I turn my back on the sea and walk inland. It is two years since I made Brighton my home. Since then I have cleaved to the water, low when I leave it, lighter when it is within view. I have swum in it in every season, its salt a balm for my soul. Its proximity imbues me with a restfulness.
Today, though, I am restless. I want to explore. I do not know this place properly, I need to see it from every angle, every street a new adventure.
I walk along the narrow row of shops and cafes known as Kemp Town village. Through the windows of coffee shops I catch sight of freelancers holding conflabs around MacBooks, waving pens and fingers with serious intent at screens, at vital word documents and spreadsheets that I cannot see. The waft of freshly baked bread from the local bakery hangs on the grey air.
I stop by my favourite coffee spot for a pep up. Our baby is not sleeping and I need assistance to shake off the last of the night’s tiredness. I order it to go and dampen a surge of liberal guilt about unrecyclable coffee cups, stepping out into the cold, hat, gloves and thermals mitigating against the chill of the easterly breeze blowing up from the seafront. I follow a road I have never walked up, connecting routes that have always been fuzzy in my mind. The paths are empty, people at work, children at school.
I cross Eastern Road and head north towards Brighton racecourse, up a tarmac path that fades into a gloopy mud track. Up ahead a homeless man drags a large suitcase into the undergrowth, grumbling to himself about the weight, its cumbersome nature, as unseen songbirds soundtrack his slow progress. I think about the sheer number of rough sleepers in my adopted home town. A spike of politically tinged anger swells in my chest and I reflect on my own failure to back up my indignation with action. I should have offered to help. But the man has gone and I am alone on the path, a solitary gull wheeling overhead.
I turn off earlier than planned, up a set of steps, where deadly nightshade glows against the brownness, and find myself on the tideline of a sea of brambles. A huge TV mast dominates the skyline here. Last time I walked past it it was April, the grass lush, dog walkers chasing after their wards, my head alive with the rich anticipation of impending fatherhood, of becoming a published author.
I had intended to follow the racecourse on its loop eastwards, towards the village of Woodingdean. Instead I find myself on a path that winds in no particular direction, skirting allotments that have been left to brood for the winter. A man appears on a bike 100 yards ahead, dismounts and urinates in full view of the Downs as they rise up from the sea, vernal waves heading inland. He gives me a sheepish nods as he swings his leg over the saddle and pedals off towards the city. I place my empty coffee cup in a bin marked 'dog mess only'. I am part of the problem.
Where the path meets Manor Hill, the road which crests this high point and slips down into the suburb of Whitehawk, the steady clop of three riders emerging from the estate throws me. I forget that racing is the business of this corner of Brighton. A breeze whips up. All Along The Watchtower is my ear worm.
In the spirit of aimlessness, I head down the steep hill and into Whitehawk. I do not know this place, nor where this road will take me, but it reminds of Harlow in Essex, where I grew up. Whitehawk’s reputation precedes it, tied neatly with the modern pejorative use of the term council estate. For me this place represents the idea of a mid 20th century utopia, with large homes, big gardens, space for children to play and to get lost. It is how I view Harlow too.
I begin to seethe to myself, about how this country labels people and areas. How that label is then reinforced by stereotypes that become impossible to shake. The only thing that makes this place different from the rest of Brighton is that the houses weren’t build during the 18th and 19th century. That and a socioeconomic outlook that feels imposed by outsiders with little or no understanding of the normal lived experience of most people.
I’m broken out of my internal rant by a man and a woman on a street corner. ‘It’s fucking dark inside,’ she says. ‘And it’s fucking dark outside too’. He nods in quiet agreement. I smile a quick hello and walk on. She is right. January has been bleak so far and today is no exception.
I walk backstreets I do not know. A police car idles in the middle of the road. A woman and child rush through the gates of the primary school, late for the first class of the day or coming from a doctor’s appointment. I will never know.
I emerge back onto Eastern Road and pass the Royal Sussex County Hospital. From here I can see the window of the room where my son was born and I am there again, transported to midsummer, a boundless joy gripping me. My stride becomes faster, more purposeful. Work awaits.
It is this feeling that stays with me as I drop down through Kemp Town once more, the sea opening out in front of me, small cobalt waves edging away from a hazy, undefined horizon. Rampion wind farm has disappeared for the day. I walk home, a Rottweiler sniffing the recycling bins outside my house, nursing thoughts of the small intimacies I have witnessed on this grey morning.