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Long before I moved to the Isle of Thanet – which was, if you remember, the pimple home of cabbages not kings, as my foreman said too often – work took me that way, from time-to-time. I’d lived in Whitstable for ten years before I made the move. I worked as a roofer. It wasn’t bad, though perishing in winter, and the pay was good for the time. Often jobs took as long as you fancied. The views were grand – especially if you found yourself in a nice spot by the shore. You could take a breather to admire the more profound things in life – like birds, and clouds, and the current trends in décolleté. And on Fridays we’d piss off early, rushing through a job. Most often there were two or three of us, depending on the roof. Every couple of weeks the firm I was part of picked up scraps of work in Thanet, which in hindsight, probably inoculated me to the shock that was in store.
In those days, there was lots of work all over. The east Europeans had been obliged to disappear because of Brexit, and given very few Leavers could be bothered to pick up a hammer, we could pick and choose the quote whatever we fancied. But I looked forward to coming to the Isle the most. The sea wind made me welcome, and the cafés weren’t bad. In Thanet, I hardly ever fell from a roof, even if I was daydreaming my lunch hour away sitting on a chimney.
The bloke who was in charge – meaning, he drove the van – was a man called Dave Morgan, who dyed his hair and often his shirts. Whenever we crossed the boundary, marked by a roadside memorial to the wide water channel that had once separated Thanet from the civilised world, without fail, Dave would shout, “Thanet, see? You want some, eh? The Wantsum, see?” and he’d nod at the sign for The Wantsum Channel, to make sure I got his joke. I’d cling to the door handle as he veered toward farm bridges and hedges. Dave wasn’t what you’d call sophisticated, and in the same way he’d reuse his teabags, he’d do the same for his jokes, until every ounce of funny had been strained. Sometimes, on long summer evenings, when I’m sitting on the wandering shore, I wonder what his new joke is, given Thanet is no more.
Dave always liked to set off early when we worked in Thanet – he was known as Two-Breakfast-Morgan – and I loved to listen to the shipping forecast when the alarm blared. Dawn – my girlfriend at the time – huffed and put the pillow over her head while her elbows became pointy. Despite her moaning, I’d listen to the shipping news, as the names of places sounded like a magic spell, and quite caught my fancy. I often imagined sailing around the British Isles, and well, look at me now. It’s funny how the world works.
The Wantsum silted up hundreds of years before. In those days, before the storm changed everything, the area where the Wantsum once ran was made of low-lying arable land ornamented by drainage ditches. The place stretched from Reculver in the north to Saint Nicolas-at-Wade, then miles inland. You could follow the channel on a walk if you fancied, it wouldn’t take long to trace the original Wantsum – which was an old English word for winding. It would last a few hours if you got your socks on. I did it a few times, and glad for it, because these days it is just not there. But before, before the storm, I mean, the outline of the old strait could be seen in the landscape. History leaves clues, you see, like wrinkles on a face fractured by sadness. It used to scoop in oxbow fashion past the village of Sarre – not much of that left these days – and on to Pegwell Bay to the south of Ramsgate.
Ages ago there used to be a hovercraft port at Pegwell. I’m not sure, but would guess the deafening machines travelled to France. These days, kids play tag on the concrete apron or help pull in the fishing nets.
In 1953 – long before I was even a twinkle – the North Sea floods reclaimed the Wantsum, and Thanet once again became an Isle, if only for a moment.
It’s funny. Most days a roofing job was just a job. But hurtling down the A299 toward Thanet made the day exciting. Like going to the seaside. You know, a proper one with sand and cliffs. Or maybe it was the expectation of Dave’s singular joke.
Most of the time, you don’t give a sod about the ground you stand on. Or the road you rush along. But whenever we crossed the invisible margin between Kent and Thanet, I perked up.
“To boldly go where no man has gone before,” Dave used to say, too. After his joke.
“Want a fag?” I’d ask, trying to head Dave off.
“Though in Thanet, every man has been–”
Which is when I usually faked a yawn or turn up the radio. Then he’d say something like, “Not just Thanet neither–” and make some crude remark about Dawn. You can imagine what Dave was like. Back then you’d call him salt of the earth, but too much salt will poison you.
Fast forward fifteen years and after my girlfriend Dawn dumped me for a drummer in a local band, I moved away, chose Saint Nicolas-at-Wade, right on the edge of Thanet. Rent was cheap and I blagged a job nearby driving forklifts in a warehouse dealing timber, though it did well out of a log business on the side. I was tired of seeing Dawn near the roofing yard in Whitstable after she left. She’d made her decision for good reasons – said I had no rhythm, was too easily distracted by clouds and views – and I supposed I needed to put some distance between us. Then I heard she’d become a little too close to Dave; he’d extended his repertoire of jokes and I couldn’t really face that after the calm of the shipping news. Dawn claimed to be a psychic, and like a lot of people that way inclined, insisted on infecting other people with her hallucinations. Dawn said Thanet was a zen of iniquity. I suppose she meant to say den. She wouldn’t be seen dead drinking in Thanet, she claimed. Mind you, she’d once said – after several vodkas – I was blessed by second-sight, too, just like her, that she could train me up, but I was happy being a roofer, happy with the views. I told her that as it was, I barely had first sight. Which proved truer than I knew. I didn’t see the drummer coming. Nor Dave. Easier to move away, change jobs.
The house I rented in the village, and the warehouse where I worked, were separated by the A299 – a dual-carriage way, two lanes Thanet bound and two heading up to Whitstable and London. To get to work, and more importantly, to get home at lunch to nip the rescue dog I’d taken in out for a quick walk – unlike Dawn, the dog hated heavy metal – a pedestrian bridge made of concrete and steel spanned the always busy road. At times, usually on my way back to work, I’d stand in the middle, having a fag, just watching, straddling the littered central reservation, to breathe in the fumes and wonder where people were going. It was the closest I got to being on a roof. People crossed the bridge without a glance, but I enjoyed stopping to take in the sense of the Wantsum.
The noise from the A299 was better than any alarm clock, and Cupid, my dog – a whippet with a black spot on his arse, the shape of a heart – soon became used to the rumble of the road. Cupid loved cheese sandwiches, though they were bad for him. Dogs are very much like humans, craving things that’ll eventually kill them. You’d think we’d know – Cupid and me – instinctively what to avoid. Makes you wonder. I miss Cupid more than Dawn, more than Saint Nicholas-at-Wade and work. But where I am now, it’s all the roofs of the world rolled into one.
The village of Saint Nicholas marked an ancient crossing point – the Wade of the name I supposed – for the Wantsum Channel. The bulk of the village was on the Kent side, as it turns out. In Viking times, the channel had been wide enough to confirm Thanet as a permanent island. You could come in through the Channel, sail the Stour River, and raid Canterbury cathedral if you fancied. It’s strange to think tourists visiting Margate or Broadstairs didn’t notice the low-lying mile of farmland where the Wantsum once flowed. They just saw sweetcorn, potatoes, cabbages, and wheat. Yellow rapeseed. Not a single Viking.
When there was me and Cupid, there wasn’t much conversation, but plenty of wondering time. A dog provides perspective, and being relied on by an animal with an amusing arse never killed anyone.
One breezy December morning, having had a cup of tea and slice of toast without really waking up, having enjoyed the shipping news warning of gales, surge tides and depressions – a right mixed bag – as I crossed the bridge, I found a huge sheet of sailcloth caught between the bottom of the central support and the railing in the middle, thrashing over the London carriageway like an unstable umbrella. I recognised the sheet as canvas as one summer I’d worked behind a bar at a sailing club in Whitstable – and in order to serve the sweatered twats and their bronzed wives, I had to climb over expensive dinghies and beached sailing yachts to reach the clubhouse. When the wind gets up, sailcloth billows so much you wonder if it might break the air. Unlike the ultra-modern material of the sails on those boats, the bridge canvas looked old, though I’m no expert, unless you’re asking me to lift a load of timbre, fix your roof, or about the advisability of meeting drummers. I guessed maybe this sail was an old linen and hemp mix. Thick and heavy. The warp and fill looked even. Like I say, this was timeworn, and you could see the chewing-gum grey sailcloth was crimped, which is a fancy word for stretched. I could imagine seeing it on an older whaler, or if it was red, on an old Thames barge. It snapped in the wind.
Standing on the bridge, I couldn’t see how to free the cloth, let alone from where it had come. Besides, if I had managed to get it lose, the high wind would take it anywhere, maybe cause an accident amongst the rushing traffic. I was sure Highways would be along in a bit: they’d remove it. Some drivers slowed down wary-like as they passed below the bridge, some drove to the edge of their lane, some ignored it. Only later I thought to phone Highways to report it, but the foreman of the yard, a bear of a man called Pete, was a bit funny about us using phones at work, and I suppose during tea break I forgot.
I was surprised to see it still there at lunch. I was rushing to walk Cupid, and make him a cheddar and onion, but on my way back, I noticed one corner of the sailcloth had tangled itself even tighter to the base of the central support. Wrapped twice about it by the look of it, and with each gust it stiffened. Another corner had wrapped itself around the railings where the rising steps reach the bridge, and the wind had stretched the cloth so much it looked like a jib. Half the London side wasn’t useable, and a long line of traffic filtered into one lane as cars and lorries crawled past. There was a local police car parked further up the road, its lights on, and a single officer was gesticulating for the cars to move over. If the sailcloth shifted and another flapping edge wrapped itself about the bottom of the support at the far end, it would act like a stage curtain. Drivers had pulled over to make phone calls, causing more confusion. Leaves and twigs were blowing everywhere as the wind grew stronger, and the sky was cramped with black and purple. Billows of rain-heavy cloud wrestled the air. At any moment hail and sheets of rain might fall. Real end of the world vibe.
I mentioned all this to Pete when I arrived at the warehouse and he grumbled something about concentrating on the job at hand, which was to load a lorry with timber for a merchant at Deal. He tapped his watch. Lifted his heels. He made it clear Cupid was no excuse for woolly thinking or tardiness. Pete also mentioned demarcation, the division of social responsibility amongst the working classes, asked if I moonlighted as a policeman, or worked for Highways, if I had ideas above my station, all the usual things to suggest his moral disengagement. So, I got on with the job, then lost my train of thought when shifting pallets of not very seasoned logs from the warehouse into the yard before making a start on the incoming deliveries. About four o’clock I made everyone a cup of tea, remembered the sailcloth, and told all the crew about bridge. One by one, during their cigarette breaks – which Pete hated, saying all his employees deserved cancer for taking too many breaks (Pete can be a right Tory) – the crew went to take a gander. I was trying to cut down – on fags not gandering – which was in hindsight prescient, because these days I can’t even remember what a cigarette tastes like. So maybe Dawn had an inkling, too – not just for a drum roll – but about the zen of Thanet.
Will, who was younger than me, the newest of the crew, came running back from his expedition to the bridge. He was breathless, soaked, and Pete shouted something sardonic from his office, and pointed at his watch. Will glared, turned to me and said the sailcloth had managed to shut the entire A299. Both directions. The traffic was snarled so bad the lorry would never reach Deal. Which can’t have been right. The sail shouldn’t have been so wide, no matter the crimping from the storm wind. All lanes chock full of stationary traffic, so the police couldn’t get through, Will said. But his eyes were wide, and despite liking three sugars in his tea, the apprentice had never been guilty of bullshit. Maybe he’d panicked, misread the situation. Like I did with Dawn.
“It’s a bloody warzone,” he said, thumbing outside. “Like World War Z–”
“Right,” I said, “bring saws, chisels, anything with a cutting edge. Fuck Pete.”
“We killing Pete?” Will asked. “We’ll need a shovel to bury the body.”
“We’re getting rid of the sailcloth.”
Will’s face fell.
Fat greasy marbles of rain made standing, let alone working, seem impossible at first. We had to shout to make ourselves heard. As soon as we cut a length of sailcloth from the railings, another piece caught on the bridge, clung to it as if for dear life. The canvas had become massive, heavy with water. Waves of hail shredded down and cut my fingers, bruised my jaw, pulled a sawblade from Will’s forzen hand, sent it spinning. Over Reculver, sheets of blue lightning rose from the earth to meet the sky. It sounded as if the ground was tearing in two. Trees cannoned down soft verges onto cars. Gulls tumbled. Electricity pylons sparked before falling iron-giant like and dead. The wind screamed loud. A shudder accordioned the road. The sailcloth became rigid, took up the strain of the storm. The bridge jerked. We clung. Will sobbed. I hoped Cupid was safe. A hefty crack of thunder amplified in my shattered ears as the air pressure grew, my teeth ached, and it felt as if gravity thumped us gentle as a forklift. Both of us fell to the slippery walkway. Giddy and turnsick, we gripped the railing. Another judder sent us tumbling across the bridge. Will grabbed my legs as I slid past. Together we watched the bridge twist about us, tarantella from sense. Ozone plasma pungent, sharp cracks ringing, tossed like puppets with scissored strings, before a great tearing sound buried all meaning. I saw a chasm grow below, letting in the sea. The sea rushed up from the deep. White horses rose about us. I closed my eyes, felt the overwhelmed bridge jounce to starboard. The Isle twisted away from Kent, taking the bridge with it.
It is a bugger not knowing if Cupid survived – he was quite a clever beast, keeping out of trouble, and I hope someone knows to fetch him cheese. Pete is not greatly missed. We have learned to do without and are greatly enriched. I listen to the shipping forecast every morning.
I do wonder whether Dawn saw this coming. There’s a north-westerly gale expected later.
Will spends his time singing shanties for pennies and buns on Broadstairs’ Viking Bay, croons as the Isle chases ever-changing sunsets. Sometimes, Broadstairs faces west and sometimes looks south, depending on the currents and the tide. Thanet is a spinning-top Isle. Rich women sail their yachts to visit for a weekend of a bit of moderate to rough. And the grammar school girls line the streets, wave banners, tell Dickens tales to veering Flemish tourists. Force six, sluing south. Our informal parliament is debating heading to the Med for the winter. Just because we can’t get olives at this time of year. Down Portland to Trafalgar. And away. We have become accustomed to the envy of others.
For myself, I live the quiet life on the new-born Wantsum shore. When not working making roofs shipshape and proof against the wind, I watch the weather toy with common terns. A black guillemot comes begging for sprat or eel most sunsets. I call him Cupid Too. He’s a squawking memorial but also himself. He has begun to fetch me cigarette butts he’s rescued from the chop, but I live in hope for carton of dry Camels.
Thanet is resupplied by helicopters carrying luxuries such as historic novels and musical instruments. No percussion instruments. The Isle floats and spins port-wise between Norfolk and Denmark, Forties, Dogger, German Bite, depends, though it’s been known for us to take out Norwegian oilrigs when a southerly blow shifts us north from Humber. Whether we can join the EU is moot.
The Isle is as it was – alone and quiet, content in its private and strange beauty. We trawl for buxom cod and are self-sufficient as far as sheep and cabbage are concerned. We grow peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes in vast greenhouses. Last summer, below house martins and swallows Red Arrowing the sky, a few of us converted a double-decker bus to run on steam.
The sailcloth has been fixed to a sturdy bowline. We forged a rudder from rubble and rubber. Released the refugee-inmates from detention at Manston. Held an arts festival at the Walpole Hotel, use the sea pools to farm crustaceans. As we sail in circles, as we spin, our fishing nets collect plastic bottles from the deep, which drag ashore and burn for energy.
We are good, occasionally moderate.
Visibility, poor at first, is now good.