Emails from an Abandoned Coast

Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition: 2023 First-Place Winner: Will Hall for his story: “Emails from an Abandoned Coast”


Emails from an Abandoned Coast


from: Christopher Fraser <>
to: Christopher Fraser <>
date: Feb 29, 2024, 9:20 PM

Twenty-eight today. Or seven, technically. Writing this just after ending things with J. Sat in his windowless kitchen while breaking news. Can still feel his hand resting gently on mine, and the cold small battered wooden table beneath. Him asking, Will you stay if I find a job too?

Start work at Met Office myself soon (must confess: job in HR). Called it shining institution during interview. Don’t really talk like that but meant it. Think using Mum’s cancer scare to justify dropping out of university was good move.

Overwhelming feeling of being on right track. Shifted focus away from relationships (love life is sun, don’t look at it) and believe that, if successful with career, all else will fall into place.

Relationship with Mum never better. Probably my newfound maturity to thank. She has Jānis now. Visited them all way up in Haydon Bridge over Christmas. Drank mulled wine. Sang Abba etc. Mum suggested I start this new tradition. Email to self every birthday. Something she’s done herself since her twenties, only with letters. Snapshots of life. Serious life events.

Too lazy to do one every year though so I’ll restrict mine to ‘true’ birthdays, which means see you in 2028.

from: Christopher Fraser <>
to: Christopher Fraser <>
date: Feb 29, 2028, 11:18 AM

Happy birthday to me, just bought a house by the sea. 

Two things made this possible.

  1. J (back together) found job in recruitment. Base pay shit but substantial commission.
  2. His grandfather passed away, leaving five-figure inheritance (used for deposit).

Buying and moving just as stressful as everyone says but all settled now. First peaceful morning today. Enjoyed lie-in. Under crisp white sheets with J, enough light spilling through to see each other. Enough to show up green swirls in his eyes. His hand clamped between my thighs. Felt very connected. Very calm. Very lucky.

House sits by shore south of Exeter, near long belt of golden sand. Short walk up to impressive cliff with abandoned cottage and spectacular view out to horizon. Sky enormous. Three neighbouring homes. Furthest inland (and biggest) occupied by widow. Next one down belongs (I think, based on strange objects in back garden) to a sculptor. Closest to ours owned by young couple. No fences or hedges. Just stretches of grass, sand and gravel for cars to get onto main road.

Work less joyful. Breaking out of HR not as easy as hoped and starting to dislike certain colleagues. Showed listing for new home around. Almost everyone v impressed but Justine from Flood Forecasting actually shuddered and brought up coastal erosion (you have an Environmental Science degree, Justine, we get it). Then she walked out of the kitchen area saying, Not getting involved. Not my money.

Anyway, cannot remember ever being in more celebratory mood. J taking me into city for birthday dinner tonight. Mum and Jānis visit this weekend. Mum painting again. Says something clicked and must now actively pursue dream of being artist. Heart bursts at thought of setting her up with easel looking out to sea.

from: Christopher Fraser <>
to: Christopher Fraser <>
date: Feb 29, 2032, 7:22 AM

Mid-thirties were tough but everything’s okay now.

J’s gone. Back to the Exeter flat he bought last year. Final argument concerned selling our home, which I won’t consider. He mentioned the Norfolk landslides. I rolled my eyes. I mentioned local plans to build new sea walls. He rolled his eyes. Suspect he was trying to initiate the relationship-ending row.

Thankfully (because Mum and Jānis are always travelling) I’ve become one of those people whose neighbours are like family. So strange looking back on my previous email at how I described those I now know so well. It’s difficult to summarise them but Rosa, rudely referred to as just ‘widow’ last time, is the biggest gossip I’ve ever met. Will whisper something mildly judgemental about you the second you leave the room. If ever confronted, she cries till you feel sorry for her. She married young. Only one romantic partner her whole life but fortunately he became very rich. Also fortunately, she’s generous. I lost my job last year. Might have starved without her.

