I’ve been walking around with this subject in my head for ages. Empathy makes it harder to hate, easier to care. That matters more to me than anything else.
One of the reasons I give for the importance of reading is that it helps children to develop greater empathy. I explain that this is the ability to use their imagination to occupy another’s shoes. For World Poetry Day last year, I recited – perhaps vainly – a poem that I wrote:
Let me wear your hands and hair,
ease myself into your legs and
slip your arms and shoulders on,
button up your chest and pull your face.
Let me use your eyes to check
that everything’s in place, flex
your muscles, flick your tongue
across your teeth and speak.
For then – and only then –
can I begin to understand
what being you is really like.
Angie Thomas wrote a great book, The Hate U Give. I heard her talking about it in Waterstones Piccadilly, at the UK launch. She is so clear about what she wants to convey, about how #BlackLivesMatter. I would argue that this book gives the reader a more shocking, more powerful insight into what it’s like to be a young person of colour in a car, seeing flashing blue lights behind you, than newspaper articles or TV reports. I will never walk in those shoes but, with well-written literature, I can occupy them imaginatively.
Like most people, I listened with horror to the stories of migrants whose boats capsized in the Mediterranean. But the facts can eventually numb us. Take Hasan’s story:
Syrian doctor Hasan Yousef Wahid is a survivor of the Lampedusa shipwreck in October 2013. After receiving death threats in Libya, and being denied safe access to Egypt, Tunisia and Malta, Hasan felt he had no choice but to take to the sea. Tragically, Hasan’s four young daughters disappeared during the shipwreck. ‘We are hanging on to the hope that we will find our children. All we want is to find our daughters, either dead or alive.’ (Amnesty International, 27 January 2020)
I’m writing a book. It’s an angry one, but it’s also a love story. One of the two central characters will act, I hope, as an imaginative portkey for readers. After following him for 90,000 words, they will find themselves alone in the sea, kicking as hard as they can to keep their heads above the water, hearing the cries of others around them and then, even worse, hearing nothing but the sea.
I can no longer feel the sand under my feet. In fact, I can hardly feel anything. I had fought for the highest part of the sandbank, as if dying last was a privilege for the strongest of us.
I must keep kicking, my dear zvi, for a while longer, though I know the end is near. It is so cold, but at least the cries have stopped.
Here’s an authorial intention: I want my readers to feel.
Resilience is a bucket.
Resilience is a piece of elastic.
Resilience is training for a marathon.
I’m talking in riddles and I’m avoiding any reference to better-informed sources than my own experience.
Let’s start with the last. If you’re training for a marathon, on the first day you’d have no hope of completing it. You exercise, you eat and drink well, you take care of your body and you sleep well. And by the end of your training period, you’re up for the gruelling challenge. I don’t believe that resilience is innate: it’s a capacity that can be developed, but it takes effort and insight. It also helps to have a personal trainer, and someone to cheer you along the route, returning to the analogy, because it’s easier to be resilient if you’re in good company.
Let’s pick up the piece of elastic. My resilience may have helped me to withstand all sorts of setbacks, or the earth-shaking roller-coaster of events over the past two decades. There have been times when I thought I might shatter into pieces, but I’ve surprised myself and got through them. However, if you stretch elastic for long enough, it breaks. However tough and impervious to stress we might think we are, the body has a way of telling us we’ve stretched ourselves too far. That’s where honesty and kindness come in: being honest with yourself about how tired, scared or stressed you are, before you end up in hospital. Been there, elastic snapped…
Finally, this bucket. I pride myself on being able to deal with most situations. I can get a bit shouty and needy, but that’s part of my resilience (admitting I need help or a hug). As I mentioned in my bit about courage, I become calm in danger. The same sort of thing quite often happens in situations where I am under pressure: my Vulcan takes over and I assume command, both of the situation and of myself.
But last summer, I found myself crying a lot over little things. Privately, in my lovely colleague’s classroom, with the door shut. But crying big wet tears. She told me about the bucket. It’s my resilience: for the most part, it has capacity for whatever comes along. You just pour the problem in and move on. But when something really awful happens, she said, it almost fills your bucket. Then the smallest problem becomes insurmountable. My mum had died, and that left little space in my bucket for anything else. Which is why good colleagues keep one eye on someone who’s back at work after a bereavement and appears to be okay…
So what does this tell me?
- First, resilience can be acquired and must be worked at.
- Secondly, everyone has their limit and we must watch out for warning signs
- Thirdly, however resilient we may think we are, circumstances may further limit our capacity to cope.
So let’s support one another, listen out for twanging elastic and check our buckets.
Guilt is the destroyer, more than fear.
Guilt and its bedmate, shame.
I’ve lived most of my life crippled by both.
These daily challenges are all abstractions. For me, abstract language is “coitus interruptus with the fleshy world.” It both frustrates me and tempts me into long, abstract expositions, which are usually dull. That’s why I respond to these topics with stories or anecdotes.
It was in the shopping mall at Canary Wharf, in 2009. I was out at lunchtime, just returning from a meal at Leon. As I walked up the slope towards the door of my office, I felt breathless, then a crushing pain in my chest, like a metal band had been put around my ribs. My walking slowed to a stagger. I could see people looking at me. I managed to step to one side and rest against the wall. And then, as my breathing returned to normal, thoughts raced through my head.
I was going to transition. My wife and daughter hated what I was and who I was becoming. Everything I was doing seemed to hurt them. But I had to. I’d worked through every scenario, including life apart from them. They all seemed unbearable.
