The fallen staircase

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors

When my family moved into this house, the previous owner jokingly said that `this is where the coast used to be’. She waited for my face to register surprise, then led me through to the living room and pointed to a map of the area as it had been at the end of the last Ice Age. She left it for me when she moved out, and I stuck it on my bedroom wall with blu-tack, despite my mum’s plea not to risk tearing the wallpaper. I never liked the wallpaper.

The house was a beautiful stone construction, at least a hundred years old and built to withstand the bitterly cold winds of East Yorkshire for at least another five hundred. I chose the bedroom at the top of the house with the view eastwards towards the North Sea, the cold stone steps from the hall an escape route to my own world. In the winter the inside of the window would develop a thin film of ice.

As a studious sixteen year old, I immediately searched for local books. I discovered that the entire plain to the east was formed from glacial deposits as the ice retreated ten thousand years ago. That is why the land is so fertile, and so flat, a continuous stretch of farmland. I would imagine huge sheets of pale blue ice towering above our house, perhaps a kilometer thick. In the past ten thousand years the coast had retreated by twelve miles. In another ten thousand years it would reach our house. That seemed a huge safety margin.

I made a friend, Ollie, and we would cycle to the coast and wander along the beaches. Month by month we witnessed the road slipping down the fragile cliffs onto the beach, then slowly disappearing into the sea. Four hundred metres inland stood a house that was more perfect than our family’s, a large bay windowed Victorian structure, with roses of every colour in the front garden, and a perfect lawn to the rear. We would climb onto the garden wall and make plans as to how we would lay out the formal garden were it ours, which flowers we would grow.

When I was twenty five, having returned from university, Ollie and I went every day to stand and stare as this large house was consumed, room by room, by the incoming tide below. There was a violent storm which lasted for two days, fierce lashing rain and wind that whipped away anything that wasn’t tied down. After this, there was no trace of the building. Two weeks later, the furthermost garden wall on which we had sat tumbled down, welcomed by the incoming sea. The house that was built to last several lifetimes was but a pile of rubble strewn across the beach. The building materials were scavenged before the sea took them.

The first time I realised how great an issue was facing us was when the power station became an island. Always heavily fortified against the incoming sea, concrete the solution to coastal erosion, I was surprised to see one winter that the sea had broken around the back of the structure. It was like the castles that we built on fresh sand, first the sea worked round the back of the mounds, then it chipped away at the base, small chunks falling from the sides. Finally, and suddenly, a single wave overwhelms what had been there and the terrain is flat again. Not even a causeway built to carry the road and railway to the power station could prevent the inevitable. Now, the remains of the power station sit eleven miles out to sea, a lit beacon the only sign that it ever existed.

Each summer the smell of the salt of the sea became stronger. Each time the wind blew from the east, the breaking waves became louder. Each year we would hear of a farmer losing their entire land to the sea. A complete village wiped off the map in the space of two years. The ruins of a thousand year old abbey swallowed in months. As a schoolboy I would have relished the dramatic fall of the huge façade, but now it seemed to predict something terrible.

And now I am thirty seven. The sea is lapping at the base of the low cliff that stands a few feet away from our front door, not a uniform straight coastline, but one of fingers of sea, insatiably seeking the softest substrate. In many ways the lagoon is beautiful, its shape constantly changing as the autumn tide rises. My heirloom, poised on the edge of a cliff above a beautiful lagoon, waits to be unloaded like rubbish into a tip. Of course, it is now completely worthless; it has been uninsurable for over a decade. Nearly everything that could be salvaged has been packed away and put into storage. What’s left is a shell cocooning vibrant wallpapers, thick, stained oak floors, why take the curtains? This is the only home I have ever known.

I haven’t even asked where we’re going. There’s a large removal van parked behind the house. The packers are now only willing to enter through the back door.

We’re lucky that the road approaches from the west, as if we had planned our own escape route. As the car pulls away for the last time I turn back, and I can just see the mighty stone staircase to my old room slip silently away, a moraine of rectangular stones.

Dave Murray writes plays, poetry and short stories. He is based in Manchester.