Taken from a page in my journal, dated 30th May 2010
It begins with the names. It always does. St Helen’s, the Duver, Priory Bay. Have I been dead all winter? Have I been asleep? The view from the room where I write this is vast, it looks over the forest to wide ocean; boundless, ceaseless, perpetual, an expanse of pale sea and paler sky.
In the paddocks the horses run skittish with the wind, their whinnies like whipped screams, like birth-cries. We walk on a beach of dried bladderwrack, bodies of crabs among the pools. It reminds me of places I have loved, this bleakness, it reminds me of Africa, and of Cornwall, that western-most point of our isles where my paternal ancestors were born. Perhaps the same wind-beaten blood runs in my veins, perhaps that love of harshness, of wild and barren land, of grandeur, dramaticism, rugged weather and resolute storms, perhaps it is my inheritance, somehow, a bequest from those feudal people who birthed my grandfathers across the Tamar. Perhaps. Or is it half-remembered? Would it explain so much, I wonder, looking across the Solent to the Hampshire coastline from this lozenge-shaped island where the Jurassic coast crumbles into the sea? Sluiced by storm rain, I think it does. There is legacy among the tin-ores and those black granite reefs. It might explain the longing for starkness, loneliness. When away, it might explain the longing for home. Hireth, they say. It’s Hireth, part of your very bones, a nostalgic yearning for the brutality of childhood, of purity and guiltlessness, half-remembrance of a time when there was no stain.
We came from Penhallow, that smallest of villages in the Cornish hinterlands. Penhallow, our family name - the name of my father, though I bear my mother’s. My grandmother was a Jew, though my grandfather would never admit it, all those long sixty years of their union. So there is Jewish blood in me too. Maybe it explains why I like certain colours, or why my family suddenly laugh when I pick out something in gold, as my grandmother would have done. Oh, they say, you are so Jewish. Maybe it explains why I am always thinking of moving on.
I still think of the tortoiseshell combs my grandmother used, to pin her hair. In London, I would stand behind her at the dressing table with her heavy silver hairbrush and brush her hair and she would pin it beautifully, artfully, in loops and folds on the top of her head. And then we’d go to Harrods and I’d hold her hand and she had very long fingers, always glossed and polished nails, and heavy diamond rings set in gold which I would turn round and round and long for the day I would wear diamond rings and silk scarves and tread cream-carpeted department stores and smell of Arpege. When she died, years later, my father came back from London and went into his bedroom and closed the door. She had been so brave, he said. Strange how these thoughts of ancestry and memories come back here, in so incongruous a place.
At night, my companion tells me how it used to be, how the bar now tasteful and candle-lit used to sell ice-creams and have long tables covered with gingham cloth. It is so quiet here, it would be easy to believe it was just us, on the winnowed sand of Priory Bay with the dark evergreen forest behind us. Just us and a few fishermen and the crab lady on this island looking back across toward the mainland ports – he with his dark curls and his intimacy with these coves, I, a daughter of smugglers, from not so distant shores.
The forest of dripping branches smells sweet, of cow parsely and wet soil and berries and then there is the wild garlic all along the path until we are out in the valley and there are only green hills and pink, silvery grasses waist-high, glossy and blown flat. He kisses me on the Duver where the bleached boats are upturned.
Have I been asleep? There are gables and steeples, beehives, a village green, flintstone walls, lanes, bays, vales, cottages on the beach with thatched roofs and leaning porches. There is wisteria, pale roses. Sweet, sweet England. Home.
My sleep is full of tidal ebbs. Seapeople. Glinting ships. I catch sight of myself naked in the mirror. My skin has tanned the colour of pale caramel. There are new muscles in my arms and legs and I am quite incredulous at their being there. We count our scars in the warm shadowy room away from the ferocious nightwind, in the room where we first made love after waiting all those months, where we shyly undressed in the dark. How polite we were then. How reverent. Afterwards we sat and smoked on the floor and drank wine that made us feel ghastly, and looked over the ocean. How little has changed and how much, and the dingys still bob at their moorings.
Night falls quite suddenly, as it does on the equator. Behind the house on the hill pheasants call and foxes bark. No cars pass, there is only the pounding wind on the porch door. We could travel the world and never find peace such as this, not in any hotel room or desert or cathedral. We look at the impregnable white walls of our coastline across the water and know the golden orchards that are there, the lanes slippery with fallen blossom clogging the tracks and stiles. On the beach, sand crocuses grow by the spillways like lichen and in the dividing water, dogged ships pass on toward open ocean. This is our heritage, wild and barren, kiln-warm over grasses blown flat in bowls, as though huge beasts have lain there and found rest.