‘The City Built on Messages’ (short story)

Bit of flash fiction I wrote in an hour today, inspired by a shoot in Lincolnshire for Maxim Peter Griffin’s Field Notes:

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The City Built on Messages
by Mark Bowsher (25/06/18)

This was the last place Sarah expected to be offered a cup of tea.

“Cup o’char, love?” said the man with the frayed baseball cap, its material blue but faded by the years to a dusty grey. Lines on his face like canyons. He was not as old as many. He moved briskly across the beach, the sand wetted by the incoming tide, with the speed of a younger man. His eyes were milky blue like his cap. His skin had colour to it. He have lived through harsh times and back-breaking labour, she guessed, but had come out of it smiling.

A smile, closed mouth, warm, and an offer of a steaming plastic mug full of tea from his navy blue Thermos. She hesitated with an apologetic smile.

“Nah, it’s all right,” said the man. “I washed it out earlier.”

He had. She could taste the salt from the waves he’d dipped the cup into. The sea across the flat of sand, mirroring the patchwork of yellow and grey as the sun fought to be seen before the day ended, foamed and battled with itself, inching closer and closer to the land. Yorkshire tea. The man, like his tea, wasn’t from around here. His accent was London or maybe Kent or Essex. How he too had strayed so far from home to this desolate Lincolnshire beach she couldn’t fathom.

She thanked him for the tea. He nodded.

“There used to be a city here, yer know.” He seemed to be indicating the sea.

“There? Oh.” said Sarah. She saw no sign of where a civilisation may once have been.

Ripples across the flat of glassy sand as the wind blew inland. It was February and winter refused to die. All life was gone from this land. The sand formed knee-high banks in front of the line of trees just behind them. Set into the bank dry, brittle shrubs which had not been alive since autumn.

Sarah turned and looked out to sea. The tide was coming in fast now. Within the hour they would claim this land for the night, swallowed up when the sun departed.

Where had the man come from? Sarah had been scanning the horizon and he had walked straight towards her. He could not have come from the land and there was nowhere else to hide save the sea. He was dry as a bone. She was freezing. Her joints aching in the cold. She couldn’t stay here much longer. She should get back to her car and move on. The wind whipped around the man. He smiled still, never baring his teeth, his eyes unblinking.

“Used to be some great continent out there. A mighty city as well! Fourteen thousand years ago!” said the man.

Sarah knew her history. There had indeed been a continent out there in the North Sea, bridging the gap between what is now known as the island of Great Britain and continental Europe. Doggerland, swallowed up by rising sea levels roughly eight and a half thousand years ago.

“Oh, well, erm….interesting because…well, it probably wasn’t that long ago. There were no cities fourteen thousand years ago,” said Sarah.

He laughed a hearty, rasping smoker’s laugh. His teeth, to her surprise, were pearly white. He cast his hand out in the direction of the crashing waves. She hesitated once more and then headed for the sea across the face of the mirror-like beach.

Sarah’s feet were slowed by the clay-like sand. As she approached the point were land became sea, her foot came into contact with a heavy object embedded in the sand. She lifted it out of the muck. Barely bigger than her hand, it was like a great, shrivelled prune. The object was heavy, like a brick. Very much like a brick. She turned it over. There were pictures. Ancient drawings like cave paintings or early hieroglyphics. The message was simple but clear. A man in a field, working, surrounded by others, smiling. The same man at home with his wife, smiling. The same man once more in a room on his own, tears pouring from his eyes. Sarah had studied ancient languages some years ago and never had she seen something so primitive in its design yet so committed to portraying the subjects’ emotions.

She uncovered more. More and more and more. They were so intricate, so heartfelt. Ancient workers from a forgotten land depicting people’s private hopes, their fears, their anxieties, their loves, their hates.

“Built o’these they were! The city!” said the man, suddenly closer, the wash lapping at his feet, his smile not phased. “Messages on every one! No-one saw ’em was there was put inta the walls, o’course.”

How could this be? thought Sarah. How does nobody know of this?

She turned to face the man. She had so many questions. He was not there. She looked back towards the land. She saw no footsteps stretching across the mirror sand, no-one in sight. No figure was swimming or even sinking in the waves. Screams so close would not have been lost in the roar of the sea.

Before Sarah could lift a single one of the ancient bricks into her bag a wave rushed forth and claimed them. They were gone, he was gone, she was drenched and cold and needed to be home. She gave in and headed for her car.

Sarah never saw the man again or told anyone the tale of that day on the beach in Lincolnshire, but she did often speak of a city built on messages.

Thanks for reading!

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