SHE SELLS SEA SHELLS
I am a curiosity. Whispers follow me, shadow me down the Church Cliffs and Black Ven; they swirl around me, then are snatched by the wind that sweeps Lyme Bay where I work, hammer in hand. Sniggers are hidden in pocket handkerchiefs, muffled by bonnets, stifled like the squeals of unwanted puppies and kittens stuffed into sacks and hurled from the Cobb at high-tide at midnight.
Winter squats on the thatch, drips through the eaves, runs down the walls where black mould trickles. Outside, the sun is metal-bright but the wind howls down the chimney, sneaks through the latch. Outside the church clock is stuck, time frozen between its hands. Inside, Mother hugs the fire, bundled in shawls, her back curved away from me.
‘So another gentleman slips through your net.’ She nods to the newspaper that lies between us. She spits into the flames. They hiss but I say nothing. I write my notes, read my books. The candle writhes and gutters. I blow on my fingers.
‘Thought you were off to London.’
I throw down my pen. My rage will not be confined. It needs space to roar.
This morning I saw the newspaper, its torn wings flapping in the gutter. I picked it up. It was a month old, frayed at the edges, beer-stained, well-thumbed by greasy fingers. I took it home to enjoy at my leisure until Mother snatched it from me, poked a bony finger at the illustration. ‘Isn’t that your young man, Mary? Such a handsome fellow. All girls were in a flutter when he was here.’
‘Not me, Mother.’
‘So, why’s he in the papers, Mary? Tell me. He must have done something special.’ She can out-talk and out-drink sailors, utter more profanities than the King’s troopers and beat any Excise man in a sneering contest but can neither read nor write. Never taught herself as I did from newsprint wrapped round fish-heads or washed up at high-tide jumbled with rope and rotted timber, old bottles and lamp-oil. Waste of time. What’s the use of book-learning? You’ve been touched by the sun, Mary. You’re not right in the head.
Now it is afternoon. The light is all but gone but his eyes pierce the darkness from the page and my mother’s taunts are as sharp as a crab’s pinch.
I pull my cloak and bag from the peg. ‘And shut the door behind you,’ she screams, matching the wind that flows in to take my place. I take the hammer from my bag. The sea doesn’t stop revealing its secrets just because there’s no-one to see it. We are nothing to the rocks that mark our passing. Philip said that millions of years hence our bones would be discovered on a mountain’s summit. They will call them snakestones, devil’s fingers, verteberries, cupid’s wings. That’s what the visitors call them. That’s what they’ll be wanting when the spring comes. Curiosities.
What do they do with them, these fragments of Genesis; relics from the Flood? Lock them under glass domes on their mantelpieces for their maids to dust?
When he came it was summer and my table was piled high with curiosities; snakestones that are ammonites; belemnites they call the devil’s fingers. I made a tidy sum that season although money is poor recompense. I am thankful for the meat that feeds my belly and the coal that nourishes the fire. It is my mind that starves.
Now it is winter; the table is bare and my heart is stone; the fossilized remains of hope buried deep in the earth, scoured by the tides of a thousand oceans, shattered by a thousand frosts; blasted by a thousand winds. A curiosity.
I wasn’t the first Mary my mother bore. She toddled into the fire when she was two. I inherited the name but neither her looks nor her sunny disposition as Mother is often wont to remind me. I am benighted, a child of the elements, who did not speak until a freak bolt of lightning skewered me to the earth. The next day, I found my very first ammonite, as round as a cart-wheel. A lady bought it for half a crown. A fortune to me until my first true find earned me twenty sovereigns. The clever men pored and picked over every bone and decided it was something new but centuries old. A paradox that calls the Bible into question. A mystery. A challenge. And I found it, over yonder see? Where that buttress of shale extends a nervous toe into the icy foam. It is now preserved behind glass, sleepy, drowsy with beeswax and curious eyes stare and do not understand even though it now has a name. Teleosaurus chapmani; named after the man who bought it from me and told the world he’d found it.
Today the shore is as cold and hard as stone and I am here alone. Do not pity me for I relish my solitude. Today the sun dazzles a crystalline sky and the cliffs are glazed and fissured, battered by the high, relentless waves. On softer days when clouds bulge like soot-filled sacks and the shore is ink-black, a shaft of light will break free and strike one facet of the rock I have seen a hundred times. Yet in that second, there it is, as clear as blown crystal, the skeleton of a new beast and I am the first to see it since the day it died and sank into the mud of a tropical sea and began to turn to stone.
