Gavin is a Scottish writer and filmmaker living in Margate, Kent. He has published two travel memoirs about running ludicrously long distances, Downhill from Here and Running the Orient. The latter book charts his 2300 mile run from Paris to Istanbul, following the 1883 route of the Orient Express. Gavin’s stories have been published in Constellations, Blueing the Blade, DIAGRAM, Riptide, The Closed Eye Open, Bright Flash, La Piccioletta Barca and Freshwater Review. He is also the writer-director of the 2015 independent film Sparks and Embers.
A life-changing opportunity. A terrible mistake. The lonely writer oscillated between each possibility, when considering the move from London’s throbbing heart to the Kent coast. If he did this thing, throwing away the security of the city nine to five, in favour of the attenuated life of the self-employed seaside dweller, things would certainly change. That, at least, was incontrovertible.
The pros were considerable. It felt almost tawdry to list the financial benefits of not living in one of the world’s most expensive cities while struggling with a significantly sub-par income. However, it couldn’t be denied that this was the main reason for his move. The lonely writer objected to paying almost 50% of his income for a flat in which the smoke alarm was regularly short-circuited by urine-scented water running through the ceiling from the flat above. He took exception to absolutely everything being priced just beyond the reasonably affordable (unless you knew the few tricks – Wetherspoons brunches, charity shops, and the weekly Aldi pilgrimage).
More importantly, having done the terrible thing, the writer felt that the opportunity to escape his own past, which he imagined trailing behind him like an invisible yet aromatic cloud, was a significant factor. Shame was hard to shake and had a habit of descending during his loneliest moments, reminding him of how dramatically he’d failed to slot himself into life as readily as his friends and acquaintances. What they found straightforward, the lonely writer found near impossible. Obtaining gainful employment that utilised his skills fully, meeting a sympathetic life partner, owning property, or even a stick of serviceable furniture. Hardly Himalayan challenges, yet he’d failed at them. 50 was now a fond memory, the next decade milestone unspeakable in its horror.
As he strolled Westbrook Bay, kicking over strangely striated shells that resembled oysters, but surely couldn’t be, the lonely writer sifted through the empty rooms he’d surveyed over the last three days. All of them residences more desirable than his West London domicile. Some of them offered sea views, something a Londoner would thrill at. His last flat had provided a vista of tortured brick, wind-whipped electrical cables, and the corner of an advertising hoarding. Vorsprung Durch Technik. Rise and Shein. Your message could be seen by 50,000 commuters per day.
Even less concrete as a reason to move were the aspects of Margate that drew him – its eclectic mix of faded seaside glamour and wish-fulfilling hipster chic. Art and amusements. Art Deco and Seaside kitsch. Earlier that day he’d watched a Northbrook Park hipster patiently and politely explain to an elderly man who’d parked his mobility scooter outside the café-cum-record-store-cum-hair-salon that, no, they had no French bread, only Sourdough, and no French press coffee either, only hand-poured Americanos.
In London, such a spectacle might have made him laugh cynically. Here, it seemed a touching example of two different cultures reaching out towards one another. The negotiation was conducted with delicacy and charm. The lonely writer had already earmarked the café as a potential regular haunt. He’d already spied the potential plug points for his laptop and secured the WiFi code.
Was that a piece of chalk? Pebble-smooth and bored through with mysterious holes, tumbling in the surf? Yes, it was. It felt good in the lonely writer’s hand, even imparting a whiteness to his wind-pinkened palm. As if the sea itself were offering him something to write with. But what to write, and where? It would surely be too much of a self-indulgent cliché to plonk himself down in the ornate Victorian shelter where T.S. Eliot wrote fragments of his Waste Land?
He considered the all-important choice he had yet to make. The lonely writer had a phone full of photos of possible homes and he felt it hard not to imagine himself in every one of them. Pouring a morning coffee and staring out at the sea. Sleeping with the sound of surf soundtracking his dreams. Raising a glass with a currently faceless yet handsome woman who would forgive him his sins as if they were as inconsequential as sea mist. Here he might make a new life, clinging like a limpet to the country’s bottom edge.
