The cabbage came to the boil and it smelled like the sea, the sea on the stones and in the kelp, the smell of the old rotting pier and the barnacles and mussels clamped on down low in the shade and damp. I often think of the sea. I've never lived in a seaside town nor alongside the coast. I can barely swim and I despise the sun and hot, sticky days beneath it. But on certain days the sea still comes and I can hear the screams and they are not screams of horror.
My last but one told me a story of the sea and I told her one back. Mine wasn't so good. I thought I could get a laugh but I told it badly and it didn't even get that. I'll tell it here. Just for the record. Everyone's heard it anyway. It was that day I was dragged off to Brighton by that Italian Girl, the one who cried herself to sleep over my use of opiates; the one who thought anything besides straightforward in-and-out sex was perverted and odd; the one who left a stain on the mattress in the shape of the missionary position. I'd be fantasizing of the craziest shit as we fucked. Maybe she was too? Though I doubt it. When we eventually split and had it out, the only time we ever spoke of such things, her body betrayed her and her eyes teared up and she gagged. She was preparing to say “You should have told me... I'd have done that!” Those dry heaves made me terribly sad, like she couldn't have done anything worse than that. Anyway, she took me to the sea. She was from Naples and had such a desperate longing for the ocean.
“Please don't be getting stoned,” she said.
“I've nothing to get stoned with,” I told her. “We'll pass my mum's on our way to the Station.”
“Got to drop off something for her fella.”
Why I still lied I couldn't say. She had long ago made the connection with me visiting mum and an hour later my pupils pinning up and a giant's slumber filling me without warning.
We arrived at the seaside in the early afternoon. I had come around numerous times on the train down, had watched the countryside hurtling by outside, and now I opened my eyes to us slowly pulling into Brighton Station, the unmistakeable scent of sea air floating through the old train carriage, boiled eggs and tomato and the feint sound of the high ocean.
My girl wasn't angry; it had passed. And then it passed some more. Out of the train and heading down the platform you could see straight up ahead, right through the station to the city outside, the hordes of people making their way down, and at the end the bulging sea, like some huge heart expanding and contracting away.
“The sea,” she whispered like it were something sexual. “The sea.” And she looked at me with a wonder that I thought adults no longer possessed. Then she held me and close in she whispered once more, “the sea.”
The sea was wild. Choppy and powerful. The danger signs were out 'NO SWIMMING'. Up above the sun appeared dazzled by its own brilliance. It was beating down, so hot it seemed to muffle all sounds except the heave and sway of that fucking ocean.
“We can still swim,” she said, excited. “I will!”
I looked at the sea. There were a few people out in it, bobbing around like sewage between swollen rows of waves. “You go ahead... Enjoy yourself. Like I said, I'll just watch.”
We laid our bags down and set out a large towel on the stones. I had a shitty little transistor radio. I tuned it into a mess of static and let it crackle on like that in the afternoon. She looked at me. “Come on,” she said, “make an effort.”
“Your top... Your boots!!!”
“I'm good just like this.” She stared at me incredulously, sitting there in my long-sleeved white cotton top, cut down military trousers, black, steel toe-capped Doc Martin boots and shades.
“You can't sunbathe like that. Only your knees and nose are showing!”
“All the more skin cancer for everyone else,” I said. I just wanted to sleep and dream of dragonflies and a small boat gently lulling on the waters, out there in the deep blue of nowhere.
They removed the dangerous current signs at around 2pm. My girl had already been swimming and now woke me excited, pestering me to go in the shallows. After a moment I gave in, reckoned on giving her ten minutes and then I could get back to reading and drifting off.
“You must remove your boots to go in the sea,” she said. “You'll lose them if not.”
I took the Slacker's option. I redid my laces, tied them tight around the uppers of my boots so as they couldn't be pulled off. She shook her head but I could tell she kinda enjoyed leading me down to the water in my boots and shades, looking like some drug fiend who was being shown 'How To Have Fun'. I strode into the water, into the shallows where the children were running in and out from the waves and screeching wildly. I could see people on the beach laughing at me. I walked into the water up to my knees. It felt good, cool, like a young memory I only barely still remembered. That's when the wave appeared. We saw it coming from a long way off, a big swell of water pushing in.