Somewhere since then, I learnt that there is only so much I can bear, there is only so much I can do and there are, conversely, many things I can do. So here’s how I tackle guilt.
Guilt creeps up on you. An uneasy feeling, or a sudden wave, or a sharp pain. Sometimes it’s just frustration, of which more in a moment. Recognising it, looking it in the eye and saying, “Hold on while I think” is the first step.
This is where the Vulcan in me kicks in. I ask myself two questions:
What have I done? What did I do that caused something to be wrong or someone to suffer? This is where honesty is very useful. And a strong moral code. Even if it’s guilt about something I’ve not done, I move on to 2.
What can I do to make it better? Can I apologise? Is there anything practical I can do? Even if I’ve not done something wrong but just feel frustrated, if I can make the situation better, I’ll think of what I can do.
If I can apologise, I do it quickly, concisely and sincerely. If I can make amends, I offer to, and if the offer is taken up, I do it. If I’ve not done something wrong but can make the situation better, I do it.
I ask myself a third question: what can’t I do? I am only human. There are boundaries to my personal and professional life. I have to remain mentally and physically healthy. So I recognise what I cannot do: if I can influence others to do something, I will; otherwise, I move on.
A great way of avoiding unnecessary guilt is to live a good life. Try to do no harm. That, I believe, makes me the best teacher I can be.
Trust me, I’m honest. My honesty is often seen as rudeness, which it often is.
One of the four Quaker testimonies is Truth (the others being Peace, Simplicity and Equality). That’s why I became a member after my transition, when I began to live an entirely honest life. But honesty is slippery and scary. And it is different from truth, which is objective if it is – truly – truth.
First of all, it is impossible to escape from our own subjectivity. So the most honest we can be is to state our own perceptions and thoughts. Don’t believe otherwise.
Secondly, honesty has consequences. When I was interviewed by my housemaster about goings-on at school, I told him the truth. The other students lied. They stayed at school and I was expelled. It felt devastating at the time, but everything turned out okay (another story for another day). And, ironically, it reinforced my belief in being honest.
As a management consultant, and especially when seconded to the Treasury, I developed a sophisticated relationship with honesty. I learnt to balance political integrity with political awareness, so that my word was trusted and – when I did ‘speak truth to power’ – I was listened to. I have worked with shameless liars and learnt to smile, look my clients in the eye and nod as the colleague next to me was lying his arse off. But I hated it and avoided outright lying wherever possible. After my transition, I developed a bad habit of being inappropriately honest. When reviewing a multi-billion pound investment programme, I told the client’s Finance Director that it felt like I’d jumped into a time machine and gone back ten years, as I was hearing the same petty squabbles that I’d heard a decade before. My boss was understandably furious.
I reinforce the value of honesty in my classroom (alongside kindness). And it seems to work well. When I taught Year 1, I made a great deal of it, in the hope that I was making a lasting impact on them. Last year, a number of my Year 5 pupils cheated in the obstacle race. I asked the class who’d been honest. Pupils nominated those who’d done badly in the race because they’d stuck to the rules. I gave each of the nominees a Tunnock’s Teacake, which became known as ‘honesty cakes’. This year, my Year 3 pupils point out to me if I’ve neglected to record their punishments (a deduction of three minutes from their golden time). When they do, I make a big deal of their honesty. They still incur the punishment but I use our reward system to recognise their decision. The pupils seem to be okay with this.
Coming back to my ‘firstly’, I’m also a liar. However honest I try to be, I can’t escape from the narrative I’ve woven around myself. There are truths I will probably never be able to face, but you don’t need to know that. As Jeanette Winterson said, “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.”
I grew up surrounded by memories of people who seemed braver than I could ever be. The walls of Bedford School’s chapel and memorial hall were covered in the names of young men who died in two world wars. Among them were five Victoria Cross citations, which spoke of reckless courage. It will come as no surprise that I tried to enlist as an ordinary solider shortly after the Falklands War, then applied for officer training. The army decided they could do without me, but four years in the Territorial Army gave me a sense of what might have been required of me.
None of that was courage. I was intent on self-annihilation because I didn’t want to pretend any more. I spent my time at school as firmly wedged in the closet as I could possibly make myself, and the only way out of there seemed to be in a box.
When I came out to friends, family, clients and colleagues as transgender, and transitioned in 2010, many people told me how brave I was. I have half a million words in a blog from those times, and there was often a lot of being scared shitless. Walking down Tottenham Court Road as my self for the first time, in no way ‘passing’ but with my head up and smiling, I shook uncontrollably. But I wasn’t brave, because I did what I had to. Some of the VC citations told a similar story. The recipients said that they had reacted to the situation, doing what came to them instinctively because it just had to be done. I came out and transitioned because I might otherwise have died.
It has left me with a problem. I now have very little fear. I stood up to a sociopath employer when she tried to deny my teaching colleagues a decent pension. I organised a union-backed campaign to inform my fellow educators. The head responded by trying to frighten me. I didn’t back down and I was summarily sacked on the last day of my year-long probation period. She’s been found out now, and I’ve moved on. But I have to check myself and think about the consequences for others of my recklessness.
In 2007, I was involved in a car crash. While waiting to make a right turn into a drive, I looked in my rear view mirror and saw a car coming around the bend behind me at considerable speed. Time slowed down. I thought of my daughter beside me. I remembered that the best way to avoid whiplash injuries was to be relaxed. I calculated that her shock at the crash would be less of a problem than any neck injuries. And I watched the car hit us, saying nothing. The impact pushed us many metres down the road. Once I’d checked that my daughter was physically okay, I got out of the car. The other driver was terribly upset, as his car was crumpled and he and his young son had been hit by their airbags. “Look after your son,” I told him, “we’re fine.”
