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It is peculiar what memory clings to. At times, we anticipate it—a photograph, a song, a house—and yet, it doesn’t quite beckon that sense of urgent retrieval we thought it would. And then, at other times, it spooks us and knocks us unsteady. It suspends us.
It is September 2018. I am looking out of the window because I know the threshold is approaching. I know because of the shape of the trees and the bends in the road—the familiarity of the infrastructure. I know because I have probably taken this journey over a hundred times. The journey is to a place that doesn’t belong to me, but to which I am supposed to belong or, at some point or another, have belonged: “home”. And so, I know. The sign that marks the threshold will soon appear, marbled in headlights. My eyes drift to the racing tarmac: my eyes watching the cats-eyes, winking. Not long, they purr. And they are right. I haven’t got long. I feel the weight of it in the horizon. I feel it between my eyebrows and in the damp of my palms, like pre-storm static. It is an anticipatory kind of weight, leadened with doubt: is this the right thing? The question manifests as cramped certainty, knowing that here, mere miles from my old home, it is too late to bother asking. Then the periphery comes into view, and then I see it. For a split second, we—the sign and I—are on the same level because, due to the elevated height of the white rental van, I am booster seated. The sign is gazing straight at me, and I am gazing back. This recognition consumes me and I freeze.
I am nine years old. Younger, maybe. It is my first drive into the city, at least the first I can recall. It is the drive, which, in my childhood mind, meant finality. My parents have recently divorced and, as a consequence of my mother’s nostalgic historical binds, we are moving across the country to the seaside, to a coastal city in the South-West of England: Plymouth. I don’t remember much about this arrival, but I do remember the sign: its fading welcome, crinkled at the edges and reading the “Spirit of Discovery”, a claim-to-fame which I now know is at best equivocal, and at worst intentionally so. “Spirit of Discovery”—I remember my curiosity: of what?
But this is not the sign that I was, moments ago, looming toward. That sign is new, at least to me. In 2013, in an effort to ‘re-brand’ the city, the council replaced the “Spirit of Discovery” sign, and despite a number of brief visits back to Plymouth, I had never noticed. That is until now: the image of Plymouth’s lighthouse (Smeaton’s Tower), childlike in its miniaturized representation, and a coast-line rendered in a swathe of playdough colors like someone accidentally left the saturation too high. The image is contrived, building-up to becoming picturesque, but never making it. It is stunted from trying too hard: “Welcome to Plymouth, Britain’s Ocean City.”
In my city: a lighthouse that never shines; an ocean that bubbles with seaweed and cigarette butts; a grassy bank with charred rectangles, the scars of summer BBQs; a glass-roofed building, the Dome—as it used to be called—that was a visitor attraction turned museum turned restaurant, and now, relic. I see the rocks that I used to beg to take me. I see the expanse of water that glistened in the night, that night, when my friend wrapped her arms around my waist and proclaimed: I’m Jack. I see the lighthouse I leaned against before leaning my head on her shoulder, looking up, praying for a warning light. I see the grassy bank I rolled down, again and again, just to see if this time someone would run after me, lay their body down in front of mine, and interrupt my tumbling fate. But each time, when I closed my eyes, the darkness becoming dizziness as blades hurried against my nose and ears and cheeks, the image of whose body I wanted to see when I opened them slipped away. Reaching the bottom; getting off the rocks; her arms unwrapping; lifting my head; arriving back home at midnight, carrying all my belongings inside; returning the van the next day; unpacking, trying to make it all fit. The sign: my past, present, future—all here. And I can’t help but feel I am on rented time.
