Land and Water - 2
“We did speak only to break the silence of the sea” – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Everywhere, there are children. In the carpark, in the café, down the steps past the candyfloss shack to the beach. To where the land ends. The sight and sound of every single child taunts me. I want to be a blinkered horse, my ears tied back and stuffed with hay. I do not want to sense or feel.
This is impossible, of course. We are here by the seaside to take the air, to take a moment. We are here to rebuild ourselves.
The day is breathless hot; grey with no respite. We carry our coffees and ice creams to a bench on the seafront. We drape our coats over the back of the bench, covering up the faded dedication to someone whose favourite place it was in another year.
We’ve been together so long, there’s no need to comment on the seagulls stealing chips from old wrappers, or the genuine spookiness of their cries. What would there be to say anyway? “Oh look. Look there. Do you see the seagull?” “Oh yes. It’s eating chips, isn’t it?” A question and answer for the sake of it. Domestic call and response.
It’s a few days past Easter Sunday and the town is filled with Hasidic families. Here for the holiday, the families walk past us - invariably the fathers in front, dressed in black tunics, then the mothers in their long skirts and thick tights, hair covered by dark, curly wigs. The children of all ages straggle behind, giggling and pushing each other when unobserved, becoming more solemn when one of their parents turns round.
Earlier, on the train to the end of the pier, the rumble of the wheels on the tracks mingled with the Yiddish words in the carriage to create a soundscape, both rich and beautiful.
Of course we returned from the pier’s end, because custom dictates you should do. But part of me wanted to stay there, balancing forever on slats of old wood, the horizon seemingly so much closer than when you view it from the shore line. Perhaps it was only glimpses of impatient black sea, restless under the boardwalk, which persuaded me to go back to land at all.
One of the Hasidic men has lagged behind his family, veering off the main walkway, towards the beach. The sea is close in and the waves crash formidably. The man stands at the edge of the water and for a moment, he is a commander of the waves. King Canute in a rekel and crocs.
At the seaside, there should be children. It’s their place – wild, elemental, changeable. Between us on the bench, our little unchild sits. S/he holds our hands, legs swinging in the air above the pavement. S/he whispers to me about a picture she painted at school of fireworks. S/he prattles on about frog-hunting and marble catching. About how every marble is a bright sphere, each one a tiny, glass world. S/he puts a finger to my lips when it looks like I’m going to ask a question.
I can no longer bear to sit here, and so I tell a lie about going to find a toilet. Instead, I walk about fifty metres down the seafront and on to the strip of beach the water hasn’t touched yet. Behind me, our unchild is waving.
And can you grieve what you have never known? I’ve seen what loss looks like in my sister when her son - a boy still - ran to a balcony rail and carried on running. Her grief was bright-eyed and holy. She told me she thought death was a gardener, a beautiful creator growing rare plants in a white room. She told me she thought she was talking bullshit.
At the edge of the sea, a group of the Hasidic women are paddling. Their tights are wrinkled and heavy with water, and you can see the sea salt glistening on the black material of their skirts. Their shoes are lined up neatly, just a little higher on the shore than the sea can get to – an unlikely, delicate barricade.
The women are talking and occasionally shrieking with laughter when a wave takes them by surprise. I notice one of the women is heavily pregnant and my empty belly calls out to the fullness of her.
I think about how the tide’s ebb and flow keeps everything neat in the world. And I think about how you can’t help but leave something of yourself at the seashore for the water to carry away and absorb. This thought makes me both sad and happy.
The pregnant woman has noticed that I’m looking at her and I turn away, ashamed at being caught staring. I risk one last look at her and she meets my gaze confidently. She mouths some words I can’t hear and probably wouldn’t understand even if I could hear, and then she smiles.