“Get back a little,” she said. She remained bobbing in the water, waiting to impress me with how well she would navigate the incoming bulge. I retreated to a safe place. The wave hit and the water came up to my hips and almost lifted me off my feet. Then everything stopped, like the moment was on pause, and then came the suck, the horrendous sound of hundreds of thousands of small stones being pulled over the larger ones as the sea took back what it had given. Now, somehow, the full might of the sea was in my boots, a force pulling from inside the steel toecaps, pulling me out and laying me back in the same movement. I was under the water, under the damn sea and being dragged out. I tried to right myself but my boots were then a terrible weight and it was impossible. I panicked in a struggle to unlock myself from the sea, the water rushing up my nose and taking my breath. I caught dirty snapshots of bubbles and driftwood and wide planes of sunlight shining somewhere through the water. Then came those muffled screams of joy, the beachgoers screaming from the excitement of the wave. For one awful moment a panic hit so terrible that no-one had noticed me disappear and the world would play the sounds of a wild summer day as I lost my fight to right myself. And then my face somehow broke the water and something behind me was giving me just enough angle to right myself. My Italian Girl, laughing: “I knew that would happen, going into the sea stoned like that. you should have seen how quickly you disappeared. PLOOOP and you were gone! Idiot!
I couldn't talk. I was flushed pale with shock and gulping for oxygen. I let her turn me around and lead me back to the shore. Up, safe on the beach, I said: “It wasn't the drugs. It was these fucking boots... filled with the fucking backwash!”
“Ah, yes, you are right. It wasn't the drugs it was absolute stupidity!”
It wasn't stupidity either but I didn't argue. In fact it was something far worse, a character trait that would almost have me dead on several occasions and even more often have me harm myself. I guess that was how I sourced out love and friendship in those early years of my life, the only way I knew how without having to speak too many words.
The sea had ruined my high. I wanted no more to do with it. I sat back down on our towel. I had lost my shades. I urged the Italian back out into the sea, told her to go swim and have fun. I pretend read as she hurried off, dripping wet over the stones and back on down to the water. When she was safely in the sea I turned on my side, went through my bag and pulled out a strip of subutex. I crushed down four and hooted them up and then laid back, waiting for the sun to blur, the sounds to merge and drone out and a warm tranquillity to put me out under the glorious day.
I couldn't remember moving but I must have. Maybe I did so in increments as the tide slowly came in up the beach. For whatever reason I moved she couldn't find me. She woke me up furious in the late afternoon, standing over me, tears of anger in her eyes and screaming. I couldn't hear her words and anyway they didn't seem too important just then. I had something much more pressing to tell her, an instinct which made anything else irrelevant:
“I feel like I'm dying,” I said. “Something's happened. ”
“You're burnt to a crisp you fool! You must have been asleep in the sun for more than three hours! You have sunstroke!”
She gave me water and cooled my head and chest. She fed me small squares of chocolate and fanned me with a piece of card. After a moment I felt a little better, still very weak but better. We packed up our belongings and made it off the beach. Our return train was for 7pm. We decided to quit ahead of time and took a slow walk back to the station.
“You're a walking disaster,” she said.
“Maybe, but it's mostly only ever me who suffers.” She looked at me with eyes that called bullshit.
The day had completely drained me. I was burnt and dehydrated. All I wanted was to be on the train, resting as we travelled home through the darkening evening. Back in London we had a room and in the room we had a bed. The room was clean and the bed was fresh. That idea occupied my mind as we walked through the dusk, that and the thought of ice fresh water. Any day can be perfect if it just ends well, I thought.
7h15 and our train was nowhere to be seen. Neither were there any other beachgoers at the station. I sought out our return tickets and went in search of a station attendant. I didn't find one; I didn't need to. Reading over the tickets as I searched I noticed that our return train was at 6pm not 7. We had missed it and there were no more trains to London until the following morning.
“We're slightly fucked,” I told the Italian on my return. “The last train for London left at just after six and there are no more until morning.”
“6 PM??? But why our ticket says 7 then?”
“Fuck knows. That gorilla in the ticket office must have fucked up.” She shook her head in total disappointment, seemed to know instinctively that it was me who had fucked up. Then she must have remembered that I was ill. “How you feeling?” she asked.
“Not bad... Better. I was looking forward to lying down so badly, was thinking of just that.”
“The night will be cool... It'll be good for you.”
“Are you hungry?” I asked.
“Come on, lets find some place to get something to eat. We can rest inside for a while.”
