Our time in Croyde eventually wound down, as all good things must. It wasn’t the African safari adventure that we had originally planned, but we had no regrets. The pieces all fell into place. ‘Shall we get this inscribed on the family tomb?” I asked Menna on Father’s Day. “Here Lie The Nicholls. They Landed On Their Feet. RIP.” She was disinclined, but I myself can’t think of any better epitaph for someone to mutter as they toss my ashes into the wind. “He jumped a lot, and mainly he landed on his feet. Sometimes he didn’t it’s true, but he kept on jumping regardless.”
I don’t think we could have asked for a better place than Croyde in which to hide ourselves away, scheme and lay low until the frothy coronavirus panic ebbed away a little. It was a halfway house to decompress and mentally adjust. We needed to leave our London lives behind and turn towards whatever adventures might still lie ahead. I had gone to Devon harbouring a hidden feeling of resentment, thinking it was a poor substitute for the subtropical climates we had planned for, but, as I found, sometimes you can fixate on exotic faraway shores and forget that there are places of extreme beauty right on your doorstep. The South West of Britain, in those times when the sun is firing; the sand is like demerara sugar and the wind blows spray back off the wave tops, well, I think it can rival just about any tropical coastline in the world.
Anyhow, what I’m saying is that something just worked for us there. It clicked. The town was quiet, the beaches empty, the clifftop headlands were ours to share with seabirds and gorse babies. There were hot pasties and ice creams in the village shop. Nature was all around. A bunch of young surfers with a portable wood-fired oven made surprisingly epic pizzas in the Post Office carpark. We had a charming beach cottage to hide away in when it rained. The waves were gentle and mellow some days and then big and hollow on others. We did a rainy beach clean one morning in a hidden cove and alongside ropes and sandals and bags full of plastic, we found treasures: cowrie shells and crab claws, a black pebble with a perfect hole.
I thought occasionally about how coronavirus was wreaking havoc across the world and I would feel guilty to be so far out of it all, like we’d chosen not to participate in a grand global event. But we’d paid our dues. Menna had served on the front line. We’d isolated and distanced, we’d cut ourselves off from the world and then we slipped off quietly into the night without a sigh. We had had a world trip wrecked. And then it would be low tide with a southerly swell and such thoughts scattered into the wind.
On our last night in Croyde, Arthur and I camped out in the dunes. Menna and Matilda came to help us set up camp and stayed for barbecued sausages and Sweet Child O Mine at full volume by the driftwood campfire. Then the wind picked up, the first rain drops landed and the girls went off to look for rabbits, and it was just the two of us huddled up against the weather. We played cards and stoked up the fire. I drank some whiskey. We saw the sun set and ran down the steepest dunes in the dusk. I told Arthur my best ghost stories until he begged me to stop and refused to leave the safety of the firelight. We curled up in his tiny two man tent. I couldn’t stretch out and had sandy tufts under my back, so I didn’t really sleep too much. It was early July but it was so cold outside I swore I could see my breath fogging in the moonlight.
We rose sometime before 6am and paddled out into the sea, looking for shells in the misty flat light before the sun came over the headland. Arthur scampered around and chattered, and there was a moment when he turned and looked up at me with his eyes all shining, and then around him like a halo, the first morning sunlight blazed off the river delta that runs through the beach. I’ve never felt so close to my boy.
Then we broke down our camp, kicked out the embers, went home and packed the car. We drove out of Croyde and onwards to the next leg of our adventure.