There weren’t many on the boat — mostly birders coming over to observe the departures and for sightings of any rare vagrants. I eavesdropped a bit, on deck and in the bar they talked about nothing else. Before we left, one of them got texted that a red-eyed vireo had just been seen on Halangy dump and when he told the others they were taken up in a sort of rapture, big grown men with their beards, bad-weather wear and all the equipment. They made sounds that were scarcely words any more, little shouts and squeals, a hilarity, in the enchantment of their passion. I loitered on the fringes.
After a while, when we were clear of the harbour and coasting quietly along and had passed the first lighthouse, I went downstairs, right down to the lower saloon, below the waterline, and lay on a bunk under a blanket. There was nobody else down there. I felt okay on my own in the big throbbing of the engines, I felt them to be in my chest, like a heart, but I was okay, I kept seeing the faces of the birders when they received the news about the red-eyed vireo, I heard their voices, the transformation wrought in them by their enthusiasm, and it seemed to me that I knew what it was like to be in a company of friends in a common passion that would do no harm. Then I must have slept, but not deeply, near the surface, in the rapids of sleep, not restful, and in the whitewater hurry of the images the clearest, flitting not abiding but as clear as the blade of the moon when it cuts through the clouds, was you. And I believed you wouldn’t mind if I wrote to you now and then. Everyone needs a fellow-mortal to address. You won’t mind?
When I went up on deck the islands were coming into view. I watched them materialize in their own domain of light. It seemed to me a quite peculiar blessing that a place so manifestly different, far away, out on the borders, could be approached by me.
At Halangy I went down the gangway among the birders in single file and soon found the boat to Enys.
So here I am, camped snugly in the angle of two walls for shelter against the expected weather, the site to myself, the season ending and the small birds resting up here in the tamarisk hedges before they launch themselves across the ocean.
Sunday 25 October
The island is barely half a mile wide at its widest. There’s a channel of the sea on the east and open sea on the west and my home (for now) is midway between, just under the winds that mostly come from the west. My first evening there was a pause, a complete silence. My second, and all through the night, the weather came over me like nothing I have ever been out in or lain under before, so thorough in its strength, loud in its howling, the wind, the rain, the waves after hundreds of leagues without impediment making their landfall here. Weather knows itself at last when it finds some terra firma to hit against, and best, most thoroughly, knows itself when there are some habitations too and creatures in them who can feel what it is like. Soon after daybreak the rain ceased and I went out in the wind, crouching and gasping for my own small breath in it. The scraps of abandoned fields were strewn with stones, wreck, seaweed, dead things that had lived in salt water. The waves slid up the sheer face of the northern headland and spilled back milk-white off the crown. Nowhere are we higher than a hundred feet above the sea. I crawled along the chine in a blizzard of spindrift through the tumuli home to this tiny lair with every stitch of dress and pore of exposed flesh sticky and proofed with salt. My little stove was a wonder to me, its hoarse flame, the can of drinkable water, the inhalation of the steam of coffee.
Since then, though the wind has dropped, I can always hear the sea, like a vast engine working just over the hill. It’s as though I’ve been taught something, had my ears and my heart opened to a fact of sound I was ignorant of and now I shall always be able to hear it, even in the city where you live, there on the pavement in the din of traffic if I paused and bowed my head I would hear this sea.
Tomorrow night I’ll be closer still, but more secure. The woman who runs the campsite has offered me accommodation in a shed. I can fit it out as I like, she says, there’s a table and chair and a camp bed in it already and she’ll lend me a bigger stove. In return, I’ll paint the wash house here, do a few repairs, clear up, make myself useful. If she thinks me odd, she didn’t say so. Generally someone blows in, she said, about this time and quite often over the years they’ve been about your age. You’ll pick up more work if you want it, she said. If you’re handy, if you want to stay. And it suddenly seemed to me that I am quite handy, that I do want to stay, that I’ll be glad to be an odd-job man for a while and possess my own soul in patience in a shed within a stone’s throw of the sea.
It’s dark an hour earlier from today. I know you don’t like that day of the year.
If you did want to write, c/o the campsite would find me. In fact, c/o Enys would, enough people have seen me by now on my walks or at the post office.
I went in the church today. It’s down by the quay. Every now and then I remember — I mean, feel again — why I was ever with the monks. Four solid walls containing stillness, the light through the windows. Really it’s only that, the possibility of being quiet and of receiving some illumination. I don’t think that’s too much to ask once in a while. Afterwards I mooched among the graves. There aren’t many different names, half a dozen families seem to own the place. Newcomers get cremated and are remembered on tablets by the gate. The sea is so close, who wouldn’t want to be buried or at least remembered here?
I like my shed. It smells of the sea. It’s roomier than I expected and with electricity too because there’s a workshop on the same plot, not used now but still connected. Mary lent me a heater as well as a stove, I trundled them down in a wheelbarrow with the rest of my gear and now I’m nicely at home. I cleaned the place out, mended the roof where the felt had blown off, shaved the window so it closes tight … Things like that. A few other jobs want doing and there are all manner of tools lying idle in the workshop. Help yourself, Mary said. Tomorrow I’ll start on the wash house. That’s the deal.
I’ve put my notebook, my writing paper and my couple of books on planks from the sea laid over two packing cases. That’s what Mary meant by a table. It’s to write on, read at, eat off — under the window that faces out towards the sea. The chair’s a real one, decently made. It came in off a wreck many years ago. The bed I shall call a truckle bed because I like that word. I took your photo out and did think of standing it on the planks to glance at while I write to you — but I shan’t. I keep my eyes on the page, the nib, the black ink, the making of the letters and the words. If I stare out of the window towards the dune that hides the sea, if I let the vagueness come over, if I don’t keep my eyes by force on the here and now, I see you at once, it’s my gift and my affliction.
The last boat of the season arrives and leaves today. That’s not as final as it sounds, there’s a helicopter from Halangy once a week and I daresay I could scrape together enough for the fare if I panicked and had to get out. But the way things are now I don’t think I shall panic. I’m as well off here as anywhere. Wherever I was, there’d still be the want of you.
Yesterday, if you’d been watching, I think you would have laughed out loud. (Your laughter is like nobody else’s, it always made me feel there were deeper, freer, more abundant sources of mirth than I would ever have access to.) The birders arrived. I looked up from writing and there they were, about thirty of them, all men, in army camouflage, with their heavy tripods, cameras and telescopes, they must have come over the hill to this west side and they lined up barely twenty yards away, with their backs to me, in silence, in the mild early-morning light. After a while I went out and stood behind them. None paid me any attention. And when I asked I got two words in reply: rosy starling. I could see where they were looking — through the opening of the hedges, slantwise about three hundred yards down the length of the dune — but I couldn’t see any bird. Then they all gasped and made the sounds of communal glee I had heard on the boat, then a great shout and they gathered up their equipment and began to run heavily away. The one I was standing next to, a fat man even more laden than his comrades, set off last. The others were almost out of sight and hadn’t waited for him and nobody turned round to see was he following or not. His cumbersomeness troubled me for the rest of the day.
Sunday 1 November
I couldn’t sleep for some hours last night. I thought very brokenly of you. Or, to be more exact, very breakingly — you were breaking, or my power to remember or imagine you was impaired, like sight or hearing, and back came the worry that everything I ever held true will crumble, perish and turn to dust from within, from within me, the power to uphold any faith and hope and love will erode, perhaps very quickly the way a cliff might collapse that was riddled through and through and nobody had known. I got up, to be less at the mercy of all this, and went out to the dune, the tide was high, close, but the washing, sliding, unfurling and withdrawal of it was very muted under cloud and in a light fog. That bay is a horseshoe, its headlands and an island behind and some reefs in part barricade it, so that in a storm the ocean breaks through very violently, being fretted, slewed and rifled by these hindrances, but last night it made a lingering and gentle entrance, at leisure, dispensing itself, its immensity, easefully and as though mercifully. Having seen this and after my fashion understood it in a light without moon or stars, a light embodied in drifts of vapour, silvery, I went back into my shed in the embrace of the tamarisks and behind closed eyes I insisted on that gentle incoming and could still hear the sounds of it, the breathing of water over shingle, and this morning I felt something had been added to my stock of resources against disintegration: an ocean entering quietly and giving bearably.
Sunday 8 November
There was a bonfire last night, on the beach that twins with mine, over the hill. They built it well below high water on the fine shingle and the weed. I haven’t stared into the heart of such a fire for years. It was mostly old pallets and wood-wormed timbers, but loppings from the pittosporum hedges too and their leaves flared and vanished with an almost liquid sizzle. I noticed that flames can live for a second or two quite detached from the substance they were burning — in the air, just above, they dance and vanish. There was hardly any wind so that the fire extending in sparks reached very high.
