Before the Flood


Short Fiction by Ross McCleary

 

This morning, as I circumnavigated the lighthouse, I felt a slight shift in the air. I was startled to discover it was almost midday, and that’s when I wondered what day it was, what month, what year. I’ve been in the lighthouse for some time and the days are blending together, memories shifting into patterns and familiarity like a Rubik’s Cube being spun into completion. Before I went looking for Marcel, I decided to check the calendar and to my shock, it told me I had been here for four years.

 

Four years. I’d never held a job down for that long before.

 

Before I lived in the lighthouse, I racked up fourteen jobs in five years. I was fired from the last one and fired from one other, but mostly it was just agency work. A job here. A job there. Administrative and policy work in government departments whose functions I didn’t understand. The last one, the one I was sacked from, was in a department set up to re-energise the UK’s crockery sector. The department employed eight people and for every pound the government invested in the industry, another four was generated in the private market. That seemed to justify the existence of it, and everyone was happy with themselves.

 

I remember the week I was fired because it was also the week my girlfriend broke up with me. I was never told why I was fired but I know exactly why she ended it between us and both events led me to the lighthouse.

 

I found the job on one of the usual websites I used. The advert said it was a Government Employment Scheme and that I would be required, if successful, to permanently move south. I would also be required to spend long stretches of time on my own. Both of these appealed in the immediate aftermath of the break-up. I needed time and distance to process it, to get over it on my own terms.

 

I applied, I got an interview, they offered me a contract. I still didn’t know what the job involved. I wouldn’t normally apply for something so vague but it was a permanent position and the pay was substantially more than I was used to.

 

A week after the interview I travelled south. Found myself standing outside an office complex on the outskirts of Peterborough. It was a standard glass and steel office block, four stories tall, except in one corner. On the corner was a turret, a bulge protruding from the building which rose up an extra two stories above everything else.

 

The lobby was all reflective tiles. My footsteps echoed. I told the porter I was here to meet with Danny, Julia, and Sally. They had interviewed me and were here to show me the ropes.

 

A floor map next to the porter’s desk indicated the departments which worked in the building. Their names were chaotic and strange. There was an Agricultural Planning team, the Internal Migration board, the Infra-red Sub-Oceanic Architecture Directorate, and the Department for Realistic Energy. The turret was included on the map, but its function was not.

 

I waited five minutes before the lobby opened. Danny, Julia, and Sally emerged. Danny held out a hand and bid me to follow. They returned to the lift and I joined them.

 

The lift was made of glass and rose through the building with an unnerving quiet. We stood and admired the silence. When we reached the sixth floor, they ushered me along a short, dark corridor. The carpet was soft and old, like I was stepping through sand on the beach. At the end of the corridor was a door. Danny opened it and ushered me through.

 

I found myself in an enormous penthouse apartment.

 

Danny faced me as he walked backwards down the hall. He said, ‘Welcome to the lighthouse.’

 

The hallway was long and narrow. After twenty feet it expanded out into an open plan living area, shaped into an obtuse L-shape.

 

The living area contained two long, low navy sofas, an oak dining table with four chairs. A massive television was attached to the wall and beneath it sat a drinks cabinet. The kitchen, which began where the living space ended, was smooth and minimalist with tiled walls, sharp, shiny hobs, and a tall metallic fridge. The entire eastern wall, including the adjoining bedroom, was glass from floor to ceiling. Beyond the kitchen, at the end of the L, was a bedroom the size of my old flat. It contained a double bed, a wall-length cupboard for storage and two bedside tables. The bathroom was nestled into the bend of the L and resembled something from a five-star hotel. Next to this was an enormous cupboard full of cleaning supplies. The walls were off-white and abstract paintings of flowers in sharp reds and blues filled the gaps at regular intervals.

 

The tour ended with Julia opening the drinks cabinet. I thought we might be toasting my new job, but instead, she pressed a button.

