We drive out along the coast road, high above the sea.
I read about these chalk cliffs. How they were laid down over millions of years in the warm, deep waters of the Cretaceous, the skeletons of countless billions of plankton, raining down from the sunlit upper reaches to the dark sea bed. As plesiosaurs and ammonites swam through the water, and pterosaurs flew through the air, and iguanodons and megalosaurs walked on the land, the ooze deepened, the pressure intensified, and the chalk deposits grew. Millions of years of change were gathered into it, a limitless array of fishes and urchins, molluscs and corals, one thing into another, a bustling scrawl of life written into stone. And then the global changes, the great geological events, the boundaries between one aeon and another, the crash of an asteroid, a mass eruption, hot to cold, the rise and fall of oceans, the driving up of mountains, the drag and retreat of ice fields, all living things struggling to adapt, living, thriving, dying, pushing on.
Out there, where those boats are fishing now? It wasn’t so long ago that was fertile land. You could walk from here to France. Our ancestors lived out on the tundra, hunting bison and elk.
From time to time their bones get fetched up the nets.
Things happen, whether we want them to or not.
David is waiting for us in his living room, surrounded by the things he has collected over the last sixty years. Japanese netsuke, chessmen and porcelain figures, photographs and carved wooden elephants. His wife Erica shows us in; David is too poorly to move.
‘I just need my pain relief sorting out,’ he says. ‘I’ve got cancer, you see. It started in the lungs, I had an op and a whole load of chemotherapy and whatnot. A horrible business, but it seemed to have done the trick – except, it hadn’t, really. It’s come back, in my liver, maybe a few other places, they’re not sure. They said I could go back on the old chemo but I said no. I’d rather live the last few months feeling more like myself – do you know what I mean? – rather than go down that road again. I just don’t want it. But I woke up with these pains here and here, and some difficulty breathing. I hope you don’t mind me calling you out like this. Only I got a bit panicked by it, d’you know what I mean?’
We do what we can to make him comfortable, sort things out. Erica goes into the kitchen to make some tea. We chat about this and that.
‘I tell you something that happened the other day,’ he says. ‘I was out taking a stroll through town, you know, getting some air, when I felt a bit puffed and had to have a little sit down on a wall outside a petrol station. It was a lovely day, though – d’you remember? – cold, but bright. Anyway, I was sitting on this wall watching the world go by when a group of young girls came out of the petrol station, on their dinner break from the local school. One of them was very striking, lovely blond hair, really shining in the sun, you know? She looked like an angel. Anyway, she had this pack of sandwiches. She unwrapped the wrapper, took the sandwiches out, then tossed the wrapper backwards over her shoulder. So when she passed me I said “There’s a bin just there, love”. And d’you know what that sweet-looking girl said to me? She leant in close, with her hand to the side of her face like she wanted to whisper, and she said: “Shut your mouth you old cunt”. Then carried on walking. Just like that. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say. But then I thought “What the hell”. So I called out: “And you have a lovely day, too.” So she turned round and gave me the finger.’
He shrugs, and adjusts his position in the chair.
‘I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,’ he says, pinching the bridge of his nose and giving his head a little shake. ‘It’s all ancient history. It just played on my mind a bit, that’s all. It doesn’t really mean anything.’
When we’ve sorted David out, we say goodbye and get back into the ambulance.
Control sends us back to base.
We retrace our route along the high cliff road, driving quietly and quickly, the sea shining beneath us, the sky clear and blue above.