I met a few people. Several came up and said hello and I got a couple of offers of labour, cash-in-hand, which I need since what I do on the campsite I’m paid for with my shed. The hotel manager offered me some painting and decorating. He has closed for the winter. He kept open last year but this year trade is worse. Amiable chap, a bit nervous. Then a young man who farms at the south end asked had I ever cut hedges and I said yes, I had, years ago. He said there’d be plenty to do for him, if I liked. When I was with the monks I simplified the whole business into the two words: work and pray. The work was all with my hands, and by prayer I meant concentrating on whatever good I could imagine or remember, so as not to go to bits.
The women had made soup and hot dogs and there was a trestle table with beer and wine on and things for the kids. You helped yourself. I put my last ten-pound note in the kitty. I felt very blithe. And when after that I got my offers of work I wondered at my ever losing faith.
Much later, I came back. I wanted to watch the sea overwhelm the fire, and I did so, very closely. The hissing and the conversion of flame to steam were remarkable but best I liked the ability of fire to survive quite a while on blackened beams that floated. The sea swamped the ground of the fire but strewed its upper elements for a briefly continuing life on the surface left and right. True, the waves were soft. Breakers would finish it quickly.
The island is used to people passing through — or people trying to settle and failing. There are the few families who rule the graveyard, that stock won’t leave and it will be many years before they die out or get diluted and lose their identity among the incomers who take root. A family from Wolverhampton, another from Bristol, another from Halifax are powerful and one of them may dominate in the end. But if they want to be buried they’ll have to go elsewhere, here they’ll have to make do with a tablet on the wall by the way in. So some do settle, they blow in and root tenaciously. But the chief impression you get is of instability. Whether it’s sex or panic, I can’t tell, but every year there’s some breakup, rearrangement and departure.
I think they quite like the people who are passing through. The island economy, such as it is, depends on them. Of course, they’re a risk as well, any one of them might become the solvent of a marriage and perhaps of a small business too. There was a baker here till a few years ago, then a girl came to help in the café and he left with her for London when the season ended. I guess some wives and husbands watch very anxiously who will land when the season starts again; others will watch hopefully. And it is certain that several in houses on their own have watched year after year, have gone down to the quay when the launch came in and have idled there and were never looked at by a stranger who might have stayed. They watch long after the likely time has passed. One such, a very lonely man, against all the odds and beyond all rational hope was chosen, as you might say, by a visitor not half his age. She stayed three years, then left him and the islands without warning.
I’ve got more than enough work now. In fact the manager offered me a room in the hotel but I like my shed too much. I’d pay Mary some rent but she won’t have it, so I’ve begun tidying her workshop. Well, more than tidying it. I’ll clear all the junk out, repair outside and in, see to the tools. She says that’s a job long wanted doing and who would do it but somebody blown in? She’s a Jackson, one of the old families, widowed, her two sons fish for crabs and lobsters, she has a couple of holiday-lets. The workshop was her father’s, that’s his boat there in the nettles. He was in his workshop or out in his boat most of the time. There was something wrong when he came back from the war. He more or less gave up talking, she said.
The hotel manager, Brian, is on his own. His wife left him at the start of the summer holidays, went to the mainland. It’s not even that she fell in love. Suddenly she’d just had enough and she left him, taking the children. He dresses well and is altogether particular about his appearance and his environment. He’s a rather fussy employer, which I don’t mind. I see through his eyes, at heart he is terrified. He talks a lot to me and I don’t mind that either. I guess he’s ten years my junior. This is the first year he’s had to close and it worries him. Not that he owns the place. A very rich man does. You don’t have to stay here, I tell him. If it fails. No, of course not, he says. With my qualifications I can go where I like.
He’s taken three other people on, all young. A boy from Melbourne on his way round the world, called Chris. A girl from Manchester, Elaine, who used to come here as a child and should be at university but couldn’t face it and is having another year off. And Sarah, from Nottingham, who has finished university and is wondering what to do. I could have had a warm room on a back corridor with this attractive trio. I don’t think they would have objected to me.
The hotel is shut till the end of March but Brian opens the bar a couple of nights a week and the regulars arrive. I make an appearance when I feel up to it. If asked, I tell the makings of a tale about myself. Nobody probes. Either it’s tact or they’re not very curious. My kind come and go, every year there’s at least one of us. Mostly they talk and I listen. I’m a good listener. From the hotel back to my shed is no great distance. I go past the Pool, quite an extent of water with only a bar of sand between it and the sea. The Pool is very softly spoken, even when there’s a wind, at most you hear a steady lapping. The sea on my left, unless it’s very low tide, makes an insistent noise. At high tide walking between the two waters it feels peculiar being a drylander who needs air to breathe. Some nights the dark is intense, the pale sand, the pale dead grass and rushes either side, are all the light there is. There’s a lighthouse far out to the southwest, the wink of its beam comes round, and another, closer, to the north, but all you’ll see of that one is the ghost of the passage of light on the underside of the cloud. I use my torch as little as possible. I like to feel my way, in at the opening of the tamarisks to my wooden home.
The work in the hotel is easy enough. We paint and decorate and we clear things out. Some days I drive the quad and trailer and take old fridges and televisions to the tip. Yesterday I fed fifteen hundred of last year’s brochures into the incinerator, a rusty iron contraption with a tall chimney, we call it Puffing Billy. Children are mesmerized by it, Brian says.
Brian misses his family. They are living in the house they kept in Guildford just in case the venture here failed, which it has. He is not from Guildford nor is his wife. They moved there from the north, following the opportunities of his work. Brian detests Guildford and so does his wife. It distresses him that she would rather be there than here. And that she has nobody else, that she didn’t fall in love and move to a new place with a new man so as to start again, that also distresses him. He has not even lost out to somebody more desirable. It is simply that she doesn’t want to be with him. So she leaves, and takes her children with her, as of right. He hasn’t the heart to contest it. Really, he agrees with her. In this beautiful place, a paradise some would say, she can’t be happy with him, she can’t even make do with him. Instead she takes herself and the children off to a place she detests, just so as not to be with him, and in his heart of hearts he can’t blame her. It is not even passionate, she does not passionately hate him, wish to kill him, avenge herself on him for her wasted years. She just wants to be away from him. He tells me this in the bar when everyone else has gone. But he is quite sober, he is not a drunkard, nor is he a gambler, nor in a million years would he raise his hand against her, he scarcely ever raises his voice, he has never hit the children nor even frightened them by throwing things and swearing. It is not rational that she should leave him. It is not in her material interest. Still, she has. He hopes at least the children will come and visit him next Easter when the season has begun again and there are boat trips to the other islands. He will take a day off and perhaps they would like to go fishing. He tells me all this in the empty bar, quite late, still cleanly dressed in his suit and tie, and his watery eyes over his trim moustache appeal to me not for pity but for an explanation. And yet he knows it needs no explanation. I am in my work clothes, which are not much different from any other clothes I’ve got, my nails are broken and there’s paint on my fingers. I know that he confides in me because he assumes I am passing through. Also that I leave his warm hotel and go back in the dark to a place of my own barely half a mile away but out on the rim, as far as he is concerned, eccentric, and when he looks me in the eyes and shakes me by the hand next morning, altogether affable, he knows or thinks he knows that he has nothing to fear from me. I think he assumes I am at least as unhappy as he is. And he is certain that before very long I will go away and he will never see me again.
Does Brian interest you? I am trying to interest you in him.
I learned this from a lone birder, itself a rare creature, who wandered, fully accoutred, into my precinct early yesterday: that in the winter, and especially about now, first thing they do on their computers every morning is check out the weather over the western Atlantic. They pray for winds, colossal storm winds, blowing our way, because on winds like that the nearctic vagrants get blown in. The worse the storms, the longer-lasting, the better for us, he said. Birds making laborious headway from, it might be, Alaska to, say, Nicaragua, for all their struggling get blown off course — three thousand miles off course — and land up here. Mostly singletons, my birder said, rare things, first-time sightings, and mostly, so far as anyone can tell, they don’t, except in a thousand photographs, survive. The star last year was a great blue heron, a juvenile. The winds blew steadily for a week or more and the birders waited — not for a great blue heron in particular: a varied thrush or a laughing gull or a Wilson’s snipe would have made them happy enough. The GBH, as he kept calling it, was beyond their wildest dreams. The creature landed exhausted on Halangy, in the reeds of Lower Moors, around midday on 7 December and was observed and photographed by scores of enthusiasts, summoned from here, there and everywhere, all afternoon, feeding, until the weather worsened, torrential rain came horizontally in, the light declined and the juvenile vanished, ‘never to be seen again.’ My birder liked that phrase and repeated it, in tones of wonderment: ‘never to be seen again.’
