by Malcolm Cumming



I came back to help during storm season. My father suggested it—less a suggestion than a thinly-veiled plea, really. I had a few minutes late one afternoon and we were chatting—text only; the ancient comm-links at the lake don’t support visuals. We usually just use audio—it skips, although not too badly—but for some reason we didn’t bother with it that day. I didn’t have much time, maybe that was it. Maybe we both wanted to keep a bit of distance to the conversation. Then this popped up on my HUD:

Why don’t you come back for a few months? We could really use your help.

I could feel his disappointment building as I looked at the characters floating in front of me. I knew that halfway around the world my father was sitting in his office staring at his display (as in physical—he won’t go near wearable tech, never mind biotech). He would have noticed the longer-than-usual delay. He’s sensitive to stuff like that. He can never cover it up either; he thinks he’s doing a great job of it but he’s terrible. He makes me feel like I’m torturing a puppy. I didn’t need visual right then to see his eyes slowly lose their sparkle.

“I’ll think about it.” I said.

“I’ll think about it,” floated in front of me.

I pressed my lips together.

“Ok, delete,” I said, and the words disappeared.

“Gotta go, Dad. I have to pick up Carla from the lab. Chat later ok?”

I looked at it for a moment, my heart sinking a little.

“Ok, send!” I said.


Carla had jumped at the idea. She thought it would be like her time in Africa with   MSF, before we met. I told her that Central America is not Central Africa and she looked at me as if I had just called her a dunce.

“It’s the tropics,” she said. “The same problems, Jules. Different but analogous.”

My darling wife loves to use unnecessarily complicated words when we discuss things. According to the show-off they’re sensual. “Well-formed” I think she said, when I asked her why she always had to use the biggest, most elitist word she could think of. I said it was pedantic. pe-DAN-tic. Save them for work, I said. My brain’s too tired to process anything longer than two syllables.

“Sesquipedalian,” she says, and chuckles. I raised my eyebrows.

“Sesquipedalian,” she repeats. “I’m not a pedant.”


“Large, well-formed words mean time taken,” she said, sighing to signal that she was giving in. There it was! Well-formed. “Taking time—“ she argued. “—means paramount luxury.”

“Aedes albopictus. Legionella pneumophila,” I’d replied. “They mean disease.”

She hadn’t been impressed. This time her eyebrows go up (superciliously), and her mouth turns down (poutingly).

“Latin doesn’t count,” she said, as if I’d cheated.

I started laughing.

“It did once.”

She threw a pillow at me.

Et tu Brute?

“We can’t anyway,” I said to her. “What about work? We can’t just drop everything and go…And what about the baby?”

She went a little too quiet. That flinch that happens only in the eyes. The slinking down like a much-abused animal. I felt an awful, punishing helplessness every time. The worst part is that I was at the point where I was getting tired of always having to be so damn careful with what I said about anything to do with baby-making. I even got a little angry that she didn’t try to disguise her hurt. I’m the bad guy, the insensitive prick. It gets really tiring being that guy. You start to dislike yourself. You start to get impatient with what feels a lot like manipulation.

Get over it! That’s what I wanted to say. Stop being so terribly pathetic! What’s the point?

We’d talked it all through ad nauseam. But she insisted on being alone in her hurt and disappointment. She wanted all the blame. She wouldn’t let me lift it off of her, not for long anyway. The shadow of a child was ripping our marriage apart.

“I’m tired, Jules,” she whimpered. “It’s not working and I don’t think I can take another go.”

My arm was on the back of the sofa, my hand behind her head, and she had no idea whether to keep on retreating or to rest against me.

“It makes me feel like this barren, lifeless thing—like I’m dysfunctional or half-dead in the places that count,” she reiterated. “I need hormone treatment and a team of specialists just to give me a chance of doing what a normal woman can. And it’s worse that we know all the people that are helping us. I hate it, Jules: being in a room with one of our friends while we all pretend for half an hour that you and I are something like regular clients and something like everyone’s dearest friends. It’s degrading. I have to go to work knowing that they’ve all seen more of me than any colleague ever should. We have dinner parties with these people, Jules…”

Both of us had quite literally been under the microscope. What she’d said about our friends was accurate. Another sore point. The lines between our private life, our working life, and our social life had all but disappeared and we all had to act like that hadn’t happened. Everyone had to be really, really polite about it. Mostly, I tried not to think about it. Staring at it just depressed me.

“I’ve never been,” she mentioned.

“I know,” I murmured. My parents had flown to Paris for the wedding. Carla’s parents had come in from Strasbourg and nearly all of our friends were based somewhere in Europe. It had just been simpler to have the wedding in France.

It had been six years since I’d last gone back. I supposed that I’d avoided it because of embarrassment.

