Guapa was a bright yellow, 28-foot long sailboat that my father kept moored in the river outside the Sussex Yacht Club. Ready to cast off with the tide running out, I was stationed at the bow, lying on my stomach with a long boat hook holding onto the mooring buoy. Pa started the engine, my best friend, Sue, settled onto the hard seat in the well, and when my father yelled at me I unhooked us from our buoy. This moment was nerve-racking. If the engine stalled, the yacht would be adrift, which is why it was a very good thing the tide was running out. Just upstream from our mooring a low footbridge spanned the river: if we should drift up there on an incoming tide, our mast would catch the bridge and we would turn over and possibly sink—right in front of the club members on the terrace, drinking their pre-Sunday-lunch gin and tonics.
I shuddered, remembering the time I hung onto that buoy for too long; the yacht motored away but I held on grimly with the boat hook until I was pulled overboard into the deep mud. I staggered out like the monster from the deep, dripping black ooze and stinking. Luckily nothing so undignified occurred on the day I had invited Sue along and soon we were chugging down the river and across Shoreham harbour. Sue moved up to the bow, where she sat very upright, her long, highlighted hair streaming out behind, looking like one of “Neptune’s wooden angels” as the old female figureheads used to be called. She looked older and much more glamorous than sixteen, which we both were. I was jealous of her looks, even though I was much better at doing things like sailing and riding horses.
As soon as we moved out past the end of the harbor wall, Guapa started to buck and plunge and Sue hastily moved back down into the well, looking scared. I helped Pa raise the mainsail and he turned off the motor, its staccato roar giving way to the hiss and slap of waves that grew minute by minute into mountains. Guapa responded to the wind and heeled over; I hastily explained to Sue that this was intentional. She sat very still and nodded, her hair now winding across her pale face.
Heading east, parallel to the coast, the swells caught us somewhere between broadside and head on, lifting the bow and twisting the body of the boat with a nasty corkscrew motion. The depths glowed bottle green, the waves topped with scummy manes, and the wind hurling salt that grazed my cheeks. Hoping my father wouldn’t start barking orders as if he were a real sailor instead of a somewhat inept amateur, I climbed along the cabin top and settled in front of the mast, holding on to a stay in case of a rogue wave.
We rode the ocean. The beginning of a buck gathered its force under me, the horse full of oats and playing with the bit. My seat bones dug into the varnished deck and the buck shuddered; an eager head reared up, paused in the wind for a few heart-stopping moments, and slammed down into a trough. The English Channel had become Aintree or perhaps Churchill Downs.
Now Poseidon recalled his origins as an aristocratic Indo-European horse-god, long before the world was divided by lot and his two brothers received the sky and the underworld, leaving him lord of the sea. He bounded forward, leaping and swooping. My legs gripped his muscular body as we skimmed across shades of green; we pounded rolling hills; flecks of froth flew. Manes and tails swung like ropes. Flanks heaved. Planks groaned. Ribs strained to open wide.
My blood must have been singing but I couldn’t hear it over the wind and the crashing of the hull. The sail was tight and full, snapping occasionally when the wind veered. I let go of the stay and rolled with the motion. I yelled at the approaching seas, the sound whipped away into the turbulence. Water horses were everywhere. Could they have been the embodiment of pure joy?
* * *
I joined the navy to see the sea
And what did I see? I saw the sea.
I saw the Pacific and the Atlantic
But the Atlantic isn’t romantic
And the Pacific isn’t what it’s cracked up to be…
At Miss Isaacs dance studio, we children put on a show once a year. When told I was too tall for ballet, I switched to tap, which I liked better. The shoes for one thing: they were chunky and noisy, and didn’t hurt my toes. In the school’s show when I was six, I became one of a group of undersized sailors, globe trotting around the stage as if we were already Royal Navy chaps, our red shoes curiously out of place with our blue uniforms and crisp white collars. We danced with our hands clasped behind our backs and toes kicking forward, our ragged stamping trying to keep pace with the Irving Berlin song.
That dance routine still clicks through my memories as if I were always joyfully connected to the sea. Briny experiences merge into one another as surely as the world’s currents circle the globe, connecting large and small oceans, while in the background that perky, nautical song keeps tapping along.
