It was said that the people of the estuary never even noticed the change. Their bare-footed wanderings merely ploughed the same furrows in the silts and mires as they had done for the past few centuries, and the leather-handed elders still sat, slowly tattooing each others shoulders and smoking the same long, ebony pipes. Indeed, the river people of Albion had not looked up from their scrying bowls and embers whilst the suited and booted drones of the great cities had pulled each other apart, tearing the pockets from brothers and sisters and hiding beneath the ground in lead-lined bunkers. Theirs was a quieter life, an existence governed by the very slowest of tides and heavy, sluggish long-shore drifts; dark and broiling waters brought all they needed in gentle, lapping waves; waves of convenience and fated consequence.
The cities lay deserted merely weeks after the great crash; cars piled up in scabrous mounds, wind-screen wipers jutted out of metallic skins like elbow joints from an open fracture and the winds carried a black, oily miasma inland. And so it went for many decades, until the suburbs gave up their final sons and the housing estates breathed their last words to an infrastructure so desperately reliant on abstract concepts, concepts that collapsed with nobody left to observe them. The last stand of the urban man was a quiet one, a sorrowful acceptance of fate and blame. Clutching a remote control in one hand, and a carton of dried fish food in the other, the last house dweller died without a sound, spilling a bottle of mineral water onto the thick carpet of his home. This was all many, many years ago.
Stillness had prevailed for weeks before moisture began to amass above the higher ground; huge, throbbing, obese hulks of vapour congregated above the wastelands, sucking dry the humidity of the old towns. The cloud began its rambling journey south, kicked hither and thither by excitable breezes, borrowing small sips from this stream, that brook, or taking huge evaporative gulps from water butts, swimming pools, fluke infested puddles. It rolled across the skies of the land and hung heavy, granite coloured, over the great basin of the land before releasing its burden in torrents. The rain came down hard, screaming with relief and the joy of the fall. It bounced off the ersatz strewn over the roads, the iron cores of wasted structures that lay exposed to the jubilant elements, the chicken wire and substations and shimmering mirror-lakes of broken glass. The raindrops huddled together and form rivulets that sought out any indentation and downward slope, where they came across other rivulets and tributaries that swelled and flexed their watery muscles until they leapt out into streams which, in turn, found rivers and gorges and waterfalls that raced through valleys and exploded riverbanks with showers of black peat as they neared the estuary. Shopping trolleys, great masses of unspun fleece, burst tyres and pendulums, gold-leaf encrusted icons and railway sleepers tumbled over ravines and floated nonchalantly into the mouth of the great river and disappeared from view while a small girl burrowed her bare toes into the oily, multicoloured sepias of soaking earth, and toyed with a strip of paper she had found curled in a tube beneath the dank tresses of her dark, matted hair. Her name was Petra.
Petra was the grand-daughter of the oldest member of the wanderers who huddled around the fire beneath the outcrop of sand. The ancient figure, the grandfather of Petra and many of her brothers and sisters, watched her through the flames, flames that were tinged blue from the bromides and salts embedded in the gnarled knots of wood and shore-rope that were slowly burning in front of him. He knew a different world once, a world of paper money and oil tankers, a world that rejected the nomadic nature of his fathers, and he had not raised his head to watch it fall apart. The two branches of his family had come together from Egypt and Romania, and had settled for a while on the banks of the Thames to establish some sort of order amidst chaos and rubble, a sense of quietness and solidarity against the roaring of the tidal barrier to the east. Already, he had seen a pattern emerging – even his people had some need for hierarchy and tradition, and new rituals were being born with each generation, as if human nature itself was an organic growth demanding repetition, recorded memory and the acknowledgement of the passing of life. Already a leader had risen, calling himself ‘The Farikh Al Dromoshvya’. A gentle young man, thought the grandfather, and although plagued by visions, fits and ecstasies, he was developing quite a following among the estuary people with his softly spoken words, carefully balanced parables and talk of miracles and histories that never were. The old man had seen such messiahs rise and fall before, both here and in the old country, and felt sure in his old heart that this supposed saviour’s ways would be forgotten by the time his children were old, warming their bones as he was now. He returned his attention to young Petra, who was mudlarking out on the spits, no doubt seeking the pointless relics she spent so much of her time amassing in her nest.
