When We Drowned Them

Chris Holdsworth

Collingwood: 11 July 2076

I heard about it in the worst way possible. A masked man in a suit, an officer, knocked on the door and asked to talk to me. The words spilled out of his mouth like a curse: ‘I’m sorry. It’s your parents. It’s a shame when anyone’s lost from that generation.’ 

My body locked down. I knew they were ill. I knew it logically. I’d listened to Dad’s scratchy voice yelling down the phone line; I’d read Mum’s hospital reports. My chest ached like I’d fallen from a high place.

The officer said something to me, but I couldn’t listen. ‘Can you hear me?’ he asked.


Collingwood: 13 July 2076

I walked down the road to my parents’ unit. The front door was ajar and dusty boot prints scattered the floor. Dad always prided himself on the unit’s cleanliness, on taking shoes off before entering. I left my sandals in the hall and walked into the kitchen. Morning angel, he’d say, sipping on his rationed cup of coffee. Another day in paradise, eh? And his day in paradise would have him leave before sunrise to work a double shift in a warehouse, then Mum would leave at seven for her job as a seamstress. 

A second ticked on the analogue clock above the fridge. I recall snippets of my parents fleeing from Brisbane when I was young: firefighters staring at the clogged highway, panicky drivers, mattresses flapping atop roofs, livelihoods in boots, a dirty red sky. Another second ticked. Growing up, we were lucky enough to share our unit with the Flynns, another family of refugees, and every morning they’d make me breakfast and take me to school. They were from the Maldives, but they never really talked about it. Maybe they just wanted to forget.

In the living room, I saw the wooden chair where Dad would sit and stare out the window. The wood was peeling, and the curtains of the window were faded from too much sun. When the internet’s back, I want to show you how kookaburras sounded. Weirdest bloody animals to have ever lived. I sat in his chair and looked out at the dusty urban landscape beyond. I heard the dull ticking from the kitchen, the seconds constricting. I took a deep breath. 

The phone rang. It was Alex. ‘I heard the news,’ he said. 

I couldn’t respond. 

He yelled down the line like he was shouting across the city. ‘Can you hear me?’


Collingwood: 17 July 2076

I spent the day at my parents’ place rummaging through photographs stuffed in the back of draws, reading diary entries scribbled in notebooks, recalling memories of conversations at dinner. Dad spent hours on end muttering nonsense in his final months. If I had to guess, I’d say there was something deep down inside of him trying to claw its way out. I scooped up a photo of a man I remember them telling me about, Terry. He was Dad’s best friends through school, and he went on to become a biologist. The bastard would always pinch my smokes, Dad said, so it’s no surprise he was also the first to leave. At first, Dad and Mum didn’t even know that he’d run away. They just saw him less and less until he was interviewed on the ABC about his remote Tasmanian bunker he’d prepared for the apocalypse. The facts are terrifying, Dad recounted him saying on the TV. It’s going to heat up, and people are going to start to realise. I remembered Mum shaking her head beside Dad. I just can’t believe he didn’t say goodbye. 

After a while, I gave up and walked down the building’s staircase. The dim, concrete recess, with white light washing in through the windows, and door after door into some other climate refugee’s life; a fading generation with a long shadow of trauma. Upstairs, I heard the clink of a door and the exchanging of goodbyes. Somehow, it was the saddest thing I’d heard all day.

I sat on the balcony of my apartment at dusk. Since the day I heard the news, time had slowed like it was moving through syrup, and I thought about how weird it was, how it ebbed and flowed. The sunset was a blur of gelatinous orange rolling over the boulevard like a shallow wave, and the buildings stood across from each other collecting the light like quays. I pulled out my old notebook and tried to sketch out my parent’s portraits. It was the first time I’d drawn since their passing, and my pen ran over the paper with the passing of my breath, the ticking of the clock. I tried again and again, but it never turned out. It felt wrong, like something was missing. Grief rolled across me so violently that my skin shivered and face swelled and I wondered if I was going to pass out. I cried. ‘Are you there?’ I asked. ‘Can you hear me?’


Collingwood: 1 August 2076

There were celebrations in the streets this morning. The CO2 had been lowered back to pre-2040 levels and I couldn’t help but feel like it was all dishonest, like losing a leg in an accident and celebrating a new prosthetic limb. I spent the day cleaning up my parents’ place before the government reallocated it. I mopped, wiped up dry bits of bread that they must have dropped in the kitchen, and put the things worth keeping in cardboard boxes. I couldn’t help but think about how the old world hovered over me. Dad was a mechanic and Mum was a university lecturer and a poet. In that life, they had brothers and sisters and families and careers, but after immigrating to Melbourne after the collapse, all of it was gone. I’ve had dreams about the old world for as long as I can remember, waking up in cold sweats to the sounds of sirens, the sounds of birds, the feeling of cool breeze against my skin.

For my senior years I was sent to a climate refugee school and learnt about all the mistakes and crises the generation before us had to live through — that some jokingly called themselves The Lost Generation like their great grandparents before them. We began to understand that our parents were still in shock, that they were still in pain. 

Mum insisted I learnt basic survival skills, like how to sterilise water, how to get used to the feeling of hunger, and how to tell what food is and isn’t safe to eat. No one can predict the future, she’d say. What happens when the fires or floods come here?

