I spend my days on the roof of this fort. Looking for you. It’s how I fill time, in a sagging beach chair so low my backside rubs coarse ground. I did think of leaving, in our boat that I would fix. But I can’t ditch these forts – these stilts – that stand proud in the mist. Jagged metal and bird-waste stain. Weird, like a distant planet. Scarred by wear and wave. Gulls fly from broken windows to nest in various nooks. I see beaks open and close, but I can’t hear any calls. The water is too loud. I hold your face, from the journey out, in my mind like a photo. Dark hair curling under a bobble hat. Did you always have that scar on your chin?
Did I neglect you?
I’m sorry if I neglected you.
But I believe you’ll come back. It’s why I need to be here. There is a distinct hole in the wreckage of our boat, from a plank of wood that’s been dislodged — two planks, perhaps. And wood floats and so, maybe, you survived. You had a red umbrella with you, too. It could have helped.
I am eight miles out to sea and the only person who knows you are missing. So I will stay. What if you were knocked unconscious? You might come to and be scared, but eventually remember these stilts and your plans for us. You will find your way back to me. There are no sharks, so they can’t harm you. Not like the film we watched with the couple that dies.
You will be alive, Lauren, because you fight for things you care about, and you care about me, so you care about yourself because you know how much I need you. I spend all my hours looking. I cry your name long into the night, but then dark brings dawn and I wake alone. This home looms. All around it there is nothing, but that emptiness seems, to me, to allow for possibility.
And yet, for now, it is just me.
And one potted tree.
You have gone.
But I have a plan and the plan is methodical and sensible. I count to one hundred, sometimes in my head, often out loud; sometimes I whisper. I stare at the sea and then turn forty-five degrees and count again. Up to one hundred once more. Sometimes, I see just water. Looking east, it extends so far I can’t see where it ends: repetitive, grey-blue. To the west, on a clear day, I can see land. Britain. At other angles it’s other forts and, every now and then, the sun. It’s cooler now, but a reliable companion nevertheless, when there is nothing but my own head. I worry I might miss you, Lauren, if you return while I am looking the other way. But I do all I can do. This is all I can do. And so I think of solutions, things that could announce your arrival. I will fashion devices out of the debris, out of the junk from various decades. People leave places so quickly.
My body aches. My heart aches. I am hungry and I am hot. I have been through the belongings we brought out. There is a pouch full of tobacco and papers and filters and matches. I rolled you a cigarette on the night we met and I did so again when I reached this fort. At the top of a ladder, slippery, coated with scum. The smoke brought nicotine wraiths of a love I need to find again. I need you to smoke with me one day soon.
Ours was a strong and rushed affair. Early hours texts; many new dresses on many new mornings. We couldn’t help ourselves. I had been in that bar for hours. We sat with mutual friends and as they went wherever they went, we inched closer and closer together. Handing spare stools to strangers until there was just a surface with empties and crisp packets between us. We caught the ends of conversations and smiled when it suited us. Not wanting to say anything stupid. Not that interested in what others had to say. We are two people who can easily glide into the background. I caught your eye: you looked away. You caught mine and I lit up my phone, texting Michael, two places away.
Who is she?
I think I like her.
I know you do. She’s single x
I have gathered up blackened pots and pans, cutlery, and even a mini cooker. I used thread torn from my big white jumper and tied a collection of clutter to the bottom of the ladder. This is so that if you do come back when I’m not looking, you will think to bang metal against metal and cause such a racket that I will rush down from the roof and rescue you. Kiss you and be the hero that you have always been to me. One day. Soon. But, for now, all I see are ripples. If only I could see your arm break the surface. We’d wave at each other. Your hair would be saltwater clogged and clumped; your skin weathered, wrinkly. I will care for you.
