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The Sea Shore
I know nothing of the house I was born in. The look of the town is all I remember. And yet I can hear the sound of the door as we closed it behind us for good. I sat by myself on the train leaving Berwick: six years old in long trousers. Jamie the boy with the watery eyes. That was me. And something of me will be sat there still. My eyes looked into my eyes in the glass. The town of Berwick was out of reach, beyond the window, and quiet at last. Under the mound of the railway station the sea lapped up on the brown sand. Every wave brought forgiveness to the shore. And now I am left with the thought of that day. The English town I left as a boy: the closing door.
The houses looked into the North Sea. They peered at the saline darkness: a world of algae and sea sounds. As a child I wondered where it all went. Miles of sea and miles of dark. They say that nothing goes on for ever. Even the tide goes somewhere in the end.
Mrs Drake lived in the manse at Berwick. She was old in her carpet slippers, pinning her sheets to the line that day, a skirl of winter down among the rocks, and I thought of how pleased my friend had been to teach me good books, a payment in kind, for odd jobs done in silence, with no fuss. I had learned a bit of life down there. The smell of chimneys still giving out to God. The smell of mackerel. All the small graces in Berwick town, where the river meets the sea, for someone seeking out gladness, exploring the sand, and knowing these things for the first time. The train pulled out and I never saw the town again. The North-East of England slid away in a rush of greenery. But more than a splash of time lay among those rocks I then abandoned for the North: my own first voice along the sea-front, the river's memory of salmon and corn, a notion of something good in that childish basin. I knew that day I would always miss it, and I always have.
Mrs Drake had given me a book to take away to Scotland. The book was for me alone. The book was mine. It had a strange blue cover, the glint of the old woman's eyes; and the words on the spine were printed in white, the spell of her hair. My book had belonged to someone else, but now it was mine, and it carried the trace of someone else in its tea-tinted pages. I could take it with me. I held the book in my hands as the train slowed at the signal box. Surely Mrs Drake would remain this while, her good hands clasped over mine, her piano-playing fingers with their slackened rings, holding me tight in the afternoons. Her voice with those fishing songs, softly sung, more spoken than sung, the kiss she planted in my mess of hair, her sweet perfume in the winds of Berwick. My old friend: in no time at all she was round the corner and out of sight.
I could see St Abbs lighthouse in the distance. It made me think of lamps and night-times and weather. I felt just then how the day was all movement: the beat of the heart, the clattering train, the tides out there, the light. I unfolded the book from my jumper. It was in my thoughts all the time. The Sea Shore, by C. M. Yonge.
She'd pressed down the corners of two pages. I took my time sounding out the words. The first page, 'Barnacles and Molluscs of a Rocky Shore'. I read out the big words circled in pencil. Her note said, 'Copy out, my dear, and try to remember.'
Limpets possess an undoubted 'homing instinct'. The exact nature of this has so far defied analysis; it does not seem to reside within the restricted powers of sight, smell or touch. As shown in Fig. 35, limpets browse in a rough circle around their homes, travelling at most three feet from this and usually very much less, and are able by this sense of direction to regain their home when it is necessary.
Some of the words were hard to read, and they sounded new. Underneath was a picture of a limpet stuck to an English rock. The second page marked down by Mrs Drake was near the end of the book. In her own writing it said, 'Learn this one, Jamie. Near your new house, on the other coast, you might notice these things as well.'
On the coastal lands of Ayrshire seaweeds are extensively used on the potato fields, where up to thirty tons are scattered per acre. As a result of investigations at the Marine Station at Millport (underlined), methods were worked out for the successful preparation of agar (arrow: 'jelly, good for all the experiments') from gigartina (arrow: 'red seaweed'), of which large supplies exist on the coasts of Wales and especially on the west coast of Scotland (underlined twice).
Mrs Drake so loved to write things down. She had taught me to love it just as much, though my favourite part was the digging part, the measuring part, the walking part, and the milk and the toast at the end. As well as the marked pages of The Sea Shore my old teacher had written something on a square of paper - a slip of paper with a black edge - and she had placed it inside the back of my book. As much as the book itself, the writing on this paper would always remind me of Mrs Drake, and without notice it would bring me back to her living room, the open fire, the record player, and those jars of hers, high on the shelves, filled to the brim with cockles and whelks.
Please remember to round your letters and curl your tails. You are a good boy and I will miss you. From now on I will think of you as I go along the shore. Work hard at all your reading, you are very clever about it. Here are two fine books you will enjoy as soon as you feel ready. Try to find them if you can in the good library. One is by John Graham Dalyell, and has a funny title, Rare and Remarkable Animals of Scotland, represented from living subjects: with Practical Observations on their Nature. The other is by Philip Henry Gosse, A Year at the Shore. These will help you. Say ta-ta from me to your mummy.
