Brighton station appears earlier than expected. No matter; it’s a balmy, sunny, seaside day and a cycling jaunt through the delicious salty air is a welcome and unexpected pleasure, after the stuffy train journey.
I set off down Queens Road, the umbilicus that joins the station to the town centre. It’s always been a mish-mash, this road, with funny little businesses, oddly named shops, an organic tea-house, tobacco specialist and once upon a time, the poster shop. My first holiday job (one that didn’t involve a family restaurant) was in this road. At the age of 14, in “Occasions”, I learned how to roll Athena posters into tight tubes, with a flick of the wrist.
A few doors down, another place became familiar years later: the Electric Grape, a teeny-tiny one-up-one-down bar. “The Grape” boasted a dimly-lit basement, where we bounced around to The Specials, The Jam, The Cure … a pink ra-ra skirt, fishnets and vintage snake-skin stilettos were involved … I remember too, a particularly sweet, long, languorous kiss taking place down here. I only wish I could remember who with.
I turn left at the Clock Tower into North Street. There on the right was Shades. We’d sit at the back, crammed onto velveteen banquettes smoking Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes and drinking terrible white wine; there were no id cards in those days and no-one bothered much, either. From here we might decamp into Ship Street, turn left again and into Pip’s Wine Bar, an early example of the genre, with sawdust floor and stripped wood everything. On the fringe of The Lanes, Pip’s afforded proximity to plenty of alleys, in which to excite our fizzing hormones.
Feeling rather nostalgic now, I swing right and freewheel past a super-narrow lane, Ship Street Gardens. Simon lived here, in the coolest regency house called Fig Tree Cottage (the walled garden was indeed resplendent with said tree). We’d end up here sometimes; I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor, holding hands with John, puffing on a joint and feeling terribly sophisticated. Proper teenage theatre, set to an Elvis Costello soundtrack.
At the seafront I head towards The Old Steine, in my mid-teenage years still the site of Fortes of Brighton flagship restaurant, self-service café and Rock Shop. Here I mastered the art of turning an ice cream cone, how to plant a chocolate flake in its white, billowing folds and, of course, the art of portion control: never fill the handle of the cone with ice-cream, but start at the top.
Another art or two mastered at that time, came by way of an Italian waiter, of whom my father instinctively (and very correctly) disapproved; I think wistfully of Massimo’s creamy sweetness, of fumbles on the beach and ouch, those damn pebbles.
I spin round the Steine, and head west, towards Hove. The most important landmark on the Kings Road is my own father’s restaurant, to the left of The Metropole. From the age of about nine, I cleared tables at Forte’s Ice Cream Parlour. Over the years I learned to serve customers, create our House ice-cream dishes and – this is Brighton after all – deep-fry the fish and chips. I slow my pace and stop, turn to look and instead of the take-away there now, I see our old place, my father standing at the door, hands on hips, surveying his world and smiling.
Blinking just a little, I move onto the prom and peddle slowly past the Kiosk café, past the Angel of Peace (still blessing my misdemeanours), and on to the beach huts. Two or three summers were spent here and it was eternally sunny. The huts bring thoughts of Leo, he of the floppy hair, blue, blue eyes and a penchant for buying me slushy records. Funny Leo, my first ‘steady’ … until Father decided we might be kissing, and put a stop to things.
I cycle further than intended, and find myself on Sackville Road. There on the left is a row of houses, one of which was a school I attended for a year, aged twelve. I can identify it by the side gate, which jolts a long-lost memory: my first kiss.
Behind that gate, in the shadow of an autumnal five o’clock dusk, I became entangled with the Head Prefect. He had boy-band good looks and the naughtiest eyes. Silently, he took me in his arms and kissed me; stars blazed in my head and tingles burst in my tummy … a world upside down. Then he stopped, looked into my eyes, smiled and was about to speak, but I turned and fled, jellied legs somehow propelling me through fallen leaves, past the gate, and towards home …
I check my watch – it’s getting late. Time to head home once again, at a slower pace now, and musing how that first kiss concluded the retracing of those fledgling romances. As formative years go, mine were truly a confection of joy.
A whopping great ’99.
© Giovanna Forte