He could see the path from the caravan window, where it led up the cliff-head to the edge, like a parting. From up there, on clear days, the sandbank showed like a tiny island - far out, beyond where the village had been. At low tide, the signs were still there, poking through: an outcrop of brick, a line of wall - like the imprint of an ancient settlement, seen from the air over fields. Even now, decades later, he still found remnants on the beach. The white shrimp of a cup handle. Jar shells. A tooth-shard of plate. A teaspoon doubloon, salted to a rind. He collected these treasures in his pocket to put in the display case later, by the path on the head, where the visitors could see them. The story was there for them to see, too – hand-written on index cards, which he inked-in each spring, each letter carefully inscribed as he ran his tongue over the fringe of his moustache in the lamp-light. The tiny drawings, showing the coastline then and now. Where the inn had been, and the church, and the row of bothies – out there now by the sandbank. They could read it, then they could see it for themselves.
They might see the seals, too – the grey humps of them, flopping on the sandbank like bloated cadavers. They’d lie watching him, across the waves, as he combed the beach. Remembering the old myths, he fancied them possessed of the souls of the lost, come back to haunt the place of their taking. Sometimes, their moaning would weave into his dreams at night. The people crying out as the sea swept them off. He’d see their faces. And then he’d wake.
Occasionally, he found a bone. A rib or vertebra, scoured of flesh. Or a tiny joint. He tried to match them up with the diagrams in his books, but could never be certain. Seals? Dolphins? He could tell, though, that they weren’t as old as the village. The sea hadn’t had time to do its work. He kept the bones, but didn’t put them on display.
And then, one day, he found a jawbone – smashed, but still with some teeth in place. After that, he always buried the bones. Away from the beach, too, where the sea had claimed them once already. In a hollow instead, back in the woods. He marked each spot with a tiny cross of split twigs. It seemed like the right thing to do.
In summer, the visitors were mainly tourists, coming more for the view than the history, though they always showed an interest. If he was working outside - hoeing the plot, or tinkering with the Morris - they’d hail him from the path in passing. A raised hand, or a word that the wind would whip away. Sometimes they’d stop for a chat, leaning on their walking poles, their cameras dangling, their back-packs like life-support systems. Couples in shorts and shirts and trainers, their faces red and sheened with sweat. There’d be more seasoned hikers, too – often alone, grown into their clothes, their features weathered by it. The conversations would be similar, though:
‘Beautiful place to live. Harsh in winter, I suppose.’
‘Doesn’t it get lonely up here without neighbours?’
‘I never realised how high that cliff was.’
‘What kind of seals are they?’
‘You’re so lucky. I’d give anything to live like this. All you need, and no one to bother you.’
On the quieter days, if he felt like it, and the people seemed more interested than usual, he’d brew up a mug of tea for them Maybe a glass of something stronger. He’d tell them, then, a little of the story himself - filling in details there wasn’t space for on the cards. The way the sea had shaped the land and taken from it. The wrecks. The storms and landfalls. The village, and his own distant connection with it. The people who’d perished. It always surprised him how few were the ones who knew anything about it. Like it was something that had never happened. Never registered. Like the sea had claimed the entire existence: removed it from history and rendered it to myth. He’d point up along the path, where the display case stood at the head – a big rectangular ‘stop’ sign. Tell them the evidence was there. Then he’d sit on the step and watch them as they headed on up – their backs leaning into it until they got there, where they’d stand like tiny scarecrows against the sky, looking. At the end of each day, when everyone had gone, he’d hike up there himself, to check that everything was alright. Sometimes something had been left. A few coins, or a note in a plastic bag, under a pebble. A thanks, he saw it as. For services rendered. Whisky money.
The hardier folk came after the season. The ones who knew. Who had a connection of their own, perhaps, and came to pay their respects. Or to watch the seals – beached up out there. Or just to feel the rawness of the elements. The wind and ocean and sky. The slate light through the roof of cloud. The occasional regular, who’d sit with him over a mug of soup or a toddy, and light a pipe, and not speak because nothing really needed to be said. It was all understood. It was all remembered.
But then there were the others who came - any time of year, but mostly in autumn. They were unlike everyone else except themselves. Not dressed or equipped for it – but prepared in another way. They didn’t stop or wave. They didn’t say a word as they passed. They were never whistling or singing to themselves. They didn’t seem to want to be seen – but he never missed them. It almost became like a sense to him that they were coming. A chill. Someone stepping on his grave. As they passed, they kept their heads down and their shoulders bowed. Sometimes, they walked with purpose. Other times, they might seem to be dawdling, as if unsure of the path. He always knew them, though. There was never any doubt about why they were there, and what they wanted. Occasionally - just occasionally - there would be no hesitation in the matter. He'd not even have time to put on his shoes and coat to get after them before they were already gone. Then all he could do was report it. Mostly they would be found quite quickly. Sometimes they were never found. Then it would just be the remnants, perhaps. Later.