Mrs P. Drake
On the back of the paper she had written out some words. '"Who can say of a particular sea that it is old? Distilled by the sun, kneaded by the moon, it is renewed in a year, in a day, or in an hour." Love, Pat.'
My father returned to Scotland in a flurry of hatred. My mother soothed him over the border in a Bedford van. They put me on the train and then limped away to their big people's business. The train took me first to Glasgow, and my grandfather Hugh, who made a point of never asking about my ailing father, and never knowing our proper address, though now and then he would wonder if my mother was 'coping'. He took me from the station to one of the new building sites at Ruchill. He threw an envelope of papers at the face of the foreman there. He peeled money from a roll. From the back of the car, in the pouring rain, I could see my granda shouting the odds, throwing up his hands, handing money to the men in the yellow hats. He climbed in and out of a visiting truck. With that strange fury on his face he looked like my father.
I lay down in the back seat. You could see the concrete layers going all the way up. Metal rods hung over the sides; they went up so high you couldn't believe it was so. Sawdust came down with the rain. My mind went soft with the weather, and the journey, and the thought of the deep green sea. Everything was mingled now: the world at my back, the sea shore; and this building site in the north of Glasgow, this field of mud, with its new clanging. My ears were filled with the roar and the clang. I fell asleep with water running down the car window.
My father took drink. He was an alcoholic, the kind that rages and mourns. His long-haired flight to England was all about drink. Nothing meant anything without drink. It was all drink.
He had thought he might drown himself in Berwick. Leagues away from his father's ideals. Good miles out from his mother's patience. Six-fathoms-five from the glory of his dead grandmother and all her Utopian dreams. My father sought an end to the question of himself in Berwick. In the rivermouth of Berwick he tumbled down, drinking the waves, a floating tribe unto himself, and wet with loathing, he drifted out, no high-toned relatives to temper the sway of his blitzed afternoons. My father was an alcoholic. The kind that rages and mourns. He never meant well, and he never did well. A blind-drunk bat in love with the dark. There was no feeling sorry: he took down too many days for easeful sorrow; he glutted on ruin.
And books became the only breath in that foreign room he kept us in. The only soothing language known, and all the kindness of printed words just taught me to hate him more, and to pity him, and to see a day when all would be loosened, or gone, and no one left to feel sorry. This is what I thought then. My father was a maniac. He frightened away the best of our health.
I would sit in a chair by the window of our new Ayrshire house - birds twittering out there, diving for the grass seed - and watch him drunk and asleep by a three-bar fire. My damp eyes bored through him. I could take the lighter and set fire to him as he slept. I stared at him. I knew I could do that. The twittering grew louder. Somewhere over the burn, in the thick of the housing scheme, an ice-cream van was selling good cheer. The sound of that music. I stared at him. I tried to make him go, and thought of him disappearing, and sliding away, being no more in our lives, and dead, or part of a place that was meant for badness, and right for the cruel, and endlessly quiet.
My books kept me living. And the thought of my grandparents. I was in love with what they knew, my semi-estranged granda and nan. They knew about trees and Robert the Bruce; they knew about rivers and buildings and stones. And without their thoughts, my mind turned slowly on the blaze in the armchair, one day coming. I sat at the window. I watched him to death. Down a slanting column of light - high window to living-room pile - a million tiny rags of dust came floating down, a million specks of chance, turning there, reflecting, turning again, each one a whisper of something peaceful. A million lessons in calm, part of a hateful day.
My father did not resemble himself as he slept. And that too was a part of his danger. He could have been somebody else. Somebody else in that raging skin - easy-going, a cool forehead - and dreaming of sunshine. So good inside, and with hope of being happy, and all his suffering due to stop, if only we'd let him breathe. He seemed a different Robert, much more wounded than wounding. He failed to resemble himself in that chair. Our candy-striped wallpaper behind his head, a long ashtray by his legs. Feet crossed at the ankles; cardigan buttoned up the wrong way; his chest breathing softly, like a baby in its cot. He could have been good as he lay there. Mindful of all our strange days, our hurried lives, and keen to make everything right for us. Our guardian. A madman who slept with an angel's smile. He could have been better, and that made it worse.
I sat by the window with the books he detested. The pages turned over. Don't wake him up, and rustle his bed, and turn him into himself again. The shadow of new-begun leaves came past the venetian blinds and crossed his face: 'To me my father should've been as a god. Composing my beauties, making of me a form in wax, by him imprinted . . .' So on and so on. '. . . within his power to make me good or bad, a well-made figure or more like him, disfigured.'
I closed the book. I wanted him to pay attention. Stop shouting. I dreamed he might rise and prove himself great. Improve the world, make the days work, and add some shine to the new Ayrshire day. He lay for hours in a malicious slumber - his face as calm as milk - and opened his eyes as the day went out.
