The introduction and part 1 of Sea Changes are here.
Part 2 of Sea Changes is here.
Worlds collide as the media descend on the scene of the tragedy, and an unremarkable English village finds itself at the epicentre of global angst.
Dan was running through the hyper-clear farmyard—panting, perspiring, slightly panic-stricken. It was strangely sunny and still. Although everything looked like it usually did, there was something else there, he knew, close but just beyond his comprehension—a flaw in the fabric of the place.
He was calling anxiously—“Hello? Hello?” But there was no reply— there never was—just continuous loop explosions of pigeons rising in alarm from the roof of the house. The only sounds were the clumsy clapping of their wings, his voice bouncing back from the weathered walls, his breath catching raw, and the ticking of the old clock, oddly loud through several brick thicknesses—the loved longcase with its dial painting of a vanished life—a wide-hatted, long-rifled hunter and a daub of a dog standing an eternity ago in a punt amongst reeds, as faded ducks dashed through subfusc skies.
When at last he came back to the deep-draped bedroom, he was spotted with sweat like in the dream and his heart was pounding passionately out into the stifling gloom.
Dan Gowt was a man more interested in engines than emotions, and this was the only nightmare he had ever had in all his placid decades. But that made its rare recurrences all the more unsettling. At 6:41 on that memorable morning, after a night of jolting awake from fear of falling, when his cheeks were stretched like drumskins and his hands felt too huge—when he should have been up an hour ago—it seemed especially ominous. Dazed and dry, nose blocked and eyes gritty, he looked dully at the light leaching in through the curtains while his body relaxed and his heart slowed to its usual phlegmatic pace.
It was the first day of the harvest, the most important day of the year, and one he normally looked forward to with quiet satisfaction. On these days, he felt an almost metaphysical link to this place, a sense of rightness, of being rewarded at last for all the months of effort. The hired harvester would already be hulking down the narrow marsh roads towards Home Farm, and he needed to get up to take delivery.
He rose considerately; Hatty’s breathing told of a night unlike his. He looked down on her for a second and nearly smiled; some of her wrinkles were smoothed away in sleep, and she looked a little like she had looked when he had first seen her at the Young Farmers’ back in— well, whenever it had been.
Jackdaws were chak-chakking in the chimney, fidgeting in their dust-dry nest, occasionally dislodging a twig to fall ding onto the iron lion-and- unicorn fireback inserted in the bedroom fireplace by an ancestor to commemorate the Stuart accession. His diminished descendant stretched clickingly to his full modest height, encased his stocky frame in old clothes, and sluiced his weather-punished face and white-wispy- haloed head with slightly brown water from the old-fashioned bathroom taps with the COLD and HOT the wrong way round. They had never gone onto the mains water, something of which Dan was perversely proud, and relied on the borehole that poked 70 feet or more down into the clay to tap some secretive silty stream. Even through the filter he had installed, there was always a bitty, minerally edge to the water, and the old white bath had a dun hue below the tidemark.
Slow blue eyes with tired whites looked back as he twitched lips and nose away from the vague danger of the razor. Then he clumped down the dark old creaking stairs with their wide oak treads and too-fat newel-posts. He scratched Sammy on his tan-and-white skull, and let the Jack Russell dash outside to defecate. (How ordinary the yard looked, and how foolish the dream.)
Bad beginning though it had been, he could not stop the charm of the day from creeping over him as he released the chickens and felt for eggs in the warm straw. As he went back across the yard, the cracked Delftware bowl brimming with brown-speckled nutrition, he saw with the usual complacent pride that Home Farm was handsome, its irregular bricks and S-shaped iron brick ties soaking in the sun, the sandstone window surrounds scintillating slightly, grey lichen on the wall-mounted sundial with its quaintly cautionary motto—“Quickly Comme, As Quickly Goe.” Two collared doves inclined towards each other on the red-tiled roof, important with lazy sexuality.
This side faced east, towards immaculate 19th-century barns and beyond them a white-turquoise hint of the North Sea, a mile away across rabbit-pestered pastures and toad-prowled dunes just too high for him to be able to see the strand from here. It was a vista and a place he knew in every detail, and loved even as he took it utterly for granted.