Usually, though, he had time. There might be a hesitation. A contemplation from the brink. A taking in of the view, perhaps, as if to draw something from it. A reckoning. These were the ones where he had a chance. He could make his way up, keeping his eyes fixed on them the whole time - watching them grow from the size of a thumbnail, to a finger, to a hand - building them up bit by bit until he was almost there, and they could be aware of him without being alarmed. Most of them didn't want witnesses, he'd found. Most of them never expected to see anyone else. And now that someone else was there, it changed things. They wouldn't make eye contact - just continue to look out upon it all, unmoving. That was his way in.
"Fine view, ay?"
No acknowledgment. Just the looking. Maybe a shrug, which might have been the wind.
"I live just down there, so I see it every day."
Casual... just passing the time. Sometimes they'd steal a glance, down along the path, to where he was half-looking himself. The caravan there like a tiny grey toy, a whisker of smoke threading from the chimney, the lamp burning yellow in the window, the Morris parked up by the shed at the back. Inviting. A small re-connection.
"I'm brewing up a cup of tea in a minute. I generally have one about this time."
The thought was in there - he could see it. An angling of the head. Another sideways glance. A shuffle.
"Fancy a cup yourself?"
He could usually leave it at that. He'd set out the ground. They knew where they stood. Sometimes they'd turn to him, look at him directly for the first time. That was more promising. And it was like a switch had been set. At other times, though, a little more was needed. Something else to make the turn.
"You can talk about it, you know. If it helps. I'll listen. A cup of tea and a chat. Then see what you want to do."
And that's how it would turn out, mostly. Following him back down - tentatively, maybe at a distance. The chair by the door, facing into the room. A cup and a chat. Sometimes they didn't want to talk much - and that was alright. They could just sit. It was up to them and how they felt. No pressure at all. And he could just pass the time of day. Tell them some of the stories. The things he told the hikers and tourists. A little about the life there. Keeping it simple and ordinary.
But if they wanted to talk - and most often they did - he'd listen. He'd listen for as long as it took, adding his own thoughts if it seemed appropriate: another way of looking at the same thing. The view from here instead of there. He'd boil up the kettle again, maybe make some toast. Comfort food. And the smell of it, too - the toasting bread, the melting butter. Home-made ginger marmalade. Anything to keep them going. Often, there would be tears as they opened up. A good thing - to draw it all out, like a poultice. He'd listen and talk until it was all done and said. A hand on the arm, maybe. Holding on. And then was the time to ask.
"You're welcome to sleep on the spare bed tonight. Or I could drive you home. The car's out there. It wouldn't be a problem. You just say. I'm going for a drive, anyway."
A few had stayed. But most of them wanted to go home now. In the car, they'd usually sit silently as it rocked and squeaked over the ruts towards the made-up road. Maybe they saw it the same way he did. Symbolic. The rocky path back to the smooth again. Some lived nearby, but others had travelled in from further away. If it was a great distance, he'd drop them at the station and wait with them for the train. A few more words. Then the parting. A hug. A kiss, sometimes. And he might see a smile again. The light going back on. Hope again - for a little while, maybe.
Messages often came afterwards. Notes or cards, which he kept in a box under the sofa. The gratitude. The stories of moving on. Of remembering... of never forgetting. Sometimes a photo, too. All kept under there, like souvenirs. The family album, he thought of it as. His family. The ones he'd brought back into the world. For better or worse, he often thought. But that was the thing, as he would always tell them.
"There's only one sure way of finding out if it can get better. Give it the chance to."
The one's he'd missed were still a part of it, too. The pieces found, in the rock-pools and seaweed. A cigarette lighter. Buttons. Earrings. A glasses frame. An empty foil strip of tablets - the plastic caps caked with sand. They went in the box, too. It seemed right.
One woman once. He'd had his hand there for her, and she'd reached. He saw the ring with the large purple stone, like a milky iris. Just there, within reach. But then she'd pulled it back and turned. Her hat came off as the wind grabbed it. He caught it. Grasped it hard as he looked at the space she'd occupied. No sound. Just the sea out there, the seals on the sandbank, the wind in the grass. So close. Which is how it is, he thought. The gap between here and there. A single step. Less than that.
Those were the nights, when he lost them, that it all crowded in again. The whole lifetime, and then reduced to those few seconds. The distance between finger-tips. The absence of presence. He'd lie awake there, turning it over. How were they missed? Were they missed? Had there been anyone left to miss them? He'd worry at it, hearing the wind whistling past the windows and feeling it in the rock of the caravan. He'd hear the seals then, too - always on those nights. Like they were mourning down there. Crying out for the souls of the lost. And it was then that his fancy told him that that's what they were. The seals. The lost, come back. Revisiting the final place. Never really leaving after all. The life going on, as some people thought of it. Passing into another form. A passing on from a passing on. A new beginning from an end.
That became his reassurance. And the others became his legacy. And he'd think of them all - days on the beach, poking among the rocks and pools. Finding the things. Things for the box. Or the hollow up by the woods.
Or the display case - up there on the cliff, where they still came for whatever their reasons. Where they could stand as he was standing now - looking down over it. The endless sea and the endless sky, and the play of light on the endlessly moving water. At the remnants of the village out there, still poking through. And the seals, laid up on the sandbank, basking there, like the living dead.
At all of it. All of it moving through the rest of the day and into the next, where anything might happen and it all might end in a world that would end one day anyway.
Or it all might start over again.
© Kevin Marman 2012