Black-headed gulls drift on easterlies, spying out scraps between the greasy cobbles. Trawlers tug on their anchors safe behind the ancient seawall. A rusting delivery van chugs up the steep bank to the coast road. The driver is in shirt sleeves, despite the biting wind. St Monans is slow to wake this morning. A party of Americans has been ‘home’ exploring its Fife roots. They stood drinks till the early hours, listened to tales of their grand-daddy and stumbled home in the darkness. This morning, cottage windows are fogged with whisky breath. Toilets flush and kettles click as glum faces peer between curtains before retreating to thick duvets.
‘We’re made of sterner stuff,’ I say.
Tracey wrinkles her nose. She has a woolly hat pulled down tight over her ears and her jacket collar zipped up to her chin.
‘I can’t feel my face,’ she says.
She pinches her cheek as if her face has been anesthetized by an over-zealous dentist.
‘It is bitter,’ I tell her.
I pull my cuffs down over my gloves. I can’t remember feeling this cold since arriving at Cedar Rapids airport, Iowa, in early January. I’d just got off a flight from New Zealand and walked out into a blizzard in chinos and a surf T-shirt. The icy blast hit minus forty and tumbled down from somewhere called Sioux City. A shivering Running Bear would be tapping his thermometer in disbelief.
‘At least it’ll blow away the cobwebs,’ I say.
We pass the row of honey-stone cottages that make up Rose Street. We step beyond the final terrace to be hit face-first by a bitter wind. We’re forced to take astronaut steps, stooping forward like figures in a Lowry painting. I squint and point to a distant windmill. Shelter, I mouth. Tracey nods. We run stiff-legged, chins dipped in collars, breathing through thick woolly scarves. We pitch forward, slumping into the thick stone walls at the base of the windmill. The headland turf is sodden with rain and the first shards of hale. We tuck coats beneath bums and press our backs against the wall.
‘Don’t say it,’ Tracey says.
‘It’s the coldest you’ve been since that winter in Illinois when the wind came from Apache City.’
‘It was winter in Iowa and the wind was from Sioux City.’
She does it on purpose, I think. My eyes are leaking and the biting cold causes my head to throb as if a band is being tightened at my temples. I point out to sea. A distant trawler is almost lost between the crashing waves; a speck of titanium white on a gunmetal canvas.
‘He does that so you can enjoy your fish and chips,’ I say.
‘I prefer battered sausage.’
I watch the trawler disappear from view. It makes me think of water coolers, Power point presentations and wilting pot plants. And the strip of chalky magnolia I stare into every day, beyond my monitor. I doubt these fishermen would swap, but I’ll take my chances in middle management rather than these waters any day.
Alongside the Fife Coastal Path is a wire fence that sits inches from crumbling turf. If you stand on the beach you can see where the tide has cut into the headland, exposing a cross-section of turf and peat and pebbles and bedrock. It looks like a child’s cartoon strip of an underground world, where you’d expect to see buried treasure, dinosaur bones, and perhaps finally, Australia.
Fingers of jagged rock spear into the surf at forty five degrees to the shore. Where there is no rock to break the waves the crumbling turf is propped up with wire cages of granite. Concrete is dabbed or troweled or squeezed into cracks in an attempt to defy the ocean’s onslaught. There are pebbles here the size of a man’s fist. They’re smooth and polished and flecked with specks of terracotta pan-tile amid the mortar, like cookie mixture. They used to be building waste and were meant to hold back the sea, but they were dragged into the depths to be polished and spat back as pebbles.
A thin vein of watery sunlight breaks through the cloud. We walk past Saut Pans; hollows in the turf, where workers once toiled in fierce temperatures to produce the renowned St Monan’s salt. Fife has always been rich in natural resources and its people have endured the hard graft required to exploit them. For centuries coal and salt and pottery and fish were traded with towns and cities across the sea. The influence of these traders can still be seen in the pan-tiled roofs and the narrow, tall houses that could easily belong in Amsterdam.
The coastal path is fringed with gorse and unforgiving clusters of thistles. Beneath us, a rushing stream gushes out into the sea. The rocks are a rich sandstone, the red ochre of bison sketches on a cave wall. The stony path rises on through gorse and bracken, past a pebble-dashed house with yapping dogs and a gate that cracks against its post repeatedly. An empty fishermen’s crate has been blown onto the rocks. Tree stumps and limbs, picked clean of bark and blemishes like bleached bones, have been abandoned by the tide. There are tangled ropes, fuzzed at their ends, and broken packing crates.
Beyond the outcrop of rock is a lido. Before there were bargain flights Glasgow’s factories and schools would empty for a week as holidaymakers headed to the Fife coast to splash and paddle in these outdoor pools. The outline of the coast was adapted, perhaps with a little dynamite and concrete, to form these pools. They’ve long since been abandoned to Health and Safety and Corfu and breakers have washed rocks into the shallow end where bathers once braced themselves on tiptoes.
We head down into Pittenweem, relieved to turn our back to the gales and raging seas. Sheltered by a steep rock face, we walk by pastel cottages with thick wooden doors. Black seaweed is tossed and scattered like shards of liquorice on the golden sands. The wind sweeps in tight circles here, flicking a dry dust across the wet, ribbed sands as if a giant invisible broom was at work. I blink as snow slants in from the sea giving the street lamps an orange halo. We climb from shore to High Street between cottages and churches and order thick vegetable soup at a craft shop and cafe. We stretch out and thaw our toes and fingers basking in the luxury of ambient temperatures. We smear butter on warm bread and guzzle our soup. We watch heavy flakes of snow drift down and feather the window pane.
‘We’ll have to walk back,’ Tracey says.
‘It’ll be fine.’
I think of those fishermen, out there, surrounded by waves higher than houses. We only have to button our coats and bow our heads into the wind, after all.