Half-buried in the sand, it’s the texture that first grabs my attention: black and grey, like corrugated iron, like the skin of a dinosaur. For a moment I am three years old on the beach at Santander, afraid of sleeping beasts beneath my naked toes – and then, thirty years later, I am back on Seton Sands. The wind snatches at my hood, and my feet are damp on shiny sand left snake-skinned by the receding tide. I am surrounded as far as the eye can see by giant oyster shells.
The members of this rocky throng are unlike any oyster you have ever seen. Pocked and pummelled by salt and sea, they are the size of your palm. They are as noble and strange as prehistoric creatures washed up on the shore. Obscured by lugworm casts, you don’t know how big one is until you have pushed away enough sand with a finger to grab a gritty edge, and heave it up and over. Inside, it will sheen and peel in pearly layers, some dulled almost to the colour of rust, some golden and white as royal raiment. It will be cold to the touch, and your fingers will struggle to hold its weight.
I have never seen oyster shells like the ones at Seton Sands.
I take some home, to remind me of the sea. I wash them and leave them to dry, and put air plants in them to grow, and mist them twice a week. Over winter they sit on my desk, doing nothing in particular. Sometimes I pick them up and run my thumb over the ridges of the shell, wonder again at the size and weight. I think about going back to Seton Sands, but Scotland is locked down. Sometimes, instead, Pam and I go to Portobello, and Ben runs on the clear sand, and we eat ice cream as the snow falls. When I return home and look at the oysters, it starts to feel as though Seton Sands themselves were a prehistoric dream, a memory as foggy and distant as the small girl running on the beach at Santander.
And then the world begins to open. It’s slow, and strange. Like sea creatures, we hold back a little, lingering in our places of retreat. It takes some time for the imagination to catch up to what’s possible. But one weekend Pam turns to me and says, “shall we go to Seton Sands?”
We wind our way through fairy-tale thickets of sea buckthorn, their bright berries bleached over winter from the salty wind. We wince at their ammonia taste, and throw balls for Ben. The beach is empty, bar a few walkers. The gale whisks sand into our faces, and so we walk eyes to the ground, squinting. We spot scallops, razor clams, winkles, crab eggs, mussels. And oysters.
They are even bigger this time, as big as my face, as broad as a bowl, as solid and strong as armour. I could plate myself in oyster shells, I think, but it could take a while. Many tides went into the making of these creatures, many deep winter storms that drew them up from their beds onto the shore.
It’s this that makes me decide, when I get home, to count the growth rings on my shells. Oyster rings are like tree rings: count the rings to count the years. In each enormous shell, there is a thick, dark, metallic edge for every summer of growth, and a slim white streak for every winter. Some of my oysters were well-nourished: their rings are broad, easy to pick out. Others are so tightly packed that, losing my place, I must take a needle-point and draw it across the rim of the oyster, counting in fives, tens, twenties.
By the time I get to eighty, I realise that the oyster in my hand, that has sat so quiet and still on my desk over the winter, lived the span of a century. It laid down its shell in warm summers and cold climes, in times of plenty and those of hardship. It bears the sediment of waves and tides, growth and death, eddies and storms, air and brine, landscape and sea. In the sheen and the dullness, the dark rings and the light, the curves and crevices, the shell of the oyster is replete with the particles of the past.
As the world unlocks, and I walk through the Meadows in our beautiful Edinburgh spring, I think about the shell we are laying down. I think of the small girl on a Mediterranean beach, running from the oysters, and the woman on Seton Sands who brings them home. I sense the sediment of the last year in our minds and bodies, our tiredness, rawness, and our hopes, and I wonder what we will lay down next. I think about how sometimes it is only from the distant shore that we can look back, maybe even with some tenderness, and say, ‘oh yes, it was like that.’
I hold an eighty-year old oyster shell in the palm of my hand. Its story is written, but yours, and mine, are still unfolding.
I wish you all the joys of unlocking, and the insights of a fresh shore to walk upon, over this next week.
Photography: Sam Sills; Kitty Wheater