Coming on 22nd April, Earth Day 2018, the Nothing Is As It Was climate-fiction anthology is raising funds for the climate-action group, Earth Day Network. The story below has kindly been donated by the author to raise awareness of the anthology and the issues humanity faces due to climate change. We hope you enjoy it and if you do, please make a donation to the cause if you can and leave a comment letting the author know.
I’d been pushing Dan for ages to think about selling up. It made so much sense; the developers were desperate for land and it would have been easy to sell the farm and buy a comfortable house in town. Nothing flash, just a modern house with no mould round the windows, no flaking plaster and no crappy kitchen sink that never came clean, however much you bleached and scrubbed at it. OK, it would be smaller than what we were used to, much smaller. But Dan? Leave his precious farm? Never.
Still, I’ve got what I wanted now – a new semi on the edge of town. It’s nice. Easy to keep clean, and walking distance to the boys’ school and the shops. That’s a real bonus now I can’t get out and about like I used to.
It’s been nearly a year. I’ve had reporters from the papers and the telly phoning up, asking me to do this interview, or that programme; to reflect on what happened and see how we’re doing, one year on. I’m not going to. We’ve moved on, that’s all there is to say really. I still don’t understand what happened – not the fire, obviously, but Dan. What happened to Dan, why he did what he did.
We’d been warned of course. All those experts on the telly, always banging on about climate change and global warming. We did our bit – recycling, and reusing plastic bags, all that sort of thing. The boys got it drummed into them at school. And we weren’t blind. Farmers live by the weather. Every year the winters seemed milder, but so wet, the soil washing off the fields into burst-bank streams. And hot, sleepless summers, the fields cracked like old china and all our pasture gone to dust.
It still took us by surprise though. The first wildfire in the country, and it came right through our farm in Cornwall. This wasn’t just a gorse fire like we were used to, but a full-on, out-of-control fire like you used to see on the News in places like Australia and California. But not here, not ‘til last year.
On that morning, that normal, boring, precious morning, I was siphoning washing-up water from the kitchen sink into the butt by the door, trying to make our ration stretch a bit further. The boys were in their rooms. Dan was out in one of the barns, messing around with something or other, the same as he’d been doing every morning that summer. Lost, he was. After we sold the dairy herd he’d lost some sort of rhythm in himself that I hadn’t even realised was there. But you can’t stay in dairy when there’s no grass, even if it breaks your heart. If only we’d sold the herd sooner, we’d have got a decent price at least, but we left it too late, as usual.
What wasn’t normal that morning was the red warning for south of Bodmin they’d given on the evening News the night before, and the call we’d had telling us to leave immediately for our evacuation point.
So why didn’t we go when they told us to? Perhaps because we’d had warnings before, of floods and landslips in winter, and fires in summer. We’d always been alright, it never turned out to be as bad as they said it would be. Or perhaps it was because we thought that we’d had more than our share of bad luck already. I’m not sure it matters. We didn’t go. I don’t think the kids even knew there was a warning out.
When I smelt burning that morning, just a taste of it in the back of my throat, my stomach flipped, once, before I even had a chance to think. Then the sensible me said: there may be a fire, but it’s probably miles away. No need to panic. I finished siphoning the water from the sink, dried my hands and rubbed in some of the hand cream that Johnny had bought me for my birthday. Always made me smile, that. Hand cream, for a farmer’s wife? Bit of a lost cause that. There’s nothing to worry about, I told myself, but I better go and tell Dan. I put the kettle on and waited for it to boil as if I had all the time in the world.
I carried Dan’s mug of tea out to the old shippen. He was sawing a plank, kneeling on the bench to steady the wood, sawdust sprinkling down onto his trousers, the sleeves of his checked shirt rolled up over his tanned forearms.
He turned and smiled at me, the way he used to, and it was like the clock had been turned back. He used to smile like that when we first met, when I’d loved his strength, his quietness, his love of solitude. He used to smile like that in the days before all the work and struggle and failure. That’s what I like to think anyway, that he smiled his special smile for me that morning. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but it helps to remember it that way.
‘Wind’s changed direction,’ was all he said.
When they interviewed me on the TV the next day from the hospital, I told them it was like hell on earth. I haven’t come up with any better words since to describe it.
I’ll never forget the first spark that took hold on the timber roof of the shippen. Or how quickly it burnt, flames shooting out like there was some sort of dragon inside. A storm of white ash and breathing in searing heat and smoke. Unable to see, unable to hear, unable to breathe but somehow finding the boys and dragging them out of the house. Certain we were going to die. Absolutely certain.
I’ll never forget that feeling. I’ll never forget the smell.
And I’ll never forget the last sight of Dan, silhouetted against the flames.
He’s always here with us, our silver-framed hero. Our hero – because that’s what I tell the boys, that their father was a hero who died trying to save us from the fire. Except he didn’t. He just let it all happen. Strong, quiet Dan. Selfish, cowardly Dan. Smiling at me like he used to – maybe, or maybe not. Most likely not even thinking of me, or his boys. It was always the same story: refusing to talk, refusing to sell the farm, and finally, refusing to come out of the barn.
Not helping me – that’s one thing. But the boys? His boys?
So, you see, in a way, I’ve got what I wanted now – a nice house in town, easy to keep clean, better for the boys. It’s so much better in this house. You don’t feel you’re fighting the elements all the time, not like on the farm.
They say there’ll be more wildfires; we’ve got to get used to the idea, apparently, and make plans, whatever that means. The weather’s getting more extreme, that’s for sure. We still do our bit – recycling, and of course I don’t have a car anymore, and my clothes have always come from charity shops. I have a lot of time to think now that I can’t get out and about like I used to. I’m no expert of course, but I can’t see how doing this stuff is going to make a blind bit of difference.
Johnny came home from school last week and said he’d decided to be a farmer. He wants to save up and buy some land, start small at first – he’s got it all planned out – just a small herd that he can build up. I could have cried. He was so pleased with himself, so – almost happy. I hadn’t seen him this bright since the fire. But there’ll never be a dairy industry in Cornwall again, that way of life’s dead – was already dead before me and Dan started out, we just kept going at it after everyone else had given up. How do I tell Johnny that?