Colin thrust his hands into his pockets, bit his lip, gnawed on the edge of his passport and looked at a smudge on the nearest windowpane. He felt sure he had not left the smudge—he didn’t think that he left traces, generally, and was always interested in finding traces of others. Catching sight of lipstick on the rims of emptied glass steins, for example, or silvered trails left by snails seemed so extraordinary and momentous that they would bring him close to tears. Colin steadied himself and tried once again to concentrate. A line of poetry was a-bishing and a-boshing and ambushing his thought process, however, making its own snail trail. It was just a snippet, but one that insisted upon his attention. It ran, and it ran:
‘[…] A current under the sea /
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell /
He passed the stages of his age and youth /
Entering the whirlpool.’
MARGATE! That was it! To Margate, and an exhibition all about responses to Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’! He had been looking forward to this for months! All feelings of flagging or fatigue from all the transport and travel he’d already undergone left him and, a spring in his step, he made arrangements to get to the English coastal town.
He expected the smell of hot sand and sea salt in Margate, but despite the many lungfuls he breathed and his open-mouthed halloo to the waves, no such flavour or scent was forthcoming. Gulls heckled him and a sweet passerby asked if he was quite alright. Colin made a note of this but left his notebook in the Brewdog pub. They had an enviable array of vegetarian options in the menu, he noticed. This is what distracted him perhaps.
Alighting the train, Colin saw F U C K B R E X I T graffiti and lots of cropped trousers. The exhibition that he was so excited about had ended two weeks ago—he had got his dates mixed up, and realised that he had left his diary in a café in Berlin. This is awful, he thought. To hide his shame and disappointment Colin puttered around the gallery gift shop and stress-bought an orange and grey chessboard that featured wooden blocks. He wondered who would play it with him, and hoped he wouldn’t lose any pieces along the way. He mentioned this hope to the woman at the checkout as he poured he chess pieces into his pockets.
She seemed concerned.
“Before you go,” she said, “would you like to sign a petition?”
“A petition to petition!” Colin said, delighted, and seized the pen handed out to him. “Of course! What is the petit problemmo?”
He was trying to impress upon her the fact he was relatively well-travelled.
“We’re crowdfunding for a life-size realistic polar bear puppet to wander the streets and beaches of Margate,” the cashier replied. She smiled warmly. “The campaign closes on the 22nd May, and we’re ever so excited.”
“Anything for polar bears,” Colin said, and signed up for more information with a curly, overelaborate flourish of the pen.
On exiting the gallery, Colin felt a renewed sense of purpose. He shielded his eyes against the Margate sun and tried once again to smell salt in the breeze. Not a single line of poetry was in his head and he felt marvellous. A seagull splattered his coat with a fresh greeting but Colin didn’t mind. He felt useful.
Due to a misunderstanding which is perhaps better glossed over, Colin then tried to save an Antony Gormley sculpture from the sea because he thought it was a man drowning. Realising his error, let’s just say that Colin finally lay back in the water, panting as gull drippings and wooden chess pieces bobbed all around him, and he wondered if he was letting things get to him a little. He wished he was a polar bear puppet. He wished he was the vast, crucial cool space between ‘Waste’ and ‘Land’ in ‘The Waste Land’. He convinced himself to buy a new notebook and a new diary and to take chess seriously. As water filled his ears and travel receipts fanned out around his head like a halo in the slate-grey Margate surf, Colin felt weightless for the first time that day. And then a hand grabbed him by the collar and hauled him bodily from the water.
Animals & Us, Turner Contemporary, Margate, 25 May – 30 September 2018
Journeys with “The Waste Land”, Turner Contemporary, Margate, Sat 3 Feb - Mon 7 May 2018
Another Time, Antony Gormley, Turner Contemporary, Margate, Sat 19 Aug 2017 - Fri 30 Nov 2018
Eley Williams is currently writer-in-residence at the University of Greenwich. Her collection of prose, Attrib. and other stories (Influx Press), was awarded the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018 and is shortlisted for the James Tait Memorial Prize 2018. A poetry pamphlet Frit is out with Sad Press.