Last night, I flew in my dreams. After a confident leap, the wind lifted me into the air, my outstretched arms steering me away from all that haunted the land below. Dipping around clouds as the breeze whipped past, my heart felt light.
My phone vibrates, alarm blaring like it’s sending out the final evacuation warning in a nuclear reactor meltdown, and the dream is snapped shut. As I wake, my chest resumes its usual heaviness, rushed in like a stream replenished.
Waiting for the kettle to boil, I stare out the window at the single patch of grass in the withering courtyard of the flats, framed by the kitchen’s tiled windowsill and two seashells–one white, one black–that my friend lifted from a beach in Margate. The striations and swirls of the shells remind me of growing up by the Pacific Ocean, my feet pattering in its cold waves, the salinity of the surrounding air. I’ve never been to Margate but I’m going today on the 10:15AM train, so I get ready. After washing my face, I sit in front of the mirror and begin my skincare and makeup routine, talking through it in hushed tones, giving tips to an imagined audience.
* * *
The skylight covering Victoria Station casts a filmy haze over the crowd waiting for platform announcements and fast-paced commuters scampering from one end of the station to another. My anxiety is amplified by this buzzing mix of limbo and urgency. Approaching a kiosk, I punch in my reservation number, and the machine spits out two tickets, colour-blocked in citrus tones with jagged offset black text, to Ramsgate.
“Welcome aboard this Southeastern service to Ramsgate, calling at Bromley South, Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham, Rainham, Sittingbourne, Faversham, Whistable, Chestfield & Swalecliffe, Herne Bay, Birchington-on-Sea, Westgate-on-Sea, Margate, Broadstairs, Dumpton Park and Ramsgate,” the Southeastern robot voice announces over the speakers.
The coach quickly fills up with people, large bags in tow, stuffed with towels, bags of crisps, and colourful plastic buckets. The hot, bright sun flickers between trees and houses as we drive on, warming the window and interior of the train. Perspiration collects in my ears underneath my plastic headphones that softly play a compilation titled Margate Day Trip. As the music crescendos into echoing guitar riffs and heavy drums, my vision splits between the green grassy expanse viewed in real-time and a smoky darkness broken by beams of colour that stream and strobe; I’m just part of a mass, surrounded by people who don’t exist, jumping and dancing and singing along in a way that I’m too uptight to do in real life. It continues for an hour and 45 minutes as the tracks proceed, with occasional background chatter, train announcements, and the opening and closing of doors leaking through from time to time.
“The next stop is Margate.”
* * *
Expecting sand and beach beyond the gates, outside Margate station is a parking lot. Trailing behind other passengers across the stretch of pavement, the blue sea is finally visible between the short row of houses on Station Road. Margate Main Sands lines the road perpendicular, the long greige sandy plane speckled with beachgoers. Squawking seagulls, the sounds of splashing water and children playing occupy the soundscape. My head swivels back and forth, admiring the view of the bay down Marine Drive on the left while peeking at the shops on the right that transition from cream, to brick, to pastel pink, to the terracotta of Old Kent Market. It takes me a while to shake off the aggressive power walk I have adopted since moving to London, reminding myself I’m not late, and I’m not competing with others to get to my destination.
I visit the cavernous Shell Grotto first, and ogle at the floor-to-ceiling shell mosaics of mysterious origin. I imagine it used to be a temple for a practice of worship long gone, the only remnants of its followers being these walls of patterns and symbols no one has deciphered, and I begin to feel slightly creeped out.
The temperature outside is scorching when I leave, levelling the goosebumps raised in the chilly underground. Walking back along the same road, I arrive at the jagged, geometric Turner Contemporary and spend hours wandering through rooms of art. The comfortable silence inside the gallery is a repose from the outside’s wind and crashing waves, but with the beach pristinely framed by crystal clear windows, I’m always reminded of where I am.
I take a stroll down the Harbour Arm afterwards. The tide is out, and the narrow channels dipping through the wet sand, filled with water, appear vein-like. At the furthermost tip of the arm is a bronze statue of a woman in what looks like a Victorian-style gown. Upon closer inspection, she is completely composed of shells from head to hem, her full skirt built of a descending circle of scallop and cockle half shells that fan out beneath her arms, gently crossed against her front as she looks out, like she’s waiting for a loved one to arrive by ship.
Stomach rumbling, without a second thought I turn around and make my way to the closest chip shop. The narrow blue and white interior, illuminated by the sun, is quiet, save for the gentle sizzle of oil and the friction of crunchy chips against a metal scoop. One haddock and chips, please. Tartar sauce? Yes, please. Vinegar? As much as you can possibly put on, please. Taking my long box of fish and chips across the street to the beach, I find a spot amidst the crowds and pull out a small blanket from my tote bag, kick off my trainers, and sit down, wiggling around for a few seconds atop the undulations of the sand. This is perfect. I put my headphones back in, and go to the top of Margate Day Trip. The box from the chip shop is burning my thighs; I open it to gold and canary contents. A large strip of crispy crackled fried fish is surrounded by a mountainous portion of thick cut chips, all coated with a sprinkling of salt and near-transparent streaks from generous lashings of malt vinegar. I take a picture of it. After squeezing the packet of tartar sauce on the side, I assemble the perfect bite: one chip topped with a forkful of haddock, all dipped into the tartar sauce. Fluffy potato melds with buttery fish, and the richness is cut by the malt vinegar that perfumes my palette with a delicious tang.
Since I’m alone, it only takes 20 minutes to eat every morsel until there is nothing left but the remnants of grease and salt. Setting the box aside, I stretch my legs out and point my face towards the sun. Unable to clear my mind, I continue performing ease and relaxation until I can no longer bear it. I pack my things and take an hour to roam around the shops. I want to say “look at that,” aloud while in the vintage boutiques, record shops, and in the windows of patisseries, my tongue fighting the urge to form the vowels and consonants within the shut confines of my mouth. I buy a book that I could’ve bought in London, but I tell myself I will read it on the train journey back (I don’t).
At the till, I remove an earbud, and ask the shop owner, “may I borrow a pen?”
She nods and hands me a black biro.
I open the book and on the inside cover, write: Purchased in Margate, England, Summer 2020.
“That’s lovely,” the owner remarks pleasantly while processing the payment.
* * *
Golden hour is resplendent, casting a photogenic glow over the sand, the sidewalks, and the buildings while I head to my final destination. Tracing back my steps from this morning along the beach, a tall brick structure acts as my beacon. In larger-than-life yellow block letters, it says:
The sidewalk in front of the entrance is buzzing with families and gaggles of loud teenagers. Their adventurous energy is contagious, so I purchase a wristband which gives me access to all the rides, even though I historically avoid anything vaguely thrilling. I turn off Margate Day Trip as to not look anti-social, and to attempt to live in the moment. An archway of hanging lights and massive circus-y props ushers me into the amusement park–on the left it says “PLEASURE. Smile. Smile,” and on the right I am encouraged to “ENTER.” The electronic music from the carousel, the rumbling of the rollercoaster, the joyous screeching of park-goers all around is welcome cacophony.
I clutch to the handlebars of the Speedway motorbikes, wobble on the pavement after screaming my head off on Dreamland drop, and walk tightly-packed with others through the humid tunnels of the Mirror Maze. I get on the ferris wheel, alone, and as it crawls upwards at a snail’s pace, that antsy feeling from earlier returns, my anxiety reminding me it follows wherever I go. I kindly ask myself to shut the fuck up. When I finally get to the top of the cursed wheel, there’s a neon sign visible to the left that says “NEVER GROW UP.”
Arriving back on land, I continue loitering around until I come face-to-face with an ice cream truck. I get a whippy with a flake and take a picture of it from afar and then another one close up to capture the way the piped soft serve resembles bundles of white satin ribbons.
My last thrill is on the Chair-O-Plane. As the seats swing wider and wider, ascending into the air, a flutter inhabits my chest. The view from above is marvellous. Soaring, I detach myself from the glittering lights and the crowds below. I get deja vu.
* * *
Green, purple, and blue fractals scatter and shine on every surface of the Dreamland roller room–a few turns around the varnished floorboards are the final order of business for this perfect Margate day trip. There are a few seasoned skaters twirling and weaving around with finesse amongst the amateurs, adding a flair that compliments the retro-style decor. A mix of era-spanning pop music and ‘70s disco boom over the speakers, and I make a mental note to add these songs to Margate Day Trip while I crouch over to fasten my pair of hired skates. Standing up, I realize I haven’t roller skated since I was a kid, and I timidly shuffle towards the opening in the barriers to the floor. It turns out, roller skating is similar to ice skating, and after a few slips, I gain a good speed. It’s fun, gliding in circles to pulsating, upbeat music and multicoloured lights. I want to laugh, then realize there’s no one to laugh with, and for the first time today, I feel lonely.
