A Different Coast

It is the dead of night

 The long dead look out towards

The new dead

Walking towards them

There is a soft heartbeat as the dead embrace

Those who are long dead

And those of the new dead

Walking towards them

They cry and they kiss

As they meet again

For the first and last time.

“Meeting” – Harold Pinter

 

 

I told my wife I was going for my usual stroll. My usual stroll was through the park and along through the cemetery, and then I’d loop back again and come back. The particulars of the walk are unimportant. I went that way because I liked the peace in the cemetery. There was never more than a few living people in there at one time, and it was easy to get some quiet.

Occasionally I would read some of the graves. I would read the names on the headstones and any inscription. I like history. Acknowledging those who lived here, long before I existed, seemed a correct thing to do for some reason. I’m unsure exactly why. I suppose those who are buried are the lucky ones – much luckier than those who are cremated. A headstone is a blue-plaque for the unknown.

One time, on my usual stroll, I stopped and sat on one of those slatted wooden benches they have in the cemetery. It’s got a brass plate screwed into it which says ‘In loving memory of William Brown – a real gentleman’, though I’ve never been able to find his headstone anywhere.

I sat down and took a sip from the flask that I carry. (A small, silver one – a present to myself – which slips in and out of the old inside pocket with agreeable ease and frequency.) I looked about, taking a minute. Then I saw something which held my attention. I was sat close to a small shed – not much more than a wooden box. It looked like a place where a gardener would keep some tools, or a wheelbarrow or something. Leaning against the side of it was one of those tall bins on wheels. What caught my attention was the message daubed on the front of it. The message was ‘No Hot Ashes’. I looked at it for several seconds, as if I was trying to decipher what it meant. I realised soon enough what it meant wasn’t what bothered me about it. That there was a rule which said a bin should have no hot ashes placed in it was clear enough. What bothered me was lurking just under the surface of my thoughts, and didn’t want to be uncovered. I know myself well enough. That message made me change my usual stroll for another one. I didn’t want to see that message again.

From then on, I took a different route for my stroll. I’d still go through the park, but rather than going through the cemetery, I’d turn towards the shops, dart along a footpath which lead to a set of steep steps up to the cliffs. There was a splendid walk to be had along the cliffs, so long as you could manage the climb up and I suppose not everyone could manage it. A quick snort from the old flask usually gave the required boost. It was worth the effort for the view.

Along the cliff-path were more of those slatted benches where you could sit and admire the view out to sea. The water would carry you out to where it touched the sky if you allowed it to. The view was as clear as that. You know what people say, that on a clear day you can ‘see forever’? The view was a bit like that.

I was sat on a bench, wondering how far the horizon was, when a man appeared at the top of the steep steps and strolled over. He sat down and caught his breath while dabbing his brow with a black handkerchief. I offered a polite nod – just an acknowledgment. It seemed the correct thing to do. Once he had his breath – and I knew he was going to do this – he decided to speak.

‘Takes it out of you,’ he said, slapping his lap. ‘Worth it, though. Look at that view.’ He looked at me. ‘Worth it?’

‘Always,’ I replied. ‘Better when it’s quiet like this, though: no dogs barking or running about the place.’

‘Absolutely,’ he said, looking out to sea again. He pinched his nose, sniffed, and slapped his lap. ‘Right,’ he said, standing up, ‘enjoy your day.’ With that he got up and carried on along the path which dipped slightly and within a moment or so took him out of view.

He was friendly enough, I thought. I admired the view for a few minutes longer, then set off the way the man had gone. I knew well enough where the path I was on would lead. It dropped slightly, stayed alongside the cliff-edge for about 100 yards, then turned away from the edge and dropped, steeper still, down to the normal world of traffic and shops and noise.

That night I woke up some time in the early hours, sweating a little, and trying to catch my breath. I rolled out of bed in something of a panic, and my wife woke up and wanted to know why I was kneeling on the floor, gasping for breath like I’d just run a marathon.

 

*

I explained I’d had a nightmare, that it was nothing to worry about. She persisted in telling me to get ‘looked at’ and make sure everything was okay. She acted worried, though for someone worried was calmed easily. I didn’t hold that against her – why should I? I’m not a romantic in any sense of the word.

She looked up something called ‘sleep apnea’ online and decided to become an expert in this topic, thinking that my little ‘moment’ of breathlessness was due to this condition. I pointed out that, if that were the case, then moments of breathlessness would happen most nights, but it had only happened once. She did agree I had a point.

I decided to get out the house and go for more walks. My wife didn’t want to come along but agreed exercise was a very good idea. It was always worth it.

The next afternoon I ventured out again and, after stopping at the newsagent to buy a discreet bottle of top-up for the old inside pocket, went up to the cliff-path by the way I had come down the other day. It wasn’t as steep as the steps, but still hard work; as always, the view was worth it.

The man I had spoken to briefly was sat on another bench, staring out to sea. I was huffing and puffing a bit, so decided to sit down next to him. He didn’t acknowledge me, though: he was concentrating on the horizon.

‘Dammed fine view, that,’ I said. Then he looked at me, expressionless, like he was in a trance brought on by the horizon.

‘Could I have a quick drop of the old you know what?’

‘Sorry?’ I said.

He nodded in the direction of my jacket.

