SHIFTING BETWEEN TWO WORLDS IN THE WEST BAY | In Margot Wilson’s short story, a disappearance blurs the lines between reality and perception.
by Margot Wilson
I lost my trust in the world one day in September, by the sea. As I grow older I am used to the occasional lapse of memory. People tell me I no longer speak like they do, so I am hard to understand, but what happened on the last day of the school holiday was so much more than that.
We got off the train before it reached Margate because Leo felt sick. He’s eleven years old and had been totally absorbed in his Harry Potter book. For this reason the journey until then had been pleasant, with none of the usual bickering between Leo and his younger brother, Jacob.
Jacob had enjoyed a day at Broadstairs with his mother and friends from school and I hoped that he had got over his fear of the seaside. Try as we might to take his fear away, he was still terrified there would be a tsunami. Perhaps he sensed that this is where one mode of being changes into another. The seashore is a liminal space: the edge of the known world. Be that as it may, when we found ourselves at Birchington-on-Sea, he howled: ‘I haven’t come here to die.’
As so often, I said the wrong thing. ‘Oh yes, grandmas always bring their grandsons to die,’ and I realised that I should not have told him about the surge of water which had caused devastating floods in the Bahamas. After all, he had no idea where the Bahamas were.
I knew that the best thing was not to give in to his fear, so with a quick ‘Don’t go away’ Leo and I left him wailing on the steps and went down to the beach. We dug a channel in the sand, which was black underneath. When the incoming tide filled up the channel we rejoined Jacob and we all walked along the coast path by the side of the road.
‘Oh, take a picture of that house, Grandma,’ asked Leo. ‘I want to build one like that in Minecraft.’
So I took a picture of a large modern detached house with a huge picture window overlooking the sea.
We ate our falling-apart sausage sandwiches on a bench and watched the tankers sailing past.
It was not long before we came to the next bay. It had more golden sands and I hoped it would have toilets and a café. The map said it was Westgate Bay.
‘I think that is Margate,’ said Leo.
‘Yes, yes, that must be Margate,’ said Jacob, who, like his brother, had never been to Margate.
‘The map says Westgate Bay and Margate is just around that headland we can see from here.’
‘Let’s ask that man,’ said Leo
Weary of not being believed, I complied with his request and the fisherman confirmed that we were in what was known locally as the West Bay.
Many schools had already gone back after the holidays so the beach was almost empty as both boys started to build a castle before the tide came right in. I paddled in the sea which, at the end of summer, was still relatively warm but the boys were too absorbed by completing their task in time.
‘Quick! Quick,’ they shouted. ‘The sea is coming.’
I took a picture of the two of them digging in the sand: everything I had wanted for that day.
“Perhaps he sensed that this is where one mode of being changes into another. The seashore is a liminal space: the edge of the known world.”
When the tide rushed into the channel and surrounded the mound we had built, we went to the café. I had a welcome cup of tea and chocolate cake and the boys had two scoops of soft ice cream that dripped mercilessly over their jackets. Leo struggled to finish his.
As we walked away from the café, it seemed to me that the sky had darkened. The boys were behind, in conversation about what they would do that evening when they were allowed to go on their tablets. Then there was silence and when I turned around again there was just one boy.
‘Where is Jacob?’ I gasped, and Leo replied: ‘Jacob, who is Jacob?’
‘Jacob, your brother. Stop pretending, Leo, it’s not funny and we’re miles from home.’
‘I have no brother,’ replied Leo and he sighed.
‘What? Stop pretending. Where is he hiding?’
Leo continued to insist that he was an only child. By now I was in tears not only because of the loss of my second grandson but because of the cruelty of the first. We attempted to retrace our steps, calling out Jacob’s name and questioning the few people on the path.
‘Have you seen an eight-year-old boy? Tall for his age, curly light brown hair. He’s afraid of the sea. ‘
No-one had seen an eight-year-old boy. The fisherman was no longer there.
Leo, though clearly troubled, helped me to search for Jacob nevertheless. We went all the way back to the café, back along the beach. By now I was wondering if Jacob had indeed been carried off by a tsunami.
‘What is he like?’ Leo asked. ‘Does he look like me?’
‘You know what he looks like. He is taller than you and has curly hair. He’s slim and athletic like you.’
‘Taller than me,’ said Leo in disbelief. ‘I thought you said he was younger.’
‘Well he is, but he’s grown taller. He takes after his grandfather and you take after me.’
The policeman was friendly and obviously wished to help but Leo continued to say he had no brother.
‘We’ve put out a call to look for a boy of that description. Do you have any photos?’
‘Yes, yes, here’s the one I took earlier of the two of them.’
When I took out my phone, the photo of the house was there but the photo on the beach showed only one boy.
I had the impression that I was speaking a language that no-one understood.
‘Have you any relatives you can contact?’
‘The boys’ parents are at work. We live in London. I was waiting until I had found Jacob before I phoned them.’
The policeman wrote all this down and made sure he had my son and daughter-in-law’s numbers, which, unlike Jacob, had not vanished from my phone. He rang the numbers but they went straight to voicemail. Forcing myself to sound calm although my heart was thumping, I left a message explaining as far as I could, what had happened.
The policeman moved a little way from us. He was talking to his colleague. I longed for the news that Jacob had been found. The thought of him lost or kidnapped or even swept away by a freak wave was just too much to bear. Perhaps all his fears had been well founded after all.
Leo was very restless.
‘Rufus will be waiting for me. Come on, Grandma, let’s go home,’ he moaned.
I was too cross with him to reply. I started to walk towards the policeman but Leo dawdled and lagged behind me. I noticed that the sky had cleared and the sun had come out as it had in the morning. There was no sign of the policeman.
Then I heard a familiar voice and turned round.
There were two boys: Leo and, yes, there also was Jacob. The boys were deep in conversation about Minecraft as I rushed towards them and lifted Jacob off his feet, hugging him fiercely.
‘Where have you been? Where have you been?’ but their expressions said: ‘Has Grandma gone mad?’
I have never understood what happened that afternoon. Whatever it was, I am mighty glad I have two grandsons.
Margot Wilson | @margotwil
Margot Wilson is a grandmother and candidate in a local council by-election to be held next May. She spent time in lockdown on a virtual tour of France.