I begin writing and realise I don’t remember the name of the town or the beach I’m thinking of. I google ‘black sand beach’ in hope of some clues and discover they are a small phenomenon; striking and unusual, numerous travel websites make lists chronicling the best in the world. The one that catches my eye is titled ‘The 14 Most Exotic Black Sand Beaches in the World’—‘exotic’, applied as though it is objective, a definition, as opposed to a way of looking one imposes on another. I flip through the ad-filled slideshow: Japan; Iceland; French Polynesia; all volcanic islands, the contrast in the photos dialled uncannily high. The place they have chosen for New Zealand is not right—I recognise the foliage, large, bulbous plants I haven’t seen in person in several years, but the name doesn’t spark any memories. I open Google Maps and try working from my great aunt and uncle’s home in the direction I remember driving, which proves a more fruitful technique.
The beach I remember isn’t pure black like the most popular photos online, but a dark, rich grey, with undertones of brown. The colour is distinctly cool-toned but, as black traps heat, the sand is surprisingly hot to the touch, in some spots pleasantly warm, in some painful to stand on barefoot. My mum tells me that when she was out here for too long on sunny days it could burn the soles of your feet, leave them glowing red and peeling, sunburnt from below. Today the sky is a pale grey, the water too, a satisfying monochrome gradient of a landscape. The sand moves in little eddies, making delicate pale patterns and swirls when picked up by the wind, which also picks up my hair, blows it wild and loose, an image with romantic notions of nature, easy to love at eighteen. The scene is bleak and beautiful, but in a different way to the moors in the north of England or the highlands which I am used to. A number of kite surfers are out in the shallows, the bright neon colours of their kites by far the most eye-catching things in the landscape. At this age I am not a good photographer, and my cheap camera doesn’t help, but the pictures I take of these bright shapes dragging bodies against grey are some of my favourites from the trip.
white lines and black beaches/ blood red sangria/ you travelled for weeks just to escape your demons
This song doesn’t come out until I’m twenty-two, but listening to it on the bus on the way to a job that does not interest me, I superimpose it onto the car journey, driving into the strange, bulbous hills, past the dome of an enormous Mormon temple and the white headstones of a Māori cemetery, half-hidden in deep green ferns and stretching all the way up the steep valley.
I am more interested in some forms of record than others. Photos I am comfortable with, are kept visible in my bedroom. Recollections from others can be pleasant or stressful, depending on who is telling them and the tone they take, what they choose to recount to me, the picture I can see them trying to paint and how successful their technique is. Personal items are the ones I’m most comfortable with: clothes; scrapbooks; strange collections; the archive a person assembles of themselves. Luckily he kept scrapbooks for twenty years, every little inconsequential item that drove my mum ‘insane’: train tickets; in-flight menus; birthday and Christmas cards, the paper ephemera of a life.
Video makes me nervous. I’ve probably only watched a cumulative two hours, in the middle of the night at my mum’s house on an old TV set with a video player. I think I wanted to know what his voice sounded like, but as I didn’t remember in the first place it didn’t mean much. A Northern Irish accent, I think, otherwise unremarkable. I couldn’t replicate it now if you asked me to.
Such records are of a time and a place but also of a person. The place can be returned to, but feels like a record itself, gauzy and insubstantial as memory, a photograph still in the dark room, developing but not able to be fixed. The replication of place makes the absence of the other two more visible, throws them into stark relief, like entering your childhood home with all the furniture removed.
‘Talismanic uses of photographs express a feeling both sentimental and implicitly magical: they are attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality’, writes Susan Sontag. These days my sadness is quiet, low-level, like background radiation. When it comes, it is not from this reality, but from an acknowledgement of a potential other, the impossible possibility of a different future. The photograph-reality is one where he still exists, a reality which once mirrored my own but diverged before I could wield a camera myself. The photographs show no evidence of death; a narrative of his life constructed entirely in images would have no death scene, no definitive end. The photograph-reality is one of plausible deniability, a world where there is no evidence of him but also no lack, a world from which transmissions have stopped but which could well be carrying on regardless.
The first few weeks after I got off the plane were like swimming in memory. It all felt familiar but indescribable; the light, the warmth of the sun on my arms, the freckles that formed quickly on my skin, my body always smelling of sun cream. I felt I was witnessing everything from the bottom of a swimming pool. My white body had grown so much—I hid my upper arm as the soft flesh on the inside was blossoming with a bruise from the implant I’d just had put in, my little cyborg attachment keeping my body childless. In shorts and t-shirts I felt like a child. The sun quickly bleached the already-fading dye from my hair, made it blonde, I didn’t wear makeup in the heat, all my clothes were practical. I was myself as a child, as I had left, only bigger. Things would spark memories but I could never specify what they were, I felt them in my body but had no words. When someone asked what I remembered I could only say ‘it’s strange’.
Ninety-mile beach, like a lot of place names, is a misnomer. An uninterrupted stretch of sand from Kaitaia to the top of the North Island, its actual length is 55 miles, or nearly 90 kilometres. The waterless part of the beach is so large that it is also used as a public highway, usually only when the main roads are closed by floods, or for tourists, which on this day is what I am – leaning towards the front of the bus, camera in hand, trying to record the way every part of this scene stretches into nothing. Where the dunes rise up there are body-boarders sliding down the sand face-first, slipping and digging out great curves in the dunes around their feet as they climb. I remember body-boarding somewhere on this trip, but I can’t remember if it was here or later.
The clouds clear and the sun comes out bright as ever as we arrive at Cape Reinga, the northernmost point of New Zealand. Where the land ends, the sea splits, or more accurately, merges. The Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea, one side a darker, purer blue, the other turquoise and translucent, almost glowing. The line between them is clearly visible, uneven and jagged like the path of a lightning bolt, and they can’t be seen to merge until close to the horizon. In Maori belief, the souls of the dead are carried by the roots of pohutukawa trees, their bright red flowers and knotted roots along the shores of nearly every beach on the north island, and travel from Cape Reinga to Hawaiki, the ancestral Polynesian homeland from before they came to Aotearoa. It’s not my mythology, but the parallels still strike me without thinking. I imagine souls moving through roots like electricity, bright white and fizzing, flying invisible to ancient homes.