We found a Fish Shop down a quite deserted little backstreet close to the sea. It didn't look like it did much trade. On entering it was clear that the owner was on his way through closing up for the evening. “Sir?” he enquired.
“You done for the evening?” I asked. He nodded. “Almost. Why, what were you after?”
“Fish and chips.”
“We've fish... no chips. Hang on right there.”
He returned with a tray of battered cod. “Half price,” he said. We took two pieces.
“You down from the city?” he asked. “Got family back there?”
“Some,” I said.
“Hmmm... Some. You think they like fish? REAL fresh fish straight from the sea?”
“I guess they would. You only get fresh fish in London if you catch it yourself. Ans even then it's not certain.”
We paid for our two pieces of battered cod and wished the Fish Man a goodnight. “Here,” he said, handing me a bag. “Fresh Brighton cod for the family... 7 pieces. I was about to leave it out for the cats.”
“Serious? That's very kind of you.”
“Take a drink too,” he said.
The Italian took a cola and I took a bottle of fresh, chilled water.
Back out the night was almost upon us. “Let's go back to the sea,” I said, “find some place to sit and eat our supper.”
We found a bench up on the main road, directly looking out at the sea. The coming night was mild. Not hot and sticky and not cold. Just perfect. We unwrapped our fish and sat staring out and eating. At the back of the sea, on the horizon, there was a light that lit up the very top of the water neon blue. I didn't know what that light was but I knew it wasn't the setting sun. We both sat and watched that light, eating our cod with our fingers. ”The sea contains magic,” she said.
“I know it,” I replied. “Beautiful wayward magic that cannot be harnessed by man. That's what that light is, an illumination of everything we can never know.”
We finished our fish and shared another piece besides. With no warning and not looking at me she asked: “Will you ever do anything without drugs?”
I heard but didn't reply, sat there in silence as if I were thinking. After a while she said, “Hey?”
“Maybe one day,” I said. “Maybe one day I will”.
She turned and threw herself around me, gripping on tightly and burying her face in my shoulder. I thought she was crying but she wasn't. She was feeling the beginning of the end of her feelings, knew she wasn't cut out for a future of this. I let her hold on, stared at her sea in the distance as she silently, unknowingly undid the first chain of her bondage.
She broke the stillness of the water sometime that morning, walked into the clear emerald sea and fell into a swim. There was a surfer out, waiting for waves, but there were no waves to be had. She would swim out so far she couldn't be seen from the shore, would spend hours out there alone, just floating with her head back. This is the story she told just not how she told it. Neither did she tell it all. Maybe she couldn't or maybe she didn't know it all. It was a story about the beauty and relief of giving up, of witnessing the awesome power of the elements and understanding some intrinsic connection with nature. It was confirmation of death being quite OK under the right circumstances, a return to something, not an end.
So, the green sea spread out from a deserted beach in Costa Rica. Since arriving three weeks beforehand she had all but lived in the water. She was out on her travels alone, just her and a little hut on the beach and an array of credit cards. The water was mysteriously calm that morning, sat there like it had given up for the day. She didn't tell it like that but that's how it was.
What was also how it was was that the water was so clear you could see the fish through it. They followed, curious, and after some days were curious no more and didn't even disperse when she kicked up into a swim.
“You become a real part of nature,” she said. “Very different from having a pet of being a farmer or zoo keeper. Out there, like that, you are interacting as a free wild animal and the wildest animal is the sea... it's alive.”
So, she was out, floating with her head back as usual, and then she rolled and dived and swam. And that was when a mighty and invisible force collected her and kept her under and took her out. She fought to get to the surface but it was impossible. She described it as trying to navigate through multiple planes of overlapping glass. But the weird thing was the fish, all rippling away in the same force, leading her, following her, hardly exerting any energy at all. After a moment she did break the surface, found herself being rushed out to sea. She was caught in a powerful current which was impossible to swim against. I didn't understand that. I visualized it as walking up a downwards moving escalator: difficult but possible.
“Such currents are no downward moving escalators,” she said. “To swim against such a force would be like coming up against rock-face and trying to swim right through it. It's the entire sea pushing in whatever direction it's heading.”
So, the sea had her and it was taking her in the wrong direction and, after a while, when she looked back, she could no longer see the land. That's when a serene calmness overtook her, like the weight of breathing and existing and keeping well, that constant battle to survive and be healthy, had been lifted.
