Future Imperfect

Babette Gallard

(South Africa)

A place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of travelling from here to there.

– Rebecca Solnit

 

Prologue

The streets are a spider’s web of new tributaries. Everything is under water. Don’t worry about us, but nothing is the same anymore.

I was working at home when Mum’s message came through. I tried to reply, but the link was down, which happened all the time. It was mid-morning, and as I sat there wondering what to do next, the sudden silence made me realise that the weeks of rain had finally stopped. Well, not complete silence because Ayo was whimpering in the background. Her way of warning me before the real bellowing began, usually about ten or fifteen minutes later.

With the rain gone, the sun was burning through the windows, and I could feel my eyes getting heavier in the heat. I’d been working since dawn, and here I should add that back then, I was a Virtual Reality Illustrator or VRI.

Dip the temperature, I thought to Xiris, my digistant. Give me a five-minute exercise routine before Ayo wakes up completely.

:: The usual morning session? ::

Yes, that’ll do, I thought replied.

::Your energy levels are low. The easement option would serve you better. ::

I was on my third set of easement exercises when I changed direction and saw the man sitting on a low wall across the street from my house. He was staring straight at me, his clothes a mix of too big, too small, and darks faded into greys. How long have you been there, I wondered, though it wasn’t a complete surprise because I’d seen him before, dodging between the trees and the liftshare shelter where he must have been living. I don’t know why, but this time he started to walk across the street towards me.

‘What do you want?’ I shouted, even though I’m sure he couldn’t hear. Anyway, it didn’t matter because by that time, Ayo had woken up properly. I ran to the back of the house where she was in our bedroom, pulling at the bars of her cot like it was a prison and I was her jailer. Then I took off my T-shirt and lay down beside her on my bed.

I couldn’t tell you how long I slept, but when I woke, the sun through the skylight above was higher than before, and Ayo was snoring softly in my ear. Then, hoping we’d been there long enough for the man to give up and find someone else to stare at, I slipped my T-shirt back back on, scooped her up and went back into the hallway to see if I was right.

He was standing in front of the security camera, looking straight through as if he could see me on the other side. I looked back at him, thinking how the tinted lens made his eyes emerald green. I could have left him there because no one in their right mind opens the door and wonders if they should offer a meal to a migrant who could be dangerous and diseased; it’s against the law to help them, but then I remembered what Helen had said in her message.

‘Nothing is the same anymore,’ I whispered to Ayo, then opened the door.

The man was about my age. He told me his name was Patrick, and because he didn’t attack me or try to steal my things, I let him in and gave him some food, and listened when he told me about where he’d come from and what had happened to his family. After he’d left, with a blanket I’d given him, I messaged my parents. Come home.

Before that day, I’d been an ordinary person like anyone else here, living a safe distance from the disaster zones and believing that the people who knew best would sort out the mess. Of course, there were counter­arguments and protests, but for me it was just a big noise and easier to stop listening.

I’ll never know why the man chose me, or even if he did. Perhaps he stood outside ten different doors before I opened mine, but I sent that message to my parents because I didn’t want to lose my family the way he had, or my home for that matter. At a minimum, I wanted us to be together when the dominoes started to fall.

Ayo is still too young to pick out the truth from the lies, so the story I’m going to tell you is my legacy; my version of what happened to us and other people like us, based on messages from my parents, details I’ve been told and what I saw for myself. A patchwork of fact, supposition and imagination.

The man stood outside my door on 29 April 2050.

I was a 27-year-old woman.

Ayo was eleven months old.

My name is Jana.

*****

Rain 

Another morning, the usual formation. Isha loping ahead while Helen lagged behind. They were walking along a narrow farm track with grass high in the middle and white blossom in the hedges on either side. By the time Isha missed the sound of her wife’s footsteps, Helen was lying flat on her back along the central line of grass.

‘Hen!’

‘Don’t panic,’ Helen said, grinning up at her. ‘Join me and watch the clouds leave us behind.’