There was a helicopter over the sea—some RAF exercise. He watched it for a minute, as always admiring the expertise with which it was handled, and wondering what they were doing so early. He always liked seeing the RAF on their exercises—it made him think of the brave men who had flown from here during the war to bomb the continent, many of whom had never returned. It gave him a comforting feeling of continuity and unsleeping vigilance.
Not long before his father had died, the two men had been working out in the fields when some jets cannoned bravely low overhead. His father had stopped what he was doing, and watched them go out of sight. Then he had smiled sadly and said,“Those chaps always make me think of the war, Dan. They were hard times, but they were also good times in a way. We all really felt England was a great country, with Mr. Churchill and the Empire and all. Funny, really!” It had been an uncharacteristically long and political communication from a man who normally confined his opinions to the relative merits of Ford and Massey-Ferguson, or cattle trotting around the ring at Thorpe Gilbert’s cattle market, and Dan had always remembered it clearly for that reason.
He was humming a song daughter Clarrie had been listening to, by some coloured girl (shouldn’t say “coloured,” he corrected himself casually) as he flicked on the radio to hear the usual things. There was that insurance advertisement—must sort that out. He continued to hum tunelessly and thought of weather and yields, as men of his face and name had done in this room at this time of year since—whenever. His senses of history and identity were sincere but always sketchy on dates and detail. Then came the synthesized brass heralding the news headlines and he stood astounded, listening to the village changing forever.
“This is Ray Robinson, with the Seaside at Seven. Our region is at the centre of today’s international news. News is emerging of a tragic and horrifying discovery on the Eastshire coast. What is being described as ‘dozens of dead bodies’ have been washed up on a beach at Crisby St. Nicholas. So far, we have few details about the disaster, but we will go straight over to our reporter Simeon Sinclair, live from the scene.”
“Good morning, Ray. These are unprecedented and tragic events, in the unlikely setting of this remote community. We are being kept away from the actual scene of the disaster, but a constant stream of paramedics and police officers is heading towards the beach, a few hundred yards away behind those dunes. All access to the beach is forbidden for miles in both directions while a massive search-and-rescue operation gets under way. With me now is local resident Meg Powers. Can you tell us what you have seen this morning, Mrs. Powers?”
A tremulous voice with a strong Eastshire accent crackled on—“ There’ve been police and ambulances going along the lane for about an hour— loads of ‘em, with their lights flashing, sort of thing. They woke everyone up. It was Neil Parrish who discovered the dead folk. ‘E walks his dog early, you see. They was all foreigners, ‘e says—dozens of ‘em, dead as doornails.”
This amazing exchange was taking place under a mile away. Dan knew Meg, and Neil Parrish’s father had been with him at the village school— and the beach had been bounding his horizon for 65 and a quarter years. He rushed back up the stairs he had so despondingly descended and beat on thick-painted old pine doors almost as wide as they were tall.
“Hatty! Clarrie! We’re in the news! There’s been a shipwreck on the beach!”
“What? What’s happened?”
Four minutes later, they were all in the Landrover—Sammy as usual on Dan’s lap in the driver’s seat. He had got used to having the dog’s small body on his lap while he was driving, awkward though it was, and was always glad of his company—especially on those days expended in ploughing and rolling, or mending a fence in a far field, when he often wouldn’t see another person all day.
With him was Hatty, the ever kind and shrewd, the grey of her eyes the same colour as her permed hair, always at home in her clean and practical jumper and slacks, whether baking one of the pies that played such havoc with his waistline or shooing the bad-tempered bull out of the garden. Home Farm was very similar to the farmhouse in which she had been raised several miles away, Like the Gowts, farming was all the Dykeman family had ever known, and when Dan and Hatty had married it was regarded as not only entirely natural but extremely practical.
There, too, was plumper, paler Clarissa, back from uni for summer— fashion-conscious in black jeans and a black and yellow striped jumper. They doted on her obviously and they had always let her have her way— even though Dan was secretly stricken by her utter lack of interest in taking over the farm. He had always cherished, without even realizing it, the romantic fancy that someone of his blood would be farming this place long after he had gone, and that they would pass on something of him to the unguessed generations of the unimaginable England of the far future.