 

A juddering followed, the sound of motors revving up. We stood back and watched as the eastern wall began to shift, carried by a conveyor belt. I became slack-jawed with awe as the windowpanes spun themselves into the shape of an enormous lantern which pulsed with white light.

 

‘Welcome to the lighthouse,’ Danny said again. Noticing I was still puzzled, he began to explain:.

 

The world had reached a critical moment. Climate change was an accepted reality but there was little being done to mitigate the inevitable damage. Based on their models, within ten years the United Kingdom would start to notice the effects of melting ice caps and rising sea levels. Not just in the weather, water would begin to crawl inland. It would erode the shape of the nation, turning this green and pleasant land blue like an invading army. Even the tamest of predictions would see most of the South East underwater when the flood came. Peterborough would be underwater. London and Bournemouth, underwater. Norwich and Boston and Scunthorpe and Manchester and Bristol and parts of Newcastle. All of it, underwater.

 

People knew the science was accurate. People knew that something had to be done. But people also had jobs and families and debt and defined skills. Not everyone could do the work that needed to be done.

 

‘But we can,’ Danny said. ‘And we will.’

 

When the flooding came, there needed to be a plan. There needed to be suitable responses to the terror and panic of hunger and displacement. They were planning for those circumstances, for the worst-case scenarios.

 

‘It’s a long way off,’ Danny said, ‘but we’ll be ready.”

 

The departments I had seen downstairs were planning for this eventuality. Hundreds of civil servants working for future agricultural prosperity, for the safe internal migration of the population from east to west and looking for ways to exploit the new opportunities that would arise when the flood came.

 

Safety was at the heart of everything, and that is why they had built lighthouses like these along the predicted lines of the new coastlines. Ships would have to navigate new terrain, traverse new shipping lanes cliffed by half-sunk tenements and iceberged by rusting, abandoned cars. They were working on infra-red modelling so they could map the soon-to-be-drowned cityscapes in 3D. The lighthouses were central to this drowned future. They would be the epicentres of the new cities, protecting people from dangers the civil servants were working furiously to predict.

 

That was why they had hired me, and many others too. That was why I was here, on the outskirts of Peterborough. That was why I would be required to remain within the confines of the lighthouse for a whole year. Their future-modelling was unpredictable, ever-changing, but there were some certainties. When the flood came, there would be weeks, sometimes months, where I would be unable to leave the lighthouse and I needed to be prepared for this.

 

‘We will take care of you,’ Danny promised.

 

Most of the year would be filled with training and teaching. They would keep me, and the other lighthouse keepers, busy. It would not be easy but when the year was complete, I would be prepared. I would be free to return to society.

 

Danny, Julia, and Sally left, and I soon settled into my new life, fell into a pattern. On weekdays I read the textbooks and watched the training videos. I completed online training and did tests to confirm that I was learning. They sent me DVDs and books. On the weekends, I practised yoga and ran short circuits around the perimeter of the penthouse to keep fit.

 

Three months passed, then six.

 

I grew bored. I grew claustrophobic and anxious and lonely. The walls began to pulse and swell. Dizziness and headaches rose and fell like sine waves. Fatigue played pizzicato with my nerve endings.

 

I phoned Julia. I asked for some companionship, a friend to share the space with, a flatmate. She said no.

 

She told me to channel my energy into something else. Hobbies, games, interests. They sent puzzles and riddles and games. I played them and grew bored. They sent me obscure music and told me not to get in touch until they made sense, until I knew them inside out. I became an expert in many genres and the loneliness worsened.

 

Instead of a companion, she sent me a ventriloquist’s dummy. It was the next best thing, she said. I laughed and burst into tears. I gave him a name. Marcel.

 

Marcel was three foot tall. He wore a burgundy suit with a green and yellow spotted tie. His cheeks were rosy, and his skin was soft white porcelain. I sat Marcel on a chair at the dining table and I took up a seat opposite.

 

I said, ‘Hello.’

 

I said, ‘How are you?’

 

I said, ‘My name is Patrick.’