‘What’s this? Another excuse to stop walking?’ Isha laughed, while taking off her pack to lie head to Helen’s feet along the strip of green. Lower down, she noted how the air smelt more pungent, a blend that only creatures walking on all fours could appreciate. ‘If we’d been able to live in different shapes and skins, do you think it would have changed the way we behaved as a species?’

‘Too profound for me at this time of the morning,’ Helen grunted. ‘Still, given a choice, I would’ve enjoyed being a goat during the 2020 pandemic. Do you remember how they rampaged through all those pristine village gardens?’

‘And everyone saying how cute they were, but imagine what would have been said if they’d been rats.’ Isha laughed.

A matter of species, Helen mused, or a matter of race. I can’t remember when I last saw a goat. She looked up at the clouds pushing past above her, an old man’s bearded face emerging in one, a lunar landscape in another. ‘Do you remember when Jana was convinced she’d seen a dragon in the sky?’

Hearing the tremor in Helen’s voice, Isha got up onto her knees and turned around. ‘Of course I do, but remembering only makes moving forward even harder.’

‘Some of those clouds are dark. We’d better get going.’ Helen sniffed and wiped a sleeve across her eyes.

The drizzle came shortly after, a play rain, not uncomfortable, so they kept on walking, one foot in front of the other, first marking the dust, and then the mud until they reached the outskirts of Bapaume, a small town, nothing special, except that Isha had decided it would be where they finally tested the Maxwell.

The suburbs were bland, and many of the houses empty, but a flash of light on the open veranda of one caught Helen’s eye. ‘Did you see that?’

‘See what?’

‘Wait.’ Helen indicated in the direction of the house. 

Isha waited and watched as a sliver of light glanced off a tear-shaped disc turning in the wind. Then they heard the metallic plink.

‘Wind chimes,’ Helen laughed, and turned to walk away. ‘I thought it was something ethereal.’

‘Look.’

A corner of the small porch was filled with long strips of colour that seemed to move with the wind, but not entirely. Isha inched forward as the brown shadow of a crooked arm and bare shoulder turned into the sunlight. A woman was dancing, her thigh-length dress striped in blues, reds, and yellows. A summer dress, the fabric light enough to float away on the wind but anchored by her thighs as she swung into a slow pirouette.

‘A strange place for ballet,’ Helen murmured into Isha’s shoulder.

‘Everything’s strange now.’

From there, Bapaume’s centre was closer than they had expected. Isha reflected on how the town seemed to have shrunk since they passed through it all those years ago, as if the exodus of people had sucked out the houses too. After locating the Hôtel de Ville, they fanned out in different directions until Isha found what appeared to be the only hotel still operating.

‘Hen, over here.’

Inside, they were forced to stand nose to nose with the hotelier in the tiny foyer, where Helen summoned up her best French and started off with an apology. ‘I’m sorry, our link is down. I can make the payment now, but it will only go through once the system is back up.’

The hotelier, a middle-aged man with a stubbled head, accepted her excuses, though seemed less convinced by Isha standing behind. ‘Are you friends? How many rooms?’ he asked, with narrowed eyes. ‘I’ll need IDent proof.’

‘Monique is recovering from a stroke, so speaking is difficult. She has nightmares too, and we prefer to sleep in the same room.’ Helen smiled as coquettishly as a sixty-year-old woman can. ‘If our links weren’t down, you could check.’

The hotelier’s wife showed them up to a room just wide enough for two miserly beds. ‘We lock our doors at ten,’ she said, without offering a code.

But Helen and Isha had no intention of going out to find somewhere to eat, so they just asked her to boil some water and bring up two plates for the nutrition sachets they’d bought the morning before.

‘Whoever invented these should be shot,’ Helen said, after scraping the last residue off her plate.

‘Bronc Harriden,’ Isha replied. ‘He got the Nobel Prize for it.’

‘Yes, I’d forgotten. FFY, Food For You, the genetically aligned mix verified by your IDent, or in other words, heartless marketing crap designed to hide the real agenda of dividing people into the not-so-poor, poor, and very poor. I hate to think what this stuff tastes like for the people who can’t afford Nbands with sensory boosters.’