But Clarrie was also now uninterested, apparently, in getting her law degree—or even a boyfriend. All she seemed to think about was dieting, and sending texts, and updating her Facebook account, whatever she needed one of those for. Dan often asked Hatty what was wrong with the bloody girl. Probably, it was a phase, they hoped. The young were strange and getting stranger. They’d never had “phases”! He, at least, had never had any. There had always been too much for him to think about—such high expectations of him as the farm’s and family’s future. These were expectations he believed he had fulfilled, and he lacked understanding of those who just drifted through life. Fecklessness and waste offended some puritanical part of him. If Clarrie had been a boy maybe things would have been different.
But for now he wasn’t thinking about these old questions; he was as ghoulishly interested in the local drama as his womenfolk, although he preserved a faux-casual front. As they exited the long drive and came out onto Red Lea Lane, they saw a maelstrom of flashing blue lights and a mass of agitated movement. The helicopter he had noticed earlier was now hanging over Zion Hill, the tallest of the thorn-covered dunes that marched all the way from Fleethaven in the north some 20 miles down to Williamstow—separating level land from a debatable territory of saltmarsh, sand and slimy mud that was over a mile wide at the lowest tides.
There, almost six decades before, Dan had played with his older brother, Pete. Pete had taken a malicious delight in telling him that the mysterious creeks, with their tarantula-like crabs and sucking mud stitched together with birds’ prints, were haunted by Jill Greenteeth, a weed-haired hag who came out onto the land at night to feel for food with long pale nails. When Pete had drowned in the Forty Foot Drain, Dan had still been young enough to wonder if Jill had taken him, and even 59 years on he never really liked that stretch of the Drain, where it ran deep and dark between steep and slippery banks and in under the Black Bridge.
Dan had taken on the burden of the farm uncomplainingly when eventually it came, feeling it was not a burden at all—or at least only on some of the bad days between December and February, when winds carrying news of Siberia leapt the dunes and came clamouring around him in the draughty cab of his tractor, bringing water to his eyes and aches to elbows and knees.
There were always regrets of course, about things he thought he could and perhaps should have done and would never do now. But by now he knew that everyone’s lives were made up largely of disappointments. And for now there were always things demanding to be done—apart from the seasonal chores and the increasing paperwork, there were things to be maintained and repaired rather than renewed. So decades went and came with the leaves on the willows until his skin grew lined and ambitions became acceptance. But still there were times when the young man inside raised his dark-haired head to peer out in dissatisfaction at the cramped universe his older self had opted to inhabit.
He found a place to park, and they pushed purposefully between dragonfly-hunted hedges, across the old bridge over the New Cut where moorhens sculled among the sedge. The lights and noise had a peaceful, beautiful backdrop like an Antwerp School landscape—distance-blued levels, the dints of dykes, coverts of sycamore, alder and ash, sagging stands of willow, the exclamation marks of poplars, a few old houses, a mill, scattered square church-towers, heat-heavy fields enceinte with cereals.
There was a thrilled crowd in the car park, huddled behind police barriers. The beach could not be seen from here because of the dunes, but they could see the winding track between the sandhills, normally a silent pathway arched over by blackthorn, but now hectic with uniformed life.
They were met by near-neighbour Ted Fisher, owner of several thistly fields along Deliverance Lane. Usually laconic to a fault, the last of his line was rubbing hard, dry hands together incessantly.“It’s like the war!” he was saying, with grim relish. “Dozens of ‘em, they say. Refugees, I shouldn’t be surprised; foreigners, any road.”
There were several reporters there, mostly from local media—with many more converging on Crisby from across the country. Dan recognized Seaside at Seven’s Simeon Sinclair talking earnestly to the body discoverer Neil Parrish. Other reporters were pouncing on police, paramedics, or anyone else who looked as if they could ameliorate the present famine of fact. Most of the local people recoiled instinctively, although a few seemed to have expanded into their rightful spheres, as if they had long expected the world’s media to come calling for some reason. The chairman of the parish council had even put on his chain of office. Dan grinned to himself; sometimes young Mark Foster could be as ridiculous as his poor old dad. Old? Ha. Mark Foster Senior had been in his class at school.
