You Stare like an Oyster from the Shell of Things | Jack Young
Updated: Sep 26, 2021
Pebbledash semi of my youth. Grey humdrum of distant glory. Ridden to oblivion by the swollen hot pink of the lads and the whips and the soft flesh of the city.
I grew up so thirsty in this town, and the saltwater didn’t quench a thing. Ah, but the city! The heat and the sweat and the filth and you and you and you and now you are gone. Dead. The word seems final and flat in my mouth and kills the sentence when I repeat it, which I do often, like some kind of mantra.
I was back in the drab town I spent so many years plotting to escape. You always told me I should go back more, that I should reconnect with the town where that closet-poet Tom reckoned he’d found that the end of desire is to desire. People always say desire is defined by absence and longing, but I never did too much longing when you were around. I guess I’ve time for that now.
I hadn’t been back for so long — not since taking you here to meet mum before she passed away. I guess I worried that in visiting too often, though only a short train journey away, I’d have got washed out with no way back to our lively city.
I learnt everything I knew about light and texture in photos from this place. It was my first muse. But I’ve spent my time since claiming the sizzle of the urban landscape, my subject becoming desiring bodies rather than weathered piers and tired sea-skies.
I’d missed it though, was the truth. I’d missed the melancholy. I’d missed the wide sky, the worn-down mini-golf, the old gals with their purple-rinsed hair and gregarious chat on the seafront benches. The rusting fairground rides, too — the mirror maze, dodgems, house of horror — candyfloss-tipped joy. The sleazy glamour of it all as a kid, eyeing up the older lads in their tight jeans, the thump if they saw you glancing. Though sometimes not a thump, sometimes a hand job by the cinema alley at night, though with the caveat — tell anyone at school n’ I’ll fucking kill you. The thrill of that violence. What a turn on the grubby and sexy town could be.
The fairground seemed to shudder each year towards its demise until it finally got torched down after I’d left. Seeing the videos of the fire on the telly I’d felt cleansed — delighting in all that history obliterated overnight. I’d fantasised that the flames might also lick away the bruises and shame of growing up a queer in this town.
But yeah, it felt good to be back: to see the chalk cliffs, the wet sand across the bay and the lonesome promenade. Yet elsewhere I could see more husks of neglect than ever: chippies barely open, pawn shops every four along, greasy spoons whose customers had mostly died. And looking closer, I began to notice other things emerging from the husk: a new deli, a gastro pub, the dazzling glass and razor straight lines of a new art gallery at the end of the high street. Next door — a new oyster bar called ‘Walrus and Carpenter’. Even the charred fairground was under renovation. Jesus. What was going on?
I remember as a kid granddad telling us how the oysters used to sometimes be sold with the whelks and the mussels in the local on the seafront, a quid a tub, at the same time as the ships began to move them up the estuary to Billingsgate. There was a brief time when the two — the rich and poor — shucked molluscs at the same time. Now the pub was boarded up, the old fish-market forgotten and the chilled-chardonnay brunchers had taken over. Oysters though. Phwoar! They were buried deep in my subconscious, their mother-of-pearl grace, the oyster beds quivering in the breeze at low tide. As a kid, watching over and over with horror the VHS of Alice in Wonderland: the sinister Walrus luring the oyster babies to their death as the sun and the moon watched indifferently from above.
From the promenade, I watch a young couple, gilet-comforted and satin-bloused, be handed a plate of oysters. Ready-shucked, they suck them down in seconds, quickly piling up their rugged shells and gulping perfectly chilled wine. No lingering with the lively flesh here.
It feels disassociating to see these people in the town I grew up in, who do not seem to belong here, but to know that I do not belong here either, that perhaps I never did, but especially not now. Perhaps they belong more to the new shell of my hometown than I do. The sands shift and the tide rolls on, but all the things that drew me back here —- the pubs, the fairground rides, the hot and scary lads, mum — are fading in time. I am here now, like Tom was, to see if memory and desire might connect nothing with nothing. Polaroid camera in bag, trying to make meaning through pictures. The best way I know how.
