Camping wild in England. Parked at the end of a cul de sac overlooking the north sea, the mouth to the Thames, a muddy cove, called here a beach. It is definitely estuary, mud not sand, calm tidal mud flats. ’To the beach’ signs, beach huts gayly painted, banked up 3 deep in parts, on grass swords. Facing north I notice. Across the water is Tilbury and Southend, the walking points I have reached in my attempt to walk England’s coast. I decided against the continuation into the city that feels an anathama to me these days of turning tide economic gain. No I want something quieter and I’ve arrived at Whitstable, out of the Oyster season. Pleasantly quiet.
I have no map. Dependence of Sat Nav, to be rectified. I walk to Hern Bay, over the SIS spit of land in sunshine but fresh wind, ideal walking conditions.
A rounded man, white wellington boots, is cleaning up his largish fish shack. I hear from him the famous oyster festival begins soon after his birthday in July. Don’t come then with a dog or push chair, he said, there was such a fight last year! Man just standing there with his dogs.
Come the evening, I didn’t even read just went straight to sleep. It must have been around 10 when I was woken up by someone knocking on the van. Dog went ballistic. No sign of anyone outside. Probably kids.
Awoke at dawn, 5.30 and out by 7, grasping the day.
At Whitstable sea front just opening we stopped for latte coffee and oyster with tobasco. Shacks being done up ‘Fishermans huts now offered for £75 a night (prices starting at)’. All owned by two brothers, I hear from the Slovakian who’s voice I could not quite place. We jam about the glory of the High Tatra’s and once again I am thankful for the east European journey I have just done.
The focus comes sharper, buy the land and another place, and a Fiat Ducato and you will be settled, released from the restless search.
We walk the Saxon Shore way. A Norwegian woman with two sticks passes us, and affirms, yes, I can walk to Faversham and catch the train back that I had seen from a distance. Hog Fennel – particular to this cost line, a notice tells me. Bright orange litchen on sea defence walls. We are the only walkers this Friday morning, the place is ours.
Faversham entrance is off the grid living on boats – old Thames Barges up muddy creaks, then the boat yard becoming active this sunshine Friday, and finally a renovated quay, with (retirement?) flats over looking the sheltered water with old boats, like retired cart horses put out to grass, hocked up along side with photographs describing their hay days, transporting coal or merchandise up to London town from Midlands or East Anglia. It was market day in the delightful Georgian merchant town. With sunshine, crepes, cheese, tables and chairs outside, it gave a feel of a French market. Bought dog food, sun glasses, and left debit card behind.
I think of Tim. How can I not remember making love? Was it a lack of interest, preferring climbing mountains to making love, or some buried conceit? How can I remember the detail of a meal and not this? Memory intrigues me now.
It was Kate’s organisation – a surprise for her father Simon, my cousin, on his 70th birthday. When he opened the front door he had no idea. Kate and Dan’s home. A spacious bungalow with fabulous garden full of sheds.
‘I am the happiest I have ever been, yes, this is the happiest time of my life’, she said. It was so, I could feel it, and felt happy for her.
I’ve aged since I last saw you, were Michael’s opening words.
Touching his shoulder that evening, I felt his protruding bones. He cannot sit on the garden bench as the slats did into his thin flesh covered bones.
His carer, Helen, is here. A peaceful Birmingham girl.
‘I haven’t bothered my friends’ turns out to be true. We left for Lyme Regis the next day to rendez vous with Jane, his telephone friend (they talk every night before bed) who had no idea of his cancer.
‘And anyhow they soon melt away,’ he added.
Lyme is not up to expectation. The weather diminished into cloud (I don’t mind but Michael definitely does). His room does NOT have a sea view, but looks out onto the Rixi cinema, and his usual girl is not around.
‘I’ve taken luggage to your room’
‘No need for that, that’s what I pay for. Leave it to them’
Jane is jolly and good company. But Michael deteriorates come the evening and manages only one of three scallops.
When I check into his room to arrange it for ease of night time use (radio, water, pills, newspaper) he reaches for the telephone.
‘I want to call reception – to book an 8.15 wake up call.’
Why bother, I wonder.
The Undercliffs – the planned walk along them will not happen as we will leave today, but I take an early morning walk into them. I have never visited in the spring before and it is verdant with vegetation, carpeted with Hart’s-tongue fern, flourishing under the abundant trees, oaks mainly. Gunnera growing in water pools. Wild Garlic. Blue Bells just over. Parsley in open swards. Bird song, like I have not heard since childhood. No one is around this early, (7am), and a wonderful feeling of wilderness in this fallen landscape. Like a mini rain forest. The path is not easy to walk without concentration, as it is mostly over tree roots.
We leave the Alexandria. Back to safe Shaftesbury.
Wednesday morning. M puts his hands up to his face as I come in noisily to wake him up with breakfast. He is trying to hid the fact his teeth are not in.
We set off for Turnbulls, the regular joint in town.
‘This is an original Panama hat, from Equador’ says M, always a natty dresser.
Julia once again recalls her fondness for my father, who welcomed the 19 year old Julia treating her as an adult. These moments are retained as strong as ever in her fading memory. I shop for food, and ponder the natural desire to feed Michael. It is a challenge. I buy a tonic from boots, some smoky bacon and equipment for soup.
A chap called Michael Horsefair? turns up, not on a bike as expected buy more conventionally in a car. He is not conventional. Born on the foothills of Mt Elgon in Kenya to a soldier farmer in Kenya, he now lives here in Dorset, but still has business in Arusha Tanzania – some kind of building project. He is a delight. Obviously very fond of Michael, unaware of the cancer, bringing a bottle of wine he lingers with much Africa conversation, like discussing road structures in London, they talk of places transecting their lives in Africa.
Zoe Horsefair, outside Mombassa.
He is a stick insect now, elegant, essential, finely balanced, could blow away in a draft. It feels like a gift to be with him. He rests up stairs.