Fiction | In Margate by Lunchtime by Maggie Harris

Cultured Llama Publishing, 2015, 182pp

Maggie HarrisThe apparent banality of the title story belies the richness in Maggie Harris’s anthology, which layers the history of the towns of the Thanet coastline and the many different people who have lived there, from the pre-Christian times of ‘Bright Island’ to the uneasy contemporary mix in ‘Butterflies’, where cocky Margate boys share a classroom with children who have seen dark things in countries far from these shores of the south-east of England.

Maggie Harris is skilled in evoking the poignancy of small moments. In ‘Butterflies’ there is a Somali boy, ‘a small, bird-boned boy who had yet to say a word’.  Suraya, who has come from another country where she has experienced her own tragedy, looks out of the classroom window:

As she watched, two of the green birds that lived in the park dropped down onto the windowsill. The gaze of the Somali boy moved from one to another. Suraya saw him twitch sometimes when there was a sudden noise, like a chair falling, or one of the boys throwing something loud again the wall.

The green birds fly through the book, providing a neat link with Maggie Harris’s own Caribbean heritage, and as the talking bird in ‘I, Parakeet’ says in the opening piece, ‘Where there’s feathers there’s tales.’

It is thought that the population of wild parakeets in Britain is descended from escapees from a cage in Northdown Park, Margate in 1969, so it is appropriate that they should take their place in the cast of characters in the history of this area, providing touches of colour and life, as at the sad end of ‘The Three Sisters’, where with just a few words Maggie Harris paints a complete picture:

In the trees the birds held fire.

Birds appear in different guises too – in ‘Alice’ it is people who, to Alice’s drugged mind on a night out, have been transformed, and the Ladies is:

…full with flocks of starlings and parakeets, fingers fluffing hair, unrolling tubes of crimson lipstick.

Later in the story Alice herself, in her flight from the nightclub, takes on animal characteristics:

Her feet became a fawn’s, small-hoofed and dainty as they negotiated the mosaic floor, elbows morphing from bone to feather, giving her flight up the spiralled stairs and out into the foyer where the bouncers turned and opened the door where the wind was waiting.

In ‘The Parakeet Café’ there are no birds, indeed the café of that name itself is long gone from Margate, but Dilys returns to the town redolent with memory for her in order to perform a promised act. It is a touching story. Another such is ‘Scamp’, in which Hilary’s Grandad tells her what happened to animals in the wartime.

These are heart-warming stories, set in real locations in the area known as The Isle of Thanet, though the rivers which once defined it as an island as now largely silted up. Maggie Harris reflects the changing times through and in some cases within her stories. In ‘The Shepherdess’ the past reaches into the present in a neatly-written juxtaposition of two searches. This small corner of England has seen many changes over the centuries, described in beautifully poetic terms in ‘The Flight Path’.

There are links to the author’s Caribbean roots in ‘Clyde the Calypsonian’ and ‘When Benjamin Zephaniah Came to Broadstairs’. In these brief tales she conveys the complexities of relationships, her language capturing the different voices of people. For me she is less convincing in her attempts to speak in certain stories as one particular individual, but all credit to her for the variety in her stories, which are never merely sentimental and have moments which will bring the unsuspecting reader up short. The members of a library-based reading group enjoy their discussion in ‘Talking Books’, but for the librarian life is less jolly, and this is conveyed by Maggie Harris is a few choice and insightful words at the end of the story.

There are two longer stories in the collection which work particularly well. In the title story Charlie goes by road and Bertie by sail in a race from London to Margate, aiming to get there ‘by lunchtime, wind or no wind, horse or neigh’.

The story, set in the advent of the steamboats, is alive with the noises and discomforts of the challenge, and here too, though long before the parakeets escaped into the wild in Margate, is a talking parrot!

‘The Mermaid Tour’ is another kind of journey, this one round the many sights of the area in which all these stories are set. And why should one not be guided by a mermaid on a motor scooter? It is a nice conceit. From this story and the others in the anthology it is clear that this corner of England is one with many fascinations, past, present and future – Dreamland, the UK’s original pleasure park mentioned in some of Maggie Harris’s stories as one of Margate’s former glories, has recently reopened after an £18million restoration.

These are vivid stories, well-told, and Maggie Harris does a good job of linking them together, especially with her ‘incandescent birds’. With all the details of actual places which she includes I just would have liked a map to be included in the book, to help me locate the stories precisely. That would be a welcome extra dimension to a fascinating insight into this part of England and its people. The Thanet Tourist Offices in Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate would do well – if they have not already done so – to stock copies of this book to sell to visitors.