An unexpected rush of memories.
When I was six, shivering on the shoreline after picking my way out of the water, I remember my mother threw a towel around me. My body accepted the offering like love. The towel, I remember, was red; a faded red that had been in the family since the sixties. Later, I used it to shield myself from the eyes of other people on the beach in a self-conscious squirm to change my trunks: an activity repeated on the beaches all along the edge of the UK in a modest ritual laughable to foreigners. I can remember my sister appearing haloed by sunshine, and the sound of the sea playing in my ear. Or lying in the sun as a dog panted by and kicked sand into my face. And I remember real sandwiches. Ones with real sand in.
My parents had of a ritual of preparation for a day at the beach. It centred around what seemed, when I was young, an immense Tupperware box – perhaps 2 inches deep and 18 inches long, and 10 inches wide. I recall neat squares of Mother’s Pride – white rounds edged with brown, insanely soft, like thick tissues interspersed with layers of snot. To make the sandwiches my mother would lay in the first buttered round, then the slices of cucumber. Then she would shake salt over each round, and finally lid the sandwiches with another round. The cucumber snuggling between mattresses of bread. When I thought of that box I felt a deep sense of satisfaction at the perfect fit the sandwiches made.
I liked fish paste sandwiches best. The fish paste jars were small and made me somehow think of a hexagon. They bowed out around their waistline, and when the jar was new, the lid popped when the vacuum was broken. Fish paste had to be eaten quickly. It could not be kept. Sometimes there was a soft bone in it. In any case, I really liked it.
I have to congratulate my parents now for their organisation of our trips to the beach. As a military man, Dad knew how to plan. Upon arriving early at the beach and parking at the road side, we unloaded all sorts of things from the back of the car: a sun lounger, folding chairs, towels, flasks, sandwiches, sun cream, trunks, flip-flops. The sun lounger clicked on a ratchet when you opened it, and had springs attaching the cloth to the frame. It was made in flower print: reds and yellows and black outlines and made me think of hippies, even though I didn’t really know what a hippy was. But big sunglasses and big hair – that seemed to go with those bright flowers. Sometimes, if it wasn’t set up right, one of the folding legs collapsed, and it slid and bumped forward. Very undignified. It could also be set up as a chair.
The paraphernalia of the day were carried to the beach by the whole family. I got to carry a bucket and a spade. The spade was a tiny plastic affair, in red, and the bucket was red too.
The great thing about the spade was the way the handle was strengthened with strutwork at the back. There was a matrix of plastic interconnectedness in the handle. Sand could get caught in it, which I liked, and it left patterns if you pushed it into the sand. My dad showed me how, if you filled the bucket, you could make a sandcastle. It required turning the bucket upside down and a truncated cone would come out. Sometimes the towers collapsed. My brother explained that it was all to do with the amount of water in them. I felt excited by this and I can remember giving a little gasp as I felt a quiver in my tummy at the revelation. It was a little bit of power: to build amazing things from nothing.
I got into building things with my brother. True to mediaeval design tradition, the place that was left where we dug out the sand was where we built the moat.
One mythic day at Hayling Island, all of the elements of a perfect summer’s day combined to make the most wonderful day ever. The summer, it seemed, had gone on and on and on, and the grass that had once grown in the neat little verges at the roadside, where people emptied their dogs, had gone from deep green to pale green to yellow – and then to a deeply cracked dust.
The faeces left on the verges had turned white, while others had dried out so quickly that they had become solid, like shrunken lumps of toffee, or leather.
This is how hot it was: a friend of mine, Neil Chapman, could pick these leather lumps up between his thumb and forefinger and sling them high in the air. They were whirling sausages as they sailed in the sky. It was that hot. Even the crap had given up being wet. I marvelled at those sausages, and was disgusted by them all at once, in the way that only a boy can manage.
