“Come back here!”

The man waved to a little boy running to the beach behind a group of older kids. The child ignored him. The man shrugged, after days of rain there was no keeping the kids still. He walked back in and the door closed behind him.

The kids’ laughter was still within earshot, the sun in his face, and the old man extended his legs. The golden light was filling the courtyard but through his worn-out jeans, he could feel the cold stone he was sitting on. It was winter, still, but on this first warm and sunny day the End-of-Earth farm was quiet. It would not last long. Soon, everyone would be out and about, working, creating or simply chatting. In the meantime, much like him, all the inhabitants sharing the farm were taking in the rays of the sun. Warming up and rejoicing at the perspective of the coming spring. It meant festivals, gatherings, first strawberries and long days spent outdoors. After a lengthy grey, rainy winter it was life blossoming again, spring finally.

In the past 30 years, the old man had learnt to live at the pulse of the seasons, learnt to embrace each of them. Going from cold, frosty days to temperamental spring weather. Until arriving here, 30 years ago, he had never noticed the planet’s heartbeat. At the End-of-Earth farm, he started noticing the cricketing of insects, finally back. Now, he wondered if he would get to see another long autumn, drifting from foggy to frosty mornings. He hoped he would get to marvel at trees set on flames that don’t burn, leaves going all colours of ember, once more.

It had taken time to slow down the throbbing rhythm men had forced onto nature. Like a man made tsunami, the backwash left the living exposed. Even after the drilling, cutting, and fracking had stopped the wave kept growing bigger. For a few years, it had been storm after storm. The beach got closer to the farm by 30 metres, many lost their homes, and everyone had to adapt. Priorities shifted when the tidal wave hit. With each new wave came changes, the throb started to flutter and transformed into a rapid pulse. The waves became smaller. The world had quietened down, humans stopped feeding the waves. It took time, and effort, it changed everything. It had not all been devastation, far from, but there was repair to do, grief to live, and people to welcome. There had been tears but also hope as everything was starting new, avoiding the traps of the past. There were stories to write and lessons to learn. So they all did. So the old man did, he repaired, he grieved, he welcomed. As one of the last remains of a world now gone, to never return, the old man had to learn. And now, a few years on the other side of 90 he was grateful for it. For everything. Ashamed of what he participated in bringing over to the world, but thankful for how much he grew.

He decided to walk to the beach. He rarely went there these days as his rheumatism made any long walk uncomfortable. But he knew there only was a very limited number of times when he would get to sit on the beach he learned to love. So he grabbed his stick and a hat. The house was starting to bustle with activity again. In the past decades, people had reorganised themselves. They learned to live together again. Mixing generations, and finding the balance between privacy and shared spaces. Three families and a few workers co-lived at the End-of-the-Earth farm. Everyone kept an eye on the kids, participating in the harvest, and keeping up with the farm. Everyone shared resources and knowledge.

The first few years when he arrived had been tough. The limited space, after living in a gigantic Parisian mansion, the work, in all weathers. He could not imagine anything else now. The community he found here, and how they had accepted him. But also the new balance of life. Yes, work was tough but it was only a few hours a day. In this new world, there was less money to spend, and fewer things to buy. In this new world, you only needed enough, you only needed to work for enough and no more.

This is how he started walking up and down the coast, that coast his decisions had destroyed. At first, he was cleaning up his mess, but then he started wanting to see its beauty, and understand it. Now, walking the coastal path was, for him, like breathing. It kept his head clear of a past he no longer understood. With each step, he was walking away from the pain he had inflicted and the shame he felt.

His steps were smaller now, his back less straight and his eyes could not see the horizon as precisely. But everything was so much clearer. What mattered and what did not. He sat down on the rock he had sat on almost every day for 30 years. First mourning his lost life, then repairing the ones he had ravaged. Now he was acknowledging with gratitude the life he had.

“Wooooow there are so many here!”

The little voice came from the side of the rocks. Waving at the silhouettes bent over the boulders on the opposite side of the beach was a little girl. The old man peered over her as she turned her face towards him.

“Oh!” She said, unphased, used to seeing his old shadow on the beach, “I didn’t see you there!“

She grabbed her selection of oyster shells, put them in the hem of her skirt and started walking across the beach to join her friends. “Wait!” He said, surprising even himself. In all the years he had spent at the farm he had never given much thought to kids, let alone interacted with them. At first, because it reminded him that he had missed his own kids growing up and that they had cut all ties with him. Then, it became a habit to hear them, and see them but not spend more time with them, unlike the rest of the adults. He was a part of the group, but he set himself apart. Because he felt guilty because no matter how welcomed he had been he knew what had brought him here.

The little girl turned around and strolled back, handing him one of the oysters she had selected.

“Do you want to have a look?”

He took the oyster. It was a pale one, its colours washed away by the tides, and its sharpness vanished thanks to time. It was shiny from the polishing of the sand. Perhaps, it was old enough to have seen what he saw the first time he arrived here. The beach, black and sticky, the high sun reflecting the blue shadows of the oily sand.

“What are you doing with these?” He asked.

“We are choosing the most beautiful ones to decorate the tree house.”

The tree house had been the kids’ winter project. They drew plans for it in the midst of the darkest month. They picked the tree carefully and now the spanners were in motion to turn it into reality. From what he heard the old man understood it was going to be a piece of art. The excitement had reached the adults too.

