Sunday, 10 May 2015

'like sand through our fingers'

I started 'The Last Kings of Sark' by Rosa Rankin-Gee when Monkey and I had our mini read-a-thon last week and this morning it left me feeling melancholy. It tells the story of Jude and Pip and Sofi and one brief summer on Sark. The first half of the book is told by Jude who arrives as tutor to Pip, and finds Sofi in the kitchen making dinner. With the father Eddy away on business and the mother Esmé cloistered in her room they are freed from responsibilities, and the two girls take on the task of nurturing Pip, feeding him up, and helping him to grow up. They are supposed to be studying science, maths and literature but end up discussing the much more important questions about life, the universe and everything. As is the case when you are isolated from the rest of the world the three of them form a close bond, avoiding all questions of the unknowable future and living for each moment. The spell is broken by a hurried and chaotic departure and promises of Paris.
The second half tells all three separate stories, of where they went, and who they loved afterwards, and the lingering longing to find each other again. 

This is Sofi, in the local shop, she is bold and beautiful and who could fail to love her:

"She went from that to the hummus. 'Hummus?' she picked up the pot. 'Last week they didn't even have onions. Eastern bloc, man. Or, whatever wartime. Rationing days. There was about one thing on each shelf...' She broke free from me and trolley-scooted up the aisle. 'Fuck me! Herbs!' She pierced a packet of fresh tarragon with her little fingernail and smelled it through the bag. 'It's for the tourists, isn't it? I love herbs.' She was talking very loudly, which could have been embarrassing, but when you're beautiful, and do what you do with the confidence of the sun, no one seemed to mind." (p.41)

The first half has this very immediate quality to it, you can almost smell the salt in the air. This lovely quote sums up the growing relationship between the three of them:

"Sofi kissed me on my cuts and told me to look at Pip. 'His neck. He's got a man's neck. Aren't we doing well?'
Sofi taught him to sew and made him 'power bowls' of bananas and nuts. He ate without wincing; his ankles were less thin. He had freckles now, messy stars on his cheekbones, dots on his lips. He gave Sofi piggybacks without blushing, and he could look at me straight. He pushed his hair out of his eyes, and got good at looking; good looking.
If it rained, sometimes we would go back to peristalsis, and osmosis, and all those 'ises' I was supposed to teach, but Pip knew it all already. And besides, it never rained.
The grass was warm enough to lie on in cotton and there was sugar in my coffee. We left Esmé her tray and Badoit, and took crisps and cans of sweetcorn for clifftop picnics. We drank Eddy's good wine from the bottle as the sun burnt into the sea. I don't know if the sun tricks you into feeling things, or if it makes you see things more clearly. But that's what I mean when I said it was golden. Our skin got darker and out hair got lighter, and the summer passed like sand through out fingers." (p.94-5)

The second half felt more removed somehow, as if you are watching from a slight distance rather than sitting alongside. Things are more vague, referred to obliquely, so much unsaid. They try, but fail, to reconnect with each other, almost fearing that each had imagined it, and the reality would be a disappointment, or maybe reluctant to face the intensity of it. Here Pip finds Sofi in Le Havre:

"Sofi crunches through her third ice-cube now. She is not listening, particularly, to what he is saying.
'That's nice,' she says.
'Not really.'
When she realises he has stopped talking and his chin is dimpled, she strokes a finger over the bump-bone on his wrist. 'Awww,' she says. The type of noise people make about animals on the internet. 'You'll get through it. Everyone does. You're so handsome.'
The way she is touching him, calling him pet names, flattering him, it feels forced, almost formal. It is not like it used to be. It used to be as un-thought of as breathing." (p.195-6)

Jude, at the very end, goes back to visit Sark, searching maybe. I liked this lovely observation, in it you almost see her realise she has taken the step into being an adult:

"For a while, after I'd finished my coffee, I watched a young couple on a bench - maybe one of the benches we'd sat on - on the stretch of pavement outside the café. They were dressed for different weathers; the girl in a sundress and shoes that might go see-through in the rain, the boy in a children's-book blue beanie and a jumper thick enough to turn a boy's body into a man's. I could not work out whether they were in love, or friends, or brother and sister. The boy smoked, the girl stole drags, how their hands met was like a dance." (p.271)

In this return visit she manages to capture the nature of nostalgia and longing. The idea that once you have a perfect moment in time, and it is suspended in your memory, with an irresistible desire to try and recapture it somehow, fear that you were somehow mistaken and mixed with that, an understanding that it is gone:

"People talk about edges. Being on them, taking them off. I felt at that moment I knew exactly where the edge was, and that it was beside me. Close to my skin. I don't know. Nostalgia is one of the hardest things to write down. Even the word - it tangles. Perhaps the only way it can exist outside the body is in music. New Scientist says that music is the closest thing to time travel. I read it in someone's loo once. Everything that happens in between the first and last time you hear a song concertinas into nothing. In your head it's the first time again, but everywhere else isn't. That's the sad thing: everywhere else isn't." (p.273)

A very intense emotional rollercoaster of a story, beautifully written; the atmosphere of the island and how it mirrors the remoteness of the tiny community the three of them have created, and she manages the conversations between the young people so perfectly, how they talk about nothing, but everything at the same time. I think I fell a little in love with them too.

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