Does our environment shape our language, or is it the other way about? Often, tracing the links between the words in our heads and the things in the world outside our heads is well nigh impossible. Sometimes, though, it can be child’s play. Consider this: I once lived among cowboys, all of whom wore leathern chaps, and in that dusty desert town, men were invariably referred to as “chaps”. Later, when I spent some time in a blasted volcanic landscape riddled with geysers, I found that all the men were called “geezers”. And when I retired to an idyllic cove, sheltered by the happy disposition of cliff and bluff from the wild boiling sea, I was not surprised to learn that the men there were all “coves”.
Though the term originated in thieves’ cant, not one of the coves in the cove was a thief, so far as I was aware. Several of them became my fast friends. There was the one-eyed cove whose life’s work was to translate the Abba songbook into Latin; the cove who grew rhubarb in a hut abutting his house; the snooker champ cove with his natty weskit and hair slathered in shiny shiny oil. And then there was the cove whose tale I shall tell, who can only be described as an enigma.
How to describe him? He was the most unemphatic cove I ever came across, by which I mean that he singularly failed to make even the slightest impression. He seemed to have no definition, no emphasis, neither vigour nor intensity. You might see him every day, but in his absence be quite unable to recall what he looked like. And when he spoke, which was often, alas, he spoke in a monotone, neither fast nor slow, giving every single word equal weight. That might be thought sufficiently odd to give him a certain curiosity value, and thus “character”, but somehow the overwhelming sense was one of blankness. He was so unemphatic that it seemed he did not even disturb the atoms in the air when he entered a room.
One would think such a cove would make no mark upon our cove, but he did. It was the night of the storm so ferocious that ever after it was called the Ferocious Storm. We were snugly sheltered in our cove, of course, but beyond the cliff and bluff the sea was a hideous seething broiling monster of rage and roaring, whipped by a wind that lashed and howled as if demons were unloosed. At the height of the storm, the lantern in the lighthouse off the cove was extinguished. We coves gathered in the tavern, fearing shipwreck, hating the thought of having to provide succour to half-drowned sailors, battered and lacerated on the jagged rocks, for we were cowardly and selfish coves and we liked our idyllic cove just as it was.
And then the singularly unemphatic cove said something, in his blank unmemorable monotone, and he walked out of the tavern and climbed up on to a promontory overlooking the wild and pitiless sea. He took off his topcoat and his wooly and his shirt, and he simply stood there, all night, in the teeth of the gale. For beneath his shirt he wore a vest, and what a vest! It was golden, and luminous, and it shone brighter than the sun. For ships in peril on the sea, it was a warning signal, a thousand times more brilliant than the poor extinguished lantern of our lighthouse. When dawn eventually came, and the storm died, not a ship had been wrecked upon the rocks, not a sailor came crawling, bedraggled and bloody, begging for our help. Atop the promontory, the unemphatic cove put on his shirt and wooly and topcoat and made his way down to the tavern.
We were nonplussed and excitable, firing questions at him. What in the name of heaven was that vest he was wearing? How did it shine so brightly? Where did he get it? Blah blah blah.
He told us everything we wanted to know. But so dull and featureless was his monotone that everything he said went in one ear and out the other, and was instantly forgotten. Over the coming days, one or other of us might have asked him to strip off his topcoat and wooly and shirt and treat us to another look at the glorious vest, but to do so we would have to have noticed his presence, and of course we did not, for if anything he became even more insubstantial, more shadow than cove. Eventually, he vanished altogether, as if he had never been. But I know he was no mere figment, for today, up on the promontory, there is a stone statue of him, stone eyes gazing at the sea, his stone vest painted the brightest yellow we could muster, repainted every day, that it may never lose its lustre.