“Why are you not taking them all, so you could decorate the whole house?” The old man handed the oyster back “I don’t need them all, the boys are also collecting some.” the little girl responded.

“But, you could have them all to decorate more!” He gestured towards the rocks, covered with oyster shells. They had died en masse until recently. The oil spill followed by acidification of the sea and the water warming had been fatal to oysters.

“But we don’t need more, the house isn’t that big and we only want a few to remind us of the sea.”

The little girl looked puzzled. The old man sighed. Everything had changed. “What if you need more?” He asked.

“Well, I can always come back, but we are not supposed to take too much of anything you know.”

This sent a pang in his heart, in his gut. Even a kid had learnt the lesson that did not seem to stick with him.

“Do you think I should take more?” The little girl seemed to be doubting herself. “Not if you don’t need it, no.” The old man answered, as much for her as he did for himself.

“You know, it’s for some art. That is why we are only taking a few. We could never make it as beautiful as this.” She gestured towards the beach, the sun shining on the sea, reflecting the light on the rocks.

The little girl could not be older than 6 or 7 and for her it was logical. Way past his 90th birthday, the old man was still learning every day. This was going everything against what he did for the best of his life: take what you need, no more.

He felt a little hand on his arm.

“It’s okay, you know, to take just a little. The others will become sand, my dad told me. It’s good to have new sand, it makes the beach beautiful again.”

He nodded. She sat next to him, happy to have found someone ready to listen to her babbles. For once, uninterrupted by the many other kids in the house.

“You see, when my dad was my age there was a big wave of black oil. It was all over the sand and the rocks. And it killed everything. My dad says it was very sad.”

“I know”, the old man shifted on his makeshift seat, uncomfortable. Although he had tried to avoid them, he had had these chats over the years. It had been part of the judgement, owning up to what he did, “taking responsibility” the jury had said. Which meant facing the consequences of his decisions straight in the eyes. Having to admit what he did was still tough, especially with kids. They genuinely did not understand why he chose to let the beach get destroyed.

“Don’t be sad”, she looked at him. “It’s gone now, and my teacher says it will never happen again. Ever,” she nodded at him,” E-V-E-R!”

“Yes, you are right.”

“Also…” she uttered and looked at him, twisting her little mouth. She was hesitating before saying what she wanted to say, her mum having said many times her words ran too quick. “Well, is it true?”

The old man knew what was coming, of course, she was not the first kid asking. One year he even had to go to a class to explain The Spill.

He nodded.

“Why did you do this?”

He could see she had wanted to ask for a while. “I did not know this beach existed”, it was his go-to answer to kids “But you knew there were beaches? And dolphins? And oysters?” She waved the little shell under his nose.

“I did. But I had forgotten that when you do something there are consequences.” Not sure if she knew the word he added. “ When you make a choice it means other people, animals or places might have to live with the results.”

“Like if I take all the shells there will be none left for the other kids or to become sand?”

“Yes, like this.” He never knew if he over-simplified or made it too complicated for kids but she seems to get the idea.

“So you chose something and it meant the beach became black? Why did you decide to leave the boat and spill all the oil?”

“I did not… I decided to use an old boat and not repair it to save money…” “But you did not save the beach, or the dolphins, or the oysters.”

There was never any judgement with kids, it was facts. He could not say anything back to facts. He stayed silent, there were no words that could justify what he had done. The worst part was that this event was the tip of the iceberg. He was the CEO of the oil company when the spillage happened. At the time he had hoped to get away with a fine for a company and a slap on the wrists from the board, for show. But everything had started to change. The demands of citizens for the state to act for the planet were finally heard and the law rapidly evolved. Suddenly monetary compensation was not enough anymore. Projects stopped in their tracks, damages had to be repaired.

The community victim of the oil spill had been consulted. Not only he had personally been fined for this, but he also had been affected to the End-of-the-world farm to participate in the restoration. It was not prison, prisons had almost disappeared now. But a change of life. From his office in a building towering over Paris, to the little cottage adjacent to the farm. From deciding the strategy of a multinational company to shovelling oil spillage off the beach. A new life spent carrying englued cormorants to the vet, and measurings pollution levels at each tide, day and night, rain or sun.

“No, that is true, I did not save anything. I have been trying to do better, I helped clean up, I helped make things better.” “One should not be able to pay their way out of the mess they created.” That is what the judge had told him before sending him here. “Why did you stay, after, once it was all cleaned?” The little girl asked.

“I had nowhere else to go.” They were both looking at the horizon now.

He could have added that he had no one left to go to, but it was not true. His family had been too ashamed and had cut ties. His old friends vanished too, some sentenced, like him, some deciding to be more discrete. All had seen their wealth shared with the world, a global rebalance of everything. But he was not alone, he had never been less alone than since he joined the farm so he added, “I like it here, the people are nice, and it’s beautiful”

“Yes, it is beautiful,” The little girl said without looking at him “And we like you too, you know, you cleaned up.”

The old man felt his heart open and he smiled.

The tide was on the way up now, waves were licking their toes. The sun was on its way down. The little girl had years to go and grow and he had very little time left and yet so much to learn. The beach was beautiful, there were only ripples on the sea and thousands of shells at their feet.