Bottom dwelling, immobile, simple and rudimentarily symmetrical: there’s enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that some of your carbon once contributed to the constitution of a brachiopod. Possibly chitin, although I’d wager pedicle.
But I could be mistaken: that was 570 million years ago.
And they didn’t profile back then.
"Alive, alive, oh-o, alive, alive oh-o
Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh."
When she was nine, Sally Finn’s parents took her to Halkidiki, Greece. Fair-skinned and too-easily burned, she hated the beach and the discomfort it brought. But she loved the sea and more especially the life contained therein. She spent the whole three weeks in long sleeves under a wide-brimmed hat, rock-pooling, collecting buckets full of shells the most precious of which were not fashioned into jewelry and beach decoration as is the normal practice of small children but which were instead returned to England where they were displayed in cabinets with manuscript descriptive cards.
Once upon a time, when heraldry was in vogue, shells were used to collect alms for the poor. As such, the depiction of a shell indicates charity. The Graham Coat of Arms presents three scallop shells representing the pilgrimages of three Graham ancestors to the shrine Santiago de Campostila in the thirteenth century, conveying the message that the Grahams were a charitable bunch.
Sally Finn’s dedication to her mediterranean shells is a window into an exemplary student’s life. Academic A-grades litter her school reports as badges do her lapel. Milk monitor, librarian, class captain, prefect, head-girl - it is a well-worn path for the best and the brightest.
It is 1828 and engineer Samuel Brown has adapted an old Newcomen steam engine to burn gas, which powers his automobile up Shooter's Hill. And while Brown is shuffling inexorably towards human development of the internal combustion engine, other Londoners are fast developing a fad for decorating their homes with imported oriental shells.
In response, another Samuel, antiques and curios dealer Marcus Samuel, is expanding his London business to capitalise on the shell trade. It is a shrewd move. Within one generation, the import/export business now owned and operated by Marcus Samuel’s imaginatively named sons, Marcus and Samuel, is thriving, exporting British machinery, textiles and tools to support the new industrialisation of Japan and the Far East, and bringing back rice, silk, china and copperware to the Middle East and Europe.
Bill Bryson tells us “It isn't easy to become a fossil”. True enough, your doppelganger carbon trace together with practically countless others like it has settled anonymously on the seabed. A half a billion years later, undergrad marine biologists will scoff that despite your nomenclature you left no carbon footprint, just carbon.
Some call it irony. Some think of it as carboniferous. Others know it as the Cambrian.
In Oxford, England, Sally Finn raises a glass of celebration. Barring some irregularity with her accounts at the library or the buttery, she will in very adjacent course be conferred with the title of Doctor, reward for four postgraduate years of finite element analysis in the field of mineral exploration. Dry maybe, but not tonight.
May all her wells be forever wet.
Gondwanaland disintegrates like polar ice in springtime and fledgling continents go their separate ways. 570 million years is an astonishingly long time. It is estimated that human fingernails grow at the same rate that tectonic plates shift: in the order of 0.1 mm per day. Give or take a million years as one is wont to do and your fingernails grow another 36.5 kilometres. That puts the numbers into some sort of perspective. In 570 million years, your fingernails would grow to over 20,000 kilometres long.
Layer upon layer upon layer of organic detritus accumulates on the sea bed. Extraordinary chemistry occurs under these geological conditions, compressing and consolidating like a moussaka. Add a dash of anaerobic bacteria and the organic material cooks itself, slowly converting into crude oil, the energy of tens of millions sunny days held inside the rock as sherry is held in sponge at the bottom of a trifle.
The maiden voyage of the bulk oil tanker, the Murex, through the Suez Canal in 1892 is a revolution in oil transportation, and timely too. Seven years ago in 1885, Carl Benz finally nutted out a kerosene-powered three-wheeler and then two years ago went into production with a four-wheeled model. The internal combustion engine is born and oil is no longer required solely for lighting and lubricants, but is necessary quite literally to fuel a burgeoning motor vehicle industry.
Meanwhile kerosene is being sold as “Graham’s Oil” in India, the profits directed towards investment in the Samuel brothers’ business. It is the Samuel brothers who have commissioned the Murex’s trip and in 1897 they rename their business the Shell Transport and Trading Company. The “Shell” emblem is lifted from the Graham coat of arms, and Graham of Graham’s Oil becomes a director of the new company.
The first oil well in the Persian Gulf was established at Awali, Bahrain in 1932. It was timely from a Bahraini perspective as it coincided with the collapse of the world pearl market, upon which Bahrain had been reliant. Whilst Bahrain has never since been a major oil producer, producing a meagre 35,000 barrels per day, it is refinement of imported Saudi crude that today comprises Bahrain's largest single source of income.
"Golden girls and boys all must, as chimney- sweepers, come to dust."
It was July in Bahrain and the temperature gazelled towards its official ceiling of 45 degrees. Unofficially it could have been even hotter but it was always rumoured that labourers could cease work without penalty if the temperature exceeded 45 degrees.
“Full, full, mumtaz please.”
The hairs on the back of Sally Finn’s neck stood on end as she watched the pump attendant clean her windscreen with meticulous squeegee precision. It always happened, for no reason she could discern, as it did when she watched a chamber maid make a hotel bed or dust the t.v. screen.
She was grateful for the air-conditioning that BMW had seen fit to install in her X5, but was impatient that she had to sit here in the petrol-station with her engine off. Within minutes though she would be gone, with the windows up and the climate control set to 18 degrees. The attendant had a full shift ahead of him.
But she had a reason to be impatient. Her employer, Royal Dutch Shell, needed her to go and inspect the results from a new well in the Az Zallaq field. The well had been recently spudded as the first of a three well program aimed at proving up a certified reserve prior to full field development. Sally’s job was to verify the reserve for an announcement on the stock exchange.
She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel as she trundled in heavy industrial traffic across the ever-congested Sitra causeway. As was inevitable, some bonehead would dash up the inside along the emergency shoulder. This irked Sally, but she had promised the obstetrician at the American Mission Hospital that she wouldn’t get stressed while driving. Nevertheless, the impulse to swerve right and partially block the shoulder was too much. A cacophany of horn blowing and a wordly array of hand gestures was the result. Sally felt the rush of justice-done course through her body. And if she felt good, then so surely did her cargo.
Leaving Sitra, and heading west towards Sakhir, she opened up the X5, feeling it respond to her foot by pushing her in the back. Again, a rush as the vehicle planted itself on the asphalt. She had rarely felt so alive. Sakhir, venue for high adrenalin F1 racing: the association drove Sally just that little bit harder, pushing the beamer to its limit ...
The last thing Sally saw as she approached the bowser pulling out of a side-road was the distinctive red and yellow pecten.
It takes 570 million years to produce a litre of crude oil, and just a few more days to convert that into half a litre of premium grade petrol. Driving a BMW X5 at 100 km/h, a half a litre might take you 5 km, which takes around 3 minutes. Each stroke of the engine is measured in thousandths of a second, which is roughly how long you’d expect to survive if you drove into the side of a 34,000 litre petrol bowser causing it to ignite.
The police dissected the crumpled wreck of the BMW, just as a team of medical professionals dissected the wreck of Sally Finn’s crumpled body. Remarkably, unbelievably, both had performed their functions. Just as Sally, broken and twisted but not dead, had been saved by the metal fuselage, so the unborn infant had survived in her womb.
This is a work of fiction. The Underguide accepts no responsibility for stock recommendations. Readers should contact a licensed financial adviser. The author has no financial interest in Royal Dutch Shell. Or BMW.