¶ Place | Space
In her 2006 book, Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed writes: “Now in living a queer life, the act of going home, or going back to the place I was brought up, has a certain disorienting effect.” She also writes: “disorientation is a way of describing the feelings that gather when we lose our sense of who it is that we are.” Plymouth is not my home. It is, as Ahmed makes the distinction, the “place” where I was, for a period of time, brought up. It is a place I once passed, and am now passing through. Plymouth is a plughole of a place. It is a city of seven hills and seagulls and shorts, and also: sailors. Its Pilgrim heritage dates back to 1602, when it became the starting point of an infamous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to America. “Discovery” they say. But Plymouth’s story was one that was never meant to happen and that did only by chance: bad weather and necessary boat repairs. Plymouth was chosen simply because it was there, an edge of land on the water. Even then, 400 years ago, Plymouth was a place meant only to be passed through.
Today, people trickle in for a view of the seaside: licking ice-cream off disintegrating cones, invading rock-pools with their toes, leaving a chip-grease handprint on Smeaton’s Tower, inhaling enough salty air to tickle the backs of their eyelids, tempting a night of deep slumber. And, once these things are done, they leave—before they get stuck. To me, that is what staying–living here–feels like. Living on the coast, on the edge–between land and sea, between place and space that anchors you. In the past, when I stood at the edge of the coast, on the rocks just below the lighthouse, looking out at the blanket of blue, the distance and depth of it, the feeling of being stuck would capture me. Any sense of expansiveness diminished. My feet in the water, I felt my world shrinking: space becoming place becoming self. That’s why I left for London, and stayed for six years. I finally believed I had found a “home”. Now I know that feeling was less to do with London as a place and more to do with the community that existed within it. In London I found love, which felt like freedom, or what I imagine freedom to be. It was a sense of belonging, and it cradled me and made my skin buzz. It took five years of living there to find it, myself, and them: my queer kin. And then I left. I left not only a place but a space of queer belonging, which meant that I left, to paraphrase Ahmed, my sense of who it is that I am, and arrived in a place where that sense of self was already lost.
I have always struggled to connect any ideation of home to a geographical or structural place. Instead, I have found homes within people, objects, or feelings—within myself. According to Ahmed, this has something to do with place versus space. For example: place can be an object or something of structural matter. It can be something to arrive at, start from, be “out of”, be “in”, or it can be given. In each case it is a point or device of orientation, like a spatial gauge. Place is a fixed thing, indicative and isolative, with borders. Space is phenomenological: it is always in relation with the body, and therefore always shifting. A body may take up or inhabit space, whether this be through physical movement (walking, reaching, standing, sitting, etc.), or embodiment (how a person interacts with the affective capacities transmitted within the space). Because space is mutable, it holds the potential for orientation, or disorientation, depending on how a body “extends” into it, which itself is dependent on the level of resistance between a person’s interior and exterior sense of self as they inhabit and move through space and place. In the space created by and with my queer community, my interior and exterior were able to align. Disorientation occurs when the body fails to extend or inhabit space in a specific way.
For example, Plymouth as a place is coastal; it is a city with architecture, roads, objects, aesthetics, imagery, and language, all structured by and produced for white, able-bodied, cis-gender, and heterosexual people—predominantly men. Because of this, Plymouth as a sexualized space is heteronormative. The city’s queer history—or more so its normatively visible and dominant queer history—is white, cis-male, and militarized. Until 2000 it was illegal to serve in the armed forces if you were openly gay. And because Plymouth is a garrison city, changing this law not only enabled lesbians and gay people to enter the armed forces, but it linked the visible queerness in Plymouth with a very specific shape of masculinity and with the violent assertion of power within an authoritarian, heternormative structure.
In the present day, the regulation and segregation of queerness—enacted through “the repetition of actions over time”—continues in place, and therefore in space. There is only one openly gay public place: ‘The Swallow’, a pub that, since it opened 25 years ago, remains a piece of the city’s naval and military roots, symbolic of both blow-jobs and sailors. The only time I have experienced a group of queer people coming together in their diversity is Pride. Gender neutral bathrooms do not exist. Because of this public hostility toward the diversity of queerness, when I returned to Plymouth, my queer mobility was restricted; the normative queerness that I inhabited in space was unidirectional. This queer normativity had been produced progressively through and by Plymouth’s construction of space over time as a determined effect, without reciprocity. With no place to go, this absence of diversity and the inaccessibility of public queer exteriority led to the displacement, or disorientation, of my queer interiority. Old habits started taking over. I swallowed my pronouns when people misgendered me, or if I did correct them, the words burned. My sexuality retreated inward, again becoming something that existed for myself alone. I reflexively settled back into defense mechanisms that enabled smallness as a way of surviving, and I let my passing as cis and straight become my identity. In Plymouth, my queerness had not been given a place, at least publicly, it resided within space—inside—and I felt it shrinking every day.
¶ Queer/ed Time
It was early afternoon, and I had just replied to a letter from a friend about, among other things, queer archives. She wrote of the potential of the archive’s haunting hold and its transcendent ability to connect across space and time. It was an idea, worth a try, I thought, as I tapped the letters into my phone. I got a (singular) hit: the Plymouth LGBT+ Archive. Set up in 2011, its materials are still being sourced and collected. The website is dated, not only aesthetically, but also its content. The last news post was five years ago and the most recent Pride pictures are from a decade ago. But this website is a product of queer labor. I am grateful to the people who have done this work, uncovering the queer history of spaces that I have only ever known as uninhabitable. These people recorded oral histories, a project which, if it continues, could bring lived subjectivity—life—into Plymouth’s queer history. But despite this, the majority of what I read is a refill: white, cis-male, militarized. Chronological. Linear. This archive is a seed. It is destined to grow.
On a different website, but linked to the archive, I read about a new project dedicated to documenting “women’s oral histories” and “lesbian stories”. It is set to unfurl in 2020 with a series of workshops, events, an exhibition, and a “walking tour of ‘Lesbian Plymouth’. The tour may be embarked upon virtually or on foot, and as you move, there will be accompanying transcriptions from an archive of recorded lesbian stories. Tours usually make me cringe. I think it has to do with the performative animation of the guide, which is trained into them and so never overcomes the structured staleness of the whole thing. Also, there’s the group: the bonded wandering, looking up, looking down. I dislike all tours except for ghost tours. Perhaps it’s the physical invisibility of the tour’s subject—specter as spectacle as spectator—and how this actually generates a heightened physicality. By moving through spectral space, you are able to extend into the past simply by existing, in this place, in the present. Your body and all its motions become amplified by all the many times throughout time this object has been touched, this corner navigated. The who, what, when, precisely where, and why connect in a singular moment that expands. And of course, the ‘walking tour of Lesbian Plymouth’ can only be a ghost tour. To walk around Plymouth, tracking the histories and listening to the stories of queerness, is to be guided by ghosts.
I love this type of walking. It is movement as praxis, attentive, considered, and slowed down. I love how this type of walking brings you back: into the body, into the space it occupies, into time as a felt thing. Walking, not as something practical, but something of wonder. I love drifting on land. I love going off the path. Such walking is a collaborative method of creation, learning, and storytelling, between myself and space and place. So I wonder how, by walking through Plymouth, a place of historical—collective and personal—queer absence/presence, I may embark on my own ghost tour? What may happen if instead of turning away from the ghosts I encounter—both exterior and interior—I turn toward them and let them guide me? I wonder if, by revisiting places of queer erasure, both of the city and my own, and by using movement as a method for storytelling, I could re-map and re-narrate my queer disorientation within Plymouth. Instead of shrinking, could my space expand? The Plymouth LGBT+ archive and my own memories have taught me that if I wish to learn about queerness and to orient myself within this place, I need to reach out into haunted space. In order to occupy spatial and temporal ghosts as they occupy me, I need to queer my movements by entering places—a lighthouse, a coastline, a grassy bank—and extend into them, both physically and affectively. I need to go inside—into the past, into the dark, into the back rooms and alleyways—where the stories and lives of the marginalized are most often kept. I know I need to be gentle with what I find. There is a reason the queer history of Plymouth, as well as my own, is interior, and I need to be tender with how I endeavor to make what is invisible, visible, within what remains a heteronormative place.
