Hiraeth

Photo: jessica sealey

Photo: jessica sealey

By Aoife Inman:

It’s late but the evening light lingers at the peripheries of the ocean making the day stretch long into the night. Time seems to stretch here, the minutes distorted by the quiet swell of the ocean.

The air is full of mist; it pads out the twilight zone between the last dregs of evening and the soft beginnings of the morning. I’ve always thought this is an almost mythical piece of the day, when it’s neither light nor dark and the sky is damp and thick with salt, brushed in off the incoming tide. You can hold the mist between your teeth, wads of it pressed against the insides of your cheeks like cotton.

There aren’t many who bother to come down to the sea front at this hour, with the weather, as it is, temperamental and unforgiving. The wind bites and scratches at any scrap of skin left bare to the element and my thighs are lined with small red welts and scratches – the claws of the ocean have dug their way into me, right to the bone. Today, however, there are a few faces who peer palely over in my direction as I trail down the hill – van dwellers, keen surfers and fishermen, who are all, themselves, half brine and barely human, at least in the city sense of the word.

This was always the place I felt most at home, not here specifically but this ocean, this crack of coastline that juts out obstinately, defiant and secluded. It feels a million mile away from the industrial powerhouse cities I’ve made my home now.

Home. It’s a strange word whose weight has always felt uncomfortable in my mouth, hard and bitter. I was born on the road, moving between a collection of cardboard houses, each one like the last and yet lacking something. I resided in houses, habitats, a series of rooms, plaster, mortar and board – safe and comfortable but never permanent. To belong to just one place strikes me as an exhausting concept.

I thought when I had grown up that I’d settle somewhere; that I’d stop moving and plant some roots, or whatever the metaphor is, but I’ve realised that those moments, those years spent on the road, they get into your bones over time. Slowly, you barely feel it at first, but I can’t stay still now. I’ve tried, time and time again, found a place I love and settled there with a job and a plan and a circle of friends and then I feel that itch, again, against the soles of my feet. It’s like a disease, that itch, that want for change, it’s exhausting sometimes.

I walk along the cliff path, away from the cove, to the world’s edge where the grassy slope seems to fall away into the deafening blue. It’s a steep rocky path carved right into the grit and soil of the cliff, the sort that has been etched by many pairs of feet, worn over many years. When the tide eventually comes in it will cut off this path completely, a void of cold, blue Atlantic filling the space where my feet have trod. Nothing about the breadth or surface of this terrain is easily digestible. It’s a wholegrain, bran and fibre sort of landscape – some find it lonely, harsh, and unforgiving – I find myself falling in love with the rough corners of it every time I return.

When I was a child we were taught to spot currents on cliffs like this, our hands tracing the motions of the sea, trailing the lines of white foam that spread across the ocean like a film. I reach out my hand to lay it on the horizon, palm obscuring the bulb of the grey sun.

If you follow the cliff path round the curling edge of the peninsula you reach a town, a knot of tangled streets that overlap one another like old strings, every one gnarled with potholes and cobbles. I follow it now, zigzagging through kissing gates and through fields of thick grass. Everything is further apart here, houses and gardens stretch along the street, sand banks drag the beaches way out into the bay and the years seem to trickle by – I do not have to measure time so carefully here, there are months to spare.

The town is simple, a harbour filled with thin fishing boats and crab pots, a lifeboat house, a shop selling spades and 99 cones. It’s fixed in another time, another era where people worked with their hands, in the earth and the water.

This place is filled with mysticism, steeped in folklore, luck bound in rhymes and patterns of three. It’s everywhere you look, tucked in corners of woodland and thin waterfalls where faerie stacks topple. Down in the town the boats that jut out into the cove are named after mythical lands and magical creatures, suspicion has wormed its way amongst the men who tend the land and drag the sea.

“Look down there.” The mother leans into the clove of her son’s ear as she speaks. “Look down at that boat there, see the lions on its side?”

Sure enough, on its flanks are painted two yellow lions, their manes dipping and rising out of the green waters.

“They’re named after the legend of Lyonnesse…legend says there used to be a beautiful isle just set above Seven Stones reef that is halfway out to the Scillies. The city of lions and the land of Lyonesse, built with 140 churches atop it and a castle they say, all swallowed up in a single night by the ocean.”

The boy’s eyes widens as he listens, his hands gripping the handrails with his chubby palms.

His mother crouches down by his side, “look now do you see the top of the steeple there, just jutting out of the waves?”

He nods, eyes fixed on the grey sea.

The light is fading now, obscuring the edges of the day. Home, it’s a strange thing I think again, I wrap my tongue around it, a lump in the hollow of my mouth. It’s everywhere here and yet it feels distant. It’s in the lilt of the mother’s curling accent, the one I have lost over so many years spent away. It’s in each vowel, full bodied and warm, the crackle of pebbles under rubber boots in the evening tide, the low thud of water turning cliff to rubble.

