Written February 2017, after the terrible year that was 2016
Twenty-one and a half years ago my English teacher, Mr McGee, gave me a gift.
It was autumn 1995 and he made our class write about the summer holidays. But, he said, we were not to write in the normal way. No listing activities or saying what a nice time we had. Instead we must write with our senses. ALL of our senses. We had to feel memories. Taste sunshine.
Twenty-one and a half years later and I am alone in a place far from the bad times that followed me lately. I’m on the Andaman Islands, an Indian outpost so remote that some islanders have never communicated with the outside world. They live in a permanent Stone Age, intransigent to change. After the Tsunami hit in 2004, rescue boats were sent to help the Sentinelese people who, in turn, sent back arrows and jeers.
One cannot outrun the bad times, however, any more than one can force kindness on self-sufficient people.
Hence I find myself, after four days of travelling, sitting on the far side of Havelock island, on Radhanagar beach number 7 – one of the most beautiful coastlines on earth – ready to burst into tears. The only thing stopping me is that I hear Mr McGee’s words.
Those words have helped a thousand times when my mind is racing and the anxiety of a thousand fears blooms in my skull.
“Think like a writer,” says my distant memory-version Mr McGee. “Listen to the sounds. Taste the air. What are you feeling? What can you hear? Tell me what you hear.”
And in my head, I start to write.
I scramble for words describing the mint green waves ahead: rising and pluming, bubbling forwards, grasping for the beach with outstretched fingers. Then, the sounds. The hissing as the sea sploshes the sand like spitballs on hot plates. Psht. Ptth. Pfft. Waves evaporate on contact, as if the beach’s fervent beauty makes the water sigh towards heaven, exalted at last.
Tastes are more pedestrian. Salt, grit, my tears. In the smell there is nothing at all, except an occasional whiff of burning wood, similar to old-man musk worn by granddads on Valentine’s Day. Except, in fact, I am sat by a granddad. I realise it’s Valentine’s Day. And his wife is down in the sea calling for him to come and join her as she might have done every Valentine’s Day for the past fifty-seven years. Yet here he sits alongside me in stony silence. Why won’t she sit down, his face says. Why, for once, won’t she sit next to him and enjoy this wood-dank cologne he’s daubed every February 14th for fifty-seven years and which she has resolutely ignored.
Old-man musk smells of hope from now on. Hope, steeped, fifty-seven years.
I am disappointed by the sights. Or, rather, with my inability to form words adequate to describe the sights. Not good enough even for a Year 8 English assignment. The only metaphor coming to mind is of the 1980s quiz show, Catchphrase, which would play video clips if a contestant won the final round. Bugles played, lights flashed, a voice boomed – YOU HAVE WON THE HOLIDAY OF A LIFETIME – because, somehow, in 1980s England, everyone had the same dream, And lo! Up would rise movie shots of crystal-blue waters, perfect white sands, stripy fish by a snorkeler, a man in a white suit and sunglasses. At home, viewers would simultaneously put down their forks on their Saturday tea-tray and turn to one another and say “we’ll go there one day, when we win the pools”. Except, of course, no one ever won the pools and real holidays were spent in Malaga with Stella Artois and techno clubs, which are also holidays of a lifetime, in their own way, but it does mean that when one is suddenly struck with the superlative version it can be hard to find the right words. Saying what you see is harder than it looks.
As for feelings? Sadness is sticky. Tears leave residue. Snot gums my sleeve. In my heart I hold nothing. Except, perhaps, a strange fondness for the tiny Andaman beach crabs, thousands of them, scurrying on the sand, traversing their way between the minty open ocean and a Jurassic Park-jungle that at any moment threatens to throw a pterodactyl from its canopy.
The crabs are fretful. Wobbling at speed, dashing in and out of sand holes, scared by the slightest sound. Worries flit across my brain that way. Appearing and disappearing. Hiding, watching, waiting. Wobbling. The crabs meet the water, then panic and run back. They dash to the jungle and feel uneasy on the soil. Waving their claws they hurtle again toward the sea. A never-ending path, strewn with imaginary dangers; their shells not hard enough to withstand trampling, their exteriors not soft enough for warmth. It is tiresome always being a crab.
Beaches do not play well with pen and paper. Words come thick and fast but remain in my mind until several hours later when I finally bash them onto a screen using my phone and a portable keyboard in a small beach shack, engulfed in power-cut darkness, while I imbibe paneer masala with a spoon and the other patrons – struggling without light – express surprise as I flick on my pocket headlamp and continue unmoved.
(The note was interrupted by an unhappy German come to tell me I must turn my light away as it is shining in his eyes. Is it beyond expectation that HE shift HIS seat?)
In England it is now 2pm and the BBC tells me it is raining. Here, we sit outside without shoes. The sadness creeps back in. But tomorrow I will sit on a beach so perfect the sea screams with excitement and dies a fizzy, happy death. The crabs are all asleep now in their deepest holes. The gift of words will accompany me until I finish dinner. The headlamp will light my way home.