Swimming Alone – An Apocalyptic Tale


London is drowning. One day John is in the pub with his friends, the next he’s being dragged off by men in black suits. All because he has something the rest of the world needs. But why are the seas rising? And will John ever get the chance to tell Lynne how he feels?


They found me yesterday.

Naively, I thought I had longer. I’d been making a joke of it only a few hours earlier, hanging in the pub with Ralph and the others.

‘They’ll never find me. How would they?’

Ralph snorted. He always said he didn’t snort, but he did. It was a real piggy-sort of sound, like he’d just found a new rotten apple, a hitherto unexpected treat.

‘Of course they will.’ He said.

‘Why would they?’

‘Come on, John, you think they aren’t looking out for this sort of thing?’

‘But it’s ridiculous. You don’t look out for something that’s never happened before.’

‘You don’t until it’s the single most important thing that could happen.’

I clearly remember putting my clenched fists against my waist and sticking my chest out, like it was a matter of pride, instead of fear. ‘Well, I don’t care much, either way. They’ve got no right to take me away.’

Another snort. I could normally hold my dismay in check, but I’d had a couple of pints and he was bugging me. ‘What? Come on, what is it? You think you’re so bloody smart, so tell me, what is it?’

Ralph leant over the table and patted my shoulder. If Lynne hadn’t put her hand on my arm, I’d have twatted him one. I glanced sideways and she shook her head, mouthing ‘not worth it’ through her smile. As usual, it was enough to calm me down. That and the lithium I’d downed just before coming out. Although, it seems to be having less affect these days.

Ralph, of course, missed the entire exchange. He was too busy holding court on one of his favourite subjects. ‘You’re all so ruddy naive. You think the government is just sitting idly, twiddling their thumbs whilst the world goes to shit, but you haven’t got a clue. The moment the floods started, they went into action.’

Lynne tutted under her breath and, unusually, Ralph caught it. ‘Don’t tut at me. You know I’m right, yo—’

‘Come on now, Ralph, be serious. Parliament was one of the first places to go under. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they’re doing lots to try and solve the problem, but they can’t track every last one of us, it’s just not possible.’

‘You’re talking like there’s lots of us left. It’s not hard to keep track of half a million people, you know.’

Howard cleared his throat and the three of us turned to stare. He spoke less often than he bought a round, so this was a momentous occasion. I’d asked Lynne why he came drinking with us at all the other day and she said he fancied me. Biggest surprise I’d ever had. I’ve watched him since then and I can’t see it, but I’ve always been bad with those sorts of things.

Howard glanced nervously at his half pint of shandy and cleared his throat again. ‘Actually, I heard on the news just before I came out. Ealing out to Heathrow went under this morning. They’d evacuated some of it, but there were maybe fifty thousand people there.’

Lynne put her hand over her mouth, and I did my best to comfort her without touched anywhere too private. I wanted badly to put my arm round her shoulders. Ralph would have done it without a second thought, but then Ralph loved no one but himself. It would be difficult for me to do without pulling her closer, but then she’d notice and everything would change between us.

If the floods hadn’t begun, maybe it would all be different. God knows, I was ready for it to be different. I think she was too. But when it kicked off last month, everything changed, and I just couldn’t bring myself to think about romance. None of us have been thinking about much of anything, really, except how glad we are we live in Muswell Hill. I heard talk on the way here, about how the residents are thinking of changing the name to the Isle of Muswell Hill, and charging refugees to come in.

I turned back to the prat sitting opposite me. ‘Okay, so say they are watching us. Say they do know about me. What are they going to do?’

‘What are they— Come on, surely you can work that out.’ He leant closer, hissing between closed lips. ‘London’s going under, heck, everywhere’s going under, and you’re the only man in the world with gills. Unless there’s someone else, a brother or sister maybe?’

I shook my head, although he already knew that. He’d known me since I was five, when I wasn’t prepared for all the questions about my scarves. I’ve got better at that. Not that it matters much now. Not now they’ve got me.


My mind is drifting. I came down from the lithium a few hours ago, but they gave me something else when I started raving and now I can’t really see properly, like my two pints have become ten. My brain wanders back to the pub.


‘So it’s just you. You have what the world wants. What do you think they’ll do’

‘Ask me to help?’

