There was such a moon that night! The luminescent flesh of the strand, the chopped frosting on the water, could be observed as bright as day. That, as it turned out, was less of a boon than one might imagine. Many eyes supped on horrors that night that their memories would have rather erased.
A ship rounds the headland. It should not be here in this remote Welsh cove. The destination is Liverpool, some miles to the East. She is pilot-less, struggling under steam, breathless and gasping into the wind. She is a new ship, clipper rigged and engine equipped, but her sails are furled and she lists and fetches with the swell. It is shallow here; there are rocks, winds, tides, rips. Why are you here, ship?
She anchors stern and aft and prolongs her fate a few hours. Suddenly, she is broadside to the waves. No! No! Turn about! Ah! She is swamped, listing on her sides. Those inside are rattled like peas in a pan. A man is overboard. The deck is at a crazy angle and the life boats swing ineffectually. How to launch them now? Men, women, children, skitter across the deck. A woman’s child is thrown out of her arms. She clings briefly to the deck and then slides after it in a tangle of skirt.
A boat is launched. There are three occupants, rowing mightily. The craft is swamped. Now there are two on board. It is swamped again. Now there is only one.
A claxon rings on the land. Lamps are ignited and those onshore are alert to the tragedy outplaying itself in the bay below the cliffs. There is shouting and some scuffling with small craft but these are thrown back, unable to make headway against the onslaught of waves.
Against all reason, a man jumps in to the water. He is carrying a heavy hawser. The ship is barely fifty yards from the beach but he is driven back and driven back again, pulled down by the undertow and the heaviness of the wet rope. Oh, miracle! Men run to relieve him of the hawser and he collapses onto the sand.
Someone takes charge. A human chain threads into the water. This is valiant, this is needful but how many of the hundred or more now bobbing in the water will this thread of frozen desperation save?
Above the din of wind and sleet and water, a rending, a twisting, as spars snap, metal is contorted and the twisted ship is rung like wet cloth. With a scream of metal on metal, she is dismembered; the bow, from the stern, from mid-ships. The mid-ships; where undoubtedly the bulk of the passengers, women and children would have hastily filled their pockets with the best and heaviest of their possessions.
The shouting, the screaming, plays itself out within an hour as the sun begins to rise. By 6am the beach is littered with the detritus of the storm; shattered life boats, foamy wool bales, splintered spars, pale and bloated tangles of fabric and flesh. And so the clean up begins. A week later the cold stone of the church begins to smell. Pitch is burnt but the task of burial becomes imperative. So few have been identified! Fifty survive but no one recovers, least of all those who lived to bury the dead.
I saw a family like ours – two women, eight children. Do not think on these things or it will make you mad.
One afternoon, I am induced to doze in the front room. Seated under a waterfall of light delineating a segment of floor, my eyes lose focus as motes of dust are borne aloft on eddies and currents for all the world like an aquatic ballet. For a moment I am a child again because I blow a gentle zephyr into the current in order to watch the specks dip and wheel and spin. How curious! I expire and universes cascade over and over, time immemorial. That I should be so powerful! I raise my hand into the light and stir the waters again. My hand; so dry, so thin… so frail? Should I wonder? I am 53.
I lower my hand onto the open book in my lap. I am tranquil now and the motes of dust return to their arbitrary courses; impelled by invisible tides of which I am no part.
The book on my lap slips sideways and I sleep.
I sleep until I feel my eyelids prized open. Charles Percy has climbed onto the table beside me and with podgy fingers is attempting to open my eyes.
“Are you home, grandmere?” He addresses me as Peter taught him.
I am rudely assaulted by this child’s actions but I am still able to smile at the comment.
“Yes, I am home, saucy boy!”
He climbs onto my lap and the book finally falls. He covers his little mouth with his hand in the expectation of rebuke. God gave us the natural effect of gravity; it performs a useful operation, I have never regretted its actions.
“It can fall no further. Sit up here, young Charles.”
He kneads and pummels like a kitten till he finds a comfortable nook in my arms. He is so big, yet still such a baby. I rub my face into his golden head. He still carries that odour that is somehow warm, new, resilient and expectant. His head moulds perfectly into my arm and I begin to stroke his crown absently with the other hand. He settles and a rhythm is established between us.
Frances. The memory is still fresh, twenty years on. It causes me to involuntarily arrest my movements and Charles rolls his eyes upward in indignation at the perceived neglect. I stroke his hair upwards from his forehead and release a mist into the air - cradle cap, minute particles of spent skin. They join the dancing waterfall from the cascade spilling through the window.
He is part of it, Frances is part of it. Doubtless some of my spent body is part of it.