I left school for good at lunchtime on the day I turned eighteen. I walked home. The house was empty. I had no plans, either for the afternoon, or for the time beyond it – my life, which stretched empty ahead. Or didn’t. It was becoming clear to everyone, now, that things were getting worse. The winter before, half of Gloucestershire had been flooded, and the waters, refusing to recede, had made a new fen, covering homes and fields, roads and schools. In York, the river had burst its banks and the city centre was gone, walls which had stood for nearly two millennia washed halfway down to Hull. People didn’t say these places were gone. They didn’t say that there were families living in caravans in service stations all along the M5, lined up in the car parks with volunteers running aid stations out of the garage forecourts. People said,
– They must have known their homes were vulnerable –
We were protected by our houses and our educations and our high-street shopping centres. We had the habit of luck and power, and couldn’t understand that they were not our right. We saw that the situation was bad, elsewhere, but surely something would work out, because didn’t it always, for us? We were paralysed, unable to plan either for a future in which all was well, or one in which it wasn’t.
– I’m not going back, I said to father, when he came home from work because the school had called to tell him I had left.
– What will you do instead? he asked, and I shrugged one shoulder up and slid my eyes away. There had been daffodils in the park at Christmas. The coast path had been redrawn at six different places over the last three years.
– I have to go and pick Pauly up from nursery, I said, Unless you’re going to do it, and I walked down the road to where Pauly was waiting, standing at the gate in his coat and hat and mittens.
That evening, Francesca came home. I don’t know where she had been – which of the many places, savaged by weather, that might have needed her expertise, and her anger – but she smelled of mould and filthy water and she was exhausted. She looked thin. After Pauly was in bed I sat with her and father at the kitchen table.
– What will you do? father asked me again, and Francesca said, That’s a pretty stupid question, under the circumstances.
Father let his breath hiss out between his teeth. He said, We can’t just give up on everything.
– No, Francesca looked at me, Of course. But anyway, she said, We need you to look after Pauly.
And then I knew how absolutely she had given up herself.
Later, unable to sleep, I went downstairs to fetch a book, and, standing in the hall, I heard them talking, father and Francesca together. The door was slightly open and I watched them through the crack it made. They were still sitting at the kitchen table, just as I had left them, side by side, facing my empty chair. Father asked,
– Are you so sure?
– Yes, Francesca replied, I am. I think I am. We always knew a tipping point would come. It’s a surprise, really, that it’s taken so long.
– You could stop, father said. If there’s no point. We could stay together, for a while at least. Caro is unhappy. Paul too, probably, although I agree it’s harder to tell.
They were silent for a long time then, and I stood very still in the corridor and thought of Pauly, the way his body twitched in his sleep, the tense look he got when Francesca was there, and how it was not hard at all for me to tell if he was happy or not.
The next morning, when I went downstairs, father was in the kitchen drinking coffee, and Francesca was gone.
– She had an early flight, he told me. She said to say goodbye.
– To me? I asked, Or to Pauly?
– Both. Of course, both –
Pauly only went to nursery in the mornings now, to give me time to tidy, do the washing, get the shopping. I picked him up just before lunch and took him home, walking the short distance hand in hand, stopping to look at things that caught his interest, at leaves and beetles, car number plates, discarded crisp packets.
– Oh Pauly. Please don’t pick that up. It’s filthy.
– But Caro it’s green –
For lunch, we ate sandwiches, then washed up together and went to the park. Played on the swings. Came home. Ate tea. Played. Bath. Stories. Bed. When he was asleep, the washing-up, ironing, hoovering. Every day the same. And, in the routine of it, I found that I had misplaced my fear. The future was only the weeks until half-term, when there would be planned trips to museums, city farms, the cinema, then back to nursery and all to do again. Things had a form and, carried along by it, the future ceased to seem important, although I knew that it would still happen to us, coming on while I was cutting carrots for snacks, while we fed oats to the ducks, played tag, stuck plasters to grazed knees. I fitted my life to Pauly’s, because he needed me – or because I needed him, the way he looked me full in the face and smiled, the excuse he gave me: that I could not possibly be anywhere else, because I was here. This was the absurdity of it – that I couldn’t forgive Francesca because she chose the world over Pauly, and now I can’t forgive myself because I didn’t. I’m no longer angry with Francesca. Somewhere in the miles and miles I ran between the high house and the river, the river and the sea, I found that I had come to understand what it was she had tried to do, but who is there left to do the same for me? What option is there, in the end, for those few of us who have survived, but to be the unforgivable, and the unforgiven? All those who might have lived instead of us are gone, or they are starving, while we stay on here at the high house, pulling potatoes from soft earth.
