The Li-Lo

A look at 80s Thanet as seen through the eyes of children. Contains content which may offend.

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© Thanet District Council / SEAS Photography / Used With Permission

Sandwiched slap-bang in-between the DIY books and the romance novels lay Greg and Jeanie’s copy of The Joy of Sex. Whenever Greg was asleep after working nights and Jeanie was cooking tea we’d slip it out. Flit through it. Flick through it. Inch it back to its place on the bookshelf when we thought we could hear Greg or Jeanie coming.

We’d do the expressions in the park as we rolled down the tiny grass-covered hills. I’d squeeze my face up like it was a rubber ball. Carl would chomp his mouth together as if he were about to eat his tea. Sara would curl her lips up and then down and then up again. Penny would squint her eyes tightly shut and we’d all fall about.

We’d chase each other around as we swapped expressions, trying not to fall into the tiny white flowers. Weeds they were, but we called them flowers. Once you fell into a patch of those it took ages to dust away the sprigs. They stuck to your clothes like chewing gum. Gave you the sniffles if you let them get anywhere too near your nose. Made you mouth so dry only an ice-pole could clear it.

I liked Coca-Cola ice-poles best and so did Carl, but he also liked Lemonade. Sara liked Vimto. Penny loved Cherry-Aid. They fizzed on our tongues. Left brightly-coloured marks around our mouths. On very hot days we rubbed the long, frozen, tightly-packed plastic poles onto our boiling wrists.

Sara and Carl went the same colour in the sun that their Mum was all the time. Jeanie had a small, brown, round face – a bit like a conker. Sara’s hair was like her Mum’s – seaweed curls. Carl’s hair fizzed all over his head. Gingery and fizzy. Like Lucozade. Nothing like his Mum. Or his Dad. Greg was big and white. His legs were big and white. Covered with dark brown sprigs of hair. They hung out of the bottom of his dressing gown. Tree trunks. Chunky tree trunks. I’d seen them when he’d made a trip to the wee or when he stumbled downstairs to get Jeanie to make him a mug of tea. Chunky.

Greg and Jeanie kissed in front of Sara and Carl. They even kissed in front of me. They would crawl up to one another and make a great, big O-shape with their mouths, squint their eyes shut. Slobber over one another. It nearly made me puke. When I asked Penny if she’d ever seen them she’d said no and started talking about her new canary. Guess it made her feel ill too. My parents never did any of that stuff, at least not when I was around. Puke.

“Next summer Dad’s taking us to Spain,” said Sara, pulling at Carl’s hand so that it hovered a millimetre above a nettle’s sting-rays.

“How’re you going to get there?” I said, licking my Coca-Cola ice-pole.

“Caravan.”

Greg and Jeanie had bought a big sand-coloured caravan at the beginning of the summer holidays and Greg was going to take them everywhere. Sometimes he’d be in there when we’d got home from school – checking the beds and stuff. If he was in a good mood he’d let us climb in and we’d trampoline on the beds when he wasn’t looking.

Sara let go of Carl’s hand and I rubbed my fingers between a nettle’s rays.

“You’re coming aren’t you?” she said.

“Have to ask Mum and Dad,” I said, taking my fingers away from the weed, cooling the burning with my tongue.

On the really hot days we went to the beach. We’d scramble over the rocks as the sea hit them, frothing into fizzy white peaks. Poison, I once called it. No, wee, said Sara, pointing at the crusty pipe that ran into the sea. Our wee, eurghhhh. We all held our noses even though our beach mostly smelled of Coca-Cola and Impulse.

On the very hot days we raided Sara and Carl’s garage first for stuff to take down the beach. We’d squeeze ourselves past the gigantic seagull that lay outstretched in Greg’s garage – the Wavebeater. He’d bought the speedboat last summer holiday and Carl had been looking forward going out on it, but he’d said Dad was still waiting for…waiting for…now what was it? A licence. Couldn’t go in the sea without one. We tapped our fingers on it – tap, tap, tap – as we squeezed round to the shelf with our stuff on it.

Our stuff. The red and yellow rubber ring, the tangerine Frisbee, the huge pink li-lo that took ages to blow up. Though none of us were sure why we were taking the li-lo down the beach today. There’d been no usual morning phone call from Penny and she was the only one of us that could make it on that thing. Head and shoulders above Sara and me, and two heads and shoulders about Carl. We’d all tried to float out on the water like she did on the li-lo – so easily, so lazily. She slept on that thing.

“Let’s blow it up anyway,” I said. “She might find us on the beach.”

We took our mouths to the bright red rubber popper. Took it in turns puffing into it before falling to our knees in a heap after a few blows. Even though we were blowing it up under the cool shade of the sundeck we still fried. The li-lo flipped and flopped in our hands. The sundeck was boiling in the heat, splintering, falling apart. If you climbed to the top of the steps that spread down from each corner of the sundeck you had to put on your jelly shoes on otherwise you’d get splintered – and that felt like a whole bunch of nettles burning into your feet.

Getting to the top of the sundeck meant that you could see all of Margate. We used to point at our houses whenever we got to the top. Mine was easy to spot – I lived nearest to the beach. You could just make out Penny’s – she lived a bit further away in Cliftonville. But it was tough to make out Sara and Carl’s. Sometimes we thought we had it, other times we weren’t so sure. We squinted in the face of the bright, hazy light of August as we ran up and down the sundeck.

The roof of the sundeck had a cafe packed with slot machines. Loads of them. We ran our 2ps and 1ps into the slots and they would zig-zag down the glass shoot before tapping the other coins. Once Penny won a whole 50p in 2ps and we all flopped to the beach cafe for our 99’s – soft, sticky white peaks all capped off with a Cadbury’s flake. When we got up there Sara took out three 1ps and shoved them all in. Nothing. She made a fist and started thumping the glass until a grown-up saw us so we legged it back down the flaky steps to the beach.

Sara, Carl and I curled our feet in the sand – smooth and warm like the thick carpet where we watched the telly in their house. Sitting by the sundeck were a couple of boys from Sara and mine’s class at school. When they saw us walking near them they started singing.

“Solid – solid – as a cock. That’s why, the thrill is still h…h…h…hot.”

Sara and I burst out laughing as Carl rammed his hands in his pockets. One of them asked where Penny was as he flexed the muscles in his right arm. Another one of them said, “Yeah, where’s Penny?”

“We don’t know,” I said. “She hasn’t called us today. We don’t know where she is.” They lifted their brown faces up to the sun, squinting.

We would always race down to the bit where the sea met the sand before digging our toes in. Dodging a full foot soaking from a wave. Then we’d all tiptoe in together, flitting our bare feet in the sea. Carl would shiver, and Sara would squint her soft brown round eyes – they were like Maltesers – up at the sun. Our arms would sprinkle with goose-bumps and then Penny would twist her body together tightly. Jump in first. Then it would be Sara, then me and then Carl.

“Shall we take the li-lo in the sea?” I said to Sara and Carl. We looked down at the pink plastic bed that we’d spent ages blowing up.

“Yeah, let’s,” said Sara.

Sara and I pulled the li-lo into the sea, dragging it behind us as we sloshed through the water. When we up to our tums’ in sea we let the li-lo free, snapping our hands above it just in case a wave tried to take it. It slept on the waves, lazily, easily, slyly.

I held the ends of the li-lo in my hands and Sara scrunched herself up, squinted her eyes tightly and then loosened up before stretching her arms over her head and slapping her hands down on the hard plastic ridges gripping the edge. As she lay pressed against the bed, floating on top, she brushed her hair in the water and turned to me and smiled.

I pulled my face down and held my hands a tiny bit about the li-lo, barely touching it. Tapping the tips of my fingers onto the plastic, the ridges felt hot, hard, tough. I let my hands go loose, spread them out on and then tightening my fingers before pulling myself onto it slowly.

We both lay on the li-lo together, on our tums, looking into the black, blue waves and feeling the sun hit the back of our heads. The li-lo began to tumble so we both smashed our hands in the water, paddling. Rowing. Carl looked up at us – rooted in the sand. His hair stood up in firm peaks – salty hair wax. A tentacle of seaweed had wrapped itself around his neck. He began to chomp his teeth. Chomp, chomp, chomp.

“Stop it Carl,” screamed Sara. It felt as if someone was squeezing the last drops of their ice-pole onto our necks.

“I’m not doing anything!” Chomp, chomp, chomp.

Carl ran his fingers up and down his goose-bumped arms. My toenails tapped the ends of the li-lo – tap, tap, tap. I turned myself round and looked up at the sky pressing down onto us. Pelting us hard with fierce drops of rain.

“Leg it,” said Sara. But we’re already wet. “Come on,” she said, tucking the plastic under her arms – don’t forget the li-lo. I circled the li-lo round so it was facing the shore and we sloshed through the waves as the rain chucked it down.

“Change at home,” said Sara as the rain tapped down.

Legging it back to Greg and Jeanie’s we trooped into the kitchen. Jeanie was peering into the glass of the microwave. It was buzzing like a fly. “You bunch of ’nanas,” she says, “caught in the rain again?”

Yeah…

“Yeah, Mum,” says Sara. All of the rings on the oven were on. Bright red circles.

Jeanie tied her apron around her wafer-thin body and reached for the sharp knife she used to cut meat. I’d had roasts before at Greg and Jeanie’s. Cuts of beef that broke apart when I put my fork in it. Potatoes drowning in a sea of green peas. Gravy made from mixed-up granules. Waffles. We don’t have Yorkshire puddings down here, I’d once heard Greg say to Jeanie. We’re not from Yorkshire, he then added – spearing a whole slice of beef with his fork.

We dumped our stuff in the kitchen – right under the microwave – and sloshed in the room with the telly. My hair was stuck to the back of my neck as if someone had waxed it there.

“Change in my room,” says Sara to me and we jumped upstairs. “Don’t close the door – it’ll wake Dad.” We skimmed the stairs with our damp feet. Sara and I bashed elbows as she pulled on her pink shorts and I struggled with my orange t-shirt.

Just as I was about to zip up my blue skirt with the daisies on I knocked over the chalk-faced figure of a Pierrot crying that Sara’s Mum had got her for Christmas. “You ’nana,” she says and then pulls down the sleeves of her blue t-shirt so far they almost cover her hands.

Greg breaks onto the landing and stares at us. He runs a hand over his mouth and his hair’s all sticking up in peaks. His tartan quilted dressing gown hangs loose and the cord is trailing all around him like seaweed. I’m up against his tree trunks. Chunky, chunky, chunky…

“Sorry Dad,” says Sara.

He looks down at us for a bit and then goes back into his bedroom. We hold a finger to our lips and walk down the stairs. Slowly. Silently. Sideways. We are crabs.

“Let’s watch what I taped last night,” says Carl, bringing his knees towards him as he bounces up and down on the blue sofa. He stops trampolining and points the remote control at the telly. Sara runs up on the sofa beside him and Carl pulls away his finger.

Hey you, the rock steady crew.

We all spring off the sofa and began break dancing on Greg and Jeanie’s sand-coloured carpet. Carl’s body popping and Sara and I are spinning on our backs, turning round and round, feeling the carpet sting.

As the Chart Show’s theme tune starts, Sara and I stop dancing.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

“Still chucking it down.” says Sara and she starts thumping the carpet.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

“Thriller!” screams Carl.

“Thriller! Thriller! Yeaaaaah! Thriller!” she says.

Carl snaps up. Swaps video tapes.

Yeah! Sara runs upstairs to the bathroom and rushes back downstairs with the Charlie talcum powder that was part of the gift set she got her Mum for Christmas and we rub it into our clothes and still damp hair.

Because this is Thriller. Thriller Night.

Sara squints as Carl freeze-frames the monsters. Carl darts his legs up and down. Sara flashes around in quick circles. I’m squeezing my mouth shut, spreading my arms out in front of me as if I’m overboard at sea and trying to find my way back to the boat.

Because this is Thriller…Thriller night…And no-one’s going to get you when the beast’s about to strike…

“Keep it down you bunch of ’nanas,” Jeanie says as she wipes her shiny conker face with her apron. She runs her fingers over the books in a straight, unbroken line until her fingers fall off. “You lot been going through this again?” she says, nodding to the Joy of Sex which is inching away from the other books. Itching to break free.

“No Mum – been down the beach.”

Jeanie tuts and pushes the Joy of Sex up against the wall. “And make sure you put your beach stuff in the garage – don’t just leave it in the kitchen. It’ll melt.”

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Greg’s coming down the stairs. Time for his cup of tea. He’s rubbing his eyes, fiddling around with the cord on his tartan dressing gown. He stumbles into the living room. “Hello ghouls,” he says, just as we’re crossing our arms over our knees.

“Dad!” says Sara.

Because this is Thriller…Thriller night…

The front door bell chirps and Greg opens it. A canary flies in, a breathless bird. The bird twirls her damp, long, loose, blonde hair in her hand and shakes her wings free of rain.

Sara, Carl and I take our hands from our knees as she swoops towards us. Carl turns the sound down. Sara and I open our mouths but before we can say anything she speaks.

“I’ve been trying to call you lot all day. Someone’s been on the phone for ages…”

Greg tightens the cord on his dressing gown as Jeanie releases the knot of her apron.

“I knew it…I knew it…Greg.”

“But I’ve been so lonely – working nights Jean – love, working nights, love, so lonely, love. So lonely, love…working nights, Jeanie…love…”

She moves towards him, squints her eyes together very, very tightly and makes that great big O-shape with her mouth and so does he. Just as I think I’m about to puke – just as I think we’re all about to puke – she goes into the kitchen and comes out with the li-lo squeezed tightly between her hands. She releases the bright red rubber popper and brings it up to his wide, open mouth and pumps hot air slowly into it.

Nicolette Loizou has had work published in the Guardian, the Independent, the Sunday Telegraph, Glamour and Smoke. She is a Thanet resident.

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