In this powerful, highly anticipated novel from an award-winning author, four people attempt to make a home in the midst of environmental disaster.
Perched on a sloping hill, set away from a small town by the sea, the High House has a tide pool and a mill, a vegetable garden, and, most importantly, a barn full of supplies. Caro, Pauly, Sally, and Grandy are safe, so far, from the rising water that threatens to destroy the town and that has, perhaps, already destroyed everything else. But for how long?
Caro and her younger half-brother, Pauly, arrive at the High House after her father and stepmother fall victim to a faraway climate disaster—but not before they call and urge Caro to leave London. In their new home, a converted summer house cared for by Grandy and his granddaughter, Sally, the two pairs learn to live together. Yet there are limits to their safety, limits to the supplies, limits to what Grandy—the former village caretaker, a man who knows how to do everything—can teach them as his health fails.
A searing novel that takes on parenthood, sacrifice, love, and survival under the threat of extinction, The High House is a stunning, emotionally precise novel about what can be salvaged at the end of the world.
Chapter 1: Caro 1 CARO The high house belonged to Francesca’s uncle first, but the uncle died not long after she and my father met. He had no children of his own, and so he left the house to Francesca, and the parcel of land that went with it, the orchard and the vegetable garden, the tide pool, the mill. For a long time, the house had been neglected. When I first came here, for summer holidays with Francesca and with father, damp patches spread around the corners of the downstairs rooms. Tiles were missing from the roof. I remember the chill the house had, even in summer, and the way the wind swooped down the chimneys at night. The orchard, outside the kitchen doors, was overgrown, and beyond it, past the unruly beech hedge with its branch-obstructed arch, the tide pool was choked with reeds. Twice in every twenty-four hours water would flow into the pool, but the sluice gate was long shattered and so, where once the water would have been held to turn the wheel, it only trickled out again as soon as the tide began to ebb. The mill had half-fallen into the mud. The wheel was rotten. It would have been used to grind wheat, when it was built—and now it turns again and powers our generator, which gives us light in winter for as long as we have the bulbs, and runs the fridge in summer. Now the orchard is carefully pruned. We do the apples in winter and the plums at midsummer, as Grandy taught us, carefully cleaning and sharpening the pruning saw, keeping the secateurs on string round our necks because they are so easy to lose. Now the hedge is clipped. In the vegetable garden, things grow in rows. There is a greenhouse with all its glass intact. This is what we do, now. We dig and we weed. We plant. We store seed, and we watch the weather carefully for signs of frost. Now there are hens in the hen coop, although in winter they live mainly in the scullery. We have fields too, which we have claimed because there is no one else to want them. But when I was a child the orchard and the gardens were overgrown. The coop was empty. The house was dusty and unloved. I The high house isn’t high, really, but only higher than the land around it, so that when it was first built, before the river had been banked and the cuts made to drain the land, when the rain was heavy and the tide was up and the water spread where it wanted, the house would have been an island, almost, with only the westerly part of its land unflooded, a causeway above the waterline joining the house to the heath. And now at times it is almost an island again. II In those first years, before Pauly was born, after Francesca came to live with me and father, we used to come here for our summer holiday, the three of us spreading out through the rooms of the high house, all into our different places. We were very separate. Francesca worked, up in one of the top rooms, one we use now to store apples, spread in lines across the floorboards, and potatoes in sacks. I roamed the garden, building dens in the honeysuckle that crept across the ruins of the walled garden, decorating my hair with goose grass, making fairy umbrellas out of coltsfoot leaves. Father stayed in the kitchen. He sat in the old armchair by the French doors, reading, or he stood at the kitchen counter, chopping vegetables to make lunch. When I was tired of being by myself, I came in from the garden and trailed after him, nagging to be taken somewhere.
—Where, though, Caro?
—The pool, please.
I loved the tide pool, then. Even now, when we are so reliant on it, I regret the loss of its wildness, the way it was before Francesca restored the mill, when reeds grew down close around its edges and small creatures rustled in and out of them, going about their secret business. I loved how still it was, the way the water rose and fell, creeping rippleless up the banks, the way its surface shone when sunlight caught it—but father was afraid of me falling in, or getting caught in the mud, so I wasn’t allowed to go near it by myself.
—Oh, all right,
he said, and went to find his jacket and his boots. I waited for him in the orchard, joggling from one foot to the other, until at last he came out to me and we walked through the hedge, down the path that slopes through a sort of meadow, to where the pool is. There he sat and watched as I swished through the grasses, taking off my shoes to feel the mud suck around my feet, searching for treasures—stones or feathers or once, miraculously, a nest of eggs, each one cracked open where its chick had hatched but otherwise intact, pale blue, speckled, near weightless in the palm of my hand. He watched me until the shadows lengthened to cover the pool entirely, until I started to shiver and yawn, and then he said,
—Home time, Caro. Chop-chop.
—I don’t want to put my shoes back on.
—Leave them off, then.
I gave him my shoes to carry, and held his hand, and together we walked back to the high house, where Francesca, alone in her upstairs room, kept working. III On other afternoons, father and I went to the beach to dig holes or to throw stones into the sea, the hand-sized flints that stretched like strange eggs along the tideline. Sometimes he let me bury his feet in the sand or, if it was hot enough, took me into the sea to swim, holding me under the armpits while I splashed. When I thought I felt something touch my foot I screamed, and he laughed, and I clung to him, my arms round his neck and my legs round his waist. I wasn’t afraid of the water then—or if I was it was a pleasant kind of fear, the sort that sends you yelping with laughter back up the beach when a big wave comes, before you turn and run to chase it out. It was often hot, in July and August when I was a child, although not in the way that it became later, when summers lasted half the year and every day was a white sun in a pale sky. There were lots of holiday rentals in the village, and by late morning the section of the beach closest to it would be laid out with people, row after row of them on their backs, or sitting with their children round them, buckets and spades scattered about, and the remnants of picnics, bottles of sun cream, sun hats, spare clothes. Francesca, back in the house, would say,
—How can they stand to enjoy it, this weather?
She didn’t have the habit that the rest of us were learning of having our minds in two places at once, of seeing two futures—that ordinary one of summer holidays and new school terms, of Christmases and birthdays and bank accounts in an endless, uneventful round, and the other one, the long and empty one we spoke about in hypotheticals, or didn’t speak about at all.
—They act as though it’s a myth to frighten them,
—instead of the imminently coming end of our fucking planet,
and I knew that when she said “they” she meant father too, and me. IV This was when it was still the beginning of things, when we were still uncertain, and it was still possible to believe that nothing whatever was wrong, bar an unusual run of hot Julys and January storms. All summer I ran, half-naked, through the fine days, and when the weather broke, bringing rains so heavy that the water fell in long ropes through the air, I sat inside the high house and watched it from the window, marveling at the quantity of it and the force, how it scoured what it touched, washing crisp packets out of hedges, flattening shrubs, cleaning dust—and then, next morning, it would be hot again, but the air would be filled with steam; and the sea, where the river ran into it, stained with mud. V We went to the high house at Christmas too, when some years snow lay on the beach and ice washed in gray sheets down the river, and other years the grass still grew and the leaves had barely turned on their branches. We ate mushroom risotto and then poached pears, and sat by the fire that father had lit, and we opened our presents. No matter what we did, the house seemed to stay empty, with all the doors and windows shut against the cold and so many of the rooms dark, and I tried to make my voice fill up the house while father and Francesca sat on the sofa and read, but there was only one of me and I couldn’t make enough noise alone. When the time came to go back to our home in the city it was a relief, because there our lives had formed around us. At home, I knew how to be lonely without it showing. I knew how to occupy myself in my own way, in my own world, which was separate from father or from Francesca—which was private. At home, I knew how to be complete. And then, after a few years, Francesca rented out the high house. A young artist lived there for a while. Francesca didn’t like her work, which she thought too comfortable,
—there was nothing important to be thought about.
