Gravesend, or, Everyday Life in the Anthropocene
by Paul McAuley
“The Anthropocene is an epoch of ghosts.” —Anne McClintock
Rose Hathaway was discharged with a General Service medal, a one-off payment from the Armed Forces Compensation Office, and damage from a psych bomb jangling in her head. Although she was still haunted by glimpses of ghosts and a general feeling of low-level dread that sometimes flared into full-blown panic, the medics in the rehab clinic claimed that her symptoms were either psychosomatic or escalations of preexisting conditions, and no further treatment was possible.
“If they don’t think it’s real, why are we supposed to keep dosed up with phenelzine?” her friend Ollie McBride said, when he and Rose were given notice of their discharge. “Mean to say, it’s serious old-style pharma—just check out the side effects. Schizophrenia, seizures, sexual dysfunction, suicidal behaviors? And that’s not even half the S’s. Not to mention we’re supposed to avoid soy sauce, sauerkraut, kimchi. . . . Hell with that. Love me some kimchi, no better cure for a hangover.”
“So you’re going to quit taking it because you’re flagging for Korean food?” Rose said.
“Going to taper off, see how it goes. Not saying you should follow my example, Rose of my heart, but you should maybe consider the quality-of-life implications of taking the stuff on the regular.”
Ollie had also been in the drone crew taken out by the pysch bomb, was always the first to ask questions in group sessions, a tall skinny guy with curly black hair he was growing out, sitting backward on his chair, stabbing the air with a finger as he made his point. He knew his stuff, too. Researched the shit out of it, bothered the medics with questions about alternative treatments, better pharma, and helped Rose get through some bad patches. The day they were discharged, he told her there was no point trying to fight the machine, he was going to make the speed of light out of this place, blow the compensation on a stormer to celebrate his emancipation, and never look back.
“Be sure to come up to Newcastle,” he told her. “We’ll have us some high old times.”
Rose signed the forms and waivers without reading any of them, and just like that, age twenty-two, she was a civilian again. And, like Ollie, she spent the first two weeks tapering off the phenelzine tablets she’d been prescribed, though not because of any craving for contraindicated food. The stuff made her feel like she was at the bottom of a dark, numbingly cold ocean, everything heavy and slow, and she decided to rely on the exercises she’d been taught in therapy sessions instead—mindful breathing, body scans, focused meditation, so on, to keep her on the straight and narrow. In one of the therapy sessions, they’d been told that naming their ghosts would give them some control by making the unfamiliar familiar, and she and Ollie had some rare fun making up silly handles. The Grey Guy, the Poison Dwarfs, Skeletor, Old Rags, for her; Mr. Fog, the Murder Crows, Spikehead for him. Chanting the names like a mantra definitely helped to beat back the fear and panic whenever she glimpsed some malign presence lurking in the 4 a.m. dark of her bedroom or grinning at her amongst the swirl of people in a crowded street, or when a feeling of wrongness began to creep over her, like the aura before a migraine, and her head began to fill with fluttering black wings. But nothing, not mindfulness or mantras, not even the crushing numbness of phenelzine, could entirely exorcise the monsters that the psych bomb had quickened in the attic of her mind. It looked like she was stuck with them forever, and then Ollie told her about the new treatment he’d heard about.
They’d stayed in touch, but just barely, Ollie in Newcastle, Rose back home in Bristol. Brief bouts of messaging back and forth, a few clips. One Ollie sent a couple of days after they were discharged showed him at a street stall eating with stagey relish naeng myun and a side of kimchi, mmm-mmm-mmm. Ollie and his mates in a pub, drunk and noisy, a link to loops of bleeply electronic music he said was helping to keep his thoughts straight. The last was on a bridge over a river, the Tyne, Ollie looking haggard but defiant, saying that he was under some heavy weather, telling Rose about a clinic in the Czech Republic that claimed to have a new treatment for trauma caused by psyops weapons.