You mustn’t think I live too monkishly. I’m never very cold and I eat pretty well. I found an old army greatcoat in the workshop and I put that round my shoulders when I sit and read or write. I can get most things it occurs to me to want at the post office near the quay and, besides, there’s a shopping boat to Halangy once a week, though if the weather’s very rough the supply ship from the mainland can’t sail. I went to Halangy last week and spent a good bit on books. The one bookseller is giving up and he wanted rid of his stock. I bought a couple of things I know you’d like and now they and the rest sit on a shelf I made of a plank of driftwood.
Altogether my shed is quite well appointed. When I take junk from the hotel or from Mary’s workshop to the tip I always look through what other people have thrown out. I got the brackets for my shelf from there, and an Italian coffee maker, a Bialetti, one like yours, that works okay, and two nice cups. Two wine glasses and a beer mug also. There was a mirror I might have had but I didn’t want it in the shed. I’ve the wash house to myself just up the hill. Mary gave me a dinner plate. I’m okay. I don’t think you would like the long hours of darkness but I don’t mind so much. There’s work in the evenings at the hotel if I want, and there’s the bar some nights. But often I prefer it here. I do a bit more at the workshop. It’s coming on nicely. And Mary gave me a little radio so I lie on my truckle bed and listen to that sometimes. You might think the news would be easier to bear being so remote but in fact it’s worse. I suppose I’m not distracted. The little box in the dark is very close, the voices say the bad things direct into your ear. When I’ve had enough or if I don’t feel up to listening to the radio I lie there and listen to the sea instead. And I think — though it’s not exactly thinking, more like being a shade already in the underworld among the whispering of other shades in chance encounters out of time. You are among them some nights, though always as a visitor, you always make it clear you don’t belong there. I’ve wondered lately when it was I stopped expecting or even hoping to be happy. I push the date back further and further, into my youth, into my childhood, vengefully, as though to wipe out my life, I cast my shadow back, longer and longer, to chill all the life I ever had in darkness though I know it is a terrible untruth I am perpetrating.
Here’s okay. I do like the people and they interest me. And I like the work, especially in the fields southward. I cut the hedges. Nathan has given me a field to start with that hasn’t been cut since he took over, the tops have shot up six or eight feet higher than they should be. He said the trimmer, fixed on the tractor, would hardly work and could I manage with loppers, a bowsaw and the ladder? It would be slow work, he knew. I answered that suited me perfectly. I’ll tash it with the pitchfork and come round after with a buckrake on the tractor. Fine, he said. So when the weather’s kind I skip the painting and decorating and cut fence all day, on my own, content. I find the old slant cuts from years ago, where the height should be, and work along level with them. It’s mostly pittosporum, a silver grey, they remind me of the olive branches, perhaps it was on Ithaca. They make a whoosh when they fall over my shoulder through the air. You cut an opening in no time and there’s the sea, running some mornings a hard blue, then suddenly black, jade green, turquoise and you see stilts of sun far out probing over pools of light, and shafts of rainbow almost perpendicular, just beginning their curve, then they break off. If I stay I’ll have cut the hedges of all of Nathan’s fields. That will be something done. And why shouldn’t I stay?
Nathan and his wife are making a go of it. She’s local, he arrived. There’s no future in bulbs and flowers any more so they’re growing potatoes, broccoli, carrots, spinach, stawberries, all manner of things in abundance. The hotel buys from them and so do the self-catering visitors. His wife works as hard as he does. They’ll make out all right, you can see it in their faces, the way they look at you, candid and appraising. They’re settled, they’ll make their way, their children will grow up here and have a good inheritance.
I had a shock this morning. I was at my table writing, concentrating hard, trying to be exact, vaguely conscious of the daylight strengthening, the sparrows and starlings in the hedges, the sea risen up under the dune, and I raised my eyes, for the right word, to get nearer the truth, and saw through the glass a face so close I had for an instant, long enough for a lifetime, the conviction that I looked into a mirror and the face I saw was mine: a big lopsided grinning face, baldheaded but for some white remnants, the eyebrows albino-pale, the teeth all angles, the blurting tongue very red, the eyes of a blue so weak it looked dissolved almost to nothing in an overwhelming blankness… Twelve hours later, writing this letter — I call it a letter — to you, I don’t conjure up the face by force of memory to let you see it too, I can see it on the window pane, this side not outside, on the black glass which when there is no light in the tamarisk grove does indeed more or less distinctly reflect my own. The worst is its mix of senility and childishness — that raised the hairs on my neck, not for nearly a year have I felt such convincing proof that the heart of life is horror. He raised a hand and tapped on the window, his big head wobbled and wagged from side to side, then his hand went to his mouth, to cover his chortling, as though he remembered it is rude to laugh however ridiculous the stranger you are looking at may be. When he did that — made the gesture of consideration for my feelings — I knew there was no harm in him and tears came to my eyes, my face was wet with tears, I wiped them away, I smeared the salt of them across my lips, and seeing this he uncovered his mouth, showed me the palms of both his empty hands, made little grunts and mutters of pity for me, his features worked, sorrow possessed them, and I stood up, opened the door, to welcome him in. That was too much, too suddenly, he backed away, but as though he didn’t wish to, as though he’d stay if he could be sure there was no harm in me. I put out my hand, as you might to a bird or an animal that — you supposed — had come to your door because it needed food or care, and he paused at that, near the useless boat, about fifteen yards between us. Then he shook his head, as though tired of it, as though dispirited, as though not wanting my company after all, and slouched away, out at the horseshoe opening towards the dune and the sea.
A minute later, while I still stood there in my borrowed army greatcoat, I heard a woman’s voice calling from behind my shed, from in among the old bulb fields, calling his name, Eddie! Eddie! in a tone which sounded familiar with the tribulation but still not able to bear it. I turned, she appeared, she was bare-headed, wearing a big coat, which she huddled around her unbuttoned, over a long floral dress, and her feet in wellington boots. Her hair was as white as the sea when it slides back off the headland down the sheer cliff into the making of the next assault. Everything in the child-man who had lumbered off towards the shore was written in the lines and in the aura, in the whole spirit and bearing of her face. My son, she said. He’s gone towards the shore, I said. She made a little cry, called out again, Eddie! Oh Eddie, don’t go hurting yourself! and hurried away. I followed and saw her find him, scold him, wrap him in her arms, lead him by the hand down the sand path between the Pool and the sea.
I witnessed a thing last week you might have liked. There’s a spit of pebbles at the south end covered at high water but running out to a lichened castle of rocks that stinks of birds, grows a rank verdure and is never covered. I came over the hill, one of the pocked-and-blistered-with-burials small hills, and saw a man out there on that low-water rope of stone and he was busy building. I got off the skyline quick, to watch. I was in the dead bracken, blotted out of view, like a hunter, watching him. About midway, where it would be covered a fathom deep, he was building an arch. I watched two hours, wrapped in Mary’s father’s army greatcoat, while the man exposed and utterly intent worked at his arch. I saw that to get the thing to stand he must build inside it also as it grew, supporting it all the way and especially, of course, where the curves, the desire of either side to meet in a keystone on thin air, began. He, by his cleverness, aided those pillars in their wish to curve, become the makings of an arch and meet. How he worked! — with tact, with care, with nous and cognizance of what any stone of a certain size and weight and shape could do and couldn’t do. And when it was made and the arch was fitted around and relying on the merely serving wall of stones, I prayed a prayer such as I hardly ever prayed in all my time with the monks, that his keystone would hold and the two half-arches, so needing one another, so incapable of any life without, would by their meeting and their obedience to gravity (their suicidal wish to fall) over the void would hold when one by one he took his servant necessary stones away. It held: stone rainbow on its own two heavy feet, because the halves of its bodily curve had met and all desire to fall became the will to last miraculously forever. The man, the builder-man, stood back and contemplated it and nodded. Walked all round it, pausing, viewing it from every angle, nodded again, glanced at his watch (acknowledging he would die) then set off fast from the spit of pebbles to the path, I suppose to catch a boat. And I crept down from hiding to have a close look at his work.
The tide, far out, had turned. I came back later and watched by starlight till the waves, washing in from either side, had entered under the arch and it stood in them. Any big sea would have toppled it but that was a quiet night, the ripples worked as the man had, little by little, very gradually and as it were considerately turning air to water. I watched his work disappear. Back in my bed I thought of the two curves meeting, the keystone weighing them secure, the water flowing and swirling through and over and all around. And I got up early, before it was light, and found my way down there again, past the Pool with its lapping and its queer aquatic voices, past the hotel with its anxious manager, to see the stranger’s arch, whether it still stood. And it did! It had withstood the reflux and stood there draggled with green weed under the flickering beginnings of an almost lightless day.
