A slow, throbbing headache awaits me as I claw my way back to consciousness. That must've been one of Dad's most potent batches of hooch yet. When my eyes are able to blink back into focus I find myself in the trailer's small bedroom. Dad is up already by the sound of it, probably rising at the crack of dawn as he usually does. By the sound and smell it seems he's got breakfast on the go so I quickly pull on my clothes and join him.
We eat a mumbled, bleary-eyed breakfast of eggs and bacon; washed down with some of the proper instant coffee I brought along yesterday. It's far better than the ersatz stuff which is all he can get down here, or worse still the roasted acorn dust. It revives us and before long we're both ready to see the park in daylight.
The fog is lifting and the sun rising above the mist paints the predominantly biege trailers with a peachy glow. "It won't last." says Dad. "There's more fog due to roll in around lunch time." I suspect he's right. The residents always have an eye on the weather; they are constantly updated from all the various internet data sources as well as using their knowledge of the sea and the sky to predict what may be coming. They are usually extremely accurate: With what is at stake they have to be.
We walk over to the northern extent of the levee the Parkers have constructed with the aid of machinery when they could get the fuel; by hand when they couldn't. "We got the Travellers to help while they were here. They came barging in thinking they owned the place, but we told them that if they wanted to stay here they had to become a part of the community and abide by our rules."
"Did they give you any trouble?"
"Only a couple of them. But we soon made them see sense." I can imagine they did. They may be getting on, but people who face down the sea are not to be crossed lightly. "After that they all mucked in. It speeded things up but after a while they decided they wanted to move on. God knows where!"
"D'you think they'll come back?" I ask. I'm surprised there are any Travellers still around. I thought by now they'd all gone permanently back to Éire; it's safer for them there, and they wouldn't get the constant official hassle that nomads do here. Dad shrugs his answer.
Leaving the question hanging we walk along the top of the levee to the southwesternmost point looking out on the Pagham Harbour Nature Reserve. The stunted trees at the entrance appear more windblown and splintered than the last time I was here. The sunken Mulberry Harbour caisson which used to be a landmark is now a silt covered hump.
"It was that last storm. It nearly overtopped us. We had 10cm to spare by my reckoning. I was worried of course, and we had the wind carrying the spray over, but it held!"
"But for how much longer, Dad?"
"Long enough for us to get some more hardcore and clay for our bank. We might even be able to find some more impermeable geotextile. I'm looking into binding it all together with one of those new mango and oak marine hybrids; apparently they grow a dense root network really quickly. I'm trying to get that coastal engineering group from the University of Southampton to test them here."
"You think they would?"
"Why not? Where better?"
I've heard all this before. Dad is becoming almost delusional in his obsession to save the Park; he's continually thinking of ideas involving scrap shipping containers or even unoccupied park homes packed with builders' rubble buried into earthen banks. He doesn't consider the cost or the practicality of the ideas. But how do you tell him he doesn't have any hope of succeeding against the relentlessly patient sea? No doubt he'll find out the depressing truth in due course.
As we turn the corner and walk along the top of the bank running parallel to the beach, a figure wearing a salt bleached orange life jacket pushes a small dinghy into the gently lapping waves and begins to row quickly out to sea. "That's Derek. One of our newer residents. He's a bit... eccentric. He's just going out for a bit of cheeky hand line fishing. If he spots the CoastPol he'll dump the gear and claim he's just checking for pollution. He even carries some sample bottles and a fake sample log, the mad bugger! I don't know if he'd ever be able to carry it off if came to it."
"Do the Pols hassle you much?"
"No, our fence keeps the Compies out and they're busier over in the reserve or on the beach; they've got a better chance of getting a result there. We've 'persuaded' them to stay away."
"You pay them off?"
"Christ no! The last time they pushed their way in and left their tuk unattended while they went random searching it 'spontaneously' burst into flames. After that they didn't come back: Too much explaining and form filling to replace destroyed equipment."
I've seen some of the weapons and know of the plans the Parkies have to defend themselves if push comes to shove. I think the ComPigs got away lightly.
We spot Jean, a bent bean pole of a woman in her seventies, struggling to move a portable pen along to a new patch of ungrazed salty turf. After helping her do so we're promised a bottle of milk from one of the small goat herd contained inside. Then we walk to the northern embankment where I'm shown the piece de resistance; the storm shelter.
