Hartlepool. The last one-night-stand dregs of a theatre tour, limping on for an extra month. ‘New dates added due to popular demand!’ Trying to claw back losses, more like. We stay in an eight-pound-a-night B&B on the seafront with brushed nylon sheets that smell of previous stevedore lodgers. I wake early. However late we strike the set, I’ve never managed to reset my body’s urge for sunrise. The B&B reeks of cigarettes and Airwick Bouquet. I dress in the dark, trying not to disturb Queen Gertrude still snoring off last night’s beers, and head down, unlock the frosted glass door, step out.
The air’s dank, industrial. A weak sun lifts above the cooling towers and cranes that frame the beach. The concrete promenade has fissures. The seafront cafes are all kicked in. There’ll be nowhere to find breakfast. Later, we’ll head off for London in the minibus and Claudius and Laertes will insist on stopping at a Little Chef for a Full English. My stomach glitches at the thought.
There are crumbling steps from the promenade onto the beach. The sun’s moved over now, casting a path of light across the waves. At the far end of the beach, a dark dot moves. Another person. I scan the tideline for the accompanying speed of a dog but there’s none. Just this lone dot, sliding rhythmically forward and back across the shore. Beneath my feet, black sand glitters like diamonds. I crouch and scoop it. Underneath’s a rich gold. The whole beach is brindled like a German Shepherd hound. Some of the black stuff is in lumps. I take one and draw it across my palm. It smudges like graphite. I put it in my pocket for my dad. Wherever we go on tour, I bring him back something to draw with. Chalk from Wiltshire, Surrey charcoal. The festival in Roussillon, Provence was best, where pure pigments of green and ochre dust lined the paths. He started a triptych with those.
The dot has closed in on me now becoming the bulk of a man. He appears to be sweeping the beach with a long-handled brush. Fear stings me. Loonies loom at stage doors. One threatened to burn Hamlet with her lighter for saying, ‘To be or not to be, aye, there’s a point.’ How dare he foul such a line? He tried to explain we were performing the quarto version, not the folio, but she shrieked him down, quivering with distress. The stage-doorman had to wrestle her off like a bouncer. And now I’m drifting across an industrial coastline towards a loner sweeping a mile-wide beach at sunrise.
I’m so fed up I don’t care. This grim production has run for two years in leaking art centres and empty town halls. Mediocre actors (self included), crap pay, all friendships drifted, no man in my life. A rash from the nylon sheets or the stevedore’s sweat. Chicory powder coffee with UHT sachets, day in, day out. Let the loonies come.
The tank of a man is upon me now. It’s a rake, not a brush. He’s wearing a donkey jacket. Council issue. I think: cruel, remembering the pasty youths who appeared on our school field during the government’s Job Creation Scheme initiative, made to dig holes and refill them—pointless, backbreaking, soul-snatching work—while we smoked and smirked, observing.
He pauses, rests his meaty paws on his rake. His face is red. I know he knows I’m there but he doesn’t look at me.
‘What you doing?’ A kid’s question, but it works. He glances over and nods.
‘See al’ this?’ I like his accent. ‘Sea coal,’ he tells me.
‘Coal. Comes in on the tide. Gotta clear it. Lorry coming for it in a bit.’ He glances up towards the promenade.
‘From the factories?’ I look at the cooling towers, imagine a gaping pipe spewing their waste into the sea.
‘Nah, nah. It’s natural. Off the seabed. Comes to land here.’ He makes it sound like a migrant bird.
‘You do this every day?’
‘Aye.’ He stretches his shoulders, resumes raking.
I sit on a lump of promenade, get out my baccy and liquorice papers, roll a smoke and watch him. All along the beach he has built glittering heaps of sea coal. In the distance a pick-up truck rolls onto the beach. Two men in council orange jump out and the truck bed tilts as they shovel the heaps onto it.
‘Do you enjoy your job?’ I suddenly covet his work. To be up at dawn, the physical toil, the simplicity, serenity. I could live at the B&B—only eight quid a night. Buy my own sheets. Ask her to skip the Airwick. Ditch the incessant scrutiny and judgement of an actor’s life.
He doesn’t look up, keeps raking, says, ‘Nice when it’s cleared.’
The beach is golden now, right along the bay. The truck has pulled forward and cleared more heaps. I watch the glinting heap he’s making now, feel a tug of desire to jump in it, scatter the coal. The truck draws up and he stands back, watching passively as the men climb down and shovel. They nod and grunt a greeting at him, then they’re gone.
‘Done now?’ I ask.
For the first time, he meets my eye and grins. ‘Not quite. Best bit of every day coming right up. T’ra, pet.’
And he’s off, his portly frame suddenly lithe as a dancer, as he swirls his rake, drawing zen flowers, waves, stars, circles and hearts, etching the damp, firm sand and furrowing the soft, dry mounds with immaculate, rhythmic precision. He recedes, filling his canvas the length of the beach until he becomes a dot again. I stare. The world he’s drawn is seamless, meticulous, the skill of many years’ dedicated practise.
From the road above the promenade, I recognise the failing putter of the tour van engine starting up. There are cries too, ripped away by the wind, maybe calling my name. But I stay to watch the tide come in and wash his art away.
© Susannah Rickards
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley. Read Susannah’s interview]