‘True, but they’re a cheap and easy way of eating when even that’s getting more difficult by the day.’

Helen sighed and threw herself onto her bed. ‘I wonder how long it will be before the lower-income groups start exhibiting mental and physical incapacities associated with mineral deficiencies and their children forget how to chew food.’

‘But when it’s all you’ve got’ Isha started to undress.

The rain began during the night, heralded by a clap of thunder that battered the windows of their claustrophobic little room. Isha got up to look out at the street below and felt the blood drain from her face. ‘It must have started a few hours ago.’

‘How do you know?’

‘The street’s a river.’

When Isha walked back, Helen was coiled tight as a snail. ‘Try not to think about it,’ Isha said, but the hand she held out was trembling.

‘Do you remember what your great-grandfather wrote in his diary about Ugandan storms?’

‘Here one minute and gone the next, the soil steaming and aromatic as if the gods were having a sauna underneath. No wonder he was so miserable in England, where the damp seeped into his bones, even in summer.’

‘Right, but for us, rain is like a gang of murderous thugs. Thunder, lightning and winds high on low pressure. When the rain comes, nothing is safe …’ Helen buried her head in Isha’s chest as the memories of their last hours in Arles flooded back.

First, there was the canoe tied to the security bars of a downstairs window. Isha had insisted they get it in case of emergencies, though Helen had been using it as a vegetable store on the day the River Rhône swallowed the dykes Monsieur le Maire had promised his citizens would never be breached.

‘I was sweeping dead leaves off the roof terrace,’ Isha pushed her fingers through Helen’s tangled hair. ‘I’ll never forget how quickly and thoroughly the water filled up the narrow street below. Then I shouted for you. Do you remember?’

‘I heard you, even though I was in the bathroom. The canoe would have flipped over without the weight of the emergency bags you’d put near the door.’

‘We got in just before the water hit us, then it pounded on like a massive beast between houses, courtyards and through churches until we reached the open space of Place de la République …’

‘Where it suddenly became quiet, the canoe too. Do you remember how it rocked us like a paddleboat on a park pond?’

‘And I told you to hold onto the obelisk in the centre. We both did.’

‘Yes, and I looked for the fountain underneath with its stone bench where we used to sit and eat ice creams, but it was gone, and you told me we’d capsize if the water pushed us into another narrow street.’

Isha remembered waiting for the surge to pass. A lazy wave had lifted them as they wedged their feet into the canoe and wrapped their arms around a lion sculpted two thousand years ago by Roman artisans. She also remembered the imprint of the sculpted mane that had lived on as a filigree of bruises on Helen’s inner arm for days after, and how the sight of the floating child had woken her every night since.

In Bapaume, the rain cascaded past their window for three days while Monsieur Martin and his monosyllabic wife pushed trays of food around their door. ‘Bon appetit,’ even though the evening meal was in contravention of bed and breakfast rules.

‘Le Bed and Breakfust,’ Helen mocked in a faux French accent when he’d closed the door. ‘Et le supperrr, egg et frites, for the credit-riche.’

Isha quipped that he must be able to smell a good credit rating without even checking.

‘He can probably smell our Englishness too,’ Helen replied. ‘But of course, you’d smell like your mother’s curry, which would confuse him.’

Three days of rain. Drainage ditches filled to bursting. Rivers transformed into gargantuan scavengers. Cars, houses, people and trees picked up, played with, and then chucked to one side like toys out of a pram. On the evening of the third day, the road reappeared, silver in the moonlight, a car door sticking up out of the mud like a fin.

The following morning, Monsieur Martin calculated the amount due and agreed with Helen that, yes, unfortunately, their link was still down, but he had every confidence their bill would be paid. Then he removed the wall of sandbags, one sandbag at a time, and opened the front door. ‘Bon voyage.’ His tone was funereal. Isha opened her mouth to thank him, then snapped it shut.

Merci pour tout,’ Helen said, just as she stepped outside and slipped over in the mud.

