I first encountered Proteus on the sands of Coney Beach, South Wales. I don’t know how old I must have been then; about five or six I guess. My mother had just lifted me onto the back of a grey donkey with a white muzzle. It was standing slightly apart from the other donkeys, and when the donkey man came over to us he seemed a little puzzled at first, as if he couldn’t place something. Of course, I didn’t notice this at the time, but my mother recalled it afterwards, and it makes sense given what then followed.
My mother paid the man his money and my donkey set off towards the far end of the beach. Once there he turned in a wide arc and started back, this time skirting the white sea edge. And then Proteus, who had been the donkey all along, dissolved and reformed. One minute I felt the saddle between my legs. The next I was lying on a heap of sand, and the donkey had disappeared.
My mother came running, but the donkey man overtook her. He seemed about to start yelling, but the words wouldn’t come. My mother picked me up and held me tightly to her; she said my name a couple of times and as she held me she just kept looking around the space where I’d fallen. There was a largish pyramid of sand, a bit bigger than I was, which I’d landed on. The donkey man started digging in its sides, with a look of utter confusion. The walls of sand started to slide down and blend with the other sand of the beach, and some of it blew away.
“Did you see what happened?” asked the donkey man. But neither of them had been looking. The donkey man started asking what had been done with his donkey, but then he stopped himself. It seems the donkey hadn’t been his to begin with: it had just appeared there next to the others, and he’d assumed it had wandered over from another beach. Now it was gone, for sure, but only I had seen it disappear.
From that day on, Proteus visited me again and again. As I grew older his ways became more subtle, his appearance unexpected, his presence only becoming apparent whenever he actually disappeared, and I was left with nothing. There was a shop in Cardiff, where I’d gone with my mother shopping, in which I spotted a fantastic submarine. It was a kind of human torpedo, not the kind people go inside but the kind divers sit on. There were three divers sitting on it. I had been searching for a special toy all day, and every toy shop had come up short, every one had been full of dull and ordinary things. But there, in that last little shop, a dim and unassuming place, I had found this fabulous looking vessel, and had taken it home proudly. It was as long as my forearm, and the divers were detachable. That evening I had played with it, and in the night I had dreamed of waking up and finding it on my bedside table and playing with it again.
It was not there, of course. There was a heap of dust on the table, and motes swirling in the sunlight that entered through the crack in the curtains, but no submarine. My mother cleaned up later, wondering where I’d managed to find so much dust, from which corner I’d scooped it up. I asked her about the submarine. Had it been a dream after all? It hadn’t been a dream, but I must have mislaid the thing somewhere.
In the beginning, I did not know who Proteus was. They used to make children study the classics, but by the time I got to school they’d stopped. I wouldn’t know about him myself, I suppose, if he hadn’t kept sliding and sneaking his way into my life and then pulling the rug out from under me. He was the rug, usually.
Proteus is a sea-god. That is why, I surmise, I first met him at Coney Beach, South Wales. He comes in from the sea, and he spends time on land, but usually returns to the sea again. Homer wrote about him. He is able to foretell the future, and reveal hidden things, but only if you can capture him. Menelaus, who was prevented from returning home from the Trojan war, captured him to find out which of the gods he had offended. Menelaus struggled but in the end he did it; when I, too, realised that I would have to capture Proteus, I learned that it wouldn’t be easy at all.
I soon learned the ways of Proteus. He would take the shape of things. It was only objects at first, at least after that first donkey ride. They were invariably things that mattered to me. I would enjoy them for a time, sometimes only fleetingly, sometimes as much as months at a time, and then Proteus would reveal himself in dissolving the object into dust and sand. Or it would simply be gone, having melted away, a new form having been taken: a new object suddenly found by chance.
There was my chopper bicycle which suddenly turned into winds and grass; there was the treasured book of stills from the animated movie version of The Lord of the Rings which, I suspect, transformed into a Kays catalogue. Once I had an Action Man with a parachute which I sent floating down from my bedroom window. He never reached the ground: he became a cloud of Red Admiral butterflies which fluttered away on the spring breeze. That was one of the obvious transformations. I saw it with my own eyes.
The first time I saw him take on human form was with Uncle Peter. I must have been twelve years old. I never used to talk to Uncle Peter much; he didn’t seem to know what to say to young nephews like me. Had I realised I had been talking with Proteus all along, I would have asked him a few things. Proteus revealed himself one day, it was the middle of summer I remember, when I’d gone over to the next village to visit my cousins. Uncle Peter had waited in the lounge while the boys were getting ready upstairs. He had asked me how the summer holidays were going, and whether I wanted a glass of lemonade. Then he had looked at me, and in his eyes I saw something of the sea, the gleam of light on the sea wave, and then he was gone. There was smoke everywhere. He had left a cigarette smouldering in the ashtray, and there was now a thick column of smoke rising up from it, drifting out through the open window. Uncle Peter had disappeared.
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t even call to my cousins. I just scarpered from the house, and knew that Proteus had become Uncle Peter, and the same day I heard Uncle Peter had died and that there was going to be a funeral.
