In real life, as opposed to fictional drama, the more unusual an incident is, the more easily it is pushed aside from experience if it bears no viable connection to reality. An interesting fact: People of a non-psychotic nature who kill unexpectedly are often able to slip into a psyche of denial, continuing daily routine, bypassing the expected rituals of guilt or fear. It is not the callousness of ego that supports them, but the overwhelming pull of the straight track; the wheels and rods that have thus far confined them to the action of their day-to-day performance are not easily defied.
The world is filled with the imperceptible; with colours and sounds and movements beyond human scope. These invisible things are layered over the obvious, camouflaged by the appreciable. That they are not imagined, not wanted, makes them no less real, nor diminishes their power. It does, however, make them easy to ignore, to forget, and to deny. We are marionettes, set on the straight track, and the wheels and rods are always behind our eyes…
Although for the most part a template for middle class suburbia, my family differed in holidays. Much as they kept up with the Joneses in other departments – fashion, home improvement and the like – mum and dad never deviated from two August weeks of British beach. Package tours were taking off in the seventies, but we stuck to home soil. No elaborate sombreros decorated our front room, nor did we ever return from our English seaside sojourn with a particularly impressive tan. Kids being twice as competitive as their elders, I was mildly bullied for it, but I didn’t miss what I didn’t know, and the south of France sounded no more inviting than south bay.
It was the same place every year. Nestled into the crevice of the eastern coast, population twenty-odd thousand, the town of Lockton could best be described as ‘middling.’ Usual history of fishing and Vikings, a few minor celebrities, mention in the Magna Carter…I visited their heritage museum more times I care to remember, and I can tell you for a fact that their most prized exhibit is a monastery bell. That says more about the place than I ever could.
Still, it had a wide stretch of beach, a litter of tourist shops selling inflatable tat and enough candy floss to drown in. So it wasn’t suave, but it delivered. It catered to it’s clientele.
My parents had been holidaying in Lockton before I’d drawn breath. By the time I was four, I could anticipate our journey long before a mention of it. The days, and my father’s patience, would begin to stretch beyond their usual limits. Clothes from the back of the wardrobe would be dusted down and meticulously ironed. My hair would be cut and what withered fruit remained in the bowl would not be replaced. Most vitally, any pets we had would disappear, palmed off onto some kind soul to look after.
This final ritual developed when I had a pet of my own. At age six, I begged Marie Saunders to foster Lucy, my hamster, for the fortnight. She had one of her own, so I assumed her household would be the safest. It turned out though that Marie had thought Lucy was lonely, and had caged her up with Marlon for the duration. Now here’s an interesting fact; the gestation period for the Syrian hamster is a mere sixteen days. As I’d given over Lucy some four days before we left, I was greeted with the inevitable results of her pairing on my return home.
I got up early the next morning with the express purpose of naming the litter with a view to selling them on at school, but they had gone. There was just Lucy, fat and doleful, huddled in the corner. In my naiveté, I’d thought they’d somehow escaped in the night. In a way, I suppose they had.
(My mother suggested the young had been overly handled, causing Lucy to panic, but I was never satisfied with that explanation. Years later, a geography teacher mentioned certain tribes using cannibalism as a reflection of unity. A loved relation would return to their brethren by the act of consummation. Eat of my flesh, drink of my blood. I felt settled with that idea. Mother would often say to Sarah – her only daughter – ‘oh, I could eat you all up,’ or ‘you look good enough to eat,’ and I wondered if she meant it more than she knew. I wondered if, at the heart of us all, there is that innate desire to consume that which we most love; to place it within ourselves, to digest and process and take the best of it and add it to us, the protein of our body comprised of all those we cherished.)
Our journey to the coast was around about three hours, give-or-take; a usually boisterous event involving lengthy songs of green bottle and an endless supply of mints that would embed their scent onto the taste buds for hours to come. Sometimes we’d run parallel with a train, briefly racing – and losing to – a succession of smooth-running carriages. If we drew close enough, I would pick out bored faces pressed close to grimy windows, victims trapped in the belly of a great steel python.
