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Authors: Paul Theroux

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BOOK: The Kingdom by the Sea
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There was no one on the beach, no one swimming, no one walking, and no boats; but there was something I had seen before—at Margate, at Broadstairs, at Ramsgate, and Walmer, wherever a road came near the seaside: cars parked and piled up, and people in them, always very old people, the old croak named Rathbone in his toy Morris, and the Witherslacks, Donald and Maureen, both of them sitting in the back seat of their green Cortina, and everyone else. They sat in their cars and stared out at the sea. They were on every beach road. When I walked past, they hardly looked at me—perhaps a glance at the bulge in my knapsack, but not more than that.

If there was a place to park near a beach or a cliff, or any shelf of shore having a clear shot at the sea, the elderly people gathered there, side by side, their tin cars a little tremulous in the wind. I saw them everywhere, eating sandwiches, drinking tea out of plastic cups, reading the paper, looking fuddled. They always faced the water. They were old couples mostly, but they never seemed to be holding conversations. Often the man was asleep, and sometimes the woman was in the back seat and the man in the front ("I've got to have somewhere to put my sandwiches"). They were not bird-watchers or ship-spotters. Indeed, they did not seem to be looking at anything in particular. Their expressions were a little sad and empty, as if they were expecting to see something beyond the horizon or under the surface of the waves.

It looked somber enough to be an English recreation, but I wondered whether it had any other significance. It seemed to me to hold the possibility of the ultimate fright, an experience of nothingness. It was only on the coast where, if you angled yourself properly, you could look at nothing. I never passed these old people in their parked cars—they did not stir from them—without thinking that, in their own way, they were waiting for Godot.

I walked in a high wind and its flying grit to Hythe, where I saw a policeman wheeling his push-bike. I asked him if the little railway was still running down the coast. He said yes and directed me across town. "It's a mile," he said, "a long mile, really."

Down Pulsifier Road and across Albert Street to Saltwood Grove—or names like that—where I asked a lady taking in her wash, "Which way to the station?" And it seemed funny that this was travel, necessitating a knapsack, binoculars, and a knife—and I had a plastic poncho, too! Not here, but sometimes, even on a small suburban road, with a man clipping a hedge and a girl in a school uniform and a whistling mailman, it seemed as foreign and far-off as Gangtok, though often not so safe, since in Sikkim murder is unknown. But it was travel, perhaps in a new sense but in an old place, because I was looking hard at it for the first time and making notes, and because I had no other business there.

The Romney, Hythe, and Dymchurch Railway was one of the narrowest and smallest in Britain, running from Hythe to Dungeness on fifteen-inch tracks. A sign at the station said,
NEXT TRAIN AT
17:10, and it was just after five; but the station was locked.

Marjorie Gait at a tea stall nearby said, "That stationmaster is barmy. Sometimes he doesn't open at all. Sometimes he's there at midnight."

But I waited a few more minutes, and the train pulled in, whistling—a steam train, which looked like a toy but had been built to last. A man unlocked the station and beckoned me to the ticket window. I waited there. I was the only traveler.

There was a little placard stuck to the ticket window:

Places of Interest Along the Line—

Dymchurch:
Bingo, small gift shop
New Romney:
Main Railway Station
Greatstone:
Sandy beach
Romney Sands:
Holiday Camp
Lade:
Fish and Chip Shop Public Conveniences
Dungeness:
Lighthouse

Then the shutter went up and I bought a one-way ticket to New Romney from a man with greasy hands—he was the engineer, as well. He seemed a little surprised that it wasn't a round-trip ticket, since this railway was used mainly by joyriders and was kept in business by tourists. The two other passengers that evening were merely returning to New Romney and had come here to Hythe for fun, which was why they had not gotten off the train.

From the dawdling open car, where I sat with my feet up, in the cool empty light that slowed everything it touched this spring evening, I saw sheep and horses, wheatfields with breezes swimming through them, and small houses built close to the ground. At Dymchurch there were yellow fields, one of the pleasures of May in England, the brightest crop: a whole field brimful of vivid gold mustard flowers. And beyond it, on the right-hand side of the tracks, under the lowering haze of a dusty day, ten miles of Romney Marsh. It was a drained marsh, an expanse of flat, fertile pastures. Henry James, who lived just to the southwest, at Rye, wrote that its charms were "revealed best to a slow cyclist," and he listed them: "little lonely farms, red and grey; little mouse-colored churches; little villages that seem made only for long shadows and summer afternoons. Brookland, Old Romney, Ivychurch, Dymchurch—they have positively the prettiest names."

