She Said (2006)
This is one of my earliest surviving short stories. I have always wanted to be a writer, but I can pinpoint two phases that set me on the path to being one – when I became serious about it in 2000, and when I became really serious about it in 2005.
This story dates from that second, super-serious time, when I decided that as well as trying to write novels, I should also write short stories alongside them. I thought they’d prove a valuable training ground, which is pretty much what everyone says, and they’re right, mostly because you can actually finish a short story in something less than a lifetime, and if it sucks, it’s not too disheartening. “She Said” is an early effort and fairly clunky because of it, so I hope you’ll forgive it its inadequacies.
The story itself was inspired by the Outer Hebrides, particularly the Isle of Lewis where I spent several booze-soaked holidays in the 2000s , fishing and pissing about in boats.
“Let’s go,” he had said one day. “We have to, now. Please. You know we’ll be safe there.”
She had dreaded the moment, knowing what it meant. He’d always wanted to go away from their jobs, their friends, their families; away from civilisation, away from all she knew and loved. He’d bought the cottage years ago. He’d always dreamed of living there, but had never done it, because of her. But now it was his turn. He had an excuse, a real reason to go, and she had no choice but to follow; she was scared.
They sold everything, and left. Far, far north they went, as far away as it was possible to get before the land ran out for good and the cold ocean went on forever. Twelve hours by car, three by boat, another hour again by car. To the isles that fan out from the mainland, far from the sun, far from the warmth; far from everything. Their house was miles from town, high above a sea loch whose steep sides sheered through heather and grey stone to plunge nearly vertically into the cold and ravenous sea.
He was happy there. He loved the solitude, the quiet. He loved the mist rising from the water in the morning, he loved fishing for his own food from his own boat. He enjoyed not working in an office, loved the feel of the open air on his face, no matter what the weather. He enjoyed wresting enough hay from the ground to feed their herd of animals over the first long winter. He loved the never-ending days of summer, the clear skies at night, the changing face of the sea.
She hated the bleakness of the land, the nudity of the earth, the surly, mealy-mouthed locals who were watching their way of life be usurped through the amber tint of a whisky bottle. She hated their prying, their hypocrisy, their lassitude. She hated the frequent rain, the constant wind, the way the temperature rarely broke into double figures. She hated what it did to her body. She hated the silence, the biting insects, the endless nights of winter. She hated the ugly clothes she had to wear and the way they were never dry. She missed the noise. She missed her freedom.
“This is the way to live,” he’d say, his smile broad and satisfied as they ate. She’d rarely respond for fear he’d see the lie. She never had the appetite for the fish before her. Soon she stopped replying altogether, he was blind to her suffering.
But still she stayed. She never went back to the city. She knew he was right. The crackling picture on the television brought the news of slow defeat. The broadcasts were optimistic, but he could see the patterns, and so could she, she didn’t need him to point them out anymore. Things were coming undone.
Two years passed, years that brought summers of baking heat and winters of endless rain to the south, though the lives of her friends went on as normal despite the little hardships which multiplied, unchecked, like cockroaches. It was not to last.
In the spring of the third year, in Africa, the bird sickness finally took hold, thwarting the measures that had contained it for a decade. Quickly, it blossomed from a seed to a deadly harvest, laying low millions already ravaged by AIDS and TB. And the disease changed, the bodies of the dying incubators for a hundred subtle new strains. One was unstoppable. The healthy began to die. All who were infected died. A state of emergency was declared. Troops panicked, thousands were killed. The UN descended upon the continent. For a time the sickness was contained once more, but not by vaccination or screening. Ruthlessness became the norm. Villages filled up with the dead, towns became ghost-towns, cities became villages.
Travel was circumscribed. Trade faltered, the world economy wavered. Fuel became unaffordable. War broke out in the middle-east, a surgical strike that became inflamed to engulf a region. Half a continent was under arms. America’s empire grew unwillingly, blood being traded like for like with oil.
The weather worsened. Famine exacerbated the sickness. The sea was rising, coastal communities were torn and scattered by storms whose uncommon ferocity became commonplace. New Orleans was inundated, never to rise again. Hong Kong was swamped, Shanghai began to sink. The monsoons failed in India.
Life became harder on the islands, they began to grow much of their own food, where it would grow; they had no money to buy the goods in the shops. The winds grew stronger, the seasons more erratic. Still he came in from the fields and sea so happy, proven, secure. He began to work together with others, some new like them, fleeing before the crisis; many others who were returning. The withered stumps of ancient family trees flowered again as families from the mainland crammed into the long, grey houses of neglected relatives. She had friends now, of a kind, but she could not engage with their flinty pragmatism, their grim joy.
The economy of the world reeled. Martial law was declared in China, flocks of birds were gassed, whole cities razed at the first sign of the sickness, the gun became the only arbiter of any argument, and all arguments concerned infection. In Russia, impoverished citizens fell by the score. Europe braced itself, Asia suffered. Africa died.
