I jolt awake to my head hitting the coach window. I look at the glowing red numbers illuminated above the drivers head. Two hours have passed. One more to go. Even though the coach feels quiet, it is far from it. Muffled music drifts from the headphones of some anonymous person in front of me, a man in the row opposite me snores gently. Is he dreaming? What of?
I turn my attention to the street lights whizzing by. Dad and I used to play a game that involved counting how many streetlights you past during a given period, dumb yet captivating all at the same time. He said mum used to play it with him to pass the time. One, two, three, four, five. He said her laugh was the most amazing sound in the world, that he wished I got to hear it. Six, seven, eight. But that’s all he ever says about her. Nine, ten, eleven. Everything I have ever learnt about my mum is through her diaries. I found them in the attic when I was eleven but didn’t have the courage to read them for another ten years. I don’t remember what it feels like to hold her hand, the feeling of her kiss on my cheek or what her hair smells like. But in those diaries, I feel like I know her. Well, as much as you can know someone who is just a ghost. When I was fifteen, inspired by her travels, I wrote a bucket list of all of the places I wanted to go. It wasn’t until last week that I realised I hadn’t gone to any of them, hence this journey. This coach is driving me to her, driving me to place she wrote about with such adoration; this tiny coastal town I’ve never even heard of. This place is on the top of my list. The place that dad calls ‘A retirement town, not much more there than charity shops and bad phone reception.’ Dad understood why I wanted to go, of course, but never knew why the place meant so much to her. I’m looking for pieces of her. All my life I’ve been looking for her but I’ve just been chasing a shadow. The world moved on without her and it feels like the more time goes by, the more she slips through my fingers. That’s why I need to do this now, why I need to go to this place that mum loved so much. I don’t think I’ll ever feel complete or whole without some echo, some trace, some connection to her.
I run my fingers over her journal in my lap. It hasn’t been more than a few metres from me for the last few months. The leather is scratched and worn, there’s some pages missing and others are so water damaged that I can’t read them, but this one is my favourite. It’s the only one that isn’t finished. She talks about dad a lot and about me, who was growing inside her. She talks about this town, how it smelt, the feeling of the sea breeze on her face, how free she was here and how safe she felt here. She described it in minute detail, the fishing boats, one green with chipped red paint, the beach, the pub in the square adorned with flowers, the cobbles outside the ice cream shop and the pier she would stand on for hours. I’d painted the scene in my head a million times but only made it to canvas once. She wrote how she couldn’t wait to take me to this town to visit all her favourite places and to meet her favourite fisherman. The first time I read that I ran my fingers over the letters, tracing them again and again until they were etched in my brain and I cried so much my eyes were swollen the next morning. That was all the proof I needed to make this journey.
When I searched the place online dad was right, it didn’t really look like much. Just a pebbled beach with some boats. A few colourful cafes here and there, nothing like the picture in my minds eye and not the hidden, special gem I expected to find. But there has to be something about it, something close to magic for her to talk about it the way she did. But what makes it so special? And who is the fisherman? I try not to be too optimistic. Whoever that fisherman was, he’s probably long gone by now and I probably won’t find anything in the town other than good fish and chips. But all I know is that I have to try.
It’s 10 pm by the time the taxi pulls up outside my B&B and it’s raining heavily. I thank the taxi driver as he heaves my bag out of the car boot and pull my raincoat hood over my head. It doesn’t look like summer reached this town. I hurry into the B&B and I’m greeted by the overwhelming warmth you only find in old pubs on hot days, stifling yet reassuring all at the same time. A small, red-cheeked woman appears from around the corner when the bell above the door chimes.
“Cassia, it’s great to see you, I hope the rain didn’t get you too much,” she says with a smile.
“Oh, no,” I say, trying not to sound like it makes me feel uneasy that they already knew my name. “Just from the taxi to the door.”
She smiles again. “I’m Greta by the way, let’s get you checked in.”
Greta leads me through a dimly lit hallway and up a set of narrow stairs. She walks me to the door at the end of the landing and says “if you need anything there is a phone to contact me at the front desk.”
I smile and thank her before letting myself in.
Despite the hallway being dark, everything about this room was not. It feels like home, a mixture of pinks, greens, and blues, old retro style furnishing coupled with a statement bed. I do that thing where you open all the drawers and cupboards as if looking for lost treasure. All I find are two bibles in the bedside cabinets. I wonder if anyone still reads them, or if they sit there forgotten. I discard my bag on the floor and jump onto the bed, allowing myself to sink into the mattress. The bed is a welcome relief after sitting in an uncomfortable coach seat for hours, it feels like the most comfortable thing in the world.
I stare up at the ceiling and try to figure out my next move. Now that I’m here, I don’t really know what to do, or where to even start. I thought that I would arrive and somehow I would intuitively know, that my mother’s voice in my head would guide me and put me on a path to discovering who she is. But I can’t feel her here. I thought I’d get off that bus and I’d be able to imagine my mother running on the beach with the sea air flowing through her long hair, it trailing behind her like she is underwater. I reach for my sketchbook and start to draw a wild woman running on the beach, the pencil moving rapidly across the paper. I get the hair just right but I still feel empty.
I thought I’d feel her presence in the streets, or be immediately drawn to something, that it would only take one look, one thought, and I’d know ‘yes. She was definitely here.’
But I don’t feel that.
I don’t feel anything other than a slight fear of being in an unknown place on my own. I can hear the creaking of the hotel sign in the wind but it’s too hot to close the window so I listen to its rhythmic sound. I take out my mum’s journal as a distraction and read the same passage over and over again until I fall asleep.
The early morning seagull cried wakes me the next day, the journal still in my hands. I move my neck from side to side in an attempt to alleviate the stiffness and stretch my body out on the bed rolling my shoulders back. It takes me a few seconds to remember where I am and how this great idea is now starting to feel really stupid. What exactly was I thinking I would find here? That suddenly everything I didn’t know about my mother would immediately make sense. That there would be plaques with facts about her dotted around the town? I feel childish and naive that I ever thought about coming to this place she was years ago would ever bring me closer to her. That’s just a fantasy, a dream I’ll never quite achieve. I look at the clock: 6.30 am. It’s too early for breakfast and the heat in the room is stifling. One thing is for sure, I’m not going to find my mum in this room so I pull on some old joggers with green paint splashed down one side and a baggy sweatshirt that still smells of my ex and head out to explore.
As I open the door to the street the cold air hits me like a welcome friend and then I see it, a wall of grey. The grey sky seems to have taken over everything and spreads as far as I can see. There’s a man walking his dog on the beach through the mist, but he seems like a ghost, like he isn’t really there. It’s eerily silent. It’s like someone has painted over all the good bits with a grey/white hue and maybe if you scrub hard enough the colors will show through.
“I always used to love those boats. They go so far away but come home at the end of the day. Free yet tethered.” for some reason, that passage from my mum’s diary comes to mind, so I decide to take it as a sign and head towards the beach where the boats are kept.
Whenever I think of beaches, I always think of those sandy ones that are too hot to walk on without burning the bottom of your feet. The sun is always shining, and clouds don’t exist when I think of beaches. But this one isn’t like that. This beach is full of stones that make it hard to walk. There’s rain that feels more like mist and the wind is causing the waves to look violent and unforgiving. It’s summer. It shouldn’t be like this. The wind seems to howl through my sweatshirt and I hug my arms around me to compensate. I turn to my left and see a row of boats that look like they haven’t been used in years, gravestones protruding from the stones, I wonder if one of these belongs to the fisherman mum talked about. I reach for my sketchpad but realise I’ve left it back at the hotel so I try and memorise every detail in the hope I can recall it later. The waves crash on the stones, I always thought of waves as quite calming but these send a chill through me reminding me how alone I am.
