Here it is a mist, here a fog, always in the end it conceals all things; it is called time. Almost faded from sight now, although not so far back through the obscurity, lies a drifting danger which is sometimes another mist, sometimes another fog. Here it conceals all things, here it shows the sea, and the changing darkness of a night sky.

To human perception we are all but lost as we move back through this obscurity to the midnight when Wednesday the 16th of March 1870 is giving way to Thursday the 17th March. The place – emptiness some twenty five miles south-west from the Needles, nearest point of land; the sea – a ‘nasty swell’; the wind – ‘light WSW’.

We are suspended in the quietness, the dampness of the mist, but then far away we hear a sound which will give us an anchor point in space and time – a sort of whisper. Two minutes later we hear it again. Then again … about once every two minutes. Again louder. Now taking shape as a sort of faint roar filtered by the dampness. On this sea it could be almost anything – the mating call of a marine dinosaur or sonar booms, or the gunfire of a dozen wars.

But this is 1870, and the roar is the steam whistle of the screw-steamer Mary, inching cautiously up-Channel through the fog, from warm spring sunshine of the south to cool spring dampness of home, from the deeper fog of time to this place where she can still be glimpsed a hundred years away.

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