‘It’s going to be a long day,’ Isha whispered, noting that the hotel door had already closed behind them.

They followed the single road out of town, and once they had rounded the corner, Isha activated the Maxwell. ‘The reward for your patience, Monsieur Bed and Breakfast.’

‘And two hours running time for us,’ Helen added.

The geodata showed a large road running directly west of where they were standing. Isha smiled. ‘An autoroute. I think our walking is about to get easier. It will be well-drained, and we can walk alongside it. I don’t suppose there will be much traffic.’

How ironic that their easiest travelling day was in the middle of such devastation. Buckled trees and flattened stalks lined either side of the road and filled the air with their corpse smell, but the watery sun was kinder, and the flattened, washed-out surfaces were less tiring to walk on. They made good progress, and Isha calculated a respectable average of four kilometres an hour, but it was past three by the time they veered off the autoroute to start the relatively easy climb up to Mont Saint-Quentin.

An exurb of Péronne’s suburbs, Mont Saint-Quentin had little to identify it, other than a location in a bend of the River Somme, on a hill about one hundred metres high. Isha, who’d been striding ahead, reached the summit first, her tall figure statuesque against the light until she crumpled and dropped out of sight.

‘Ish!’ Helen shouted. ‘Ish!’

Isha was still on her knees when she reached her. ‘If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be beautiful,’ she said.

Helen sat beside her and looked down at the kaleidoscope of purples, blues and greens. A single tower was mirrored in the five visible windows of an upturned barge in a place it shouldn’t be, and the water’s glazed surface was stippled by submerged trees.

Built on the shores of the Somme, burned, rebuilt, destroyed during the First World War and then rebuilt again, Péronne had finally drowned. The floodwaters creeping up the gently sloping hillsides that made it such a pleasant town to live in. Helen thought about how people in the higher streets must have watched the water rise, wondering if it would stop before covering their house as it had the others below.

Isha saw a straggling line of boats threading their way through what would have been a wide boulevard if it hadn’t been a river. ‘We’ll need a boat, too. Leave that to me.’

‘I’ll go on down as far as I can to see if anyone needs help.’

‘I’ll catch up with you.’

It took less than a quarter of an hour for Helen to reach the shallow water, some of it barely touching the doors of the first houses she came to. She breathed through her nose, but the taste of sewage still slid over the back of her tongue. Two steps further and a turd floated past, but it was the absence of sound she found hardest to bear. The space where the hum of living should be, a man shouting across the street, dogs barking, a football kicked, children laughing and threads of music woven in between. I should call and ask if anyone needs help, but she feared her voice would crack the silence like the blast of a cannon.

A small dark bird flew in an arc ahead. Helen watched as it dipped its beak at the lowest point to skim something out of the water. An insect, perhaps? A good sign like the dove that brought an olive branch back to Noah’s ark? Another bird flew down, this one tawny-coloured and larger. Its hooked beak reminded Helen of her father’s nose, and she had an outrageous urge to laugh. Then it lowered its wings to settle on something pink in front of her, a foot with the big toe protruding above the flat surface of its sole.

Isha had made a raft. An upturned table with a barrel strapped on either side and a plank for a paddle. ‘Welcome aboard,’ she shouted to Helen.

The table deck tipped and fiddled as Helen pushed first her backpack onto it and then scrambled after. ‘Where did you find this?’ she said while examining the baroque carved legs

‘There’s a school … with a chapel …’

‘An altar! You are completely shameless.’

‘One careful owner.’ Isha dug deep into the water. ‘If the story is true.’

When they passed the looming Gothic frontage of Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste, she sculled strongly on one side to direct their craft over the flattened door and into the aisle. Helen heard the whispering echoes of confined water and felt the skin shrink on her scalp. ‘Do we have to go in here?’

‘There’s a bell tower, remember? If we climb up, we’ll get a better view of which parts have been flooded and where we can go next.’

Inside, the air was cold and the light inconstant, first dense black as they sculled through the entrance, then a coloured confetti of reflections.

Isha’s plank hit an object below. ‘Must be the pews. I’ll have to steer into the middle.’

