(author’s note – this story was written for an event at the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne
– locally known as the Lit&Phil – and read for the first time on 6th January 2022. All rights reserved.)
The Mouth of the Tyne
The summer of that year was … strange. It held a dreamlike heat. The air was still and the sky relentlessly, ruthlessly blue. After two weeks of it, everyone was joking that this was it, that it was all we’d get, and that the rest of the year would be nothing but floods and gales and unrelieved cloud. After a month, and even those who’d booked holidays abroad were looking rueful. If it was sun they were seeking – why, we had plenty at home.
After two months, no one was laughing. Things began to break down. The roads sagged and slipped into the gutters. The rails bent and buckled. Foundations of buildings split apart as the soil dessicated, even those that had once sat so firmly that neither two centuries of industry nor Hitler’s bombs had been able to shake them.
People too. We were broken as the things were broken. Our places of work slowly shut, one by one, as the heat destroyed brick and mortar, concrete and steel. Windows fell out into the streets, glass shattering in the crystalline air. Fires spontaneously erupted from curved mirrors and melted wiring. The smoke hung like fog on the streets.
Nothing was as it should be. The equinox approached, and we all desperately looked upwards. For rain. For relief. For rescue. There was nothing. Even as the days grew shorter and the nights filled those hours, there was no respite. The burning heat changed into something even more ominous – a bland average, around which there was no variation. There were no good days, or bad days, no warm nights or cool nights. They were one and the same. It was as if our corner of the world had become disconnected from reality. All that was left was for entropy to slowly wind down, like the ticking of some long-case clock.
Those who could escape, did. In dribs and drabs, leaving however they could, saving whatever they might carry. Whether there was fuel or not was moot, given the sporadic electricity. Pylons were brought to senescence by the weather, substations rendered mute as a consequence. Those who remained were ghosts, pale things flitting somewhere just out of sight, if not out of mind.
And our river, our mighty river, our heart’s blood, which once carried our wealth out to sea, was reduced to no more than a trickle of foul water. The sea returned twice a day to dredge the mud and cover the upturned ribs of vessels long-lost, but between times the river bed was exposed, black and stinking, and no living thing could be found within it.
How were we to live like this? How were we to recover? It felt like a dream in which we were all unwillingly immersed, and no one was awake to rouse us sleepers. In the absence of any outside assistance – we had, seemingly, been abandoned to our fate – there was no choice but to look to the only place where our salvation might be found: the books, the charts, the encyclopedias of an earlier age, undigitised and forgotten.
I worked alone in the library. Progress was slow, but as time had lost all meaning, the speed of my research mattered less than its thoroughness. I collated the findings, pinning seemingly random ephemera on a board that soon grew too small for its purpose. Eventually and grudgingly, a pattern appeared in the web of knowledge, and on one dusty, starless night, I was able to step back and observe the final, meticulously-crafted shape that had taken so long to fashion out of the whole cloth.
My heart would have leapt if I hadn’t been so tired. Instead, I had the grim satisfaction of knowing something that no one else knew, let alone comprehended. And then I slept for the longest time, surrounded by ramparts of books.
When I awoke, I checked my notes and made my plans. There was much to prepare. Maps, supplies, equipment – and there was precious little way I could get hold of everything I required. So I became a thief. I broke into shops and warehouses, and sifted through the wreckage of earlier lootings to get what I needed. Food and fuel in particular were in short supply, so I turned to domestic burglary, using newly acquired tools to force doors and crack windows. I did try to pick places which looked abandoned, but once I startled, and was startled by, a homeowner. We both beat hasty retreats, but how could I apologise for my behaviour when I wasn’t in the least bit sorry?
Finally, I was ready, except for one thing. A companion. But my notes were very clear on this, the passage underlined and outlined and arrowed. It had to be someone I didn’t know. At all. Not even in passing. So now I needed to convince a stranger of my cause, strongly enough that they would accompany me.
This would be the hardest part. I was not, by any fair measure, a great conversationalist. The few friends I had would describe me as quiet, and perhaps intense. Striking a rapport with someone I had just met, and persuading them to accompany me on what could be best described as an unlikely quest, was outside my usual abilities. And yet I had to try.
I walked the banks of the Tyne and spoke to everyone who came to look at its forlorn trickle. Though they were mantled with ennui, I discovered that they could turn to anger if my scheme somehow offended them. I was unused to physical violence, and I didn’t become more accustomed to it with frequency. I endured it as necessary, and I honed my approach. I cannot recall how long it took me, how many people I spoke to, how many beatings I received. But eventually I found someone who wanted to come with me.
His name was Duncan. He wasn’t a native of Tyneside, but he had lived here longer than he hadn’t. His accent veered from Auld Scots to something between, depending on his concentration, which wavered with the tides. He was younger than I was, and there was something slightly patronising about his offer to join me in my endeavour, as if an old man couldn’t accomplish this task on his own, that he needed the vigour of youth on his side. Truth be told, I played on that a little, although I resented it. If I could have managed the task by myself, I would already have completed it.
Rather than arrange a time and a place to meet the next day, I insisted we left at once. I had already been caught by empty promises, arriving at a landmark or an address, only to find it empty, and my time wasted. Duncan was taken aback by this sudden show of vim, but having been challenged by the frailer, older man, he couldn’t lose face, and his vanity made him accept.
We climbed into my car. Duncan turned around to glance into the back, and expressed surprise at the equipment I had piled up there. Perhaps he thought this would have been a day’s outing, a small jaunt to the countryside and back, or a trip that might have included an overnight stay at an inn that would supply us with food, ale and a bed. I knew the conditions to the north were as poor, if not poorer, than those in the city. The land had returned to the wild in a way the Romans might have recognised, but none since. If we were to come across a band of blue-painted warriors, Duncan might show surprise, but not me. Time was fractured. The country broken. If I could heal it, then I would.
The roads were as you imagine the roads might be in a post-collapse world. The debris from fallen buildings, the domestic waste tossed out onto the carriageway, and the abandoned and burnt-out vehicles were the least of it. Those were navigable with care, even if I did have to back up and find another route. The roads themselves were reverting to their natural state. Cracked, slumped, riven: earlier periods of construction were revealed under the layers of tarmac, tramlines, cobbles, flags and gravel.
We limped along, barely over walking pace while we were in the confines of the suburbs on the south bank, but I risked some speed later on and we hurried past Ryton, and Crawcrook, and took a loop around Prudhoe. I had heard bad things about Prudhoe. The Ovingham bridge had gone, lying in pieces on the dry river bed. We stared briefly at the shattered ironwork and the stump of the crossing on the far bank, then hurriedly reversed to resume our search.
We were glad to discover that the sturdy stone-built Bywell bridge had survived, and we crossed the Tyne, and headed north. By now, I had to keep one eye on the road, one eye on the fuel gauge, and if it was at all possible, one on the engine temperature. Sooner rather than later, one was going to fail, and in the end, it was the engine. I rolled the car to a stop somewhere along the A68, angling the front wheels into a patch of rough ground beside the road.
Duncan made a pretence at peering under the bonnet, fussing and poking at devices neither of us really understood, let alone were able to fix. While he did that, I unloaded two packs from the back seat – one for me, and a subtly heavier one for him. I had two walking poles, which I didn’t really need, but it was enough of an affectation that it would keep him acquiescent, at least until it was too late to turn back.
I unfolded a map across the rear window of the car. What would have taken little over an hour in the vehicle was now a two day trek to the Scottish border. But perhaps it was better this way. Something so easily accomplished rarely had the same satisfaction as overcoming a difficult task. When Duncan finally gave up his mechanic’s charade, he reluctantly shouldered his pack and stared out across the patchwork of empty and untilled fields, devoid of crops or livestock. A few crows pecked at something that was hidden from view, and neither of us had the will to investigate what it might be.
So we walked. We followed the road, and then another road, and Duncan became so lost that he had no choice but to rely on me. We carried on, mainly in silence. My answers to him were cheerful enough, telling him of the next thing we would see, or the next village we would pass through, but they were also short and urgent, as if we always had to be hurrying through. When he eventually complained enough to bring us to a halt, I had carefully engineered that we stopped in the middle of nowhere. I was his guide from now on.
And when it looked as if we might end our day’s trek in Bellingham, I turned aside from the main road and set off down a series of farm tracks that chased the banks of the river, passing uncompromising grey-stone buildings that had the potential for snarling dogs and red-faced men with guns. By the time I was done, Duncan was terrified of his own shadow, and more than grateful to camp overnight in a roadside copse of unleafed, dying trees, under a tarpaulin that provided scant shelter but gave the illusion of it.
I made meal, a substantial one, taking all the things out of my pack and none out of his, and fed him into an exhausted torpor that would last until the pre-dawn. I, however, needed to stay alert. I was tired for certain, but I knew tomorrow would see my theory either confirmed or debunked. If I had wasted my time and my energy, then I would have to accept defeat – but it would be a bitter moment.
So it was with a sense of giddy excitement that I packed everything away in the morning, and made a show of struggling with my pack and waving off all offers of help. I suspected that the twenty miles of gradual uphill we had to travel would take the edge off my mood, but as the day wore on, I couldn’t suppress the rising tide of tension I felt. Even when we looked down into the brown-moss bowl of Kielder, I had the near-uncontrollable urge to be away, to be about our business. We were more than mere tourists: we were on a mission!
The day turned, the pale sky dimmed, and we were almost there. I could see that Duncan was flagging, and more worryingly, beginning to reassess the wisdom in joining me on this expedition. I rushed him on. The end was almost in sight. That last stand of trees, the metal sign, now drunk with subsidence, proclaiming that we were indeed ‘Welcome to the Scottish Borders’, and the almost invisible track that headed off to our right.
Duncan asked where we were, and I provided some vague but truthful information. We’re here, I said, we’re here. He persisted, but where is this, and I could hardly give its geographical name – Deadwater Fell – in case it spooked him further. But Deadwater Fell was where we were, and where our journey would conclude. I led the way along the path and out on to the fell proper, following the final stretch of the Tyne, no more than an overgrown shallow ditch. It snaked uphill and there… there was an arch set into the side of the fell, and the ditch came out from it, through an ancient ironwork grille that filled the arch from top to bottom, and side to side.
I beckoned Duncan forward, and asked him to tell me what he could see. He slipped his pack from his shoulders onto the hard ground and gripped the corroded iron bars to peer into the dark. He reported that he could see nothing, but I told him to wait until his eyes had adjusted and then report to me again.
Then he reeled back, his face aghast. A man, he cried, there’s a man in there, chained to the wall. I held his arm to stop him from falling, and then pressed him back for another look. I joined him this time, and yes, there was a man, and yes, he was chained to the far wall. His arms were fixed over his head, and his chin was slumped to his cadaverous chest. Hair streamed down from his scalp and covered his face. He looked quite dead, mummified almost, despite the residual dampness in that dark cave set into the hill.
Duncan shook me and demanded that we do something, and I looked around for any assistance, but there was only us. I told him we had to force an entry, and we spent a futile few minutes trying to heave the grille aside, but whatever mechanism there might have been had long since rusted shut. I opened up Duncan’s pack, and pulled out a hammer, and a crowbar, and a cold chisel, and we set to, clattering and clanging and thudding, and with a great groaning born of centuries, the gate was finally open.
Duncan rushed in, hoping beyond hope to be the man’s saviour. He saw me behind him with the hammer and the crowbar, and told me to lever the chains from the wall and let him carry the man’s body out into the fading day, where he could inspect him more closely. Rather than waiting for me, he put his foot to the stone wall and wrapped his hands around one of the chains, trying to pull it free.
It was simplicity itself to strike Duncan in the back with the crowbar. I took a big swing, as far as the confined space under the hill would allow, and hit him in the lower back with full force. He bellowed in pain and sank to his knees, stunned by the blow and unable to twist or turn. I followed up with the hammer. Nothing more than a tap to the back of his skull. Enough to render him insensible. Duncan slumped at the captive man’s feet, and I held the hammer up in case he was merely acting.
He made no movement, so I went to carry out the final part of my plan. I set down my own pack, and retrieved the bolt cutters, the new lengths of chain, the padlocks, and got to work. I cut that man down from the wall, and dragged his body to one side. I fastened new lengths of chain to the rings. Then I sat Duncan up, back to the same wall, and used the chains to haul him upright, a few inches at a time, like I was raising a sail. Ah, but he was starting to come round, and I had to hurry. I snapped the padlocks in place and made sure he couldn’t shake them free.
Duncan raised his head, and slowly realised his predicament. He pierced me with his gaze and growled at me and rattled his chains at me, but I had fastened him too well. He spat and howled and cursed and pleaded, but after a while, he began to cough and choke. His protestations died away, and his whole chest heaved with effort.
A thin dribble of water came out of his mouth and splashed on the ground in front of him. He heaved again, and this time, a great gout of clear liquid spewed out, covering his feet and spilling towards the grille. He looked up at me again, and I think he realised his fate. The hopelessness. The horror. His cheeks bulged with the strain, but he could not stop it any more than he could stop a river. He opened his mouth, and the Tyne came out.