Whiter Shade of Pale

Some summers are golden; they are tanned legs, they are parched yellow grass, they are sunshine dancing a path on the ocean. Other summers are filled with the primary energy of blue and green; they are endless azure skies into which runner beans curl and stretch, they are hedgerows heavy with honeysuckle, they are jewelled rock-pools slick with emerald seaweed.  But this year’s trip home to the north coast of Ireland has been of a different colour. It has been the colour of light filtered through water; this summer has been washed pale. Every day was a different shade of pale, variations on white, a colourless canvas on which to paint. Some days the sea was churned up all white and frothy, a grizzled bread, while above, high wisps of cloud were baby hair, pale as wood ash. For days on end the whole landscape has been bleached by days with thin clouds pasting the sun, a curtain of voile hanging over the distant reclining headland leaving it as sallow and fair, a pale girl resting.

At high tide I took walks and gathered shells that had been washed up on the anaemic beach, all grey and silver, and I was transfixed by the little translucent beads of jellyfish, colourless almost, reflecting the washed-out day around them. But they were not jellyfish, I learned, they were sea gooseberries, blobs the size of my thumbnail, transparent, reflecting the shiny wet sand below, and when I lifted one and placed it on my hand, it became milky white, the cataracts in an old man’s eyes. I didn’t get to try it, but S. says if I had put them in a bucket of water, they’d have become bioluminescent – like fireflies of the ocean. Another time, I must go down to the clean white shore and bring my bucket, roll up my trousers and let my un-sunned feet and ankles sip the foam from the breaking waves and collect these magic capsules of clear iridescence.

They will forever be the symbol of this holiday, these glistening beads washed ashore, torn from the Atlantic for a few days and left to skim the lips of the land, sparkling at passing beachcombers who wonder which of nature’s necklaces has broken and left its beads washed up on the sand. If I were a child, I should wish to collect them, and thread them through with sea lace seaweed in long khaki strands, but that would sully their soft, watery pallor and I want nothing vivid to taint these rinsed days; days that have been purified by rain, when everything is pastel and washed out, not pasty but purified, not insipid but a distilled pureness that comes with being canopied by high clouds that keep and hold, the cupped hands of a wise old man.

This morning grey gusts of wind have flicked the dimmer switch on the light, and I must let the road rise up to meet me and blow me back over the sea.

White in The Moon the Long Road Lies, A. E. Housman

White in the moon the long road lies,

The moon stands blank above;

White in the moon the long road lies

That leads me from my love.


Still hangs the hedge without a gust,

Still, still the shadows stay:

My feet upon the moonlit dust

Pursue the ceaseless way.


The world is round, so travellers tell,

And straight though reach the track,

Trudge on, trudge on, ’twill all be well,

The way will guide one back.


But ere the circle homeward hies

Far, far must it remove:

White in the moon the long road lies

That leads me from my love.

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