We were never going to die.
By Ian C Smith
'Only trouble is interesting'
Cold December. A rental on the Kentish coast where I unscrew the meter to recycle some 50p coins
but we still shiver, hiding ourselves away, my addiction to the magic of being elsewhere waning,
Dungeness nuclear power station squatting on the horizon seen from the pebble beach where we
walk alone, gulls’ cries forlorn. Ramshackle tall buildings, perhaps bleak boarding houses, shadow
the foreshore skyline staring towards France. Beyond our rear fence at the edge of Romney Marsh a
miniature green passenger train whistles along a single track. Near the line a tethered billygoat
crops weeds, nettles, eyeballing us, stench rank. The area of marshland across the railway we
shortcut to New Romney’s shops, stepping on pebbles like those on the beach, was once ravaged by
the Black Death, and rife with malaria. Smugglers, owlers, for their nocturnal signals, prevailed in
dark, dank villages, some now gone forever.
Twice, reminders of what turned out to be those indelible days, alerted my senses: reading Paul
Theroux’s account of travelling right around the British coast, his reference to that train rousing
memories of its whistle’s echo; and Michael Portillo’s televised rail journeys crisscrossing Britain,
also about the train, and the past, when I was both far from home, and yet home, born in England,
partly growing up in Australia.
Eighteen months after setting out we moved to the coast, having researched an episode of a TV
programme climaxing in my feckless family members’ reunion following an age of separation.
Deceit, tragedy, bad blood, bigamy, and shame enough to blood an Elizabethan play revealed, the
deeper we dug the sadder we slumped, genealogical archaeologists mired in misery. The sun
seemed never to shine on those Spartan days, security in havoc, when our wardrobe consisted of
whatever could be stuffed into backpacks, yet we were briefly buoyed by our achievements
culminating in a frisson of glamour at a London television studio.
I can’t stop wondering how I would fare if I could burst back through time to land in the midst of
winter on that beach in the throes of overseas days, Channel wind ruffling my hair, almost broke,
collar turned up on my sailor’s pea jacket I wore constantly, an unmoored man on a moor with
anchor motifs on his buttons, the brilliant red lining keeping me warm instead of lurking unworn,
unseen on a hanger, no more cold wind for that coat now, no gulls’ cries, coat as memento. Despite
humdrum comfort, why these echoes like tinnitus, this unease?
Ian C Smith’s work has been published in Amsterdam Quarterly, Antipodes, BBC Radio 4
Sounds, cordite, The Dalhousie Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Stony Thursday Book, &
Two-Thirds North. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port
Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.