I have set up camp in the forts, on a second floor. I think you will be proud and I can’t wait to show you and for us to be safe. I use your rucksack as a pillow and wrap myself up in the spare jumpers and coats that you packed. You brought so much on that boat. Tightly crunched and in all the big sizes, too, so they fit me. I love you. You think of everything. It’s cold out here when it’s dark and it’s dirty all the time. I use our camping stove to heat water that I pull up from the sea in a bucket I found here. When it has cooled, I water my little potted tree. To keep it alive. I feel such balance in that now. That task. One of me and one of them.
There is nothing left to know.
So now I’m trying, as I come to terms with the fact that you have gone — that it’s been days and I still haven’t found you — to remember places that we went just for what we did. Not for the trees and people, and the counting and collapse. Sometimes, I find a memory I didn’t use to have room for, such as of us holding hands on the cable car over the river to Greenwich. (More people than trees.) We did have fun, the two of us, before.
Do you remember our first conversation? It was about friends of mine who had moved out of the city. So many have done the same. A migration of ideas and interest. But that night, last year, I wanted to know where you lived. Who you lived with. I remember you saying nothing for so long as I tried to bring you in. You were all in black. Black hair. Pale face. Red lipstick. You looked surprised when I offered to buy you a drink.
Yes. A gin and tonic, please.
You said it gratefully, with a little laugh. It was the first question of mine that you answered. Do you ever wish you had said no? No, I don’t want a drink. No, I don’t want to come on holiday. No, I don’t think it matters if there are more trees or people in the world. If you had stood up and left, you might have met someone else — later that night, even. If you had said no, we wouldn’t have talked and, maybe, we wouldn’t have talked again. I don’t know, but, without you, maybe I wouldn’t have started searching for the unknowable and wound up in this metal home that creaks under my feet. You found this place in the middle of nowhere for us, but not your own way here.
Where did you go?
I’m going to roll another cigarette now. Out on the roof. The spark is my companion. I have a cut on my hand that feels heavy and sore, but I have found a way to make do. When it aches, I think of you. It’s OK out here, really. When it rains or is too cold, I smoke out of a window on the fort we crashed into. The window looks directly out to the other forts and the wind farm, away from the coast and the shore and the far-off trees. I will keep looking for you, always. I am waiting to hear saucepans rattle the ladder. The sound would reverberate.
Life rings and nuts and bolts jut out everywhere, so I am always knocking my knees. Whole patches of the floor have been pulled up. There are holes in rafters I couldn’t begin to explain. If I walk to the lower level, there is a hole down to the sea and I look at the fish. There are lots of them. I look at the fish under the surface and think the water is clear and not as polluted as I expected. So it would probably be fine for you to survive in.
I roll a cigarette for you when I roll one for myself and leave it unsmoked, in a pill box I found left from the forts’ pirate radio days. Maybe when I run out of tobacco, I will smoke those, too. But I don’t want to. Maybe I’ll just quit. It isn’t the same without you. Sometimes, at night, when the weather isn’t beating rain, I go back to the roof and chain smoke and count the distant wind turbines. They have lights. And they don’t change how many there are. They are as they be and are solid and known; turning, turning on.
So they don’t bother me.
I love you and you loved me, and that’s why we ran away to these houses on stilts in the estuary. In the photos they looked infested, with dead eels, seaweed pillows and rotted fish teas. But you would laugh when I said that. And now I think how that laugh would sound as an echo, here, in this home that you planned.
For you, and me, and our one tree.
But the bang came from nowhere, a piano dropped down stairs. We were tossed up at ninety degrees. The boat lifted again. Gosh, it jolted. I grabbed onto the metal legs and something sharp cut my hand. Blood stained my woolly sleeve. I pulled the harbour rope up and tied it to a stanchion. It tightened. The boat creaked. We steadied. I looked up and around and the forts were so tall. All rubble and relics inside, I was sure. But we could start again.
I looked back, though, and you were gone.
Where did you go?
