Driving along the road in the dark
until the dawn finds me gazing at the sky
watching the last few stars fading out,
loosening the moorings to those memories
that make this country girl part city-kid.
And I’m back amongst the chatter
of the starlings, the empty streets, that smell
I couldn’t place before of diesel mixed with sorrow.
Time dissolves, ebbs in waves, and all I can do
is wait and listen for the shapes to form
of whitewashed walls, hushed voices,
my father shouting from the kitchen window,
these shapes that slowly change and grow anew –
and I’ve come for her,
to write less fear into the girl outside
tracing daises down across her heartline.
I’ve grown up on this ocean, left school
at sixteen to join my father on his fishing boat,
sailing from harbour while night bled away
into the small hours of morning, the sea,
the whole expanse of it stretched out before us,
sleep still in my eyes, in my mind the fractured
remnants of a dream – all winter spent soaked
through, waves sometimes as high as buildings,
attempts at standing upright. You pay the price
with salt ground deep in your bones, seagulls
screaming through your brain. But I would never
change it, not for those days when dolphins
break the surface, or the bobbing heads of seals;
for summers of colour when the coastline
transforms, swimming with sun full on my back.
That’s when I take my youngest son
who at the prow shouts: ‘Daddy, daddy! Water.’
What you’ve heard is true. I was in my garden when I first saw the man, standing right on this very spot. I’m always out here. The sea garden is the only thing that keeps me going now my wife has died. We’d been married thirty-three years before the cancer took her. When I wake up in the mornings, I still feel for her warm form on the other side of the bed. But now there’s just space; an emptiness. After the initial stab of pain, I come out and tend to the plants, filling the borders with the salt-spray roses and Himalayan Blue Poppies she loved. It’s nice when people like you stop to comment as you pass.
So, let me tell you about the man. He was standing up there on the crest of the hill overlooking the harbour. I didn’t make much of it at the time; after all, plenty of people walk that coastal path during the summer. But something about him made me pause and take a longer look. There he was, just a silhouette against the blue sky, looking out over the sea. But it was his hair that caught my eye. You see, it was on fire.
I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. I can only describe what I saw. While I stood there staring, like you are at me right now, he turned away and burst into flames. What’s more, he never made a sound. I told the police what I’d seen when they came to investigate the charred remains. And like you, they were incredulous. But in the end, they had to accept it. No explanation was ever found. It seems the man had simply gone up through the force of his own energy.
The coastal path was closed for a while, and a few days later, the story appeared in the local gazette. Turns out the man had been a poet. A good one too; published and well respected. I bought a book of his poems, and have since concluded that he had no illusions about there being some sort of order in all this chaos, just like my wife didn’t at the end. That’s simply a rationalisation we all cling to. It’s what stops us from falling apart. It’s what stops us from catching fire.
A well of water, a wish thrown in, or several
floating like a feather would. A swan, or something
musical, a warbler singing, or a wren.
The bobbing of a wagtail’s tail, the whip of silver
in the wash, salmon surging upstream, awake
from winter rest; the skim of swallows above the trees
at dusk, a dance of wing and wind; a spider’s web,
that weave of thread, dew drops strung on wire;
a wilderness, the wreck of weather in early spring;
a swarm of wasps, the hazchem symbol
for the picnic place, terrorising summer;
the spinning whirligig of the pond; the weep
of waterweed, or of willow, an avocet heading west.
A sunrise. Wedding bells. The wide sweep of sea.
It’s dark outside when it starts to pour with rain, so I dive into a coffee shop for shelter. It’s warm and cosy inside, with its snug armchairs and delicious aromas. But I find myself confronted by an array of options. Should I have a latte or a cappuccino? A mocha or an americano? I have time to decide. The queue is a long one.
When I turn away from the menu I notice the chap in front of me is reading Shakespeare. He appears deeply absorbed in the play, but the book he’s holding is upside down. I resist the urge to grab it and turn it the right way up. What do I know? Perhaps he’s had an argument with his wife. Or maybe he’s a mathematician or a quantum physicist pondering some deep calculation.
So I wait patiently, idling on these imaginings, watching the steam rise from the coffee maker, the gurgle and hiss dissolving into the general hubbub and chatter of the shop. I feel the blood thrumming in my veins, become conscious of my breathing. And something comes over me then, like time has somehow slowed down or stopped, as though I’m taking a step out of my usual perspective and seeing things from a long way away.
It’s only then I realise that everything is perfect just as it is. That none of the stuff we usually think of as important really matters – not the games we play, not the argument I had this morning with my work colleague, not the weather or this queue. It’s like I’ve gained a new superpower which allows me to see into to the true nature of the universe, and maybe something deeper and more profound is going on behind all of this – I mean, when you think about it, we’re all just wandering about on this blue rock spinning around in space next to a ball of fire. Isn’t that weird enough?
I shake my head, confused by this flash of insight, and with a start find myself at the till with the barista asking for my order. Hastily deciding on a cappuccino, I take it to a corner seat by the window. The moment has passed it seems and I find myself considering all the missed possibilities of a cinnamon swirl. But as I stare out into the dark and rain, a small voice inside says: ‘I’ll be here when you come this way again.’