There were two or three hundred people there, from all over the area— Crisby, Stibthorpe, Skenby-le-Mire, Williamstow, Elmcaster, and even Eastport. Police were ensuring onlookers stayed behind the barriers to leave an exit route for ambulances, their zipped-up cargoes treated with more tenderness now than they had ever been in life, borne in brand-new body bags on soft, clean beds, wafted away by white-uniformed angels under blue brilliants to the sparkling sterility of the County Morgue.
An excited insect hum arose from everywhere—an imbroglio of engines, speculations and statements, coffee and cigarettes, underlaid by a calm and capable conspiracy of paramedics, police, and coastguards. The media soundtrack was all hackneyed horror and clichéd compassionating—close-knit community, dreadful tragedy—but even the most blasé were stunned by the scale of the disaster, and struck by its obvious emerging angle. The dramatic, symbolic possibilities were already awfully apparent.
For the most acutely attuned, this sad stranding was another awful installment in an interminable tale. It was a reprise of too many other disasters—those Moroccans choking to death in the refrigerator truck at Felixstowe, the train-crushed Laotians, or those notorious news agency images from the Mediterranean—disregarded dead on resort beaches, chilled swimmers clinging onto tuna-nets hundreds of miles from any coast, bobbing brothers, pilgrims treading water with diminishing strength, forgotten face-down floaters, whole hopeful boatloads upturned and lost on the way to El Norte—the lands of intolerant over-plenty, whose tall grey warships sliced casually through the drifting destitute, captained by cold-eyed men.
It was a parable, a practically self-penning story of seeking and never finding, and a search for new life met by death—a cautionary tale to trouble the conscience of a continent.
Journalists of all styles and viewpoints were now transmitting almost identical stories to the waiting world, surer every second, communicating their concern, their compassion, their commitment. The most alert were starting to hear even more enticing rumours—bullet wounds—and they were offering these terrible tidbits diffidently to camera—dreadfully delicious reminders of man’s perennial inhumanity.
The world was waking up to woe—“The Bodies on the Beach,” already capitalized, categorized, co-opted, described, dissected, and served up on slabs for Europe’s edification. The globe’s screens were crowded with dignitaries expressing their shock, their determination to get to the bottom of this tragic event, their admiration for the emergency services— and their words were ported planetwide, the chrism of compassion, the Immaculate Conception of the International Community.
Dan, Hatty and Clarrie, adjacent to world-altering events for the first time in their lives, were luxuriating in reflected importance. They stood with buzzing friends and neighbours and a swelling crowd of strangers, shuffling up against the police barriers, unobtrusive yet involved— absorbing the excitement as much as they thought about the victims, then feeling guilty for not caring more. Dan had the odd idea there was some kind of connection between his crops and the gathered people on the beach, but he couldn’t put it into words.
His crops...he looked at his watch. The combine must be at Low Field by now. So reluctantly he made excuses and relinquished his front-row place, switching from uncomprehending onlooker to his more customary role as man of agricultural affairs, son of the soil, of the earth earthy, a master of motors, harrows, and seed catalogues. But in that second, as he swivelled in his size-9 boots between the worlds of observation and action, a camera with a vaguely frightening winking red light floated in front, and a pretty blonde was engrossing his eyes. “Are you a local man, sir? Is there any information you can give us about what’s happened today?”
With a sinking realization that he was hopelessly out of his depth, Dan shook his reddening head and considered flight—until he saw Hatty looking at him proudly. Well why not—he thought; I’ll never be on TV again. So he smiled uncertainly, his face plum-red like the bricks of the older local houses, his voice up an octave on his usual unemphatic tones.
“Yes, I am local—lived here all my life. The name is Gowt, Dan Gowt. G-O-W-T. No-one’s allowed down there at the moment, but I’ve been told that they’re all coloureds out there, you know—foreigners. Aliens, sort of thing. Sounds like they were trying to sneak into the country illegally. It’s very sad, very sad. Poor people—poor, silly people.” He shook his head and tried to clear his throat. He was impaled on the red light.
“Coloureds? Aliens? Sneak? Silly? You don’t sound very sympathetic!” She hadn’t called him “sir.”
