I'd been reluctant to visit Brighton. I'd presumed that I wouldn't like it. A tacky expanse of exhausted beach floated before my mind's eye, jammed with sticky-faced children and fallen, upturned ice-cream cones melting feebly in the summer sun, seeping slowly towards the water in an attempt to free themselves from the general clamour.
I was delighted to be wrong; it’s always healthy to be proved wrong. While I was visiting a friend who lives on the Sussex coast, we took a day trip to Brighton. Walking through the streets, I was charmed by the combination of modernity and antiquity. Its streets are a chronological map of the ages, and its citizens are charmingly varied.
A university town, it is filled with youth. The abundance of weird little second-hand and vintage shops allows these people to be profligate with their fashion. We passed women browsing in full 1950s attire, seasoned hippies who would anywhere else be judged for their bizarre choice of sandals and poncho. There were hipsters – real hipsters – the sort of man who wears double denim, skinny jeans so tight that they look like his teenage sister's leggings, his lips pursed discerningly inside a perfectly groomed Victorian-era beard. At home we would likely put such a volume of external extravagance down to "notions". These people put me in high spirits, and by the time we had strolled through the town to the seafront, I felt more open to borrowing some of their Brightonian experimentalism than I had before.
Shrieks of glee
My issues with the sea go back quite far. As a child, totally unconscious of my own mortality, I would streak down the beach and barrel into the waves with shrieks of glee. I recall the freedom and joy of it; it’s the sort of feeling we spend our adulthoods attempting to recapture. Swimming in the sea begets a special kind of pleasure; it’s brisk and liberating. It proffers a sense of one’s own insignificance. That too can be good for us.
My father took us on a trip to Fanore in Co Clare. As with most of my father’s attempts at parenting solo, it didn’t go very smoothly. The last thing I can recall before waking up in his arms on the beach was seeing the dot of him sitting in the distance as I was pulled back with the tide. An angry wave broke across my small back, and I was sucked down into the roiling dark. Although I’d been taught to swim, my limbs could not work against the force of the water. I opened my mouth in the blackness to call for my father until I could feel the salt water burning its way down my gullet and windpipe. Then nothing.
My brother had seen me disappear under the surface of the water, and he alerted my father, who fetched me. I awoke, coughing up seawater in sharp bursts. It instilled a horror of the sea that I've found difficult to shake. Add to that the fact that my father permitted me to watch Jaws aged five; the agonising fear of large prehistoric beasts bursting forth from the deep to chomp me in half only perpetuated my phobia. Often, we are horrified by things that rationally cannot hurt us, that are harmless or even beneficial: native spiders, heights (when we know we are safe), needles. The sea doesn't really fall into this category. Although it is a source of beauty, enjoyment and food, it is powerful enough to kill, and does so all the time.
Still, the sight of the Brighton seafront filled me with a certain winsome longing. I’ve committed this year to saying yes to something new each week. Because saying no to frightening things is my default response, I needed a better reason than fear not to go into the sea. I didn’t have one. Compounding this was the fact that my friend earnestly wanted us to head to the beautiful beach by his home in Sussex and have a swim, like ordinary human beings. I couldn’t legitimately refuse.
I’d love to say that as I minced squeamishly into the water on a warm, calm day, my childhood oneness with the sea came back and I felt at home. I didn’t. I was frightened, I was cold and I was harbouring the whisper of a fear of mechanical sharks devouring me. I did it, though, and I’ll do it again. Fears – even silly ones, though they only ever feel silly to others – are there to be mastered.
The Yes Woman says yes to... challenging your fears, and no to . . . double denim, even if you're only wearing it ironically