¶ Queering Space
Sorry—I am at a crossroads, unsure which way to go, so, disoriented, I hesitate. And because it only takes a momentary pause to be considered ‘in the way’, the man behind me huffs, a short sound that penetrates. I step aside, letting him and a few others pass, and I hover by a wall. (I think of how retreating to a wall, a door, a fringe is so often a learned method of self-deletion). Despite the fact that, in Plymouth, I know you can never really be lost, because if you keep walking for long enough, soon you will reach an edge, I am lost. Geographically, this place is familiar, but spatially it is unfamiliar, as in its “feel” is unknown to me. I haven’t taken this route in years, perhaps almost a decade. It possesses an eerie vacancy, and yet there is no room. Memories encroach from all directions—thread-like, they crawl across the street—and I stand, locked in. Behind me is a park, and inside it, a wooden pirate ship. I remember folding into friends on the bow, staring at the stars and threatening to jump, sometimes it was drink! Or walk the plank. The swings: holding hands, swinging in unison, and gathering so much momentum, howls tumbling from our throats, that it felt as if at any moment we would fly. The open plain of grass, home to a bouncy castle, a teacups ride, and a van selling candy floss. I remember falling on top of girls, or them falling on top of me. I remember the lurch in my stomach: a sugary hand accidentally sticking to a thigh, an awkward collapse landing in a straddle. The quick eye-contact—did they feel it too?
A car drives past, revving its engine. And just like that, I am back, turning right.
The wind thrashes me. It is one of those brutal walks that licks the air from my lungs. At the edge, when the weather is like this, the boundary dissolves: sea becomes land becomes mist becomes ghosts becomes me. Water is symbolically renewing, but when it whips you, rising from the surface as salty particles, strips words from your open mouth, it is not rejuvenating but battering. As I walk, ghosts collect around me. I am near the place where the waves almost took me. I can see the place I once felt her arms around my waist. I can feel the presence of the grassy bank ahead, ten or fifteen more steps and it will come into view: my body rolling down it, my body resting on another, my body begging for his touch, my body begging for her touch. A silver thing flashes. I wade through the thick air, off the path and across the road. (“Risking departure,” suggests Ahmed, “makes new futures possible.”) Like a magpie, I swoop, landing on a silver bollard rising from the concrete. A name and dates are punctured into its side: “MARY READ 1695-1720 PIRATE.” I worm my hand out from inside my sleeve and extend. I trace the shape of each letter, slowing down when I get to the P-I-R-A-T-E.
Sara Ahmed writes: “…the familiar is shaped by actions that reach out toward objects that are already within reach. Even when things are within reach, we still have to reach for those things for them to be reached.”
Pirates are always on the move, hijacking, looting, and de(con)structing all that is governed, authoritarian, systemic, and enforced. Pirates circumnavigate. The water is their home, and so they are always lost and, yet, are never so. Pirates are not sailors. Pirates are rule-breakers. Pirates are seekers of autonomy. Pirates are filthy. Pirates are of a time. Pirates are failures. Pirates are queer.
My eyes closed: I sit propped up against the point of the bow and imagine the sound of waves crashing into its side; the sound of drinks slopping and deep, gurgling laughs. And then I hear some lighter notes, two precarious tremors piercing the aural density. They are the voices of Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Two women who dressed as men in order to live a life at sea—a life of and among men. Mary Read, born in Plymouth, was a young girl who became a young boy who became Michael, a Corporal, who became a woman and then, briefly, a wife, who became a sailor and then an outlaw and then a pirate. Mary Read, who felt at home in a space—for the ocean is no place—without hierarchy. Who felt at home waiting for death with a woman who also survived as a man. As fellow pirates, they revealed their gender to one another. As two women, as two companions, their relationship has been mythologized, the truth lost at sea. The truth is only theirs to keep, only theirs to know.
