***This is my “unwinning” entry to the 2020 AA Gill writing competition, set up by Flora Gill, for imperfect but dedicated writers who always need a place to go***
At the end and frayed edges of the English Channel there is a granite rock called Guernsey. Priaulx Library records reveal a dark past; spine curdling accounts of burning witches, prosperity from privateering, smuggling and harbouring eccentric exiles, mystical toilers of the sea. Great and terrible things happen on small islands. Invaded and occupied in the summer of 1940 to 1945 by Hitler, most children were evacuated and thousands of islanders remained, who foraged to survive and made ‘potato peel pie’ to combat hunger and starvation. When the tomato farming industry soured to a stale gazpacho halt, the finance industry blossomed and bloomed. The vineries were abandoned, humiliated and heartbroken; now they decay like Mrs Haversham’s wedding breakfast. Discreet offices with black tinted windows are everywhere if you know where to look.
Bean Jar is the official delicacy, all you need is a slow cooker and a ham hock, butter beans, haricot beans, an onion, carrots and a handful of herbs. After midnight, chips cheese and gravy is the unofficial national dish if you have had a pint or ten in the Thomas De La Rue, St Peter Port.
Guernesaise, the local language, haunts the cobbled streets of ‘Town.’ The seafront promenade is lined with eclectic, vibrant restaurants. There is even a restaurant at the bottom of a car park where you can meet the dish of the day if you don’t want to read the menu. But if the universe were to end suddenly, with a “gnab gib”, and the weather was pleasant enough, we would go to have lunch at the Fermain Beach Café.
The island is an untold treasure trove of honest and easy, laid back gastronomy. Sarnia Cherie, gem of the sea, dear Guernsey, sparkles in the sunshine and shimmers, with whimsical alacrity, in the wind. Simplicity is pervasive. Island life is set at a lower pace – a safe contagion for travelers and tourists who stay.
There are twenty seven unique beaches on the island. There are marble landings and cobbled jetties, pristine white sand dunes and crystal clear horseshoe bays. Lobster and crab pots are bobbing about everywhere, so are fishing tugs tied up, softly fretting in the high tides to break loose. Hitler’s desperate, and dissolute, heavily fortified bunkers stand guard.
The Fermain Beach Café operates out of an old ammunition store, hidden at the bottom of a winding, hairpin bend hill. A whooshing wall of pebbles separates the land from the ocean. The bay is a sheltered cove, hidden away and less than a five minute R.I.B ride from town. In earlier times a ferry would take you from ‘Town’ to the bay. A smooth and sandy loophole tower remains beside the wooden picnic tables, now fully restored, its cursed rubies and smuggled gold have been long since lost or stolen. From the water, it looks like a creature conjured out of a Miéville bouillabaisse gouged out a bite of the sea wall during the winter storms. All of the monsters that once inhabited the island are gone but who dares to repair the storm damaged wall in case the kraken awakes?
Late on a summer afternoon last year we ventured out of the house without forgetting to take our firstborn with us. Elvis, who was very new to the world, had not yet experienced the divine delights of Bel and Manuela’s beautiful beach cafe. We were haphazard, late, sleep deprived. A long queue had formed, the kitchen had closed to catch up with orders, this information was delicately balanced with the availability of a table and our sleep deprivation, so we decided to stay. There was nowhere else to go. Bereft, with nothing to do but to look out to the ocean, gazing somewhere beyond the gently bobbing dinghies and boats, way out, lost in the sea and old dreams. The summer interlude let us lean into the scenes of sailors and divers emerging from the shoreline, bejewelled with beads of fresh, salty seawater, and teasingly unzipped their wetsuits halfway undone before reaching the kiosk to order chips and beers. Clear waterproof wallets, satellite phones, silver coins, and stolen rubies were tied to their sun kissed ankles for the watery commute to shore. Life envy was very much in full flow that afternoon. I had almost half forgotten about the tyranny of motherhood. Our little king snoozed beautifully through these easy scenes. The beers that sailed past our picnic table and glistened fifty shades of gold, were a delicious tease. The chips could easily have been dipped in honey, smothered in local Guernsey butter and made to walk the plank like rogue dominoes into a scene from a Pirate themed Busby Berkeley movie, of spinning hot vats of glorious oil before enduring a vaudeville finale of salt and vinegar.
I am a civil servant in Guernsey and everybody calls our headquarters, ‘The Custard Castle.’ By that definition I am just a clown imitating life, waiting for a moment in time to join a queue to order food. Yes! That’s what island life is all about, simplicity. “Tànt mouoïns qu’nou broule la vie, tànt pus qué nou peut en baïllier pour bagoulaï” ( – the less we complicate life the more we can devote as much of it as we can to idle tittle tattle gossip). I’m not a local born Sarnian so I can say what I like. Every place to go for lunch is an opportunity to crowd scan and inhale the seedy scents of a scandalous affair. Everybody knows everybody else’s business. The hairs on the back of my neck prickle with heady tinctures of fear and delight when I bump into somebody that knows mine. Guernsey isn’t everybody’s coupaïe d’Tée!
At the horizon it was all cornflower blue skies, the trees that surround the bay prevent the sun’s warmth from penetrating the water. The shimmering stillness of the bay was in glorious harmony with the busy undertow of the late lunch hour. We had ordered and just as the plates arrived, on cue, Elvis woke up to be cuddled and entertained. The salmon salad did not disappoint. A confession, it’s what I always order. Amazing, every time, every bite, every year.
Quit your holiday elsewhere. Hand in your reservations. Resign all hope at finding anywhere that can do delicious, divine and simple with honest elegance and grace. Enjoy the queue.