I collect them in my palms as I count them, feel the weight of the love I hold for this place, and close my eyes as the day melts.

About the author:
Aoife Inman is a writer and historian based between Cornwall and Manchester. Her short stories have been published in Electric Reads’ Young Writers Anthology 2017 and New Binary Press’ 2018 Autonomy collection, as well as being long-listed for the 2016 Royal Academy Short Story Award. 

The War Memorial in the Sea

DLEWISMemorial.jpg

By David Lewis:

On a grey summer’s afternoon the Crosby beach is busy with holidaymakers.  The waterfront of Liverpool follows the great curve of the Mersey as it pours into the Irish Sea, but at Crosby the urban sprawl runs out of enthusiasm and is broken with open spaces – playing fields, parks, farms.  At the end of the long promenade there is a Lifeboat station, an ice cream van, a car park.  Here the long beach starts, the hard sands that run along the coast to the Lune river estuary fifty kilometres or so north.  This is a raw coastline.  The Irish Sea is a cold expanse of water, emptier than it once was, although the slow container ships still slip quietly in and out of Liverpool.  There are cruise ships now as well, vast white hotels drawn by the renaissance of the city centre.  Haunted by the cries of gulls, the coastline sprawls beneath vast mutating cloudscapes and feels wary and unpredictable. 

Beyond the Lifeguard station a low flat field of broken stones runs for two hundred, maybe three hundred metres along the shore.  At the beach’s edge the stones are slippery with seaweed; pools form among the stones, limpets colonise the surfaces.  It looks like builders’ rubble and most visitors ignore it in favour of Antony Gormley’s famous Another Place sculptures and the great expanse of hard golden sand.  But there is deep history here, old stories in these stones, there is remembrance, and there is forgetting.

Close up, this is unusual rubble; Victorian bricks dissolved by the salt water into gritty, lumpy, mosaic sand, chunks of sea-glass worn pale-grey and smooth, ancient bleached china electrical fittings. But the clue to this landscape does not lie in the bricks.  There are larger pieces; not uncut stones, not quarry-refuse, not landfill.  They are architecture. 

Some of these pieces are small, a metre long, but others are quite large – the size of a sofa, say, or an upright piano.  Some are hand-carved sandstone, deep flowers fading into sand; others are granite, untouched by seaweeds or limpets, as sharp as the day they left the mason’s yard in the 1870s.  Some have letters carved into them, a teasing suggestion of names and landmarks.  I have often wanted to identify the buildings they came from, through old photographs and architects’ plans.  Would it be possible to separate these small piles of loss back into individual buildings and fit them together like a sea-worn jigsaw puzzle?  Ultimately they could be restored to the street; the cornices and friezes, words and titles once again seventy feet above the pavements.  But what would this achieve?  Standing on the shore, this dream no longer seems possible or even desirable. 

These ruins were taken from the cityscape of Liverpool and especially Bootle, cleared after the terrible blitzkrieg unleashed by the Germans in 1940 and 1941.  Once these fragments were parts of banks, insurance offices and hotels, buildings which added dignity and strength to the streets.  Every stone comes from a bombed building, every brick comes from a bombed house, perhaps from a house where people died.  And so this long field of stones and bricks is a war memorial.  Not a solemn classical monument at the heart of the city, but a war memorial nevertheless.  4000 people died in Liverpool in the Blitz, and Bootle alone lost over 400.  This is an informal war memorial open to the elements, a war memorial washed twice a day by the tides, a war memorial covered in seaweed. There is no forced solemnity, no guards, no flags, no eternal flame.  No Dulce, no Decorum.  Children scramble over these ruins, they hunt for shrimps in the pools among the weedy stones, sit on the warm sand with their backs to giant lumps of the city.  Adults take pieces of brick as souvenirs, perhaps to remember the dead, perhaps remembering the war itself.  Most do not know the history of these fragments, these splinters of city.  It is irrelevant.  Nothing can be done to them without heavy machinery, no amount of souvenir hunters can damage the integrity of these stones and bricks.  Three hundred metres long, but how deep?  Without massive human interference, only time will fade these ruins.

At dusk in the summer the beach is clear.  This is not the Mediterranean; the cool air from the Irish Sea means that on the warmest day the heat does not linger.  The lights come on in Wallasey three kilometres away across the Mersey, and the ruins fade into the dusk again, as they have done every night since the late 1940s.  I do not think that this memorial-landscape should be formalised, protected, solemnised; this should be a quiet place to remember our unknown dead in a very Liverpool way, informal but never unserious, to the lament of waves running across the evening sands and gulls crying in a grey sky. 

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter