The absence of words

The Grand Pier, Weston Super Mare

I can’t find my notes.

I’ve moved my office space around twice since the time I had them. I flick through dozens of aborted moleskin journals, the first half a dozen pages of each filled with urgent, unravelling scrawl, and then the desert: the off-white colour I now associate with failure. I remember the pen I used – from a pack of six gel pens I bought from the WHSmith in the town, along with a copy of the local paper. I scan the journals for the gel ink.

I move onto the bookshelves. Sometimes I squeeze notebooks in spaces. I check my Gruffalo tin behind the fossil stones I took back from Streedagh Point. There’s my old student ID cards, some more pocket notebooks so old I know I won’t have used any of them for that trip, a memory stick, paperclips.

Perhaps not having the notebook isn’t such a bad thing, but it’s how I was trained. Get up close, scrutinise, check the peripheries, overhear, write better. And I did take it everywhere on that trip. I stood up close to things, rubbed my fingers over barnacles, scratched rust off rivets. I wrote down how everything felt, how everything looked. Exactly which 1990s pop songs were playing to no one save the cleaners on the pier’s boardwalk early that Sunday morning. I walked from one pier to the other, Grand Pier to Birnbeck, morning and evening, along that smooth, wide promenade. I made a lot of notes.

I had plans.

I was going to visit and get up close to all of them, living and dead, read up on the history, and work out why they were special to me, why some thrived, some languished. Place theory played a part, I was sure of it…only I had little real knowledge or understanding of place theory, so I would have to teach myself. Saturdays in the library: I could do it. And I do remember standing on the boardwalk on the afternoon of the Sunday, the wind making my skin raw, thinking about the fact that I got a particular thrill in standing at a direct right angle to the pier, my gaze forming a parallel with the shoreline, fancying myself a liminal coordinate, feeling something attaching itself inside.

I would get to the bottom of it all. I could even write a book. Because it was what I was interested in – seaside architecture, place, the visualisation of class structures, travel, the history of leisure, monuments to past feats of civilisation that are at once frivolous and very serious.

Eighteen months ago, now, and no words. Three days off work, two nights in a hotel overlooking the pier, two breakfasts of grapefruit segments and watery hotel yoghurts, being the woman staying in a hotel on her own in Weston Super Mare in late November who was stared at brazenly by coach loads of pensioners.

What’s left?

One science fiction-like memory of Birnbeck Pier silhouetted by the light pollution of distant Bristol, a sunken insect-like exoskeleton in the beautiful silver-yellow-purple light

half an hour on the arcade machines in the Grand Pier – the only person in the arcade, at that. Disney statues, presumably no longer drawing in the crowds but too wonderful to get rid of, placed in semi storage on top of the taller machines

walking alone in darkness, lit by the red neon strips of the Grand Pier (that accentuate its beautiful geometry) and the icy blue tips of the promenade lights; walking for so long that I eventually out-walk the lights, walk on the soft of sand, in utter, utter pitch black now, try to gauge through hearing alone where land ends and sea begins –

– flashing blue and pink lights that clunk and jolt in the black like fireflies, that, when they come closer, I realise are LED lights on the collars of dogs having their evening beach run off the lead. A whistle from far away, the fireflies doubling back the way they have come, away from me

leaning against one of the horizontal supports bolted in a criss-cross between the Grand Pier’s legs at low tide, suppressing an anxiety that I will make it all of this collapse


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