Standing at the cliff-edge of Margate’s derelict lido complex, I survey the ships copied and pasted across our horizon. The fleet is anonymous, except for one vessel, which has been moored in our waterways as long as I’ve been looking. She is large and pillar box red, with “K.E.S.S.” splashed in white, giga-font letters on her sides. Her lengthy presence is acknowledged and shrugged off by many folks in town, but I’ve come to know her. I know her tonnage and age, her flag and how fast she can move. Her name is KESS.
On this early morning though, my stalwart friend is in motion. East toward the continent she’s making way and before I know it my feet are slapping along the concrete promenade, desperate to keep us level. She does eighteen knots and my stomach does too until it becomes clear that she is not going to stop. Reaching Walpole Bay, I slow down, accepting my lost constant, and head out to sea as far as I can follow. From the wall of the tidal pool, I will salute her departure.
She’s small now, on the horizon, and I stretch my hand over the sea and sky, trying to hold her still between my thumb and forefinger. As I squint to fix my grip, the distance between us collapses and she jolts, moving with my fingertips. No longer buoyed between blues, she is just a toy in my hand. I have snatched a cargo ship clean off the water!
Startled, I fumble and drop her. She bounces off my shoe into the shallower, boxed waters of the tidal pool where, in miniature still, she floats. After gawping back at the now-featureless skyline, I fix my stare on her, ebbing towards the slimy ledge below me. Bending to retrieve her, I scan the surrounding beaches. It is early, and a dismal day, so no one else is here to see what has happened, what accidental power I’ve exerted. Somehow, from our skyline, I’ve just lifted twenty-four tonnes.
I fish her from the waves and straighten up. Passing her between my palms, I find her tinny and light, before compulsively clasping my damp fist around her and pushing her down into a pocket. Flattened algae bubbles around my feet as I scuttle back along the walls of the pool, back to the beach. Marching along the promenade, late for work, I’m excited like a child sneaking home with dug-up treasure. Ah, KESS. You will be as constant as I like.
At home that evening, I lock myself away and set a bath running. Retrieving little KESS from my trouser pocket, I sit on the closed toilet, cup her in my hands, and properly look at my plundered plaything for the first time. She is quite regal, like a fine vintage toy, only four inches long and with brightly coated metal. I think of her crew, now tiny painted faces trapped inside portholes. They are smiling on the bridge at least. I sink into the full tub and pull her beneath the surface in my hand. Let go, launched from ceramic depths, she bobs up, rights herself and floats, silent. I chip away tiny barnacles from her keel and buff her curves, restoring some toyshop charm. I name each sequestered seaman and lark and splash around with her until the water cools.
From then on, she’s with me always, in pockets and bags, finding that carrying her cargo brings balance to my life. I feel for her through my clothes in moments of worry, grateful for her presence, remembering my mastery over a thing far bigger than myself. We share secrets and smiles. I show her the sea from its edge and she teaches me to sail through it.
One evening, two wet-suited men smile at me as I walk along the sea wall by the RNLI, before one looks past me and remarks to the other, “Oh, hey, the big red one’s finally gone”. Very much ignoring what is in my pocket at this moment, I too look out to where she once rested as if to notice the gap for the first time.
Meanwhile, my miniature friend’s body has been creaking, too softly for me to hear. Rubbery seals between the panels of her bulk are weakening, rivets are pulling free and, when her screeches reach me, I decide she must be drying out. I begin to douse her throughout the day, under taps in bathrooms at work, at home, around town. Her dampness warps my wooden furniture and lightly moulds my clothes, but she is calmer, quieter.
We start to swim together. After one quick dip with her tucked into my costume, I sit in the sandy shadows of Arlington House, drying rivulets from her stern only to find that her paint is peeling. She’s dulled, deteriorating. Soon her portholes have flared red edges, and we’re close to losing lettering. “KFSS”. I stop swimming in the hopes of pausing this wreckage. Instead, we bathe gently, and she’s withdrawn when I daub dry her flaking skin.
It’s when the rust sets in, staining my clothes and fingers a bloody russet, that my mind turns to returning her. Sitting on the melty roofs of the harbour arm, I hold her farthest from me, with an outstretched arm, wincing, winking, bobbing her up and down, willing her to cling to the sea. Please, it’s where you belong. Her propellor grinds, no.
One day, I leave the house alone to sit on the steps that meet the sea in the harbour, I contemplate leaving her at an arcade – dropped afloat on a plush sea, ready for someone else’s claw – or adding her to a display in Margate Museum. Either way, I could, and would, return for her.
That night, she sleeps rolled in my beach towel and before dawn, I smuggle her back to Walpole Bay. In the pool, I float for a while with her tucked in, until her anchor jabs me in the side as if to say it’s OK, she understands and agrees. I hold my palm against her for a moment, pressing her to me, before clambering over the pool wall. My belly scrapes the barnacles to reach the open water, and I swim strokes and strokes to reach the site of my theft, then turn to look towards the old lido. The sunrise ripples around me and in its light, I reach for her. Patting myself down, I am suddenly unable to feel her against me. I pull my costume away from my body, hoping she will dart to the surface, but only her rudder and bridge emerge, from which small, corroding faces laugh at me until I too am winched from the water.
© 2020 C. M.
C. M. lives, works and writes in Margate.