Indeed, Petra was looking for such things. She saw the skull of a cormorant, half obscured by a child’s plastic shoe, a tin can that she cleaned in the shallows and strung around her waist, and a length of piping housing several small, translucent crayfish that moved quickly into the dark cracks of the lead tube when she lifted it to peer inside. Her dark arms and black eyes scanned the mudflats that sucked at her small feet, and her quick fingers absent-mindedly toyed with the string of amethyst rocks that were laced around her wrist. She was nearing her fifteenth birthday, and was seeking an item to mark the occasion. It was forbidden to wander past the far dykes; there were said to be treacherous sand-drifts there, great gulping swathes of quick-mud that she had been told swallowed some of her people in the past, leaving no trace of their misfortune but the shallowest shining footprints on the grey silt. The elders also claimed to have seen wild dogs past the headland, and swarms of rats that would drown even the strongest man with a million tiny feet and claws and filthy teeth until again, there was no trace left but the mourning women wailing along the waters edge. Despite these stories and warnings, Petra found herself wandering in that direction, her attention caught by a shape sticking out at an angle from the mud, glinting ever so slightly in the late afternoon light. Her breath quickened more than once as she felt the ground beneath her gape around her ankles, threatening to inhale her into its murky stomach, but her feet were nimble and well accustomed to glancing over the unsteady earth. She continued to walk until all she could see of her home was a thin plume of black smoke curling its way above the headland, the grasses of the dunes mimicking the movement of the vapour on the hillocks, buffeted by the same breeze.
As she kneeled beside the item, obscured by wandering grasses and tiny, spindly hermit crabs, Petra raised her eyes to look at the coast line. Her entire life had been spent within a square mile of marshland, and she had given little thought in the past to what lay beyond the greys and browns of the horizon visible from her nesting place. Now, as her fingers scrabbled around the oily edges of the buried shape, she wanted to see what was behind the headland. She had heard stories, of course; the rats, the dogs and all the rest; but items such as this – with a heave, she raised the painting from the silts and watched in awe as mud dripped off the gold gilt frame and exposed shapes, colours – these sorts of treasures came from somewhere, somewhere not overrun with monstrous, hungry creatures. Back at her nest she had stored items she had found; bottles inscribed with symbols, pages and pages of writing she could never hope to read, wheels and drums and a small box made of silver, lined with a deep red fabric that had somehow survived the damp and the years it must have floated in the mire. Sitting back on a railway sleeper, Petra examined her latest – and surely finest – discovery yet. The painting was beautiful; a portrait of a couple dressed in vivid greens, surrounded by papers and items that were long lost to the world of the estuary; globes and vast maps, crucifixes, quills and inkpots… The young girl sat back on her filthy heels and swam in the scene she held before herself. She knew so little of the fallen civilisation that had rejected the elders of her people; all she knew was that they were cruel, destructive, poisonous and wilful of their own downfall. She knew that the reason her people had to spend days slowly filtering their drinking water was due to the carelessness of the city people, and she knew that the heavy, black clouds that hung above the coast she saw as a child, before the first great rains came, she knew that was because of the poison they revelled in too. She had never thought they could produce such beauty, though. Petra stood up, and stumbled slightly on some loose, wet sand beneath her feet. She picked up the painting, and headed further around the headland, further away from her home, many miles further up the river until the water became gradually saltier; her blackened ankles disappearing every few seconds into the wetness she walked on. As she reached solid ground, she carefully placed the precious frame onto a soft patch of grass and shook out her dark hair from its restraints, and looked at the new horizon that stretched so far, so far out to sea. The land here was riddled with naturally formed caves, and the sands were littered with things from the old world. There was a black stone statue of a young boy playing a flute, his body curving beautifully three times in gentle, undulating sweeps. There was the top of a heavy stone sarcophagus of sorts, depicting a couple immortalised in carved rock, a dog beneath their feet and their hands intertwined, petrified forever. There was junk in piles, spewed up by the living river as it travelled east to purify itself. There was a boat.
Petra sat and wept into the sand, her tears staining the grains between her toes, her mind struggling to deal with all that she saw. Her people had been wanderers once, she thought, hadn’t they? Why had they stopped moving? Why hadn’t she seen such things before? She picked up a book and flicked through the crumbling pages, its yellow cover mildewed and crawling with sand flies. She returned her black eyes to the horizon, the vastness of the sea. As the sun began its lazy descent over the estuary, Petra climbed into the boat, and slept, dreaming of new lands, of boys with flutes, of people and paintings, of visions and beginnings.