It's the day before Christmas Eve. Though they'd love to get the annoying holiday of mass idleness out of the way, even the puritan Connies don't dare kill off Christmas. They understand there needs to be an occasional escape from the spirit crushing routine of daily life in order to keep things going, so they allow the temporary indulgences of Christmas and Easter. But that doesn't stop them from doing what they can to suck all the anticipation and excitement out of the festival. It's still the time for families to be reunited, and modest celebrations are permitted, with a very limited selection of Christmas specialities made available in the fortnight before before the event; but that is it. There are few if any public displays of Christmas lights; no week-long shutdowns; no queues for the post-Christmas sales. All is calm; all is dull. The holiday begins on Christmas Eve, and the day after Saint Stephen's day - Boxing day - it's back to business as usual.
I drew the short straw of the holiday shift last year, so this year it's my time off. For my festive break I'll be travelling away by train but rather than going all the way to Barnham, and then changing for Bognor before trying to hail a taxituk, I'll get off at Chichester; then catch a bus down to the coast near Pagham to spend Christmas with Dad. We get on well, and we see each over regularly both on link and in the flesh, but visiting him is always a poignant, bittersweet experience as it is a reminder of what life has done to him. Still it beats spending Christmas alone.
Dad's journalistic career started out in the national press. He was lucky enough to leave university and walk straight into a post in one of the broadsheets, but after a while he realised it wasn't for him so decided to move to the relative tranquillity of the south coast and the editorship of a stable of local papers.
It was while he was covering a protest against yet another new town planned to smother a swathe of irreplaceable countryside he met Mum. The unstoppable suburban blight duly covered the prime agricultural land, but meanwhile love had blossomed and I was soon on the way.
As the digital revolution affected every aspect of our lives, including the way we received and interacted with the news, Dad adapted and managed the transition of the business from print to multimedia formats. He even dabbled in 'casting for a while; but then Mum's cancer was diagnosed, and his priorities changed.
The thunderbolt which struck Mum and Dad's world happened just before the advent of the latter Crises. Fortunately there was still enough of a specialised health service then before the rationing of Balanced Resource Allocation began to bite, for Mum to get the best treatment they could give her, but it wasn't enough.
Dad sold his house, bought a park home and used the surplus to send Mum to Germany for some experimental treatment. She got an extra eighteen months of a reasonable quality of life as a result but after the remission her cancer returned with a vengeance, seemingly intent on making up for the time it had been held at bay. At least her final weeks were relatively easy and painless.
Being broke, and having had to take an early semi-retirement to claim an advanced lump sum on his pension as well so that he could look after Mum, Dad now finds himself stuck precariously out on the coast living in a now worthless trailer on a neglected site at ever greater risk of being swamped by the sea. He ekes out his miserly pension with some freelance writing and by being as self-sufficient as psssible. As far as Community Support is concerned he's sufficiently provided for, so any claim for additional income or housing will be automatically rejected barring a major change in circumstances, such as his home floating away. But Dad is too proud a man to abase himself pleading his case before an indifferent CS clerk. He'd rather forage for food and sleep under a tarp than complete an intrusive lifestyle questionnaire. He'd refuse point blank to live in a single bed cubicle with common facilities barely a step up from a Slop N Drop; subject to the new feudalism of the conditionality clauses of a Connie tenancy. If the worst ever came to the worse he's welcome to stay with me and he knows it. But he's just too determinedly independent to consider it.
Once Pagham was a desirable seaside retirement village for the upper middle classes. Then one night came the Great Gale and with it the tidal surge which rendered the resort, as well as much of the Manhood peninsular coast uninhabitable. The innovative Medmerry tidal wetland scheme; designed to allow the sea to reclaim some of the coastal land as a 'soft defence' in the hope of saving the area from the threat of flooding, instead became the weak point through which the storm-pushed surge funneled behind Selsey, turning the town into an island. The Pagham Harbour nature reserve and the western parts of Pagham village found themselves threatened by the waves from a totally unexpected direction.
After the event there were promises of reinforced sea defences and better drainage, but beyond the talk nothing more ever materialised. By then the East Coast flood scare had monopolised all of the reserves of labour and machinery to protect the Fenlands should that worst case scenario of a North Sea storm surge go the whole distance the next time, rather than fortuitously abating at the eleventh hour enough to prevent a cataclysmic loss of the Fed's most fertile arable land. With any hope of large-scale future sea defence works quashed, the planned 'managed retreat' from the Manhood peninsular became a slow motion rout. Those who could left, leaving the cussed hold-outs like Dad behind. The end of the known world now lies at the intertidal zone some fifteen kilometres to the south-southeast of Chichester.
