Talking Location With author Felix Francis – ST MORITZ
‘The Return’ by Janet Few – first prize winner in our ‘Sense of Place’ Creative Writing Competition
13th December 2020
Janet Few is an historian, writer and lecturer who inhabits the past; she has an international reputation as a genealogist. When not immersing herself in history and heritage, she enjoys exploring the countryside’s flora and fauna. As an historical interpreter, Janet appears as her seventeenth century alter ego, Mistress Agnes.
The horizon was pregnant with memories. Jenny gazed across the dunes to Bamburgh Castle’s sandy stone, as she had done more than forty years ago. This beach was the backdrop to her youth. The intervening years seeped away and she was once again an uncertain child, clutching her father’s hand, jumping the freezing white waves, with the tide rolling in from the North Sea and swirling around their ankles. She could feel her father tightening his grip as the current’s strong pull threatened to sweep her from her feet. Then, she was older, ungainly, shielding ice-cream cones from the sand-laden wind, draping elaborate sandcastles with seaweed pennants and pressing in precious shells for windows. Buying the ubiquitous paper flags from one of the gift shops that ringed the war memorial roundabout. The Union Jack, the Welsh harp, the three lions. There had been a fourth flag though, always four but the final image had been ripped from her memory, as the flags had been torn from their wooden poles by the fierce gusts eddying across the dunes. The wind blew today, as it had done then. Now though it held an autumnal chill, whereas the breezes of those 1970’s summers had been a welcome respite from the sun’s intensity.
Seahouses was integral to her past; it had borne witness to her metamorphosis from awkward girl to nascent woman. Every August they had holidayed here. For Jenny, the town was synonymous with melting sticky lollies that left lipstick rings round mouths, fish and chips eaten from soggy newspaper packages, sandy toes and sun-peeled skin. Untroubled, happy days, that ended with her being carried from the darkening shore on her father’s shoulder, her head drooping with satisfied exhaustion. Nowhere else spoke to her of replete childhood like Seahouses.
The small town clung to the Northumbrian coast, with a tenacity that mirrored the determination of its inhabitants. To the child that was Jenny, it was a magical place, one that only existed whilst they were there. Surely time would be suspended when they left and the town would wait patiently to be re-awakened on their return. Return they did, faithfully, each summer, taking up residence in the same grey-stoned guest house. The smiling landlady grew stouter and more lined with the passing years; yet she was familiar, comforting, as much a part of the landscape as the dunes, with their spiky marram grass and fine white sand. Now they were staying in a Travelodge a few miles away in Bamburgh; predictably identical to similar establishments across the country, soulless and bland.
She had been surprised how Seahouses had spread, stretching its tentacles along the road to Bamburgh in an encroaching row of second homes and holiday lets. Already, in late September, many had been abandoned for the season. She welcomed the familiarity of the Lifeboat Station. The Co-op, where her family had purchased bottles of lemonade and packets of crisps to sustain them until tea-time, was barely recognisable under its new façade. The pitch and putt course of her memory now sported crazy golf obstacles and a garish yellow sign.
The 1970s spoke of endless sun and sand scratched skin; with screaming gulls and a succession of lumpy guest house mattresses. Then, Seahouses had been a bustling, happy place, with sea-food stalls, brightly painted beach huts and fishermen landing their catch. Today the town wore its woebegone face bravely but the air of dejection was dispiriting. Paint peeled on window frames and discarded polystyrene take-away cartons battered against dusty walls. Long-closed gift shops displayed faded stock; grubby stuffed puffins lying on their sides, racks of curling postcards and out of date calendars. Few holidaymakers braved the beach as the year tipped into autumn.
She had brought her family here on a whim. After so long away, somehow it had seemed the right time to return. Maybe, as her body began to betray her, a sense of her own mortality had prompted her to revisit the town and the memories that it held.
“Granny, Granny, you aren’t watching.”
Dutifully, her eyes were drawn to the present, as her granddaughter, Jodie, posed and the phone caught the image that would, if deemed acceptable, ricochet across the social media feeds of the girl’s friends for a space and be forgotten. A fragment in time, there momentarily and then gone. Jenny thought of her own captured images, taken in that very spot; reflections that reverberated through the years. The colour photos, out of focus and with an orangy tinge, then, later, the 35mm slides that still rattled, unscrutinised, in the box at home. They depicted her family in typical holiday mode, with wind-whipped hair and reddening shoulders. There were pictures of the castle, of the harbour and of slanted horizons, taken on boat trips to the Farne islands. This abandoned collection contained no reminder of Derek. She had tried to persuade him, her Kodak Instamatic swinging from her slim wrist.
“No hinny,” he’d said, “why’d you want a picture of me? Break your camera that would. Anyway, I’m here, you don’t need to take no picture.”
In many ways it had been true because Derek had always been there, tucked away in the recesses of her mind but brought into sharp relief by the return to the place where he belonged. There was a poignancy to the late September season. A few lingering swallows still whirled amongst the more boisterous birds. Derek had patiently taught her the names of the birds, to her they had all been just gulls. The terns, the fulmars, the gannets, the razor bills and the chubby puffins with their gaudy beaks. Then closer to shore, oyster catchers, eider ducks, turnstones; strange that she could remember them still. Smoke curled from chimneys, as the inhabitants lit woodburners against the chilling air. The vibrant rose-bay willow herb of the summer had given way to fluffy seed heads and the rowan berries shone. Curling brown leaves danced and mingled with the litter left by intruding visitors. The summer, like her childhood, was irretrievable, except in the realms of her mind.