“Stupidly expensive, but I’m going to do some deep recon and will send a sitrep soon as. You should definitely, definitely, definitely think about looking it up too,” Ollie said. He sent details of the clinic’s website, but Rose didn’t hear anything else until a month later, when his mother called. He’d disappeared without any warning two weeks ago; none of his friends had heard from him, did she have any idea where he might have gone? When Rose mentioned the clinic, Ollie’s mother said that she had already contacted the place, the people there had been helpful but had never heard of Ollie, and besides, he’d left his passport behind. Had gone out to buy some milk one morning and had never come back.
Rose promised that she’d be in touch if she heard from him, but by then she had problems of her own. She’d been living with her parents and trying to get her life straight, but most of her friends had coupled up or moved away, she was running down her savings and having trouble finding a suitable job because of her medical discharge, and things weren’t working out at home. Her father was sort of tiptoeing around her, and her mother was forever fussing, bombarding her with suggestions about diets and alternative treatments. When they heard about Ollie’s disappearance, her parents doubled down on their suffocating concern, and at last Rose couldn’t take any more and went on the drift.
She told herself that she would keep a look out for Ollie, that if she didn’t run into him, she might at least find someone who had. Told herself that maybe she’d find a sweet job and save enough to pay for treatment at that clinic. She looked up its website every now and again, studied photos of smiling staff in pink smocks, spacious, sunlit rooms and extensive lawns with distant views of mountains, read and reread descriptions of focused HD magnetic fields and light therapy tailored to the patterns of the patient’s brain activity. It was about as reachable as Shangri-La, she knew, but it helped to make plans, tenuous though they were. Made her present troubles tolerable by holding out the hope of better times to come. Gave her life the kind of structure the army had previously provided. She missed that more than she’d thought she would.
The first work she found was in a cricket factory, where millions of the insects were grown, harvested, and dried and milled into cricket flour. Most of the time she didn’t see them, because they liked to hide inside the cardboard lattices stacked in long rows inside the factory’s industrial sheds, only venturing out to nibble a little food or drink a little water, but knock over one of those lattices or drop one on the floor, and hundreds would swarm out, hopping around or whirring up in panicky little flights. It wasn’t hard or especially unpleasant work, but the sheds were windowless and dimly lit and full of shadows where Rose’s ghosts like to lurk, keeping her perpetually edgy and giving her several bad scares. After a couple of months, she quit and fell in with Derry Dave, a stocky fellow twice her age with a noble broken nose, a breezy confidence, and a wife and kids back in Ireland. He told Rose about his family almost immediately, and she decided, with only the smallest pang of guilt, that it wasn’t a dealbreaker. Dave was good company, patient and sympathetic when she had one of her bad times, which counted for a lot as far as she was concerned, and he knew the best places for picking work along the south coast and taught her some of the tricks of the trade.
“Your first year, you’ll suck, and you’ll hurt in places you didn’t know could hurt,” he told her. “But keep at it, and your body will learn what to do, and in a year or so you’ll be on your way to being a proper picker.”
Pickers were paid piece rates for numbers or weight picked rather than time spent, rewarding skill and speed. Despite Dave’s help, Rose never earned more than a quarter of his wages, and many of the regulars on the circuit were even faster. Theirs was a rag-tag, multicultural, mobile community. Families, crews, and drifters sharing crowded accommodation and eating at long tables, close quarters rife with romance and rivalry, friendship and intrigue, that strongly reminded Rose of the army. For some, like her, it was casual work. For others, many of them second-generation DPs, displaced persons, it was a way of life. They traveled routes that followed seasons and harvests, knew which employers to seek out and which to avoid, spent half the year picking in fields and orchards, greenhouses and hydroponic stacks, and the other half working at their own businesses or living large on the credit they’d banked.
Which was why, after sharing some good times for most of the summer, Rose and Derry Dave split up. He was done with picking for the year and was heading back to Ireland, told Rose that he wouldn’t mind it if they met up again next spring. She allowed herself to feel flattered, but although it had been fun while it lasted, she didn’t want to be his part-time summer girl. After he left, she found work picking in one of the big hydroponic stacks outside Reading, but then she had one of her bad times, a growing thundercloud of dread that culminated in a frighteningly real hallucination of the Poison Dwarfs lunging at her, all teeth and unholy appetite, and she fought with the supervisors who tried to hold her down, and that was that.
