Our Sunken Summers
Words and pictures by Mark Sadler
(This is a work of fiction)
For two seasons, stretching from May to late August, I worked in a small factory making beanbag toys – lizards, snakes (cobras), crabs, lobsters and starfish. It was a four-man operation made possible by an EU grant that was supposed to help stimulate business on the island. Typically these ventures shut up shop as soon as their funding was cut. That is exactly what happened in this case.
After work ended, at around midday, Ralf and I would drive in his battered car to the next bay along from Playa de Santiago. We would park on the verge right up against the crash barrier, climb out through the passenger side door and change into our swimming trunks by the roadside. The road was not particularly busy and so it was rare for somebody to drive past. The inlet was usually deserted - the wide grey spread of a stony beach mostly cast in shadow by the looming rock walls on either side. There was concrete pier that ran along the base of one of the cliffs. At the far end there were some neglected buildings that had once been a fish cannery.
Around this time of day the choppy waters surrounding the island were a brooding multi-faceted sapphire blue, lined with brilliant white waves that scrolled neatly across the surface. Ralf and I would walk out until we were up to our waists, then point ourselves at the headland with the intention of rounding it and swimming back towards the town. Sometimes when I turned my head to the right, with the waves slapping me in the face I would see, through a veil of salt water, the mountain goats superimposed against the sheer cliff face as if they were suspended in mid-air and the mass of rock behind them was incidental. For some reason it became important for me to spot as many as possible and count them. More often than not my obsession resulted in me swallowing mouthfuls of salt water and fighting off a coughing fit while I struggled to stay afloat.
As we rounded the spur of land the waves became rougher and the currents were more complex. There was always a point when I felt as if I was no longer fully in control of my own destiny; if the ocean were to catch me in this weak moment it might slam my body against the rocks, or spirit me into open water.
Ralf and I were young men and we were both strong swimmers. After we had circumnavigated the headland we would turn away from the blank horizon and head for shore: A young beach made up of large smooth pebbles that were almost too hot to walk on. We staggered out of the ocean suddenly overwhelmed with fatigue, the waves exploding behind us in exaggerated clouds of white spray. As the foaming water withdrew between the cracks there would be a rattling sound as the loose stones jostled against each other.
The beach cafe was a shack located at the end of a short rutted track, adjacent to a small banana plantation. It was a ramshackle structure. The foundation was a square courtyard consisting of low, brightly-painted cement walls shrouded in a thick layer of dust. A makeshift system of poles supported a corrugated iron roof. Animal sculptures fashioned from re-purposed engine oil cans dangled from the ceiling. Usually a Cafe Del Mar CD would be playing on repeat on a portable stereo system..
When he saw us the owner, Eluterio, would bring out a tray with a couple bottles of Pepsi. He would prise the serrated caps off in front of us and place a drinking straw in the neck of each bottle; the pressure from the rising bubbles would gradually force them upwards until they were jettisoned and would fall onto the table. I would pay him with money from a zip-locked pocket in my trunks that was supposed to be waterproof but wasn't. He would dry any notes that I gave him by laying them flat on the bar.
In the beginning, after we had finished our drinks we used to swim back the way we had come. We even did it in the dark a few times. After a while though it felt safer to walk back along the road. For us it was a ritual – a thing that we did together as friends.
The reason that I am telling this story today, on the 21st June, is because Ralf is gone, 3 years just past, and I think this time next year Eluterio will be gone too, as he is very ill.
He also had a private ritual which I will describe to you:
Every December 21st he would select one of the pebbles from the beach – one that was large enough to fit in the palm of his hand with his fingers spread almost flat. Behind the counter of the bar he would paint the stone yellow. When it was dry he would add the black spidery outline of a sun.
Later he would set the stone on one of the low walls of the cafe. It would stay there all winter. On the evening of Midsummer's day he would come out from behind the bar. Without ceremony he would leave the cafe absent-mindedly snatching the pebble from its resting place as he passed by. He would walk with it down the beach until he was almost level with the shoreline. He would stand there for a few minutes as if in contemplation. Then he would hurl the stone silently and with great force into the breaking waves.
I once asked him how long he had been at the cafe. He told me “21 years this summer.”
Strewn across the seabed around Playa de Santiago lie the scattered memorials to summers past laid there by a man who has watched them come and go.
RIP Ralf – We see each other!