Monday, 28 November 2011

I knew it in my youth but have not known it since

There was a beach. There was always a beach. In Spain, in France. In Anglesey. Even in Northumbria they found one, with a clear view out to Puffin Island. He’d watched the sky for the red/yellow/black beaks of those birds for half an hour before caving to his brother’s suggestion and letting his toes go numb in the sea.

There were no birds to watch for on that beach, though. That one in Devon. It was pebbled, lined all over with wave-polished rocks all grey and dirt and sandstone and prehistoric-clay-red. Scraps of pale sand could be seen, teasing, in occasional gaps. He had crouched close to some of these, stuffed his small hands inside, pushing around and secretly searching for unbroken – though fragile and almost transparent – shells to add to his growing collection. These forays had failed to turn up anything more than salt-crisped husks of seaweed pods and other things that were shell-like but definitely metal and covered in words. Age 9 years and 7 months when he saw his first beer-bottle top. His dad always drank out of glasses or cans.

That glass-holding, can-holding hand had gripped his – his still having grit between the fingers and underneath the ends of the nails – as they walked then for what seemed like a large chunk of the day, right to the other side of this patch of the coast. This strip hemmed in by two giant’s feet masquerading as cliffs. (Clifts, he’d used to call them).

His dad had let go of his hand then, and bent down to lift up a single pebble from the rest. He held it out flat on his palm, like a pearl resting on the bed of an oyster’s tongue, his hand was so pink and so soft. Then he’d thrown it, wild and out onto the ocean. It bounced and then bounced and then bounced again. He had thought then about walking on water, about stories they’d been told in school assemblies, and then shook his head and tried to forget that because school wasn’t anything to do with holidays. He’d still had three and a half weeks before the new term and new year would begin – they hadn’t even gone shopping for uniforms yet.

‘You try it now.’ His dad had said, before helping him pick out a stone. He chose a black one, black with a white streak running through it and grey spots. When he finally moved on from collecting shells to collecting polished, mostly-rare rocks, he would come to know this as snowflake obsidian, but he didn’t know then. All he knew was that it looked good to his eyes and felt pleasingly chilled to the touch and that his dad said it would go far if he threw it the right way.

Before trying, he watched the way the waves entered this part of the bay at a slant. His dad watched him doing this, patient. He thought, after a minute or so’s close study, that he should throw it when the tide was going out, so that he didn’t run the risk of hitting one of the breakers and losing the stone in the spray. He tested his theory, throwing the volcanic glass flake in imitation of the way he’d seen his dad sling his arm round, bending his elbow for speed at the point he let go.

He managed three bounces, and looked up for a smile at his dad’s mouth or his eyes.

They stayed out there all afternoon, making splash after splash, and he took to picking unsuitable rocks every other go, to test himself, but only managed more that one bounce with such a rock twice in that whole few hours. Both times his dad had stood there beside him, rolling his eyes, calling him lucky.

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