This wasn’t courage. It was what the situation required.
I find Ellen McArthur inspiring. I watched the coverage of her single-handed circumnavigation and heard her speak at a dinner, awkward in her long dress and in the well-oiled company of members of the Royal Ocean Racing Club. What she said about courage – and about children with cancer – stays with me.
“People used to say to me after I raced around the world, ‘God you’re so brave to do that. You’re so courageous’. I’m not. I chose to do that. It’s not brave or courageous. It’s probably stupid. But I was following my dream. I wanted it. These kids didn’t choose this. Yet they can go through it with such big smiles on their faces and such passion for life. That’s what true courage is. They’ve been a massive inspiration to me.”
I’d like to remember our friend’s son, Sam, who died aged 10. Though free from the leukaemia that had dogged his earlier childhood, he developed an inoperable brain tumour. Towards the end, while lying in his hospital bed, he opened his eyes from sleep and smiled at his parents. They asked him why he was smiling. “Because I don’t want you to be sad,” he replied. That is courage.
I wish I had been braver at school. I wish I’d stood up for a fellow pupil when he was homophobically bullied to the point where he left, or for the exchange students who were tormented for merely being foreign. But that’s history.
Now it’s payback time, for that scared child forty-five years ago. I am inspired by the bravery of some of the pupils I teach, standing up for what is right, confronting their terror on high ropes or putting themselves into situations such as speaking in assembly, where they are visibly frightened. I wish I’d had that courage. I am a diversity role model, facilitating and speaking at workshops in primary schools. It’s easy for me; I hope that our workshops give some of these young people the courage to be themselves and to stick up for one another now.
Because courage is what you do by choice when everything is telling you not to, and when you could so easily do and say nothing.
He frightened me. There was nothing cruel about him, not like some of the other masters. He didn’t cut you down to size with a sarcastic comment. He didn’t take a run-up when beating boys. He didn’t lose his temper and throw things at us, or come to within inches of us, veins bulging and spit hitting our faces. It was what he didn’t do, or say, that scared me. He’d sit there, behind his desk, in his immaculate suit, his hair perfectly combed and oiled, his glasses glinting at me, and he would just look at me. Into me.
The old man only taught me once or twice, standing in for our form master. We’d see a flash of who he’d been before the war, before whatever had happened. He even smiled, telling us about the milk cart coming down his street, the clattering sound of the horse’s hooves on the cobbles, the clank of metal as the milkman took the lid off his pail and filled this once-young boy’s jug. And then the door closed. His face went back to its impregnable mask.
We made up all sorts of stories about the old man’s war. Four years in Changi prison. Fighting in the Burmese jungle. And as for the right arm that hung uselessly from his shoulder, we put that down to the desert campaign in North Africa. None of the old men who taught us talked about their war. Only the young masters chattered about their lives, their likes and their dislikes. We listened and laughed when the young men told us their stories, but we also waited for the weather to change, braced ourselves to be shouted at or beaten.
He was different. One Sunday afternoon, soon after I’d come to the school, when I’d stood, shaking, in his study, knowing I’d done something wrong, he didn’t shout or threaten me. He asked me what I had done and why. He listened to me while I told him that I’d found the knife and didn’t think it was wrong to keep it. And then he said nothing for the longest time. He looked at me from behind the glitter of his spectacles, while his left hand scratched out notes in the strange script he’d learnt to use after whatever had happened to his right arm. The clock above the fireplace sounded impossibly loud. I could hear distant shouts of boys somewhere else in the boarding house. The floor above us thudded.
And then he spoke. His eyes didn’t move from mine for a moment. “You may have been brought up to believe that what you did was acceptable. But it is not. You stole that knife. It is called stealing by finding.” He paused. “You will never do anything like this again.” I felt shame surge through me. Tears fell down my cheeks and I stood there, shaking. His eyes remained on me, clear, blue, unblinking. Then they snapped down to his notes. “Go back to your dormitory.” It was over.
Other boys had stories about the canings they’d had from him, about purple stripes that he’d inflicted on their legs with his clumsy left arm. I would rather have had that than the way he’d seen into me that day.
Months passed and I found my place in the strange society of a preparatory school boarding house in the early seventies. I knew who I could and couldn’t play with, and accepted that I came at the back of the line in games. It is difficult now to explain how long time felt before children had computer games or smart phones or the internet. That particular Sunday stretched almost limitlessly ahead of us, once chapel and lunch were out of the way. So we resorted to savage, reckless games. In the middle of the playing fields, there was an oak, as old as the school, immense and dense. With a little help from one another, we could climb up into its lower branches. Once there, the tree was ours for a game of ‘It’. I’ve not heard of this version anywhere else: the game involved finding a place where you couldn’t be caught. Whoever was ‘it’ stayed on the ground, took off his shoe and threw it into the branches above him. If you were hit by the shoe, you had to climb down, replace the boy and take off your own shoe.
I hated the game. I wasn’t built for it, as I was shorter and weaker than most of the other boys. And I was terrified of the tree. The boys would laugh at me as my legs shook uncontrollably on even the lowest branches. I fought back both fear and my unwanted, humiliating tears every time I climbed and clung to the tree. So why did I play this game? Why didn’t I just stay in the boarding house’s library and flip through tattered copies of National Geographic magazines? I played the game because I needed to be someone. I needed to be accepted.
