Here I am at the seaside, again. Torquay this time. Home to Fawlty Towers, and the inimitable Manuel (Qué?). Maybe we’ve hit on a particularly good weekend but I get the feeling it is often like this in Torquay: hot and sunny with endless blue skies. Eternally tanned pensioners watch knots of youngsters crabbing at the harbour wall. Three wee girls, their blonde hair bleached white over the summer, bait their line with raw bacon. They tentatively lower it into the water, let the line go slack when it hits the bottom, and then they wait. They mess around, chat, lift the crabs they’ve already caught from the bucket with a cautious pride, comparing sizes. Then, back to the task at hand, they pull the line up slowly, net ready to swoop and scoop before the crab detaches from the bacon and drops to freedom. Mesmeric.
I remember looking for crabs in summer when I was small, but we did it differently. We waited for low tide, for the rock pools to be semi-drained, then we would gently dislodge the rocks in one smooth raise, moving quickly to go in for the crab-grab before they burrowed back into the sand. It was all in the hold, getting a thumb and one finger either side of the crab’s shell, just below the base of the pincer legs – ‘under the armpits’ – so as to avoid being pinched.
Then the autumn came, too cold for bare feet in seawater, so instead we walked the beach noticing what the tide had taken from us, searching for what it had carried to us. It was that time of the year when the sea steals the sand; stealthily carrying tonnes of it away to who knows where. All it takes is one day – after a storm, or a spring tide, or a sustained off-shore wind, or maybe that perfect combination of all three – and the sand is gone. I say ‘gone’ in that overly-dramatic, affected way that irks me when others do it, and here I am, falling into the same theatrical trap – for of course there issand left, there is just so much less of it and it leaves the beach a lonely place. Where I lived, the loss of sand made the beach look bigger, the drop from the promenade higher, the sweep to the tideline smoother. And the theft usually left some gifts, some unusual flotsam to pick through. Occasionally – the one I christened ‘the worst gift’ – the present left behind was a gnarled and battered log partially covered in goose barnacles. Eugh!
As a child (and still now), I was drawn to goose barnacles in the same way as we are drawn to the macabre – with a disgusted curiosity. For I know now that’s what the sight awakens in me, yet as strong as the pull of a rip tide, I cannot turn away, something prevents me from walking on by. A mass of shells, cream and speckled black, sit atop pulsating fingers of sea worms that seethe like Medusa’s hair. I shiver, then gag, then find a stick with which to poke them. The shells ripple, like men tipping their hats, their pulpy necks writhing as through in pain – or could it be pleasure? For a second, I glimpse their beauty, see it as sea treasure, then the rolling creatures fall back into stillness and the trick is over, and once more they are a grotesque blight. I always hoped the evening tide would reach the log that night, pull it back into the depths, hide the horror for another year or two. Yet I always came back the next day to check on it.
But I must reel myself back to the present, back to the seafront, to the children, to the crabs, for there is nothing lonely about the sea today.
Sea Fever, by John Masefield
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.