As she signalled to turn towards Birchington at the St Nicholas roundabout, she was surprised to see a faint glow lighting up the sky. Images from the Sci-Fi film she had just seen on the long flight over flooded her head until the greenhouses came into view and put paid to the dread of an impending apocalypse. She shook her head and told herself she needed to sleep. Things wouldn’t be that bad. Things would be OK.
“See you’re booked in for two nights. I hope you enjoy your stay. Have you got anything nice planned?” The receptionist gave her the key to her room and indicated the lift.
“Oh, just catching up with my past I guess,” she smiled and took the key.
“Not been here before? I detect a bit of an accent there.”
“I was born here. Lived here when I was a child. I’ve always loved the place. I’ve already seen quite a few changes. But then I wouldn’t expect not to.”
“Well, I hope they’re all for the better. Have a good night.” And he turned to the next traveller that approached the desk.
Her room was the usual motel type set up; just what she needed. A hot shower, a clean bed and a good night’s sleep after such a long journey. All the way over her mind had been racing about coming back. But as soon as she had seen the statue of the lifeboatman looking out to sea, her thoughts returned to being a teenager again.
The summer of 1966. She was fifteen and life was exciting. The weather hadn’t been all that great but music from The Lovin’ Spoonful and the Mamas and Papas helped her imagine she was living in California and that she was part of a youth movement that was changing the world. All week she travelled from Birchington on two buses to go to school in Ramsgate where she was crammed for O levels and she spent each evening churning through her homework. On Saturdays, she worked at Woolworths happily weighing out the pick and mix to earn the money to go to a dance at Dreamland Ballroom or trail around the amusement park with her friends. All the time, looking forward to the summer break.
Because Margate in the summer was an exciting place; a hive of tourists. Girls from Northern factories walking around the town with their hair in curlers so that it would look good in the evening. Mods and rockers roaming the streets half hoping to recreate that 1964 Bank Holiday fight on the sand but knowing they didn’t quite have the numbers. The music from the amusement arcades could be heard even from the beach, but was outdone now and then when the occasional announcement about a lost child played out over the tannoy from the St John’s Ambulance hut. The beach was packed with holidaymakers on red and white striped deckchairs, enjoying the feel of the soft sand through their toes and the sea was alive with bathers splashing and squealing and revelling in the salt water. The smell of candy floss, beer, ice cream and chips pervaded the promenade. Coaches would arrive every Saturday with a fresh load of holidaymakers and boarding houses would display “No Vacancies” in their windows. Seven solid weeks where the local people could earn a decent wage, where cafes would have no seating left. Seven weeks when she and her friends felt that there was magic in the air. It was the seven weeks of the school holiday in 1966 that she left that magic behind for good.
She met him at the Rendezvous at Dreamland on the first Sunday evening after she had broken up from school. She was with her friends, Wendy and Linda. All three of them dancing away to Sam and Dave until the music changed to a slow Dusty Springfield and she felt a hand on her shoulder. He was just a little taller than her; he was good looking and he smelt really nice.
They danced, then sat and had a coke, then danced some more. He was from Essex and down for a week with his family, but he didn’t want to spend all week with them. He walked her to the bus stop and kissed her goodnight. He asked if he could see her the next day? Could they meet? She could show him around.
And so it started. Each day was warm and sunny. The yellow open topped bus took them around the coast, giving him a glimpse of the different beaches. He loved the quaint streets of Broadstairs and the jetty with the old ship’s figurehead outside the boating shed. The boats in Ramsgate harbour intrigued him. So many flags and masts bobbing around in the breeze. They walked through Pegwell village and watched the Hovercraft skitter out across the apron on its way to France. They went to see the Viking ship and then walked miles towards Minster, never feeling tired, exploring the country lanes, looking at St Augustine’s Cross and the old Abbey. But it was on the day that they spent at Botany Bay, when he kissed her in the sea, she felt that she was falling in love. She always fell in love far too quickly. The week flew by so fast. By Friday she was no longer a virgin.
He left the next day. Neither of them had a phone so he promised to write. But, of course he didn’t. And she didn’t know where he lived so she could never tell him she was pregnant. She didn’t tell anybody and went back to school hoping that things would be ok; that she was just late. By half term, her sickness in the morning and the small bulge under her school skirt made her mother suspicious. By Christmas, the headteacher informed her parents that she would have to leave.
Her son was born on May 1st. They didn’t let her see him; they didn’t let her hold him. It had been arranged that the baby was to be adopted and that she and her family were to move to Australia where no one need know about the shame she had brought on them. Mid May found her being sick again. This time on a ship as it rounded the Bay of Biscay.
