Sunday 1 March 2020

The Thing on the Beach

by David Gower

strong, Yorkshire tea with biscuits

A sunny afternoon on a shingle beach with the waves of a gentle North Sea lapping against the strand line. Two figures sit amid a picnic. Not a wicker hamper, champagne, linen cloth and crustless sandwich style of picnic but one of a more spontaneous nature. Sparkling wine cooling in the foamy water, a ciabatta loaf, olives, lollo rosso leaves, hummus, fancy cheese and fruit comprise this informal feast. Gone are the days of salad cream and tinned salmon for this pair.

He gazes at the waves rolling in from the east. One after the other as they had done for millennia and would do until the end of days whether in calm or storm. His hand searches for another pebble to throw into the foam. He had never mastered the art of skimming stones and even as an adult this failure irked him. Every stone that had left his hand that day had plopped ignominiously into the shallows. She picks up a flat disc of a stone and effortlessly skims it across the wavelets to sink to the bottom and at some time in the future wash up on the beach again. She turns and smiles at him knowing that she has scored a hit on the most sensitive part of any man – his ego.

The man picks up another stone. Her hand grasps his and prevents him throwing this piece of the planet into the waters.

‘Look at what you have in your hand’ she said.

Before beginning their picnic, they had looked in a half-hearted way for shark teeth and amber. Both could be found on this coast and he had always wanted to find something more exciting. Why was it that every year some middle-class kid on holiday with their parents at Southwold would always, without fail, absolutely guaranteed, always found an unexploded bomb or shell? It never happened to him after all these years. Good fortune wasted on middle class posh kids. So today, he had wanted more than teeth or amber to find something of military origin.

‘What do mean, look at what’s in my hand?’ By now she had removed the stone and held it in the bright sunlight.

‘Do you know what it is? It is quartz? Milky quartz.’

‘It is a stone on the beach that I was going to throw into the sea.’

‘Be honest, you are annoyed not to find any little treasures and throwing things into the sea to vent your frustration.’ She was right as women always were. How annoying was that?

‘Your childhood prejudices always boil over when you come to the beach. I know exactly what was going through your mind. You never feel quite middle class but have moved away from being working class.  You are a classic imposter syndrome victim.’

He bridled at the accuracy of her comment. His own insecurities brought home to him yet again. This time by a piece of stone he had found on the beach and that no one else would have noticed.

‘I simply wanted to chuck some stones into the sea. What can be so special about this piece of rock?’

The moment these words had left his lips he regretted uttering them. Never challenge someone who organises pub quizzes with such a question. The answer would be comprehensive and irritating – people who knew it all were annoying. That should be his role in life as a man!

She began ‘Where shall I start? Before the Bronze Age, Australian aboriginal mythology knew quartz as Maban. It was believed to have had therapeutic powers. People claim that even now.’

‘Pah! Stuff and nonsense, magic crystals my eye.’

She continued, ignoring his antagonism. ‘Pliny and Theophrastus referred to it as a form of ice because it was found high in mountain areas but never in marshy low ground. It is the second most common mineral in the world after feldspar and has posher relatives such as agate, amethyst, onyx and citrine. This milky type contains molecules of liquid. If you had enough pressure you could squeeze it out. Like blood out of a stone. It makes the sand they use in sandpaper and was vital in the war effort.’

This was too much for the man whose childhood of gluing Airfix kits had made him an expert in such things.  ‘How can a simple bit of stone be a wartime resource?’

‘I am glad you asked that.’ Was her mischievous reply. Her eyes shone, she was on the case and espousing her knowledge whilst putting her friend gently in his place. What fun this picnic had become. She continued unabashed. ‘You know they have quartz in watches. Well, they were experimenting in the early 20th century in Germany making artificial emeralds. The electrical qualities of crystals were valuable for radio, making industrial gems and those squeezy things for lighting gas stoves. Quartz was so important that when the world’s greatest supply in Brazil was threatened by U boats in the war the Americans and British had secret agents working on the case looking for supplies in Allied countries with easier transport links.’

‘You need to get out more.’ The man growled but beneath his negativity he was surprised by how useful this little stone could be.

‘Now, you need your negative energy to be reduced. What could we use to do that?’ She smiled as she held the milky stone in the palm of her hand.

‘I tell you what will reduce my negative energy. A glass of that wine and a piece of cake before the sun melts the cream inside it.’

‘Have another glass and lie back in the sunshine whilst I put this stone somewhere safe. It will look nice on my little finds shelf.’

She retrieved the wine from the surf line and poured the chilled liquid into their plastic picnic glasses which balanced precariously on the rug.

The man moved his hand to balance better and take the glass. The fingers on his free hand settled into the shingle. He felt a cold metal surface, smooth but with some surface rust. He swore quietly and removed his hand looking for any cuts. Finding none he started to remove shingle to expose this piece of rusty metal. Those middle class, do good volunteer beach cleaners could not clean a simple beach. He would have to take it to a bin, what if some dog cut a paw on it later?

Now he saw a dull grey green metal casing.  It was unmistakably a wartime relic, perhaps buried by the Home Guard all those years ago. It had been a good day for the woman to show her knowledge and now it would be his turn to be the centre of attraction. The beach would have to be evacuated, the bomb disposal team would arrive, and he would be in his rightful place – the focus of attention!

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