut by our fists, and brought them back on the tiny wooden rowboat that connected one village to the other. Cooking the prawns over flames — making sure each whole creature turned pink and was flavored with garlic and lemon, chili and herbs — was the men’s work. The women would slice bread on their laps and the children were given blunt knives and butter and told to start spreading.
Food tastes better outside
, somebody always said. They were our ritual words, the crunch of shells under our fingers, the mineral tang of brain juice sucked straight from the skull. I always felt like I was placing the sea itself in my mouth, the death of it, the hundreds of bodies that float to an unimaginable depth and are never seen again.
We called it the nuclear coast, and at certain anxious points in my life I couldn’t watch planes fly above the campsite.
Once my husband and I were married, we bought a bell tent, an elegant canvas triangle with roll-up sides. I have no idea how we paid for such an extravagance, but it was one of those rare purchases that was worth it. I’ve experienced within its walls many moments of family harmony, listening to the others sleep, wondering if this is the meaning of life: to be animals together, snoring gently into the night. The first year we brought it camping was also the first year of bringing our son, seven months old, beautiful and sleepless. In the center of the tent we erected a travel cot, large and ridiculous, an elephant on wheels that barely left space for our own flopping air mattress. We brought the talismans of our sanity to sooth him: a battery-operated music player and the large white rabbit almost as big as the baby. The usual rituals — campfires and plane watching and late night prawns — were over. I went to bed with my face against the plastic of the sleep system, waiting for him to wake.
Recently I met a geologist at a cocktail bar. We discussed the book I wrote about a catastrophic flood hitting London, and I waited for her scientific opinion. It’s quite likely
, she said, and more than this: apparently, with the right conditions — a volcano erupts here, climate change speeds up there — the whole of eastern England will be under water. It will be gone
, she said, and lifted her glass.
The baby did not sleep in his enormous bed. He slept between us, of course, and woke up tired and hot and could not be dunked into the nuclear-warmed sea for refreshment. And for the first time, neither could I. It was impossible to consider any more voluntary torture, my body crushed and misshapen by fatigue. When not pacing with the baby, I sat on a folding chair, my shaking fingers gripping a plastic mug of tea, my scowl darkening the campsite. On the second day of this my mother took the baby from my arms and pushed us in the direction of the pub. We staggered there, my husband and I, and experienced something like a recovery, our hands finding glasses, plates, real metal knives and forks. In the middle of camping, the inside of a building seemed like a miracle.
We were there when the rain came, a heavy, brutal pummel that drowned the windows and made us shift in our seats. We wondered how the baby was doing. Part of us wanted to run through the downpour and rescue him, but there were whole meals on our plates and so we ate, lifting each bite to our mouths like a revelation.
Back at the campsite, we did not find my mother or the baby. All we found, for a long time, was wetness. The lower flaps of our tent had opened willingly to let in the water, a swirling, shallow flood that had seeped under our mattress, into our books, our clothes, the rabbit that was left on the floor. I lifted a library book by its corner — a collection of Alice Munro
stories — and watched the water stream through its words. The redundant elephant was the only dry thing, raised above the water by its wheels. We found plastic bags and piled our clothes inside them. We got ready to go home.
While my husband packed up the tent, I sat on the sand dunes with my baby, watching him trying to eat grass and stones. My mother had brought him back safe and well, but there was no place for him to nap. I tried to cradle him in my arms, but he was too lively: he wanted to explore. The sun was hot, and his hat was wet. I put it on him anyway, and he seemed to enjoy the coolness on his forehead. This is the moment I’ve come to remember: a baby without shelter, a mother doing her best. People in each other’s arms, reaching out against a raging sea.
For a long time, I forgot this story. Why did you choose to write about a baby and a flood?
I was asked, and I would scrabble for a partial answer. This part of the truth was out of reach, like a dream forgotten on waking. It took a friend reading the book and telling me that she knew what my inspiration was.
But if this story inspired my novel, what kind of story is it? It is a tale of lucky people, who choose discomfort as a novelty for a few days a year. It is not the story of my novel, or the stories of the millions who have found their permanent homes destroyed and have no other place to live. In many ways, it is wrong to even begin to compare the experiences. And yet this is where I find myself, writing in my quiet house on a Tuesday morning. I am about to go and meet a friend for lunch, my children are well and safe at school. It seems important to acknowledge this privilege: to be a writer of disaster, who has never experienced the destruction of the fabric of her life. A person who has never had everything swept away, except in her daydreams and nightmares, her pictures of the end.
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was born in Manchester in 1984, and now lives in Cambridge with her young family. She has a BA in English Literature from Sussex University, and an MPhil in English Literature from Jesus College, Cambridge. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and she was a finalist for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award with her short story "Selfing." Her first book, The End We Start From
, will be published by Grove Atlantic on November 14.