Kathy Acker, my favorite pirate, writes: “… to travel into wonder is to be wonder. So it matters little whether I travel by plane, by rowboat, or by book. Or, by dream. I do not see, for there is no I to see. That is what the pirates know. There is only seeing and, in order to go to see, one must be a pirate.”
My eyes open: I am a lone pirate aboard a phantom ship. My crew mates are queer specters, personal myths, and therefore potentials. They are potentials not just of what could have been, but what could be. The ephemerality of it all dawns on me, cocooning like a duvet. I write in my phone notes: “i am surrounded by ghosts, in the now, they are my past, but they are also my future. They are pirates + they are piratic. They fuck everything up, scramble it, including time. and including my own perceptions of them.” Inside this wooden boat, as the evening light lends a quivering silence, I am buoyant and reflective, open to flow. Girls gather, friends that were never really friends. Flashes of their faces multiply but disintegrate before I can touch them. They are passing through—as we all are—and I let them. We—them and I—are here, as pirates, and we are there, as teenage girls. We are of another time. The girl with whom I had that kiss. That kiss that lasted a few seconds that became a lifetime and made me sweat desire. That kiss I still feel and sense—strawberry chapstick, rosé wine, powdered bronzer—and that I have not felt since: the first. That kiss that would, a few months later, slap me across the face as she screamed: I don’t understand who you are. Another girl with whom I’d sneak into the basement after midnight to watch porn: girls with their bodies entangled, wet, consuming, rhythmic. We never discussed why, apart from suggesting, at the beginning, that it was “for fun”. The same girl with whom, when tipsy, we would climb on top of each other and make out, suggesting, in the beginning, that it was “for the boys”.
Inside this wooden boat, I let myself remember. And, like a pirate, I dismantle their binds around me. Like a pirate, I ignore the rules of storytelling and re-write my ghosts as becoming for/in the future. That kiss that once brought shame mixed with pain and grief became a marker of potential and a lesson in self-preservation. The physical desire that, then and now, pulses through my eyes and blood, that I once kept hidden in basements, only permitting it to surface after dark, became loud in its admittance. It became something I not only went to bed with, scenes and skins flickering behind my eyelids, but something I woke with in the morning and carried on my tongue. And those moments when my body and hers moved like water, when we publicly performed our desire in an effort to suppress it, became a different dance into desire, one that undid our expected heternormative roles instead of substantiating them (i.e. ‘still straight’). And as our bodies twisted closer, the closer I felt to myself. Instead of pain, my phantoms morph into those of possibility.
Two weeks later, I am standing in front of a sandwich shop. In the window I see, distorted by orange cheese and plastic lettuce, my face. I hold my own gaze, attempting to replicate myself into a time I did not exist. Zoning out: the green edges of this place fuzz and fray. Tuning in: they transform into soft grey pillars, chalky. The light stained wooden high-chairs and sauce blemished tables shift into piles of books with splintered spines, finger-printed pamphlets and non-gloss magazines. The overhead “Sub” pulses into a sun or a yellow moon. It hangs high in the window, an image with a harshly outlined smile and cross-eyed gaze, which lends whimsicality. Replacing the stars are badges, displayed on a board in the window, they are political and punk. The window is that of a one-time lesbian-owned bookshop: In Other Words. The first time I came across its name, I misread “Words” as “Worlds.” The shop opened in Plymouth in 1982 and closed in 2007. It was independent, established by partners in business and in love: Prudence De Villiers and Gay Jones. It stocked a panopoly of printed matter including queer fiction, erotica, feminist, communist, anti-war, environmental, and anti-racist publications. This place was a space—a “safe haven.”
