Red Tide by Ali Cooper

(from) Red Tide

Ali Cooper

The cliffs near St Davids are painted with a palette of many colours.

To the west they are steeply-angled beds of slate, pointing to the sky in subtle strata of pink, blue and grey, until a winter storm breaks the topmost pinnacles and dashes them to the ground, to shatter and fragment and lie in sharp mosaics amongst the pebbles.

To the south rise Cathedral Slabs, where, long ago, huge rocks were quarried to build the sacred monument. Today its ghost, in mirror image, remains to face the waves, looking out across the water with imprint of tower and architrave. Stately walls of sculpted ledges and finely chiselled arêtes, sanctified stone blushing cream in the sunlight.

And the rest, the moon-like bays and rugged headlands; an explosion of brightness, decided long ago when volcanoes spewed lava and the earth was fired like a pot in a kiln. Purples and reds, folded this way and that, fiery stripes buckled and bent as tectonic plates ground together, squeezing the land into a concertina of hills and valleys.

At Porthclais, the cliffs are red and gold, rough as rusty iron. At their base waves shatter over rocks, sucking hungrily at stone before being dragged back to sea in the undertow. At their peak, bushes of bright gorse quiver and chatter with goldcrests. Whilst here and there a climber, small as an ant, crawls slowly upwards, weaving ropes of luminous colours, like lace against the rock face.

In the middle of this vertical desert is Hugo. He clings like a kittiwake, surveying the ledges for a nest site, exploring cracks and crevices with chalky fingers. Balancing between luck and friction, he lets go his right hand and, reaching behind his back, unclips a clatter of metalwork from his harness. The shiny wedges hang in different sizes, sparkling their challenge in the sunlight. He offers each to the rock in turn, a thief with skeleton keys, going where he doesn’t belong. At last one fits tightly into the crack. He tugs; jamming it in further, then attaches a loop of tape to its tail. Finally he lifts the rope that trails beneath him and clips it into the tether.

‘Slack on green!’ His shout is automatic.

Lizzie squats on her heels, her back against the cliff; a snake charmer, teasing the long sleek body from its coiled sleep to pass through the shiny plate in her fingers and creep silently up the stone wall. With brown fingers she combs browner hair away from her eyes and peers short-sightedly out to sea. The skin is peeling on her reddened nose, revealing a scatter of freckles teased out by the sun.

Further along the rocky pavement, Stuart, reclining on a bed of jackets, pops a dried apricot into his mouth and reaches into the packet for another. His words are punctuated by the chewing of fruit and the rustling of wrappers, ‘Three more days before we go home, let’s hope the weather holds.’

‘Let’s do something different tomorrow,’ Judy says, ‘like go to the Seaworld, or the butterfly farm in Solva.’ She reaches out and touches Stuart’s knee, reinforces her words.

‘Good idea.’ Stuart squeezes Judy’s hand, then stretches onto his back, pushes his sunglasses further up his nose. ‘Do you remember,’ he turns to Lizzie, ‘when Dad took us to the aquarium at Dingle?’

‘Slack on pink!’

‘The octopus,’ she remembers with a grin as her hands feed the rope upwards.

‘It was feeding time,’ Stuart continues, ‘and the keeper gave the octopus a live crab in a screwtop jar. It was so neat – the way it just held the jar with one tentacle, twisted the lid off with another and, bingo! There was dinner!’

‘Ugh!’ Judy shudders. ‘How cruel. The crab wouldn’t stand a chance.’

Stuart shrugs. ‘The crab was going to get eaten anyway. At least this way you got to see how intelligent the octopus was.’

‘Well I think it’s a cheap trick.’

Stuart sits up and ruffles Judy’s hair. ‘It’s your nurse’s training,’ his voice teases. ‘You always want to save everything.’

‘And what’s wrong with that?’ She takes a penknife from her pocket, then reaches into her bag, selects an apple.

‘Well, for a start half the animal species would die of starvation.’

‘We vegetarians would be alright.’ Lizzie is smug with satisfaction.

‘Hey! You’re my twin. You’re supposed to support me.’

Lizzie laughs and turns to Judy. ‘Talking of starvation, will you pass me some food before my pig of a brother eats it all.’

She stops as her voice is drowned by the sound of a motor launch. It sprays out from the inlet, sweeping round the yellow buoys that guide safe passage through the crags and reefs below. On its back its occupants are packed, rubber-suited, air bottles at the ready. Soon they will dive into a world of mist and bubbles, hiss their way through ancient wrecks where fish swim through unseeing portholes and corals grow on rotting bows. They will twist and turn like eels around ghostly masts and pluck urchin shells from silted decks. Soon their world will be calm, tranquil, but for now their engine intrudes like a pneumatic drill as they blast defiantly across the waves.

‘Slack on pink! Listen for God’s sake! This could be life and death you know – it’s not a game.’ Hugo’s words fall amongst them, sharp like broken slates.

