Friday, 11 November 2011


Another chunk of cliff had fallen away. The newly exposed surface was studded with fragments of shell, obscenely white, like splinters of bone protruding from a compound fracture. John ran his hand over the crumbling soil and felt a jagged sharpness. 55 million years of stillness then a crack of revelation as an edge of land disintegrated into sea. He found a complete shell and pulled gently until a piece of the cliff it was embedded in broke away. He placed the lump and the precious fossil into a compartment in a plastic toolbox then moved on, scanning the ground intently. He found a beautiful specimen: a single valve of a bivalve Artica. In contrast to the crumbly light-brown Upnor formation soil from the cliff this was in gray clay from the Thanet formation. He broke away as much of the surrounding matter as he dared before adding the shell to the toolbox.

A lyrical rushing, splashing sound raised his head. The tide was turning. The area he was walking on would soon be back underwater and the North Sea would gnaw away at the cliff once more, exposing further fossils. He looked out across the brown waters into a whiteness of low cloud. Seabirds called; gulls and now the mournful cry of a Curlew. The previous day a strong northerly breeze had snatched moisture from the clouds and hurled it as freezing drizzle into their faces. Today the wind had dropped but the main contrast was family. He was alone now and able to think.

He considered the shells and what 55 million years underground might mean to them. A gradual increase in pressure over the millennia as layers of sediment built up and sea became land, then sea once more. An era of dinosaurs came and went. There were ages of ice. The first people arrived, mastered fire, then advanced with technological violence toward the Romans where their well-built fort at Reculver guarded the Wantsum Channel, itself nothing but a silted memory by the time Barnes Wallace used the shallow waters to test bouncing bombs. The touch of his fingers on an ancient shell; a communion of something once living with something alive after a length of time that was, quite frankly, incomprehensible.

When he first met Sally he described himself as an artist. Nowadays, if anyone thought to ask, he was a teacher. What he used to consider his real work hardly existed any more. The geological pressures of monthly mortgage repayments and childcare had buried the art.

He smiled as he thought of his children dashing around on the beach.

“Dad! Dad! Look at this!”

Sally smiling, wrapped in layers of clothing, happy to be doing something as a family. He had acted out of love but the gesture had been misunderstood. His son was into dinosaurs. His daughter loved the sea. He remembered beach combing with his wife in France or on remote Scottish islands, searching for the most perfectly rounded pebbles or anything else washed up that took their fancy.

Is everything a lesson these days?”

That's what Sally had said when they got back to the car. The children were crying. One was cold whilst the other had dropped the last of their sweets into a muddy puddle. John was silent but furious. They had found nothing. It was impossible to look with the required intensity when the children were around. He had wanted to find a fossil, to feel they were learning something about the world from him, but his plan had dissolved beneath the onslaught of their small demands.

As he cycled home he thought about the shells and wondered how long a sea-creature like that lived for. A year? Ten years? An instant alive and then gone. Only the shell remained and now, after 55 million years, it was in the world again; touched by his fingers, inspiring these thoughts.

At home he showed the fossilized shells to the children. He told them they were 55 million years old and very delicate.

Did they have dinosaurs then?” his son asked.

Yes” John said.

He was unsure whether this was strictly true but hoped that somehow he could find a way to impress this five-year-old boy with these muddy treasures.

Wow! Can I watch some telly?”

John grabbed his son and hugged him close. His daughter let out a competitive roar and he circled her with the other arm, pulling her in against his chest. They giggled as he nuzzled them, smelling their hair. Instinctively they knew what mattered to everything was the here and now. 55 million years ago was interesting but not vital. No matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t fit all that time into your head. The children though were growing, living things. They were happening and they were now. His fossilized art would still be there when the children were demanding to be left alone. Perhaps everything is a lesson he thought.

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