I must go home. The thought nags me all day, and by the early afternoon it will not let me rest. I sneak away from the office early, and run down to my car.
I drive east toward the coast. It is not long before I am on that high, snaking road that I remember vividly from the days when my brother and I would be sitting in the backseats, arguing about whose tape would be played on the stereo or else asking again and again how long it would take until we got to wherever we were going.
Before long I turn from the dual carriageway onto the thinner road that leads to the sea, an almost unbroken line to Eastbourne, where my brother was born two decades before. I feel as though I am being drawn back — back to the ancient pier and promenade where as children we had walked almost every morning, back to the grey terrace where we once lived. The past has its own peculiar gravity.
I slow down to navigate the succession of roundabouts that make up the northern perimeter of the old seaside town, and as I drive I realise that part of me longs to believe in the idea that we are guided by spirits, angels or other supernatural forces who might transform the most random of coincidences into good fortune. I sometimes think that guardian angels were first dreamed into existence as shadows of those demons that are said to coax people toward one more mouthful, one more drink, one more night or one more wager, for both of them are the product of that urge to convince ourselves that we are not responsible for our lives — neither our successes, nor our failures and mistakes.
By the time I reach the seafront, thick grey clouds are being summoned up from the blurred line where sea meets sky. Since there is little point turning back now, I leave the car in a small car-park close to the beach. Here there is a deserted café comprised of a few plastic tables with faded technicolour carousels fluttering in the breeze. I decide to walk the rest of the way along the strand into the town. Yet as I set off I am guided by some shadow, some irrepressible force suddenly pushing and tugging me in directions I would not usually have considered. Indeed, for a few seconds it feels like my shadow and I have somehow switched places and that it, not me, is now leading the way down the street with myself tethered behind.
My shadow and I make our way west along the thin path that weaves along above the shingle, passing a number of ice cream vans and bathing huts while the frothy waves rage against the shore. It is not long before the path curves sharply inland and the long line of hotels and guesthouses come into view, their whitewashed façades rising imperiously over the beach, as though together they make up the outer walls of a great fortress designed to protect the land from the furious whims and impulses of the sea. Bay Lodge, Ivydene, East Beach, Sea View, Atlanta. Despite the discount signs in the windows and the new coats of paint, it looks as though many of them are unchanged since the time they first opened their doors to gentlefolk escaping the heat and noise of the city. That was back when the cool and invigorating sea air was thought to cure almost any ailment.
Some way ahead I can see the carefully-tended carpet gardens. Lined up before them stood lonely postcard stands set beside empty Punch and Judy kiosks and stalls selling plastic buckets and spades, wind-spinners, rubber rings, inflatable dinghies and tooth-chipping sticks of rock. All this familiar paraphernalia, however, strikes me as somehow unreal, as though all the items on display outside the stalls are little more than props left behind by some travelling theatre company who had, one morning, departed in haste. Eastbourne is a town that has not quite managed to shake off the archaic connotations of the Edwardian seaside holiday, and my mind is soon filled with images of red-faced men wearing straw boaters and daring ladies dressed in cumbersome, knee-length bathing costumes. How is it possible that we are able to feel nostalgic for something that we ourselves have never experienced? I have no idea, but it is a feeling easily awakened by the sight of black and white postcards of dapper young men with rolled-up trousers standing awkwardly upon the sand.
It was close to two hundred years ago that the new railways first made it possible for the urban poor each summer to leave behind the cotton mill, factory or colliery and journey to the coast. The signs and posters on the shop-fronts and stalls dotted along the shore bear testament to a time when families would save for many months for their annual two- or three-day holiday at the seaside: donkey rides, penny arcades, deck chairs for hire, paper cones of freshly-picked cockles, pink candy floss, a fun fair with dodgems, the camera obscura at the end of the pier. Unable to afford the luxurious guest houses on the promenade, most of these families would have made their way through the maze of terraces to the bed and breakfasts peppered around the old playing parks. And it was here, in the backstreets, that my brother was born.
He was a winter baby, born on the 20th of January – a day of frosty winds and high, storm-harried tides. It was the dog-eared year of 1984, less than two months before the start of the Miners’ Strike. He was a small, colicky baby, brought home to a small, draughty terrace whose windows thumped against their panes every time the wind stirred.
As I walk on along the seafront towards the pier that can now be seen jutting out into the foamy water, I try to remember when I was last in Eastbourne. It must have been more than a decade before, perhaps even closer to two, and the last trip I can recall was when my brother and I had been taken by our grandfather to play in the penny slot machines on the pier and attempt to enlarge his already impressive collection of copper coins. The sickly smell emanating from the numerous deep-fat fryers being used to cook ring-doughnuts on the boardwalk hung about the arcade, and there was a dense red carpet that whispered beneath our feet as we wandered between the machines. On special occasions we would head out from the arcade toward the end of the pier, making our way past the poster shops, glassblowers, fish and chip outlets and tattoo parlours to take a ride on the clunky ghost train that stood beside the entrance to a nightclub. The door to the club was always padlocked shut when we passed by in the middle of the afternoon, and this made it more mysterious than the ghost train itself, especially after my brother hazarded a guess that locked inside were the demons and phantoms that had grown too dreadful to be let loose within the ride next door. It did not surprise me to learn, a few years later, that during the war that very same building, which served as a theatre long before it became a nightclub, had been emptied out and filled with machine guns, as a last bastion of resistance against Hitler.