With no better idea, she drifted further east, overwintering in a squalid seaside town that had lost its beach to coastal erosion and longshore drift, working in a National Work Service crew demolishing houses as part of a managed retreat scheme. Hard labor in bad weather for the basic wage, a berth in an overcrowded hostel. She hadn’t given up looking for Ollie—Derry Dave had plugged her into the pickers’ rumor network, and she asked everyone who passed through the hostel if they knew anything about him—but one day, just after Christmas, she was pinged by a round-robin message from Ollie’s mother: his body had been found in an abandoned squat in London. It was a real low point in Rose’s life, so bad she contemplated going back to Bristol and throwing herself on the mercy of her parents. But she managed to tough it out, and in spring set out on the road again, moving from picking job to picking job and toward the end of summer ending up in a drifter camp in the remains of an industrial park outside Gravesend, on the Thames estuary.
There was good credit to be earned from working in the yards where electronics, tires, plastics, and rare earths were stripped from the carcasses of old cars before they were crushed into little cubes of scrap steel and dispatched to foundries in Libya for reprocessing. Rose planned to spend the winter there, but one night, soon after she arrived, a fight between a couple of men in the camp escalated to an all-out brawl. The derelict office building she shared with a dozen other women was set on fire, and when she retrieved her day bag from its hiding place two of her roommates ambushed and beat and robbed her. Might have done worse if police drones hadn’t settled above the riot, flooding it with stark halogen light and firing pellets that spewed CR gas, while sirens twisted up in the distance.
Rose’s attackers fled, and Rose fled, too. Her ghosts were everywhere, the whole fucking crew, dancing in flames, looming out of flickering shadows. Half-crazed, running through the dark with no clear idea of where she was going, Rose blundered into a watery maze of pools and inlets and muddy little islands, and that was where Joshua Collins found her the next morning, curled up in a spider hole she’d trampled in a stand of reeds, shivering with fever and the stabbing pain of a broken collar bone. That was how she ended up in the Reach, with Joshua and his merry crew of oldsters, and became tangled up in the affair of the stolen soul chips.
* * *
The Reach stretched along a tidal creek east of Gravesend, an irregular scatter of stilt huts, monocoque floating homes cast from polycomposite or foamed concrete, and reconditioned houseboats and barges flying flags of causes lost or won and mostly forgotten. Solar panels and heat pumps and wind turbines, an industrial printer and a maker tank, greenhouses and vegetable patches, composting toilets and waste digesters, greywater cleaned by reedbeds, dykes constructed from old tires and sandbags—the usual clutter of a twenty-first-century, low-impact, zero waste, carbon negative ecopolder, most of its inhabitants grey-haired Fourth Wavers with deep-dyed loyalty to communitarianism, open networking, and Green New Deal idealism.
One evening, Rose and the usual crew were up on the veranda of Maggie Dowd’s shack where the hot, close air was somewhat cooled by a misting system, smoking weed and drinking tea, or sampling the latest batch of Kayla Brown’s cider. Talking freely because end-of-the-day sessions like this were strictly offline, no cams or drones making recordings for private or community diary pieces, no live links to other Fourth Wavers in other communities and collectives. Sharing the small change of their day, scraps of gossip, reminiscences about people and actions and protests in times before Rose had been born. She didn’t mind the nostalgia fests. They were comforting background noise, didn’t require her to make any contribution. And then Sami Mansoor, who was often up in the village doing odd jobs, mentioned that they’d seen someone moving into Nicole Featherstone’s old bungalow. Her nephew, apparently, young fellow about your age, Sami said, looking at Rose. Come down from London with plans to fix up the place.
“First thing he should do is make sure his aunt’s ghost has moved on,” someone said, and everyone else laughed.
