A story responding to the photograph ‘A Vacant Home in Hoopersville, MD’ by Greg Kahn, Getty Images Climate Visuals Grant recipient
Every morning is the same. He gets up early, while I’m still in bed, and walks to the marshes. He is always back by the time I’m up and dressed and making breakfast, and he always brings one of his smiles back with him.
“It looks fine,” he will say, shutting the door heavily behind him. His hair will be plastered to his forehead and he will be shucking off his coat and stamping his boots on the mat. “No change from yesterday. Nothing to worry about.” He will shake his head like a wet dog and the rainwater will go slapping against the flagstones.
“If anything, it looks better down there,” he will say, unpicking his laces as he leans against the wall. “It’s going to be fine.” Or words to that effect.
I tend to ignore him; I don’t like to think about it. Or I’ll ask him what he wants on his toast. This is how we say good morning to one another.
And he and I will sit at the table and he will look out of the window and stare at the abandoned place on the plot next door. When it’s windy the loose clapboard tends to buck and kick, and occasionally in the night a dislodged roof tile will go bouncing and clattering to the ground.
That house depresses me, so I try not to look. Looking at it reminds me of the friends who used to live there. Looking at it makes me question where we will go when we too are forced to move. That house seems to speak of the past and the future at the same time.
Sometimes he comments on the house. Sometimes he even finishes his mouthful first.
“I should really take it down,” he will say, brushing crumbs from his beard. “The place is turning into an eyesore.”
Normally, I would ignore comments like these. But sometimes it takes all of my fortitude to keep from reaching across the table and grabbing him by the collar and asking what the hell he supposes we’re going to do – what the plan is and how he expects us to live like this. We’re the last ones left, I want to say. There’s a reason everyone else has gone.
I did ask him, once, what the plan was. He was shaving and I had just come out of the shower. I could see him looking at me in the mirror.
“What are we doing here?” I had asked, coming to stand behind him.
He took a deep breath and tried to steady his hand as he ploughed a path through the cream on his cheeks. The scrape of dead hair yielding against the blade. The fog on the edges of the mirror and his face showing clearly where he had wiped away the condensation with his hand.
“We’ll hold out as long as we can,” he said. He met my eyes, the two of us reflected in the mirror as if we were face to face. “We earned this. And when we have to move – when we don’t have a choice any more – we’ll sell up and go.”
“And who do you suppose will want to buy this place?”
“I don’t know. Look, I’ll work it out,” he said. But he had nicked the skin above his lip, and he was already reaching for the towel. And this is how we live.
I followed him, one morning, to make sure he wasn’t up to anything. I feigned sleep and quickly rose and dressed once I heard the front door. I tracked through the high grasses behind him, burying my face against the rain and the cold coastal wind.
It seems to me that the walk to the marshes is becoming shorter, that the planting and the building and the talking can’t stop the passing of time. But he really does check every morning, and he really does insist he is not worried. He has started saying that, if anything, the ground is getting more stable, the waters are further away than ever. That’s what he tells me at the start of each day. But every morning is the same.