It was getting late on that summer afternoon. The sun was still strong but we knew we only had time for one more game. My throwing was even worse than my climbing, so I didn’t mind too much that someone else was ‘it’. I clambered up the boy’s body, stood uneasily on his shoulders and pulled myself onto the branch. Looking around, I could see that the best places were taken. And the other boys all knew it. They jeered at me as I clung on and searched for somewhere safe to hide.
Today was different. Normally, I’d accept a place near the trunk and silently take the sneering comments about my cowardice. Today, I saw red. I’d had enough of being at the bottom of everything, of being the butt of everyone’s jokes. So I climbed. I surprised myself, finding an energy in my anger that propelled me further and further up the tree. I was oblivious to the cuts and scratches that the branches inflicted on my legs and forearms. Higher and higher I went. The other boys’ voices became quieter and the canopy above me became lighter. I was on the top of the world, swaying in the highest branches. This was heaven. I found myself as secure a place as possible to sit, and I waited.
The game went on beneath me. Every now and then, there would be a cry when a boy was hit by a shoe – I wasn’t sure if it was pain or disappointment and I didn’t care. I was unreachable up here. For the first time, I was a winner. I closed my eyes and drifted off.
The first thing that struck me when I came out of my daydream was the silence. Not just in the tree; it was the whole field. I searched around for the other boys but couldn’t see anyone. I tried to look beyond the tree but all I could see was sky and leaves. I looked for my watch but realised that it must have come off at some point during the climb. I had no idea what time it was and I hadn’t a clue about how I was going to get down.
So I shouted. I shouted and screamed until my voice gave way and my throat was raw. While I know, from my visits to the school in more recent years, that the playing fields are nothing like as vast as they had seemed to me when I was ten, they were still large enough to have swallowed my cries for help. No one heard me. I tried to get down, but the courage and clarity of mind that had propelled me up here had now left me. I could hardly move. Every attempt to find a lower place made my legs shake and the branches tremble. I imagined that every creak or crack was a branch about to break. The strength in my arms also failed me. All I could do was cling to my place and cry.
Looking back now, I know that no child would be left forever in the topmost branches of a tree. I know that even if no one had noticed my absence at supper or afterwards, my empty bed would have alerted an adult. But I was only ten, and time didn’t have the same reality that it does now. I was terrified.
The light was beginning to fade when I heard his voice. “Are you up there?” he called from the ground below. At first, I said nothing. I’m not sure if it was fear or shame, but I couldn’t bring myself to reply. “Are you up there?” he asked again.
This time I spoke. “Yes.” My voice was so faint that I am surprised that he heard me.
“Can you climb down?”
“I can’t. I’m stuck,” I replied. And then, breaking into sobbing, messy tears, I said, “I’m too scared.”
“Look around you,” he told me. “Is there anything below you that could take your foot?” I looked through the blur of my tears and saw something. Already, his voice was giving me a better sense of how to get down. “Find something secure for your hands and then put one of your feet on the branch. Three points of contact at all times and you’ll be fine.” And for that moment, everything did seem fine. His voice would get me down. I would be safe. I followed his instructions and made it to the next branch. Again, he asked me if there was somewhere for my foot and a branch to hold on to. There was, and I found another secure place.
But this time, when I looked around, the drop to the next branch was too far. I tried it out, dangling down to it, but I realised that I would have to drop onto it and risk losing my grip. My hands and arms were shaking and had lost a lot of their strength. Beneath the branch, I could now see him. He had taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He was looking up at me, though all I could see was the light on his lenses. I burst into tears again. “I can’t do it. It’s too far. I’m scared.” Even at that distance, I could see a look on his face that I’d not seen before. He was worried about me. Frightened though I was, in that moment, this mattered to me. He tried again and again to coax me out of my place, but I just couldn’t move.
And then he did something extraordinary. He began to climb. His left arm must have acquired a strength to compensate for his right arm, because he pulled himself up onto the lowest branch with some ease. His right arm, though his hand was incapable of grip, was no longer quite so lifeless. Looking all the time at me, and struggling from branch to branch, he made his way up towards me. Soon he was immediately beneath me. His hair was tangled, the long forelock hanging across his face. At some point, his glasses must have fallen because I could now see his eyes.
“I can’t see you clearly and I cannot climb any higher,” he told me. “The branches above me won’t take my weight.” So it seemed that we were both stuck. Then he said, “I need you to be very brave and to climb down onto me.” I saw now that he had made a firm shape with his body, his feet in a strong position and his right arm jammed into the fork of a branch. And I looked at his left hand, which reached up to me. I put my hand in his and, for a few seconds, he held it. That made me feel better. Then he released his grip and said, “I will have to hold on here and you must use me as a branch. First wrap your legs around me and then put your arms onto my shoulders. Like a monkey.” That sounded so ridiculous that I couldn’t stop myself from giggling. He smiled. “That’s better. You’ll be down soon.” I did as he told me, and soon I found myself clinging to his back. He was warm and his body felt strong, not what I had expected for an old man. In front of me, I saw the nape of his neck and the small tail of his hair, tracing a path down towards his collar. I smelt limes and hair oil and then I was down onto the branch beside him.
I made my way to the trunk and sat down, holding onto it tightly. He looked over at me and smiled again. “You okay the rest of the way?” I just nodded and began to turn myself around for the next step. He waited for me to find my footing, them walked along the branch to the trunk. I looked up at him. He wasn’t frightening any more. He’d cared about me and he had come looking for me.
And then I slipped. I still don’t know what happened; I must have lost concentration in that moment. I fell and landed on my feet, awkwardly. They bent in a way that they weren’t meant to. Sharp bolts of pain went up my legs and I felt a numb ‘thunk’ in both feet. I collapsed onto the ground and lay there as he completed his descent, pulled on his jacket and found his glasses.
