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Managed Retreat
Daniel Addercouth

In the old days, Malcolm would have parked down at the harbour, but it was already underwater, and Ian had warned him there was nowhere to turn. He left the communal car in a lay-by at the top of the cliff and walked down to the village, buttoning his duffle coat against the cold. England already felt like spring, but here on the northern Scottish coast, the raw wind left salt in his mouth. A bank of slate clouds hung on the horizon, signalling an approaching storm, and the herring gulls circled overhead, squawking like car alarms. They’d been the constant soundtrack to his childhood years, even when he was lying in bed at night.

His cousin Ian, the only person in the family who kept in touch, had phoned out of the blue to tell him the government had evacuated the village. Flooding was a problem every winter, and it was too expensive to build a coastal barrier, so the settlement was being given up to the sea. They called it “managed retreat,” apparently. The residents had received new homes; Malcolm’s father now lived in sheltered housing in Aberdeen. 

Malcolm didn’t think of himself as sentimental, but he wanted to see his home one last time. Maybe he would find something to remind him of the village once it was gone. He hadn’t visited since falling out with his father over the Net Zero referendum more than a decade earlier. His father said it would destroy the village’s livelihood, but Malcolm argued overfishing wasn’t sustainable. Time had proved him right, but he took no pleasure in it.

As he got closer, Malcolm was shocked by the state of the village. Many of the fishermen’s cottages had broken windows and missing slates, and metal sheets were bolted over the doors. Weeds grew out of the asphalt on the rubbish-strewn single street, and the smell of diesel that used to permeate the village was gone. The water was almost topping the harbour wall, the fishing boats sold off or scrapped. Even if the harbour had still been usable, there were few fish left to catch. Malcolm remembered how he used to go down to the harbour before school to meet his father after a night’s fishing, the nets full of coley and ling ready to be taken to England by refrigerated lorry. No one would dream of transporting food that far now.

Like all the traditional fishermen’s cottages, his parents’ house stood gable-end to the shore to protect it from the elements. Outsiders would sometimes ask why the houses didn’t have views of the sea. They didn’t understand that the locals had no desire to look at something, which, for them, meant labour and death.

Malcolm pushed open the gate to the small garden at the side of the house. The fence hadn’t been painted in years, and the grass came up to his knees. He wished he’d visited earlier. He could at least have helped his father with the move. Peering through a grimy window, he saw that the dark interior was empty, with old newspapers and unopened letters strewn on the wooden floor. It suddenly seemed stupid to have driven all the way from England for this, using up valuable carbon credits. 

He was about to leave, already dreading the lonely night in his hotel, when his foot touched something. A shiny metal rod, lying in the grass. Picking it up, he saw it was the antenna from an old-fashioned radio, like the one his father used to have. He remembered lying in bed and hearing the murmur of the shipping forecast from the kitchen before his father went out in the boat at night. He used to love the comforting litany of the different sea areas: Viking. Rockall. Fastnet. Shannon. His father had shown him the areas on a map and explained how the fishers relied on the forecast to warn them of gales and storms. Even now, whenever Malcolm heard the shipping forecast, he visualised the crazy paving of the sea areas around the British Isles.

“Can I help you?”

Malcolm turned to see an old man in the next-door garden, supporting himself on a walking frame. It took him a few moments to recognise Douglas, their neighbour. He’d already seemed old when Malcolm was living at home, but now he looked like he was in his late 80s at least.

“It’s Malcolm. Gordon’s son. I just wanted to see the village one last time.”

“Malcolm, of course. I didn’t recognise you.” Douglas edged closer with his frame. “How’s your father doing?”

Malcolm paused. “Fine, I hear.”

“He always said you were right to get out of this place. And look at us now.”

“You didn’t want to move?”

Douglas gave a chuckle, which turned into a racking cough. “I refused to go,” he said when he’d recovered. “I’ve lived in this house for 90 years, and I’m going to die in it too.”

 

As Malcolm walked back to the car, he touched the antenna in his pocket, feeling the smooth surface of the metal. A plan was forming in his mind. He could phone Ian, find out where his father was living in Aberdeen, drop in to see him tomorrow before driving south. He didn’t know what they would talk about. But he could ask him about the antenna, and maybe they would reminisce about the shipping forecast.

He quickened his steps as he headed up the road, keen to get to his car before the storm hit. The gulls above him shrieked incessantly. They would still be here once the village was gone.

 

 

Daniel Addercouth grew up on a remote farm in the north of Scotland but now lives in Berlin, Germany. His stories have appeared in Free Flash Fiction, New Flash Fiction Review, and Ink Sweat & Tears, among other places. He was recently shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award. You can find him on Twitter/X and Bluesky at @RuralUnease.

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