Despite its reputation for being a jewel of Georgian architecture Chichester looks as blighted by modern buildings turned seedy as so many of the south coast towns. In the past the city's residents thought they were aloof from the rest of the area and immune from its problems. The coming of the Crises soon disabused them of their haughty airs and graces. They learned even their precious little boutiques could close; nor were restaurants and coffee shops the foundation of a resillient local economy. With the Festival Theatre closing for longer periods leaving only the College, the University and Saint Richard's Hospital keeping the city going, Chichester is not a place that invites you to linger there.
Crossing the road from the railway station to the diesel soot stained, squalid brick lump of the bus terminal does nothing to improve my mood; or perhaps it's the weather; a closed in sullen grey drizzle. A couple of bored TransPols cast curious looks at my holdall but are dissuaded from demanding a speculative rummage through by the prominent Zone ribbon seal. A good thing too as I've got Dad's presents and some supplies for him inside; I wouldn't want to lose them to their sticky fingers. After a half hour of boredom only partially relieved by the terminal's painfully slow FreeFi, the bus arrives.
This minibus must have been remanufactured several times with the last time being once too many. As it lurches away from the stop the gearbox sounds as if it is full of loose parts and the suspension wallows with wear, yet the bus moves. These days that is enough.
As we labour our way out of the city I notice even here where once the strict planning regulations were enthusiastically enforced, things have been allowed to slip in a haphazard anarchy of mediocre architectural styles. More houses have grown extra stories or have the windows of an attic conversion poking their way through the roof. Some have pushed their frontages forward to consume the little handkerchief sized spaces of what used to be concreted front lawns: Now their front doors open directly onto the pavement.
Garages, strips of back gardens, even passageways alongside houses have been walled and roofed over. Almost unliveable 'linear accommodation', as it has been euphemistically named has become accepted, even sought after. In these times of severe housing shortage anything goes. What used to be tiny grassed over verges, small car parking areas, or even large enough traffic roundabouts have had buildings shoehorned in. With just a little imagination some more precious space - perhaps just enough to allow a property to be subdivided into two - can be conjured from nothing. All of these alterations lend the city a narrowing, darkening, almost mediaeval aspect.
As we cross the A27 bypass I note that the road is underwater as usual, with workers clad in dirtied yellow and purple NRA uniforms tending the large truck mounted boxy pumps straining to keep the flood at a manageable few centimetres. Chichester has always been a victim of its position at the base of the South Downs. The rain falling on those low chalk hills to the north always flows down to the sea and pools where the artesian geology meets the coastal plain: The city is built on top of that spot. As what once used to be once in a generation extreme rainfall has now become routine, keeping the main coastal road open is a constant struggle.
This December has been particularly wet up to now; everyone is hoping that the forecasters are right and the wet spell is over for now, even if the lingering effects and the clear up will last for a few weeks yet. Leaving a wake behind the bus shrugs the water aside and fords along the B2166 to North Mundham. The road dries slightly, the gears can at last change up to a slightly quieter ratio, and we pick up speed.
Approaching the coast the lines of trees marking boundaries begin to thin; not that its possible to see more than a few hundred metres in this depressingly murky cloud. After winding through a dismal winterscape of bare hedges and saturated fields of large tea coloured puddles it's almost pleasing to reach Nyetimber. But any relief is short lived.
The community has the air of living on borrowed time about it: So much so it's not deemed worth the effort to bodge extra space here to lodge the industrious migrants brought in by the Council to teach we indolent Fedders the skills and work ethic that we once had, but then lost. The quality of life in this once pleasant village has long gone, replaced by the impermanence of improvised building repairs. Broken windows are replaced with plywood, polyglass or translucent sheets of plastic; sheets of scavenged solarfilm aged to a milky opaqueness battened down onto roofs provide a trickle of power. Weathered tarpaulins prevent the rain from leaking through while walls of stained sandbags piled against doorsteps stand ready to stop sudden flash floods from entering the houses. Everywhere there is the pervasive rotting smell of damp or mould, and an occasional nose catching whiff of raw sewage.
Following the Great Gale and the battering of the storms which followed it the south-western end of the Bognor conurbation was evacuated and declared uninhabitable, yet the stubborn residents returned. They had invested everything in their homes, and would rather risk living here than stare at the pattern of the wood chips showing through the thin paint on the walls of a shoddy emergency resettlement camp prefab thrown up on the disused hard standings of the Tangmere or Ford airfields.