The sculptor is Zoe and she’s my favourite. Grew up in a nearby town but moved to Manchester to study. Wasn’t very successful on the art scene up there but still exchanges actual handwritten letters with several ex-boyfriends in various parts of the North West. She’s about my age but has retained the aura of the most popular girl you knew at school. Wears fitted overalls and pulls it off.

There’s also Anna and Robert (siblings, not couple), an amateur engineer and carpenter respectively. Very useful neighbours. Good people, too.

And that’s basically it. Life has become quite slow. Zoe’s cooking for everyone tonight. Plans to discuss buying the abandoned house on the cliff. Renovation job. Potential  AirBnB.

One last thing actually: proud of myself for my (mostly) improved English this time. Must have been too important and busy to write the last two properly!

from: Christopher Fraser <>
to: Christopher Fraser <>
date: Feb 29, 2036, 11:18 PM

Nearly forgot to do this.

Mum passed over Christmas. She received her diagnosis before developing her suspicious (in hindsight) passion for art and travel. I only found out after her hospice admission.

Dad disappeared after the wake. We didn’t talk much. Doubt I’ll ever see him again. Felt sorry for Jānis. Sat alone most of the evening. Dad’s unkind comment about his suit.

Suspect J would be pushing to sell our house had I not just lost Mum. And the fact banks suspended lending on properties within half a mile of the coast. He’s obscenely wealthy now. Difficult to be bitter about this when, me unemployed again, he’s covering my mortgage payments, even if mostly from guilt. I left the worst things he said out of my last email and won’t write them here either.

In J’s absence, Zoe and I have basically shared houses. We spend summers at mine. Closer to the shore, gets a cool breeze and during the heat waves it’s nice to stretch out upon the grass of my front lawn after swimming. We winter at hers, a few hundred metres further inland and first to volunteer for Anna’s improvised insulation materials.

I’ve gotten into gardening lately but so has everyone. Everyone farms in some way because food’s so expensive. The government’s ‘Dig for Britain’ posters were supposed to evoke nostalgic feelings of unity and national pride. Really they confirm how bad things have become. World War II bad. I’m better at growing things than the others, which helps my confidence.

As does the fact I’ve never dressed better in my life. Rosa’s giving away all her possessions, having converted to a form of Buddhism. Her late husband’s suits are now my day-to-day wear. A little baggy on me but the most amazing Italian fabrics. Says she likes seeing me wear them because I remind her of him. Felt flattered by this, he having been a business titan. I’m gradually pillaging her wine and whiskey cellar for bottles that look valuable.

In other news, the abandoned home on the cliff has been marked for demolition. So there goes our AirBnB dream.

P.S. I recovered Mum’s birthday letters. I like comparing them to my emails. I think we share a kind of stubborn optimism. It turns out writing was something she struggled with. She describes it as like wading through treacle. It made her feel mentally exhausted and anxious that something might be wrong with her. I never knew any of this. Her birthday letter tradition makes even less sense now. Or more sense, I suppose. I don’t know.

from: Christopher Fraser <>
to: Christopher Fraser <>
date: Feb 29, 2040, 12:17 PM

I couldn’t send this if not for Anna.

She calls it a ‘Biquad antenna’. We depend on it for the internet we can no longer afford. She made it from copper wire, mesh, some cable and other electrical parts. It’s mounted on Rosa’s house, is about the size of a baking tray and syphons wifi from an expensive seaside hotel a mile down the coast. Anna also created some ‘cantennas’ using coffee tins and Pringles cans, fitting these to each of our homes to pick up signals the ‘Biquad’ relays.

Her next project is a solar power system to replace the old generator. Rosa’s house is her guinea pig again because it’s least likely to fall into the sea now they’ve given up on building coastal defences.

We’re virtually a commune these days. I still garden and my crop is highly respectable. In terms of what grows this close to the sea, I’m best at spinach and potatoes. But Robert constructed some raised beds and trellises, making tomatoes, peppers and onions possible.

Rosa cooks and lets us sell off her late husband’s belongings when we need cash and Zoe’s essential contribution is her working vehicle. It’s difficult to overstate how important this is in such an isolated place, even if my appetite for road trips has withered.