‘Bollocks.’ He slumped back in his seat and folded his arms. Then he leant forward, unfolded them and took a long draft from his pint. ‘They’ll put you in a cage and poke you and chop you up until they work out how to give what you’ve got to everyone left alive. Or maybe…’ he held his chin in his hands, forehead creasing with the effort of thinking something he hadn’t read on the internet. ‘Maybe, they’ll just screw with your mind and make you into some sort of slave, to do their bidding.’

The rest of us chuckled, even Howard, I notice. Although, he might be laughing just because I am. I glance across at him and meet his eyes. He’s staring straight at me, the faintest smile on his lips. Is he flirting with me? I wouldn’t mind, actually. It’s been the longest time since anyone’s flirted with me. They notice the twitching.

Lynne and I used to flirt. It was natural, as natural as buying rounds and walking one another home. I don’t remember when it changed. You’d think I would, like it would have been this shining moment when the only sure thing in my life crystallised and made sense.

But I don’t remember. I just remember the time I stopped outside her door and she waved me goodnight, and I realised I wanted nothing more than to go in with her.

Lynne recovered from the merriment first. ‘So tell me, what will they do once they make John their slave?’

‘Ahh, well,’ Ralph tapped his nose. I wondered for a moment whether he had any idea how stupid he looked. ‘I’ve heard that this is all caused by the Russians.’

That provoked far more laughter and his face went red. He slouched in his seat and sniffed until we calmed down. ‘Laugh all you want. You won’t be laughing when the bombs start falling.’

‘Oh come on, please.’ I reply. ‘Most of northern Russia is underwater and Moscow is days away from becoming a lake. If it was them, they’d screwed it up royally.’

‘Not if they moved all the important people already. There are mountains in Siberia higher than most other places in the world. They’ve moved all their people there and now they’re watching the world drown.’

Lynne sat forward, thumping the table. ‘So our John will become ‘super secret agent John’. He’ll swim from London all the way to Northern Russia where he’ll single-handedly take on the entire Russian army, discover the technology the damned Ruskies have used to drown the world, and save it, moments before the tip of Ben Nevis goes under.’

‘Yes, exactly.’ Ralph sat back, smug grin in place as though Lynne had just explained his every thought. We exchanged another look before I shook my head. ‘Would you like some of my lithium?’ I offered. ‘Not much, you wouldn’t need much, just a bit to take the edge off.’

I felt Lynne stiffen beside me and cursed inwardly. She hated it when I talked about the drugs, like they were something I chose. So long as I sat beside her and acted normally, she could pretend I wasn’t depressed. She could pretend I was just a normal best friend instead of someone who spent a week of every month hiding in his room.

I was ‘our John’, unless I was depressed. Then I was just John, unspoken of and ignored almost as much as Howard. I bit my lip and did my best to focus on Ralph. He was sneering, but doing his best to hide it. Mentioning the lithium was the best way to make him uncomfortable. It was cruel, but sometimes for the best; anything to shut him up.

We sat in silence, listening, as we had done so much in the last few weeks, for the sound of waves.


They came to my front door and knocked politely enough, so I opened it up. There were four of them, big men in black suits and beyond them I could see one of those big people carriers with blacked out windows like you get in American police dramas.

‘Jonathon Silchest?’

‘Uh, yeah, that’s me.’

‘Could you come with us, please?’

‘Um, why?’

‘There is someone who’d like to see you.’

Now, this isn’t what you normally expect at half seven on a Wednesday morning. However, I was drug free and had been awake since four, as per usual, so I was close to bouncing off the walls. My mind was moving faster than the waves currently closing in on Mile End, so I said, ‘actually, I don’t think I will. Perhaps if you could tell me who wants to see me and why, I’ll think about it. Thanks.’

I pushed the door closed and was gratified to see the men looking at one another with frowns mussing their impassive expressions. The door almost closed, but almost means nothing when the thing in the way of ‘completely’ is a sod-off size eleven black boot that’s shined so well you can see your pimples in it. The man wearing the boot shoved the door so hard I was thrown backwards down the tiny hallway I liked to call my antechamber. It was a joke. One of the unfunny ones.

I half crawled, half staggered into the kitchen and did what any self-respecting druggy did. I banged back two lithium and stood at the sink staring out into the pale sunshine until a hand landed on my shoulder.

‘Mr Silchest, I think you’ll be coming with us now.’

