The Beach of Pink Shells
Lisette glanced at Everton lighthouse, a proud penis in the morning sun, erect on its headland above the small coastal town. Since the turn of 19th century it had flashed stroboscopic beacons out to sea. This local landmark, always circled by seagulls, soon disappeared to view as she made her way to the shore.
Two figures appeared as dots on the broad sweep of coastline, below some keen-eyed sea eagles. Both had emerged from a larger weave, teased out by time and chance; their separate threads already tangled.
Stephen was passionate about three things: girls, science and writing a new sci-fi script. But today belonged entirely to the latter; or so he thought. That morning, he decided to take a break, and jumped into his car. As a mental holiday from his maths ‘squiggles’, he was thinking about an entirely new script, with a beach setting.
He left his smart-phone at home, as pen and notepad would do. His visual memory was so sharp, he could recall his best ideas from the simplest of prompts. He had always grasped connections rapidly, leaving details to flesh out later.
It was an easy walk, and he stopped on the trail half way down, listening to a soft croaking sound, caused by the branches of dwarf saltbushes, some bending almost backwards in the wind.
Scene one, Stephen thought, imagining the bushes now much larger, a tangle of gnarled and twisted branches. They lurched towards him, and their harsh, wind-creaking voices were a warning: “Be careful,” they croaked and whispered, “you are entering a place out of time, beyond possibility”.
His method was to change things utterly, into a fantasy scenario.
Of course, in the actual script, the eerie bushes would say this to his protagonist, who was still unnamed. A hero, he thought; or heroine? Stephen pictured a beautiful, intelligent woman. She was athletic and confident, and somewhat otherworldly. He had never had a female hero before, and the idea excited him.
More ideas fizzed in his head. Perhaps this zone was the entrance to a giant wormhole in space-time, leading into a very strange world. Now entered by his female hero, who he pictured as having mauve, laser-like eyes. Was she some sort of cyborg?
Stephen put the idea aside, as he trudged into deeper sand.
Although film scripts were just a hobby, he had finished three, all bizarre science fiction and fantasy. Writing was immensely enjoyable, but so far Stephen had resisted the next step, of sending formal submissions to agents or producers. That might come one day, but he was content to leave his creative efforts in the shadow of a solid academic career. For now, they just loosened up his mind, and got his creative wheels spinning.
At the water’s edge, he noticed fragments of jellyfish strewn everywhere. Their cold translucence caught the morning light. Nice touch, he thought, and in his notebook wrote: ‘bushes, strange place, she, jellyfish.’
Now scene two, where my heroine notices a huge jellyfish, lying there on the beach. Its reflections really dance, emitting shafts of blinding light, as more strange creatures begin to emerge from the sea.
One of them starts quivering, and moves towards her, pulsating strangely, sliding on its coils. A high electronic buzz on the soundtrack becomes a sort of telepathic shriek. The creature starts to light up; its tentacles flicker with internal pulses of light, its bright cilia rippling down its sides, as if desperate to contact her.
Suddenly, L. (the rest of her name will come later) sees this amazing giant wobbler stop directly in front of her, as if pleading. It begins to dissolve in the sun, liquefying like melting ice. Unaccountably, L. feels a huge sadness. A close-up of her mauve eyes, which well with tears.
Then haunting music floats across the waves: a choir of voices mourning not only for these marvelous creatures, but for the entire planet. My girl feels no fear, only a strange pity floods her being. More tears pit the sand, falling in slow motion, and gigantic in close-up.
Yes, he thought, now the creature towers above her, glistening and transparent. L. feels it’s totally benign, and she can see the living circuitry of its brain, a marvelous tangle of colored filaments, coruscating with thought and feeling. The giant squid has a sad and grave presence: beyond time and wisdom.
Excited by his script, Stephen reached the edge of a collapsed cliff. He took off his trainers, dangled them on laces around his neck, rolled up his trousers and began to wade past rocks. The coolness was thrilling, and woke his senses. More water slapped up on his legs. There were smaller rocks below, so he moved cautiously, feeling with his toes.
