The tide was out at Lyme Regis: more, it had receded further than I ever remember seeing. In the harbour, some of the boats leaned drunkenly, almost on their sides; chunks of exposed wood left on its floor looked like huge fish, even fossils, probably unsurprising in this location, home to Mary Anning, palaeontologist and fossil collector. We sat in the shelter, high up in the Jane Austen garden, ate Portuguese custard tarts and watched the tide.
I recalled the strenuous efforts I’d made, thirty years back, to commit to memory the whole of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, which I wrote out at the top of my paper, confident that it would impress the examiners.
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
They probably thought: ‘God, what an insufferable smartarse!’—but passed me anyway.
The day before the trip to Lyme, we’d walked on the common where the Librarian’s parents walk every day, the signs of Storm Eunice (or was it Franklin?) still visible. It occurs to me, hardly for the first time and with marked unoriginality, that there are trees one thousand, two thousand, perhaps five thousand years old, that can be brought down in minutes. Now ‘once in a decade’ and even ‘once in a lifetime’ events are happening with increasing frequency – but there is no irrefutable sign that we, as a country, a continent, a species, are fully awake to it yet.
The day after war began again in Europe, and serious questions were being asked once again about the mental state of a Russian dictator, I walked to the storage unit in brilliant sunshine.
The park was quiet as I laboured uphill: the white-bearded man with the spaniels, his companion with hers, a few children with their parents in the play area, figures on benches, well-wrapped against the cold air. It occurred to me, descending the steps on the far side of the hill, that I’d avoided this route for months since it’s hardly wide enough for two people to give each other room as they pass. I’ve become more relaxed in the open air but indoor spaces—shops, public transport, after the government’s latest blunder—remain hugely unappealing.
The storage unit site was deserted. I heard an engine running for a few minutes while I was groping through boxes, but there was nothing in sight when I came out again. I’d visited so rarely in the past two years —and then just to check that the unit’s secure and there’s no sign of damp—that everything was as it had been in 2019, the boxes and bags still in their same configuration. A time capsule in its way, perhaps an example of that ‘normal’ that so many people seemingly wish to get back to, and believe possible.
Since that visit – a week of barbarism, war crimes, civilians targeted, schools and hospitals bombed and struck by missiles, children murdered. A week, too, of extraordinary courage, everywhere in Ukraine but also among protesters on the streets of Russian cities. And, though at least fifteen hundred miles from Kyiv, some of us jump a little when we hear a siren, a plane going over, a distant unexplained roaring. Those who lived through the 1980s remember that instinctive, momentary reaction well enough, a barely perceptible but constant tension that went on for years. That at least is a ‘normal’ we were all hoping not to get back to.