‘I’ll scream. I’ll scream so damn loud every person on this street will hear.’

‘Then every person on this street will lose their tongues. Your choice.’

When he spun me round and I stared into his eyes, I knew he wasn’t lying. That was when my bowels turned to water and I pleaded to use the toilet. Surprisingly, they let me. It wasn’t until I was almost finished that I realised they let me because they knew I wasn’t going anywhere. They knew there was no chance of me leaving.

I sloped out of the loo and they led me passively away. To their credit, there was no rough stuff. I climbed up into the people carrier and strapped myself in. We raced through the streets of Muswell Hill and came out on the High Street. From here, I could see all the way across to Biggin Hill. The sea lay between us, green and rough, waves still lashing the tip of Canary Wharf where it poked clear of the water.

We’d been here every day, to peer across, but it still took my breath away. I needed the toilet again. The lithium had begun its work and my brain was slowing, but I could still imagine a thousand conclusions to our journey, and none of them good.

We headed west, out of Muswell Hill towards Barnet. Without warning, the van skidded to a halt and I was thrown sideways. The doors were thrown open and I was bundled out. The wind was hard here, like the casual lover that throws you out onto the street once the harsh light of day reveals your imperfections, and I shivered as it whipped through my thin t-shirt.

The sea before us was boiling and rolling, harder than usual, and I stared in amazement as a submarine surfaced a few yards out. I realised they were at the edge of the graveyard, where there had been a steep, grassy drop off down to the tube tracks. The sea here was deep, or deep enough for a submarine to bugger about. A submarine!

A dingy charged into shore and two of the men bundled me into it and sat either side of me. They kept hold of my wrists, as though at any moment I might toss myself into the churning waves. I thought about telling them not to bother, but I couldn’t be bothered. The lithium had really kicked in and, despite the situation, everything felt just fine.

I was lifted from the dingy onto the water-soaked decks, then posted through a hole into the somewhat claustrophobic interior of the sub. My panic and fear of the previous few minutes was lost as I marvelled at what lay around me. It was just like in the movies, only half of the people I passed were in suits instead of naval uniforms.

They led me into a room in which there was nothing but a steel seat, riveted to the floor. I started saying something about a pillow and someone punched me in the side of the face. I’d been punched before. There’s nothing like a good dose of depression to stop you giving a crap about starting fights. Not that I went looking for fights, but most people’s warning bells go off quicker than mine, or actually make them change their behaviour. I stopped paying attention to mine a long time ago.

Despite previous experience, my first thought when I hit the floor was that this person really knew how to hit. It didn’t make me feel any better, but I realised that all the other people who’d hit me didn’t, not by a long shot. My second thought was owww, followed shortly by Jesus bloody Christ. 

They hauled me up and dumped me in the chair then the person I assumed had punched me, put his face far closer to mine than felt comfortable. In fact, other than food, nothing got that close to me. I tried to push him away and discovered that in place of a chest he had a large bag of hard packed sand. The temptation to dig my fingers in and get a good feel was overwhelmed by the spittle he sprayed at me as he spoke.

‘You’re only here because you have something we want. If I get bored of you, you’re going out the airlock. And we won’t surface this time. Understand?’

‘I’m sorry, could you just tell me who you are, please?’

‘We’re fuck you, understand?’

‘That’s not a branch of the government I’ve ever heard of, I must confess, perhaps if—’

This time my entire head exploded. Actually, it snapped sideways and once I was sure my neck hadn’t snapped, I gave in to the overwhelming pain and whimpered.


I nodded and raised a hand to my lips. Both arms were grabbed and they strapped me to the chair with the little plastic ties you use to hold electric cables together. These guys were serious. Then they left me alone and I began to drift. I remember someone coming in and sticking a needle in my arm. I remember the nasty man with the impressive chest coming in and telling me some things. I don’t, however, remember what it was he told me.


‘Three favourite records.’

She didn’t say it like a question, but then she never did. Her voice was deadpan in a way I could never hope to replicate. Any time I spoke like that, everyone thought I was being sarcastic, or didn’t give a shit. Often, in fairness, I didn’t, but even so. I’d have loved to be able to sound so cool and deliberately not give a shit.

What amazed me was that she did. It was just the two of us and there was no need for her to ask unless she cared. I sat up, resting the joint in the ashtray and furrowing my brow. She laughed, deep and throaty, and I noticed for the first time how the corners of her mouth curled up when she really found something funny. She laughed a lot, but her mouth stayed flat.

