Another bit of writing from maybe 10 years ago. I’m going to put it in a new category which I’ll call ‘longer writing’, and I’ll add some of the other stuff that fits more comfortably there. It’s fun and I think it still stands up. The obsession with crab sandwiches is still alive and well!
Six months ago, in April, we were in a beach café in Cornwall. It was the notice that caught my eye first. It was to the left of a whole line of fruit sundae goblets on the top shelf; written by hand on a piece of pale brown cardboard that was just an inch too deep for the space it occupied, and so it was folded over at the top and jammed fat-bellied into place. In particular the hand in which the sign was written told its own story as all the letters were inscribed in a slightly florid hand that drew inspiration from a hundred typefaces. The W in waitress resembled Neptune’s fork, which was fortuitous since the café, being perched at the edge of the sea, specialised in seafood. You could only imagine the sign resulting from a particularly trying day when steam clouded the windows and the tourists persisted in queuing at the sweets display. The owner, who was eating with friends near us had, or at least his haircut seemed to have, pretentions, notwithstanding which, I couldn’t think it was he who wrote the notice which was in too feminine hand. I scanned the waiting staff who were waiting indeed since it was a cold but bright day with a cold northerly wind and occasional flurries of hail battering down between periods of sunshine. They were students, any of whom would have knocked out a typographically perfect notice on their computers in less time than it takes to throw two teabags into a stainless steel pot.
Something about the notice seemed to be pushing beyond the pale‑blue painted wooden shingles and the gift shop next door, perched as they were on the edge of a cliff with nowhere else but the sea to expand. Something about the almost innocently applied curlicues and serifs of the felt‑tip writing that subliminally referred to a higher authority, One to whom passes would be shewn, and from whose carriages one might alight rather than simply get off. Something about the plurality of waitresses waiting to attend which elevated the café beyond the ordinary.
And yet it was the ordinary.
Maybe, I thought, the notice was supremely ironic. Maybe it was one of the waiting staff’s idea of a joke – but again a joke at whom? But the staff seemed too young and inexperienced to have developed the necessary detachment for such a quiet joke, and too worldly to be capable of feigning its innocence.
The proprietor’s mother came to mind, and then went again. His partner, perhaps? (assuming he had one) but then I was into the territory of the seaside postcard, of burst pretentions, red noses, weedy men and enormous women. Even storytellers have their limits. Any further investigation would have been pointless because the truth – were it ever possible to know it – would have been simple, indivisible and I suspect rather moving. A moment of innocent aspiration through which a cardboard sign came to embody something a bit weightier than the simple instruction “Don’t queue!” When someone gave a notice something extra and launched it into the world full of hope. Hope for a bigger, better world where hard work might be rewarded and beach huts might mature into restaurants: but eventually, just like those of us who also come to find something beautiful, lost at the sea’s edge, it was washed up on the top shelf, next to the fruit sundae goblets and other lost dreams. Worn down by that other tide that ebbs and flows up and down the motorway.
And weren’t we just a part of that tide? In October of the same year we were back again on an uncannily similar day. Squally north-westerly showers were driving across the coastal path. We had parked in the centre of Lizard village and walked across the fields to Kynance Cove along one of those raised paths you often see in that part of the country where the footpath is actually the top of the wall. There’s always a mild sense of illicit pleasure in following them. Kynance was, as usual crowded with visitors. Apart from one or two teenagers heedlessly surfing in the cold sea, the majority of us were crowding the beach in stout shoes and Gore-Tex jackets. The English middle-classes at leisure, replete with Labradors and wellingtons and loud voices and the certainty that everyone else on the beach will be fascinated to listen in on our conversations. Forty years previously we had stalked the same beach as students, and scraped our last coppers together to buy the best cucumber sandwiches we’d ever tasted. We had slept on the clifftop and camped at a local farm and I’d quietly hated all the people who seemed never to have to worry about money, and who called their children Henry, and who only needed to think of something in order to do it.
Walking then, as now, back to Lizard Point along the cliff nothing had changed. In the intervening years the chough had disappeared and miraculously reappeared a couple of summers previously. We had seen both the last of the original population and the first of the pioneers, newly arrived we were told, from France.
Then, our skin was brown, and our hair was bleached by the same sun that still appeared from time to time between the showers. Unaware of our beauty we resented the very people who would have given their right arms to have a single day of our freedom. It’s a malign culture that can so arrange our consciousness that we rarely understand what bliss is until it slips through our fingers.
Then, we had feasted one day on a plate of ludicrously expensive crab sandwiches and enjoyed every last crumb as if it were the foretaste of a kingdom of plenty in which we would always be the outsiders. So to tell the truth, I suppose half the reason for going back forty years later was to enjoy the sensation of ordering the same round of sandwiches – ‘no – lets have one each’- without caring what it cost. This was something of a challenge because, ‘though we now have a lot more money than we did, the cost of a crab sandwich was on the far side of my pain threshold.
So our revisit in the autumn had more than a touch of the pilgrimage about it. In the meantime I had tried to write about the notice which had unaccountably pressed itself on my attention. Why on earth should a piece of card become the central thought in a piece of writing – except why on earth should it not? It had got under my skin, as had the owner’s haircut, and exposed a vein of mean spiritedness in me that I disliked intensely. The writing – I didn’t know what to call it – had ground to a halt at the point where the real significance of the epiphany had run out, and all I could all upon to complete it seemed hopeless, shoddy, lazy and brutal.
Then we went back and a saw the sign again and I had the sudden urge to photograph it, to preserve it. With a bit of prompting I asked the waitress if she would mind. Was she the waitress though? There was something about her that radiated a bit more authority, as if she was moving in her space. She fitted her skin, which was a surprise because just by virtue of that observable fact my thesis – that the café was the site of an imploded dream – crashed in flames. She didn’t mind, ‘though she asked with a smile if I was photographing it because we had waited for so long. The café was crowded with walkers sheltering from the icy showers. I couldn’t tell her the reason, but she was happy enough for me to take it; she even offered to pose in front of it. ‘No need’ – I thought. We ate our sandwiches which were lovely. Brown bread and butter, crab meat with plenty of the brown meat heaped on. Nothing added and nothing needed. One pot of tea for two. I caught her giving me strange glances from time to time. Why on earth would anyone want to photograph a notice? I kicked myself for not taking up her offer to pose, and yet how would that have helped. She was probably the owner, or the co-owner, or the owner’s partner. They had built up a perfectly lovely café which was the expression of the best they could do there with that particular site and with their particular talents. It was, like every other human enterprise, good – very good in parts. The notice was factual – ‘Please take a seat, a waitress will come to your table.’ Well that’s what happened wasn’t it. Apart from the incredible castles-in-the-air- building capacity of my writer’s imagination.
Then I unexpectedly caught sight of myself for a moment in a large mirror. That’s never a very comfortable moment in my experience, with no time to compose the face and arrange the presentation. Just another middle aged, middle class bloke in an expensive waterproof jacket. Who, I thought, was feeling sorry for whom? Isn’t there always something melancholy about the seaside? That’s why we go there – to remind ourselves of our finitude. To listen to the melancholy soft withdrawing roar of our own aspirations and, if we are very lucky to eat a crab sandwich and laugh out loud at our pretentions.