Reading the tide times by lamplight in the caravan, waiting for the sea to leech out into the darkness, exposing rock and pool and weed.
“You’ll be careful, won’t you, love?” she says for the fifth time.
I kiss her and the kids and step out into the quiet night.
The clunk of the closing door breaks the spell of the caravan as a warm, safe refuge, exposes it as a tin box sitting in a field.
I pull the bucket of gear from beneath the caravan, wet grass glistening in the weak moonlight, and I set off.
Across fields, the bulky oblong silhouettes of ruminating cattle shift uneasily as I walk past, boots swishing through longer grass and thistles, bucket clunking against my leg.
Over a gate another field, pitching downwards, shallow to begin with but growing steeper, funneling into gorse and swathes of bracken, now birch and rowen, now oak.
I switch on the torch.
The yellow light finds the path between cathedral trees and the walls of the gorge growing high on either side, the ground matted with flowers and ferns picked out in the beam of the torch, swaying with the swing of the bucket and the drop of my foot as the ground dips, the path leading to split log steps in places as it steepens and steepens with a scent of wild garlic and the chuckle of hidden streams below in the ferns.
Broken moon puzzle pieces scattered in the branches overhead giving no light. Small things go about their business in the ferns and the gorge closes in, narrowing, growing taller, the path becoming a bridge and the stream a waterfall and the mineral breath of cold water rising up, and past the stream a thick, caky scent of loam and the piss reek of snapped bracken.
And the trees quickly part to a tattered yard of upturned hulls and fraying rope crab pots, flint shingled cottages and sagging sheds, the cottages stacked one behind and above the other, a Yorkshire favela, Robin Hood’s Bay.
The streets are empty. Arrowslits of light between drawn curtains. Shapes move in the windows of The Bay Hotel and there is laughter and the reek of ale, but the strongest smell is sea, the loudest sound is sea, and on the sea there is no light.
Down the pitted concrete slipway and my boots scuff across hard ridged sand, bucket clopping in time with my stride, sand giving way to rock riddled with the skeletons of a billion sea creatures, exquisite whorls a hundred million years old.
“You’ll be careful, won’t you, love?”
I stop on the rocks, oily with weed, and look back at the lights of the bay, already distant. There is England, Yorkshire, and behind me is rock then sea and far beyond over the horizon, Denmark.
I turn and head for Denmark.
Fresh filled rock pools a yard or so deep, great carpets of kelp, the spit and crackle of exposed limpets, the flithers collected by Whitby women to bait the nets of their menfolk for hundreds of years but no more.
The blackness above and blackness below, boots slithering on wet rocks until there is no more rock, only the North Sea.
This is the place.
I put down my bucket.
Crouching low, I pull out the two coils of wire and mesh, release the clips and they spring open – lobster pots. With freezing fingers I scrabble in pools to find rocks to weight them, then I bait the pots with the fat and skin and bones from the chicken we had eaten that night.
I check the time. The tide is turning.
I grab the coil of plastic twine in one hand, and with the other I carefully heave a lobster pot into a deep pool briefly exposed by the low tide. In minutes the pool will be sea. The pot thumps the water and sinks, the twine whirrs through my fingers and then it is still. With white, waxy fingers I tie the twine to a plastic milk carton, sealed tight against the sea. I float the carton, hoping it will be there in twelve hours time.
I repeat the process with the second pot, and now the sea is coming, lapping over my boots.
I set off, back towards England. I am cautious, aware of the weight of the sea at my heels, careful not to panic, knowing that if I fall the sea would reach the shore before me.
Off the rocks and onto sand, sure footed now, jogging across the beach, heading for the lights and the warmth and the laughter.
At the top of the slipway I look back but there is only blackness, a slight ripple of silver where the tide seethes, creeping closer, but I am safe.
I push my bucket under a boat, go into the pub.
“Pint of bitter.”
I’ve earned it.
The smothering warmth seems alien after the cold. I look out at the darkness, and when the glass is empty I fetch my bucket and head back to my family.
I open the tin door and the box is a warm haven once again. She is relieved.
The kids are in their bunks, bright eyes shining in the dark with the adventure of it.
“Did you do it, daddy? Will you catch lobsters?”
“I hope so. Goodnight.”
I kiss them. Their faces are so warm, so soft, and I think of the cold wet rocks, the darkness of the sea.
I’m awake a lot of the night, eyes staring blindly in the blackness. I wonder how fishermen do it, how do they sleep with the though of their pots in their minds, the creeping inquisitive carapaces groping in the dark, feeling their way in to pick at the meat, claws as busy as knitting needles, not knowing or caring that they are mine now?
Dawn, I turn off the alarm before it rings.
