He opened the door to the hotel room and smiled. Exactly how it was last year, and the year before that. His eyes fell on the old, brass telescope sat in front of the window, pointing out on to the sea front. He closed the door behind him, left his small trolley suitcase where he had parked it just inside the room doorway and walked past the sleigh bed, the wall mounted flatscreen TV, the grained wood wardrobe and of course, the slatted signal light, over to the window and the telescope.
He turned back around and scanned the room from another angle, his eyes falling on the signal light again. He adored it. The first year he came here he played with it like a child with a new toy at Christmas. It was so vivid how he had sat on the edge of the bed in the subtle room light, looking it over, transfixed by the glimmer of the polished brass perched on tripod wooden legs which matched the telescope. He had imagined it sat high and proud in the lighthouse tower, a lone Native Indian sending beams instead of smoke to the ships on the horizon, before stepping to its side to pull the leaver up and down to send signals of his own.
He turned back to the telescope and ran his fingers down its length, barely touching it, not wanting to leave a mark on the brass, just like he had done that very first time. He had cleaned it down with respect using a tissue every time he used it. Between that telescope and that signal light, there was the reason why he had asked for this room the third time around - Hibiscus was it's name, like every room in the hotel had a name. There were other reasons for going back to that same room, but these two worldly and almost antique objects which so comfortably entered the twenty-first century had curiously left an indelible and shiny mark on his life.
Now in his eighty-fourth year, this was the fourth time in all he had been back. That was after the very first time he had come to these parts a long time ago, back in his twenties as a football fan in the early sixties. Back in those days he had been a staunch supporter following his team all over with his three equally football-mad friends. They had travelled the length and breadth of the country by train, from Plymouth to Carlisle, with the hedonstic idea of going to as many football grounds as possible, it had become as nearly as important as their team.
It was that first time they had travelled to Sunderland that had changed something in his life, like a first defining moment. Before they even got there, along the north east coastline, something crept in, something that would last longer than any memory of any football match. It had been one of the longer journeys up north, a Saturday league match after a Friday night on the beer, his friends were still dozing as they passed the grassy coastline to the right of their carraige. He was left on his own to ponder where the green gave way to the blue-grey of the North Sea, a far cry from the collieries and coal the area was famous for. Now that they were no more, his trips in the last few years were as if they had never been there. The green, the people walking their dogs, the static caravan site near Seaburn had always been the features for him as he passed on the train.
That cold, windy day as he stood on the terraces with his mates, warmed with local ale and a hearty pie from the chuck wagon outside the Roker Park ground, his team had lost. After a couple of pints in a local pub to commiserate, they got back on the train for the long journey back.
And again journeying back south from where they came, they passed the green cliffs and the grey of the North Sea. Something intrigued him and his gaze never left the window until the rolling green was behind them. Little did he know at the time that he would see that same scenery once again, and more.
About thirty years ago he did go back. Not for a football match but for a family wedding in Newcastle with his wife. She had never been so far north. His senses resparked and those images of that train ride he just had to share with her. He could have driven but he had never been a fan of long distance driving, so they decided on the train. After spending the night in a Newcastle hotel, she agreed to stop off on the way back. All he could think of on that journey there was the stretch of green before rolling in to Sunderland and now he was actually going to be there. When they got off the train and took a taxi, he had been so excited that he lost those thirty years and felt a boy again, his wife at least being more enthiusiastic and taking in more of what he saw than his hungover mates had seen that very first time. That was the sealing of the envelope, of their little love letter to one another.
Since then the married couple had been back twice since their kids had grown up, and had stayed in one of the static caravans in that permanent park overlooking the sea. In their married years they had been a few times on holiday to the Mediterranean sun in Spain and Greece, but none of them for all their sun drenched beaches and quaint whitewashed towns had ever matched his time in that static caravan. Whatever the weather, it was one of the best places he had ever stayed. Every day they walked along the clifs and the green and passed the strolling owners of happy bounding dogs. The evenings they sat on the caravan porch and read, surrounded in their dark blanket of the sea and sky. It was their time, their space after bringing up three marvellous children.
Then four years ago in a bleak January, his wife passed away to that dreaded big C. After fifty years of adventure with her and hard months of trying to fill a huge void, he knew the only way he could help keep the wind in his sail and honour her was to go back. Even two of the friends he had travelled length and breadth of the country had joined her too. His remaining friend didn´t have the health to join him any more and he knew it was only a matter of time before the gang would have peated back in to this earth completely.
