The other night I went for a moonlight walk along the promenade. It is a hilly path, high up on the clifftop, that stretches from Shanklin Old Village to Hope Road. You can see the sea at all times.
Less light pollution and the fact you’re surrounded by the sea somehow makes the sky seem bigger and the stars brighter.
I walked slowly, past the clifftop hotels that have seen me a hundred times before. I almost stopped to show them photos and tell them stories of the old days. But they are just hotels. And they might not recognise me on my own. There used to be eight of us.
I walked on past the old lift that takes people from the beach to the clifftops. We used to catch it sometimes, in the evening, if we’d been to the arcades or playing bingo on the front.
This wasn’t like Gala Bingo. It was these funny light-up cards on plastic stations. You’d sit on a stool, put 20p in for a game, and then the bingo caller would start reading the numbers. He did it all – funny voice into the mic – ‘Legs eleven’, (wolf whistle), ‘Maggie’s den, number 10’, (boo!). If you won, he ripped a few old-school fairground tickets from a roll and gave them to you. You could save up for anything in the cabinet. Electrical goods, tea services, cheap jewellery, pedal bins. I was impatient so always swapped my tickets pretty much immediately. Usually for a cheap little ornament that I’d then carry around with me all week.
The lift was also 20p. You queued up by a fence and then piled in, handing your ticket to an old man who cut a hole in it with a metal machine that hung round his neck and smelt of oil. He gave it back to you too. Not sure why. When we got home from our holiday, we’d find those little tickets in bags and pockets for weeks afterwards.
Once up on the clifftops, it was a short walk to The Mayfair. I remember it was always balmy as we meandered back. I’m sure it wasn’t. We could always see the moon and the stars and a calmness descended across us that we didn’t seem to have at home.
When I walked there the other night, that feeling came back to me. Contentment I guess. I didn’t actually feel it, I just remembered how it sits, deep in the pit of your stomach, almost like an ache. I think I realised, that night as I walked along the promenade, that although I thought I’d come back here to find Nana, I actually came to find that feeling. Or at least to work out how to get it back.
The next day I went for a drive through villages and out onto the coast road. As I passed one of many huge old houses I noticed a girl sitting on a fence stroking two funny little horses. There was something about her that was compelling. She had bright red hair scraped back into a bobble, a coat with a fur neck and white trousers, which I later realised were pyjamas. It wasn’t the way she looked that stopped me in my tracks, it was the way she was holding the horses and talking to them with pure abandonment. She was in the moment, completely, giving herself up to just being there.
I drove on but I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She seemed to have that feeling I was looking for. If you’ve ever left someone without saying what you meant, or driven past a stunning sunset with your camera, or even just seen something in a shop that you really, really wanted but couldn’t afford, there is that time, those minutes immediately afterwards when it could go either way. The more the minutes pass, the less likely it is you’ll go back. Sometimes you shouldn’t go back. But that day, I did a U-turn on the country lane and drove to find her again, hoping hard that she’d still be there. She was. She looked up as I approached and smiled and immediately I was glad I stopped.
I asked if I could take her photograph and we spoke for a while. She was a musician, in her pyjamas because she was writing an album and rarely leaving the house. She’d come out for some air and to visit the horses in the field. It wasn’t her field, but she was bothered about them being lonely so she’d come out to ‘check on them.’ When she said that, she looked a little lost herself. She told me it was ‘stunning but lonely’ to live here. She had such a magnetic kindness about her that it was hard to leave. I asked if I could put her here, on this page, photo and words. She said ‘of course’ but to use my discretion when it came to the pictures because she had no make-up on and was in her pyjamas and hadn’t seen daylight for a few hours. She was beautiful.
I am not a photographer. I had no idea how to capture what I saw. That scene on the fence. There is no abandonment in my picture. The magnetism is lost in the still.
It’s like that feeling. The one I was talking about before. It’s there. Somewhere. But it’s so hard to capture and keep.
Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana.