Caught by the River

Against the Tide

Joe Minihane | 2nd August 2020

Introducing a new column from Joe Minihane, who writes:

Like so many, my work took a nosedive when the pandemic hit. There was  little demand for travel journalism during lockdown. So I started writing about my regular rides and swims along Brighton’s Undercliff, meditating on nature, anxiety and fatherhood, with my wife expecting our second baby just weeks after lockdown started. Against the Tide is a new monthly column of these writings, charting my experiences of the outdoors, both alone and with my family.

It is May. The days are lengthening, but from the depths of our bunker-cum-basement flat, that simply means the yellow walls outside the front door bask in evening light. The blinds remain open, but the LED lights overhead still come on at 5pm. Once A Hard Day’s Night (my eldest, Miles’s favourite record) is slipped back into its sleeve and Miles carries it cautiously back to a shelving unit which I afford as much protection as him, we eat. Miles continues to eat with his hands and shouts a long, bone–tingling ‘noooooo’ when we suggest he use his fork.

‘Pick your battles,’ says Keeley. She’s right, of course. He may think you can eat mashed potato with your fingers, but at least he eats well. His face covered in delights ranging from puttanesca sauce to Goan fish curry, Greek yoghurt and honey to rice pudding, we flip on the TV for a minute’s peace. It is a parenting tactic we are ashamed of, for no good reason. He chains episodes of Hey Duggee and Bing, obsessing over anything featuring a bus or a train. When it comes time to switch it off, there are invariably tears. His eyes redden and he kicks out in sadness. Carrying him in this mood is challenging. I am disgusted with myself for getting angry, for sounding short with him. As my therapist, Andy, has said to me on more than one occasion, Miles’ window of tolerance, of emotional understanding, is as tiny as the windows of the Duplo houses we build each morning. I need to remember that before shouting at him about the need to go to the bathroom.

We do make it there, eventually. Miles sits on the toilet, his face reddening as he poos while I read him an Usborne lift–the–flap book about trains around the world. I am now well versed in the early years of steam locomotion and how a pantograph works. I know how many carriages made up the largest freight train of all time (682 from an Australian iron ore mine). I am able to brag to him about Keeley taking the Devil’s Nose switchback in Ecuador, which features on his favourite page: ‘Trains Around The World’.

After wiping his behind, a move I have become desensitised to, I lift him into the bath. Keeley stands in the doorway. She is finding it hard to bend down and move easily, now the due date is hoving into view. Miles has taken to placing Foffa, his favourite teddy, up his T-shirt and saying ‘I have a baby in my tummy’. This also involves pressing his lumbar region and muttering ‘my back hurts’. The impression is uncanny. He is keeping us level at a time when getting through the day can feel like an insurmountable challenge.

When the bath is over and Miles flings his leg over in a terrifying attempt at getting out alone, we ‘cuddle dry’. I am on autopilot at this point. 7pm is in sight. I am already imagining the push of feet on pedals, the swerves to avoid others and stay socially distant, the slide into the still, cool embrace of the sea.

While Keeley tucks Miles into bed, I change quickly. Tight swimming trunks go on beneath tracksuit bottoms. My ageing North Face bag is stuffed with a towel. Music is cued up on my phone. I should not rush. These days will not last forever. We will only be a three for a few more weeks. And yet I cannot help it. I need the sun at my back as I ride east, the promise of water and open skies. I pull out the plug, give Miles’ bath toys a cursory wipe with a towel and go into his room to read him a story.

He is tired, worn out by another day of, for him, blissful parental attention. He has not napped for six months so he sleeps soundly once we close the door. I read to him about unpoppable balloons floating past the Milky Way, about boys called Ted who won’t go to bed, anthropomorphised mice that weep when they leave their toy frog at home while on a sleepover. He wriggles to find a comfortable position. He is a proper person now, not a baby; a boy with opinions, likes and dislikes. I stroke his sweaty brow, push his hair up all the better to see the blue glow of the eyes he has inherited from his mother. I sing The Beatles’ ‘Good Night’ and watch those eyes roll back. I say what I always say. ‘I love you. See you when I see you’. And close the door.

Keeley is settled on the sofa, the baby moving, her body tired. We kiss briefly and I make for the stores and take my bike upstairs. It is punishingly bright. I am excited. I realise, fleetingly, that I am not anxious. Marine Parade is virtually traffic-free. I am on my way to the Undercliff.

As the days have grown longer, the path has become busier. The muddy chalk which splattered beneath my tires at the start of lockdown has turned dry and dusty in the heat. Groups of twenty–somethings cycle three abreast on the city’s clunky hire bikes, either unaware or unfussed by social distancing rules. I hang back, unwilling to pass, frustrated that my waterside route is now more crowded. It’s a marvel that no one appears to give a shit anymore. We are still very much locked down. There has been no loosening. The Prime Minister has had his brush with death and, while back at work, appears pallid and old, although his dog whistle xenophobia and tedious bluster about ‘squashed sombreros’ remains stubbornly present. My internal rage wells up and once again I am a member of the distancing police. As I slow to walking pace, I think about what my friend Sam said to me over WhatsApp.

‘They reckon 75 percent of people in East Germany were Stasi informants. If that was here, it’d be 95 percent.’

I also remember that one of our friends, a palliative care doctor, was reported to the police for having her mum looking after her kids while she went to work. It makes me hate Britain and realise that if I say something, I’m just as bad. This group could be housemates. What do I know?

With that in mind, I choose not to.

Eventually they wobble to a halt and I pick up the pace, my deflated tires bobbling over the shingle which coats the path. The chalk messages on the ground have faded somewhat. But they are not my concern at the moment. It is high tide, the water glassy and I am aiming for a small beach just before the village of Rottingdean. I lock up by the low concrete wall and jump over. The warmth of the day has dissipated. There is a gentle easterly that makes me shudder. I change quickly, turning to see a pair of people sat, socially distant, against the wall, sharing a joint. The smell of weed catches the breeze and makes me dizzy. My relationship with it was one of lust when I was 21. I smoked in the morning when I studied for my journalism diploma. I toked every evening. And I was utterly, utterly miserable. I enjoyed the social side when I first became serious about weed as a student. But getting baked in my bedroom became a habit I had to kick. Looking back, I used it as a mask for my anxiety. I thought it made me relaxed. More often than not I would spiral. On more than one occasion I had to be put to bed after pulling a whitey. And yet, right now, the smell is so enticing. The idea of a couple of pulls sends me back to listening to Jeff Buckley records and thinking I was sophisticated when in fact I was just an unhappy graduate with a crutch.

I shake myself back into the present and the promise of a more natural high. I pull on my waterproof shoes, neoprene gloves and bright orange swimming hat. The beach slides steeply, much like it does back in Kemptown. I have to push forward quickly and am out of my depth within three paces. The temperature must be no more than 10ºC. It is searing, the cold channeling fast up my spine.

I think about Andy as I swim back and forth, settling into a slow rhythm. He has explained that when I do this, I am switching on my vagus nerve, turning me into the overseer, able to look across my life, my purview, without judgement. I am relaxing myself one wide breaststroke at a time. It’s nice to know why this makes me feel like I do. I always thought it was magic. Andy is always encouraging when I talk about swimming. He knows it is where I reach my happiest place, get myself into a state where I can feel at my best. If I don’t do this, I cannot be there for the people who need me most. It feels selfish to think it. But without it, I am not the man I want to be. Not the man I need to be for Keeley, Miles and the baby that is due in a matter of weeks.