She was meandering along the shore between water and strand line – the littoral, the Queen’s land. The beauty of the evening bypassed her, eyes at her feet, not the horizon.
I wouldn’t have noticed her but I got a stitch. Bent over, panting like a greyhound, I’d turned to enjoy the sparkle of the setting sun on the waves, admire the vegetation, breathe clean sea air until it passed.
The dynamics of running preoccupied me. If I was better, it wouldn’t matter which way the wind blew; breezy, I could choose to go out with it behind me and run further than I planned then struggle back, or battle against it and enjoy an easy ride home. There’s also the blinding sun. On calm dull days I could just run.
That’s what my brother tells me to do anyway, just run. It’s alright for him, he’s a natural. See him smoothly racing along the prom and you admire him; see me and you wonder what possesses me.
There she was, a beachcomber. A queen, walking her realm. As the pain abated, I watched her progress, wondering what she was looking for. Buried treasure? Or, more prosaically, shells, hag stones, cuttlefish for a beloved budgie?
She was distinctive: swirly skirt, chunky hand-knit emerald beanie. Carefully chosen or carelessly thrown together? Sensible blue wellies meant she didn’t fear the water. From the promenade I couldn’t tell whether she was young or old but, bending down to pick something from the sand, she moved with ease and grace. Not old then. What had she found?
‘What do you think about swimming with dolphins?’ I was having coffee with my boss when he posed this question.
‘How will the dolphins feel about it?’ I asked. He laughed; he’d expected an off-the-wall response.
‘My wife and children want to do it when we’re in Florida, but I’m not sure – it’s a lot of money. On the other hand, we might never be there again.’
‘If that’s your only concern,’ I said, ‘you might as well do it. Can’t you swim like dolphins instead?’
Early one morning, I was swimming with seaweed as this conversation drifted back into my mind. A slippery shiny maroon string caught on my fingers as a leafy lettuce floated past.
They went to Florida; they didn’t swim with dolphins. A minor success.
Derr de de, derr de de … Bowie’s heroic driving rhythms pounded through my head. I swam faster, piked and dived like dolphins. Nobody can hear you sing when you’re mangling one of your favourite songs. I turned onto my back and sculled for a while, enjoying the relief from waves sloshing my face.
The sea was deceptive – waves coming on-shore diagonally from the east and wind blowing from the west. Wind over tide. Net result: no relaxed floating, but constant action or I’d drift away down the beach and have a long trudge back along the shingle.
I wondered how far those waves had come to wash up on Eastney beach. From the warm Caribbean? The remnants of a hurricane? Energy transferred from one side of the Atlantic to the other.
Urrrggh, what was that? A jellyfish? Something slimy enveloped my hand. I turned turtle and looked – a plastic bag. I was half relieved – at least I wouldn’t be stung – and half irritated. Why was my peaceful swim interrupted by something so alien?
The moment spoilt, I grasped the drowned bag and swam back to the shore, ouching my way up the stones to wrap up in my towel. It was almost warmer in than out.
I sat for a few moments enjoying the calm before the storm of work. There were few people out at this time of day except for dog walkers ignoring the signs and taking their animals along the shore.
While I was sitting there, packing up my things, I realised that the bag was the least of it – I was surrounded by plastic rubbish. The high water line of bladderwracks was intertwined with crisp packets, pink cotton bud sticks, bobbly ice cream spoons, crushed plastic bottles. I picked out some of the big easy bits, and took them up to a bin, then walked home via Canoe Lake, despairing at the bare earth patches where barbecues had burned the grass.
‘Bag-gate’ prompted me to make changes. I knew I was part of the problem.
At first I’d have to walk home from the shops juggling too many items because I’d rejected the plastic carrier bag. Then I discovered how good the market was – lots of loose fruit and veg went into my backpack. I invested in a collapsible coffee cup, a proper drinks bottle and a sandwich box for work. Goodbye meal deals. I’m putting the money I save in a jar – not sure what I’ll do with it yet.
Bathroom routine changed too. No more plastic-stem cotton buds, soap instead of shower gel, certainly no baby wipes. I’m still struggling with tooth-brushing.
Achilles tendinitis struck – running was out for a while. Summer over, I’d stopped swimming too. I missed communing with the wind and sea, so I took to walking, beachcombing. Sometimes I took a bin bag, a charity bag posted through my letter box, and filled it with rubbish. Sometimes I just meandered, searching.
One day, after a storm, the shore was littered with stranded starfish. Feeling squeamish, I picked some squishy bodies up and tossed them back. Did it make a difference?
Once I found one of those clay pebbles someone had made for an art project. Other unexpected things came my way – a pinecone, a pecking pigeon, a sand mermaid with luxurious flowing seaweed locks.
I saw her again, my beachcomber, same hat, same wellies, walking towards me, head down, scanning the beach just above the ripples. She looked up when I came into her orbit; we exchanged little nods and half-smiles. Our hands were empty – the volunteer beach-cleaners had done a good job at the weekend and there wasn’t much to glean.
My brother and I met for lunch in Old Portsmouth, seafood fresh from the Camber and a view up the harbour to match any in the world. He had a recipe for me from his wife – home-made hummus. If it was as good as her flapjack, it would be great.
We wandered around the arches, admiring pottery, weaving, paintings, then headed back to my flat for a cup of tea via stone-skimming at the Hot Walls and a walk along Victoria Pier, hoping to hear clicking, fruitlessly looking out to sea for bottlenose dolphins. Then we found a craft fair in the Square Tower.
There she was, behind a table topped with blue oil-cloth. No sign she recognised me as I stopped to look, but why should she? I was just a potential customer.
A yacht fashioned from wood with crisp packet sails took centre stage. At one end were picture frames of bleached wood with spirals, winkles and whelks, the mixed bag the Solent throws up. Mobiles of driftwood and shiny-pink oyster shells hung above. The usual seaside fare.
The other end displayed a different range – bangles fashioned from plaited plastic fishing line, flip-flops turned into coasters, plastic-bottle-jelly-fish, mosaics, all sorts of recycled stuff.
My brother was talking to a watercolourist as I examined the table, eyes down, too awkward to speak or look at her. I browsed around the other stalls before coming back, drawn both by her and her crafts.
‘Hallo,’ I said. ‘I love your work. Where do you get your ideas from?’
Not a great opening line but at least I’d started a conversation.
‘It all depends what I come across,’ she replied. ‘Everything’s from Southsea beach.’
‘Amazing – what a load of rubbish we produce. And you turn it into treasure. How clever.’ Was I being too creepy?
‘You should see what I leave behind, but that’s a matter for SAS – Surfers Against Sewage. Can’t make anything of that.’
‘Ooooh, gruesome,’ I sympathised. I cast another look over the items, wondering what to buy. I chose wind chimes to hang outside my kitchen window; the sound of driftwood and shells would remind me.
At home, taking it out of the paper bag, flyers fell out – SAS, and her upcycling workshop on a Saturday in a couple of weeks’ time. And I’m free!
I dangle the wind chimes on an old hanging-basket hook outside my back door and enjoy the click and clatter in the gentle breeze.
SC’s inspiration: ‘Eastney beach is one of my favourite places in the whole world. My family have swum there over 4 generations. I’m always intrigued by the strange things that one comes across, washed up or left behind – anything is possible.’
Pens of the Earth is about environmental tales from a positive Portsmouth – encouraging writers to celebrate existing environmental initiatives, and to imagine what might be.
Read more at their website: www.pensoftheearth.co.uk.
Sign up to the Pens of the Earth mailing list.
Star & Crescent are proud to support Pens of the Earth as a media partner. Stay up to date with all the Pens of the Earth stories as they’re published here.