Originally published by the Quietus
Howling wind wakes him before dawn. He slides across the futon, feet finding carpet. He hadn’t expected to sleep. He tries to recall his dream – thinks it may be important, under the circumstances – but has only a fleeting sensation of part of it having taken place on a train. He lets it go, switches on a lamp.
Standing at the kitchen counter he eats two pieces of toast from a loaf bought as he drove into town late last night – the expensive stuff, studded with seeds. As he eats he looks out the window at the darkened courtyard, pot plants upturned and trees twisting in the wind. He thinks back to the summer his mother bought this flat as a holiday home, how she’d joked about the pensioners that populated the place, the minimum age required for purchase; how she and his father had entered what she called ‘a grey area’. He’d ignored the joke at the time. They weren’t old.
He washes and dries his plate, reassembles the futon, switches off the boiler before locking up. Outside the cold air claws at him – he hadn’t banked on it being so cold. Wind wails in the trees and unsteadies his footsteps as he walks to the car. Once inside he sits a moment with the heating on, breathing on his hands and looking out the windscreen at a crescent moon and a single star in seeming alignment over neighbouring fields. He keeps the lights off as he rolls down the drive, turns them on once he is out in the country lanes.
He catches himself smiling in the rear view mirror. The act of driving is such a rarity that it never fails to spin him back to the summer day when he’d passed his test, driven alone to school, pulled into the car park to find Lucy Sanderson standing by the language department, arms full of folders. He’d parked beside her, leaned out the window and asked if she’d wanted to go for a spin – so unlike him that he felt he might burst into flames as the words left his mouth. She hadn’t said yes or no, just looked around and climbed in the passenger side.
He’d driven out the gates and down the hill. After a couple of minutes he’d switched on the tape player, and the car had rung out with the album he’d prepared to listen to in celebration after the test, but had forgotten to play. Down at the New Amsterdam, staring at this yellow haired girl Mr Jones strikes up a conversation. He’d turned and looked at Lucy, who had caught his eye and laughed, her blonde hair dancing in the breeze from the open window. He didn’t want to look too long for fear she’d disappear.
When he felt they’d gone far enough he’d turned around and driven back to school. Nothing said between them, not even when he’d dropped her at the language building and she’d picked her folders off the back seat and stood outside, leaning on the passenger window a moment and smiling quizzically in at him. Then she was gone, skirt swishing as she disappeared into the red brick building, and he was back on the road. Lay me down in a field of flame and heather, render up my body into the burning heart of god in the belly of a black winged bird. It was only later that he’d considered the possibility that, had he tried to kiss her, she might not have refused. Might have allowed him. Might even have encouraged him.
He’d known then that Lucy Sanderson wasn’t like the others. She never taunted him about his towering size or his geological slowness, never mocked him for his academic underachievement despite his bookishness, despite his head full of useless facts, despite the claims of certain liberal teachers – those that didn’t laugh at him along with the students – that he might be some sort of idiot savant, in possession of some uncanny academic power that might land him a place at Oxbridge (claims they had quickly distanced themselves from once his exam results came through the following summer). She’d been 18 then, which made her 36 now. He pictures her as a doctor or lawyer, tries to imagine her husband and children, the whole family gathered around a dinner table or Christmas tree.
He’d kept an eye out for her in town that summer after school, days he’d spent in the library, wearily toeing the line that he was still researching potential careers despite his reading being limited to the religious practices of ancient Egypt, his area of interest at the time. He’d kept an eye out for her in the public park, where he’d sat each lunchtime with his Walkman and his sandwiches until the afternoon he was attacked by a group of boys who’d been expelled from the year below him. And he’d kept an eye out for her on the bus home, seated at the front with the old folk and adopting their slumped demeanour, the cynical way they watched the town roll by – the rain coloured multi-storey car parks, the office blocks to let, the people swarming like insects in and out of openings. A town full of dead ends, though even then he’d sensed the presence of something endless and nameless beyond the clouds; even then he would sometimes imagine himself kicking free of the earth and swimming upwards to meet it, the towns below him shrinking to single cell life forms, lungs bursting as he fought to escape the atmosphere and break into the infinite beyond.
It’s almost 6am when he arrives at West Bay. He picks a spot in the middle of the deserted car park, tries to buy a ticket from a machine that isn’t working. Thinks about leaving a note, decides against it. He passes unlit pubs and tackle shops, pauses at the spot on the harbour where he had once sat as a child dangling for crabs. Remembers how they had circled a while in the bottom of his bucket before stopping and just sitting there, waiting for the end. How the thrill of catching them had paled in comparison to the wonder of tipping them back into the water and watching them scamper away.
He follows the path to the seafront, stands with his back to the wind and looks out on to the rolling black ocean. A handful of lights from fishing boats wink like stars on the horizon, the first hint of sunlight creeping through cracks in the cloud. Behind him, the wind rattles a sign outside the stand where his grandmother had once bought him ice creams. He remembers her telling him how she and his grandfather had come to this beach at dawn for a walk on the morning he’d been sent to the war, and found themselves surrounded by couples seeking solitude for tearful farewells of their own. He looks out at the sandstone cliffs rising in columns over a spit of shingle to his left, finds himself picturing dozens of couples walking like ghosts in the shadow of the rocks, embracing amid spray from the waves.
He thinks of his father lying on the floor of the garden shed, surrounded by fragments of the plant pot he’d been tending to when a heart attack had killed him where he stood. He’d been in his bedroom reading about how souls were ferried across the mythological River Styx when his mother’s cry had reached him from the end of the garden. He had earmarked his page before descending the stairs, Dante’s description of that mournful crossing echoing with every step.