That summer, somehow it seemed the heat would never stop. Time yawned on from one day to the next, and every day the summer brought more gorgeous heat to luxuriate in. Soon we weren’t allowed to use hose-pipes. Which meant the only place to go to cool down was the sea.
Those days seemed to spin out, a thread of golden yawns weaving themselves into an endless roll of sleepy days and snoozy weeks and soporific months – on and on. On the road where I played as a boy, I was amazed by how long my shadow grew in the halflight of endless summer evenings, and was troubled by the identical movements this flattened giant performed. Identical and yet not quite idenical. My shadow’s movements at times threw out unexpected shapes which I fancied did not quite match my own, frightening me with its mysterious otherness.
That mythic summer’s day by the sea, it seemed to me that the beach was the place where happiness resided. It was late in the summer, and the baking heat had become so inevitable that the novelty of brown skin had worn out. Older children, too, were heading to school. And so the beach was nearly empty.
It was then that I really lost myself in the act of digging channels in the sand. Building a sandcastle – an amazingly complex piece of architecture, surrounded by a hinterland of marvels, adventures and magic, which my child’s mind filled with little characters. I marvelled at the solid thickness of the walls, and watched intently as a turret was undermined by the water I had splashed in the moat. I discovered the solidifying effect of drizzling wet sand over the walls and towers – making the castle feel more solid and look more exotic. Dripped shapes slid down over the walls, making the whole construction look like it had grown there: a castle of coral, reaching upwards to the sky, a mystical organic thing, grasping up, a living building sprung from the breathing planet.
I became more and more involved in my play while the sun continued its steady movement through the sky, writing more of the long, breathless paragraph of the day.
It was a magic time. The happiest configuration of tide, wind and sun.
And the day wore on.
The sun sank through a reddening sky, and I stood, a small sunbrowned savage on the beach, marvelling at its decline – the red circle casting a crimson light over everything, as the tide withdrew down the beach. Little ripples shaped the sand, and the sun cast long shadows from them. It was then that for the first time in my life I had a sense of something deeper than I had ever felt before. Something powerful and profound moving inside my body, as if I sensed a memory of a memory, or as if I had suddenly experienced a moment of truth that spoke to me through eons. Whatever it was, it was something amazing. And I felt wonder move in my body as I looked across the sand, rising up inside of me like electricity, but subtler.
The surface of the water moved on the shallows in ways that my inexperienced eye didn’t understand, casting shadows that tricked my eye. The hot day had heated the sands and the waters laying on them, so that as I stepped in the pools or rolled in them, I felt an amazed sense of warmth, as if the water were actually bathwater. I rolled in it, spinning and splashing in sheer ecstasy. The sands were soft, my castle glowed in the red light, the waters shimmered and moved and ran around me, and for a moment I felt a sensation of completeness, an all-encompassing contentment. I wanted that single moment to stretch on forever. I had no sense of time – as if the universe, the earth, the sun, the moon, the tides could just stop and create an eternity of now. I wanted to bathe forever in that single deep sensation of joy.
There were other components to that moment of happiness. Like that fact that as far as I was concerned, my parents were entirely mine. If my sister had been on the beach earlier, she was not there now – nor was my brother. My parents were here, spreading their infinite love and joy out into the world – and lavishing it on me and me alone. This was joy: a here-and-now that was complete, comfortable, loving and warm.
And then the evening darkened a little more.
My father came to me and spoke. And when he told me that the day was over and we must go home, I was suddenly overcome with a feeling of utter despair. I wept on the beach and I wept on the way home in the car. It seemed to me then that a spell had been broken, a mirror shattered. How could I ever be reunited with this sense of completeness, with being held in the lap of nature? I didn’t know what else to do or be. And so I cried. And so I mourned…
And yet, the truth remains that the golden day is brighter in my memory than the desperate night. The light is bright in my mind, the heat still caresses my skin, and I can still feel my childhood excitement, even now.
It was one of the golden moments of my childhood.
And a lesson, too.