Looking ahead into my teenage years, Proteus was everywhere. It seemed that anything could be him in disguise. A girl whose hand I kissed, me not being brave enough to kiss her on the lips, my first girlfriend. She had gone before the second term had ended, and while everyone in my class assumed that she had gone to another school I knew she had not, for I had seen her transform into carnival streamers that went weaving through the air in multicoloured spirals when the carnival parade passed.
I couldn’t take it any more. I knew Proteus was everywhere, and always one step ahead, so that nothing and no one could be relied on, nothing could be held onto. I read a book of classics for children, left over from my older brothers, a gift from Sunday School classes. There I read about Menelaus’ battle to capture Proteus, and how he got the sea god to tell him what he wanted by holding him down and not letting go, even though he changed form. That I could do, as long as I knew already which form Proteus had taken. That was the trick, really. For I only really knew what Proteus had become after he had moved on.
I would be ever watchful. Perhaps there would be some sign, some sign I had never noticed. I thought back. No, there was nothing, no way of knowing what Proteus had become. Then I remembered Uncle Peter. I had seen, just before his body dissolved into smoke, the colour of the sea in his eyes. That was it. I knew, then, that I had found the key, and would be ready to act the instant I saw this one sign.
I became vigilant. I studied all my toys and things, looked for some impression, some mark of the sea left upon them, and failed to find anything. It reached the point where Proteus hadn’t appeared—or disappeared, as the case may be—in weeks. I got to thinking that maybe he was prepared for me, that somehow he had got wind of my plan, and was lying low somewhere. But how could he know?
In the end I found him again where I had first encountered him, on the sands of Coney Beach. I had gone there with my father, and he had left me to play on the sand even though, in truth, I was too old for sandcastles and delving in rock pools. But he was smoking and looking over some records he had borrowed from his cousin and so I had time to kill. I went over to the rocks and dipped my hands into the silent world of the rock pools.
I caught a crab. I was a bit afraid of crabs but this was a small one. It tried to nip me but I held it with my fingers at the back of the shell and let it dangle there, opening and closing its pincers uselessly. It reminded me of the crabs I had caught, when I was little, with my brothers by my side. I looked at its eyes and when I saw the glimmer of sea green I knew I had caught Proteus.
Dad wasn’t paying attention, which was good, because he would have seen me leap down onto the sand and press the crab down in a firm hold. It struggled, it flayed about frantically trying to wriggle out of my grasp, or get hold of my fingers, but I held on with all my strength. Then it wasn’t a crab anymore. It was a dog, my dog, Tiny, her old body covered with wiry hair. She had the same sea green eyes as Uncle Peter, and I kept looking at them, because if I hadn’t I would have let her go—Tiny was getting old, and she couldn’t walk about easily, and it was hard for me to use such force against anything that looked just like her because I knew that Tiny felt pain whenever you stroked her.
I kept holding on, and Proteus’s form changed. He became a myriad things that I treasured or would treasure—my book of dinosaurs, my collection of Star Wars figures, even my school books (it was a cunning move, that, because for a second I nearly let go when I saw the words GEOGRAPHY staring up at me from the tattered exercise book), the cobbler’s last my father made to make shoes.
Proteus changed form a last time. For a splitting instant he became a house. My house. It happened so quickly that perhaps nobody saw it, or if they did they assumed, so fantastical was the sight, that they had been daydreaming, or that it was a mirage. I found myself clutching onto a white chippined wall that suddenly shot up out of the sand—I recognized which wall, too: it was the wall at the side of the house where the long grassy bank grew, the side with the landing window. I was holding onto the house and everything inside it: my room, by bed, all the things I had had since I was a baby. Then it was gone, dissolved, reformed into sand, and I was left holding nothing.
I tried to hold onto the sand but it was hopeless. It started to blow away in the sea breeze. How had Menelaus done it? But then he had been a Greek hero, and I was just a Welsh village boy.
My father came up to me at last. He held out his hand, and before I took it I looked into his eyes, as if some instinct had driven me to do so. I saw in them the same sea gleam I had been looking for all along. When I held onto his hand, as tightly as I could, I can’t say whether it was because I wanted to hold onto Proteus, or because I did not want to let my father go.
My father lived on for a little time. It seemed that Proteus found some kind of steady home in his wheezy cough and amateur opera. But in the end he went, just like the others did, dissolved, disappeared, become dust or wind or seaspray. I grew up and waited for Proteus to take the form of every single thing and person I had stored up around me, and he has not let me down.
I understand, now I am getting on a bit myself, that all this time I have been wrestling with Proteus. I didn’t always know it, in the beginning, but I have been holding on to him in one form or another all my life, sometimes without even knowing it. I have been Menelaus, and I did not fail that day on Coney Beach sands, for the battle has been going on ever since. What did Menelaus do? He held on to him until he could get the god to reveal his answer. Then he could do service to the gods, and go home. I did not realise what the myth meant by that. I do now.
I too have looked for what gods I have offended, so that I may make a last offering to them. I too am waiting for Proteus’s answer, so that I may go home. Each night I look in the mirror and into my own eyes.
I am looking for the sea gleam there.
When I see it I know my struggles will be over. Then, like Menelaus, I will be able to go home.