SOME DAYS it rained, that summer of Saucony. I took long walks on the clifftop paths. The grey-green sea broke against the rocks in rolling swells and sent long, foamy washes into the coves, and the beaches were closed for days at a time by dangerous currents and sudden blooms of stormwater. That didn’t stop the surfers, who struggled clear of the churn out to where they bobbed and waited on their boards to pick the wave. From high on the cliffs I watched them rise on the swell and paddle, then stand and scythe across the wall of tumbling water until they sank into the foam washing onto the sand.
Walking, you saw a storm beating up from the south-east, a gauzy curtain of dark grey against the paler grey of sky and ocean. An older hand than me would have known that the rain would be on you in minutes, and sooner than I expected I’d feel the first gentle spray on my face and then the full cold spritz of it, like someone had turned a shower head on me. Out on the paths there was no shelter – the best you could hope for was to be walking upwind so you could take it on your back, or to be the type, which I am, who doesn’t mind a cold blast of rain off the sea in his face, for whom a little physical discomfort is merely a sign that you are still alive.
You could get up as early as you liked those summer mornings but you would still find people along the paths and on the little beaches in the coves at the bottom of the cliffs. They loved a morning dose of sea and air and, not always, but mostly, sun, those people of the eastern beaches. And why wouldn’t they, with the vistas of ocean beating against the cliffs, the stretches of sand – really, golden – the massing of real estate that made you simultaneously marvel and recoil in horror at the sheer cost of it (and maybe that explained the curious expression you often saw on their faces, the disbelieving half-grin of, “No – that much?”)
The morning air was so mild that it was nothing to stand around at dawn wearing just your bathers and a towel slung over your shoulder: whatever clothing said about a person was muted here, and you had to try to read who they were in their movements and gestures, in the grain of their skin.
The women of that summer were all beautiful. Maybe it was the rain in their loosened hair, or their bare skin mingling in the same breezes as mine, or some other melancholy that I hadn’t got to the bottom of. I’d be in one of the sea pools built into the rocks, hugging the wall to keep clear of lap-swimmers and hoping one of the breaking waves would surge right up and smash me back into the brine, when a woman would walk along the wall, her tanned ankles and painted toes just inches from my face. Or someone would run past on a path, a jogger in black spandex trimmed with fluorescent yellow or orange that made her tan look deeper and cleaner, trailing the aroma of some floral body spray mixed with perspiration.
But it was the men who really interested me. I would come upon a group of three or four standing on the walkway above the beach, their greying chest hair still running with seawater, comfortable in the swell of their paunches and at their most intimate ease in those few uncounted moments between the sea and the rest of the world. I watched them as they stood and talked. I looked into their eyes – a certain sapphire colour that made you think of the sea, even though the sea here was a deeper blue shading into greens and greys depending on the light – and studied their lips, thin, drawn tight across ivory-coloured teeth. I scanned the burnt and veined skin of their cheeks and temples, traced the broken capillaries that mapped the years they’d lived. I hoped one of these men might be a boy I had once gone to school with – any boy – so I could see the eleven-year-old I used to know become the man of fifty-two or fifty-three, but also to see the man I might have become myself if my family hand’t moved away when I was still just a boy. It was as if in their eyes and their faces, their clipped grey hair and close-lipped smiles, I might read both the letter of a birthright and the sentence of exile.
I WAS barely aware of the brand, Saucony, when I found the shoes on the website of one of those stores that specialise in casual and sporting footwear. I’m not sure why I was even looking: I didn’t need a new pair of shoes. But there they were, at a reduced price, and in my size: I clicked “buy now” without giving it a second thought.
When the shoes arrived a few days later I took them out of the cardboard box and set them on the floor, a new, clean pair. They were grey and black with flashes of blinding white around the edges of the built-up soles. They looked patched together from suede and plastic and some other materials I didn’t know the names of, and I noticed – something I hadn’t seen when I bought them – that instead of tying, the laces were fastened with sprung plastic toggles, and weren’t laces at all, but lengths of elastic thread.
They looked like the kind of shoes some white kid who’d just discovered hip-hop would have worn in the early 1980s, clunky joggers, more suited to running than break-dancing.
