The last time I saw Pandora, I gave her a feather I found in the churchyard where we were sat. I put the quill, speckled blue, in the buttonhole of her red cardigan just over her heart. My grandmother patted the spot where the feather rested.
Pandora’s fingers were rigid, curled and cold, but they gripped mine hard. She could not name me, but I was certain she knew me.
For thirty years Pandora lived at St Margaret’s Bay on the crest of a valley formed by chalk. The bay is a cuticle of shoreline cut into white cliffs on that far-easterly nub of Kent. It’s made up entirely from stones that jangle when the tide pulls them in. If you stand at the foot of the cliffs and look right up they lean over you, as if about to fold into the sea. Back to their origins.
From the top bedroom of Pandora’s house, on clear afternoons, I could see the cliffs’ twin chalky massif at Calais. At night the town’s lights glowed from across the Channel. I used to wonder if a girl standing in the top room of a house on the other side of the stretch of water, could see Pandora’s lights blinking in their far away window.
I think of my grandmother’s garden—a steep downward gradient ending in a jumble of bramble—as coated in white dust. As if lace had been laid down. Chalk sediment sits just beneath the earth here, crumbly chunks in place of pebbles. My little brother and I used those chalk stubs to write our names and draw pictures on Pandora’s paving stones. We watched the rain rub them out and make cloudy rivulets. Chalk was the foundation, the plaything of those summers.
Every few months the sea at St Margaret’s tears down white boulders from the cliffs. The waves lap over them, smoothing them into domes; prehistoric eggs lying latent on the beach. Pandora used to send me the same birthday card each year with a watercolour scene depicting the cliff’s highest peak, a final lift of white rock that punctured the sky with the stripy lighthouse on top. Beneath it, a shocking drop. She’d paint onto the card—in Tippex—rocks falling away from the cliff face. A habit I thought eccentric. But I realise now how carefully she studied that view.
She was showing me the slow ruin of effort.
Chalk is made from the skeletons of plankton, calcium carbonate between 65 and 100 million years old. Chalk formed when the seas were clear and warm. Each tiny being had a spherical frame, a cocosphere, made up from a series of even tinier discs called cocoliths—a puzzle of loops. Even the words have circular dimensions. When the planktons died they broke down into their composite parts and billions of curlicues rained down from the surface of the sea.
Over the millennia of this happening the skeletons formed a lime mud. Earthy graves compact and ready, like early memories bedding down in the mind. Pressure and heat turned the mud into chalk, bone white.
Planktons’ skeleton is colourless—which is why chalk is white. Their small deaths occurred when the earth was young and the ocean was clean. During the cretaceous period the sea level was high and barely any earth penetrated the surface. The world was all water and light. This meant other sediments, such as clay, hadn’t formed and could not muddy the white bed below. The sea level then dropped exposing the terrain and a bleached boundary of dry land. Erosion left white pillars in the ocean.
Pandora’s was the penultimate house on the road that led to the cliff tops—on the far side of the valley. After the first dip in the path the Channel opens up, first a thin band then a glassy panel reflecting the sky: hard and blue in the sun, rippled grey beneath cloud. From here you could look across to her garden, a green stripe, steep and empty, waiting for our return. On the cliffs the ferries are pocket-sized, like snails creeping to and from France, and the gulls glide past at eye-level. The scoop of the South Downs then descends towards Dover and the harbour juts into the sea.
Each time we visited Pandora we’d all walk the circular route: traversing the valley, along the cliffs, then down to the bay and back up to the house. She showed us a set of three garden steps in the undergrowth, unearthing them with her stick. The house they belonged to had vanished.
More houses were here once, built in a line facing the Channel. But their domestic lights made hapless guides for the German planes that flew here during the war, coming with bombs. The houses were torn down so the cliffs could stay shrouded in night.
I thought of the family whose steps they once were. Did they leave their house stoically; did they mourn their home?
The valley is a brittle landscape. Grass turns prairie-yellow in summer and the woodland is a black scrawl on the horizon. The ground here is dry; chalk is porous, like a sponge, and water filters through its cracks and fissures. A tunnel of ancient pines runs down from the valley, right to the bay. They are hardy things that can withstand the parched earth.
Despite the drought flowers usually found on the continent can grow in this part of England; they thrive in the drier earth and warmer climate of the south. In Pandora’s steep garden, purple Pyramidal orchids with triangular frames speckled the lawn, looking mysterious. Until she marked them with lolly sticks so her grandchildren wouldn’t trample them.
My grandmother lived alone at St Margaret’s. Early widowhood happened to Pandora, suddenly and shockingly amongst the milieu of grandchildren, three months before I was born. My grandfather’s body was found on the beach having fallen from the cliff. His glasses were discovered at the top. Had he removed them to study more closely the orchids that grew at that perilous fringe?
Soon after his death Pandora took herself to Europe, trekking across mountain ranges and joining archaeological digs. She returned home from her travels with a new curiosity for the world and read, ardently, as if time were running out, on archaeology and geography, in search of origins.
Pandora combed the beach at St Margaret’s for fossils: sea urchins in the cliff face and the best find, a whirl of an ammonite bound inside rock.
Her house became an archive of atlases and books on natural history. On the wall in the room where I always stayed she’d pinned a huge map of the British Isles, depicting its topography in wriggly lines like chaotic fingerprints. The map showed no towns or cities—as if people and places had ceased to exist.
Or never existed at all.
My grandfather is not someone I can picture. But to me he is synonymous with the valley, the green stretch of Downs on the cliff-top and the blue dome above. I like to think he is part of it all, part of my origins.
Pandora developed dementia in her eighties and began to lose the words that named the world around her. Hard knots of protein called Lewy Bodies gathered inside the cells of her brainstem, a form of dementia similar to Parkinson’s. Under microscope, Lewy Bodies look like rounds of marble, milky and firm. They intrude on remembering; meddle with memory.
The linear narrative of Pandora’s life, its composite parts made up from recollections, rearranged itself like a kaleidoscope shifting its display with each turn. Conversations and experiences from a long time ago resurfaced and sank, wandered in and out of focus.
Aural and visual hallucinations are common with some strains of dementia and Pandora experienced them regularly. She would shout to a vacant space in the room and point to faces invisible to us. I do not believe however, that this always frightened her. I hope she was visited by old friends and lost family, returning through memories bedded down in her mind.
Her gesture of recognition was a look, a hand gripped hard.
In the churchyard Pandora moved as if to stand and reached out to touch emptiness. ‘Peter?’ she said. My grandfather’s name. He was there with us, in front of Pandora, as real and familiar as the speckled-blue feather in her red cardigan.
I like to think that the mind and the earth are not dissimilar. Time and intensity harden both memories and mud. If left to compress chalk turns to marble, a structure so compact and solid it states absolute permanence.
At the end all we are left with is a gleaming string of images: a shingle bay, a rough valley, white cliffs, and faces we love even if we can’t name them.
Above us there is nothing but sky.