“THIS,” SAID THE MAN, extending his hand towards me, “is a shark’s tooth.”
“I’ve never seen so many.” He gestured to the ground. “Look: dozens.”
“Boy, it’s going to be a good day.”
All the while he had been speaking, I had been walking. I was walking when he first uncoiled his arm in my direction. I was walking when he swept his arm in a low circle around the beach. And I kept on walking until he was safely behind me and far out of hailing distance.
It was one of those kinds of conversations. A conversation you don’t want. He had initiated it. He was the one bent over on the sand clearly engaged in an activity I had no reason to disturb. He was the one who then called out as I trudged past a good dozen or so metres away. There was never any question of me stopping. For this was one of *those* conversations.
Actually, it wasn’t even a conversation. He addressed me from afar while I responded with the shortest possible bursts of politeness. He didn’t seem to mind. A few minutes later I turned back and saw him trying the same patter on another passing stranger. I remember thinking: they weren’t shark’s teeth, they were just bits of seashell.
It had been a day for awkward social encounters.
An hour or so earlier, on the National Express East Anglia train from London, I had gone to use the toilet. It was a cubicle with an electric door, instead of the more common handle that you turned. I pressed the button marked OPEN, and the door slid slowly back to reveal an elderly woman inside, mid-urination.
It was a short sharp gasp as if she was a character in a Noel Coward play that had just been goosed.
I turned away as fast as I could, muttering an apology. The door seemed to take an age to close.
Once it had, I skulked in the corridor, silently lamenting the fact that she was the one in the wrong, yet I was the one who had ended up saying sorry.
A minute or so later she emerged, trying but failing to avoid making eye contact. I felt like muttering something about not being at home now and how it’s common to lock toilet doors while you are inside. I didn’t, of course. I merely went into the cubicle myself, and stoically discovered that not only did she not know how to use a lock, she didn’t know how to use a flush either.
I didn’t have much to do with many other people that day. The only other person with whom I had an extended conversation was the woman on the checkout in the Co-op in Walton-on-the-Naze. She asked me if I had a loyalty card that had some impossibly grand name. One of the things I bought from her, a cheese and onion pasty, was to later keep me inside another toilet cubicle, this time on Frinton esplanade, for around 15 minutes.
I didn’t have much to do with many other people that day because they didn’t have much to do with me. I had travelled out to the Essex coast to spend the day walking from Walton to Clacton: a distance of some 10 miles.
A rich mix of elements was in play: bright sunlight, clear skies and a crisp winter chill. The weather had coaxed out a good few folk to do the same thing as myself, but we all kept ourselves to ourselves. I passed families, walkers, cyclists and fisherfolk, but there were no extensions of greetings or exchangings of pleasantries. Several of them eyed me with naked suspicion.
I’d been made to feel very much alone right from the off, when aside from a small cluster of siblings I was the only person to leave the train at Walton: the end of the line.
I’d rattled around the carriage while it rattled around me: a mutually convenient relationship, though I undoubtedly came off worst.
Trains no longer run direct from London to Walton, if they ever did. The only through service is to Clacton, an unsubtle acknowledgement of that town’s self-appointed role as a Seaside Resort rather than merely a Town On The Coast. As such I’d had to change at the fustily-titled Thorpe-le-Soken: less of a name and more of a provocation.
I later discovered that the single track that runs between Thorpe-le-Soken and Walton is part of what has been optimistically titled the Sunshine Coast Line.
It’s a moniker that extends all the way along to Colchester, and is one of the most tired examples of railway branding I think I have ever encountered.
If you’re the kind of person possessed with a desire to try and turn a public service into a product, at least bless it with something other than an observation about climate and geography (and an inaccurate one at that, as neither the coast or, you suspect, sunshine are ever much in evidence). Much more appealing, not to say logical, is its original name: the Tendring Hundred Railway Line.
It was at Thorpe-le-Soken that the journey started to become interesting, as the line neared the sea and the countryside switched from uniform farmland to something with a bit more character. Railway lines that terminate on the coast unquestionably have the edge over those that meet their end in a suburb or metropolis. How close to the shore will you end up? Will your carriage totter along the prom itself? Or might the line take you right to the water’s edge?
In this regard Walton bested Clacton by virtue of depositing me within sight of the North Sea.
The suspicion with which I was regarded varied in intensity along my route. There was a moderate degree of paranoia detectable within Walton, but you arguably always get this when visiting a seaside town out of season. North of Walton, up by the marvellous Naze Tower, a couple of people cast glances in my direction that were synthesised from contempt and pity. I ignored them completely, and instead inhaled every possible majestic angle.
I then turned south, passing back through Walton with its shark-tooth foragers and its disagreeable pasties and its lurid pier advertising sentiments with which I beg to differ.
The sunshine flattered the place.
Continuing south and staying close to the shore, you skirt the edge of Frinton-on-Sea, which is precisely where the population of Frinton-on-Sea would like you to stay. An invisible wall of prejudice encircles the outskirts of this aggressively exclusive town, which boasted no pubs until the year 2000 and which got itself into a lather of fury when Network Rail replaced the wooden gates at its level crossing with proper automated barriers. Anywhere that ranks sentiment over safety is worth leaving to its own devices.
Frinton nudges up next to Walton. Imagine what this means in practice. It must be like an episode of Never the Twain, but one that is unending and which involves entire communities instead of a pair of discomfited antique dealers.
What Frinton has been very careful to do is not to repeat this state of affairs with its other neighbour. Clacton is kept at a very long arm’s reach, several miles of open land away. A couple of second world war pillboxes also squat here, presumably ready for when the mutual enmity reaches full-on armed conflict.
I wasn’t in the best of moods by the time I arrived at Clacton. It was dark, I was tired and it had turned very cold very quickly.
I took an instant and unprincipled dislike to how gaudy and tatty the place looked, though the sight of a lifesize cardboard cut-out of Noel Edmonds leering from the doorway of one of the dozens of mammoth arcades suggested somebody somewhere had a sense of humour.
I’d also left it too late to properly appreciate any of the imposing Martello towers that, like Edmonds, loom up around the town. Like Noel, they date from the early 19th century and, like Noel, were deployed to lift the country’s morale at times of national crisis.
Maybe I’m being too hard on Clacton-on-Sea. It was responsible for serving up an image that will live long in the memory:
From the ignorance of solitude I ended the day a solitary among ignorants. Thanks, Colchester, for emptying into my train dozens of boozy bastards and noisy night-outers.
Is there a number I can ring to shop these sorts of people?
At least none of them went to the toilet with the door open.
And that’s the tooth.