Paradoxically the stay-puts were joined by an influx of new residents; those seeking an escape from the attentions of local Connie groups in an area officially declared abandoned and so excluded from their targets; along with a new breed of pioneer escaping the constant press of the cities for space to breathe, as well as the risky adventure of life on the coast. Joining them came grey haired, pot bellied, veteran extreme watersports fanatics for whom the weather forecast isn't a source of fear but a hoped for opportunity to push themselves and their faded, much-repaired equipment to the limits. All living as invisibly as possible for fear the ComPol will decide to clear them out again. They do run a sweep from time to time but they daren't push their luck too far or too often. They're aware the area remains inhabited but as long as it remains calm, and things don't get out of hand they're prepared to tolerate it. After all, at least this anarchic bunch are all together in one easily observable place, and it saves having to accommodate them elsewhere.
Still further to the southwest are the real gamblers against nature; and Dad is one of their unwilling number. I've suggested to him he squats further inland but he won't give up his legally held share of shrinking salt marsh: In his mind he intends to hold on to his little scrap of land and what dignity he has left until the bitter end.
The bus takes me as far as it can but still stops a kilometre away from Shorehaven Park. After the lurching potholed ride down I'm quite relieved to get off it and let the walk settle my nauseous stomach. The bus turns east towards Rose Green and disappears, tail lights shrinking into the gathering gloom of the mid afternoon twilight.
As the sound of the bus' engine fades a stillness closes in. There are sounds to be heard if you listen hard enough for them; the faint mournful caw of a gull or the distant putter of a tuk, but I'm struck by the lack of wind and wave sounds. There are days like this sometimes, though they are fewer and farther between than they used to be. Heading towards the Park I notice how just as the trees thin out in favour of scattered salt tolerant bushes as I draw nearer to the shore, so do the inhabited bungalows. This sense of abandoment and the lack of signs of humanity in the direction I'm walking unnerves me. Not even the sea can soothe my unease with the eternal sighing of feeble waves breaking over the beach; the muffled clacking of shingle the snoring of a behemoth that will inevitably awaken fierce and ravenous.
A street light is trying and failing to flicker into life. I pass a small homemade wind turbine mounted on a low salt burned mast; it won't be producing any energy from its stilled condensation dripping blades this dead calm evening. A rusting hulk that was once a van, long stripped of anything useful, is a reassuring landmark that I'm not lost and I've not got far to go now.
There are the gates to the Park looming out of the drizzle which has thickened to a sea fog. I'm about to call Dad to let him know I've arrived and to let me in when I see the door of the guard shed open.
Dad, Dave; a park resident on gate rota and Cushie, a foundling mongrel stray adopted as the Park's communal guard dog come out to greet me. Then leaving Dave behind and Cushie eagerly sniffing around us, Dad walks me to his trailer.
The site appears deserted but there are still a good few elderly occupants left, though at this time of the evening there is little sign of them beyond weak lights showing through curtained windows. Their numbers are dwindling as people die or become so aged they need full-time care. But this is a resillient, strongly bonded community of dogged individuals, so they just get on with the day-to-day business of surviving, and tough it out as long as they can.
With the sea lapping still closer to the southern edge of the Park the residents have moved their vans as far to the north as they can, and used the vacated ground to throw up as good a levee as they can make. Dad promises to show me their handiwork tomorrow.
Now the layout of the park has been completely rearranged I'd be lost trying to find Dad's trailer without his guidance, but as the last dregs of daylight disappear we reach his door and I'm welcomed into my lodgings for the next couple of days.
What strikes me as I enter is how chilly it is inside. Of course these days few people can afford to heat their homes to anything like the 15°c recommended minimum, but I'm seriously concerned about Dad and his persistent dry cough which never seems to clear. He laughs it off saying it isn't as cold as it feels, then sets about making the fire in his home made stove. The park dwellers collect the driftwood from the beach, and once it dries out it burns well. Nethertheless I feel uncomfortable about this; I suspect Dad has been hoarding his share and delaying using it just to ensure I feel comfortable.
My guilt is eased by Dad's thankful reaction to the supplies I've brought with me. Being able to shop in the Zone is an advantage, and though the prices may be high there is no reason to try and save money: Experience has taught us all that you might as well spend it while it is still worth something. The gammon joint - yes, a small one but real meat! - goes into the sparsely filled fridge, along with a vacuum packed tub of butter and shrink-wrapped rashers of bacon. The tins of processed meat go into his larder or Ready Bag.
Dad cooks a meal of his allotment grown vegetables, a tin of the ham I brought, and some of today's eggs. We wash it down with cans of beer and a bottle of wine I humped all the way here, before we get started on his home brew. We swap our recent stories yet I sense Dad is still being guarded about his real situation here; but what can I do? Then; before he gets maudlin about passing another Christmas without Mum; we turn in for the night.