Skeggy in December

I didn’t really know about Skegness. Do you? I just thought of it as the place where the grim people in the Adrian Mole books go on holiday, in caravans. Like Blackpool but without a pleasure beach or a pier. Somewhere in England, where all the towns are crowded together tight and it’s hard to pick them apart from each other.

Skegness has lights, everywhere, and primary-coloured plastic signs which say FUN and GAMBLING, but using different words. Sometimes a word will do for both of these things, like AMUSEMENTS. I was staying in the Butlins with two friends, and the AMUSEMENTS we derived from out stay there were equally split between pleasure in each other’s company, bemusement at being in a Butlins and genuine enjoyment of the possibilities for old-fashioned relaxation and enjoyment. It is pointless and cruel to be ironic about Butlins. It is what it is: a joy factory, an extremely effective machine for wringing pound coins out of the pockets of parents and a place of healthy indulgence. Or not very healthy, if you eat the food. We self-catered, and took turns cooking. Cheap and simple accommodation is one thing: cheap and unpleasant food is inimical to enjoyment. In the main enclosure there was a hot dog stand that did not smell of hot dogs. It had lavish colour pictures and a simple but nicely printed menu, but the smell around it was the same whiff of all the buildings: chlorine and a whisper of mildew from the crevices of the big-top style roof. I mistrust a hot dog stand that does not smell of hot dogs, especially since, canonically, the best thing about hot dogs is the smell.

Skegness’s beach is bigger than the whole town. It is bigger than your eyes. You can look in any direction and out of the corner of each eye there is just more beach. It is so big, and so brown, and so empty, that I think they built a town full of lights and arcades and fish and chips and low brick buildings with small grubby windows just so there could be a sense of huddling together, to make up for the vastness of the beach. The sand is clean and a moderate English tan, with little brown baby scallop shells sprinkled along it, and a wind farm on an opposite bank, all turbines at slightly different angles so that some catch the wind and spin while others rest. On the December weekend I was there, there were other walkers on the promenade every half hour or so. One man had three pretty spaniels who sat and watched me intently as I approached, while he leaned against the railing and looked out to sea. There were two teenagers on bikes, and a little flock of oystercatchers. I wrote a haiku about the bigness and sparseness and sent it to a man who likes silence, I thought it might go

Waves sigh onto sand
Horizon divides blue from blue
On my mind, your eyes.

But I substituted the soppy last line and wrote instead.

Waves sigh onto sand
Horizon divides blue from blue
One seagull, and me.

I thought my demonstrated affinity for aloneness might bring us together.

The promenade in December is full of things that aren’t there. There are signs warning not to stop in a turning circle for a train that is, presumably, packed up in a shed. There is an empty trailer claiming to host a show called Skeggy’s Got Talent, but whose microphones are silent. There are lots of fish and chip places and bars that claim to do karaoke, but they are almost all closed. There is one bar, quite far up the beach, which has a fake brown creosoted ship with a lady figurehead and a Union Jack flying from it, sitting almost on the sand. You can sit in the fake ship while you drink. The flag looked cheery, but no-one was sitting outside in the wind, drinking.

When I have been walking for two miles or more, I almost always want a cup of tea and a srupag. Chapel St Leonards is the kind of place where someone will sell you a nice cup of tea and a srupag (although they will not call it that) and probably call you ‘ducks’, I thought. And they did. In a bakery, two women with bleached-might-be-grey-underneath hair and snap-on coveralls sold me a nice cup of tea and a mince pie. This wasn’t a too-rich, too-soft supermarket mince pie, either. This was a no-fooling homemade pie that was mostly a cloudy, bland burst of homemade pastry and a thin slice of sweet mincemeat between. It was just the right size to go with a mug of tea. I sat down in a row of three tables along the wall opposite the counter. A little trompe-l’oiel cabinet opened its doors onto a mirror, and next to it a set of shelves held fancy goods for sale: toiletry sets, and novelty cruets: lighthouses, beach huts, boats.

Three holidaymakers on my left ate fluffy round baps folded over very flat bacon. At the next table over, three elderly women passed the afternoon. They wore smart coats in pastel colours, and two little dogs sat under their chairs. Their conversation stretched out to include the ladies working in the bakery as they passed by the table. A young man came through the door and the nearest lady stood up and hugged him. She stayed standing, like she wanted to hug him again. He dabbed at his eyes.

‘It’s just…’ he said. ‘It’s just…I don’t know’. His voice had a stone wall in it, like the words he needed were at the bottom of a stream and to get them out he would have to dive in and be soaked in grief. ‘I’m going over to the hospital tomorrow and. I don’t know. It’ll just…’ and he tailed off. The lady hugged him round his middle again like someone who wants to deliver all the love they can by using their whole surface area, pressed against someeone who is hurting too hard to feel it. The young man left and the old women sighed. The woman from behind the counter came over and set down an old, clean square margarine box on their table. It had small bits of something in. What do they get from the bakery that non-regulars don’t get? I thought, not quite awful enough to be jealous. ‘You’ve had some bad news, then’ she said quietly.

‘The baby’s not going to survive’ said one of the women.
‘Oh. Oh, how awful’ said another and they sat for a minute. I finished my tea and they talked on, quietly. ‘That baby were doomed from six weeks into the pregnancy’ said one, dark and quiet.

I got up to go on out back to the beach, with sympathetic solemnity on my face. I wondered what the young man was to the baby who wouldn’t survive, and I sent some love back after him like the lady’s hug, that was more about her doing what she could than him feeling anything. And I looked in the square margarine box on their table. It was dog biscuits. Just biscuits for the dogs.

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Published in: on January 27, 2012 at 12:54 am  Leave a Comment  

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