by Jared Kavanagh
Great Yarmouth, the British call it.
To the uninitiated American reader of my travel journals, any town in modern Britain that possesses the appellation “great” must have acquired it via tragic irony. After all, Britain no longer possesses any urban agglomerations of sufficient size to be called cities.
In truth, the provenance of the name is ancient, far older than the Day. Four locals gave me five explanations for where Great Yarmouth’s name came from. I was, and remained, sceptical of all of them.
What mattered was that Great Yarmouth was a minor British port before the Day, and was the largest that didn’t receive a visit from Soviet bombers or missiles. The town has boomed since then, where most of Britain has declined.
As a surviving port on a railhead, Great Yarmouth became the main entry point for the trickle of American aid that Britain received after the Day. Marks of our country’s time here are plentiful, from the six soulless concrete and timber piers built for relief ships, to the equally soulless concrete runways built in an airport when it appeared our aid would be an ongoing endeavour, to the prominently named Yankee Refuge which is still the largest pub in town.
The last relief ship left a quarter of a century ago, but Great Yarmouth prospered afterward, in so far as any town in the ashes of Europe can be said to thrive. Tourism is the only industry in modern Britain which genuinely earns the country any foreign currency, and Great Yarmouth is the biggest arrival point for the few curious sight-seers who want to experience Britain’s surviving hospitality.
My arrival date was October 27, 1992, the thirty year anniversary of the Day. A few Americans celebrate this date as the anniversary of the day the spectre of communism was cleansed from the globe. Most only mourn, even back home. In Great Yarmouth, no-one celebrated the Day, but all remembered it.
Arrival at the airport was simplicity itself, for those who had found one of the few flights that crossed the Atlantic. Passport control consisted of a cursory glance at whatever travel documentation was presented, and customs checks were non-existent. Britain’s downsized government had much higher priorities than bothering incoming tourists. Their officials occasionally scrutinised those who were departing, but never arriving.
Distinguishing tourists from locals – or returning locals – presented no difficulties. Most of the accoutrements of travel in Europe were similar to those within the Americas, but there was one significant difference. Tourists in Britain all had Geiger counters somewhere about their person.
Three decades on, most of the United Kingdom was no more radioactive than the background levels back home. Save for the sheets of glass which once formed their cities, that is. Nevertheless, any prudent traveller knew the risk of stumbling into one of the remaining hot pockets of soil somewhere on their jaunt, or being served fish which was hot in a manner other than the traditional culinary style.
The airport was only a couple of train stops from town. I’d planned to use the railroad as the best way to meet passengers, but it turned out that every visitor caught the train, for want of an alternative.
Private cars in Great Yarmouth were non-existent; people walked or pedalled or were pedalled by others. Fuel was rationed for essential transport and agricultural use, and misusing it was a hanging offence, literally. A couple of the chattier locals on the train into town went into great detail about executions they’d witnessed.
As was my habit, on the first day I spent a couple of hours strolling around Great Yarmouth. I didn’t need longer – nowhere in the town was far from anywhere else.
The town was a small strip of land between river and sea, marked by a mix of old and new. The old was traditional Britain, with heritage cottages on narrow lanes. The new was identical brick houses – brick was the cheapest construction material around here – with wider, cobbled streets. Broad streets served no transportation purpose that I could discern, but made the tourists feel more comfortable.
I bypassed the more openly tourist-seeking spots, leaving them for another time, though the prospect of the Herring Museum intrigued me. On this day, I cared more to find out what the locals recalled of the Day.
This aim drew me to the Yankee Refuge. Like so much of the town, the décor here presented a curious mix of classical and new-fangled. The walls, and the bar itself, were made of finely-polished chestnut; sound and beautiful timber. The stools were newer, and could be politely described as workmanlike. Beer came in ceramic mugs, not glasses. Light bulbs existed, but only a few – enough to make the dimness bearable rather than illuminate.
Ventured conversations quickly made it plain that discussions of the Day or its anniversary would attract flinty stares. Some were prepared to talk, but none wanted to be asked.
Conversations about the Day revealed the British think the United States emerged unscathed. Not true, to anyone even casually familiar with American history. I saw no reason to mention the rubble where Anchorage and Seattle once stood, or the effects of radiation which touched everywhere. Compared to Britain, we got off lightly. Compared to mainland Europe or the former Soviet Union, we were blessed.
Indirect probes about Britain’s fate provided more revealing answers. The locals viewed Great Yarmouth as “the luckiest city in the unluckiest country.” Every year two thousand or more people moved here from elsewhere in Britain. Every year, around the same number fled Britain’s shores entirely.
None of my American readers would be surprised that so many sought to emigrate. More intriguing was their choice of destination. None mentioned the United States. Most named Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. “They helped us, and help us still,” was the gist of their explanations. If I had to sum up the difference between Americans and the British, it would be thus: Americans want to forget the Day happened, while the British want to escape what happened.
Jared Kavanagh is a writer of alternate history, speculative fiction and sometimes just plain weird stuff. He is the author of the Sidewise Award-nominated Lands of Red and Gold alternate history series, and editor of the Alternate Australias anthology. His short fiction has recently appeared in anthologies from Sea Lion Press and B Cubed Press.
The inspiration for this tale came from assessments of how if the Cuban Missile Crisis went nuclear, the United States had the power projection to devastate the Soviet Union, while the Soviet Union could strike at the USA’s European allies but do relatively little harm to the United States itself. It follows the tradition of works which explore alternate histories via pseudo-non-fiction, such as the venerable collection If It Had Happened Otherwise (edited by JC Squire) and Robert Sobel’s classic alternate history textbook For Want of a Nail. Other recent examples in this tradition include Nicholas Sumner’s Drake’s Drum series, and Tom Anderson’s Look to the West series.