Prudence and Gay appear beside me in the window. My hands fumble pages of books that in this city feel forbidden. There are people all around but for once I don’t mind. I soak in their presence, and as I turn, I see that they resemble flowers: tender, unfolding, in bloom. 80s queers: glasses and hair. 90s queers: denim and plaid. 00s queers: flip phones and highlights. Their faces are a fragmented mass, as is the literature, but I feel the energy of this haunting simultaneity. I see them and they see me as we browse the shelves, smile knowingly at titles, and store our selections under arms. Our connective tissues stretch through rituals of recognition. Our temporalities entwine. Their legacy lives on and I sense it wriggling through the ground and up my legs. I slip into it, my feet in their footprints. I touch it through the chipped green paint. The old movements of this place live on through a purposeful inhabitance of space. I extend into and across it. This history is all of ours.
The innate immateriality of ghosts is what enables their mobility. They move and they shape-shift relentlessly. They travel with and through me, space, place, and time. Ghosts are simultaneously infinite and ephemeral. They are no one person or thing. Being of memory, ghosts are myth, and therefore—as with hauntings in general—they are felt more than they are known. And they were telling me it was time to move. Perhaps, on? On the boat, I stood up and stretched before turning and walking to the stern.
Pausing on the other side of the road, I feel them. The missing names of people, the missing books and the language living inside. These are other words for other worlds. A slip of the tongue and my mouth is open. I turn to face the front of the, once upon a time, bookshop. Today, I started my journey at the coast, from my ship, so I haven’t approached from this direction before. And through this perspective the shop’s glass front looks like a gateway: the closer I move toward it, the more it opens up. I pause again in the middle, waiting for the green light. As I look up, I see two women holding hands, they are waving at me through the portal. This recognition feels like home.
At the lighthouse, our collective habituation comes back to me: how we—my old friends and I—would stroll, taking the same route. The route was a routine: in between the bushes, curving around the statue, ignoring the path and taking to the grass. We’d move, drinks in hand, to the grassy bank and settle in. The glass roof looked like sky and after a few hours, we’d tumble toward it, reaching our edge.
I thought the pirate ship was something—a point, an orientation device—to arrive at, but it was actually a place to start from.
I tumble down the grassy bank, but this time from the opposite side. I watch as my ghost does the same. We tumble in parallel. But instead of turning right, as they do, I go left and walk along the wall. I go the long way: down some steps, up a hill. The route is circular, a detour. I come to the point in which the two routes I used to walk with my friends, toward the lighthouse, between the statue and grass, meet, and I intercept it. I walk directly through the middle and I keep going. Twisting, turning, back-tracking, detouring, I eventually arrive at the pirate ship. I greet it and its ghosts. I keep going. I see Mary Read. I reach one hand toward her cool surface and rest the other on my chest. I keep going. I can only go so far, but I am ready to take it all, to extend myself to the farthest limit of this space. I arrive.
Water has often been used as a metaphor for memory. It swirls around that which is in place. It fills space, every crevice, it seeps and stays. Queerness, too, has often found spiritual and poetic affirmation through water. It connects space and connects across it. It never moves in a straight line. It evades the passage of time by existing in a continuous state of ephemerality i.e. always flowing. Its rhythm is its own. I never appreciated living near the sea until I left. And I never felt the full presence of the water until I returned. It holds so much: space, time. It connects so much: travel, erasure, order, disorder, survival, death, renewal, immersion, memory, queerness. What strikes me now about welcome sign, is how something that once seemed so particular could instead contain it all. I, too, contain it all, and as I sit here, I look out toward the horizon and I feel them, my queer kin, looking back at me from their coastlines. The water’s soft woosh makes me cry, within each caress of a rock I hear their names, whispering as ghosts do. Queer temporality spirals. Not down, but around. It always comes back. This time here may be fleeting, but it is not rented. I feel the ocean, being on the edge, this is my piratic home.
Mollie Elizabeth Pyne is a writer and water baby currently living on an edge in Devon.