Of Grey Seals:
The Grey Seal ( Halichoerus grypus) is a large seal of the family Phocidae. It is found on the shores of the North Atlantic Ocean. Grey seals around Great Britain are found mainly along exposed rocky northern and western coasts in the colder waters. However, there are also significant breeding colonies situated off the coast of Lincolnshire, Wales, Northumberland, Ireland, the Orkney Isles and in Cornwall.
Image by Francesca Resta
The second time I saw you, I was at Rock, across the bracing waters from Padstow. For several years I had searched the coves and beaches for any sign of you. I had borrowed books from the library and drawn pictures of you in my school books, scribbled into the margin. I had bought a plush toy with glassy eyes that sat upon my duvet, diving beneath the blankets in the cold of night where I whispered to it my plans of a future life as a seal-wife. I had waited patiently for you to find me and yet you remained elusive. Nothing more than a memory and a hope.
And though I had first seen you in Polperro, I was a child of the blustering North Coast. Wild and craggy. Fierce and white-tipped. And I felt sure I would see you there, diving through the choppy swell of my beloved North Cornish Coast. Crackington. Bossiney. Treyarnon. I would stand with my spine as stiff and tall as a lighthouse, my hand pressed against my forehead, straight-fingered and flat like a visor, screwing up my eyes into slits and crumpling up my nose; my watchpost the high cliff tops when I walked the crumbling coastal paths with my mother, father and sister. I studied the rough waters, hoping for a glimpse of you. Wishing and wishing and wishing under my breath with all my might:
“Please, please, please! Just a small peek. Just one!“
More than once my heart leapt and skittered when I saw something that seemed the right shape, hope leaving my mouth dry and my throat tight and thick with expectation. But I was always disappointed for I would have been fooled by a dark rock that had broken the surface or a distant surfer bobbing around in the spray. One time a burley black Labrador with a silky, smooth coat played a trick upon my eyes. Another time it was a buoy. And as I realised my mistake my heart would steady and my breath catch within my tightened throat and my eyes would sting with salty tears that got caught by the teasing winds and carried away.
“Not today” those winds would sing tauntingly “He’s not come back for you today.”
And if I had known that word I’d have whispered back “Hiraeth”.
It did not matter how hard I wished or how dearly I hoped I did not see you again for a very long time. To a child even one day can seem a long time, especially when anticipating something pleasurable. An hour waiting for a long awaited party can tick by as slowly as a season but I waited far longer for another glimpse of you with that heavy hope in my heart. Days. Weeks, Months. Years. My darling, secret dream of seeing you again dashed again and again like plastic flotsam is slammed against the black, jagged rocks. I was patient though and never forgot you. Not once! And my patience paid off. My wishing and wanting and dreaming of you was worth the wait, for you came to me once again.
I must have been nine by then, perhaps ten. My teeth too large for my face. I know this because there was a photo snapped of us all standing upon the shore, my auburn hair pulled back from my face with a tight band. The tips of my ears sticking out. We had taken a boat over to Rock from Padstow, the place heaving with tourists in sunglasses and sun-hats. Sun-kissed strangers with an array of different accents swarming and buzzing like flies as they chomped down on crumbling pasties or licked and flicked pink tongues over softly melting clotted cream ice-creams with relish. Talking amongst themselves in their loud holiday voices of the joy of seeing the true, authentic Cornwall, whilst trawling the gift shops for trinkets fashioned from unfamiliar and exotic sea-shells, the words ‘made in China’ stuck upon their base.
I remember that I was wearing short white socks, their tops rolled down and grubby canvas shoes with blue laces; a hole forming in the toe that let in the sand. A yellow summer dress, I remember that too. It had a white butterfly embroidered upon the chest. Tied straps. I remember sore, pink shoulders hastily smeared with sun-cream. The scent of coconut, brine and the ghost-like lingering sweetness of my mother’s perfume, rising from her warm skin. My sister swinging a red bucket with one hand and grasping a spade with a broken handle with the other, ready to build a sandcastle that we’d decorate with blue-bearded mussels and white limpet shells, and a moat that the tide would fill.
