We can see them down by the water’s edge, a disparate huddle of fluorescent yellow, dark denim. A quad bike. Two guys in orange – a signal to us from them. The sea is murderous today, a lumpen beast falling on the body of the shore. The air is filled with a chaotic roar, and rags of foam tumble through the air like spit from the mouth of a rabid animal. Even to paddle at the edges of this thing would be sufficient grounds for a straitjacket - but to walk in?
I park the ambulance, we haul out the bags and blankets we’ll need and set off down the ramp to the shingle beach. A crowd has gathered on the walkway to watch the action.
Nearer to the group, and we can see a middle-aged white man standing Christ-wise, his arms straight out to the sides, a policeman clamped on either end. Two beach guards are drying and warming themselves up around the quad bike. A young black guy in a long trench coat hugs a briefcase to his middle and stamps around on the pebbles, his coat tails snapping in the wind. A third policeman comes up to us and shouts an explanation: threatened suicide, walked in up to his waist, pulled out by the lifeguards, freezing cold, wet through, can we check him over before they take him off to the cells?
The man starts trying to pull away from the two policemen, who have to readjust their grip and their stance to control him.
‘I want to die,’ he shouts. ‘Let me go. You can’t do this.’
His face is flushed red, slapped with cold, his walrus moustache matted with water and snot. Everything about him is sopping wet – his denim jacket and jeans, his trainers, his stripey woollen jersey, saturated, hanging.
‘Come on, mate. Let’s get you into the warm.’
‘Let me go.’
The man in the trench coat stands off. I go up to him. I guess that the two men are probably a couple, but I need to make sure. I nod and smile as I get up close, then lean in to shout above the wind:
‘Are you related?’
He looks sideways at me.
‘Related? Are you mad? I’m black! He’s white! Of course we’re not related!’
‘No, no. What I meant to say is: are you partners?’
‘Yes, we’re partners. Yes, we’re gay. So shoot me! Oh my God!’
‘Apart from walking into the sea, has your partner done anything else to hurt himself? Has he taken an overdose?’
‘No. He’s not that stupid.’
‘Stupid enough to walk into the sea, though.’
‘That really was stupid.’
‘So what happened?’
‘What happened? We came down for a break. Some break! We had a stupid argument – I can’t even remember what. He said he didn’t want to carry on. Said he was going to drown himself in the sea. So I said fine, and went off to get some help. When I came back he was up to his waist.’
‘Did he go under at any time?’
‘No. He just stood there til they pulled him out. God knows what I’m going to tell his mother.’
The police start to march the man up the beach, but he resists, crumpling at the knee and collapsing to the shingle. The other policeman goes to help. They half carry, half drag him up the beach, sprawling and wriggling between them, until finally they land him on the concrete of the promenade, laying him gently down, like some giant, sad, strangely-marked starfish for the crowd to wonder at.