“Stay still,” he told me. “Let me take a look at your feet.” He knelt down and lifted one of my shoes, unlaced it and took it off. He pressed gently into my ankle. His hands, however careful their movement, made me cry out in pain. “They’re sprained,” he said. “You’ve sprained both of your ankles.” I felt stupid and began to cry again. “No need for that,” he told me, speaking quietly, “you’re safe and you’ve a bed waiting for you.” And without another word, he gathered me up in his arms and began to carry me back towards the boarding house.
I will never know the truth about his war. He died soon after this, shockingly, during term time. But somewhere, in that Sunday afternoon, I saw him for who he was.
For Ali Smith, through whose perfectly formed prose I caught a glimpse of this story.
“He … flung his stone into the sea with the prediction that only a strange and misshaped child of the far future would ever find it again.”
Ali Smith, ‘Bookshop Time’,
from Browse, edited by Henry Hitchings
My hair whips my face, like snakes. The sand stings my eyes, it’s in my teeth and it hisses across my boots.
I turn round for a moment to clear my eyes and see my footsteps disappearing in the wind. And there’s that pattern: one full footprint and one on the left where it’s just my toes. Foot, toes, foot, toes, foot, toes, as far as I can see.
I hunch my shoulders as close as I can get them to my neck and wrap my arms tightly around my shivering body. “It’s a lazy wind up here,” Dad once told me. “It doesn’t bother to travel past you, just runs straight through your ribs.”
Even with the layers I dragged on before I came out here this morning – my vest, my pyjama jacket, dad’s thick, checked shirt, his rough woollen sweater that still smells of him, mum’s oilskin coat – the North Easterly finds its way through to my skin and bones.
If my body is cold, my legs are far worse. The jeans that I pulled on over my pyjama trousers are now soaked through after that squall hit the beach a few minutes ago. And the two pairs of socks inside my boots are doing nothing to keep the chill out of my toes.
My toes. One lot just as God meant them to be, long like dad’s, as slim as mum’s. And the other ones, just a clenched claw. Those toes feel the cold much more than the good ones. My left hand isn’t any better. The fingers are half the size of my right hand and they’re pointing down at the sand, where the tendons in my wrist stop my hand from cradling my shaking body. The fingers are fidgeting around inside my sealskin mitten, but that has nothing to do with the cold. Even when I’m warm in my bedroom or next to the kitchen fire, my left hand, arm and leg have a dance of their own. When I’m feeling strong and not so tired, I can control the twitching and trembling. But out here, with the white foam in my face, and the screaming wind, and the crash of the North Sea, I don’t have any say in what my left side does.
I walk on, into the wind, up the beach, away from mum, away from home. It’s barely six in the morning. Mum won’t miss me for at least another hour.
At last there’s a break in the endless sand. The tide has cut a channel on its way out and the water has uncovered a bed of stones, glistening, dark and smooth. I bend down, catch myself, stand up again, take off my right mitten, tuck it into the side pocket of my oilskin and crouch down again. I’m looking for the perfect skimmer.
I don’t notice the cold now – not the weather and not the water that’s running through my fingers. I finger the stones aside, flick this one and pick up that one, then turn it over and chuck it away. The skimmer has to be here, the one that will skip over wave after wave and maybe find its way out to wherever Dad is. Twelve is my furthest, a skip for each year of my life. It’s no distance at all, but it’s further than I’ve ever dared to go into the sea.
A perfect skimmer has to be longer than it is wide, flat but with some weight behind it, preferably pointed at one end, the other end round enough to fit into my palm. It has to be here. This is my last chance. There will be no stone skimming here tomorrow or ever again. Today, we’re leaving for good.
There are a few likely skimmers but I spot an ugly one. Not smooth, not rounded, not flat, not at all symmetrical. Rough and ragged, with a hole at its heart. I can’t tell you why I pick it up. By this point, my fingers have lost almost all feeling but they’re clutching this stone tightly. I stand up, any thought of skimming washed out of my mind. I look down at my clenched hand and it opens. There, in my palm, surrounded by my white, pink and purple fingers, is a very ordinary blue and black stone.
Something’s odd. The stone has a hole in the middle. And I know that the hole runs all the way through it. The stone didn’t hold any water when I picked it up out of the sea. But now I’m looking through the hole and I can’t see the skin of my palm, which I should do. Instead, there’s darkness. And there’s movement. I blink and rub my eyes with my claw of a left hand. The sand on my mitten makes it even harder to see clearly. So I palm the stone in the mitten and use my right hand to wipe my eyes again. The hand is still wet, and the salt and the sand sting, but at least the blurring clears. I put the stone in my bare right hand and look at the hole. Darkness and movement, not my prune-wrinkled skin. I shake my head, to rock some sense into place. I blink again and give the hole a closer look. There’s definitely something moving in the darkness.
The sun is properly up now. It’s trying its hardest to peer through the rapidly moving grey, black and white rags of cloud. In a bright moment, I take the stone between my forefinger and thumb, hold it up to the sky and stare at the hole. With my arm held out, all I can see is the same darkness and the same movement. This doesn’t make any sense. I bring the stone closer to me. The movement in the hole looks more like something I recognise, like a tiny creature inside the stone. Perhaps that’s it. Something like a hermit crab, that lets the water through but stops me seeing what’s on the other side.
