George Mosse acknowledged it was time to leave when he discovered his back garden fence had vanished. Today he’d sail back to the mainland and afterwards they’d demolish his home of thirty years. He wasn’t the first person to work on Muskeget Island, however he’d be its last human inhabitant.
George’s last morning started as normal. His radio-alarm woke him at six-thirty. A placid voice greeted him with the shipping forecast for the eastern seaboard.
The reassuring tone never altered, regardless of the incoming weather. The predictions were accurate on the whole, however localised variations occurred and conditions could alter without warning. Living alone on the island had taught George to take nothing for granted. He was at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean.
George’s work entailed monitoring the daily atmospherics and reporting his latest readings to the national weather headquarters. He occupied one of 900 stations that collected atmospheric information and contributed data to aid weather forecasts. His only daily responsibility was to launch two helium balloons. He armed them with a radiosonde that recorded measurements relating to how the fluid above us alters over a twelve-hour period.
During his thirty years here, he’d seen the full spectrum of atmospheric disturbance. In his estimation, the strength and frequency of storms had increased over the years. Every year the hurricane season had lengthened and its power was more formidable.
The shipping forecaster’s silky voice reminded him that a high Spring tide was due, however this morning the North Atlantic waves were lapping on his stony shore. A northeasterly wind was light to fair, and the three ferry services in the Sound were expecting to operate a normal service. His plan was to catch the three o’clock boat and collect a hire-car at six in the evening. However, this relied on the helicopter delivering him to the ferry terminal at two o’clock. Landing a chopper on the island wasn’t always possible since the helipad disappeared.
George couldn’t face a day of packing his remaining possessions without a strong coffee. Last night, he’d closed all the windows and ignored the forceful gusts on the cliff top. Oblivious to the storm, he’d consumed half a bottle of Appleton’s Rum in bed and dozed in front of the endless news loop. He was paying for his indulgence this morning, but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t shake off.
As he wandered through the weather station, its empty rooms echoed like seashells in the wind. The bare walls displayed only shadowy rectangles where once technical charts and framed pictures had taken pride of place. Gritty sand now carpeted the floors. Nature’s reclamation process had started before his official exit. It was a further reminder of the loose tenure here and a sign of the mysterious landlord’s immense power.
Saying goodbye was something he’d avoided for the last three decades. His communication skills were rusty, but needs must. He’d contact his team leader after breakfast and confirm today’s schedule. Most of his possessions left last week, along with the office equipment and archive boxes. George hadn’t much luggage, besides the chopper had a weight restriction; two suitcases only. The plan assumed conditions remained favourable and the pilots could land. Last year they’d torn up the helipad on the edge of the bluff. The land under its tarmac had crumbled away, leaving it unusable.
George wasn’t looking forward to leaving Muskeget Island. He’d become accustomed to the building and used to his own company. Life here had protected him from the horrors he’d seen on the daily news cycle. He’d resisted offers of professional help when repair work was necessary, and this had further limited his interactions with the outside world.
George was very familiar with the fabric of the building; he’d patched every inch. The internal plasterwork had proved troublesome over the last decade. He was aware of the crack in the kitchen’s east-facing wall. It had taken a constant pounding and subsidence had taken its toll too. One crack kept reappearing by the back door. It ran from the floor to the ceiling. He’d filled and painted over it a dozen times at least. This morning, as the kettle boiled, he noticed the filler he’d used last week had dropped out to leave a scar-like fissure. The mortar wasn’t flexible enough to accommodate another shift in the foundations. It no longer mattered; he’d never have to mend it again.
George stared out of the window and enjoyed the display of orange light stroking the clouds on the horizon. A moment passed before he appreciated the enhanced clarity of the vista. George squinted his eyes and sipped his coffee. The six-feet high stripe-mesh metal security fence no longer impinged his view of the ocean.
There’d been no warning and no obvious disturbance during the night. The disappearance was inevitable, but it was still bewildering. George had taken the fence for granted, despite finding it annoying. It had always spoiled his view because of its proximity to the building. George’s stomach tightened at the thought of what lay beyond the garden’s new boundary line. Only four feet of land remained between his kitchen window and the shoreline fifty feet below.