The steps leading up to the altar were submerged, and the raised marble floor around it was smeared with mud. As they drifted closer, Isha’s paddle disturbed the tassels of an altar cloth hanging down in one corner. Helen noticed how they floated along the reflected crossbar of the golden crucifix towering above them. ‘Can you hear voices?’ she asked.

Isha stilled her paddle and let the raft drift. ‘Probably spirits in the crypt complaining about getting wet.’

‘Not funny. There isn’t a crypt, and why are we over here when the tower is on the other side?’

Isha laughed. ‘I wanted to get a glimpse of the fresco of La Bonne Morte, the good death. I thought we might learn something from it.’

‘A dying man torn between two demons.’ Helen grabbed the plank and sculled off in the opposite direction. ‘I doubt it.’

When they reached the double doors leading to the tower, Isha leaned forward to open them. ‘We can moor our yacht in here.’

They levered themselves onto the first of two hundred and twenty steps, and Helen counted each one. ‘You’re still so much fitter than me,’ she moaned when they got to the top.

But Isha was already leaning over the narrow brick balcony to stare out and over the town. ‘This must be what Arles looks like now.’

Helen thought about the floating child who would be here too, face down with its hair spread out like a black crown. ‘We’ve seen enough to know where it will be dry,’ she said, turning to walk back down the stairs.

‘Wait!’ Isha shaded her eyes to stare into the distance. ‘I think I saw a reflection from that group of biodomes. They might not be a bad place to stay for the night if we’re invited.’

Helen shrugged. ‘Whatever.’

The sun set as they started to paddle again, throwing scarlet light over the round and reflective domes ahead. ‘They’re huge,’ Helen said, ‘and quite beautiful in an eerie kind of way, but what are they?’

‘Biodomes? I suppose you could think of them as bubbles big enough to cover a whole house and garden. I did some tests on the materials years ago, but the concept was very new then, little more than a futuristic proposal.’

‘And now we’re here, in the future.’

‘Apparently.’ Isha stretched her aching arms. ‘Biodomes are impermeable and watertight. The photovoltaic cells are blended into the structure for power, and they are totally secure, with all sorts of underground storage facilities for the time when things really go wrong.’

‘Like now.’

‘Could be.’

The domes were actually in Halles, a small village on the edge of Péronne’s suburban fringe. The houses around them had been empty for years, though it would have been a busy place when the canalled section of the river was still operating.

The raft wedging itself on top of a stone wall meant they had to get off. Helen’s feet were already soaking, and Isha dropped into the knee-deep water with a stoical grin. ‘Shout if you see another turd.’

Then they sloshed on until they reached a bank where they could see the first biodome partially obscured by trees. Helen studied the arc of gold in the fading evening light and then the darkness inside. ‘Is that how it’s supposed to be?’

Isha took a sharp right to walk along a bank of earth left by the river. ‘Let’s have a look.’

Helen scrambled after her, feeling increasingly vertiginous as the bank incline got steeper. At the top, Isha pointed down. ‘Prepared for all eventualities. I remember the slogan from their first launch.’

‘Except that the worst eventuality just got even worse.’ Helen stared into the flooded dome where the water lay glass-flat under the eaves of the house in the middle. She’d seen dead bodies before, young and old, noble and banal, but never faces like these. A man was lying on his back across the slope of a dormer window, with a woman alongside, hooked by his hand that even in death refused to let go. And then the two young children, a girl and boy, wedged above them. ‘Hypoxia. Blue faces, black lips.’

Isha turned round to vomit, then spat as genteelly as she could. ‘They must have run out of air. Every dome has its own ventilation system installed at a good height to avoid blockage or contamination, but not high enough this time. The water must have come in, and then it was just a matter of time.’

Twelve hours, maybe, Helen thought, probably not even as much. Drowning or suffocation – I’m not sure which I’d choose.

 

An excerpt from Future Imperfect (LightEye 2023)

Babette Gallard

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

I am a writer and environmental activist. I try to explain my world and concerns for it through my writing.

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