Boom Years

IMG_0336We met on the beach. The tall black buildings, the upturned boats. A summer on a contract, re-laying the walkway underneath the cliff tops. Hungry days. Life guards shouting jokes from the pavilion, tourists complaining. No one really applying themselves, except you. At work early, reading Mircea Eliade by the war memorial, the names of the twenty sailors lost in the sinking of a submarine. You would call us back from the lunch breaks, a thin figure waving against the vast sun. Later that summer, we found a fossil of a lizard, slumbering inside oolite for half of the world.

On the night of the storm, we took shelter in an underpass in front of the harbour. Drank Kulov vodka from the bottle while cars were dragged back into the water. Surf thrust from up the sea wall, the repetitive thrash of a white wing. After it passed, we emerged into dusty light. The intense ripe stench of smashed kelp, sunlight a smeared pink. A heron basked upon a shopping trolley in the estuary. Taste of hash in the back of a minivan. Finishing the bottle on the sand, watching the gleeful circulations of a jet ski. Later, you taught me how to tie a crab line. On the TV screen, the storm graphic boiling above us, the red eye of a god.

When I first came here, you led me through the maze of residential areas. A monotonous utopia. In one road, a disused fire station had been converted into a church, a crucifix of dried wood hanging from the practice tower. The fort, the naval academy. You cited Daniel Defoe: that this part of the country always benefits from war. The main ambition is to be a policeman. The second, a celebrity. Common fears: drowning, paedophiles and The French. The old wharfs now house museums. I made love to your sister on that park bench, but we will never talk about it. Beside made love is probably stretching the creativity and the emotion.

During your teenage years, you used graffiti as an escape from a tragic upbringing. A father who vanished, a mother who drank, a friend who died in a manner for which you always felt responsible. Pale skin and a massive sweatshirt, genital traces on ash-smeared fingers. Two, three months of your life, and over twenty years ago, but even now, as I walk to work, I still encounter the tags. You called yourself Poet, which I still find comforting. For a while, I’d point these marks out to you, until I realised they were an embarrassment. A smile always beams from the centre of the O.

Your sister once had a dream where she was actually fire. Did she ever tell you? Not on fire, but the element itself. Said it was totally captivating. My fingers dripping heat which became my fingers, my vision spread out like the ridged surface of a river. This is the way that words fail. All of it on a note she left on my fridge. Considering she ended up housebound with agoraphobia, I always found the next part horribly prescient. I never went out.

Every May in this town, they celebrate a festival. The March of the Sea Angel. The myth is that one winter a huge creature washed up on the shores. Part fish and part bird, the cartilaginous wings feathered with yellow algae. Eyes the blind colour of vast dull pearls, the cruel mouth of a pike. This was very long ago. The corpse was paraded in the market place, allowed to fester over a number of weeks. But then, the fishing boats returned with empty holds, the sea refusing its bounty. The town came close to dying. Perhaps they looked for other economies, but none of this is recorded. Only the magic survives. And so, of course, once the corpse was returned to the sea, the boats claimed their plentiful holds. Prosperity returned, the carefree life of the boom years.

These days, local schools take turns to design a sea angel, there are floats and parades, salted herring hanging from the lamp posts. A song, which I’ve forgotten. I know you’ve always liked to pretend there was a continuity with the time of myth, but the truth is that the story was forgotten until the late nineteenth century. The rituals of the festival established: an ancient ruin commissioned by an industrialist. Things are never quite as old as we imagine.

The last time I saw you, you were delivering leaflets for an insurance company through a sixties estate. Cars with fish symbols on the forecourt of the church. I guess it helps to know the lay of the land. These days, I rent a unit in the harbour business park. I have a desk now, a phone. A picture on the wall of a Greek island.

Some lunchtimes, I head over to the nearby pub, remote work while looking over the yachts. Once upon a time, this was the custom house, the flow of commerce catalogued and measured, statistics of the body politic. But there is nothing more vital than a pint in the afternoon. I do marketing work for a bank, but for you there is no credit.

© Daniel Bennett

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