Trigger warning: reference to childhood sexual abuse in the context of witness and healing.
In high summer, when our days swim with light, and heat, it can be hard to remember midwinter. In the same way as adults, sometimes we often feel unreachably far from who we were as very small children. With the publication this July, of an essay that I wrote for Magma Poetry back in January, about my first two year old memories, I have been able to set these two sets of opposites side by side. My brief for the magazine, edited by Isabelle Baafi, Ilya Kaminsky and Lisa Kelly, was to explore solitude. I chose to document a three night writing retreat, staying in a seafront hotel in Worthing, more or less opposite the Normandy beaches below my French grandmother’s house that I visited every childhood summer from when I was two.
The essay grew from observations I made and photographs I took on the winter beach, responding to Worthing’s marine landscapes, and tides. I wanted to open myself to the acts of looking, and noticing, that are the foundation of a very young child’s self. Through them, we begin to build their relationship with the world, and form a sense of who we are and where we fit.
My creative intention was always to share the photos and diary entries through this blog when the Magma essay was published, to give readers access to the raw materials I was working with. My journey from London started out looking bleak. I passed through heavy fog on the South Downs, and then came out in the the aftermath of heavy rain along the coast. No sooner had I left my bags in the hotel room, however, than the huge sky began to clear. Straight away, I felt new and old energies entering me. Seeing the sand ripples left by the tide, early days rose up again. I was fifty-seven, wrapped up against the end of a midwinter afternoon in scarf and gloves, a thick winter coat and rubber boots. But I was also a two-year-old barefoot child dressed only in her swimsuit and rubber sandals. Together, through our shared consciousness, we registered the thrill of small waves breaking and frilling around our ankles, of wading through streaming seaweed, jumping over water channels streaming down the beach.
As I walked back down the beach towards the hotel, the sunset made the shallow tide pools to flame with colour – as if they were singing back the sky’s song. Climbing the stairs to my room, it seemed as if the natural world had opened itself to me in my time of need, and longing.
I stayed working and reading until high tide, just before midnight, then headed out to a world flooded with moonlight:
Nearly high tide no 1: January 19, midnight. The nearly full moon is looking down on the beach out of its single white eye, silvering the black waves. It feels as if the water is breathing. Clear blue sky. Intense cold. Frost coming. Wet shingle sparkling.
Hurrying down onto the beach the next morning, I used the low, vertical light to capture the mussels growing on the iron legs of the pier, the worm casts rising like twirling castles out of the sand casting tiny triangular shadows, before the water covered them. After an hour of walking and thinking alone, and swimming in memories, I climbed up the shingle to the Marine Gardens Cafe.
Surrounded by friends meeting, and couples enjoying breakfasts, admiring a lady cutting up a sausage on her plate, for two alert terriers beside her on the bench seat, made me feel I was in the presence of other lives. I began to write my way back in time. On my way back to the hotel room, the tide was rising, and I sat on the shingle to document it.
Thursday 20 High Tide
Sitting by the sea with my eyes closed, I hear the tide clink through the shingle. A long slow rattling pull back, then the landing thrashing of a wave crest and its rush upwards through the stones. The water dropping, the breath landing. The slow rattling pull back of exhalation. I try to sound-time my body to this in-out movement. Drawing the world in. Letting it out. Hearing the water rattle the shingle and gather its energy to rise up a little further.
I open my eyes to see the swelling that pushes the wave up closer to me each time and the swirl of the foam. As if the sea is heaving itself towards me, sliding up the beach in liquid movement. Further out the sun makes a triangular glitter path. Warm enough for the first time this year to feel it on my skin. I face myself into its energy. Say enter me. Enter me life force.
Close up the lace frill of breaking water. Curling over, massing in whale rises. Heaving and roiling. Covering the beach in wet kisses.
When I went into the hotel after the high tide I dropped back into writing. Three or four pages flowed, and the essay opened. Then it was time for the cafe on the Lido, with its checked plastic tablecloths, and view of the sea through the storm grills. By now, people were enjoying a mid-afternoon slice of cake. After, I walked out along the pier over the water, adding a vertical line to the horizontals I had traced up and down the seafront. The sun was behind the pier, and the wind was cold, but the light was golden.
