Until the first ‘magical’ incident our harbour was like most others around the country. One side with its fishing industry and the other for the summer tourists. The South Pier reeking of fish guts and the north side either boarded up or packed with visitors stuffing seafood and sugar into their mouths depending on whether it was summer or not. That was until a few years back.
It was in Salty’s Seafood Shop, with it trays of crustaceans, their bodies stuffed with their own meat, polystyrene pots of mollusks, the perfume of brine, that it happened. She was on holiday with her family from Leeds and wanted to try some cockles; those little orange and black shellfish lumps, drenched in vinegar, that you eat with a wooden cocktail stick. Anyway, she ate one, hated it, stepped back in such disgust and stepped on another cockle someone had dropped on the tile floor. She slipped on it and woke up in the local hospital four hours later. Nothing but a concussion, although this was no ordinary ‘nothing but’. The cancer she’d been diagnosed with a month earlier had vanished.
It didn’t take long for the local press to jump on it and not long after that Salty’s became a regional mecca for faith healing. I don’t think there have been any other miracle cures since the first one, but Salty’s has stayed open year-round since then and sells more pots of cockles than any other seafood shop in the country. Tourists come in and reenact the tasting, stepping back, and slipping (there are now signs in Salty’s that say ‘NO PRETEND SLIPPING’) in a bid to fix some wrong in their lives.
It didn’t stop at Salty’s. When other stands and businesses saw the trade swarming in, they found their own stories. Some of them historical with tales of success, increased luck, and passionate love. Debbie’s Doughnut kiosk started selling heart-shaped doughnuts with no hole in them, which got into the local paper and regional news, and since then couples of all ages link at the elbow to have their simultaneous doughnut biting contortionism photographed in the name of eternal love. The Harbour Museum has a lucky haddock, Harry, lucky because he made it into an aquarium rather than the usual fate of being filleted, battered, deep-fried and laid next to a pile of steaming chips. People queue to place their palms on his tank and if the lucky haddock presses it lips on the glass you receive eternal luck. They all got in on it, and before long, amongst the seashell souvenirs, the multitude of sweet and salty foods, you could buy sacred vials of harbour water in plastic test tubes, tiny packets of harbour brick dust called ‘good luck powder’, and rubber keyrings of ‘Harry the haddock’. There are spots you can stand to improve your prosperity which were once simply good fishing points, but in the harbour’s new found mysticism have become places for those wanting to make more money in life. All this is how our harbour has become a pilgrimage for the infirm, the unsuccessful, the lovesick, the bereaved, the plain unlucky.
Then the parapsychologists came, the mediums, debunkers too, and gave their stamps of approval or otherwise. From their stories of medieval nuns, Victorian smugglers, fishing tragedies, the no go areas started to appear. The World War II naval mine, which always had kids climbing on it and grannies having their photo taken next to it, is now cordoned off because it hasn’t yet fulfilled its original sinister purpose. Despite it being defused, it will still see out its desire for destruction the paranormal experts said, so best to keep people away from it. The fishing boat side, only occupied by trawlermen and ravenous seagulls, has become off limits for those who believe. Too many fishing tragedies have seeped into the walls on that side that to simply stroll down there is tantamount to breaking a dozen mirrors. The trawlermen, invulnerable to superstition, continue as they always have.
So, our harbour is now a living thing. All the stories, emotions, thoughts, speech, good and bad, pure and evil, burrowed into it. A single brick on a single wall no longer made of compacted molecules of mud and limestone, but a life in itself. Still red stone, still holding up structures and buildings, but giving and taking just as we always have from them. In fact, last year, when part of the chimney crumbled from one of the guesthouses near the harbour it was said it was because it was ‘sad’.
As a local I don’t believe any of it. There are no more than a handful of us who do. Those that do were already into their crystals and incense sticks. I hadn’t been down there in years, and never much went anyway. If you live here you know where to get the same food for better quality and cheaper. Unless you work down there, you just don’t go, but the thing is, I’ve been down on my luck recently, had a few problems in money, and love I guess. That’s why I decided to come down today.
I treated myself to one of Debbie’s doughnuts first. It’s October, so the queue wasn’t bad, but odd to think it wouldn’t have even been open five Octobers ago. It was tasty, lacquered with a gooey pink heart. I was one of few with no loved one’s arm to link, no camera to pose for, but I reckon I enjoyed the taste all the more. After that, I went to the lucky fisherman spot. It’s now roped off and you have to pay two pounds to access it and stand there. I’m not that desperate, but the number of people waiting suggests a lot are. It’s not like I actually believe in this stuff. I then decided to go to where it all started and get a pot of cockles from Salty’s. Even this time of year there’s a long line outside the shop, and he’s set up a little stand selling only cockles. The disposable pots have a silly embossed image of a woman slipping in the air. I waited in the line, but when I got to the penultimate serving spot I saw a young couple through the shop window play acting slipping backwards and taking turns to fall into each other arms. They were laughing loud enough to hear above the seagulls and tourist’s chatter. I realised I couldn’t do this. All this daft superstition. Slipping on a bit of seafood, eating a day’s worth of calories in a single doughnut, waiting for a fish to kiss my hand, none of it can really change my fate. My fate is mine. It doesn’t live in buildings, in walls, or in boats, in particular spots. It doesn’t exist in a doughnut, in a cup of vinegary seafood. There are no sad chimneys. It’s all nonsense.
So, I left the queue, and went straight over to the cursed, muscular South Pier. To the trawlers, where there’s a permanent stench of fish in the air. Not just a fish, but the everything of a fish, it’s body, eyes, innards, it’s blood, all commingled into a nasal assault on anyone who ventures close. Even though most of the fish are packed out at sea, the reek is strong enough to get into your clothes. The smell moves into the cotton and wool of whatever you’re wearing and tattoos itself into the fibres. The trawlermen never stop smelling of it no matter how long they live.
I had to be in that place. If my fate is truly mine, I had to go there, I have to absorb it all. The good and the bad luck. I watched the men hauling up their catches from the week at sea. As they worked there was a ruckus of slushing water, hard plastic crates slamming together, and shouts of a maximum two word sentences like ‘come on’, ‘pubs open’, ‘get done’. The stench knotted in my sinuses, the seagulls insane with hunger shrieking above. All these vocal ejections wrapped in fast, loud shouts. Tons of seagulls clouded over the boats diving, shrieking out that one word: ‘agh’. A constant assonance, void of poetry or rhythm, a tortured, scream of avian Morse code blasting out of the air. A Morse code that repeats the same message: ‘Eat fish. Eat fish. Eat fish’. The seagulls are driven insane by the need for fish. The shock of sound, smell and sight roared into my senses. It was wonderful. There is no curse here, just work and food and people.
Filled with that, my chest feeling strong and ready, I returned to the North Pier and bought a bag of chips. I came to the end of the Pier with them tucked under my arm warming my ribs. This pier is the highest. Some local, braver kids jump from the top when the tide is fully in. The leap is as tall as the guesthouses nearby, three floors high. Sometimes, when the North Sea is raging, they close off this area. At its fiercest the waves slam the wall so hard you imagine it could break it. The sea rumbles a sonorous portent, swirling rocks made of salt water beneath the surface, lifts them up, and smashes colossal blocks of water at the wall. These goliaths of water shoot up vertical in a wide massive curtain, white foam spraying off the top. The sound, so violent and catastrophic, your words can’t be heard if speaking within a hundred yards of it. Once it peaks these waves turn into an enormous claw of water that collapse onto the whole pier and drag anything not bolted down back into the sea with it. I sometimes think it’s like the sea feeding itself. Trying to take the fish back that we’ve stolen from it. Or just revenge for taking the fish it was protecting. The sea, this harbour wall, the people of this town are beyond these imported, newfangled superstitions.
Today the North Sea is quiet, alive and portentous as always, but silent. I’ve come right down to the very end where there is no one else. Just me, and the currently silent, barely visible foghorn. I’m there now. Sitting on the metre thick wall that protects us from the sea. The harbour is behind me. All I can see is my feet dangling and the grey waves swelling below. Sitting with my chips, tearing and tossing them into the merciless, immune North Sea. Let the poor fish and gulls nibble on some love and luck. I’ll take my own chances.