Its breath is the strongest; stifled by something in the pit of its stomach; green with grumble and blue with malady. It catches you, and like the fish around Mumbles pier, you can’t quite slip away. You let it open your mouth to the sickly-sweet smell of sea weed and you hear the farcical shriek of gulls in the air, pining for you to look up. Then you are thrown; out of the sea and straight into rain.
People speak of water having a memory and I wonder if it’s better than my grandfather’s, as I look at the sea trembling in and out of Swansea bay like a tired hand. As I step across the quilted impression of the sand, I wonder what it’s seen. Does it drift in and out in the same, slow manner; with every base of its stories strewn upon the sea bed, only the aching, fingernail shrapnel of shells to be dragged back in?
Head over shoulder as I follow the prints of only toes behind me among the pinned shells, I realise my feet have led me to a large mound of sand; they have crept into a circular castle built at the end of the bay. Stopping to observe its structure, I’m glad I haven’t done much damage other than a five-dotted indentation in the side and although I feel the urge to sink my foot entirely into it, remembering the striped tail of apartments overlooking the dunes, I tell myself to resist. I remind myself of how it must feel for someone to build something so intricate and then witness it being reduced to nothing but rubble.
Within seconds I am mesmerised by the exhibit and crouching down to its orbiculate shape, which has layers that resemble those of a decadent birthday cake. It has spindles for turrets as though it belongs to a realm of fairies and phantoms and I imagine that if there had only been more time, its craftsperson would have embellished it with gargoyles. Otherwise, the only article missing is the roaring dragon of the Welsh flag upon the top.
I stand up, feeling the ache in my thighs stretching out and as I drag my feet along the damp sand of the bay, I think of the real Swansea Castle and all that remains of its grey, carcased elbow joint at the centre of town. “This is I,” it would project with a gravelly voice if it could speak; like the proud, stubborn voice of my grandfather who has smoked cigars since the war. He speaks about the smoke during The Blitz and I look to the left and see two, long cigarettes of sewage pipes crawling into the sea like two, long arms. As boys, we used to dive off those, right into the sea, he would say.
This morning, before attending an Arts afternoon called “Transitions”; I walked through the centre of town and heard the guitar’s hollow pluck of a song I recognised to be Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley, disappearing shyly behind the murmur of Swansea Market, and then ringing through town. There were no words. I couldn’t make out what the musician looked like but through the hoard of people, I saw a splatter of silver upon the black felt of his open guitar case. I filled in the words I could remember as I walked past. But you don’t really care for music, do ya? Then it was the instrumental, like descending steps before the break out and then it hid again, ebbing into the market.
My grandfather said the market used to be the best in Wales; a grandiose glass-iron structure around all sorts of stalls: cafes, fishmongers, clothes, vegetable and clock stalls. We used to love laverbread and Penclawdd cockles from the market; he would say, lovely with a bit of bacon fat. Sometimes, we’d have black beef or salt marsh lamb at the weekend. Over six hundred stalls, it had! He would begin one story and without ending it, begin another about the picnics on the top of Kilvey Hill or The Lion’s Head, and I would feel the shrapnel of memories hitting me as his eyes looked into mine for full attention. Sometimes, he would stop talking altogether
There have been especially good days, where he’s told almost a whole story, but I only know this because he will have almost certainly told it before. Then he’ll ask me a question as though I’m someone else; an old friend, brother or my passed away grandmother. It’s when things alter around him that he suffers from forgetfulness. At this moment, it feels just like the sand slipping through my toes. Hallelujah, Hallelujah…
At the Arts afternoon, people spoke about water having a memory. There was the verbal kind of art; poetry and storytelling; the kind that can speak loudly from some place deep and there was music, yet it didn’t seem to transcend as emotively as the strum of the busker’s guitar I had passed earlier on. There had been paintings, but they were too abstract for my taste, too undecided about their own motives and I was desperate to leave. More shrapnel hits me: without the cracks, we have nothing to fill; without the canvas empty, we have nothing to paint, says my grandfather. So I quickly paid my respects, then stepped out of the theatre and onto the cobble stoned Marina where the Helwick ship was perched like a smoked out dragon, dead on its back.
Here on the beach, I see the sand-cemented walls of the castle before me and wonder how easily I could move it to another place; if it were as adaptable as the flurry of shells around it. I place two arms either side of the castle’s curve and close my eyes, ready to turn it over like a just-baked cake, however the base doesn’t budge, only the edge begins to turn to dust and fall as grain in my hands. I step back, wondering where the rest of Swansea went in my grandfather’s memory. The beach is always here, he says, it only changes shape. I wonder where its laughter lines are, feeling the sandbanks bowing around me. He says that after The Blitz, Swansea’s face wasn’t smiling anymore, that it was all fragmented.