Apart from Rose and Maggie, who were sharing a pot of mint tea, they were all a little stoned, a little tipsy. Rose didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t much care for weed, either. It was supposed to give you a mellow high, and the oldsters claimed that it also relieved their various aches and pains, but the few times Rose had tried it, she’d felt only a disconcerting fuzziness, a disconnection from her body and from the world a little like the concussion she’d suffered when a stray baton round had wacked the back of her helmet during a training exercise. As far as she was concerned, if you wanted to get spaced, drugs manufactured by tinkered microbes that delivered clean, precisely designed highs via patches or eye drops were far better than inhaling smoke from the burning leaves of weeds grown in dirt.
“Nicole Featherstone, the aunt, was a medium,” Joshua told Rose. “She raised ghosts. Talked to the dead.”
“Allegedly,” Farhad Hassannezhad said.
“And now she’s dead, and there’s no one to talk to her,” Kayla Brown said, which Rose thought was kind of cruel, but most of the oldsters laughed, the conversation drifted to something else, and Rose forgot all about the man who’d moved into the house of the dead woman who’d talked to dead people until, one day in Bartertown, Joshua pointed him out.
By then, Rose had been camping out on the roof of Joshua’s Dutch barge for a little over three weeks. She’d recovered from her beating, her broken collarbone, treated at the local clinic with an injection of tinkered stem cells, was almost healed, and she knew she was only a temporary guest. Kayla Brown, who shared an emotional attachment with Joshua that stemmed from some old sexual entanglement, had warned her that she wasn’t the first orphan Joshua had taken in. He was softhearted, Kayla said. An idealist who wanted to make other people’s lives better, which was absolutely fine, of course, but sometimes the people he tried to help took advantage. Rose told Kayla that she was grateful for Joshua’s hospitality and would leave whenever he asked, but that didn’t satisfy the old woman, who pursed her lips and said, “We’ll see about that. Meanwhile, I’ll be watching you, child. So mind your manners, and don’t presume.”
Rose had done her best to repay Joshua’s hospitality, volunteering for menial chores, washing dishes after the communal meals, running clothes and sheets through the community’s washing machine, a clunky thing so old it used water, and hanging them out to dry. When she no longer needed to wear a sling for her collarbone, she helped Farhad Hassannezhad, the retired mathematics professor who ran the Reach’s intranet, sand down the hull of his rowboat and give it a fresh coat of anti-fouling biogel, and joined the crew who tended the vegetable plots. And every day she went out into the marsh with Joshua, helping him pick the wild plants and fruit and berries he traded in Bartertown.
The work earned only a little credit, because daily quantities of pickings were strictly limited by the terms of Joshua’s gleaning permit; Rose’s share wasn’t much more than pocket money, and she was still a long way from reaching Ollie’s clinic. She’d been angry with Ollie when she learned of his death, then scared when she found out that he’d died of a phenelzine overdose. Scared that it hadn’t been accidental, scared that his ghosts might have overwhelmed him, scared that it might happen to her. She knew that trying to save enough to pay for treatment at the clinic he’d found was pretty much an unrealizable fantasy, but it was her way of making sense of his death. Of trying to make sure it didn’t happen to her.
Now she was more or less fixed up, she knew that she should move on, find some real work and earn some real credit, but truth was, she was comfortable in the Reach. The oldsters were earnest and preachy, and their life choices were supported by resources and privilege that people her age lacked, but they were mostly sweet and mostly meant well, and Rose felt more at ease there, more at home, than anywhere else since leaving the army. Her ghosts hadn’t entirely disappeared, but their visitations had dwindled and were generally little more than brief, untroubling glimpses. She was at last in a good place. She was happy.
