Photograph by Jason Florio, Story by Harry Gallon
On the way down he spoke about all the things he wanted to show her. All the things he had seen and all the things he had done and all the rocks he had climbed and the pools he had dived into. The carragheen and the gutweed. The limpets and anemones. Shipwrecks and catfish heads and stories about sea mines washed ashore overnight.
‘Have you ever seen a blowhole?’ he had asked her, while they were still on her favourite part of her favourite road. That little stretch, half a mile or so, descending hill crest southwest to a coniferous forest on either side which parted like harbour gates or cracks in a cliff face, waiting to swallow them. In the right sun, a warm, September sun, they could have been on the Serengeti.
‘There’s one where we’re going,’ he said, squeezing her shoulder and nodding his head. The trip had been his idea, and it had been a long drive. They had been stuck on the motorway for an hour. But they had taken it in turn to drive. And played games, like who could spot the ocean first (she did, and he looked genuinely upset about it).
They were staying in the same house his parents had rented when he was still a child. A whitewashed bungalow at the top of a cliff, with a wild garden that looked out over a bay. When they had arrived, she had stepped out of the car and taken a deep breath. Tasted the salt. Smelled the faint rot of the sea.
The front door was frosty with salt, as were the windowpanes. ‘Looks just the same,’ he’d told her, as they lugged their bags across the sand driveway towards the threshold. ‘Just the same as back then.’
He watched her as she took it all in. The fireplace. The refrigerator. The lime green bathtub and the line of sand that hadn’t quite made it down the plughole. He feared her. He was frightened she would disappear. Silly, he knew, but still it made him feel homesick, for a world he was afraid he would never get to.
‘It’s around here somewhere,’ he said, as he climbed onto the shelf that jutted out of the cliff, then clambered over the rocks. Knife edge rocks. Split slate rocks. Rocks with white veins and locks of seaweed hair where the last high tide had left deep pools inhabited by crab shells and cuttlebones.
She carried on along the cliff, following him as he searched the rocks, enjoying the spongy, flat wild grass, and stepping over tufts of sea thrift, their pink petals faded in the late-summer light. Her shoes left tiny, temporary impersonations of herself in the grass while he bounded over the slate shelf below her, ending up, eventually, at the edge of the ocean, where he stopped and shouted, ‘It’s here!’ His toes were over the edge, his head down, his body leaning forward. She stopped, crossed her arms against the wind, and watched.
He only moved when a wave came in and clapped against the rock below him. She stopped breathing. Tried listening with all her might. To the sound of his hair being whipped by the wind, appearing to move in slow motion. But the waves smacked like lips, or hands clapping, and the sound was lost to the ocean.
Eventually he turned, walked in her direction and, standing over a small circular hole that dropped vertically through the ledge, said ‘Tell me when there’s a big one.’
She frowned. Looked out at the ocean, looked around to see if anyone else was near them. On the far side of the bay, a woman was walking her dog. And below them, two surfers floated like flotsam on the becalmed ocean, staring hopelessly towards the horizon.
She looked out over his head. Above the end of the rocky shelf. The water was grey. Calm but treacherous. She had a feeling, like something was coming. A cold shiver slithered up her spine and at the same time the soil gave way, crumbling in tiny avalanches that tumbled playfully down the cliff. She lifted her foot and, steadying herself, sat down carefully with her legs dangling over the edge.
She had been here before. Not this place, not in the way he had when he had been a child, but to all the other bays she had been to throughout her life. She thought about the sea and how it had surrounded her and threatened her and offered itself to her, in much the same way as he did now: complete, arms spread, ready to receive her, if only she would take the leap. She thought about how she had been enamoured by it, as a child, and as she had grown had begun to hope it would lead her away from this coast and deposit her anew.
She picked a flower but all she could smell was salt. She ran her hands over the wild grass while he ran his over the rough edges of rock pools, tiny landscapes and miniature universes.
She felt Homesick, for a life she had yet to lead.
There were no bigger waves. The force with which the water hit the cliff face barely registered, and she could tell he felt embarrassed. She twirled the sea thrift between her fingers, wondering why he let it bother him. Why he couldn’t let it be. She found it suffocating, but squashed the tiny part of her that hoped the ledge would give, spilling her drunkenly onto the rocky shelf beneath, while the sea burst forth from the hole with nothing more than a burp. He looked frustrated, his back still turned to the dog walker on the other side of the bay; to the surfers who, facing seawards, towards dark clouds and swells, awaited bad weather impatiently.
‘Trust me,’ he shouted to her, hair vaguely wet, ‘it’ll work. It always works. We’ve just got to wait longer.’
Harry Gallon’s work features in numerous publications and has won (and almost won), several competitions. His debut novel, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes was runner-up for Best Novella at the 2016 Saboteur Awards, and was long-listed for Not the Booker Prize. His second, Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, was published in 2017. He lives in London and is writing his third. Follow him on twitter @hcagallon
Jason Florio produces images and documentaries for clients including The New York Times, Smithsonian, The New Yorker, Men’s, Journal, Outside, Bloomberg, Geographical, MIT Technology Review, PepsiCo, Amnesty International and the World Bank. He is a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has been recognised with a number of awards, including The Magnum Photography Award 2017 for his work on migration. He was the first recipient of the Aperture Foundation grant to produce Aperture’s first ever assigned story, ‘This is Libya’. Follow him on instagram @jasonflorio