It was a walk Lisette had done many times. The wind tugged raggedly, and she pushed her sketch pad deeper into a carry bag. Descending between wattle and other early spring blossom, the air was faintly honeyed.
Lisette had always done well; and looked forward to a promising career in microbiology. Staying in Everton made everything easier, particularly before exams. This unrushed, relaxing place allowed walking and sketching, in between bouts of really knuckling down.
The wind rose when she reached the sand, her feet pushing hard against it. Gravity and forward motion, she thought, imagining the anatomy of her legs, their neat biomechanics. Progress became easier at the damp margin, where waves edged backwards. And she strolled with greater focus, looking for something interesting.
A collapsed headland blocked her view, sloping down to the water, where waves were flung against clouds. At her feet, and catching the light, were fragments of storm-smashed jelly fish. She wondered if they had been stranded here, after spawning at dusk.
She examined a glutinous fragment, but it slipped and dropped, having suddenly turned liquid. Birdcalls sounded along beach margins, and she gathered more jelly. The quivering semi-transparency was cold against her hand, melting in her palm. On a cusp of matter, she wondered: liquid or solid, perhaps both.
Waves were glassily pale, deepening to green before each rushed back into the next, then next. Foam mats attenuated into nothing, as she skirted their reach. She was thinking how this was the Earth’s timeless metronome, the sea had measured eons.
Her favorite place was still ahead, beyond a promontory pocked by pools.
Eventually, Stephen was back on dry sand. He stood for a moment, and thought. Ok, the giant squid creatures are stranded on the beach, and already dying. A highly intelligent race, that’s it; they have remained unknown to human kind for millennia, hidden in the ocean depths.
Come closer, the squid leader says to L., telepathically of course. Because it needs to tell my clever girl a secret. She hesitates, but accepts the mental link – conveyed cinematically, I think, by a montage of images – but what the creature’s secret is, she does not fully understand. At least, not yet. As the plot unfolds, it will eventually become clear, and central to the climax.
But the script needed something. What? He looked around for inspiration, into the distance, and along the beach. Perhaps a villain, to provide action, conflict and excitement. Such requirements were formulaic, but seemed apt enough in this case. He glanced at some driftwood: warped and twisted into interesting shapes, it gave Stephen an idea.
As L. (almost had her name) wipes away her tears, the camera picks up some odd figures advancing towards her. Hurry, go! the giant squid creature warns. More figures arrive from the beach margins. L. sees that they are hideously wizened: an army of stick-like beings, shuffling and hopping towards her. They roll large, blackened cooking vessels ahead of them, and carry more pots high on their shoulders.
But the beautiful star of Stephen’s film fantasy is able to outrun them easily. He stops on the beach and pictures her lithe body. In his film, she is now running in slow motion, the wind in her hair. She dissolves into a sort of suggestive camera blur, fast away.
The menacing stick figures, meanwhile, hop and gather around the giant jelly, surrounding others stranded on the shore. At a signal from their leader, they begin furiously hacking and stacking, hooting wildly and tossing slices of jelly into their pots.
Stephen drew a few diagrams in his notebook, working further to improve the scene, but more would come later.
Lizette clambered the safe way through, wading where seaweed swirled, along some deeper channels. It was fascinating. Clams housed creamy bodies in half-open cavities, each with white-fringed mantles. Lisette was careful not to slip or crush them.
The water swirled with ripples and spirals, and this somehow reminded her of the night sky. Above Everton, the stars shone clearly. Sea snails glided on thin films beneath their fleshy, wave-like feet. Such intricate patterns, everywhere – she allowed her thoughts to drift – like the secret lives of these creatures.
Always, in every direction, the laws of nature were a continuum, from the stars to a pool full of mollusks. But she, just a sand grain herself – where did she reside on this scale? No, she thought – though tiny compared to the Milky Way, she too was a galaxy of atoms. The human scale, she wondered, was poised mid-way between star clusters and infinitely small packets of sub-atomic oomph.
She walked past a fissured cliff, where rocks had tumbled down. Gravity, she knew, was called one of nature’s ‘weak’ forces. Weak, she thought, but fundamental. Then tried to imagine the ‘strong’ force, one greater than gravity by an order of 10 to the power 39, which held the insides of atoms together – and of which she, the rock, the stars, the mollusks, were all composed.
She kicked a pebble, and sent it flicking down the sand. It stopped there, but gravity had an infinite range across the universe, as it bent the fabric of space-time. She threw another pebble, which buried itself in the sand.
Her best sketching spot was ahead. Last time she was here, she found tiny seahorses in a nearby rock pool; all darting around, tilting back on their tails. She had drawn them to scale, anatomically accurate, while making allowances for the pool’s distorting surface.
This was her favorite part of the coast, and always littered with interesting shells. She lifted one with her toe: so pinkly iridescent, its underside a pearly nacre. They looked brighter than usual, perhaps because the day was sunny.
She dropped her bag at a convenient rock, and anchored her sketchbook pages with pebbles, and wondered about today’s subject.
She considered seed pods on wind-teased bushes, before a piece of driftwood caught her eye. Lisette’s sketches were always of natural objects; scrupulously observed. To her, nature was marvelous, and her sense of wonder resided in things as she found them.
She looked around, then further out to sea, at the wild blue water. Skeins of distant rain drifted across the ocean, in a sudden sun-shower. Then a magnificent rainbow wavered for a moment, uniting sea and shore.
Lizette smiled, remembering something from her childhood. In primary school, she had innocently asked her teacher, Why are rainbows a bow? But he didn’t know, seemed flustered, then held up his arms and shrugged. She had asked other teachers too, puzzling for weeks.
The colored bands ticked off wavelengths of light, as they were bent and reflected from a million falling raindrops. These tiny prisms shot out luminous beams, but only those angled to form an arch entered her eyes, and were visible. It was thrilling, to finally know this.
Lisette’s love of science advanced rapidly, and she eventually settled on biology. Lately, she had studied fish peering into infrared limits, dolphin with high-frequency echolocation, stingrays nosing up sand-buried prey.
Some creatures sensed parts of the larger spectrum, which then led her to hard physics; to the work of James Clerk Maxwell, the Scottish physicist who refined the theory of electromagnetism, paving the way, with his sublime equations, for the modern digital world.
Once her curiosity was aroused, she wanted to know everything. She grasped concepts easily, but the maths seemed always beyond her. “Oh well, we’re not all Einsteins,” she thought, picking up a white-banded shell.
Recent ideas from the world of quantum physics might allow multiple dimensions, parallel worlds, even time travel… the entire universe modeled as a giant hologram projected into three dimensions by some sort of cosmic computer.
She avoided stepping on a small crab, and wondered. But what of fidelity to the facts, and evidence? A speculative thought bubble, in her view, no matter how magical, could not compare to the tangible wonder of things.
Lying damply on the sand was something curious, and she looked more closely. Using a stick, she picked up a pair of bright pink knickers. They appeared new, in perfect condition. Thrown overboard, after some wild party? She read the label. Pure cotton, and her size. Lisette splayed them on a rock to dry, and continued searching.
A periwinkle shell caught her eye. Then she noticed its saw-tooth pattern, unfolding evenly around spirals. Such subtle tonality might challenge her skills. Finally, she had her subject.
Did galaxies, she wondered, also uncoil according to the ratios of the Fibonacci sequence, just like this lacquered shell? She would look it up later. Meanwhile, the shell looked even better when placed on a white page, and she selected a pencil to start: first, with its precise, curving outline; then subtle, creamy shading.