At the entrance to the pier, the sound of children fighting mixes with the shrill calls of the seagulls hovering in wait for a passerby to drop a chip or ice cream. Beneath these sharper sounds I can just about make out the whirring ebb and flow of a Wurlitzer organ, and the murmur of the water upon the shingle. I cannot bring myself to walk over onto the decking and down toward the bright and swirling lights of the arcade – my childhood outings to the pier had too often ended with me feeling cheated. I used to hold on to my share of the coins as tightly as I could, studying the machines carefully to try and work out how long a penny might take to fall to the first level, while also looking to see which of the miniature mountains of coins wavering on the ledge looked most precarious. Once I had made my choice, I would take out one coin at a time and attempt to feed it in at the optimum moment, praying that it would push as many other coppers as possible over the precipice below. Given the care with which I worked, it was all the more galling to see that though my brother took handfuls of coins out of his pot at a time and shoved them as quickly as he could into any slot within his reach, he was frequently rewarded with an avalanche of pennies. I could only conclude that he was somehow blessed, a judgement that now appears ridiculous, not least because looking back upon his life the one constant appears to be his perpetual battle against that strange thing we call luck.
I take a deep breath, stand up from the bench and turn away from the rickety old pier. Whitewashed guesthouses and haughty old hotels loom up in front of me. I have absolutely no idea which direction I should head in, though figure that as long as I keep the sea behind me I ought to be all right.
I follow a zebra-crossing over the road and away from the beach, my pulse quickening at the thought that I might find our old house. Even though we had only lived there for two or three years when I was small, I hope that the same strange intuition that has taken me this far might somehow lead me back. I have a sense of it in my head: a cramped terrace where my dad kept his bike in the front hall in order to ride to work each morning; where you had to wiggle the television aerial for hours to pick up a signal; where the yellowing carpets matched the yellowing wallpapers; and where a bus stop could be seen from the front window so that we might run out just in the nick of time to get a lift into town.
I pass behind one of the larger guesthouses onto a narrow street that appears to be made up almost exclusively of chip shops, cramped and dimly-lit pubs, betting-shops, small arcades, bingo clubs and pool halls. From the outside the few people I can see within look uniformly bored and restless. After a few hundred yards I turn a corner and soon find myself on a wider road where most of the houses are flanked with tall and weathered hedges, behind which almost nothing is visible. Though I have little idea where I am in relation to our old home, I do my best to focus only on the path ahead and not the doubt slowly eroding my faith in the possibility of finding the house where we had shared our very first midnight picnic.
Over the rooftops ahead of me I can see the thickly-wooded hills that for centuries have looked down upon Eastbourne. Dark clouds hover precariously over the range, though for now it looks as if they are hesitant to cross the invisible border that separates the town and the surrounding countryside. I push on, suddenly reminded of the ancient rituals that rural families in this area once performed to make sure they would be blessed with good fortune for the coming year. When my grandfather was a child, there were still large groups of men who went wassailing around the time of Old Twelfth Day, a celebration which happens to fall only two nights before my brother’s birthday. In Sussex this tradition was more often referred to as ‘Howling.’ The howling boys, making their way between the many local farms and orchards, would often ask for sixpence in return for ensuring a good crop would grow in the coming season. Their leader would usually be dressed in an outlandish costume comprised of many mismatched and multi-coloured patches sewn together into a large and loose-hanging cloak, topped off with a large hat bearing the image of a rosy-red apple. The villagers who followed him often carried with them makeshift instruments, such as cow’s horns and lengths of gas piping, on which they would blow to announce their approach and frighten away any and every evil spirit.
Once the group had formed a circle around the largest or the oldest apple tree, they would begin to beat it with sticks, after which they would pour a little ale onto its roots to placate the gods who watched over fruit trees. Next they would join together in a song to instruct the roots to stand fast, the top to hold well and every twig and bough to bear the best of apples. Finally the leader would give the command to raise the horns and to holler, which they did raucously for many minutes to complete the howling ceremony. If they were not given a few small coins for their troubles, the howling boys might be invited into the farmer’s kitchen and offered mugs of cider and biscuits in recompense, after which they would journey on to the next farm in the village. In some areas, gangs of wassailers would even fire guns at the trees to wake them from their slumber, and in others they put pieces of hot toast in the branches. The one constant in each ceremony was the underlying belief that the earth offers us the chance to start again. Wandering half-lost through the backstreets of Eastbourne, I am a howling boy.
I walk on down another road of high-backed houses, making my way further from the beach and so drawing closer and closer to the hills rising up in front of me, all the while searching still for that small terraced house. Though I try to call back recollections of our time there, I find my memory of the few short years we stayed in Eastbourne shadowy and full of blanks. Whenever I try to conjure up the day my brother was brought home from the hospital and entered my life for the first time, a picture appears in my mind of the tiny, wrinkled child being carried through the door. He is not dressed in baby-grows and warm blankets to ward off the last of the winter chill but wrapped instead in old sheets of newspaper, just like the greasy portions of fish and chips for sale upon the pier and all along the seafront. This howling boy was different.
The sky is, by now, almost completely dark, with the silhouettes of the trees at the very top of the hills ahead hoarding what little is left of the light. I pull my jacket tight against the wind. On any other day I might take the worsening weather as a sign that I am being warned off, that the gathering clouds are cautioning me to return to the car and leave the past unstirred. But I keep on walking, determined to prove, both to myself and, indeed, to my brother, that our Eastbourne, the Eastbourne of our childhood, has not been lost.
I wander past endless terraces, all the while clinging onto a memory of the small bedroom where my parents first set down that little alien, still blotchy and red with creases. I remember that this howling boy had screamed, without pause or respite, every night for the first month of his life. At first I found it frightening and upsetting that my own mum and dad could have brought something so wild and untamed into our house, and when the savage began to cry I did my best to stay as far away as I could. However, I could not temper my curiosity and would sometimes creep in to peer at the alien between the wooden bars of his crib. Yet when I finally grew bold enough to reach out to him, I discovered that if I placed my hand on his round, wheezing stomach, the tears would suddenly stop and the tiny blue eyes would blink open and stare at me as though it was I who had suddenly appeared from some distant planet. For a time I felt as if with this simple touch I had acquired some kind of magic power.
The shore is far behind me now, but the smell of it still carries through the streets and hangs about the alleys leading down between the houses. I study each building in turn, but I can find none that jog my memory.
Slate-grey clouds fill the sky — the streets have emptied out, rain is clearly on its way. I should seek shelter too but have already passed the Lamb Inn, the Windsor Tavern, the Prince Albert, the Waverley, the King’s Arms and, indeed, the Black Sheep. The wind is tugging at my clothes. The rain starts as I turn another corner. Within minutes it is blurring the yellow glow of the streetlights, and I try desperately to remember the way I came; but once darkness falls the streets of a town begin to wind in upon themselves. I will not, then, find the house now, not in the dark and the sudden downpour.
As I break into a jog, the mist and drizzle melt away, and in their place I see my brother back in the room we shared somewhere in this seaside town. The rain is frantic as I run back through the streets, attempting to retrace my steps and recover the seafront and the warmth of my car. My clothes are soaked and my wet, bedraggled hair is slapping against my face. All the landmarks I saw on my journey inland have changed shape – the pubs, fish and chippies, bingo clubs and pool halls, betting shops, boarded-up cafes and newsagents. I hurry on through the rain, wishing that I all those years ago I had left a trail a breadcrumbs to lead me back.
Then suddenly, up ahead of me, a great crack of lightning draws a slim silver fissure through the night sky. Instantly my head is emptied of worries and regrets, and is filled instead with an image of my brother shrieking and laughing as he pointed out of our bedroom window in the old Eastbourne terrace at a storm blown in from the ocean. Every time a storm began we would haul the curtains open and lie on our bunkbeds, both keeping up a steady stream of conversation as part of a pact that we would help each other stay awake so that neither of us would miss one of those strange and magical moments when our bedroom would be lit up by the blinding flash of lightning. As soon as we saw it, the brief spark of light so powerful that it remained visible even when we closed our eyes, we would fall silent, waiting for the accompanying heavy-percussion of thunder to ring out, both of us counting beneath our breath to measure how close the storm was to our house.
I am now running through the storm, memories of our cramped, shared bedroom of ours spurring me on, and leaving me no time to puzzle at the strange fact that the lightness that suddenly lifts my body depends upon so little. As I run I count the seconds, just as we used to do together, calculating the distance between the centre of the squall and the puddles I am now splashing through. Though my clothes are sloshing heavy and wet against my skin, and though the rain is smarting my eyes, I am almost giddy at this recollection. And so I push on, faster still, through the downpour, recklessly heading towards the eye of the storm.
I sprint half-blind through the deluge, the fastest I have run since sports day at school so many years ago. I would not be able to stop running even if I wanted to. My shoes are wrecked and even my socks are now sodden, while my lungs draw wet, ragged breaths; yet despite everything I cannot prevent a smile from spreading across my face. By the time I reach the seafront I can see the carnival lights of the pier stretching out into the crashing waves, the stately guesthouses waiting for their guests to return, the straggly gulls being harried by the wind, and just a few stray walkers caught out in the rain battling with untameable umbrellas. I am now racing against the thunder and lightning, daring them to try and catch me, some unknown force spurring me on as I chase long-flung shadows across the shore.