It’s not often you get the chance to jump in the car, drive for fifteen minutes or so, step into an ordinary house in an ordinary street, and arrive 100 million years before even your most distant ancestors were the proverbial twinkles…
The adventure began as Robert, guardian of the ancient treasure, sat me down at his suburban dining table, surrounded by the usual family paraphernalia, and showed me the stars: specifically, fossilised brittle stars. I was able to touch them, smell them, look at them through a microscope.
They were just about as dead as you can get, having been embedded in limestone for millennia, but I saw life. I saw those inordinately long arms floating balletically in primordial oceans; their round bodies pulsing them through waters both dark and clear.
I became embedded myself in the deep past, and yet saw too the future carried in their design: the scales and skins and body parts of creatures yet to come; the intricacies of patterns and shapes that artists living now embed in their work…
Suddenly, a moment even stranger: the sense of my own nowness, my own petty little life as one speck of nothingness on this planet exploded with a flash into alltimeness and everythingness. I had, or perhaps became, my own Big Bang.
And if that wasn’t enough for one normal Tuesday evening, more to come as we headed upstairs – Robert’s two black cats close on our heels – to The Collection.
In an alcove of the spare bedroom, hidden by plain white curtains covering rows of narrow white shelves, lay dozens of fossils. Robert carefully removed the curtains. There rested the tiniest fragments of teeth or bone, scale or shell; there rested great round chunks of ammonite some twenty inches across; there rested ancient pieces of ages-dead life in all shapes and sizes. I gazed on creatures, or parts of creatures, from the Cretaceous, the Jurassic and the Paleozoic and I, currently alive and well in the Anthropocene, could scarcely breathe.
Nor scarcely knew where to look next, until Robert’s mutterings and pointings brought me back to 2019 suburbia. Here and there, among the neutral whites and greys and bland limestone shades, lay an occasional jet black hair. Here and there, Robert adjusted a tiny shark’s tooth a few millimetres this way, or a five-pence sized sea urchin a few millimetres that way.
“Bloody cats,” he grumbled. “They get in behind the curtains and walk along the shelves. They move everything out of place”.
I thought of the endless YouTube videos of cats knocking things off shelves with gay abandon – or perhaps with strategic planning, who’d know, with a cat? – in a single swift swipe. I wondered just who Robert’s cats were. These two black cats who carefully picked their way through fragments of a dead and fossilised past, leaving behind fragments of their very alive and vibrant selves.