The final part of our trip would be blanketed with terse silence as we strained to be the first to spot the ocean and give a triumphant cry of I see the sea! A game later spoiled by the unashamed cheating of competitive siblings who would issue the line at the cue of a gull or the smell of brine.
Lockton’s beach was plentiful enough that the ends lost sight of one another, dissolving into an eternal sea-mist like a pessimistic watercolour. Essentially a giant concave, it was framed by a concrete esplanade topped with jet black railings and intermittent benches, giving way at intervals to worn, sandy steps. At one end of the U-shaped coastline were the huts, a delightful mixture of the colourful, the pristine and the unkempt, perfect reflections of their individual owners.
Across the other side was the pier, and it wasn’t uncommon to see older lads using an ancient telescope which stood on the end of it to scour the beach for girls in skimpy bikinis, and the huts in case of changing bathers leaving their door ajar. It was an interesting exercise, given that the telescope required twenty pence for one minute of use, leading to frantic battles for dominance of the eyepiece.
A meanly narrow municipal park and series of modest shops and restaurants hugged the esplanade, giving way to Lockton’s main road on the other side. Past this was an infinite row of B&B’s, guest houses and hotels in pastel colours. Like plants jostling for sunlight, they vied for business with a jamboree of signs and adornments and impossibly generous flower baskets.
Of all these, one building stood dominant across the skyline, towering over its neighbours, over the beach, and seemingly over the very horizon of the sea.
Long and short stay.
With evening meals
and tea room
We’d always gone there. My earliest memory is of staring for hours – possibly from a cot – at that feverish wallpaper while listening to the gentle breath of tide. It was home from home.
Constructed during the prime of Victoria’s reign, when costal excursions were becoming the fad, The Oaks presented itself as charmlessly grandiose, with an excessive frontage that dominated it’s neighbours in both width and height. It called itself a guest house rather than use the moniker of hotel as many – probably more expensive – structures along the front did, and carried a shabby guest house air about it, unashamedly flaunting it’s cracked and garish surface, buoyed by it’s reputation, always looking to the past.
The design was typically classic. A short set of steps led up from the pavement to the front door, while at street level a low wall overlooked a dip, from which a row of sunken windows were barely visible. ‘Where the servants lived.’ Dad would remark. ‘Sunlight’s too good for ‘em!’
The first floor itself was almost entirely glass. It extended from the edifice like a pot belly, spilling out onto the street so that one couldn’t help but share an intimate view of what they called their ‘tea room.’ The floors above contained modestly sized abodes, with tall, angular windows and elaborate stonework that depicted the signature of master masons. On some of the huge bricks there would be a three dimensional carving of a snake, detailed to the scales. Said snake would be wrapped around itself, always in a different position, but always eating it’s own tail.
‘That’s what you call self-service!’ Dad again.
Despite the generous proportions of space given to sunlight, the greater interior of The Oaks was a perpetual twilight of soggy colours and dim bulbs glowing gold, devoting their illumination to queues of guilt-edged pictures and dusty rubber plants and little else. Walls angled the light away, or amended themselves to shield the glass altogether, like the stairways that twisted around and over, obscuring the panes to the extent that you wouldn’t even know of the foliage sat in heavy porcelain pots on each mid-landing until you had kicked one.
Thick carpets in what could once have been regal mauve absorbed footfalls as much as vile paisley and pink wallpaper absorbed the feeble wattage. The journey from front door to bedroom was therefore clothed in the shadows and silence of that house at all times of day.
Our room was better, especially in the years we had a sea view. There was no escaping the generous, violent sunshine of a morning, bleaching our abode with such thoroughness that every blemish and ailment of it was laid bare; cracked tiles and worn surfaces and carpets turned up at the corner like stale sandwiches. And insects…we were never without insects. Bluebottle corpses constantly littered the windowsill. Beatles, upended and still, lay scattered in the alcoves between mismatched cupboards. Dead spiders nestled in failed webs, curled up like a skeleton’s fist. I was terrified of spiders back then, but I never saw a live one, not there.