“Well, I didn’t mean silly—more unwise, really—but it’s the truth, isn’t it? If they were illegal—and why else would they be out there in the middle of the night?—the fact is that they shouldn’t have been trying to get into England in the first place. It’s a crime, that is. It’s just common sense—although it doesn’t alter the fact that they died. It must be terrible to come from one of them places, Africa and Cambodia and... and India, where they have all them wars and famines and all.”
“But surely that isn’t the point, even if they were undocumented? The point is surely that people have died in terrible circumstances.”
“Well, yes, but they’re still breaking the law, aren’t they? I mean, weren’t they? Not that I don’t feel sorry for them, sort of thing, but it’s not what we’re used to around here.” Why was she looking at him with what looked like dislike?
But all she said was “Umm, thank you. That will do, Mr.—er, Gowt. You may be on Channel One News later.” The red light clicked off, and the crew moved away just as Dan felt he had been getting into his stride. The woman was shaking her head and saying something to her cameraman. Hoping he hadn’t made a fool of himself, Dan smiled uncertainly at a reassuringly proud Hatty and edged away through the throng.
Hatty and Clarrie stayed near the TV for much of the day—Clarrie having given up all semblance of studying. Their patience was eventually rewarded—there he was, and in close-up! There they were, too, shifting in the background, crowding subconsciously into the shot. What a pity, they agreed, that he had been wearing that yellow shirt. Hatty rang the neighbours. They hadn’t made it onto the national news.
Dan saw the clip repeated later, sitting in the living room which Hatty had replicated from a “makeover” show. Dan found the show’s flamboyant host disturbing, and partly for that reason, and partly out of sheer parsimony, he had always disliked the new scheme, with its bright colours and so-called “art.” His beloved clock looked out of place in this out-of-place interior, but it had more right to be in the room than these impertinent furnishings, and it would be there long afterwards.
Someone who looked a little like him loomed up massively, a giant red caricature of a respectable farmer with a grubby yellow shirt and a brick-coloured face, and a too-high, too-fast voice. Normally almost entirely without vanity, Dan had a sick feeling he looked ridiculous— and not just ridiculous.
Somehow, a wrong note had been struck. Maybe he shouldn’t have smiled. Should he have said exactlywhat he said? He stood by it, of course, but now it sounded...well, unkind, a bit harsh. He wished they had picked on somebody else. It bothered him more than he could easily account for...
But, there, it was done. It was over. Forget it, he instructed himself— just forget it. And Hatty had said he came across well. Yet it bothered him, like an incipient illness, or the knowledge of a job done badly— like a gate left unlatched and banging.
He went out at last into the stretching shadows, making an effort to think about things he knew and could deal with—the fence to be fixed, the tire to be replaced, the coughing of the smallest cow, the ever- excruciating finances. He relished the peppery smell coming up from the lawn, and watched frantic midges high against the house, churning in the last of the sun. There’d be a decent working moon.
He got into the Landrover, whistling to Sammy. The dog jumped in, and they passed rattlingly along narrow lanes they knew better than most, breaking the bars of westering light that lay across the road and back into shade over and again, sun-shade-sun-shade-sun, making rabbits on the verges dash for refuge while Sammy growled gently and stiffly swished his stump. Swags of mist were clambering out of the ditches and conspiring in old field undulations; and the 14th-century castellated tower of All Saints was beset by rooks.
Seeing the tower, Dan thought, as he usually did, of his mother, below the cow-parsley in the churchyard—one of the last burials before it had been closed like the church. She had loved evenings like this, seeing the sun going down behind the far hills, watching bumble bees bumping in the honeysuckle (she had known all the plants), smiling through the kitchen window at her surviving son riding proudly past in the tractor. He sighed, and drove on to pay his debts to the quick. A few minutes later, with him high in the cab and confidently in control, the giant machine was processing along long rows of rape against an infinite sky.
Next Tuesday - Chapter 4
Copies of Sea Changes are available from Amazon (a few copies of the first edition still available)
…........................................................................................- Derek Turner has appeared in a number of top-notch news outlets, including Taki's, Chronicles and the Times.
Follow him on Twitter: Follow @DerekTurner1964
or e-mail to: email@example.com
Some recent articles from Derek Turner:Taking back the city
FALSE FLAGS, AND TANGLED GROWTHS
FLIGHTS OF FANCY