Stephen looked up from his notes. The horizon was different. Drifts of distant rain, far out to sea, had produced a rainbow, arching dramatically from the waves. It brought him back to reality for a moment, and made him think of the nature of light, and of electro-magnetism.
He put aside his budding script to admire its translucent bands of color. Then, by a process of association, recalled J. C. Maxwell’s pioneering equations. Purely from memory, he jotted the whole set down on his notepad, thinking to combine them later with some more modern variants, at his blackboard back in Everton.
Oh no – he’d forgotten for a moment, that irritating blackboard, which sat in the middle of his parent’s beach house. He pictured it now, covered with messy symbols, mostly rubbed out and started again. His professors had urged him to submit something to the Mathematical Journal. Very flattering, but the pressure he felt robbed the task of spontaneity, and he needed some air and freedom.
Stephen sat down on a rock, rubbed sand from his toes and replaced his trainers. What next? he wondered. And felt slightly delirious. He stopped to take his bearings, and mentally slow down. It was hard to think of maths and film script, both at once, and he needed to focus.
Yes, the stick creatures (my villains) have been waiting unseen for eons. Waiting, that is, for the giant jellies to emerge from the waves. They have long read the signs. But waiting where, and what signs? (Signs on the wind, in the stars?)
Anyway, the giant squid creatures have just been rendered down into a mysterious, life-giving liqueur which, when consumed, will make the hideous stick gang young and beautiful again, and immensely powerful. Or something. He would think it all through later. But, their dramatic transformation – after imbibing the jelly brew – would make a truly awesome and eye-catching scene.
Stephen eventually reached his destination: a small stretch of beach, strewn with pink shells. Oddly enough, only a few days earlier, he had surprised a pair of lovers here, lying naked in the middle of the beach. Pretending he hadn’t seen the young couple, he had turned around, and quickly walked away.
He thought briefly of mermaids and mermen, perhaps sitting on the rocks around him, but only visible when reflected in the waves. In an intermediary scene, his heroine might swim with them, perhaps.
He skirted some shallow rock pools, walking slowly. Perhaps some sort of mating had to take place, a sort of key in tumbler effect, before fate allowed his heroine to act in the fullness of her power, then lead an extraordinary exodus from Earth.
Stephen looked at bubbles on the sand, and enlarged them imaginatively in his mind, until each became big enough to house a human being. Those huge iridescent spheres would look great on camera. He pictured hundreds of giant bubbles floating upwards, carrying the human race from its doomed planet, and somehow to safety. Another stunning scene.
But what of the finale? It really had to be good, after all this!
Yes, he thought. By moonlight, a phosphorescent, shimmering light would mysteriously illuminate the sea, tracing a path way out, to the horizon. The remnants of humanity, who had survived the transformed stick beings, would now assemble at this point.
What that old jellyfish ‘entity’ had whispered to his lovely heroine would finally become clear. The end would be replete with special effects, as giant bubbles rose one by one and his heroine, and Earth’s survivors, were finally saved. Of course, there was still much to complete. But Stephen now had a script, in embryo.
There was someone there. A girl about his own age was sheltered from the wind, with her head down. This beach was a lonely place, and required much rock hopping to reach. The stranger appeared to be sketching; so engrossed, she did not see him at first. Stephen coughed a couple of times, because he didn’t want to startle her. When she looked up, he tried his friendliest smile.
There was nothing threatening about him, obviously. Lisette calculated he was about her own age, wearing sodden trainers, with a waterproof jacket thrown over one shoulder. Under it, he wore an amusing T-shirt, with the picture of chimpanzee having a thought bubble, and in the thought bubble a chimpanzee having a thought bubble, and so on. He just looked interesting, and friendly.
The young man coughed, smiled again, then tore a page from his notebook, waving it absurdly like a truce flag; a charming gesture she thought; but the wind blew up and sent the paper skidding.
