Jeremy Clarke

On the beach

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

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At ten to five the sun rose. Me and the boy were seated in our directors' chairs on the beach, mourning the embers of our dying fire. We were about midway along a five-mile curve of shingle, about 30 yards from the sea.

The sun came up, as I told my boy it would, in the east. First a rim, then this big boiling orange orb appeared behind a hill and climbed remarkably quickly into the air. A small hapless cloud that happened to be in the area was burned off. The moon, low and translucent in the west, slunk quickly away. After that the sun had the sky to itself.

There wasn't a puff of wind; the cigarette's-worth of smoke from our fire went more or less straight up. The waves collapsing on the shore were piddly. In spite of their lack of vigour, however, every other one washed up hundreds of tiny silver fishes that died in shining rows on the wet shingle.

After the sun had cleared the hill by about half an inch (about quarter past) a figure appeared beside the shore to our right. He was casting his rod into the sea, catching a fish immediately, tossing it back, and moving along again. He was coming towards us. As he got nearer, we could see that apart from a satchel he was nude.

Which was fine. There are no signs, but for the last 50 years local custom has designated the far end of the beach as a nudist beach. And quite properly that was where he was headed. But strictly speaking he ought to have kept his clothes on until he passed beyond some rusty old fishermen's winches. But who could blame him for marginally enlarging his freedom so early in the morning and with no one around to complain except me and the boy?

We'd been doing nothing in particular (not even fishing) for a day and a night. In the languid, oddly muffled atmosphere of this beach, speech quickly becomes superfluous. So when I commented to my boy, 'Look! A nudist!', it was the first words that had passed between us for a while.

The fisherman drew level and we watched him catch a fish (quite a large one) from our ringside seats. Now aware of his audience, instead of lobbing this one back, he turned round and held it up, offering it to us. I told my boy to fetch it, but he was reluctant to receive a live fish from a naked stranger, so I went. The fish was a mackerel, iridescent green.

The nudist fisherman didn't seem in the least bit prejudiced about my clothes. In any case, I think he was more fisherman than nudist. When I expressed surprise at the ease with which he was catching them, he gave a brief talk on the subject. The mackerel, he said, were coming in close to feed on the shoals of silver fry. Young herring they were. He was throwing the mackerel back because he was specifically after the sea bass, which were coming in close to feed on the mackerel.

Wondering what sort of predator, in turn, might be after him (a virus perhaps, or the bank), I grasped the live fish. It was slippery and immensely strong and convulsed out of my hand twice before I could get it back to the fire and deal with it. My boy put the frying-pan on to the embers and I laid the fish, shockingly beautiful and still bursting with life, on a handy-sized piece of four by two and chopped its head off with the heavy butcher's meat cleaver we use for splitting firewood. Then I slit its belly open and shook the guts out and laid the mackerel, still twitching, in the pan. Talk about fresh fish.

By the time I'd done that the fisherman was holding up another one. Again I tried to dispatch my boy for it and again he refused. I sprinted over. Another mackerel. An iridescent blue one this time and larger than the first. Didn't he want to keep any mackerel for himself, I asked him? 'Not really,' he said. 'If I don't catch a bass I might keep one. No point being greedy. I've seen 'em going home loaded down with carrier bags full of them. But they never know what to do with 'em all and they end up in the bin. Wicked, really, when you think about it.'

Well, you wouldn't call me and the boy wicked on that score. The second one went into the pan still twitching as well. One each. When they were done I took a plate over to the nude fisherman, who not only hadn't caught his bass, but was no longer catching mackerel either. 'They've gone, be buggered,' he said, a shade regretful now for his earlier profligacy. 'Hot already and only half past five,' I said, tactfully changing the subject.