‘Sorry!’ Lizzie feeds out the rope obediently. Her smile has disappeared.

‘It wasn’t her fault!’ Stuart calls. ‘She couldn’t hear you. None of us could.’

But Hugo isn’t listening. High above, he puffs the breath from his lips and mutters to himself. He had been so focussed, so in tune with the rock. And now it has been spoiled by a stupid lapse of concentration. Lizzie’s, not his. He did everything right.

Judy looks out to sea, her eyes tracking the dwindling wake of the boat. Just beyond the platform on which they sit, spikes like dragon’s teeth are bared; razor-sharp, like spears, breaking the surface of the water, their redness staining the reflections. Further out, swathes of dark blue betray deeper water. The sky is very clear; somewhere, faraway, it becomes sea. And sea becomes sky.

‘Wake me when the tide comes in.’ Stuart settles back contentedly, his eyes closed. Judy passes the rest of the apricots to Lizzie; then she wipes the blade of her penknife across her leggings and begins, methodically, to peel her apple.

Across the bay, Angharad sits in her nest. A crow’s nest, of the kind built on ships. Or, at least, that is how she thinks of it. If she were religious she might, perhaps, describe it as a pulpit. Here, she is part of the cliff; high above the sapphire pools, below the fragrant gorse. No path leads to her retreat. She is undisturbed.

Within this rocky world, a broad ledge serves as seat and table. Resting on her knee, a board, with gritty paper, rough as sandstone, secured upon it. At her side, a jar of water, a box of brushes, pencils, tubes of brightly coloured pigment.

She paints loosely, quickly. Images grow beneath her hand. No tangible form of sea or stone, but the light that radiates from them, reflected, refracted, in a fountain of colour. The shallows flow in swirls of cobalt and, further out, viridian and Prussian blue. Each stroke of the brush appearing haphazard, anarchic; yet, in truth, microscopically controlled. She works intensely. Angharad does not wear a watch. What use here some artificial measure of time? Only the position of the sun determines and divides her day. And she paints this now, a mist of yellow ochre, permeating sand and water.

Occasionally, she pauses, leans back and stretches her arms and fingers. Her eyes flick backwards and forwards, playing with the scene before her, noting every detail, every change. Near the water’s edge, there is a man, rummaging amongst the flotsam and jetsam; he calls to his dog as it bounds in and out of the surf. Further along, a family bare their goose-pimpled bodies determinedly, their skin white against bright beach towels, despite the chilling wind.

Angharad holds her breath. There are climbers again on the cliffs across the bay; insulting the gentleness of the rock with their glaring ropes and piercing metallic chains. Her face reddens, although she sits in the shade.

She takes a pencil now, and presses dark graphite into the shadows. After a while, the point softens. The knife is in her box; three, four deft strokes and the point is restored.

Beneath the cliff, there is calm. Stuart dozes in the sun, while Judy has edged closer to Lizzie so they can chat quietly.

High on the cliff-face, high on life; Hugo pauses. He breathes slowly, gathering energy for the move ahead. It is the crux move, the fateful step on which the entire climb depends. For Hugo, it is personal. A challenge. Not with the climb, but with himself. The cliff is but a referee. Twice, in the previous week, it has defeated him. Twice, he has failed to prove himself. Now, he chooses a waist-high handhold; so he can shake the blood down into his muscles, summon strength. At last he is ready. The move spans an unusually smooth area of rock. He steps out onto a smear; a slope against which he must place his foot at just the right angle so that the friction produced by his weight prevents it from slipping. There is no hold within reach for his hand; only a ‘V’ shaped crack above him, into which he must throw the chunky protection, hoping it will wedge in place. As he reaches up, he thinks of the slip of concentration earlier. It unnerves him at a time when he can afford no distractions. The metal flies into the crack, clatters, scrapes, then bounces out. And a piece of rock, the size of a fist, comes with it.


His voice crashes to the ground a fraction of a second before the splintering rock. Judy screams and lunges out of the way, sprawling across Stuart in a tangle of arms and legs; the half-eaten apple rolls over the ledge into the water. Lizzie is jerked to her feet, as Hugo slips and swings on the rope above her.

Stuart ruffles Judy’s hair, checks she is not hurt. He looks upwards. ‘Watch what you’re doing up there will you!’

‘Bloody idiots! You should know better than to sit under a climb!’ Hugo is sore. Sore with failure and sore where the harness tightened as it broke his fall.

Judy stands and dusts down her clothes. ‘I think that’s our cue to go.’

In her nest, Angharad watches across the bay: her anger brooding, building. They have no right, these foreigners. Intruding into this space for their selfish sport, disturbing the gulls and the seals, shouting their petty arguments. She still holds the knife and, as she watches, she squeezes it tighter into her palm; first drawing a fine line, then, releasing blood, like freshly mixed paint, that drips onto her painting, mingles with the ochre and the ultramarine, and flows out to sea in a red tide.

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