In the beginning, Hastings was a book. A tourist guide ordered from the Borough Council with a shiny orange cover and a crude line drawing of the Bayeux Tapestry. How far that little pamphlet travelled, across continents and oceans. When it was eventually placed in our mailbox, it was warm with the heat of a Californian sun.
That book was part of the story my parents told us each bedtime.
We are going to buy a bookshop.
The bookshop is in England.
We don’t know how long we will be there, but if we don’t like it we can come home.
England was where my mother really belonged. She had been travelling through California when she met my dad and got stuck. Now she wanted to go home, and home was England. But America was all we had ever known. The American dirt was underneath our fingernails, its sunlight grew us, we pledged allegiance to the flag every school morning.
Still, the bookshop sounded fun. Somewhere Mum and Dad could work together, instead of Dad commuting miles to work in an office and Mum working nights at the electronic factory putting together circuit boards. And we loved books. The living room had a whole wall lined with them – the shortest wall, it’s true. My favourite books were the Collins Encyclopaedias, black and red tomes that covered every subject in the universe from A-Z. They had a particularly important smell, like a man’s freshly ironed shirt, or a booth in an expensive restaurant. The Encyclopaedias included year books for 1964 to 1971, after which my parents stopped paying their monthly instalments, after which we left America to go to England and left all the books behind, going to live with more books than I ever could have imagined.
The earliest photograph ever taken of Hastings, in the year 1852, just happens to show part of Claremont, the street where we used to live and where our bookshop used to be.
1852. A summer morning on the seafront, so early there are no people about. All the buildings are new, and the pavements smooth to walk on. It is a picture of the beginning of something.
On the beach, bedsheets have been laid out to dry, a stone at each corner to stop them blowing away. The sheets look worn and shabby, cheap linen used by too many bodies. They look like blank pages, waiting for the mark of a pen.
Waiting for the truth to be told.
This part of the town – the Trinity triangle, they called it – was once wasteland, marsh recovered from the sea. Being waste land, no one owned it. Which means, no rent. No landlord. No one to say what you can and cannot do, or to evict you from your home at a moment’s notice just because they feel like it.
Where else in England could you find such freedom?
Gradually it was colonised by squatters, and became a full fledged settlement, with schools, shops, pubs.
In 1830, when the Crown decided to claim the land back, the settlers raised an American flag and declared themselves a free state.
They couldn’t win, of course. The land was cleared, and the development of the Trinity Triangle began. The river that had supported the settlement was pushed beneath the paving stones, and as compensation, a drinking fountain was erected. It worked for only a few months and has been dry as a bone ever since.
Thirty years ago my dad lost the shop through bankruptcy. It still inhabits his dreams. Every so often he asks me what it has become, unable to walk down Claremont to look for himself.
It’s empty, I tell him.
It’s an employment agency.
An Alzheimers charity shop.
It’s an estate agents.
An art gallery.
We never talk about home. We never talk about America.
I don’t know at what point it started to go wrong, but when the wrongness began it could not be stopped. It gathered everything into its vortex. The flat became first dirty, then chaotic, then unbearable – dog mess on the floor, maggots in the kitchen bin. Books were my escape, and I read them all; everything stacked on the floor of the bookshop and in the corners of our crowded flat. I treated them badly, dog-earing corners and bending them backwards, writing in the margins, throwing them across the room, because books were money, and the only things of value in our family. How seductive reading is. A book is a friend who offers you a world more real than reality, so sharp, so intense, so full of detail. But a book wants nothing in return. It has no interest in your voice, your thoughts. It is a friend who does not know you. And as over time I found my friends amongst books, not living beings, I became unable to speak myself, not knowing what I would say if I was called upon to say it.
Once upon a time, I nearly drowned. I swam out into the sea and the waves closed over my head. I was rescued but not all of me was saved, so for all these years I have been underwater. Now at last, I am surfacing.
As I walk down Claremont, a street I used to know, I feel America inside me and beneath my feet. Shantytown dwellers – some feckless and some ambitious and some just getting by – permeate my thoughts like the blurred figures in an old photograph, lost in movement.
And although I long for an end to the story, I know it isn’t possible. A story should end with an escape, a change, a journey to a better place. But I’m not going anywhere. I am going to stay.
Images of Hastings: Hastings Museum. Image of American flag: the author.