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  • At that time I was living by the sea. The selvage of the vast fabric of Atlantic stroked the rocky shoreline a stone’s throw from my door.

    The dishes dripped on the draining board, the pads of my fingers wrinkled in the warm soapy water. The rim of the green plastic washing-up bowl echoed the sweep of maritime pines and oaks silhouetting against the gentle curve of bay upon which I gazed. I never tired of this view. The Atlantic light and weather took care of that.

    I had recently come to this wild and rural peninsula - a blow-in from the city - as a matter chance, and decided to stay.

    One early-April morning I stepped outside.

    The sky was a vast helmet of peace-keeping blue. The sun edged every detail with paper cut-out sharpness. Looking on the now familiar curve of bay below me I realised something was different. The sea had gone. Where the sea had washed the gravel strand, was now a zany zen garden of blackened sand and thrown boulders, forests of bladder-wrack clutching at their bases, interspersed with dark pools and slick wet rocks. It was as if someone had pulled the plug and let the sea drain out.

    The sea had retreated a hundred yards or more and dropped maybe fifteen feet, laying bare a huge and sodden strand, a monochromatic shimmer in the sharp morning sun. What had caused the sea to retreat?

    Moving towards the shore I could see the silhouettes of two men walking amongst the wrack and rocks, their movements paced and deliberate, occasionally bending over as if in search of clues for this strange occurrence. Moving closer still, dodging puddles and slick weed, I recognised the taller one in rubber boots - all beard and dishevelled hair - as Michael, a quiet mountain man. The other was James, his brother. Bachelors both; sheep farmers. They lived together in the house they were born in, somewhere in the folds of Hungry Hill. The mystery of the disappearing sea seemed to have caught their interest too. They might have some answers.

    ‘Fine morning’, I coaxed.
    ‘Fine morning, indeed’, Michael agreed, looking up from where he now crouched. He had the peculiar habit of raising his hand to cover his mouth when he spoke, giving his considered words the weight and seriousness of one who is about to impart a great secret.

    ‘What’s happened here’, I whispered, joining in the intrigue, ‘has there been an seaquake or something?’
    ‘Ah, no, no’, Michael chuckled. ‘Nothing like that, I don’t imagine’.
    ‘There’, he said, pointing with his bearded chin over his left shoulder. I turned, and looking up I saw a perfect translucent disc; a large Eucharistic host hovering above the trees.

    ‘Full moon?’, I ventured, turning back towards Michael, who, standing now, had risen to his full height, causing me to squint and shield my eyes, the sun eclipsing as a wiry halo behind his dishevelled hair.

    ‘Aye, spring tide’, he explained.’ But this one is fairly exceptional. Haven’t seen the likes of it in years. ’

    I noticed then that Michael was carrying a disposable plastic shopping bag into which he was putting something he had removed from the rocks .
    ‘What are you collecting?’ I asked, feeling the grey slick sucking at my trainers. My socks were already soaked through.

    Michael reached into the plastic bag and retrieved something, his fingers covered with green ooze. Rinsing it in a puddle, he raised it up to show me. Held between thumb and forefinger and silhouetted against the sky, I saw the perfect form of a shell, a cliché almost, about three inches across; the symbol of pilgrims, the type from which you expect Venus to step, virgin and naked.

    ‘Queenies’, Michael answered, dropping the shell into my hand. I could see it better now; a miniature fan of grooves and corrugations coming together at a single point, with two smaller triangles on either side, one larger than the other. Quiet rough to the touch with expanding bands of purple reddish colour. Turning it over I was surprised at the flatness of the other side.

    ‘Queen scallops.’ Michael explained, prising open another with a short stubby knife he produced from his pocket, showing the meat inside.

    ‘A grand feed,’ he continued, ‘ here for the taking. Normally you need a boat and dredging gear to gather them in and I’m no fisherman. But now, after a mornings’ stroll with the sun on your back, you have the makings of a grand sweet lunch. Knob of butter in the pan, clove of garlic , queenies shelled and washed, fry lightly, squeeze of lemon and you’re the man. Wash it all down with a pint of porter. Ye can’t beat it.’

    ‘Here’, he said, reaching deep into his pocket and pulling out another plastic sack, ‘help yourself.’

    And so we moved among the rocks across the emptied strand, the pungent odour of rotting plankton and seaweed filling my nostrils, the shallows already beginning to fill again with the returning tide.
    Learning Michael’s ways of where to look to harvest the sweet sea fruits.

    Overhead, oystercatchers complained.

    James, Michael’s brother, silent still, followed at a distance.
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