The ocean hoards wisdom. Occasionally its denizens: kraken, sirens, leviathans, merfolk, nereids, and selkies teach lessons to humankind. Bloody lessons in the main, on storm-tossed seas and against hull-breaking rocks. Suffering is the hallmark of those stories, for all concerned. The lessons endure, written into legend and re-told through the ages. I am neither Ahab nor Odysseus. The ocean chose to teach me calculus with gentle wavelets on a sun-kissed Caribbean beach.
I was a fortunate and indifferent student. Fortunate because most things came easy to me. Book learning fit into the gaps and shapes in my intuition with little effort, until it didn’t. At that point I struggled. If I didn’t understand something straight away, I was lost. Calculus was one such troublesome subject. One Christmas holiday, in a triumph of hope over expectation, I set aside an hour or so every morning to sit in a gazebo at the southern end of Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman to try and figure it out.
The Caribbean wasn’t my natural habitat. Poor boy in a rich boys’ school, I was more accustomed to hearing about exotic destinations than going to one. This was the first time I had been on any kind of foreign vacation for more than a decade. I was sixteen and with my mother visiting her brother as he lived the ex-pat lifestyle on this island paradise.
Trigonometry made sense to me. My morning world was defined by a triangle of my gazebo, the wreck of the Gamma a little offshore, and an overturned rowing boat hauled above the tideline and abandoned at an intoxicated angle. Seven Mile Beach stretched away at my back. I did little studying. Most of my time was spent watching the water or the occasional divers bobbing around the wreck. Visitors were rare at this end of the beach. For a time over that Christmas, it was mine.
It was a blue world, between sky and sea, garlanded by a necklace of golden sand and edged with highlights of green in the distant tops of the palm trees and hedges of poinsettia. Even the rowing boat showed the flaked remains of blue paint. More accustomed to greys in England I found the colours endlessly fascinating and the sunlight something from a different planet. In that environment there was no way a textbook could hold my attention enough to be of any use. Progress would require a different type of intervention.
Her name was Charlotte. She appeared in my line of sight between glances at the pages of my textbook. She leaned against the rowing boat facing the shore, head turned to enjoy the sea breeze which lifted the blonde hair that curled over her shoulders. The surprise of finding someone in my domain was enough to have me staring until I realised its intrusiveness. I looked back to where my finger held the page I was trying to read.
The textbook was a curious thing. Two generations of schoolboys had diligently written their name and form on the inside cover, then both sides of the flyleaf. It was hardback, with the musty, welcoming smell of antiquity. The author had a whimsical approach to his subject. Each chapter was headed by a quote. There was one from DW Jerrold about Jacob’s ladder, another from Sophus Lie appropriately lauding the study of differential equations and, on the page in front of me, a line from the hymn Abide with me – “change and decay in all around I see”.
My gaze kept drifting back to her. There was no siren call, no turning of currents or distortion of the tide. She was doing nothing other than leaning on a boat in my eye line, caressed by the wind. I was classically educated, able to translate Homer and well-versed in the stories of Circe and Nausicaa. I was also gauche, gawky and hopeless in social situations. Somehow, I found myself in front of her and trying to make small talk.
Her accent had the lilt and sway of the Caribbean. I hadn’t travelled widely enough to differentiate the rhythms and cadences of the myriad islands, there may have been something uniquely Caymanian in her melodious drawn-out vowels. Her skin was a single even tone, the colour of wet sand. When she walked to the edge of the water her toes sank into the margin of land and sea, merging and indistinguishable, only the swept back lines of her worn blue flip-flops showed where her feet might be. Her bikini was blue as well, faded and in places showing the beginnings of threadbare age. I would not have put her age at much over eighteen. Young for her garb to have aged so much unless she wore it all the time.
She brought me back a shell. A sand dollar. Gifted with a smile.
Even with my family’s straitened circumstances, I had seen more of the world than her. I told her what I could of school trips to France, memories of my one visit to family in India, of the New Forest and Hadrian’s Wall. I told her most about London, a city whose crooked streets and hidden alleys I knew as well as any Victorian urchin. Across the decades other details of our conversation elude me now. I do recall there were long silences, I wondered if she would rather be left alone. Each time I thought I had imposed too far and I should take my leave she would slip a leash of question or comment around me and I would hold it, gratefully, gladly, a little desperately.
I was besotted.
We spoke long enough for the tide to come in, and keep coming in, catching the edge of the overturned boat and lapping at her feet as if she had drawn it beyond its usual limit and tamed it.
