The heat hits me as soon as I step out of the sleek, air-conditioned rental car. It works its way into my clothes, invading my body, oppressive and thick. Looking around I notice how much this place has changed; there are building where there used to be wide-open space and scrubland. The horizon has been cut short by the onslaught of man. At least the weather hasn’t changed; the shorefront is just as I remember, bright, cloudless and warm. The sunshine twinkles off the deep blue water out ahead. To my left I can still see the peaks and feel the heat of the sand dunes, which, years ago seemed to go on and on forever. I’m quick to release my feet from their shiny Italian leather shoes. Off too come the black silk socks. I throw them all in the back of the car, on top of the black jacket and tie and the crisp white programme that was handed to us as we filed into the church.
Making my way out from the car I try to find the small dirt path that I vaguely remember from my childhood. It should be here, meandering out from the car park, through the brush and scrub and out to the glittering beach. I see trash littered around on the grass slope as I make my way down, occasional beer bottles and fast food wrappers. Out to my right I see the main walkway towards the beach, but I shirk it, trying to find some sense of seclusion, some reminder of my younger days. I want that feeling that I used to get as a child, of revelling in the utter freedom that this deserted beach promised. At least today there is no one around. I can imagine the locals at work, looking out various windows wishing they could be out here by the cool water, the beach breeze blowing up to cool their sweaty faces. I see them waiting for the weekend, for the chance to pack into cars and invade the beach, hoping to find, I don’t know what, maybe some sense of nature among the crowds.
Being here in this place away from my usual life, my usual fears and anxieties, I feel cut off from the world. As a boy, this stretch of beach and scrubland was a boundary place, where dreams were more real, where the impossible could be made to happen.
The last time I remember being here, though I know it can’t really have been the last, I was with a girl who lived just up the road from my grandfather. We were young; thirteen – I think – back then, though I felt a whole deal older. We met in secret and made our way out, finding our way to this same beach and walking along this same narrow path. I was trying to find a secluded place by the water. I’m not sure what she was looking for. As we walked I’d try to brush against her as best I could, she’d just look over and smile that smile that made my stomach leap up into my throat.
She was there at the funeral, Sophia, she’d known my grandfather from the local shops. Everyone seems to know everyone around here. It surprised me how old she looked, though I hadn’t thought of her in years. She came up to me after the reception to offer her condolences. Mostly she talked about her children and how busy it was for her, especially with Rob working all the time. I nodded and smiled, trying to reconcile this image of her with the one I still had imprinted in my mind. I found myself waiting for someone to drift into the conversation, or for her to notice someone else, someone more understanding, that she could corner with stories of dance recitals and haircuts.
When I leave tomorrow I’m not going to remember her as I saw her today. She won’t be the tired mum, worn down by her children, suspecting her husband of cheating on her, consumed by the minutia of her life. No, for me she will always be that sweet girl who, when we breached the dry, sun-baked shrubbery and saw the ocean, turned and gave me my very first and most treasured kiss.
Now making my way over that last hill I can see the open sand. It’s different to how I remember; the beach seems shorter, the sand less white. But, breathing in, I can still smell that salty air that reminds me that this is a place of magic and small miracles. I’ll always remember it as the beach where my grandfather first taught me to swim, to surf, to run on the soft sand. I’ll remember it as the place I’d go to meet friends and where I took my first tentative steps into adulthood. As I step across the burning sand I smile, realising that no matter where I go, this place, this spot by the ocean will always pull me back.