For the last 21 years I have holidayed at the same beach on the Coromandel (a peninsula in New Zealand’s upper North Island, beloved by Kiwis for its beaches and holiday homes and summer activities).
Eighteen of those summers were spent with my ex-partner and his family, with my daughter added to the mix when she was born. We would swim and relax and laugh and hike, one of my favourite walks being to the top of a nearby hill, the conquering of which afforded a spectacular view across a wide bay towards the open sea. I would often climb by myself, muscles working and heart beating along with the rasp and pulse of cicada song, sun brilliant, the cows solemn and calmly curious, the solitude a gift. The summit was my happy place.
The first few years were wonderful. As our relationship slowly disintegrated they became less so. Time spent on the summit became an anxious, unsettled search for answers. Each year I would gently probe my feelings, sitting up there alone, asking myself, “Am I happier now? Are things improving?” I remember a couple of years when I managed to convince myself that the answer was yes.
When we separated my ex made it clear to me that I would always be welcome to holiday at “our” beach. It had become my place as well as his (he had been going there since childhood), and he knew how much I loved it.
The first summer holidaying there as a single parent was still wonderful, but awkward and sad. I wasn’t sad to be single. It was more that I was in the same environment that I had associated for years with family and him, but now my world had been turned on its head. I couldn’t muster the courage to visit his extended family, dotted about the place in baches (Kiwi vernacular for small holiday homes) and tents. I kept to myself, walking the shore as the day fell, hiking in the early morning. I drank in the beauty of the place, but each gulp hurt. It was the memory of this place, now mixed (inextricably, I believed) with loss and pain.
2021. It’s summer here in New Zealand, and I have just come home from my holiday. One day I went for a walk to the far end of the beach while my daughter amused herself (the joy of children getting older). I sat on a rock as wild waves crashed, teasing the sand, higher, higher this time, one step forward, two back, three forward. The tide whispering, stampeding in.
And I flicked through memories: our first arrival at the family camp area 21 years ago, my nerves jangling, his warm hand on mine as the car crunched in on gravel, expectant faces lifting to welcome us. The Christmas table, laden with lamb. Hats askew, flushed faces, minor spats over trifle. The quiet hours under the awning, him napping, me reading. The summer of my pregnancy, my shorts tight, the flutter of my tiny daughter in my tight belly. The portacot in the sweltering tent, the bags of toys and apple puree pouches and Pamol. The years of cousins and games and books and perpetual sunscreen stains. The Family Games tournament. The dinners on the picnic rug. The first tiny fish caught in the creek. The cocktails and disagreements. The bee stings. The boogie boarding, the heavy hang of tog crotches drunk with sand. The grief of ashes spreading, a precious grandparent farewelled. The years, the years, the years.
And I realised that this year, I was smiling. These memories no longer caused me pain. What they gifted now was ownership. Joyful, deep, integral. I belong to his place. It belongs to me. These memories are no longer painful reminders that I am estranged: these memories reinforce my right to call this place home.
The realisation made me laugh out loud. This beach was mine: no longer by virtue of my relationship to someone else, but because I had a history here and my memories lived here, and this made the place a part of me.
I felt liberated, and fully present; no longer an observer or guest on someone else’s patch.
This was my patch, too.
There is no particular correlation I want to make to the writing process, other than to say that in fiction, place (or setting) is a character in itself. So treat it as such. It sings, it whispers, it breathes, it rejoices, it mourns. It is redolent with our lives. The more we can bring it alive for the reader, the more authentic and real a story will be.