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The rain beat down on the garage roof, washing August away. It had washed July away, and June, and the second half of May. The British Isles, like most of northern Europe, was losing its summer. This worried Joe less than The Dream, which had come again the previous night, but he didn’t like the way things seemed to be mounting up. He felt it was coming soon.
He held Suzette, stroking her to calm his nerves, while he considered the situation. Deciding when to put to sea was tricky. Too late would be… too late. He would have to go a long way out to have any kind of a chance of riding the swell, but if he embarked too soon, he’d be eating into provisions unnecessarily, with no idea how long they might have to last. Noah had provisioned for a voyage lasting ten months, but he’d had the benefit of privileged information. Joe had only The Dream.
“We’ll be all right, Suzy, hinny,” he told his pet, “I’ll make sure of that. But what am I going to do about the wife?”
Suzette cocked her head as if considering, her beady gaze held enquiring intelligence. Joe’s wife Linda detested Suzette. She said pigeons were thick and were vermin, and good for nothing but pie, but Joe knew that was just jealousy speaking. The soft colours of Suzette’s plumage made Joe think of the moors at twilight and with the little bird’s plump warmth in his hand, things just seemed better, somehow.
He began tidying up, and she followed him, pecking at wood shavings, picking them up and dropping them again.
“Sweet dreams, little hen. See you in the morning,” he said, putting her in her cage, before going through into the house through the connecting door. It was after five – time to get the tea on before Linda came home.
Joe Steel was a shipwright, working on a casual basis these days, going from small yard to small yard. It was a long time ago now, since he’d started at Swan Hunter, served his apprenticeship, done well until the day they’d all got the chop.
He’d never forget the day he arrived home early, stumbling in, his leaving cards in his hands to find Linda, his wife, on the sofa on top of his best friend. His love for her had died on the spot, snuffed out by the shock, though later when he was calm again, he thought he understood why she’d done it.
They were childless and while for him this was a disappointment, for Linda it was a torturous hunger, a need she couldn’t leave alone. I want more tests, she’d said. I want IVF but Joe wouldn’t, and it wasn’t the money, though they had little enough of that to spare. No, it wasn’t that, but he didn’t agree with forcing gates. This just broke things in his experience, starting with the gate itself. Linda didn’t understand his refusal but Joe thought he understood. Linda’s betrayal was not only a desperate attempt at a solution, but revenge.
Resisting his first terrible desire to punch her into next week – though he’d caught the friend later, in a dark alley, when actions spoke louder than words – Joe had mulled it over and decided he would accept any cuckoo resulting from this betrayal. The cuckoo would be blameless. He was even, secretly and not without a sense of shame, a little excited at the prospect, catching himself waiting and watching for the first signs. But Linda’s plan, if such it was, came to nothing. There wasn’t going to be any nestling, not even a cuckoo.
They talked about divorce but neither made a move and so they had carried on since, together yet irrevocably apart, growing greyer but not mellow.
It was one night not long after this, that Joe had first had The Dream – a vision that made a liar out of God. Hadn’t He told Noah, hadn’t He solemnly promised, it would never happen again?
But He was a liar. Look what He was up to now, floods rarely out of the news, rescue boats plying high streets the length and breadth of Britain. And, somewhere warm and bright, a grand old man of rock stood poised to die and fall into the sea. Geologists swarmed. Mathematicians calculated, defenses were planned, but The Dream knew. The old man was not ready to die, but a fjord wall was getting ready to fall, toppled from below, a sub-marine volcano that no-one even knew was there.
Paralysed in his solitary bed, staring sightless at the wall, Joe saw the sky blotted out. People ran with their screeching children for the high places, and were overtaken. The Angel of the North looked on as buildings, bridges, roads were pulled apart like Lego, chewed and spat out. The Angel was uprooted, and was shot face down, far out to sea. Afterwards came a hush, and then the smell, growing as the silence and the days stretched on.
Everyone had nightmares. Generally it was little more than a case of cheese at bedtime. Joe understood that. But he had seen his mother’s death in a dream, and ignored it. Three days later they’d found her, dead on her bed, arm outstretched for the pills she’d never managed to reach, just as he had seen in the dream. Now, waking sick with fear, he decided that this time he would trust his vision, but how to act on it?
Joe decided upon his very own shipbuilding project. He didn’t tell anyone, there was no-one he cared to confide in. But if a shipwright couldn’t meet the challenge, who could?
He was in oddly high spirits, negotiating the purchase of a little boat and two dinghies. He spent every penny of his redundancy money and Linda spat fury, but Joe didn’t enlighten her. He stayed out of her way in the garage, customizing the boat, a seventeen foot Arran.
