A Chapter Unwritten
“There’s loads going on in Thanet, you know, no excuse for sittting around doing nothing.”
The guy behind the bar seems friendly enough when I tell him I’ve recently moved to the area. To be honest, I’m just glad for a bit of conversation. As a ‘DFL’ [Down from london], I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I’d get, but everyone I’ve spoken to so far has been really welcoming. Actually, I’m not strictly a Londoner; I moved to Camden from Marseille ten years ago and my French accent hasn’t yet disappeared completely.
“What brings you to this neck of the woods anyway?”
I explain that I can now work from home for three days a week and that I’ve grown tired of the endless rat-race of living and working in London. Metro, boulot, dodo we call it in French: Underground, work, sleep. I’ve decided to exchange it for dodo, soleil, bières, even though that doesn’t have the same ring about it somehow.
“What kind of things you into?” he enquires. “Sport, music, making stuff out of wood? I’ve heard there’s a group called Men in Sheds for senior gents like yourself to get to meet other blokes.”
I smile at his description of me, not feeling at all ‘senior’ and wondering if my recent divorce has aged me beyond my forty-five years.
“Actually I’m hoping to write my first novel now I’m no longer having to work full time.”
The guy behind the bar smiles. “A novel eh? It’s as much as I can do to write a shopping list these days. You need to join one of them writing groups then. I’ve seen them advertised in the magazine they put round the town each month with a list of things to do in the area. Thanet Writers I think it’s called.”
“Oh right,” I reply, mulling over the idea. “I might just do that.”
I smile inwardly at having mentioned about writing a novel. It’s as if the more people I tell, the more likely it is to happen. I’ve probably spent more time reading up on advice on how to get started than it will actually take me to write it. I’ve even bought the latest edition of the Writers and Artists year-book for the last three years. Well you have to give me ten out of ten for optimism. Perhaps a short story would be more within my reach, although apparently, according to all the advice I’ve read, this is a very tricky genre. The band that has been setting up for the last hour starts playing and the pub has suddenly become very crowded. I decide to head off home to the flat I’m renting on the Eastern Esplanade.
I enjoy the feeling of warmth on my skin as I walk along the traffic-free promenade, breathing in the clean air and reminding myself that this was another reason to get out of London. It’s that strange time of the evening when it’s neither night or day and there’s a mixture of people coming off the beach and others all dressed up for an evening out with friends. I take in the smell of the sea and the raucous sounds of children coming out of the amusement arcade, beside themselves with excitement as they look at their hundreds of winning tickets.
My thoughts drift back to twenty-five years ago, when I came to Broadstairs, aged twenty, to improve my English by enrolling at a language school at the top of the High Street. The boss of the recruitment company I was working for in Marseille had suggested it might be a good idea, after it was becoming more and more important to have a good command of English when dealing with our client base. I smile as I remember going to the amusement arcade with Beatriz, a Spanish girl I met whilst studying at the school. We had both struggled with pronunciation and formed an instant bond as a result, trying not to laugh when the teacher made us repeat a word ten times until we got the accent right. Beatriz had spent at least five pounds to win a teddy bear worth no more than fifty pence and I remember her laughing and playfully digging me in the ribs when I pointed this out, trying to convince me that it wasn’t about the money, it was about the fun we’d had in the process.
I glance down at the sea and the foreign students sitting around their makeshift barbecues, loving every minute of being away from home, the girls squeeling with delight at being chased by the boys trying to steal a bite of their hot-dog. One of them screams ‘leave me alone’ in Spanish and the memories come flooding back of the last evening Beatriz and I spent together. She’d mentioned she’d recently split with her boyfriend of two years and I, too, had only just come out of a long term relationship. I remember the empathy she’d shown when I told her about the split and I realised then that people don’t just hear compassion in the person they’re talking to, they see it in their face and their eyes. We’d been hanging out together every evening for two weeks, happy for some company in the absence of anyone else to eat and socialise with in the evenings. There were only four of us in the class and the other two preferred to stay at home with their host families and study, which was fair enough as they had exams to do once they got home to Italy and Germany.
That summer had been one of the warmest on record. I’d read somewhere that the sun boosts Vitamin D levels, which in turn increases testosterone levels, which then leads to ‘an enhanced libido’. Or maybe it was the well- known holiday romance thing or the rebound effect of us both being out of a recent relationship. Either way one thing led to another as we lay together on the beach, late that final night. The night-time heat, the rippling sound of the waves fast approaching as the tide came in, the smell of coconut suntan oil on her skin……I can remember it all as if it were yesterday.
We kept in touch for a short while after that final night, but our phone-calls soon become less frequent, both of us realising that a long-term relationship just wasn’t going to work. I have often thought about her since, wondering if she’s settled down now and if she ever thinks about what happened on the beach that night.
I arrive back at my flat and slump into the armchair, feeling strangely unsettled. I flick aimlessly through the TV channels and then, finding nothing of interest, pick up the ‘What’s on in Broadstairs’ magazine that someone has left in the lobby earlier. The advert for Thanet Writers catches my eye and I think about my plans to write a novel. Now that my work schedule is going to be far less demanding there’d be no reason, in theory at least, not to give it another go. Apart from the fact I don’t even have an idea for the plot, not really. I’ve read you should base it on something you know. My mind drifts and flashbacks of my life so far come and go, like they say they do in near death experiences. I think of my friends, my family, casual acquaintances, and wonder if any of them could form some kind of starting-point for my novel.
The following Thursday I arrive at the meeting, not quite sure what to expect but pleased with myself that I’ve made a small step towards my ambition to be a writer. I introduce myself and shuffle awkwardly into my seat. The lady opposite me, Nancy, whom I presume is the person I’d spoken to on the phone earlier in the week, smiles at me and I feel my initial nervousness disappear.
“How are you?”
“Fine, thanks,” I reply, thinking how those words are more of a greeting than a question and how anybody replying with anything other than something monosyllabic risks boring their listener.
“Welcome to our group. I understand from your phone-call you’re a newbie to Broadstairs. So what brings you here?”
I explain my recent move and my reasons for choosing Broadstairs. I leave out the bit about the fast train link to London and instead tell them about my fond memories of the area from when I came to study English all those years ago. The rest of the group nods encouragingly.
“Well we’re delighted to have you as part of our group. Perhaps you’d just like to observe us all this week, but feel free to join in if you’d like.”
I relax, pleased I don’t have to contribute for the time being.
“So last week we welcomed another new member, Josefina, to our group. Well you’ve come back, so I guess we can’t have been that scary.”
The rest of the group laughs.
Josefina looks nervous. I smile, hoping that she might consider me a future ally amongst the more experienced and long-term members of the group.
“We’re all really looking forward to you reading us your short story.”
I try to stop myself staring at her when she flicks her hair then arranges it behind her ear. She prepares to read her story out loud.
“Sorry everyone, I’m really nervous.” She fiddles with her hair again.
Nancy helps her out. “Perhaps you could tell us a bit about what inspired your story, how you came to write it, what gave you the idea.”
Josefina relaxes. “Well twenty-five years ago, my mother Beatriz came to Broadstairs and enrolled on an English course. She met a French guy from Marseille who was here for the same reason and they had a brief, but intense relationship. I thought I’d base my short story on that.”
© 2020 Anne McVay
Anne is a retired teacher who moved to Thanet to enjoy a taste of the good life, including the wonderful beaches and vibrant music scene.