He stepped off the train at Margate station and inhaled. There it was, that clean sharp sea salt brine in the air, just like years ago. Nothing had changed.
“I expect you’ll see lots of changes.” His mum hoisted his suitcase into the back of the car. “The town’s nothing like it was.”
“That’s what I keep on hearing,” he said. He looked out of the window at the rolling grey sea, the dark and light line of the horizon following them as they drove up the road away from the station. Gulls were everywhere, filling up the sky and cluttering up the beach, dirty white, wailing like women.
His work phone buzzed. He glanced at it, but it was only Holly. She knew better than to call him on that phone, so he turned it onto silent. Maybe he’d text her later.
They carried on past the traffic lights, and he saw the gleam of new mint-green paint, the dull carapace of scaffolding, the shining new A-board outside a seedy bar turned bistro, a graffiti wall that looked more like an art installation than the hooliganism it would have been fifteen years ago.
“Jesus,” he said, and sank back into his seat. They were passing the park, and he looked at it quickly, the heavy black gates rising up into the shadows of the trees. He caught a glance of light flickering on the path, a sudden flurry of leaves in the wind; and some bird exploded shrieking into the sky. He looked back and saw it was a magpie.
“One for sorrow,” his mum said solemnly.
He made himself laugh. “Yeah, right.”
His old room was the same. He sat on the bed, bouncing slightly on the mattress, listening to his mum chattering away while she unpacked his suitcase.
“And I said to Sandra, I can’t do flapjacks and a cake, my son is coming home so I can’t be running around with a bake sale all weekend, but she understood, but I think she was just a little bit jealous because her son is still at the fish and chip shop, and I don’t like to brag that my son works in the city, but I can’t help brag just a little bit…”
He stared out of the window. The old oak tree was still there. He used to use it to sneak out of his room when he was a teenager. What a quaint memory that was, so Enid Blyton, so Boy’s Own. Shinning down an old tree to sneak out and drink beer in the park with Mike, dicking about at one in the morning when they both had exams the next day. Well, look at him now. It wasn’t like all that antisocial behaviour had mattered, in the end.
“… and the Lawsons, they’re thinking of moving away too. I can see why, I suppose, but we used to have such a sense of community here, it’s not like that anymore – ”
“The Lawsons?” he interrupted.
“Yes, you know, Jenny and Dan. Their daughter was at school with you.”
“Yeah,” he said, and looked out of the window again. Another magpie had appeared on the branch closest to the glass, staring at him with an uncanny black eye. He shifted on the bed. The mattress felt thinner and bonier than it had been. He kept sliding into a hollow he didn’t remember, a spring digging sharply into his thigh.
“I can never remember what her name was, she was such a quiet girl. She sort of blended into the background, didn’t she? That sounds wrong, but you know what I mean. Anyway, she’s gone too, she left a long time ago. I think she’s doing some sort of charity work – Oasis, something like that? Very worthwhile, of course.”
What had her name been? Sarah. Lucy. Something like that. Something ordinary and a bit boring. And she had been boring too; always so quiet and looking at people with huge wounded eyes, like they’d personally hurt her. And she could never take a joke.
Amy, maybe. Lizzie.
The magpie cackled. When he glanced up again, the tree seemed taller, somehow, closer. He stood up and went to the window. The magpie chattered, bobbing up and down; and from somewhere overhead, a gull cried.
“That old tree’s still there,” his mum said, coming to stand by his side. “We’ve had to fight the council for it, they’ve been taking down trees all over the place.” She squeezed his arm and smiled up at him.
He turned away, bumping his shoulder into her. He went downstairs and sat on the sofa, reached for the remote.
He met up with Mike later, walking through the fires of a red and yellow sunset to their old regular near the park. There were more gulls about, wheeling above him, and crying. He felt cold, and even inside the pub his hands felt chilled and clumsy.
“You alright, mate?” Mike eyed him with an odd expression.
“Yeah, yeah.” He made himself laugh. “It’s weird being back.”
“Yeah. It’s weird to see you.”
That wasn’t what he’d expected to hear. “Thanks, man.”
Mike stared at him for a long time, then shrugged and looked into his pint.
“What do you mean?” he prodded, a feeling of hurt stirring within him. “Didn’t you think I’d visit?”
“No, not really. I mean…” Mike raised his eyebrows.
“You mean what?”
“Just I didn’t expect you to come back here, that’s all.”
“But why, though? We had good times, didn’t we? We were best mates. I know it’s been a while, but – well, I thought it’d be nice to see you, that’s all.”
“Yeah. I guess you did.”
He stared at him, confusion rising. “I don’t know what you’re on about.”
“Look, man … ” Mike pushed his pint across the table. “I came here for old time’s sake, that’s all. I thought you might have, I don’t know, contrition or some naïve shit like that, but clearly you don’t, nothing’s changed, so fuck you, that’s all.” Mike stood up and grabbed his coat. “Have a nice life in the city.”
He stared after him in bewilderment. Then his hurt changed to anger. He downed Mike’s drink and stormed out after him. Mike was already at the end of the road, about to turn left.
“Mike!” he yelled.
The gulls were screaming, bobbing and wailing on the dying sky, and as he ran after Mike, a flock of sparrows burst from a front garden and scattered through the growing dark like leaves on the wind.
Mike was even further ahead now, and by the time he saw him pass through the black park gates, he was sweating and out of breath, his heart hammering like he was going to throw up. He doubled over, his hands on his knees, staring up at the park entrance. His vision doubled, and the path seemed to swirl under his feet. But then it cleared and he saw a figure just ahead of him.
He charged into the park, still wheezing. Mike had turned left, heading near the clump of trees where they used to make mischief.
“Mike!” he yelled, almost stumbling on the path. The trees loomed around him, dark blue and green cut-outs in the darkness. The grass was black beneath him.
Mike swung around, and he staggered to a halt. He couldn’t read Mike’s expression in the shadows.
“You just don’t care,” Mike said.
“No, I – ” He tried to laugh but was too out of breath.
“You made me watch.”
“Oh come on, man. No one made you watch, no one makes anyone do anything … ”
“So you didn’t make her come here.”
“You tricked her. You told her it was a party.”
“It was a party, kind of.”
“It was you and me and her and too many bottles of beer.”
That shocked him so much he could only stare, mouth hanging open. “No,” he stammered. “She – we didn’t – it was a joke.”
“We’re the joke. Well, I am at least. I don’t think anything could redeem you.”
“Oh no, mate, you are no better than me. You were just as into it, and if you think you can somehow make yourself better by pretending some kind of guilt, you’re wrong.”
Mike stepped back onto the tarmac path.
He looked down at his shoes. They were deep in the mud, and sinking even deeper. He tried to lift his foot but the mud sucked him down.
“What,” he began to say, and the grass grew and lashed itself around his ankles, twisting and writhing around his legs to his knees.
The gulls wailed above, high in the burning clouds.
The tree nearest to him creaked and gave a long painful groan. One of its branches whipped out and cut him across the face. He hand flew to his cheek, and the branch curled around his wrist and yanked it tight, tearing his arm from its shoulder socket.
The grass grew rough with nettles and thorns that crawled inside his clothes and rasped against his skin and forced their way inside his body. His mouth hung open, and the air was heavy with the sweet smell of sap and fresh earth; and maybe a long away tingle of salt and hops.
Mike watched as his friend’s body was driven against the earth. He saw his eyeballs dry and his tongue contort as his face was forced into the dirt. He saw his fingernails break as he clawed against the branches and grasses that held him down. But Mike turned away when he heard the birds coming. He kept his head down, and walked close to the path, and let the darkness swallow him up.
© 2020 Alice Olivia Scarlett
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.