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Wreckage

Illustration by Joanna Szachowska-Tarkowska

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After years of floundering in my marriage, I met someone and found myself newly and deeply in love. On the same cold November afternoon of 2002 that I decided to tell my husband, the TV news carried a report about the Prestige oil tanker disaster. The tanker had sprung a leak 50 miles off the coast of Galicia, in north-west Spain, not far from where we lived on the Bay of Biscay, and had drifted shoreward. When the captain appealed for help, the government ordered the tanker to be towed back out to sea, where it soon broke up and sank, spilling several thousand tonnes of the oil and carrying the rest to the bottom. For months or years, it was predicted, a slow drizzle of oil would rise from the wreckage. The ship's captain, head down, was taken away in handcuffs.

Weary volunteers on windy beaches went dutifully about the clean-up, while television crews filmed the oil-darkened rocks of the coast and the dead fish washed up on the beaches and the seabirds floundering in the waters there. It had taken so little time for nature to register the event; mere hours into the story, and it was an altered world, with deaths and suffering to mark the change. "Disgusting," my husband said, turning to me when the report was over.

"Well, these things happen," I tried to say, but the words fell flat in our large, chilly living room. Then I told my news.

In the wake of the oil spill, I wasn't supposed to be worrying about love, either lost or found, or the effect of my turbulent emotions on my two young sons, but about something vastly more important: the plight of the earth. Everyone else seemed to be. With the nightly news still full of damaged beaches, and with reporters decrying the selfish and misguided policies and priorities that had led to the disaster, with experts arguing about how long it would take the oil at the bottom to ooze free and rise to the surface, with blame laid here and there, I tried to work up some outrage at the oil-stained coast, but I couldn't.

One day on a walk along the small beach near our home I found a seabird struggling with oil-laden wings. I set it straight but over it fell. Kneeling in the sand, I tried again, separating the wings from the body. The bird struggled feebly, then listed once more and lay still, turning a lifeless eye on me. I was astonished at the sudden quiet of its departure. I felt admiration at how this bird had carried on before it was carried off, and also sadness for its struggle to continue to live.

Another day I found five starfish washed up by the tide, either dying or dead, unable, I surmised, to hold on to rocks in the oily ocean. What a pity, I thought, knowing sadness was a piece of the puzzle, a swath of subdued colour across the picture, fitting and necessary. I was in love, and there wasn't anything, not oil slicks washing closer nor grounded fishing fleets nor birds with oil-clumped wings struggling across our beaches, that was not but a part of the whole astounding, messy heartbreak of life, and I didn't care who was to blame for the oil spill - the government, shipping company, port authorities, fuel-guzzling consumers, or simply nature. The best I could manage was to wish only that this disaster had somehow miraculously been avoided, or to long for an earlier and better time when this sort of thing used not to happen.

"What time was that?" my husband asked, pointing out we've always been the victims of greed and remorselessness, and that the earth was going to hell.

"We're going to hell," I retorted, "but the earth is fine."

And I believe it. I'm convinced the earth can hardly feel the scratching we do across its back, and to talk about what's good or bad for the earth is pure presumption. The earth is beyond our grasp, a thing-in-itself that cannot be known, and what we see and claim to care for is of our invention, delineated by our desires. Dismay at the loss of a single bird, or a million, or many species, or just one, merely reveals our own preferences. I can imagine the earth bereft of much that we value without feeling it is diminished. I imagine the earth ready to shake the parasites from her back, and even imagine something interesting coming from it, some future being that will consider our passing as prefiguring its rise, just as we can think of those periods of species loss that preceded our existence. We lament the loss of what is destined to be lost anyway, washed away by time. Not even the thought of my children's children can bring me to say the continuation of the human species is important, only that it is in our nature to want it.

Meanwhile, as fall passed and spring came, the occasional oil-coated dead bird on the beach no longer shocked. "How quickly one gets used to it all," I said.

But my husband was not getting used to the filth and waste. One early spring day the boys ventured far out on to the rocks to see the tide pools with sea anemones, snails and scuttling crabs - all new and delightful to them and to me. My husband, raised by the ocean, found nothing remarkable about the abundance of these small and curious creatures, though he found the oil on the beach more distressing than we did. "I hate this," he said, glowering at the sullied beaches while the boys and I bent over the pools and poked our fingers into the sticky tentacles of the sea anemones.