I put them on and they fit really well. I walked around the house – they were comfortable, too, with padding at the ankles, soft and protective. They felt like a new body part, an extension of my legs rather than a mere covering for my feet.
I showed them to my wife, who cocked an eyebrow. “I’m not sure about those,” she said, and left the room. I probably should have known right then.
A few days later we were packing for our annual summer holiday. That year we were taking a road trip to the north-east and on to the city on the coast where I’d been born and lived as a child. There would be long walks in the mornings, I thought, and I threw the Saucony shoes into my suitcase, imagining how they would cushion the footsore kilometres that lay ahead. We loaded the suitcases into the back of the station wagon and set off.
THE SAUCONY shoes carried me up along those clifftop paths among the Nikes and Reebooks and I suppose a dozen other brands, a whole sociology of exercise shoes. They were my passport to that world of the pound and slap of jogger on pavement that modulated to a hollow thumping on the decked walkways which, here and there, skirted the crumbling cliff edges and carried us runners and walkers out over the dizzying drops.
There was one little bay that I remembered from my childhood where the rocks had been paved over with a concrete deck to create a deep, long seawater pool, and on hot evenings people lounged on beach towels stretched on the sun-warmed surface and plunged into the clear water, swimming above schools of bream and hoping to spot the enormous grouper that browsed in the deeps. Runners and walkers dodged the crowds. Sometimes one of them would surprise you by diving straight into the water and swimming across the bay; on the other side they’d climb out and run another lap, still dripping seawater, their jogging shoes soaked and squeaking.
For reasons that don’t matter I spent the last night of that summer alone. With just a towel and a T-shirt, my bathers and the Saucony shoes – a look that would have raised my wife’s eyebrow had she been there – I headed along the path. I’d decided to spend the evening by the concrete bay, swimming and sitting until it was cool enough to walk back.
The path was alive with runners: alone, in twos and threes and in bigger groups. As they passed I caught odd words from their breathless conversations, meaningless yet charged with the possibility of meaning, fragments that opened an imaginative window onto life, as if they’d been scripted by long-form TV writers.
A young woman with a square face and neat hair said, “performance review”, and I suddenly saw into one of those open-plan offices in a giant glass-walled block where the desks are ranked below lozenges of blue-white light. Two women walked, fast, up a stairway, their arms swinging, and I caught just the profanity that was part of their conversation, a “fuck” or maybe a “fucking”. They were so loose and easy with that language, so quick and sure in their judgements. The way their lips moved around the shape of that word was a whispered prayer, and the sound of its consonants and vowels sliding together in their mouths was an “om” that reached right into me, mother tongue.
A cemetery on one of the bluffs was separated from the cliffs by just the narrow path and a low fence, and a rough track worn in the grass made a shortcut between two rows of graves. It was one of the most beautiful burial grounds in the world, I thought, the dead of a century and more laid head- or feet-first to a vast stretch of ocean clear to the horizon, like the infinity that stretched before your birth and after your death, blue to the vanishing point of existence. The names on the worn headstones were old names now, and the family names belonged to a time when this stretch of coast was sandstone and scrub and dangerous clifftops with an open drop to the waves smashing against the rocks below.
In a park on another bluff with the sea and the sky behind, a group of men played touch football, 10 or 12 of them, middle-aged, strung out across the grass in two lines. They wore loose T-shirts and old football shorts and worn runners without socks, and they moved at an easy jog. Their game was like a dance: one line of men advancing on the other, passing the ball among themselves and moving in a choreography of feints and dodges and sudden surges. They talked as they played, mostly about the game, a gentle sparring that served to define the limits of what a man would take, and therefore the boundaries and contours of the man himself. It was a ritual they had learned in the schoolyard, though the arguments of those schoolyard games had long since been settled: they all had learned the limits, and the game sustained and nourished their sense of themselves, connecting them to the athletic ease of their youth even as that fell away.
Their sunburnt ankles bared, their salt-rimed lips drawn into half-smiles, the sun-bleached pastels of their threadbare T-shirts, the shorts riding up above the tan lines on their thighs, their close-cropped greying curls, their large hands so easy around the ovoid ball: my people, I thought, as I floated in the water of the cove, effortless, buoyed by the swell, below that sky, the first sky I had known stretching above me again. #