When the Floods Came by Clare Morrall
Clare Morrall’s debut novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. Since then she’s gone from strength to strength, her seventh and most recent novel, When the Floods Came, is out now.
Twenty years after the world is ravaged by Hoffman’s virus, twenty-two-year-old Roza Polanski lives with her family in an empty tower block. With her mother, father, two younger sisters and a brother, she lives in an overgrown area of Birmingham, alternating between sheltering from the floods or the sweltering heat. Her parents are unusual, lucky to survive the virus and then even luckier to finds themselves to conceive. Children are a rare and much-valued commodity.
When she begins to notice little cat drawings in places she hasn’t noticed before she starts to wonder if someone else is out there, someone trying to send her a message. A while later, as the snow begins to fall and they’re confined within the block, a young man reveals himself to the family. Trapped with a stranger, stronger than any of them, they are forced to trust he has good intentions but where did he really come from and are the stories he tells about other survivors true?
Clare Morrall creates an easily imaginable not-too-distant future with When the Floods Came, with a virus sweeping across England and eventual change of our ecosystem, creating a harsh environment for the Polanski’s to survive in. They manage on their own, collecting survival drops, scavenging from the various flats in the block and learning how to fix the items they need. The stranger, Aashay, shakes their world up by offering them the chance of more. More people to interact with, more children to play with, more hope for the future. But the Polanski’s do have a secret of their own to hide, giving them a depth and an extra vulnerability that makes their choices even more daunting.
Spanning a number of genres When the Floods Came could be described as literary, sci-fi, dystopian and a thriller, all being accurate. Mixing in childhood lullabies to add context and impact is also a unique twist that I really enjoyed. Overall When the Floods Came is a powerful tale of trust and deceit set in an all too imaginable future. If you enjoy the bestseller Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel then this will be right up your street.
If my review has you intrigued then you’re in luck! Below you’ll find the entire first chapter of When the Floods Came for you to enjoy.
WHEN THE FLOODS CAME BY CLARE MORRALL: EXTRACT
It’s a late afternoon in August. Dense clouds hover overhead, signposting an end to the suffocating heat of summer. I’m standing on the steps at the entrance to the Birmingham Art Gallery, looking out over the amphitheatre of Chamberlain Square, examining the neo-Gothic tower, which only partially resembles its online image. The pool at the base, where small fountains once bubbled charmingly and prevented the water from becoming stagnant, is now filled with mud, home for a profusion of marigolds and nettles. Vicious brambles are snaking their way up the tower, gripping it tightly, claiming yet another conquest on their path to world domination. The outline of the surrounding architecture, blurred by a cloak of moss, is pleasing.
In my head, I can hear Popi’s voice, dark, quiet, typically grave: ‘Roza, is this wise?’
‘I really don’t know. It can’t still be against the law to be here.’
‘We both know it probably is.’
‘Well, nobody’s going to enforce it, so what does it matter?’
‘You should be guided by more than the law. Common sense should play a part.’ He’s a Literalist. He prefers to think in the present. He’ll occasionally go backwards, but refuses to go forwards. I’ve got no time for this attitude. I’m twenty-two. The future is ahead and I have no intention of missing any of it.
I’m wearing rose-coloured, skinny trousers that are wearing thin at the knees, trainers, a greyish velvet jacket worn smooth with age, and a brown woolly hat. I’d like a smarter jacket, but I make do with what I can get, these days. I can’t summon the dedication of my sister Delphine, who spends hours, sometimes days, hunting for quality clothes. The frizzy wisps of hair that peep out from under my hat have been bleached to a shining blonde by the sun, while the rest of my hair is tied back into a single long plait that reaches to my waist. I’ve got good hair, inherited from Moth, light brown, thick and glossy. I’ve sewn two yellow felt flowers with orange centres on one side of my hat, but they won’t stay upright. They’re meant to be daffodils, but they’re too droopy. More ‘rest in peace’ than ‘the beginning of spring’.
I told Hector about this place when we decided to get engaged – it wasn’t quite official at the time. We’d had the results from the Hoffman’s test verified, not yet the fertility one, but it was good enough for me – and I wanted to offer him something personal. It was a password into the secret world of my mind, an invitation to understand me.
But he was shocked. ‘I don’t like you going there. It’s not safe.’
Hector and Popi are going to hit it off splendidly. They are synonyms personified. Different appearance, same intentions.
‘It’s perfectly safe,’ I said. ‘There’s never anyone else there.’
‘Maybe you should ask yourself why.’
‘I do ask that. But I can’t think of an answer.’
He looked directly into my eyes, made his voice deeper than usual. ‘Roza,’ – he’s not so impressive when he’s being serious – ‘you must promise me not to go back. Otherwise I’ll spend my entire life worrying about you.’
Tricky. Should I refuse to promise or should I lie? I hesitated, watching the dismay gathering in his gentle eyes at the delay in my response.
‘Very well, Hector,’ I said.
He smiled then and leant over to send me a kiss. I watched his mouth pucker into an intimate round shape, surrounded by the soft wisps of unshaven hair, and approached the computer screen, pretending to kiss him back. It might have been more satisfying if he’d been a hologram, but my POD hasn’t been functioning all that well recently, and he’d have been even less substantial as a holo. I don’t like kissing air.
I’m lucky to have him. We’re required to be married by the age of twenty-five. Safeguarding the next generation, says the government in Brighton. But it’s hard to find suitable men when it’s all done online – almost impossible, in fact, unless you’re given an introduction – so I’m proud that I’ve been able to find Hector myself. He’s clever, wordy. The formality of his manners delights Popi and Moth, and keeps me, Boris and Delphine endlessly entertained.
The statue of a man, the nineteenth-century economist, Thomas Attwood – I know this, I’ve read all about him on the History Mall on Freight – reclines on the steps opposite the art gallery, a bronze sheet of paper spread out on his knee, while the rest of his papers are scattered, apparently random despite their metallic rigidity, further up the steps. Attwood has broken the rules, done his own thing, by climbing down from his assigned position and proving himself to be an original thinker.
The plinth where he should be perched remains empty, an insignificant block at the top of the steps. There’s something satisfying nabout the fact that he never returns to his rightful place, never moves, never feels the need to read information from another sheet of paper.
The silence is enormous.
Moth has told us how it used to be, pre-Hoffman’s, when the country was heaving. As a child, more than forty years ago, she came here once a year with her own mother, the grandmother I never met, for the German market. The floods were creeping across the country even then, claiming new ground after every cataclysmic storm, slowly furrowing out pathways for future expansion, but it was still possible to travel during the winter months. To market, to market, to buy a fat pig.
There was a curious desire to think backwards in pre- Hoffman’s times, Moth said, to recreate the world of the Middle Ages, as if it had been a period of boundless good cheer: dancers, men on stilts, jugglers, market stalls; crowds of cheerful people drinking steaming mugs of mulled wine, eating, talking, jostling, spending money. I’ve studied the scenarios on History, seen photos of adverts from old newspapers.
Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.
Nobody comes here any more. Or if they do, they know how to hide. Even the birds keep away, knowing that the overflowing bins, the discarded food, have all gone. Just occasionally, a flight of pigeons manoeuvres overhead in tight formation, banking steeply to one side, turning, soaring up and coming round into a giant circle, their wings flickering in the sunlight, their movements carefree but controlled. So someone somewhere still has a pigeon loft. But they never land or even come close to the ground, never show any curiosity.
For years, I used to cycle along the A456, the Hagley Road, with my brother, Boris, who’s two years younger than me, and, when she was old enough, my sister Delphine, six years younger. When we reached the Five Ways roundabout, we would circle endlessly, examining the white barriers that blocked access to Broad St, convinced there was a way through to the city centre, a secret door somewhere in the apparently seamless construction. But they remained huge and pristine, travelling along the outer rim of the roundabout and then onwards, north and south, a small arc in the giant protective ring around the city.
They were curiously beautiful, glittering in the sunlight, washed clean by rain and snow, impossible to breach. Purpose-built by men in contamination suits, sent by a government frantic with fear.
We once saw two racers in training on the roundabout. They swept past us, clad in tight-fitting black bodysuits, as sleek and shiny as their bikes, banking sharply as they sped round the inside of the curve, skilfully avoiding the potholes, slicing away every possible centimetre in their pursuit of speed. Pigeons on wheels. They disappeared into the distance of the A456, too fast to notice us. Delphine suggested afterwards that we should have thrown ourselves on the road in front of them, compelled them to stop, risked our safety for the sake of contact with other human beings. But they’d gone before we’d had time to release our breath.
Another time, several years ago, a group of three children on bikes, slightly younger than us, appeared on the roundabout, guarded with zealous vigilance by women, one for each child.
Where had they come from? Did they all belong to the same family? The adults stayed close, on the lookout for danger, expecting to be obeyed, while the children chatted to each other with restless enthusiasm.
‘Hey!’ I called, waving my arms to attract their attention, excited beyond belief by their presence. ‘Hello!’
They slowed down for a few seconds when they first saw us, equally astonished, delighted to acknowledge our existence, but the women closed in, a human barrier between them and us.
‘Parvinder, please concentrate. Keep away from the barriers.’
‘Yes, Mrs Atkins.’
‘Walloo!’ shouted Delphine. ‘Over here! We’re the Polanskis. Who are you?’
‘Can we race you?’ yelled Boris.
They turned their heads away and cycled towards a slip-road in the opposite direction, as if we weren’t there. Why didn’t they show more curiosity? Were they afraid of us? Had they spent so much of their lives obeying the adults that they’d lost the ability to act independently? They carried on, in a direction unfamiliar to us, lurching dramatically from side to side as they picked up speed, past the redundant road signs, the twisted shapes that had long since lost their function and their words.
‘Beat you home, Pikkanip!’
‘Mrs Aggarwal! She called me Pikkanip!’
‘Sorry!’ A voice trailing through the wind, lacking conviction.
‘Let’s follow them,’ said Boris. ‘We could findout where they live.’
‘What if we get lost?’ says Delphine. ‘Popi said we mustn’t go too far from home.’
‘He didn’t know about the children when he said that,’ says Boris. ‘We can’t let them go.’
We trailed them for a while, keeping a respectful distance. I imagined arriving in front of their home, knocking on their door. Would they offer us drinks and biscuits? We could sit round a kitchen table and chat, exchange experiences, play a game, then invite them to our fl at when we left. But when the children glanced back, they seemed to look straight through us, as if we didn’t exist, and I started to wonder if we were invisible. We lost the confidence to smile or to wave at them. Were they just the product of our wishful thinking, a mirage, some kind of memory film that presented an image of people as they used to be?
After ten minutes, we started losing speed, uncomfortable in the unknown surroundings.
‘We’ll have to let them go,’ I said, aware of our responsibility to look after Delphine, who was only eight. ‘We’ll get lost.’
We told Popi when we returned home, because it didn’t occur to us not to. He and Moth exchanged frowns. ‘You know, don’t you, that you must never tell anyone where we live?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ said Delphine, nodding vigorously, as if we met other children all the time. ‘Of course.’
I remembered uncomfortably my plan to invite them back to our flat.
‘But who are they?’ said Boris. ‘Where do they come from? Where were they going? Why haven’t we seen them before?’
Sitting next to Moth when I was about five, singing quietly together:
‘Where do you come from? Where do you go? Where do you come from, Cotton-eyed Joe?’ Squeezed side by side in an abandoned one-person carpod, becalmed, unlikely to go anywhere, ever. ‘What does ‘‘cottoneyed’’ mean, Moth?’
Moth laughed. ‘Do you know, I have absolutely no idea. You’d have to ask an American. They talk the same language as us, but you can never work out what they’re on about.’
‘But I don’t know any Americans.’
‘No, nor me.’ She paused for a moment. ‘It doesn’t really matter if we understand them or not. We’re never likely to meet any.’ She had been a teenager at the time of the anti-pollution protests, celebrating enthusiastically when the laws were passed, delighted when the visitors from abroad stopped coming and the airports lapsed into silence, but less vocal when the economy failed. Now she thinks the laws were pointless, far too late to be of any use. ‘It just made everyone feel better. Didn’t stop the floods, did it?’
