Mr Curtis’ maisonette flat is so high up, on an unadopted dirt road close to the cliff edge, he could rent it out to the coast guard as a lookout. When he tells me he used to be a submariner, it’s hard not to think he had so many years being underwater he wanted to live the rest of his life as high above the surface as he could get.
‘So what did you do on the submarines?’ I ask him, unwrapping the blood pressure cuff with a rasp of velcro.
‘I was a spy,’ he says, rubbing his arm.’
‘A spy? I didn’t know they had spies on submarines.’
I imagine a guy in breathing apparatus, shadowing his goggles as he peers through a porthole.
‘Radio operators, you know. Specialists. We used to sit on the sea bed for weeks on end, monitoring the Russians coming and going. We had to wear slippers and creep about. We had no idea where we were. Could’ve been under the Arctic. Could’ve been the Bahamas. You had to guess by the sailing time and how stiff your socks were.’
‘It was alright. A great gang of fellers.Although I was taller than the others so my feet stuck out the cot.’
He winds his shirt sleeve back down, neatly buttons it at the wrist.
‘You was properly on your own, though,’ he says. ‘Which sounds funny, given how crowded we were. It all took a bit of adjustment.’
‘I’m not sure I’d have lasted.’
‘You got weeded out beforehand. Put through your paces. Although sometimes it got too much and someone flipped. I remember one guy, we had to pull him off the hatch he was swinging off it, shouting and screaming. We had to knock him out with happy pills and drop him off a week later to a passing ship. Never did see him again. No one blamed him. It could get to you, that’s for sure. It weren’t like topside. It weren’t like the skimmers.’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘Well – y’see? – it was all so top secret. They used to adapt the submarine before we went out. In case we got caught. They used to paint out all the numbers, on the tower and whatnot. And they used to take off anything that weren’t strictly necessary, to save weight. They even stripped out the rescue buoys – y’know? – the things you’d launch to mark your position if you got stuck down there. If you did – God help you – no other fucker would. There wouldn’t be anyone launching no rescue missions. That was it. The powers that be would shrug and deny all knowledge. Like it never happened. Like you never existed.’
He stares at me.
‘And now look! I fall over in the bathroom and five minutes later the bloody cavalry are riding through the door.’