At New Romney, no longer a port, the evening sunlight made the sky slant like a pale lid, so I had time to walk east to the beach and village there, Littlestone-on-Sea. It was no more than some bungalows and a dead tree full of crows and two terraces of old tall houses on a beach where the tide made the pebbles rattle like marbles in a jar. There was no wind—unusual, the hotel manager told me. "The wind never stops." The absence of wind seemed to prolong the daylight, and Littlestone was as calm as a lakefront.

The lady from the front desk, Mrs. Turgis, showed me to my room and hesitated and then sat on my bed and said, "You'll want this switched off," and moved her slender finger against a toggle on the wall. "The intercom," she explained; "when it's on we can hear everything that happens."

"Me talking to myself," I said.

"Or you might have a young lady in here," Mrs. Turgis said.

"Is that likely?" I said.

"And then you wouldn't want anyone to hear," she said, and smiled. She was sitting on my pillow.

All day I had been traveling on sore feet with the sun against my face, marveling at the easy language, the strange shore. But Littlestone-on-Sea was not far from London. Being here—being anywhere in England after dark—was a little like being lost.

Mrs. Turgis stood up quickly, as if she had just remembered something, and went to the door. "If you need anything, just—" and she smiled.

"I sure will"—in those words, because traveling had turned me back into an American.

The hotel was not full—a dozen men, all of them middle-aged and hearty and full of chat, making a remark and then laughing at it too loudly. They had been beating up and down the coast with cases of samples, and business was terrible. You mentioned a town, any town—Dover—and they always said, "Dover's shocking." They had the harsh, kidding manner of traveling salesmen, a clumsy carelessness with the waitresses, a way of making the poor girls nervous, bullying them because they had had no luck with their own wives and daughters.

Mr. Figham, motor spares and car accessories, down from Maid-stone, said the whole of Kent was his "parish"—his territory, shocking place. He was balding and a little boastful and salesman-skittish; he asked for the sweets trolley, and as the pretty waitress stopped, he looked at the way her uniform tightened against her thigh and said, "That chocolate cake tickles my fancy—"

The waitress removed the cake dish.

"—and it's about the only thing that does, at my age."

Mr. Figham was not much more than fifty, and the three other men at his table, about the same age, laughed in a sad agreeing way, acknowledging that they were impotent and being a little wry about their sorry cocks not working properly. To eavesdrop on middle-aged Englishmen was often to hear them commenting on their lack of sexual drive.

I sat with all the salesmen later that night watching the hotel's television, the Falklands news. There was some anticipation. "I was listening to my car radio as I came down the M-Twenty ... One of my people said ... A chap I supply in Ashford had heard..." But no one was definite—no one dared. "...something about British casualties..."

It was the sinking of the
Sheffield.
The news was announced on television. It silenced the room: the first British casualties, a brand-new ship. Many men were dead and the ship was still burning.

As long as the Falklands War had been without British deaths, it was an ingenious campaign, clever footwork, an adventure. That was admired here: a nimble reply, no blood, no deaths. But this was dreadful and incriminating, and it had to be answered. It committed Britain to a struggle that no one really seemed to want.

One of the salesmen said, "That'll take the wind out of our sails."

There was a Chinese man in the room. He began to speak—the others had been watching him, and when he spoke they looked sharply at him, as if expecting him to say something in Chinese. But he spoke in English.

He said, "That's a serious blow for us."

Everyone murmured,
Yes, that was a serious blow for us,
and
What next?
But I didn't open my mouth, because already I felt like an enemy agent. I agreed with what the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges had said about this Falklands War: "It is like two bald men fighting over a comb."