We pretended we were shooting up the M40 in our carpod, returning from the theatre in London. Moth made the sound of an engine for the sake of verisimilitude, a kind of gentle whine, like the whirr of the yoghurt-maker. One of thousands of vehicles, exactly forty feet apart, eighty miles an hour, on the road home. The past according to Moth: the fleeting presence of Cotton-eyed Joe; speed; home in time for tea.
The roads still slice across the land, routes to forgotten cities, promises of connection. They’re crumbling at the edges – and in the middle – fatally perforated by water and frost, surrendering to the silent march of the weeds, cluttered with debris from the floods, but clinging on, the blood vessels of the old world.
One summer’s day, about four years ago, I found the way through to the city centre. We’d been searching in the wrong place. While I was still on the A456, just before I reached Five Ways, I saw that a section of the metal fence along the right edge had collapsed, weakened by a hundred-mile-an-hour wind, the weight of a flood or the searing summer heat. And there was a road behind that I’d never noticed before. It sloped downwards, underneath the roundabout. Narrow, almost invisible, hidden by the waist-high grass, buddleia and rhododendrons that had grown up round the fence. I veered to the side, towards the gap where the fence had broken, swerved through and entered the wilderness of the slip-road. I had to dismount almost immediately, unable to negotiate the thick undergrowth on my bike. Within a short distance, as increasingly higher walls rose up on either side, all external sounds ceased and the plants began to thin. Darkness wrapped round me as I entered the underground section. The silence had a tangible quality, as if I could hear breathing, as if Boris, Delphine and our little sister, Lucia, were running along behind me, struggling to keep up.
Are we allowed? The whisper of Delphine’s voice in my ear, excited, but hesitant, only just discovering the attraction of independence,
still prepared to report back to Popi.
Go for it, Roza! No reservations from Boris.
Can I come? Lucia, just behind me, anxious to be in on the action.
Mud, deposited by constant flooding, had accumulated underneath the roundabout, replacing the vegetation: black, still and unknowable. I picked my way carefully, searching for the matted roots of weeds as stepping stones, trying to avoid sinking into the slime. I used the bike as a prop and kept going, through the lowest part, up the opposite slope into heat and sunshine.
Into the forbidden city.
I came to a halt. Ghostly buildings rose up, tall and holloweyed where windows had been blown out by fire, and the bricks of blackened walls were slowly eroding. Several of the buildings had sycamores growing through their centres, seeded into the mud, trunks forcing their way up through broken ceilings and roofs, onwards to the sky, pausing on the way to send their branch-like fingers into side-rooms, poke through empty window frames and out towards the sunlight. Their leaves shivered in the open air, excited by their release, the opportunity for photosynthesis.
I was amazed to find most of the infrastructure intact. Twenty years ago, in the aftermath of Hoffman’s, the Brighton government sent out drones and zapped most uninhabited areas. They identified empty buildings, marked them on their computers, then crumpled them neatly. The debris was removed by sky trucks and the land was left to lie. A short-sighted policy, according to Popi, who rambles on about the lost opportunities of supermarkets when he’s feeling nostalgic. An unnecessary policy, according to Moth, who’s a science teacher and understands these things. ‘It was bonkers. Viruses have a limited life. You just have to wait for them to die out. If the government had acted more decisively in the first place, told everyone to go home and wait out the thirty-day incubation period, we’d have avoided catastrophe. But no, panic was more satisfying. It was like setting up a hosepipe by the garden gate to protect your fences, watching the sparks shoot over your head and land on your roof, while next door goes up in smoke. Typical blundering. Probably just as well most of the politicians didn’t survive.’
‘They were only trying to prove to the outside world they could manage a quarantine,’ said Popi.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Nikolai. The fire was ten miles down the road by that time.’
But Birmingham wasn’t flattened. Other big cities – I know about London, Manchester, Edinburgh, but I’m not sure about the rest – have also been left upright, hidden behind more white barriers, as if someone somewhere made the decision that we should hold on to our history. Although Boris, who studies satellite images on the Geog Mall on Freight, says much of London is now under water, and therefore not preserving its heritage after all.
I’m not afraid of contamination. ‘The virus can’t survive long outside the human body without mutating,’ Moth told us. ‘So when all the people died, that form of Hoffman’s died with them. It wasn’t necessary to destroy all the food, demolish all those shops. They really should have waited.’
