‘Truth is not in philosophy, but merely in the mentioning”
Rachel Mildeyes (1907-1964)
He had turned right at Yoxford and then driven along a road of lesser standing which eventually wound between purple gorse. The village he sought was said to have been hidden by the sea centuries before. Now, sand cliffs, riddled with the cheeseholing of birds, still threatened any unsuspecting beachcomber with their incontinent crumbling.
Could anywhere be so far from the beaten track, he had mused, as he followed the sign to the beach. He had been here on holiday; I know that incontestably as it was plainly recorded in his journal – my father’s journal.
He does not manage to convey the mystery of the place; in fact, my father complained bitterly, in as many words of one syllable as he could employ (for he had no respect for the reading ability of future generations, including that of his own son), about ill-assorted tourists, accidentally or even by deliberation, finding themselves here, unless it were, like him, to explore the sunken mysteries of the Suffolk seas.
I could tell he was disappointed, for his words followed in close logical order, simply constituting a straightforward, albeit unblinkered, account of his visit. The mystery, for which he had yearned, was not to be found. Or, at best, the mystery was so fearful, even my father turned a blind eye, submerging it beyond the tidal reaches of his subconscious.
He did, however, sit for some time on the pebbly beach at the foot of the cliffs, staring out at sea. Having visited the local museum, an unambitious affair too close to the Ship Inn for comfort, he had gathered – assuming no tabloid hoaxes to spice the interest for tourists were involved – that it was not a village at all that had once had the curtains of the sea drawn across its serried steeples and gambrel roofs, but a veritable city; once a mighty flourishing sea-port, now merely a legend, where, it was said – perhaps again with tongue in cheek – that, on certain days of the year, the engulfed cathedral’s bells could be heard pealing across the restless waves. My father, in his brusque, monosyllabic style, only hinted at what I believe he wanted to say outright. I imagined him squatting, notepad on knee, beneath the wheeling seabirds as they overflowed from the labyrinthine nests of the uncertain cliffs behind him. I guess they were his own rogue thoughts, circling with the auras of his muse, threatening to soar out across the sea … towards that insistent tinnitus, throbbing just below the threshold of the ears’ own cavernous resonance. Thus, to maintain body and soul as one, he really had to maintain his prose on a straight and narrow keel of plain reality. Only by the mere mentioning could importance otherwise be construed.
I was too young to know my Dad. The journal was all I had to go on.
Stretching my wings of expression, I followed his footsteps to some degree, explored the places he had recorded with such simplicity. And the one place I determined to visit was that clutch of fishing-huts by the crumbling cliffs. The map was difficult enough to follow but, by midday, I reached the scene with hopes high – eager to discover some clue as to the nature of my father’s soul.
The yellowing of the ill-carved cliffs was extraordinary, in sheer contrast to the city by-ways I usually frequented. They would have been truly extraordinary, though, if they had merely been ordinary. Yet, the birds were insignificant creatures whose wings were too small to take them from their vertical sand- burrows. I wondered if indeed the no-nonsense riddling of the cliffs could have been instigated at all by such tiny feathered wavelings. Surely, scaling creatures, great cousins of that scourge of ancient wood, had bored those holes. No cheese-parers they.
Something had slithered from the sea at dead of night … since the pebbles were left slightly trenched by the receding waves: the slaver there shed was thicker (and perhaps sweeter) than the salt spume of wholesome resorts.
How and where my father had eventually died was a greater mystery than his life. His journal had passed through divers hands, but none had ever claimed to possess direct knowledge. My mother had survived him by several years, so I had been able to question her – even in the barred cot to which she had been consigned by overweening medics – about the nature of my progenitor.
‘He loved the sea. He perhaps walked out further than he could swim.’
I had nodded, humouring one who was my last, if weak, link with the past.
So, in the fullness of time, I sat here beneath the cliffs where perhaps he once sat, building up ideas that are much like a child’s daylong labour at sandcastling. I watched also the peppering of idle tourists as they, too, stared out to sea, more in forgetting than remembering. Their antique forebears, whether within the tiny craniums of the seabirds or in the weltering sumps of unseen lurking ocean-creatures, had decided merely to observe and, at most, adjudicate without interfering. I, also, could never hope to escape my own modernity.
Salt tears streamed down the runnels of my face as I finally sensed the slightest tones of tolling from beneath the churning waves. I knew that the reality of such sounds was assured by its innuendo; whilst unarguable evidence of violent ringing would only have proved itself an illusion. I thus prayed with increasing conviction that my father reached a second peaceful death beyond his body’s drowning.
You see, I yearned to live up to his simple ways rather than digging down to reveal nothing but confusing truths. At the far end of the strand, where no tourist could be bothered to dare wander, I watched the bent figure of a beachcomber with a brood of stub-winged gulls hovering above, each one disturbingly large. I turned away, surrendering any further hopes of becoming my father, and threw pebbles at the waves. I even began to doubt whether the journal had been his at all.
The map of the world was so much simpler than that of a single soul, I considered, as I made my way back in the fading light.
August 1989, Dunwich