“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning….”
The historian, Richard Cobb, said that a place can only be truly known if explored on foot, and with that firmly in mind, I am wandering, not entirely without purpose, through the empty, partially lit, secretive streets of a small seaside town, in search of an elusive zinc bar or eponymous four table restaurant.
Everything is closed, and with the possibility of eating, and drinking, dissolving at every turn, I have the not entirely sensible idea of paddling in Homer’s wine dark sea, to stand barefoot and carefree in its shallow waters.
I walk on, to where I instinctively imagine the seashore to be, past small, dark, rudimentary dwellings – clumsily adorned like roughly hewn cuckoo clocks – their woodlandish facades edited by Green Men, hacked from the healing wilderness – remnants of once great forests that lament the passing of the wolf and the bear – an idyll in every dark knot and recess; The Pied Piper, Strewelpeter, Kaspar Hauser, the cannibalistic Baba Yaga and the cadaverous beak of Helpmann’s Childcatcher ……’Lollipops’!
There’s a promenade of sorts, albeit unfinished – culminating in a rough and slightly dangerous arrangement of sticks and stones – and with only the lights of the boats to guide me, I stumble over the greasy- green pebbles toward the death of a good idea.
My destination smells of petroleum and cradles the usual predictable refuse. In the twilight, not yet pierced by the hard light of industry, I lose a shoe in the muddy silt and after standing in the slimy opaque water for what seems like an appropriate time – determined to add a touch of romance to the occasion – I turn disconsolately away from the cranes, rubble, and the smell of oil and tar, to make my way back through the unlit streets, where the shutters remain firmly closed and no friendly innkeeper beckons a one shoed man for a nightcap.
The small cove is deserted – save for a young man closing a beach front bar and putting the sun beds to bed – as eleven middle aged men, in various stages of decrepitude, arrive to replace the glossy, sun bronzed youth of the day. One of their number asks for a photograph, for posterity, as they stand in line and the shorebreak kisses the slab of beer at their feet. Turning away, they silently paddle out into the cold violet evening waters of the bay, settling to form a circle, beyond the swell, catching the beer cans thrown their way. Some words are said, to a friend who no longer hears them, ashes are scattered and gritty hands submitted to the washing of the water. Later that evening the young man encounters the middle aged men, in the street of the one horse town, places his hand on his heart, and says, that what he has witnessed will stay with him forever.
Now his eyes are bright farthings
And he spindles
In seas deeper than death
His lips are no longer wet with wine
But gleam with green salt
And the Gulf Stream is his breath
Now he is fumbled by ancient tides
Among decks flagged with seaweed
But no flag sees he there
His fingers are washed to stone
And to phosphor
And there are starfish in his hair
Behind us lay the hills where I played as a child, among the swine houses, Sweyne’s Houses, The Great Sea Lord, walking on the old English hows. We wait for the ebb tide, near the haunted rectory, gazing westward to the medieval monastic sites of the holms and the lilac blue carpeting of sea lavender, glass wort, yellow flag, bog cotton and brandy bottle.
Donning our wetsuits, a ritual enacted since childhood – both his and mine – the pointing of the foot through the rubber, the pulling of the fabric over each shoulder, the swoosh of the zipper and the familiar nod as we tuck our boards under our arms and make ready to leave the land.
I stand next to him on the cold grey rock, waiting for the swell to fill the pool, content to be in his company, father and son linked by blood and shared history, no blame, no shame, just the us-ness of us.
I sense my hand reaching out, to muss his hair as I did when he was a child, but hesitate, anxious not to break our silent bond
I cast a glance when he is not looking. My eldest, tall, lithe, graceful, but not yet as strong as he should be, silhouetted against the bright, tight drama of the bay. He catches me and smiles, I look shyly down, at the rivulets of sea foam meandering through my ugly disfigured toes, reflecting on his years of illness and endless hospital stays, the toll it has taken on us both and the realisation that whatever one tries to recapture has always already gone.
‘Like to the lark at break of day arising,
from sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
that then I scorn to change my state with kings’.