She said that she felt no fear at all, that all she felt was an all encompassing sense of beauty and a deep admiration for the powerful force which had hold of her.
“This innocent element that didn't know who I or my mother was, that didn't care about age or wealth or status, it had hold of me and I understood its almighty power and indifference and it was an honour to be taken in that way. I just felt completely helpless, like my fate was out of my own hands, that it no longer had anything to do with me. I wanted to cry I felt so ecstatic. Something about it seemed so correct. And those fish! They followed all the while, reminded me that I was out of my natural environment and that's why it was so impossible.”
The sea dragged her out for over an hour and, just as quickly as it had taken her, it let her go, dumped her at what she figured was over ten miles from the land. Only then, with no distinguishable reference points to understand her position, she had no idea which way the coast was.
“The sun?” I offered.
“The sun's useless if you don't know it. You only realise once its too late how little notice you take of it. I had an idea which way the coast was, but in such a situation its hard to act on an inclination, knowing you could be swimming to safety in the wrong direction.”
That was when she panicked, knowing her fate was once again back in her own hands. So, she did what most people do when they have no idea what to do: she did nothing. She stayed right where she was, looking out for help, hoping to see a boat. She didn't see a boat, but what she did see were those same fish she knew from closer to the shore.
“They swim with the current,” she told me. “I was no expert but I gathered they had had their free ride and were now making it back to the reef in the shallows.” So she put her faith in something other than herself, latched onto a guide, a belief, and followed the fish. The problem was that every minute seemed like ten and when there was still no land in sight she began to doubt her course.
“You learn that memory, well, recognition, is all mathematics,” she said. “That when everything looks identical that memory doesn't exist as we know it. Imagine if everyone looked identical, all had the same features and the same voice... How would you ever know who said what? Who was who? 360 degrees of sea is like that. There are no reference points. You even become doubtful as to whether you are swimming in a straight line or not. I really almost stopped and did a u-turn, suddenly convinced that land was back in the opposite direction.”
Fortunately she carried on, followed the fish and ignored her doubts. And just when she was really on the point of giving up she saw the faintest trace of something in the far distance, and that something was land.
The full swim back she never made. The surfer who had no waves to surf turned out to be a member of the local lifeguard service. He knew the currents and had noticed her disappear. In a small boat he and a colleague were criss-crossing the area and they spotted her on one of their passes. They picked her up and sped her back to land. She was quite OK, not hurt or injured or suffering from shock. They warned her to be wary of still seas and explained about the dangerous undercurrents which frequently pass under the calm waters. She listened, took notice, but she had her own idea of what would be more helpful. From that day on she began to study the sun, wanted to be always sure of at least one point absolute were she to ever find herself in such dire straits again.
“The sea is amazing,” she said. “I now have more love and respect for it than ever.” Then she said: “I could never live for too long away from the sea... I need it, physically and mentally.”
I nodded, sad. I understood. I needed the city like she needed the sea. Only that need wasn't really what she was communicating. What she was saying was that the romance of living hand-to-mouth in my filthy bedsit was over, that the novelty had worn off and now her mind was thinking of new adventures.
“So, what dyou want to do?” I asked.
“I'd like to go to Paris to see some friends,” she said. “I'll only be gone a couple of days.”
“Is it the drugs?”
“Partly. I thought I'd be able to handle it but I can't. It just seems such a waste. But its not only that... it's everything. I need a break. I need to be alone for a while. Maybe after a day or so I'll want all this back again... I actually found myself in this shitty little room.”
I cried. Told her I couldn't make it on my own.
“You mean without my money? I'll still help... I'll always help.”
“No, not your money. You... Without You the person!”
“You'll survive. You always have. You always find a way.”
“So everyone who shoots thru keeps reminding me. But I'm no survivor... Look at me, my body, I'm quite useless at it.”
“I'm sorry. I tried... I really tried. But I need to be alone... figure my life out.”
“Hang out the month,” I said. “Help get me home and we'll leave together... Say goodbye nicely.” She nodded, slowly, and then said “OK.”
