Authors: Raffaella Barker
For the man I met at the station
All my life I have been running away so that someone will come and find me, and it wasn't until I stopped and turned round that I saw you walking towards me.
Between the black sea breakers, like hurdles on a racetrack, the sections of beach are private spaces. On the cliffs above, a man leans on a higgledy-piggledy run of white railings, a sketch pad balanced on the gloss-coated metal of the top rail, looking first out at the summer sea then down at his drawing. The beach curves into the distance, disappearing into the sea in a haze of spray and sand along to the east. Each of the long rectangular spaces between the groynes is the same at first glance then different, never the same again. In the section directly beneath the drawing man, pebbles are scattered like freckles on the smooth shoulder of sand leading to a shadowy pool like a hollowed collarbone beneath the breathing mouth of the sea.
At the tide line, handfuls of mussels, flung by the waves into the cracks between the high, wet sleeper fences, hang in festoons on ropes of slippery neon-green weed, heavy with the life within each shell, which
is laced shut and sealed tight by clamps of white barnacles across its blue-black surface. A breeze swings a necklace of shellfish and they clatter against the black wood, and shells jut from cracks in the breakers like hungry beaks. The breeze plays on the beach, flipping a wave up to slap the groyne, catching an empty paper bag off the sand to dip it in and out of the meandering tide line. The mood is idle and nonchalant.
Without warning, the breeze changes gear, the wind breathes in then blasts out in a crashing rush of waves. Frilling like torn lace they gain momentum and loom, walls of water pounding, hurling stones up the softly scooped sand, more freckles emerging on the skin of the beach.
Over the breakers in the next compartment of the shore, the wind leaps upon a child digging with her pink spade, bent back, squatting, intent. The little girl sings a nursery rhyme while she pats a heap of sand and turns to the hole she has started. In a rush her hat falls backwards off her head, her curls whip into her eyes and sand stings her bare arms and legs. She straightens up, mouth open, her green swimsuit sharp edged and bright like a new leaf, and scuttles sideways a few steps, seeking safety behind a woman who is bending over a basket pulling out a towel. There is no one else on the whole long shore, just this small group, a woman and her two children, laughing and content in their own world, safe on a beach which at high tide will be consumed by the sea. To the backdrop of the whisper and crash of the sea she hums, and a snatch of her voice flies up and over the cliff. The man smiles; he
recognises the tune well enough to know it is out of key and he finds it delightful that she is oblivious of him and singing really quite loudly and tunelessly.
The wind curls around her and throws her skirt up, showing a flash of black underwear and a slice of stomach, creamy like the new moon. The upsidedown skirt swallows her up to her shoulders; and as she is unaware of being watched, her movements are unhurried. The skirt is still rucked up, and she reaches for the child, arms extending as if from a flower.
âLet's bury someone,' she suggests to the child, and the child proffers a doll.
âHer,' she says firmly.
âOK.' A sudden strafe of wind picks up a yellow beach towel, a stripy doll's chair and a spray of sand and throws them high into the air. An open newspaper bowls towards the woman. She is in the middle of chaos, none of it her own, and for a moment she seems in danger of being engulfed by it. On the cliff the man is watching intently, alert and ready to rush to the rescue, even though it is only paper. It may be foolish, but the impulse is real: she is alone, there is no one to help her, and she looks way too fragile to withstand the mad intensity of the elements. The bundle of newspaper is solid enough to knock her off her feet, as if it is wrapped around a cannon ball. He expects her to turn round, her face white with panic, but she laughs and shrieks in mock alarm and the little girl laughs too and they are turning, dancing on the sand, and the woman tries to untangle her clothes and pull down her skirt again.
âWe almost got bowled over, are you OK, sweetheart?' she asks the child, who nods and begins scampering in and out, zigzagging towards the water, past the baby who sits on the sand and smiles. âWait!' calls the woman, âI'm coming too.' She runs towards the waves, her skirt tucked in somewhere and the tops of her thighs flash pale as she moves.
From the cliffs, the man watches. He is possessed by a sense that this small scene he is witnessing is exactly what is meant to be happening today. None of it was planned by him, nor by the woman on the beach. It is all part of a greater universal order. In other words, they were both meant to be here today. Why? It's a good question. Maybe she has the answer. Is she asking the same question as she stands with the foaming tide around her ankles, playing with the baby? It's impossible to know what she is thinking except that she looks content, not yearning, not tragic, but fragile. Who is she, and how can he know her?
A seagull floats dreamily on an air current. The small girl in the green swimsuit starts to cry, pulling at the newspaper wrapped around her doll's chair. The woman doesn't hear her as the sound floats up the cliffs and away. The baby smiles and pats the sea. She is scooped into the woman's arms, and the woman nuzzles her to make her laugh. The wind has moved on, throwing chaos further down the beach.
A small starfish hand reaches up as the older child looks to the woman for reassurance. With the baby on her other hip the woman stands in the stillness, glancing about as if she is looking for the whirlwind, hoping
to actually see the invisible force at the heart of the erratic movement of all the chairs and clothes and paper on the beach.
