BOTANY BAY

Photo by Lewis Pugsley

At first it sounded like a childish made-up name, like Balamory or Paw Patrol. Then I thought of pirates and treasure chests and adventure on the high seas, but I couldn’t remember why, so all I said was, “Are you sure? You don’t want to stick closer to home?” Then Beth mentioned that it was near Margate and perhaps we could go there instead. But Jaspal was the birthday girl, and she had her heart set on a day at the beach.

We went up the night before. I got on the train at St. Pancras, Jas and Beth jumped on at Stratford, and the rest of the ride was a laugh. Except when Jas told me off for not looking at the list she’d WhatsApp’d us. I said they were better at deciding that stuff and I was fine with whatever. They rolled their eyes, but I was forgiven and that was that.

A couple of hours later, we shivered outside a dark and drizzly Broadstairs Station, while I was having second thoughts. I should have just said I was ill, used the weekend to clear out Amit’s stuff. The only other people who’d got off our train had already dispersed, and the oil slick streets looked dead. But Jas was jabbing at her phone, and soon we were scrambling into an Uber.

After a quick ride to the clifftop at Kingsgate, we warmed up at the Botany Bay Hotel. This was better; our room was awash with turquoise and pine, full of white-framed local art. Apart from a few Instagramy pics the girls had shared, I didn’t know much about the place and hadn’t bothered to find out. I stopped at a black and white shot of the famous broken cliff. It looked like giants’ teeth.

Jas came and stood by my elbow. “What d’you think, Renu? You’ve seen that pic before by the way, I shared it in our group chat.”

“You did?”

She gave me a look.

“Sorry,” I said, sheepish.

“Never mind. We’ll check it out first thing.”

After breakfast,” said Beth, already in bed and yawning away.

The room was a good size for a triple. Three proper beds, rather than two and a sofa-bed. Not that I ever offered to sleep on the sofa, I was too used to double beds. I thought of the one that would be unmade and gaping when I got home. I checked my phone. No new messages.

“How’s Amit?” said Jas, as she plumped her pillows.

“Fine,” I said. “He just texted me good night.”

“Aww. Well, tell him it was nice of him to share you this weekend.”

I laughed and nearly told her there and then. After all, Amit was her brother’s friend and she was the one who’d introduced us, she’d find out soon enough. But right now, it was our weekend and I didn’t want to break the spell just yet. I busied myself with my blanket.

Beth, at one end, started snoring, so Jas and I turned off our lamps. Our eyes adjusted to the spongy darkness, and Jas talked about beaches and broken cliffs and picturesque coves, until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer and her current carried me away.

*

The next day at breakfast we sat by the window, which overlooked the bay. It wasn’t sunny, but the sky and sea pearled together, silvery and infinite. We ordered full Englishes, and I stared at my perfectly poached eggs before I slit the silky flesh and gold oozed out. We ate quickly, then headed off.

There was no route straight down to the beach, so we wound around, along overgrown paths, dodging the dog-walkers. We shivered in the January air, and the pale grey above held its breath.

“I thought it would be busier,” I said.

“Maybe everyone’s in Margate, or Ramsgate. More to do there,” said Beth.

“How come we picked this place, anyway?”

“Renu!” Jas frowned. “I told you last night, weren’t you listening?”

“Er – ”

Beth laughed. “She thought it would be fun to pick a chalk beach this time. Speaking of Margate, I heard there’s a festival there about – ”

“ – Ooh,” said Jas, “look!”

Between beach and sea, we’d crept up on a crowd of massive mushroomy things covered in moss. I’d thought it was seaweed, but they were chalk deposits, villages of them, amid the lapping water. The sky broke and a fine spray fell, so we pulled up our hoods.

“Don’t they look amazing?” Jas took out her phone and snapped away. From the back, in her knee-length blue parka with its large hood and fur trim, she looked like a kid.

Beth moaned about having just straightened her hair, but got her phone out, too, so I didn’t bother. I’d lost count of how many beaches Jas had dragged us to over the last twenty years, and I could always get the pics off them later.

We resumed our path, with only the staring seagulls for company. As we approached our goal, we passed shallow caves carved into the chalk, like secrets. The cliffs were about fifty feet high, with mossy feet and birds’ nests for hair. The water foamed and puddled where we trod. I hadn’t thought to bring proper walking shoes, I’d been in such a rush to get out of the house after Amit left. Soon, my black leather boots were criss-crossed with white.

I noticed the seagulls more here. They circled hugely, all wingspan and beak, as dusty as the cliffs. There were messages in the chalk walls. Carved, drawn, sprayed. So and so loves such and such. The occasional expletive.

“Classy,” said Beth.

I gazed at the markings. Perhaps they were made by other versions of us, old sixth form friends, come up for the day from elsewhere. Or local kids, bored and unimpressed by a bit of broken chalk. Or maybe they were couples, wanting to leave their mark, hoping it would last. I shuddered and turned away.

Once Jas was done exploring and taking pics, Beth suggested getting on a bus, but Jas wanted to stick close by. We decided on Broadstairs for lunch, and then we’d think about making our way home.

Still fairly full from breakfast, we settled on tea and cake. Using one of Jas’ Trip Advisor recommendations, we went off to find Bleak House, and even Beth perked up at the thought of taking tea in one of Dickens’ old haunts. However, when we got there and stood at the reception desk, the manager said that they were fully booked. Unless we didn’t mind them making up a table in the kitchen? He pointed to our right, but Jas looked left, narrowing her eyes at the offending guests that were visible in the tearoom. Most of them were women with pink sashes, one of whom had the biggest sash and the biggest belly. Then I noticed her high heels and swollen ankles, and then the walls started swelling, too. I swallowed hard and looked back at the entrance. Thankfully, Beth was already shooing us out.

It was busy back in town, but we soon got lucky on Harbour Street. It looked like a pub from the outside, with its black beams and stuccoed walls, but it was a café called the Old Curiosity Shop, which made Jas giggle and even Beth grinned. “Guess you’re getting a bit of Dickens after all, Jas!” My toes were numb by now and the place looked quiet, so I was just happy to be inside.

We ordered cream teas and chose a spot by the windows. Jas took off her coat and sat opposite me. She was wearing a flannel plaid shirt, navy with gold threads. After the waitress brought over our sponge cakes and tea, Jas lifted the lid of her pot and inhaled, closing her eyes with a smile. She looked so snug with her flannel shirt and steaming pot, it seemed like the warmest sight in the world.

“I’m glad we came up the night before.” Jas leaned back in her seat. “It’s been lovely having the whole day here.”

“There’s still time to squeeze in something else,” said Beth. She pointed at her phone. “The next bus to – ”

Jas waved a hand. “Nah, this is great. We’ve had our walk, seen the cliffs, had some yummy food. Now, we can take our time heading back.”

Beth sighed and put her phone away.

I looked again at Jas, so content with just a Victoria sponge and Earl Grey. Beth had helped, but it was Jas who’d sorted it all out, even though we’d paid for her this time, as her birthday present. It was always Jas who brought us together, ever since school. Whenever uni, then jobs, then partners and families and everything else got in the way and it became too long since we’d last seen each other. When, sometimes, all you wanted was just your mates and a bit of cake. Suddenly, I didn’t want to go back.

Back to the dishes and the boxes and the empty bed. Back to the aftermath of the cyclone that’d been brewing and finally made landfall on Friday. Back to Amit’s look-do-you-want-kids-or-not-otherwise-what’s-the-point-any-more? that would still be hanging in the air. Back to the wreck that my answer should have fixed. But I didn’t even call him to come back. I jumped on a train instead. I could have fobbed off the girls, stayed at home, and processed things, or just binged everything on Netflix.

Beth and Jas got up to go to the loo, and I gazed out of the window into Harbour Street. I looked at the clean pavement and road. At the passing Macs and umbrellas. At the barely-there rain that fell like a sigh and coated everything in a lemon drizzle sheen. I recalled the images that Jas had sent. This view wasn’t so different. The cliffs were certainly striking in real life, haloed by the quiet sun. It would be good to return, on a clearer day.

“Ready, Renu?” The girls were back, picking up their coats and bags.

I looked up at their bright faces, as if through a clearing fog. I’d have to tell them soon, but for now that could wait. “Yes,” I said and got up.

As we headed towards the door, I noticed some knickknacks for sale by the counter. I stopped and picked up a fridge magnet, thumbing the photographic scene. The fridge back at the flat would be missing a few of these (yes, he was that petty), so I knew exactly what to do with this one.

A minute later, I rejoined the girls, who were waiting outside.

“What did you get?” said Jas, looking at the paper bag in my hand.

“A memory,” I said. “Thanks for organising today, girls.”

They look confused, then I emptied the bag into my hand and they beamed. It was a miniature world. A landscape shot of a chalk cliff, broken, but fused together by a liquid gold sun that spilled into the corners of the frame, a treasure chest in my palm.

Farhana Khalique

About Farhana Khalique

Farhana Khalique is a writer, voiceover artist and teacher from south-west London. Her writing has appeared in the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology 2021, Leicester Writes Short Story Prize Anthology 2020, The Brown Anthology, Reflex Fiction, Lighthouse, Popshot, The Good Journal and more. She is also the editor of Desi Reads and a submissions editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. Find Farhana @HanaKhalique and www.farhanakhalique.com.

Farhana Khalique is a writer, voiceover artist and teacher from south-west London. Her writing has appeared in the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology 2021, Leicester Writes Short Story Prize Anthology 2020, The Brown Anthology, Reflex Fiction, Lighthouse, Popshot, The Good Journal and more. She is also the editor of Desi Reads and a submissions editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. Find Farhana @HanaKhalique and www.farhanakhalique.com.

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