She changed after that. Was happy and light again, began dreaming of all she would do with her young life. I felt better too. I could stop pretending, stop curbing my drug use and denying myself in order to make a visible effort at trying to contain things. I had never promised to contain things but I had taken that road anyhow as a natural gesture after bringing someone into that environment. But now I had no responsibility, nothing to gain through making such a gesture and nothing to lose from being as wayward as my finances allowed. And so I cashed out, scored and used freely with any guilt or conscience or the need to apologize. It still upset her. She tried to control her temper but couldn't. She spent the weeks painting and doing yoga, let me give her guitar lessons when I was wide enough awake. In the late evenings and through the early hours we watched double-titled TV movies: Stolen Innocence - The Taking of Sarah Kindle; Empty Cradle - A Mother's Worst Nightmare. All, supposedly, true suburban horror stories but which had the converse effect of making life inside the screen seem quite serene, like there was some kind of natural, harmonious balance which turned tragedy and horror into a lush sedative. We ran the month out and come the end we were both ready to say goodbye.
It was a sad, tearful day. I took her to the station and promised to put her on the train for Geneva. The train was delayed. First by 30 minutes and then by a further 45. She had noticed me texting, getting more and more anxious about the time, cursing delays and ranting how easy it was to keep trains running on time.
“You can go if you want,” she said.
“Yeah? You sure? You won't be annoyed?”
“I'll be OK. I'll get a coffee. Where must you meet him? Croix Rousse?”
“Yes,” I said, “the Croix Rousse,” a shard of shame stabbing right through me. “I'm already late.”
“Well, you can't miss that can you. Go on... Go score your medicine.”
“The place will be empty when I get back... It'll be terribly lonely without you.”
“You'll get used to it.”
“I'll never get used to loneliness. I hope not anyway.”
“Your writing will ensure you're never lonely for too long.”
“No. My writing will only ensure destitution and no-one will put up with that for too long.”
We held one last time and I looked over the top of her head, through wisps of her hair, at the world. A sea of people, coming and going, staring up at departure and arrival boards, waving goodbyes and greeting hellos.
“Take care You,” I said. “And try to love your mother.” I unhinged, turned, and without looking, left. Walking back through the crowded station alone I could already feel that strange disconnect which comes with waking and living and shopping alone. But, soon enough I'd have some help. The Croix Rousse was waiting for me and the summer had arrived. I thought of her as each footstep took me further away, wondered how she was doing. I imagined her running behind to catch me up, saying to hell with the train and that she didn't want to leave. But it never happens like that. Unimpeded I was down in the metro, a ghost amongst the commuters, travelling the opposite way from home and dreading the emptiness that awaited me in my room that night.
I scored and stayed out late, sat nodding on the steps of the Opera House in the city centre. I sat through the closing of the metro and sat through the gradual dispersal of the tourists and revellers. All who remained were the skateboarders, practising and perfecting their jumps and tricks to the lights and the fountain of the square. I watched those skaters and I remembered a time not so long ago when the world was there to be explored and the nights held a very certain magic. As my eyes closed over again the blue neon backdrop of the city flared and died and I dreamt of a coastal town, the cool salty air coming in from over the water. At gone 2am a text beeped through on my phone: home safely. xhausted. thanx 4 the memories & sorry. I closed the phone and thought of nothing and watched the skaters skate some more. I was exhausted too and I had a long walk home.
When the next skater falls I'll head off, I thought. And then there it was, the thump of a body falling in the night and a skateboard spinning loose across the concrete. It reminded me of the backwash of a wave, the sea retreating and pulling everything into its rightful place.
You'll be OK me old mate, I thought. Just a minor bump. You've the joys of love to flatten you yet... Then the night won't be so brilliant.
Only the night was brilliant. I walked home lonesome amongst many ghosts, felt the sinister city leaning in on me and the pain of existence in my stride. I took out my phone and read her message once more. I wanted to be cruel and bitter, tell her a few home truths. She had arrived with her wealth and riches and had left with them intact while I was in a worse situation than ever. I wrote many replies on that long walk home but I only sent one: No, thank you, it read, tonight I am half alive.
- - -
Two weeks later and I was back under the sea again, rocketing through the Channel Tunnel on the Eurostar. She never did help me get home, took those dirty credit cards of hers and a guitar and canvasses and oil paints and set up life in some shanty town in Southern India. I never thought of her much after that, had maybe just been lonely in those middle years of my life. But like the sea occasionally she'd come , and as the cabbage boiled away on the stove and the cheap potatoes softened and crumbled and turned to mush in their water I thought of her and I thought of the sea and I thought of the life to come.
Thanks as ever for reading and linking... Shane. X
Lines for Joe M ---->