I make for the bay with a please-dear-god-they-can’t-gentrify-a-beach-prayer. As I make my way along the promenade, I smell the familiar whiff of the wastewater pumping station mixed with pungent seaweed and brine-scented air. I revel in the stink of it, that delicious mixture of human excess and wild frothing sea.
Shucked and drained: I feel memory and desire mixing, like the shit and the seaweed with the tide as it rushes in: an oyster knife tearing the flesh from its shell, the sea covering its empty remains.
I look towards the beach and notice the tidal pool still there, its sharp edges overflowing with the tide. Below the tidal pool, I see barnacles and seaweed stringed out and writhing across mussels and oysters in their beds, salty foam lingering in the cracks of their shells. I try to focus my eye on them, but the water is rising so fast that the shells are all getting buried. I feel a trace of you echo dully within me at this site, but it is a desire that does not belong to me anymore, without you and without me belonging here anymore. Yet I can sense its muted comfort beckoning me and I am grateful for the sea and the shells and the bleak lure of the incoming tide.
I take a photo of the flooding scene, shielding the lens from the spatter of rain, before putting the photo in my pocket to process.
Here I fancy myself as Tiresias from The Wasteland, throbbing between two lives. The living and the dead. The sea and the land. The then and the now. I am searching for you on the shore, but your body has vanished. Your flesh burnt to cinder and scattered in sea-winds. And in these moments of brief comfort, it is possible to forget and then remember all over that I will never see you again.
I keep walking, tracing a map of who I was, making for the shell-shrine that mum called the grotto when I was a kid. Unsure if it’s real, or part of my unstable dream logic: the seam separating my waking and dreaming world that has become so torn since you left.
Remember when I used to read Mayakovsky to you from the book we found at our favourite charity shop in Kentish Town? How green and new-shoot we were back then.
I was the archivist of your flesh. The archivist of the others too, but you were always my favourite. The flicker in your grey eyes when I caught you coming out the shower. The curve of your arse in the bedroom mirror. The suggestive slope of your chest towards the shadows of your pubic hair. Part of me feels grateful that I have these archives of your body, though when I look at them now, the not-you of them resonates all the deeper. I see the frame but not the face: in this one, the edges of the pond; in this, the burnt circle where the picnic was; in that one, the side of the mirror. Yet the flesh is always missing.
I keep moving. The sea has rushed right in, and I make out in the grey distance the shadows of distant windmills, blades circling in repetitive motion on the horizon from the offshore wind farm. The blades are cloudbusting with power and make this little seaside town seem so caught between the old and the new. I wrap my jacket tighter around me, wind-buffeted and salt-sprayed in the autumn cold.
After a while, I notice the promenade hotel and remember to turn back towards the backstreets of the town. It’s October, and I’m glad that a lot of the place is shut down this time of year. I pass the hotel and sense its sad and decaying grandeur. The streets are wind-hounded and creaking, and I let my feet and mind wander, through one back street, through another, towards where the old green square used to be. I keep moving, memory and desire continuing to merge.
Over the other side of the square is the street I think I am looking for. I make my way across, notice the oak trees that line its periphery and their gnarled and wizened trunks, the same trees we used to climb as kids.
I move across to the street on the other side of the square and walk a few houses till I reach it: the grotto. I’d forgotten how mundane it was from the outside: blue paint peeling off, grey pebbledash covering its façade.
I enter and make my way down the spiral staircase, the only visitor. I feel my way along the underground passageways, lit up by the odd stream of grey light that pours in from above. But mainly, I feel my way forwards, hands brush against the rough stone in this strange tunnel beneath the town. At the end of the passageway, I move inside a cavernous room with a dome rising above my head, marked out by thousands of shells, varying in size, etched into its walls. The light reflects off a hundred mussel shells here, black and glistening, a line of clam shells there, striped grooves lined with dust and time. In a kind of trance, I take the camera out of my bag and point it towards the domed ceiling. I put the photo in my pocket and move through a narrow passageway to my right. The light is dusty, and time moves thickly. Growing up, mum always said that the origins of the shrine were a complete mystery and that no one knew who the creator was or their reason for carving out the grotto.