The little girl laughs again. Pointing as a ball whips up on a curl of air and bounces to the sea where waves rise and fall, as if the water itself is panting. It is loud now, like a shell pressed to the ear, shingle dragging back the weight of it, pulling it away from the shore, tugged by the moon. Spitting and sighing, the wind mutters off, slapping a knot of netting on to the breakers.
Another gull drifts over, too big, like a cuddly toy on a wire as it floats awkwardly on an air current. It is almost drawn into the spin then swoops out again sounding raucous laughter. Pointing, the baby laughs too, crawling along the beach as the gull soars up over the pitted cliff, where chalk crumbles like cheese and small lumps tumble in the still air.
The man sits down at a table outside the cafÃ© and turns the pages of his notebook. Distracted, he half stands again, looking over to see where the group on the beach are. They are self contained, absorbed, and have no idea he is there; suddenly he wishes they would see him. Sound fills the tranquil space around him now the wind has moved away, and voices carry up from the beach.
âShe's like a crab,' pipes the child. âThey have to go back to the sea or else they might die.'
The woman's answer is slightly breathless, âYes, but at least crabs come from the sea in the first place. She's a human and she will just get capsized.'
âI was a stone before I was born,' says the child.
There is a pause before the woman, her voice buoyant and full of smiles replies, âMaybe you were.'
The words resonate, amplified by the cliff, fluting over a tangle of lobster pots drying at the top. The man writes âI was a stone before I was born' on a blank page, and he shuts his notebook. Across the beach comes the sounds of the family approaching. He looks around, squinting in the fall of sunlight hitting the pavement. There is no one else on the street. No one on the grass between the cliff edge and the cafÃ©. No one trudging up the switchback tarmac path from the beach. No one anywhere in this dozing seaside village. Even the parked cars have settled anthropomorphically into sleeping creatures in the lazy afternoon, mirroring the black-and-white cat coiled on the seat of an old tractor nearby. No one is here save the man and the family on the beach. He lights a cigarette. A peal of laughter and a squeal fly up from below, and it takes just a step and he is by the railings looking down. They are right below the cafÃ© now, and the woman is bent over the child, helping her put her shoes on, while the baby sits solidly beside them on the sand. He gasps on his cigarette then chucks it over the railings. It's a reflex reaction, he recoils, swears under his breath and watches helpless as the salmon-pink head of the lighted cigarette flares, dropping down the cliff like a stealth missile towards the baby.
âOh shit!' The cigarette lands near the three of them but touches none of them. The woman is
kneeling, one child on her lap, her hair falling over her shoulders, the baby clambering on to her too. Three faces lift like flowers to see whose voice they have heard, and the skirt is like petals around them.
Five years earlier
How do I do this? Hurtling from the airport in a cab, adrenaline pounds through me, shaking me up and out of the trance of my flight. Copenhagen. I have never been to this city before, I am not sure where I am going or what will be there when I arrive, but at least the sense of panic is familiar. Jumbling along rather than travelling is what I do. Less glamorous than I would like, but isn't everyone a bit less dazzling than their wildest dreams? I have been to so many cities and arrived like this, alone, disorganised and sometimes with my case tied together with string, which is less a bohemian touch and more of a zip-locking problem. It's always such a rush. Something weird happens to my brain when I am planning a trip and the planning gets suspended until some time after
the last minute. So here I am, zooming along on a familiar rush of anxiety, a bit like, I imagine, the Cresta Run, with a taste in the back of my mouth which reminds me of green wine gums mixed with gin.
It's very unrelaxing, and I try to regain a trance state in the back of the taxi so that I can summon a nice plump guardian angel to coo at me that all will be well. It isn't really happening right now, but usually that is what gets me through. And the best thing is it's true, despite endless squalls of drama; I have never stepped blindly off the edge of what I know and hit the ground, something has always broken my fall.
All this is metaphorical, of course. For in real life, I am clumsy and I bump into bits of furniture all the time and miss my footing on steps. Even just now, on the escalator at the airport, I got a strap from my handbag caught in the moving banister and my bag whooshed away, gliding like an unreachable prize down the escalator next to the hordes of unheeding people who also looked like prizes or trophies waiting to be scooped off rather than human beings making their own way somewhere. I watched in the suspended state that I am so familiar with for a moment, but then action seized me and I ran up the down escalator. A teenage boy, clean, blond and smartly dressed like everyone else I have seen so far in Copenhagen, noticed me dashing in the face of everyone else, and he grabbed the handle of the bag before it was crushed into the floor by the inexorable motion of the escalator. My guardian angel was clearly still on duty then.
Generally, I have a lot to be thankful for, and, as I live near to a gospel church on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, I have every opportunity to remember it and even to sing harmonies about it if I want to. The choir leader is a huge cushion-shaped lady called Jezebel who wears orange wafting dresses and has flowing sensibilities. Maybe she joined the choir to override her scandalous name. I don't know, but I was once there when her husband Ezra arrived to pick her up, and the moment of their meeting was operatic. Jezebel burst into a chirruping riff of song and rushed to hug him, her hugeness engulfing his slight form like a blazing fire as their bodies met and began to sway together. Thinking of them now, dancing in the dusty church room in Manhattan, makes me smile and I feel less nervous with them in my head.