I twigged what he was getting at. ‘Oh, right – yes!’ I took out the silver flask, unscrewed it, and offered it over. He took two good swallows then handed it back.

I quickly put it back in the old inside pocket.

‘Thanks,’ he said.

I nodded as if to say you’re welcome and was about to introduce myself – you know the thing, offer out the old fashioned handshake – when he got up, and quite calmly walked toward the edge and then walked right over without looking back.

For a moment I had to question if I’d seen what I knew I had seen. You know how your brain registers and event, but if it’s unexpected, the mind sort of suffers a delay in recognition? I’m no expert, but it was something like that. I hurried over to the edge and got as close as felt safe and peered over. It was a few perhaps a hundred feet to the rocks and water below, but there was no sign of him. He’d been wearing red trousers, which I thought would have been easy to spot, but there was nothing. My heart was thudding and I looked around quickly, wondering if anyone else saw him go over, but there was nobody about. I couldn’t hear even a dog barking in the distance.

I grabbed at my coat pockets, in a panic to find a phone, but there was only the familiar lump of the flask. I thought I had my phone with me, but obviously not. I was thinking I’m supposed to be phoning the bloody coastguard or someone now, but the way he calmly stepped over the edge made me think all was well about things. That might sound weird, but he was so calm about it.

I thought then that calling the coastguard was a waste of time in any case, because nobody hitting those rocks would survive. What would they do? There was actually a little bit of beach down below a person could get to, but the geography made things difficult, and it was a twenty minute walk to get back down the steps, then take the scenic route almost out of town before doubling back along the main beach; and even then things were fiddly because there was a walk across the rocks to get to the bit of hidden beach down below. I’d been all over the rock when I was a kid, but that was some time ago.

I didn’t know what to do. If I ignored it, I couldn’t tell my wife, but If I didn’t ignore it, I’d have to tell her. I decided I’d call the police and report the incident, explaining I didn’t call earlier because I had no phone on me at the time. This felt like a solid plan, so I made for home.

 

*

I told my wife excitedly what had happened. I left out no details. I’d seen this chap before, and that this time – after no more than a ‘hello’ – he just got up of the bench and walked calmly off the cliff edge! I told her I’d seen nothing like it and that he didn’t even hesitate – not for a moment did he hesitate! I thought she’d be somewhat more excited, but she just smiled and said, how terrible it was that someone would do that.

‘I’m going to call the police,’ I said.

My wife gave me one of those ‘good-for-you’ play punches in the shoulder and passed me the phone. I called them, but not on the emergency line, just the normal ‘report something’ line: the same line people use for reporting cats up trees, noisy neighbours or a stolen car or something. It wasn’t long before I was through all the ‘push one for whatever’ business. I started by telling them my name and address, and then got down to it. The police person didn’t seem in any kind of hurry. It was an older sounding voice, possibly male.

‘And they didn’t say anything? The man just jumped off the cliff?’

‘That’s right. Just like I said: we said hello, then he just got up and walked off. He didn’t jump, though. He just walked off. He just calmly stepped off the edge.’

‘And nobody else saw this? There was nobody around from whom you could have borrowed a phone. It was an emergency, after all.’

‘I get that but if there was nobody there, then what could I do?’

‘Are you sure there was nobody else there? Think about it. Are you sure there was nobody else there? Maybe you just didn’t see them?’

‘No,’ I said – although it made me think for a moment – ‘there was nobody else there. I would remember seeing them.’

There was just breathing down the line for a moment or two. Then the voice spoke again.

‘Maybe there was somebody else there, but you just forgot you spoke to them for five minutes?’

This made me scared for some reason. Who was on the other end of the phone?

‘Don’t be scared – just think about things. How did he know you had that flask on you?’

I started to feel a little dizzy, and the hairs on my arms were standing up. I quickly looked about but my wife had disappeared.

‘How do you know that?’ I asked. ‘How could you – ‘

‘Go back and do it again. But this time pay more attention.’

The line went dead.

 

*

I bought two small bottle of the old top-up at the shops and started up the steps. I’d walked the steps plenty of times but they were heavy going. The air was heavier this time. By the time I was at the top I was out of breath and needed to take a minute. I decided to sit for a minute and that’s when I saw him sat on the bench.

It was the same man, no mistake. He even wore the same red trousers. It was obviously him, but at the same time it obviously couldn’t have been him. I walked over and sat down. He didn’t look at me.

I got my breath a little more and spoke, but I didn’t look at him. For some reason I couldn’t do that yet.

‘Takes it out of you,’ I said. ‘Worth it, though. Look at that view.’ I looked at him then, but wished I hadn’t.

He was smiling, but had tears in his eyes.

‘I suppose you prefer things when they’re quite?’

‘Yes,’ I said. That’s all that came out.

He kept smiling and turned towards the water. ‘Who’s go is it? It’s your turn.’

I knew he was right.

The weather was good, there were no clouds in the sky and the sea was calm all the way to the horizon. There was a breeze, but the air was still warm.

You can’t fight the tide, you can only ride it as best you can, but there’s no stopping it. I stood up and left him on the bench and walked towards the edge, feeling the breeze and the warmth on my face. I peered over the edge and saw the waves breaking against the rocks far below. As the rocks rushed closer I knew I was smiling.

This never hurt for long.

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