‘What is it?’ I ask.

‘Nothing,’ Lynne hesitated before continuing. ‘It’s just, you look like I’ve asked you the meaning of life.’

‘Well, come on, it’s pretty important. I mean, music is life, in a way.’

‘Oh yeah, what way’s that?’

‘Well, if our life is measured by the things we create, for a musician, their output is what people will remember them by. So, like, for them, music is their life. Like any artist, I suppose.’

She blinked and nodded slowly. ‘So do you see your writing like that?’

I chuckled in a way I hope she found self-deprecating and shook my head. ‘Not yet. My stuff’s not good enough yet. And besides, no one’s reading it.’

‘They might. You might be dead and gone, but one day you might get discovered and became this legend.’

I looked at the joint and tried to figure out whether she was trying to tell me I wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t, so I took another puff and returned to the question. She saw my frown and, I think, realised what I had been thinking.

‘Oh, no, I didn’t mean you wouldn’t get discovered now, I just meant, you know, your art is your life even when no one’s reading it.’

‘You think it’s art?’ I flushed and she smiled and nodded. ‘I think it’s great. I mean, not all of it. The piece you wrote for Woman and Home didn’t blow me away, but the other stuff…’

She trailed off and we both laughed. I tried to hide how pleased I was, but failed miserably.

‘Okay, how’s this? OK Computer by Radiohead, Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, It’s A Shame About Ray by the Lemonheads.’

‘Ooh, Lemonheads, an unexpected entry.’

‘It’s my happy album.’

‘You have a happy album?’ She burst out laughing and shook her head. ‘I don’t believe it. You like being miserable way too much.’

I opened my mouth and closed it again. This was too perfect. I didn’t want to mention the depression, not yet. I’d seen too many people shut up their doors and close their eyes when I said it too early. I didn’t want to lose her. She was only a friend, but I guess I already knew she might be more.

‘Come on then, how about you?’

Lynne opened her mouth but the voice that came out wasn’t hers.

‘Rise and shine, sailor, we’ve got a few questions for you.’

Lynne’s face faded as my head rose off my shoulder and I opened my eyes. The room swam back into focus and I stared blearily at the man before me. It was the tough guy, the one who’d kept hitting me. As tempting as it was, I resisted the urge to spit at him. Two of my teeth were already feeling wobbly and I liked them where they were.

I nodded and grunted and he stepped aside. Behind him were two men in suits, considerably smaller and subsequently less scary. One stepped forwards and cleared his throat. He looked, I thought, just a little embarrassed.

‘My Silchest, I am so sorry we’ve brought you here like this.’

‘That’s great. In that case, I’ll just be going.’

The man laughed in that same sort of way you did when the big guy in the pub started cussing your mum.

‘Yes, well, I’m afraid that won’t be possible. You may have noticed that we’re having a little problem recently.’

‘You mean the kidnapping innocent people thing? I’d say.’

‘Actually, Mr Silchest, I mean the rising sea levels. Two thirds of London is underwater and the rest is going to follow within the next two weeks.’

‘Yeah, that sucks too. So, back to me going home.’

‘My Silchest, please, this is a serious matter.’

‘I’m hungry.’

Bam! A fist the size of a car struck my ear and everything went spinny. I must have been sick because the sickly sweet smell of vomit was what brought me round. I jerked upright, blinking and looking around. ‘I’m alright, I’m okay, what happened?’

The big man shoved his face in mine. ‘I hit you. I’ll do it again if you keep pissing around. Understand?’

He disappeared and was replaced by the narrow man in the suit. ‘I apologise again, My Silchest, but this really is a serious matter. Tell me, what have you heard about the floods?’

I thought about our conversation in the pub and chuckled. ‘It’s the Russians.’

The man paled and knelt, grabbing my chin. ‘Where did you hear that. You shouldn’t know that.’

‘You’re kidding me?’

He shook his head curtly. ‘Mr Silchest, you have a gift. Perhaps for most of your life it has been a curse, but your gills are now the greatest resource the British government has. We need your help and, whether it is given willingly or not, we will use it.’

I blinked and Ralph’s smug face popped into my head. The bastard would be laughing if he was here. I laughed for him, and kept laughing even after the tough guy hit me again…

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