From Out of Soundings,
Copyright 1931 by H. M. Tomlinson, New York and London:
Harper & Brothers Publishers. Chapter 4, p44-53.
From A Mingled Yarn, Copyright 1953 by H. M. Tomlinson, Indianapolis and New York, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. Chapter 7, p69-73.
The Turn of the Tide
H. M. Tomlinson
AT the lowest of the ebb of a spring tide, just where the smooth sands of Burra are so saturated that their polish inverts the sky, and on a day when a flat sea makes no division between land and water, some dark hummocks appear. They are not uncovered except at low water of a spring tide, but then they are plain, though of no height; that dark area in the miles of shining and immaculate strand is then as notable as would be a ship ashore.
Visitors seldom trouble to go down to see what the nondescript markings are. It is too far. They keep to the ridge of blue-grey boulders which protects the land from the breakers of storms. From those boulders to the sea is a long descent into windy space, when the tide is out, even on a fair day of summer. It is too far down into an empty but brilliant world. The people who are making holiday keep to the ridge, which shelters the village; it is easier and more natural to stroll the other way, down the hither side of the boulders, and up the street, to the shops and houses and the assurance to be had from seeing other people about. There is nothing to windward, before the turn of the tide, but the glinting of the Atlantic.
When we were young it surprised us to see that distant blemish on the polish of the sands at low water. What was it? It was as though the sea had left one of its secrets ashore, in daylight; though whether it was in the water or really at the edge of the beach it was impossible to say. It was a flaw in a mirror. Yet nobody appeared to notice it. Nobody was curious. Nobody suggested an exploration. And certainly it was strange and a little fearful, all that air and light to 69 seaward. It was vast and bright and without sound, and perhaps we were better off where we were, on the boulders, which were solid and heavy, with much that was curious secreted in their damp crevices. Out beyond our foothold the world did not seem real nor safe, so much space, and so shimmering a brightness. Even the sands were shining, and shivered in a breeze, like the skin of a bubble. If we trod on it, that bubble might burst, and down we should go to the clouds, which we could see floated below the beach as well as above it. Out there the air quivered. That world was too far and radiant to be safe. It did not look like the earth at all, but only the wide silence beyond the earth. If a wave moved in, it was only a brief shadow; it broke, and you could not hear it. It only glittered for a second. If we went down into that light we might be like that white gull, which was soaring there for a moment, then turned with a flash, and was not there.
Next morning we saw that more of the dark area was uncovered by the edge of the sea. Without saying where we were going, and without even telling each other what we wanted to know, two of us idled away, and somehow found ourselves looking for shells nearer and nearer to the great light. Presently, when we glanced back, we saw we were sundered. If anyone had signalled to us from the boulders we should not have known who it was. It might not have been for us. The ridge of rocks appeared to be of no account now. There did not seem enough of it to keep the sea from the land. If our friends were still resting upon it they were only markings we could not make out. We were alone. But the bubble on which we walked did not burst. It only darkened around our feet at every step we took, as though we were not heavy enough to break the film. We had left the solid ground, and must go on. The sea was nearer and plainer. The horizon stood above us. In a little while these sands, which were the sea-floor, would be claimed again.
The black markings, when we reached them, appeared to be of no importance at all. We had come to a patch of tough and darkened clay. The sea had smoothed it, rounded its corners, varnished it here and there with a green glaze. It was pitted with the holes of a boring shellfish. We saw the white shells in places, sticking out from holes like double razors. Rills and gushes of the tide made islands of these hummocks, and between them were deep pools. It was a curious place, exposed and lonely, and the pools were alive with shrimps. In one tank of glass a cuttle fish, just as we arrived, shot through it like a gleam of blue light. He vanished somehow, though we could not see where he had gone; he had spread among the vague colours at the deep bottom of the pool. But while we were still trying to find him we noticed what we thought was a black leg-bone sticking from the clay by the edge of the water. We tried to get it out, but it was brittle, and snapped. It was not a bone, but a root of a tree. What was a root doing there? Then we saw the clay was full of black bones. On its wet surface the roots coiled about, as they do in life, which was very puzzling, for how could they have grown there? The clay was full of roots.
