He floated between the partially sunken buildings, the waves limned in bright sunshine. Under the surface was an ancient stone dais, mostly sunken into the sandy seabed, and covered in rough, grey-green lichen and brightly coloured anemones that waved in the current.
There were words carved into the flat circle of stone, but the old man who floated above it on a cobbled together raft, could not discern them, as they wobbled and distorted.
The old man, whose leathery hands gripped oars fashioned from driftwood, had seen this coming. He hadn’t always lived out here in the outliers, in the same way he hadn’t always been old.
In his youth, he lived in the city, inside the so-called safety of the wall. He ground out a meagre life in administration, where every day he would review archived financial reports, for what purpose he could no longer remember. But, that is what he did, and he did not stop to think whether he should be doing it or not, he just did it.
Another life ago, he lived in a cramped, one bedroom apartment that was sandwiched on all sides by angry, screaming, and brutal life. Until one night, he left. He did not attend his work, and instead, under a sliver of moon, he ducked under a fence and hopped aboard an old and battered train, that was slowly pulling out of the train yard.
Behind him, in the wailing night, great searchlights threw up great bars of light into the dark sky and he heard the sound of helicopters. He cowered in the back of the empty carriage, afraid that the lights were searching for him.
He made it as far as the coast. Here he stood on the shore that was once a main street, flexing his bare toes in the warm water and looking out past the corpses of scuttled boats, run aground out towards the end of the earth, and he watched seagulls dive and pick glittering fish from the water.
A line of buildings broke the waterline; sky scrapers, museums and schools, homes, hospitals and theatres; a whole submerged city, lost to history as water levels rose and rose and rose to drown the people denying it all.
He selected a modest home a short walk from the water that lapped over old tarmac, and building sites. He lived in the shadow of a crane. Like a rusted sword of Damocles, he would dream that it was falling and would wake up sweating and crying, as the architecture in his mind pinned him down and swallowed him, dragging him down into the depths.
He grew crops, finding seeds from scavenged gardens. He knew the rules. He knew what it meant to grow and harvest his own food and yet he did it anyway, so that he could live.
On the days in which he was merely waiting, he built a boat and he spent his time slowly gliding between the old architecture that pierced the water. He placed nets and lines in the water. Some days, if he hadn’t been out on the water for a while, there would be a dead fish floating on the end of the line. Other times, the line would just be gone altogether.
One night, it rained so hard that the ceiling of his shack collapsed in on him. He crawled out from the ruins of his home in the wet dark and staggered, shivering and soaked into a house that contained the grey bones of an entire family. Each skeleton wrapped in their bedsheets as if they just went to bed forever.
He slept on the floor and awoke to the horrifying metallic screaming of the crane tilting and failing. He watched through a grimy window as it fell, crushing the place where his previous home had stood, and finally came to rest at the foot of the sea; the rusty cables, just like the roots of some old tree, finding their home in the water.
He counted a thousand dreamless nights from then, until the first stranger came; tatterdemalion, and near death. The stranger begged him for help, and the old man who had come to the sea to escape a constructed society, helped him, and saw the seeds of some future being sown.
The stranger stayed with the old man. Proficient in little of any practical use, he dedicated himself to learning how to make clothes, and how best to sow crops. In the top floors of an ancient building, where the salty waves lapped upon the white marble floor, he found books, flowering with mould. He discerned from some of surviving tomes, how to build engines, how to survive in the wilderness, how to build homes. Skills that were lost for generations.
The former, Data and Risk Assessment Co-ordinator found true happiness in the construction of new things.
A second stranger came. Bewildered and broken, he fell to his bony knees amongst the rows of corn and wept.
The old man nursed him back to health and found happiness in others wellbeing. The first stranger, who was no longer a stranger, scavenged a book on medicine for him, and the old men read it from cover to cover and hungered for more.
Over a decade, more and more people came and soon the old man and the first stranger, became the founders of a community.
In the nights, by the great fire that burnt in grand old building where stories were told and kept, the old man worried about the attention of others who lived in the city a great many miles and a lifetime away, covetously spying on them from behind the wall. The first stranger would call him paranoid and laugh at him, in a way that was friendly and reassuring.
They came in winter.
In large grey trucks they screeched to a halt in the centre of the empty cornfield, and men dressed in black and armed with guns clambered from the back.
He watched this from the tower of a skyscraper through the lens of his makeshift telescope; a birthday gift from the first stranger. He stood and watched as they dragged people from their homes and loaded them into the backs of the large vehicles.
The first stranger, whose name was Robert, resisted, and the old man stood helpless in his cold tower as the brisk, sea wind riffling mouldy, blank papers and crying through broken glass, and he watched his friend die.
Amongst the rows of neatly tilled earth, the old man buried his friend in the cold earth. Then he gathered his books and dragged the raft down to the shore, where ancient macadam met sea water, and he gingerly climbed aboard and pushed off.
Upon the ancient dais, the remaining words simply said, all men should be free.
The midday sun trembled on the surface of the water, and he disturbed the image of it by pushing the driftwood oars in and rowing; following the jagged shoreline, west this time, he hopes that he may find some kind of peace that he has yet to know.