The sand castle stands there so proud that I ask myself what the urge is to break something so beautiful that someone else has created. I think I am alone, but I look up to see a couple; arms in a figure-eight as they walk down the slope and onto the beach:
but lips not,
but tongues not.
My rucksack is laden with glass tumblers, equipment intended for this afternoon’s performance, but I didn’t use them; I told the other artists I’d forgotten my material, and then hastily walked towards the door, hearing people speaking of water having a memory as I left. Afraid they could hear the clinking of the hollow, glass harmonica upon my back, I didn’t turn around but kept pacing away until I’d escaped the building and reached the gull-filled air; bubble-wrapped glasses behind me. I was intending to fill each with a different amount of water and hear Welsh tunes upon the glass by striking them with a wooden pencil, but it would have sounded so mediocre.
I let go of my rucksack and place it upon the sand next to me, removing the glass stack. Tumbler after tumbler, I press holes for each base to sink into, just a few metres from the tide. I save the eighth to be the water collector, scooping the sea into it before pouring it into the others; steps of memory from left, to right. Sitting cross legged in front of them, I try to mimic the beautiful music I had heard on my way through town, with one, wooden pencil. But you don’t really care for music, do ya? Not much happens other than the dull ding of different tones that could be played by the hand of a child.
I glance to the left, past the imposing, charcoal wall of the harbour, towards the Marina and if I close my eyes, I am there, in whatever moment I choose. Last time I walked to the end of the harbour wall, there were newspapers foot-stepped so hard to the ground, there were some from the nineteen seventies. My grandfather and I bought salted chips and ate them under the archways until the evening drew in; the Marina’s black water growing solid beneath the reflection of its own dusky, yellow lights.
Now kneeling behind my octave of glasses, sunlight glimmers through the beaded glass, clammy sand grasping onto it. I lie on my stomach and look at the sea through the smudged lenses. It rolls in, creeping up on me and tipping like the thin, murky sheets of a penny slot machine at The Mumbles Arcade, remnants of white horses jumping over my flattened palms.
Then I see the blur of a girl nearing the castle, which is magnified in the side of one of the tumblers, her coat noticeably triangular. Sitting up, I see that she pokes its windows and doors, places her fingers flat on each step and peers in through a window. This castle has two levels. With less thought than I, she sits in the centre, quashing the sand so it makes the circle a little larger around her, only laughing quietly enough for herself and I to hear; then she leaves. It’s beginning to rain.
Leaving the glasses to their own devices, I trace another circle around the castle’s moat, which now has more depth than before. The castle looks a little stunted but sturdy remnants of it stand tall with the foundations still laid. I trace the space of a graveyard, for all the people who used to walk there in armour and long skirts dragging across the ground; booming voices and the incantation of necromancers echoing from the turrets. I provide each grave with a pebble and dig elongated dips into the sand to leave room for their bodies. I look to the tide; it’s moving in.
I can still hear my grandfather speaking about the same, magnificent things. There was talk of a tunnel under the sea bed, running from Swansea Castle, all the way to Oystermouth Castle! I place my arms either side of the castle once more, wanting to break it before the waves reach it, but even with gapless fingers, I’m incapable. They say water has a memory. I peer into one of the castle’s windows, just as the little girl had done, then imagine myself to be as small as the figure of a dollhouse; to be folded within the pit of Swansea Castle’s remains, its voice luring me out to the gathering at the top of a cobble-stoned Wind Street; a compact watering hole for the sober eager to topple. The corner is marked by a building with a Tudor skin, which is also a bar, and I begin to feel out of place. On this oddly warm, spring evening, I am drawn in by the aroma of chips and hot dogged air, I see women ahead of me with empowered looks but sparse clothes, men roaring with the volume of club music that already vomits out onto the street.
Instead, I find myself at the stormless No Sign Bar, a more subdued and rustic pub, which I’ve heard has a yearning for journos. I’m not one, but I prefer this portrayal of Swansea, where the live music of folk band sings up the fire exit steps from The Vault. After drinking a glass of their house wine, I remember why I am here in this haze, so I walk back out into the air where it’s still light. There used to be a tram from the bottom of Wind Street, which ran all the way to the end of Mumbles Pier, says the voice of my grandfather.
