Home Coming: Sheppey Island and the Great British Caravan Park

An intimate tour of one writer's home town, one excruciating memory at a time.
29 January 2020, 12:16pm

"I think you'll be fine – it was 20 years ago, they probably won't recognise you."

'The word "probably" is doing a lot of work here,' I think, almost out loud, over the phone to my mum.

"All I know is that, once we left, your dad told me there had been threats made to all of our lives by a gang. I don't know what he was into, but it wasn't anything good. That's one of the reasons I promised to never go back there, but I'm sure you'll be fine! You were only little. Maybe just, don't wear anything too… obvious."

This is news to me. We only lived on the Isle of Sheppey, a small island just off the north coast of Kent, for a year, when I was aged six to seven. So I don't remember a huge amount.

What I do remember is that, from the beach at Sheerness – the biggest town on the island – you can see Southend-on-Sea across the Thames Estuary. I was once told that a man trying to sail along the Thames, out of London and to the Isle of Wight, had to be rescued near Sheppey. His grand navigation plan was to just keep the nearest landmass to his right – but he, like pretty much everyone I have ever met, was unaware of Sheppey. Setting off, he followed his plan and kept the coast starboard, but just ended up sailing around Sheppey until he ran out of fuel.

The whole idea of this column is to go home, to a place of familiarity, where the trees are carved with the names of your childhood crushes. Where the grooves worn into the roads bear your gait; where all your painful adolescent memories live, painted into bricks and mortar. So why am I going to a place I lived in for a year, two decades ago? Why aren't I going back to the place I grew up? Like, where I came from? Where is it again, that I come from?

If we were at a party, I'd gesticulate wildly, at nothing, to signify the fact I am from nowhere.

When I was born, my dad worked for a dairy. We lived in a little village outside of Taunton, but moved when I was about six months old to a holiday park in Exmouth, on the south coast of Devon.

For the next 11 years of my life, barring a year or so, we lived on holiday parks across the south of the country. There was one full of wooden lodges among forests in Dorset, another sprawled out between ancient dunes on the north Cornish coast. There was one perched on a clifftop in Norfolk and another set in bucolic Cotswold countryside. There was the one on the bleak Suffolk coast, and then there was Sheppey.

As a family, we rarely speak about the years before my mum and dad split up, in 2003. At the time, I didn't think I had a particularly bad or traumatic childhood. In fact, in some ways, it was quite the opposite. My mum poured so much love, affection and support into her four children that it was quite possible to feel drunk off it. It's only as I've got older and had short, stolen conversations with her that the extent of the abuse we all experienced at my dad's hands became apparent.

It's taken years to realise that flinching because you've noticed the look your dad gets in his eyes before he loses his shit isn't normal. That distorting your inner self to defend yourself from another of your father's psychological onslaughts isn't how everyone lives.

When I was eight, we were living in Dorset. It was perhaps the most idyllic of all the places we lived, with rolling hills packed full of trees. One day, dad got the look in his eyes. My mum threw us in the car and sped off. She drove around for hours, before parking up by the sea and waiting. We had nowhere to go. No place that was safe. Eventually, she switched the car on and drove back to him.

I often think about what life would have been like if we'd had somewhere to go on that day. If she'd found a refuge, a place of sanctuary. Whether memories of my childhood would be more than small snippets of joy and laughter, sheltering in the spaces between the endless white metal boxes of the great British caravan park.

As it is, that's not what happened. It would be another five years before she'd leave him. Another 12 before I'd finally be rid of him. So our childhoods and my mum's formative years – she was 20 when she had me – were spent in places like Sheppey.

Home Coming: Lagos

As I drive over the bridge that connects the island to the mainland, I expect to feel something. To be hit by a wall of memories I've boxed off into my head. To feel the release of emotions that have weighed me down for decades, anchoring it in a past that didn't feel like mine.

I expect to be freed, just a little bit.

Alas, no such luck. Instead, I feel numb. Alienated. Entirely separate from the previous versions of myself.

The caravan park hasn't really changed. We park up next to the chalet I lived in, and I feel nothing. The swimming pool that had been the site of an illegal rave where someone somehow ended up paralysed looks exactly as I remember, but evokes nothing in me. I walk down the rows of caravans, searching for a sliver of a recollection, but nothing comes. The park is cold and empty, as they often are in the off season.

In the summer, these parks seem to radiate a hazy yellow hue. A flat-pack idyl marketed to working class families all over the country. The parks are noisy places full of people "unwinding and relaxing". There are clubs and bars, pools, playgrounds and amenities minutes from your front door, amid an ever changing throng of holidaymakers. It was a giant show, the actors changing each week as one group left and another arrived the next Saturday. Like a TV show, we would watch – never on camera, always from a distance. For us, it wasn't a holiday, it was a home – of sorts.

I pick my way around the park, still searching for something to jog my memory, and am finally rewarded with the steely cold fingers of anxious recognition that slide their way down my neck and clasp at my throat.

In front of me is the small reception area that used to contain my dad's office. I watch the seven-year-old me hopping up the steps, my hand in the hand of a man, Brian, who was to become my dad's best friend. As Brian sits down at his desk, I clamber around and sit on his lap, doodling in a pad, chatting happily away about whatever stupid shit was in my head, waiting for my dad to return.

The desk and the office fizzle as the memory ends, reforming into the tarmac and the giant, iron-clad buildings on a deserted industrial estate in Cornwall.

It's ten years later and I'm secretly living in the back room of the offices of the company my dad works for. I stand outside, smoking a cigarette I've constructed with tobacco salvaged from discarded butts. Two headlights cut across the car park, finding me and blinding me. The car parks up and Brian steps out.

Upstairs, on the conference table, he cuts line after line of powdery drugs. Bigger and bigger and bigger each time. The memories of what he did to me on the sofa-bed hidden in a tiny cupboard next door jerk me back to the present, installing in me a desperate desire to leave the park.

Sheppey is always grey. I have memories of the roads and the grass and the buildings all being slightly dulled, ever on a clear summer's day – like a thin film of grease and dirt had been lifted up from the Thames and draped over the island.

As we walk through the town I scan the faces of people who look my age, to see if any of them recognise me – still conscious of the ancient threats hanging over my familial head, but more just to see if they remember me. If I'd made an impact, here, or anywhere?

A few years after I lived on this island, I found myself back by the sea again.

I think I was 11 or 12, and it was my first day at a new school.

Every school I went to, I got bullied. It was merciless. Unending. Horrific. Mostly words, sometimes also physical. I was an effeminate child. I was also very clever, almost certainly to the point of being obnoxious. I was loud and creative and silly. I was always the new kid, and thus the easiest of targets.

It happened in a geography lesson. I remember because I was colouring a map and looking out of the big windows towards the sea, which was sweeping the faraway shores clean. As I coloured, boys from the class came over. One by one, they'd put their hand on my shoulder and say, "Hey Ben, how's your first day?" or, "Hey, that's good – how're you doing?"

I remember trying so hard not to cry. All I could think in my head was, 'OMG OMG OMG.' For the first time ever, the first thing I encountered at a school wasn't hostility. It wasn't whispers, or people moving so I couldn't sit next to them. It wasn't sitting in the loo, eating my lunch in a cubicle and hearing other kids talk about me: "You seen that new gay kid?" "Ha, yeah, faggot." It wasn't being laughed at or humiliated or mocked. It was a nice, genuine, happy interaction.

When the bell rang, I turned around and smiled at the boys. I was happy. Deliriously so. A smile painted itself across my prepubescent face, the edges of it reaching up to touch my ears. I gathered my stuff and skipped out towards the playground.

Home Coming: Honor Oak

I was almost out the door when I heard: "Umm, Ben, can you come here please?"

It was the teacher, motioning me back into the classroom.

"What's that on your back?"

Over the course of the hour-long lesson, each one of the boys had taken a turn to stick football stickers all over my back. There were dozens of them on there.

I got the bus home that day. I remember sitting alone, clutching my school bag, watching raindrops cut through the salt encrusted onto the windows.

The road from the bus stop home was potholed. I think most roads by the sea are. Maybe it's something to do with the air; more likely it's a testament to the poverty of the areas I grew up in. The roads on Sheppey's shoreline are no different.

That shoreline is dominated by a giant seawall. Tucked just between it and the water is a crumbling promenade. I sit on it and look out to sea. I think about the birthday parties I had as a kid, which I invited my whole class to, only for no one to turn up. Watching my mum try to keep the energy up, but seeing in her eyes how crushingly sad it all was. How often both of our lives have been crushingly sad and lonely.

When I was younger, I thought it was my fault. The one thread that stretched through all of these experiences, incidents and events, pulling them tight to one another, was me. I went from place to place, park to park, school to school, and it was always the same. No place felt safe. No place felt like home, and I was the one common denominator.

When I left home at 16, I wanted to find out what it was – what I'd done, or was doing, to make it happen. I knew I was to blame, but just wasn't quite sure how. I tried to slice it away from myself, carving bits of my flesh away to unearth a toxicity underneath and bleed it out. I tried to force it up out of myself, thrusting my fingers further and further down my throat, so that they might scoop it out. Tried to snort it away, to steal a glance of it in the reflection at the bottom of a pint glass. Stared deep into the full stop at the end of a suicide note, hoping that little round circle would unravel and spell it out.

Thing is, not to get all Good Will Hunting on you, but I'm now about 80 percent sure it is definitely not my fault. Mind you, even though I've pretty much accepted that premise, it still doesn't explain why or how it all happened.

Coming to Sheppey, I'd hoped to find something that would help to explain. An answer. A reason. A rationale behind it all. I thought maybe I'd find some vindication, or at least a way to move through my brain in a way that hurts a little less. Maybe I'd finally find a place where the ground isn't saturated with memories so painful they've stopped any roots from growing.

The reality is, I was never going to find that on Sheppey, or in any other place I've lived.

"We are the road we've travelled," my mum always tells me – and I think, to a certain extent, that's true. But looking back to find out who we are, excavating sadness and pain you've already felt in the hope of finding a grain of truth or happiness within it, feels like a fool's game. If you've always got your gaze backwards, surely you'll just end up with the land on your right, circling around and around, until you've run out of fuel.

@bencsmoke / @christopherbethell