My heart is a little bruised, my ego a little torn. When I can't quite remember who I am, there's two things I tend to do more of;
It's the forgetting in both these things. The numbing down of conversation in my head. Of things that will never happen. It's drowning out the fantasies. It's flooding. It's finding tiny moments of oblivion.
So I run to the sea. Like I should.
To Kent. I didn't want to go to Brighton, my usual haunt for swimming, wanted an adventure, somewhere new. To get out of myself and out of London. Or even the clutches of it. (Brighton is after all, London on Sea).
I didn't do my research particularly well, landed in a place where I expected buses to run from (because I live in London and that's how buses roll...) just a short jaunt down to the sea. Westonhanger. Or Westernhanger. But the bus stop is down a lane on a blustering road, miles from the sea. And the buses only come once an hour. I have 35 minutes to wait. This isn't London, I mutter to myself, and begin a conversation with myself into my phone. A poor attempt at creating something, words while waiting at a bus stop in Kent.
No one knows I'm here. I told a few friends I was off to swim, but not specifically where that would be. I get in awe of my own comfort in solitude. I revel in my danger.
Atop a tall bus, I see the sea coming over the top of the hill, briefly. I don't exaggerate that my heart skips a beat. Closer to her. And her expanse. And the she disappears again.
I can't find the sea when I first get there. Wound through the winding street, lined with charity after charity shop, purposefully twee tea rooms. And betting shops.
Pop in a shoe shop just in case. A single shop assistant singing 'Search for the hero inside yourself' unashamedly to racks of cut price shoes.
Go to buy some cigarettes, just to ask directions to the sea. Found myself, talking myself out of swimming. No camel lights, this is Kent. Next best thing. Benson & Hedges. Gold Box. I always want to smoke after I've swum in the sea.
'Er sorry, which way is the sea?'
'Down the road, right, left'
(I wonder how far Birmingham is from the sea- Yahoo answers, the answers to everything. Barmouth. Barmouth. 3 hours away on a train.)
Down marine walk. I walk.
Over a bridge, over a canal. Can see it on the horizon, the lightening of the skyline. That specific kind of lighting in horizon when there's no land anymore, just water.
Into shingles and pebbles. Long dead fish. Out in to depth.
Blowing a wind. Hardly a soul. A old style ice cream van. And people parked up in cars. Over looking the sea. Melting ices. Into laps. Watching behind window screens.
A stony beach with a deep drop down into a sea that no one is swimming in. Its choppy. Very choppy. I think I hear fireing down the way. Read something about a fireing range. See a kayak. In the distance. Close to a red flag. Should stay within distance of him. Put the blame on him.
And I look at the waves. And no one swimming and I am scared. Currents pull at my toes and just a casual swim becomes a rescue. Discarded clothes on a beach. They look through my wallet. All there is, is my cash card, my only ID. My iphone, and no contact in case of emergency. Just a girl who has never been here before, floating away, bloated away by a quick dip, on the day after the sun went in on our strange indian summer.
The sea is louder than I remember. In stupidity and youth and naivety of the sea, I would never be afraid of her waves. But watching her throw herself against a man made barrier, into a certain direction, I let my fear get the better of me and cower on down to the next beach across a pile of rocks. In front of the ice cream van. Just for safety. I can see her current from here.
But I'm not , not going in. I'm not, not having spent £23.40 on a train, waited 35 minutes for a bus in the middle of no where, not to wet my head. It is, by now the afternoon.
I'm not worried for the cold. I'm worried at being swept away.
I take my clothes off. Swim stuff underneath.
Waves hit me at quite a pace. I take a breath, I dive under salt water, eyes can't see white foam, white salt and everything washes over me. Just for that second. That's always what I am looking for. A small obliteration, a slight smell of danger. As a wave hits you at force. She's not cold, just right, warm even, but it's her force that is the problem today, not the calm cold of Dover Harbour.
I'm not a thrill seeker, really, I wish I was. I wish I was a surfer but can barley stand up on dry land. I want it all to wash over me.
But there is just that moment, split second, breath intake, when you don't know if you will come out of the other side of that wave.
And the sea lifts me up, off the ground, jumps me up. But I can't swim in these waves, I'm worried about the current. And I'm worried that I'm worried about the current.
I spend 40 minutes..an hour in there, ranting with the sea, my head somewhere else trying to wash away my thoughts. By dunking myself and ducking myself, over and over to exorcise the tap tap tap tap tap. Voices in my head.
I swim in strokes for no more than 19, 20, strokes, afraid that she will take me off course. Too afraid to swim in her depths.
A couple sit and watch me for a while on a bench. In front of the ice cream van. (It's popular that, people are driving to it just to get an ice cream on this windy october day).
I show off a little, flick my mermaid tail, draw breath under water, swim in unseeable depth. They are not really watching me, just gazing as we do, out to the sun line. The horizon.
They get bored of watching me not drown and leave. Blustering down the promenade.
I don't want to get out I'm happy bobbing up and down for maybe an hour. I don't want to get out. But I'm getting the chills and I haven't eaten anything since some sort of late breakfast. Fish and Chips is, of course, what I'm planning.
She lifts me up and crashes my foot down onto a rock on the bottom of the floor. But I can't feel pain when in her grips, too much salt and angry water.
I remember reading a excerpt from a book (the Guardian weekend magazine I would imagine) An artist who lost his young wife to a wave. And he writes and he calculates about how long that wave was heading for his wife, that wave that broke her neck, began to break her back. How old that wave was and the energy that it carried. I think, like a bullet, I wonder if there is a wave with my name on. And I think that while swimming off the coast of Kent I probably shouldn't think like that. And the sea has become foreign to me, unknowable, unstoppable. Showing me up for my fables and my fallacies.
I remember tumbling in warm waters in Australia, more than ten years ago now, no fear of giant waves as twice as tall as me, eating sand, being thrown at the floor, bikini bottoms filled weighed down, nearly lost. Never being afraid. Going in for more, only me and the boys, throwing ourselves into dangerous waters. Not knowing which way was up. I'm not that fearless now. I don't have that arrogance of youth, lack of awareness at my own mortality-stuff that happens to other people, that's just stories I'd shrug off.
I stagger out, up pebbles and rocks, like a drunk with cold feet. Slowly, wrap myself in a towel, look as I should, out to sea.
For a while. And wonder. If I just swam and swam and swam and swam. Until I couldn't swim anymore.
And the panic that would rise up in my throat. This is not simply a wrong turning. A wrong street. A place to go back on yourself. It is only water, which ever way you look. Moving water. The same in each direction. And there is no way back on that decision. No sat nav, iphone turn around. Just you and what lies beneath and above and beyond. A fear, a want, a taste, for that to be the case. But with the support of boat and people with dry feet, and knowledge that there is an end in sight.
And I come to the question:
Does the physical action of swimming calm me as much as the feel of the sea on my skin. Over my head, all around me.
I'm running to the sea, like I do, like I think I should. When things end and I need a distraction.
When I want to cover myself in cold and salty water, wash away. Take a breath.
I'm actively jealous of those of truly love the sea, who are brought up by the coast, childhood in salt incrusted happiness. Who swim everyday. Without thinking. Whose fingers carry constantly ridged tips. Like the crest of waves. Like they come from the ocean.
The next day I went swimming in a pool without having washed the sea water away from me. Feeling the salt sliding from my skin. Out of the wild, the natural into the munciple swimming pool. Changing it into a fraction of the sea. Just for a moment.