The strong coffee helped George adjust to the notion of the vertiginous drop. He leaned forward to study the remains on the left and right flanks. The side fences were warped and twisted after their neighbour’s overnight departure.
He’d missed a mighty storm last night, but that wasn’t the entire story. The unrelenting waves that tormented the island had caused the long-term damage. When he accepted the post, the cliffs’ edge had been two hundred feet away. The fence had been a formality to deter trespassers from peering through the windows.
George had found the idea of unwanted guests an amusing idea. Who would bother sailing to a barren island to look through his windows? It had never been an issue. Natural forces had been the real threat. The elements had breeched the island’s defences by stealth, battered its shores and undermined the rocky outcrop.
Less harmful marauders had been the gulls, roseate terns and piping plovers. George wasn’t interested in wildlife when he first moved here, but soon lost count of the number of species inhabiting the shoreline. The island’s geographic position, jutting out into the Atlantic, made it a prime staging area for migratory birds during the spring months of breeding and later as a wintering ground during fall.
George had denied the extent of the erosion until a visiting health and safety officer filed a report recommending immediate action. The findings embarrassed the executives at the National Weather Service, and they insisted George explain the situation. He played down the dangers involved, but he was told to prepare to vacate the island as soon as possible.
Twice a day for the past thirty years he’d released a weather balloon to measure a range of atmospheric conditions including temperature, humidity levels and wind speeds, and today would be no exception. George finished his hot drink and gobbled down some porridge before hauling on a weatherproof jacket and boots. It was bright and cloudless on the cliff tops, but a blast of icy air whistled over the ocean. He was familiar with sudden atmospheric transitions, and he’d been soaked enough times to take precautions today.
The environment on Muskeget had become more dynamic as greenhouse gases have accumulated. What’s happened to its cliffs reflects what is occurring along the coastline. Despite living on the edge of the weather front and dressing appropriately, George was unprepared for the rapid deterioration in his locality. Likewise, we are all oblivious to the extent of climate change. Our denial is no excuse for inactivity, but its effect is just as corrosive.
George had tried to monitor the ultimate resting place of his radiosonde units. He always attached a note stating the value of recycling, but he seldom got a response despite the return address. There were exceptions, of course. Annie McGuire in Fall River had returned a unit six years ago, and they’d kept up a postal correspondence since that time. He looked forward to hearing from her and they had exchanged baking recipes and birthday cards. Further west in Warwick, Rhode Island, Jenny Petersham had responded with interest and they had also nurtured an exchange of letters until her demise six months ago. She was a keen birdwatcher and had suggested a visit to the island; something destined not to happen now. He couldn’t forget Lucy Brotherstone, way over in Waterbury, Connecticut; she had responded to his note. They had planned to meet at the ferry port, but on the day the weather prevented her crossing. She left the unit at the post office and he’d collected it a day later. She’d travelled a hundred miles to meet him, and it was a complete washout. That was the last exchange with Lucy.
George opened the padlocked store to grab a balloon. There was a scuttling and scratching sound at the rear of the wooden shed. The mice were a problem he wouldn’t lose sleep over. He’d left two polystyrene boards in the shed last winter and opened the doors one day to discover an enormous pile of squashy white spheres. Smart rodents, that’s all he needed. The pests had shredded both items; ideal nesting material, he reckoned.
He attached a deflated rubber sack to the pressurised tank and filled it with helium. The final balloon wouldn’t bear a return address today. George was heading to a mainland hotel for a month. After that he wasn’t sure. Losing a station wouldn’t compromise the overall weather monitoring, but it left something of a gap. Weather stations like Muskegetare about 200 miles apart along the eastern seaboard. He hoped they’d got plans for him. Maybe a desk job somewhere.
The helium balloon tugged his arm as the breeze picked up. The nylon cord scraped through his padded glove. Once the recorder box cleared the ground, he opened his fist and the bloated sphere leapt upwards. He imagined it soaring to the stratosphere before the lack of pressure made it pop. A small parachute would ease its return to Earth. It would generate interest and confusion in its new home before being forgotten and abandoned.
Maybe he ought to write to Annie. She had a birthday next month. A cake would be a lovely surprise. Yes, she’d like a cake.