The sky today is cerulean blue, the clouds forming a Daliesque surrealism of floating feathers, drooping eyes and melting moons. The intoxicating smell of the sea wafts around me: salt, seaweed, ozone, reminding me of happy childhood memories in our cottage with its deck leading straight down from the cliffs to a little-known sandy cove.
Every day after breakfast I and my brother would race down the rudimentary rocky steps, fishing nets aloft, and spend the mornings catching crabs and tiny fish trapped in the rockpools by the receding tide. Built grandiose, convoluted sandcastles and put the fish in the moat (Piranhas, my brother told me, they’ll eat your fingers to the bone if they’re hungry). They died, of course, as the sand absorbed the water. We tried to feed their bodies to the crabs but, in a vague nod to propriety, they were having none of it. The crabs were our kings and queens, princes and princesses; we perched them on pillows of seaweed thrones and presented them with gifts of shells and colourful stones – white quartz, red jasper, pink rhodochrosite. They would sit in regal contentment as we scoffed sandy salmon sandwiches and slurped tepid orange squash until the next tide came in and washed their castle away.
A couple of decades later I watched my own children enjoying the same freedom, the same make-believe, summer after glorious summer. Happy times. For a while.
This morning I follow my footsteps along the coast; a well-worn path of compacted white chalk amongst a green sea of sheep-grazed sward, velvety to the touch. I watch the waves on their interminable march towards the beach and wonder how long people have walked along this path. One hundred, five hundred, a thousand years, more?
As always, my walk is a safari of sensations. The foam left by the waves as they break up on the shore reminds me of the pattern on a giraffe’s coat; curved ribs of sand mimic the bones of prey lying amongst sodden entrails of seaweed; wooden groynes encrusted with barnacles stand like a petrified forest lining the shore. I press on, the wind sand-blasting my face as I drink in the scene.
When my youngest son crossed the Atlantic to start a new life, there was another ocean to traverse: the grave misunderstanding between us. But, like the tug of a kite, his heart is finally pulling him back to mend past hurts and reconnect with family, friends and familiar haunts. Time has moved at the pace of a glacier as I have waited for this day, and now they are arriving at last - my son and his wife, and the three-year-old granddaughter I have never seen. Will she love this place as much as I do, I wonder?
I retrace my steps along the coastal path as a sea drizzle floats through the air, and as I approach the cottage I hear the crunch of gravel, watch my son jump out of the car. As we look at each other I know we’re both thinking about the lost years, and how much we both want to make up for them.
My granddaughter has just woken after their long journey from the airport. She is curled up in the back of the car, her blue eyes twinkling like lights on a Christmas tree. She looks just like my son when he was that age, but fairer of skin. Give her a few days, I think, and she’ll be glowing with fresh air and vitamin sea. Their bedroom, at the back of the house, directly overlooks the beach and the view, framed by the sash window, glistens like a fresh oil painting. Downstairs on the sundeck, beach balls, fishing nets, jars, bucket and spade, await new adventures.
But first, there is unfinished business between my son and me. Our well-trodden route to resolution, the coastal path, beckons as it always did when discussing family matters. We pull on some walking boots and fall into an easy stride. I am aware that my son is setting the pace. My jogger’s knees are not what they used to be.
Where do we begin? Our uneasy silence lasts until we approach the lighthouse, monstrous in its significance, that I am compelled to speak.
‘It was never your fault, you have to know that. You were just children, having fun. I was beside myself with grief and disbelief, I didn’t know what I was saying. Can you at least try to forgive me?’
An emotion I hadn’t asked for shook my words, causing my voice to vibrato like the strings of a violin. I gaze down below the lighthouse at the graveyard of my eldest son. All because of some childish rough and tumble that got out of hand, a slip on the wet chalk and a fall which dashed him against the jagged rocks before tossing him into the waves below.
His body was never recovered.
A tsunami of pain hits me just like the first time. The ‘ifs’ torment me to this day: If I had been a better father…. If they hadn’t gone as far as the lighthouse…. If the sea hadn’t been so rough…. If I hadn’t lashed out…. If my marriage had survived…. If my younger son hadn’t left….
My regrets toss and turn in my head like waves in a storm. But ‘if you hadn’t pushed him he wouldn’t have died’ was a dreadful accusation that should never have passed my lips.
Eventually my son speaks.
‘I forgive you, Dad. I’m a father, I understand how you felt. I have had to work through so many complicated emotions: grief, guilt, bitterness, shame, regret. But I want my granddaughter to get to know you, to see where I grew up, to enjoy this idyllic place like I did, despite what happened. And most of all, I want to make my peace with you. I will always love you dearly.’
My stifled sobs sound like the grunts of the seals on the rocks below.. We hold each other as tightly as the seabirds cling to the guano-garnished cliffs. Then I stand with my son in silent homage, my tears falling freely and mingling with the rain which has swept in from the Atlantic. We stay until clouds gobble up the dwindling light, with only the regular flash from the lighthouse as a stark white witness to our reconciliation.