We arrived at Costa da Caparica in a rainstorm. Our taxi drove a slow crawl, the steady back and forth screech of the windshield wipers amping my anxiety as we glided past scores of barren steak houses, pizzerias, and all-you-can-eat sushi buffets. The sheets of rain and the traditional mournful Fado music on the stereo, the seats steeped in the smell of cigarette smoke, they all seemed to fit our dejected moods. The town was a patchwork of 1960’s high-rises painted in colors you might choose for an asylum common room, plus white houses replete with dogs on chains, shuttered windows, and corpse-like clothes hanging from lines.
This was what we had given up London for? I glanced at Peter who had the same thought written on his face. He squeezed my hand, “we’ll make the best of it.”
It wasn’t meant to be this way. A few months earlier I’d convinced Peter, my partner of one and a half years, to leave London with me for good. “You draw for a living. I write. It’s insane to pay London prices. We could be anywhere; Bangkok, Berlin, Lisbon. We’ll drink our morning coffee on verandas, we'll only shop in little local markets. Do you want to live in a country that thinks Brexit is a good idea? Imagine…being able to afford both food and rent.”
These final points swayed him and so we eBayed everything we owned. We said goodbye to our £1000 per month miniscule one-bed flat with its dubious stained carpet (and what we’d dubbed the “murder bathroom”) and headed for Europe.
You probably haven’t heard of Costa da Caparica which is part of the Almada province. From Lisbon you’ll see the horizon crowded with cranes across the Tagus River, metal insects ready to stride the water’s expanse and devour Lisbon. Costa da Caparica is a working class former fishing town now given over to tourism thanks to 30 kilometers of undisturbed, perfect sandy beach. It can be reached by either an ancient, orange, groaning commuter ferry, a cacilheiros, or a bus that will take you over the 25 de Abril suspension bridge and right under the feet of the Cristo Rei statue. One was inspired by San Francisco’s Oakland Bay Bridge, the other by Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer.
Costa da Caparica has the biggest immigrant population in the region, otherwise it seems largely populated by dapper pensioners and unshowy surfers. My friends who live in Lisbon proper call Almada “the other side.”
Our landlady had wild hair and a mumbling monologue which made me suspect she might be crazier than the language barrier would allow us to interpret. She spoke no English except the sentence, “Roberta takes care of you, yes?”. Our high-rise was called “Paradise Beach II.” We’d chosen the large studio on the 6th floor based on four grainy pictures from the internet and affordability. One wall was entirely mirrored. We agreed it would be a horrible place to have an existential crisis.
It rained for our entire first day and night. There was no heater – Roberta had used Google Translate to let us know “It is fine at night under four blankets”. Peter curled his long, thin body behind mine for heat and comfort and I clasped his hand to my belly. “We’ll make the best of it.”
We’d reasoned we’d make the hour-long journey into Lisbon regularly but somehow that didn’t happen. From my first morning when I woke and breathed in time to the sound of the waves swelling then listened to the little sparrow choir, each the size of a baby’s fist, sing out from the tall palm trees under our window I simply didn’t want to leave.
That day we walked the length of the beach and out onto the rocky jetties that reached out like long fingers into the raging Atlantic sea. We stood at the tip of one of these jetties while the waves crashed and salt water misted our faces. The next day we discovered Pope’s Pastelaria where we ate pastéis de nata, sweet custard tarts, and drank black coffee alongside gossiping pensioners in smart winter coats. We found a cozy restaurant where we could have a beer, a home-cooked Portuguese meal, and dessert all for the price of a coffee in London. We started visiting the dilapidated amusement arcade to ride a motorcycle simulator and drank little jugs of Vhino Verde watching the sun, a hazy satsuma, sink into the ocean.
I began going for morning jogs along the shore stopping to pet dogs at a pug owner meet-up or laugh at a group of cyclists all dressed like Santa shouting “Ho, ho, ho” at me. One night the beach opposite our building was littered with a flotsam of large and small jellyfish and we went out and gazed fascinated at their quivering, boneless bodies in the moonlight like children exploring.
Around a week and a half after arriving Peter and I got our courage up and—no wetsuits just a war-cry—ran into the sea. Finally, we bought bodyboards and began to propel ourselves on the ferocious waves.
A routine emerged, we’d have coffee at the little blue coffee booth outside our apartment and then swim. The booth was run by an older woman who kindly chattered away in Portuguese while we nodded and smiled understanding nothing. There was a regular crowd each morning: a young mother with a chubby-thighed baby who she’d sit on the booth counter, a pensioner with a giant, grey Weimaraner who would put its paws on his owner’s lap while they howled a duet to each other. Occasionally, a small, sandy sea dog we named Cachorro, literally “dog,” came trotting over to sit at our feet.
That morning I turned my face to the sunshine and laughed. Peter asked me what it was. “Nothing, I’m just so relaxed. I feel so happy.”
Let me explain something before I go on. My family were Scottish fishermen and fishwives before the industry was swallowed by the oil trade. My mum got pregnant young and then took me and my sister on an itinerant journey down the UK searching for better things but somehow never finding them. Finally, we washed up in a declining British seaside town called Great Yarmouth.
I sometimes tell people I grew up poor but “poor” is a length of string. By that I mean we often arrived in a town with a suitcase, not enough cash for a meal and nowhere to sleep for that night. That my school shoes were held together with blue tac. That we were hungry at the end of the week before the welfare check came the next day. When I sometimes say my upbringing was rough what I mean is that I’ve carried it on my back every day for thirty-six years.
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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