 

Marcel didn’t reply. Of course, he didn’t reply, but over time I grew used to his presence and began to share stories with him. Funny ones at first. Light-hearted japes from my childhood or a boozy story from university or college before that.

 

Soon we were inseparable. As I made and ate breakfast, I told him everything I knew about lighthouse keeping. Statistics. Numbers. Calculations. I told him the times of sunrise and sunset on each day of the year. I told him the peaks and troughs of the cycles of the moon. I told him about the billions of tons of ice which were melting to the north. I told him about the number of people who were going to be displaced when the flood came. I told him how many new agricultural workers the country would need when the fields on the east coast were drowned. Each fact fell into the pit of my stomach like a stone being dropped in a reservoir.

 

When I made lunch, I told him about the lighthouse itself. I told him that the name of the paint used on the walls was called Vanilla Mist 3. That the furniture was from IKEA. That the entire building was powered by renewable energy. I told him that the building was set up to run on tidal energy supplied by generators which had been disguised as postboxes in towns within five kilometres of the predicted new coastline. I told him that the government was quietly innovating other techniques to ensure our survival beyond the next fifty years. I told him that the water was expected to rise slow enough to ensure a calm and careful response but that no one would expect the flood until it happened. Each of these worries knapped the stones in my stomach until their edges became sharp and they dug into my flesh.

 

I placed Marcel on the fridge as I made dinner and told him about myself. I boasted to him that during my time in the lighthouse I had read forty-one books. I told him I had watched sixty-four movies. I told him about every job I’d had before this one. I told him about every friend I had ever made, every person I had ever loved. I told him about my hopes for the future, about my dreams, my fears, my excitement to contribute. I told him I was ready for the flood.

 

Before long, these casual confessions became a fixation and I started to tell him everything I could, from as early as I could recall, I coaxed my memory into gear. Told him everything I had ever done. From birth to now and back again. I told him my story over and over, each retelling producing new memories, new details. Stories I had long forgotten were dragged from deep lakes within my memory. It was cathartic. It was liberating.

 

I dove deeper into these memories, tried to find darker, more distorted pearls on the lake floor. More, always more, so that I might confess to Marcel, my silent, listening companion. I did not drown, for the deeper I dove, the emptier the lake became. The water was displaced by my body, bloated and fat from confession, from the weight of recollection.

 

I found myself empty, unable to dredge any more. With silence and sadness came routine. Rising at the same time. Eating the same meals. Pressing my fingers into the wall in the same places every day. Similarities in my movements were planed and honed into repetitions. I carried Marcel at all times in case something new floated to the surface of my consciousness.

 

Weeks of this became months. Dozens of repetitions, identical memories. All carried out in silence. I kept talking to myself, to Marcel, telling him the same stories I had told him already, recounted movies and books I had watched. I hoped for new memories to float to the surface.

 

As I slept, I felt my brain grind into action. My memories, newly recovered, rearranging themselves into patterns. Stacks of memories piled one on top of each other like freight on a cargo ship. My brain compressing my existence into a smaller and neater space.

 

In the space it created I began to sense a darkness, a void. I felt myself sinking and that’s when Marcel began to move of his own accord.

 

I always found him somewhere in the lighthouse. There was nowhere for him to go. I found him stuffed in the cupboard behind huge bags of pasta. I found him underneath the bed fortressed inside stacks of books. In the bathroom I found him stuffed face down in the bin.

 

I continued to wake at the same time every day. I made breakfast. I looped around the lighthouse anti-clockwise fourteen times then I lay on the couch until I grew hungry. Then lunch, a cup of tea, before I walked around the lighthouse clockwise fourteen times, undoing the morning’s work. I made dinner and watched a movie until it was time for bed. On weekends I tested the lantern during the time between dinner and bed.

 

I began to journalise Marcel’s absences, the moments when I realised he was gone, and I noticed that there was always a slight shift, a twitch in the ambient temperature. It was as though the only thing protecting me from the coma of repetition until the flood came was the fluctuating climate.

