We Were Hull By Dominic Bell
I was starting to get anxious how long Lena had been and was relieved to see the boat approaching. I pulled on my waders, went downstairs, and splashed through the mud of the hall to open the steel door. She piloted the boat smoothly into the living room, securing it on the riser pole in the half lit gloom. The steel and concrete made the room more like a bunker than a place where I had played in as a child front of the gas fire. Gas! Those were the days.
Lena passed me a rucksack out of the boat, and I plugged in the charge cable.
‘They’re short of food again,’ she said. ‘Jon said they don’t want to over-order because it is so expensive now.’
I nodded. That was due to the breakthrough into the Vale of York the year before. There and Lincolnshire and Kent and Norfolk and Somerset. Salted fields don’t grow much.
‘He said it’s expected to be the highest spring tide yet. Leaving aside the storm surge.’
‘I know. Which is why you should head to Beverley. That’s high enough to be safe.’
But I knew she would not, or I would not have said it. She is almost the definition of crazy, hanging around with me in the remains of the city. Or perhaps she just got the same post-urban kick out of it as I did.
‘I’ve got three channels paying for the live feed already, and without the lenses being cleaned it would be like looking through shower glass, only less interesting without a naked body semi-visible through it.’
‘Indeed. Anyway, I’m staying. Your commenting skills are rubbish.’
I had long ago converted the loft into another living floor and on top of that was our viewing platform, a plexiglass pillbox high enough to see over the long rows of houses that ran parallel to the Humber a mile or so away. There had been more rows once, but in turn each row of houses had gone down to the rising waters, their frames rotted by seawater, their roofs pieced by falling trees, the walls themselves finally succumbing to the low waves that rolled off the swollen Humber, gentle hammer blows that slowly reduced the old houses to piles of rubble, their passing marked by intermittent slitherings and crashes.. Except on nights like tonight, when the hammer blows were not gentle any more, and the storm winds got behind and pushed and the houses yielded not piece by piece, but like rows of dominoes, whole blocks going down. Marlborough Avenue was a memory now, Westbourne merely low piles of bricks poking from the mud flats, Park Avenue collapsed ruins. Last year the houses had started going down on the south side of Victoria Avenue, but on the north side the houses still stood.
Lena was opening the rucksack. ‘Cornish pasties, Scotch eggs and chocolate. You did say high calorie.’
‘I did. If this goes well we’ll eat out in Beverley tomorrow.’
‘If,’ she said. ‘Not sure I like you saying ‘if’.’
‘Couuld be a big anticlimax. The storm has only got to swing a bit east and the surge halves in height. I’ll take the food upstairs and you double check the charger.’
She joined me ten minutes later.
‘All good – the boat’s taking less to charge than the windgen and solpans are putting in.‘ ‘Good.’ I sent a test transmission and then tried the spotlights. Even in daylight they pushed
away the shadows on the houses across the street. In protest, Alan turned on some heavy metal at full volume and I switched them off again, grinning. Alan was part of what people watched us for, a fellow hold-out. Canute had nothing on him.
Lena was already kitted up in waterproofs. I pulled on my own and munched on a Cornish pasty, staring at the familiar scene. The rooftops of Ella Street, then the dead trees and damaged houses of Victoria Avenue. Beyond that the brown waste of mud and ruins, with patches of green on the higher piles of rubble. Only a few recognisable buildings still stood – a couple of broken churches, the remains of Hull Royal. I remembered it as it had been, the buzz of the A63, sirens from ambulances on their way to the hospital, people arguing as they walked past – all the noises that go to make up a city. Only thirty years ago. Then they decreed that defending the city was not financially viable. The terraces soon started to empty. The saltwater crept beneath the city, and the trees started to die,wrecking houses as they fell. There was compensation of course, but houses in Hull had never been worth much, and there were riots when the first mandatory clearances were made. After those they decided to let people stay if they wanted, and there were a lot of us hanging on at one time, talk of Venice on the Humber, but most left eventually.
We did our first live spot and I panned the camera over the dereliction before coming back and focusing on Alan’s house opposite. He had already hoisted his flags, the blue flag of Hull with its three gold crowns and the white Yorkshire rose on blue and green of the East Riding. On his roof he had made a great throne out of a first class airline seat, a motorbike windscreen rigged in front of it and now he sat on it dressed in black leather and his three-crowned helmet, blasting out music at the storm. The Hull Ringwraith they called him. A legend.
Darkness fell, and for a long while there was little to see. Then the moon rose, full and ominous, intermittently hidden or blurred by scudding clouds. The water glinted like tarnished silver, gurgling along the street as it rose, the waves on it ever larger and more agitated. And as it did so did the wind. The storm rose from a whisper to murmur to a howl, to a scream that rose in pitch until something primitive deep inside urged you to run and hide.
Lena was talking excitedly, the network running us live as a row of houses collapsed on the north side of Victoria Avenue. Then they cut abruptly to York. The sea had surged up the Derwent and having breached York’s newly reinforced defences, was racing down through the Vale of York towards the expanding Humber. And high tide still an hour away. Onto Scarborough and Bridlington where the full force of the storm was hammering at the defences. Then came the news that the North Sea had broken through completely at Skirlaugh, that East Hull now lay directly open to the North Sea, the holdouts there trapped between the flooding River Hull and the oncoming North Sea.
‘Give us Alan if you can,’ said a voice in my earpiece, ‘We need something light.’
I spotlighted Alan, but even with the directional mike his the pounding of his music was barely audible amidst the storm’s scream. He raised his clenched fist at the sea as I zoomed in on him, framing him against the advancing waves. And then he was gone, falling into his disintegrating house, the wind-ripped flags going down into the swirling waters. I pulled back to see seven or eight houses had collapsed, that we were exposed to the full force of the storm now.
Lena was crying on air. But as a pro, I had planned for this.
‘Alan once told me what he wanted played at his funeral.’ And I cut to music.
So while Lena and I pulled ourselves together, the country watched him die again and again,
only this time in slow motion, to AC/DC’s Thunderstruck. I leaned over to Lena.‘We should get out.’
‘You think the boat would survive this? I’m staying. ’
I kissed her and of course they cut back to us.
‘Not interrupting, I hope?’ said the anchor.
‘Yes,’ I said. So he got his light moment in the end. Kind of.
I panned the camera a full 360 degrees around us. False dawn was just upon us and in the grey
light it looked even worse than it was. True desolation. Water in every direction. As Lena talked more houses slid down as if they were exhausted by the struggle of staying upright. Even the rows behind us were devastated, taken in the flank by the breakthrough from the coast. Our house shuddered at the impact of the waves. In places brickwork fell away, but the internal concrete shell held and the breakwaters did their job. Time passed. Slowly the wind died to a mere roar, the sun rose and the water started to retreat.
‘Back to you in five,’ said my earpiece.
‘Lena, as one of the last residents, how do you feel about the final destruction of Hull?’
‘I hope it’s not final,’ she said. ‘but maybe we deserved it. What was our heritage? Timber imports that stripped the forests of the Baltic and beyond. Whaling and trawling. Coal exports from the Yorkshire coalfields, then coal imports later on when we had used up our own. The offshore gas fields. Chemical works, refineries, cement works - the dirty industries other places rejected. But in mitigation our last efforts helped build the great wind farms of the North Sea and pioneered the hydrogen economy. And one day, the sea will retreat, and -’
‘Look!’ I interrupted, almost choking as I zoomed. She stopped abruptly. For out of the rubble of Alan’s house, something black and leathery was crawling slowly to the highest point of what was left, something that raised a bloodied fist at us. And then both of us were running down to the boat, and, to cut things short, Alan got to go live again.