Place of Writing: At my home in Folkestone, Kent.
While it might be something of a fanciful notion drawn from a desire to find cohesion in these turbulent times, I have always considered the world’s various lockdowns to be something of a pause in modern life. Time for people to reflect and, at least for some, to come to grips with the many challenges ahead beyond simply the virus.
In other words; we were finally waking up from the dream of modernity – that fanciful belief which insisted we were safe from such primitive foes as nature and could continue to do as we pleased regardless of it. I tried to reflect this sense of lonely apprehension in my writing for Times Shifting.
There was never any doubt that the lockdowns were events worth recording. However, it quickly became clear that we Times Shifters were not historians, far from it, we were writers tasked with presenting the confusing mess of emotions brought on by the virus to posterity.
Whether the work of Times Shifting proves useful in future remains to be seen, however our writing provides some insight beyond numbers and dates. It goes some way towards showing what it was actually like to live within the lockdown.
* * *
The shutter seized up with a screech of lead. It took a violent blow from my palm to dislodge the damned thing.
I am not mad, I’m not. What am I saying? Just listen.
It happened on the white cliff under the setting sun; our coast washed in a gently dying red. Even up here the wind carried a hint of salt in the air as I wiped the cold from my face and squinted out across the Channel where a piercing light blinked on and off. Its regular rhythm was a pinpoint of comfort. I returned my end of the encoded message with a hooded lantern, obscuring and revealing the flickering light within.
“You all right, Spiv?”
A quick, stumbling voice with a hidden softness. I turned to see my somewhat friend wandering through the heath and sitting down beside me. Jack Fisher. The name drifted up from the pools of my memory – his mother yelling it over a bannister.
“Sam,” I corrected him, “my name is Sam. What are you doing here?”
He shrugged in that offhand way of his. Above a seagull let out its strangled, familiar shriek.
“Same as you,” Jack said, “getting away.”
After a moment I nodded. It seemed appropriate.
My new companion began picking at the vibrant wildflowers that sprouted up around us, splitting the stems into wet fibres. I winced.
“Stop that,” I protested, “my mum said not to.”
Jack looked up with a hopeless expression. “What?”
“Pick wild flowers.”
He inspected the tattered stems in his hand offhandedly. “Maybe I’ll stop if you tell me what you’re messing around with that light for.”
Across the water that flickering signal continued. I counted the gaps between each flash, noting it down in the book by my side before returning a code of my own, forcing the lantern̓s shutter open and closed in a jarring rattle. My Morse code was getting better every day.
“I don’t know. It’s been like that for a week now; I’ve only just started responding.”
Who was sending this message? Well, that’s what I hoped to find out once I’d finished decoding the thing. Until then I was happy to be ignorant. It was like having a conversation with an invisible friend who only emerged once the sun had hidden. Usually around seven but never later than eight. I had started looking forward to coming up here and returning my own transmission. It made things easier.
Jack let the silence settle for a moment, released a breath and glanced down at the book by my side.
“What a load of nonsense.”
I glared at him. “What is?”
“This,” he gestured to me; to the world, “you talking to some made-up friend across the sea. How’d you know there’s even someone there?”
This made me uncomfortable. I focussed on the light in my hands and its twin out to sea, feeling the shutter slide and shake in my clammy hands.
“I just do.”
“No, but you want it to be true ‘cause it’s easier. Easier than talking to a real person who you know is real.”
“Fine,” Jack held up his small, pale hands in a half-hearted attempt at reconciliation, “don’t let me trouble your posh little head. Still, if my dad taught me anything good about Morse, that looks like a weather signal to me.”
My hands froze, a cold feeling crawling up my spine. Noticing my hesitation, Jack continued with an air of satisfaction.
“They send them out in winter when the sea’s all stormy to warn ships across the Channel. If things get really rough it’s more reliable than a radio. Spiv? You all right?”
I had tensed up and couldn’t bring myself to move. Of course, I should have seen this coming. It was nice while it lasted. The sun was rapidly dipping below the horizon.
Yes, I was all right Jack. No need to worry about little old me. I could feel the sea shifting in a mesmerising fever, swaying with the world. White and gold and murky blue washing over the bay. The taste of bile behind my throat.
But how do you know? Who are you talking to through that blinkbox of yours? Did it matter? If the sensing instruments showed true then the simulation was complete; the comfort assured. You forget, Jack, you forget your place on the shore of broken images swaddled in brain fluid. I had hoped to forget that our pretensions of company are no more than illusions flickering off foreign cliffs. For most the illusion is enough but not for little lonely me.
My eyes opened.
The bay was dark. I held my aching head and searched for any sign of Jack. Nothing. Beside me the patch of wild flowers was undisturbed as if I had always been alone up here.
Maybe I had. These winter fevers made confusing times all the worse. How long had I been out here? The sun looked long gone and that flickering light had vanished.
I am not mad. This was a long time ago but even now the memory reminds me to count my blessings. The way things are going we need our illusions more than ever.
Joseph Burton is a 2018 winner of The Young Walter Scott Prize
All writing, all images © The Imagining History Programme UK