This is a line from Under Milk Wood, Richard Burton’s recording of which had me giggling in the street on the way to work the other day. The phrase jumped out at me: the sound of those cockles so quietly plut-plutting as the town wakes up, the sense of life going on while nobody looks.
It reminded me of a moment, fifteen years ago, lying uncomfortably on a pebble beach with a collection of family and friends. We were speculating about the limpets on the rocks. Did they keep to a favourite patch, get to know their neighbours? Did they ever get the urge to go wandering?
“Imagine,” my mother said, “Being a limpet with a low boredom threshold.”
This set off a bout of collective laughter as we took turns blurting out a limpet’s stream of consciousness.
It may just be me, but there was something so perfectly funny about this notion that it stuck with me, and still pops into my mind regularly. Perhaps it is the element of tragedy, which often underpins good comedy. The limpet wouldn’t be laughing with us; a mollusc with a sense of humour is nothing like as funny anyway.
Remembering this moment yet again one day, I tried to replicate the pattern of creature + unfortunate character trait/affliction. A list formed and then grew. A cicada with tinnitus; a ladybird who despises kitsch; a self-conscious glow-worm; a leech who cannot stand the sight of blood; a woodpecker with a headache; a snake with a lisp. It went on.
At the time I was writing funny stories for children, often in verse. I planned a series of unfortunate creature poems, but only wrote two in the end, discouraged by the unsellable nature of poetry collections by unknown authors. One of these concerned a centipede with a penchant for high heels, the other a wasp who meets his demise while trying to tell jokes to unimpressed picnickers.
Again, it may just be me, but there is something intriguing, compelling, about sea creatures that live in shells. From the outside they seem as lifeless as stones, yet hold on so tight when we touch that a human hand alone cannot remove them. They open up secretly, hidden beneath the surface, drinking their salty soup, and then disguise themselves as stones again when the tide leaves them.
Some produce pearls, which even once we know how is magical – even more so when we think that something so prized for its beauty is the outcome of irritation. The insides of their homes can be the sweetest pinks and iridescent mauves, but do they ever notice? Are those spiral shell forms another irritant to them? How does it feel to be curled tight inside one?
Maybe I will restart that series of poems by going back to the poor frustrated limpet my mother imagined. I will have to set aside the memory of cooking up a bag of them prised from the rocks in Clevedon. Or maybe that’s exactly the adventure that a bored limpet needs…