The arch survived two more tides, then the sea got rough and when I went next there was a heap of stones and only its maker or a witness of its making would believe that such a thing had ever been.
Sunday 20 December
Some foul weather, I’ve been confined, for work, in the hotel. Chris is trying to persuade Elaine not to bother with university — waste of time — but to continue round the world with him. At the end of March he will resume his plane ticket. He thinks he will skip the rest of Europe and head straight for Goa. She should come with him, he says. Elaine isn’t sure. She might stay on here, she says, if Brian offered her work for the season or if there was anything going in the café or at the post office. Chris says she should think bigger than that. Europe’s finished, he says. She should come along with him, he’ll show her a different life. Sarah is furious with Chris. She has short black hair, very bright eyes. He tells me she’s probably a lesbian. She tells me she knows for certain he’s made the same offer — what exactly is he offering? — to a Polish girl who works in a bar on Halangy, a Lithuanian girl helping at the school on St. Nicholas, and doubtless a few more. She tells Elaine she should go to university, get a degree, and consider his ‘offer’ after that, if she must. Elaine points out that Sarah, with her degree, is painting the hotel kitchen, same as her. That’s for now, says Sarah. I’ve got better ideas than trailing round the world after a beach-bum. Chris denies he’s a beach-bum. He’s got a diploma in hotel management. Any woman coming along with him might do very well for herself, in Australia.
They have these discussions while we work or around the table at coffee time. I like all three of them. Sarah is very forthright, Chris is a bit afraid of her. He must be ten years older than Elaine but when Sarah is speaking neither he nor Elaine looks very self-confident. Chris tells me his mother came from Essex — Chelmsford, he thinks. She was in a home with her little brother and the home sent her, without her brother, to Australia, to another home, somewhere in the outback. She had a bad time, Chris says. She died when he was ten. He doesn’t know who his father is. The Christian Brothers looked after him. He says in his opinion he did pretty well to survive all that and get to college and come out with a diploma in hotel management. I agree. All I say is Elaine needs some qualifications too, for her self-defence. Really I meant self-realization but I couldn’t think how to put it. Anyway, self-defence isn’t far wrong. Chris shrugs. Elaine tells me the holidays she had on Enys were the best times of her life. The family was happy then and she values the holidays even more now that it isn’t. When she has an afternoon off she visits the old places again. They stayed in a house by the beach where the bonfire was. I asked her did she remember Eddie at all. Yes, she said, poor Eddie and his poor mother. The first time she saw him she screamed and ran away but after a while she got used to him. He was only a child, she said, although a grown man. Once he gave her a wedding-cake shell, the way a little boy might. I’ve still got it, she said.
Brian’s passion is family history. One good thing about being closed, he says, is it gives him time to work at that. He spends hours online. Even when he opens the bar for an evening he’ll go to his room after they’ve all gone home, switch on, and at once he’s back in 1911 or 1901. Those censuses, he says, are a lifeline to him. He shakes his head over the superabundance they open up. Last a lifetime, he says. He is very anxious to get things right, but, of course, having worked at it for some years now, in fact since the children were born, he’s well aware that absolute certainty is impossible. Before the censuses and all the other resources came online, when he and his wife were still living in Guildford, he’d go down to the National Archive and root around for hours, whenever he could. And he wrote to surviving relatives in Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA, to get their stories. He has an impressive collection, still being added to, of wills, deeds, private correspondence and certificates of births, marriages and deaths. Mostly he researches his wife’s side of the family, it is more interesting than his, he has got much further back on her side than on his own, to 1685, to be exact, and he expects in the end he’ll be able to prove they came over with the Conquest. Herself, she wasn’t a bit interested in her family’s history and whenever he told her something he’d found that he found very interesting — for example, that her maternal great-grandfather, a carter in Lower Broughton, was illegitimate and very likely the son of a priest — she looked at him in a way he remembers vividly now she has gone. Still he carries on with her side of the family more than with his, he still wants to know where she came from, so to speak. Of course, when the censuses were put online and you could spend all the time you liked in your own bedroom studying them, you pretty soon had to face the fact that an awful lot of things just didn’t tally. Family stories handed down as gospel were quite often flatly contradicted by those lists of people resident or visiting at a certain address on 31 March 1901 or 2 April 1911. A Thomas Huntley, for example, dealer in calico, on Brian’s side, always said to have abandoned his wife, a Gracey, daughter of a clerk in a tram company, and to have fled to Ireland on the day of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, is recorded in 1901 at 14 Goole Road, Tadcaster as head of the household with his wife and four children, among them Brian’s great-grandmother through whom, presumably, the story that he was the black sheep had come down. On the other hand, you couldn’t always assume the official record was right and the family story wrong. Surely not everyone told the truth on census day (many told nothing at all) and as a hotel manager Brian knew perfectly well that what people said about themselves wasn’t always the truth. It only started to look like the truth if you wrote it down. And of course, if it ever got on to an official record card or on to a police computer then it looked very true indeed, until somebody proved it false.
Now Brian thinks I’m interested in family history, and perhaps I am. He thinks I’m as interested in his family history and his wife’s as he is himself. So he might say, for example, without any preliminary, By the way, their first house wasn’t where I thought it was — 11 Littleton Road, near the river, in that very insalubrious area — it was 311, one of the newest, out near the racecourse, almost in open country, so they must have been better off than I’ve been supposing — they being his wife’s great-grandparents.
He is trying to forget it’s Christmas. Well, that’s not true. He’s going to open the bar tomorrow and give everyone a drink and a mince pie who cares to come. That’s typical of him, he does what he thinks he ought to. But for himself he’s trying to forget it’s Christmas.
I’ve been wondering would I have been quite useless as a father.
I counted thirteen swans on the Pool today. The water was very turbid, the wind blowing strongly. I saw them through the hotel window, I was painting the frames inside. It moved me to tears, how white they were on the turbid water and how they held steady against the wind, or tacked and steered into it, or let it drift them when they chose.
Elaine tells me that Sarah isn’t in the least a lesbian, not that it would matter if she were. Men, especially men like Chris, always call women lesbians if they answer back. Sarah’s degree is in marine biology. If she stayed, Elaine says, it would be to do some good.
A hedge of pittosporum when you’ve trimmed not just the tops but also the face of it there in a bright sun if the wind comes across, it shivers as though the shorn condition were hard to bear.
I’ve noticed that for some days after rough weather the sea may continue to be very troubled. The wind has lessened almost to nothing, but great rollers ride in from somewhere far far out. There might be no wind at all but a sea arrives that looks worked up by a tempest. I had taken to calling it the phenomenon of insufficient cause but that’s not quite accurate. It’s more a want of explanation. Such a sea and not a breath of wind. No apparent reason. That’s closer. Of course there’s an explanation, but far out, far deeper out, beyond my wits and senses.
Some nights you are as clear as the brightest and most definite among the many constellations. Other nights you look threadbare, the winds of space blow through you, your shape is still just about discernible but only by me and only because, even breaking up, it reminds me of something.
Mary tells me that before the war her father made the children’s toys. She told me this when I told her I’d found an old treadle fretsaw and thought I could get it working again. He made a big dolls’ house for the first two girls, all just right, very exact, with the proper furniture in every room, everything neatly and brightly painted. He made a monkey dangling on a wire between scissor sticks and when you pressed the bottom ends together the wire tightened and the monkey did acrobatics. And he made a yacht for the first boy, Joseph, with all the rigging perfect. He called her Star of the Sea. Mary remembers a day when Joseph — he’s dead now — sailed that yacht on the Pool and the wind blew her right out among the swans and how upset Joseph was to see her out there in the middle among those big creatures. And Father said not to worry, and fetched the little punt up from the beach and launched it on the shallow Pool. That was the first time he gave Joseph an oar and said they should row back from the middle together, once they’d rescued the yacht. At first they went round and round like a leaf, not advancing at all, but then Joseph got the hang of it and they came in and was Joseph proud of himself! I said there were a couple of hulls I’d found in the workshop and also some rigging but that had perished. Mary said, You’ll find all sorts in there. I found his marquetry knives, I said, and two or three packs of the veneers you need for marquetry. He made my mother some beautiful things, Mary said. One was his own boat heading out down the channel at dawn for the pots out near the lighthouse. We’ve still got that one. What became of the others I don’t know. I don’t suppose many do marquetry nowadays. He was often down here in his shed after the war, but he didn’t make much, less and less in fact. Or he would go out in his boat but not really for the fishing.