 

I emerged from one such reverie in the bedroom: one hand grasping Marcel’s arm, the other reaching out for a drawer on the bedside table.

 

I had caught myself in the act. Of course, it was me. He didn’t really move of his own accord. He wasn’t magic. He wasn’t possessed, the building wasn’t haunted, and no one else had access to the space or motivation to mess with me. It was me; I was doing it, and I knew I had been doing it all along.

 

Then Sally called to tell me the year was complete. She said I was now free to leave the lighthouse. She thanked me for my patience.

 

I asked her when the flood was coming. She told me soon, soon. There were new estimates, new figures, new data, she said, but ultimately, she didn’t know. I asked her for the data, and she sent it to me.

 

Instead of leaving, I sat with Marcel in the living room and read the new data. I read it with a hunger, tried to pick it up, unravel it, and put it back together. It was something new. Something different. I read and read and read, and after I read, and after I understood, I turned to give my thoughts to Marcel and noticed he was gone.

 

I looked in every room, overturned every bin, emptied each cupboard. I moved everything from one place to another, but he was nowhere to be found. I walked from the bedroom, where I had pushed my upturned bed against the wall, and into the living room and down the hall to the front door.

 

Maybe he was outside. Maybe he was somewhere beyond the front door.

 

I opened the door to find my old apartment on the other side. The cramped kitchenette where we had argued over bills and money and my unflinching lack of ambition. Where she told me she was leaving. Where I cooked a bland meal and tried not to cry.

 

I stared not into a narrow, carpeted hallway but into an ocean of memories. The memories I had given to Marcel, that I had cast out, had returned. They had besieged me inside the lighthouse.

 

I slammed the door and fell to the floor, and found Marcel clutched in my arms.

 

Unable to leave the lighthouse, unwilling to confront my memories, I returned to the familiar waters of routine. Every day the same, a thousand identical memories which were then condensed down into a single memory. The dark void grew, and the need to compress the memories that remained grew stronger. Old memories merged with the new. In this self-contained space, the details of my memory became so specific and so focussed that the highs and lows began to take on similar hues to the highs and lows I had experienced outside.

 

Memories which pre-dated my employment moved within the walls of the lighthouse. The living room became the site of my first day at school; my first kiss, a long rubbery mess, played out in the kitchen in a blurry loop; and I watched myself being fired from my last job in my bedroom, in the corner between the bed and the wall. I heard the front door slam as my girlfriend left me. Her swelling cries on the other side of the wall. I saw the charcoal dust splash across the floor after I threw my phone into the fireplace.

 

The lighthouse had become my world, and everything outside it was as abstract as interstellar space but despite that I was ready.

 

Despite the growing void in my memory, I was ready.

 

The calendar says I have been in the lighthouse for four years. It might be ten more, or ten on top of that before the flood came, but it wouldn’t matter because now, I was ready.

 

I was ready for the world to end. I was ready for the devastation, and when that devastation comes and the oceans rise and Peterborough and countless others are consumed by the rising tides, I will mourn for those who are lost and I will mourn for those who are displaced and I will pray for those who face struggle, but I will not miss the times before. I will not miss the void when the flood washes it out to sea. I will not miss that rippling darkness when the tides carry it away. I will not miss the numbness or the repetition or the emptiness or the painful silence of having no more sins to confess. I will not miss the endless waiting. I will not miss the silence or the lack of conversation or Marcel when I throw him out into the water. I will not miss the smallness of this world when the drowned world reopens to me. I will not miss being trapped within the lighthouse, consumed by the endless waiting, because when the floodwaters come, I will be a lighthouse keeper and I will finally have something to do.

 

This piece was shortlisted for The Mechanics’ Institute Review Issue 16 – The Climate Issue


Ross McCleary is from Edinburgh. His work has been published by Structo, Litro, and Ink Sweat and Tears. His debut poetry pamphlet ‘Endorse Me, You Cowards!’ was published by Stewed Rhubarb in July. He is also a spoken word poet and the winner of a Scottish Book Trust New Writer’s Award for Fiction in 2019.