ㅤWhen I was young, people would tell me that no one ever leaves Southam-on-Sea. I didn’t know they meant it literally.
ㅤIt was the town where Ricky and I grew up together. A town where the sun always shines. Ricky was fat, kind, and full of wisdom. He was never given a second glance at school. His mum couldn’t afford him glasses, which meant he had a constant squint. At the back of the classroom, I would read the textbook aloud to him and he would make notes in thick pen. After lessons, we would walk down to the beach and buy a can of coke to share, then sit on the pier and laugh at the tourists getting harassed by roving gangs of seagulls.
ㅤOn the last day of the summer holidays, the eve of the first day of our final year of school, Ricky and I decided to watch the sun set over the ocean from one of the hills behind the town. He raided his mum’s kitchen for a six-pack of beer and I drove round to pick him up. Speakers blasting, we sped past the abandoned quarry that marked the town’s limits and buildings gave way to open fields and unbroken horizons. Ricky and I discussed Southam Rovers’ victory over Ilminster Town in the first game of the season. The late afternoon heat soothed us and the rumble of the engine faded under the sound of air rushing past open windows.
ㅤThen in a sudden moment we were driving past the quarry again, this time on the passenger side. A cheery sign broadcasted the words ‘Welcome to Southam-on-Sea!’ I was unable to tear my eyes away from the sign getting smaller in the rear-view mirror. Behind the jolly greeting, the back of the sign was covered in a webbed metal framework, hidden from approaching cars.
ㅤDragging my eyes from the mirror, a quick U-turn had us heading in the right direction again and the mistake was quickly forgotten. Assuming I had made a wrong turn, I focused on every sign we passed, making sure to keep the car heading towards the motorway. Ricky hadn’t noticed. He cranked the radio up and rolled the window down, hollering the words to his favourite Buzzcocks song through the chain link fence that marked where the new estate was to be built. Under construction. Trespassers will be prosecuted. I drove on.
ㅤAnd yet, there it was again, still small in the distance. The welcome sign. I jolted the car around and leaned on the accelerator. I knew already that it was impossible, and my knuckles, white on the steering wheel, would make no difference. Behind me and in front of me, all roads lead back home. The third time we reached the quarry I hit the brakes, bringing the car to a standstill in front of the sign, unable to bring myself to drive any further into the stagnant crowd of familiar buildings. Please drive carefully through our town. The words mocked me.
ㅤIn the end we watched the sunset from the beach, drinking and reminiscing on old times. I found it difficult to enjoy myself. Ricky seemed unfazed by the day’s events, but they weighed on my mind.
ㅤ“Ricky… you ever want to be somewhere?”
ㅤ“Huh?” Ricky looked up from where he had been picking at the paper label on his beer can.
ㅤ“You ever want to be somewhere?”
ㅤ“I don’t know, just… somewhere.”
ㅤ“Like down by the chippy?”
ㅤ“No, I mean really somewhere. Somewhere other than here.” I gestured at the beach.
ㅤ“Huh… dunno really.”
ㅤ“We can’t live in Southam forever, can we?” Ricky shrugged.
ㅤ“I guess I always thought I would move to London one day, like near where Dad grew up y’know?” He was back to picking at the label.
ㅤ“You should visit. Your gran still lives there doesn’t she?” I asked. Ricky nodded. “You should visit, she’d like that.”
ㅤ“So you’ll visit her soon?”
ㅤ“I dunno. I’ll go one day.”
ㅤ“What’s stopping you?” Ricky thought for a few seconds.
ㅤ“Train’s a bit rubbish.”
ㅤ“You could get the bus.”
ㅤ“Nah,” Ricky said, shaking his head. I sighed. The glowing lights from the ferris wheel at the end of the pier rippled in the gentle waves. Like a black hole of souvenir shops and penny arcades, Southam-on-Sea was a picturesque pit of despair.
ㅤTwenty years later I would attempt the journey to the town’s limits again, this time on foot and fuelled by half a bottle of whiskey. Stumbling along the grassy verge in the midnight darkness, I was lucky not to be hit by one of the cars speeding down the road. In the darkness, the only points of reference that showed I was making any progress at all were two street lights which stood like night watchmen, marking the entrance to the new estate. A banner showed a smiling family under the name Maple Orchards. A ten-foot wall surrounded 84 homes. The wall was made from that famous Southam Limestone that had been cut from the quarry all those years ago. I thought of Ricky’s dad and the chalky dust that coated his overalls and filled his lungs. Ricky told me once that he could remember his dad’s cough more clearly than his voice.
ㅤBrambles snagged at my clothes as I left the well-maintained grass in front of the estate and back onto the overgrown verge. I saw flashes of the sign illuminated by headlights as I walked towards it. Welcome to Southam-on-Sea. Please drive carefully. Having attached a mystical air to the object all my life, I was surprised to find that I could touch my hands to the cool metal. Someone had even drawn a crude anatomical diagram in the space between the words.
ㅤThe sudden insignificance of the moment could only be saved by a grand, violent act, so I hurled the only object to hand as far as I could over the tree line into the quarry. The sound of the glass bottle against the floor of the stone basin was so comically delicate that I was still laughing as I turned the front door key in its lock.