I remember very clearly how she said her name. The first syllable had a francophone susurrus, gifted with a pursing of her lips, kissed into the air. The second sucked back in over her tongue, diminishing the distance between us. I heard the echo of her name in the silences, watching the waves wash over her feet. Charl -- the pressing forward tumble of the water. Lotte -- the withdrawal leaving a curl of foam. The moment of transition, when forward became backwards, was trapped in between. Deceleration, momentary stasis -- infinitesimally brief, then acceleration away. Tiny increments of movement and change became a sinuous, seamless whole. Beneath the motion: a tide. A deeper movement, a third order to the equation. Calculus.
Charlotte and the breaking of waves. Something plastic in my brain became elastic at that moment. Knowledge that had seemed impenetrable, alchemically implausible, suddenly became as clear as those Caribbean waters. As much as I wanted to stay with her, I felt an urge to return to the book, to put this newfound understanding into practice. The lines of arcane symbols in the yellowing pages were a language and my mind now held the Rosetta stone.
“I’d like to see a storm,” she said. Another binding comment. It broke a lengthening silence. The gazebo was suddenly very far away. “Wouldn’t you?”
It was an insensitive thing to say. Hurricane Gilbert had raged through the Caribbean the year before. The Cayman Islands had escaped relatively unscathed but there had been deaths and large-scale destruction elsewhere. Fearful of offending her, of losing her company, I mentioned it with slow, carefully chosen words. She merely shrugged.
“I may have heard something about that, I didn’t get to see it myself.”
“Aren’t there other things, other places you would like to see rather than a storm here?” I asked.
She lifted her feet out of her half-buried flip-flops and flexed toes covered in sand. When she next spoke it drew my gaze back to her face, to her intent blue eyes that were settled on me. “I feel like I have been asleep for a decade,” she said “I want something to wake me, I want more than the wind tickling at my hair, gentle water at my feet. I want to know the energy of it, the passion of it. I want the wildness, I want the adventure. I want to know a wind that has come from somewhere else, somewhere far away. I want it to carry me with it, away from here. A storm is where it starts, a storm is difference, a storm is change. After that who knows where the winds might take me. And with whom.”
I mulled her words. Her intensity, the cold blue fire in her eyes, was utterly incongruous with the serenity of our setting. It stirred something in me. I’d felt the lulling power of the quiet ocean. Life here was slow, as if the tide took away with it any sense of urgency, the rush to get things done and in the taking left a sting, an accreting poison of enervation. I’d been here for a week with the opportunity of a lifetime and done nothing with it.
“A storm like that would be something worth seeing,” I said.
With the benefit of age, I wonder now if her words were an invitation, an opening which that inexperienced, unworldly boy missed. I also wonder what the price would have been, compared to the toll she took for granting me an understanding of mathematics. Of course, it could just be the wishful thinking of an older man. Her gaze stayed on me for a long time, wind tugging at her blonde curls, her feet resting on those scruffy blue flip-flops.
She leaned down to pick up her footwear, dangling them from her fingers. With her other hand, somehow still wet, she leaned on my shoulder and stood up, leaving a sandy impression on my t-shirt.
“It may be that you will see it, London boy. It may be that you will.” She walked away. The wind picked up, rustling the foliage at the edge of the beach. I glanced that way, when I looked back she was gone.
I didn’t go back to the gazebo to study. I stayed on the beach and watched the water splash against the rusting hull of the Gamma. She’d gone down in a storm in 1981, not through loss of control or running aground. Water had seeped into her cargo of rice which swelled and broke the hull. Water that could have been anywhere in the ocean chose to stow away on a ship and wrecked it. Tiny grains of rice, separate. Each one inconsequential but together, fat with brine, they became a growing mass as destructive to that ship as a tornado.
I didn’t see Charlotte again for several days. In the meantime, as we prepared to welcome the 1990s the worst tropical storm to make landfall for fifty years hit the islands. On the day preceding the storm the resolute blue of the sky was overwhelmed by a palette of greys. The whole world was muted, waiting, like an old car where the lights dim as the engine starts to turn; stuck in that moment until the skies unleashed a vortex of violence.
Sand got everywhere. Driven by the wind it crept through every crevice, gaps in the balcony screens, under doorways in mounds and drifts. Unthreatening yet persistent, growing. It was in the air as an inescapable haze, my mouth gritty with the friction of it.