Afternoon on Beach 20 January spoken into phone:
Four o’clock. The tide is sliding down the beach with barely a ripple. Out to sea, a huge flock of seagulls have landed. They’re just sitting on the water. Little white flecks. Shimmers catching the setting sun. The sun is gold and heavy, dropping down past the end of the pier. The water is gunmetal, turquoise, grey, aquamarine. The colours keep shifting. It will be minus 3 tonight and the cold is in the air already, biting my fingers through the gloves, making everyone wrap up. The low sun is catching pebbles, catching the shingle, catching the wooden groynes that stop the beach shifting. Layers of golden colour striping the beach and two women wading into the still water. Further out the wind turbines rise up like white exclamations marks. The sky is moody grey over Brighton. Golden to the west. The two swimmers have dipped down into the water. They are keeping their heads high, swimming out with confidence. The seagulls are turning golder as the sun drops lower. The wind turbines are glowing. The sun is catching them. The wooden groynes are golden stripes across the brown shingle. A child is balancing on one. His father is photographing him, holding this cold January moment when the sun is still high enough to see by at 4pm, when the pier is balancing on its metal stilts and the sun’s path is golden beyond it. When the rim of the sky is apricot fading to gunmetal.
On the way back to the hotel, my ears ached from the cold, but my head felt exploded by colour. Walking into the Marine Office to buy a tide timetable, I was shown a small tank of beach finds. Purple-green snake haired anemones tangled their tendrils in the artificial current. A cuttle fish rose out of the sand on the floor and shot out its tentacles for food. Weed billowed. I knew I wanted to create ‘Chalk’ as a space where people could experience a microcosm of my childhood through their senses as well as their minds.
On Friday morning the sand was shining again as the sun rose above the long low tide pools. Sitting in the Marine Gardens cafe, for toast and coffee, after walking the morning beach, I fell deeply into writing a darker memory, which I describe in the Magma essay. On my way back, I found two lumps of chalk on the beach and carried them up to my hotel room to put on the windowsill. They are cold to the touch, heavy, punctured by holes, the work of many events. I have taken them back to London.
Friday 21 high tide.
Yesterday I was on the beach recording the tide at sea level. Today I am in my fourth floor room. The water is aquamarine today – a clear pale green blue – and moving more friskily than yesterday. Seagulls surround a man as he takes his shoes and t-shirt off ready to swim He makes a star shape before entering the water. The waves are creaming and breaking up the shingle – full of energy. The man is waiting with his arms up then dives down at 1.13 into the high tide and swims parallel to the shore. The cold waves are lapping and caressing the beach and he is swimming strongly where I swam last summer. After a clear morning the sky has clouded over but there is a low gold on the horizon which is gilding the moving water. Pale blue, green, gold running up the land, agitated with movement all the way out to the horizon after yesterday’s stillness. Seagulls flying strongly at level with my window. After a grey two months there is gold everywhere as if to remind me that life is always present. The swimmer is swimming strongly down the coast. The waves are curling and breaking into discreet white froth, not wild ragged storm waves but their elegant midwinter companions doing the work of bringing the water up onto the beach and letting the sand flats shine out in Normandy. The swimmer is coming back doing a brisk crawl. He duck-dives down, immersing himself fully, doing somersaults, playing like a child in the freezing water before wading out. There is an immersion in vastness that art also requires – a surrender to something huger and not without risk, that can infuse you with a larger energy. Pulling on loose trousers and a t-shirt, he seems intensely alive going across the beach at speed to dry and warm up. The waves are less frothy now they are being called back to France, the work of travel moving the other way.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, after writing all day about my father, and reaching back deep into golden places with him which I thought I had lost, I woke very cold after dreaming that my mother had come for my two year old self and taken me from my grandmother’s house. Afterwards, when I tried to go back to that house, its door had been broken in and all the cupboards had been ransacked. The bathroom streaked with red. This is something I write about in more detail in the essay.
I got up on Saturday morning to a grey sky. My head was still heavy with tears with my eyes swollen – as if I had been crying in my sleep. These were tears which had taken more than half a century to be allowed to form. My time alone by the winter seaside had allowed me to go far back into my childhood and find a very difficult memory, which I write more about in the Magma essay.
I packed up my bag, and settled my bill, knowing that a part of my two year old self, who had been exiled from my conscious mind for decades, at last had her place again within me. The memory the dream gave me back was hard to receive, but I could have asked for no greater gift. As the year has turned from winter, through spring, into summer, this very small girl has continued to travel with me. I am more whole for her presence.
If anything in this blog has been difficult for you, the Mind website is a good place to look for help, or you could speak with your doctor.
If you would like to buy the Solitude issue of Magma it’s available here.
I will be reading from the Magma essay ‘Solitude as translucence’ live and online in Cardiff at 11.30 on Saturday 30 July at the Seren Books Cardiff Poetry Festival. Tickets for the event are £3.00 online or £5.00 live or you can buy a Festival Pass for all the readings over the three days from 29 to 31 July for £5.00 online or £90.00 live.