23 August 2011

Don't Look Back

"Let's get out of London this weekend." Having thought about the prospect for the last few minutes as I finely chopped an onion for our shepherd's pie, I put the thought out to Liam, threw the contents of my chopping board into the sizzling saucepan on the hob and waited for a response.

Ahead of us was one lone, clutter-free weekend, which had escaped being made part of our extraordinarily busy summer schedule, which was seemingly packed, fit-to-burst with weekend weddings, birthdays and dutiful trips to see family.

"Sure, what do you have in mind?" Liam replied, washing the potatoes over the sink.

"How about Brighton?" I suggested.

We'd been to Brighton a couple of times recently. Lovely seaside town. I couldn't get enough of the place. I could just see myself pottering about the bohemian cafes, silver shops and buying rock and candyfloss along the promenade. Problem was, every time I visited I felt more inclined to move there. Liam, who insists regularly that 'we can't say we've lived in London until we've lived at least a year in Zone 2', avoids any chance I might find to whinge about central London. It was for this reason, I suspected, that his expression looked less than thrilled about the idea. 

"Kew Gardens?" He offered.

"That's not out the city - it's near Richmond." I threw the lamb mince into the pan, and poked it with a wooden spoon for a bit.

With no car, we were always going to be a bit limited finding somewhere outside of London, where we can return the same day, and still make the journey worth doing. After shooting down suggestions like, Southend, Bournemouth and then Cornwall- to which I received a snooty, ‘you do know that it takes seven hours or so by train, don't you?’- a thought popped in my mind.

"How about going back to Bognor Regis?" I asked, turning the meat with my spoon until the pink slowly disappeared and it turned a light brown. "You know, visit the little bungalow I used to go to when I was little...?"

"Bognor?" He asked doubtfully.

"- It's not as crap as you might think..." I replied defensively, before he could launch into a speech detailing all the reasons we shouldn't go to Bognor. "The place I went to was sweet and it had a lovely beach - large pebbles, not gritty sand in your socks." I added tactically. "There's Arundel Castle nearby... and Chichester a little way up. Besides, I think I'd quite like to go back, it's been almost eight years."

"Okay..." He said as he turned the gas on full whilst flicking the lighter with his thumb simultaneously. The hob jumped into action and he pulled his hand away quickly, before placing a lid firmly on the saucepan of potatoes.

"I've been thinking a lot about the old bungalow recently. I’m not sure why..." My sentence drifted off into my own thoughts for a while as I absentmindedly stirred the meat and stared pointedly at the wall tiles by the cooker. A couple of minutes of silence passed before I asked quietly, "Do you think a lot will have changed?"

"I don't know. But I should imagine so." Liam turned to face me. "Look, I don't mind going at all..." He wrapped his arms gently around me. "But are you absolutely sure you want to go back? Might not be as good as you remember."

It was a difficult one. Should you ever go back? 

What if I went back to the little white bungalow and the familiar smells and sights had not only lost their sparkle and excitement, but with my critical adult eyes, what if I cruelly focused on the cracks and not the charm of the place? I pondered quietly over what to do, weighing up the pros and cons throughout our shepherd's pie dinner (which turned out wonderfully), wondering right through a rather interesting documentary on seals, and by the time I was stood by the sink, brushing my teeth before bed, I still hadn't made a decision on what to do. So, as it's best to do with all rather difficult decisions, I slept on it.

I woke up bright and early on Saturday morning and pottered into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Sleeping on a problem always works (failing that it’s a good cup of tea). But before I'd even switched the kettle on, I was sure I knew what to do.


The train pulled into the station. I looked excitedly out of the window, and squeezed Liam's hand as the elaborate Victorian station roof came into view.

"We're here!" I squealed.

I'd been gazing out the window for the entire journey, watching the high rise buildings lower gradually as we'd left London, until you couldn't see buildings at all, just miles and miles of green, open fields. Upon my squeeze, Liam opened his eyes and pulled out his earphones, for a better look. Fumbling in my handbag for our tickets, we left the carriage, following the mass of Londoners who had also escaped London to see the sea, along the platform to the ticket barriers.

"Now let's get this straight. I'm not trawling 'round a million shops today. Okay?" Liam said as we walked down the hill towards the town. "We're here to get out of the city, don't forget."

"Okay... Maybe just a few." I winked at him.

We picked up a late breakfast; two coffees, a steak and ale pasty for Liam, the vegan sausage roll for me, and ready for the beach we headed down to eat them sat amongst the pebbles. Passing through a narrow side street, Liam stopped briefly outside a shop that was selling alternative posters and postcards.

"These look good. Do you mind if we stop for a minute?" He asked me. 

Taking his coffee from him so he could flick through the boxes that had been displayed outside the shop front, I resisted a sly comment pointing out that we were here to get out of the city- not shop, holding back purely in case we passed any jewellery shops later. Walking down the street slightly, I found a quiet spot near one of those cafes with the tables and chairs sprawled across the road and moved my attention away from Liam who was excitedly plucking out posters of The Smiths album covers, to watch Brighton go by.