Lisette jumped from her rock, and Stephen was impressed to see her move so quickly, and wondered if she worked out, or did athletics. She easily caught the runaway slip of paper. Got it!, she said, strolling over to him, with it held securely in her hand.
Lisette was amazed. What! It seemed impossible.
Very excited, and without restraint, she said: “My name is Lisette Carter. Hello! I study microbiology at uni. A touch of physics and maths. The latter very pre post-grad…” Then, breathlessly, “Maxwell’s equations are here! Oh, along with some private notes, which I didn’t read.”
It was certainly fluky; Stephen was amazed that she had recognized those rare symbols. The real deal, really? he wondered.
And was equally forthcoming. “Hi, my name is Stephen. I study physics, but maths is my first love. Oh, I also write film scripts for a hobby, hence my notebook.” Then explained further: “Back on the beach a little, I saw a rainbow, and thought of…”
“Maxwell’s equations,” she finished the sentence for him. “And being a maths man, you wrote them down…”
“Nice to meet you on my beach,” said Lisette. Well, I say ‘my’, because I like to sketch here. Actually, as you might know, its real name is Field’s Bluff, and pretty hard to reach.”
Lisette handed him back the paper. “I call this place ‘The Beach of Pink Shells’,” she said.
They both glanced at them, littered everywhere, then Lisette pointed at her sheltered rock. “I sketch here,” she said. “That’s what I was doing.”
He nodded, and they talked a little. All inhibition and shyness had somehow dissolved. It happened so fast. “Let’s go to my pad,” she joked, looking over to her shelter.
By the time they had strolled across, Stephen had already volunteered to give her free tutorage in maths – if she helped him too with a few things that had always interested and puzzled him, such as communication between ants, to start with.
“I’m maths junkie, but interested in everything,” he volunteered. Then exploded with boyish enthusiasm. “Hey!” he said. “The way you grabbed that scrap of paper, so quick off your toes. Very impressive.”
“I love to run,” she said, “and also work out a little.”
Stephen was impressed with this girl, who might just have well have dropped from the sky. He would have to catch himself too.
Looking closer at him, Lisette sensed she was much more mature than Stephen in some important way, though he was clearly flashily brilliant. What was it about this nice boy – a tad erratic, flippy? Still, the attraction was instant, and clearly mutual.
Soon they were discussing his latest projects; and her work too. Both were at ease, having a wonderful time; not the least bit self-conscious. Lisette noticed how he kept edging closer to her. Mr Crab, he’s really nerdy, but nice! But who am I to speak? I’m an uber-nerd myself.
Stephen paused. “So what’s next for you then, at uni?”
“I want to specialize in microbiology,” she said. “Well, I think so. But it’s hard for me to focus sometimes. I’m interested in too many things.” She hesitated… “Even in physics, though my maths is still not strong enough; not yet.”
“Your etchings? Can I see them?” Stephen joked.
She looked him directly into his eyes. His pupils immediately dilated, as did hers. They were going to sleep together, she knew. It was only a matter of time. It was obviously in the pattern, the DNA of this interesting place.
He sat close to her, agreeably close, as she showed him her most recent sketches.“I’m a bit literal,” she said, not without pride, as he studied the incredibly rendered seahorses, then half-completed drawing of a small spiral shell.
“You have to be,” he said, admiring her work. “They are so well observed, so well grounded. You’re quite a natural philosopher. Whereas I…” He hesitated. “I feel a bit like a helium balloon sometimes.” Then Stephen described his new movie script, and scenes so far.
Lisette felt privileged to share his odd imagination, which she thought filmic, but also like cartoons or electronic games. Finally, she asked about his ‘real’ work, what he called his ‘squiggles’.
Without trying to make it any easier for her, he rushed out: “Zero being unstable, you see. That’s what I’m looking at now. There’s no such thing as nothing, so there has to be a something; which leads, by logical extension, to everything. The slight asymmetry of zero, I mean, at the moment of the Big Bang…”
He then mentioned “The other big question, of dark matter. It’s 75 percent of the universe,” he continued, “but we still don’t know what it is.”