No, I thought. Then: well, yes. I was embarrassed about where I’d come from but there was more. I’d grown up while I’d been away. I’d seen and been in a bigger world and now I was more a part of that bigger, more sophisticated world than the little tourist town I’d spent a half-forgotten childhood in. I do things that would have been unimaginable to me as a boy; I work in a hospital where medicine is re-defined; nano-biotech, viral splicing, immuno-genetics. The world needs those kinds of things. More to the point, I needed those kinds of things, not some tiny, dying, stifling, once-upon-a-time holiday destination. Every day I got to be part of creating the future. It was damn exciting. Thrilling really. I didn’t see the point in going back to a place that was clearly ruined and hopeless. It couldn’t be long before it was just plain uninhabitable—just a diseased swamp.


The upside of half of the hospital staff knowing too much about our lives was that people fairly celebrated when we applied for a sabbatical. I wasn’t sure how to take it. I mean they treated us like we’d just won the Tour de France and at the same time like we’d both just been given the black spot. You poor things! Well done for taking some time for yourselves! The implication was that we probably needed it. I wasn’t sure if they were right or not.

Sometimes the kindness of others is nothing other than a great big reminder of your misfortune. Not that I have any right to complain. We’re lucky people; there’s no denying it. Husband and wife both specialised medical professionals, happily married, both multilingual, well-paid, with good friends, and an ever-so-stylish apartment in one of the most prized arrondissements of Paris. We’re members of that lucky set who have the means to buy climate-adjusted French wines. We had real champagne at the wedding, a bottle a table. Half the world wants to be us.

“Humanitarian causes” was what I filled in on the leave application. Luc, our chief of staff, didn’t even ask for an organisation name. I think he took it for granted that we were the humanitarian cause.

“Good for you,” he said. “Two months should be fine. You’ll need to hand over your trials to Gerhard Berlier; he’ll be covering for you while you’re gone.”

“He won’t be too stretched?”

“We’ll manage, don’t worry.”

“Not too well, I hope,” I said, which earned me a flash of a smile. Luc was enough of a sport to understand my concerns. It didn’t hurt for me to acknowledge his constraints too. The hospital was a business, after all. Neither of us could ignore that.

I saw Luc’s eyes roll down as he scrolled through the leave application so I synced to his view of the document.

“Where’re you going?” he asked.

“Cloud Lake,” I said, pointing to the entry.

“Where’s that?”

“It’s where I grew up,” I told him. I pulled up a map. “There.”

“Storms?” he asked me.

I nodded. “There are a lot of complications. The whole place is waterlogged. People used to survive on maize, now the plants just rot.”

“Half the world starving from too little water, the other half starving from too much,” Luc reflected. “Plenty of vector- and water-borne nasties too, I suppose? Well, at least it’s still habitable.”

He wasn’t making a joke of it—how many millions of people have lost what they called home?—but I couldn’t help but laugh. Habitable. Sounds inviting, right?


So I came back, and I found out that what I’d feared was true was true. It wasn’t possible to go back. Not even time travel could reduce the gap that had grown between the lake and me. The general state of affairs here was like a big symbolic confirmation that what I’d loved as a kid was over and buried, best left alone. All that was left was pitiful and, frankly, painful to see: a nice big cup of depressing. Seeing it brought back right away why it was that I’d visited so seldom.

The water had swallowed the entire bottom half of the town. The tops of buildings stuck out of the water like teeth in a jaw. Some, incredibly, even had people living in them and on them, boats hitched to the side. My dad said that the people who lived there believed those buildings were more stable. They thought the water acted as a cushion or a support, absorbing earth tremors. And if they didn’t like their chances, they could simply dive out of the window. The other big plus, in their minds, was that out there in the water they were invulnerable to landslides. Somehow the foundations of those buildings and the slope they’re on have become bedrock.

You leave a place for long enough and then you come back and people who you once just thought of as people are suddenly transformed into simpletons and superstitious bumpkins. And it’s not their fault that you look at them differently. It’s yours—meaning: It’s mine.

I had horrible dreams for the first few weeks. I’m not surprised. Even when I was awake I kept on pinching myself. I would look around and get this awful feeling—and I’m talking actual anxiety here—that my memory wasn’t the right picture. Like what I’d preserved in my mind was make-believe. A large part of me couldn’t help but want to be that boy again, carefree on those forested slopes and on those dusty streets, kicking around a football like that was the point of life. There I was, honestly wondering how much of that had been an invented memory, something I’d seen in a movie.