In early spring, when the sun is young and the tide is high, the sea is kittenish and licks the shale from the foot of the cliff. The breeze is soft on my cheeks and swells my skirts like sails. The sun is on my back and my bare feet curl around warmed pebbles and tepid pools. I fly from rock to rock but my eye never wavers. In summer, others share the shoreline with me, turning over rocks, raking the pools, but they haven’t my eye. That’s why they all need me, these clever men. That’s why he clung to me and I was glad. His grateful smile cradled me in its warmth.
Mother fussed about him when he first came; pushed him into the inglenook and forced a jug of ale on him. He couldn’t be held. He was coiled tight with curiosity and ambition. He was young, broad-shouldered as a plough-boy, as tanned as a sailor.
I led him down to the shore. The path zigzags back on itself as it clings to the cliff. Uneven slabs of stone tip this way and that, worn like old teeth by the tramp of cocklewomen, foragers and fishermen and slick with gull-shit.
He was not the first gentleman to seek me out. They wash in and out like dead crabs on the tide. But of all the men who have betrayed me, it is his brains I would take most pleasure in splattering across the rocks. His name was Philip Field. A soft name, as soft as his fair hair that fell to his shoulders and streamed in the wind like a banner. He was forever brushing it from his face. I can see him now, the sun proud behind him, laughing at what we had found. Laughing because in our triumph we were as one in our joy.
He was a chattering magpie by nature, I taught him silence. When one visit became three, then five and he and I were focused on our task, he never uttered a word but shared my eyes as I scanned for recent slips and slides and picked out a fresh slice of exposed bluff, raw as flesh. We walked for hours, days. The weeks were strung like shining beads along a silver skein. We waded the waves, jumped the clefts careless of the water boiling beneath us. We tramped the sands, skirted the cliffs, climbing up, clambering, bouldering, falling and laughing, scrambling in the mud, sliding down, catching and crawling, up and across and down and over until the sun grew bored and left us to the stars. Our backs and legs ached, our arms were heavy, our eyes stinging with scouring the miles of rock, most times dun, sometimes blue, most times grey, seeking the slightest alteration in the contours in the hard light of sea and sky, the salt, the tin-foil flash of the birds above our head, reflected in the wet sand puddled around our feet.
From time to time he stopped, caught my arm and pointed. ‘Look! There! Can you see?’ And I would shake my head and his eyes would fade from blue to grey to disappointment and on we plodded. My head ached to please him, to see the blue return.
One day a sudden storm roared in from the Channel and caught us in its fury. The birds fled. The waves roared and hurled themselves at the cliffs like dogs at the end of their chains. The wind ripped the shale from the slopes. It rattled like gunfire. The rain sliced our cheeks and soaked our clothes.
As we clung together to withstand the onslaught, a slab of the eastern headland collapsed. It began with a rumble which he thought was thunder. He gripped my hand. It was strong but as softly warm in my palm as a dog’s muzzle. We stood in silent awe as the slab, as wide as the harbour wall, subsided like a lady’s curtsey and settled at the foot of the cliff in a flurry of flounces and lace. That’s how he described it later but I didn’t see what he meant, not knowing of ladies’ curtseys, lace or flounces.
We waited, too terrified to breathe, our clothes plastered to our limbs, hair dripping like kelp. The storm passed. The sun peered through the streaming tatters of retreating cloud and the birds returned to feast on the flapping fishes gasping on the sand. Then he whispered, his mouth touching my ear. ‘Do you think? Could there possibly be?’
. I looked and truth to say I prayed, although I know that God is man’s invention for what he doesn’t understand.
He was so close to me he felt my body stiffen. ‘What, where?’ he cried, ‘I can’t see.’ The wind grew as impatient with him as I and once more began its torments, tugging at his coat tails, tearing his hat from his hand and giving it wings. He brushed his hair from his face in the way that was no as familiar to me as my own hand. He looked like a child who had lost his mother.
My feet were drowning in my boots. ‘We must go,’ I said, ‘Before the tide cuts us off.’ I urged him back to the town.
‘You’ve seen something. I know you have,’ he said, dancing like the boy who has found his mother, all his fear forgotten in her angry face.
I didn’t tell him what I had seen. Not then. One word too soon and every fool is out with his pickaxe. This was mine and it would stay mine.
‘Meet me at low tide tomorrow,’ I said before we parted in the street. I saw curious eyes. I didn’t care.
God still smiled on me then for the next day we had the shore to ourselves. I felt his breath close to mine as we laboured to release the beast from its rocky cage. We touched a rib, a toe bone and a long snout. We trembled with the newness of it, that we alone in all the world could see it and learn its secrets. When our hands and arms were too weak to dig further, we fashioned the beast on paper, took measurements, made notes. Fingers numb, wrapped in cloth, we worked. He is university-taught and his pen is fine. His drawings are exquisite, shaded with unsurpassed delicacy to give shape and form but retain clarity. I peered over his shoulder to learn his craft. That night I toiled, copying his simple lines until the fire was out and dawn came. His sketches are published; his notes in print. Mine are under my bed, curling at the edges, rotting.