I feel on edge, the least thing would do it. But also I feel something you’d hardly credit in me, an insouciance. Really I don’t much care what happens next.
Quite a few came to Brian’s Christmas party, thirty I should say. The men put on suits and ties and since I’d only ever seen them in work clothes before, they were very strange to me. I don’t mean they looked in the least ridiculous or uncomfortable. On the contrary, it felt like manners: this is an occasion, this is how you look. But their hands and faces, especially the boatmen’s, bare in their Sunday best, it brought the outdoors, the weather, the sea into the room, which Brian had gone to the trouble of decorating. The women had dressed up even more. They wore a good deal of makeup and jewellery. And the children, especially the girls, more children than I knew existed, they were also dressed for the occasion. I had no decent clothes to change into.
The first glass and the mince pies were on the house. Then Brian went behind the bar and Chris joined him.
I had a conversation with one of the boatmen — Matthew, I think his name was, he has a ginger beard — about the way things drift. I told him I’d found bits of charred wood here on the west side, bits of blue pallet, that I was pretty sure had come from the bonfire on the east side. He shrugged and said quite likely but I shouldn’t make a rule of it, you never could tell. Tide, current, wind, you never know. People go in the water here and are never seen again. Perhaps they land up somewhere, perhaps they don’t. Take Alf Lewis last summer, he went in the channel, drunk, so you can understand him drowning, but he’s never come up again so far as anyone knows. I don’t know about Alf Lewis, I said. Matthew shrugged. He blew in. Now he’s gone. Good riddance, some say. I waited but he wouldn’t say more. So instead I nodded towards the bar and said it was nice of Brian to give everyone a drink and a mince pie. Matthew nodded, but as though he’d have disagreed if I’d been somebody worth disagreeing with. Then I made a mistake. I asked did Lucy ever come to things like this. Matthew looked me in the eyes and slowly shook his head, which I took to mean, It’s none of your business, and not, No, Lucy never comes to things like this. He’s a big man, a big beard, with very small eyes. I asked would he like another drink. He said, No thanks, so I left him and went to the bar myself.
Later — I was already thinking of making my surreptitious exit — Sarah and Elaine came over to me in the window. I had noticed their transformation, among the other women, but close up it shocked me, they seemed sent in their beauty and gaiety to remind me of what I had never striven hard enough to possess and now never would and did not deserve. Their arms were bare, Elaine wore a necklace of pale jade, Sarah a bracelet of lapis lazuli, her dress was a dark blue and that colour and the colour of Elaine’s dress, a blue-green, I had often watched travelling over the sea from the top of my ladder in Nathan’s fields in the wind and the swishing to earth of the olive-grey loppings of pittosporum. They were tipsy and full of mirth, knowing their own attractiveness, knowing how their dresses and the occasion, the decorations, the light of the sky and the sea through the window, the wine, how it all worked to increase their youthfulness and beauty, the life in them, beyond what I could bear to contemplate. They were close together, I think of them now as having each an arm around the other’s waist, and a glass in the outer hand, and like that they came up close and kissed me, one on each cheek, so that I was for a moment fully in their aura, the scent in their hair, the wine on their breath, all the gaiety. Then they stood back, close together, childish. Elaine said, We came to say Happy Christmas, and nudged Sarah with her shoulder. Sarah said, We don’t know anything about you. You’re our workmate and we don’t know anything about you. We know everything about Chris and quite a bit about Brian, and Elaine and I are best mates but we don’t know a thing about you. Is it true you were a monk? Chris says he’s sure you were a monk. He says he can always tell a monk, because of his early life.
Eyes and smiles, dresses and stones of the sea, they were cajoling me and I felt what it would be like (would have been like) to be a person with companions, alive in an easy exchange with a dear friend or two, and if I’d been able to speak I should have tried to say so, perhaps as a preamble, on the threshold of candour: that their youth and gaiety and delight in themselves had opened me, a little at least, so that for a moment, for the duration of their waiting to hear what I might answer, I saw into a world so spacious and cheerful my own felt like the cramped cast-off shell some naked crab had squatted in and years later still peered out of and dared not leave. I was, I said. Chris is right. But it was years ago, I was his age — younger even — I was about your age. They didn’t want to be serious. Had there been the least music they would have danced. They didn’t want to be polite, considerate, sympathetic. They wanted everything to be funny for an hour or so. And in their careless good nature they wanted me to be like that too. I should have taken each by the hand, there and then, and summoned up a syrtaki from Ithaca or Samothrace and danced the lumbering graceless dance of my leaden soul, right there among the dressed-up islanders, between two girls, danced, and they would have hearkened either side of me and heard the tune in my head and taken it up, lifted and lightened it, and led me and I’d have followed, dancing, dancing, ugly bear of a soul, dancing, until I was changed. Were you chaste? Sarah asked. Was it hard, our age, being chaste? Were you obedient? Did you do as you were told? Will you obey Elaine and me if we ask you to do a thing? I can see you wouldn’t mind being poor, I agree it is disgusting to be rich. But was it not hard, our age, being chaste? They wanted me to increase the laughter in them, they gave me the chance, but I could feel the shadow of me, of my seriousness, the stain, the leaden atmosphere of me, beginning to creep over them, like bad afterthoughts, like regret, like the sad obligation to apologize, and I knew I would defeat them and the whole occasion, the light dancing at the window, the sparkle and the fumes of wine, the will to gaiety, I would defeat it in them, so I said what I always say, Forgive me, and left.
I tell you this so that you will know, again, that you were right.
Leaving the hotel, I went to the church. There was a service Christmas Eve and another Christmas Morning. I didn’t attend either. The first was the children’s nativity play which they’d been rehearsing for weeks. The props — a crib in a stable made of blue pallets, the doll, the toy animals — were still there and the costumes (those of the Kings so scarlet, black, silver, gold and sparkling) were folded and laid to one side. All the church was decorated with greenery and the earliest narcissi and butcher’s broom for holly. Six oil lamps hang from the ceiling on long chains, six beautiful brass bowls and the glass funnels of flame. Six windows: the two north illustrate the verses concerning the lily of the fields; the two east are without script or image, only light; the two south read, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life. And they show that life. The lights and colours of all six windows put me in mind of the dresses, the necklace and the bracelet of Sarah and Elaine.
Being with the monks soon killed even my desire to believe in God. But I love such houses as this one on Enys, so well built, so close to the quay where every day there is a busyness of boats and goods and people and the sea embraces equally the living worshippers and the dead. And the beautiful work in the house, the fitness of it, and the flowers and greenery of the island for decoration, the singing, the children’s yearly acting out the old story, the light and the silence when everyone has left, how I love all that.
It was too early to go back to my shed. My nervousness and sadness were acute and I didn’t think I’d be able to combat them well enough by any reading or by cleaning and sharpening the tools in Mary’s workshop. Most days towards dusk it is like that. How will I secure the oblivion of sleep? I’ve often thought no sane and happy person could bear my life for even an hour if suddenly translated into it. Only because my life has grown to be like this, because it has habituated me to it, is it bearable. If it is bearable.
I climbed the hill that forms the southern headland of my little bay. All the six hills have their tumuli but here, nearest my shed, the remains are especially apparent. Many events of late have assumed a peculiar definiteness, like finality. They present themselves to me as though prepared — as though they are ready and they lie in wait. So on this hill I found that the best preserved of the tombs, which I last visited a couple of weeks ago, has been, so to speak, further clarified, made more compelling, by somebody outlining the shape of it with large clean ovoid pebbles through the gorse and heather. I supposed at once that the builder of the arch had returned and done this too. First because it was a labour. I counted two hundred and seven pebbles and they must have been carried, and surely not more than three or four at a time, up from the one beach under the headland where in all sizes the pebbles are smooth and egg-shaped. At his way into the zone of the tumulus he had placed two larger stones, each as much as you could carry from sea level. And the kist, where the corpse had huddled up small and which I had always seen empty, he had floored quite deeply with clean limpet shells. The pebbles lay around the sinuous circumference the way you might lay out a necklace on a surface, to see what shapes it was capable of when not determined by a woman’s neck and throat. The pebbles are smoothed more or less finely according to the coarseness of the granite’s crystals — which decide the colours also, the shades of grey, white, pink, almost black, to which, as he strung his chosen stones to enclose the grave, he had paid close attention. The kist at the heart, floored with limpet cones, was bone-white and bone-yellow.
