It's a strange thing, living in a holiday resort: particularly strange, maybe, when you haven't always lived there and it used to be somewhere you went for a daytrip on a Summer day.
I saw my adopted hometown through new - or maybe old - eyes this weekend, when the planets aligned and a bank holiday weekend and perfect summer weather coincided, just this once. After a day away in the half-deserted city, I made my way to the beach on a still, sunlit, perfect Sunday evening. Mellow evening sunshine dancing on the waves - people wandering along the prom - a few last families on the beach: everyone seemed relaxed, happy and at one with their surroundings. It all seemed almost ridiculously idyllic, as though I'd stumbled into a painting of the perfect summer evening. I drifted on a wave of nostalgia back into the days out all those years ago: the childhood excitement of swimming in the sea, sandwiches made excitingly gritty by the all-pervasive presence of sand, how everything, even an ice cream cone, tasted different and so much better by the sea. Days out at the seaside were the ultimate escape from the routine of life in the city: fresher air, brighter colours, and nothing ever seemed to go wrong. I was sure that everyone was always happy at the seaside, and last night it felt like being away on holiday only a couple of miles from where I live, in a one-hour minibreak as I walked along the Prom.
'Count your blessings,' my Mum used to say to me when I was still at school, 'sure you're life's a holiday!' It used to make me cross, when she said that, and I'd protest that all that homework and revision didn't make growing up feel much like a holiday at all. I never expected that my childhood favourite seaside resort would become my home: more than that, though, I'm not sure it had occurred to me that people actually lived there. It took a while to feel accepted, to fit in as something other than a 'blow in'. 'Chip eaters', the locals like to call the Belfast daytrippers, and even marrying into a local family didn't quite excuse me from suspicion. A few months before moving here, on a day's unexpected sick leave, staying in my future in-laws' house, I suddenly noticed the shift in perspective as the ordinary Monday routines took over when the weekend crowds had gone: teenagers in school uniforms, grim-faced men in suits stuck in traffic jams, the postman delivering bills... to adapt the Philip Larkin line, everything, like nothing, happens anywhere. The town didn't go into weekday hibernation to ready itself for holidays and weekends: I suddenly understood that a holiday resort could be a normal town as well.
Years later, I have to remind myself that where I live is beautiful: that there are perfect beaches, seaside cafés, astounding sunsets... that the freedom of the arcing, diving seabirds can be mine too, even just sometimes, for an hour or two. Now, I have to remind myself to step away from everything that's happening and enjoy the perfection of the nothing, too - the perfect landscapes and the salt air, recapturing the joy of childhood daytrips and clearing my mind enough to look at what surrounds me. Maybe it's human nature to be preoccupied with the intrusive concerns which threaten to block out the view; maybe those worries are secretly doing us the greatest favour, in stopping us taking what's there for us for granted.
And it's like that with people too, I think. It's easy to forget that, beneath the surface, the person whose life seems relatively straightforward may be struggling. The person who doesn't advertise that they're having a difficult time may be quietly going through hell, just as the beautiful, colourful, cheerful holiday resort may have its own difficulties apart from obvious issues like endless litter at the conclusion of a summer Sunday afternoon. The untold story - yours, mine - is like the normal life going on beyond the sunlit surface of the holiday resort. Those things we pass off as being fine: the petty, insubstantial cruelties of everyday acquaintanceship, or the hurt when the elderly relative with dementia asks a question which makes it obvious that she didn't recognize you after all... You laugh it off and say you're fine, trying to convince yourself as much as anybody else. They put new coats of paint on the popular areas of the town, reorganise the queuing areas for the wine bar and the shoreline cafés, mobilise the lifeguards as the season starts again, but the underlying issues of reality are still there, just as the lethal rip currents lie alongside the perfect, rippling waves. Just waiting.
As a perfect bank holiday weekend draws to a close in Northern Ireland's best known holiday resort, and regretful tourists head back home to return to work and their routine, the lights dim in the amusement park, the harbour bars quieten at last and reflections of the lights along the Prom flicker in the rhythmically crashing waves. Normal life resumes for the locals too. Deadlines replace freedom, commutes to work replace trips to the beach and quality assurance looms much larger than quality of life. The beauty doesn't disappear, though: all we have to do is remember to look at it amid the pressures and the busyness. Sometimes, evening walks and sunsets are even more beautiful after a difficult or trying day... sometimes, that feeling of well-being is even more precious when you've learned not to take it all as read.
There'll be days like this, Van Morrison would say. Days when you simply can't miss the beauty. But sometimes, the truth of somewhere or of someone can shine through when you least expect it. That can happen anywhere. I'm glad it's happening here.
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