Story: I can see the sea

by David Phillips

My family had a few games we would play while in the car back when I was a kid. Classic pastimes like ‘I spy’, ‘I’m thinking of an animal’, ‘who can keep a werther’s original in their mouth the longest?’ and ‘cows those cows are my cows’. One of my favourites was ‘I can see the sea’, in which we all tried to shout ‘I can see the sea’ when the first glimpse of blue peeked above the horizon. The first to do so would get a single coin, whatever change was hanging around the footwells of the car, usually a twenty pence piece. Since there were usually seven of us in the car, this game was the most hotly contested. Most of the time we didn’t get pocket money, so a weekly opportunity to get some change was worth fighting over. Any claim of ‘I can see the sea’ had to be reviewed and supported by at least one other member of the vehicle, though usually multiple people were shouting at the same time anyway. We drove to mostly the same beaches—Polzeath, Daymer Bay, Summerleaze, and Hawker’s Cove were our typical destinations—on mostly the same routes, except for weekends when the Land’s End to John O’Groats cycle race was coming through. Eventually we learned just about when the sea would be visible on the drive to each beach. It was slightly easier in the winter, when most of the trees lost their leaves, clearing a lot of the view, but for the most part there was an earliest moment one could see the sea and we each learned where it was. This game had us memorising the space around. An image from our readings that really stuck with me was David Weale describing his son ‘ingesting’ Prince Edward Island’s landscape as he stared out the window driving around the province. I’d usually bring a book on longer drives, but for the fifteen minutes to an hour we had to drive, depending on the beach, I’d stare out that window and ingest the trees, the hills, the sky, until I knew exactly where the first sight of sea would pop out from beneath the clouds. I can’t say I know the UK, even the isle of Great Britain past my patch of Cornwall and a few spots elsewhere, but that area I do know.

Or, knew. Studying islandness regularly involves introspection—examining the relationship one has with an island, how that relationship has formed oneself and one’s outlook—as well as examining place. I often feel myself looking in from the outside. I don’t have any roots in PEI, I’ve hardly spent three days outside of Charlottetown, and even there my accent pits me as a foreigner. I also don’t know that I have those roots back home anymore. I haven’t visited Cornwall since I was eighteen. It never feels quite like a visit. I always stay at my best friend’s house, in the same room we had sleepovers in back when I was five, with the same view of Launceston Castle out her window. But Issy moved to Oxford two years ago. My old school friends all got jobs upcountry or work the farms further south. The sweet shop where I’d spend my hard earned money has closed down. Roberto’s, the restaurant we’d go to for special occasions—where I’d always get pasta alle vongole with extra clams—closed maybe eight years ago now. It’s difficult to have such a clear view of a place and have no use for it. It’s difficult to see the winding path we’d have to walk to Hawker’s Cove, but not get that salty smell in the air, or feel the tug of brambles against my legs. It’s even more difficult to not know if any of it’s the same, if I’m remembering it right. It’s difficult knowing that it is not the same, at least some of it.

Another game we’d play is ‘I can see the trees’. On the A30 westbound by Lifton there’s a copse of beech trees to the lefthand side of the road. Some folks know them as the nearly home trees, others know them as Cookworthy Knapp, they were just the trees to us. We’d only play this game when we’d gone up to Devon, or further north to visit family, but few images or feelings have stayed with me like those trees. ‘I can see the trees’ isn’t a competitive game. When you see the trees, you tell the rest of the car, and then we all knew we were about three minutes from crossing the River Tamar back into Cornwall. There was no prize for seeing the trees. Getting close to home was reward enough. I remember the relief every time we crossed the river, reading ‘Kernow a’gas dynergh’ and knowing I was about fifteen minutes from my bed. I haven’t found that feeling anywhere else. I got to play ‘I can see the sea’ back in October when my grandmother visited the island. She won. It has been almost four years since I played ‘I can see the trees’.