Another Life: Playing the wandering fool beside the whispering Mayo surf
For the beach lover the boundary of land and ocean is more a state of mind than any line drawn in the sand
Biological bric-a-brac: shells and fossils line the shore. Illustration: Michael Viney
The long calms and offshore breezes of this summer have let the sea put back even more of its offshore store of sand than it sucked away last winter – an exceptional annual bonus in its rolling budget of sediment.
This new hem of the strand is fluffy and smooth and so soft that my boots sink into it. The splay-footed, duck-shaped trail they leave still embarrasses me. Other men leave proper, manly, parallel prints: why do my feet go like that? “Why can’t you walk straight and not keep swerving into me?” (This from my older brother, long ago, but I remember where it was, in the lane beside the gasworks.)
Never mind. Sometimes, in winter, with no one around to bump into, I have walked the strand for ages with my eyes shut, relying on hearing to guide me. My advance is always into the sun, poised low above Connemara across the bay, so that the vermilion light in my eyelids offers one compass and the whisper of surf beside me another. My course does swerve, indeed, but I have never actually walked into the sea. Everyone, at some time, should have the space and freedom to play the wandering fool.
A photograph I took of the strand now saves the screens (whatever from?) of the family’s computers, so that our daughter, away in the city, starts the day with a spacious, salty breath of the west from her laptop and the same bright gleam of foam. The picture is of the last few black spars of the wreck, glossy with sun and seaweed, left sticking up from the sand at low tide, the bow’s shadow tilting like the gnomon of a sundial.
No one has the story of the boat’s age or voyaging, but once, in a stormy winter, its thick duvet of sand was quite swept away, leaving the broad, oaken ribcage bare to the keel. There were lumps of limestone for ballast and shards of a black-glazed pottery, but nothing to say where it was going or when it was driven ashore. Lost somewhere in the garden is the bit of rib I salvaged, with the hole and oak dowel that let me think of the lineage on my father’s side – carpenter after cabinetmaker, back to Moses Viney in Devon in 1695. None of them, so far as I know, ever built a boat.
Finding interesting stuff means walking the strand every day, summer and winter, as I used to when younger and everything was new. It was then I accumulated most of the biological bric-a-brac that lines our window sills – skulls, shells, fossils and the rest – and the gaudy plastic trawler balls now strung into pillars of colour at the woodshed. Either the trawlers have stopped losing them, or using them, or my beachcombing mornings are now too few, but I have more than enough to brighten a winter garden.