This morning I stood on Prestatyn beach: flat, vast and February empty. My walking boots sunk into the wet sand, cracking razor shells on the way to the waves. The sky was cerulean, the sun an amber orb. It was close to freezing. The wind whipped around my face, my hair secured by a hand knitted hat and a scarf eight inches wide.
Tomorrow will be my forty second birthday. This pilgrimage to the sea was part of a promise to myself.
When I was eighteen, for six weeks I lived by the ocean: Ceredigion Bay, framed by velvet green mountains and water plush with dolphins, porpoises, seals. I had left behind our terrace on a Birmingham estate plush with burnt out cars, graffiti and dog turds. There was a spark in me that had gained a place at a good selective school, but my years there had been a constant puzzle. Why didn’t I want to be a doctor, a secondary school teacher, or even a journalist like the other girls? I did want to go to university though. Both my parents had left school at fifteen and for all of us university was a tantalising enigma. For them, the mystery of a university education was the gateway to a prosperous life for their daughter. As for me, I wanted to be plunged into great literature and to unlock the mystery of becoming a writer.
On my first afternoon away, I sat with a racing heart in my regulatory bare walled room. I made my way down the corridor towards the shared kitchen. Ten steps away from the light of the kitchen’s doorway I saw three figures in a closed circle, heard their laughter. They already know each other, I thought. They are second years and they won’t want to talk to me. They’ll snigger about me. I don’t belong here. I turned back into the corridor’s darkness.
Behind the locked door of my room the small space between my bed and my desk squeezed in on me, crushing my chest and forcing out snotty sobs in gulps. I looked at my watch through bleary eyes. My parents were only an hour into their journey home. I was going to have to wait another two hours before they’d be back and I could pick up the pay phone in the corridor and call the brown push button phone that sat on top of a pile of Yellow Pages in our artexed hallway. I frightened my parents hard with that phone call, both with my weeping and the thought that I might so easily throw away all the dreams they had.
I did try to settle in, led on by every well-meaning piece of advice I received. It would get better. I just needed to adjust. There was a singular nightclub and a Student’s Union filled with freshers drunk on a half of cider. At home I’d been drinking in dive bars and clubs since I was fifteen. I found a few more hardened city drinkers to hang with, but even they seemed so adept at the practical matters of a life at university. I shirked American history and seminars on Aeschylus. My hair was waist length and every day the wind made its nest of knots. I owned one thick woollen grey sweater and several cropped tight t-shirts. One Sunday afternoon the hunger of not eating since Friday caught up with me. In my cupboard was a tin of spaghetti and a tin of potatoes. As I poured out them out into a bowl to heat in the microwave, someone standing in the kitchen joked that it was a typical student meal. But I didn’t feel typical at all.
My few close friends were deep into their new lives at other universities. My boyfriend from back home dumped me in my first week. More sobbing and panic on the public payphone. I wasn’t even that into him, but I was a hundred and twenty two miles away and I hated to feel so disposable. I started to obsess over the few people who were still in Birmingham. One friend who hadn’t got a place at uni that year, two others eighteen and at home with their babies, some boys I half knew that hung in the pub where I had worked during my A levels.
Every day I wrapped myself the best I could against the fierce bite of the coastal wind but my body, my fears of not being good enough, and my utter loneliness, all of it stayed exposed. It seemed my true life was back in Birmingham, where I could cocoon myself with the nightlife, where my hair stayed smooth and my crop tops made other people gasp, not just me and my shivering belly. I had no idea where a writing life would fit into this. I listened to Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and forced my nails into my palms. Perhaps I did want more than life could grant me. Impossible dreams. Six weeks later I was living with my parents and their disappointment.
* * *
At sunset I take a walk. The temperature is sub-zero now. I wrap my black wool coat tightly around me, bow my mouth into the nook of my scarf. The tide is in and I walk along the raised concrete path, sea lapping at my right, making my way towards the reddened sun.
The decision to be a writer, to spend my life deconstructing, reconstructing, understanding, what has passed was made such a long time ago. It was a secret promise to myself that I have slowly shared with more and more people. Over the years I have taken baby steps. A practice of three hand written journal pages written every morning. Home study and online courses. Blogs well-loved then abandoned. A few submissions and publications in literary journals. The first draft of two novels. Poetry collections assembled and shared with friends. A writing coaching group. This year I even started my Masters in Creative Writing. But I have never thrown myself into a life of writing in the way that I promised myself when I first left for university at eighteen. I have stayed in my home city. I have remained in retreat from that fierce bite of full exposure.
I have been married for twenty years now. Tonight we will celebrate my birthday with a restaurant meal, Sauvignon Blanc and a hotel room of our own. My eldest son has been away at university for two years. My youngest son hopes to go away next September. Four years ago I started a teaching degree and lifted myself out of a lifetime of unfulfilling admin jobs, and now I teach English to refugees and migrants, three days a week. On the other days, I walk out into our local park and follow foxes, swans, egrets. Afterwards I write.
Tonight I travel towards the sun as it lowers itself slowly behind the distant lilac mountains. I make the decision that once the sun is completely out of sight I will turn back. I am forty two tomorrow. If I am blessed, then today could signify the half way point of my life. There are promises I must renew.
The sun is gone now so I stop and close my eyes. I feel this moment, my life folding back on itself. The first half has been the journey out, led by the promise of this wild, immersive writing life. When I turn and open my eyes the waxing moon is on my right, the tide rushes to my left. There is no mistaking that ferocious Welsh coastal wind. It is time to journey back to that promise.
(This essay was first published in I Wrote it Anyway: An Anthology of Essays (Secret Library Press, 2018)