I admit to finding this poem (or is it a screenplay?) the most difficult one I have ever written. Inspired originally by Simon Reeve’s Cornwall programme in which it was put forward that there are children living in poverty in Cornwall who have never visited the beach, despite it being only three or four miles away. When a friend notified me of a radio programme on BBC Sounds called The Patch which looked further into what seems to be this remarkable claim.
A climb up Carn Brea, a hill that overlooks Redruth on New Year’s Day 2021, inspired poems on the three poems that make up my C.P.R. Tryptych, an observation of Cornwall’s ‘hidden’ poverty but also gave me the setting for this imaginary conversation between myself and a young woman, whose children had never visited the beach. In keeping with many folk tales I have given it a happy ending…but most people in this situation are destined not to have that fortune.
May I recommend The Patch (Camborne) at https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000m0nt
The appearance of the word ‘beat’ in brackets implies a pause in the conversation.
SEA FEAR (A Cornish Folk Tale)
I am sat on a giant-tossed plinth high on Carn Brea,
Gazing over the lost promise of the Great Flat Lode
When a breathless woman, inappropriately dressed
I thought, for a clamber up a nettle-strewn hillside,
Slaps a hand on my slabbed pedestal and gazes
Up at me through eyes of sparkling serpentine.
“Excuse me, is that the sea…” she says,
“That blue over there…Is that the actual sea?”
I nod my head at the incongruity.
“And that town…that’s Redruth right,
Where I’ve just come from?”
I nod once more.
“I didn’t think the sea was that near” she says,
“I suppose I never gave it that much thought.”
“That’s the Atlantic,” I say, “the Atlantic Ocean
…and the other way you can just see the English Channel”
She swivels around…and follows my milestone finger.
“What, that’s a different sea?”
I look down on her, the caterpillar to her Alice.
She pulls on her vaporiser and I am engulfed
In the mist of strawberries, perhaps a Cornish cream tea.
“You can see both coasts of Cornwall at once from here.”
“I didn’t know that ‘cos I’ve not been up here before.”
“You live in Redruth?”
“All my life” she said.
I wondered why someone might not be, well…’curiouser’?
She stows the vaporiser into a miniscule pink rucksack,
Clambers up and then sits down beside me.
Time passes…as it usually does. Then she says,
“All my life, I’ve seen this hill from my back garden,
It’s like I’ve been looking at it but not really seeing it…
Like it was just a painting on our wall.
Not that we had any paintings on our wall!
Maybe if my parents had brought me here up as a child…”
She left it at that for a beat or so.
“I asked Mum once…you know, to take us up here
But she couldn’t see the point…she said,
‘Can’t be much to see or ‘spect we would have heard’.
And besides, her parents had never taken her up either.”
‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’. I nearly said.
But didn’t because…well, you don’t, do you?.
She unpacked the vaporiser again and enveloped me
Once more in a mist of strawberries and cream.
“The kids are at their dad’s…so I went to bed early.
Woke with a start this morning, didn’t know what to do…”
“So, you thought, I know, I’ll climb Carn Brea” I said.
She nodded her head. “Sort of…do something different.”
A quietude came upon us…but not for long…
“Oh!” she says and pulls something out of her back pocket
A scratch card; “I’d forgotten about this! Got it at the Co-op.”
Now standing, she holds it high. It shines in the morning sun
She is Jeanne d’Arc, ready for battle. “Wish me luck!”
“Bon chance!” I say, still in Orleans with my thoughts…
But then Rouen.
She sits back down and sets about it with a coin,
Feverish in her attack on the silver leaf.
“Oh!…” A palpable silence comes between us.
I think she might have won, but I choose not to pry.
She appears lost in thought for a moment or two…
Before sliding the scratch card into her back pocket.
And when I ask, “Do you not go to the beach then?”
She is eager to engage…too eager, perhaps?
“It’s funny that I never realised the sea was so close.
I remember Mum taking me there just the once.
I’d been asking her because some of the kids at school
Had been there on their bikes…but we didn’t have bikes…
Mum said it cost too much for all of us on the bus
And there were too many of us for a taxi;
‘If we can’t go one and all then none will’ she said..
Anyway, Tiler Joff was doing a job down Illogan,
Said he’d drop us off down Portreath before he set to work
He was happy to…when he heard we’d never been
‘No problem, Janey,’ he said, ‘I’ll take ‘em…
But I don’t know what time I’ll be finishing
So, you’ll have to make your own way back.’
We all climbed up onto his pick-up truck and hung on.”
She revels in the memory of it, for a moment…
Until a stray cloud, darkens the air around the two of us.