***

Walking south from Littlestone was drearier in sunshine than it would have been in fog or rain, because the bright light exposed every woeful bungalow and every dusty garden, and it showed how in places there was nothing at all but pebbles. A little bad weather would have made it all a little mysterious and interesting. The sunlight made it plainly awful. This strip of bungalows went all the way to Dungeness and seemed to turn the corner. I could see this through my binoculars. I did not know then that the strip of bungalows was continuous for hundreds of miles of coast, all the way along southern England to Land's End.

I struck out for Dungeness. It was a long horizontal walk across a squashy surface. I took a short cut and soon wished that I had kept to the road. The dead marsh was sand and stones and no trees, and it was hard walking. At one time in the early nineteenth century, the local people wore what they called "shingle shoes," made out of wood, for walking on this pebbly surface. They were "of a convenient length and width, with a receptacle for the foot in the middle, like the snowshoes used in northern countries." In this way, some people had shuffled across Dungeness.

I walked to Greatstone on the bungalow strip, and then to Lydd-on-Sea on the same strip. These places were so dull, I thought of getting out of there on a bus, but when I told a man I wanted to find a bus he said, "You'll be lucky," and turned away.

"I hope the weather holds for you, Stan," he said to a man beating a broom against his paved garden: crazy paving, gnomes, a bird bath, a rectangle of cruelly pruned rosebushes—all the bungalows were ugly in the same way; all the gardens were ugly in different ways.

I kept walking. It was possible for me to look through the front windows of these bungalows and see people polishing a souvenir horse brass or buffing their slippers or crocheting a doll with a long dress as a receptacle for hiding the toilet roll. And I saw a woman at the window of one bungalow carefully biting the tip of her tongue and ironing an antimacassar. No one at Lydd-on-Sea was staring out the window at the hideous nuclear power station and whispering, "God help us," but rather the general activity had to do with tidying. I thought about this as I walked along, and it seemed hugely appropriate that people were ironing antimacassars in a spot where a nuclear melt-down could be occurring. This was England, after all.

There were places around Dungeness where it looked as though the catastrophe had already happened. The Denge Marsh had a bombed, broken look. It was craters and quarries and gravel pits; no trees, only scrub and weeds; much barbed wire and miles and miles of gray pebbles. The whole of this corner of Kent looked that way to me on this brilliantly sunny day. And yet in this place which both man and nature had contrived to make horrible were the most beautiful birds—the lapwing (or green plover) with its long plume, and herons, and seven kinds of duck. Most of the birds had chosen to roost or swim in the gravel pits, but the place was so joyless and the path so flat that not even the sight of thirteen swans in flight over it gave me any pleasure.

I discovered that day that the uglier a place was, the slower I walked. I went flat-footed through the marsh and through Lydd itself, which had shade, and then around Lydd Camp ("Dangerous," my map said), and I could hear shells exploding—"lyddite," the high explosive made of picric acid, had got its name here. Somewhere along that road I entered Sussex, but the landscape did not improve. The army camp—why did they let the army hog the coast?—prevented me from walking on the shore and denied me access to the beach. The cars on these roads seemed to be moving much faster than they would have elsewhere, but of course it was only natural that a driver should hurry through this desolation. I was walking, so every bit of it was forced upon me.

At last I reached Camber, a gray-white expanse of sloping beach, which extended for seven or eight miles toward Rye, that little hill in the distance. Camber Sands was empty, the beach deserted and no boats offshore. It was a weekday, but even so one might have expected a car or one dog-lover or one picnicker or a jogger. But there was no one at all on this lovely sunlit strand. That was another version of the English surprise—Dungeness, and then this, its opposite.

And then it went bad again, with slapped-together bungalows and parking lots and holiday camps called Silver Sands and Pontins. There were no people here, but the buildings made this part of Camber look blighted. The beach was undeniably lovely and unspoiled, but at this western end of it were peeling, collapsing huts and rusting caravans and weeds and even a dump full of twisted metal and yesterday's plastic—this disfigurement was reminiscent of a third world country, where they did not know any better, and just let the detritus pile up as evidence that this rubbish was another aspect of civilization. It struck me that as time passed some countries with nothing in common but poverty would begin to resemble one another, because, while great civilizations are often vastly different and each culture is unique, everyone's junk is just the same.

BOOK: The Kingdom by the Sea
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