And the memory of the terrible thing would fade into nothingness.
Eighteen months ago, having reached a peak of self-loathing and frustration, the lonely writer had forced himself out of his West London flat and headed to the corner bar for a solo pint. His desire was simply to see some other people, not interact with them, and yet he’d got himself into an altercation. A young man with a haircut that rendered his temples a kind of striated fuzz, had walked straight into him as he’d turned from the bar, spilling the drink he’d bought all over the lonely writer’s new t-shirt.
The young man’s apology had seemed perfunctory at best, and there had been no attempt to offer a replacement drink, even though his victim was now wearing most of his purchase. As the young man turned back to his group, the lonely writer had called him an ignorant wanker, an epithet that had sent the clumsy oaf spinning on his heels to teeter into the lonely writer’s face with implied threat.
Unusually, the lonely writer had not shrunk away as he usually would have. Instead, a volcanic fury had arisen which made him push the taller, broader man vigorously away while shouting “get the fuck away from me!”
Unprepared for such a response, the young man had stumbled over his own feet, spun against the bar, and sent a pile of stacked empties flying. One of them had shattered on a barstool. The explosion sent a shard of glass, javelin-like into the eye of an appalled, but innocent, teenager sitting with her parents at a nearby table. Mayhem followed, with the young man, oddly, rushing to the girl’s assistance, while the lonely writer stood, frozen in terror, the terrible thing already an irrevocable truth that could not be unknown. He was no longer in control of anything, least of all himself.
The fallout was predictable. Police, paramedics, recriminations, profuse apologies all round, then a trip to the local police station to give his side of the story. The lonely writer had already assumed responsibility and, despite the protestations of a duty solicitor, professed his guilt in detail, insofar as he could remember the order of events. The terrible thing became a horrible stain he’d wear for the rest of his life. A teenage girl had lost vision in one eye, traumatised by his inability to control an inexplicable rage. He would never forget her screams, or the way blood and vitreous fluid ran across her knuckles.
The lonely writer received a community order for common assault and unlawful wounding, paid his fine, and undertook 185 hours of community payback without complaint. During 24 weekly visits to a local bowls club, he learned how to keep the green level, free from worm casts, brushed and cut to perfection. He learned that most other felons had more terrible upbringings than he’d enjoyed, and that many of them were conspiracy theorists, convinced that the government was irredeemably corrupt.
The lonely writer knew he had nobody but himself to blame for his misfortunes. Thus, he paid his dues and decided to exile himself to the coast, to lick his self-inflicted wounds.
A new life. It felt too cliched to possibly succeed and yet here he was, striding along the beach, dodging nodules of chalk and tidepools among the wind-patterned sand. He sensed an opportunity. Not to reinvent himself, or anything that ridiculous. But a chance at a fresh start of sorts.
Here, he would simply slowly regenerate, like a starfish that had lost a limb. Slowly, he might let go of the guilt. His first step would be to write a letter to the girl he had partially-blinded. Abigail MacPherson, nineteen; with horrible irony, a trainee optometrist. He wouldn’t write an email, he’d send a letter. Something she could easily discard, or fold and store for re-reading, if that was more useful to her. A simple, straightforward apology, with no caveats or quibbling. In a moment of idiocy, he had grievously harmed a stranger. There was no evading that responsibility.
The lonely writer decided to pause for a while, before attending the letting agency office in person to hand over an application form for his preferred property. He wanted to watch the tide seep in, imperceptibly creeping under the boats and lifting them on their moorings. He wanted to watch the reflections of the harbour wall form in the blue of the bay. Once the waves were lapping at his feet, according to the tide table he’d read, it would be 4pm. He’d still have time to walk to the office of Coskery & Co. and stake his claim on a new phase of existence.
The seagulls called out, as they spun like boomerangs overhead, and the lonely writer couldn’t decide what they were saying. It was either a sound of jubilation or of warning. But it was too late in the day to hear ambivalence in everything. And so, the lonely writer watched the waves and waited, as saltwater preserved and purified everything.