The day Joshua pointed out Tyler Sleight, the nephew of the dead medium, started like any other. He and Rose set out soon after dawn, the air still relatively cool, fleets of fluffy white clouds, like the clouds in old-time pictures, sailing a blue sky washed clean by rain blown in by a rare Atlantic weather front, the blunt prow of the flat-bottomed skiff pushing up silky folds of black water as the old man steered it through the marsh’s maze of creeks and pools. The broad brown flood of the Thames stretching level and calm to the hazy line of the far shore. Birds singing each to each from willow banks and reed beds. Dragonflies zooming across sunlit water like miniature drones blown from stained glass. The vivid green flash of a parakeet. A cargo ship gliding past the edge of the marsh, the tall white columns of its turbines turning in the clean wind, the spreading wash of its wake breaking on the outer mud flats, a flock of flamingos taking flight in an uncurling wave, vividly pink in light as crystalline as the first dawn of a newly created world.
“Days like this,” Joshua said contentedly, “you could almost believe that everything lost has been restored.”
He was a scrawny, sunburnt geezer in his eighties who had outlived his wife and only child, faded tattoos on his arms and torso commemorating his history of environmental activism. The hourglass symbol of a protest group he’d belonged to. A fuzzy tattoo of a dove carrying in its beak a chicken-foot peace sign, done when he’d been in prison for helping to block a motorway during a nation-wide protest against what he called the Big Oil Economy. A polar bear on an ice floe on one arm, and on the other a bumblebee resting above the number 338, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere when he’d been born, all the way back in 1982. (“It’s a lot higher now, but that’s the point.”) And across his back, the word HOPE, the O the Earth’s globe, to commemorate his role in the Twelfth Climate Justice Conference, when he’d been an advisor to one of the senior politicians in the Fourth Wave Alliance and had helped to write part of the pivotal Hanoi Declaration.
Rose heard about Joshua’s contribution to the declaration, and also learned that he had published several science fiction novels, from Abigay Philibert, Farhad Hassannezhad’s partner, a large, lively, gossipy woman who oversaw the community’s vegetable plots. He doesn’t talk about it much, Abigay said, but he was a little bit famous once upon a time, before he gave it all up and helped me and Farhad and the rest of us set up the Reach.
Rose looked up the novels—three short volumes about the adventures of a crew of “weather wranglers” who traveled the world in an airship, not really her thing, but sort of fun. Joshua said, dismissively and a little defensively, that they were juvenile fantasies about power and control that had scratched an itch when he’d been only a little older than she was now. He’d soon realized that he could best spend his time working in the real world, warning people about the dangers of what was called, back then, the climate emergency, and promoting actions and policies that might stave off the worst possible outcomes.
“We should have done more, no doubt, but at least we managed to forge an alliance between politicians and scientists and activists that put us on the right road,” he told Rose. “Even so, changes are still unfolding, and we’ve had to learn how to make more out of less, to put the wants and needs of the community above the rights of the individual. Perhaps you don’t see what we’ve lost or had to give up, kid, because you grew up in this brave new world, but it was a lot, and it was necessary.”
“We were taught about it in history lessons, in school,” Rose said. “And my grandmother, Granny Wexler, told me stories about the old days. How you could order anything you wanted on the internet, and everyone drove their own car and flew all over the world.”
“Nice way to make me feel old,” Joshua said. “But as someone once said, the past isn’t even past. My generation received the bill for the unchecked exploitation of the planet, and you, and your children and your children’s children, will still be paying for it into the next century and beyond.”
That day, though, all seemed right with the world as they picked samphire, sea beet, sea purslane, and scurvy grass from the mud flats. As usual, Rose did most of the work, while Joshua stood in the shade of his black umbrella, barefoot and bare-chested in tattered shorts, pointing out likely patches. Although his mind was still lively and sharp, he admitted that he wasn’t quite as spry as he’d once been, what with half a lung having been surgically removed to treat a cancer, his hips and lower spine being held together by coral inserts and titanium screws, his coronary arteries patched by cultured grafts, retinas ditto, and every now and then he was laid low by bouts of what he called breakbone fever, stemming from damage to his hypothalamus by a viral infection in one of the pandemics. Old age, he liked to say, was not for the weak.
Rose had lost her set of tempered wood picking knives along with everything else, but as Derry Dave had predicted, her body remembered the habits imprinted by last summer’s picking work. She wore a straw hat Joshua had bought for her in Bartertown, and a loose white shirt that reflected the worst of the sunlight, and took frequent small sips from a water bottle to stay hydrated as she cut and plucked and the air grew hotter and heavier, squinting in light burning off the water as she slogged through thick mud that clutched at her waders and gurgled and squished and clicked. The marsh was a living thing. Dynamic. The mud its flesh, the channels and dykes and ditches its arteries and veins, the silty water that rose and fell with the tides its blood. So far it had survived rising sea levels because of careful management and a fortunate redistribution of sediments in the Thames Estuary, but eventually, inevitably, it would be overwhelmed. Seas wouldn’t stop rising for centuries to come, and there was still the possibility that catastrophic collapse of glaciers or ice shelves in Greenland and Antarctica would swiftly raise their levels by several meters.
Despite the heat and hard work, Rose loved being out in the marsh, and was mostly able to ignore occasional glimpses of ghosts. She’d told Joshua about the psych bomb and its aftereffects, figuring it best to come clean in case she suffered a serious attack, and also hoping that being wounded in service might win a few pity points. But if he noticed whenever she stopped working, stood still and quiet, gaze fixed on the horizon, until the flutter of a panic attack passed, he never mentioned it, and that morning the only visitation was a shadow that might have been the Grey Guy lurking in a stand of reeds, vanishing when she looked at it directly. Perhaps the calm, orderly life in the Reach was realigning her brain waves: another reason for not leaving, not just yet.
At last, Joshua called a halt and they shared an early lunch in the shade of a magnolia tree with fleshy white flowers as big as his battered straw hat. Flowers that evolved to be pollinated by beetles, Joshua told Rose, because magnolias had evolved long before bees appeared on the scene.
“I believe you already told me that.”
“Once or twice.”
“Did I tell you magnolias are garden escapees? Like bamboo, and Russian vine and Japanese knotweed and water hyacinth, any number of exotics.”
“You said that if you had your way you’d root them all out,” Rose said, but Joshua didn’t take any notice.
“You don’t remember how it was, kid,” he said, getting into one of his grooves. “How it was, and how much has been lost. People have grown too complacent. Accepting that what is, is. Doing nothing or next to nothing and calling it adaptation, or refuge ecology or some such nonsense, when what it really is, is the loss of beauty and diversity to a few aggressive invaders.”
He sometimes liked to recall the names of vanished species. Animals and flowers. Insects and birds. Grey seals and otters and Natterer’s bats, viviparous lizards and great crested newts. Yellow-horned poppy, small cordgrass, the southern marsh orchid. Cuckoo wasps and common darters and the silver spotted skipper butterfly. Tawny owls and short-eared owls, ospreys and sparrowhawks, skylarks and swifts and spotted flycatchers. . . . Elegiac lists of the lost that were a little like Rose’s mantras, except she was trying to drive out her ghosts, while Joshua wanted to make sure that the victims of the Anthropocene weren’t forgotten. Things we lost in the fire, he’d say. Casualties of the ongoing Great Thinning. World’s so full of holes left by the disappeared, it’ll take a million years to fix it.
By the time Rose had spooned up the last of her yogurt, crunching the seeds and dried berries Joshua added because, according to him, yogurt and other foodstuffs whipped up from tinkered bacteria and fungi lacked key micronutrients, the day was even brighter and hotter. They dawdled through mazy creeks in the steamy heat, keeping to the shade of overgrown banks as much as possible, visiting pear trees that yielded the hard little fruit Kayla Brown used to brew her dangerously strong cider, and a lone apple tree, a poor spidery thing suffering from the blight that had wiped out most of the commercial orchards, its unripe apples hard and sour. Joshua ate one and pretended to like it, said that they’d come back next month and have themselves a harvest and make some good credit at Bartertown.
That was where they headed, a hair past noon, their work done for the day. Officially, it was the Cliffe Fort Wet Market, its platforms and cabins cantilevered over the remains of one of the defensive forts built two centuries ago to ward off attacks on London that might have come up river, but none of its regulars ever called it that. Rose and Joshua humped their baskets to the tally office, where a clerk weighed the pickings and added the meager amount of credit, less the market’s percentage, to Joshua’s phone, and after picking up a few basics at the commissary, they wandered through the open-air market. Buyers from high-end shops and restaurants in London had mostly finished their business and departed in their boats and drone gigs, leaving the locals to barter and bargain for what was left. Joshua took his time, chatting with stallholders, buying a punnet of blueberries at one stall, a handful of punishingly expensive coffee beans in a twist of paper at another, a tinkered strain grown in a hydroponic stack somewhere in Cornwall. Like most of the oldsters, he had an inexplicable jones for the stuff, which had been hugely popular back in the day, before blight and heatwaves had wiped out plantations in South America, Africa, and Asia. Rose had tried it once: bitter as burnt rubber, even worse with hot potato milk stirred into it, the way Joshua liked it.
A couple of the stalls were especially busy, one selling off a catch of flying fish, the other cuts from the carcass of a nurse shark hung from a wooden frame. A gruesome sight, like an illustration of some kind of torture in olden times when they’d burnt witches. That was where Joshua tapped Rose’s shoulder and pointed to someone on the other side of the market, queuing at a stall that sold bread and baked goods made from actual wheat flour.
“Remember the young man we were talking about, who moved here after his aunt died? That’s him. Tyler Sleight.”
“I remember she was supposed to talk to ghosts,” Rose said.
The man was around her age, and easy on the eye. A little like a younger, blond version of Derry Dave, tanned and lean, dressed in a paint-spattered singlet and baggy utility shorts, smiling as he said something to the man behind the stall.
“Apparently, he’s fixed up his aunt’s old boat, and has been seen out and about in the marshes,” Joshua said.
“Are you worried about competition?” Rose said.
“Not at all. He doesn’t have a permit, and I’ve been told that it isn’t fruit or fish he’s interested in,” Joshua said, with a raised-eyebrow look supposed to encourage Rose to ask him what he meant.
“I suppose this is more of your silly gossip,” she said.
People came to Bartertown to trade in tales of local rumors and scandals as well as goods, and Rose knew they’d been talking about her, too. On her very first visit, Toby Drury, the warden who enforced regulations and by-laws in the marsh, had appeared at her side after she’d become separated from Joshua, gripping her elbow and telling her that he’d heard she was staying with the folk at the Reach, and hoped she wasn’t thinking of causing any trouble. When she tried to front it out, asking him what had given him that idea, he told her that he knew about the spot of bother in the drifters’ camp and couldn’t help wondering if she’d been involved.
“As I understand it, you were found in a bad way the day after,” the warden said.
“I got lost in the marsh, Joshua was kind enough to help me out, and now I’m helping him,” she said, wondering if Kayla Brown had put him onto her, this tall, flinty man with a forensic gaze that reminded her of one of her instructors in initial training, lasering into her as he let go of her elbow and told her he would be giving her some serious attention.
Joshua had tried to make a joke of the encounter, saying that locals still thought that folk from the Reach were outsiders who couldn’t quite be trusted, and Toby Drury was a local born and bred, but Rose had done her best to avoid the warden after that. The last thing she needed was trouble with the law, even if the law in question wasn’t much more than a glorified gamekeeper.
“Apparently,” Joshua was saying now, still on the topic of the nephew, “he’s been looking for dead people.”
Saying it so seriously that Rose couldn’t help laughing.
“You think he’s some kind of grave robber?” she said.
“Did I ever tell you about the rocket? The one that crashed?”
“I saw it that time Maggie took me pearl fishing,” Rose said. Joshua had set her up for that trip, but it must have slipped through one of the holes in his memory.
“Did Maggie tell you about its payload?” Joshua said.
“The soul chips? Most definitely.”
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Copyright © 2023. Gravesend, or, Everyday Life in the Anthropocene by Paul McAuley