Coverack

David Harsent

The trick was to keep things normal, or so I thought,
and what better than this – the sea on one hand,
a hillside of fern and furze on the other,
the tumulus on Lowland Point as a marker?
Everything there was part of the fair-weather future
I’d picked out for myself;
I could number the gulls and masts, I’d shifted the wind,
and just as you might expect I expected a man
in a clinker-built skiff
taking a catch of fish this side of the headland,
and so he was. As I stood to watch
he fetched in a line of mackerel bright as the day.

So with all that perfectly placed and my mind on nothing,
or nothing much, the last thing I wanted to see
was this bundle of bones and old nankeen
come clipper-clop sideways out of a thicket of whin
and onto the path, pop-eyed and stony-still
as if to face me down. What passed
between us then was the start of everything –
a crack of anger from me which the hare took up
as a token to draw me through the whin
then down a slither of sand and shale
to the sea, where I followed her shitty scut
between serpentine pillars that seemed to stand as a gateway,
then up to my knees in water, up to my chin,
until I was breathing water and the hare
stroking away in front. The sunlight broke rods
in the shallows, a glassy dazzle,
so I couldn’t tell if the hare became a man
or that bugaboo lurched up from the deeper green
to head me off, a dead one for sure, with his eyes
like peeled eggs and his mossy smile.

He took me at the elbow and barged the tide,
towing me out half a mile or more, then down
to darker water – just enough light to show
a four-masted ship canted over, her bows stove in.
‘Homeward bound,’ he said, ‘with a cargo of nitrates from Chile,
when a blizzard put us onto the Manacles reef.
The captain, his wife, his children
died at once, but the ship took her time;
most of the crew spent the night
in the rigging and froze to death.’ I looked down
and there they were, birds in a leafless tree.

‘What’s my part in this,’ I wanted to say,
‘why bring me here?’ Water purled in my throat
and a sound rang into the sea. He lifted a hand
and sent his fingers across my face. ‘You think
we’ve got the wrong man? It’s always possible,
but try a few questions now
to settle the matter’ – as he shifted his grip to my wrist
and brought us close to the surface. ‘Did someone you love
ever die, or else did you wish
someone would? Did you ever come to grief
thanks to a lie? Did your hand
ever cheat your eye? Did you ever
long for the sea as you might have longed for your bed?’

I couldn’t speak, which seemed to sting him as much
as any backchat. He put his palm to my chin
and shoved my face to the skim of the sea. ‘The right man,
of course you are. Now look ashore
and tell me what’s there.’
Salt and sunlight gave it a grainy bloom,
the colour pretty much gone from everything,
white trees, white hills, white stones in the harbour wall,
white buildings, my wife’s white face, white faces
of my children staring out across the bay
as if they might catch my eye,
already whitened by sunlight and salt,
between an acre of sea and an acre of sky.

The answer –? The answer is –? The answer, I thought,
is to slip this dead hand and swim
for that stony spit and the serpentine rocks,
where I fished myself out and stripped off
laying my clothes on a whinbush
to take the sun. ‘So here you sit mother-naked
the chill of the sea still on you’ – the hare dug a tick
from the scraggy skin under her jaw – ‘and what do you know
that you didn’t know before?’ I thought of the time
I’d spent all night on the streets
with Ragabones and the rest, the meths
going hand to hand, a knife in my pocket
that would never have made the difference, but sharp enough,
anyway, to flay a hare. I stretched out on the pebbles
alongside a scree of bottles and cola cans
and closed my eyes to it all. She clattered round
and hit my arm with her foot,
hard, so I felt the nails. ‘You’re disappointed,
is that it? A drowned man for your education
and nothing gained? What were you hoping for?’
‘Something,’ I said, ‘as much a nugget
as a bird’s idea of flight.’ ‘That’s what it is,’ she said
and laughed out loud, ‘that’s just
what you’ll come to, dreamless and changeless,
alone in some place like this, or one in a crowd.’