A wave of millennial madness washed the island; on Sundays, the churches were full.
It had come at last, the ’flu, crossing the English Channel eighteen months after she had followed him to the islands; just as the scientists had predicted it eventually would, just as the politicians had said it wouldn’t. It spread from the east, breaking in waves of death over the few barriers the governments of Europe could muster. New and potent vaccinations were hastily concocted, only to fail within weeks as the virus changed again and again. Sometimes it was quicker than at others, sometimes slower, but almost always fatal. Society began to break down. A third of the world’s people had perished. Isolation was the only real defence.
The trips to the supermarket in town stopped altogether, there was little point, its shelves were empty. If they went anywhere, they went by boat under sail and oar. The electricity supply became intermittent, to finally cease a few weeks after the television went off air. Elsewhere, anarchy reigned.
“We’re stockpiling refrigerators at the school, we’ll use that as a food distribution centre, there’s enough energy for that,” he explained happily. “In a few years we’ll be able to rig up more wind turbines. We’ll just have to make do with oil lamps until then.” It was his latest project, power. He was active in the islands’ ruling council.
All their food now had to be torn from the infertile earth or the fickle waves of the sea. Sometimes they went hungry, but not often. The ancient ways of the islanders had almost gone, but not quite. Old techniques were recalled, old ways re-mastered. It was a hard life, but they were alive. Only the ugly scenes at the docksides and on the waves as refugees were turned away marred their triumphs. Sometimes they were not turned away, though they did not set foot on the shore.
But it worked, that and the culling of birds. The sickness did not come.
“I was right, love. I was right, and we are safe,” he said to her, holding her tight in the cold night. “When this is over, we can make a new world, love, a purer world. A better one.”
He slept soundly, his warm arms clasped tightly about her. She lay there, eyes open, unblinking, listening to the wind howl in from the sea to screech unimpeded over the hard stone and sodden peat of the island. The ancient zinc roof rattled. Sleep did not come, it never did.
She awoke early after a few hours of snatched, grey rest. It was late summer, she knew, though she herself had stopped counting the days long ago, for the room was full of light, the island’s harsh light that pressed down mercilessly through the flat sky for twenty hours of every day. She looked at her husband’s face: bearded now, craggy, all softness burnt from it by the wind and sun. The city worker he had once been was long gone. His cracked hands curled a little, and he smiled as he slept. He looked like a stranger to her. A dull pain passed through her heart.
She rose quietly and went outside. The sun was coming up, low in the east, breaking over the cloddish mountains of the island’s interior. Below pink clouds the sun’s rays coloured the newly ordered fields a subtle copper, and the long, pale grasses of the moors danced like light reflected off gold. The sun struck off the loch, turning the surface of the water into a sheet of hammered silver. Sometimes, like this, she almost found it beautiful.
She squinted against the sun. Upon the mirrored water was a dark shape; a boat. It was coming in to land. Slowly, she picked her way down the steep hillside and then onto the road, walking along crumbling tarmac towards the loch’s small and awkward harbour.
By the time she arrived, the boat was hard to the concrete jetty, built years before for long-gone fish farms. It towered incongruously over the stone piers beside it, their construction identical, only their various states of disrepair hinting that some were centuries older than the others.
The boat was large, almost a ship. How the crew had got the fuel to bring it here she could only guess. Hollow-eyed men cast desperate glances about as they tied up. They knew that they would be driven off if seen. They shook with exhaustion as they spoke to her. They had come from The Netherlands, they said, their voices thick with foreign sounds and unspoken fear. Much of the country wasn’t there anymore. A week-long gale had battered the coast, a storm surge had flooded old lakes and inland seas; a second had followed within months. There were not enough healthy people to rebuild the dykes, all were dead, or fled, to perish elsewhere.
She looked at their faces, pale with stress, dark with stubble. They were too weak and haggard to be a threat, though they would be judged one. They pleaded with her, begging. They could make a life here, contribute. They had skills the islands could use. This one here, an engineer, another, him, a fisherman. Just feed them, if only a little, and they would be strong and productive.
She should raise the alarm, she replied. She should have them chased away, they were afflicted with more than tiredness. She could see that, others would see that. One of the Dutchmen began to cough violently, barking almost, his mouth biting at the air for breath. A concerned man held him up; it could have been his brother, they all could have been his brothers. Dirt and desperation had made them all the same.
It fell silent, but for the lapping of the water and the wind in the heather. A small wave broke over the foundation stones of a new pier. It was difficult work, it had been washed away once by a ferocious squall, but the men were confident it would be done by the winter. They laughed about it.
A cloud passed over the sun. Cold shivered up her spine, it was threatening rain again. She would have to work quickly today; and the next. The work was never done. She looked at her hands, they were filthy, her nails cracked. They had been elegant once.
Somewhere out in the loch, a seal splashed.
She thought of the man she’d seen hanged a week ago, for stealing a sack of oats.
It was almost beautiful there.
“Come in,” she said. “Come in.”