Morning light trickles in from the apex and is reflected off buildings and red metal sea perches, stabbing at the deep dark of the sea. Some batters its way down past the foam, weakens and resurfaces; blue sheens into green-black and back again to white. A salted film of wave rolls up and over to split white across a knife-curl and rejoin itself, hold, and break apart again.
On the next plane down, hundreds of fish fry spool like metal filings, following underwater leylines, stopping to spin solemn circles and conductor-flick off at angles, converging again into a whole. Down, down, and the razor-clams burrow with a pale muscle, a tongue stretched to its thickest in a mouth full of secrets.
Then comes the spume of high water, and spaghetti squiggles of soil on a finger-waved beach. Jagged shapes scale up and down in swellings of coastline, clumpings of grass and noise. A stretched bar of sand reaches out into the ocean and curves around into a spiral, protecting the cove from the worst of the storms.
A heavy breakwall separates the mounds of marram grass from the last outposts of the village: the whickering of a newsagents’ shutter, a paint-peeling café, a darkened chip shop. Dew glistens off a squatting line of rental bikes and blood-beaked gulls ride updrafts above a semicircle of houses.
Two morning buses bustle by, and the street lights blink off. Tilt up, and the leftover moon is a button on the dome of a blue anorak.
The early dippers are skin-bagged around the hips and come with rosebud towels, strapping their heads down with bright silicone. The women – one man came before, in shrink-wrapped swim shorts, but a clot has left him tongue-lolling in a shaded hospice room – clasp hands with their eyes from opposite sides of the pier and descend the stone steps, slapping at prickling skin.
The women are a tower of dents. Most are hairline fissures, but others are chisel-driven; infected, they need daily poulticing with ice-cold water: the silent closure of a door, a skin-slap in fear, the thud of raspberries against the earth and pink-beaked blackbirds.
The frigid surface splits the world into before and after; between is the chest tightening, the panting, the stunning of the cold. They pause, to find the why again, and move on, shoulders frittering for warmth. The light bends their legs into faint, wobbling memories.
Morning pier-walkers point as the swimmers breaststroke their way out to the lollipop buoys and back.
The moon dips below the buildings and first warmth begins to percolate from the heavy ceiling of clouds. An eye-bright sky.
A double-decker bus pulls in at the carpark on the hill and a group of tourists unfolds itself, clicking. The tour guide gestures to the sea tower and they pick their way forward onto the grassy cliff edge, around empty beer cans and plastic forks.
A blue rope dangles from the tower window at head-height, knotted around fists of wood. A man with a bare belly levers himself against the stone wall, arching his back in the tug; he falls awkwardly to the ground on ankles untempered by the bus journey and rubs the burn of the rope away on his trouser legs.
The rest of the group billows out along the cliffs in a cloud that cools and converges again around the red uniform. A history lesson by the snot-green sea, and the Polish guide fields where are you really froms.
Afterwards, the tourists break to flatten themselves against the landscape and browse the morning markets. Spoons carved from bogwood, resin-cast fridge magnets. A puffer-pink woman buys day-old, unshucked oysters from a pile of ice; her hotel has a mini-fridge (hopefully).
The sun comes out in mid-morning, and the low water is an hour-old bath.
A grey, high-shouldered van spills out kayaks onto a slipway. Buoyancy aids pile up, red and sweating, rimmed with white tide marks. The instructor has done three trips already this weekend, and the salt itches in his psoriasis-scaled armpits. He tightens footstraps and eye-measures the waiting clients, finding the natural pairs. Two and two and two, and one leftover. They have vouchers with no expiry date, the promise of flat waves and possibly a seal sighting. Something different, they nod at each other, something to do; they grasp at Sunday-morning wellness.
Hangovers throb with shame and a sweet staleness rises into a haze as they struggle into damp wetsuits, nervously slapping at jutting bellies and bared ankles, testing the chafe of neoprene.
A safety briefing, a demonstration, phones slotted into tight plastic slips. The heavier, broad-nosed canoes take two handlers each, front and back; the plastic stern of the single hander leaves a v-shaped drag mark in the sand.
The boats launch in the shallow water, and the instructor backpaddles his streamlined, white-water kayak out beyond the surf. The training canoes wallow and spill over; a woman lets out a puff of a shriek as the water reaches her groin.
Paddles smack against the surface, find an awkward rhythm, and the fleet moves off against the quickening sea breeze, coaxed out by the gentle sun.
The tide hums to itself and turns over in thought.
A four-limbed drone buzzes over the promenade, turning sharp corners like a fruit fly, invisible hands directing it from the carpark. The machine sets out over the water, confident, breaking for the horizon. A few seconds further, and it reaches the edge of its operating range and begins to stutter, falling in slanted stop-motion before it comes back under panicked control and boomerangs in towards shore.
A teeth-edged, ownerless whine rises over the beach as it grows closer to its remote controller. A father looks up from the news on his tablet to shield his young daughter’s face from the drone; he has read about airborne cameras in the redtop newspapers.
The girl digs with a flattened spade, channelling a dug-pool of water to the sea, rainbow-strapped togs biting into her dark, softly sloping shoulders.
Limpets on rockpools scrape against knees where sawn-off wetsuits end.
Two dark-haired boys find a star-centred jellyfish stranded by the tide and pull it to pieces with sticks; the stinging cells are toothless against water-safe sandals.
