James Johnston, my sheepdog, and I were watching ‘The Piano’ last night. As the credits rolled up, tears rolled down his whiskers; though I knew those drops were not for a woman and her instrument, but for an altogether larger expanse of salt water.
“Do you want me to take you to the sea side?”
“Yes please,” he sniffled. He can get awfully emotional. “My mother would tell me stories about the sea. She said she could feel it moving within her,” but that’s because his father was an Irish mariner.
This morning as baby day blinked her sleepy eyes, James and I loaded the Land Rover for a trip to the Welsh coast. When the buckets, spades, crab nets, towels, flip flops, knotted hanky’s, deckchairs and fishing kit were packed in there were two empty seats.
“Who can we take?” James asked.
“Who are your favourite animals on the farm?”
“Not overly keen on anyone, but we could take Kaplunk the one tooth donkey. We could pimp him out to the kids.” He’s economically sound is James. “And let’s take Ranatunga. He’s always good value after a few lagers.”
Ranatunga is a middle aged Adder who lives in an old oak at the foot of the hill. He made his money as a model for M and B games in the late eighties, until Nintendo brought out the GameBoy and the sales of snakes and ladders board games declined. I had picked him up as he was hitch hiking on the A44 six summers ago. He had a sign for Dublin dangling from his neck.
“Ireland please,” he'd asked, slithering into the foot well.
“St. Patrick drove all the snakes out years ago, mate,” I said sympathetically. “You could come and work for me.”
“I’m a dab hand with a ladder.” And ever since then Ranatunga has been chief fruit picker at the farm. He has an endless repertoire of apple jokes.
I placed Owlet the Thrush, Llanevan’s janitor, in charge of the farm for the day and we whisked off. Me behind the wheel, James riding shotgun, Kaplunk with the travel sweets and Ranatunga with the Back Seat Drivers Guide to Games.
“I sssspy with my little eye, ssssomething beginning with FT,” he began.
“Uh, Fir tree?” James offered as we skirted by a large coniferous wood.
“Uh,........ give up.”
“Flat Tyre,” he slyly grinned.
“Brilliant.” We didn’t even have a jack so Kaplunk had to pick the Land Rover up while I made the change.
“Typical. Even on my day off I’m working like a mule.”
“You wait ‘til we get there,” James said rubbing beeswax onto a saddle.
With the ride restored, James found an old Beach Boys cassette in the glove box and we sung all the way to the sea.
We arrived at Borth and there was not a cloud in the sky. Dive bombing sea gulls cawed over the crashing waves; granules of the golden beach bled into the white soup. A romantic couple walked knitted together as the tide brushed their Wellington boot soles and a pair of collie bitch’s gambolled and thrashed in the salt water. A hurled stick slapped onto the waves and the mutt’s bounded after it.
“Look at that talent. I’ve got something they can chase,” James barked and pulled on his Speedo’s. He spat in his paw, ran it through his fringe and trotted across the sand. Kaplunk had barely erected a deck chair when two little boys skipped across the beach.
“Can we have a ride Mr.?”
Kaplunk lit a cigarette and blew out. “Tenner each and a bag of chips,” but the two nippers turned on their heels and raced back to their mum, “ah! A talking donkey!”
“Got your trunks?” I asked Ranatunga as he slithered towards the surf.
“Do I look like I’ve got an exposed penis?” he spat back and sunk into the waves.
Lethargic steam liners were pinned to the horizon. A lone albatross made light of the lifting breeze and sailed effortlessly above the waves. Dunking cormorant’s returned to the surface, their beaks glittering with fish scales that glinted in the winter sun. Kaplunk sunk down into his chair, dug his hooves in and opened a tin of Holsten Pils with his tooth.
“Now this is the life, Tommo,” he brayed sinking half the can and slipping on a pair of Aviators. I sprinkled sand into a sandwich to keep with tradition, as one of James’ jokes hit home and the two collie’s giggled and tittered and let him sniff them all over. Ranatunga had found a piece of driftwood and cut like Kelly Slater along the arch of breathing wave.
“Didn’t know snakes could surf,” Kaplunk said.
“I wasn’t aware donkey’s could drink,” I returned as he cracked open his third tin. “You’ll be piddling like a racehorse if you keep that up.”
James strutted back to us with his tail in the air.
“I bloody love the sea side,” he said.
“You should have stayed. Looked like you were in.”
“Na, all got a bit degrading when that fella threw a stick and said ‘fetch boy.’ ‘Do I look like a Golden Retriever?’ I asked him. Got their numbers though. Jess and Minty. Lovely teeth.”
Sea mist grew in hanging swells and swirled in the breeze. Sand Piper’s pitted along the beach scurrying to where the tide had just washed to delve for lug worms and shrimp. A dozen boys played hit and run cricket shouting and clapping as one took a diving catch and slapped broadside into the sea, but his elation was short lived as he scampered back to damp land shouting, “Snake!” They all stood perplexed as Ranatunga emerged from the soup with a piece of wood on his head.
