CHAPTER 14 – Smoke on the water
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”
Windows continued to crack. Dan sensed veils lifting, time slowing into long fractions. God was rooted to her screens, admiring the tsunami’s rapidly spreading circle, resisting huge urges to dance. Jesus was positioned mid-river, between the pier and the Medway Estuary. His purple palate of energised colour wobbled violently as the SS Richard Montgomery’s remnants were blasted in every direction.
Thames Estuary dwellers were being blitzed by the ear-pounding detonation of anywhere between 1,400 to 3,000 tonnes of explosives, including 2,000 cases of cluster bombs. The Montgomery had become the first wreck designated as dangerous under section 2 of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. It sat in an exclusion zone, monitored visually and by radar.
As an ascended master, Jesus refused to be excluded. He had created his own portal near the Sheerness coast, while listening to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Down to Earth’ album. And out he had popped, skipping across the strong currents, passing right through the LNG vessel, and perching on a mast poking above the waters. “I have a Mother who is greater than I. From her I have received all things, and I do only her will,” he softly incanted.
The wreck had for decades been subject to speculation. How much damage to humans and infrastructure might its near 70-year old ordnance inflict? And what could set it off? An investigation by New Scientist magazine in 2004 made no mention of divine sparks, but concluded that a collision, an attack, or just tides shifting the cargo, might be enough.
God settled into her work, wiping a bead of sweat. As the river began to hollow out, and a tower of fire brought bizarre new colours to the sky, time all but stopped. Next to her sat Maggie, transfixed. Satan was opening a bottle of Highland Park, to smooth the transition back. The first sip provided a remarkable heather character. “Jesus told me that the peat used is hand-cut,” Sal told anyone who might be listening.
Operating in nano-seconds, God kept track of the inevitable collateral damage. She accorded each task a prioritisation, attempting to keep children paramount in her deliberations. Certain parents in Southend, Canvey Island and Sheerness had earlier that morning made unexpected decisions on impromptu visits to inland relatives, or trips to rural Essex and Kent. Further down God’s karmic rankings, just below the wasps annoying people on Southend seafront, were categories such as deceitful politicians and Essex bankers who gambled in derivatives markets.
A key task was to oversee the LNG vessel. Having completed almost fifteen hundred voyages, Johan van Hoyte, the Dutch pilot, had sensed an unusual danger. He had read subtle signs in the Cape Horn skies. He had given the slip to armed pirates in Indonesia’s Molocca Straits. But never had he seen the colours which spread-eagled across the Thames Estuary on May 12.
With the Isle of Grain terminal hoving into view, Johan had glanced nervously to starboard where the Montgomery’s masts protruded. Did a mauve aura envelop the wreck’s location? In plain sight ahead lay the ugliness of Thamesport container port and the adjacent Grain power station, near to the LNG import and regasification terminal.
He felt rather than saw the blast. Automatic thoughts of emergency procedures were transcended by terror, followed by astonishment that his huge ship sat atop a moving water cushion.
God absorbed endless cameo details. Beyond the ship, the humans nearest the blast were a 29-year old Belgian woman, Eema Koont, and her 43-year-old lover, a Liberal-Democrat MP. High on cocaine, they had walked the pier. Halfway out, Eema saw a female Buddhist practitioner in red and yellow robes, gazing calmly to sea. In her abandonment, Eema believed she was creating lilac across the sky. She had worked her way into ATOS middle management, gaining hefty bonuses for every batch of claimants torn away from benefits.
In the café, at the pier’s end, her lover tore her clothes off against the disabled toilet wall. He had amassed a small fortune as a parliamentary lobbyist, receiving shares in the private health companies springing up like cancers on the dying NHS body.
Now, in rising wind, they ran from the building laughing like teenagers, carving their initials on a nearby wall, either side of roughly hewn genitalia worn by wind and spray. They sat by a silver bell.
25 yards away, facing the Thorpe Bay shore, the bronzed, bearded but hung-over angler Dickie Durban cast out for mackerel in the warm water. Nothing was biting. Yesterday he had filled his net, celebrating with can after green can of lager. It took a second for the blast to register, another to realise his hearing had gone. Sky was morphing into crazed oranges, browns and blacks, as water all around the Montgomery found paths of deadly destiny.
