Of Grey Seals:
In autumn female grey seals will congregate at traditional pupping sites, called rookeries. Males come ashore at the pupping sites to mate. Many of the males are at least 8 years of age before they are able to successfully mate, due to the fierce competition among them. Only the strongest of the males are able to breed with the females.
After mating the seals disperse.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham
A child’s fantasies, however dearly held, eventually give way. For a time, at least. From shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings to things of a more intriguing nature. Fantasies shape-shift. They change.
If I had been greedy for certain stories when I was a young child – munching my way through books from a meagre age as if they were 1 apple, 2 pears, 3 plums 4 strawberries and 5 oranges – then I felt sated by them when I hit my early teen years. I packed my fairy-stories and my childish tales away in cardboard boxes and in their stead I built a new home around myself. A soft, gothic cocoon made of brooding scowls, grunted words and mournful music. My new song-of-the-sea more akin to a dirge, played through headphones in my inscence heavy and dark-lit room. An angry siren song for the disillusioned youth played by the ironic, melancholic and nihilistic. I wrapped myself up in a delicious agony of dark feelings, gloomy and despondent. Hopeless. I drew around me stories of misty northern moors and tormented lovers. A tortured ghost tapping on a window. Of plain governesses who fell in love with rich men, and of lunatic wives hidden within the attic. All suicide, fire and ash. Stories of discovered bones of a murdered snake-of-a-wife within a cabin of a sunken boat. Shot through the heart for her treacherous smile and her wantonly ways by her husband many years before. Her skin in tatters, her body decomposed. Eaten by the fishes. Grotesque. The image of the brazen Rebecca, so far removed from my enchanting childhood Ophelia.
Gone was the beguiling watery landscape I had dreamed of with the tranquil Seal-bride. Gone the white bridal gown and the serenity and in their place a mantle of velvet agony and bitter angst pulled close around my shoulders and buttoned up to my chin. So I put aside my childish notions and wallowed in the depths of my new-found shadows. The thrumming and gushing of hormones exploded from my pituitary glands, a potent chemical cocktail that offered me a glimpse of a new world in technicoloured black. Black and grey. Colourless. I would swallow this new and bitter mixture like the curious Alice washed down a potion marked ‘Drink me’ – with a fascination to see what would happen. It coated my throat and heated my belly with something new. With fire. Like a child’s first sip of red wine this mixture was a strange and thrilling juice from a forbidden fruit that, though acrid upon my tongue, was heady. It shifted my thinking and infused my confused feelings. I sipped and sipped and sipped, thirsty for it. Gulped it down. I enjoyed the shift in perspective it offered me and I was an intrepid explorer of this new world-view as it offered me novelty. I could see eveything from a strange and different angle. I was keen to explore this fresh new landscape.
And with this new perspective came a rushing of new feelings. Fantasies that were different from story-book mermaids and Seal-boys. Exciting and perplexing. At first these imaginings were strange and unsettling. The intrigue of deep voices and bobbing Adam’s apples. The electric thrill of catching a sly glance across a dinner hall. Eyes meeting. Gazes locked for just a moment before a flush of heat emblazoned the cheeks of us both. A name scribbled in the margins of excersise books that curled grubbily at the edges. The letters of that name decorated with smudged ink hearts. My mind distracted from learning as my eyes gazed out of the window at the dappled light cast by rustling, golden topped trees. The tumbling squeeze of my belly as the one I admired from a distance sought me out. Spoke my name. An ungainly and awkward body leaning closer than it should to press close a whispered, stumbling word. A soft, secret brushing of hangnail-bitten fingertips up my thigh; an intimate and furtive gesture that no-one was supposed to see.
Such beguiling sensations are not for small girls who dream of harbours and underwater love. This would be my awakening… Or so I believed at the time.