In the next room, I find more pearly layers etched into the walls, feel my fingertips brush into the furrows of the shells, feel the fossil-trace of softness lost. Now, hardness. Snails, clams, tusks, tanned by time, some grooves smoothed over by erosion. I marvel at the vision of it all but at the same time feel a profound sense of loss. All exterior beauty, lively flesh ripped from the body-house. And in this hollow shrine, I feel you are less here than you have ever been.
Later at night, in the fusty B&B on the streets behind the seafront, I look at the photo I’d taken of the bay. In spite of their crudity, I’ve always liked the nostalgia you get from polaroids. The perfect party camera as the subjects always come out so Warhol-fabulous, even if they’re only sipping cans in the back of a kebab shop at 7 a.m.
In the photo, much of the sea-scene is blurred — the distant shimmer of the wind turbines ghost somewhere behind the horizon. Beyond the rising tide, I notice a dark shape in the photo, which I’d figured had been the oyster beds, but in the twilight seems larger, almost human-like. I sense the shape beckoning the viewer towards it. In the half-light and within my own drowsiness, the image brings back memories of bed-time stories told to me by granddad, stories he’d been told growing up in Orkney, of sea creatures that shed their sea-skin on land during the day and slipped back into the waves at night. Exhausted and sleep-heavy, I put the idea to one side and decide to take another look in the morning. For the first time in what seems like months, I feel my body sinking into a heavy stupor, feel the deep pull of the sleeping world, a pull I have barely felt since you died.
I am walking in a town like the one I grew up in and no one is around. It must be autumn or winter; all of the shops are boarded up, the hotels closed for business. A plastic shopping bag dances across the pavement in front of me. My body is being led towards the bay. At the end of the street, I see the shadows of turbines rotating slowly, casting their presence upon the scene. I see the tide pool barely visible beneath the surface of the sea.
The tide is full, but I can see the current already ripping back out. I look out towards the remaining strip of concrete below me where the sand meets the sea and notice a heap of what look like dark clothes. Intrigued, I make my way down towards the remaining sliver of beach. The sound is thunderous as the waves smash against the cliffs either side of me and the wind whirls around. I struggle down, drawn on by the prospect that someone might be out here alone. As I get closer, I see what I thought had been clothes turn into the shedded skin of some kind of creature, covered in swathes of seaweed. The skin is ink-black, rubbery, dense — like dyed leather. I wonder what kind of creature this could be. I hear a faint voice begin to ghost across the waves. A voice that I feel sure I’ve heard before but have no idea where. A voice that seems to be calling my name.
I look out to the sea, towards where the oyster beds lie and see a glimpse of a face flicker above the black waves before disappearing. My whole stomach falls beneath me. It was your face. I call out your name, but the wind and sea take my voice. I strain my eyes to look where I thought I’d seen you, but you have gone. Then I hear it again, the same whisper. I strip off my clothes, moved by an indescribable urge to locate the sea-voice. Now, naked on the concrete pavement at the lip of the beach, I move towards the waves. I can sense a watery language beckon me towards the shingle and the seabed, towards the brine and the prowling crabs.
The water quickly rises to my waist, but I cannot stop, I keep moving as the water swirls and laps higher, now around my neck, then to my nose, before I cross into the water realm. I open my eyes and am amazed to see everything beneath with intense clarity. Plankton move in microscopic detail, crab’s eyes retreat in the distance, each strand of seaweed is in sharp focus. And I hear the voice again, yet this time with perfect resonance. It is you, I can feel it, and you are calling me towards the oyster-beds. I keep expecting to surface for air but find there is no need. When I put my hands to my side, I feel the thin slivers of gills where my ribs should be. I begin swimming and marvel at my strength and speed as I hear the voice getting louder.