‘Anyway,’ Popi said, ‘we’re good. The Polanski genes have protected us.’
‘I’m a McCracken,’ says Moth. ‘My genes are good too.’ And we can still have children. It’s now thought that most Hoffman survivors weren’t actually immune at all, but caught the virus in the milder form that eventually spread to the continent and the rest of the world. They didn’t know they’d had it until they discovered that they’d lost their fertility. Popi and Moth are part of a tiny minority with genuine immunity.
‘A double first,’ says Popi. ‘Born with silver spoons in our mouths, without even knowing it. No idea why, but it’s been useful.’
Understatement. Popi’s civilised response to the world.
Why would he worry about me being here?
I turn away from my contemplation of Chamberlain Square, towards the heavy doors of the art gallery. I’ve been planning this for some time, wanting to see if any of the art still exists, but nervous about entering the building. I usually cycle the streets, study the architecture, create memories for all those people who didn’t live long enough to inhabit their own futures, but I rarely go inside anywhere. I’ve recently made a decision, aware of my dishonest promise to Hector, and the short time before he arrives.
If it wasn’t true when I said it, maybe it should be in the future.
Popi, who’s an artist, has taught me to think beyond the mundane. He’s working on a giant sculpture, the image of a young girl who will look like me when she’s finished, constructing it on the concrete playground beside Wyoming House, our tower block, between the traces of old roundabouts, see-saws and swings. Before starting the sculpture, Popi spent many months preparing a platform that could be raised during the winter, knowing that if his art isn’t made secure while he’s still working on it, it’ll be washed away, cracked open by frost or blown over by a tornado. At the first suggestion of bad weather, he sets off the mechanism, and, from windows high up in Wyoming, we watch the child rising, past the lower levels, up and up, until it reaches the delivery bay on the 4th and tucks neatly into the cavity. Then Popi closes the weatherproof doors and waits for spring.
The sculpture has been growing steadily for years, like a real child, but the girl remains fixed at five years old, painted in brilliant, shining colours, coated in layers of varnish, heading inexorably upwards. Progress is painfully slow. I can’t remember when he started on the feet, but for a while there were just twoshoes, black with straps across the top fastened by vel, and white socks. Then came the legs, round and chubby, with a graze on the left knee. He’s reached the shoulders and we’re waiting for the head, but there’s some concern that she won’t fit into the delivery bay once she’s complete. Popi will come up with something, I’m sure. If it’s important to him, he can solve anything. We make fun of his ambition – Moth complains at the paints and varnishes left lying around in the hall – but we all know it’s important.
His intention is to weatherproof it, leave it outside and let it expand and contract with the seasons, like the wooden beams that were used to construct old ships. It will be hard to watch it deteriorate, and there would always be the danger that it’ll come away from its fixings. Maybe he’ll eventually find a more suitable place for it than the abandoned playground, on top of Wyoming, perhaps among the solar panels, the turbines and the water tanks, with Edward the goat (who is female and should be called Edwina, but ended up with the male version of her name because we were all fond of the story about the three billy goats) and the hens, only visible from the sky. Then it can endure as long as there’s someone to see it, a symbol of our family’s refusal to follow the crowd.
Now I would like to know if any of the pictures from the past were saved, or if everything has to start again. I’ve seen plenty of images on the Art Mall, but Popi is contemptuous of online art.
‘Don’t be fooled,’ he says. ‘No smell, no tingle – you’re only getting half the experience.
‘Don’t be so precious,’ says Moth. ‘It’s not as if we’ve got a choice.’
Snowflakes start to flutter round me, as if slightly bewildered, not quite sure whether they are doing the right thing. I stare at them, annoyed. It’s still August. It’s not even that cold. The blizzards can’t start this early. Why didn’t the meteos warn us? I’ll have to go home. Nobody argues with the weather. It’s the one rule that every member of the family respects. Remember Lucia, they say, without actually saying it.
My visit to the art gallery will have to wait for another time.
Just before I leave, something catches my attention.
On the right pillar, on the inner curve, at eye level, someone has drawn with paint pencils a very small picture of a black and white cat.
If you like When the Floods Came, you’ll love The Last by Hanna Jameson.