He added an outboard motor, a petrol tank and an automatic pump. He extended the tiny day cabin, and carpentered drop-down stabilizers so the boat could function as a trimaran. He went on a course and got his skipper’s ticket, went on more courses, astronomy, meteorology, and botany. He took up running. All this, and more, would be needed soon.
Joe was busy in the kitchen when Linda came home. He knew she was home by the slam of the front door.
Linda Steel was almost entirely sure she hated her husband. She would look at his soft eyes – his mouth was soft, almost flower-like. But appearances were deceptive. He was hard in Linda’s opinion; cruel, unyielding, implacable.
They sat eating in silence, rain down the window, thick as dog slobber.
“Something to tell you,” Joe said suddenly, over a forkful of tomato.
She eyed him warily. “Oh, aye?”
“Great Flood’s coming again.”
She goggled at him, “You what?”
“The Great Flood,” he said, and took another mouthful of salad. “Coming soon,” he went on, with his cheek full of lettuce. “Want to ride it out with me, come with me? I’ll be taking the boat down to Tynemouth the day after tomorrow.”
Linda spluttered and began to choke. Joe watched impassively, noting that her eyes were the exact shape and colour of gooseberries, wondering why he’d used to think she was so pretty. He got up and gave her a few desultory slaps on the back.
“Water,” she croaked, flapping her hand. He went to fetch it for her and sat down again. “You know,” he said, as if nothing had happened, “we’ll need to be well out to sea when that wave comes. Then, when things calm down, we can sail up to Hexham. Or mebbes the Cheviots. Whatever – Suzette’ll help us find the best place.”
“I’d laugh,” she said, still pop-eyed and wheezing, “Except I’m not sure you’re joking. For heaven’s sake, talk sense, Joe.”
She drained the tumbler of water.
“Aye, well,” he said, clearing their plates away, “Cassandra couldn’t tell them either.”
“The wooden horse,” Joe explained. “She knew it was bad news, but you can’t tell people, can you? But I have to try. You’re my wife, for what it’s worth.”
“Oh, I see,” she said, not seeing at all. “Well, thank you, kind sir.”
That night Joe had The Dream again. Somewhere warm and bright, a mountain held its ground, but somewhere silver, grey and blue, a sea-bed began to boil, and vast walls of rock began to shake. Linda heard him whimpering through the wall. Let him, she thought, pulling her duvet over her ears.
Next evening the boat was ready. One of the dinghies held provisions, while the other was for Linda, with iron rations for a week. Suzette perched on its rim preening while Joe checked the inventories.
He called for Linda, and she came, listening to his instructions with her arms folded, tapping her foot. “And how long may we expect this little jaunt to last?” she said bitingly, “may one venture to ask when your lordship will be coming home?”
He sighed. “You don’t get it, do you?”
It was sausages and mash for tea, and Linda found sausages easier to swallow than Joe’s prophecy.
Next day she exchanged the barest of farewells with Joe, spent the day at work dodging dripping ceilings and strategically positioned buckets, and came home to find he’d gone, the crackpot, just as he’d said, and so had the boat and that bloody useless bird.
She peeled off her sopping tights, looked in the fridge, but couldn’t be bothered to cook. She made a cup of tea and a cheese sandwich and ate on the prowl, uneasy and unexpectedly lonely without her old enemy in range.
“Well, pardon me for saying so,” she said to the empty room. “But the world still appears to be here.”
But something woke her in the small hours. A distant noise, a roar, she couldn’t identify. Thunder? She dashed to the window and looked out. Other heads came poking out of windows, voices ascended, shrill with alarm.
Something was coming, a noise like nothing they had ever heard. The house began to shake.
“Joe!” Linda sobbed, flying down the stairs and into the garage. She climbed into the dinghy, fumbling with shaking hands to untie the mooring rope. “Please God! Oh, God.”
Thank God she’d left the outer garage doors open on Joe’s instructions, she told herself. You’ll be trapped like a rat otherwise, he had warned her, and despite herself, despite everything, she’d listened.
She didn’t make it, all the same. The monstrous wave that hit three seconds later would have scuppered a supertanker, but even if it hadn’t, Joe’s pet had already secured the ultimate negative outcome. Rubber wasn’t tasty, but shredding it was something to do in a moment of boredom, and Suzette’s tiny beak had laid waste Joe’s best intentions, unnoticed.
Joe sailed in again some days later, following Suzette as she flew free, leading him in under clear and sunny skies.
The sea was blue again after the months of grey; topaz, sapphire, aqua-marine, brightest blue, sparkling in the sun, but there were things in the water that it didn’t do to look at. He had been worried about Suzette, on account of the gulls, but there was better dining for them, by far, than a pigeon, and Joe was careful not to look. What good would it do? The past itself was dead and gone. A new life started now.