Some fifty years later, I sat on the long stretch of sand at Nehalem Bay, Oregon, balanced on a driftwood log, with my old dog, Perdita, lying beside me. We both gazed out at the water, calm at low tide and disturbed only by the occasional splash of a cormorant, as it straightened the question mark of its black neck and dove down for a perch or rockfish. The waters of this peaceful bay join, at the end of the spit, with the rolling swells of the Pacific, which will, sooner or later, mingle with those that curl over the surfers in the Banzai Pipeline.
It’s true that one great ocean may sweep around a landmass—The Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn for example—and spill out the other side with a different name, but usually, I’ve found, carrying the propensity for bringing joy to the humans who live nearby. It’s also true that these seas, as they change their names, in some mysterious way become recognizably distinct from each other. When this first occurred to me I wrote, in a poem,
…take me, eyes bound, to any shore;
remove the blindfold and I recognize the sea.
Atlantic grey is not
Pacific green-grey is not
Aegean clear-green, though we hardly know
the words to describe the differences.
* * *
An English beach on an English summer afternoon of the usual kind: too much wind to be warm; too much long flat beach to be charming. Not the kind of seaside experience to make a person fall in love with the ocean. But nevertheless the love must have begun right around then, even while I was thrusting my red spade into the sand with focused ferocity.
That first place was Angmering-on-Sea, to which my father drove us on occasional summer Sundays, even though we lived in Brighton, a perfectly good seaside resort with a lot more going on. My parents favored Angmering because of its fine, white sand; Brighton sadly lacked sand, its waves smashing onto round, grey pebbles, which made walking barefoot an exercise in pain management, except when the occasional patch of mud appeared at extra-low tide. When this rare event coincided with an even rarer hot day, the narrow strand was packed elbow to elbow with families sporting sunhats made from The Daily Mirror or from white handkerchiefs knotted at the corners.
In addition to real sand, Angmering had other advantages, appreciated but never articulated by my parents, since matters of class were contained in their blood, not their conscious minds. There were, for instance, no regrettable fish and chip smells; no loutish teenagers of the kind who parked their Harleys by the railings of Brighton’s esplanade; and no clumps of treacly tar to avoid or, if inadvertently sat upon, to scrub from one’s clothing with a chemical product. These were advantages I had no reason to appreciate since I was not yet tuned into the markers of class. I thought Angmering beach was boring; some louts might well have livened it up, and the sand, far from becoming a fond memory, was directly implicated in my earliest inklings of the disasters that lurk right alongside happiness.
There I was, stabbing away with the little spade, whose paint was peeling from its tines, and wishing that my mother, lying in her deckchair wrapped in a bath towel, would open her eyes and suggest that we play something. Even I-Spy would do if she didn’t want to heave herself out of the chair for castle-building or inflatable-orange-ball throwing. I shivered slightly as the wind poked at my still-damp seersucker bathing suit whose color I cannot now remember, though it might have been a faded, variegated green. The texture, however, was unforgettable. Horizontal rows stretched across my five-year-old ribby chest and podgy stomach, each row gathered into a line of small, seersucker blisters that inflated and deflated in constant motion, as if the whole garment were out of breath.
Other children played nearby, a few of whom I knew slightly. One boy lived in our neighborhood, though I’ve long since forgotten his name, which is odd since he has occupied a corner of my emotional landscape for more than sixty years. He had been bothering me for a while, making faces when the grownups weren’t looking, and muttering things I couldn’t quite hear but knew, from his smirk and pouty lips, to be unflattering. Which of us it was who starting flinging handfuls of sand into the other’s face has also faded with time, the details swallowed by the siren of the approaching ambulance. The boy, both his red and weepy eyes swollen shut, between furious hiccups and sobs, pointed in my direction as if I were in an identity parade.
“She started it,” he screamed through the snot that ran down his weasely face.
“Don’t you realize he could end up blind?” said a severe man in voluminous trunks, doubled over to hurl his accusation straight into my face, while I curled my toes into the extra-fine sand for which we had driven twenty miles.
Nobody knew how much I worried about the possibly blind boy, who, although obnoxious, didn’t deserve that fate. Finally someone let my parents know that he had spent a night in the eye hospital but would recover all right. Still I retained a lifetime’s shiver of guilt.
* * *
During the glacial stage that began some 1.8 million years ago, the sea-level around Britain was almost 400 feet lower than at present and The English Channel was dry land. During the warmer interglacial periods, the fauna resembled that of modern-day Africa, with hippos, elephants, hyenas and lions roaming southern England. During the cold episodes, they were replaced by woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceros and reindeer. As the climate began to fluctuate, glaciers from the north and east of Britain, sometimes three miles thick, began to melt, carrying down gravel and sand and creating new courses for rivers such as the Thames (which would later, during the Great Frost of 1608, freeze over again and allow Virginia Woolf’s hero, Orlando, to skate under London Bridge with a Russian princess.)
Since the time when the dry English Channel was filled by a catastrophic flood from a glacial lake, Britain has used its island status to protect it from a series of marauders. From Sir Francis Drake spotting the Spanish Armada while he played bowls at Plymouth Hoe in 1588 to the code breakers of World War 2 who tracked the Nazis’ plans for invasion, the British have reason to be grateful for the stretch of grey water that has proved a crucial natural defense.
This water in particular might have captured my imagination if I’d known any of its ancient or recent history, but I thought of it only as “the sea.” Ever since the second-century geographer Ptolemy dubbed it Oceanus Britannicus three centuries ago, the French have boycotted that name, calling it instead “La Manche,” which refers to the Channel’s sleeve shape. But to those of us who lived on its northern shore it was not a sea on a map with a name—not one of many seas, but simply the sea. Not only did we take it for granted, we hung it in our minds as the backdrop to everything: rides to school on the number 12 bus, which took the seafront route; gallops on the top of the downs that looked out beyond the power station across the water towards France. Even when we walked the dogs sedately along the lawns behind the bathing huts at Hove, it was a happy presence.
If I did notice it, I saw it only as a surface—sometimes flat, even glassy, other times ruffled or white with anger. Mostly this contemplation took place from my school, St. Mary’s Hall, which loomed high on a hill in Kemp Town, the eastern end of Brighton above what is now the Marina. It was a gothic building, dark and bleak, with small leaded windows, some of which overlooked the Channel. We girls ignored the view, perhaps not yet ready for the oceanic feelings that might provoke an ecstatic urge to burst out of the silent library; the closest we came to acknowledging its presence was an occasional discussion about whether it was possible to see Dieppe on a good day. Talked about or not, it was always there, restless, unpredictable, imprinting itself on our minds just as the building itself etched the geography of its corridors and staircases to become the stage upon which future dreams would unfold.
Sometimes in summer, sports afternoon would call for swimming, usually in the open-air, seawater pool at Black Rock, but sometimes in the sea itself. On those days, we would don our panama hats and march single-file down a steep switchback path. We strode between walls of tamarisks that were taller than us all, thriving year round in the saline soil and winter’s salty gales. Our happiness lay less in the icy waters that awaited us below than in this sheltered, aromatic interlude.
Even on such hot days, the water, when we plunged in screaming, was inhospitable with sudden rock shelves that tricked nervous swimmers into falling out of their depth. I was not a nervous swimmer, having always felt at home in the sea, and having taught myself to swim underwater the length of the Black Rock pool, with my eyes open, though there was nothing to see except the patterns of cracked concrete on the bottom. Back in the Angmering beach days, I had taken pride in uptailing like a duck to perform handstands on the sandy bed until my eyes were too sore to continue. But despite those rapid forays down to the bottom, the sea was still all surface: I was only flirting. It would take true love to spark desire—the love that brings late night thoughts of entering a body, exploring its darkness in the eternal search for the center.
* * *
I only ever had one home where I could gaze at the sea from my window, and by then I was in my twenties. It was a top-floor flat in Hove where the living room doubled as my bedroom, so I could watch the waves from my bed, if I sat bolt upright.
My childhood bedroom, however, was in the eaves of our house on the inland side of Brighton, so no sea view—only a magnificent copper beech tree outside the bay window. But still I managed to stay close to the sea by way of voracious reading. My favorite books were a series by Monica Edwards, whose work I first discovered with the perfectly named, “Wish for a Pony.” The stories of Tamzin and Rissa combined a world that was very recognizable to me with an entirely imaginary one. The girls’ devotion to horses reflected my own weekend world of mucking out stables and cleaning tack in return for rides. But their adventures in pursuit of justice—often on behalf of animals— introduced a new aspect of the world that I entered with gusto. Not only did they choose to pursue their adventures in a horsey world, but their righteous actions, such as the battle against a passing death ship that carried old horses to the knackers, unfolded across marshes that were soaked in ocean water.