Every now and then I see a light on a boat. Out there on the water, see-sawing on thin waves, flashing its bulb: one beat, pause, one beat, pause. Is it you? It could be, looking for me. Did you bang your head and forget the forts? That could have happened. That smartly dressed man, found in New York, couldn’t remember who he was or if he had family, or anything. If you had banged your head and lost your thoughts, people wouldn’t think you were stupid. They would think you were scared and so maybe it is you on the boat, trying to fill the empty bits of your mind with information that would lead us back to each other. I call, but it’s hopeless. The light is far away. Yet I think of you on the boat anyway. I have to. I have to think you are alive because it keeps me alive and I think you would think the same thing, too.
On a clear night so much glistens. The bright moon on choppy sea. West, the lights of towns stretching north and south, little pockets of being, blinking on and off. A light in a downstairs room switched on before dawn. A man or woman no longer able to sleep next to the one they supposedly love. I never had that with you. Then, there’s the moon’s reflection from a broken window on one stilt to another, onto another and another. Glass that has refused to fall, bending light through air. Beams of dust between raised retreats, like walkways. There used to be metal walkways; I don’t know when they disappeared.
In my madder moments, I imagine the laughter of the pirate radio pioneers and the sounds of the records they played. Scratching and skipping and the stench of cannabis and summer sweat. The Beatles and the Stones, The Kinks and other ones our parents sang along to on long car trips, with the tape sliding and babies smiling in the back seat. My dad said the worst day of his young life was when a burglar broke into the family home and stole his seven-inches. He would listen to all the new bands in the late Sixties. He said it felt like the start of something. After years of being able to listen to just one station, one group of old men’s idea of what was good and possible, the pirates opened up a new world of music and imagination. I guess, for you and me, our new world was the internet and I reached the end of my interest in that long ago.
I took a break from counting to one hundred and turning and looking for you the other day. Instead, I sat on the roof and counted seconds and minutes until I reached four hours and the stern of the last container ship had passed into mist, off to mainland Europe. (More people than trees.) Or further north, to the great shipping lanes of Russia. (More trees than people.) That would be, I guessed – I have to guess – around ten in the morning. At ten I had breakfast. The rations are desperately low and I experimented with boiling an algae soup. I hung out the window and dragged a knife over the metal wall. Flavoured with the cayenne and cumin we brought out on the boat, it was OK. I felt sick afterwards, but I feel sick most of the time. A pulling on my stomach that will not pass.
On a rare hot day, I dried the algae out to put in with tobacco to see if it had any effect. But it didn’t. It was just a salty cigarette and I laughed at myself and it echoed through the stilts. As I hope your laugh will soon. Then I cried and as I licked my tears I laughed again, because I was surrounded by salt and yet couldn’t escape more. Then I vomited over the side and watched fish swim around in my sick.
In my head, though, I am fine.
I still feel that settling when I look at my potted tree.
One of me and one of them.
It’s a small oak, I think. I didn’t check when you bought it. You and I were never bothered with types of tree. Just the number. How many? Types of people or types of tree were irrelevant. The colour blindness of metropolitan life. But now I’ve spent time with this tree, I know it’s an oak. The leaves, like the jagged edges of keys, remind me of my childhood and falling acorns, and my parents’ garden and the gardens of my friends. I grew up in the suburban outdoors. Muddy knees and grass stains, fish-pond nets and trunk goalposts. An Enid Blyton upbringing, if Enid Blyton had still been writing.
I found some postcards out here, torn at edges and peeled in corners, stuck flush to the fort like decades-old wallpaper. They are of young women in long bathing suits, pouting. They belonged to soldiers, I imagine. Men stationed here, on the lookout for something that might kill them and their families back home. Eight miles, and beyond.
What a charmed and ridiculous life I have led.
I chose to work out if there are more trees or people in the world. And then, scared, I wanted to escape. The soldiers, men my age, had pictures of girls they would look at to distract themselves from warships and submarines and decimated friends. All these men are long since dead. And so are the women, but they have outlasted their demise in this strange and isolated spot in the sea. They are alive for me, even though I will never meet them — in the photos and in my head. I have great admiration for that.
I Must Belong Somewhere, a refugee family history, by Jonathan Dean, will be published in May 2017.
Photograph by Jason Richardson / Alamy