I came through the tea-trees to the beach. A film crew was down there, which was a surprise. So early too: it was mid-summer certainly, but not much past six am, and they looked to be packing up already. Perhaps they’d wanted the dawn light. They were close to the water’s edge, apart from two men a little way up the sand who seemed to be discussing something privately.

I felt shy and avoided them all. I saw myself as they’d see me: the stick-like ankles, straggle of beard, age uncertain but hair greying. In my overalls and thongs. I walked in an arc around them, down to the edge of the sea. It was a suburban beach and the waves carried all sorts of plastic and cardboard rubbish. Perhaps they’d come to film the pollution.

Beyond them I now noticed a row of shapes made of sand, like sculptures – made only of sand, as far I could see, so how they held together was a mystery. The tallest was perhaps five feet high. They went on for some distance, near the tide line, and it looked as though the waves or sea spray had damaged them at some point during the night. What they were doing there I couldn’t guess. Perhaps a large group of kids had built them the day before, or they were an artist’s work, or perhaps there’d been some kind of competition. Beyond them, the beach was an empty pale sweep under the sky.

I assumed that the film people could tell me something about the sculptures, but I never have the courage to speak to such people. They’re too tight knit. You see film crews now and then in the parks or on the street; they don’t have to hunt down a milk bar or cafe, they always bring along their own bus or van, full of food and drinks and caterers. They give each other their full regard, one always has something that needs saying to the next. Outsiders have no point of entry. This lot looked formidably well dressed. What they took me for I hate to think, something from another planet I expect.

But I had to speak to someone, so I approached the two men standing apart. As I came up to them their conversation ceased.

One was tallish and young, with fine blond hair. On the scrawny side, the knock-kneed type. He had a thin neck and protruding adam’s apple. He wore rimless glasses and seemed well dressed and neat. The other man was older, stouter, and shorter. And balding. He wore a paint-stained black jumper fraying at the sleeves, and under that a flannelette shirt, and then jeans and boots. He seemed the more approachable of the two.

“Are you with the film people?” I asked him. But he didn’t reply or even look at me. A breeze blew up. He just stood there with the other man, the wind ruffling everyone’s hair. I would have walked away but then the other man spoke.

“No we’re not with the film crew. We’re not with each other either. I’m Ted and this is Bob. Bob was just telling me he’s been collecting rubbish from the beach, and he’s already finished for the morning. I was asking him how those shapes in the sand came to be here. Perhaps it would help if you ask too.”

“Did you make those shapes in the sand?” I asked. Bob shook his head and looked at me for the first time, squinting against the growing glare. “No. No I didn’t think you would have. They look like the work of quite an army actually. But were you here to see them built? Or here, at least, before they were damaged?” He nodded.

“They filmed it.”

“Oh, right. They filmed the sculptures, or whatever they are.” He didn’t answer. “So you saw those shapes in the sand, before the waves half washed them away.” His voice was hard to understand and I didn’t catch his reply. Ted watched us. He had a way of frowning that made him seem disapproving, but I think he was just trying to concentrate. He repeated the gist of my question to Bob.

“I can only half remember,” said Bob.

“What’s the half you do remember?” asked Ted. Bob nodded at the line of shapes in the sand, as at something self-evident. Meanwhile the film crew were passing us. They were all made up and lipsticked, like dolls. I wanted to catch someone’s eye to inquire about their work, but they acted as though we didn’t exist. We might as well have been trees. Ted ignored them completely, and I wished now that I’d done so too; he’d held his dignity that way.

He turned to me.

“The shapes might have been abstract art,” he said, “but my guess is that they depicted a cityscape of buildings. If you look at those on higher ground, which are less damaged, they seem to be honeycombed with holes that suggest windows. But they were all touched, whatever they were, by high tide. See? The waves and foam and sea-spray came in just far enough to reach them, lick them a bit and then go.”

“When was high tide?” I asked.

“Half an hour ago,” Bob said.

“You’ve forgotten what they were in the space of half an hour?” asked Ted.

“I forgot right when the waves washed up.”

“You mean you forgot what the sculptures were at once? Simultaneously with their physical erosion?” asked Ted. I tried to catch his eye, to share a moment of disbelief, but he didn’t look at me.

“That’s what I mean,” said Bob. He laughed. Again it was hard to catch his words. He had front teeth missing and asthmatic breath. At that point he wandered away, and I was left with Ted.

“And what are you doing down here?” he asked me.

“I’m looking for some friends whom I lost last night. They went to the wrong pub or else I did, we got our wires crossed.” Ted seemed to be looking at me from a considerable social distance, like a doctor, a specialist, looking over a public ward patient. He moved his lips slightly. The sand blew all around us. I wanted to make a good impression on him. “You see I need advice. I was having an argument with another fellow, a mutual friend or rather a friend of my other friends. It was about linguistics, or philosophy – I forget some of it now – I was telling this man – you see he was arguing his point a bit sharply to my friends, who walked off. He stressed them out. I put this to him he scoffed. He said to me ’they’re out of their depth, that’s all.’ ‘All at sea you mean,’ I said. You know, I said it as a joke, we were so near the beach. But I mean there was no harm done, we parted well, neither of us downhearted by the argument or by the weight of the world’s cares – but I came here to check for my friends – to the sea.” I felt suddenly panicky. I so much wanted this Ted to understand, and to make it all clear to me. He squeezed his eyes shut, rubbed the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger.

“It’s morning now,” he said, “and this business with your friends happened at a pub last night. Are you really so likely to find them again? Down here?”

It was too much to think on.

“Ted, please don’t leave here without me.”

“You have no friends at all,” he said.



Joined February 2009

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