What Black Shores Are These

A brand new work of narrative non-fiction by author and educator Conor Patrick

I come from a small town in the shadow of a dead volcano on a pine-choked plateau in what is widely considered to be the great American Southwest. Born not far from where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday blew the hearts from the chests of Tom and Frank McLauray in a place called Tombstone. Formative years spent tripping through the Wasatch-Uinta Mountains under the golden serpent-eye of the Angel Moroni, then passing from that place and emerging a spit’s distance from the Great White North. Roads stretched for days, bendless. That place of brokedown trucks in overgrown lots sagging on blownout tires, where the bridge between prosperity and destitution is only faith, where the mechanism for lifting both spirit and ethic is only the humble bootstrap, where men tattoo rights in the red meat of their hearts and wear amendments like badges of war, where people don’t like the taste of the water from the sink, or the voters next door, or that godawful ruckus. Land of skedattle, scootch, hooch and blues, where there is such a thing as a Concealed Carry Permit and an All-time High School Massacre World Record.

I abandoned wholly that vast nation in 2010.

I spent a first night in Portsmouth dead drunk. From the window of the attic flat the Spinnaker glowered red in the fog. I saw it from the floor. It was someone’s birthday and I smelled like hell. September. I’d chased a woman three thousand miles. Of course she was a blonde. We had a shouting match that night in a house full of strangers. A week ago we put new cream carpet in our front room.

Look ma, I’d said before leaving. All you need is love.

Rooftop beyond rooftop beyond rooftop, aerials like broken arms. At first I’d believed that at the feet of all those chimneys waited a real live fireplace. In those dawn weeks I scuffed around behind Southsea Castle and repeated endlessly for the pawing masses that bumbling way of saying aluminum. I quit trying to pronounce the word water. We moved to the seafront and then moved again further down the seafront. In all my landlocked dreams I never believed whole-heart I could sleep in a warm room and hear waves crashing against black rocks, nightly riding the tide into the depths of sleep. I watched the ships blinking in the lanes in the dark on the horizon. Someone pointed out the window and said: Normandy’s thataway. Blood of our granddads. I asked how old our building was and when they told me I felt compelled to take off my shoes.

What place is this, I wonder, even now, after five years. Brick upon red brick, land of buried Nazi bombs and royal carpark bones. Where a forest is called New but it ain’t. Where a mad king separated wives from heads and invented a new religion that endures today. And this warship city, where a one-armed admiral earned a ship called Victory its namesake. Where Dickens emerged, wet, screaming, and gave his voice to the same ears as Kipling and Conan Doyle. Where the white lighthouse blinks into the windblown night.

When people find out where I’m from, they lobby me with stories of NYC and Disney’s Florida where they ate Pop-Tarts and Lucky Charms. I have to tell them I’ve never been to either one of those places. Maybe they know more about America than I do.

Some ask: want to trade passports?

Sure, I tell em. I’ll trade.

Because there is some heart that’s found only here. A way of walking upright maybe. It can’t have a finger put straight on. Some sputtering and lonesome and worldly heart of blood and cold Solent seawater. Some nameless draw along the artery of Albert Road. I am swallowed. Bright Southsea and the spectre of North End, kick-the-can Cosham, hooded, hollering to mendicant Havant and Petersfield beyond, who lays in the meadow sun. Not far from my house bends a little walled road named the Vale where in summer heavy Elm boughs shade silent gardens and the sound of traffic passes into memory. There isn’t much but an old garage with a corrugated iron door and the hush of the ocean air passing in the branches of the trees, but I walk that road and wonder, what place is this, that is not more innocent, nor more true, nor more rich, nor more poor, nor more found nor lost than any other I have walked. Yet it is all those and again more. I cannot but feel I am home.