The ocean feels like an old friend I haven’t seen in a while: familiar, but with a space between us that wasn’t there before. I hover by the water’s edge unsure of how to hold myself, the tide lulling in and out, never quite touching the imprints of my feet in the sand - as if it too feels uncertainty, it too feels the longing to grasp and take hold but something, now, is different.
I remember before we moved here, back when home was still rugged, northern cliff faces and rolling dunes lining the beach edges. Whenever life became heavy, I'd get in the car and drive an hour up the coast to where home really was. I still remember the feeling of walking through the clearing between desert-valley-like dunes opening out onto the vast cove that spanned for what seemed like miles - looking back now, perhaps it wasn't so far.
It was always as though I'd been given the ability to breathe again; bare feet sinking deeply into cool, familiar sands. I'd walk to the harbour, sit at the edge of the jetty and allow the water to lap against my ankles, wind dancing through my hair as I watched the fishermen in their yellow overalls dressing their vessels for sea. Sometimes, too, I'd lay face up in the marram grass and watch the sky change from tones of pink, to orange, to violet hues as the sun sank below the horizon somewhere over the fields not too far away.
I’ve left and returned to that place so many times over the years. It’s February now, and I find myself rebuilding a home on a familiar southern coastline, returning alone to a place I once said goodbye to, hundreds of miles from those old, northern coves. A coastline so different to the one I grew up knowing: palm leaves ruffled by Atlantic gales, somewhat out of place in England’s harsh winter.
It’s been some time since I’ve known such weather. This cold is unfamiliar, biting at bare skin and making its way in flurries through gaps between loose clothing and open zips as couples wander along the water front; small paws and winter boots gathering sand that will later be dispersed under bed sheets, found gathered in the crevices of coat pockets.
Yet a warmth in the air is returning, not too far off on the horizon spring is preparing to settle herself in. There is a quiet catharsis in watching the seasons unfold around us; nature’s gentle reminder that everything is temporary, and nothing will hold itself with you for too long. And isn’t it funny, the way we sway between ever wishing things would change, or remain as they are? As if we’re never quite sure whether we want to cling to, or let go of.
I wonder, sometimes, if this is why I find myself constantly returning to where I left off. Returning to places holding old stories in hopes of rediscovering the feeling of home I once found in them - a strange nostalgia that is only ever met by a vague homesickness once the iridescent familiar fades to grey.
The newness and excitement of returning to old places eventually gives way to normality. The bars we used to drink in once again become our regular, familiar faces on the street stop asking questions about our travels and instead start talking about the weather and eventually we find ourselves longing to be somewhere else, the same itch of nostalgia resting at the top of every breath as we realise this new life is tailed by the ghosts of the old, only ever a few steps behind us; each and every attachment we have to these places anchored in the memories that exist within them.
And can’t the same be said of the heart? The way that we can leave people, but never really go anywhere; or rather, go places, yet never really leave the people in them. Just as we become strangers to the places we once found home in, we can become strangers to those who were once the echo of our heart’s beating. Pieces that once fit together so effortlessly begin to unravel completely, fraying at the seams - what was once a safe harbour slowly becoming lost to the distance on a retreating tide.
But we return, again and again. If not physically, then mentally. We find ourselves slipping away to the places we once found home in, lost in the memory of the soft pauses between someone else’s breathing, catching ourselves rolling to the empty side of the bed and waking – cold and restless – alone in a space that once held two.
And I swear sometimes that the moment before I wake in the morning, I see the sunrise filtering through the leaves of years old trees outside our window, the sky in fuchsia hues. But someone else is waking to these scenes, now, fixing themselves a coffee in the half light of a kitchen that holds a year's worth of ghosts and footsteps. Yet so often I wonder if, in moments, the voices of lost conversations let themselves echo amongst the walls one last time. I picture them, floating, revisiting memories that once happened, and those that were never given the chance to.
Perhaps this is what makes it all so difficult: this moving on, this letting go. Because how do you unravel yourself from something that was never even tangible? That only existed within feeling – on the edge of fingertips, beneath skin? And how do we draw the line, how do we distinguish between aching for the breath of a person, and merely mourning the memories that live on within them?
I don’t know the answer to that. Just as I didn’t know three months ago when I began writing this, that I’d find myself once again making home within the walls holding all the memories and ghosts I was speaking of. No idea that I’d be waking in the morning to those same fuchsia hues framing the silhouettes of branches, wandering into the kitchen to set the kettle boiling, now only placing one cup on the counter, instead of two. A space so filled with the life before this that sometimes I still wake in the morning expecting to hear the shower running, the right side of the bed still body warm.
But the only sound is that of leaves rustling outside of the window, cars passing by as the world wakes up and I blink away the evening’s sleep, still a stranger to all of this, existing in a half-dream, learning what it means to build new foundations on top of ones I never meant to knock down in the first place.
Heart break, I am beginning to realise, is simply another shade of mourning; a grieving process in which we fall at every hurdle, learning to accept the death of a life that was once our own. I had been trying to finish this piece for months, yet the ending never seemed to fit properly, as if I didn’t have faith in the words I was forcing onto the page, and I finally think I have figured out why: I was trying to write the ending to a story I could not accept had reached its final chapter.
Because how do you loosen your grip on something that you were wrapped within so tightly? How do you unsync your breath with the rise and fall of someone else’s; become familiar with coming home to an empty apartment; make peace with the fact that the person you are holding on to, the life you once lived within, no longer exists anywhere other than memory.
I am still learning what it means to be ok with this.
I am still learning what it means to accept the loss of something I never thought I’d have to live without.
And I still wait by the door sometimes, a little longer than I should. Pause for a moment before turning the key in the lock, and if I stand quietly enough, I can almost hear the sound of us stumbling up the stairs, feel the warmth of his breath on the back of my neck, the weight of fingertips interlaced. But I don’t stay here too long, and as the days move forward, sometimes barely at all.
And I'm not sure, really, where along the line a broken heart stops breaking. Gradually? Slowly, like an open cut healing, it stitches itself back together, the hurt easing and bruise paling until eventually there's simply a track line as evidence of where a crack once was. Or suddenly? You wake one morning and realise your chest isn't aching, instead there's a lightness, and you can breathe again, just like that.
But I have come to the conclusion that healing is never linear, and as with all things, pain is only temporary. Eventually, over time, it stops knocking the wind out of your chest and feels more like a pang of emptiness, just enough to make you lose your focus, take a slightly deeper breath.
So for now, this is where I’m standing: somewhere between the warm, familiar glow of the past behind me, and the wild, white light of the future ahead. I’m not quite ready to let go completely yet, still looking over my shoulder every few steps forward, but the difference is for the first time, something in me is saying "keep going, kid - we're heading in the right direction".
I’m still waiting for the morning that I’m standing in the kitchen, fixing my coffee, and I realise my chest is no longer aching.
But I have seen glimpses of that girl, waiting patiently for me, arms open, somewhere not too far off in the distance.
And I like who she is.