When the artist left, a group of students from a nearby agricultural college moved in, and Francesca let them pay a nominal rent in exchange for renovating the garden. VI All that was before Pauly was born, when there were still only three of us. Francesca was not my mother. She loved me but there was no structure to it. I loved her but I was unsure of her. We rarely touched. Father loved us both, but serially—first one, and then the other. He couldn’t love us both at once because we needed such different things from him. As a three, we were not unhappy, exactly, but we weren’t happy, either—and although sometimes it seems to me, looking back, that my childhood ended when Pauly came, I can’t say that I regret it. It was too quiet then, and I was too often alone. It is hard to be a child in isolation. You take on adulthood like a stain. VII I was fourteen the day Francesca brought Pauly home from the hospital. Father and I spent the morning cleaning the house, polishing and sweeping and dusting, until every room smelled of beeswax and vinegar. There was a bunch of sunflowers on the table in the hall, stood up in a water jug.
—She’ll say we shouldn’t have bought cut flowers,
I said, but father replied that just this once she’d like them anyway, which I thought, privately, seemed unlikely. Francesca had been gone a week. The birth had been difficult, Father told me, when he came back from the hospital in the middle of the night for a change of clothes. The baby had been positioned awkwardly and for a long time its shoulders had been stuck trying to get free of Francesca’s pelvis, and also there had been a loop of umbilical cord round its neck which all the struggle had pulled tighter and tighter so that when at last the baby had been got free, tugged out by a pair of forceps clamped round its skull, it had been blue-gray and limp, and the doctors had taken it straight off, before Francesca and father had even heard it cry, to another part of the hospital to be wrapped in a cooling blanket in case its brain had been damaged.
—The baby is a boy,
—and we have called him Paul.
Father looked worn out. I made him cups of tea and cooked him pasta with tomato sauce whenever he came home, and I said that of course things would be fine—but to myself I thought that perhaps they would not be fine. I thought of babies in neonatal units, the photos of them I had seen in charity Christmas campaigns or on the news, their tiny bodies old-looking and plugged with wires, barely human, skin like tissue paper spread over bird bones. I thought of the baby, Paul, my half brother, swaddled in an incubator, and I tried to think of Francesca sitting beside him, waiting—but it was impossible to imagine her in such a place. I could not think of her at the mercy of doctors, reaching for a baby that she was not allowed to touch. I could not think of her afraid, but only of her saying to me, when I’d once wanted to know why I wasn’t allowed to drink juice from a carton,
—We all have to make sacrifices, Caroline. That is how things are.
No one but Francesca has ever called me Caroline. VIII When we had finished cleaning, father and I ate lunch, and then we washed up, put everything away, swept up the crumbs. Scrubbed out all signs of ourselves. Father asked if I wanted to go with him to the hospital but I said no, because I was afraid, both of the baby and his birth bruises, and of Francesca, of what had happened to her and of its consequences—that she either would be herself or would be not herself, changed, a strange infant in her arms. Father kissed me, and then he put on his coat and went out to the car. I stood on the doorstep and watched him drive away, and when he was quite gone, I closed the door behind him and began to wait. I went into the front room first, where the cushions on the sofa were all undented and every book was slotted into its right place on the shelves. After that I went into the kitchen, where there were no mugs waiting to be washed, and into the bathroom, where the towel hung clean and folded and the soap sat square in its dish. In the room that Francesca shared with father, fresh sheets were tucked neatly beneath the mattress on the bed. The washing basket was empty, its usual tangle of jumpers and tights unpicked, washed, and put away. Next door, the baby’s room waited, perfect, for a baby. Even my own room was clean, its carpet denuded of books and clothes, its bed made and everything swept, orderly and unfamiliar. I sat at the bottom of the stairs, watching the door, waiting at the center of all the mess-less emptiness of our house, and I might have felt unwanted then. I might have felt that I too had been smoothed out, as though father and Francesca had given me up to start again—but really I only felt that I was poised, en pointe. An end had come, but not a beginning, yet—and then, at last, there was the sound of the car, the key in the door. Father stood aside to let them in, Francesca with the baby in her arms, and it was as though not just my brother but both of them were newly born, their fragile skin pinked by first exposure to the sun. I stood in the hallway, feeling the whole world still about me, as Francesca held the baby out to me and said,
—Look, Caroline! This is Pauly—
and I reached out and took him from her, and time began again. IX Sometimes, when Francesca went for a shower, she would give me Pauly to hold, and I would watch him, his tiny curving body nestled into the crook of my elbow, his arms and legs waving gently like ropes of seaweed in an underwater current. He felt as though he were a part of me, then, and when he looked at me and I looked back, our matching eyes held wide, I thought I knew him and he knew me too—until his mouth began to seek, head turning side to side, and his coughing sobs turned into cries and brought Francesca running back. X Each morning, father took up residence at the toaster.
—What today, then?
—Two slices, please.
I poured coffee from the pot, one for each of us, and one for Francesca, who came downstairs in her dressing gown, her eyes puffy and face creased, saying,
—Don’t ask me how the night was. I feel like I could eat the bloody loaf.
She put the baby in his bouncy chair and sat down next to it, joggling him with her foot so that he tick-ticked up and down, waving his hands in front of his face. In the background, the radio:… fears for the Eastern Seaboard of the United States as storms—
—Turn that thing off, would you?
father called to me, and Francesca didn’t stop me, although she frowned, said,
—Turning it off won’t make it go away—
We poured milk, passed jam. Father took his lunch out of the fridge and packed it in his bag, searched for his wallet and his keys, got ready to leave for his job at the university.
—Another day of students. When will it end—
I peeled an orange and offered it to Francesca, who took it from me, pulled it into segments and ate them one by one, while Pauly in his chair watched her and made a sort of humming sound.
—Thank you, Caroline.
We had been reconfigured. As a three we were unbalanced, but the baby’s weight had evened out the scales. It seemed, at times, as though it were a magic trick done skillfully, so swift and smooth, and I was afraid in case, were I to learn the way that happiness was palmed, the trick would cease to work. Father, buttoning up his coat, said,
—What’s today then?
I told him,
—and French. I hate French.
Francesca picked Pauly up,
—Come on, piglet,
she said to him,
—let’s get you into some clean clothes—
and she carried him away from us, back up the stairs, into the soft confines of that cocoon his room had become. XI When I got home from school they were together in father and Francesca’s bed, Pauly having his nap and Francesca working, a book in one hand and her notebook open beside her. Pauly, his face pink, his breath even, was draped across her lap, and I sat with them, doing my homework on the floor at the end of the bed until Pauly woke, and then Francesca and I played games with him, stacking towers of wooden blocks for him to knock into a heap, pushing toy cars so that their wheels rattled across the floorboards. He liked to be turned upside down, squealing as we took it in turns to dangle him backward from our laps. I dropped a rubber ball and he watched it bounce down toward stillness. The phone rang. Francesca answered it, and while I sat on the floor opposite Pauly, trying to teach him to clap, I heard her say,
—They think this baby is an admission of defeat,
—They think it means that I no longer care. Or that I don’t believe in what I say—
but watching her I thought that it was not defeat at all. Rather, it was a kind of furious defiance that had led her to have a child, despite all she believed about the future—a kind of pact with the world that, having increased her stake in it, she should try to protect what she had found to love.
It is so hard to remember, now, what it felt like to live in that space between two futures, fitting our whole lives into the gap between fear and certainty—but I think that perhaps it was most like those dreams in which one struggles to wake but can’t, so that over and over one slips back against the mattress, lets the duvet fall, and shuts one’s eyes. There is a kind of organic mercy, grown deep inside us, that makes it so much easier to care about small, close things, else how could we live? As I grew up, crisis slid from distant threat to imminent probability, and we tuned it out like static, we adjusted to each emergent normality and did what we had always done—the commutes and holidays, the Friday big shops, day trips to the countryside, afternoons in the park. We did these things not out of ignorance, nor through thoughtlessness, but only because there seemed nothing else to do—and we did them as well because they were a kind of fine-grained incantation, made in flesh and time. The unexalted, tedious familiarity of our daily lives would keep us safe, we thought, and even Francesca, who saw it all so clearly—even she who would not let herself be gulled by hope—stood by the open fridge at five o’clock in the afternoon and swore because there was nothing to give the baby for his tea. We fed him fish fingers from the freezer. Father came home. Pauly had his bath, splashed the water with his fists, sucked the washcloth, then cried when it was taken away to wipe him. Afterward, consoled, he was wrapped in a towel to be dried. I kissed him on his damp and rumpled hair.
—Good night, Pauly.
Francesca carried him off to bed. Father made dinner and opened a bottle of wine so that a glass was poured, ready, when she came back down, blinking in the light.
—He’s asleep at last, thank Christ—
And all the while, outside, the thing that only she could look at straight: the early springs and too-long summers, the sudden, unpredictable winters that came from nowhere and brought floods or ice or wind, or didn’t come, so that there was only day after day of sticky dampness and the leaves rotting on the trees and the birds still singing in December, nesting, until the snow came at last and, having overlooked migration, they froze on the branches, and they died. XII Francesca, on my laptop screen, was making a speech. Pauly, not yet six months old, was asleep in a sling on her front, his head tucked in beneath her chin, his legs dangling around her waist. She said: We must recognize that we are being given a final warning—because if we fail to do so, if we fail to act, the consequences will surpass anything we have previously seen, and we will have missed our chance—
They seemed so much a pair then, Francesca and Pauly, and as he began to take shape, his personhood unfurling like new green leaves, he grew toward her, reaching out to catch and climb. It was a joy, I found, to watch them. I loved to pick Pauly up when Francesca left the room to fetch something, or to speak on the phone, and to whisper in his ear as he began to fret, Don’t worry, Pauly, she’s coming back—
It seemed miraculous that this tiny almost-person, whose needs were so immediate, whose sense of loss at his mother’s absence was so overwhelming, might be so easily restored when Francesca came back and lifted him onto her hip again. Then his tears would stop at once and he would glare out at the world reproachfully, knotting his fists into her shirt—but nothing lasts. At night the world seems full of edges. The moon, shining through the window, shows up the corners and the breaks. Pauly and Sal think it is fear that wakes me, that gets me out of bed to go into the garden, to walk beside the river in the dark, but it isn’t fear, or not only. It would be so easy, in this green place, to think we had won through—that it was an act of skill or of prescience on our part that had brought us here, in place of all the others it might have been instead. It wasn’t skill. It was only the opportunity Francesca gave to us, and the choice to use it on ourselves. In Pauly’s room, before I fall asleep, I stare at his young man’s face and try to remember what he looked like as a child, but I have forgotten. I pull the blankets over me and I match my breath to his until, at last, I fall asleep. XIII One afternoon, while Pauly had his nap, father and Francesca and I sat on the living-room sofa and watched an island in the mid-Pacific sink. We saw the storm arrive, the cameras picking up the rain, the swelling wind. We saw doors torn from hinges, palm trees bend and give. We watched as an ordinary piazza in a far-off seaside town came apart, its street signs snapped, lampposts buckled, the café on the corner split open like an egg. Father said,
—At least they knew it was coming.
On the screen, a whole car flew past.
—I mean, everyone had got out already.
Francesca, face taut with fury, stood up and, going into the corner of the room, put both hands against the walls.
she said, her back to us,
—is very far from the point. And anyway,
she went on, speaking with such fierceness that I thought her words might drill holes through the lath and plaster to let her out of the room, out of our lives,
—there are always some who stay. Why not? Where else can they go? A fucking refugee camp? While the rest of the world argues about who should take responsibility for them? Yesterday they had lives, and now they’re just faces in a bloody queue.
—Everybody’s fucking sorry—
Next morning, after the storm had moved away, we turned on the television again and saw satellite pictures of the place where the island had been, and where there was nothing now but bare earth and a patch of ocean scummy with debris. The people who had lived there were in temporary shelters, we were told, on the nearest major landmass, a thousand miles away from where, a week earlier, they had been at home. It was unclear how many had chosen to stay.
In the afternoon, Francesca put her laptop on the kitchen table while she made oat bars and, sitting with my feet propped up on Pauly’s high chair, eating raisins she had spilled, I watched news footage of families hunched under tarpaulins. They looked resigned, as though they already understood what they had become a part of, and I tried to stop myself from crying because I was ashamed of my tears, which were neither compassionate, nor empathic, nor kind, but came because I was afraid, very suddenly and directly, for myself. XIV It was evening, and Francesca was packing a bag. Father followed her about as she went from room to room, collecting jumpers, chargers, a toothbrush.
—What about us?
—What about Pauly?
—Paul will be fine.
Francesca slipped her passport into the top pocket of her suitcase. Father said,
—He needs you.
—He has you,
Francesca answered, and she went into her study, and shut the door behind her.
Later, waiting for a taxi, kneeling to kiss Pauly on his forehead, Francesca said,
It wasn’t clear which of the three of us she was talking to.
—If I can help at all—if there’s anything I can do—then I have to go.
—of course, you do.
—I’ll be back in a few days. A week, maybe. I have to go. I have to see it for myself. There have to be witnesses.
said father again.
—We can’t just turn our backs.
That night, Pauly wouldn’t sleep. He stood at his bedroom door, his face wet with tears and sweat, and howled as though he were in pain. I tried to pick him up, to comfort him, but he writhed and kicked his heels against my legs until I let him go, and so instead I sat next to him on the brightly colored carpet, and I whispered to him and kept on whispering,
—It’s okay, Pauly, it’s okay. It will be okay. I love you. It’s okay—
but it was nearly midnight before at last he fell asleep, exhausted, half in and half out of the doorway. I watched him until I was sure he wouldn’t wake, and then I carried him to bed. I put on my pajamas, brushed my teeth, fetched a glass of water, and then, for comfort—his, or mine—I climbed in next to him and, with his small feet pressed against my stomach, I slept too. XV In a newspaper column, Francesca wrote:
As scientists we are used to remaining in one place. We tell ourselves that it is our job only to present the evidence—but such neutrality has become a fantasy. The time for it is past.
Every day father went to the university, taught classes, ran seminars. In the evening he came home and marked papers, pursuing his own research in the gaps—and so it was hard not to see Francesca’s words as personally directed, a facet of their relationship played out in public. Even then, I knew enough to wince, but there was Pauly to be looked after—and anyway, perhaps what she had written was less an attack than it was an apology, that she should place the hypothetical, general needs of a population above the real and specific ones of her family. And anyway, didn’t it turn out that she was right.
Toward the end, of course, father went with her—for the last year they were alive, traveling to conferences, emergency committees, summits. I wonder now what he must have felt in those last months—what guilt, to have left it too late to change the outcome because he had not wanted Pauly or me to be unhappy. It is the same guilt that I feel now, rooted in the knowledge that I did nothing, in the end, but stay safe at the high house and ride things out. Often, in the night, I wonder how it must have been for them in the last moments, Francesca and father—whether it was slow or quick, a death by falling or one by crushing or by drowning. I wonder how afraid they were. And sometimes I think that perhaps they are not gone at all but are still out there somewhere, working, in a place that is more important to them than here. XVI I sat in the garden with Pauly beside me, his hands gripping my shoulder to hold himself upright. I was picking daisies, holding them out to him, just out of reach, making them dance backward and forward, their heads nodding, until he squealed with laughter. He squatted down and pulled a handful of grass up by its roots, then held it out to me, his plump fingers curled into a grubby fist around it.
—Thank you, Pauly,
I said, taking it, then turned it in my hand and offered it back to him.
—Do you want it?
He loved this game at that age, the back-and-forth of it—but this time, as he reached out in turn, he stopped halfway, his gesture interrupted by something he had seen, and instead of taking the grass from me he pointed upward to a tree and in his brand-new voice said,
I called to Francesca, who had come back from Paris the day before, where she had stood in front of a crowd of university students, all of them dressed head to toe in black, and said, If we are in mourning for anything, it is for a time when we could turn our backs.… Now she was making bread, and when she heard me she came running out through the open kitchen doors, wiping her hands on her jeans, leaving two white trails of flour.
—What is it?
—What’s happened? Has something happened?
—He said “bird”—
I pointed up into the tree.
—There it is, Pauly,
—it’s still there, look. What’s that? What can you see?
but Pauly, quiet again, only smiled at us and held out fists of grass. Francesca said,
—I must get on with lunch,
and, turning away, walked back toward the house. XVII Pauly and I were building towers out of wooden blocks and then pushing them over, sitting side by side on the front-room carpet. The door was ajar. On the other side of it, I could hear Francesca moving about.
—would you like a story?
I read to him. He sat on my lap and followed the story page by page, and when we found the picture of the wolf, Pauly squealed, delighted as I knew he would be, and pointed at the animal’s stretched and grinning mouth.
—Big teeth! The wolf!
I heard Francesca’s hissed intake of breath. I heard her pause, turn, walk away, and I felt a sudden spasm of guilt. How warm Pauly was in my lap, how comfortable, how soft, and how it must have hurt Francesca then to be in the next room, alone, and to have the truth confirmed: it wasn’t that Pauly didn’t talk at all, but only that he didn’t talk to her. XVIII In the therapist’s office, all three of us sat in a line, Francesca, father, and I. Through the large window in the wall we could see Pauly, playing on a patchwork rug in the next room. He was with the speech and language therapist and she knelt next to him on the floor, where they had built a marble run. Pauly looked calm, I thought. They were playing some kind of game, the woman holding a marble at the top of the run and pointing at Pauly, then letting it go to skitter round the bends and shoot out the bottom, so that Pauly had to run to fetch it. I had worried that people would seem to be judging him, that he would be made to feel that he was at fault, but this might be nothing more than a rather select kind of playgroup. Father and Francesca had been coming here with Pauly for a month, for family therapy sessions. Often Francesca came back just for this, arriving on the train in the morning and leaving again straight after, so that I was at school the whole time she was home and didn’t see her at all; but now it was half term, and they had asked me to come as well. I thought of the others in my class, and what they might be doing that wasn’t this—but my life, with Francesca in it, had never been like theirs, and was even less so now, so what would I have been doing? Sitting in the garden with Pauly, perhaps. Taking him to feed the ducks in the park. I didn’t like to be apart from him, in case he should want me and find that I wasn’t there.
the therapist said, breaking the long silence in the room,
—children are a kind of weather vane. They pick up on the currents in family life and… act them out.
Francesca said, as if explaining things to me, her eyebrows raised.
The therapist smiled, a little thinly, a pale man in a pale sweater with black, square-framed glasses balanced halfway down his stub nose. He looked at me.
—Would you say you are an anxious family?
Afterward, we went out for lunch. While we waited for our order, Pauly sat on my lap, coloring with crayons on some sheets of paper Francesca had brought from home. I picked up one of his drawings and turned it over. An Analysis of Recent Climate Trends and the Increased Likelihood of Devastating Weather Events, I read. Francesca frowned.
—What they don’t seem to understand,
—is that anxiety is a perfectly reasonable response to what we are living through.
Pauly was drawing people, moon faces with stick bodies underneath, giant feet on the ends of dangling legs. Father said,
—But Paul is only a child, and if he is picking up on your—our—fears—
He tried again.
—We have to at least try to believe that he will have the chance to live an ordinary life.
—We have to do no such thing,
and for a moment there was a gap in her fury, and she looked neither fierce nor righteous but only rather sad—as though she could see already how far she had failed, and wished only that the end would come, and let us all out. XIX In the mornings, on my way to school, I walked Pauly around the corner to nursery, his hand in mine. When we arrived, I took him inside, helped him to take off his coat, watched him hang it on his peg. I gave him his bag and breathed in the nursery smell of boiled carrots, disinfectant, and damp clothes. The teachers were kind to me, carefully treating me the same as the real parents—and although the effort showed, I appreciated their making it. In the afternoon father picked him up, dropping by on his way home from the university, or if father stayed late then I would go.
Pauly asked, his eyes wary, his shoulders curled forward.
—It’s all right, Pauly,
—he’ll be home in an hour or so. He’s teaching. Shall we go to the park?
and his anxiety was forgotten on the swings, where I pushed him back and forth until it was late enough that father would be home.
In the evenings, after Pauly was in bed, father and I sat and watched the news. In Bangladesh the rains had failed. In Japan there were floods. A delegation from the drowned island had arrived at the UN, seeking restitution. Fires raged through the center of Australia, and in parts of China the summer was now so hot and humid that it was incompatible with life. Sometimes, cut among the chaos, we saw Francesca, seated in a television studio, a microphone pinned to the lapel of her jacket. Her voice, recorded and reproduced, sounded odd, not unfamiliar but not quite right, as though she were doing an impression of herself.
—I thought she was in Berlin,
I said. We turned the television off and I finished my homework, then went to bed, and when Pauly woke, as he often did, in the small hours of the morning, I let him get in beside me.
—Can I have your arm?
he asked, and I stretched it out across the pillow, for him to rest his head on.
—Time to go to sleep now, Pauly,
I told him, and he did. XX It used to be that Pauly needed me, and so I looked after him. I thought it was as simple as a question and its answer, and didn’t think about the ways that his small person might be an answer to something in its turn. Now things are the other way about. On bad days, when I can’t sit still, when my head aches and I want to sleep but sleep won’t come, when my longing for father and for Francesca is so great that I can hardly stand it, then I follow Pauly around. I shadow him. I know he finds it hard. I know that I should pull myself together.
—Make yourself useful, Caro,
he says, and passes me a spade.
—The effort will do you good.
I start to dig. Sometimes Pauly is right and the digging does help—if not straightaway, then later, when I sleep a little better in the night. At other times the digging makes my hands ache, and Pauly takes the spade away and says,
—Why not go for a run instead?
so I do as he tells me and lace up my running shoes, which we have mended and mended because there are no more pairs left in the barn, and I run out of the high house, out of the orchard and away from the tide pool, away from the things that need doing, away from Pauly and his sideways concern, and away from Sally and her worries about what we will eat and how much wood we have stored for the winter, out into the empty countryside, which is quiet and has no interest in me. It is good to be alone when I am running, and afterward there is a period when I feel better. Pauly waits for me at the high house, and I see his own relief when he sees mine. It is I who need him now. I need his solidity and his certainty. I need his aptitude for making do. But sometimes in the night, when I lie on his floor and count my breaths to try to make sleep come, I feel him watching me, and I think that perhaps I have always needed him, even when he was small—even when it looked like it was the other way around, because he gives me shape and substance, and to be needed is to be held in place. XXI The agricultural students were gone from the high house and it was empty. Francesca began to spend her weekends there—whole weeks, sometimes—and I found it hard not to think that she was avoiding us, Pauly and me. Often father went with her. I didn’t ask what they were doing. The fact of their absence made me angry, but it was also, in a way, easier when they were gone and we were by ourselves. I could relax. The world with just the two of us in it was very small, but it was easy. I missed father, but I didn’t miss the way I had to make myself seem happy for him, and I missed Francesca too, but not the feeling she brought into a room that we were all failing against standards that were impossible to match, and not the fear she also brought, the constant awareness of consequences that she would let us neither forget nor ignore. Even father now seemed to chafe when he was at home, fidgeting as though he would rather be elsewhere, away with Francesca, and not stuck with us, in our dull routine.
If I thought about it at all then, I think that I assumed they must be resting when they went to the high house. I thought that they were being peaceful, just the two of them together, as Pauly and I were peaceful without them. Pauly was nearly four then, and he was still reserved with strangers but had, when it was only the two of us, the ability to forget himself in joy. In the afternoons, when I had picked him up from nursery, as a pan of pasta sat bubbling on the stove, we lay on the floor of the front room wriggling, pretending to be fish, or we took turns to be lions and hide between the poles of the drying rack, roaring. He liked to play with the dolls from the dollhouse set I had bought him for Christmas, giving each of them a different voice, making them chatter to one another, bicker, fall out, make up, console. On Saturday mornings, after we had done the shopping, he liked to make biscuits, cracking eggs two-thirds into a bowl and one-third across the table, sticking his fingers in the sugar jar when he thought I wasn’t looking—
—We won’t do baking if you eat the sugar, Pauly—
He liked to play hide-and-seek, but could never get the hang of staying hidden and would leap out as soon as I came into a room, shouting,
—Here I am, Caro! Here I am—
Things were so simple when I was with him that it made those moments when the outside world intruded seem extraordinarily violent. Sometimes when I went into the corner shop to buy bread or milk, I would catch sight of the front page of a newspaper and be surprised by photographs of people knee-deep in mud, of children lying in rows on mattresses, their eyes huge in their skulls, and I would feel a sudden sickening terror, a lurch, and I would shut my eyes. That was how it felt, outside: that there was something always waiting, just beyond the edge of vision, to terrify or to reproach. Inside, with Pauly, when it was just the two of us, I was safe—or I felt safe—or I could turn away from what I was afraid of. I was six months shy of my eighteenth birthday, and in my last year at school. Around me, it seemed, the world sank, or froze, or burned. I had no idea what I would do next, and when I thought about it—when I thought about anything other than Pauly, and the minutiae of our lives together—I felt only terror, which shaded into fury at its edges. XXII Francesca came home for a few days to work at the university. In her presence, Pauly was muted. He watched her. She became even more than ordinarily busy, cramming into the few days what would otherwise have taken weeks—cooking stews and pasta sauces for the freezer so that we would eat acceptably when she was gone; planting runner beans in the garden; tying up the raspberry canes in rows; repainting the front door where Pauly had scratched it with a wooden duck on wheels. I wished that she would go away again. I missed the days when we ate honey toast for tea instead of vegetables. I missed the stop-start bustle of the mornings and the evening winding-down, Pauly in the bath saying, Will you get in with me, Caro? while I sat beside him, ready with a towel—and then the stories, the good-night kiss, the sudden quiet when he was asleep but the house was still so full of him that I didn’t feel lonely at all. I missed him creeping into bed beside me, and waking in the night to find his feet pressed into the small of my back. I missed the struggle to get him dressed in the mornings, his legs and arms multiplying and going in all directions. When Francesca was there, she said,
—Put on your trousers now please, Paul,
and he did, each foot straight into each leg. She took him to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, stood over him while he washed his hands.
—I’m taking you to nursery today.
Pauly nodded. I trailed behind them, checking inside Pauly’s nursery bag to make sure he had his book, spare underwear, a snack. Francesca knelt to put his wellies on, her back to me.
—He likes to have his trousers tucked into his socks,
—otherwise his socks fall down,
and I saw her shoulders set, her neck tense. It gave me such pleasure to hurt her. XXIII Shame comes from nowhere. It is like black ice my thoughts run onto, unseen in advance and then unbalancing, so that I sprawl and slide—but it seemed to me then that Francesca had measured her love for Pauly by the extent to which she could fix him. Then, when it turned out that he could not be fixed at all because he wasn’t really broken—was only a small boy who felt afraid at times because we were all afraid—she had put him to one side, and she had put me aside too. I was angry that she didn’t want us. I was angry that she refused to protect us, bringing into the house with her when she came the thought of all the things I wished to avoid, and then leaving again, an endless series of taxis to and from the station.
All the time that she was away at the high house with father, I thought that it was because they were happier without us. I didn’t know that they were busy there, clearing the tide pool, fixing the sluice gates, installing the generator. I didn’t know that they were stocking the barn with supplies. I only knew that, when they came back, they brought fear with them, tracked in like mud across the carpet. XXIV I left school for good at lunchtime on the day I turned eighteen. I walked home. The house was empty. I had no plans, either for the afternoon or for the time beyond it—my life, which stretched empty ahead. Or didn’t. It was becoming clear to everyone now that things were getting worse. The winter before, half of Gloucestershire had been flooded, and the waters, refusing to recede, had made a new fen, covering homes and fields, roads, schools, what had been hills rising now as islands. In York, the river had burst its banks and the city center was gone, walls that had stood for nearly two millennia washed halfway down to Hull. People didn’t say these places were gone. They didn’t say that there were families living in caravans in service stations all along the M5, lined up in the parking lots with volunteers running aid stations out of the garage forecourts. People said,
—They must have known their homes were vulnerable—
We were protected by our houses and our educations and our high-street shopping centers. We had the habit of luck and power, and couldn’t understand that they were not our right. We saw that the situation was bad, elsewhere, but surely things would work out, because didn’t they always, for us? We were paralyzed, unable to plan either for a future in which all was well, or for one in which it wasn’t.
—I’m not going back,
I said to father, when he came home from work because the school had called to tell him I had left.
—What will you do instead?
he asked, and I shrugged one shoulder up and slid my eyes away. There had been daffodils in the park at Christmas. The coast path had been redrawn at six different places over the last three years.
—I have to go and pick Pauly up from nursery,
—unless you’re going to do it,
and I walked down the road to where Pauly was waiting, standing at the gate in his coat and hat and mittens.
—Your shoes are on the wrong feet,
—No, they aren’t.
—Oh well, if you say so. What did you have for lunch?
—I can’t remember. Strawberry sponge for dessert.
—Tasty. I love you, Pauly.
—I love you too. Can I watch a film when we get home?
—No. Pasta pesto for tea.
He took my hand, and worry burned off like mist. XXV That evening, Francesca came home. I don’t know where she had been, but she smelled of mold and filthy water and she was exhausted. She looked thin. After Pauly was in bed, I sat with her and father at the kitchen table.
—What will you do?
father asked me again, and Francesca said,
—That’s a pretty stupid question, under the circumstances.
Father let his breath hiss out between his teeth. He said,
—We can’t just give up on everything.
—Of course not,
Francesca said—and then, turning to me,
—Anyway, we need you to look after Paul.
So then I knew how absolutely she had given up. XXVI Later, unable to sleep, I went downstairs to fetch a book, and, standing in the hall, I heard them talking, father and Francesca together. The door was slightly open and I watched them through the crack it made. They were still sitting at the kitchen table, just as I had left them, side by side, facing my empty chair. Father asked,
—Are you so sure?
—I am. I think I am. We always knew a tipping point would come. It’s a surprise, really, that it’s taken so long.
—You could stop,
—If there’s no point. We could stay together, for a while at least. Caro is unhappy. Paul too, probably, although I agree it’s harder to tell.
They were silent for a long time then, and I stood very still in the corridor and thought of Pauly, the way his body twitched in his sleep, the tense look he got when Francesca was there, and how it was not hard at all for me to tell if he was happy or not. At last Francesca said,
—I might be wrong.
There was more silence, and I waited. Father said,
—We could be a family—
When Francesca spoke again, her voice was sharp and pointed as an awl.
—At least this way,
—they’ll both be safe.
The next morning when I went downstairs, father was in the kitchen drinking coffee, and Francesca was gone.
—She had an early flight,
he told me.
—She said to say good-bye.
—or to Pauly?
—Both. Of course, both—
Pauly, bounding down the stairs, ran straight toward me, calling,
—Caro! Caro! I dreamed I was a robot!
The day began. XXVII Pauly only went to nursery in the mornings now, to give me time to tidy, do the washing, get the shopping. I picked him up just before lunch and took him home, walking the short distance hand in hand, stopping to look at things that caught his interest, at leaves and beetles, car number plates, discarded crisp packets.
—Oh, Pauly. Please don’t pick that up. It’s filthy.
—But, Caro, it’s green—
For lunch we ate sandwiches, then washed up together and went to the park. Played on the swings. Came home. Had tea. Played. Bath. Stories. Bed. When he was asleep, the washing, ironing, vacuuming. Every day the same. And, in the routine of it, I found that I had misplaced my fear. The future was only the weeks until half term, when there would be planned trips to museums, city farms, the cinema, then back to nursery again. Things had a form and, carried along by it, the future ceased to seem important, although I knew that it would still happen to us, coming on while I was cutting carrots for snacks, while we fed oats to the ducks, played tag, stuck Band-Aids to grazed knees. I fitted my life to Pauly’s, because he needed me—or because I needed him, the way he looked me full in the face and smiled, the excuse he gave me: that I could not possibly be anywhere else, because I was here. This is the absurdity of it—that I couldn’t forgive Francesca because she chose the world over Pauly, and now I can’t forgive myself because I didn’t. I’m no longer angry with Francesca. Somewhere in the miles and miles I ran between the high house and the river, the river and the sea, I found that I had come to understand what it was she had tried to do, but who is there left to do the same for me? What option is there, in the end, for those few of us who have survived, but to be the unforgivable, and the unforgiven? All those who might have lived instead of us are gone, or they are starving, while we stay on here at the high house, pulling potatoes from soft earth. XXVIII The spring before Pauly and I came to the high house, Francesca and father were away almost constantly and it was hot, from the last week of February right through March and April, into May, every day high and clear and bright like a remembered summer, except that it wasn’t summer. In the afternoons, Pauly played naked in the garden, poking in the bushes to find insects or pouring water on my feet from the watering can while I squealed and laughed at the cold. I wore Francesca’s big sun hat, and when we went out, both of us in shorts and sandals, we ran through the sliver of shade the houses made on the pavement and felt the warmth come up from the ground to meet us. We knew that it was fever heat, a sign of illness, the air too thin and the cement on the ground too thick, the whole city a storage heater, but still we couldn’t help but feel ourselves stretch up toward it, the sun, which reached into our bodies and softened them like wax. People stopped work early to lounge in parks. Children sat on doorsteps sucking freeze pops. On buses, passengers smiled at one another. There was such joy in it, the light and warmth, as though we had escaped the winter. Pauly and I went on day trips, into the forest to the east of the city to feel the trees make their own cool, or west, to swim in the river. Away from the pavements, the acres of concrete, the heat was less pronounced. Away from people, it was easier to maintain the fiction of normality—but in the long grass of a deer park we searched for grasshoppers and there were none. The hum of bees was missing. The birds were quiet. I took Pauly to a place I remembered going with father once, where there was a greengage tree. I remembered father lifting me up above his head so that I could pull the soft fruit from the branches, and I remembered how sweet it had tasted, juice running down my wrists—but now the tree was bare, its branches brittle, its leaves a brown carpet across the dry ground. XXIX I lay in the big bed with Pauly curled up next to me, asleep. The window was open to let in what breeze there was and I heard the city sounds that came in with it, the hooting and the roaring of traffic, the wailing of sirens, the rattle of trains. Somewhere a party was happening. I heard the steady thumping of the bass, an occasional bark of laughter. Someone shouted something indistinct. Beside me, my phone rang, an overseas number. I picked it up, climbing swiftly out of bed and leaving the room so that I didn’t wake Pauly when I answered it—
—Caro? It’s me. It’s Dad.
He sounded tired. It was five hours behind where he and Francesca were, on the East Coast of the US, so it could only have been early afternoon, but perhaps they had been up all night, sitting round a table in a conference center trying yet again to force understanding where it wasn’t welcomed. I said,
and heard him sigh.
—I’m sorry, but we’re going to be here longer than we thought. I—
I sat down at the top of the stairs and leaned my head against the wall.
he said, and sounded it.
I asked, but instead of an answer, he said,
—I want you to take Paul to the high house. Pack your bags now. Leave in the morning. Okay? First thing. Get the early train—
—What’s happening? What’s going on—
From somewhere in the space behind him I heard a click, the sound of a door opening, a voice calling his name—
he said, to someone else, and then to me he said,
—I have to go. I love you, Caro. I love Pauly too. Tell him—
Then clear across the space between us, before the line went dead, I heard Francesca say, There isn’t time—
I stayed where I was, sitting on the staircase in the dark, until I was sure that he wouldn’t call again, and then I went back into the bedroom where Pauly, fast asleep, had turned himself to lie in a star shape across the full width of the bed. XXX While Pauly slept, I packed a hiking rucksack, stuffing it with handfuls of underwear, with T-shirts and socks, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap. Pauly had his own suitcase, a ladybug on wheels that doubled as a kind of seat, and into it I packed his raincoat, his wellington boots, some toys. I made sandwiches for the journey and put them in a shoulder bag. I didn’t pack a photograph of father. I didn’t pack the necklace that had been my grandmother’s, or the card that Pauly had made me for my birthday the year before—but then, what good would those things have been, even had I thought to bring them? I wish I had packed The Penguin Book of English Verse. I wish I had packed a garlic press. I wish I had the scissors that Francesca used to cut Pauly’s hair. XXXI Before I went back to bed, creeping quietly in beside Pauly, gently nudging his warm feet away from my side, I went downstairs and switched on the television. A hurricane that had been building in the Caribbean had veered west suddenly, and was now projected to hit Florida sometime in the next few hours at a strength so high that it lacked any current designation. Weather conditions in the area were already difficult, bordering on extreme. Evacuation was advised, but might be impossible.
—How is it,
asked a man in a suit, sitting in a television studio,
—that so little warning has been given?
and the woman opposite him, whose hair was not quite smooth, whose blouse was rumpled as if she had dressed hurriedly, her mind elsewhere, answered,
—These conditions are unprecedented. We have no models appropriate to this situation.
—So are you saying,
the man pressed her,
—that we are now looking at a future in which we no longer have fair warning of extreme weather events?
the woman said,
—that is exactly what I am saying. XXXII It didn’t occur to me that Francesca would not be safe, and I assumed that father would be too, because he was with her. Francesca was important. She would be looked after. There would be some plan, I thought, or there would be a refuge or a bunker—and then, afterward, I thought that perhaps this had been her intention all along, now that her other hopes were lost: to show how such exemptions, so long taken for granted, no longer held. None of us, now, would be let off, not even her—no power, no wealth or name or habit of ease would save us in the end—except that all the time, all through those last months and weeks, she had been building an exemption for Pauly, so that he, unlike everyone else, would be kept safe. We are all at the mercy of the weather, but not all to the same extent. XXXIII In the morning, I got Pauly dressed, ate breakfast. When Pauly went to wash his hands I checked the news, but could find out only that the storm had hit, with what seemed to be extraordinary violence, and that its epicenter had been on the district of the city where Francesca and father were staying. I had no message from them. Pauly was in a bad mood—contrary, uncooperative—and so it was easy, as I fought to get him to eat his toast, to get dressed, to put his shoes on, to ignore my worry and think only about ourselves.
—But I don’t want to go away,
he said, his voice a whine.
—We have to, Pauly.
—Why? Why do we?
—Because father told us we had to. It’ll be an adventure.
—All right then, it won’t, but we still have to go, so put your shoes on.
At the bus stop, Pauly sat on his wheeled suitcase, pushing it in circles with his feet. We got on the bus, got off it. We went into the station. The concourse was very busy. I left Pauly standing with our bags by a pillar next to a sandwich shop and went to buy our tickets, trying hard, as I waited in the queue, not to look at the large screen above the departure boards where rolling news showed footage of trees bending in the wind, waves breaking across an esplanade. There was still three-quarters of an hour until our train was due to leave. I took Pauly to a café, where we drank smoothies from plastic bottles and ate pain au chocolat that came in little bags, and I can still feel it in my mouth, even now—the cheap, oily chocolate and the doughy pastry wrapped around it, packet-stale, familiar. Pauly didn’t want to finish his, so we left it on the table when our platform was called—and it seems extraordinary to think how profligate we were. How careless. We were so unaware of all we had to lose, and how long has it been now since we had any bread except the flat, heavy loaves that Pauly makes, sometimes, from the wheat we grow and grind ourselves? How long has it been since we could leave even the worst food behind, uneaten?
—Come on, Pauly,
—hurry up. We don’t want to miss it.
We made our way across the busy concourse, found the platform, found the train. Found seats. Sat down. XXXIV Station by station the train emptied. We ran east into the tail end of the morning and then into the afternoon, rattling through the outskirts of the city, through its hinterland to what lay beyond, a succession of small towns with bunting strung across their streets giving out to fields, to woods, to the curve of a river and children standing on a white-painted bridge, a village with a fête, a farm with horses. Pink houses sat alone between hedges. Unfamiliar stations stood undisturbed. By the end there was only us and one other woman, who sat two seats in front of us and turned to stare at me. Pauly breathed a cloud onto the window and used his finger to draw faces in it.
—Stop it, Pauly,
I said, more sharply than I meant because I felt the woman’s judgment on me, but it wasn’t Pauly’s fault that he was bored, and at once I was ashamed.
—Sorry, Pauly. I didn’t mean to snap.
He stood up on his seat.
