She told me she came from Doggerland. I shielded my eyes from the sun and squinted out to sea. All I could see were cockle pickers, dogs running on the beach, and an old trawler slowly shunting its way out towards Scandinavia. Land masses are few and far between in that direction; at least, they have been since the continental tables settled themselves down, back at the end of the last ice age.
I had no reason to doubt her, though: refugees come from all over nowadays. So why not there? I took a closer look at the cockle pickers. They certainly looked Chinese, as you would have expected around here, but could I really be sure?
“I’m not a refugee,” she said. “I’m just looking for my shells.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard her right. “Your what?” I replied.
“My shells. I lost them in the sea.” She peered out at the ocean beside me. On the horizon I could make out the incandescent glow of an oil rig. Some leagues to the west a passenger ferry sat proudly atop the waves, nearing the conclusion of its torpid odyssey across from the Hook of Holland. An atmospheric lensing effect made it seem as if it were intermittently speeding towards shore, skimming the waves at a brisk rate of knots and stopping for no one. I imagined fire belching from its funnels, armies of desperate buccaneers hanging from its lower decks, the raiding party waiting for nightfall before hurling their grappling hooks into the cadavers of fishing boats that bobbed in the shallows.
“Oh,” I said, not sure of how to proceed with the conversation. Her clothes, I noticed, were stiff with dried-out salt deposits. She wore a necklace of starfish, one or two of which appeared to be still alive, curling their extremities open and shut above the plunging neckline of her dress. “Sorry to hear that. You can find some more out on the mudflats, probably.”
The pickers were wading back in with the tide now. They called to each other in some strange language I had never heard before. “Oh no,” the woman from Doggerland replied. She leaned in to me, so close I could count the silver hairs on her head mixed in with the copper ones. Her breath smelled of seaweed. “Those ones are dead. Mine were growing, but now they’re gone and Doggerland doesn’t seem to be there any more either.”
“Maybe,” I said, “your shells grew up without you.”
“I believe you may be right.” She espied something on the ground behind me and bent down to pick it up. It was a cracked, broken clamshell, the type you see a thousand of every day. Tears sprang to her eyes. I prised it from her grasp, as gently as possible, and led her away. We skirted the group of cockle-pickers; they seemed not to see us. I could barely see them, either. There was something translucent about them, a quality I’d associate more with sea-horses, or water bears, or jellyfish. They drifted off into the dunes, their bodies like fleshy fronds of sapient seaweed brushing the toes of humanity.
The woman from Doggerland looked back just the once. The trawler gave out a sad toot of its horn and puffed away over the horizon. By now the ferry had sunk back into its passive state and was sailing in the accepted manner once more. I took her hand; it was cold, cold as the black depths of the North Sea, cold as the breezes that whipped around the funnels of cargo ships in the Strait of Dover.
We came back every morning after that, regular as clockwork. She would hunt for shells, turning them over and over in her hands before discarding them to the sand. Eventually, she became more interested in the Coca-Cola bottles she found buried beneath the mudflats. Maybe she thought of them as artefacts from her sunken home, scoured clean by the salt water and deposited there with messages scratched out on the glass in some ancient script, their words for her eyes only. Our house became filled with the things.
I didn’t throw them out. I couldn’t have done that to her. Now, our children happily play with them in the garden, while their mother stares out to sea, her lips moving in a silent chant of death, loss, and rebirth. If Doggerland should, somehow, arise from the waves once more, we’ll be first in line for a plot of land, preferably somewhere near the seaside. The Outer Silver Pit should do. I never did ask her which part she was from; I suspect the answer would mean little to anybody these days, anyway.
Now, when we hear the distant cry of foghorns we tell each other it’s the signal of discovery, and soon enough we’ll be back in her ancestral land, building mudcastles on the beach and skimming stones across the breakers while vast seabirds swoop low overhead.
Then we put the children to bed and sit together by the fire, mired in our own thoughts, dreaming of centuries lost and centuries to come.
Matt Thompson lives in London, from where he writes numberless strange fictions and produces similarly-numberless recordings of esoteric musical lore. His stories have been published at Unsung Stories, Perihelion, Turn To Ash, Kaleidotrope, and many more. He can be found on Twitter at @24wordLoop.