Day after day we returned. I took care to take my bag and bring it back brimming with the usual fare; the verteberries and the snake-stones to keep the fire burning and curious tongues still.
On the hottest day of that summer we had dug and scraped, teased and coaxed all morning until exhaustion overcame us and we lay on the beach, our faces to the sky our backs to the hot sand. The silence was companionable; the seagulls’ cries a lullaby. When I woke he was sitting up and making more sketches in his fine leather-bound journal. ‘I am so excited, Mary,’ he said, his breath coming in short rasps. ‘It’s something completely new,’ he added, his pen scratching the paper, his knuckles white as he wrestled with the wind for its possession. ‘Can you see,’ he said, as if I hadn’t seen it first, ‘the line of the jaw, the way the front limb articulates, the uneven number of teeth? Do you think we can lift it soon? Do you think we can do it without help?’ He was anxious, his body a jangling wire, his head turning this way and that. ‘I don’t want a soul to know. It’s only you I trust.’
‘We cannot lift it alone,’ I said, hugging his faith in me close lest it fly away. ‘But I know a man who will not talk.’
‘Oh, Mary,’ he cheered. ‘You are a wonderful. What would I do without . . .’ He paused and the greedy wind snatched the words from his mouth and tossed them into the sea where they drowned. Too late for I had heard them. As quick as mercury, he caught me in his arms. And it was good and warmer than summer and I trembled with the newness of it. And he took my face in his hands and kissed me, murmuring, ‘I will never forget this moment. Never. I will blow the world apart with my discovery!’
I pushed him away, seized his pen from the sand and hurled it in the air where it landed, nib down, in a pool. He grabbed me by the waist. ‘Oh you tease! You wanton woman!’ he cried his head back, bloated with laughter.
‘It’s our discovery!’ I cried. In one beat of my heart I saw grey steel sharpen his eyes before the blue returned and he twirled me round and round until I was dizzy. Was this flirtation? If it was, then it was not what I desired. I pulled away.
‘Ours,’ I said.
His face softened. He caught my face in my hand and stroked my salty cheek with the back of his finger. ‘Of course. Mary. Our discovery,’ he whispered. Then he kissed me again. Hard. Harder. I felt his weight on my shoulder, urging me to the soft sand. ‘Mary, Mary,’ he groaned. His lips teased mine and I began to see why the other girls long for the touch and smell of a man. I softened, my knees melted and he filled me with his beauty.
‘Ours,’ screeched a gull arcing above us. ‘Ours!’
I know what you’re thinking. That I am no better than the others, my head turned by a man’s easy attention. But that is not what made my knees melt and released my soul to the heavens. Aye, I believed in Heaven at that moment. It was our Heaven and we had made it. Together we had made a great discovery and the world was about to open for us like a flower after rain.
What a fool; a greater fool than Becky White who was left belly full after she’d crowed that her sea-captain was taking her back to his Russian palace. Her laughter died when the black ship left without her and she was brought to bed in the Poor House. Even though she was married off to Tom Fowler, loudmouthed and loathsome, free with his fists but tight with his pennies, even she tilts her nose at me as she shuffles by, another child grizzling in her arms, four more clinging to her muddy petticoats.
Even she knows; knows that our discovery now has a name. Teleosaurus Fielderi. The newspaper is burned but the words will never leave me. ‘Discovered on the Dorset coast by the distinguished geologist, Mr Philip Field.’ The eyes that looked up from the page were as bright as ever but his face was drawn inward beneath a new-grown beard as befits a celebrated and learned fellow of the Royal Geological Society.
‘Mr Philip Field accepted the accolades of his fellows at a special dinner held in his honour in London last week. This popular young man was, in his gracious and elegantly expressed reply, fulsome in his praise of his fellow learned gentlemen who had seen fit to elevate him to their illustrious ranks. He then held his audience in thrall as he related how, after days of solitary toil, his keen eye discovered this most curious of creatures.’
I wander back along the foreshore, plucking a snakestone here, an angel’s wing there. I will slice some salt pork and boil potatoes for supper and prepare Mother for bed. I will read my books until my candle dies and then, come dawn, will take my hammer and bag to the shore. In spring I will once more set up my table of curiosities outside our door. Day will follow day until my bones are laid in the ground and someone else digs them up. They will preserve me behind glass and put someone else’s name beneath my fossilized remains. People will flock to visit me. A strange, rare and interesting object. A curiosity.