As I swim closer to the oyster-beds I begin to hear another noise, thunderous and deep, a rumbling far away that shakes the entire ocean floor, as if a hundred cargo ships and oil tankers were passing directly above my head. I look up and see nothing but moonlight refracted through the water. Yet the ocean floor is carrying the noise. I am overwhelmed by the threat of it, low and deep, and as I feel my selkie-smooth body gliding ever-closer towards the oyster-bed, I hear rising screams. The oyster shells are opening and closing, the flesh within them creating a shrieking collective at the sounds of the ships. Overwhelmed by the oysters’ distress, I begin to forget why and how I am here beneath the waves. Then I stop dead: a strange creature, reclining amongst the flesh and shells of the oysters.
The creature has its back turned to me, but I can make out scaly-skin stretched across its torso, human-like, crusted over with barnacles and shells. The creature’s hair is entwined with algae, and further down its green-tinged torso makes way to a glistening tail, woven round with strips of what looks like black leather. The creature turns its head and I gasp, bubbles exploding everywhere, as I recognise its eyes and mouth as your own. We don’t say anything, just swim towards one another. You reach for me and I let you take me into the ocean-flow.
The current is strong, but we are stronger, our barnacles intermingling as we pummel our bodies together against the waves, leaving the oyster-bed behind us. I look and see a crab clinging to one side of you and then notice a dozen tiny fish-eating plankton from my own torso, where hooked mussels have begun to cling to my gills. As they eat, it sends tiny shivers of pleasure across my whole body at the tenderness of their touches. I feel elsewhere the flesh of the mussels moving beyond their shells and coming inside me, through my nose, and ears, and anus, fleshy with abandon and the opening out of my body into the water.
We feel the sea becoming shallower and I reach for you, hold tight to your leather-bound waist, where the human torso meets your marine body, and we writhe upwards above the surface before crashing onto the shore.
I begin to make my way expertly across your body that is not your body. My tongue, filled with mollusc flesh and algae, makes its way along your barnacle-breasted chest and down to the delicious curve of your stomach. I am glad that this body that is not your body still has what I am searching for, and I take you whole in my mouth, anemones tingling around your base as the waves pound against us. Then, just as it feels we’ve only just begun, I feel you slipping, the tide pulling you back into the ocean. I plead with you to stay, to at least tell me where I can find you. As you keep getting dragged away, I think I read your green lips mouth grotto but I cannot be sure and I cannot hold on as your body vanishes into the ocean and I try to cling to this feeling of you for as long as I can but the tides are taking you and I know I am losing you all over again.
I wake, dry-mouthed and flustered. Outside, dawn leaks through the window. I reach for my journal by the bedside to try and capture the memory of the dream before it dissolves. All I can recall is an oyster-bed and a grotto. Then the memory fades and I collapse back into a dreamless sleep.
When I wake a second time, I realise that I’ve slept through to the afternoon. Barely a trace remains of the night. By my bedside is a sleep-drunken scrawl which I can hardly make out other than ‘oyster’ and ‘grotto’.
At the sight of ‘grotto’, a series of memories flood back, slippery and vague: a young boy, menotme, holding mum’s hand, moving through underground passageways in wonder, brushing dusty shells with my fingers; another, younger you, handsome and tanned, posing with camp and cheek inside a dome; then elsewhere, your green mouth slipping into a sea. I sense that I have felt your ghost in these sheets, that you have come to haunt me.
I decide to make for the grotto again, to see what you have left for me there. I get dressed and eat quickly, then head out, still heavy with sleep from the night before. I walk past the boarded-up pub and beside the new delis, filleted and guttered out with a few ski-tanned gentry, before I reach the promenade hotel and retrace my steps from the day before. Up one back street, past another, towards the square, though when I feel like I should have got there, I meet only another backstreet, then another. After a while, I realise I’m lost, which seems impossible considering how many years I traipsed every inch of this miserable town in a bid to keep myself entertained.
