In company

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I was lonely so I drove to Mullion. I’d seen a picture of its harbour arms in a guidebook: they seemed like polished clamps that once served a purpose. The name ‘Mullion’ promised me that it was special: it had substance, made the tongue straighten to touch the lower palate, created space inside the mouth. I had wanted to go for some time.

On my way down to the cove from where I’d parked my car, a coal black horse in a field whose mane had been plaited and tousled like a human’s. It shone like graphite. There was something in its eyes that made me sense that it was wiser than I would ever be.

Along the sides of the road, wildflowers different to those at home. Despite living only twenty miles away from it, the Lizard Peninsula is a different land, toes a different climate. I take my phone out of my pocket, still awkward with how to work its camera. It soon comes naturally. When I get home, I learn that I have met Bird’s-Foot Trefoil, Sea Campion, Red Campion and gangs of Sea Carrot. The Alexanders, Bluebells and Thrift I knew from before, but they seem to grow differently here, fearlessly, perhaps.  The Foxgloves sit up on the cliffs, backs straightened to look over the long grass. The Thrift grows in great numbers, gathering together and threatening to enact city-like sprawls.

At quiet, sheltered Mullion, the black cliffs absorbed light from the afternoon sun, brightening the sea, grass and wildflowers around them. The cove is still a working harbour, the arms still protect fishing boats that bring in mainly shellfish these days. Once, tons of pilchards would have been transported between them. An unmanned sign advertised seal trips and three boats lined obediently up at the harbour mouth. Beyond the harbour arm, a great rock with grassy shoulders and scalp where gulls made their nests; beyond that, some mile distant, another island. Mullion Island was uninhabited, a National Trust sign read.

I couldn’t stay there: all the best spots were taken by earlier risers, who stretched their legs from benches or rested their backs in grassy cliff seats. It was too small a place to idle and linger alone without being watched. So I walked along the coast path, from Mullion to Poldhu Cove two miles to the north, the path carefully gravelled and stepped. The wind a flood that sought to sear through me; it was at last balmy, and so insistent that I unzipped my top as I walked. I had waited months for the wind to warm like this.

I soon forgot my sadness.

And on my return, just as I was beginning to pay less attention to the flora I documented the first time round, the fauna came up to meet me: three baby stoats, gabbling and waddling along the path as if late for school. I thought they were going to bound into my shoes, but with two metres to go, six black beads stared up at me. Half a second was all I had to look into their strange eyes before I lost them to the long cliff grass. As I walked away I heard them for some time, yikkering near the cliffs, playing with their echoes.

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The Pilot Whale

I wasn’t sure how I’d come to get such a central view, but there I was, leaning over the railings with my hood up, redundant and frustrated, watching the pilot whale die. It was smaller than I thought it was going to be – 12 foot long, perhaps, and pressed right up close to the sea wall. It was covered with a great red sheet, smooth and sodden from the seawater that volunteers had been pouring over it for several hours. Water was scooped up in big containers from rock pools and passed along a human chain to a man who poured these offerings into a dustbin serving as a water butt. From there, a further team collected the water in smaller pots and tin watering cans, distributing it across the whale’s body. Sometimes, when one of the team stepped out of the way, you could see the gentle curve of its shiny black head peeping out of the sheet. Whenever this happened, there was an ‘ahh look,’ from someone nearby.

Thirty people were on the beach: coastguard rescue, the local policeman, vets, a photographer, marine biologists from Tremough campus, and an assortment of volunteers without any uniform at all. Everything that could be done was being done. A windbreak had been set up to fend off the wind as it tore across the beach to dry the animal out. One woman stood ankle deep in a rock pool. I have no idea how long she had been in that position, bending down to scoop water and pass it along the chain.

The crowd up above on the promenade, and the rescue team down on the beach all at some point stared at the tide. The whale had been stranded about 11 am, and by the time I heard the news and drove up at 2pm, with some vague notion in my head of being useful and helping out, I was of course far too late to be of any use. High tide was expected around 6pm. Though the waves seemed to press towards the land, they made little difference to it and came no closer to the pilot whale whether we willed it to or not. I wished them on, nevertheless, as if this was one way in which I could help. I stared at the sea in a way that I had not stared for a long time.

Sometimes there were things said in the crowd: that the vet was coming to put the animal to sleep; that there was something wrong with its muscles which had resulted in it being beached in the first place. I couldn’t believe that it would end like this. I stood there for over half an hour, waiting for good news to trickle through via text messages between the audience and the stage.