There were ice-creams for us on that day too. Soft ones in a crunchy cone. Whip-topped. A flake pushed into their summit and chocolate sauce dribbled on for good measure – and no gull stole this one away. I had a thick scab upon my knee that itched and lifted in one corner. I remember sitting upon the muddy sands and slipping my fingernail beneath it. Testing it. How far would it lift before I could feel it tear? How long before I glimpsed the shining wound beneath? My thoughts muzzy and unfocused by the heat as my eyes skimmed the waters absentmindedly.
And there you were! I dared not believe it at first. I squinted my eyes. Screwed them right up so my lashes were a forest of shadows that dimmed my vision. I stood. I ran up the beach and found a low wall to stand upon. Tip-toed. Yes. Yes! Close to the small boat that ferried the tourists to and from the shores of Rock when the tides were high, I saw it. I saw you! Weaving above and below the surface was a head, smooth and slick. A mottled grey head with large, bright eyes. A be-whiskered snout with wide nostrils. I think I waved, at first. Lifted my hand up and then my other so I flailed both in the air above my head. I kicked off my shoes and peeled off my socks, not bothering to take note of where I had dropped them haphazardly into the soft sands. I ran down the beach and lifted my dress, wading into the waters. Knee high and then further still, up to my thighs, and onward. Until my knickers were soaked and the wetness crept up to the embroidered butterfly upon my chest. My feet sinking into the muddy sand. I shifted them but they caught further and were slurped at as if the sea-bed were a mouth and my feet morsels for it to sup upon. Slurp-suck-gulp! The more I moved the harder it suck-suck-sucked! My eyes grew round. Wild. I yelped. I wanted to get to you and yet here was the land keeping me for itself. Sucking me downward, swallowng me up! Pulling at my feet, my legs, my chest. Grasping and wrenching at my body as it brought me closer in. Down-down-down.
Did I call to you? I didn’t know your name, so I know I can’t have… and yet… and yet I know I shouted something. Something strange. A noise perhaps. Merely a sound to anyone hearing it but I called out in my own language. The name I imagined for you. A watery name. Mystical and dark. A sound of bubbles and echoes. A word spoken in a language only you would understand. You and I. Yes, I called but you did not come close. You did not come to me. Instead you bobbed around and turned in the water. A wink. A snort of your flaired nostrils. A little lost, perhaps. Curious.
My mother wandered down to the water’s edge, wading up to her knees. She shielded her own eyes from the brightness of the waters, for the sun glinted and glimmered upon it. Flashes of sunlight that caught in the back of the eyes.
“Oh, look, a seal! How exciting. Quick Maeve, Bessie, look!”
Then she saw me up to almost my chest. Beckoned to me. When I did not come and she saw the wide-eyed fear and my lips contorted into an ‘oh’ of shock, she called out to my father. It took her, my father and a tall, hefty man with a face as red as his tee-shirt to pull me out of those sucking sands. My arms flailing, my feet kicking. Loud voices and cross-faces. Contorted mouths and brows drawn close and low in harpoons of pointed anger, all directed toward me. All of us weary and wet. Breathless. Panic over.
Another telling off. More hot, frustrated tears.
If only I had known to bring my seal-pelt coat. If I’d have known it was as simple as that, I would have draped it over my shoulders and gone away with you that day at Rock. Slipped into the water, beside you. We. And we would have moved side-by-side out into the mouth of the Camel estuary and into the freedom of the open surf, flaring our nostrils and weaving about joyfully. My Seal-boy and I, swimming into our happily ever after, in a deep, cool world where we could make up our own rules and dip away from the loud noises and strong scents. Away from the painful chaos of human existence. But I was only nine years old and I knew nothing of Selkies back then. Not even the word. I knew nothing of their coats or their legends or their ways. And I had more to learn. Of life. Of love. Of boys and of men. For I knew nothing of the world but my story-book life. Nothing but the fact that I tried so hard to fit in my body that sometimes my head pulsated with the pain of it. So I had longer to wait for you.
Very much longer.