“Bloody kids,” he hissed as he rolled himself up in a towel like a sausage roll, “I’d have filled him with venom if I wasn’t in such a good mood.”
“But you’re not poisonous,” Kaplunk pointed out, breaking a pasty from its packet.
“I know, but I’ve got some pretty savage put downs. I once had a Charolais bullock in tears on the dancefloor at Butlins. Last time he'll step on my toe.”
"But you haven't got any feet?" Kaplunk continued.
"You keep interrupting me ass and I'll play pin the teeth on the donkey. Put your mouth to better use and furnish me with a tin. “Have I told you about the stolen car and the stripper in Somerset?” We all drank and laughed as Ranatunga unravelled the story of his brother’s stag do in Minehead. He’s got a dark past for a snake.
The two little boys returned with twenty quid and a bag of chips. “Can we have a ride now please Mr. Donkey?”
“Love a foal, I’m settled now.”
“Course you can boys,” James said lifting the saddle off the sand.
“I’m half cut, mate. I can barely walk in a straight line.”
“I’ll lead you. Get up, there’s a recession on.”
“You’re going to pay for this Johnston. I want a ten pack of camel and pound of carrots when we get home. And if you little buggers pull my ears I’m bucking you off.” James strapped Kaplunk up and the boys clambered on.
“Giddy up donkey!” they yelled.
“And you thought being thrown a stick was degrading.” They meandered off down the beach with Kaplunk belching every fourth step.
“Spot of fishing Tommo?”
Ranatunga and I cast out six hook lines, baited with lug worms that we'd swapped with a Sand Piper for a six pack of Tuborg. Arctic Terns wove in Picasso lines searching for the surface fryling. The steam liners had been replaced by yacht’s rushing along the tightrope horizon. The cricketing boys had exchanged their sport for a bigger ball and played football tennis over a groyne, ever weary of the fishing snake.
“Wouldn’t it be ironic if you caught an eel,” I said to Ranatunga.
“You joke,” he replied casting his line, “I once caught a Conger off the South Australian coast. I don’t know who was more shocked, me or him. Oh, look out,” he said nodding up the beach, “spot of bother.”
The drunk donkey and James were leading the little boys back trailed all the way by a burly fellow with a stick and rope. He had Dog Warden written across his uniform.
“What have you done now James?”
“Nothing! We were giving these nippers the ride of their life when PC World here came charging over a dune."
“No dogs are allowed on the beach without a lead, Sir,” the authoritarian said puffing out his chest, “it’s for hygienic purposes.”
“Hygienic purposes? He’s wearing Speedo’s.”
“Don’t get smart with me please Sir.”
“Smart? I’m on a beach with three talking animals, one of which is drunk, the other fishing and one in a European tackle net, at point did you think any of this was smart?”
The warden surveyed the scene, removed his hat and tucked his stick under his arm. “I’m too bloody old for this,” he muttered and sauntered back to his van.
“Ta, Tommo, that was close,” James said blowing out his cheeks, “I had visions of me in a pound later this evening with my nuts in a jar. Did you enjoy that boys?”
“Yeah!” they cried bouncing up and down on the encumbered donkey, “again! Again!”
“Not now boys, donkey’s itching for a smoke. Another day.” The little boys patted Kaplunk on his sweaty neck and galloped off to their mother. As they hooted and raced one turned to the other and said, “wait ‘til we tell Billy Saunders we rode a talking donkey, he’ll never believe us!”
Kaplunk collapsed onto the sand. “Fetch us a tin Johnston. I’m dehydrated now.”
James returned with refreshments. “Any luck yet boys?” as he enquired Ranatunga’s rod tip flinched.
“Thank Pegasus, I’m famished.” Kaplunk brayed.
Ranatunga reeled in a fishmongers shop window of mackerel.
“James fire up the barby and bring the chips. It’s tea time. Borth style."
As Ranatunga chased the yelping boys across the sand James, Kaplunk and I ate grilled mackerel fillets and soggy Welsh chips.
Avuncular clouds married to the fading sun. Fog grew from the guts of the angry waves and lost the ships at the tip of Turner’s brush. A lightening beaked Oystercatcher swung in the gathering breeze and dunked down onto the beach. Only the sporting dreams remained of the snake chastened boys. Kaplunk’s sleep breath whistled passed his single tooth as the sixteen imprisoned beers fastened his eyelids. James slid a canvass from his satchel, adjusted his beret and recorded the anti-light with oil paint. The granules were no longer golden but an end of the day grey.
Ranatunga returned from his sport. “Right boys, the serpent has worked up a thirst. Last one to the Boar’s head is a slow worm. Mine’s a snake bite.”
Ever been to the Welsh coast? Don’t, you’ll never leave.