Twenty-three years had passed since I spent a summer in my hometown of Gorleston-On-Sea, a quaint, soporific seaside town on the bucolic Norfolk coast in southeast England. My last summer there was on the eve of my nineteenth birthday. I was about to move to London to attend university and finally snip the apron strings that tied me to my comfortable, rural middle class upbringing. Now, as a parent with two young daughters of my own, I felt they should experience what I had taken for granted in my youth. I wanted them to trade the muggy, congested, dusty streets of New York for the tranquil, salty air and rolling green cliffs of England. Any other parent who had the chance would do the same.
So under a cloudless blue sky and gentle breeze, a few days into my trip, I went on one of my customary morning runs on the expansive golden beach, which was about a thousand yards from my mom’s house. About halfway through, as the endorphins kicked in, soaked in sun and sweat, I felt a beautiful, spacey high. The blur of thirty years vanished, and I couldn’t distinguish the timeline between being eleven and forty-one. It didn’t really matter. The surrounding smells and feelings were so familiar. I completed the run quickly, hardly noticing my feet moving on the sand.
When I got home, I turned on my computer to some bad news about a real estate transaction I was working on in New York. Immediately I felt the knot of stress in my stomach, followed by anger and frustration. These are emotions I had also become very familiar with during the last five years of my life in New York.
Still feeling frustrated, I decided to take my daughters to a much-publicized local theme park in nearby Corton. I vaguely remember biking to this park, Pleasurewood Hills, when it first opened in the eighties. After a considerable upgrade, I didn’t recognize the now American-styled theme park with skyscraper-sized rides reaching up into the heavens like metallic, prehistoric monsters. They seemed such a rude intrusion to the landscape of the Corton I’d once known. Despite accompanying the girls on some pint-sized moments of pure euphoria (spinning cars, flying pink elephants, and two-seater planes) my mind would drift to my worries about the transaction in New York, and all the unease would return.
The theme park itself was host to busloads of teenage school kids darting around the place, many in uniform. Again, nostalgia, the start of the summer holidays, the whiff of romance, the promise of a life ahead. The problem about being forty-one and returning to the place you had grown up in is that you realize a lot of the dreams and goals you’d once had when younger have now become unachievable. What’s worse is those goals that you have achieved, though perhaps fulfilling at the time, don’t really mean too much in hindsight. It can be a downer—I’m easily bored; I feel I’ve done and seen all I’ll see in this life. I became desperate to feel excited about something again, desperate to connect to the old me.
This was, I presume, why I left my daughters with my mother elsewhere at the park and found myself the only adult amongst hundreds of teenagers lined up to go on the main rollercoaster. Not the rollercoaster of wooden plank tracks and spooky tunnels of my youth, but some outrageous loop-de-loop hi-tech, sky blue and metallic orange thing. I was towards the back of the line when the attendant, a chubby, dark-haired teenager, asked in a broad East Anglian accent if there were any single riders. Being the lone forty-one year old in line, I raised my hand and found myself ducking under the ropes with the eyes of tens of teens upon me as I made my way up onto the platform. In front of the mass of teenagers, I had the vague sensation of going on stage at a school assembly. I was guided toward my seat, next to an approximately fourteen year-old boy who, frankly, looked scared shitless. I lowered myself into the seat next to him and pulled down the safety harness.
“Alright. Are you ready for it?” I asked him as if to break the ice—a tacit acknowledgment that we, two strangers, would be sharing a possibly life changing experience.
“Yeah I’m ready,” he said in strong local accent with too much bravado. I already felt sorry for him.
We occupied the last two seats. The car moved backwards up an impossibly steep gradient. We were in the sky, overlooking the rest of the passengers. Ahead lay the unknown.
‘Well, this is different,’ I thought.
The breaks were released, and we were off. My first thought [repetitive] was ‘Thank God I didn’t eat anything’ as I’d left my stomach forty feet behind. We hit the first circular vertical turn high in the air and my initial idea to ‘chill out, relax, have a good time’ was directly challenged by something going on in my stomach, head, and chest. No time to analyze what it was before we were upside down. There was a flash of sky, and then we were looking at the people on the ground fifty feet below us, and then we began slowly climbing another gradient, one so steep it may as well have been vertical. I looked over at the kid beside me. He was deathly white. The simple pleasure of running on the beach in the morning seemed a lifetime away.
“Well that’ll wake you up!” I tried to joke with him as we sat stationary over the cliff face. He could barely speak. “Don’t worry, you’ll be alright,” I said feeling suddenly fatherly. He tried to nod his head. The wind blew about us, teenage girls screamed in the seats fifty feet above me. We remained at a standstill for what seemed like an age. I remember feeling less than enthusiastic about the return leg. Then, without warning, we were flying through the hot summer air, this time backwards. After we twisted and looped, we eventually arrived back at the platform. I was relieved it was over. It had been thrilling in a mildly sadistic, slightly un-enjoyable way, like having a sexual encounter with an attractive woman who seems to derive pleasure by inflicting pain.
I looked over at the boy beside me. “Alright? That’s certainly one way to start the day!” I said in another attempt at the jokey, man/boy understated Norfolk-speak that seemed to come straight from my youth.
“Yeah, yeah it is one way to start the day,” he stammered, palpably relieved it was over.
In front of us, kids were screaming as they got out of their seats, some boasting to their friends that they wanted to do it again—right now! I knew they were lying. I knew no one on that ride enjoyed it, and I knew no one had absolutely any desire to go again. I knew because I was one of them, once.