An Ode to Friends and the Sea

At the beginning of September, I went on a short break to Brighton.  I was in between one stonemasonry job and another and keen to do something worthwhile with this break I had manufactured.  I had arranged with my friends on the coast that I would go during that week, but I was laboured with indecision up until the morning I was due to leave.  I had spent much of the previous day reading Stephen Grosz’s ‘The Examined Life’ – a book I had discovered more or less at the right time.  It included a series of very illuminating and well-written psychotherapy case studies that went some way towards shedding some light on what I was feeling at the time.  While it had many points in its favour, it wasn’t necessarily something that eased the decision-making process over whether or not to go away.  I was still trying to make my mind up until the morning I was due to leave, trailing most of it behind me as I cycled to the hospital for a blood test.  It was the nurse who took my blood that convinced me to go.  And when a nurse tells you to do something, I place myself in the camp of popular opinion when I say that you should probably do it. 

When Catalina rang me later that morning, I think she had prepared herself for disappointment.  My track record as a friend to her and Neil was sketchy at best, amounting to one or two evenings at the local pub when Neil and Cat were visiting Gloucester.  Neil’s mum and dad had recently moved away from the city so Neil no longer had any direct ties to it.  It was now up to me to reach out and make the effort.  My mind was still reclined on Freud’s psychotherapy couch when I ignored all of her calls the day before, but I had the angel of the nurse sat on my shoulder this time and I heard her whisper answer it in my ear.  As I swung both legs off this metaphorical couch I was slumped in, I was reminded of something that Neil had texted me five years previously while I was trying to decide whether or not to make a last-minute trip to London.  As Neil’s great hero Hunter S. Thompson said, and as Neil quoted in reply: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”  I answered Cat’s call and I was on the train to Brighton via London a little over an hour later.

During the summer, I had sent Neil and Cat a concave mirror they had asked me to look out for at the car boot sale.  In sheer gratitude of their friendship, it became my top priority, and I was lucky enough to find a mirror that fitted their description at the car boot as soon as the following Wednesday.  I mummified it in bubble wrap and cardboard and sent it off to them shortly after.  They sent me a wonderful black and white vintage postcard as a thank you with a note at the end urging me to visit.  A few months later, I received a more contemporary colour postcard depicting six scenes from East Sussex.  Their message read:

“Pick your favourite one out of the six.  Then drive towards it*.  If you pick the pier don’t drive all the way to it, that will break most cars.

*Bring cider

They had addressed it to “Tom Tomatha Tommings” and had put a speech bubble next to the stamp’s profile of the Queen that read:

“I order you on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government to go to Brighton.”

They didn’t sign it from Neil and Catalina, as they had the last one, but they didn’t have to.  No one apart from Neil and Cat would call me “Tom Tomatha Tommings” and no one would animate The Queen quite as wonderfully and as creatively as they had.  I could tell by the change in handwriting that it was written by both of them – Cat’s was typically European in style with a joined up, looping arrangement with lots of flicks, while Neil’s was much sharper and more suggestive of chaos.  His looping K in pick and break looked like a disgraced or mournful R.  Their handwriting was equally as distinctive: it was clear that Cat had written the first sentence and Neil the last.  This postcard served as a symbol of their relationship that I had always found so refreshing: they are at once a single entity while remaining unmistakably individual.  They work hand in hand to create something greater than their own great selves - something much greater than the sum of their parts.  Consciously or unconsciously, we all quietly judge every relationship we encounter – mother-daughter, brother-sister, husband-wife – and see things we like, things they dislike and compare it to our own.  This is perhaps why I found the relationship analysis in ‘The Examined Life’ so fascinating (and then, subsequently, the brilliant objectivity of a relationship arc by Alaine de Botton in ‘Essays in Love’).  Of all the relationships I have secretly dwelt upon and picked over - I have yet to find one that simultaneously endorses the oneness and individuality of love so ardently and with such ease as the one that exists between Neil and Cat.  

The couple met me off the train when I arrived in Hove that afternoon.  We made our way directly to Cat’s university campus, where, along with the other final projects, her short documentary film for her Masters Degree was shown.  By putting a mirror up to the tobacco industry, “No Smoking” was a richly multi-layered exploration into the psychological and physical effects of tobacco addiction and recovery.  It was by far the most distinctive piece in the presentation and the one that had the most unique, auteur-like voice.  Cat was awarded a first-class honours degree and a part-time job for her efforts, and deservedly so.  She has the benefit of Neil – himself a photography graduate – as a co-editor and director of photography, so Cat is afforded an immediate advantage on location and in the studio, as has Neil with Cat at his side when he’s plying his craft – another very literal example of the two working hand in hand.

After the presentation, we mingled with the other postgraduates in the foyer over wine and nibbles before catching the train back to Hove.  I checked into a The Courtlands Hotel, where I would stay for the next two nights.  It was placed conveniently in the road adjacent to Neil and Cat’s flat and ticked all the necessary boxes for a comfortable stay.  I rejoined them a short while later and we walked towards the seafront.  We ordered fish and chips on the way and enjoyed a very hearty feast on the promenade.

The sea, I would later discover, is part of their lives, and I witnessed a continual drawing of strength from its endless restorative properties.  During the course of my visit, it became hard to imagine how they could have ever lived without it.  The infrequency of my relationship with the sea fosters a distinctively fresh connection to it, like a good friend who lives away from home and only returns for Christmas.  Like that friend, the British coastline always takes me back to where I was – and who I was - when I last saw it.   Unlike so many things in modern life, the sea is no disposable thing.  It has been part of every age since time began, but it plays no part in this digital age.  You can take a picture of it and put it on Facebook or you can try to sum it up in 140 characters or less, but nothing can come close to adequately defining it, and only something the size of a planet is able to keep it contained. In an age when there is an overwhelming, almost overbearing emphasis on the present, the sea exists not just as the spine of earth’s history, but as all three tenses rolled into one.  As a guest to the birth and death of every age and civilisation in history, the sea stamps its permanence on every proceeding, always bringing two gifts.  It brings a gift to celebrate the birth of a new age but always remembers to take a change of black to mark its death before it leaves – two events it was told about in the same breath, for it doesn’t preoccupy itself with time in the way that we must.  It is older than Rome, but is as young and fresh and as free-spirited as ever because it doesn’t need age.  I maintain that watching the sea is a unique experience that sits apart from everything else.  If you allow it, it can dig a well right into deepest depths of what I would define as the human soul and fills it with something beyond water.    As the three of us sat there under the soft illumination of one of the lamps that lined the promenade, I saw a vastness in what I was looking out upon – a vastness that swelled vaster still in the darkness and made me shiver, and as I tried to separate the night sea from the night sky, I pined for the warmth of a hand of a lost love.

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