* * *
I pick up a canned Pimms and lemonade at Tesco Express before catching the 8:30PM train back to London. The coach is peppered with exhausted couples, freshly sun kissed and clearly in love. Sitting at an empty table, I place the can in front of me, along with the book I bought, a postcard from the Shell Grotto slipped between its pages. Before we depart, a group of 7 women clearly at the tail end of a hen do hop aboard and liven up the mellow energy. Three of them, wearing bright silver BRIDE SQUAD sashes, sit around me at the table. I smile politely before looking out the window. Meanwhile, they deck the table out in cups, tiny bottles of Prosecco, crisps, and chocolates. They keep their jovial conversation to themselves as the train begins moving, but soon engage all the passengers in the coach in an influenced-by-alcohol group rendition of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” Being too shy, I lip sync until the song ends, then turn back out to the sky and grass, thoughts bouncing between all the day’s activities.
“Join us for a drink, love, come on.”
A beat passes before I realize BRIDE SQUAD have poured their Prosecco and are now looking at me. I crack open my Pimms and we tap our drinks together, aluminum and plastic bumping in a flat plunk. They ask me what I’m doing alone, and I tell them I’ve had the perfect day trip to Margate.
It’s met with a round of, “oh, lovely.”
They seem genuinely invested in what I’m saying and offer me some snacks. After spending the day with internal dialogue as my sole companion, I’m momentarily stunned by the kindness of strangers. The sky grows darker with each stop, our reflections becoming more prominent in the windows, accented by the kaleidoscope shimmer of hen do party favours. We chat about travelling, about all the amazing places I’ve visited since moving to London, and about how they all need a holiday–thankfully, BRIDE of the BRIDE SQUAD is having her wedding in Greece. Have I ever been to Greece? No. I must go, at least to Athens, they tell me. I’m young, I’ve got plenty of time. I don’t feel young, I want to respond, it feels like my body is rotting. Instead I say:
“But I always feel like I’m chasing time.”
I feel an immediate pang of fear that I’ve killed the vibe of the BRIDE SQUAD, but they’re all pensively nodding, so I continue.
“Do you ever have dreams where you’re trying to get somewhere, but you're blocked from getting there,” I crunch on a crisp, “not by external factors, just that your body won’t go. You’re aware that time is passing and everything’s moving on without you–but you’re stuck, left to buckle over and crawl.”
“Oh yeah,” one BRIDE SQUAD member hums, “I used to get those right before exams.”
“Or before a presentation.”
“Or a big event.”
Or in anticipation of waking up, I want to offer, but my attention is diverted by the incessant ringing of my phone. It’s a WhatsApp call from home. I decline, but it’s too late. The chatter of the BRIDE SQUAD begins to slip away and I feel myself panicking. Don’t go. I mentally grasp onto their presence as tightly as I can, but their conversation dissipates as if all the words in the world suddenly become extinct.
I’m back in my bedroom. My desk lamp casts a halo around my laptop–both emitting the only light in my small quarters. Head half swimming from the loss of the sea, the thrill, my full belly, the remnants of sand on my shoes, I begrudgingly hit play on the first of three voice notes, and watch the little progress bar glide further and further to the right.
“Hi, it’s me. I guess you went to bed already. I wanted to tell you, I was in touch with the shipping company, and got a good quote for sending all your stuff back home.”
Voice note two:
“Look, I know you don’t want to come back. Your last year in London…hasn’t gone the way you wanted, with the pandemic. But I thought we all agreed it would be better for you to come back–”
Voice note three:
“…since nobody has offered you a job. You can’t stay. I know you feel like a failure–but remember, lots of people have it worse than you. When you come back home, you’ll feel better.”
The final song on Margate Day Trip, a melodramatic ballad, pours through my laptop speakers. Returning to Google Street View, I frantically click through the blue marked route from the station, to the sea, to the grotto, but I no longer hear waves, the reverberations of roller skates, the clapping of sandals on gallery floors. I don’t feel the blistering heat of a freshly fried chip, the silky smooth coolness of ice cream, or the softness of sand beneath me.
I drag my cursor to the top left and exit.
Dreamland was originally published as a part of sixfifteen, an online durational project by UK-based artist Sarah Howe in 2021.