If my first love was all flippers and whiskers and snout, then my second was all fingers and fumbles and foolishness. Theo. How old was I then? Sixteen. He older by a year perhaps. I remember the dark, downy shadow upon his top-lip as his mouth first met mine. Clumsily thrilling. Warm. A quick clash of teeth. A darting tongue. His fingers caught upon a knot in my hair. How my belly lurched, as if I was falling. Flip-flop. Had I stepped off the harbour wall? Is this how it would have felt falling open armed into the brine? And I remember how his thumb slipped over my breast, so when I went to bed that night in a giddy swathe of swelling sighs and secreted smiles – I could still feel the way it traced me there. Faintly. I remember how his dark hair fell over his eyes, and the way those eyes looked at me. Locked me there. Blue as the summer skies but speckled with golden flecks. Dark, tangled lashes. Theo. With his ready laugh and his quick-slow-quick way of moving and thinking. His rucksack slung lazily over his broad shoulders. Stooping shoulders as if he were ashamed of his height or that something other than his bag weighed heavily upon him. Theo. The way he fell over his words, spitting them out like seeds. Repeating them over and over until others laughed behind their hands. Pointed and teased.
Our trembling kisses were at first hesitant and flustered. Our caresses heavy. Inexperienced. Brushing a lash from his cheek. Holding hands; his warm and clammy, mine far too cool. Hiding away from the mocking gaze of others as we plucked illicit moments from the school-day. The scent of disinfectant, floor wax and cheap body-spray as we pressed into the hidden corners of buildings. Pressed so close that I could feel the rising of him. This pillar a testament of our unfledged, adolescent love. How could I bear the bewildering throb that also rose between my thighs at these times? Such a new and tender sensation.
For six months we fumbled and stumbled in our love-hazed state without any interruption. For three more months we lamented its leaving – for after the summer he was attending another college and we both knew that our love would sail its course. I remember thinking that a baby is conceived, formed and born in that time. Nine months.
Had we conceived something that would be born and live on? Did love keep on going, with nobody feeling it? Nobody feeding it?
It was in the last tremble of spring as the bluebells nodded their jangling heads upon stooped stems and the perfume of wild garlic blew in on damp breezes, that we clung to one another. A cool evening with dewy grasses, the spire of a church looming above us. An empty field upon outspread coats. Lip to lip. Limbs and loins entangled in a hot but inelegant dance. A grunt and a quick shudder. A slick mess pooled upon my belly as twilight crept in and settled upon our heads. A tiny spider skittering over the short, fine hairs of his neck. Then he untangled and unknotted himself from me. Distanced himself. Theo. He built his own harbour wall to keep the swelling sea of emotions out. Or perhaps to keep them in. And then… he was gone. Slipping from me as those crabs had done long ago in Polperro. Submerged into the deepest confines of my memory.
Did I think of you then? When my mouth was crammed full of his name and my mind reeled with all the thrilling new emotions he had awakened in me. Did I think of my first love when my second slipped his hand beneath my skirt, his hot breath tasting of gum? Mint-fresh. And did I think of you when I wrapped my heart back up, placing it firmly in a wooden box under lock and key, retreating back into my gothic cocoon? Did the thought of your playful song bring me comfort and the hope of finding you again soothe my hot and raging tears? Did it illuminate my dark silences or offer a balm to my heart-wrenching pain?
No. I wish I could say otherwise.
For I had put you aside. You were a childish dream that had melted away when the fairy no longer slipped coins beneath my pillowcase. You were a silly story I had told myself when the world felt too much and my skin felt too loose or too tight. You belonged with Ophelia and the hefty brown crabs that had brandished their claws at me long-long ago. You belonged in a world where fairy-stories were real and boys with soft lips didn’t shudder and then leave. You were nothing but a reminder that the girl’s heart still beat within the breast of this confused, fledgling woman. And I didn’t wish to be reminded of the girl. For she was strange and didn’t know the rules. She was foolish and liked to rock to-and-fro. She lived in her stories, not knowing where they ended and reality began.
But I was wrong. I know that now. I was wrong and I wasted so many years that perhaps I could have spent with you. If I had believed.