From time to time, the exposed tail would flap up and down, each movement a burst of saved-up energy, a will to live. It made many of us ache with our own uselessness. ‘I’m not standing here to watch it die,’ a young girl said to her friend as they put their cameras away and walked from the scene.

I was angry about the cameras at the start. As well as smartphones, there was expensive kit that hung around craned necks as the crowd swelled, absorbing passers by. But as time went on, and I realised that the animal was indeed going to be put to sleep, I found myself taking my own phone out of my pocket. I still do not understand why I did it: a combination of bearing witness, of effecting an action, of willing it to live. I do not know whether or not to delete it.

I looked at it later, when I was home and it was over. The image was of thirty people, shivering brazenly into the April wind on a rocky slip of a quiet beach, working to ease suffering in whatever way they could.

Sennen in October, Finsbury Park in February

I was in one of the most westerly places on the mainland. That made me one of the last people in Britain – one of the last who were watching, waiting for it, that is – to see the sun rise on Saturday.

Before it rose, it made the hills glow. Two hills, that folded over each other the way that picturesque hills do. The sun, if it had been equally acquiescent to the picturesque ideal, would have risen between them, straight up out of the hillside’s crease. One hill, however, was glowing a little brighter than the other.

It was quiet as I peered out of the front door of Johny’s caravan. A flock of seagulls took off towards the sea as I did so, startled, soundless. Their silent kinesis, conducted at roof height, seemed eerily out of character as if Something had Happened. The air had been left cold by the night, and its chill made its way down my neck. I tucked my chin into my anorak. It felt like I’d opened the door onto a vacuum that the sunrise was shortly about to burst.

The birds’ bellies and under-wings were half-lit by a sunrise that hadn’t yet reached me. From the birds I traced my gaze to the top of the nearest house. Then to its satellite dish. Then to the parked van, and to the odd rugby goalpost on a nearby patch of land that was presumably someone’s garden. I leant against the doorframe and willed myself to fall into a wonder about how it was that I was there. How incredible, barely believable it was that I had indeed been brave and left the South East. Here I was, in one of the wildest parts of Cornwall, leaning against a door frame, staring up at birds. Twenty seven years old, hundreds of miles away from everything that formed me, hundreds of miles away from old friends, old familiar places, and being able to see the sun rise on an ordinary Saturday October morning in Sennen.

It didn’t work.

I tried again. I was after the dizziness you get after being hit by the momentum of the present. I think that some people call it ‘experiencing the Sublime’. I wanted to feel it. But it didn’t come.

This time, surely.

Nothing.

Come on now, look at this stuff. Marvel.

Nothing.

I wanted to feel something right here, here at the base of my throat.

Then the sun rose, heaving itself up over the right hill like I thought it would.

I went to work.

After Saturday, I thought about London, where I worked between 2006 and 2011. I thought about it more than I usually do. I usually think about the city in terms of its roads – its ‘outsides’, rather than thinking about the city as a collection of insides, rooms upon rooms upon rooms. I’ve never been good with road names, and I’ve certainly forgotten most of the names of the roads that haunt my daydreams and sometimes penetrate my sleep. But back in 2010, when I lived in Dalston, N1, I used to know them. I took up running as a serious pastime and ran around Islington, Highbury, Newington Green, up towards Finsbury Park. I would look at the road signs, note the postcode in the bottom right hand corner. Sometimes, I would run to Finsbury Park, run around it, then stop and look out at the city. The straight roads, the small family-owned shops and family-owned restaurants, the flats above them, housing Londoners like me. I imagined the insides to mirror the outsides: dirty and almost certainly decrepit. I wanted to see these insides. I believed they would be beautiful.

I had taken to running as a means of escaping how the city made me feel. Caged. Separated from nature. Lonely. Mis-fitting. I used to race through those streets to try and feel alive.  Today, I keep catching myself accessing that memory, of me running and stopping in Finsbury Park. There were raggedy billboard posters, neon pink and orange-yellow, advertising a circus. A group of men played football in the encroaching darkness, for it was winter, and the sun set by half four. The path was hard, small sandy pieces of grit under my trainers. The street – Finsbury Park Road, it might have been – was glazed in soot and grime. The land rose up on its hind legs and I felt the weight of North London bear down upon that place. The city’s hard upper crust of boroughs and sub boroughs. The choke of Holloway, Archway, Enfield. The layers and layers of urban-suburban-sub suburban space, stuffed with life, the release road of the M1 a gullet down which cars crammed and were squeezed along on their journeys  by the muscles of the city. There, deep in the urban underlayer, the traffic was relentless. The buses went past, and past, and past. I remembered my sex; I felt unsafe. I looked at the flats above the family-owned shops and restaurants and I longed to be somewhere else.

But where, I no longer know. All that remains of that day is simply the memory of being where I didn’t want to be.

I think of Finsbury Park now and I let nostalgia make the base of my throat tickle with ache.

Wheal Coates in March

ImageWheal Coates is a tin mine that stands on a North Cornish cliff bound by heather and gorse.  Its mineshaft reaches down through the rock to Towanroath Yugga, a cave off Chapel Porth beach that can be entered into when the tide is out.  Today, however, the tide is in, and the weather is foul.  The heather lies low on the ground, as if trying to shelter from the wind and the rain.  It’s a wonder that Wheal Coates still stands and hasn’t been blown into the sea, I think, holding onto my hat as I walk towards the tin mine’s silhouette, through weather that batters me, as if trying to force me back. 

Wheal Coates dates from the 1870s, and was finally abandoned in 1913.  Nearly a hundred years on, the site looks fragmented, as if the cliff had been bombed. Three engine houses still stand, their roofs lost long ago, their tips tinged back into life with the green of moss.  All have cavities where windows should be: the tallest engine house has an uppermost window-hole that frames for me a patch of heavy sky.  Elsewhere are low strips of wall, which, to my ignorant eyes, seem randomly built and abandoned half way through.  The National Trust information board gives these fragments sinister sounding names: Calciner, Boiler Pond, Dressing Floor.  Still, hundreds of people understood this land and used to come to this very spot to work in a world far beneath my feet.  Men died down there, dying of injuries and landslides; many drowned in the dark. 

It is the wailing of the drowning miners that you are meant to hear at Wheal Coates, coming up the mineshaft.  I don’t see the shaft at first: I am too easily distracted by the colour of the stone that has been used to build the various walls.  Blood red, with the occasional streak of white.  It’s not noticeable at a distance, but up close, parts of Wheal Coates look as if they were built from slabs of red meat; gristly steak.  More of the same stone covers the ground and paths: scattered off cuts.  I slide a couple in my pocket, wiping the wet from my fingers onto my sleeves.   

The mineshaft is covered with a metal grid, splitting its disturbing darkness into small, manageable oblongs.  In one corner, part of the grid has been stretched and widened, creating a hole large enough for a dead miner’s forearm to reach out and grab a foot.  Not really knowing what I am doing, I pick a stone out of my pocket and toss it into the shaft to gauge its depth.  Poorly thrown, or swept off course by the wind, it clatters on the shaft’s sides as it falls, creating echoes and thus revealing nothing.  I reach for my other stone but as I do, the wind mimics my actions, tossing rain into my face and whipping my hair.  For the rest of my time on the cliff, it seems to pursue me, howling within the engine houses when I step into them.  It knows the stones better than I do, and uses them to create unusual sounds.  On one occasion, it creates a sound close to my feet that makes me stop still.  Like it knows of an  underground cavity, and is sweeping through it.

It doesn’t spook me at the time, because I assume there is a rational explanation for what I hear. But replaying it in my mind after I have come away makes my spine grow cold.  So, too, does the stone that I find in my pocket, days later, whilst searching for something else.  Now dry, its colour has paled to an anaemic pink.  It is almost as if it has been drained of something, and I wonder whether the colour slowly changed, unseen in my pocket, the further I took it away from its cliff.  

Poems about the air

This past week, on two occasions. I’ve been struck by the air.  Summer has been quite a letdown in Cornwall – it’s been a letdown across the whole UK.  I’ve always associated July with being summer fully ripened – heat, humidity, vegetation everywhere, air conditioning everywhere.  A bit of heavy rain and thunder, sure.  Barbecues and outdoor furniture on discount at the supermarkets, long evenings.

A receptionist said to me on Thursday, “Apparently, it’s going to be September.  That’s when the summer’s coming.”

Some can’t wait that long, down here.  People are beginning to get a little depressed.  I’m just happy to be by the sea, It’s still a novelty for me, so the gloom hasn’t filtered through just yet.  I’ve got no holiday planned, and no leave from a job to spend wisely anymore.  I’ve been living here in Falmouth for ten months.  I’ve been a student with a fairly unstructured daily routine for ten months.

Perhaps that’s why these poems came out this week.

 

 

Whilst waiting for the branch line at St Ives

In the shallow, honeyed song of hidden high birds

In the outbreaths of Porthminster’s shore

And in how my fringe slurs its forehead lick

In lethargy, I feel

The air of a town

Remote to so many

Yet baring itself, unobject, unsubject, to me.

 

Whilst running through Falmouth In July

As I ran, I played scientist.

Each breath in became a sample,

Each sample a question:

Could it be this scent, or this taste,

that makes me think of Wales?

 

On I pressed,

Cornish pavement to Pembrokeshire track,

English Channel salt crashing with the Atlantic

On black Aberfalin stone.

It hung on me like old love,

Tender to taste, fresh to breathe,

And as I looped Falmouth streets,

I knew:

 

Two barometer needles, was all,

Tapped by a finger on glass, huddled close to.

It was an overlap.  Memories on two sheets of acetate,

on an overhead projector, that I watched

Cross-legged

On a chair

In an air-conditioned room

In an office on an industrial estate –

 

So now there’s Rotherham, too,

And I ran around there, once, kicked through

July growth on a rare footpath,

a stump of two miles between

wheat fields and corrugate,

The sea an imagining I threaded

And left there, like a dropped spanner,

Between the two.

Number 1

I figured that a good place to start might be with something prewritten.

I wrote the below for a writing workshop, about 3 months ago.

When I want to be alone, I go running before anyone else wakes up.  I put on shorts and a T shirt, tie up my trainers.  I strap on my watch, flicking my wrist first out, then in, letting the catch find its familiar hole in the watchstrap.  Then I think twice and take it off, leaving it on my desk.  I peel the house key off my main set of keys, pad downstairs on the parts of stairs that don’t creak, and open the front door, taking care not to slam it shut behind me. Wherever I’ve lived over the past few years – be it in Hertford, where I used to run through the fields of a private estate, or in Dalston, where the care taken over door-slamming was unnecessary, seeing as the constant Zone 2 roar made the walls of our flat vibrate – the ritual was, and continues to be, the same.

For the solitude to work, you have to get out as early as you can.  In winter, I run down streets in complete darkness, running from memory of my surroundings in the light, waiting for the sunrise to catch up.  In summer, I run with the tail end of the dawn chorus, the chill on my arms torched off by the strength of morning sun.  I jog slowly and stiffly at first, breaking in my ankles, which respond like the spine of a book being flexed open for the first time.  Then I run as fast as I want, letting the mechanical movements take over.

It’s the mechanics that detune the wavelengths of my brain, like a fingertip rolling itself across a radio dial.  My head slowly fills with a white noise, over which only my heart, my breath, and my nervous system can make themselves heard.  I focus on emptying and filling my lungs.  I feel the shock of the ground through my ankles and knees and resist interpreting it, or deriving from it a train of thought.  It can work for about forty minutes.  After this time, the reason for my search for solitude finds a way to tune in, and people start to appear, going about their morning routines.

Last year, during the worst period of my job, I had to sack scores of people. I would run away from my laptop, my mobile phone, and my responsibility to everyone, as often as I could.  Sometimes I couldn’t wait for the following morning.  ‘I’m going out,’ I’d tell people I worked with over the phone, on days that the rest of the world recognized as weekends. ‘I don’t know when I’ll be back.’ I used to run like I was being chased, avoiding the main thoroughfares. When I lived in Stevenage, I had a loop of seldom-used subways that I ran through, smacking my palm against the wall of each as I passed.  It was not how I normally conducted myself, but the aggressive connection with something solid helped me to re-calibrate something inside.

Once, while working overnight in London, I got up at 5am and ran out of my hotel towards Blackfriars Bridge, overtaking late night partygoers sobering up in the dawn.  I finally ended up down Oxford Street, a road never normally accessible for a brisk walk, let alone a run.  The street cleaners were out, their machines sucking up junk from the gutters, but I was still alone: they didn’t take any notice of me as I darted around their one-man vehicles, with wide circular brushes that fed the machine’s jaws with rubbish, a fish feeding on plankton.

This year, now I live in Cornwall, I try to get myself lost if I need the solitude.  Yesterday I followed a footpath I’d never noticed before.  It slowly petered out into thick grass and uneven ground in the middle of a field. I ran bewildered, the dew juicing in my trainers, unsure where to run without a path to follow.  My watch had been left on my desk: I had no idea how long I’d been running for.  I didn’t know whether I was trespassing, and I wished I’d taken my phone with me.

I stood in the centre of that field for several minutes, panting, eyes searching for an exit.  It took an age to pick out the fence in the distance, over which I would then climb, snagging my shorts on its rusted barbwire.