I. The Walk
Here the Solway, in its sweep towards the sunset and the Irish sea, begins to widen. Here the sky is an impermeable grey, the gently rolling slopes of Criffel, on the far side of the bay, etched in high contrast to the cloud.
Silloth is a town perpetually looking back, as if overcome by nostalgia for its glory days. Once the railways had brought passengers by the carriageload to wet their ankles in the waters of the firth. The once-grand Georgian terraces are now turned into bedsits and retirement homes. A crust of salt and residual nuclear waste forms on the seafront windows of the houses. The pines bend eastward, battered all year long by westerlies. Only the church with its tall, proud spire still seems to bask in something of its former glory, catching the best of the sunlight on rare cloudless days, when children return to the playgrounds of the echoing green, filling the space with laughter and with light.
On a typically cloudy day, some thirty years ago, a child walked hand in hand with her mother, who was tall and thin, and wrapped in a grey duffle coat. The daughter’s coat was crimson and stood out against the silvered clouds. It was early March, and on the seafront lawn the crocuses were giving way to daffodils. The mother picked a handful of the daffodils, perhaps to take home and arrange in vases, perhaps to cast into the seething waters of the tide.
´I used to live here,´ said the mother, pointing out a nondescript half-rendered house set back a little from the sea.
´I pushed my baby brother along the shore; I wanted to be a long way from my parents, whose reign of terror was well-hid behind closed doors.´
´Once, I walked out into the bay and almost got cut off by the tide. I thought about just standing there, letting the tide sweep over me and take me far away. Instead I ran home.´
´Never walk into the bay,´ she warned, ´its hidden depths are treacherous.’
The mother and daughter soon arrived at Skinburness, where the coast road turns sharply back inland. Skinburness, the headland haunted by a demon – where the Green Knight’s chapel had once stood, and Sir Gawain had come to grief some centuries ago. The chapel was long gone, and the demon with it, but many ghosts remained behind. The Skinburness Hotel stood at the bend in the road, defiant in its faded glory, like the neighbouring town of Silloth. It was a period piece of architecture, straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. Here an hapless heiress might have met her end. The cold wind had got up now, and begun to pelt them with the icy sting of hail, so they sought shelter in the hotel’s public bar, propped up by locals and long-term residents, still limping on somehow. The walls were hung with oil paintings and hunting trophies of a bygone age. A log fire was smouldering in a grate where an elderly couple sat in antique chairs, a spaniel sleeping at their feet. Mother and daughter ate well and warmed themselves, then returned to the cold and the meagre shelter of the bus stop where they would wait a long time for the bus to come and take them home.
II. The Return
The tide has turned now, and tumbled us into the present day. The child, become a mother, walks alone, accompanied by memories, or the ghosts that haunt the bay. Or accompanied by the mother who is now a grandmother, but in the clouds – the silver light behind the grey sky’s obstinacy, breathing through the winds that pound the waves. Or accompanied by the mother, now a grandmother, in the flesh – now white or silver haired, faded like the town but beautiful.
It all depends upon the tide – which tide she went out on, or whether she has yet to go. Both tides exist, in parallel – the one which swept her out and the one which waits to take her. And the daughter too, her story is equally dependant on the waiting tide, which she might wander out to meet, in search of the mother long departed, or the mother at the margin of the clouds. She also shuns it, standing beside her living mother, and knowing it will take them soon enough. So the daughter and the mother (whether real, or ghost, or memory) return to Skinburness to find the hotel gone, and in its place, a building site.
And the daughter wonders, how much of this had been a dream, and who had dreamt it? The hotel, and the mother, or the walk and the lost mother, or the mother in the clouds? Had the Green Knight ever haunted the chapel on the headland, and had the chapel ever stood? Did any story matter, knowing that the tide would take them all? But everything had seemed so real; substantial, if only for the briefest of moments. Out towards the sea, and only for the briefest of moments, the cloud broke to reveal the sun.
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