'Get me a beer from the fridge,' he said. 'Hurry up.'
In my father's anger there was something of the nation. Everything torn from the ground; his mind like a rotten field. His was a country of fearful men: proud in the talking, paltry in the living, and every promise another lie. My father bore all the dread that came with the soil - unable to rise, or rise again, and slow to see power in his own hands. Our fathers were made for grief. They were broken-backed. They were sick at heart, weak in the bones. All they wanted was the peace of defeat. They couldn't live in this world. They couldn't stand who they were. Robert's madness was nothing new: he was one of his own kind, bred, with long songs of courage, never to show a courageous hand.
Into the arms of oblivion they ran like wicked children. Their pretend love of freedom: we all learned the family business. We all knew the shame. His Scotland was lashed, betrayed, forgotten. That was our happiness; that was our song.
'How would you know about us?' he snapped. 'You English bastard.'
In Berwick my father gave vent to his troubles by punching my mother. His life was hidden behind floral curtains. In Ayrshire he went into the open air with his burning valour. No one was safe.
Cunts and fuckers and bastards and slags.
Ordering a cup of tea in a café, or buying a newspaper, or paying a bus fare: a season in hell. My father's theatre of war.
A hopeless cunt, a useless prick. The fucking idiot. See that arsehole.
'No,' I would say. 'Just pass by.'
Total wanker. Dickshaft. A right good kicking he's needing. See you.
The newspaper seller had better be nimble and accurate with the change, or else he might find himself, or his mother, being raggedly abused in a giant voice . . .
You stupid fucking tosser. A good slap you're needing. Get the fuck out the road. Wankstain.
The confectionery display being brutally disarranged.
'Sorry,' from me. And in silence: I'm sorry. I will always be sorry.
This was the person who lived in our house. He broiled inside his own deep anger, keen for reasons to writhe and scream. He loved his own strength. He missed his own weakness. There was nothing he wanted to know, or not know. From the petrol-soaked armchair he aired his views. Minute by minute he lost the plot.
Hitler: tried his best for the people, so he did.
Churchill: a pure wanker who kissed the King's arse.
Books: a load of shite, only good for boring bastards who don't know how to enjoy themselves.
Cooking: if the meat is any good, you don't need anything in it, just water and salt. Fuck all that poofters' sauce shite.
Churchill: kept the people of Scotland hungry, so he did.
Women: fucking pests.
Racehorses: slow cunts.
Shopkeepers: thieving Paki bastards.
Cricket: English fuckpigs.
Hitler: at least his soldiers could fucking march.
Person with chequebook: a pretentious middle-class twat.
People with gardens: time-wasting, no-use tosspots.
Churchill: not a clue. The thick tosser. Complete wanker.
People on the dole: layabout sponging cunts, most of them.
Traffic wardens: fucking lowlife scum.
God: a load of pish.
Politicians: bastarding liars, just like your granda.
So on and so on.
The world, for my father, was a thing to be hated. And dreaded. And vilified. And one day left behind, as he sank to a kingdom of his own, where drink could be his friend, and like the best of all friends, could dull all sense of the enemy. With the can and the bottle he fought the good fight, and kept himself from himself again.
My mother and father had never seemed young. Early in their lives they made ready for decline. I had imagined it would come early to both of them. When I was a child he had sandy whiskers. His hair was short and orange; his eyes were green. He sounded young enough, but he walked with a deepening stoop at the age of thirty-two. His trousers and shoes predated his father's. Robert didn't want to be young - he wanted to be past everything. He wanted to live out of time. He never wore denims, went swimming, rode a bike, or ate greens. He didn't dance. He sought out the company of pensioners, and would shine among them, his young wisdom ringing true, his lively complaints, his barefaced cheek, his scattercash.
My father took no pleasure in buying things for my mother and me. There was nothing in it for him. He was generous in the pub; he believed in that sort of kindness, where near-anonymous men could think him free, and think him great. He didn't care if his family thought him great. He didn't want that. His wife and his child were his mother and father: a constant drain on his sense of himself, a pain in the arse, a bundle of bills, a wrongful call to responsible action. I can see it now: so much he resented our claims upon him. How sick that made him feel. The men in the pub could ask for nothing, and therefore anything was theirs. All the men in those pubs were the same. And they clung to each other with their sense of freedom. My father was the sort of man who would criss-cross the country, on behalf of a drunken pal he'd met twice, in search of some phoney tax-disc going cheap. Yet never once did he sit down with me and my homework. Not that I would have wanted him to. My homework was my own secret. And homework is a different kind of sickness.
