Text: Agnès Villette / Photos: Elisabeth Blanchet
“What is melancholy?” I did not see it coming. Such a question, and in such a direct way. At first, I am taken aback, not knowing how and what to answer.
I am hanging around in a Wetherspoon. The West Quay at the Brighton Marina, a bizarre place, if Wetherspoon can be approached through that word. Elisabeth is here and she has met that same afternoon, a French chef on the seafront, who has a boat moored nearby. Actually I am not sure if we are here for the Wetherspoon, the 4th one in our draught residency, as it is now named, or for Laurent’s boat which we will visit later one. Or for him.
Laurent looks at me, green eyes, inquisitive, concerned. And he repeats the question: “Really, do tell me as I never experimented melancholy, I have no idea how it feels like.” There is no irony in his question. Not a single tinge of malice, more a form of concern. And it is that directness that takes me by surprise. I know that I cannot hide, divert or choose lengthily explanations, as he has wrapped the question with such surgical and pragmatic wording. I define it, or more so I try to define it. I am immediately dissatisfied by the words I choose. It remains evasive and slippery, as if I am lacking courage to frame it in words. I find it so complex to explain. And true, it is metaphors and images, or even colours and unrelated feelings that come in place of a simple answer. We discuss the subject. He tells us of one winter spent on his boat, during which he felt depressed. During the winter months, he does not work, as the restaurant on the seafront is closed. He tells us of that grey and damp weather that went on for months, of the storms, of the long days and the endless rainy months. He sums it up in an amused way: “I was a little bit lazy.” I can relate to what he is telling us and to the depth of his sadness.
Football is playing on the tv screen, the European Cup has been on for a few weeks now. France is playing Albania, but no one seems to pay much attention. Night has arrived, but the sky is still a deep blue, and even thought we are in June, the weather is cold and rainy. I find it difficult to relate to the place, there is no sense of unity, the layout of the pub is complicated, with long asymmetrical corridors.
The decor is eclectic and the drinkers do not connect with each other. Behind us, a couple of Polish eat fish and chips. A girl carries a blue liquid pincher from the bar to her table, and immediately fishes out all the ice cubes.
From the staircase near our elevated table, a teenage girl gets down, wearing a dancer tutu, golden shoes, she has ponytails, and carries a backpack with flashy colours. Cold draft come from the door which keeps opening to let in and out smokers. Outside, they stand in the cold wind, avoiding a huge paddle invading most of the terrace. Massive clouds of smoke shaped against the darkness. The smokers compete with their e-cigarette to produce the biggest smoke. Laurent tells me that it has now become a sort of trend, and that the brands are selling liquids which enhance the smoke density and quantity.
This late june night was to be remembered. Britain was voting for the Brexit two days later. There was something volatile in the air. Several time during that day, Elisabeth and I had asked various people what they were going to vote for. A taxi driver told us he had not made up his mind yet. A couple selling seafood from a caravan on the seafront, told us they were voting for Remain. Their business depending on the tourists, mainly the French ones visiting regularly Brighton. Another taxi driver avoided the question, he felt unease, most probably to tell us directly what he thought as we were foreigners.
The night swallowed us. We never left the marina, and ended up sleeping on Laurent’s boat. Actually, it was more complicated than that. Extending the talks and the drinks, we decided to get the last train for London. The cab ride was quick in empty streets, white villas floating swiftly under a low dark grey sky. When we arrived, we discovered that the train had been cancelled, we had to wait the following morning to get back. The second taxi driving us back to the marina travelled through a concrete tunnel which seemed taken from a SF film.
The whole marina was built in the 70’s and has that distinctive brutalist architecture which is recently becoming trendy and recognised.
That night, a massive thunderstorm raged for hours. The boat shook and tremendous rain fell keeping me awake. In the morning, the seawater in the marina was muddy and dark. We were thursday 24th of June, Brexit voting day, and the sky was low and heavy, the atmosphere charged. At Brighton station, most of the trains were delayed. The previous night’s heavy rain was disrupting the traffic. It took us 2 long hours to get back to London. The train stopping regularly, was revealing scenes of flooded rail tracks, attended by working men in orange.
It reminded me of the 90’s, when I first arrived in Britain, then trains were unpredictable and timetables fantasist. On voting day, the papers are banned from publishing polls, though the last ones had given Remain a solid win. As we know they were wrong.