I spent that summer dragging my blue and white dinghy to the seafront, eating hot pizza from the diner, rubbing salt into my skin. It had become almost a minor celebrity amongst my friends. We’d hold beach parties where the dinghy was wrenched across pebbles as guest of honour. We went racing up the Adur and huddled on Hove beach in the breezy evenings, comparing seafaring stories and drinking beer.
Out on the waves, I’d watch Brighton dissolve into a spray of blinking lights, sunshine bouncing off Sussex Heights. The Palace Pier became a blue and white haze, tiny cable cars rotating in a blue sky. Inside, however, I felt more like the West Pier crumbling slowly into the sea, inhabited only by starlings, cockles climbing over my limbs. I’d sail as far out as I could go until it was silent, a yellow buoy slippery under my hand. I rowed to forget myself, to forget what lay back at the shore. The last thing I wanted to remember was what was happening to Mum.
One afternoon, I went out in the dinghy with a friend. It was a clear spring day; the hottest April we’d known in Britain for years. He took control of the oars as I sank back against black rubber, warming my face in the sun. We sailed out, the only people in the water. Soon we were going round in circles. The oars flapped like broken wings, the tide suddenly against us. After ten minutes of spinning, panic, he eventually regained control and we slunk back towards the shore, shaken and stupid. However, in the distance, a lifeboat was already sailing towards us, a noisy helicopter circling overhead.
These were clumsy days. I grabbed life where I could, and fell through its cracks again and again. Thirty-three and sailing about in dinghies. Almost thirty-four and finally learning how to ride a bicycle again. I flew over the handlebars on the cycle path along Hove Lawns one bright September morning, trapped under a tangle of metal; saved by three old ladies with purple rinses. In some people’s eyes, I was practically middle-aged. But I felt like a toddler with a cut knee, wailing for my mother.
My vision of life felt crooked, bent out of shape. A part of me couldn't see the point when all it came to in the end was one plastic tube, a ventilating machine and your own flesh and blood too terrified to look you in the eye. So instead, I swam.
There was nothing more to be done for Mum to try and make her better, no more hoping, no more reassuring words. And the gruelling years of listening to her say, "If only I could just get up and walk to the television set; if I could just drive to the Post Office; if I could just make myself a sandwich; if I could just have your father back home again" were over.
The wheelchair stood empty in the back of her bathroom. The hoist now hung limp above her bed. She was far away now in another bedroom, attached to drips and machines, staring out of a window at robins that hopped about the bird-table and pansies sprouting up from the ground. Which was the bird, and which, the flower, I could never be certain she knew.
Her words had left her to a silent fate, a whiteness of language, the two sides of her brain in eerie silence. She couldn’t ask for anything she wanted. Maybe I hoped that finally the ghosts had left her.
I do believe that at times during that summer, Hove seafront saved me. Whether crashing bicycles or adrift at sea, lifeboat men booming laughter in my direction; down there, I was in the midst of life, in the belly of colour, light, sound. Some nights cycling home, I’d hear nothing but my own wheels on the tarmac, the sea stretching out before me like a beaten sheet of metal, the moon, luminous, wandering.
The ideals of my twenties left me crashing and burning in my thirties. I’d become so tired of the endless bullshit, the friends who sharpened their knives, the disappointing lovers. How many men would pass through my eyes before they’d finally grow dark and tired, before I could no longer see, before the mechanisms of sex ground to a halt somewhere between my vulva and my upper ribcage? Before all that I wanted became too much, too impossible, dreaming even higher, craving even more until I was nauseous, an excess of life in the bloodstream, mainlining experience, unable to deal with its consequences?
I didn’t realise it then, but those long summer months of survival down at the beach, flitting from England to Wales and back again, were the preparation for a major change in my life. My ideals had swum away, no religion was going to prevent me from being alone and no lover either. The only thing that closed the gap inside of me was writing. It was then that I understood the world again; it presented itself in colours. I staked my game on it; I put in all my chips. And it was worth it, for those brief seconds when the sky was luminous again and I was permitted to walk on the inside of language. I saw my mother lying before me on her white, sheeted bed, and putting pen to paper, I could articulate my love for her more clearly than ever. Those moments, I was content. The rest was just a ticking clock.