My curiosity engulfs me. I hold the stone up to my face, screw my left eye shut and peer at the hole with my right eye. Nothing. Not even the little movement I saw before. I switch to my left eye, which won’t stay still or focus. But now, looking closely with my left eye, I can see a figure, a long way away, much further up the beach, walking towards me. I open both my eyes and look where the figure should actually be. But there’s nothing. No one. This is a trick of the light. I’m tired. It’s time to head home again.
Before I throw away this disappointing, misshaped stone, I give it one more go with my left eye, looking along the beach. The figure is much closer. It’s a man – I can tell from his height, his hair and the build of his shoulders. He’s still too far away to make out. I looked again past the stone, with both eyes. Again there’s nothing. One last time, I put the stone to my left eye. Now he’s standing right in front of me. My eyes – both of them – fill with tears. The man is smiling at me. He has his arms out. But I just stand where I am, because I’m certain that if I move my hand away from my face, if I take the stone away from my left eye, he will disappear. And I couldn’t bear that.
There’s a voice behind me. It’s faint, almost lost in the noise of the storm. I hear my name. Joanie. Mum must have noticed that I’m not in my bed and come out to find me. And I don’t move a muscle. There’s no twitch, no tremor. I just gaze at him through the hole in the stone, smiling back at him.
Soon, there’s mum beside me, wrapped in a shawl and wearing her long, billowing skirt and boots. And before she can say anything to me, I turn and tell her that he’s coming back. Dad is coming back. But the moment has gone. I quickly pocket the stone and fall in beside her as we walk home, our backs to the wind.
On the higher ground beside us, far away, I see an old man looking out at us. Or is it just the sand and the spray in my tired eyes?
Your hair will whip your face, like snakes. The sand will sting your eyes, it will grate between your teeth and it will hiss across your boots.
You will turn around for a moment to clear your eyes and see your footsteps disappearing in the wind. And you will notice that pattern: one full footprint and one on the left where it’s just your toes. Foot, toes, foot, toes, foot, toes, as far as you can see.
You will hunch your shoulders as close as you can get them to your neck and wrap your arms tightly around your shivering body. You will recall your father telling you, “It’s a lazy wind up here, it doesn’t bother to travel past you, just runs straight through your ribs.”
Even with the layers you will drag on before you come out here on this particular morning – your vest, your pyjama jacket, your father’s thick, checked shirt, his rough woollen sweater that will still smell of him, your mother’s oilskin coat – the North Easterly will find its way through to your skin and bones.
If your body is cold, your legs will be far worse. The jeans that you will pull on over your pyjama trousers will be soaked through after the squall that will hit the beach while you are out there. And the two pairs of socks inside your boots will do nothing to keep the chill out of your toes.
Your toes. One lot will be just as God meant them to be, long like your father’s, as slim as your mother’s. And the other ones will appear like a clenched claw. Those toes will feel the cold much more than the good ones. Your left hand will be no better. The fingers will be half the size of your right hand and they will point down at the sand, where the tendons in your wrist will stop your hand from cradling your shaking body. The fingers will fidget around inside your sealskin mitten, but that will have nothing to do with the cold. Even when you are warm in your bedroom or next to the kitchen fire, your left hand, arm and leg will have a dance of their own. When you feel strong and not so tired, you will be able to control the twitching and trembling. But out here, with the white foam in your face, and the screaming wind, and the crash of the North Sea, you won’t have any say in what your left side does.
You will walk on, into the wind, up the beach, away from your mother, away from your home. It will be a little after six o’clock in the morning. You won’t expect your mother to miss you for at least another hour.
At last you will see a break in the endless sand, where the tide has cut a channel on its way out and the water has uncovered a bed of stones, glistening, dark and smooth. You will bend down, catch yourself, stand up again, take off your right mitten, tuck it into the side pocket of your oilskin and crouch down again. You’ll be looking for the perfect skimmer.
You won’t notice the cold now – neither the weather nor the water that will run through your fingers. You will finger the stones aside, flick this one and pick up that one, then turn it over and chuck it away. The skimmer will have to be there, the one that will skip over wave after wave and maybe find its way out to wherever you think your father is. You will have managed no more that twelve skips, one for each year of your life so far. That’s no distance at all, but it will be further than you’ll have ever dared to go into the sea.
You will picture the perfect skimmer: longer than it is wide, flat but with some weight behind it, preferably pointed at one end, the other end round enough to fit into your palm. You’ll say to yourself that it has to be there, that this is your last chance, that there will be no stone skimming here the next day or ever again. Because, on this particular day, you believe that you’re leaving for good.
There will be skimmers to choose from, but you will spot an ugly one. Not smooth, not rounded, not flat, not at all symmetrical. Rough and ragged, with a hole at its heart. You won’t be able to explain why you pick it up. By this point, your fingers will have lost almost all feeling but they will clutch this stone tightly. You will stand up, any thought of skimming washed out of your mind. You will look down at your clenched hand and it will open. There, in your palm, surrounded by your white, pink and purple fingers, will be a very ordinary blue and black stone.
Something will strike you as odd. The stone has a hole in the middle. And you know that the hole runs all the way through it. The stone won’t hold any water when you pick it up out of the sea. But when you look through the hole, you won’t be able to see the skin of your palm, which you should do. Instead, there will be darkness. And there will be movement. You will blink and rub your eyes with your claw of a left hand. The sand on your mitten will make it even harder to see clearly. So you will palm the stone in the mitten and use your right hand to wipe your eyes again. The hand will still be wet, and the salt and the sand will sting, but at least the blurring will clear. You will put the stone in your bare right hand and look at the hole. And you will see darkness and movement, not your prune-wrinkled skin. You will shake your head, to rock some sense into place. You will blink again and give the hole a closer look. There will definitely be something moving in the darkness.
