All human life is there when you look down from the cliff top onto the beach here in Filey on a sunny day. Sounds and feelings float up towards you as you sit there unseen. The tiny moving figures down below have no idea that another person is watching them and wondering. They are fair game for all kinds of observations and speculations. They have no idea that their lives are being carried away on the wind towards a stranger while they enjoy themselves, all unaware. Each perfect little reproduction of a full size human being runs, walks, digs, hits, swims, sleeps, plays and talks, living its life out in the open in full colour. From far above their actions seem repetitive, and universal, rather than the unique actions of a living breathing human being. They represent all of us, as well as all those who have gone before them and those who will come after.
That precious child whose mother is watching as she runs back from the sea carrying a full bucket of water is just one of many who make their way up and down the sand every summer, one of the many who have made that small but important journey ever since children first saw sand and were given a spade to dig it up with.
That grandmother who is slouched down in her deckchair facing the sun with her toes in the air was probably one of those children once. She would have carried her coloured metal bucket down to the water, watched by a grandma who had most likely lived through two world wars. The beach still carries the scars of that time, in the shape of decaying pill boxes and scraps of aluminium from aircraft shot down out at sea. The relentless waves and the shifting sand took it all in their stride.
That father who is allowing his son to bury him after a game of football has not given a moment of thought to the fact that that he is taking part in an honourable tradition of mock burial in the sand. If you laid out all the bodies of the fathers who have been buried alive with surprising solemnity by their children down the years (nobody ever seems to find it funny) they would stretch all the way round the whole sweep of the bay, reaching as far as Bempton, and beyond.
From up here I can see ghosts. I can see the ghosts of friends and family who no longer walk the beach, but above all I see the ghosts of myself. I can picture the small child, alone and friendless, walking slowly with her head down as she searches for fossils. I can see myself flying along at a fast canter down the sunlit sand on a skewbald pony in the early morning. I can see myself huddled next to my mother as I read William Golding’s sea trilogy with a warm pasty on my knee and a bottle of lucozade sitting by my deckchair. There is a small blue kite flying above us, tied to the strut and my mother is writing postcards. I can hear myself declaring lines of dialogue into an empty beach while I learn a part, the headphones of a walkman clamped to my ears. I can feel the wet nose of my retriever Hal as he nudges my closed hand while I walk along, knowing that I have a biscuit waiting there for him. I can see myself coping with love, loss, joy and hopelessness down there and finding renewal as I look out to sea, grim faced, through the roaring waves of a turbulent life. I know every inch of it better than that little girl collecting fossils would ever have thought possible. It is a kind of home.
The beach is a world outside time. People go down to the shore, protect themselves from the wind and face the sea in order to do what they have always done. Time passes, people come and go, and little changes. Even the shouts which arise from an instant of excitement carry an eerie delay by the time they reach me as I listen. Their moment has already ebbed away before the disembodied voice reaches my ears. Whole snatches of conversations can be carried down the beach in that way, lost to the wind who takes them without hearing or understanding and allows them to fade into nothing.
It is not only people who are alive to sights and sounds of the beach of course. There are the birds, who live apart in another world of their own, looking after themselves and taking what they can. There are the donkeys who have been carrying human cargo pointlessly back and forth down there for generations, carving out their path in the sand with quiet resignation. If there is no child to carry they will walk it again anyway behind their companions, accepting their lot, putting one foot in front of another with quiet dignity. Finally there are the dogs, and there are many of them, as there always have been in Filey, running, leaping, and barking, marking out enormous circles of joy as they revel in the freedom of the open space. Their time in the sun will be shorter than that of the people around them but they abandon themselves to the moment, throwing themselves into the sun, sea and sky as if there was no yesterday and no tomorrow. They have the right idea.