We can see the police cars on the promenade, their reflective decals glowing in the light from one of the lamps, but in case we hadn’t, it puts on its blue sparklers for a moment. There’s just enough room between the bollards at the end of the walkway to squeeze the ambulance through. Ahead of us, the vista through the windscreen is a graded banding of colour, black to light – to our right, the great mass of the sea, just a scattering of white points from distant ships; line upon line of creamy white waves moving in as the tide rises; the lighter grey of the empty promenade running on ahead of us, and then the city, piling up to our left, a hectic bank of brilliant whites and yellows. It’s so cold you can hear the stars. A golden moon, rounded at one corner, floats above the whole thing, so low you could reach up and poke it with your finger.
I park next to the police cars. There is one officer waiting there for us. We can see his colleagues down on the beach by the water’s edge, playing their torches out across the surf.
‘He’s walked out to sea,’ the officer says, blowing on his hands and then rubbing them together. ‘Rather him than me. Jesus it’s cold. Anyway, he’s just standing there, up to his shoulders. Been there twenty minutes, maybe? Don’t think he’s been under .Not since we got here. We were going to go in and try to fish him out but the inshore lifeboat’ll be here any minute and that’s probably the safest bet all round. The warmest, that’s for sure.’
I fetch some blankets from the back, switch the heater on, unwrap a foil blanket, then we all jump down onto the beach to meet the others.
The sea is calm and regular, but the noise of the surf as it moves in is a thundering pulse of sound, and with the freezing wind leaning in to us as well, we have to shout to make ourselves heard. The police officers have all got powerful torches. The beams intersect at a point five hundred yards off-shore – the head and shoulders of a young man, standing with his back to us. He doesn’t even particularly react to each wave as it slops up around him. He just stands there, a diminishing point of humanity on a brutally inhospitable canvas.
‘Who called us?’ I shout.
‘He did. Made the call from the beach, dropped the phone and walked in.’
One of the officers says: ‘Over there, look’.
One blue and one white light, sliding in from the left towards the figure.
‘Here they come.’
And now the spluttering thug-chug-thug of a marine diesel. A light snaps on from the boat; it turns, and approaches the figure. Even now he doesn’t move. Caught in the brighter light from the boat, I wonder if he’ll suddenly duck under the water. He has that look about him – a curious sea-creature who stays on the surface for just as long as it can, then dives back down to the safety of its own world. But instead he raises up his arms as the boat comes alongside. A bulky orange figure jumps down into the water. The man is gathered onto the boat; after a minute or two, it turns, and slowly rides the waves as it makes its way in to meet us.