I felt scrambled, like loose, exposed wires were touching and causing some sort of psychotic, schizoaffective-type malfunction. In other words, I felt like a nut job. It took a while for that clash to settle down. In the dreams time got all messed up and I was sometimes a boy and sometimes a man swimming around those swallowed buildings. I’d try to get a foothold and climb in a window. Every time I slipped, always falling back into the water, and yet somehow I never got wet.


We spent most of our time indoors because of the rain. Carla liked it. She called it romantic. She liked the cosiness, lounging about, the drops on the window (“It [the entire window presumably] could hang in the Musée d’Orsay.”); she liked the reverent hush as the rain drowned out sounds.

“Isn’t this better than summer heat waves?” she wanted to know.

No one walked about the town. They dashed. Occasionally, you saw a distorted figure (through the rain-streaked glass) darting across the street. It amazed me how many people didn’t bother with rain-gear or an umbrella. They relied instead on speed.

I thought back to my glory days of football on the streets, when, for a few hours, I was a striker for one of the world’s most famous clubs. There had been plenty of dry days back then, half a year’s worth of them or more. But we played in the rain sometimes too. We got wet and that added to the fun, even more so because we knew our mothers would scold us for the sopping clothes. Even the mud spatter seemed wholesome to us. When the storms began, our parents got more vigilant about pulling us in as soon as any rain came down. It was paranoia mostly. The storms came announced. There were warnings on TV and the radio and some people, like my dad, had set up email notifications on weather websites. But people were freaked out by the rain that crept further and further out of season, and so for a while they acted like playing in the rain was about the same as tempting in an ugly, pissed-off monster.

When the storms did hit, being indoors wasn’t a guarantee of safety. Two of my playmates, brothers, died when their house collapsed on them. It wasn’t a shack. I’m talking about a solidly built house, walls made of concrete blocks. It probably would have been better if they had lived in a shack because it was the rubble that killed them. They suffocated under the weight. I was thirteen, and it seemed too much of co-incidence that shortly afterwards I was sent off to an expensive boarding school in St Louis, MO, which I hated with a kind of drudging sorrow. Let me tell you, kids are ruthless. They are as sensitive to fear, awkwardness, and inadequacy as sharks are to blood. I did well with my school work but I didn’t connect well with the other kids. I was an outsider from too many standpoints. Even the other brown kids (there were a few) shunned me because I was too much of a hick, a campesino, even if my father was a doctor and I got good grades. Actually, it probably made it worse that I got good grades.

I worked on my father for a long time (it did feel like I was digging a tunnel with a spoon sometimes). I tried pleading, then wailing, then sulking but he stood firm. He missed me too, he said (which showed me immediately that he didn’t understand at all) but he wanted me to get a first class education. If I was homesick (he says, knitting his brows) then I would have to learn to cope. I eventually hit on a winning strategy. My father had always had a soft spot for Europe. In his mind it was not only the birthplace of civilised thought but a continuing bastion of good taste and refinement. So I offered up Europe as a better alternative. He took my argument on board and in my mind I would soon be packing for Madrid—but he surprised me and picked a school in France. He told me that it’d be good for me to learn French. After all, he pointed out, I do have a French name.


When I was younger I hated my name, which makes me pretty normal, I guess. A name is a powerful thing. It lasts a lifetime and suggests the character that you’re supposed to be. Names come with expectations and I was disturbed that this was yet another thing my parents, and not I, the rightful owner of myself, had over me. I didn’t want to suffer the burden of being Jules.

Some kids think their name is boring and common. They want something with a bit more star power. I belonged to the opposite camp, the ones with names that made us cringe when we had to introduce ourselves; the ones who wanted to sound a little less weird—or, in the best case scenario, a little more like the name of my favourite striker.

Jules Joaquín Braga. That’s me. After the writer, Jules Verne.

“Julio?” everyone would ask.

“No. Jules,” I’d say for the hundredth time, my patience on the subject already long gone by the time I could tie my shoe laces unaided. I gave up with most of the town and just let them call me Julio but I was less forgiving with strangers for some reason.
I confronted my father about it one day. I wanted to know why my parents had decided on “Jules”. His disconcertingly enigmatic answer was that they gave it to me because I was the future before its time, a quality that he associated with the famous French writer.

“What?” I said. Imagine arch, pre-adolescent incredulity.

“You’re a wonderful blend of all sorts, a mixed bag of a human being.”

His smiling, singsong answer left me no less dumbfounded.

My great-grandmother, he told me, was an Asian woman who had been brought to the West Indies as a slave. My father’s version of the story is that her Portuguese master, a sugarcane plantation owner, impregnated her. Sometime later, my grandfather left the island, arrived on the continent, and married my grandmother, a mestizo woman. From them came my father, who in turn met my mother, who apparently has far less interest in telling the story of her genealogy than my father does. She’s a Latina, no more, no less.