I said, and he flopped back again, crossing his arms and sulking until he saw a white bird from the window.
—Look, Caro! An egret!
—Is that a good one?
I asked, and he nodded.
The winter before, Pauly had found a bird spotter’s guidebook on the shelves at home, and since then he had spent hours looking at it, making me read out the names of the birds, their identifying features, the descriptions of their eggs—but whereas this information had left my mind, running out of it like water, Pauly had stored it, reproducing details at will.
—They’re a kind of heron,
—Oh, isn’t it beautiful—
and it was, pale as a ghost and tall and still at the edge of a lake. We watched it out of sight.
At the last stop but one the other woman got off and we were alone.
—Us next, Pauly,
—We’re nearly there.
We stood up. I took down our things from the luggage rack. The train slowed, stopped, running to the buffers, and we got out, stretching our legs on the empty platform, and everything around us was perfectly still in the baking sun. XXXV The town was eight miles inland from the high house, another half from the village where the road ran, and I had thought that we would get a taxi, but it was early on a weekday afternoon and the station was empty and so was the street outside. There were no people, and no cars on the road. I checked my phone, but there was no internet connection. The station had no ticket office, only a machine to put your credit card in and a window with a blind drawn down. There was a note pinned to a board with the number of a cab firm, but when I called it there was only the steady monotone of a disconnected line. The air shivered with heat. There was a smell of dust and lavender.
—We can get a bus,
I said to Pauly, my voice shrill with the effort of sounding unconcerned, but when I checked the timetable I found that the next bus wouldn’t be until the following day. I made a heap of our bags in the shade of the awning above the station door and left Pauly sitting on them.
I told him,
—I’ll try and find a cab office. I won’t be long.
I walked as quickly as I could around the nearby streets, but there was no cab office and I was afraid to leave Pauly too long in case he wandered off, or someone came and found him. I went into the post office, where a woman sat behind the counter, scrolling on her phone.
—but do you have the number for a taxi?
The woman shrugged, barely looking up, and gave me a number, different to the one I had found in the station, but when I called it, although it rang and rang, no one answered.
—No one’s picking up,
—What shall I do? I have a child with me.
The woman shrugged again.
—Try the pub, I would,
—The landlord’s son does lifts sometimes.
I found that I was close to crying. It was only the thought of Pauly waiting for me that made me swallow my humiliation and go into the pub next door, where it was cool and dim and a handful of men sat around tables, glasses cupped in their hands, staring up at a television screen on which a photograph of Francesca was superimposed above video footage of a hotel with its front wall ripped open. Through the hole I saw beds, wardrobes, sofas. The camera panned, and I saw twisted metal sticking out like broken bone from split concrete. Brown water, scummed with wreckage, swirled in and out of restaurant windows. Environmental activist and academic feared dead, I read, from the text that scrolled along the bottom of the screen, in unprecedented storm—
—Can I help you, love?
someone asked, but he was very far away indeed, it seemed, and anyway I had no answer. I turned and went back into the street, back into the sunshine, back to the station where Pauly sat on his suitcase, kicking his heels against the pavement.
—I can’t find a taxi,
—We’ll have to walk—
and, trusting, uncomplaining, he looked at me, stood up, smiled.
—Is it a long way, Caro?
—Not too far.
We started to walk. XXXVI Sometimes, on the cusp of sleep, I can still hear them, father and Francesca. Father says, I love you, Caro, and Francesca, interrupting, calls, There isn’t time—
It was extraordinary how quickly things fell apart, in the end. That city which, a day earlier, had been impregnable, glinting bright with glass and power, was swallowed by the sea. The land it had been built on would not be given back. Father and Francesca would not be given back. All these things were forfeit, and, along with them, the sense we’d always had that, whatever happened, we would be all right. XXXVII We followed the river out toward the sea, first through the outskirts of the town, past the new-built housing estates and the playgrounds, the primary school, the supermarket with its parking lot, the drive-through fast-food restaurant and the petrol station. Pauly walked beside me, holding my hand.
he said, and I gave him some of the water that was left in the bottle, tepid from lying in my bag in the sunshine. At first the path was tarmacked and the river in its well-cut bed ran slow and brown, but soon we were out into fields, green beet tops, and maize, and wheat. The river widened. There was an embankment, and we walked along the top of it, the path becoming narrower and runneled. My rucksack was heavy. Pauly slowed to a trudge in front of me, his suitcase bouncing along behind him on its small wheels, sticking in the tufty grass. He stumbled, and stumbled again.
—You’re doing really well,
—It’s not far now—
but really I didn’t know how far it was. The sun was hot. I thought that I could smell the sea. The fields ended and there was a heath, and then a wood. Pauly began to cry.
—I’m too tired, Caro. My feet are sore.
—Sit down here for a bit, then,
I told him.
—Have a rest. I won’t be long.
Leaving him cross-legged on the path, I took the bags and walked with them away from the river, scrambling down the side of the embankment into the trees, pushing through the thicket of new growth at the wood’s edge, whippy saplings rising out of brambles, to where the old oaks were, their trunks split low, their lichened branches growing long and hanging into one another. I stuffed my bag into the bowl of one so that it would be held off the ground and might, with luck, stay dry, and balanced Pauly’s suitcase on top of it. When that was done I stood for a moment, surrounded by the forest sounds, the rustlings and scurryings, the songs of innumerable birds, and wondered how I would go on—but what else could I do? I turned and made my way back to the path, where Pauly with his tear-stained face was waiting, and I picked him up and set him on my back, his hands around my neck, mine beneath his legs. I walked again, one foot in front of the other, and I didn’t think of father then, or of Francesca, but only of the burning in my legs and spine, the ache like heated wires in my arms, the sharp ground underneath my feet, and time was gone. The world was gone. There was only Pauly left, and me, and the path. I never went back for the bags. XXXVIII It was approaching dark by the time I saw the sea, a thin gray line on the horizon, and Pauly had fallen asleep, his head resting loose on my shoulder. The river was very slow now, and on either side of it there was meadowland, green and empty, and above it the vast sky—and then, at last, there was the path I recognized, leading away from the river and down among the reeds, where wooden boards were slung across the many small channels that stood at intervals, cutting this way and that, their water still and dark and deep. The first stars were out. Each step made me wince with effort, but finally we reached the tide pool, and then I saw for the first time that it had been cleared, no longer the scrub that I remembered. Beyond it, the yew hedge which marked the boundary of the orchard was neatly pruned. I was too tired to be surprised. I went through its arch, and found that where I had been expecting a garden run to seed and a house that was shuttered, dark, there was lush grass between the apple trees and light spilling out through the windows of the house. A girl walked toward me. She had come out to meet me from the house, and when she reached me she lifted Pauly from my back, gently so she didn’t wake him, and then she was walking on ahead of me, and I was following her, back through the garden, into the house—and that is how we came here, and we have never left.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for The High Houseincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Safe in a bustling city, Caro takes care of her young half-brother, Pauly, while her father and stepmother, Francesca, travel around the world as climate activists. Though disaster edges ever closer, Caro and Pauly are happy together: later she reflects that they, all the people she knew, “had the habit of luck and power. . . . We saw that the situation was bad, elsewhere, but surely things would work out.” Until one day their parents call from far away, as a hurricane approaches their hotel, and tell Caro it’s time to take Pauly to their summer home, just outside of a rural village, where Francesca believes they will be able to weather what is coming.
At the High House, Caro and Pauly settle in with Grandy, the former village caretaker, and his granddaughter Sally, who Francesca entrusted to care for the house. Once a summer home, it has been transformed into an environmentalist’s bunker, with a generator and a barn full of supplies. As floods threaten the village and the coast, the four of them eke out a life, working to adapt to the changing seasons, the disastrous news, and the crushing fear of the crises still ahead. A tender and urgent novel about a found family, The High House is an intimate, emotionally precise exploration of what can be salvaged, and what makes life worth living—even at the end of the world.
On page 11, Caro observes, “It is hard to be a child in isolation. You take on adulthood like a stain.” Later in the book, the reader watches as Pauly grows up in a different sort of isolation. Discuss the differences in Caro’s and Pauly’s childhoods. How do you think their experiences shaped their personalities as adults?
