In the fine dining room of the French Horne in riverside landlocked Sonning, the pure white table cloths were militarily uniform and pristine. The Aston was parked up outside and the waiting staff couldn’t but help ask questions as an unusual frisson of excitement rippled around the stately room. The Thames flowed past, silently insouciantly gliding under the efficiently ugly bridge. “Do you like oysters?” enquired Richard. A dozen arrived, six each, looking like so much female genitalia set against a smooth pearly white background, in complete contrast to the rough, tough, knobbly dark exterior of the shell, the touch of which triggers a memory...
... the first oyster slides effortlessly into my mouth, and explodes into a riotous assembly of taste, sound, smell. I am overcome, the tables recede, the restaurant dissolves, black and white magpies become black and white seagulls with their beautiful evocative plaintive cry as they wheel around debris, sea weed and salt water, the river becomes a working harbour, the manicured lawn becomes the sea, hedges artistically shaped by a topiarist morph into boats, the car park to a marina; slimy fish gape blindly in bright plastic coffins as the catch of the day is brought ashore by tired fishermen that have been out at sea for 18 hours; ropes, nets, Rye harbour, crab fishing, the smell of diesel and engine exhaust, the sound of water gurgling as the tide ebbs and flows, the faded once bright paint of fishing boats, the chink chink chink of halyards as they frap against masts, the near universal white of GRP, battered, tough-looking go anywhere deep-water boats with equally battered and tough looking crusty liveaboards.
Barnacle encrusted piles which gouge into rubbing strakes, the anathema of ropes knotted and twisted, the delight in tidy bowlines and round turns & two half hitches, teaching ropework to clumsy beginners, the spontaneous applause from shoreside onlookers as we extricate ourselves from deep in Lymington harbour, a perfect manoeuvre; coffee and cake on deck, chilli con carne for breakfast as we round the Fastnet Rock; outside of Lorient a wall of water rushing towards us from the bow and we get soaked and almost asphyxiate ourselves laughing, poor unfortunates struck down with mal de mer; the chaos of the 10,000 boat Round the Island race, the boat that had no choice but to smack into Spit Sand Fort, the yacht that didn’t get out of our way so we T-Boned it, the mast falling off in a Force 5.
Sand in my shoes, crabbing with Jez on the pontoons in Cowes in the hot sun, Dad cutting his foot on hidden glass, paddling through sea puddles in the sand, rock pools, treacherously wet seaweed, sea urchin’s spines go deep into this urchin’s foot; dance the burning barefoot dance over the white hot black sand of Santorini; white hot golden sand of paradisaic Ramla bay, fat old ladies that make silk souvenirs for tourists wear black, black and black and walk barefoot on the hot black melting tarmac; deep dark dank mysterious threatening exciting caves; crabbing with Ben in Lulworth Cove, red and orange and yellow sea anemones open and close, crabs glide silently through shallow water, small translucent fish dart hither and thither.
A feast of moules marinere et pommes frites in St Malo, on watch at midnight with a welcome hot coffee from the off-coming watch, making coffee for the on-coming watch at 0350; the pungent smell of fish and chip shops, gaudy amusements halls which are really dungeons of torture, the transience of tourism, the Alladin’s Cave of a quiet chandlery, arriving in Cherbourg at 3am and chilling out zombie-like before the sleep of the dead hits.
Building sandcastles and forts and tunnels and troughs and irrigation systems, Topsy the old Olde English Sheepdog running through the surf and gathering half of Sandbanks into her fur; shooting the sun with a sextant, hiding in the dunes, the quiet of a sand basin surrounded by tough tufts of sharp grass; dried fish, insects crawling through the sand, sandy sandwiches, tar, bottles of luke warm Fanta, smoothly rounded opaque glass, pebbles scrunching underfoot, tipping Dad out of the blow-up dinghy, Zachary Rubenstein, zooming along in a Mini Moke, the open sides and proximity of the whizzing blurred black road more of a thrill than any fair ground ride, my first knickerbockerglory from the Wimpy in Gozo.
Tied up alongside in picturesque Honfleur, Johnathon Livingston Seagull lands on deck and pecks at a scrap, sleepy hotels, sleezy hotels, slick hotels, desperate B&B’s, hopeless B&B’s, homely B&B’s, vacancies, no vacancies, three stars, two stars, no stars; the long long car journey, Mum being goaded into doing 90mph, and I can see the sea! The bow rises and rises and dips, dips, dips, over and over, rhythmically, hypnotically, the wind on my face, penetrating my clothes, exploring my body, cleansing my mind, refreshing my soul.
The wind on my face, penetrating my clothes, exploring my body, cleansing my mind, refreshing my soul, and the Aston is roaring down country lanes, the exhaust sings all the way from bass through baritone to tenor, the percussive rattles and bangs of the bodywork keep harmony, the musical whole orchestrated by Richard as he double-declutches up and down the musical scales. The blue of the sea is replaced by the winter browns and greens of the countryside, the ever-changing water replaced by the solidness of the road, waves become frozen into hills and dales, we pirouette around a roundabout and we’re back, the engine is shut down.
The day ends, my cheeks are salt stained from wind-induced tears and salt water lingers on my lips.