I went out in that storm between squalls of rain. Hurried, slowed, buffeted by the wind I took shelter in my gazebo. Charlotte was watching the ocean, standing on the foreshore, ankles hidden by collapsing waves. Today they weren’t softly speaking her name. They called, restless and uneven. The whisper raised to the hubbub of a crowd of people all talking at once. “Charlotte” repeated over and over and slightly out of time. Overlapping, dropping and rising.
She wore the same blue bikini, the edge of the shabby blue flip-flops briefly visible under the pale edge of her feet when the reluctant water pulled away. Her hair was a blonde banner, streaming behind her one moment, torn laterally the next then sucked out towards the horizon.
Arms outstretched she welcomed the storm to the shore, or perhaps she birthed it, granting it the freedom of the island. Or maybe she was just a girl, drawn to the energy and violence, to nature giving its full expression. As I watched she dropped to her knees, then all fours, her hands sinking below the sand. An orison or a thanksgiving. Across the thirty feet between us, I could count her vertebrae as she leaned forward. Across the thirty years since I can see them still.
The horizon was a smudge between grey sea and grey sky. The storm pulled at the trees, hauled at every mooring, rocked every stance. Lightning cracked, followed after several pulses of the waves by a roll of thunder. She laughed, throwing back her head, gorgon strands of gold writhing, alive. Lightning cracked again, overhead. Behind me a powerline sent a shower of sparks groundward which the wind picked up and flung back to the sky. Thunder shook the whole world around me.
When I looked back to the sea she was gone. There were no footprints, no sign of the blonde streamers of hair or her sand skin. There had been no progression, she did not fade or move into the sea by increments. Her departure was not something that could be interpolated or resolved. She was there, then she was not.
I stayed for an hour or so, watching the ocean, watching the space where she had prayed. Wind scoured and dry-lipped, sand in my hair, in my eyebrows, between my fingers I waited. I neither knew what I was waiting for or why, only that I must.
When the wind dropped a little I turned away from the sea. On the wall, by the steps down from the gazebo to the edge of the beach, was a single sandy handprint. Below it, already half buried, her flip-flops. Nothing as exotic as a selkie’s skin, or as eternal as a Nereid’s promise token, just a place where someone could have casually leaned to discard worn footwear.
I didn’t take the flip-flops. Would she have been tied to me if I did?
There was a price. There is always a price. Uncertainty and regret. What did she mean and what did she offer? What was it that I turned away from? There is also a certainty. Across our one encounter and my observation of her communion with the storm, she had reserved for herself, for all time, part of my capacity to love. A constant in the equation, a setting of a level that left something for others but not the entirety, not the everything. The sixteen-year-old with his limited understanding of love, who could not comprehend his own mortality or the inexorable passage of time, could not reckon the cost. Today, as I write I know it was and is a sacrilege. All else about me has grown, evolved, aged and decayed. This has remained. O thou who changest not, abide with me.
And for that price I gained a boon that my floundering mind had sought in a lonely gazebo. Calculus evolved from being a struggle to something that made sense. My mind shifted to accommodate the fundamental language that makes sense of nature on the evidence of a collapsing wavelet and a woman’s name.
For a while I became something of a mathematics prodigy. I excelled at school and in my early years at university. I won prizes and honours until, in my final critical year, calculus dropped out of my comprehension. I went from being able to solve differential equations in my head to being utterly bemused by Harrodian functions and dynamic optimisation. It was as though a switch had been flicked, the Rosetta stone cracked and irreparable, its pieces scoured by the ocean, shorn of meaning. The understanding that had blossomed watching waves dissolve into foam by a pair of sandy feet was washed away with the tide.
I have cherished the sand dollar. It is carefully wrapped in tissue and safely tucked into an old cigarette tin. The wreck of the Gamma is still gently decaying by the southern edge of Seven Mile Beach and I don’t doubt that the poinsettias still bloom. The gazebo was concrete and sturdy but the rowing boat will be dust now.
I’ve not returned to the Caribbean.
The sea gave and retrieved. Charlotte’s loan of understanding could have been a taster, a teaser for a path to greater knowledge and unparalleled pleasures. I am haunted by “what if” and I have struggled with the permanent price she exacted, that ghost of regret that sometimes brings a waft of the ocean to sleepless London nights.
Perhaps the offer still stands with flip-flops buried under decades of sand. I won’t go back. I am not the hero who could bear the cost of more.