Caught by the River


25th July 2023

An extract from a short story by Paul Ewen.

There are paddleboarders out past the pier, but as I jog down to the surf, the board I’m sporting on my head is a chalkboard. I’m also dressed like a schoolteacher, although I don’t quite stretch to a corduroy jacket, with elbow patches. Most people prefer sandy beaches to those with pebbles and stones, but I must disagree. Sand might be easier on your bum, but it’s really bloody boring. If beaches wore clothes, sand would be a white T-shirt, or pastel slacks. Brighton beach isn’t blessed with glacier ice or volcanic rock, but its clunky outer stratum is fascinating, nonetheless. Sitting amongst it all, I’m in my element, like an excitable kid. I feel like I’m in the geologist’s equivalent of a pool of coloured balls.
Near a wooden chip fork discarded amongst the rocks, I spy a silica-rich chert that resembles a piece of flint. It’s quite typical of the stones that characterise many a south coast beach and can withstand almost anything the waves will chuck at it. It’s not polished or buffed, and it doesn’t come with a price tag, so I add it to my pocket, as a memento of my day out at the sea.

At the entrance to the pier is a clock with four sides that tells three different times. Slightly further up is yet another rock shop. Brighton rock is made of toffee, rather than rich minerals, and it comes in a tube shape, like an electric toothbrush without the brush. This shop stocks shelves of the stuff, in a vast sub-set of flavours, some even personalised with people’s names. A couple in the doorway hold up their recent purchases, wondering aloud how the word Brighton goes all the way through.
“Excuse me,” I say. “I know about rocks.”
The couple look at each other nervously as I set about blinding them with science.
“First the rock toffee is boiled and then separated into different colours. While still warm and malleable, large individual toffee letters are made before they’re rolled together like a sleeping bag. This large, rolled lump is then pulled and stretched into a much thinner cord of toffee, which is pulled and stretched some more before being chopped to size and left to harden. And there you have it.”
The couple stand unmoving, like fossilized human statues, made of rock.
“But, what’s more interesting,’ I continue, “is that actual seabed rocks off the coast of Scotland contain oil. The oil gets inside those rocks as a result of once-living organisms decaying over millions of years. Certain technical processes take place as the layers of sediment accumulate. I won’t bore you with the details. But basically, unlike your Brighton rock, these rocks become filled with carbon, so we shouldn’t touch them with a barge pole. But try and tell that to the companies who profit from the exploitation of oil and gas.”
The couple begin to shift uneasily, like my period 2 class, even when there’s still ten minutes left in the lesson.
“Here’s the thing. These offshore oil rigs drill all the way down to the sea floor. It takes around 37 minutes for oil and gas to rise 11,000 feet from the Paleocene sandstone – created 57 million years ago – up to the drill deck of an oil platform, near Aberdeen. The oil and gas pass down a pipeline before the gas is separated from the oil, and the crude oil is pumped to a loading terminal and onto a sea tanker. The tanker sets sail, without sails, to a refinery in the Thames Estuary. There the crude is refined into a number of products, including aviation fuel. This high-grade liquid is pumped to a depot, before moving to Heathrow Airport via another pipeline. Seventy-two tonnes of the fuel fill the tanks of a Virgin Boeing 747, for example. Bound for New York, travelling at 555 miles per hour at an altitude of 31,000 feet above the Irish Sea, the fuel is burned. It’s probably taken less than ten days to run its course, for oil to move from 8,000 feet below sea level to 31,000 feet above sea level. Ten days for liquid rocks to be incinerated into gas, transferring carbon from the lithosphere to the atmosphere. You know about all the carbon in the atmosphere, right? Which is leading to the climate crisis, threatening our very extinction and that of all life on this planet? Well, the greatest source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is from the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. The profitability of the oil and gas companies is built on this process. The government isn’t stopping them. They’re taking advice from the oil and gas companies. It’s batshit crazy. They won’t listen to reason, to the science. They won’t listen to me and I’m an expert in these matters. Maybe they’ll listen to you. Anyway, hope that helps answer your question, about rocks.”
The couple wander off, in a daze. One of them is shaking his head, and the other one is holding his hand to the side of his head, in the shape of a gun, before he shoots himself. The woman behind the counter of the candy rock shop coughs in a false way.
“Um, are you trying to bore my customers to death?”
“Not intentionally,” I reply. “Just trying to impart some valuable knowledge.”
“Well, yes, I agree, it is valuable. But I think your delivery needs work. Less of a lecture would help.”
“I think I’m on board with you there.”
“Are you familiar with Brighton Rock by Graham Greene?”
“Yes. In fact, I was just talking about it. To myself.”
“Good. Well, the guys who shove the stick of candy rock down Fred Hale’s throat…”
“They’re you.”
“It might be one way to deliver a message. But there are other more palatable ways too. Like storytelling, like music. I know your message is important. Just try and make it easier to swallow.”

The robot fortune teller is doing a good trade. His glass box is well positioned at the doors to the amusement arcade, and its flashing lights attract much passing traffic. He speaks in a caricature genie voice, and part of his spiel involves asking for more money, ‘for more wisdom.’ I’ve been trying to warn about the future for years, for free. Yet people would rather pour £1 coins into a box and get served up clichéd premonitions from a clunky old robot. Yes, it’s FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY. And people obviously want to hear about opportunities and self-improvement rather than cataclysmic climate breakdown. Still, as the chalk message on my blackboard now reads:



Paul Ewen’s ‘Lessons’ was written to accompany the release of Squid’s ‘O Monolith’, recently out on Warp Records, and is available in pamphlet form inside physical copies of the record.

The full story is now available to listen to as an audio track, read by poet, comedian and actor Tim Key, with accompanying music from Squid’s Anton Pearson. Listen below / download for free via Bandcamp.