Her daughter’s resentful voice, admonishing Jodie, cut across Jenny’s recollections, “It’s September for God’s sake. You can’t prance around in a bikini up here at this time of year.”
The past echoed back, thumping at Jenny’s conscious like a physical blow. She could hear her own mother’s saying, “Get dressed for goodness sake. I know it’s been the hottest summer on record but it’s not like it’s Majorca you know.”
No, not Majorca, it would never be Majorca and late September was not like the endless August days of her childhood, when, through the prism of her memory, the sun had always shone. One year, the year of that final Seahouses holiday, stood out sharply. What a summer it had been, 1976. Not the year of the exuberant Silver Jubilee, that was still to come. By then they had inexplicably abandoned Seahouses for a package tour to Torremolinos. The summer of ’76 was unique and not just because of the heat. It was the summer that she had met Derek.
Derek was different, not like the boys she knew from home, with their nasal London accents, their collar-length hair and incipient moustaches. Boys who sported flowery shirts and afghan coats and smelled of Brut and joss sticks. Derek was different, he was rooted in this place as much as the skyline, with the ruddy stone of Bamburgh Castle standing sentinel over the bay. The silvery breakwaters, the raucous terns, the smell of freshly caught fish and Derek with his sun-warmed skin and lop-sided smile. It was impossible to imagine him in any other setting.
The frenzy of the 1970s had left Seahouses untouched. The wave of change had been halted by a breakwater of tradition that preserved decades past. In the Seahouses of 1976 you weren’t a hippie or a skinhead, you were just a boy, a boy her friends would have ridiculed for being square. A boy who was as timeless as his surroundings.
The man grimaced as he rose from the rotting bench. A bench had stood in this spot for half a century. Replaced by the council periodically as the vandals wreaked their toll but still their bench, still with that same view. He could have left after his apprenticeship, taken that job in Newcastle, gone to Australia maybe, as a £10 pom with his mate Mark. Yet he had remained here where he could return to this bench, where the view remained unchanged and brought the very scent of her to mind. He was always expecting to catch a glimpse of the fine sun streaked hair that reached to her waist, the eyes that reflected the sea’s hue, startling blue blending to flinty grey. Sitting here in the sunshine, already weakened by autumn’s advance, he could feel her sun-blessed skin under his eager fingers once again. As hesitantly, tentatively, he drew her to him for his first kiss. They say you never forget your first kiss and it was not just the kiss itself. For him it was bound up with the sound of the crashing waves and the wheeling gulls, the sticky salt-laden air and the rough surface of the bench on which they sat as the sun went down.
In his imagination, she returned to him now and again, his Jenny. She walked with him along the shore, as she had done then. They had avoided the town with its invasive holidaymakers; the fractious children, the day-tripping teenagers, up from the city, their transistor radios blaring out Abba’s Dancing Queen. He had had no need of a dancing queen, he had had his Jenny. Together they had found quiet spaces to watch the sea-birds. They had walked the dunes towards Budle Bay and the lanes where the wild flowers set the hedgerows aflame. Golden days passed. The flowers faded and the swallows gathered on the telephone wires. Then, like the swallows, she’d been gone.
“I’ll be back,” she’d said, “back next summer. We always come to Seahouses.”
They hadn’t promised to write. He wasn’t much of a writer anyway. They hadn’t even exchanged phone numbers. How could they phone, with parents catching every word as they stood in hallways? Either that, or they would wrench open the heavy door of the red phone box, a prison that reeked faintly of urine, with wet cigarette butts strewn on the floor. No, they had no need to phone, it had been enough that she had said she’d be back. He would wait and somehow he had. He’d waited all these years. There had been other girls of course who had held his mind for a season but never quite gripped at his soul. So, he came most days and sat on the bench and stared at the sea, or he walked on the cliffs, ever more slowly as the years passed. He exhaled deeply as he stood. His back reminded him that he’d overdone the gardening the previous day, that he was no longer young. The weakening sun flickered over the sea, dazzling him for an instant and he swayed slightly. He’d risen too swiftly again. He put his hand on the back of the flaking wood to steady himself. He blinked. She was there. There after all these years, just as she had promised. There was something indefinably different about her but it was unmistakably her, her smile, her hair, the tilt of her head. She had come back to him. He could not process why she was still young, still on the brink of womanhood, as she had been when he had last seen her. He glanced at his own stiffening fingers, his blemished skin. No, time had not stood still but his Jenny was forever young.
A cry of greeting halted on his lips as he realised that something was wrong, The girl, Jenny, yet not Jenny, leaned on the railings just as his Jenny had done, gazing out towards the islands, her dreams of the future etched in her far-away eyes. He didn’t notice the woman who stood a few yards from the girl. A woman whose gaze was also on the sea. A woman whose short fine hair was snagged by the wind, hair that was streaked with grey. The woman’s eyes were moist behind her glasses, yet they were eyes that reflected the colour of the stony grey sea.
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