I started with soft fruits. My first blog post back in the UK was on red gooseberries. Lovely in their brown paper bag from the greengrocer in Seaford (in East Sussex), the man with the curly hair and always a kind word. He is also the butcher. Joe approached him as he was carrying a palette of unskinned rabbits. Are they wild? He asked. ‘Wild?’ he replied. ‘They were furious’. He sold me the red gooseberries and invited me to live in Seaford; ‘seeing as you’re here all the time’. The sea is a big draw. And the wildness all around. It’s hard to know where to start.
There’s the ferry, yellow and bulky like a child’s drawing, on its interminable route to Dieppe. Hard to believe it ever gets there. There’s the sun, the sound of the waves crashing and drawing back all night. The fishermen pitching their tents, sleeping in salty skin and itchy sheets. That’s me. The gulls and their grey babies. Clutches of apples already visible from the train. Bramleys, but still.
People have died. People die! I still find this hard to grasp. Every time I walk past Elm Villas and get a snatch of yellow wall I remember great friends who lived there and who are now both scattered over the cliff tops that just recently were covered in pink thrift. It was the house where I learnt about Jane Grigson and how pudding could be two tubs of ice cream from the Co-op and a cup of mint tea. Now the house belongs to someone else and already the furniture strikes me as ill-advised. Their magic has gone. And their magnificent kitchen table and all their books. But mostly it’s them that I miss.
I don’t actually live here. This is my mum’s place, but it’s where I come when I need it. It’s where lots of serendipitous things have happened. The place is full of rememberers – people remember Dirk Bogarde when he lived here, they remember Winston Churchill’s school days. They know – and I do too – where Grayson Perry lives. There are a lot of closet bohemians, because we are after all within thrashing distance of London. And yet, I think you couldn’t be further away. Particularly when you hear someone pronouncing it Sea-ford. I like the cafes – there are five good ones, all worth going to.
What I have learned, one year on, is that July is curiously the end. Now that I am a gardener in the most rudimentary way I know that this bit of summer is when the inevitable decline into Autumn begins. Things are yellowing now, they bolt and go to seed the minute your back is turned. It is the season of collecting what you’ve grown (and eating other people’s apples) and watering what is still to be harvested – in my case, a profusion of beans and squash. There are apricots from English trees which you must eat immediately, or face comparisons with blissful ones from the Med or California.
One year on: I held a two day old baby, my arms numb from the sheer surprising weight of her, so I laid her on the bed and stared at her little twitching mouth. In the corner of the window, in a different house in Seaford, higher up the town, was the sea. The mother, my friend, was the original recipient of that goosegog pudding. Red gooseberries that made their way underneath a terrifyingly ethereal mass of Genoese sponge.
But it all worked out in the end. She’d been born in the corner of the room and, like the party with the pudding and the wild dancing, the place was now, still, full of people, children running in and out, sudden decisions to go to the beach. I was at some point mistaken for the midwife. When the real midwife arrived, I went for the train that took me back to Clapham Junction, not wanting to lose the newborn scent (honey and yeast) and the sight of her perfect Cupid’s bow mouth. So anyway, one year on, see if you can get yourself some red gooseberries. Jane Grigson’s recipe is one I would recommend. And enjoy what’s left of summer.