When I get back to the safety of the pavement, my shoes echo as I walk down the street and it almost seems wrong. I tread as lightly as I can as I try to imagine what did my mother love about this place so much, how could she love somewhere so bleak? No matter which way I look at it, this place doesn’t seem lovable. Even the pink and blue houses look sad and tired, the energy and life drained out of them. I just can’t find anything to love about this place. Dejected, I make my way back to the hotel. The next few days follow pretty much the same routine, rise early, go down to the beach, freeze to death, walk around, go in and out of random shops, eat fish and chips whilst trying to ward off seagulls the size of cats, stand on the pier, look out at sea, stare into strangers’ eyes for some kind of recognition, but nothing. I feel further away from my mum now than I did when I arrived. The sea breeze on my face just stings, I feel more alone and isolated than free and safe and I can’t get the smell of rotting fish out of my clothes and hair. I can even taste it in my mouth.
The next morning I awake to blue skies which seem promising, and rather than mope around looking for some part of her, I decide totake out my paints and just create what I see. After breakfast, I lug myself and my supplies down to the beach. The breeze feels pleasant on my skin today, the cold chill gone, the waves gently lap to the shore. I look out to sea, it looks like a crystal lake sparking as the sun hits it, illuminating it a bright turquoise. I start to paint, bringing this town from its slumber into vivid vibrant colours. I don’t know how long I stay there, absorbed in colour, brush strokes, and the sound of the waves. I might not be finding my mum bit I’m finding myself a little more with every painting.
“Alanna?” I hear a male voice behind me.
My whole body freezes. That’s my mother’s name.
I can’t move. I’m holding my breath, afraid to exhale.
“Er, no,” I manage to say, without turning around. “I’m her daughter, Cassia.” I can feel my heartbeat in my throat.
“Like the constellation?”
I remember an extract from mum’s diaries saying how if she had a girl, she was going to name her Cassia after the constellation Cassiopeia. I turn around to face the voice and staring back at me is a disheveled looking man. His clothes are worn and there’s dirt under his nails. But he has kind eyes, an icy blue.
“How did you-”
“She always said she was going to name her girl Cassia, if she ever had one.”
“You knew my mother?” I say, timidly taking a step towards him.
“Oh yes,” he laughs, nodding his head like he was recalling a memory. “A long time ago. How is she now?”
The question shoots through me like an arrow. I swallow hard.
“She died. Eighteen years ago.”
The man stares at me, just gently nodding his head over and over again. I study his face and wonder how on earth he and mum would’ve ever crossed paths. He doesn’t look like he would be someone she would associate herself with, but then again, I’m probably a lot more judgemental than she ever was.
He lowers himself to the stony floor and I follow.
“Thats a shame. That’s a real shame. Amazing woman, your mother. The world lost a good one, it’s sad you never got to know her.”
“Yeah,” I say, moving stones around with my forefinger. “This may sound a bit strange, but are you a fisherman by any chance?
He lets out a breath of air which I think is supposed to be a laugh. “Most people round here are.”
“Of course,” I say. “Sorry, it’s just that mum used to talk about this fisherman a lot in her diaries and-”
“That would be me, yes.”
I blink, not really sure how to react to what he just said. Where do I go from here? There’s so many things I want to ask him, but my brain doesn’t know how to form the questions I want to ask. I pause, look him in the eye and smile.
“She used to keep these diaries,” I say. “She used to talk about this place a lot, I thought I’d finally come and see what all the fuss was about. Oh, I’m sorry I just realised I didn’t get your name?”
“It’s Travis,” he says, staring at my face for a really long time. “Gosh, you look so much like her, you know. It’s like she got in a time machine and not a day has gone by. She just showed up here one day, you know. No plan, just one single bag and a dream. Spent a few months in a hotel before she moved into the my spare room i.”
