“DOGGERLAND” A novella by Jack Thomas
I awoke to a mountain haze, the colour of red phosphorus, sprinkled in sugar, like the icing that melts on a sticky oven-baked cake, coated with artificial chemicals. It felt hot, not immediately, but once I stood and turned to breathe in the mountainous air, I choked, as if on fumes gushing out of thin air. There were no steam trains in sight. Only a glimpse of what once might have been, a very long time ago, an idyllic countryside setting, full of herbaceous life and a peaceful climate.
The wreckage of earth before me, where black trees collide across the rugged landscape, and intense heat thickens, burns my eyelids; the view is tarnished by a blanket, painted red, one-hundred feet beyond, just beyond the descent. The mist covers it, whatever it is, probably humidity; like a lukewarm sauna with oil evaporation techniques for luminous colouring effects and rotten smells of combustion. But man has no part to play in this selection process: water vapour has naturally absorbed all the infrared energy to boiling point.
There is nobody around to tell me about climate change. There hardly ever was. I don’t expect it is the cause of man’s lost paradise, but it was the last I heard. Everyone was talking about it and nobody did anything. We went to war instead.
I descended the mountain quickly. Air would be easier to breathe at the bottom. I figured that I must be reaching the coastline, having followed a path downwards for the past three days. A crust of man’s former heroism appeared in the rubble. It wasn’t Roman, but something medieval, as a tiny corner of a fresco emerged from an east-facing wall, chiselled a few feet deep, perhaps the apse of a church. It bore three Kings dressed in skeletons, confronting the news of death, naked and exposed to the immediacy of their own mortality. They wore purple jewels around their necks, but the denting and ash-strained pigment made it almost impossible to tell; it could be my own illusion, although it is probable of the period to dress the rich and damned in shades of purple, respectively.
The path became a road, and the road led me into a town. It was the first sign of twenty-first century civilisation since I abandoned time. All aspects of the epoch in-hand have carried unforeseen consequences, so I expected anything to happen; any living animal or human in co-existence, any living culture or religion actively participating in rituals, or any sign of warfare and my own hell in crossfire. Technological developments may have been a threat, but I was above and beyond caring, I ceased long ago to exchange my value in return for electronics and automation; so long as I was an organism, my heart beating, the machines would mean nothing.
The town perched on the edge of a cliff-top. I could see the rubble of old stone a thousand-feet below. Earthquakes were common in the area, and many old homes had fallen prey to unstoppable tectonic shifts and vibrations. The road wound on into the square, remarkably intact, but once I lay stopped for more than a minute, it became clear that all proceeding junctions ventured off the hillside into the crevice of ruins below. The houses were propped up by metallic stilts, a frame of prison-bars wrapped around each ancient building. The stone was the blackest I had seen, worse off than the repercussions of a forest fire, that grim charcoal-smothered atmosphere gasping for air; there must have been severe weathering here for hundreds of years.
There was a cross poking out from underneath the remains of a large portico, an area to the west of me, where I was heading. Beyond it lay black ash, a strip of desert, molten, covered in thorny bushes. It reminded me of England. That country was a muddy swamp, washed in darkness, converted into dead grains of sand, bitter and broken. The beaches were cavernous ruins of ash.
Before sloping downwards, on with my journey, I studied the cross. Christ with his arms out-wide welcoming visitors into His church. But what was once a faint expression of joy is no longer: the face beaten from left-to-right, scored about like a vandalised sculpture, and his posture sunken; legs crossed into one, a single line running from head to toe, his waist skinny and chest punctured inwards; Christ looked more like one of his enemies. It was the second cross I had seen. The previous one was merely an outpost, withering in the harsh winds further north, battered by time, withstanding nature against all the odds. But I felt proud to be near it, a true symbol of Christianity: a scattered religion with small communities that beheld an entire empire through good-will and human endeavour, the belief in a common good. It was hard-work to be Christian, but it seemed worth it, the legacy of a great world religion would prevail, and the knowledge of humanity in conquest of peace – surely it would be a better than memory than what I have now. Surely there might be a way back to it. To those days of Christian Glory across Europe and beyond.
But standing here, in this town, crumbling down with its malnourished Christ, a different story appears. A tale of strife and poverty, pain and suffering, fear and disillusionment. These are the memories left to us in times of decay. The closest version to reality is what I am witness to: the destruction of the human race, by ourselves, by our stupidity, by the Devil himself. The Devil appeared, and the upper classes let him in.
It was still morning, but hot, and my clothes had been wet from the copious amounts of dew at night. I stripped them off – there was nobody around – and hesitated before dumping myself into an old stone trough. Shepherd’s had once led their herd up through these mountains, and I supposed the towns were friendly enough to accommodate them in return for a slaughter. The water was cooling, but murky, and had a peculiar alkaline tint, which suggested coming into contact with skeletons. Sheep carcases along the trail had become a normal sight, but the human bones terrified me. They were never laid-down together, never a complete set, never a family either, as if an osteologist had come along and split them up into worthy factions, amplifying odd details and pieces of evidence, further separating life from death. The only evidence to my eyes was a tragedy. The displacement of humans had led to their slow demise. And unless buried, which few were, their bones would be swallowed up and spat out, embedded in the course of nature’s demise.
Bubbles appeared on the surface; a skull emerged. I had accidentally kicked it as I washed, floating somewhere underneath the water. I was not afraid of it, rather, a strange feeling overcame me, and I just kept on looking at it, yearning for contact with an animal, dead or alive. It was not ominous looking, the small cheekbones I imagined like a child, laughing and jolly; I was looking at a young girl dancing like a wild enthusiast with her mother. Bagpipes played in my head, the sound was a distant memory of living in the north, years before I turned into a monster, and hundreds-of-years before the polarisation took serious effect. I am outliving everything. And I will never know from whence this eternal curse came. I did not sell my Soul, but perhaps it was another who sold it for me?
I set off in my wet clothes, a few torn rags to keep my cadaverously withered body from too much sunlight exposure, and headed due west over the molten earth, the sun directly above me. I was either pale or burnt, my skin soft or callous, my mind either calm or frustrated; fluctuation of these variables acted like an endless ticking-clock, tick-tock, tick-tock, in stern opposition, and yet cyclical in nature, as often as I breathe and walk, sleep or wake.
I accepted my fate, and therefore had an indefatigable approach to life; the search would continue so long as the non-linear time-frame did. There was no beginning, middle, or end, only the space and time in-between. The globe would keep on turning, and the universe would go on and on, and my problems would go up and down with it, but they would never cease – none of the elements would ever disappear. When I was a child, it never seemed possible to go on living like this, knowing my fate, but what other way is there – how could we have become so detached from the world to think that we could rule it? How could we know what it means to be alive if we hadn’t already experienced what it is like to be dead? How could we know that the universe is eternal if we hadn’t already experienced, time and time again, it’s wretched grapes of wrath? Well, I had come to experience them. And now I hoped to God that my salvation meant something.
I reached a vertiginous and ugly precipice. The way out west was a dead-end. Every pathway had since been narrowing and badly eroded, but now the slopes caved inwards and brought no sign of welcome descent. The range of mountains were thinning, and I could sense ocean beyond the next pass. Thus, I remained at ease. I would wind myself down, step-by-step, and back up over the headland, step-by-step, and into the seas, where I could head south and hope to find a dwelling.