Turnstone by Nicki Parkins (1st place Jan20)

I brought the stone home from the beach. I often do that. There are so many beautiful stones and I end up bringing home too many. Then I have to perform triage and take most of them back to the beach, where I drop them among other beautiful stones and fight the urge to take home a new clutch.

This stone survived the triage. It’s not large – about the size and shape of my terminal thumb joint, which is small for a man’s. It’s mostly grey, but with a tinge of pink, because if you look closely the surface is covered with minute circular depressions where particles of sand lodge, the red sand that’s distinctive of this part of the coast. But the thing I love about this stone, the thing that made me pick it up and carry it home and that ensured it survived the triage, is the thin band of white quartz that bisects the grey at one end, like a factory-reject liquorice allsort.

I’m on the beach again, but today I’m not here to pick up stones. It’s raining, an enervating mizzle that coalesces into beads on my anorak and mists my glasses. I wipe them on my sleeve; the mist turns to a blur. I slip my hand into my pocket in search of a handkerchief and find the familiar knobble of the liquorice allsort stone. I rotate it between my fingertips, my thumb tracing the line of hard quartz that forms a ridge in the softer sandstone. There’s comfort in the repeated movement, a numbing of other sensations as my brain focuses on the eternal circle of quartz turning under my thumb.

I don’t mind the rain; it keeps the crowds away. A man in a waterproof walks a dog on a slack lead. Further along the bay, the head of a swimmer bobs between the waves; there’s always some fanatic who’s not deterred by the weather. Apart from that I see no-one. There are no surfers today in their sleek wetsuits because although it’s raining, there’s hardly any wind, so the waves are small. Even the holiday cottages on the seafront proclaim absence from blinded windows.

I’m glad there are no surfers. They’re everything I’m not. They play in the waves like seals; I can’t swim. They laugh and call to each other in strong, deep voices; my voice is thin and high, like a music track with the bass turned down. On sunny days the girls nudge each other and watch the surfers’ bodies with desire in their eyes. Nobody has ever wanted my body. Even I don’t want my body.

I walk down the slope of the beach, my boots crunching on the stones. The sea is brown, for although it’s calm now, there was a storm yesterday that churned up the red sand on the seabed. There’s just enough breeze to waft a salty tang on to my face. It’s a smell I feel I’ve known forever, from my earliest childhood holidays – or even before. I inhale a deep breath and lick salt from my lips. The low mood that is my constant companion lifts for a moment, rippling like a blanket shaken out across a bed; then it settles back down to its usual deadweight.

The stones at my feet are at their most beautiful today. The rain and the tide darken and enrich their colours: gold, silver, coral, purple, amber, onyx. They glow like sea anemones in a rock pool. I pick one up and watch the colour fade as it dries in the warmth of my hand, like life ebbing from an animate object as it transitions to inanimate. I drop the dead stone back on the beach. I’m not here today to collect stones.

The tide’s coming in. The waves gather and rise, then crash on to the shingle with a thud. A swirl of foam hisses towards me, then recedes with a noisy rattle. Another wave, higher this time, laps at my toes. Instinct tells me to step backwards, but I stand my ground. A few smaller wavelets, and then there’s a stronger one that washes right over my boots. A trickle of cold seeps into my socks.

The smell of the sea… why is it so evocative? It’s not as if those childhood memories of mine are happy ones. I was always the skinny, sunburnt kid who built sandcastles on his own, only to have the other boys come along and kick them to pieces. They’d run off laughing into the waves, knowing I couldn’t follow and didn’t have the bottle to attempt any kind of riposte anyway. Yet I love the smell of the sea. Doesn’t everyone? Perhaps it’s to do with origins. The sea, where life first emerged: a place of beginnings and endings, flow and ebb, setting out and return.

A small seabird with a brown back and white chest is dabbling along the tideline. It’s a turnstone, searching for marine grubs among the stones. As long as I’m still it’s happy to come quite close. Its dark, liquid eye looks kind; I imagine stroking the tiny soft feathers on its head. When I shift my position it retreats, orange legs skittering over the shingle, then resumes the behaviour for which it’s named. I’m saddened by its retreat but not surprised. There are patterns in life that you get used to.

The water is above my ankles now; the bottoms of my trousers are soaked. My feet aren’t cold any more, but there’s an icy ring creeping up each of my calves. I let my gaze roam far out over the water, all the way to the turquoise-tinged horizon. How deep is it out there? I imagine being surrounded by luminous green light that fades and darkens as I sink towards the bottom. A fragment of a poem: When that which drew from out the boundless deep / turns again home – I see the glimmering surface of the water receding above me, the fathomless darkness below.

In my pocket, my fingers are still turning the stone. Animate turning inanimate; transient turning intransient. The rocks around here are hundreds of millions of years old. I can’t hold in my  head the idea of something surviving for that long. I’ve only existed for a few decades and I was worn to the quick long ago.

When the boys used to destroy my sandcastles, I’d wait till they were out of sight and I could no longer hear their jeering laughter. Then I’d pick up my bucket and spade and start to build another one. I’d build it even bigger and better than the first. Sometimes I’d build stones into it for strength, like the quartz at the heart of my sandstone. Often I’d have tears on my cheeks as I did so, but I always managed it, always built my new castle of sand.

The tough rock runs deep in the soft, even if you can’t always see it.

The turnstone is back. It’s joined by a second, then another two; soon there are more than I can count. They scamper back and forth in the surf, levering the stones aside with their bills to snap up whatever lies beneath. A large wave surges up to my knees. I take the stone out of my pocket and cradle it in my palm. The quartz has a silvery glint to it, even on this sunless afternoon. I close my fingers tight around it and turn for home.

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