The Untamed, Blasted, Scent of the Sea

Scents cradle memories within them.

A dab of fragrance and the tide comes washing back.

We lived within reach of the ocean as children. Always walkable. I have fond memories of the sea and it’s those scents I’m thinking of; the smell of distant seaweed, the salt-spray aroma of the rushing wind. The crush sound of waves on jagged rocks. Writers and poets are inspired by the sea’s powerful beauty. I’m thinking of my father. My father, the fisherman who wasn’t a fisherman. I’m thinking of my first real taste of the ocean.

Just a touch against skin and a swell breaks against the shore.

My father was a builder. He built many things. Furniture. Houses. It’s interesting to think even though he has been dead some years, there are buildings dotted around the town that he helped construct. I learned many things from him: how to miter corners on a cabinet, how to use a wood lathe to chisel the leg of a chair—how to assemble (and disassemble) a bicycle. (For a few years he also ran a bicycle business, so the warm earthy scent of tire rubber is another fond childhood memory). Fishing was not one thing he taught me. Although he tried.

One autumn day we drove to the local wharf where fishing, crayfish and other boats hung suspended like spiders, buoyed over a dark web of still water. Down a winding pier a spot reserved for amateur anglers. Winter was near and we were wrapped up warm in tartan scarfs and pea-coats.

“Patience,” my father told us was the greatest virtue for a successful catch. My brother and I were 5 and 7 respectively, so not exactly overflowing with patience. After a half hour of staring at a stationary piece of nylon string on a rod, even that was running thin.

My brother cried out suddenly with excitement. A bite. The fishing rod going crazy in all directions. Big. A tuna? A shark? That would be cool. “A log,” my dad suddenly dispelled our premature rush of enthusiasm.

We children did not spend all this time staring at the sea to be satisfied by a simple piece of flotsam.

The problem was the log was really attached to the hook. My dad put on his glasses. “I will need to cut if free,” he explained. We didn’t care by this stage and just wanted to go home. He took out a small pocket knife from his bag and leaned over the pier to reach the line. As he looked down his glasses slid off his head, plonked into the blue-green surface below, and quickly sunk into the mysterious subterranean depths.

Our father looked down in dismay. Now he too had enough. He cut the line and we quickly (and silently) packed up and drove home.

This, probably my earliest memory of the sea.

An eau-de-parfum of primal freshness standing tall atop cliffs. Infinity unfolds above, beyond.

Some years later; my parents are gone, and I return to the seaside town to visit my brother. We go out to the wharf. Sadly, it’s closed off; boarded up and derelict. Wandering around, unsure what to talk about. We are very different, my brother and I, yet there are many things we share.

Penhaligon’s Blasted Heath has a special association for me. Nearby, ocean explodes against rocks.

“Do you think there’s a fish down there wearing glasses?” I ask, and together, we laugh.

“What’s that scent?” he asks. “Is it aftershave?”

“It is my memory of the sea,” I tell him.


Shane Filer