I stood there until the sky became as bleached as bone and the light far out as sheer and pitiless and uninhabitable as a work of gold, silver and steel. I let myself get cold. I was thinking of the builder’s exertions, how he must have sweated, the faster beating of his heart as he climbed with the weight of stones, how warm his hands were, handling them, the brief lingering of his warmth on their egg-shaped surfaces, their resumption of their natural cold. And remembering how he had appraised his arch that he intended to go underwater, how he had nodded in approval and farewell, I felt sure he had done the same when he had made apparent the skeletal shape of the tomb on the windy hill and tipped a dry libation of limpet shells into the small space where the human had gone into the earth.
I think these letters may still be a sort of courtship. Not pleading that you will love me, only hoping you will remember me. And then I think even that is asking too much.
Sunday 3 January
I was on Flagstaff Hill when the year turned. Halangy had fireworks. From my distance the rockets did not seem to reach very high. Orion, on the other hand, seemed to walk quite low. The moon was lessening. Mostly what you are aware of is the water, the large lagoon of it, the ocean all around, in varying degrees of restlessness but always everywhere restless. Lights on the water, the four or five boats, the beacons winking where there are rocks and shallows. Odd lights of a habitation, near and far. Very faint haze of the mainland. The red lights of the wireless mast on Halangy, so many conversations pass through there. The blue-green watery earth spinning and circling till it stops. Lights, the man-made, amount to nothing, the constellations are shapes only to us and not one moon or star or sun or planet acknowledges the beginning we celebrate with fireworks, song and drink.
This morning I had a visit from Mary. I was in the workshop, the light pouring through, the sea behind the dune sounding very near. I was cleaning and sharpening her father’s chisels. Steel has a smell when you get the rust off it and shape the blade razor-sharp on an oiled whetstone. I touch the edge and sniff it. I’ve made a rack above the workbench and as each chisel is done I slot it where it belongs in the order of diminishing width of blade. I’ve oiled the wooden handles, they have a dull glow now and a good smell. The saws, all of them, all shapes and sizes for various kinds of wood, for logs, planks, plywood, dowling, balsa, also for metal, are restored and they hang in place. Likewise his hammers, planes, pliers, screwdrivers, bradawls… The wood he never used is stacked or laid down so you could easily distinguish the piece you want. In a dozen or more very beautiful old pale green jam jars I’ve sorted nails and screws into various sizes. I’ve rigged up better lighting, planed and proofed the two windows and the door. With the heater from my shed you could work all night in any weather if you wished. Yesterday, still clearing a far corner, I opened a sack and found the mallets, chisels, gouges, knives you need for woodcarving and a thick log of apple wood that he had begun to shape into a woman’s head and shoulders, the rough tress of her hair coming over on the left side. Mary was surprised by that and surveying the whole place and how far I’d got with it, she said, in a tone I felt to be benevolent, You look set to carry on where he left off. I shrugged and asked her about Alf Lewis.
He came from the mainland, as they mostly do, and beached his leaky boat in Merrick Bay. It was late October. People said he was lucky he hadn’t sunk. At the post office he bought a bottle of brandy and a frozen chicken. He asked might there be any work over the winter but nobody much liked the look of him and they were noncommittal. For a week he lived on his boat and waded ashore at low water for provisions and to ask again was there any work. Then came a gale and a high tide, he smashed up under the tamarisks, on the rocks, and that was the end of his boat. But a woman looking after her grandchildren, Betty Daniel, who lived down there took pity on him and said he could live in her boathouse and do odd jobs for rent. And that was more or less the way of it, for fifteen years. He never did many jobs but Mrs. Daniel never seemed to mind. The grandchildren loved him. He got down on his hands and knees and one rode on his back while the other led him by a rope around his neck. They called him Horsey, never anything else, even when they were too big to ride on him. He lived off social security and Mrs. Daniel’s charity. She lent him an old punt and he rowed across the channel, bought a Racing Post, sat in the Dorrien Arms and bet more than he could afford on the horses. When the tides were big he liked to walk across at low water. He’d time it so he’d get there only paddling and after a few pints he’d wade back, holding his paper and any other bits of shopping above his head. He did that, summer and winter, for fifteen years. Then last August when he stood up to leave the pub a fog had come in, thick as a bag, everybody said, and they said he should wait a couple of hours, there was a boat going back, he could take the boat for once. But he wouldn’t be told, he left the pub and vanished. Nobody missed him for a day or two, then the bookmaker phoned Mrs. Daniel and said to tell Alf his horse had won at 10 to 1 and was he coming over to collect his winnings. Afterwards that made people laugh, since he was never lucky with his bets. Mrs. Daniel and the grown-up grandchildren were very upset but nobody else was. Still, said Mary, it gave her a chill around the heart to think of anyone vanishing in the sea like that, in a fog.
An orange wellington boot (the right foot), cuttlefish, a double sachet of emergency fresh water made by a firm in Bergen, a net tangled with its rope and plastic floats, a doll’s head, the plastic handle of a knife, a packet of rusks from Belgium, an orange starfish (dead and stiff), ribs and vertebrae of, I think, a dolphin, plastic bottles (milk, bleach, shampoo, antifreeze, marmite), one trainer (left foot), one green rubber glove (left), cotton buds, a gin bottle, a very soft grapefruit, chunk of polystyrene, bamboo pole, twelve-foot length of four-by-four, dogfish egg, cube of wood off a pallet, plastic fish-crate from Coruna and another (a yard away) from Goedereede, plastic clasp for a downspout, biro, oiled-up guillemot, plastic tulip, lid off a funerary urn, a cork, a condom, three cartidges, a black plastic bag, claws.
I had another visit from Eddie, earlier than last time, I was at my table, breathing in the steam of my coffee, watching the light becoming strong enough for a winter’s day, and suddenly there was his face again, in the glass, as though mirrored, and again it shocked me to the heart and in a bad state some moments passed until I understood that what he wanted was my friendship. He tapped at the window, pointed to his face, then at me, smiled — the smile of a clown — showed me his palms, nodded his head, pressed his right hand on his heart, again with the pointing finger indicated me, and raised all the features of his face in a question. I let him in, and between glee at that and wonder at the place he had been let into, he got into a sort of ecstasy beyond the power of his hands and face to express. I sat him down on my chair, gave him coffee in my other cup, and cut him a slice of the cake that Mary had given me the day before. He can’t really speak. At least, he can’t make recognizable words. Instead he makes a great variety of sounds such as infants do when they are used to the babble of adult language all around them but can’t or don’t wish to imitate it yet — gurglings, pipings, chuckles, little runs of chirrups, squeals and cries, all in the timbre of a grown man’s voice, wonderfully expressive. In a deep sense I at once knew what he meant. I’ve never been in the presence of such good nature and simple happiness before. Nothing in all his noises, gestures, bearing qualified in the least his joy and his goodwill. For that time he was absolutely good and joyful, unconditionally, without any safeguard, wholly open and delivered up in it. Everything about my shed delighted him. He gripped and stroked the plain chair, knelt at the bed (where I was sitting) and laid his hands flat on the rough blanket and on the cold white sheet folded back in a band across it. Fleetingly he laid his cheek on the pillow. Then he resumed his seat, crammed the cake into his mouth and gulped the coffee. His very pale eyes have the sags of idiocy under them, he drools, his hands are big, a stray white tress of hair falls over his eyes and he wipes it away. After a while he became quiet and fell to studying the objects in the room with a grave seriousness. My finds along the one shelf, arranged in a line next to the few books, attracted him, he rose, lifted up each in turn with extraordinary care, examined each, looked from it to me and back again to it, as though to understand the connection. So I watched myself being appraised in my finding, taking up, bringing home, setting down to live with: the long delicate skull of a gannet, the skull of a seal, three of its vertebrae, the severed and entirely desiccated wing of a tern, a fragment of wood honeycombed by shipworm… I could hear the wrens, the sparrows, the thrushes, the starlings, the blackbirds that with their various noises begin my every day. And the breeze in the tamarisks and the surf up under the dune. The light became strong and bright. Eddie stood at the shelf, his big hands were so considerate they could have cradled the skeleton of a shrew, and he looked at me and at the object in question and made the noises of his wondering and pondering.
He was there an hour, then Lucy came, anxious as ever, found him, scolded him and said she was sorry I had been intruded upon. I said he should visit whenever he liked, I’d be glad of his company and if he didn’t find me in he should make himself at home and stay as long as he wished. And you’ll know where to look for him, I said to her.
New moon. Brian has gone to the mainland to see his wife and children. He made an appointment. He is staying in a B&B just around the corner from the family home, though his wife said there was no need to go to such lengths, he could have slept in the spare bedroom. He says she wasn’t unfriendly when he spoke to her, but quite definite that she doesn’t want to live with him, not here, not over there, not anywhere. But she agrees it is only fair he should see the children now and then. She has emailed him some recent photographs of them (not of her) and promises to do that at regular intervals.