The sun will be out by this time. It will try its hardest to peer through the rapidly moving grey, black and white rags of cloud. In a bright moment, you will take the stone between your forefinger and thumb, hold it up to the sky and stare at the hole. With your arm held out, all you will see is the same darkness and the same movement. This won’t make any sense. You will bring the stone closer to you. The movement in the hole will looks more like something you recognise, like a tiny creature inside the stone. Perhaps that’s it, you will think, something like a hermit crab, that lets the water through but stops you seeing what’s on the other side.
Your curiosity will engulf you. You will hold the stone up to your face, screw your left eye shut and peer at the hole with your right eye. And you will see nothing. Not even the little movement you saw before. You will switch to your left eye, which won’t stay still or focus. But now, looking closely with your left eye, you will see a figure, a long way away, much further up the beach, walking towards you. You will open both your eyes and look where the figure should actually be. But there will be nothing. No one. This is a trick of the light, you will suppose. You will notice how tired you are and decide that it’s time to head home again.
Before you throw away this disappointing, misshaped stone, you will give it one more go with your left eye, looking along the beach. The figure will be much closer. It will be a man – you will now be able to tell from his height, his hair and the build of his shoulders. He will still be too far away to make out. You will look again past the stone, with both eyes. Again, you will see nothing. One last time, you will put the stone to your left eye. Now he will be standing right in front of you. Your eyes – both of them – will fill with tears, just as mine are now. The man will smile at you. He will reach out with his arms. But you will just stand where you are, because you will be certain that if you move your hand away from your face, if you take the stone away from your left eye, he will disappear. And you will not be able to bear that.
You will hear a voice behind you. It will be faint, almost lost in the noise of the storm. You will hear your name. Joanie. Your mother will notice that you’re not in your bed and will come out to find you. And you won’t move a muscle. There will be no twitch, no tremor. You will just gaze at him through the hole in the stone, smiling back at him.
Soon, your mother will be beside you, wrapped in a shawl and wearing her long, billowing skirt and boots. And before she can say anything to you, you will turn and tell her that he’s coming back. Your father is coming back. But the moment will have gone. You will quickly pocket the stone and fall in beside her as you walk home, your backs to the wind.
Here on the higher ground beside you, far away and centuries before, I stand and look out to where I am about to throw this strange stone, knowing that you, my dear strange and misshaped child, will one day find it and will one day see your father again. Or will I just be the sand and the spray in your tired eyes?
Joanie’s hair whipped her face, a snake attacking its prey. The sand stung her eyes, grated between her teeth and hissed across her feet as she walked along the spit.
Behind her, the trail of footsteps was disappearing in the wind. But the pattern persisted: one full footprint and just the toes of the other foot following it. Foot, toes, foot, toes, foot, toes, as far as the eye could trace them.
Joanie’s shoulders hunched as close as they could to her neck and her arms wrapped themselves tightly around her shivering body. “There’s a lazy wind up here,” her father had told her. “It doesn’t bother to travel past you, just runs straight through your ribs.”
Even with the layers she’d dragged on before leaving the cottage that morning – the vest, her pyjama jacket, her father’s thick, checked shirt, his rough woollen sweater that still smelled of him, her mother’s oilskin coat – the North East wind found a way through to her pale skin and the bones that had barely enough flesh to cover them.
If her body was cold, her legs were far worse. The jeans that she’d pulled on over her pyjama trousers were now soaked through after a squall had hit the beach minutes before. And the two pairs of socks inside her boots did little to stop the seeping chill from stealing the life from her toes.
Her toes. One set just as God had intended them, long like her father’s, as slim as her mother’s. And the other no more than a clenched claw. The toes on that misshaped foot felt the cold more keenly than the others. And the hand on that side of her, the left, was little better. The fingers were half the size of their stronger twin. Even as Joanie hugged herself tightly, the fingers pointed down at the sand, the tendons in her wrist preventing the hand from finding an easier, more comfortable grip on her shaking body. The tremor that caused the fingers to fidget this way and that inside her sealskin mitten had nothing to do with the cold, the wet or the wind. Even in the warmth of her bedroom, or beside the coal fire in the kitchen, Joanie’s left hand, arm and leg danced to a tune of their own. When she was feeling strong and rested, she could control the twitching and trembling. Out here, with the white foam flying at her face, with the air full of the scream of the wind and the crash of the North Sea, Joanie had no say at all in what her left side was up to.
She walked on, into the wind, up the beach, away from her mother and home. It was barely six in the morning. She’d not be missed for at least another hour.
At last she came to a break in the seemingly endless sand, where a channel had been cut by the retreating tide. The outgoing water had laid bare a bed of glistening stones, dark and smooth. Joanie bent down, caught herself, stood up again, took off her right mitten, tucked it into the side pocket of her oilskin and returned to her crouch. She was looking for the perfect skimmer.
Oblivious now to the cold – from the weather around her or the water that ran through her fingers – Joanie teased the stones aside, flicking this one, picking up that one, then turning it over and discarding it. The skimmer had to be there, the one that would skip over wave after wave and maybe find its way out to wherever her father was. Twelve was her furthest, a pitiful distance from the shore but further than she’d ever dare to venture into the surge.
The skimmer had to be longer than it was wide, flat but with some weight behind it, preferably pointed at one end, the other end round enough to fit into her palm. It had to be there. This was her last chance. There would be no stone skimming here tomorrow or ever again. Today they were leaving for good.
