Listening with your eyes
When you are an author, you are, in effect, a parasite of life. Every experience, every glimpse of people, is stored up, ready to use in a novel. Sometimes, when there’s time, it’s good to be able to simply notice. To walk through a crowd and store up memories. You don’t consciously decide that a stranger will be a psychopath, or that a young man will be a jilted lover, or the grandmother will be the wise woman in a story. But you notice, you listen with your eyes, and add to the store in your mind. So that when you are writing, perhaps months later, and you need a character, you have a whole bank of them, waiting, ready to be fleshed out with a personality and a backstory. It helps if you are alone, as chatty husbands can be something of a distraction. So when the family decided to build a sandcastle (yes, they are all adults) I didn’t object, and was happy to walk along the beach for a while.
Walk along a beach in the Algarve with me, and notice. The Muslim family, with the mother covered from head to toe in black, sitting, child on lap, laughing as the waves rush over them. The bronze grandmother, wearing not a stitch, her stretched breasts flopping as she walks. The young men in tight swimwear, throwing a ball between them on the hard sand; the pretty teenager, sucking in her tummy, posed to one side, hoping, desperately, that one of the men will notice her. The mother of twins, sagging tummy oozing over her bikini, not caring because the two boys toddling through the waves are her whole world. The English woman, with the sensible haircut, walking through the shallows, her whole body red with sunburn except for the two white lines she has exposed where her sun-top straps went. The young girl with the tiny bikini walking next to her muscle-bound lover, the twin peaches of her perfect bottom moving from side to side, perfect ovals beneath the tiny pants. The old man, in straw hat and baggy shorts, walking along the sand. The father laughing as his young son spits water, after being swamped by an unexpected wave. The mother wrapping her shivering daughter in a big towel when she returns from her swim. The couple under the big umbrella, on the striped mat, eating a tidy salad from a plastic container, before they return to their New York Times bestsellers. The girl collecting shells in a purple bucket. The boys digging a trench next to their sandcastle; and the young men; and the grandfathers; and the fathers—while their children, bored, have wandered away. The young father holding his podgy baby in the waves, while she lifts her legs and squeals at the cold. The pregnant woman walking with measured steps along the tide line, watching other people’s children playing, anticipating.
And then there are the sounds. The crashing of the surf as it hits the shingle. The crunch of footsteps as you walk. The roar, somewhere out to sea, of the speedboat. The chatter of language you don’t understand, and the wisps of English that float towards you as you pass. The shrill of seagulls from the cliff behind you, the cry from sellers as they stomp the sand, showing their wares.
You can feel the sun, hot on your head. The trickle of sweat on your back. The grate of shells prickling your feet, the cold as the sea rushes over your skin. And the breeze, that blessed cool, that glides in from the sea and makes it all bearable, pleasant even, as you watch, and listen, and absorb all the life surrounding you; hold it tight, because one day you might need it.
Thank you for reading.