It is not just because he misses her and Amy and Zoë that he has arranged this interview (as he calls it). He also wants to ask her some questions for his family history, about her childhood in a village on the Lancashire coast. He spent his own childhood scarcely ten miles away, but inland, in a small town, and of course their experiences were very different. He admits her origins and her local habitation always did have, in his eyes, a romance quite lacking in his. The coast there is very flat. It is a queer zone of brackish water, salt grass, little channels, thousands of peewits, and the sheep graze, as it seems, far out on a terrain that belongs by rights to the Irish Sea. He and his wife went back there sometimes when they were courting and it has haunted him ever since. So now he has drawn up a list of questions — seventeen in all — which he hopes she will answer for him, before it is too late. He showed me the list. Among his questions are: What was her mother’s Co-op number? What was the name of her Gran’s farm where she used to look for eggs and where the pig burst out of its sty and scared her half to death? Which uncle was it who got stranded in his car — a Ford Popular? — on the dyke road during the 1953 flood? Were the toilets in her primary school outside in the yard? What was the name of the woman who walked seven miles to the nearest railway station and took the train to her mother’s each time — nine times in all — she felt her baby was about to come?
I could remember the rest of Brian’s questions if I lay on the bed under my army coat and thought. And not seventeen but seven times seventeen are the questions I could think of to put to you.
The tides are big. Brian left early, while there was still water for the launch, and we, his workforce, took the day off. Chris sat down at the office computer to plan the next few months of his life. He still tries for Elaine, but rather half-heartedly. Not that he’s doing any better with anyone else. Sarah, Elaine and I went out on the Merrick Bay flats.
The islands make a broken rim around a sunken plain which floods on the incoming tide and empties on the ebb. At low water the walls of the lost fields continue downwards and out of sight under the sand. The maps still show the vanished causeways. There are obliterated hearths and wells. The tombs are on the surviving hills. And rammed up into the roots of the tamarisks, quite close to the boathouse that was his home for fifteen years, are the few remaining bits of Alf’s boat, held down by the stones that smashed it.
Going out on the flats is like trespassing. You know you mustn’t be found there when the owner returns. I’ve been out on my own, at Merrick Bay and elsewhere, several times, and always with that feeling of brief licence. In the two young women it excited a hilarity rather as the wine and the dressing up had done at Brian’s party on Christmas Day. Poor Brian was away, they had the day off, they were pleased with themselves, they said I shouldn’t go working in the fields for Nathan but should come out with them, on the flats. The day was cold and very bright with a breeze that gave the look of hurry to the ebbing water and an edge to their elation. In fact I had already decided I wouldn’t work for Nathan. I was intending to go out, but alone, to get some idea of where Alf had vanished, and I kept to that purpose, but kept it to myself, and in a way I should perhaps be ashamed of I cherished it all the more in the company of Sarah and Elaine.
Sarah, at least to begin with, had her own serious purpose for which she carried a chart, a notebook, an indelible pen, a dozen small plastic jars, a lens and a sharp knife in a hard leather satchel slung across her shoulder so that it rested on her hip. Her idea was to collect some specimen periwinkles, of the four species, from different tide zones, and also fronds of serrated wrack to study what grew on them. Elaine helped her for a while. The tide was still falling. I watched the birds — two spoonbills, a rare arrival; the more and more common egrets; the local heron and swans; the countless waders I don’t have the knowledge to distinguish; all in their characteristic fashions going about the endless business of probing, uncovering, stabbing, scooping, an intense almost leisurely concentration on getting enough to eat, the sea having withdrawn its protection from millions of edible fellow-creatures. Such grace and menace. The birds moved away from us only as far as they judged necessary. They kept to their purpose, warily.
I watched, walked on, halted, watched. But really I was drifting towards the diminishing channel that still made two islands of Enys and St. Nicholas, I felt pulled as the waters were, so easy has it become to lapse out of human company. Then the girls called out, not my name, just a crying, not gull or tern or curlew or oystercatcher, but of that order of cry, not-human, fit for the bubbling and coursing of salt water and the stink of weed. I waited, they came over. Like me, they were barefoot, their boots on the laces around their necks, trousers rolled up. Sarah said, We’ve done enough work. Elaine said, We’ve had an idea. Her tone was like Sarah’s when at the party she asked was I obedient, would I do what they asked, was I chaste? I nodded. Yes, a drink. There’s time if we’re quick.
The channel was a wide river, shallow and flowing fast. Odd, an ocean quaffing a lagoon. The girls let go of me — they had me by either arm — and paddled through at once, wetted no higher than the knees. From the other side they called across. But for an interlude I was going into myself, into the room in my imagination where Alf stumbled, went under, surfaced, struggled and the cold tide like a shark took hold of him and dragged him off, never to be seen again. The girls hallooed, they were as strange to me as selkies. I splashed through and gathered them against me. I was high on the thought of Alf as he began his afterlife. Drinks, I said. We’ve got an hour.
The Dorrien Arms is no distance. We went there barefoot with our boots around our necks. A brandy each, quickly. Then wine, with bread and smoked mackerel. Monk, said Sarah, we like you when you get us tipsy. Their faces burned, from the flats. I never knew such proximity of life. The two young women, they might decide anything for the good of their lives, they might turn their gaze in a sweet and predatory way on anything, and take it. And there I sat, close and opposite, in pure admiration. You and you, I said. I drink to you. And Alf, already dead, turned in the current and set with it out towards nowhere, towards never being apparent to anyone ever again, he turned with the acquiescence of the dead and headed away and in the solemnity of our bread and fish and wine I took their hands, felt their warmth, kissed their fingers, relinquished them. Monk, said Elaine, you’re nice when you’ve had a drink or two. The hour passed. There was no fog but it was winter and the afternoon did not have long to live. Another half hour. Come on, I said. Drink up. Your mothers would not forgive me.
And so we left, barefoot, the light of outdoors, brilliant, chased with breeze, leapt at everything, jaunty and careless, and all the phenomena were flung into keen appearance and the light that did it to them shouted triumphantly. And we walked out through the coils and spurtings of lives that live under the sand, over popping wrack and the harsh debris of shells to the channel we had to wade. The tamarisks of Merrick Bay were clearly visible but at a distance that looked too great ever to traverse. The tide had turned, the current had reversed, but if you slipped it would not deposit you safe on an islet within the inhabited ring. The ring is broken, the gaps are large and many, the suction of deep water will take you out. I thought we were not where we had crossed. Almost certainly we were not at the shallowest fording place. Wait, I said. But the girls stepped in and went knee-deep at once. Sarah took off her satchel, held it high and proceeded, Elaine following. The water split in a briefly cresting wave around each in turn, rose to their breasts, then lapsed. They stood on the far side shrieking with laughter. I took off my coat, held it in a bundle above my head. I could not have imagined the cold and the force of the water, the two together as one embodiment, and now I can, it went into my stomach, so now I shall remember it and in the imagination feel it again. An army coat, if you let it get sodden through, would take you under at once. I’ve told nobody — till you — anything at all of what I learned.
We hurried. Elaine, who could hardly speak for shivering, said Sarah said I should come back with them and be warmed up. But I parted company when we were near the beach. In my shed among my papers on my table top there was a gift for me: a vase, I guessed from Eddie and from the tip. My coat was dry, I went to bed in it. The vase was more than a bit chipped around the rim, but none the less beautiful — like a gourd in shape, with red poppies on a black glaze. For some time I shook with cold and my mind ran as fast as the water in a delirium. I wanted to hold the vase, have its roundness between my hands, offer its darkness and its poppies to a beloved person. And in my fever of cold that seemed to me an entirely reasonable wish and I felt sure it would be granted. Then I must have slept and when I woke it was dark and I was warm, glad, hungry.
Brian has returned from the mainland disappointed. He did not advance at all in his dealings with his wife. On the contrary, she put him further off. She agrees that Amy and Zoë should visit him at Easter, if they want to, but he will have to fetch them and bring them back. She thinks if she came over herself it would put her in a false position, by which she means she doesn’t want anybody here supposing their marriage might be on the mend. When he got nowhere ‘in that department’ Brian thought he could perhaps approach her through his seventeen questions. But there he was sorely mistaken. She refused point blank to answer a single one of them. And when — very gently, in his opinion — he suggested she owed him that at least, the questions being so important to him, she became quite hostile and told him straight her childhood was none of his business, which he found very hurtful because when they were courting he had believed she shared it with him. In the end she said, You don’t own me, Brian, and after that all he could do was go back to his B&B. The girls were already in bed by then and he didn’t dare call next morning and say goodbye to them as they left for school.
Now Brian hardly knows how he’ll find the courage to start the new season and be cheerful with the guests. At the thought of it he feels very low indeed. He knows the rich man who owns the place will want to see a big improvement on last year, though money for most people, even the kind who stay in his hotel, is still quite tight. Brian panics when he thinks of the effort he will have to make. And he won’t find much recreation in his family history. He feels almost prohibited from doing it by his wife’s hurtful words.
Eddie came again. He brought me a fistful of white narcissi and nodded his heavy head in great delight and satisfaction towards the vase. They scent my room. But the best was that, having presented them to me and when I’d filled the vase with water from my can and set the flowers in and we had both admired them, then he sat down on my bed in complete stillness, all his usual small chunnering noises ceased, he became entirely quiet and calm. So much so that after a while I smiled at him and resumed the writing he had interrupted with his visit. And that is how his mother found us when after an hour or more she came looking for him. We were quiet. Eddie likes coming here, she said. He’ll miss you when you leave.
Nests from last year, or from several years ago, held in the clasp of the new branches that sprout around the place where the tall upright was lopped. Once or twice I’ve found the skeletons of fledglings in them, delicate remains in the well-made and deeply protected home. Brambles that climb from the earth through twenty feet of dense euonymus or pittosporum, wriggling through and finally attaining what they were born always to seek: the light. My silver ladder stands in the grey-green fall of branches, twigs and leaves. The leaves quiver like a haul of fishes dying brightly in the sunlight on the net. And the wind, almost every day the wind, bustling through the unkempt crest that I will lop. I rob the wind of a resistance by which it makes the passage of itself felt.
I set the female bust on the workbench under the lamp and looked at it. A few more hours of work and she would have been there, manifest, come out of the wood, become real out of the idea of her. Even thus far emerged, with her roughed-out face and plait of hair and the swelling that would become her breasts, she has some force. I have sharpened all his cutting and gouging tools and wrapped them in an oily cloth that will keep then ready instantly for use. I sat to one side on a packing case and looked. I examined my hands. Really, I might have some chance of bringing her further out. She would never be wholly there, I don’t have the gift for that. But some way, nonetheless, towards being there. And I’m not forbidden. Mary has said as much. Still I can’t or shan’t.
Most nights I sleep at once, then wake and see that hardly two hours have passed. Waking so soon, the night still to be got through, I fill up with disappointment and anxiety. I’ve slept worse and worse since I went away from you. In the night, lying awake, the night impossibly long, I undo all the good I did or that was done to me during the day. Every elation, I deflate. Every kindness, I convert to dust. Every insight, joy in a thing, hope of more such things, I worry soon to death. Truly, I can summon up a face that smiles at me and in whose eyes I see myself a welcome friend and I can turn that face and smile to deceit and mockery at once. Then I assemble all the arguments against me. I accumulate the proof that I’m not fit to live. Some nights the fear is such it drives me out of bed, out of the little warmth and comfort and homeliness I have assembled around me under a wooden roof and between four wooden walls, and I walk out through the lovely opening of my blessed horseshoe of tamarisks and climb the dune and huddle in a dead man’s army greatcoat and stare at the sea and hearken to its noise. And after some time, under the pulsing stars, the lighthouse winking mechanically every fifteen seconds, it all feels like a foolishness, the despair itself not worth the candle, the thought of killing myself seems laughably self-important, and all I want is my bit of warmth and shelter under the blankets and some sleep.
An enlivening tempest, the winds rode in on the risen backs of the Atlantic and I went out among the tumuli and showed my face and opened my arms to them and tried to breathe their force into my lungs. Just north of here, in a cavernous hole, enough timber has lodged to build a log cabin with and live alone in, in a bee-loud glade. When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut …? When I came home, caked in brine, from discovering that cache and wondering was it worth my while to wait for low water and go and lug it in, there was Eddie with more narcissi in his massive fist and again once they were breathing in his gift, the vase, we sat in silence and quietness, he and I, utterly companionable, I did not turn my back on him and write, but there we sat, listening to the gale, till Lucy came through it looking for him.
Mary looked in at the workshop door. There’s a cake for you on your table, she said. I was standing by the bench, contemplating the unfinished carving. I’ll miss seeing you in Father’s coat, she said. In fact, I’d rather you took it with you when you leave.
I’ll send these last four days together. Even so, they’re hardly worth a stamp.
I’ll leave a note on my table under the black vase asking that this pen, my notebooks, your photograph and a necklace that was my mother’s should be sent to you. And I’ll leave the postage. I’ll take back to the tip the things I took from the tip and the things I got from beachcombing I’ll take back to the beach. Elaine and Sarah can share the books and Lucy should have the vase itself. I’ll add that to my note. And my rags and my camping stuff they can do what they like with. The tip. Mary will collect the things she lent me.
I always wanted to give you the necklace and never quite dared. The beads are of cherry amber. I’ve often imagined how they would look on you.
My notebooks will be worse reading than these letters. At least in the letters I was going out to somebody. If I say these letters are my better self you will realize what a poor thing I have been. And in my notebooks I say so, again and again. I fought against my impoverishment and lost. I had an eye for abundance, I could see it all around me, life for the living, a proper joy, proper sorrows, deeply among other people. I could see it but I couldn’t do it. At least believe me when I say I loved. But I could never have and hold what I loved. Somehow I never had the knack. Or I never had the courage. So I have lived in poverty knowing all the while that life is rich, rich. And I have lived in obedience. I obeyed the orders that would harm me. Early on it was God and the monks and when I was shot of them I devised in myself even crueller, yet more nonsensical and in the end even madder dictators. So I lived in obedience to temptations and commands whose one purpose was to kill the life in me. Now and again I was disobedient, I answered back, I said no, joyously I transgressed. For a while I was a passable imitation of a man claiming his right to live. But I always came to heel in the end, knuckled under, took the punishment for my revolt. In my notebooks I wrote all this — the mechanics of it. I did once think that if I could describe it very precisely I could fight it better. That was a mistake. I never understood why I was like I was, but I did see very clearly how I was, how it worked in me, the mechanism that sided with death against my life. I knew I didn’t understand why but I hoped that if I saw how it worked, I might escape. Must one know why? Should it not be enough to see how? Well, it wasn’t enough. The best I ever got from writing it all down was the bleak satisfaction of making clear sentences. I could analyze and differentiate and split fine hairs and set it all out clearly but it didn’t help. Nothing helped. I saw that I did not have it in me to save myself. I wrote these letters, which have been — grant me that much — more about other people and about the earth’s lovely phenomena than about myself, to keep myself in dealings with somebody else.
Full moon this weekend. The weather is very still. In the abandoned bulb fields the daffodils and the narcissi are in flower. They find their way up into the sunshine through dead bracken, gorse and brambles. In the fields most recently let go they appear in their regimented straight lines, in a continuing discipline though the forces of law and order have departed. But in the oldest ruins the flowers have split and spread and they come up where they like through all the dead stuff gloriously. The tides will be very big again this weekend.
Saturday 30 January
Forgive me, I changed my mind. I’ve thrown my mother’s necklace into the sea and fed my notebooks and your photograph into the hotel’s incinerator that we call Puffing Billy. So nobody from here will post you anything after this. I was ashamed of my notebooks and didn’t want them lodging in your mind. And again I didn’t quite dare give you the necklace of a woman you heard me talk about but never met.
Sometimes I have imagined you burning these letters as they arrive, burning them all unopened and unread. Only very rarely have I had the sudden conviction that you do read them and keep them. Lately I’ve told myself you don’t open them but you lay them down in a safe place in order of arrival so that the last would be first to hand. And now I am hoping that when, after a few weeks, nothing further arrives, you’ll take up this last one first, for an explanation. There is no explanation — but only this request. Please burn the rest unread. They were my effort and it failed. There’s no reason now why you should read them.
When I posted Thursday’s letter Mrs. Goddard said, You keep us in business, Mr. Smith. I don’t know how we’ll manage when you leave. She is very happy these last days because her daughter is coming home from New Zealand with a husband and a baby boy she has never seen. They plan to stay three months and, who knows, they might stay longer.
I’ll take this letter to Mrs. Goddard and she’ll say what she has always said when I’ve posted a letter to you on a Saturday: You know it won’t go out till Monday now? I’ve always liked her for her tact. She has never said, You don’t get answers, do you? I shan’t tell her this letter will be the last.
Mary’s workshop looks all shipshape. I’ll walk through Nathan’s fields. The hedges look very trim. I’ll take my books to the community centre, except one each for Elaine and Sarah which I’ll leave here. The rest, but for the vase which I want Eddie to give to his mother, is for the beach or the tip. I’ll keep this heavy coat on. I’ll keep this pen in its deep inside pocket.