Francesca, the author writes, decided to have Pauly out of “furious defiance . . . a kind of pact with the world that, having increased her stake in it, she should try to protect what she had found to love” (page 16). What “stake” do you think Caro, Sally, and Grandy have in the world—what have they found to love? How does Francesca’s perspective on the decision to have a child map on to contemporary debates on this issue?
Caro muses that “there is a kind of organic mercy, grown deep inside us, that makes it so much easier to care about small, close things, else how could we live? As I grew up, crisis slid from distant threat to imminent probability, and we tuned it out like static, we adjusted to each emergent normality, and did what we had always done. . . .” How does this focus on “small, close things” play out over the course of the novel, even in the midst of crisis?
Why is Caro and Sally’s relationship sometimes so tense? Discuss the complications of their relationship, particularly as they build to Sally trying to comfort Caro on page 187. Do you think the two women need each other to survive? Why or why not?
Pauly is so young when disaster strikes that much of his understanding of reality is grounded in his life in the High House; he has “forgotten an entire world,” he reflects. Do you think this gives him a greater capacity for happiness or contentedness than the others? Why or why not?
On page 80, Sally contemplates Grandy’s way of life: “A way to live that was not notable, that did not aspire but did not, either, take more than it put back, nor push off the cost of enterprise elsewhere, outsourcing, as we so often did, our suffering.” How does this compare to how other characters in the novel live, like Caro’s father and stepmother? Do you understand this statement as a commentary on contemporary society?
The vicar comes and goes in the story, and Pauly, Grandy, Sally, and Caro have varying responses to the ideas of God and faith. Discuss how each of them understands the idea of God, particularly as they experience tragedy. How do they each respond to the vicar, and for what reasons do they visit the church?
On page 119 the vicar says, “Change is the natural order of things,” as if this might comfort the characters as they contemplate incoming disaster. Compare change and stagnation in The High House. Over the course of the novel, what changes, and what stays the same? Do the characters wish for change that will not come?
Pauly, Caro, Sally, and Grandy all experience tremendous grief. How does each respond to grief? What are their different ways of escaping and coping?
By page 184, Pauly has become a kind of caretaker for Caro—helping her process her despair and care for her chilblains. How have their roles shifted and why?
The slipperiness of time is a theme of the novel. Characters believe they have time, until they don’t; Grandy, the keeper of precious, practical knowledge about the natural world, ages; the seasons stretch on indefinitely, or end abruptly. Discuss the way time functions in this novel, how it slows down and speeds up, and how this affects the characters’ lives.
The High House also takes on parenthood, though none of the four central characters are parents themselves. Grandy, as Sally’s grandfather, and Caro, as Pauly’s sister, both have parental roles, and all three adults are engaged in raising Pauly. The High House, which sustains all of them, exists only because of Francesca’s love for her child. How do characters pass down knowledge? Does raising Pauly mean they must keep going, despite it all? When he is an adult, what motivation do they have left?
The High House could be considered climate fiction. With the group, discuss whether you would also characterize it as postapocalyptic—or is it too realistic for that?
Enhance Your Book Club
Once you’ve finished the novel, talk about your own perceptions of climate disaster. Did this novel change your feelings about the environmental crisis? How so?
To engage further with this topic, consider reading other recent works of climate fiction, like Weather by Jenny Offill and Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, or nonfiction, like The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells or Move by Parag Khanna.
Consider reading Jessie Greengrass’s first novel, Sight, or her collection of short stories, AnAccount of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It. Sight is a “dazzling” (New Yorker), inventive narrative about an unnamed woman, pregnant with her second child, remembering her mother and grandmother and considering her changing sense of self, and was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction. AnAccount of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It spans centuries, including stories about loneliness, haunting, and nature and wildness, and won the Edge Hill Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award.
Jessie Greengrass spent her childhood in London and Devon. She studied philosophy in Cambridge and now lives in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, with her partner and children. Her collection of short stories, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, won the Edge Hill Prize and Somerset Maugham Award. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Sight, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The High House is her most recent novel.
"Timely and terrifying … The High House stands out for our investment in its characters’ fates … Hope survives even a worst-case scenario, it seems. And yet, what remains with the reader is this: Let’s not let things get to that point.” —Oprah Daily
"Lush ... Greengrass explores what it is like to grow up amid an escalating catastrophe and what remains after so much is swept away.” —Scientific American
“The High House portrays a near-future climate catastrophe the same way M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs depicts an alien invasion: through the eyes of a single family, in and around their rural home … It’s a bleak yet somehow soothing novel about parenting while the world is falling apart, but also about finding magic in the smallest moments, like a toddler’s smile or a bird’s flight. Jessie Greengrass knows how to bring scenes to life with tactile, sensory details, and while the story can be brutal, the prose is gorgeous.” —The A.V. Club
“Quietly devastating ... [the characters'] gradual reckoning with their existence and the fate of the planet is made heartbreaking through Greengrass’s stunning prose. Painful and beautiful, this is not to be missed.” —Publishers Weekly, STARRED
“Moving…Greengrass excels in her account of this makeshift family—the sweet but fading Grandy, the two women who often see themselves as rivals, and the curious, growing, bird-crazy Pauly—and their attempts to live on and with and through a land that is increasingly inhospitable…[A] poignant, impressive contribution to an ever growing genre, the fiction of climate catastrophe.” —Kirkus
"This postapocalyptic, introspective drama is all about the love of family, isolation, hopelessness, and the will to go on. Readers will be asking the question, is it better to remember the life you had before and all that’s been lost, or to start fresh, only knowing this new existence? This novel is perfect for those who enjoy beautifully written, thought-provoking stories." —Booklist
"A book suffused with the joy and fulfilment of raising a child ... The High House stands out." —The Guardian
"The novel’s verisimilitude is striking...it’s done with restraint and propelled by finely observed dynamics between characters who grapple with survivors’ guilt and ungraspable truths ... Described in measured, meditative prose, humanity’s paralysis is painful to read: the myopic faith in the status quo, the fearful waiting game ... This sobering prophecy of collective guilt is also a hypnotic elegy to nature, and our vanishing place in it. " —The Spectator
"The premise is dark, but Greengrass’s lyrical prose brings glimmers of light ... Despite the devastation, this not-quite family finds small moments of love and happiness." —The Times Literary Supplement
"Greengrass is a thoughtful writer and The High House is full of elegant, resonant sentences about human fallibility, complacency, selfishness and our unquenchable capacity for love." —The Times
"Jessie Greengrass uses elegiac sentences as weapon in this melancholic tale of coastal erosion ... The story is haunted by an old world that got washed away." —The Irish Times
"An intimate, elegiac drama of a not-quite family finding a way to be together. Greengrass steeps us deeply in her wild, watery setting ... its prophetic vision fixes the attention." —The Daily Mail
"Both a portrait of an unconventional family and of inexorable environmental tragedy, I found this extraordinarily moving." —The Bookseller
"A deeply moving novel set in a near-future where a climate crisis is no longer just a possibility but an imminent disaster. Francesca, a scientist, is one of the few to foresee it and has prepared her former holiday home as a sort of ark for herself, her step-daughter Caro, son Pauly and locals Sally and Grandy. This is so grounded in reality and the ordinariness of the lives of this disparate group, that I had to read parts of it through my fingers. —Good Housekeeping (UK), Best Books of the Year
"This book is completely beautiful." — Daisy Johnson, author of Sisters and Everything Under
"A master observer of inter-human atmosphere." — Max Porter, author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers and Lanny
"Brave, important and exquisitely written ... Even the darkest times are lit by moments of beauty and grace, and the reader is uplifted by Greengrass’s conviction that salvation lies not in competing with one another to survive but in uniting to help those we love." — Sigrid Nunez, author of The Friend and What Are You Going Through
"Profoundly moving, this is an incisive yet hopeful reflection on how to move forward together." — Julianne Pachico, author of The Lucky Ones and The Anthill
"Chilling and beautifully realised, each small detail taking us towards an unbearable truth. A novel of tender intimacies and vast scope." — Esther Freud, author of I Couldn't Love You More and Mr Mac and Me