Their words have soft edges and blend into a solemn discussion about hermit crabs. One boy says the shell is a house, and houses get smaller as you grow; his chafes at the shoulders already.
The younger thinks it grows in place, like toenails. He once crushed a snail on a darkened doorstep and made a lunchbox hospital with dock leaves and a capful of water; in the morning, the death-foam and yellow splits of intestines had frightened him into licking his slimed fingers. The gift of lungworm is now thriving in his belly; it will fever his brain and give him seizures for the rest of his sixteen years.
Two mothers sun themselves on a stretch of concrete at the top of the beach; one in a crimson one-piece that spills out twin tufts of dark pubic hair against fat-stretched thighs, the other in a faded, flowering blouse and high denim shorts.
They discuss a minor scandal in the local primary school, find holes to poke in the weavings of committees. One-piece stands to curve her spine around, fingers splayed on each side of her leather sandals, then rummages in a towel-swollen knapsack for a lunchtime snack of crackers, sliced vegetables and rounded cheeses.
Her friend shifts on the hard concrete, uncomfortable, the unbroken spine of a book at her feet. The flesh has fallen away from her pelvis, leaving her balanced on raised hip-stilts, and the thick, black spouts of hair have annoyed her.
A sand dune over, their two boys are arguing over a transaction of shells. Spiralling periwinkles are coppers, empty razor clams are silver, and the single, almost-whole sea urchin is gold.
The younger boy has a headache; the second this week. His brain-swell comes and goes.
The tide is climbing against the cliff face again.
Afternoon, and a shouldered stereo pants out heavy, dustbin beats. Teenage skin throbs against waistbands as the boys trickle down the path to the overhang. They talk over each other: in their mouths, lyrics are dissected, mothers fuck and are fucked, teachers face imaginary shotguns. Greasy chips sweat against brown paper bags, vinegar stings in nervously torn cuticles.
A sign pleads no diving, an arched black figure barred by a red line, because necks have been broken here, come out of the ocean in a shoulder-flop, eyes blank under dipped eyelids. But the jump is the thing, not the before or after.
The first boy approaches the edge casually, but anxious feet scuff against tufts of grass. Eyes meet the horizon and the arms begin to whir, knees lock as the speed increases, faster! the cupping of the rock falls away and the air is treacle in a five-second freefall. A blast of an entry; the water recovers and the surface is broken again by fine, strawberry hair plastered against a wet skull.
The other boys wait their turn, tossing insults over and back like heated coals. A single cigarette, shared; the one asthmatic boy wanders away in embarrassment to look at the sea-shell jewellery stall.
A brief evening squall blows in over the outer lighthouse, lifting the air and tossing it like a stained mattress. Concrete wetly darkens and the sky sighs down.
Out in the bay, a paint-stripped chugger pulls lobster pots up and against the gunwales. The cages are empty; a pause, and the boat turns into the wind. The skipper’s father once saw a sunfish and took it for a drowned man; he carried home the sight of the broad, cow-like beast spinning ghostly circles in ice-clear water, and named his boat the Mola-mola for the memory of it.
Further out, a larger, twin-cabinned boat slides past, fish-rot ground into the metal decking. A stag party flings mackerel-guts at the wind, and purple roe trickles down their wrists. They shiver over beers that share a cooler with the ungutted carcass of a prized turbot.
On the next orbit out, a ferry crosses, block-built and window scaled. The boats meet each other, a cutting out and a melding of silhouettes, then split again and move apart. The Mola-mola is left alone to return to the shore, where the high tide has swallowed the ladder rungs and the fenders float at the pier’s lip.
The rolling ferry-swell comes a little later, almost breaching the seawall.
The gloaming blankets down and the tide drains away. A stop-motion sky darkens in gradients and the temperature drops in uneven mouthfuls. Shutters fall and the few remaining market stalls are draped in white sheets; leftover bread spirals are doled out by the Finnish baker, rye-dark and heavy as a bezoar.
Two dogs bicker from opposite sides of the darkened pier, one short-pitched and shrill, the other deep and lowing; an old argument of evenings.
The single, low-ceilinged pub fills halfway and the thump of music travels out towards the mountains in the still air. The crowd empties again to brighten the chip shop, and the last buses whistle by. Night settles in, creaking and plinking.
A grey-scraped hatchback comes alone and parks diagonally across the maze of white lines. The fluorescent, blood-orange glow from the streetlamps squeaks against the glass and runs down in rivulets. Smoke lazes from a half-raised window, and cigarette ash piles into gunpowder. Fingers trace knuckles, so softly that shivers run from ear to ear, spiralling. There are questions, and answers. Voices arpeggio up; words come out half-formed and taste of wanting and witness.
The hatchback pulls out again onto the low sea road.
The stars are clouded in gossamer.
The night catches and pools in the swirl of the newsagents’ plastic ice-cream cone, the curve of an inner ear sleeping in an alcoved doorway, the extending arm of the swept-away beach.
The land sits in place and beats against a circle of horizons. Tow-lines run out from the cliff’s jagged edge to the domed, navy sky, needle-pricked with stars, a hundred, thousand points of light, dragging it closer, faster and faster.
All things fall inward, and the last clouds slip away.
The sky, the sky.
Sheila Armstrong is a writer from Ireland. She is currently working on her first collection of fiction. @sheeeela