They settled in Perth, Western Australia and things weren’t too bad. They were known affectionately as ‘five-pound poms’ and soon made new friends and settled down. Eventually, she married and started a family of her own. The doctor was the only person who knew she had given birth before. She lived with her husband thirty-seven years before he died, never knowing that his own two children had a half-brother on the other side of the world. But every May day she went off quietly by herself and wept.
It was early in 2019 that she got the letter. The adoption society had tracked her down on behalf of her son. It meant the chance of a relationship, the chance to say sorry, the chance to be with him for the first time. A whirlwind of letters, phone calls in the middle of the night, the excitement of booking a ticket, for last minute hugs and kisses for her grandchildren. They saw her off at the airport, seeing her safely onto the plane to return to England after so long. But still her children did not know the real reason why she was going.
And now, even after being deprived of sleep for over twenty-four hours, she lay awake imagining how it would be, what she would say, how she would cope, until exhaustion took over and she finally fell asleep.
He had suggested that they should meet at one of the cafes in the arches along the Ramsgate harbourfront at four in the afternoon. He had said that he liked to look at the boats moored there and it had a great atmosphere. It was no real surprise that she woke late to the sound of the chambermaid knocking at her door, but she had time to have a look around before she left to meet him. She quickly showered and readied herself for the day, left the car in the carpark and walked down towards the town.
The sundeck had gone and there was no pier stretching out to the horizon. Instead the Turner gallery stood glistening white in the spring sunshine. She had wanted to visit this as soon as she had read about it and made her way along the front, noticing how there were less arcades or shops selling souvenirs or food and that hoardings hid an empty space. The Bali Hi had gone and so had the pub on the corner that she’d passed every day on her way to school. Naturally, the shops had all changed, no more Bobby’s, no Chelsea Girl not even a Marks and Spencer or Woolworths and there were a lot of empty shops in the High Street that used to be crammed with people. She was delighted though with all the little cafes and art shops in the old town and the buzz of people in that area. The Turner gave her even more pleasure, but it was the massive window looking out to sea that took her breathe away. And the figure emerging from the sea by Anthony Gormley, mirroring that other, ancient statue at the other end of the town that made her like the new Margate as much as she had loved the old one.
She had brunch in one of the little cafes in the marketplace and then returned to the hotel to get her car. She decided to take the route of the 52 bus that she used to catch every day to school to get to Ramsgate. And again, instead of finding Pearce Signs and the Bowkett’s Bakery on the way, she encountered the shopping centre that might have helped shut the shops in the town. Coming from a country where there were no little shops, just shopping malls, this place held no attraction for her and she was grateful to leave it behind and head for the oldness that Ramsgate offered.
It didn’t take her very long to find the Arch café. She sat and ordered a coffee and enjoyed watching the activity on the boats, the people walking by and the seagulls swooping at any food they carried. She loved doing that in Fremantle as well. Those birds got up to the usual tricks the world over, she thought, limping around for sympathy, holding one leg up and squawking, before they went in for the kill. She’d once seen a seagull actually lift a child’s ice cream out of his hand. It was as she was watching she saw a young girl walking by, laughing at the bird too. For a moment she thought she was looking at her fifteen-year-old self. The likeness was uncanny. The way she held her head, the smile, the hair. A terrible sadness came over her. Where had all those years gone? Her own blonde hair was streaked with silver and her shoulders stooped a little now? Almost seventy but she still felt a teenager inside her head.
“Excuse me? You are Trina aren’t you?” She looked up into the eyes of a middle-aged man who was holding out his hand, “I’m Richard.”
Her mouth fell open and she stuffed her fist into it to stop herself from crying out.
“You seemed miles away. I hope I haven’t shocked you.”
She stood up and gazed at him. Slowly, she put her hands either side of his face. The face that resembled that boy from Essex in so many ways. Her eyes searched it, taking in how handsome he was, how lovely his voice sounded, how beautiful he smelt.
“They never let me see you, “she whispered, “They never let me hold you.”
“Well,” he put both arms out to her, “You’ve seen me now. So why don’t you hold me?” and he pulled her into his arms.
The girl she had seen before was her granddaughter. She might have known. She was fifteen and full of dreams for the future and questions about Australia. She thought about her family back in Perth. She thought about how much she loved them. And after spending just two hours with her son, she thought about how lucky she was to have found him again, and how much she liked him. She knew she would love him and his daughter before too long. She fell in love very easily.
© 2020 Barbara Dobson
Barbara Dobson is a retired art teacher who studied creative writing at Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia.