Paul took me out in the rib yesterday. A leaden sea and clouds so low, you could reach out and touch them. It was calm but not completely without swell, a thickness to the surface as it caught the light in puddles, growing shrinking flickering. I sat in the bow with the anchor, almost at sea level, looking back on our wake while the outboard droned.
When Paul suggested it was perfect for a boat trip, I was unconvinced. The morning hadn’t brightened, the day the same as it had looked at seven. He went on about it so much it was hard to say no. I didn’t say yes either, just put my waterproofs on and trudged out to the van. I made sure he saw me eyeing the sky.
It’s odd to watch the land unfold. The country I live in – the idea I had of it as something cohesive and whole – crumbled into rocks and gullies. All of it formed 400-million-years-ago, apparently, which is nothing, I’m told. Along the coast, there’s metamorphic rock that’s perhaps six times as old. Glaciers, lava, shifting plates: all were plausible looking up from the rib. Byres and sheds appeared from nowhere and the sandstone strata pitched suddenly into the ocean, stray slabs slick black. I felt as though I’d just found out the world was round. Ink diagrams on old parchment stared back at me.
Gulls flying so low they almost skimmed the water, overtaking the rib, and this – my eye and the low flying gulls – at the same level, and me with the same gliding motion, so that my experience and theirs were in that moment as close as they might ever be; the noise of the engine separate but heard by both.
Paul took the boat between a sea stack and the land it was once attached to, motoring slowly, so that we could look up and see shags balanced on the ledges – slender necks, accusing beaks and oh so black. With the motor only puttering, I felt a sense of inversion, as though we weren’t really moving at all, the sea and rocks advancing on a kind of travelator. Near the edges, the water changed to shimmering turquoise and the rock loomed golden underneath, the surface something in itself, something liminal, between air and water.
Sometimes when I look in the mirror, and my hair needs brushed and there’s dark circles under my eyes, I can’t see that other me, the one who wore kohl and mascara and had perfectly matte skin, and I’ll lean closer. Of course the bathroom is all shadows – only the tiniest of windows in stone that’s a metre thick, and it’s hard to make much out, so my reflection looms there above the sink, and there’s a thickness to the light, and if I lean further still, press myself to the basin, occasionally this other shimmers.
You’d be better at the stern.
I’m fine, I said, turning away.
Why do I always care how things look?
Golden underneath and black above, angled like faces, like black giants, and the boat passing below only with their patience for it, their good will. Paul pushed the throttle forward. Now the expanse and the elevation between the boat and land seemed impossible to cross: we were so low and it was so high, something fixed and static whereas the terrain to the north was dark and lapping. The sea so grey below a pale sky that it looked perverse, upside down, and perhaps that’s why the clouds felt so close. The horizon was different too – its deixis altered – no longer belonging to distance but to us, closer in that we seemed to be one liquid part of it.
Some better Nature, or some God was he
that laid the strife, and severed earth from sea,
the sky from earth, and ether’s liquid glow
from the dim atmosphere of clouds below.
We made for the slip before the tide got too low, the bow lifting and slapping the waves. After a while I may even have smiled. Today is the autumn equinox, and I keep thinking about the mirror, the millennia of creases round my eyes, halfway now – the day and night of equal length.