A shipping container has been buried lengthwise in the berm and covered in a thick layer of compacted earth, bare for the moment. It is accessed by a man-sized dog leg of a tunnel on the leeward side, itself earthed over.
"The storm gave it its first test last month, it worked perfectly! Not a leak; not even through the ventilation pipe!" Dad unlocks the home made heavy steel door and I follow him inside through the tunnel. "Jim our handyman made it, and a bloody good job he did of it too!" He picks a wind-up lantern off a hook and switches it on. The dim glow reveals an interior finished in uneven white paint, the better to make the most of any available light; a floor of wooden pallets raised above any possible water seepage, and a framework of wooden bunk beds built along the long sides of this claustrophobic box. There are crates of supplies, and plastic drums of drinking water. A curtained-off area in one corner holds a crude chemical toilet. Dad's voice booms with a slight echo, "It can get a bit close in here, and we need to do more to stop the toilet from stinking, but we were safe. We hardly heard the storm. So you see there's nothing for you to worry about! We could even hole up here if the Jocks ever dropped the Bomb on Pompey. I reckon the Protection Factor must be around one hundred."
"Rather you than me, Dad! Let's get back outside."
There's one final thing that I must be shown before we leave. Securely tied down under a tarp are a number of upturned nested flat bottomed plywood punts. "Just in case the storm surge overwhelms everything. We can float on these with the tide to the north until we reach some higher ground, or the force of the surge is spent." Considering their potential escape routes and the rusty fences of wire strands strung across them I'm not convinced. They may believe they've thought of everything, and have their contingency planning well in hand, but they're ignoring the fundamental issue of not putting themselves in danger in the first place by living here.
There's only so much survivalism I can stand. I suggest it's time we took the bus into Bognor.
I want to get Dad away from the Park, if only for a short while. I doubt if he's gone outside or too far away from it for quite some time. It can't be good for him staying confined in such a small area for so long. At least I have a reason to take him out, it's a tradition we've established; the Christmas trip into Bognor town centre.
The watery sunlight does nothing to improve the area around the Park. At least yesterday's fog hid the sight of the houses closest to the beach which are being slowly dismantled by the weather or people salvaging materials to repair their own places further inland. Even the sight of the deep blue winter sky, streaked with translucent streaks of cloud, does little to lift the air of melancholy.
I walked past it yesterday evening without noticing, but somehow the shop selling seaside tat is still open. To an outside observer how it manages to stagger on is inexplicable, but one of the roller shutters over the wire reinforced glass has been pulled up, declaring it to be open for business.
In truth the place is very rarely closed; the right style of knock on the heavy door while it is still light enough to see by prompting a curious eye through the peephole and an ushering in if you are known to the proprietors. The shop exists in the dreamy nostalgia of the personal service of the past; exemplified by the unchanging window display of faded plastic seaside toys set against a picture card beach background leached into shades of cyan by overexposure to ultraviolet radiation.
Were I to enter no doubt I'd find the brown coated nameless owner, or his even more decrepit wife waiting to sell me exactly the same things as last year, or the year before. Time seems to have stopped inside the poorly lit Aladdin's cave crammed full of incorruptible stock. Along with the eternal buckets, spades, flip-flops and inflatable toys awaiting children who will never come, there are items that might have last been seen in the long-gone corner stores of the mid-last century. There are tools; along with boxes of nails and screws, dating from before we outsourced our manufacturing industry to the far east before bringing it home again. New and salvaged bicycle spares; but with many sizes no longer seen on the roads. Brushes and cleaning products of various types in archaic packaging. Candles and ageing bubble packs of weak batteries with long expired best before dates: All manner of household essentials. I'm sure if you were to ask, a brand new cellophane wrapped VHS or cassette tape would be produced from behind the counter.
Of course it is an illusion; the shop has had to move with the times. If it hadn't it would've joined the other ghosts of the tiny shopping parade long ago. But in addition to selling ancient PVC jackets still sealed in their pouch bags and a smattering of marine chandlery, the real business of the shop is done further along the dark corridor leading to the rear; up some stairs and past the shopkeepers' first floor flat to a back storeroom where no one not in the know would think of looking.
