There are moments in my rushed and unimpenetrable life where I feel like the words ‘serendipitous’ or ‘blessed’ might actually apply.
Here I sit: beach in front of me, I can hear the wind strongly. There’s one of those huge pub umbrellas flapping to the side of me: sounds like it’s about to fall over and impale me; luckily I notice its bolted to the floor.
Seagulls ride overhead. I love seagulls: my favourite bird (second are pigeons; third are robins - I love what we have all around us). I love the cussed arrogance of seagulls – the way they just come and sit on the floor near me, and just look at me. Huge.
The sky is blue, the clouds are puffy, the sea is that English mossy green. Children screech. Waves break and froth.
What happened is that I was visiting Fry in Eastbourne and I got here early. It was such a warm and beautiful day by the sea, with so much clear light left in it, that I decided to walk along the front toward my mums, instead of getting a bus. Why go and sit indoors when I rarely get any time any more to go anywhere or do anything?
So I walked along the beach. And found a £20 note in the stones, just poking up, all crumply, edge blowing in the wind.
I’m sure there’s lots of socially responsible urgent things for me to do with that twenty; but what I’ve done is take myself for dinner.
I walked and walked along the beach, sometimes crunching along on the stones, sometimes on the path, until I came to a place called ‘The Beach Deck’. Exactly what I wanted: fish and chips with a view of the beach.
So I climbed the stairs, sat at a weathered table in the corner (with a good view of everyone else and the exit – natural paranoia), and I revelled. In being by myself.
No one next to me bouncing up and down, running away, having any kind of tantrum or hissy fit (about something more or less inexplicable); no one talking to me about buses, trains, stations, stops or lifts being out of order. Endlessly. What I can hear is distant conversations of holidaymakers (someone sitting alongside me at the next table looks like he could be Michael Palin’s brother). Family groups (blessedly far away, and the main one’s children have decided to bury one of their number under wet stones on the beach – so that’s all good, someone else’s children; someone else’s problem). Gulls calling. Waves breaking. I think the tide is coming in. The big umbrella still shaking and flapping.
The only thing that would make this any better is if Stanley was here – we used to do things like this, but we never get time and money simultaneously anymore. Maybe someday.
The waitress comes. I look at the menu, just loving the fact I have options – and I’m not cooking any of it. I’m having a thing for haddock recently, so order haddock and chips.
There are windsurfers out on the sea, wheeling round each other. There’s a brave soul out there, deep in, doing backstroke. He’s got flippers on.
I have this dim childhood memory: of being on a lilo floating on the sea close to the edge of the beach. I was catching and stopping on stones, one minute floating, the next beached again. I lay back and watched a perfectly blue sky, for ages. I phased right out. I realised I felt perfectly buoyed and balanced and smooth.
I looked round and had a horrific feeling of terror, my skin felt like it shrank on my body, all over. I was very far out to sea, getting pulled out further at a very quick rate. My mother was just a faraway dot on the beach, reading, her head nodding over her book. Which was weird in itself: I learnt my hypervigilance with keeping an eye on children from my mum – how come she forgot me in this instance? And where was my dad? All very out of character. Rare.
Anyway. I can swim, but the current here seems strong. I’m suddenly, all approx 7 years of me, scared shitless. I’ll be pulled out to sea and drown, and that’ll be me! Gone forever!
Then – in a moment deserving of a soundtrack – this 70 or so year old man, very crumply brown and sun wizened; and hard and muscly as the stones on the beach, pops up next to me in the water. Treading it, bobbing up and down like a gull, he says: “Fell asleep, didja gel?” I nod, petrified; it’s as close to the truth as might as well be.
“No worries,” he says, in this amazingly broad Oz accent. “Hold on now,” he adds, and without further instruction, puts his goggles back on, grabs the edge of the lilo and tows me back to standing up height in the sea. Singlehanded, doing some fancy side crawl, with breaths out to the side, face in the water half the time. He turns round, rinses his goggles, winks at me, says: “Go and have an icecream now,” and dives off, back out to sea, before I can even think of thanking him. I’ve said nothing.
I shall never forget that. My own personal Aussie saviour. Selkie man. Seems like the rest of my life should be predicated on this immense feeling of gratitude and fortunateness – and I always remember this incident when I’m by the sea, which is maybe why I’m always happier at the coast?!
The haddock and chips come. The fish is amazingly fresh. I’ve never tasted such light, flavoursome crumbly goodness. I must look a bit starved and savage if anyone’s watching, as I’m suddenly incredibly hungry, and wolfed the whole thing in moments, most unlike me. The salad was beautiful too. I actually get too full up to finish the chips.
The sun is bathing my head. I’ve drunk a pint of diet pepsi. I’ve eyeballed several seagulls. A woman has walked past with a flock, a herd, a huge amount of fluffy golden retrievers, all shiny and happy in the latening sun.
No one has wanted anything of me for over 4 hours. I haven’t had to placate/ distract/ bribe or otherwise slyly deal with a tiny egomaniac. Or shout at any. Or live my life by when they nap. Just me, the sun, the sea, the gulls, the windsurfers.
And now, you know what? I’m going to read my farfetched yet so far very enjoyable Dr Who book (thankyou Gary Russell). I may order another diet pepsi.
I shall sit here. Like a princess in control of her life. I often feel a bit envious when my friends post holiday pics of faraway places – PEACEFUL LOOKING PLACES. I feel envy for their time, their money, their self determination. I winsomely wonder when I shall (if ever) get any of that back.
But not now. Not this lovely moment. Belly full, just nicely full. Old couples strolling past hand in hand. Good book. Sun on head. Gratitude noted and felt. Serendipity of money found to buy this moment. Out of the corner of my eye: some other mother’s child keeps running away and refusing to sit at the table; she’s not going to get to eat her dinner like the other grown ups, she’ll be chasing that child till her food is cold and she’s more tired and more fed up…I am no doubt not entirely a good person for feeling an immense divine relief that this is not My Problem; because it usually is. Not now though…mmmmmm.
No. This lovely moment is mine. Me and my haddock. And the sea and the gulls.
So I put this pen down, and I be here and now and I read my book, with the waves and the wind at my ears and my side.