Was it the coke? Or was a wall of water obliterating all view of Kent? Eema recalled pictures of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. That memory shuffled with others as her mind expanded at light-year speed toward enlightenment. An unhappy childhood in Antwerp; flashes of her first lover; holidays stoned in Morocco; a brief flirtation with meditation.
God, also, was remembering. How she had almost intervened before the atom bombs hit Japan. As the Creator let time pay out, the pier’s front end levered up from its stanchions, like velcro unfastening. A quarantine was lifting. Buildings flipped skywards. The politician flew at last, remembering Aleister Crowley’s words: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”.
Eema Koont span through the sky and onto an exposed, rusty pier stanchion. Similarly harpooned, yards away, her lover twitched uncontrollably. God nodded, satisfied.
Nearer the shore, a pier train catapulted towards the Buddhist. In her mind she sat by her master. Dickie Durban was already sleeping with the fishes, soon to enter the long tunnel.
The karmic mega-wave was pelting towards the Southend coastline, gaining height as the water lost depth. Geoffrey Summers viewed it from his wheelchair two hundred yards west of the pier. His 89-year old body had all but given up. Fluid drawn from his lungs, two weeks ago, was refilling. He had felt the strange compulsion to visit the seafront, painstakingly rolling his chair to its resting place. He thought of World War Two, serving on army hospital ships under the Egyptian sky. Geoffrey recalled his wife’s last years, in a nursing home, unable to recognise him. Regretting he had never said it. How much he loved her.
He thought of the late 1970s, working for a Fleet Street company where printers took turns to sleep through night shifts. Maggie had taken them on. Maybe she got that one right. In his last second, as saltwater filled his mouth, he puzzled over Britain’s mutation. Many people now lacked sufficient food and warmth. His last thought comprised two words: “Perfidious Albion.”
The tsunami raced across the seafront road, sweeping pedestrians and cars into buildings before coiling up slopes. To the west, water smashed though the dark, sleek casino, tilting every wheel to zero. Early Sunday afternoons were quiet. A few croupiers; several Taiwanese and Japanese punters.
From a quantum viewpoint, Jesus saw that no distance existed between Southend and the Isle of Grain. Calmly, he recalled post-Golgotha days. After he and Mary Magdalene fled Jerusalem for India, they lived peacefully, absorbing and teaching ancient Hindu and Buddhistic wisdoms. Mary later left for southern France, taking their two children, but remaining in telepathic contact. Jesus eventually died at a ripe age and was buried in Srinagar, in a zone disputed between India and Pakistan. Now more burials loomed. He would help heal the incoming souls to The Place, where Buddha was chanting to ease the suffering.
East of the pier, Sally Chloe sat in the public bar of the time-worn Hope Hotel. A married guy was buying her shots. She knew a toll might be expected, perhaps at her small flat. Having graduated in psychology, Sally had found only temporary work. It was difficult to get dressed some days. She had been told to look nationwide in her job applications, or risk severing her benefit. Friends in accountancy, law and banking were already halfway to six-digit salaries.
Fiddling with the patch on her cardigan sleeve, she feigned interest in drunken male antics in Ayia Napa. Her thoughts were consumed with money. A friend, Katie, had been seconded to work in the UK Treasury. Kat had told her of a plan to sell off nearly 4 million student loans to private sector buyers, and to remove interest rate caps. One calculation, said Katie, suggested some graduates might then work until retirement without ever repaying their debt.
Sally’s eye was caught by a line Katie had highlighted in the briefing document, which was prepared by Rothschild Investment Bank, an unknown name to her. It said “investors who want inflation protection” should receive more shelter from the financial risk in the loans than the government. There was something odd there, reminding her of Gordon Brown’s 2008 bailout of banks. Why was the private sector prioritised?
Degree or not, Sally was a short jump away from the food bank, or maybe the park bench, given the collapsing welfare system. If the lecherous git sitting opposite were to impregnate her – which he would, given half a chance – she could face the situation she saw locally. Some of the town’s poorest mums were starving themselves to feed their kids.
“You listening or what love?” smiled her gallant suitor, a second before the front windows caved inwards, hurling glass across the room. Sally ignored the apocalyptic view that opened up, ignored her fags, grabbed her bag and ran. Instinctively, she turned right. Lower territory lay to the left. Sprinting, in her red pumps, hoping she could reach the High Street. A glance told her the Adventure Island playground would be pummelled in its location either side of the pier.