“All those different people come together in you,” he said to me. “You’re what everyone will be one day, when the world is small enough.”

His idea—or hope—was that the races would one day blend into homogenous humanity. I was a mutt in a world that would be populated by mutts.

Even as a youngster I didn’t quite buy it. But I got the idea that it wasn’t just a joke. He liked the idea, even if he didn’t believe in it. And I gave up on asking why I’d been given such a ridiculous name. My father likes Jules Verne. Did it have to go deeper than that? So I left it alone. He wasn’t finished screwing with me though, that day that I asked about it. After he’d given me the lesson on my family history he sat back, pulled out his tablet, and starting jabbing the screen. I thought he’d dismissed the matter from his mind but he had one last quip.

“You’re lucky we didn’t call you Di Vinci,” he says, and a smile bursts on his face because he’s in love with his own joke. That’s my dad.


Practically nothing in the clinic has been replaced or updated since my last visit and none of it had been particularly modern then. A lot of the equipment is broken or damaged in some way—there are missing buttons and taped up panels, that kind of thing. I spent my first week back at the lake repeating to myself that there was no point in wishing for the kind of equipment I had at my disposal back in Paris. I would have to content myself with slow and get used to doing a lot more deduction. There were far more fundamental shortages to worry about in any case. It seems like a miracle that the clinic gets by. It certainly doesn’t pay for itself. With the tourists gone and agriculture close to dead, I don’t know where Tulanti is getting the money to pay for any of this. Aid donations probably. Maybe it makes a bit off of the energy plant; I’m not sure.

Carla has made herself very useful. She is probably more valuable to the clinic than I am. Having a lab technician run tests saves my father hours every day, and he’s usually got plenty of patients to attend to. He’s still the only doctor at the lake. People come in from the surrounding areas too. The part that fascinates me is that he manages to stay upbeat. I feel trapped between heartbreak and disgust, and he just seems immune to how tragic—and there’s really no other word for it—how tragic the situation is here.

I got a shock when I first saw him. In person I could see the effects. The work’s taken years off of him. His beard is now more white than grey and the crown of his head is breaking through his hair. His eyes have sunken in. My dad was once portly but he’s lost what looks to me like a lot of weight. His skin looks powdery and ashen in some places and purple in others. My mother told me that he routinely sends her home at five in the evening and tells her he’ll be right up but then she doesn’t see him until supper’s already cold.

Underneath his easy-going demeanour, he has to worry. I don’t see how he couldn’t. But he’s dealt with countless catastrophes and gotten through them. I suppose you build up a kind of resilience. I wonder sometimes if his life hasn’t been just one huge calamity control session after another.

I scolded him for making himself too available. He never turns people away once they’ve reached the clinic, and he allows people come to the house at all hours. They wake him up in the middle of the night and present him with feverish foreheads and vomiting children.

“I don’t mind,” he told me.

“Well, I do,” I said. “You’ve got to look after yourself.”

For a second I thought I’d missed something, had a short brain blip, because he was smiling again, happy as a dog.

“What?” I asked, horrified.

“Just like your mother,” he said proudly, shaking his head from side to side.

Thankfully, with Carla and me helping, we all get to put our feet up a bit. Nothing big has hit so far. No EWEs. The first major storm of the year turned north and all we saw was some wind. It’s a relief for me to see that he’s getting some rest. I think he looks a bit better already.


Before the clinic was a clinic, it was a private house, the home of a coffee farmer, a woman who’d apparently been influential in the area. After her death, when the house was being converted, my father had come across a bound folio of pages while sorting through her belongings. He’d put the folio aside somewhere but he’d never read what was in it because all of the pages were written in German. Carla, having grown up on the Rhine, is fluent in German.

“I guessed that they’re stories,” my father had said to Carla when he gave her the folio. “But you can finally solve the mystery for us.”

Since then she’s spent nearly all of her free time pouring through those pages.

“There are a bunch of things,” she told me when I couldn’t bottle up my curiosity any longer. “Some children’s stories; there’s a whole series about two sisters. It’s quite cute. The characters all speak in witty little rhymes.”

“Oh,” I said. I was a little surprised that that kind of thing had grabbed my wife’s attention as much as it had. She’d been spending entire evenings oblivious to her husband.

“But the best bit, the biggest bit, is something else,” she said, answering my unspoken question. “It’s an autobiography.”

Again I was surprised.

“I didn’t think you went for biographies.”

“I suppose it’s having these pages in my hand. I mean, she wrote these. I’m not holding a book in my hands. I’ve got her pages, her actual handwriting. It’s just really real. It makes it -”

“It makes it come alive?” I presumed.

“Really alive! It’s fascinating,” she confirmed. “But I think what grabs me too is how unreal it seems at the same time. She writes about Europe before World War Two and about Tulanti: what it was like when she first got here. If I didn’t see the ink on the pages—and we’ve walked around this woman’s house nearly every day we’ve been here –“

“I spent half of my childhood in it.”

“I know; isn’t it bizarre? Somewhere so familiar to you and there’s this story behind it that you probably know nothing about.”

“Somebody had to have built it.”

“Oh, Jules—don’t be such a man! This is exciting. It’s a part of you. Don’t pretend you aren’t even the slightest bit curious!”

“Maybe,” I acceded, toying with her.

“We’re so distanced from the past, don’t you think? Even if I know it’s real –“

“Or suppose it’s real.”

“—or suppose it’s real—it might as well be fiction. We have to construct this world that we really know so little about. We can barely touch it.”

“It might as well be science fiction,” I said. I will admit to a delicately applied veneer of facetiousness over my somewhat candid reply.

“Exactly! Isn’t it so intriguing?”

There are moments in my life that I love my wife perfectly. I see her for the beautiful, shining being that she is, and in those moments we both transcend everything. They are those all-too-few, all-too-brief moments that explain entire lifetimes.

She was up on her elbow, completely unaware of how sexy she looked with her black-framed glasses. I kissed the top of her head and sat down. She rolled and put the back of her head on my thigh.

“I feel sorry for her though.”


“Well, apart from the death of her husband, daughter, and most likely the rest of her family too—“

“Yes, apart from that.”

“She was really lonely, I think, trying very hard not to be disillusioned. There was a war on when she wrote this—a civil war. There’s no ending exactly; it just stops one day after a description of a crippled soldier’s wife who walks out of the church with tears on her face. She writes a lot about cruelty. But I think the thing that makes me saddest is that you can feel how stuck she feels. All the people she loved were on the other side of a threshold—either death or the past—but she was stuck here, never entirely sure if she wanted to be. She couldn’t go back so she looked ahead—at death, I mean—and wondered endlessly if there was any hope to be found there and what form of hope that could be. It’s not that I think it’s so bad exactly—being conscious of death…”

“Then, what?”

“Really?” she said, shocked.

I smiled. My wife can be such a chump sometimes.


When I told Carla about my recurring dream (or nightmare—take your pick), she said something like: “It’s only natural. You know, seeing what’s happening to this place that you’ve burnished in your memory. It’s a pretty tough coming to terms. It’s understandable that you feel helpless.”

“Yes, I know that.” I don’t know why I told her in the first place.

I got up and had a shower. She was still in bed when I came back in. She looked good. Rested and healthy. It had been a good idea to come, I thought. There were no ghostly babies in the room, just my wife and I. And damn did she look good! What is it about a woman lying on her side covered with nothing but a plain sheet?

Fuck it, I thought. I’ll take another shower afterwards. It’s not like there’s any shortage of water here.


That night she said that dreams are stories that we tell ourselves. She had a handful of those handwritten sheets in her one hand, which was crooked against the bed but still clutched the papers.

“Well, sure,” I responded. She was obviously trying to get at something but I was a few steps of her argument behind her.

“No, you don’t understand,” she said.

“No, you’re right; I don’t.”

She thought about it for a second.

“I’m talking about how significant that is. I mean there has to be something really fundamental there.”

“Ok.” Wait for it, I thought. I watched her pick through her own line of reasoning, probably putting it together in sequence for the first time.

“This woman wrote about her life. She wrote children’s stories for her daughter. She even writes about writing stories. Whether she knew it or not, they were really important to her—but she didn’t show this autobiography to anyone. She wrote it in German in a place where no one spoke German. I’m probably the first person to ever read this.”

“Guaranteed,” I said.

“And then I thought about your dream, the one where you fall from the side of the building into the water but don’t get wet. It’s a story that you’re telling yourself, subconsciously or whatever. Story-telling is so deep in us, such a hard-wired part of our psyche, that we do it involuntarily. We can’t stop it any more than we can stop breathing. That’s got to mean it’s about survival,” she said. “Deep-seated instinct is always about survival.”


My smiling dad was a more serious man when I was young, although he’s always had his own particular dry brand of humour. When you least expected it a joke popped out of his mouth. He even seemed surprised at them sometimes, as if he couldn’t believe the little marvel that had just surfaced. I suppose he’s always been the chief connoisseur of his own humour. As I grew older he loosened up; he seemed less suspicious and laughed more frequently. Maybe our relationship changed and I saw more than I had before when he was Dad the Almighty of my early childhood. I don’t really remember when the smiles had proliferated.

I sometimes wonder if I tried to balance out what I perceived as a shift within the family, like I needed to carefully monitor the quota of mirth in case we lost control and become air-headedly stupid. As I got older (as we all got older), I somehow became the serious one in the family. It became a matter of dignity and moral rectitude to not laugh at my father’s jokes. Instead, I rolled my eyes. I didn’t know how to contend with having a father who I loved to death and respected immensely but that was becoming a complete embarrassment. He grew this great big beard. Already a stout man, he grew rounder. My friends made unfavourable comparisons to a certain Christmas saint.

“Why are you letting Dad get so fat?” I asked my mother one day, shortly before my banishment to the US.

Annoyingly, she found the question adorable. I think, to my mother, my father is the greatest man alive. Her blindness bugged me, especially when I was younger, but I understood too, because when it came to down to it, I agreed. But one thing has never really changed since I first got shipped off. When my father laughs, my instinct is to frown. I’m not like that with Clara or friends or colleagues, and if my mother ever did crack jokes I’d probably laugh with her too. I can’t believe I’ve never noticed it before now.


I have my mother’s bird skeleton. I am slight and lanky. Apart from that, I am my father’s son. I have his features. I have his eyes, my great-grandmother’s eyes (again, according to my father). They shouldn’t keep popping up; the gene should be recessive but it keeps appearing. “The family jewels” my father calls them and I have stolen this line. I use it to respond to compliments and to tease Carla with the haggard myth.

Carla is jealous of my skin. Hers is light. She turns red at the touch of the sun. In the summer months in Paris her shoulders are permanently rosy because she always forgets to wear sunscreen. I’m convinced her forgetfulness is planned, although I have nothing to base the suspicion on apart from how often it slips her mind. She has told me a dozen times that our child had better have my complexion.


The second storm of the season hit, and it hit squarely. People came through howling winds and torrential rain, carrying injured friends and family. And when the storm passed they kept on coming. On the day of the storm and three days after it we had our hands full. The bulk of the work was trauma cases: dislocations, concussions, contusions, fractures, etc. Unsurprisingly, shock was a common complication. Many had been subjected to long periods of environmental exposure. They were often dehydrated and sometimes even hypothermic. Some people arrived at the clinic seeking shelter because the winds had battered down their flimsy, little houses, and they’d not had time yet to erect replacements to keep the rain off. We had people camping out in the hallways, which was apparently pretty normal. People knew the drill. Most of them had been through it at least once before.

One night, sounding drugged with tiredness, my father presented me with his theory that there were people in the lake’s population that had PTSD or something similar. These people need mental health treatment yet they’re too poor to build a home with anything other than mud, timber, maybe some concrete and a few sheets of metal or plastic. Emotional trauma is definitely out of their budget. And nobody else will pay. Hurt that cannot be seen doesn’t get funding. They probably don’t even know they’re going through hell; they’re so used to it.

They stay because they’ve got nothing else to go to. The whole country—the whole region—is in sustained collapse, and until visa fees are cut by seventy, eighy percent—which probably won’t happen in this lifetime—the borders to anywhere better are closed to most people. The world is sick of environmental refugees. No one wants to hear it anymore or bear it anymore. So the poor are kept in, kept thoroughbred and humble. It’s easier—more manageable—to close borders and throw relief money over the walls. But then there’s always that fear: that a little bit of charity and a little bit of learning, added on top of a sense of tribe, will afford the dissatisfied the means to organise their dissent, and perhaps even the means to take without asking.

They stay because they’d prefer live their lives here, where they are at home.

These thoughts give me gut-ache. This is part of why I didn’t come back: this horrible guilt I knew I’d feel. But it just makes sense, doesn’t it? If one side of the world is stable and the other is in decline, where would you choose to make your home? If you want to have kids and give them a future? This is the argument I make but the truth is I chose long before I’d even met Carla. I left, and I stayed gone.


We went through another storm about two weeks later. It was far milder. It had been a malevolent whirl out over the Caribbean Sea, moving like a saw over the islands, but it spent itself early. By the time it reached us it had lost most of its force. We had a day and a half in which we were all in the clinic at the same time. It was less serious, manageable for three doctors.


Then, one morning, I woke up blinking. The sun was shining. You could see it through the window, floating so resolutely in a field of blue that I could have sworn I’d never seen a different sky in that frame.

Carla was awake, staring out. I blinked and sat up, rubbing my eyes and stifling a yawn.

“You should have brought me here sooner,” she said—softly, without rebuke. I sat for a few moments, feeling muddled. I wondered if there was something wrong or out of place. I wasn’t sure how to take her statement.

“I know,” I said. “It wasn’t trying to hide it from you. It was me,” I added after a moment. “I guess I was scared.”

I wondered if she found the window as artful as she’d found it in the rain.


When we got to the breakfast table, my father was bursting with excitement. Since we’d arrived, he’d been maniacal about monitoring weather imagery, principally to pick up storms but also because he couldn’t wait to get me outside and put a fishing rod in my hand. He wanted a nice sunny day, just like the ones we used to go out on. He’d sworn that they do exist, like little gems embedded in the wet.

For as far back as I can remember my father has been a keen fly-fisherman. I’m not sure where he learned—at the lake, I assumed—because he grew up in the city. Wherever and whenever it had been, he’d grown a great love for it. And unlike our failed attempt to teach my fingers how to milk sweet lilting music from violin strings and accordion keys, fishing had suited me just fine. Outdoors, in the sunshine, nothing but a rod, you, the fish, and the elements. It was the most private thing that my father and I had shared when I was young, that one area where our interests truly overlapped and neither of us had to feign anything.

For a few short years, I made it my life’s purpose to perfect my cast. It had even eclipsed my dreams of football stardom because of a significant difference: I knew that this could be achieved in the here and now; I would taste success. I would watch my father, studying everything he did as the rod waved back and forth, trailing line, and weaving a particular kind of spell. I watched how he synchronised his movements, pulling line smoothly from the reel as the rod moved backwards. Eventually the hypnotic rhythm of back and forth would end; the rod would point forward, extended and terse—and a moment later the fly would land, causing ripples to travel through the reflections that lay on the surface of the water.

I asked him if he had a “Gone Fishing” sign for the clinic, and then, in case he hadn’t gotten the idea from that, I mentioned that there’d surely be patients coming into the clinic. Wouldn’t they be upset to find it closed?

I felt bad about trying to wiggle out of it because part of me did want to go. My adventures with a rod had all but ceased when I’d gone off to school. I was curious about whether my hands would remember the dance of the rod and whether I’d re-find the pleasure of being out there. But my fond memories were exactly why I was reluctant. My father, no dummy, saw straight through me—almost literally, actually. He put the family jewels to work and fixed me with their cool-burning beryl gaze.

“It’s not often that I get a day off,” he said, in an infuriatingly reasonable voice. “It’s even rarer for me to have that day off with my son.”

“Go,” encouraged Carla. “I’ll hold down the fort.”


As we prepared to go out I got this bizarre picture in my head of my dad and me, casting from the top of one of those drowning buildings. Instead, we walked around the back of the town and along the edge of the lake towards one of our old spots. It was a glorious day, warm and clear, not a cloud to be seen. When we finally stopped, a good half an hour later, I didn’t recognise the place. The fishing spot we’d once frequented had been a flat section at the edges of a river mouth. That was gone, just like the rest of my childhood. We would be casting onto the place where I’d once stood to cast, if we could even reach that far.

I started setting up my rod, worried that my fingers would fumble with the knot, tying on the fly. It had been a long time—but they knew what to do. The memory was still there, locked in nerve and muscle. I left them alone and they did the job, stalling only when I let my big brain get in the way.

I had forgotten how big that sky could be. Grey skies sit closer in than blue ones. The grey hunches down over you, and is flat and depressive. But that blue dome, infinitely graded, backs up and gives you room. It retreats so far up that it seems disinterested in the small lives on the surface. It seems trusting. Oh, that sky is beautiful, beautiful freedom! I’d missed it.

“What’s wrong?” asked my father.

“Nothing. Just—taking it in,” I replied.

He approved. He broke a smile that was as relaxed as whimsy.

“Ready?” he asked, and I nodded. But I still watched him cast before I did a thing. I just wanted to watch it, for old time’s sake. Then I cast. Line through the air, rod moving like a showman’s whip, my arm like a cobra, all the while making sure not to get snagged on what’s behind.

Then there we were, both of us standing at the water’s edge, lines in, working the fly back towards the shore.

Opposite us, also a short distance from Tulanti, the geothermal power plant was releasing wisps of vapour from its chimney pipes. If you didn’t know any better you might think that the imposing-looking building was manufacturing clouds—which is exactly what I thought when I was a boy. While I was aware that the plant somehow produced electricity, I’d been convinced the other function of the plant, possibly a more important function, was to populate the sky with the clouds that gave the lake its name. My young mind had put two and two together, and I’d believed it so unquestioningly that it had taken some time before anyone knew about it. When it eventually came out, my teacher had tried to let me down gently, telling me that there could be some truth to it—but I was crushed. My perfectly logical little fallacy buckled in on itself and the temporary lacuna in my knowledge gave my classmates ammunition for a few months’ worth of jibes. It’s a cute story, ripe for the telling—the kind of story that parents love to dust off and present to girlfriends and fiancées but they’ve said nothing about it to Carla. Perhaps they’ve forgotten.

