words: aimee keeble
photo: katie silvester
What an odd thing time is. Going through boxes in my parents’ garage in North Carolina the other day I found the pictures from our family holiday in Norfolk when I was 12. It’s my birthday and I am on a rise of dune, bent at the waist, grinning with eyes squinted shut, my dad’s mustard windbreaker draped over my small frame like a cloak. No trousers, no shoes. My face and body is thin with youth. My hair is patterned with thick, yellow tiger stripe highlights. There is a sign behind me alerting beachgoers to watch out for seals.
Nearly 20 years later and I am at the same beach for my 31st birthday, with friends who I’ve met in the three years I’ve spent living in Norwich. Two girls, three boys. I’m in love with one of them but he won’t know. It’s August and preciously hot for England. We pull at the tight stretch of our swimsuits, laughing when our bottom cheeks spring back from the fabric when we move, we blame chips and beer. We take photos of the boys doing handstands by the water. A group of seals pop their heads from the shallows, following us as we toss a ball back and forth. Further along the beach we come across the perfect dead body of a baby seal. Dappled and round it gently rolls with each push of the tide. The smell is shocking. That’s what they wanted! Not our ball. We debate pushing the body back into the water, to deliver it back to the sea, to the seal family. We are nervous and hot and someone suggests building sandcastles. Other people start to wander over to see what we are looking at.
Back by the towels, everyone tosses a ball except me. I lie on my back and nudge myself further into a gritty embrace of sand, scrunching it through my fingers and toes. And she didn’t know, the little me, that she would be here in the future, in love and lost, laughing at the skateboard and cheese she unwrapped earlier in her friend’s house before they all drove to the coast. If I had told her, she couldn’t have imagined it. She wouldn’t have wanted it. She wanted big hot pink lights of the West End and an urban walk and a voice hoarse from projecting Shakespeare on the banks of the Thames. Now all is quiet, country yellow and green and cobbled medieval grey. We’re drunk most nights, we hold each other’s hands a lot. And dance in kitchens, knocking over plastic chairs to get to each other’s waists. I roll cigarettes badly and shoot whiskey and worry about the length of my hair.
We go to a country pub after the beach and drank clear gold shandies that chase out the tang of salt and share bowls of chips and prawns. In the evening, back in the city, we dance at the top of a roof bar until 3am. The luminosity of strobe lights and voodoo blues songs turns us whirling as dervishes, as raging and as surefooted as mustangs. In the dark, outside in the cold that pricks my bare skin, I kiss him and laugh at him, slap his face gently and tell him never again and hold his chin and kiss him harder. The drunk bold of me; the soft tired exhaustion that booze can choke you slowly with show his eyes half blue, half there. Goodnight! We all say as we part to walk home in the electric black of pre-dawn. I support my friend, him stronger and smaller than me. We stumble over wet cobbles the size of watermelons, past graffiti loud tunnels and the slim greasy back roads to our house. Did you have a good birthday? I think of the strong taste of sea, always dark blue in my mouth, the slippery hard rush of sand against skin, my eyes closed to the wind that skitters off the North Sea. I’ll never forget it, is my reply, always.
Aimée Keeble is currently completing her MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow. Take a look at her website to read more of her work.