“What was her dream? She never mentioned why she came here in the first place.”
“Much like you, she found a letter her great grandmother wrote to her great grandfather which mentioned this place. Except she wanted to never leave, she wanted to open up her own little shop, before she moved on to her next dream.”
My body is electrified, my mind rushing at a million miles an hour. His answers are only leading to more questions. How long is it before quizzing this old man becomes strange? When does this turn into a hostage situation? What’s off limits? Is anything off limits? Is it inappropriate to hug him? Yes it probably is. My mind can’t hold on to a thought for more than a few seconds before it gets lost in the hurricane of things I want to say.
“Wait, she wanted to open a shop?” Is the first question that escapes my mouth.
“Oh yes,” he says. “My late wife taught her how to bake, said she wanted to own a place selling cakes. My wife died before your mother could make it happen. That idea was never more than a few spider diagrams on bits of paper.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. Why did she never mention any of this? Why talk about this place so much in her journals but never mention why she loved it here? What was the point?
“And if you don’t mind me asking, how did you meet her?”
“Everyone knew Alanna but no one really knew her, if you know what I mean. She walked around like she was in her own little world, like she couldn’t see anyone else. But one day she just came up to me on the beach whilst I was tending to my boat and just starting talking to me. I’ve classed her as a good friend ever since.”
Even though I’ve never met her, I could imagine that she would be the type of person to go and talk to random strangers. If she had the chance to raise me, I bet she would’ve taught me that. To always be kind to strangers, to talk to the kids who sat alone at lunch. I feel guilty that I never did those things, I think she would have wanted me to.
“And then one day she just came to me and said that it was time for her to move on. I understood she was a free bird. I knew she wouldn’t be here forever. But it was wonderful while it lasted. I could show you my boat, if you like? We named it after her, you know. Me and my wife. We called her Alanna.”
“I would love to,” I smile, trying to hold back the tears in my eyes.
I scoop up my art supplies as quickly as I can. I feel light, jolly even, like a part of me dormant for so long is suddenly switched on. We make our way slowly up the beach in silence both lost in our own thoughts, one thinking about the past and one thinking about the future.
“Here she is,” Travis gestures to a small red boat with the word ‘Alanna’ painted on the side. I can’t do anything other than kneel beside the boat, stroking the letters,magining it’s her hair.
“She meant a lot to us, you know,” I hear Travis’ voice say from behind me. “She wrote me a goodbye letter, I always keep it with me. Here let me find it,” I hear him rustling in his pockets and by the time I stand up and turn around, he has a wrinkled piece of paper in his hands. His eyes are glassy.
I take it from him with a smile and open it up.
I’ve tried to come up with a way of saying thank you but nothing feels like enough. I could never repay you back for everything you’ve done for me. For taking me in when I needed somewhere to stay. But you gave me more than just a bed to sleep in, you and May gave me a home. I was just a girl chasing the ghosts of my family, but with you both I found a real one instead. I hope you know how much that means to me. I truly, truly adore you both.
And just like how I can’t find a way to thank you, I can’t figure out how to say goodbye, either. But it won’t be forever. I promise. I’ll come back one day, with a family of my own and you can take them out on the boat just like you did with me. I won’t ever forget that.
Take care of yourself, Travis. And remember to turn the tap off.
The tears stream down my face but I don’t feel sad. I look around and before my eyes this little town seems to wake up. The houses stand tall and proud, even the brown and grey ones. The square bursts into life, the scent of flowers wafting towards me, the man walking his dog, smiling like he doesn’t have a care in the world, the lovers on the bench sharing a secret only they will ever know. And of course, the strong smell of freshly fried fish. My stomach growls.
“Looks like Frank has started frying,” Travis says. “ Leave your stuff here and I’ll take you for the best fish and chips in town”.
The breeze blows my hair and I feel a brush on my cheek, like a gentle touch, a reminder that maybe part of my mum never left this place at all.