I’m standing in the sea. It’s summer, sometime in the late Seventies or early Eighties. I can see the reddish-brown south Devon cliffs to my left, and a vast expanse of glittering water in front of me. The sky is plate blue; there are no clouds. Gulls swoop and dive above me. I can hear shouts from other children playing in the water or ball games on the sand. I wasn’t out of my depth, yet suddenly giant waves are crashing over my head, knocking me off my feet. My family are sitting on the terracotta sand, eating lunch. How, I wonder, as yet another white-topped wave crashes over me, have they not noticed I am drowning? I no longer know which way is up or down. Saltwater fills my eyes and lungs. I am tumbling in wild water, the way I sometimes do in my dreams. Somehow, I find my feet and scramble back to shallow water, warmed by the sun. Green ribbons of seaweed snake between my toes as I gasp for breath. Shingle digs into the soles of my feet. ‘You didn’t go out far,’ my mother tells me later. But I know what nearly happened.
My first memories of the sea are from the age of six, when my family and I would stay with my mum’s parents in Kingskerswell, a stone’s throw from the grandly – possibly delusionally – named English Riviera. On the beach, I paddled at the water’s edge, searched for crabs or shells – long thin white ones, razor clams perhaps, or tiny shells with pearlised insides – and built sandcastles out of wet sand, draped green or brown seaweed from the ramparts, ate ice-creams yellowed by creamy Devon milk. A child like me, brown-skinned, brown-eyed, drops of sea water glistening on top of my Afro, was an unusual sight on a Devon beach back then.
There’s something about being next to vast swathes of water, on the very edge of England, knowing that across the water – not many miles away – is another country where people speak a different language and eat different foods, which makes me feel safe. There’s another reason I feel safe by the sea: I grew up watching my dad hurt my mum, and I lived with a thick, choking fear that has stayed with me ever since. I must have known he wouldn’t hurt any of us in my grandparents’ house.
I didn’t learn to swim until I was ten; my mum couldn’t afford to take my siblings and me to swimming pools. I remember dreaming I could do it a few days before I learnt – my limbs moving through dark water, the secret knowledge that had previously eluded me suddenly graspable. From then I’d mostly swim in the sea; I loved the feeling of moving through water, seaweed swirling around me. Sometimes I’d fear the creatures I couldn’t see; Portuguese Men-O’-War that washed up on Devon beaches, or crabs that lurked in rock pools. I wouldn’t go out of my depth, but swam along the line of the shore, testing the tide.
I love the sea, yet fear it. It’s like a living, breathing being that changes its mood with the seasons or from hour to hour. It might be blue and calm and glittering but can quickly become dark and wild. Although it’s healing and soothing, it’s also a killer. You have to take care, respect it. I’ve never been a sailor, or a surfer, or confident in the water. Sometimes I have nightmares in which a small child has fallen into the depths and I can’t save them, because I can’t dive, can’t swim underwater, and I watch as they drift further and further down to the seabed, knowing I am watching their death.
It’s the summer of 1988. My friends and I swim in the sea and in outdoor pools filled with clear green sea water. How easily I fall in love – today it’s a boy in white cut-off jeans and T-shirt. Tomorrow’s boy will have strawberry blonde hair that he flicks out of his eyes, long legs encased in snow-washed jeans. Men watch us girls, eyes flicking over our young bodies, even though we are still at school. We bunk off lessons and go to the beach; smoke cigarettes and spliffs as we sit on damp sand, drink from brown bottles of cider. Sometimes there are parties: drunken kisses and more, fires made with driftwood, teenagers who can’t hold their drink vomiting onto shingle or sand. One night we sleep on a beach, sleeping bags laid on top of stones that dig into us. One of the boys gets angry when he’s drunk and smashes beer bottles next to us. Tiny pieces of glass get stuck in my skin. We listen to the sound of the waves and stare up at the stars. At home, when I am sad, which is often, I walk down to the beach, past rows of white beach huts, along the promenade and over the sand. Salt spray and wind cleanse me, make me whole.
In Devon, there were boys, then men. I fell properly in love, left home, then came back when I was pregnant with my daughter. Soon after this my boyfriend met someone else. I’d walk over that patch of land next to the water’s edge, my belly swollen, letting salt spray mingle with my tears. The sound of my feet moving over stones is a meditation; I learned that being in coastal spaces helps me accept my emotions, my life, acknowledging my place in the world: small, a speck in that vast, salt-licked, historical space. I may not have looked right – a brown face in a white landscape – but in those moments I was connected to the land I lived on. White people may have judged me, been unkind, made up stories about who I was in their heads, but the sea accepted me for who I was.
When I’m nineteen, I move with my baby daughter from Torbay to Lyme Regis. I am trying to get away from her father, the broken pieces of our love, the drinking, the violence. I want us to have a fresh start. I like the narrow streets and the glimpse of sea – a blue, glittering slice – as you walk down the high street. I like the way at night it feels as though the air is infused with drops of magic instead of salt. Something about this place draws me. I swap palm trees and terracotta sand for white-gold beaches, gold-topped cliffs, fossils embedded in a dark clay-soil. I want my child to grow up playing on the beach; perhaps I am trying to recreate for her the safety I felt in those spaces as a child. I want white sand and blue sea, clean, salty air, the silvery light above the bay, for her as well as for me. We spend summers on the beach, getting too much sun, in amongst the press of sunburned bodies, sun umbrellas, the smell of vinegar and sun cream. Each day we bring a trail of sand back home with us; I rinse it from my daughter’s skin.
Where is home for someone like me, a mixed-race Briton who has only lived in white, rural, often coastal spaces? In the 1970s and 1980s, black and brown people were often told to ‘go home,’ and all of us are used to being asked where we are really from. This constant questioning of our Britishness can lead to feelings of displacement, rootlessness. We are ‘Other’, not-from-here. I once read that it is common for second-generation immigrants to constantly search for home.
I know very little about my dad’s life. I do know that he grew up by the sea in Accra, Ghana. And this was the reason he gave for not liking the beach. I have barely talked to him about how it felt to leave, because I have barely talked to him about anything. I wonder, where is home to him? Why did he cut off contact with his family? Did he miss them? I spent my adolescence by the sea, and this only made me love it more.
The year I stopped swimming in the sea was 1993. I’d breast-fed my baby after coming out of the water, and was scared it could be polluted and make her ill. And I never wore swimwear on the beach in the town I lived in; I didn’t want to expose my body to friends or men I fancied in the pub. I was too fat, too black. My body in a bikini did not look how bodies in bikinis were meant to look.
I wouldn’t go in again for another twenty years. After a holiday in Cyprus, where I’d swum every day in clear, warm water with shoals of tiny fish swimming around me, I wanted to keep going when I came home. I swam at Ringstead, near where I lived in Dorset. The shingle sloped suddenly, and I fell into black water which was so cold it made me gasp. I only managed five minutes but emerged with my skin tingling, exhilarated. Since then I’ve only swum a few times – I feel the cold badly now I am older. A couple of summers ago my oldest friends and I stripped down to our underwear and ran into the sea at Blackpool Sands in Devon. In that moment I didn’t care about my fat, or my cellulite or stretch marks, or that my underwear didn’t match. We walked back to the car with wet material clinging to our skin. It reminded us of when we were young, and we would do these things without a second thought.
It is 1994. I am on the beach. I have just found out that my daughter’s dad has died. I couldn’t stay in the flat after that phone call; I’d felt an overwhelming urge to be outside, to keep on walking. I am sitting on a rock, telling a friend the news. The words don’t seem real as they leave my mouth. I don’t need anyone’s pity because it can’t be true. I glance over at my two year-old daughter, playing in the white sand. How can he be dead when his child is here? When she has his blue eyes?
A few weeks later I am on the beach when I hear my sister’s boyfriend has taken his life. My sister runs into the sea, fully clothed. Then I see a man pulling a wet child from the water, hair dripping. It’s my daughter, I hadn’t seen her go. I could have lost her. On the beach, people don’t want to see our pain. A friend suggests we go home; we walk over the sand, death hanging in the air around us. It feels as though I am an actor in a play, the beach my stage. The soap opera of my life performed for others to watch, against a backdrop of seascapes, sand beneath my feet.
My life, so filled with coastal memories, is only one of many thousands who have lived and loved and lost their lives along this stretch of coast. I think of fishermen dragging their boats down the shore, the days spent out there, wet and bone-cold, elements scoring their faces, the smell of fish clinging to their skin and clothes, a smell they could never wash away, their red chapped hands. Or the young men, press-ganged into the Navy, taken from their beds or local inns, waking up miles out to sea. Or the slave ships, laden with west country wools and cloth, on their way to the west coast of Africa and then on to the Caribbean, returning with sugar or coffee or spices, and sometimes people. The bustling ports, where people arrived from all over the globe, to trade, or for a new life. Or the American soldiers, training for D-Day along the south coast, bombs buried in the sand, stray bullets killing their own. The holiday makers and convalescents who came to bathe in healing, salty waters. The people who spent their summers setting up rides and taking them down again, walking fat-bellied donkeys up and down the sand, selling ice creams, plastic buckets and spades or multi-coloured windmills. The writers and activists, geologists, historians. The artists, inspired by the way light or the sun or the moon is reflected in the sea. The surfers and sailors and Christmas day swimmers. The all-year-round swimmers. The love stories that began along the south west coast.
When I was younger there was a widespread fear about shit or used tampons washing up on shores where children were playing. When I think of the sea now – the deep, out-there sea with a whole other world full of impossible, beautiful, creatures – I think of many things. I imagine the human detritus: plastic filling the bellies of whales, wrapping itself around turtles’ shells, Coke bottles floating next to glaciers, of over-fishing, coral reefs dying, the sea’s riches being stripped away by human greed, oil spillages dousing birds.
When I think of the sea, I think of all the thousands of people who have taken their last breaths in that cold, unforgiving water. I think of the enslaved Africans who drowned during their perilous crossing – the men and women who chose to jump over the side of a ship into dark water rather than face a short and brutal life on the plantations. Or others who were tossed overboard, by their captors, still in chains, as though they were rubbish.
I think of the more recent, politically-shaped tragedy around the movement of humans over seas and across the globe – people who are fleeing terror or poverty, hoping for a better life, attempting dangerous crossings in tiny inflatable boats in order to get to a place they imagine will be safe. Our media refers to them as migrants, and the word has become ugly, a way of ‘Othering’ human beings. Humans have always migrated, moved across water, settled around water.
I’ve seen how public attitudes towards ‘migrants’ ebb and flow – one minute they are the enemy, arriving in ‘floods’ and ‘streams’ and ‘tidal waves’ to our country, (water as a metaphor has long been used in conversations around immigration) threatening our stability, not-quite human because they were born in a foreign land. Then the image of a drowned toddler washed up on a beach floods the media, and suddenly everyone wants to help a refugee. And then the sudden rush of empathy peters out and they are the enemy again.
I can only imagine how it must feel to climb into a small boat, place your (and sometimes your child’s) life in the hands of a trafficker, squashed in amongst too many bodies and too much desperation, and cross a choppy sea in freezing conditions, soaked to the skin by the icy water that splashes into the boat. Death – or the threat of it – hanging in the air around you.
The poet Warsan Shire summed up this experience in her heart-breaking poem, ‘Home’:
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
Favourite memories of being by the sea: eating chips, sitting on a low wall next to the sand, vinegar pooling at the bottom of a paper cone. Looking for sea glass as a child, and then with my own children – holding a blue or green piece of misshapen glass up to the light, wondering if it was part of a bottle from an ancient sea-wreck, a ship attacked by pirates, perhaps. Or, more likely, a bottle smashed and abandoned at a beach party.
My children playing in the water, drops of water glistening on top of their curls. Drinks in the beer garden on the seafront at night, my children running in and out of upturned boats. Kissing a boyfriend on the sand. A white, round moon suspended above a black sea. The sound of laughter, the smell of cigarette smoke. The beach in autumn, when the grockles have gone and us locals can move more freely across the sand. The beach in winter, dappled with snow. Walking with my oldest friends over shingle or sand, the feeling settling over us that we have walked together throughout our lives, as we listen to the sound our feet make, the soft roar of the waves. A line of pink buoys bobbing in the water. A row of dead crabs, their pincers pointing towards the sea as if it was to blame. Walking on Monmouth Beach in Lyme, my favourite place on earth – the black cliffs, the fossils embedded in flat slabs of sun-baked rock, round, grey pebbles, trees in the distance, a miracle of wilderness.
In my mid-thirties I meet the man who will become my husband at West Bay in Dorset. He likes my loud laugh. I like his smile – his is a face I can trust. I wear inappropriate, gold-embroidered shoes with kitten heels that fill with stones as we walk over the beach. When I return to our seat in the pub, I see him looking at me, waiting to catch my eye, and I know then, he’ll always wait for me. The next time we meet, we lie in the sun halfway up the cliff, with him sneaking glances down my top, light catching the chain around his neck, and I think, why wasn’t it like this with boys when I was young? We’ll return again and again, bring my ten-year old daughter who, on meeting him instantly decides she likes him, and often links her arm through his as though he belongs to her. We’ll find stingrays, rotting on the sand. We’ll walk along the old railway line. I’ll remember to wear trainers.
Perhaps for me, the sea is about freedom: the physical freedom of moving a body I have always felt uncomfortable with through a great expanse of water. Feeling lighter and more graceful than I do when moving on land. Freedom to walk over stones and sand, listening to the rhythm of the crunching sound you make. Breathing in salt air. Freedom to have something so much bigger and older than you to reflect on that enables you to forget your problems for a moment. To stare up at the cliffs and see history: layers of compressed plants and animals from millions of years ago. Freedom to understand that your life is small in the face of all this, and it will pass in a heartbeat.
I am silenced by the beauty of the sea. That first glance of blue glitter tucked between hills. The shh-shh sound of waves as they move up and down the shore. The blues and greens and greys and browns. The sea – giver and taker of life – that leaves us gifts on the shore: driftwood the colour of white bone, glass, shells, seaweed that shines like jewellery. We humans came from this vast body of water; it washed us up onto dry land. The sea carries our history, holds our bones, has carried us as we move across the earth. It has always been there, and will continue to ebb and flow long after we are gone.
Louisa is a British writer of English and Ghanaian heritage who writes poetry, fiction and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) history. She has lived in south west England for most of her life. Her latest poetry collection, How to wear a skin, has recently been published by Indigo Dreams. Her first collection Salt-sweat and Tears, and pamphlet Blinking in the Light, were published by Cinnamon Press. Louisa has written books and exhibitions exploring BAME history in Dorset and recently produced the Where are you really from? blog and podcast which explores the experience of black and brown people in rural Britain. Louisa’s forthcoming short story collection, Stay here with me, is to be published by Colenso Books in 2020, and Little Toller Books has commissioned her to write a coastal memoir, to be published in 2020/21. See Louisa’s website here.
All photographs from Louisa’s collection.