There, beyond the suspicion of any inspector, and if you are allowed in on the secret you will find a portal through which it is possible to step back into a lost time of abundance. Under the dim pink light of a ancient energy saving bulb, opened dun cartons reveal near forgotten treasures. Packs of exotic biscuits out of date long enough to begin going hard or soft. Pouches of flavoured dry pasta and instant noodles. Dusty old tins of processed meat. Small cans of fish in oil. Packaged ready meals. Spices; and strange vacuum sealed microwaveable boxes with multilingual instructions written on them in print so small as to be unreadable. Multipack bags of crisps which breach both the Health and Obesity Control Acts. Sachets of instant dehydrated soup. Assorted confectionary; bars and boxes of chocolate just beginning to develop a musty white patina. Bottles of soft drink concentrate. Recognisable products of our past but in foreign language packaging. Forbidden products and artificial flavours which will leave your teeth stained, gums tingling, a furry feeling on your tongue along with a chemical aftertaste in your mouth. The food of the Gods!
Up until recently the troubles of today rarely impinged on this time out of mind bubble; there were always more stocks to be found, somewhere, somehow. At a price of course; the costs soon add up. It isn't cheap bribing customs officials to look the other way; nor is paying the chance taxation of random checkpoints and sweeteners given to Compies to see and know nothing; easing the path of least resistance. These stale luxuries are expensive, but still they sell to nostalgia junkies who will pay handsomely to be transported back to their warm and fuzzy memories of a better, innocent past.
But even here the realities of dwindling supplies are beginning to become apparent. Once those little factories hidden in sprawling edge of city industrial estates close for good the brutal economics of supply and price assert themselves. Some commodities - Mexican fajitas kits or Southern Fried Chicken cook-on seasoning - have become so rare they are traded as objects of speculation. People are paying ridiculous prices and risking long Rehab terms for food trafficking for the sake of items which may be inedible, possibly hazardous by now; yet their madness continues. If the shopkeeper's son, who does much of the dealing and his parents were to be caught they'd be sent down for a long, long time.
I must admit now and then I indulge myself of these proscribed delights. Iced Gem style micro biscuits are my weakness; though I've not seen them at any price for a long time now. The company who made them either closed down or moved abroad to escape the stifling regulation of the Fed. They tried producing an OCA compliant version for a while, but those never had the same taste. Some vital, but unhealthy essence which made them what they were has gone.
I suppose I could go in and ask just on the offchance, but we've a bus to catch; and Dad doesn't seem to like the place much for some reason. Perhaps it's a personal thing or he regards the proprietor as a price gouging bastard. I don't know and don't ask.
I'm concerned Dad seems to walking more slowly, and breathing with more difficulty than he used to. I'd call a taxituk but there's no guarantee one would want to come out here for a fare. Eventually we reach the bus stop with plenty of time to spare. If you can't rely on the timetable these days, you can at least count on the bus being late.
Looking out of the bus window you could look in one direction and believe the sea had never swamped parts of Bognor; you might even think the formerly well-to-do suburbs were as they used to be all those years ago; still doing their best to ignore the sleaziness spreading outward from the town centre.
However once you arrive at the rotting heart of the town your illusions will be shattered. It's not that the Great Gale storm surge ruined a previously thriving place; more it was just another nail in its coffin.
King George the Sixth's dying words - "Bugger Bognor!" - now appear to have been a effective deathbed curse. Since the early-1960s when the historic town centre was demolished in favour of a characterless red brick shopping precinct there has been an air of decay about the place. Over time the small engineering companies and the famous refrigerator manufacturer which were the town's lynchpin industries closed; leaving nothing but the ever expanding holiday camp on the east side of town as the major employer. Eventually even the camp began to struggle. It was taken over; first as a temporary Rehabilition centre for minor offenders; then as an emergency housing project.
The sturdy but mouldering town houses, which had already been subdivided into flats for students the poor, and the eastern Europeans settlers, were redivided once more; this time to accommodate the new wave of migrants from the ruins of the Crises conflict zones who arrived seeking a better life. In retrospect they would've been better off staying put in their home countries and waiting for things to improve there.
The flyblown gentility of 'God's Waiting Room' became 'Suicide-on-Sea'. Like so many other formerly prosperous southern seaside resorts on the Rotting Coast, Bognor became a relatively cheap gathering point, then dumping ground ghetto for the deprived. Then, when it seemed that the town couldn't suffer any further indignities, came the storms.
At its worst the sea didn't penetrate more than 450 metres inland, but that was enough to deliver a near knockout blow to the confidence of the area. But the people of the coast are resillient; they have no other choice but to be, so they cleared up as best they could.
A low sea wall was hurriedly thrown up along the edge of the beach. It was the best that could be done for now given the circumstances. The stump of the decrepit pier was finally given the bulldozing it should have received years ago, and the ground floors of those properties deemed to be at risk of repeat flooding were abandoned; the tenants moved out or allowed to build an extra story higher to compensate.
Bognor still bears the scars of its ordeal. It has a moist post-flood ambience of waiting about it; as if it expects at any time another frothing storm surge to overwhelm the feeble sea defences and inundate the town again before retreating, scouring more of it away to the depths; which is probably the best place for it.
The remaining high street shops - the few who survived - chose to avoid any future flood by either moving upward a storey or joining the takeover of what used to be a centrally located supermarket and multi-storey car park complex; adding an extension to it on concrete stilts. The building isn't pretty; in fact it makes Protsmouth's long-demolished Tricorn look like an architectural jewel by comparison, but it works.
It's to that mezzanine arcade I suggest we go for a Fair Food meal, but Dad will have none of it. "Overpriced bloody rubbish! If I want a meal I can cook it myself at home! It's kind of you to offer, but you've brought plenty of food with you, so you don't need to give me anything more." Old people, eh? The older they get, the more stubborn and miserly they become. There's no arguing with them, and maybe I'm beginning to go a bit that way myself... Suffering long-term poverty forges your thinking into certain ways. You don't spend money unless you have to, and when you do you get as much value as possible for it.
Still, it wasn't the reason we came to town. Instead we follow a growing stream of people to Hotham Park and the Redemptionist Brass Band Christmas Concert.
Under a different name the Redemptionists in their black serge uniforms, playing open air brass band concerts, have been an evocative staple of countless Christmases past. Their charitable work was always welcomed by those in the direst of straits over the Yuletide festivities. Nor were they the only ones who were thankful for their efforts. Previous governments; especially the Second Coalition, were only too happy for the charitable sector to take on as many of the functions of formerly state funded social security system as could be dumped on them.
Typically the Connies took a far more radical approach to the issue. They wanted not only to have their cake but to eat it as well. Such was their obsession with the control of others, especially the poorest, that the thought of people having their needs met by other means and so escaping the all-encompassing strictures of state relief was anathema. It could not be tolerated.
To ensure that no one they considered undeserving received sustenance the Council decreed all voluntary and charitable organisations should henceforth apply the same eligibility criteria as Community Support. If someone was deemed not fit to receive state aid as a result of their failing to adhere to the rigorous conditions imposed upon them in order to qualify for it, then they shouldn't expect to find alternative support from the charitable sector. The only way to salvation would be by the Consensus' route, and no other. The punishment for not complying was set at a minimum of six months Rehabiltation and an unlimited fine.
The decree unleashed a storm of protest yet the Connies were implacably set on imposing their will; even if to do so would be in breach of the human rights undertakings they had given to the EU. The Council may have thought by the time any case reached the European courts they would be presented with a fait-accompli so the word was passed to their ever-obedient ComPol lackeys to enforce the law, and that's when it all began to go wrong.
The Redemptionists had seen a lot in their more than a century-and-a-half of existence; they were used to operating under difficult conditions and dealing with those who were actively opposed to their aims. They'd had the time, the resources, and the organisation to prepare for resistance.
Their first protective strategy was to set up a quagmire of legal entities to frustrate any attempts to seize their assets. Part of the plan was the creation of a shadow Redemptionist organisation; ready to take over if or when the need arose. The movement's traditional name was rested for the moment. Shell companies bearing that name were placed in a state of protected limbo, awaiting a more enlightened future.
The second bulwark was to become more like the army they sought to emulate. Real life examples of the biblical Mighty Men of Power from within their ranks were given martial arts training to the point where they were more than a match for any ComPig trying to storm one of their citadels or arrest a caregiver. Though they didn't turn the other cheek they were mindful to cause as little injury as necessary while resisting the 'Pols. That couldn't be said for the Redemptionists' client base who were only too eager to get stuck in and give the Compies a good scragging on the few occasions when they tried to enforce the law.
Those incidents had the potential to turn really nasty; the ComPigs could count themselves lucky to get away with only the two serious stabbings and one life-threatening head injury their number suffered during those first few skirmishes. When they called on the higher levels of the police hierarchy for help they were told they were bloody fools for trying to force the issue. No assistance would be forthcoming, as the professional police feared imposing the edict by force risked reigniting the civil war.
Their final line of defence was unexpected. This was one of the few times when international opinion had any sway over the Consensus. The fact the Council had been forced to go cap in hand to the international community for loans to support the economy - which they belatedly admitted hadn't performed quite as well as they predicted - meant the Connies had to present the Fed's best face to the world. This was a hard thing to do when the EU's Human Rights Commission, and international human rights monitoring groups were protesting about the Fed's civil liberties record.
Eventually the People's Bank Of China came to the Fed's rescue, but in return for buying Fed bonds they imposed their own conditions. The Universal Eligibility Criteria Act was to be suspended, as the PBOC didn't intend to see its funds put at risk of being lost in a nation at war with itself again. The Council had no choice but to agree.
The Act remains on the statute books, but for the moment the Redemptionists are free to continue their good works. There is talk that after the Consensus wins the election they will seek to impose themselves once more, perhaps by using a revised instrument; so for now the organisation continues to use its new name, just in case...
In the meantime the Consensus watch and wait. They absorb these occasional setbacks for the moment in the hope of getting their way again in the near future. To them it matters not what an individual believes, just as long as while in the earthly realm they abide by the commandments of the Consensus. The disposition of your soul is your affair; but your body, and the work it is capable of performing, is theirs.
A sizable crowd has already gathered around the bandstand, with good-natured Redemptionist stewards ensuring things don't get out of hand. There are a few Compies at the park entrance but they seem to be in a indifferent mood, though appearing mildly disgusted at what they are about to witness. I don't think there will be any trouble, Christmas being a time of peace and they not being stupid enough to pick a confrontation with a crowd of this size. There are no uniformed Young Communitarians to be seen. Hopefully they'll have the sense to stay well away.
Just in case anything should happen I'm wearing an unobtrusive button cam; even now I'm thinking about potential stories. This job is starting to get to me. I ought to let it go for a while, but of course I can't.
Leaving Dad to his spot at the outer edge of the crowd on a firm piece of path, I decide to ease my way in toward the bandstand. I want to make contact with the people in charge; you can never have too many contacts or spend too much time networking.
A good five minutes of "Excuse me!" sees me through and I get talking to one of the stewards. An IMS business card from the pack I always carry does the trick and I get a quick word in with the bandmaster. They have someone on hand to 'cord the concert, and hopefully just the concert; but my invitation to them to blurt it over to us for broadcast gets an enthusiastic response. We exchange blurt addresses, then I leave them be for their final warm-up.
It's not so easy to get back out again; for a start all of those feet are beginning to churn the grass into a slippery mire, but what is really slowing me down are the people who've overheard my conversation with the conductor and now want to shake my hand and congratulate me on the good job that IMS is doing. I'm astonished by the genuinely warm response I'm getting. Yes we know from our statistics that IMS is popular; it's not surprising given the dire state of our competitors. But it's one thing to know it, and another to see it in real life. One person even told me I was doing the Lord's work in speaking the truth. I replied that many Connies thought I was one of the Devil's imps. But they insisted that a Higher Power was working through me, and I should allow it to guide my actions. I wasn't sure what to say to that. I made my excuses and set off to find Dad. His forecast is correct; the cloud has returned and the first chill tendrils of sea mist are snaking into the park. As we're reunited the band strikes up.