Past another street, then another, then finally I notice I am on one that leads to the square. I make my way down the street around the back of the square and walk its entire length before realising I have missed the grotto. I retreat.
I move back down the same street towards the square, slower this time, carefully plotting my steps. Yet I end up nearly at the square again. I go back again, and this time stop in the spot that I am certain I entered the grotto the day before. In its place is a petrol station with the words S-H-E-L-L written in neon red letters. Utterly bewildered, and panicked, I get out my phone and search for the location on my GPS. Nothing. No articles or any sign that the place exists. But how could this be? I’d been here only yesterday. I’d even taken a photograph inside. Remembering this, I clumsily reach inside my pocket where I had put the two photos and gasp as I see the one inside the grotto hasn’t developed. Nothing but a white sheen of film. I was sure I’d looked at the photo yesterday and been chuffed with its dusty grandeur. I look back at the other photo, where I’d seen something in the waves the night before, and in the sordid light of day, it looks perfectly mundane, no strange shapes or dark forms — just a washed-out polaroid of full-tide. I was feeling increasingly overwhelmed and alone. I had slept even later than I thought, and as I noticed the sky getting dark, I decided to head back to the city in the morning.
That night, I slept deeply again, worn out by the confusion and strangeness of the day. The same town, the walk towards the bay. The black waves glimmering. The moon-bathed scene. The strips of leather sea-skin by the shore. My body impelled forward beneath the waves. Your selkie-graced body ushering towards me. The oysters crying out at the rumbling of distant ships pounding across the seas. Circadian rhythms distorted. Our bodies tangling and disentangling, desperate to ask you where you are, but it slips from my mind as I am caught in the thisness of our barnacled embrace, throbbing between two lives. It feels so good to see you again, feel you wrapped around me, though I feel my pain murmuring darkly beneath the surface of the dream. Murmuring with the hundreds of creatures entangled in our lust, the hooked mussels, sea anemones, the seaweed leaking between our legs, sea-foam filling the cracks in our bodies, our bodies, our bodies spilling over their borders. The shimmering ecstasy of you. Then, again, I feel you pulling away. I feel the tide taking you, but I want to remember you this time, I want to have you linger. I want to know what you are, I want to know how I can find you. I want. I want. I wake.
Clearer this time. The bedroom lit moonly calm. Brightly dark. My body moves, my mind watches. My body is moving out of the bed, I am looking out of the window. The sea is calm, deathly still. The beach stones lambent with moon-grace. The sea is whispering secrets. My body moves, my mind watches. Still naked, out the door. Moving, watching. Down the street, past the pub. Past the promenade hotel. Past the torched fairground. Down to the railings, down to the sand. Black waves lapping in the midst. Shingle-scratched. Tide out. A voice. A voice is calling me. Black waves lapping in the midst. Brightly dark. Moon-calm. Oyster-flesh trembling in their shells. Seafoam caught in cracks. A voice, a voice is calling me. Body moves, mind watches. Body moves across the wet sands. Throbbing between two lives. Body moves away from the sad town. To desire is to desire is to desire. Body moves away from hollow shrine. Connecting nothing with nothing. Body moves into the black waves. Brightly dark. Moonly calm. A voice, a voice is calling. A voice, a voice is calling. Black waves lapping in the midst.
Jack Young is a writer and participatory educator living in Bristol. He writes experimental fiction and non-fiction and has been published by Entropy, 3 A:M, Burning House Press, Caught by the River, and Epoqué Press, amongst others. He has a forthcoming hybrid work with Big White Shed, called Urth, which explores interspecies intimacies and post-gentrification city writing. He is currently working on a series of texts and participatory events in Bristol called The Body-Forest, which will explore ways we might decentre the human and expand our notions of interspecies solidarity whilst thinking about community, time, desire, and language.