Sketches: On Margate Sands

On a foggy April morning, the photographer, kneeling down, motions to the subjects to move closer together. They shuffle in reluctantly, closer but not touching, except for when Larger pats Smaller on the head. Brotherly love metered out in pats, pushes and punches.

Endless children chasing endless seagulls, endless grown-ups chasing endless children, endless boys chasing endless boys, endless girls chasing endless boys, endless girls chasing endless girls, endless babies chasing endless milk, endless toddlers chasing endless seagulls, endless grown-ups chasing endless children…

The family on a day trip, they shelter on wooden benches under the viewing platform beside the road, waiting for the rain to abate. Grandma, in beautiful golden sari, glinting bright against the grey sky, opens the Tupperware, full of homemade delights, while teenage cousins laugh and compare pictures on tightly-gripped phones, and Uncle stands at the extremity, watching the drips and the puddles form, biting his lip and thinking about ‘that woman’ (as Grandma calls her) again.

The sea so quiet today, still and sublime, a peace descended. No one could guess that a man was knocked from his feet by the waves yesterday, knocked clean off his feet and into the swell. It knocked the life from him yesterday. Yet today, today so quiet and still, as if trying to make amends, like a child scolded and quiet, sulky in repentance and shame.

Green Jumper and Red Jumper sit huddled together, knees up, sifting sand. They stay long after the sun has gone, smoking cigarettes and putting off tomorrow. They are young and they have time. They can make the day last long into the night.

The solitary greyhound, muscles taut, running races with the wind on a November morning, his owner stomping stoically in his wake, turning his face from the bite of the wind. Swathes of sand snake low across the beach as the wind chases the grains to new destinations.

Posing for pictures, endless selfies, instant memories to prove the days’ worth. Just let me do my hair first, whilst the camera-shy roll their eyes and shuffle off-frame, and let’s tell the others what a great time we had but let’s crop out that fat bit, and can you take that again because my nose looks better from this side, let me see, no that’s horrid, you’ve posted it, what?! And laughter and pulling of faces, but it gets serious when the sun heads for bed. We have to capture the Turner sunset, cameras to the West, the Mecca of all sunsets. Silhouettes dotted along the shore claiming the sky as their own, holding the colours and air between outstretched arms. It’s a Turner tonight, the delicate pinks in the soft brooding light. ‘Click’ go the shutters and the phones are raised up to the god of the sky, Westward, westward ho, over the sea. Don’t miss it, we have to take it home. Oh shame, it doesn’t look as good as it did at the time. But then the camera can never do it justice, that’s what they’ll say, when they show the snaps to Jan and Dave.

Betty and Derek have come down from Wales. She used to come here with Mum and with Dad and Vi and Pru. She wanted to see it again, one last time. They hire deckchairs and sit near the back of the beach, watching all life walk by, smiling at the children and sharing a sympathetic look with the sleep-walking, exasperated parents. You don’t know it, but you’ll hanker for these days, these fleeting, simple, precious days. Don’t wish them away, don’t wish them away.

The teenager lagging behind, eyes locked to the phone in her hand, she is not really here, I am not really here. Daydreaming of Alfie and how he’ll just appear, and they’ll go off together to the arcades and he’ll hold her hand while the others play the games, and he’ll turn to her and brush that little bit of hair behind her ear, and look into her eyes and kiss her and…come on, slow coach, shouts Mum as she waits up ahead in her bright red cagoule. So embarrassing! FFS, what is wrong with her! Can’t she leave me alone for literally 5 minutes? She feels like kicking the sand but stops herself, feeling too grown up for such outward petulance. I’m not really here, she’s not really there.

The squeals that come from the tiny ones, not yet steady on their feet, voices piercing the sky when the waves roll across their toes. Fathers stand nearby, some adoringly admiring their perfect little creations, others perfectly bored out of their minds, more interested in the colour of the young woman’s tan, as she adds another layer of bronzing lotion. He wonders if he might get lucky tonight (after she’s taken the baby home), with her or her or her. In nine months’ time a new half brother or sister might appear. A cycle of heat and lust and nappies and cold child maintenance disputes.

Ships loiter along the horizon in the hazy pink, lazy pink tired hot day. Wind turbines stand stock-still out at sea, all spent and nothing doing. The motionless heat of the summer, the flip flops and flies, picnics and sandy sandwiches crunched between salty lips, children changing under the towel that mum holds around their waists, wet costumes wriggled to the ground, covered in sand, shaken out in hallways and gardens across the country; we took a little bit of you with us, seaside, tiny beaches shaken out inside, all warm and dry, when we get home, when we get home.

Lazy crescent moon appears like an eye half-shut, waking slowly, and Venus places herself close by; a lunar beauty spot in the deep blue of the sky. Headlights swing carelessly round the headland across the bay, marking illicit rendezvouses or perhaps just the innocents turning in for early nights. The wind turbines blink red on the horizon all the night long, turning and turning ‘til kingdom come.

Fishermen. Only one boat left now because there aren’t plenty of fish in the sea after all.  They chug into the harbour, gulls hover like flies over today’s catch. Barry shouts his greetings across from the Lantern café, wiping his hands on his blue and white striped apron streaked with grease. “What have you got for me today, Jack?” he calls down as tired arms tie the boat in tight alongside the harbour wall. “Any lobster?”

Boy and kite. The silvery kite flutters low across the sand, twisting and turning, shining in the sunlight. The boy suddenly changes direction and the kite soars high above him into the sky. Delighted, he hops from one foot to the other, turning in circles on the spot, watching the kite dance above as he dances below. A sweet couple, perfect dancing partners.

Carnival Queens in their plastic tiaras passing on by the seafront, each float surrounded by protective netting to deflect any incoming missiles. Miss Margate has nothing to fear, but Miss Faversham and Miss Dover might get it if the local lads are bored today.

Four teenage girls lying on their stomachs, heads together, confidences shared, they whoop with laughter, their secrets expelled. Boys playing hip hop through their phones, baseball caps and gangster rap, the smell of dope lingering around them long after the joint is extinguished.

Night time brings the wind-breaks down and babies are taken home an hour past their usual bed-time while mum and dad drink tins on the benches overlooking the sea, because the sea belongs to them, if only for this moment. Swear words strewn across the sand along with a trail of empty cider cans, marking the path from happy beginnings to sorry heated ends. There will be apologies in the morning.

When September closes, the pulley rope swings, the bouncy castle and stripy beach huts are packed down piece by piece. The café on the seafront, the one with the Formica tables that sells cups of tea for £1, the one where all the leathery bikers go; when that café brings its shutters down, then we know the summer is truly over. No more 99s with flakes, no more double cones. Those shutters won’t come up again now until the spring. The corrugated metal, a shuddering coat, rattles in the gales, holding its own against the freezing fog, contracting in the sting of the wicked winter wind.

In the cold times, in the desperate times, there are more people in and out of the pawn shop on the corner. Choices must be made between keeping Granny’s ring and topping up the electric meter. She hopes to buy Granny’s ring back in a few months, when something comes through, “just think of it as a loan, love,” urges the man behind the counter, a syrupy smile on his face. “Let’s say we can hold it for yer for two months, then we’ll reassess the situation, huh?” Otherwise it’s cigarettes or bread, and she can’t cope without the cigarettes, but the kids can’t cope without the bread. “Okay, I’m coming back for it in 2 months,” he nods his head, but he knows she won’t come back and he knows £40 is a steal for this one.

One windy October evening, when the day is closing its eyes, a young couple huddle together on the beach around a fire they have badly made. Escapee pieces of the newspaper that they have used, blow and dance around them. Their faces flicker in the firelight. Is this romance or running away?

On some days the sea and the sky argue over who can show the most brilliant blue, trading sublime luminescence. On other days, the sea and the sky do battle over the dullest shade of slate grey, the horizon is barely visible, sea and sky indivisible.

On the hottest days, people also vie for space, claiming their places with towels, wind-breaks and picnic blankets. We mark our territories with the loudest speakers, the biggest gazebos, the smokiest barbeques. We don’t have gardens in our block of flats, so this is our garden, our space for play.

September turns its golden face away from the sun. The long hot days of the school holidays close with a simmer, children reluctantly dragged to the school uniform shop, parents hoping that bigger sizes will mean extra room for new facts and figures. Or perhaps it’s just bigger sleeves to use as tissues?

Autumn snaps its fingers, the wind swings about and the flags unfurl, straightening their backs, flexing forgotten muscles in preparation for storms. Fewer people brave the sea. Long-dormant socks are taken from drawers, scarves shaken out from the dusty corners of cupboards. Swallows hasten into the cold blue yonder, beckoned by the yellow fingers of heat rising from African horizons. Second home owners up-sticks and migrate back to the warmth of London’s bustle, leaving their 4-bedroomed bargains to the mice. The no-home-owners and the plovers shed their summer plumage and sink heads into collars turned up against autumnal shores.

© 2019 Rosie Escott