Waiting for Chicken Smith
Waiting for Chicken Smith is a picture book about memory and tradition. It’s also a story about change and what we can’t do about it.
Growing up, my family would pack the car and head to the beach every Christmas for two weeks. We found some holiday flats right behind the dunes and the sand was straight outside the door. The flats were basic: brick walls, chenille bedspreads and a black and white TV set with an aerial that was bent like a pretzel and only one visible channel. There was one of those little two-door toasters and a Hotpoint kettle with a fraying cord. The shower cubicle was always full of sand and the bedroom I shared with my sister had a crooked chest of drawers that had a quilt folded in the bottom drawer that would never ever be used. It was perfect.
However, despite the comforting sameness of the flat, I was mostly interested in seeing my friends who holidayed at the same apartments and would certainly be there when we pulled onto the gleaming white quartz gravel driveway. Every year. It was the only time we would see them throughout the year. In fact, I didn’t even really know where they lived the rest of the time. We didn’t speak or hear of one and other outside of two special weeks at Christmas. Chicken was the kid I liked best and we were mates.
For those two weeks, me and Chicken (and the others) would own the flats, the barbecue area outside of the flats, the dunes from the flats to the beach, the whole beach, the headland, the lighthouse at the top of the headland and the little shop where we’d go for milkshakes and chips. The little shop was at the outer edge of our territory and crossing over the main road to the other side was not even an option because we didn’t know any kids there and besides, it was getting further from the beach and so what was the point? Chicken was part of my family, and I his. He would have lunch with us and I’d have a barbecue with him and his family on a Saturday night.
The little shop was a haven for everyone and we’d find ourselves there after being at the beach all day, or just for a break from the heat at lunchtime. The shop was dark and cool inside with messy shelves that held ancient things: mosquito coils, cheap surfboard wax, bottles of glycerine, turpentine, pink zinc and packets of multicoloured sponges for the kitchen and plastic pegs. There was a big rusting drinks fridge at the front door that had a bottle opener on the side and a cigarette machine that only stocked two brands even though the front said seven. The shop sold food too: chip loafs (a hollowed out white, unsliced loaf of bread stuffed with hot chips) and potato scallops. There were other things, but nearly exclusively carbohydrates. We’d drink chocolate or strawberry milk in cartons to wash down the chips, then sit playing the machines and the pinball until the money was gone.
Before I even arrived at the beach, the journey consisted of a two hour car conversation about what I couldn’t do when we got there. That is, I couldn’t just disappear with the other kids and not spend some time with my family. This bargain lasted for about 24 hours before I lapsed back into the routine of being lost somewhere with Chicken Smith on the beach, in the surf or up at the little shop.
The book considers the idea of the absence of something that had become part of your experience of a place. One year Chicken’s not there, and things aren’t the same.
With Chicken not playing an active part in the pictures, I needed him to dominate the story in spirit, in a way that longing for something can dominate your mind when you’re a child. The boy recounts what he likes about his summer holidays and Chicken is there, even though his holiday apartment is closed shut.
Remembering the details is easy for me and drawing the world of the beach back then was a pleasure. It’s still my ideal of living by the sea: no frills, surfside, barefoot, time on my hands and your friends around.
I used pieces of paper to make parts of the pictures, (it fits somehow with the dry summery world of the beach) and the clumsiness of the cutting out suits my lazy holiday ideal. The drawing is done with an oil pencil and coloured pencils and charcoal. I’ve used ink here and there, whatever is handy at the time. I wanted the isolation of the narrator to come through whilst the narrative of the good times with Chicken Smith is engulfing him. A picture book is a good medium for showing something like this because multiple ideas can be presented on the same page and you can rely on the reader to put the pieces of the narrative together in their head.
In reality, I didn’t know someone called Chicken Smith. But there were plenty of kids I’d see each year at the holiday flats who were there one year and absent the next. In time, my family found a different perfect spot by the beach and that year we drove north up the coast instead of south and I met new Chicken Smiths over the years we holidayed there. We didn’t return to the old beach, but I do whenever I’m in town.