So our first guess, that a tree afloat had foundered there years ago, would not account for it. We took our spades, and dug into it, and then found we could part the stiff black paste into layers, as thin as paper, for it was like a mass of pressed leaves. It was of leaves. We found the familiar outline of an oak leaf, just as one does in the old soil in the shadow of a wood. While wondering over that, pulling a lump of the rubbish to pieces to see what was inside it, we found a hard round object--why, of course, though it might have been a carving in ebony, it was a hazel nut! Had all this stuff grown where we saw it?
We looked back to the ridge of boulders. It was a mile away. It was too distant to make out anyone on it, or even what it was. Only the old church tower on the hill behind it was recognisable, and the houses. There was no forest, we knew, for many miles inland. Then the first impulse of the returning tide began to send thin layers of water in arcs up to our feet. The pool with the cuttlefish became agitated and thick with sand. Nothing like a forest was near us. The water was becoming noisy. It was time to go.
What did this discovery mean? Leaves and nuts and shellfish, yet the sea, too, which drove us away! How could such things be together? Oak-roots and a cuttlefish! Things had got mixed. The sea was where the land used to be.
We did not talk about it on our return journey to the rocks and our friends. It is not easy to understand, when you begin to see that the sea and the land can change places. How long does it take? Does it take more than a lifetime? The queer shimmering of the wet sands before us in wind and light helped the suggestion that the earth was not so solid as we had thought it, and that strange things could happen and nobody know it. I remember that our elders were not very interested in our discovery. They were talking of other things. What was this old forest? There were no hummocks to be seen then. The tide was rolling over them, in so short a while. We might have been mistaken; but I had the hazel nut in my pocket, though that was not much to show for so great a change. Our elders, in fact, were talking of a piece of good fortune which had come to somebody. It concerned that field behind the rocks on which we were sitting. It had been bought, that field, for next to nothing. Somebody had got it, and was going to build a house there. Could there be a better place? An excellent site, somebody remarked. So near the beach, and sheltered from the wind. Its value would increase, as this secluded little hamlet became better known, as it deserved to be.
How long ago was that morning? It does not seem long ago. That hazel nut still survives, and as I look at it on my desk I can see the wet sand darkening round our feet, as we walk in the sun. As who walk? Where are the people who sunned themselves that day on the rocks? They all cannot meet again. When last year I was on those rocks, in a glance the world appeared as it did yesterday, or years ago. There were the hummocks. The boulders were in place. That light out beyond might have been the eternal light; it had not ceased to quiver, as though alive and immortal, and even the gull reappeared, in a flash, as I watched. Perhaps the ridge of boulders did not seem to be as high as when we first knew it, but there could be more than one reason for that.
Yes, our memory was at fault. When I looked round, there was the scene which had given us, long ago, the happiness of abiding tranquillity. That immense gulf of brightness assured us still of changeless and radiant peace. The clouds were the same clouds. Those waves, advancing in leisurely ranks, falling along the strand in deliberation, were the same waves. The transient arcs of thin glass rimmed with foam which the tide impelled over the sands were so familiar that they could have been there all the time, more lasting than the works of men.
"Well," said my companion, "then this will be the field which someone was lucky enough to buy. Must be, I think. There was no other."
Yes, it was the field, what was left of it. Whoever the man was, he had built his house, but it was the worse for the weather. He had ceased to live in it. When? He had made a garden, but the ridge of boulders had invaded it. Rocks were scattered before his dilapidated porch. The tops of the garden pales projected, in places, only just above the stones. The invasion was real and deep; part of the roof of the house was blown awry.
There could be no doubt about it. This was the place. There used to be a row of cottages opposite that field, with a path between; and there they were still, though changed. The path was not to be seen. Boulders filled the end of the little street which had been kept so neat. The row of cottages had shrunk, but I could not guess by how much. At the seaward end of the row the dead turf of old gardens was hanging from a little cliff of crumbling sand. One cottage had gone, at least. On the wall above us a rag of faded wallpaper fluttered, and a firegrate beside it was high out of reach, with all the Atlantic before it, but no floor.