I often visit Mumbles, so I’ve seen the green-bellied hill of Oystermouth Castle and been one of a couple holding each other’s hands, afraid to wipe the white of ice cream from the corners of their mouths. So I’m taking the tram back to wind street and with each retracing, my grandfather’s voice is chiming in. I courted your grandmother in Mumbles, he says, and as we reach the dismantled, old stone bridge on St Helens Road, I imagine him pointing to the right you could hire deck chairs and take donkey rides along the beach, before his stubby fingers changes direction. Oh! The Patti Pavilion! That’s where I first saw your grandmother, waltzing around the mirrored pillars. Her reflection was never as good again once she started dancing with me! It’s a restaurant now.
* * *
After a few blinks, I’ve vacated the haze and am back here at Swansea Bay. The breeze has grown colder and the water’s icy bite is catching up with me, rain having already soaked my face with its splutter. My feet have become numb and the wind is trying to push me back as I look at the waving, long grass of the dunes. I’ve been here before, throwing pebbles at the foam-crested waves; I’ve been here before.
I see that the little girl who played with the castle has returned and noticed the additional gravestones. She’s brought a friend slightly smaller than her and they are moving the headstones around as though they’re nothing but large marbles, twirling the black smoothness of each one between their fingers, and then using them to build another bridge from the outside-in. In awe, I watch as they use their little fingers to poke more windows into the structure and even more scrupulously, positioning a tiny twig and leaf on the top to represent the Welsh flag. They laugh, and then leave, running towards the distant silhouette of a dog and its owner.
I crouch once again, to strike the wooden pencil against each glass before me. The final glimmer of sun is coruscating through the blistered pattern and as the rain drops into each small current, it permeates with a dull tap in different notes to create an odd scale. My glass harmonica has begun to play itself; bases beginning to agitate in the wet sand of the overflowing tide before the froth is soon the same height in every tumbler; the heads of white horses bobbing above the surface then galloping over the sides. Feeling water splash up to my palms that are hung by my sides, I stand up straight again, having forgotten the larger, more sodden picture.
My feet are now covered in water and with each new lap of the sea’s tongue, it’s rising up to my ankles, so I step backwards, away from the tide, only the eight, faint circles visible in a line in front of me.
“You want to get yourself dried off,” interrupts a voice and I at first think it’s in my head. “I’ve been waiting here for you all morning!” The gravel of this voice is familiar; crackly like that of a habitual cigar smoker. As I look at him, his stern smile disappears under the thick, white moss of his eyebrows; the leftover laverbread tarring his teeth. It isn’t morning and we hadn’t organised to meet, but he’s standing here.
“Bampa, what are you doing?” I ask, linking his arm and trying to guide his sturdy weight away from the water.
“I walk here every day,” he says, which may have been true five years ago. I see how content his face is; something of an old independence creeping into the wrinkles. “You want to get yourself dried off,” he repeats, peering down at my feet for longer than is necessary, from a face perched upon the wrappings of a large scarf.
“I walk here all the time,” he is saying again. “I walk here all the time.” His face has turned sanguineous from excessive sea breath. He begins to look around and his feet start to get wet too; the leather of his shoes growing darker. “Lovely,” he says and I wonder how he means it. I can just about see the outline of Mumbles Lighthouse in the distance; the light here is fading quickly now.
One by one, I pick up each glass of water and tip it back into the tide; sludges of sand that were stuck stubbornly inside are dropping out with a dense flop. I stack the glasses in my rucksack with no time to wrap them neatly in bubble wrap; the water already reaching my knees.
“I walk here all the…” my grandfather continues, but I interrupt him.
“Come on, Bamp,” I say. I link arms with him and we begin to walk along the bay; our trousers weighty from rain and sea water.
“Abertawe,” he sighs, idling sideways. He hunches ever so slightly but has a back so broad that it manages to centre the gravity of us both. I see that behind the frown of his dipping head, there is a look of a much younger man; a much younger mouth of the Tawe that is speaking. The rain beats heavier but our pace remains the same as the tide continues to lap naggingly at our feet.
I’ll come back, I think; I’ll train the glasses to sing their memories to me. If they were only crystal, they could hum and harmonise as the breeze enwraps the March moist around their faces. I’ll continue to walk my grandfather back to his flat on the Marina; I’ll give the busker some money if not today, then tomorrow. My head already hears the music as though it’s singing to my grandfather and I; it seems almost louder than before as it reaches its crescendo, then twinkles as the guitarist keeps playing under shelter from Swansea’s rain. I think of its sides splitting, crumbling into little splutters; I think of the evenings I’ve watched it roar with laughter, felt its saliva spitting onto my own; its lines creasing its corners into my memory; the wet tremble of the sea’s palm broadening and nursing my malady to sleep.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis