We always were the sort to jump in at the deep end – and in these parts the Deep stretches as long and wide and glistening as our travel-worn eyes can see.
This is the third bus, on top of a train, a taxi and a passenger jet, that Sam’s taken in the past 24 hours, and as it pulls into Hove, I can see him battling fatigue. And yet he’s here with me, running headlong into the first of many wild nights in this proud Victorian mess of a town. That matters.
We remark, as we stroll through near-identical streets of whitewashed bay windows and balconies, that much of this is Hastings, only on a grander scale. The seafront is most striking in its similarity, the wide road removing it from the streets and shops beyond, and verdigris-painted rails marking verges of the void. Behind them blackness stretches from unseen shore to sea to sky. The ocean lies ever-conspicuous in its absence.
The pinprick lights of the distant pier seem to grow no nearer as our feet find pavement-chalk tidings of festivals gone by, but a flight of stairs to the shingle brings us almost by happy accident to our first stop for the night:
The Tempest seems, at first glance, abandoned – a bar in a narrow corridor of organic-shaped, sand-coloured walls. I wonder if we have made a mistake, but then we see them – grottos carved into the cave-like constructions, some leading labyrinthine to further chambers, and others enclosing candle-lit tables for two. We order drinks – Sam’s first British beer since Christmas, an IPA brewed a mile up the road – and settle into a secluded nook. Our half-hushed conservation echoes around the cavern as we make our half-realised plans. Before long, slate platters of seafood arrive, passed through the door to our hole. Fat mussels in light golden batter, and squid cooked in peppers and rum. For a moment silence envelops us, as we recall the taste of the long-distant sea. Bowie is on in the background, and his words drift behind as we make our reluctant departure. We could be heroes. We smile.
Our aimless pilgrimage continues past pier and pavilion, each with their memories of winters gone by, when we trod these planks with no knowledge that we would return, out that this town would become anything more than a Saturday-afternoon jaunt.
The Grand Parade yields its newest import – the bustling Brew Dog pub. Sam is in his element, a devotee of the devil-may-care brand since his teenage years. We push through the crowd of young professionals, past cages and curious mismatched decor, and order drinks to match our imaginings of life here – Hardcore and Libertine. The former is an old friend, dizzying and bright, and the latter a dangerous lady in black. We perch on the end of a long wooden bar and sip slowly – you can’t rush art, and especially not at this price.
Blissed out and buzzing we make our way through the mouth of North Laine to The Office – a Thai restaurant by day, and a specialty gin bar by night. The sparsely decorated room is filled to bursting, and we stand at the bar to peruse the menu. A waitress with a winsome smile and knuckle tattoos helps me to a suitably sinister Deaths Door gin, with a slice of orange and a fennel twist, while Sam opts for a locally distilled Blackdown. Despite the decidedly hipster clientele, Danzig is wailing through the speakers, and we toast to metal in strange places, knowing we’ll soon be purveyors of the same.
By this point Sam is craving sustenance, so we stroll on past St. Peter’s where we’re met by the vibrant mess of cow skulls and crucifixes that is Carlito Burrito. One glimpse through the window at the richly decorated sitting-room-sized seating area packed with laughing staff and margarita pitchers, and we’re sold. A table for two is quickly cleared for us, and we’re soon sipping Mexican beer from the bottle amidst laughter and music and bulls in sombreros. When our sharing platter arrives and we fall upon dark mole chicken, tangy octopus and fried halloumi, our convictions that this will become our go-to cuisine are confirmed. Sated and more than a little tipsy, we make our way on to the end of the night.
We are no strangers to The Caroline of Brunswick. In fact, she was a staple of the few short trips we made before the move. Made apparent by the crowd of black-clad smokers hanging around the door, and more so by the enormous three-headed hell hound that looms above the bar, Caroline was always a spiritual home waiting to happen. And tonight much more so than any night, as it’s the obligatory one-night-a-month when goths come out to dance. We people-watch with pints of Ghost Ship, before I find the courage to be watched, whirling through the crowd to the Cult. It feels a bit like home. Not like Prague, nor like Durham, nor any of the places that left their mark on me, but like that cozy little cellar in each of them where we have been our darkest and most delighted selves.
The seafront is deserted by the time we’re winding our way back along it. The sea air cuts through the self-induced haze, and we smile beneath the bandstand, holding close against the cold, safe in the knowledge that we haven’t lost our touch.