I needed to get lonely. I was full reeling drunk, caught out by those last three or two shots, doing my unlevel best to walk a straight line on the dirt track to the beach. The orange lights of the town seafront lurched in an erratic waveform, queasily off kilter to the slap and hiss of a million round pebbles churning on the shore.
Drunk or not, it’s always the way. I need space to untwist, to let the entanglement of being among other beings run straight. Even the ones I love. What begins as a meadow in time sees fronds of bracken unfurl, brambles and thorns crisscross, a thicket ripe with competing priorities and imagined desires. Instinct leads to open space. At first there is relief, and later guilt, as I feel myself a failure of a friend. Later I will miss them, and wish I had given them more, been a better me. It’s a bittersweet caring, a melancholy worn on memories sampled, warped and rekeyed into emotional echoes of the moments they were, when they were too bright and too obvious.
Hands on knees, heaving deep, I let a fusillade of vomit into the dark. I hope not on my feet. Spit. Lick soggy fragments off teeth and gums. Spit.
I didn’t plan to get this way, swaying like the cables have been cut. This is proof, as if I needed it, that I can’t be trusted. That the unity of self is an illusion. It’s obvious. There is tenuous continuity in the residues of memory, the stories we tell ourselves, weak patterns overlaying the basic drives, sex and hunger and escape from pain – no more than that. We are a temporary agglomeration of processes, a fragile net of blood tissues, spasm of matter pulped by time.
Another surge from the stomach, tears to the eyes. Spit.
We are closer to losing it than we think. Drunkenness is just a taste of the scenery collapsing, the mechanisms of stagecraft laid bare. Fragile coherence gone off script, out of tune. More than death, which is only nothing, we should fear losing our minds. Loved ones become strangers, confusion overwhelms, stories are forgotten. It gives perspective, on whatever else we’re stressing about – we should be celebrating daily the miracle of existing at all, of knowing, of occupying this strange conscious loop.
The beach opens out in front of me. Headland, horizon, bobbing moon clouds, shipping tanker. I can smell vomit, must be on my shoes. I slip them off, stagger forward, sit down, and curl my toes and fingers into the small round pebbles.
It is a beach for perfect stones. Earlier today, when it was light, we turned them over, counting granite, greenstone, pumice, culm. Some I couldn’t name. Ripples of ore, weathered pockets, flecks of mica, contours in the strata like miniature mountains. Assembled relics of the younger earth’s upheavals, jumbled here in their last days like collapsed stars. With the ocean as catalyst they patiently dispense the last of their minerals back to the universe. Heaped around me, I conceive each pebble as a memory, a taut kernel preserved of an infinite history. Each a distillation into polished truth of a complexity impossible to fathom. That is the mechanism of the mind, imprinting like sunspots on the inside of the eyelids a burnished abstract of the moment as it was, until it erodes to nothing.
Only memories are trapped, and have no sound, and cannot be sifted with a tactile chock from the fist of one hand into the flat palm of another, or held out for a friend to see. A pebble is discrete, but a memory can’t be trusted. It is an act of imagination. What I could do with a better imagination! I could build cairns. I could unspool time, rebuild that sandstone into the Old Man of Hoy, that quartz blob into a Sharpnose fin. Each pebble would be contemporary with the edifice it once was, or could be in the future, from the moment it was churned from the mantle or settled in some primordial riverbed to its palliative years on the psychedelic nursing home of the beach. I enjoy the thought without needing to grasp its truth, like imagining that eating magic mushrooms could bring some level of communion with the weird minds inhabiting fungus.
Emptied of the badness in me, tequila and rum and half-digested food, I’ve got a pale endorphin lift and feel better. This is me, unprotected and free, present in the miracle of here and now. The beach is always the perfect place for grounding the mind, something in the simplicity of the bare land margin that short-circuits the thicket complexity of living. I will lie on my back, childlike, and make a pebble angel.
Somewhere, faceless systems are harvesting and analysing my data, weaving algorithms through my behaviour patterns, coming to know me better than I do. I fret on how complicit to make myself in this, to be a straight up rook or a rogue pawn. It is a beautiful fuck you on offer to the otherwise helpless, simply not to engage with any of it, to turn the arse cheek to the supernetwork. The promised futures, cheap chatter, economy of outrage and bleating for attention. The only way to win that game is not to play. And you will never be recognised for that, never congratulated, never rewarded. It is an act of self-possession, to put all those easy dopamine-hit buttons behind your back, where no one can push them. No shooting from the hip to signal your solidarity with the right group, no chufty badges for your grand day out. It demands the same discipline as to treat praise and criticism with equanimity, an overhaul of the instinct to prove yourself better than average. But why not, we pinch our instincts in a hundred ways every day.
I wonder what the best pebble on the whole beach looks like, when I can find twenty beauties just within my arms’ reach. But I catch myself on. Who hasn’t found the best pebble on the beach, and taken it home only to wonder later what was so special? I will have to accept them as they are, then leave them alone, and go back to the party.