Brighton is my second favourite of the train stations I know, and this from someone who is more than a little romantic about train stations. My favourite thing about it, of course, is the smell, and so I step excitedly off my train and take a deep breath and fill my lungs with –
– nothing. At first I think I’m imagining it, and then I wonder if I haven’t got a blocked nose without noticing it. Neither of these things seem to be the case, however, and eventually I have to admit it: I can’t smell the sea. I keep trying with increased concern all the way down West Street, telling myself that once I’m past the first townie bit – once I get to the Clocktower – once I’m out on the front it will be alright. And yet, somehow, it isn’t. I get all the way to the Albion without catching more than the barest whiff of what was always such a robust, heady scent.
My hotel room is like Brighton itself: shabby, peeling, a half-ghostly memory of past grandeur. I don’t know what the window looks out onto because the glass is so thickly frosted it’s impossible to tell, but it certainly isn’t the sea. The room is big, though, and comfortable enough, and I never minded a bit of run-down luxury. I put down my bag and unpack my pyjamas for later and charge my phone for a bit and go to the loo and then, when I’m ready, strike out across the road to the waiting pier.
Palace Pier never changes. I look straight down as I walk to watch glimpses of the teal sea flash past as the boards bend and give under my footsteps. I remember the photograph of me and my stepfather on the helter-skelter, my aunt being the only person who would agree to go with me on the waltzer, my mother dropping a prawn through the gaps in the floor, my Nana patiently changing stack after stack of her own loose change into tokens for me to feed the flashing machines. I wonder which booth my friend Liz used to sit in to read the Tarot and try to imagine what it would be like to come to a wedding here, blustered about after listening to an exchange of vows in Victoria’s Bar. But I still can’t smell the sea.
I go shopping after that, navigate through streets that I once knew a great deal better than I do today. The grass in the Pavilion Gardens is not as lush as I remember it from picnics with Nana. It’s only been a year since I was last in Brighton and it’s not like I’ve ever gone any longer than that without a visit – as a child I was here at least one weekend nearly every month for many years – but it feels in a way a great deal longer. My favourite cafe, one that opened not too long after the war when my Nana was still a teenager, has disappeared. My favourite shop from when I was fourteen has vanished, too. The best alternative jewellers in the Lanes has gone all silvery mainstream and I can’t find the headshop where I bought my first everything.
Other things, thankfully, are comfortingly right. The Brighton Bead Shop is just as it ought to be, and the friendly women behind the counter sell me earring hooks and foiled beads with the kind of knowledgeable pleasantness everyone working there has always had. I buy some fantastic shoes and a matching bag from an almost ludicrously lovely and helpful woman a few doors down from Komedia. I have a run-in with a tobacconist on Jubilee Street who seems to think it’s still 1953 and women should smoke super-slims if anything at all.
In the evening, I wind through the dusk to the little pub that was my father’s local when he was in his teens and early twenties. I’m there to meet my cousin and her aunt, old family friends I’ve never quite been able to believe I’m not related to by blood, and we talk about how our fathers – well, mine and Claire’s fathers and Debbie’s brother, both dead this spring – sat here with their other closest friend, the man who is now my Uncle Pete, and gradually become the men we knew all our lives. We’re in the corner booth they used to claim as their own, and Claire at least drinks the ales they always favoured even if Deb and I prefer white wine and gin respectively.
Afterwards we walk past houses on Ditchling Road and Cat’s Corner, and Debbie points out where our fathers used to walk and talk and play and sit and read. We all tear up a little. What injustice, that this has come to us both at once.
Walking back through the Laines with a cone of chips in one hand and an illicit bottle of cider in the other, I realise all of a sudden that I can at last smell the sea. Once I take my leave of Claire I head straight for the beach rather than my hotel, and stand alone in the darkness squinting at the horizon past the shimmer of moonlight on ocean. The sea after midnight is intensely personal no matter how many people you share it with; there’s an entire nightclub not fifty yards behind me, but the stone-on-stone rushing of the waves drowns out its noise and nobody is paying attention to me as I talk to the water.
Earlier, disconsolate, I had texted my mother upset at how things weren’t quite right here. She wasn’t sympathetic at all, being as she is quite thoroughly disillusioned with the town she grew up in already; “remember”, she said, “that the place is a whited sepulchre. You are finally getting a glimpse behind the veil.” I think to myself then, feet sinking into shingle at almost one in the morning, that despite it all she was wrong. Salt water runs in my veins as deeply as ink, and there could be no veil between me and this ocean.