I slurped from one of our coffees, glad I hadn't gone to Bognor Regis. I had promised myself not to mention once to Liam how much I'd love to move to Brighton; how it was so much more relaxed than London, how the shops were more quirky, how the sea air reminded me of those seaside holidays when I was little. I most definitely wouldn't mention to him (probably ever) how secretly I'd like to be a Brighton hippy; wear gigantic tie-dye trousers with incense sticks propped up in the pockets, become truly vegan and drink only peppermint tea. 

I'd decided that morning, to keep my rose-tinted spectacles very firmly on as I looked back to my childhood memories of Bognor Regis. The place itself was really quite unremarkable- and where we'd stayed - just a small village in West Sussex. The bungalow was just another home, the quiet beach like many others. It was my memories that were special, created during those precious times when my family was still a family, and we were all in love with each other. I felt the desperate need to keep those memories safe. I was afraid that if I went back, they'd be whitewashed over with unforgiving, dull tones of reality. I'd promised myself at eight O'clock that very morning as I’d placed my toothbrush back in its pot, to write a piece and keep them forever. 

The bell attached to the door of the shop rang rudely, and I turned to see Liam walk out carrying a large plastic bag, looking pleased with himself. 

"Ooh. What’d ya get?" I asked him eagerly, handing him back his half-drunk coffee with lipstick marks around the rim.

"Well, couldn’t really decide between this and The Smiths, 'Hatful of Hollow'... But eventually I chose Bob Dylan." He said, reaching into the bag and pulling out the poster he'd chosen and holding it up for me to see. "Thought it'd look great framed on the wall at home."

I don't know if you believe in signs, or meant-to-be's. I do. Liam doesn't. So I didn't say anything to him as he held it up proudly, I just smiled.

"It's brilliant." I said. "Just brilliant."

16 August 2011

Halcyon Days

The little white bungalow lay a short way down a narrow residential road on the same side of the road as the sea. If you were in the car, you had to drive 5mph so as not to hit the large rocks that had been placed every metre or so along the grass and lined beautifully manicured lawns, which led up to pretty seaside bungalows painted in off-whites, pale pinks and soft yellows. If you were walking down the road, you’d keep ever so close to the edge of the lawns, but taking care to not walk on the grass, mind – curtains twitched when you did that.

I always enjoyed the creeping 5mph drive as we arrived; it gave me a chance to see what had changed in the village. There were always the usual haunts that I’d hold my breath for, hoping that they hadn’t changed management - or worse - closed down in the year since I’d visited them last. First we passed the 'Olde Fish and Chip Shoppe' that made our usual Friday night suppers, next we'd pass the newsagents which had the best choice in pick-and mix sweets ever laid out, then finally the pitch and putt Crazy Golf just off the beach near the bright red phone box that looked as if it hadn't moved since the 1930s. It was only once I'd seen them all looking just as I'd left them a year ago, could I breathe a sigh of relief. Once I’d checked the really important things hadn’t changed, it was only funny when things turned out to be different. Just like when the Jewish family across the road bought new gnomes for their garden; along with some large, plastic red and white spotted fairy toadstools. At the time I thought they were just absolutely fantastic, and wondered why Mum couldn’t let us get some for back home.
The silver Volvo indicated right out of politeness, perhaps in case the neighbours were watching, then slowed to a stop just before the driveway. I jumped out quick from the back seat, before anyone else could, and raced up to the cast iron gates to open them. Their white paint had peeled slightly, and bits flaked off as I picked up the bolt. Shuffling awkwardly with my bottom sticking out, I pulled each gate back until both halves were flat against the hedges on each side of the drive. The Volvo swooped in and I stepped back, minding the snails that had left silky silver trails all up the path and loving the way the car tyres crunched the driveway as they rolled over the flints.
It always took ages for them to get out of the car. The three hour journey from back home meant their old legs had gotten all stiff.
“Right. Let's put the kettle on.” My Dad used to say, sighing heavily, and fumbling in his pockets for the house keys. But rather than waiting for him to open the front door (which would always take ages), I was racing my brother around the side of the house, past the bright red and yellow geraniums and purple pansies in beautiful rows along the front lawn, past the high privet hedge that separated us from next door and cast a cool shade on the side of the house, into the back garden with it’s perfectly mown lawns and those bright pink fuchsia plants lined up against the back door. We ran until we reached the very end of the garden, treading carefully amongst the roses and dodging the windfalls under the apple tree until we came to the garden swing. It was the most amazing thing about the garden. We didn’t see it’s slightly rusty frame, or notice the way the fabric smelt a bit musty, but climbed on carefully, and as we kicked off from the concrete below, we felt the breeze whoosh past our faces as we swung back and forth in the shade.
Before long, my Mum was loading each of her children with sleeping bags and pillows stacked in bundles so high that they couldn’t really see to dodge the snails who had ventured onto the stepping stones of the path that led to the front door. Praying there was no snail juice under my jellies, I pushed down the silver handle with difficulty and opened the mottled glass front door. The heat of the long porch always hit you, and that smell of musty deck chair covers that have been left to fade in the sun too long hung about for a couple of seconds until you got used to it. Delicate net curtains were pinned in place like bunting, but it didn’t stop the sun frazzling the seashells and dried flowers that lined the windowsills along the porch.
I scurried across the bamboo mats, and used my memory to guess where to place my feet as I stumbled up the few stairs into the livingroom, dumping the sleeping bags and running like a lunatic before someone else claimed my room.

