This writing was inspired by the relationship between a landscape and the narratives by which we understand our lives. The photographs came first: family snapshots discovered in dusty cardboard boxes under beds; in heavy brown albums with sticky pages, held in place by fragile, statically charged plastic sheets; in carefully organised and backed-up files; and then hundreds, drifting chronologically through gigabytes of iClouds…
Scanned, assembled in virtual space. Themed, grouped in categories like light and water. Unthemed again. And finally, placed in reverse chronological order, turning back time: back to the beach. And so the photographs have both created and represented the memories that flow into, and through, these words. When I showed my mother the video, we both dried a few tears as we watched hair, faces, and bodies grow lighter as time was peeled back into the rhythms of life-time and beach-time; the cadence of tide, day, season, aeons, as rocks melt into sand.
Back to the beach
A woman is outlined against the skyline, skirts flapping: translucent, of sand and diluted sky, one hand up to shade her eyes from the low sun as she looks out over the water.
The road from the station slopes down to the great expanse of grey sea, the horizon fringed by a shadowy crowd of windmills: stooped, knobbly old men complaining to one another that they’d been forgotten, abandoned to the mustardy mist. Damp sand stretches out to a thin ribbon of rocks and a small white lighthouse. Beyond the strip of Mersey, red and blue cranes perch on the docks.
We came seeking the past. To place our feet in the faint prints that Ethel – my great grandmother and the subject of my current book – had left on this bleak, sweeping seascape in 1911.
As we draw nearer the town the blocky sea wall cuts off, replaced by Victorian ironwork; a council notice slung over the railings warns that going down to the boating lake is forbidden because of anti-social behaviour. On the triangle of smooth sand between the rocky sea defences and the fort, someone has taken a stick and written ‘C.U.N.T’ in large spiky letters.
We round the fort, and the greys and buffs of the beach give way to coppery-bright algae covered rocks. High up on the wall is a turret, made from thick iron, rusted and colonised with algae in an oily rainbow of colours. Dreary from afar, up close it’s beautiful, a hanging garden. As we wander back along the seafront, the sky clears and a ferry glides down the river, moving silkily, all the churning, frothing energy hidden beneath the water. Narratives also do this work, this identity work, of transition, of translation.
A woman, silhouetted against the sea, skirt flapping: solid, of a distant headland, one hand up to shade her eyes from the low sun as she stands in the shallows, the marbled wavelets wetting her toes.
They’re desperate to get down to the beach, not stopping to unpack wetsuits and towels, dashing down in shorts and t-shirts. They venture deeper into the sea: waves foaming around ankles, calves, knees. You’ll be freezing if you get your clothes wet, I call, and I’ve got no way to dry you or warm you up.
But with seagull squeals of laughter they go further, tempting the waves until, caught off balance by a breaker, the girl falls on to hands and knees. She heaves up, hair in ropes, shoulders hunched, sucking her body away from her sopping t-shirt, fingers stretching out like fronds.
Not to be outdone the boy glances back and, with a cheery wave, falls sideways in the next soapy swell. For a while they tumble like otters in the shallows as the light fades around us. When it’s time to walk back they are freezing, and there is no way to dry them or warm them up.
A woman, silhouetted against the evening sky, skirt flapping: dappled, of a parched green drift of beachgrass, one hand up to shield her eyes as she stands ankle deep in soft sand, legs humming from the climb.
Hand in hand, our journey follows a path of melted footprints down a sandscape made of tiny pieces, each step a landslide trickling down. On the beach her path trails all over, hunting down half buried treasure: a coloured flash or sparkling flaw to catch a moment’s fading light. A fold of skirt holds shells and pebbles and half a crab husk, one claw dangling. And I collect and store impressions of that faultless, wandering evening.
The surf crawls in sideways, slowly chewing up our pathway. I point ahead to a rocky bookend stretching out towards the waves; if we walk beyond those rocks, I say, the sea could trap us there, you see? We turn back, and notice far-off creatures in slick dark wetsuits, waiting for the high of riding rollers. She asks me: what if they were swept away, who would rescue them, if there’s no one here but us?
And then our feet make new prints on the sand, toes to heel, heading home. But she dwells on the fate of drowning surfers, and says aloud: I wonder what it’s like to be a fish?
A woman stands out against the pewter sand, coat flapping: ghostly, of recovered driftwood and gathering cloud, one hand up to shield her eyes as she tries to guess if the sky means rain.
Moody skies and waterproofs. The texture of this beach is rugged, the water grey in contrast to the vivid joy shining from their faces as they sense this landscape through their bodies: the splash of freezing water, the smoothness of the pebbles, salty treasures found in pools, strings of slimy seaweed that they try to pop like bubbles.
Footprints shrink, their cheeks grow plumper. My memory becomes less whole, detached from self and landscape; time perceived as slow, and speeding. Those days have different rhythms to them: food and sleep, and play, explore. Follow, distract, remove from danger. React… react… react….
And then there’s one: toes curling into sand like tiny shells, a chubby cherub with rosy cheeks and a mop of silky hair.