Among the likely candidates, Joanie saw an ugly one. Not smooth, not rounded, not flat, nor at all symmetrical. Rough and ragged, with a hole at its heart. Long after, Joanie could not explain why she had picked it up. By this point, her fingers had lost almost all of their feeling. But they clutched this stone tightly. Joanie stood up, any thought of skimming washed from her mind. She looked down at her clenched hand and it opened, her mottled white, pink and purple fingers revealing a quite ordinary blue and black stone in her palm.
Something struck her as odd. The stone had a hole at its centre. And the hole, she knew, ran all the way through it. The stone had held no water when she had picked it up out of the sea. But as she looked at the stone, through the hole, she couldn’t see the skin of her palm as she ought to have done. Instead, there was darkness. And there was movement. Joanie blinked and rubbed her eyes with the claw of her left hand, the sand on her mitten doing little to help with her vision. Then she palmed the stone in her left mitten and used her still-wet right hand to wipe her eyes again. The salt and the sand stung them but at least the blurring had cleared. Once again she placed the stone in her bare right hand and looked at the hole. Darkness and movement, not a twelve year-old’s water-wrinkled skin. Joanie shook her head, as if to rock some sense into place. Blinking again, she gave the hole a closer look. There was definitely something moving in what seemed to be bottomless darkness.
The sun was properly up now, trying its hardest to peer through the rapidly moving grey, black and white rags of cloud. In a bright moment, Joanie took the stone between her forefinger and thumb, held it up to the sky and stared at the hole. With her arm held out, all she could see was the same darkness and the same movement. This didn’t make any sense. Joanie brought the stone closer to her. The movement within the hole became more like something she recognised, like a tiny creature caught inside the stone. Perhaps that was it. Something like a hermit crab, that let the water through but stopped her seeing what lay on the other side.
Joanie’s curiosity engulfed her. She held the stone up to her face, screwed her left eye shut and peered at the hole with her right eye. Nothing. Not even the little movement she’d seen before. She switched to her left eye, which struggled to keep its direction and focus. But now, looking closely, and only with her left eye, Joanie could see a figure, a long way away, far further up the beach, walking towards her. Joanie opened both her eyes and looked in the direction of the figure – not through the stone, but where he or she should actually be. But there was nothing. No one. This was a trick of the light. She was tired. It was time to head home again.
Before she disposed of the disappointing, misshaped stone, she looked once more with her left eye through the stone, along the beach. The figure was much closer. It was a man – his height, his hair and the build of his shoulders told her so. He was still too far away to make out. Joanie looked again past the stone, with both eyes, expectantly. Once again there was nothing. For one final time, she put the stone to her left eye. Now he was standing right in front of her. Joanie’s eyes – both of them – filled at once with tears. The man smiled at her. He put his arms out. But Joanie stood just as she was, certain now that if she moved her hand away from her face, took the stone away from her left eye, he would disappear.
A voice called out from behind her, a keening, faint sound, almost lost in the noise of the storm. Joanie heard her name. Her mother must have noticed that she wasn’t in her bed and come out to find her. Still Joanie stood where she was, unwilling to move, gazing at the man through the hole in the stone, smiling back at him.
Soon, a woman wrapped in a shawl and wearing a long, billowing skirt and boots came to stand behind Joanie. And before the woman could say anything to the girl in front of her, Joanie said, “He’s coming back. Dad is coming back.”
On the higher ground behind them, I stood and looked out, from far in the past, to where I threw that stone, knowing that the strange and misshaped child would one day find it and would one day see her father again.
If you are interested in the old man on the high ground
and want to know more about him, look for Coinneach Odhar.
Next week, I will be speaking at a memorial service for a friend and a relative who succumbed to the effects of his alcoholism and died, aged sixty.
He and I had an outdoor relationship from the beginning, almost thirty years ago.
I invited him on my stag weekend in Snowdonia so that I could get know him. And I think I truly did. He walked hard and talked just as hard, all the way up and all the way down the mountain. He got on well with my friends – better, I think, than I did that night.
But when they crept into my hotel room in the early hours, intent on doing mischief to me, he was the one whose nose I broke. It was quite a struggle, and I think a few of my friends were ready to leave the hotel early the next morning. Then, as I sat in silence at breakfast, in he walked. He grabbed a coffee and sat down opposite me, wearing his big, sunny grin. “That was quite a night, wasn’t it?” We were friends from then on.
I saw the best of him when he worked tirelessly to organise the team for the Three Peaks Challenge, in aid of children affected by the Chernobyl disaster. We had many long conversations before it, and spoke at length as he drove us between mountains. He was driven by something. I’m not sure if I ever found out what it was.
I saw a gentle side to him with his children when they were little, but also towards the end, when I walked beside him through the lanes around his home town. He counted on me as a friend and was never anything but kind and polite to me. That is the man I will choose to remember and celebrate.
I have a photograph of him from my stag weekend. He’s standing on Adam, a rock more than two metres in height and a little more than a step away from another rock, known as Eve. They are at the top of a mountain called Tryfan. Unless you’ve stood on the top, you don’t know how dangerous it feels to step from one to the other. If you get it wrong, there seems to be nothing between you and a thousand foot drop. He got up onto the rock and then stood there, unable to step across. He agonised for a very long time, pacing around the top of that rock, oblivious to the encouragement and impatient shouts from those around him. And finally he climbed down from the rock. It was brave to get up there in the first place. It was perhaps just as brave not to take the risk and to get down again.
Unless you’ve stood where he has stood, you cannot know how it feels.