A storm blows on Porthmeor Beach. Waves burst behind Man's Head,
sending up shocks of spray. The black rock shows for an instant,
ribbed white by backwash, and then the swash thuds in again and
The north wind thumps. Pancakes of foam fly off the sea and skitter
down the beach. Two children play daredevil on the white sand, high
up, safe from the pouncing waves. The chopped, messy, lumpy water
struggles to make sense of itself. Today, there's no-one in the sea.
There's nearly always someone in the sea. On rainy November evenings,
as the light fades, surfers paddle out one last time. A black figure
shows like an insect, then another and another. November is a good
month. The sea won't reach its coldest until February, and the summer
crowds are gone.
Waves are territory. In winter you define what is your own.
The rain drives harder. Lights come on across the crouching land, but
rows of empty cottages stay dark. There are phone books in plastic
wrappers stuffed in doorways and they'll stay there like that for
months, until the summer people come. The town lives on tourism.
Stories, paintings, photos and the seamed faces of the very old tell
of times when things were different.
But things were always different. The past was always retreating from
the touch of the present. That is where the Alba was wrecked: look,
just there. At low tide the snout of its wreck appears, where the
lifeboat went out and was taken by the same black, roiling sea that
had driven the Alba aground. And then the next year the lifeboat went
out again and capsized at Clodgy. All but one in the boat were
drowned. Seven men gone from the lifeboat crew and five from the Alba
crew, within twelve months. Men who looked into that sea and knew
what it was and what it could do. There were cars lined up on the road
above Porthmeor, the night of the Alba wreck, shining their headlights
out to sea to help the rescue. Beneath the shriek of the wind, the sound
of engines revving in case the batteries ran down.
Anchor chains coil around the gravestones in Barnoon Cemetery.
Mariners, master mariners, men lost at sea. At night the sea pounds
Hellesveor cliff, and the noise is animal, growling.
Flat calm. An August day dissolves into evening, and on Porthmeor the
day-long camps are dissolving too. It's time to go home. Men were
down here before breakfast to make their settlements, hammering
windbreaks into virgin sand. Each day the beach city remakes itself,
and by night every trace is washed clean away. A lifeguard picks up
the bucket where children stung by weever fish soak their feet in
water as hot as they can bear.
Beach buggies scud over the sand as the flags are moved for the last time.
Down by the tideline a figure walks slowly, surely, the entire length
of the beach, as if the whole day has been nothing by waiting for the
leaping, paddling, swimming, bodyboarding figures to be cleared away.
The sea barely breathes. A woman pauses before her ascent of the
steps, and looks back. "At home the sky starts up there," she says,
pointing at eye-level, and then she puts down her two striped
beach-bags and crouches to measure the huge horizon. "But here, the
sky begins down at your feet."
Copyright Helen Dunmore 2008
Disclaimer: the views expressed in the copyrighted poems and essays are the views of the author alone, and are not endorsed or otherwise by the BBC or Arts Council in any way whatsoever.
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