Several emporia east of the Hope, Steve Landais stood in a betting shop, a stone’s throw from the Kursaal. A seven furlong horse race at Salisbury was underway. If his £100 cash bet won, the next two rent payments were covered. Reluctantly, Dawn had agreed, given his confidence.
His selection, My Mind Told Me, was a late finisher. With four furlongs to go, the shop’s front window disintegrated. Fellow bettors scrambled for the back door, but Steve’s horse was cruising behind the leaders. “Come on you beaut!” he roared. Outside, thousands of tonnes of metres-high water charged towards the beach.
Lungs bursting, Sally was weaving through terrified locals and day-trippers. Passing the amusement arcades, climbing Pier Hill, slowing, she noticed the young woman trying to gather two kids outside a café. “Do as you’re bloody well told, we’ll be at Nanny’s in just a minute,” shouted Chanelle Robinson, whose mum lived in Alexandra Street, off the main drag.
Sally stopped. “Let’s carry one each, please don’t argue” she yelled. Sally picked up the girl, who was chuckling at the wall of water steadily scything the pier from its moorings. Chanelle grabbed her boy. He insisted Spiderman and Power Rangers were coming.
Moving at any speed was as difficult as resisting the temptation to look seawards. Panting for breath, Chanelle wondered if she might be better off dead. She was ashamed of always pretending to have more than she did. Increasingly uncertain if she could survive on her welfare payments, she had discovered legal aid for consumers was in jeopardy, after disputing a bill with her mobile phone provider.
God switched her lens back east, to a semi-detached house overlooking Southchurch Park. She saw local boy Dave Dawson look up from his spring vegetables at the blast, as darkness smeared the sky above the elevated sea wall a few hundred yards away. Dave ran in and up to where his wife had been sprinkling lavender in their daughter’s bath. “It’s the Montgomery, isn’t it?” Sarah asked anxiously. Dave had regularly mentioned the dangers posed by the wreck.
As a young boy, on the nearby council estate in Newington Avenue, Dave had planted his first seeds. When he met Sarah, who was qualifying as a holistic therapist, his own alternative views had driven him to prepare a ‘survival’ store for the moment of social collapse: thousands of seeds, canned food, medical items, cash and a cluster of silver and gold coins.
Lauren dropped her duck, smiling at the ripples. Watching her, hanging from the toilet roll holder, was the Queen’s face. Dave wondered if he would be reported to the police, but still contended that unelected hereditary monarchies that leeched off their subjects were as archaic and unfair as sending children down mines. The previous week, images of Cameron and Clegg adorned their loo-roll. Dave said the government had soiled itself in its receptiveness to lobbying, which Cameron termed as “the great scandal” a fortnight before being elected. The sound of rushing water rose through the open window. Sarah dried Lauren while he went to their balcony.
God switched back to Chanelle and Sally, who were discovering that a child’s life at stake could trump screaming leg muscles. At the top of Pier Hill, Alex Coppell, a black 25-year-old, had reverted to his military training when windows began disintegrating. By the time the two women crested the hilltop, fighting for breath, Alex had canvassed every section of a crowded fast-food restaurant at the seaward end of the High Street, urging patrons and staff upstairs. As he shepherded the two women and the children to safety, water surged into the High Street. His memories of Afghanistan were re-erupting.
Further west, three friends had followed their Sunday lunchtime routine. From a Westcliff seafront café, they had watched an increasingly purple sky frame a blue and white Maersk container ship. As usual, soccer talk petered out. Talk of past sexual antics was stale. Despite seeing only middle-aged men shovelling beer into their faces, God followed a hunch, and called up the File on Mike Burper.
The school record was mediocre, accompanied by a history of bullying. Then a career in insurance and two divorces, each wife citing physical violence. Big anger problems stemmed from paternal DNA. A separate side-file contained a long list of attacks on soccer opponents, and even referees. Two grown sons remained terrified of him, but were apt to mirror his behaviour. ‘Hello Mike’ whispered God. “Old Testament time!”
When the explosion occurred, some two sea miles away, the threesome separated. One sought safety up the hill behind the café. Another reckoned he could reach his car outside Maxims Casino.