The spring before Pauly and I came to the high house, Francesca and father were away almost constantly and it was hot, from the last week of February right through March and April, into May, every day high and clear and bright like a remembered summer, except that it wasn’t summer. In the afternoons, Pauly played naked in the garden, poking in the bushes to find insects, or pouring water on my feet from the watering can while I squealed and laughed at the cold. I wore Francesca’s big sun hat, and when we went out, both of us in shorts and sandals, we ran through the sliver of shade the houses made on the pavement and felt the warmth come up from the ground to meet us. We knew that it was fever heat, a sign of illness, the air too thin and the cement on the ground too thick, the whole city a storage heater, but still we couldn’t help but feel ourselves stretch up towards it, the sun, which reached into our bodies and softened them like wax. People stopped work early to lounge in parks. Children sat on doorsteps sucking Freeze Pops. On buses, passengers smiled at one another. There was such joy in it, the light and warmth, as though we had escaped the winter. Pauly and I went on day trips, into the forest to the east of the city to feel the trees make their own cool, or west, to swim in the river. Away from the pavements, the acres of concrete, the heat was less pronounced. Away from people, it was easier to maintain the fiction of normality – but in the long grass of a deer park we searched for grasshoppers and there were none. The hum of bees was missing. The birds were quiet. I took Pauly to a place I remembered going to with father, once, where there was a greengage tree. I remembered father lifting me up above his head so that I could pull the soft fruit from the branches, and I remembered how sweet it had tasted, juice running down my wrists – but now the tree was bare, its branches brittle, its leaves a brown carpet across the dry ground.
I lay in the big bed with Pauly curled up next to me, asleep. The window was open to let in what breeze there was and I heard the city sounds which came in with it, the hooting and the roaring of traffic, the wailing of sirens, the rattle of trains. Somewhere, a party was happening. I heard the steady thumping of the bass, an occasional bark of laughter. Someone shouted something indistinct. Beside me, my phone rang, an overseas number. I picked it up, climbing swiftly out of bed and leaving the room so that I didn’t wake Pauly when
I answered it – Hello?
– Caro? It’s me. It’s Dad.
It was five hours behind where he and Francesca were, on the east coast of the US, and so it must have been early afternoon for him, but I thought he sounded tired. Perhaps they had been up all night, sat round a table in a conference centre trying yet again to force understanding where it wasn’t welcome. I said, Dad! and heard him sigh.
– I’m sorry, but we’re going to be here longer than we thought. I –
I sat down at the top of the stairs and leaned my head against the wall.
– I’m sorry, he said, and he sounded it.
– What’s happening, Dad? I asked, but instead of an answer, he said, I want you to take Pauly to the high house. Pack your bags now. Leave in the morning. Okay? First thing. Get the early train –
– What’s happening?
From somewhere in the space behind him I heard a click, the sound of a door opening, a voice calling his name – Yes, soon, he said, to someone else, and then to me he said, I have to go. I love you, Caroline. I love Pauly, too. Tell him –
The line went dead. I stayed where I was, sitting on the staircase in the dark, until I was sure that he wouldn’t call again, and then I went back into the bedroom where Pauly, fast asleep, had turned himself to lie in a star shape across the full width of the bed.
While Pauly slept, I packed a hiking rucksack, stuffing it with handfuls of pants, with T-shirts and socks, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap. Pauly had his own suitcase, a ladybird on wheels which doubled as a kind of seat, and into that I packed his raincoat, his wellington boots, some toys. I made sandwiches for the journey and put them in a shoulder bag. I didn’t pack a photograph of father. I didn’t pack the necklace that had been my grandmother’s, or the card that Pauly had made me for my birthday the year before – but then, what good would those things have been, even had I thought to bring them? I wish that I had packed the Penguin Book of English Verse. I wish that I had packed a garlic press. I wish I had the scissors that Francesca used to cut Pauly’s hair.
Before I went back to bed, creeping quietly in beside Pauly, gently nudging his warm feet away from my side, I went downstairs and switched the television on. A hurricane that had been building in the Caribbean had veered west, suddenly, and was now projected to hit Florida sometime in the early hours of the next day at a strength so high that it lacked any current designation. Weather conditions in the area were already difficult, bordering on extreme. Evacuation was advised, but might be impossible.
– How is it, a man in a suit, sat in a television studio, asked, That so little warning has been given? and the woman opposite him, whose hair was not quite smooth, whose blouse was rumpled, as though she had dressed hurriedly, her mind elsewhere, answered, These conditions are unprecedented. We have no models appropriate to this situation.
– So are you saying, the man pressed her, That we are now looking at a future in which we no longer have fair warning of extreme weather events?
– Yes. The woman said, That is exactly what I am saying.
In the morning, I got Pauly dressed, ate breakfast. When Pauly went to wash his hands I checked the news, but could find out only that the storm had hit, with what seemed to be extraordinary violence, and that its epicentre had been near to where father and Francesca were staying. I had no message from them. Pauly had woken in a bad mood, contrary, bolshy, and so it was easy, as I fought to get him to eat his toast, to get dressed, to put his shoes on, to ignore my worry and think only about ourselves.
– But I don’t want to go away, he said, his voice a whine.
– We have to, Pauly.
The concourse was very busy. I left Pauly standing with our bags by a pillar next to a sandwich shop and went to buy our tickets, trying hard, as I waited in the queue, not to look at the large screen above the departure boards where rolling news showed footage of trees bending in the wind, waves breaking across an esplanade. There were still three quarters of an hour left until our train was due to leave. I took Pauly to a cafe where we drank smoothies from plastic bottles and ate pain au chocolat that came in little bags and I can still feel it in my mouth, even now – the cheap, oily chocolate and the doughy pastry wrapped around it, packet-stale, familiar. Pauly didn’t want to finish his, so we left it on the table when our platform was called, and it seems extraordinary to think how profligate we were. How careless. We were so unaware of all we had to lose, and how long has it been, now, since we had any bread except the flat, heavy loaves that Pauly makes, sometimes, from the wheat we grow and grind ourselves? How long has it been since we could leave even the worst food behind, uneaten?
Station by station the train emptied.