The plant was conceived of by a man I have always addressed as Uncle Mauricio, a long-time friend of my father’s. Uncle Mauricio has also been the mayor of Tulanti for at least the last two decades. The power plant had been a great idea, really. Something quite inspired. Others obviously share my opinion because the idea was mimicked by other communities that lie on the volcanic belt that runs through the region. Volcanic heat became energy for homes and street lights and businesses, and in Tulanti’s case it powers two pumps that pull water from the lake. The smaller pump sends water to the town’s water purification plant. The larger of the two, in a desperate attempt to fight the rising lake, sends raw water over the crest of hills that surround the lake. From there, lake water begins a slow trickle towards the Pacific—a tiny, constant, man-made stream. I have no idea if it actually reaches the ocean.

“It’s so strange to think this might all be gone one day,” I said.

“Gone?” my father asked.

“Yeah, gone. Everything swallowed by the lake.”

I glanced at my father. He was looking outward, bringing his line in.

“I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”

“I’m not worried. It’s just sad, that’s all.”

“Son, one day that sun up there is going to start running out of fuel. Maybe it’s a mercy but when that happens this whole planet is going to be eclipsed by an expanding star. Everything we’ve ever known or will know will disappear. Every continent and ocean trench, every bit of human endeavour and failure. In the end it all gets fried. The universe will take it all back and do something else with the bits and pieces, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

I was speechless. I had absolutely no idea how to respond. My dad finished reeling his line in. His hand was on the leader; the fly was shedding drops of water.

“It just gives you a little perspective,” he said.

“That’s a lot more perspective than I was going for, Dad,” I said. “I think you’ve just prematurely kick-started my mid-life crisis.”

“The universe will be just fine without us, Jules. All us humans can do is help each other to enjoy whatever time we have. That’s all there is to it, and that’s kind of nice when you think about it. It simplifies things, takes all the pressure off. It’s helped me anyway.”

He held his rod forward again, allowing the fly to dangle in front of him. He took his stance, about to begin his cast. I was standing still. I’d left my line to float in the water. It could look after itself for a while. The silky, sinuous, whisk of my father’s line sliced through the air.

His fly landed in the water. Ripples. Reflections. Complete and utter calm.

“They’re not biting,” I said.

He was staring out at the water too, like he could see below the surface.

“Nope,” he agreed. “They’re in no rush. But then neither are we. Not today.”

“Not today,” I agreed.

“It’s good to be fishing with your old man, isn’t it?” he said.

“Yes, Dad, it really is.”


Back at the clinic, the first thing we did was check the weather. Atlantic winds were beginning to circle each other, like a dog and a bitch in heat.

Meteorologists said that there was every sign that this one would come straight for us. That’s what they say every time though. You never know. Something else gets introduced into the system, a small ocean current they’d not noticed before or a half a degree change in average sea temperature, and suddenly they’re busy explaining away their prediction. The models aren’t perfect yet, they say mechanically. Weather is complex, nearly impossible to predict without all of the data—even though they’ve got loads of data. Whatever the forecast, all of us end up watching through the windows anyway.

My dad clasped me around the shoulders and gave me a little squeeze. I hate it when he treats me like I’m still small but I allowed it. My shoulder pressed into the groove between his shoulder and chest, and I moved the palm of my trapped arm so that it fit in the small of his back.

“Time to get back to work, huh?” he said.


She’s staring out of the window again and I can see two of her. The window is a pool of black with a neon spectrum caught in glistening, watery streaks—and my wife’s ghost. The solid version of her, the one on the bed, is not facing me but her reflection is, and it watches me watching her.

“Two more weeks,” I say.

She glances over her shoulder to look at me.

“Yes,” she says, and I struggle to read her answer. Its sibilant ending is sheered clean but her voice is also immediate and intimate. Is she wistful, pining, or just stuck in thought?

“If we have a child—” she asks (she is looking forwards again). ”—what would you want to name it?”

I approach my wife and put my chin on her head. I look forwards too, towards the window, and see our reflections. I look at her but I also look at myself. I take a good look, and then let my vision move to the black and neon canvas of glass.

“I’d like to call him Verne,” I say after a short pause. This pleases me and I see my reflection smile, softly; both of my eyes stretch into slits. I can feel the slight shift in pressure of my jawbone on Carla’s crown, and then it slips as she turns her head. She wants to look at me.

Her eyes are twinkling and we share the same ingenuous, naughty smile.

“And what makes you think we’re having a boy?” she asks.

“All right then,” I say. “You get to pick if it’s a girl. What’ll it be? What’s our daughter’s name?”

“That’s easy,” she says. “Karen.”

“Karen?” I ask.


“Karen it is then.”




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