So my father was using a walking stick before he was forty years old. And my mother had all the singing and dancing knocked out of her before she was twenty-five. She was an only child, her father dead in the Second War, her mother remarried and living in Australia. As a teenager she wanted the man who might take her away. She wanted a musician or a fast driver, someone to make her all over again, to take her places, two weeks a year on the Isle of Man, and the promise of laughs, and something new. And after all that an easy life, a series of days quite filled with colours. Goodness in the kitchen, the children in their beds. Some day there would be one of the new houses to make orderly. Other mothers, and bikes for Christmas, a lager-and-lime on a Friday night. The chance of hire purchase, a three-piece suite, wall-to-wall carpets, no time like the present. There'd be sex with a man called your husband. You would lie beside him night after night. A man who loved you. A man with his faults and no angel, but loving. She dreamed of the world she could just build up. They all dreamed of it. They could piece it together with time and love, and call it their own. The life they had made out of nothing special. The life they had made, their own small victory.
But my mother was half in love with chaos. She liked my father's hatred of his father, and encouraged me in my hatred of mine. With all her yearning for the ordinary life, my mother was born to admire outsiders. You could see she felt enlarged by drama and trouble, by the electric pulse of things going wrong, and her vision of the easy life remained in most ways a recurring dream. Though he killed half her life, and always took his hand to her, and never listened to a word she said, there was a part of my mother that found in my father's listless turmoil, his seething rancour, the features of a vast attractiveness. My mother and me, our little alliance, lay somewhere among the backroads, a place to run to in the uncoupling hours, those times of sense or savagery.
My mother was in love with him, and I never was. There was nothing in my heart for my father then. That is what I said. And my mother liked me detesting him. It left more of the lovable him for her, and made me a stranger to their understanding. Sometimes she would come to me at night, sit on the edge of my bed, and look at my models of engines and trains, stacked on the floor beneath us. 'We could go to Australia, you and me,' she would say. 'I want to leave him. He's a bad bastard.'
'Mum,' I would say, 'don't upset yourself.'
She would dab her eyes on the bedclothes, laying her head down next to my feet. The red on her lips, her old-seeming face, would shine, the light coming in through the top of the door. 'Jamie, you're a boy that likes history and flowers, and that's unusual. You build these wee engines and take them apart. I bet you'll end up planning houses like your granda. Your father was never good for anything.'
My mother would sometimes try to drink, just to be more in my father's world. But she would never try to read a book, or come along the beach, or take me into a towering building, just to be more in mine. And who could blame her? My mother was willing to let me go. She would rage and scorn, and hold me close for a minute, and promise to leave him to rot away. Yet she knew herself better. She would always go back in the end, and I would be left, quite happy alone, uncovering peace among boyish things, planning a future without my parents, in a world that believed in the things it said. My mother told me she believed what she said when she said she would love him in sickness and in health. She would say that, and would be right to say it, and would one day allow him to unsay the lot, and divorce her by Royal Mail. That is the sort of kindness my mother believes in. She's a better person than I could be. There are no vows between parents and their children.
The top of my shorts was made of elastic. It dug in. There was always a ribbon of red-ruckled skin appearing just over my hips. There was a summer's day, not long after we came to Ayrshire. I played at the door of a pub called The Unco Guid. The smell of the sea and the smell of the pub came on like one thing.
I remember my arms were out of the arms of my jumper. My hands stuck out the bottom, busy at Five Stones. I was more than good at that game. One stone up in the air - pick up two - catch the fallen - put them aside - nick off each pebble - scoop up the lot - toss them into the air again - good boy - and make them come down on the back of one hand. Good boy. My hand darted about the dirt as I sat against the brown tiles of the pub. The Spillers dog-food factory across the way.
Dogs were bad.
They were made to be just like their owners. Angry, barking, with stuff on their teeth. Men in Scotland make dogs be like them: aggression machines.
In Berwick you never saw people kick dogs, not like you did in Ayrshire. My father said he loved dogs. He would bring one in from the pub - docile, lost - and thereafter train it to bite people. He liked terriers most. Scots, cairns, wire-haireds, West Highlands. Little dogs with sharp teeth. Every one we ever had would pee itself at the sight of Robert. He beat them so much, and taught them the rule: to be scared of him. Any that peed would have their noses rubbed into the wet carpet, lashed with the leash, called all the names. The yelps and whimpers of those poor dogs. And yet how they'd dive up, and lick and kiss him, as soon as he showed some sign of affection. There was something of soft Judas in each of those terriers. By and by my father would take each of them away. He got sick of them. One day we'd wake up and the basket would be empty, the tins of dog food stacked in the bin. My father would go off with the shivering dog. A drive to the countryside. He would lose it there.
The dog-meat factory was over the road. Spillers, they called it. Spillers: 'The Happy Choice for the Happy Dog'. Cars went past in a hurry to somewhere. A little way off, under the clouds, I could see cranes moving. New houses going up. People came along the street