Last week we drove to Plymouth so Zoe could restock on modelling materials. I hope it’s the last city I visit. The drive over was nice. Zoe’s still going strong with one of her romantic penpals. A former philosophy student from Manchester called Sebastian. Government official these days, meaning everyone hates him. But he gets to live in a gated complex and still has all his hair and teeth. His wife and child are an obstacle, so Zoe let me read a draft of her next letter in the car. I annotated the columns with my best home-wrecking advice.

The return journey was less fun, urban life being even more condensed and hateful than I remembered. Many abandoned buildings are now used as Assimilation Centres for refugees. Leaving the city, we were held up outside an expropriated council estate by Gen Id demonstrators. Yellow t-shirts, black cargo pants. Caps and banners with the usual slogans. ‘Resist or be Replaced’ in bold lettering. They insist on guarding these places, ever since funding cuts meant the police no longer did. The migrants housed there aren’t legally allowed off grounds.

We saw a boy break away, carrying a tub of something. He looked about twelve. He dashed into a children’s play area in the middle of the estate, dousing the swings and the slide in what Zoe says would’ve been anti-climb paint.

They never demolished the abandoned cottage we once hoped to buy. The sea is gradually doing it as I write. You see its contents spilled upon the sandy shoreline beneath the cliff at low tide. Washing machine. Sofa. Cardboard cut-out of Queen Elizabeth II. On quiet nights you hear the whole building teetering on the cliff edge.

from: Christopher Fraser <>
to: Christopher Fraser <>
date: Feb 29, 2044, 2:27 PM

It’s been a while since I received one of J’s desperate invitations to go stay at his Exeter flat (alone, because he lives with his family in St Albans now). I was never interested but it does feel like an escape ladder has been pulled up. Each week the south coast loses more of itself to landslides. Spits of sand once visible from my kitchen window are gone. It’s a miracle our homes remain dry considering how bad England’s east coast has it. Cambridge will become a seaside town next year, they say.

I tried to think of other updates, to put this next part off, but I can’t. Everything else feels so trivial after what happened last week.

We woke one night to Rosa’s screaming, sparks flying off Anna’s improvised antenna and from under the solar panels. The shingles were swallowed by flames. Robert was first through her front door, me just behind. Zoe arrived with a bucket of water but froze instantly, uncertain where to throw it. Choice paralysis, I think. Anna burned her hands badly trying to climb the drainpipe beside Rosa’s bedroom window. Robert got halfway up the stairs before dashing out again, choking and spluttering. Convinced his face was on fire. Splashing it with some of Zoe’s water. I made the upstairs landing but Zoe called after me. She said I should come back, and that was all it took. I agreed. There was a curtain of smoke but I saw the border of Rosa’s closed bedroom door, blazing and orange, and I agreed.

Outside, Robert sat on the ground cradling Anna, who muttered something about the insulation. Emergency services arrived a few hours later. By then a stiff sea breeze was finally up and managed to break inland to contain some of the fire. Robert and Anna stayed indoors while Zoe and I talked to the police.

We haven’t seen or spoken to them in days. I write this from the hotel bar, Zoe and I having snuck in to steal wifi more conventionally. The barman doesn’t mind. Says they’re closing down next month.

from: Christopher Fraser <>
to: Christopher Fraser <>
date: Feb 29, 2048, 1:28 PM

This email apparently cost £40,000.

There’s a man who tours his van along the south-west coast. He sells calor gas and other types of fuel mainly, but his van also has a portable wifi hotspot. I still have some of Rosa’s bottles. Today I said he could take one if he stayed an hour and let me use the hotspot. He drove me up to two bottles. One whiskey, one wine.

Once online I asked if he wanted to know what they were worth. Google valued the whiskey at £750. The wine was a red, a 2015 Romanée Saint-Vivant. A former archbishop of Paris, the internet tells me, once described it as ‘satin in a bottle.’ It retails at £40,000.

I wish I had someone to laugh about this with but everyone’s gone. No one investigated the fire but after my last email Zoe and I came back to find an apologetic farewell note from Robert and Anna.