I remember once, when we were staying at the back overlooking the alleys, and I had leaned far out on the window ledge as seven year old boys are dangerously and stupidly inclined to do, I caught sight of a man in a chef’s uniform coming from the kitchen. He was hurrying to the bins, clutching an armful of what looked like brown cloth, languid and swinging, and proceeded to pick at it, holding it by some string and throwing piece after piece into a perpetually open dustbin.
As I strained to catch a detail in that blur of motion, I fancied that the cloth was in fact a multitude of smaller things, and, rather than string, he held between a dirty thumb and forefinger the limp and straggly brown of a tail.
He stopped when he turned to leave and caught sight of me dangling precariously.
‘Be careful, monsieur!” He offered a rictus grin, dapping a grubby sleeve across his brow, and gave the swannee whistle of descent, ending in a raspberry splat. ‘Eh? Room for one more!’ He nodded at the open bin. ‘Always room for one more…”
We didn’t spend much time at The Oaks to begin with. For the first few years it was a place to rest, a place to breakfast, and then out onto the beach, or the shops, or the golf course, and whatever other amusements we could track down. In bad weather we would play one of the antiquated board games in the breakfast room, which was a lounge the rest of the time, with a small black-and-white television perched high over a barricade of uncomfortable dining chairs, where the female guests would congregate for Coronation Street of an evening.
This had been a ballroom once, according to my father. ‘Right up until sixty-eight. I learned to do the twist here!’
That made me think of the snakes on the façade, and of the undulating stairs, all twisting, wrapping around themselves, creating an infinite spiral, a track one could never leave once on. It also made me wonder in an abstract, childish fashion, exactly how long he and mother had been coming here, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to ask.
I came to spend more time in that games room in later years, idly constructing one of many jigsaw puzzles. Of the outings I mentioned, our growing family didn’t stop us, but it did limit us. The twins, Keith and Toby, were three months into the world on our ‘78 trip. Sarah in joined us in ‘80. Alex arrived in May of ‘83, and as the numbers grew, popping out to visit such-and-such became so much of a chore of preparation, cutting half the day short, that for the most part I was given some money and left to please myself.
In pleasant weather I wouldn’t stray far from the beach. It provided for my wants; the sand, my toys, the shushing sea…friends, too, if I cared to approach anyone who appeared similar enough to me. My greatest and most constant companion on the beach was the woman in Sheila’s Snack Shack, a large cabin on the sands. She was thin and comfortably lined, with bobbing curls that didn’t always mask grey roots, and she came to recognise me year on year, and we would pass a little polite conversation, and I would listen to her chat to customers while I played, her voice as constant as the gulls and the waves.
I was always conscious of The Oaks. It loomed behind me, catching my eye if I turned, the prominence of it’s grandeur in silhouette after midday, those black snakes seeping out at the sides. Occasionally I’d look and mum would be there, watching. She’d wave in big, sweeping gestures out of the bedroom window as if signalling for landing aircraft, not ceasing until I returned a wave of my own. I always felt such elation when she was there. Sometimes I’d imagine her eyes were on me – be certain they were – and I’d face the building with a hopeful smile only to meet the empty granite expressions of those weathered serpents.
At the waning of the day, it’s shadow would begin to creep across the way, crawling the short distance to the sands. Eventually it would touch me, and I would feel it’s presence with a chill. If I stayed a little longer, it would surpass me and reach for the receding ocean, destined to never quite catch it.
At some stage through the years, although the routine differed little, something changed in me, in my perception of it. I would not say I was fearful of the place, but certainly I cultivated a growing fidget, a barely perceptible restlessness while in the presence of that ancient and formidable building. Sometimes when I turned to face it, I would watch it for a good while, although I didn’t know what I should be watching for.