And then there are none.
A girl jumps as the wave crashes: fierce, of salty spray and streaming hair, both hands thrown up for balance against the churning power of the water.
One day the sea behaved very oddly: there were no waves at all. It was like a lake, flat and shallow. In that body of water, I crouch my body so that only shoulders, neck, and head are visible. Everyone else stands tall. I used to cover my face when I noticed someone pointing a lens in my direction. I wore baggy clothes, curved in my shoulders and crossed my arms. In groups I stood slightly apart.
But when I thought no one was pointing, looking, when the waves were raging, my self-awareness merged with their swell and peak, body surfing, knowing that surrender at the wrong moment would mean whirling and tumbling, disorienting, ears and nose filled with salt and rushing until the harsh scrape of sand announced that a body had beached.
A girl silhouetted against a low evening sun: windblown, of salt-spiced air; a conqueror gazing out to sea, one hand up to hold her hair back against the breeze.
They’d spent the whole afternoon digging, piling up their defences against the waves creeping in. A boy with black hair and his brother, a little girl with a pageboy fringe, her friend, and a girl, aged about nine or ten, skinny and knobbly with long hair whipped into salty tendrils. There’s a driftwood stick: a flagpole flying a t-shirt flag, whipping in the rising breeze. She had loved the black-haired boy from the moment they’d met, years ago, when he was all spiked up buzz cut, skinny arms hanging out of a singlet, cockney accent and wheezy laugh.
‘That boy, he knows how many beans make five,’ her dad said.
‘I know how many beans make five.’
‘Oh yeah, how many?’
She hesitated for a second. ‘Five.’
Each year her feelings would fade with her golden tan, and then return like a punch in the stomach as soon as she saw him again.
She had loved the black-haired boy even when he developed furious acne and wouldn’t remove his greasy baseball cap because he was trying to grow his hair long and he thought the in-between stage looked stupid. One day, when she was older and more skilled at flirting, she placed her hand on his stomach to compare suntans. She was chamomile tea, the black-haired boy strong coffee with a slug of milk. That year she was made of sky and sunshine: bright blue swimsuit scattered with sunflowers like the Vendée fields, smelling of Timotei Honey shampoo and Ambre Solaire.
A girl stands in the sunshine: shimmering, of spindly pine needles and wide pale skies, one hand up to pull her hat down as she scares herself with thoughts of snakes.
The heat is parching. It fires out of the sun and ricochets off the pale sand, assaulting her from all directions. It thins the air and fizzes on the hair inside her nostrils, already stuffed with sharpness from the resin of the forest.
If she tunes her ears to catch the crickets sawing in the scrubby bushes beside the path, the sound will swarm over everything. Twiddle the knobs again and now the roaring Atlantic drowns out the insects, she can even feel it in her feet, reverberating through the sand.
The path widens, climbs, and steepens until – feeling like she’s crossed the desert – she crests the dune. Joined through time, my heart leaps with recognition, the effort over, hot oppressive stillness beaten back by fresh sea breezes, the rushing sound of each wave distinct now, louder still but with the whole sky to fill, the sound is no longer threatening.
Down she plunges. As the gulf between author and snapshot widens, knowing is more momentary. I close my eyes to draw out sensory memories. To play with time and story, create a self anew within the memory of that landscape.
A girl stands high above the cove: sturdy, of dusty rocks, brown shoes planted among the gorse. Both hands grasp her bear, one for each furry ear. The wind blows in her face, lifting her hair; the sun shines in her eyes.
Hardly any memories.
Who was this girl, with chubby cherub rosy cheeks and a mop of silky hair?
Light plays on water, rippling, plasma in a glass globe.
Stung by a wasp, on the face. Medicine and ice cream.
Lost on the beach. Coloured umbrellas.
Turning upside down, legs kicking.
Strong hands grabbing.
Carried home. Everything looks different from up here.
She is outlined against the skyline: sturdy, of dusty rocks; windblown, of salt-spiced air; fierce, of spray and streaming hair; shimmering, of spindly pine needles and wide pale skies; ghostly, of recovered driftwood and gathering cloud; dappled, of a parched green drift of beachgrass; solid, of a distant headland; translucent, of sand and diluted sky, one hand up to shade her eyes from the diffused light as she watches her husband and child walk down to the water’s edge.
She wonders what connects the rhythms of beach and lifetime; the cadence of tide, day, season, aeons, as rocks melt into sand; echoes of a search for shells, toes curled into sand, holes dug and castles built in the sand and worn away by wind and water. Then hold small hands while toddlers paddle, carry gritty treasures, help them dig and build; and fuss about hats and jumpers and sun block.
And she writes, and wonders: who stands by the water, who smells the wind, the salt and seaweed; whose toes curl into sand, who shades their eyes from the sun; who remembers, who forgets? Who knows, in retrospect, through pictures of this grainy, salty landscape pierced by sharp blades of beachgrass bowing to the wind?
Based on a paper presented at the TORCH Oxford Landscapes and Identities seminar (part of the Environmental Humanities programme) 3 August 2017, Oxford.