I believe Zoe was happy just the two of us for a time. We bickered or sulked when one of us felt unevenly guilty about Rosa but that summer was tropical. The beach is my front garden now and the erosion along the coast has exposed cave systems to explore. We named our favourite discovery ‘Rosa’s Cove’, a miraculous cavern beneath Langstone Rock accessible only from the sea. Inside the cavern is a pool bluer than any water I’ve ever seen in England. The water encircles a small islet of red earth that would be in total darkness but for an opening in the cliff directly above. We enjoyed swimming laps in the cool waters before drying off on the islet under a cascading pillar of light.

This lasted until autumn. Soon after Zoe stopped showing me her letters, she revealed Sebastian (now divorced) had invited her to go live with him. When she asked me what I’d do I lied and said J still had room for me in Exeter. I was happy to do that for her.

Our last meal was simple because Zoe underestimated how long she needed to pack. Kidney beans, green peppers and potatoes. Olive oil, lemon juice and dill. She asked where I wanted to eat and trying to seem casual I said, I’m happy where we are. I might have spent this last conversation fool-proofing our means of staying in touch. Instead I asked polite pointless questions, and she gave polite bewildered answers.

I was out on the beach when I heard the boot lid shut. Scraping our plates clean for no other reason than to seem busy as Zoe made final preparations. A family of seagulls stood by, watching. I glanced back to the house and there she was, all set. She called something over from beside the open car door. I waved back but without stepping closer, clutching both plates in my other hand until one of them slipped from my grasp and wheeled toward the water. Whatever Zoe said was drowned out by the wind and the tide and the hungry birds cawing and pecking the scraps at my feet. She pulled out of the drive and turned onto the road and before long faded completely from view. The tide lifted the fallen plate up from the sand and took it away. It bobbed gently, out on the water. Cold, grey, foamy, unfeeling. I think I should have gone after this plate. But in the end I let the sea have it.

The next three years were spent alone. Until on certain nights a voice began drifting up from the sea. A man’s voice, singing. He must live in one of the nearby caves. His song echoes up through the caverns. I can pick out only a few lines:

I look out at the sea 

It is cast-iron black

It looks back at me 

With the eyes of a rat

Not much left to say. Water began seeping under my kitchen door today. Tomorrow I’ll move my things over to Anna and Robert’s old place and take it from there.

from: Christopher Fraser <>
to: Christopher Fraser <>, Christopher Fraser <>, Christopher Fraser <>, Christopher Fraser <>, Christopher Fraser <cfras[…]
Date: –

Unsure what year it is but certain more than half the 21st century is gone now.

The sea still crawls after me, my old home under the waves. So is the house that was Anna and Robert’s.

I’m writing in Zoe’s kitchen, getting ready to go fishing with Connor. He showed up several months ago. I try to ask if it was him who sang to me from the caves but he doesn’t like this question. He doesn’t talk to me much. I wish he’d talk to me.

There’s nothing I can grow anymore. Earth too soggy. Too much saline, and Connor dismantled my raised beds for firewood and rafts. He’s a fisherman and I think I am too now. We trawl Shaldon village’s flooded streets on inflated tubes that look like giant haricot beans, drifting past tree tops and bedroom windows, ferrying the generator upon a raft along what was (and I suppose still is) the River Teign. Connor drags the generator among the pockets of fish we find, old mesh from Anna’s workshop trailing behind in the water like tendrils. Fish caught in the electrical field are paralysed. They begin twitching. My job is to net them. Many weaker or younger fish die instantly and sink or drift away. A waste but Connor says fishing this way is our only hope, fish being worth much less than bread or anything grain-based when trading.

The van no longer comes, so I can’t send this. I just rewrite it. I’d like to know what happened to Anna and Robert. Or Zoe and J. Or even whether anyone else in the country is doing well. Connor keeps asking how old I am. I make the Leap Day baby joke because I don’t actually know. I think soon he’ll take the generator and leave me here.

I have to stay anyway. You stay to watch the sea take the places where you were happy. Like being at a dying loved one’s side. At Mum’s side. Her deathbed. Hand on her small cold grey arm. Or with the seagulls at my feet, watching the plate wink in the light tilting from side to side out on the water and heading for the horizon.

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