For months, I have craved water. Not just being immersed in it, but dipping in and out, sitting on a rock with my legs dangling in the sea and my torso outside, thawing in the sun. I am, after all, an amphibian.
I miss the coast where I grew up, wearing little more than a swimming suit for months on end, running on the shore with other screaming children covered in sand, our hair caked in salt. Our courage was measured by the distance we were willing to swim. Learning to ride a wave with nothing but our body held perfectly straight and perfectly still, arms stretched in front of us, was our proudest pre-teen achievement.
On the coast, there were savage children and rowdy teenagers, and older people too, mostly women, happy to just sit in the shallow sea, half of their body in the water, half of their body out. How boring, I used to think. What a waste, to have a whole field of sea in front of you and do nothing with it.
I understand now. Lockdown has been rough. Nature has been a lifeline, from the first forays into gardening to the long, aimless walks around Hampstead Heath, Waterlow Park, Clyssold Park, the Parkland Walk. (Best of all is walking through Queen’s Wood at dusk and forgetting that there is a whole sprawling city beyond the treetops). But no amount of parks or walks can make up for the absence I feel, painful in my chest, of the sea. And so I crave.
Today, I’m back where I was born. I’m lying down on a towel in the sand, pretending the pandemic, lockdown and the looming financial crisis are happening somewhere else, or sometime else. There are bleached strips of seaweed around me. The smell of the sea becomes sulphur and sewage and then sea once again. This beach we’ve hitched a ride to isn’t pretty, but it’s the first beach I’ve seen in months and, for that, it’s perfect. An old woman is sitting near the shore, her legs in the sea, her head tilted back towards the sun. Another woman is asleep, lying face-down on a rock that’s big enough to surround her whole body. Soon she’ll wake up, slide down into the water to cool herself, then climb back and continue her nap. She reminds me of a seal or, indeed, an amphibian. We’re animals. Evolved, sophisticated, far astray from what we were meant to be, but animals nonetheless. Forgetting it makes us ill, and sad. As animals, we adapt to where we were born, and to our place of birth we crave to return. These places make us, and we make them. This is where I belong: on a barren piece of coast, with just the sea, and the rocks, and the sun. As long as I’m here I can let all worries melt in the heat, and bask in the feeling of being at one with my surroundings. I sit down next to the old woman, my legs in the sea, arms behind me to support my back, droplets of water drying on my chest in tiny salty circles. I tilt my head back to face the sun. Green fireworks bloom behind my eyelids. I’m home.