It was around this time that I fell in love with art. I even won a Council award for my black and white urban landscapes. ‘It’s for record-keeping,’ I told them. ‘So the future generations can see that we found meaning in the concrete and the metal.’ My father thought I could work for a VR company as an artist. The government had just started producing VR content to show off how they believed they’d geo-engineer the environment back to a pre-collapse state. But at the time, I wasn’t interested in creating a world that won’t ever exist. Better off showing people the beauty that’s around them, not the beauty that’s lost.

When I finished school, I volunteered during fire season as an aid worker. I thought of my parents as I leant over the ship’s railing with binoculars against my eyes, looking across the water to the fires. I didn’t really need any help seeing them. Their crowns were monstrous and angry, like the jaws of some animal. But somehow, the act of holding the glass up protected me from what was really happening. The ship inched further down the shore, and we picked up two families who were swimming towards us. I pulled a young girl out of the water whose arm was black, charred, and flaky, like a piece of burnt bread. 

I couldn’t seem to remove the damp, rotting smell from my parents’ unit. I bleached the bedsheets. It was lunchtime, and I didn’t eat. I just sat in Dad’s old chair. Alex called me, as if he knew I’d just relaxed, but I didn’t answer. The next morning, I boiled vegetables in silence and remembered asking Mum over tea how they let the climate collapse happen. She laughed. Let it happen? Darling, the only thing I can say is that we were lucky, and that Aussies will always lend a hand. 


Collingwood: 25 February 2076

I got a glimpse of myself while grocery shopping and nearly threw up. When I got home, I laughed about it. God, it’s all so depressing. I decided to go out for a night with Alex to the last bar in town, Bar at the End of the World. It was a nice, cosy place with a great name, and they sold everything from the shitty geo-engineered beer to old-world bottles of spirits. Out the window, I saw a flock of carbon capture drones. They’ve only recently been mass produced, being way more economical than the giant carbon capture machines that littered the landscape before. I used my allocated carbon credits to buy an old-world bottle of gin. We clinked our glasses together and talked of nothing important all night.

When Alex fell asleep that afternoon, I went for a walk and thought about my parents again, about how long it had been already. After school, my parents helped me put together a resume, and I was offered an internship in the government’s advertising agency as a designer. They sent me to Brisbane as part of one of their programs to communicate how they’d rebuild the major cities of Australia. When I arrived, the city was almost entirely abandoned. A skyscraper was toppled into the river and old-world cars littered the roads, looted clean of parts. The landscape was scorched bare and clouds of dust blew through the streets. This is where I come from, I thought, and this is all that’s left. I knew the place through pieces of conversations I’d heard: a coffee shop at QUT, a burger place on Queen Street. I saw a hole in the ground where South Bank’s beach used to be. I drew nothing on that trip.

I settled for a job in Melbourne working as a secretary for a VR company. Along with being a stable job, it was also where I met Alex. One night, he showed me the virtual world he was making, and I saw a blue lake with rolling green hills in the background, birds fluttering off trees, leaves fidgeting behind them.

‘Hey there,’ he said, lifting the headset off me. ‘I mean—I’m flattered, but there’s no need to get emotional. It’s just eco-propaganda.’

I walked past my parents’ old unit and saw that someone else had moved in. I wondered if they knew who used to live there. I wondered if they cared. I kept walking as the evening deepened and came past an old-world, classical looking building. The left side of it had collapsed, and the right side was held up by large stone pillars with gargoyles peering down from the top of them. Out of curiosity, I asked around if anyone knew what the building was used for, and no-one had a clue. In front of it was a square block of dirt that was empty except for a statue of a woman holding a scale, a cannon, and two mental benches bolted into the ground. 

I sat on one of the benches and, for the first time in ages, started drawing. I tried to capture the section of the building that was intact and show how it connected with the parts of it that were destroyed. It was strangely beautiful and human. I stayed drawing as it got dark. Across from me, a man curled himself up on the metal bench. He pulled a blanket from his bag and fell asleep. Everything around me was lifeless and still, until a pigeon flew in and sat atop the head of the statue. The homeless man shuffled, rolled over, and everything became still again. My drawing wasn’t bad, but it didn’t capture the changes in time that I felt, how one moment bleeds into the next, the way the two halves of the building bore down upon their surroundings.


Collingwood: 26 February 2076

Last night, I dreamt about my parents’ lives before I was born. I got the sense that I was haunting them back through time. I saw them at work. I saw them enduring the hellfire of their lives, the hot summers, the pandemics, the immigrants pouring in from the Pacific. I saw them in their large suburban home. I followed my parents into the kitchen. It was spacious and white, and they were laughing as they cooked. I reached out to touch them and their skin was smooth and oily. In shock, I fell back into the counter and felt goop seep into my hand and back. I never thought that the past would be dirty, but my hands were muddy and covered in black. ‘Dad?’ I said. ‘Mum?’

I was lifted, as if by a tide, and lulled above them like I was floating atop water, but it kept rising and rising and I knew I was running out of time. I panicked and yelled out for them, but they didn’t hear me. The water rose over my head and through the walls and bubbles poured from my mouth. I took in a deep breath and water filled my lungs. I fought against the ebb and flow of the current and swam back to my parents to try and talk to them, to try and warn them about everything before it was too late. I reached out but couldn’t budge them. ‘Can you hear me?’ I asked, but my grief was nothing to them yet.

Chris Holdsworth is an emerging writer from Brisbane, Australia.