Pull on my coat my hat my boots. I think she’s asleep but she is awake, just.
“You’ll be careful, won’t you, love?”
Out again, this time in gathering light.
The grass is littered with shivering opals, shattered by my boots. Bird song and cow song, high and low, the birds invisible, steam billowing from the piebald flanks of the herd as they tear up the soaking grass and watch sideways with women’s eyes the man with the bucket, heading to the sea.
I want to run.
Through the submarine light of the gorge, a million different greens pricked by flowers, wood sorrel and celandine, reeking garlic stars, primrose and cowslip.
Past the shells of sleeping boats, past the wet tiled houses crowding either side, down to the slipway.
The sea is calm.
I cross the sand, breathing salt. Gulls are screaming and cold comes off the distant water. I’m early, the sea still receding. I cross the rocks slowly, boots slithering, looking into the microcosm worlds trapped in the pools. Armoured Hermit crabs, tendrils of anemones, the frightened dart of fish and shrimp.
I stop, look up. Two plastic milk bottles floating on the retreating tide.
I reach the edge of the water and the floats are still thirty feet away.
I rummage in my pocket, find a tin of small cheap cigars and I light one.
I smoke, watch the crown of a rock just piercing the surface of the water.
More gulls, a cormorant skimming the water, crows rising from the distant woods, circling.
Smoke rises in thin trickles from chimney pots far back in the town. A lone figure walks on the sand, a dog bounding ahead.
The air warms, the sun breaks through the cloud then disappears. A distant trawler rolls past. I can just hear it’s engine.
The rock is now a foot clear of the water.
I walk forward ten feet, over the newly exposed rock.
I light another cigar.
The sea laps over the toes of my boots for a while and then it doesn’t. A breeze picks up, gentle but cold, and the milk bottles float nearer. Ten feet away.
It’s too tempting.
I pull off my boots and socks, roll up my shorts.
The sea is so cold it shocks my whole body, but the water is mineral clear. My dead white foot slips through the kelp, feeling for the bottom, touches sand.
Thigh deep, I carefully wade to the first milk bottle and grab it, pulling firmly on the twine, hauling in the weight of the stone filled lobster pot. When it is near I leave it, push through the freezing water and reach for the second bottle. I wind the twine around the bottle, pull, but it won’t move. I’m frightened of losing the pot, but I pull again. It moves, dragging through fingers of kelp, coming slowly.
It’s near enough. I take both lengths of twine in my numb fingers and pull them to the rocks, climb out, secure the twine around a boulder. I dry my legs with my boot socks, rubbing roughly, turning them from white to red. I lay out the socks over a rock in the hope they’ll dry.
I pull the first lobster pot up, slowly, ready for disappointment, ready for a leviathan.
It breaks the surface.
Claws and glistening skin thrash within, writhing; an eye here, chitin there, a piece of cleaned chicken bone protruding obscenely from the green, weed draped mesh of the pot.
I pull the pot onto the rock and inspect the contents.
It is a good catch. Many velvet swimming crabs, a fish stew staple. Two fair sized edible crabs, brandishing their huge claws upwards. An eel, two feet long, writhing uncomfortably beneath the claws, exuding slime. A rock goby flutters in a corner, a large blenny wriggles deeper into the mass of life in the pot.
I pick out the blenny and the goby, careful to avoid the snapping pincers of wary crustaceans. I lower them carefully into the pool. The goby darts for cover, but the blenny lists sideways on the kelp, gasping, before suddenly realising it is free. with a flick of the tail it is gone, wriggling in the weeds, down into the darkness to await the next tide.
I leave the eel, for now.
The way to hold a crab is to grip the body from behind, above and below, but to always watch the pincers. I lift the crabs, look beneath. The ones with eggs I release. The rest are sunk in the bucket of sea water.
The edible crabs are fat, huge claws flailing, looking for something to crush.
Into the bucket.
It squirms, mouth gaping, eye rolling. Ancient and strange, denizen of the Sargasso, resident of Yorkshire. I try to grab it and it slithers easily out of my hands, a thick bar of silver grey muscle and mucus, phallic.
I turn the pot over and suddenly the eel is on the rocks, squirming hard, and I watch it find the pool. I’ve never eaten eel, I’m no Londoner. The eel is free, the sea ripples reflecting off it’s skin, gone in the weeds.
I empty the pot and carefully tie it shut. I pull in the second pot.
The same explosion of movement, but this time a mightier claw is waved – a lobster.
I gently roll the pot this way and that on the rock, tipping the creatures inside, seeing what I’ve caught. More velvet swimmers, an edible crab, blennies and gobies… and the lobster.
