I have this memory of being nestled in the cleft of a rock on the isle of Cumbrae, my bike propped up beside me as I sit watching the sea and eating fizzy laces (they were cola-flavoured, or maybe strawberry). I’m on the rugged side of the island, where yellow eyes and strange animal faces are painted onto cliff walls and sometimes if you stare hard enough at the ocean you can see seals. On the other side of the island, you have the little town of Millport, with all the white and pastel-coloured houses looking out onto the harbour. Everything is still, soft, crisp – the texture of sorbet – so that the only sounds you can hear are the steady lap of the waves sloshing against rocks, and the occasional cry of a wandering cormorant. The island to me is like the shyest of kisses: the kind that taste of rain and raise your spirits. Yes, I’m eleven years old and I feel invincible.
You see, I’m on a bike ride, travelling twelve miles right round the island. I’m wearing jeans with the bottoms rolled up and spattered with black oil from the chain; I’m gripping the handlebars so tight I can feel the blood burn and tingle in the tips of my fingers. I’m pedalling even faster than my sporty brother and my father and I know I’m going somewhere because the landscape changes the faster I go. Life rushes by like a montage peeling back luscious scenery. I pass other families on their bikes but they don’t see me; I’m caught on the drift of the wind that they’re battling and I’m going faster than they could imagine. The sun is on my back and I’m flushed and my hair tangles around me, caught in the straps of my rucksack. I want to get there first; I want to be the first one to reach the secret beach.
You can stand there in your bare feet and I remember the cockle-shell rocks, greenish with sea leeches and weeds. Nearer the sea the sand is velvety thick and oozes up between your toes. My child’s eye spots the starfish and sea anemones, and I wish I had a jar to take some home. I’m teasing my brother about something and he throws a stone into the ocean, watching it bounce five times over the waves. Sullenly I watch it. Then in my head I tell everyone I’m a mermaid and paddle in the shallows, looking out for the shoals of fish that swim by in miniature shimmers. We’d wander back up to the rocks and pick our seat; and that’s where I’m sitting, now, in this moment, looking out to the mainland without worrying about a thing. I’m just admiring the craggy shapes of the distant cliffs and the way the cloud looks like billows of cigarette smoke coating the landscape.
The worries would come later, in the dreamy space that opens before sleep. I’m trying to get at the dregs of this memory. The exact details of colour and light, the way that the April air felt and the shapes of circling time. You go right round the island and come back to the start. You paint the strokes of the green hilltops and the silver belt of the road. It’s nearing summer so the day drifts endlessly through night; it doesn’t get dark properly here, not really. Not until the depths of winter. A shower of rain that’s a spray of glitter. Maybe there’s a lighthouse shooting beams of white across the bay. Ships passing ghostlike in the night and you wouldn’t even know. I remember the cold blasts of wind you get on the ferry, with the horn of other boats and the marvelled awe of other children looking out towards the harbour. I call up all these things and wish for more.
Maybe all that remains of this memory are the sea-smoothed shards collected in a jar that sits on the sill of some window in my mind. You can remove the lid and pick the best colours, turn them over separately in your palm, but you can’t make them real again. Time has softened the sharpness of their edges, added layers of distortion to their rays of shifting colour. Hold one up to the light and you will see the bubbles that mark each year that’s passed, arranged in no order other than chaos.
Somewhere, there is the shimmering bleep of slot machines from the cheap casino room of a ferry. A man asking for tickets and a car stuck on the gangway. The taste of peanut butter sarnies gritted with sand, the crispness of silver foil in my hand. If I close my eyes, dizzy and thirsty, I am back there, my body nauseous with the pull of the sea, the boat rocking to and fro with the turn of the words that mutter on my tongue. My hair whips over my face and it smells of salt and seaweed and I can feel the island growing ever so closer to me as the ocean moves towards the setting sun. It’s not that I’m eleven again – nothing is the same twice over – but it’s the feeling of a memory that you can hold up to the light, watch it distorted, watch it glimmering bright.