It was exhilarating, but highly speculative. But he was already off again.
“So, just before the Big Bang, and the universe comes into being… you have zero time, zero space, but maximum potential energy, which had to be expressed, and bursts forth, at an accelerating rate, in the form of the expansion of space-time itself. Dark energy being the very elasticity of space time, I think; or perhaps. The galaxies flung out ever further.”
She slowed him down, and he tried to explain: “Simple arithmetic might help. After all, what is 1 or any number divided by zero. It’s infinity, right. That’s where we are heading.”
Lisette grabbed his arm a moment. “But I thought you maths buffs were wary of infinity, because it knocked your equations right off the blackboard?”
“Naw, old hat,” he said. “It’s a buzz to embrace it, and just see where it goes…”
Lisette tried her own summary, though it didn’t sound right: “So, you’re saying… that after the Big Bang starts banging, then literally everything must be expressed, in order to maintain that original paradox of nothing implying everything, that essential binary? Is that it? But how can zero have asymmetry?”
He pondered a moment. “Well, it’s because the expression of zero, through the Big Bang, was asymmetrical to begin with, as in particle an anti-particle trying to annihilate each other, in order to return to absolute symmetry. Perhaps that’s why there’s any matter in the universe at all, due to particles skidding against the Higgs field. But any glimpse into that primal Big Bang state comes solely through the maths.”
Stephen threw up his arms. “Oh, this is difficult. I know. I’m sorry. I’m just scratching the surface, really. That’s why I write sci-fi scripts, to relax. He picked up the periwinkle shell, turned it in his hand, and asked, “Do you like movies, Lisette?”
“Yes,” she said. “All part of an active social life – parties, friends, exploring, going out, camping. Last month, friends and I drove down the Birdsville Track – we re-christened it The Nerdsville Track! But I don’t have a boyfriend, just at the moment.” And because a meeting of minds might not exclude bodies, and just for emphasis, threw in, “Unfortunately.”
“Nor I,” said Stephen, “I mean girlfriend.”
“Um,” she said, smiling, “How did you get here? I mean, not in the absolute sense, but today?”
“I walked,” he said. “It’s a long way, including some sections of wading.”
“Want a lift back?” she said. “In my car? Then we can meet in Everton, where I’m renting a beach shack.”
“My parents have a holiday place down here,” said Stephen. But I’m by myself now.” She reached for his hand, just as he noticed what looked like a pair of pink knickers drying on a rock, but didn’t say anything.
A week later, they returned: to celebrate their first meeting, amidst even more pink shells, lately ferried in by the tide. They brought some protection and a very soft towel. And Stephen told her about the couple he had surprised, and how they probably left bits of clothing behind. “That explains it,” she said, then tossed her own pair beside the towel.
Lisette and Stephen met regularly at the beach of pink shells, and it became a secret ritual. They would go there to make love on the sand. Until one day a young man looking impossibly like Stephen, almost a twin, blithely tramped around the bend, appearing suddenly before them, pretending not to notice, but poking at some seaweed with a stick; then hurried back the way he’d come.
Lisette and Stephen were gob-sacked, surprised, and just a bit embarrassed too, so they hurried off before the young man returned, as they suspected he might. But in their careless rush away, Lisette left something behind on the beach.
That evening, the coast was entirely deserted. Moonlight lit a long path to the horizon. If Stephen had been there, he might have imagined strange lights moving beneath the waves, or heard a chorus of faint, haunting voices. But the beach, of course, was deserted, and any lights probably patches of bioluminescence. Only the wind was audible, sifting through salt bushes, sighing under the cliffs.
Stephen had not been the first to wander here. The universe is nothing if not infinitely accommodating. And, eventually, in some almost identical tiny corner of it, the beach of pink shells was covered by variously new and disintegrating garments, each the warmest shade of the visible spectrum.