I didn't think I'd get emotional but the warming brass playing traditional carols touches something deep inside. It could be the resonance to festivities past, or the first time that the concert took place here following the park's reopening after the flooding. Then it was a symbol of hope and solidarity in the wake of disaster, but now a tradition has been established both the growing number of converts and the more agnostic but once-a-year waverers gather here to huddle for spiritual warmth. Or could my fan be right and a greater force be at work here? Whatever it is, I'm not the only one affected.
As the band softly blows 'Silent Night', people are quietly singing along or humming to the half remembered lyrics. I find myself profoundly moved in a way mere words can never adequately describe. Some reservoir of spirituality has been tapped here, and the tears I see streaking the cold-ruddied cheeks of the crowd come from a far deeper source than the superficial rapture of the Connie rallies. Throughout the Fed there appears to be a minor religious revival underway at the moment. As yet it doesn't have the potential to change society; but seeing this I can understand how having a faith can help people through the hard times we are experiencing, and why the growing support for the Redemptionists makes the Connies edgy.
The performance finishes with a rousing version of "Oh Come All Ye Faithfull" to heartfelt applause and the spell is broken. A group of Men of Power escort the heavy collection buckets safely away from any potential problems. It's also time for us to join the streams of people leaving quickly to beat the rush for the bus home.
Dad and I are both contemplatively silent as we walk the final kilometre back to the park. After speaking to each other constantly for most of the day we've temporarily run out of things to say to each other; and we're both overwhelmed by the concert. I'm a right mess of emotions at the moment, trying hard to keep from crying, struggling to understand what I'm feeling. But then I'm like this every Christmas. It's just that this one is so... No, there's no way I can describe it.
The cool mist has stilled the air. There are a few weak strings of solar powered Christmas lights to be seen hung around some of the front doors, and even a colour-changing LED tree in one of the windows. It must be thirty years old or more! But the days of lighting up your entire house or littering the lawn with nodding wireframe reindeer or tawdry inflatable snowmen are long past; probably never to return. It is all so different now to when I was a kid; back then we went on night time tours of our local streets to see the displays. Now those few old, dim lights trying to hold at bay the darkness which draws in so quickly at this time of year assume an added poignancy, and I feel myself welling up once more.
Past those scraps of festivity and back to the gatehouse we find Jean swaddled in a blanket, knitting while standing her turn on watch. A wood stove burns weakly in a corner, providing more fug than warmth. I doubt if she could do more than press the alarm button or flip aside the safety cover and flick the switch to fire an emergency maroon from the pipe fixed to the back of the shed. The flash-bang would alert the rest of the park to rally with whichever of Jim's highly illegal improvised weapons they could lay their hands on.
An ancient LCD TV relays some grainy closed circuit images of the fence but with only four cameras quartering the screen there are bound to be plenty of loopholes. To be honest Jean may as well continue to concentrate fully on crocheting her bedspread.
"You might as well pack it in, love." says Dad soothingly. "I don't think there'll be any trouble tonight." Jean agrees, so we damp the stove and turf Cushie out of his corner before shutting up the shack.
Twilight has reduced the site to shades of grey as we walk back to Dad's 'van. Once inside and the stove lit, we cook a quick dinner of tinned sausages, chips and baked beans, before going to the Christmas Eve get together in the Park Centre.
The meeting place used to be a combination of administrative offices, small supermarket, and social club before the leisure group who owned the park decided to sell up and get out of the holiday business. Few people were coming down all this way to rent a caravan for a week or two; there was more money to be made in long-term residential lettings. That side of the business grew, and more of the park was turned over to it, before the company offered the residents the chance to buy out the site. It was then that Mum and Dad arrived; three years before the Great Gale.
Stopping by the vacant caravan that serves as the community still we pick up crates of Dad's latest lethal brew and wheelbarrow them over to the Park Centre where the evening is just getting started. About thirty or so of the residents are sitting down to a buffet while watching a Christmas film from the last century; one of the Home Alone franchise I think. Of course the film isn't the reason for their gathering; everyone has seen this or any of the other seasonal films so many times before that they have become part of the clichés of Christmas. The reason they are here is to provide a bit of company for each other, and those lonely single people for whom this time of the year is a time of heightened melancholy.
They being mainly elderly people and the effects of the homebrew becoming increasingly apparent, the party breaks up by midnight. We grope our way back to the trailer by torchlight and stagger into bed.