When I was a little girl, we used to, for a treat, go for a walk along the sea front at Torquay, to look at the lights. I don’t really remember going on holiday as such – there were a few weekends in posh out-of-season hotels, the sort with balconies overlooking Cardigan Bay, but, seeing as we were growing up in South Devon, I don’t suppose my parents ever felt like they weren’t on holiday. The sea was never more than a half an hour’s drive away; consequently, we went for an evening walk along the sea front at Torquay, to look at the lights, fairly often.
Torquay was always exciting. There were, and still are, I believe, not that I’ve been there for a while, huge hexagonal paving slabs, in grey and the distinctive Jurassic Orange (well, that’s what I’m calling it) for long stretches along which you could roller skate (should you still fit your roller skates), or jump (should you decide that the orange ones were poisonous); a gloriously smooth, flat surface that never ceased to attract a child more used to the vertiginous lanes of the valleys inland. It always smelled of vinegary fish and chips, and, as you walked along, you’d travel through pulses, music that would drift out of amusement arcades and bars you weren’t allowed in, but pushed at you, pressed on your chest, attempting to suck you in to taste their delights.
My parents always used to park at one end of the sea front, the one furthest from the shops and arcades and we used to walk, when we were very young we’d totter, along the top of the sea wall, after we’d crossed the road on the twirly bridge. It was the sort that crossed one of those triple laned highways and had a ramp made of shallow steps that were just too far apart to make in one stride, no matter how long your legs, and leaned out over the beach, which, when the tide was fully in, and the sea churned underneath you in its purple seaweeded restlessness, made you feel deliciously adventurous, especially when your companions jumped and made the entire structure shiver and boom like a gong. We used to arrive just at the time when the light was beginning to fade from the sky. We’d go one way in the gathering dusk, and come back in the multi-coloured darkness, wending our way home as the party-goers came out to play.
The lights were strung in loops along the sea front – I expect if you looked at them from the deck of a ship they would be reflected in the water, but my favourite part was the gardens. If you chose, you could cross the road again, leaving the sound of the sea and the business of the prom behind, and take a turn along the tropical garden. The ground was always damp there, rusty puddles would need to be negotiated, and once in, you’d dodge the fern fronds and pointy palms; at every turn you would step into otherworldy colour. Red, blue, green, violet; upturned floodlights would cast dramatic shadows on the foliage, would turn your face, and that of your friends, into aliens. It was magical.
When Sam was a baby, and I went to stay with my mum for a week one summer, we decided to take a trip down memory lane, and take him out for a walk along Torquay sea front, to look at the lights. It’s funny how things change, or how you notice different things when you are all grown up; the lights are still there, the loops along the prom but not the pier, the multi-coloured gardens. They are all there, just as they were when I was a child.
And yet my adult eyes pick out different details. The gardens no longer hold magic and mystery, but threat. Did there used to be such litter? Plastic and paper bags full of empty cider bottles and old chip packets? Did there used to be the faint stench of piss behind the green-painted bench, the puddle discoloured not by the red soil but by passers by? Did there used to be knots of bearded tooth-gapped men, calling out from the darkness? I don’t remember them. Was I blinded by my childish excitement at bright colour contrasting against the gathering dusk, the palpable sense of the gathering night, of adult entertainment I would miss and didn’t understand? Or were they always there, waiting for me to notice, to stop and see a different story?
It’s a strange feeling when you realise that you are pitied by the tramps along Torquay sea front; when they wish you well, and congratulate themselves upon their luck as you pass. I’ve never really understood it. Oh, I’ve been grateful for my little Get Out Of Jail Free Card many times – after all, who’s going to have a go at the woman with the disabled kid? (Not many people, I can tell you.) But I don’t understand it.
I didn’t understand it then, when I held my baby boy, and heard his laugh, or watched in wonder as he figured out the world, and how to navigate it, when he covered himself in banana or walked the whole way to school on his own. And I don’t understand it now, not really, not when he meets me at the end of school and shares with me the warmth of the classroom, and hugs me through the chill of the playground.
I’m tired, yes. I’m worried about the future, near and far, of course. I grew up in the 80s and used to worry about nuclear war and environmental disaster, after all. I’ve had more than my fair share of snot and sick and poo and wee to deal with over the years, if I may say so – but hey, so does everyone else who ever had a baby or a child in the family. Down’s syndrome isn’t a cause for pity. It isn’t a cause for anything like that at all.
Like every child that ever came before him and after, with or without chromosomes, he’s not a case of tragedy, but a cause for love.