Two people, a man and a woman, are walking along a hospital corridor. It is obvious that they have been here before. The woman’s face is soft, remembering; the man looks wary, holding back slightly at the entrance to the ward. Indeed, the list of restrictions printed on the door looks enough to frighten anyone. No flowers, no phones, no children under eight, no coughers or sneezers. The woman points at the phone sign (a firmly crossed out silhouette of a rather dated-looking phone) but the man just shrugs. The woman smiles, as if she is used to getting this sort of response from him.
They press a buzzer and are admitted.
Three beds in, they stop. A brown-haired woman is sitting up in bed holding a baby. She is not feeding it, she is just looking at it, staring, as if she is trying to memorise every feature. The visiting woman, who is blonde and attractive, swoops down and kisses the new mother. Then she bends over the baby, brushing it with her hair. The baby opens opaque dark eyes but doesn’t cry. The man hovers in the background and the blonde woman gestures for him to come closer. He doesn’t kiss mother or baby but he says something which makes both women laugh indulgently.
The baby’s sex is easy to guess: the bed is surrounded by pink cards and rosettes, even a slightly deflated balloon announcing ‘It’s a girl’. The baby herself, though, is dressed in navy blue as if the mother is taking an early stand against such stereotyping. The blonde woman holds the baby, who stares at her with those dark, solemn eyes. The brown-haired woman looks at the man, and looks away again quickly.
When visiting time is over, the blonde woman leaves presents and kisses and one last caress of the baby’s head. The man stands at the foot of the bed, pawing the ground slightly as if impatient to be off. The mother smiles, cradling her baby in an ageless gesture of serene maternity.
At the door, the blonde woman turns and waves. The man has already left.
But five minutes later he is back, alone, walking fast, almost running. He comes to a halt by the bed. Wordlessly, the woman puts the baby into his arms. She is crying, though the baby is still silent.
‘She looks like you,’ she whispers.
The tide is out. In the early evening light, the sands stretch into the distance, bands of yellow and grey and gold. The water in the rock pools reflects a pale blue sky. Three men and a woman walk slowly over the beach, occasionally stooping and looking intently at the ground, taking samples and photographs. One of the men holds something that looks rather like a staff, which he plants into the sand at regular intervals. They pass a lighthouse marooned on a rock, its jaunty red and white paint peeling, and a beach where a recent rock fall means that they have to wade in the sea, splashing through the shallow water. Now the coastline has transformed into a series of little coves which appear to have been eaten out of the soft, sandstone cliff. Their progress slows when they have to clamber over rocks slippery with seaweed and the remains of old sea walls. One of the men falls into the water and the other men laugh, the sound echoing in the still evening air. The woman trudges on ahead, not looking back.
Eventually they reach a spot where the cliff juts out into the sea, forming a bleak headland. The land curves away sharply, leaving a v-shaped inlet where the tide seems to be moving particularly fast. White-topped waves race towards jagged rocks and the seagulls are calling wildly. High up, on the furthest point of the cliff, is a grey stone house, faintly gothic in style, with battlements and a curved tower facing out to sea. A Union Jack is flying from the tower.
‘Sea’s End House,’ says one of the men, stopping to rest his back.
‘Doesn’t that MP live there?’ asks another.
The woman has stopped at the far side of the bay and is looking across at the house. The battlements are dark grey, almost black, in the fading light.
‘Jack Hastings,’ she says. ‘He’s an MEP.’
Although the woman is the youngest of the four and has a distinctly alternative look – purple spiky hair, piercings and an army surplus jacket – the others seem to treat her with respect. Now one of the men says, almost pleadingly, ‘Don’t you think we should knock off, Trace?’
The man holding the staff, a bald giant known as Irish Ted, adds, ‘There’s a good pub here. The Sea’s End.’
The other men stifle smiles. Ted is famous for knowing every pub in Norfolk, no mean feat in a county reputed to have a pub for every day of the year.
‘Let’s just walk this beach,’ says Trace, getting out a camera. ‘We can take some GPS readings.’
‘Erosion’s bad here,’ says Ted. ‘I’ve been reading about it. Sea’s End House has been declared unsafe. Jack Hastings is in a right old two and eight. Keeps ranting on about an Englishman’s home being his castle.’
They all look up at the grey house on the cliff. The curved wall of the tower is only two or three feet from the precipice. The remains of a fence hang crazily in midair.
‘There was a whole garden at the back of the house once. Summer house, the lot,’ says Craig, one of the men. ‘My granddad used to do the gardening.’
‘Beach has silted up too,’ says Trace. ‘That big storm in February has shifted a lot of stone.’
They all look towards the narrow beach. Below the cliffs, banks of pebbles form a shelf which then falls steeply into the sea. It’s an inhospitable place, hard to imagine families picnicking here, children with buckets and spades, sun-bathing adults.
‘Looks like a cliff fall,’ says Ted.
‘Maybe,’ says Trace. ‘Let’s get some readings anyway.’
She leads the way along the beach, keeping to the edge of the cliff. A sloping path leads from Sea’s End House down to the sea and fishing boats are moored higher up, above the tide line, but the sea is coming in fast.
‘There’s no way off the beach this side,’ says the man whose grandfather was a gardener. ‘We don’t want to get cut off.’
‘It’s shallow enough,’ says Trace. ‘We can wade.’
‘The current’s treacherous here,’ warns Ted. ‘We’d better head straight for the pub.’
Trace ignores him; she is photographing the cliff face, the lines of grey and black with the occasional shocking stripe of red. Ted plunges his staff into the ground and takes a GPS reading. The third man, whose name is Steve, wanders over to a point where a fissure in the cliff has created a deep ravine. The mouth of the ravine is filled up with stones, probably from a rock fall. Steve starts to climb over the rubble, his boots slipping on the loose stones.
‘Careful,’ says Trace, not looking round.
The sea is louder now, thundering in towards land, and the sea birds are returning to their nests, high up in the cliffs.
‘We’d better head back,’ says Ted again, but Steve calls from the cliff face.
‘Hey, look at this!’
They walk over to him. Steve has made a gap in the pile of rubble and is crouching in the cave-like space behind. It’s a deep recess, almost an alleyway, the cliffs looming above, dark and oppressive. Steve has shifted some of the larger stones and is lean...