Romney Marsh was crisscrossed by paths through boggy, saltwater flats, much of which lay below sea-level. The landscape of Tamzin and Rissa was really a seascape: brackish flats with the nearby ocean thrusting against breakwaters and sending its tides flowing along ditches between walls of reeds. The girls were familiar with stories of smugglers who brought illegal brandy from France and who had been made into romantic anti-heroes in Victorian times. The ground squelched under the hoofs of Tamzin and Rissa’s ponies as it probably had under the boots of those ghostly smuggling gangs, known as “Owlers” because of the owl calls they used to communicate at night. It is a tribute to the talent of author, Monica Dickens that, when we were both twelve, my neighbor Gillian and I learned to imitate our local owls by blowing through our thumbs when we wanted to meet at the end of our gardens for a discussion.
Later, one of my set books for the important college-entrance literature exam was Great Expectations, which I read numerous times and sat through twice when the film (the first version with Alec Guinness, John Mills and Jean Simmons) played at the Continental Cinema. When the convict, Magwitch, crawled out of the boggy shallows, I recognized the environment instantly. Hadn’t Pip already declared on page one, “Ours was the marsh country”?
* * *
What is it about the nearness of an ocean that seems to touch even the saddest of times with its own innate happiness? The three-day drive I made with my sister in 1964 should have been tragic; our parents had died the year before—drowned when their cruise ship caught fire and they were among the minority of passengers who failed to escape in lifeboats. At nineteen, I had tried to escape grief by fleeing to northern Spain, where I worked as the tour guide at Perelada Castle. My sister wanted the two of us to go to the cemetery in Gibraltar to arrange for a gravestone to be placed where our parents had been buried after the disaster. So she flew to Barcelona and we set off south together.
Back then there was no motorway down the Mediterranean coast, but simply a dusty, narrow road that passed through every tiny pueblo. We had no idea that it would take us three days of trailing behind rickety trucks that spewed blue exhaust, and waiting in the hot sun for goats, under the languid care of a boy shepherd, to tinkle their way across the road.
I have no doubt that my sister and I were temperamentally inclined to deny all hint of our tragedy, but our denial was well supported by the nearness of the ocean. We did, indeed, appear to be joyful as we slurped ripe melons and ran down the scorching sand to throw ourselves into the sea. Never having lived together since I was five, we reverted to some almost-genetic bond through which we laughed ourselves silly as we made up stories about the tourists we found ourselves next to in cafes and bars. The tires screeched on every rutted bend, where the heat had buckled the tarmac into waves, and the sun burned my arm as it rested on the fading green paint of the convertible I had so recently inherited from my mother.
To this day, the panoply of my Mediterranean memories remains enriched by those four days at the end of which we found ourselves obliged to throw off our oceanic happiness and enter the vast expanse of Gibraltar’s cemetery. From there we had no view of our briny companion and no echo of insistently cheerful waves. Respectfully we donned our somber, orphaned faces.
* * *
From then on, joy seemed to be the same thing as pleasure. Would joy dwell only in the body? Bodies of sun-drenched, salt-encrusted skin: my own and others’. Bodies of water, warmly embracing, playfully slapping me, tossing me onto sand and sucking me back into the greater body that rocked and heaved with pleasure. Pleasure was falling backwards into it or plunging head first into its unknown parts. Pleasure was the circling hand of Carmen coaxing suntan lotion into the skin of my shoulders, while I hid my face and smiled into a rough towel at the forbidden happiness; or it was the pressure of Francisco’s flushed and eager body pressing into my side; or the lingering gaze of a stranger, lolling against a wooden post with his hand tugging the top of his emerald trunks, offering a scene I could conjure up later in my iron bedstead that squeaked rhythmically in my room on the third floor. But the men and boys were for show only. Periodically, I would drive back up the long road to the English Channel, cross on the ferry, and slip into a reunion with my very secret lesbian lover.
The hungry body—always hungry for silence and for touch—was disgusted with itself, an abandoned body whose mother was gone, whose parents had whirled away into the great oceanic corpse leaving me behind. Hungry for the blood of red wine, the amber of brandy, the ripeness of sangría, one bottle following another until they chased me into oblivion—chased me out into the depths where those treacherous parents filled their lungs and slept.
Repeatedly I sank down into weed and currents, into the darkness where nothing I wanted could be found. But then, every morning, still hungry, still thirsty, when my body surfaced to go in search of a giant, white cup of foaming café con leche, I would step out into the sunlight and head straight back into the search for the real joy I once knew—I headed straight for the sea.