Shingle and Sand

‘Shingle and Sand’ received a ‘Commended’ in the 2015 Segora International Writing competition.

The judges wrote: Shingle and Sand: (Harriet Springbett, France) An evocative, beautifully written piece conjuring up an old man’s memories, with the rhythm of the sea.

 

Here’s a comment from a reader:

“It’s beautiful. I put it on my kindle and read it twice over after I finished yesterday. Love the sea and beach symbolism and the shape of the beach. The other world you describe is just so vibrant: the colours and scents and delicate intricacy of it. Like I say, beautiful.”

***

Shingle and Sand

Every year the sea comes closer. Every year a little more of his garden slips downwards into the dark mass of ocean. Soon, he and his house will succumb to its inexorable advance and slide into oblivion.

His daughter threatens him with this presage; wearing him down like the waves on a pebble, eroding his reasons to stay in his birthplace, denying his wishes to wait for the end here. Reduced to a grain of sand, he has acquiesced, though he knows his move to a retirement home won’t stop the sea consuming what little is left.

The first six steps of the staircase demand a crescendo of effort. He places his right foot, in its chequered slipper, on the seventh. His daughter had told him to wait for her. He puts both his hands on his thigh, pushes down and heaves his weight onto it, bringing his left foot up to join the right. Seven, he breathes to himself. He is a toddler again, counting the steps cut into the cliff path with his mother. Eight. Pause. Nine. Pause. He presses one hand against the wall. The other, a horny gull’s foot, grips the handrail. At ten, he nudges open the attic door.

The air is stale, fusty with the ghosts of time-corroded memories. He shuffles to the chair, holds onto the armrests and lowers himself into it. Beyond the cardboard boxes, through the grimy glass of the dormer window, he can see the swell of the waiting sea. Each time the grasping waves withdraw, the curve of stony beach leers up at him. Back in the forties, his schoolmistress had referred to the pattern of pebbles as ‘longshore drift’. He’d been surprised that scholars had noticed the sea’s organisation of his little smile of shoreline. Beyond the boxes, he watches the smirk appear and reappear, appear and reappear.

The boxes contain his life. His daughter doesn’t understand that this is all he has, now; all he’ll ever have. Anything new he does these days recedes before it reaches his memory. His mind is like the beach below: the big pebbles at the near end of the beach are his old, familiar memories, easy to find and gather; smoothed by regular caresses. Everything else slithers between the pebbles, is swept to the far end of the beach and sinks into watery obscurity. His brain has no room for shingle and sand.

He turns from the hypnotic ebb and flow outside the window and contemplates the attic jetsam. His daughter has already alighted on his life’s debris and picked it over. Peg-legged chairs and wrecked picture frames sag against one wall, and a statue of Venus dominates the centre. She has nested the boxes around his chair. Only one can accompany him to the retirement home.

The attic stillness echoes downstairs. She won’t come until this afternoon. He leans forward and faces the first box. The flaps underlap each other in an eternal ring, a signature of his wife’s packing. A small, rectangular hole in the centre invites him to penetrate her souvenirs. He crooks his already crooked index finger, hooks it beneath one flap and pulls, sliding in the rest of his hand as the gap opens.

She’d been rigorous in packing the boxes by date: her longshore drift ranges from her childhood bible to their son’s New Zealand postcards. He pushes aside a bag of knitted baby socks and smocks, and draws out her withered ballet shoes. He strokes the musty satin uppers and pinches the intransigent wooden tips. She’d danced into his teenage heart and enchanted him with the promise of transcendence – a promise that had crashed to the boards with her unexpected pregnancy.

He drops the ballet shoes back into the box and reaches into the next one. His fingers brush against rounded porcelain with unexpected sharp edges. She’d hoarded his failures in this box; packed them away but kept them nevertheless.

A Chinese dragon’s tail curls up from beneath chipped plates, amputated where the tip of the spout is broken. He searches for the corresponding pebble in his mind. When he pushes the plates to one side and draws out the teapot, his fingers tremble. This had been his apology to his wife. She’d hurled it against the kitchen wall. He turns the scarred dragon around in his hands and remembers her moment of jealous passion, a rare squall in the years of dull, blue monotony. He thought she’d thrown the pieces away.

In the bottom corner of the box, under the teapot’s resting place, he sees another Chinese motif. In her innocence, his wife had matched the yin and yang of his transgression. She’d buried them together, here, far from temptation. He closes his eyes and listens to the gush and drag, gush and drag of waves on the seashore, until his internal tides calm to the same, steady rhythm. Then he opens his eyes and rescues his treasure.

The tea caddy quakes in the tremor of his grasp. Its hand-painted red lotus flowers twine among peonies and Buddha-hand citrons; delicate stems twist around the fluted edges of the tin. He strains open the lid. Memories of heartbreak mingle with the smoky aroma of Lapsong Souchong that wisps from the golden interior. Lotus for the purity and perfection of their impossible love, Fen had said; peonies for peace, and the Buddha-hand citron for luck. It was her parting gift, painted for him in her luminous studio above the teashop during the dark hours that had foreshadowed their last meeting.

He raises the caddy to his nose and breathes in their first encounter. Winter 1978, slush on the London streets, fog in his mind from sleepless nights with wailing babies, a heart frozen by his wife’s icy rebuffs. He’d been selected to take part in the China-UK technical exchange programme, and The 48 Group had recommended her as a Mandarin and Chinese culture teacher. Miss Lin, they’d said: Fen Lin. Fen, meaning fragrance.

He remembered how he’d bustled from the noisy street through the dolls’-house doorway into the teashop, hunched against the falling sleet, struggling to fold his umbrella, his briefcase clenched under one arm. He’d shoved the door closed behind him and poised, a dripping sculpture, on the brink of a new world.

The teashop was a gold and black cave; narrow, dim and impenetrably deep. Shelves of ornate tea caddies were scalloped into bays along the length of the room. Each bay harboured a small round table and chairs. Racks of baskets overflowing with Chinese mysteries formed headlands between each one. He stepped down onto the bare floorboards and breathed in rice paddies, tea bushes and Qing porcelain. He wanted to kick off his shoes and explore the depths of the room. He wanted to trespass beyond the silk screen painted with Forbidden City palaces. He wanted to creep into the core of the shop’s essence.

He tiptoed through the tranquillity towards the counter, and waited. A notice beside the bell invited him to ring for service. He ignored it, closed his eyes and let his shoulders relax. The steamy warmth and peace were a haven from the turmoil of the streets, from the winter, his office, home.

When he opened his eyes the Chinese goddess Matsu stood before him in her red dress. She introduced herself as Lin Fen, took his coat and umbrella and guided him to the table beside the shop window. She didn’t offer him tea, not at first. Her voice was as melodious as the chime of yacht rigging in a gentle salt breeze. He was lulled in the rocking Sampam of her welcome.

She suggested they get to know each other. The teashop belonged to her Chinese father. His passion for tea had ignited Fen’s flame for her father’s country, and every year they closed the shop to travel to the tea provinces. Yunnan, Fujian, Anhui, Zhejiang: he listened, spellbound, as her scarlet mouth begot images of pagodas, misty mountains and processions of fiery dragons. When he reached towards them with his questions they shimmered and tantalised him like mirages.

Her dark eyes were still dreamy as she leant forwards and asked him to talk about himself. The red, green and gold visions vanished, replaced by his everyday grey. He started to tell her about his telecommunications work and his forthcoming trip to Peking. To his surprise, a tidal wave of angst welled up inside him: the stress of his job, his frustrations with his handicapped adult son, the baby twins, a submerged wife. His words swept across the strand between them, spent their briny intensity on the shore of her understanding and then receded.

A serene lagoon remained, connecting them. Its waters stretched towards the horizon and reflected the dawn of realisation in their eyes. In the hush of their wonder, she stood up and chose a peaty Shou Pu-erh to serve him. She said its deep, rich flavour would linger in his palate’s memory and entice him back the following week.

It was the Chinese emperor Shen Nung who discovered tea, she told him when he arrived ten minutes early for his next lesson. While the emperor was resting under a Camellia Sinensis tree, its dried leaves blew into his boiling water. It was an accident, she told him, and she poured Keemun with her fine artist’s hands. It may never have come about without the accidental meeting of dried leaf and hot water. Their eyes engaged over the tiny teacups and she quickly turned to her lesson notes.

The Keemun was a black tea from the Anhui province, she said, and he remarked on its hint of sweetness. She asked him if he could taste the nutty note, and served another round with the same tealeaves. They took a sip. He savoured their shared moment of warm, wet lips. A wrinkle of concentration rippled her brow as she searched for a word to express the lightly scented flavour. Anhui, she sighed. An undercurrent of yearning eddied outwards from her. He lay down his pen and yielded to the undertow. At sunrise in the Huangshan mountains, she said, the peaks drop their night-time shrouds and bare their granite tips; hot springs bubble on the pine-clad slopes where snow and clouds become one.

He was twenty minutes early for the next lesson, and half an hour early for the following one. Each week they navigated one table further from the stormy world outside the teashop window and cruised closer to the Forbidden City. She was the moon, dragging tides of desire from his static depths with her talk of teas and faraway lands. The earthy Dian Hong black tea, served with milk, conjured Yunnan fields of flowers where Chinese roofs curled at the tips like drying leaves. The Longjing green tea from Hangzhou invoked a land of fish and rice.

Their love had unfurled like dried tealeaves in steaming water. With each successive serving the flavour became rounder, fuller, more complex. By the end of the winter the teashop was the crest of his week.

At the spring Equinox she’d told him she was crossing the ocean to China. She’d urged him to come with her. He’d hesitated. She’d pleaded. He’d wavered. Then his wife had eclipsed the moon: alongside the twin’s lips, a cancer was feeding from her breast.

The last time he saw Fen she was wearing a traditional silk dress embroidered with lotus flowers, peonies and Buddha-hand citrons. It was their farewell lesson. She turned the ‘open’ sign on the teashop door to ‘closed’, took his hand and steered him towards the Forbidden City.

The niche behind the screen was adorned with tapestries of gilt peacocks and crimson orchids. Deep, soft cushions circled a low table garnished with tea-making utensils and musk incense candles. He sank under the weight of sadness onto a cushion, accompanied by muted Nanguan music.

‘The Gong-Fu Cha tea ceremony,’ she murmured, ‘with Tie Guan Yin from the Fujian province.’ He waited for her mellow words to seduce him. Instead, she sterilised the miniature cups and ceramic teapot, held out the caddy of leaves, told him to inhale their fragrance. He could only smell the bitter tang of separation.

For months after her disappearance from his sky, he’d felt her gravitational pull. For years he’d walked the length of the beach in the dark night and kicked pebbles against the sea’s ordination.

His tired fingers caress the curves of his tea caddy, its pattern the image of her dress. Today’s grey pebbles could have been jewels, had he dared sail with her. But she was the moon, destined to travel through the sky; and he was the steadfast sea.

He belongs to the ocean. Soon his ashes will dissolve in its salt water. He has no need of boxes. Everything is shingle and sand, shingle and sand.

© Harriet Springbett, 2015

 

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