Burper’s vehicle lay the other way. He legged it towards Chalkwell, breath rasping. Cars were crashing and spinning off the road in the panic. He looked over his left shoulder, stomach spinning at the darkness mushrooming across the estuary. 20 seconds later he knew he wouldn’t even reach the car. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Through the gathering roar of death, Jesus entered Mike’s ear. “Only one thing remains Michael. Forsake all you have in the physical realm, and come with me.” Mike’s next move possessed a certain Essex panache. He halted, turned and faced down the tsunami. “Come on then,” he snarled. As it leapt onto the road, he threw his last punch.
Beneath the betting shop, Steve Landais sat in a black hole, like Jonah and Ishmael. Squeezed against the underfloor safe, winning slip in his back pocket, he heard the water flooding the shop; wondered how much air was left; texted Dawn that he was OK.
Messages flew like a mini 9/11. From his balcony, Dave Dawson texted his brother, who lived by Southend East railway station. A cataclysm of seawater had charged down and through every gap to the south side of Southchurch Park, smiting aside any weakness. It was filling the huge recreational space and surrounding roads. Dead bodies, sections of beach huts and boats were surging past. Dave saw two boys had perched, precariously, on the roof of the park’s cafe. The younger cried, holding his brother’s hand.
Looking down, Dave estimated nearly three feet of flooding, gauging the water’s height against his front windows. Damage to their property would be acute, and his vegetables ruined, but insurance would kick in, barring an act of God or some other exclusion.
In Heaven, Buddha recited the Great Compassion Mantra for each soul that departed earth.
In Leigh, hundreds of desperate people were scrambling and jostling along roads and up slopes from the old town. Ricky Ravenous-Glutton remained rooted outside the Billet, his memory straying unaccountably to his granddad in Benfleet. Ricky’s toy army overran the Germans, by the coal fire, while Pops snored in his favourite chair. Yards away, Claire had joined Sheena, Ruth and Jess, watching the horizon diminish. Her rash had also shrunk.
Deploying his fireman’s instincts, Micky Gaze picked the pub as the best of a terrible set of options. He forcefully told the women that the Billet’s floors, several feet above ground, might offer sanctuary. “Out here we’re dead,” he shouted. Ravenous-Glutton followed the small group climbing the pub steps.
15 miles away, in Basildon, a redhead standing outside Primark felt an unknown emotion. She heard the blast, saw the south-eastern sky darken. Why did she suddenly remember the chancer she had entwined with at the Canvey nightclub? Crisps and sex were his pleasures.
Above Old Leigh, Dan’s camera lens was providing strange pictures. The oncoming barrage appeared to bounce off an invisible covering across the old town. It curled and stretched onwards and upwards in a diagonal, north-westerly thrust, engulfing running and falling humans. It bubbled and broiled up to within 50 yards of where Dan and Mary sat transfixed, nerve holding.
The tsunami rushed on, mercilessly, across the greenery of the under-named Two Tree Island, where ‘doggers’ lost the use of the nature reserve for weeks. Next in line, Canvey Island never stood a chance, despite two miles of reinforced concrete sea walls. The island had achieved fame via its major 1953 flooding. The 2013 version killed several hundred inhabitants, including a hatful of hardened criminals.
God never lost sight of the LNG vessel. The ship grounded down upon the Isle of Grain’s expansive mud flats, without causing a second huge explosion. Nearby, the living daylights were knocked out of the regasification terminal, container port and combined cycle power station, smashing away a percentage of the UK’s optimal power supply and racking up billions of pounds of damage. The town of Sheerness on the adjacent Isle of Sheppey was a sitting duck for the wave, while the upper reaches of the River Medway experienced a huge surge, ruining parts of Gillingham, Chatham and Rochester. So many lives lost.
Tilbury Docks took a huge hit from the swell. Terrified drivers looked down from the QE2 road crossing at Dartford, catalysing crashes hundreds of feet above the river. Industries, transportation facilities and residential areas along the Thames suffered major damages and residual flooding. However, the Thames Barrier, east of the Isle of Dogs, held firm. Nonetheless insurance companies would soon receive balance sheet busting bills, including damage to Belgian and Dutch coastlines.
In the taxi back to Chelmsford, Dan wrote the story on his mobile. You couldn’t make it up. The first British tsunami and the miracle of Old Leigh. By the evening, he had a scoop that a legal friend negotiated with ravenous publishers. Dan’s pictures collected royalties for decades.
The Mouth of the Empire had been dealt a huge punch. Now the real work would begin.