I know the first time I remember coming to Southwold because there’s a photograph of me and Macey buried up to our necks in the sand. I reckon my mum took the picture. We’re laughing, both with blond hair, just about teenagers. I guess we’re laughing because being buried in the sand is funny in a nervous kind of way. You’re pretty sure you can escape but the sand is heavy and you allowed yourself to be put there captive in the first place.
That photo would have been taken some thirty years ago now and I’ve not seen Macey pretty much since. I don’t know where I’d start if I saw him again. I’ve been a long time alive and lots has happened. I’d not even kissed a girl last time we spoke.
I keep coming back to Southwold, I reckon at least twice in each decade since I was here with Macey. And now I have come back again, wanting to swim in the sea in what may be the last days of summer. I have three days free and know the dunes here and that I can pitch my tent within five minutes’ walk of the beach. That there’s a good walk along the coast to Dunwich. There’s familiarity here but not overly so. Some of it is only half-remembered.
I’d arrived a couple of hours ago, into sunshine. Tent pitched I walk out across the dunes and look at the sea. I can’t jump straight in – the thing needs considering a while. It’s the colour of sage, the waves no more than ripples. No one else is in.
A middle-aged couple walk along the shoreline. She stops and picks up a shell or a stone and shows it to him. He pops into the breast pocket of his shirt and they walk on. This always happens. I can almost feel the weight of it bouncing against my chest.
The coast now clear I strip down to my trunks and head in up to my knees, count to ten then dive headlong in and it’s warm enough to need only a couple of splashed front-crawl strokes to acclimatise. Then I just bob around, willing away the aches of the drive up the A12 and anything else from before.
Twisting round to face the land I see three sandpipers dart past just inches above the waves between me and the shore, moving at a great speed without seeming to flap that hard, as if they’ve found an invisible tunnel of thinner air. Heads straight forward, flying in a dead straight line the way kingfishers do. Five cormorants fly drunkenly overhead.
Drying out in the dunes I watch a young couple in the sea. They giggle and show off to each other and part briefly and return as if dancing to the shush-shush-sheesh of the waves.
The second time I remember coming here was with Frank. We’d met at college in Harlow when I saw him walk through the refectory with a bootleg copy of Prince’s Black Album under his arm and asked him where he’d got it from.
If memory serves – and it doesn’t always – he’d said Oven Ready Records, which became our weekend destination, spending what little money we had from Saturday jobs and (for me, still) a morning paper round on Prince records, listening to the lyrics and each trying our best to do all he was singing about, with varying degrees of success.
Frank ended up marrying the girl I promised to remain faithful to when I went to Australia for a year after university but didn’t. They’ve a son now who’s older now than his dad and I were when we first met.
From photos I remember, we spent most of our time taking pictures of each other trying to channel James Dean and building a larger-than-lifesize woman out of sand, complete with buried beach balls for boobs, pebbles for nipples and seaweed for pubes. We gave her a name but I can’t remember what.
Dry now, I walk along the shingle and sand, towards the pier and the lighthouse, then up on to the dunes towards the start of the beach huts and the promenade where there are more people and a pair of juvenile turnstones peck between the groynes and sand castles and no one else looks at them.
I get to the pier. It’s longer than I remember and perhaps because the weather has become a little overcast seems a little sadder. Things have moved on. People are eating scallops on pretty salad leaves and fillets of fish without batter or chips outside the restaurant on the pier. One woman is drinking rose wine.
The amusement arcade is still there, although it feels it’s been squeezed in to make space for the restaurant. And it feels brighter, with fewer air hockey tables but still plenty of those shove-two-penny games where you try to send a hatful of coppers tumbling over the edge by dropping coins behind to push them along. The hope is that you get more out than you put in. What you do with any coppers won is now lost to me. Or perhaps I never won.
The other side of the restaurant to the arcade is The Under The Pier Show, hand-made, steam-punk thrift-store looking arcade games, the objects of which are variously to get on the property ladder, endure a modern package holiday, not be scared by a red-eyed hellhound, take a dog for a walk, and what appears to involve navigating a busy traffic roundabout on a zimmerframe. Further along outside are a series of magic mirrors that weird and warp the reflected sea/front and pier planks.
I end up outside the Lord Nelson in the suggestion of dusk, sitting on a bench overlooking the beach huts, letting my gaze catch on anything without judgement.
A woman in a black bikini kicks about in the sea in the mid-distance; a dog trots by; a middle-aged, bear-chested, white-maned, blue-eyed, sun-worn man steps gingerly from the pub and climbs aboard a golf buggy and pootles off as another man crosses his legs on the next bench and I wonder whether his sunglasses are reactalites and whether that old couple will show physical signs of affection, a hand held or fingers allowed to rest. I idle on the colour of the beer and notice how it glows a little from within. A gull changes course mid-flight, throwing down its legs as wind anchors and arching its wings against the breeze. The sun runs a strip of damson across the sage.
Unless I’ve missed any, the third time I came here was with The Boy and Mikey. This would have been perhaps a year after Frank. We got here in a red Volkswagen Derby we called, with more fondness perhaps than originality, The Derbs. The Boy had bought The Derbs from a mate for £50 and a quarter of tobacco.
I had a go on it once, before I’d passed my test, driving it in circles at Hatfield Forest car park until the accelerator cable got stuck so the pedal stayed down when I took my foot of it. I had to dip my toe under the pedal to lever it up so we could stop. This was how The Boy was forced to drive us the few miles home.
I don’t remember whether that was before our trip or not but in any event The Derbs got us to The Wold without fuss. The three of us spent the week giggling and making stuff up – words, characters, dumb games.
The photos I have are printed in sepia because that was an option if you used black and white film. I guess the thinking was that in order to capture some of the magic of the time, something other than a dull, flat colour reproduction would have to be used. And in some of them I’m wearing a Wonderstuff T-shirt so I know I must have fallen in love by then because I’d gone to see them in Manchester with her.
On the walk home I take one more swim and finish the remains of a bottle of wine I’d brought with me as the sun strains its last over the sand dune at my back.
A deep-sea ship ghosts past on the horizon. It’s darker out at sea and the ship is lit up like the Albert Bridge or a Gatsby party. It’s moving ever so slowly, sliding further into the distance, its lights’ intensity fading.
If I watch it for long enough it will disappear. It occurs to me to write a message for the empty bottle and toss it out, before it fades completely from view.