London – 2058
“Call me the Postman. Call me the bloody Lord Mayor of London if you like. Oh, those old fashioned user names were something. There’s not many left to remember them now, never mind wax nostalgic . No, the city of London’s extinct. And the Wilderlands have no use for a Lord Mayor. Gone the way of the haggis, he is.”
I’d just crossed the Atlantic by frigate, arriving in Salisbury. and then hired a blimp to take me to what used to be one of the biggest cities on earth. I am in the Idea Corps, so I’ve been sent to harvest whatever I can of this place that might improve the lives of my people back in Roanoke. I remember seeing pictures of Hampstead Heath when I was a girl. It had been one of London’s green spaces, open and bowl shaped, dotted around its edges with stately buildings. Now it looked like a medieval village, full of foot traffic, wagons pulled by big dogs, colorful rickshaws, and the occasional grubby bicycle. Everything looked worn and shabby. People in earth colored tunics, with skirts and loose fitting trousers, topped by shawls, sweaters, homespun jackets. Lots of wild hats, piercings, ornaments like nothing I had seen. I found a Breughel in a used book shop once. His ordinary people busy at their small-time lives looked so much like this.
I’d been met at the landing site by my guide, a crusty looking fellow twice my age. His name was Finnrick, and as we bumped fists, I realized that his face was covered with tattoos. What I had assumed to be dirt was actually a filigree of gray blue lines under the skin. Here and there the word “thug” seemed to rise out of the twists and curlicues as if were coming up for air. In reaction to what must have been a frightened look on my face, he quietly said. “There. You’re not afraid of sweet old Finnrick, are you?” He smiled wryly, and though his teeth were yellow, he had dimples, and laugh lines that softened the whole effect. I relaxed and this signaled a bit of flirting, the incongruity of which made me laugh.
He pointed to his cheek. “Is it these that gave you the wrigglies?” When I nodded, he told me they marked him as a Highgater. He said that each of the islands had its identifying ornamentation. “It makes for solidarity in a pinch like this, Luv.”
We entered a pub that seemed new built, but clearly out of old materials. It had small rooms, each with its own thermal heat vent. and low arched ceilings. There were slender windows, floor to ceiling, at intervals, so there was plenty of natural light. Finnrick gave the barkeep a pinwheel, he had woven out of river grass, in exchange for two pints of ale. We sat in a booth made entirely of stone. I expected it to be bone chilling, since it was cold and damp out, but the stone was warm as a good dog. “Ah, bless mother earth for providing us with her radiant warmth!” He leaned back. “And stones absorb heat so well. It almost makes you forgive them their hardness.”
Then he got down to business. “I agreed to meet you because I thought it was important that you be well informed. I have been appointed Archipelago Gazetteer;” he said. “That’s how I intercepted your quest on Cybernet. There’s a Flotilla Gazetteer as well. We’re information gatherers. We had to go back to some of the ancient ways here, after the floods, for survival. You’ll remember, they predicted we’d lose some coast when the glaciers melted. But they never expected the cataclysms. First California, then La Palma, huge chunks of them into the oceans like that. The tidal waves took out the barriers, and so, the floods followed. Most people took what they could and headed inland. There’s nought left of the old city, nor anything along the Thames – so much under water, muddy as bog when the tide goes out.”
He leaned back in his chair, stretching his feet toward the vent. I noticed he wore several pairs of socks with holes in different places. His shoes were made of oiled skin. He seemed happy for the chance to slip them off. “Floods formed the Archipelago, you see. The islands used to be hills. There’s Highgate, of course, and the twins Campden and Notting, Primrose, Herne, and Tulse, Brixton, and Streatham. Then you get to the Southern Drylands. And up here there’s the Heath, on the edge of the Northern Dry. In addition to being a landing place for the blimps, it functions as our gateway to trade with the rest. We’re all barter any more. We grow what we can, make and remake what our talents will allow us. Then we fuss and dicker with one another to get the other things we need. You’ll have to watch for the young flotillers. They’re the worst. Full of charm and then your goods have disappeared before your very eyes. Of course, they act like they never know nothing about it.” Not being familiar with the term, I asked for clarification.
“Well, there was only so much room in the Archipelago, and fighting ensued of course, over who would stay, or get onto which island. The youngest amongst us: the youth, the school age they used to call them, were the weakest. They had to be driven out.. Harsh, it sounds, I know, but they were tough. They stayed, taking over all the boats they could, and slapping new ones together. They formed their own floating island, called the Flotilla, and there they be. I must say, they’ve become a real force in the London Wilderlands, a real force. They’ve influenced one another to the detriment, but there’s the way of the world innit.”
He yawned and spied my pack. Then he asked me if I had any trade on me at all. Of course, I had come prepared. I drew out a crocheted woolen cap. “Here” I said. “Get us another round, and maybe a bit of food?” The ale was bitter but good. I was surprised to learn it was made from kelp. “They harvest it Thamesea side. There are oyster beds now where Hammersmith and Chelsea used to be.” He offered me a bowl of oyster stew. It was hearty, in a clear broth, full of seaweed and a bit of mushroom. Briny and delicious. He had gotten himself a small gull pie.
It was clear to me, as we ate, that Finnrick was a born historian. He loved to talk about origins, to outline changes. He got much of his information by word of mouth. Said it was his duty to visit the old and the sick, to cull from them what he could before what they knew erased. “Yes.” He nodded. “They took Parliament down stone by bloody stone, Westminster Cathedral, St. Paul’s too. Took all but their foundations, which were sunk too deep in the mire. Rebuilt them on Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge. It’s a right royal theme park out there!” He laughed so his thin shoulders shook, and he slapped his knee.
I knew that central governments had disappeared in Europe in 2035, just a year after the States divided. Everything was local now. Foods, goods, and governance. More practical. Power sources had shifted to wind, solar, and thermal, but usage at the turn of the millennium had been wasteful. Fat had to be trimmed. All long distance shipping and trade ceased. We continued to idea and emoticon on Cybernet, but no buying and selling. After our meal, we ran out of steam, but lingered a bit, dreading the twilight chill. I must have drowsed off from the beer, and the warmth. Then suddenly, he was up and shaking me awake. “Come along then, Miss. The last raft will be leaving. I’m to take you to an inn on Primrose.”
I lurched to my feet disoriented for a moment. “Here, I’ll carry your pack for you while you rouse yourself.” He swung it onto his shoulder. I wrapped myself in my woolens, and shuffled behind him, through the mist, trying to keep up. He turned down a close here, a mews there, until we were almost to the water. “It’s just down the way, then,” he said. I could smell the salt. “ Hold on,” he said. “Let’s get your papers out for the raft man.” I rummaged for my wallet. “I’m all right to carry my pack now,” I said. “No, Miss. You just go in front.” For a moment, we stood side by side on the cobbled street, and then he grabbed up the pack and tipped his hat. As I moved ahead of him toward the wharf, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck raise. I turned to tell him how I felt, but he was gone.