Perhaps he had forgotten that the previous summer we complained, too, unhappy with the refuse of paper and bottles left every afternoon by bathers, and with the waterline, marked by plastic tampon applicators and waterlogged pantiliners and broken glass brought in by the tide as much as by seaweed and shells. My sons found the polished bits of glass as beautiful as shells and were unconcerned that one was natural and the other man-made.

Like the boys, I hardly differentiated between natural and artificial. Love had loosened a lot of connections, and the world was chaotic again, elemental, and very beautiful. For me now, ever more deeply in love, the world shone, as it did for my children when they were babies. Before they united colour and shape and size and knew an object, each quality on its own was a source of wonder. In my elemental world there was no right or wrong, just corners, swells, flat stretches and points, things soft and hard, colours glistening or glowing. That’s how it was in the presence of my lover, anyway. I knew his body best by touch, and I clutched him to me, learning him in the dark. Puckered edges of scars, bulges at the waist, moles and warts – these marks of age and accident were new and unquestionable, the way the oil patches on that year’s beaches were unobjectionable to my boys, who had no memory of last year’s beaches or any other.

When I was not with him, I was somnolent. And in this state I tended to my family, worried about my children, and thought of my future, feeling as I did so that this family life I knew so well was real, but vaguely aware that it was not. I knew that I would awake and fall into my lover as on the brink of a hill you can start downward, pick up speed, going faster and faster until there is no stopping, until the earth lifts up and catches you in a tight embrace that scrapes skin from knees and gashes cheeks and hands. So I calmly went about my life, waiting to fall into the touch of this man.

Perhaps I was nonchalant about future generations because there would be no children to bless this new union. I found it harder than before to maintain the illusion of perpetuity. I thought perhaps I didn't need it. Death didn't frighten me. I walked on the beach, avoiding in the fading light the globs of oil that spotted the sand, and as the sea receded I saw they were advancing, taking up position, looking for strongholds, clutching at rocks, becoming part of my beach as much as the cigarette butts, old lines and sinkers, marbles worn to nothing, misshapen pieces of tile and hunks of Styrofoam beaten into strange new forms. This refuse was dear to the boys and one day I would recall for them this time of innocence, before they questioned nature and what was right and proper but just took it in, the whole wondrous possibility of it.

He called me up the other day, this former love. For several years we grappled with our love and our responsibilities, and found we could not pull them together. For a year after our break-up we talked daily and saw each other weekly. Little by little, I don’t know how it happened, the calls that had been nightly were not quite so regular, the lunches over which we expressed continuing admiration and longing were not so frequent. His face, once a constant, receded, occasionally bobbing back into full centre, like flotsam on the tide, not sinking but not ever quite close enough for salvaging,

before again he would be swept away. This is my world: momentous changes that are worn down into something as familiar and formless as garbage on the tide, hardly recognisable. The boys are not yet old enough to be left alone, but they spend some nights away from me with their father now that we are divorced, and one free evening after this most recent call I put on a sweater and walked down to the beach.

I walked along the narrow access road, too close to the edge, and felt the familiar vertigo from the drop-off. Down below was the surging ocean, which, steady as a pulse, I heard more clearly than saw. As I crossed the sand, fog washed in. I thought then of our union on this beach, several years back: in the dark, my body struggling against his; in the morning, emerging from the tent into the first light and seeing the dew on the rocks, the grass sprouting at the side of boulders on the hill, glistening with beads of moisture, the sand pocked with traces of bubbles, the very breathing of the earth.

The night air was chilly and I turned away after a few minutes alone on the sand and started home, noting the crude oil that had globbed on to rocks in past years and stuck to our swimsuits was worn away. The dark patches on the beach were seaweed, not oil. Things were apparently nearly back to normal, I was glad to see: mere existence no longer seemed to me such a beautiful thing, and possibilities beyond my ken no longer stirred me, and if memory didn't promise I'd lived it, I wouldn't believe any more than I believe in a dream how through the night we rocked against each other, and the earth kept time, that colossal body, rolling and twirling with unimaginable exertions, heaving, polluted, clogged, ever dear, ever dearer, a love forever.

This article appears in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special