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A. L. Kennedy

Burning

The text “Burning” by A. L. Kennedy is a contribution to the Atlas of Change.

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              I am lying on the ground.

              It’s 19th July, 2022, the hottest day of the year so far in the UK.

Temperatures are going to top 40 degrees Centigrade all day. During these 24 hours there will be 638 more deaths that would be predicted as usual.

              I am lying on the ground. I can’t think.

              The UK’s housing stock is poorly insulated – during winter we fight to stay warm, using far too much energy to keep our homes livable. Our vulnerable shuffle about in blankets and sleeping bags, trying to avoid hypothermia. The weak don’t always succeed in saving themselves from death. In our increasingly merciless summers, our brick and stone walls make our nights hotter than our days. We generally don’t have air conditioners. While our newspapers run the usual stories about jolly summer fun, pics of kiddies playing in fountains, the elderly and vulnerable die of hyperthermia. Our government – yet again – has no interest in saving our lives. It invests in more carbon extraction, arrests climate protestors, it has close links to Climate Change denial lobbyists. Our public discourse demonises XR while endlessly downplaying the world’s increasingly obvious descent into climate collapse.

              This July will be the month when even the Daily Mail has to pivot from being sunny about sunshine, to actually having to mention wildfires threatening London. 41 London homes will be destroyed by the fires. It’s hard to talk about something so unusual without mentioning Climate Change, but our media generally do their best.

              I am lying on the ground. I can’t think.

              I have been sharing my mother’s small brick cottage while I wait to move my belongings out of storage and into a new home. The thermostat on her wall only goes to 35C and has been maxxed out for days. We stagger from room to room, dropping things, banging into things, forgetting things. Every two or three hours I lie in a cold bath. We haven’t been able to sleep in weeks. Outside, the garden is dying. Twenty minutes walk away bean fields have been scorched into uselessness.

              Our media run stories about heat related deaths in the US, about foreign wildfires, about birds falling dead from the sky in India. Our own problems continue to be minimized – they make money for the right kind of people and it’s only the wrong kind who die.

              I am lying on the ground. I can’t think. I can’t stand up.

              I am a keen kayaker. I have grown used to getting out on the water, searching for sea breezes, during my time near the coast in Essex. In case of Heatwave, Launch Boat. Now I am in landlocked Warwickshire. Still, the River Avon runs at the bottom of my street and I can paddle the river. Although the water is very polluted by agricultural run off there are still stretches of beauty and peace. I can float in cooler air, put my feet in relatively cold water and remember to wash them well thereafter. My plan for today – predicted as topping records – was to get my boat out on the river, tuck myself under a tree and wait out the worst of the seething day.

              But even as I left the house, my thinking was muddy, fuddled. I found it peculiarly hard to get my boat on to its trolley, even harder to slide if off. I am in a hat and sunscreen, but also wearing a buoyancy aid which is raising my core temperature. Down at the riverbank, I was not rational, I couldn’t seem to remember how to do anything. Movements were a struggle.

              Eventually, after an amount of time that remains unclear, I wrestled the boat away from the water I could see, but somehow not reach and lifted it back on to its

cradle. My face, my whole body was bathed in sweat. I began to drag the kayak up the slope that would bring me back home in 5 minutes, or less. I had tried Plan A, there would have to be a Plan B.

              But I didn’t make it. Instead, I am lying at the top of the little lane that leads to the water. I am under the shade of trees, but it is still too hot, the eddies of air from the pavement up a head of me are painful on my skin.

              I am lying on the ground. I can’t think. I can’t stand up.

              I feel terribly sick. Breathing seems onerous. Verticals are no longer vertical. Every now and then nice, middle class, Middle English White people walk past me – keeping their distance. I am someone in some kind of trouble and therefore unapproachable. This is the logic of Middle England.

              Every now and then I can almost grasp the idea that I ought to do something, that I need to be rescued, that I might be dying. Mostly I want to become unconscious because then maybe I wouldn’t feel so entirely bad. A grey, sludgy loss of sentience is, indeed, rising to remove me.

              No one will rescue me, it’s clear, and I can’t rescue myself.

              I am lying on the ground. I can’t think. I can’t stand up.

              My heart is kicking in my chest. I can feel urgent things are happening in my intestines. My body is both fighting and preparing to shut down.

              I am lying on the ground. I can’t think. I can’t stand up.

              A delivery van rounds the unreachable corner which leads to my mother’s house. The van continues, drives towards me. Then it stops.

              The driver gets out and walks quickly to stand over me. I remember him being tall and thin and having this gentleness about him. His accent is West Indian and he’s speaking softly, they way one might to a nervous child, or animal. ‘Are you doing all right?’

              I reply that I am not.

              ‘Would you like some water?’

              I say that I would, and I thank him.

              He brings me a sealed bottle of water and I thank him more, although my words a slurry and tangled. And then he drives away. Even stopping for as long as he has probably means that he will be fired. The van driving life is one of punishing oversight, heat exhaustion, expectations of perpetual motion. I got the impression he knew how I felt.

              I can’t drink much of the water – my body won’t tolerate more than a mouthful at a time, but I manage a few slow sips and then I can take off my hat, pour half the bottle over my head, perform the motions necessary to remove my buoyancy aid.

              Somehow, I could do these simple and sensible things before.

              A trace of breeze allows the water and my sweat to cool me just a little. The sensation is completely wonderful.

              I lie back down, feel a little less terrible. I still want to sleep, but I think I may be able to stay conscious.

              I am lying across my boat now. I can imagine sentences. I can’t stand up.

              I sneak in a few more morsels of water and more time passes.

              I am thinking a little more clearly. I know that in the usual way of things I could walk to my mother’s house in five minutes, less. I remember that I have my phone, but I also reason that if I phone her, she will worry and rush out, try to carry me hurt herself. None of that can be allowed to happen.

              I can’t stand up.

              I sneak in a few more morsels of water and more time passes.

              Slowly, I decide that I have to get up and walk, that I can both wheel my kayak and lean on my kayak. I have to get home, get into a cold bath, get into my room and close the curtains.

              It takes a very long time to cross one road, walk 30 meters or so, turn a corner, cross another road and drag myself and my boat on for another 10 meters. Everything feels unmanageable, mushy, greyed at the edges.

              I stumble indoors, up the stairs, run that bath, lie in it.

              A swirl of chill tickles round my skull as the cooling blood reaches my head – it can feel it. I can feel the chill hit. It is wonderful.

              Even when I am shivering, I keep lying in the water, explaining myself to my mother through the bathroom door.

              I want her not to worry, but she does so anyway.

              I keep shivering for the rest of the day – this no longer has any connection with my temperature. I don’t mind it. Shivering feels like being alive. During the next three days my body empties itself, evacuates blood. I live on sips of vegetable stock and rehydration salts. I’m lucky both are available. Both my mother and I have laid in supplies to try and withstand the various disasters precipitated by the UK-specific supply chain issues caused by Brexit. Rehydration tablets are predicted to be almost unobtainable until December – demand outstripping supply. That’s less to do with Brexit and more to do with a planet becoming uninhabitable.

              When I still can’t eat and my blood loss continues, I borrow my mother’s private GP and she agrees to make a house call. Paying for a GP is the only way I can defend my mother’s health as the UK’s social care systems collapse. Like the rest of our pensioners, she has paid all her life for care when needed. It isn’t here for her now. Like the rest of us on earth, she has been betrayed by the greedy little moral vacuums we have instead of politicians, by the vanity projects of the ever-wealthier super rich, by shiny distractions.

              The doctor examines me and confirms that I have heatstroke. Arguably, I should have gone to hospital but – it no longer needs saying – the heat, the Covid infection risk and the long wait time in a hospital would have been worse for me than staying home. I’m given something to ease the bleeding. I am advised to keep on as I have been: lying in the dark and letting go into the marvelous grey of being ill, lying in the dark and sipping salts.

              I get better slowly. I was lucky. The day’s excess death toll was not 639.

              A few weeks later, I filled up my car and began the drive North, moving back to Scotland and a new home.

              In 2020 the UK Met Office made a prediction of what a heatwave in 2050 might look like. It showed much of the Southeast experiencing temperatures over 40C. That prophecy was fulfilled, 28 years early, in 2022.

              Living in Essex, living in the South of England, will become insupportable and the warming won’t stop. Freak rainfalls will continue to flood homes and drown livestock. The beautiful Essex coast that I love will creep inshore and stay, robbing the UK of its finest arable land. Westminster is unlikely to survive on its current site.

              But my country stumbles on, ignoring every warning. And the world stumbles on, apparently stupefied by heat, unable to rescue itself and apparently with no one to rescue it.

              And this kind of end for our species will not be a tragedy, it will be stupid. The end of us will be inglorious, unnecessary and so very, very stupid.