Defiant, alien, spines waving and great claws gaping, it is the prize I had hoped for. A strange surge of pride, the excited anticipation of bringing my catch home with this as the star, a neolithic feeling, beautiful and pure, innocent as death.
I open the pot, reach in, dodging the huge pincer, and I grip the lobster’s back.
The plates of the shell fold, curling, back arching, arms stretching, claws open, hoping I put a finger into it’s plier grip.
I pull the lobster from the pot, it’s claw grips the wire. With difficulty I free it’s grip, then lower it into the bucket. I hear the clatter of armour against plastic as the creatures fight for space, then they are quiet.
I’m about to reach into the pot for a blenny when it moves, reveals it’s secret.
“You’ll be careful, won’t you, love?”
A webbed spine shoots up from it’s back, aimed at my hand. It misses.
A weever fish.
The venom is said to be excruciating, lasts for hours, can still hurt weeks later. The only way to stop the pain is with very, very hot water.
I have no hot water.
There’s no way of getting the weever fish out of the pot without being stung.
I open my lock knife.
Carefully I pin the fish against the net with the blade, then plunge it in. The fish gapes, curls itself around the blade, spines erect. I quickly lift it from the pot, pull out the blade, then cut off the head. The weever still writhes but it is dead.
I empty the pot and find a second lobster at the bottom, smaller than the first, huddled beneath the rocks and pebbles.
He goes in the bucket.
I decide to free all the other creatures in the lobster pot. I have all I need.
I want to set the pots in the sea again but I need bait. I chop up the weever fish, wary of the spines, and put the pieces in the first pot. I sink the pot in the same place, and now I see the water returning, crawling higher up the rocks, eating the land.
I take one of the velvet swimmer crabs from the bucket. It is brown, mottled with red. Back legs have become strange, transparent paddles, and there are bristles on it’s barnacled back. I open the blade of my knife again and plunge it into the head of the crab, killing it instantly, but my hands are slippery from the eel, from the weeds. My hand slips across the blade and blood pours over the twitching crab.
I am strangely glad.
I have taken, I have given.
I squeeze my cut hand hard, letting the blood cover the broken body of the crustacean, cover the lobster pot, cover the rocks. I wash the cut in the sea and the pain surges, the salt and the cold, the blood flow stopping as the pain of the cold overtakes that of the cut, arm throbbing in time with my pulse.
I place the bloodied pieces of the crab in the pot, return both pots to the sea.
I sit on a rock and pull my damp socks over my feet, pull on my boots.
I lift the bucket. It is heavy, full of water, full of life. The sea surges around my feet.
I walk across the rocks with the sun on my back and the sea at my feet, water from the bucket wetting my leg, blood congealing into a sticky mass in my hand. I am more sure of my footing in the light. I feel safe. Onto the sand, onto the slipway, the town awakening, old people walking.
My arm aches with the weight of the bucket, I have no choice but to swap hands. Blood runs down the white plastic handle, into the water.
The crabs and lobsters come to life, clattering in the bucket as they taste blood.
I walk back up the narrow road, between the houses, between the trees, through the aquatic light of the wooded gorge, up, up into the fields where the sun now streams enough to make the eye ache, everything steaming, the fences and fields and the tin roofs of the milking shed, the cows ambling together, lowing, begging to be milked.
I can see the children climbing on the couches in their pyjamas through the open curtains of the caravan. They see me, I can hear their squealing.
My wife opens the door before I do, smiling, bed-tousled.
I show her the bucket. Her smile widens, amazed. Then she frowns.
“You’ve cut yourself.”
“You said you’d be careful.”
I grin, ashamed.
I leave the bucket to the children, dipping their bright plastic fishing nets in, pulling them clear before the giant claw grabs them.
My wife cleans and dresses my cut.
“A big pan of boiling water. Lots of salt.”
The velvet swimmer crabs are first.
It is quick.
I scoop out their vermillion bodies and put them on a tray to cool.
The edible crabs are next.
Then the small lobster.
The last, the big one, rests in the bucket alone, spiny feelers waving. The pan is coming back up to the boil. I’m worried the pan might not be big enough.
I lift the lobster from the bucket and the kids scream and scurry to the back of the caravan, deliciously terrified by the sea monster.
I thrust it into the scalding water, force the lid on, hold it there. The whistling scream of expanding shell, then it is over.
We leave our catch to cool.
At lunch we sit in contended silence, slices of buttered bread, pots of tea, and lobster.
It was the year we were forced to sell our house, to move into rented, the year of the crash. It was a frugal year, a holiday on the only money we had, actually money we didn’t have, but it was a holiday for the children.
It was the year we ate lobster.