So that first time on her first anniversary, with a heart as heavy as it was, he went alone. His three children always called on this day and ask him to come by or even offer to go to him, but he tried to smile a 'don´t worry' down the phone and decline. Instead there was an unexplicable drive to take him north and head on in to the biting cold wind, a long way from the comfort of family and the warmth of their homes and adorable grandchildren.
Each time he settled in to his booked train seat, his own private mini-wanderlust of a life would come flooding back to him. All the chugging journeys with his friends, all the football matches he had seen, all the goals and all the pints. Whenever they could seeing as they still lived in the same town, he would meet up with his last remaining life-long friend when his gradual flaying health permitted and reminisce over a pint about those football trips, They would pass a few hours remembering the other two, laughing in the face of their old age when the pair of them could not for the life of them remember which stadium they had seen that amazing goal or even the actual match. The debate over where they had eaten the best pies resumed each time, even though they now missed half of the round table input.
The one thing he couldn´t share was that last stretch before arriving in the station at Sunderland. His friends had all been dozing. Only his wife would have been been able to travel on his wavelength. He thought of that first train journey they took together, about how excited he had been to show her that coast, almost scared she would have not seen it like he had. Maybe it was because she had managed to tune in to him that he knew she was so special. That and her smile every time they spoke about going back there. A tear would well and balance on the edge of his eye, a tear full of what life had given him that he didn´t want to spill, a balloon he didn´t want to let burst out of him. The journey and the place he was going to stayed strong in him and willed it back in.
Being winter the caravan park was closed so he had settled for the first hotel he found in Sunderland on the seafront, the Best Western on Roker Terrace. Besides, the caravan ws theirs, not just his. It was too big for just him and he never felt like cooking since those days of boiling fresh crab with her, somethings he just had to let go of. He decided he would take the ten-minute train back to Seaburn and walk as much as he could back along that green, grassy sprawl as he had always done, but he wanted to sleep as close to the sea as he could and Roker Terrace was right there.
So here he was again, staying as usual for two nights. He considered himself to have had a lucky life, he had travelled not all over the world, but all over HIS world, he had travelled with purpose and with passion. He had had a wonderful, long marraige and had friends who had emblazoned themselves in to his very being. Finding this room and finding this stretch of beach, lady-luck had shone through the dreary grey sky on his wrinkly skin once again.
So now in each year of the last three years, after settling in to the room and going through all the artefactual toys of his furniture, he would go downstairs and have a pint for the boys, sitting peacefully and staring out the large windows, over the road to the barren beach. As the last soothing drop of beer made its way down his throat, he would then don a woollen hat and gloves, zip up his parka, head across the road to the sand and stroll down it for his wife.
He would walk down the hard sand as close to the unthreatening, mild wash of surf as he dared without risking his old limbs having to dash away from getting wet, stopping for a moment, catching his breath, watching it float out and upwards and join the incoming, shuffling and turning out towards the grey wavy mass searching for the horizon. Whereas he would almost patrol up and down the beach, he would venture on to the curve of the solid, stone pier to the small light house only once, and only as long as their was no windy risk of kicking up any waves. He walked down the right-bending curve to the light, the light of his life, to his wife.
Filling his lungs with salty air, he would close his eyes and wait for his three young friends to run down and join them both a four-pack of lager in hand for them all, standing there with his lighthouse lady, looking out to the North Sea seeing who could first spot the edge of the world or at least a ship.
Each time he would walk in a seemingly endless manner, much more than a man of his age would usually do. But for him it was never done endlessly, he never dawdled, even though some younger generations maybe would have courage to differ. He didn´t care about them or about anything else. He had everything he needed in his head on that pier.
While the sea air would clear his head and this place would hold his body and soul together. there was only question which came back to him each time: 'Why here?'. It was the one thing he had never managed to grasp, what was the allure of this place? Why was the whole coast line from Hartlepool to Sunderland so vivid in his mind for so long?
He did not know what the future held, or how long he still had, but to come back here every year was his only mission now. The only thing he knew moving forward was that when the time came, where he wanted his ashes to be spread. He wanted every last particle of himself to remain in the wind, to enticingly drift back in to the shoreline, along that beach then up and on to the cliffs, to roll through the blowing blades of their grassy tops for eternity.