“My kids don’t know it’s so near, so they don’t ask to go;
Portreath might as well be Timbuktu. (beat)
As kids we saw the seaside on TV…
But it didn’t register that it was so near to us.
Imagine living four miles from the sea
When it might as well be four hundred.”
“You should take them” I say.
“The sea is your heritage.”
She smiles and breaks my heart.
“Not anymore, and what cost to me
To build up their hopes for future trips
When I never have money spare to take them?
What with the rent, it’s expensive livin’ ‘ere.”
I tell her that I know this.
“Can’t afford a car so we don’t go out for the day;
Holidays? I’ve never even been out of Cornwall;
I’ve never even been to other parts of Cornwall.
Lucky to have a few cans and a flat screen on tick…
Still like a can or two…not much to ask is it?
I’ve tried to stop the smoking…vaping now…
When I mention things like that, things that aren’t ‘essential’”
She does that thing like rabbit’s ears.
“People judge you. Perhaps you’re judging me now?”
I shake my head, rather too quickly for my own liking.
“Sometimes, it gets that you can’t think straight
Because you’re worried about money all of the time.
It’s on your mind constantly…
Where am I going to get the money for that?
Or how will I pay for this?
Must I go to the foodbank again?
Sometimes you need a distraction…anything…
Having your nails or your eyebrows done
Just to make yourself feel good about yourself;
Just to take your mind off that endless weight
Pressing down on you like a big rock…(beat)
And besides the beach ain’t ours anymore
It’s there for the tourists…they own it in summer
It’s not for the likes of us…the Cornish.
I don’t think it did backalong when I was a tacker.”
The cloud, a Cornish waif, passes on through
And our pedestal is warmed once again.
“You can’t imagine how big the sea is, can you…
Until you face up to it in person? Just you and it.
I think I must have been about nine or ten…
It was really weird because I had read about it
In books that were set by the seaside
But they never told you about the…bigness of it
Like they thought you would have already known that. (beat)
And there was more sand than I could ever imagine;
More even than in the building site
At the new houses where we used to play.
I remember pushing my toes deep into the sand,
Watching the grains run down between my toes
Just like they did in my mother’s egg timer.
I just stared at the sea, which went on forever;
I had seen it on the telly, and could only guess
But here there wasn’t a frame around it.
I waded out as far as I could in my tee-shirt and knickers;
I wanted it to be just me and the sea and the sky.
The first wave that hit my chest scared me.
Cold…I couldn’t breathe and then I gasped.
Uncertain…then another wave that lifted me right up
And it felt like my toes were stretching out
Grasping to feel for something that might fix me.
It frightened me so much…that loss of control
That I turned back as fast as I could…too fast,
Tripped on a stone and fell beneath the waves.
My mouth and nose filled with water, my eyes
No longer seeing the blue sea that had teased me in
But the ugly muddy brown filth beneath
Almost as if it had tricked me and since then
I’ve never been back…I don’t trust it.
It makes it easy for me, not take my kids there.
We walked the four miles home and slept well that night.”
“The memory of it has clearly stayed with you.”
“But why is it the bad part I remember?”
“It isn’t. You’re just fixating on that one thing,
But you’ve told me about all the other stuff.
You must go down to Portreath again
‘To the lonely sea and the sky.’”
“It’s a poem by Masefield…sort of.”
“Oh, right…you like poetry, do you?”
Another silence…she’s probably thinking, “Twat!”
And needed time perhaps to despise me.
“I never really got into it at school” she says.
“It helps sometimes.”
God! That even had me thinking, “Twat!”
What possible use could she get from poetry when
Her only concern is where the next pound comes from?
“But I do remember that day…like it was yesterday
Perhaps my children need a memory of their own?”
“I think that would be a lovely idea. Even if you can’t afford it!”
“I see the visitors, these emmets; their kids dressed sharp,
Their trainers still white where they are supposed to be.
Whereas mine are all in pilled polyester and plucked lycra.”
She’s Jeanne d’Arc once more…listening to her saints.
Ste Jeanne rising from the flames, golden in her adornment
As she holds up the scratch card.
“Five hundred pounds! Five hundred fucking pounds!
No, you are right, Mr Poet!
I’m heading town to the big Tesco…that’s it there, right?
I’m nodding, grinning like a medieval French peasant.
I’m gonna buy them new summer outfits…white trainers.
Taxi there…taxi back.
We’re going to go to the beach as tourists
Buying overpriced ice cream
And fish and chips served in a child’s seaside bucket.
Or a full English on a tinner’s shovel.
I’ve seen ‘em all on Facebook.
I shall go down to the sea again
Just to give my children a memory.”
“And don’t forget to bring them up Carn Brea,” I said
On a clear day so they can see for themselves
Just how close to the sea they really are.”
© gray lightfoot