When I was fifteen I left high school without graduating to work as a waitress and started off at a run to put that seaside town behind me and make something better for myself. When I arrived in London at twenty-one I thought I’d reached the Emerald City. London was broadly good to me; I built a successful career in NGOs, I wrote novels you could buy in bookstores, my picture was in newspapers, I fell in love and made friends with warm, interesting people.
I was also often excruciating lonely. I couldn’t stay still. I left suddenly to go to Southeast Asia, South America, across Russia, to the parts of Eastern Europe few people choose to live in. In London I was brittle with anxiety. I never felt I could do enough or be enough. I worked and worked and worked. I lived in London for fifteen years and I don’t think I relaxed once in all that time. Even in that final year, when I knew I needed to take a break, I lay in bed watching Netflix and I went to my local gym and sat sweating in the sauna, my heart pounding, or sprawled face down in an inflatable “hot yoga pod” at an East London warehouse. And still I worried and worried and worried.
The energy of the city was a constant slave driver, a constant whisper in my ear. In short, London might have been good to me once but it wasn’t good for me anymore. I didn’t know why, I just knew it was true and that London and I needed to break up.
But at the little booth that day in Costa da Caparica, drinking shitty coffee with the sweet taste of cake still on my tongue, I felt the sunshine ease that brittleness out like warm soft fingertips smoothing a crumpled piece of paper. Like an actual physical thing. My body too had softened, the edges rounding and expanding, as though whatever I’d been holding clenched inside had been released and my physical-self had needed to accommodate it. I’m willing to concede that a diet of steak, bread, almond cookies, beer, wine and all you can eat sushi may have helped. Peter kissed my temple, happy I was happy.
Later that day we’ll take our bodyboards to the quieter end of the beach where there’s a row of scrappy wooden beach huts painted a salt-bleached cornflower blue, aqua and yellow. We’ll eat lunch looking out at the sea; fat slices of white toast, with butter so thickly spread it drips down our wrists and slices of sheep’s cheese. We’ll watch a sardine boat come in and run down barefoot to see the tractor haul in the nets.
The fishing crew, in their sixties and seventies, will spread a red tarpaulin and a small crowd will gather, seagulls flock overhead, stray dogs make excited circles. Hundreds of silver sardines will be poured from the net creating a rippling, shining quilt on the tarp as they flap furiously and fish scales and water splash the air and catch the sun. A dog will run around with a stolen fish, a child wearing nothing on her bottom half will be gifted a large white shell by one of the fishermen, rope will be coiled into a large, upended rusting satellite dish, all as the sardines are sorted into buckets corresponding to their size.
We’ll buy a plastic bag of fish, still shivering with life, for €2. Afterwards we’ll bury it, moulding a fish into the sand to mark the spot. We’ll run into the freezing Atlantic and let the waves rush us towards the shore as seagulls swarm begging scraps against rose gold sky. That night we’ll gut the sardines in our tiny kitchen, fry them with garlic, lemon and salt. They’ll be the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.
But at that moment I was just having coffee at the booth, the big grey dog howling, the booth lady dandling the baby, chatting to the mother. Peter’s leg curled around mine under the table. I petted Cachorro’s ears, slightly matted from sea water and turned my face up to the sunshine. ‘Nothing, I’m just so relaxed. I feel so happy.’
But what I meant was “I feel so at home.” I realized that I’d been granted a homecoming. Back to my childhood of fishermen and fishwives. Back to running into the cold, icy sea with a scream and wild heart. Back to my teens in another empty seaside town. In Costa da Caparica, completely by chance, I had been given back my home but altered fractionally so that I might make peace with it. Here I could rest. Here I could be still for a while. I realized I did not make the best of Costa da Caparica, it made the best of me.
Kerry Hudson was born in Aberdeen. Her first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma was published in 2012 by Chatto & Windus (Penguin Random House). It was the winner of the Scottish First Book Award while also being shortlisted for many others. Her second novel Thirst won France's most prestigious award for foreign fiction the Prix Femina Étranger. Her books are also available in the US, France. Italy, and Turkey. Hudson founded The WoMentoring Project and has written for Grazia, Guardian Review, Observer New Review, Metro newspaper and YOU Magazine.
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