Sea, Shingle and Stars

After another week in eastern England – on holiday this time – I’m back at home. From being woken by low flying Eurofighter jets from RAF Lakenheath, it’s back to noisy neighbours with only one CD. And back to life proper, and wondering what to do with it.

Holiday it might have been, but I’ve had my fill of eastern England for a while, though I went nowhere near Peterborough and spat a curse whenever I saw it on a sign. The best moment was all too brief. Beside the sea wall at Cromer, just above the strand. The tide was in and I passed several wonderful minutes watching the metre high green waves roll in and break with a foaming crash against the beach and wall. This was followed by that wondrous roaring rattle of shingle as they rolled back. I tried to guess which waves would keep their height all the way in, but couldn’t tell. Likely candidates would rear up with no warning and break, or become locked in a frothing fight with a previous wave’s backwash. Sometimes though, the wave would make it and roll along the wooden groyne, smashing and throwing up huge clouds of spray as it went, and at the wall, hurling itself several feet into the air. And this was on a calm day. I’d love to come back during a winter storm.

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A mile or so offshore was a large wind farm, the white turbines turning languidly. I could have sat there all day, listening to the tide. The breaking waves and the “melancholy long withdrawing roar” of the pebbles made my spine tingle. I was suddenly 14 again, standing on a tall rock on a beach near Swansea and listening to the shingle there. The first time I had heard it and its music has never left me.

That image too was fleeting. In its absence I leaned against the railing and simply listened, and tasted the salty spray and the acrid tang of seaweed. I was content to simply be there in this sensory wash, freed from the now. Liberated briefly into unreality – forty-four and no job, thrust back into that worthless place I grew to know too well in my twenties – in those blissful moments by the sea all that faded. Back at home, it’s bubbling up again. Rising toward the surface, ready to break through. But what sort of eruption? Phraeto-magmatic, lava or pyroclastic flow, who can say? I’ve no strength to resist it. Go with its flow, however violent, burnt up or blasted to smithereens.

I was staying in Hockwold, a few miles from Thetford forest. Sunset that same day, and the old folks had stopped their bowls game and the sky was a quickly deepening orange. From the distant fen, the peep of a curlew. The only other sound the crunch and slip of my shabby shoes over the loose chippings that were only laid that morning. I waited for darkness, stars and the possibility of meteors from the Perseid shower. After it came, I lay on the lawn and looked up into the clear sky. Slowly my eyes adjusted and the sky revealed itself. A jewelled black velvet cloth, glittering and shining, whose quiet radiance grew louder as the moments passed. I followed my breath, slow, steady, in and out. Overhead, the phosphorescence of the Milky Way came alive to my eyes. It’s not often I see it, city dweller that I am. As my eyes adjusted, more stars came alive until the sky was full of twinkling silver fires, so close I felt I could touch them:

…the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light

(W.B. Yeats)

Lying there, on damp grass, I felt peace, such as I haven’t felt in a very long time, a time so long it’s almost beyond remembrance. Nothing mattered, everything fallen away. I had forgotten what this felt like, and what it was to be beneath a sky full of stars. Awesome in the proper sense of the word: so far, such huge space, it makes me feel small, numbers so vast, so huge and innumerable that God is still making them up as I once heard someone say, one individual sand grain on a vast beach. It’s a good feeling, liberating, true perspective. And occasionally, a flickering streak as a meteor met its fiery death. How long had that tiny piece of rock or dust been travelling through space, how many millions of years, until it happened to collide with our planet just as I was looking up? What a frail travelling coincidence.

I saw several more meteors before retiring to bed, and did the same the following night. Now I’m home again and it already seems a long time ago. Back to a reality I can’t put off any longer. Time to face the enemy. I just hope I can shoot the bastard.

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