My room was tiny, with pink trimmings and very narrow. The old metal bunk beds took up most of the space. Climbing up to the top bunk, the rungs would hurt the bottom of my feet so I'd hop up them quickly as if they were red hot, and jump onto the top bunk where the mattress would always sigh as I climbed onboard. Only someone as small as me could sleep in here as grown-up's shoulders brushed both the old wooden wardrobe on the right and the bunkbeds on your left as they walked in the door. It was the same little room my Mum had used to sleep in when she'd come to stay at Auntie Mary's bungalow, and the very same old bunkbeds too; though I should have imagined they were less rickety back then.
I liked to imagine Mum lying there, like I had in the early evenings; the bedroom door only slightly open so a slither of light could shine through from the hall. I loved to hear my parents pottering about the kitchen. I felt safe listening to sounds of the kettle boiling, the cups clattering and the biscuit wrapper being twirled tightly. Pulling my sleeping bag up to my chin, I'd lie on the top bunk in that dark room, my face lit up only by the slither of light, and listen. I'd fall asleep each night to the comforting murmur of the television on low in the living room, my mind full of the light laughter and applause of the studio audience.
Just down the road from the little white bungalow, only about a two minute walk, there was the sea. I spent hours playing on the long, pebbly beaches that stretched out for miles with absolutely no one to be seen, there was just the seagulls hovering overhead and the huge rockpiles that lay a little way out to sea, that became the ultimate place to catch crabs in shallow rock pools when the tide was out. Whenever the sun shone, we'd grab our buckets and go in search for 'sparklies', our name for those quartz-ridden pebbles that glittered like diamonds in the sunlight. We were miners, working until our backs ached from turning stone after stone, staying out late on the beach until the sun went down and the sparklies suddenly disappeared. A little way down the beach, a small broken jetty ran out to sea and when the tide was in, the twins loved to run along the slippery wooden slats, and with an almighty shriek launch themselves off the end into the sea, their arms clasped around their legs to see who'd splash the furthest. They'd strip off their costumes and run along the beach with wild abandon, picking up slimy bits of brown seaweed, draping it across their sandy bodies and race across the pebbles flinging bits at me, laughing when a seaweed slapped me on the backs of my legs.

"Come on, Lizzie! Don't be such a chicken!" My Mum would say, poking her head up from her book, before laying it down carefully on the tartan rug that had been spread across the pebbles in a vain attempt to make it comfy. I was stood rigid, poised at the very edge of the sea, as frothy waves lapped up and kissed the very tips of my toes. I had been watching my Dad and the twins in our new blow-up yellow dinghy out the corner of my eye for at least five minutes. My hand was placed firmly on my hips and with my right eyebrow raised as I stared, horrified at the metre or two of thick, black seaweed that I had to wade through before I could reach them.
It was only knee deep water, but I hated the way the seaweed clasped around your ankles, like it was going to catch you and drag you under, swelling around your legs so you couldn't see your feet - or even worse, what you might be treading on.
"There's just so much seaweed, I can't see!" I yelled back to her, digging my heels deep into the pebbles, and getting cross that everyone was now watching. "There might be crabs!"
The only way I ever reached the yellow dinghy was if my Dad carried me across, clinging like a limpet to his body, assured only slightly by a firm promise he would not drop me.

As years passed, the little white bungalow and everything connected with it stayed relatively the same as it always had. I of course, changed. The last time I sat on those high banks of pebbles looking out across the sea with my wooly jumper tucked over my nose, and the bottom of it pulled tight over my knees, I was sixteen years old. Absent-mindedly I had turned a couple of pebbles that lay by my feet, and there was a distant hope that I might see them sparkle, even though the sun was hiding that day. The sky was moody and the wind was strong, having built up momentum from chopping up waves and whipping across the sea. It sliced right through the loop holes of my knit-one-purl-one and reached into the far corners of every little part of me. I wrinkled my nose tightly and allowed the wind to lift me; hold all my memories, thoughts and dreams and take them away to be scattered all across the sea. I remember thinking it amazing how the wind caught my tears before they fell and whistled so loudly in my ears that as I cried, I couldn't even hear a whisper of it.