He follows the promenade west, cuts on to the path straddling the ragged Jurassic cliffs as they rise towards Golden Cap. The wind tears at his clothes and howls in his ears as he climbs. Seagulls play in the currents of air that rush around the cliff edge, wheeling and diving and barking in what sounds like amusement.
Memories come to him unbidden, like a box of photographs upturned on a table and picked at random. He finds himself recalling how his father had set up a telescope in his bedroom on the evening of his tenth birthday, shown him how to use the constellation wheel and retired with a smile, leaving him to an open window and a clear September night. An hour later he’d marched downstairs to inform them that it was all wrong; that there were no constellations, no pattern to the stars – that it was just a visual fluke of Earth’s place in the universe. He recalls how his father’s face had fallen.
He remembers the weekend five years ago when he’d surprised his parents by accompanying them on a trip to the new flat, cramped in the back of the car with pot plants and a picnic hamper, his father stealing occasional disbelieving glances in the rear view mirror. The following day he’d walked with them to Bridport market, where he’d bought a 170 million-year-old ammonite chipped from the Charmouth cliffs he’d once clambered around as a child, and later they’d sat in Bucky Doo Square eating sandwiches, surrounded by tourists and pigeons like any other family. He’d been tracing a finger along the fossil’s polished spiral when he’d looked up and seen his mother and father smiling at him, hope like colourful bunting strung between them.
He remembers the day last year when his mother had come home in tears following a routine hospital checkup. He’d been researching Jacobean witchcraft trials at the time, and over subsequent weeks and months his reading had been interrupted by the doorbell and the phone as a procession of doctors and relatives called or stopped by. Once a day he and his mother ate dinner at opposite ends of the table like an estranged couple. There was no anger between them, just nothing left to say. He’d been holding her hand when she passed away in the hospice on the stroke of new year, ten days ago now. There were cheers and fireworks from the far side of the river, and in the stillness her face had flashed white and red from the light show outside.
That was the moment that he felt whatever had been tying him to the earth this last few years finally come untethered; felt himself floating high above the bowling alleys and the boarded up boozers, the sounds of cars and conversations flattened by distance. That was when he had finally glimpsed the vast otherness that awaited him on the far side, cosmic clouds like wings unfolding.
A sudden squall of cold rain, seemingly brighter than the air around it, starts without warning and stops just as suddenly. The cliff path is descending now, winding its way towards the beach at Eype. He walks side-on to avoid slipping on mud, bracing his feet against rocks, occasionally stooping to steady himself with a hand on the grass. At the bottom he walks through a small pass in the cliffs and out on to a shingle beach dotted with upturned wooden boats, their frames battered, paint peeling. He sizes them up before settling on a two-man tub with the name Eloise, lifts it to check for oars before flipping it all the way over. He takes its frayed rope in hand and drags it with great effort towards the water, breathing hard and fast through his nose, clenching his teeth as the sea rushes to meet him, filling his socks and trousers, tumbling stones cackling in the surf. He presses on, knows there will be plenty of time later to feel cold. A slackening of the rope tells him that the boat is now waterborne, but he doesn’t dare turn around, instead wades harder into the waves until suddenly the shingle bar drops beneath him and he is up to his shoulders, crying out at the shock, his brain fizzing with instructions, only some of which he can decipher. He forces himself to breathe, but all that comes are great open mouthed gasps, and almost immediately a black wave breaks against his face, choking him with salt water. His whole body has frozen in protest, but he manages to feed the rope through his hands until the boat is upon him, and slowly, with painful inefficiency, he begins to crawl into the tub. Halfway through another waves almost tips him headfirst into the sea, but he clings to the wooden pew and finally tumbles into the bottom, his back crooked against the oars, legs poking awkwardly over the edge.
He drags himself on to the seat and begins to row out to sea, frantically at first, exertion the only thing distracting from the crippling cold, his whole body shaking, jaw clattering. The boat pitches and lurches on the waves, whitewater spilling over the prow until he is up to his ankles, but the wind is with him, and he feels himself cleaving through the chop until suddenly the sea beneath him is calmer, the waves more gentle, and he knows that he is out beyond the breaking surf.
He lets the oars fall to his feet, sits back and allows himself a moment to gaze out at the rim of the world. The crescent moon and single star appear painted now against the pale coming of the sun, the first rays setting a crown of pink fire on the crest of Golden Cap. A single stone holiday home hugs the cliffs as the path rises from Eype – a postcard scene, but as he looks he sees only shelter, no different in essence from a mud hut or council flat, a painted cave or a castle. A place for life to survive, to look away from the infinite that roars on all sides. He thinks of the polished ammonite sitting on his mantelpiece back home, of Lucy Sanderson’s yellow hair dancing in the breeze, of the easy affection in his grandmother’s smile as she watched him devour his ice cream; he thinks of the crabs waiting patiently in the bottom of his bucket, of the drunk singing Auld Lang Syne in a nearby room as his mother’s hand had slackened in his, of the boys circling him in the park, spitting through bared teeth. All connected by a simple cosmic coincidence, their existence a side effect no different from heat, or light. And yet.
All you had to do was kiss her, he thinks. Lean across the car, put your hands on her hair. Let gravity do the rest.
After a few minutes he sees a light come on in the living room of the house. He clambers over the seats, braces himself against the stern of the boat, squints through the dusk and the mist of waves breaking on the shore. Standing behind the glass of the patio door is a boy, no older than six or seven, his small frame draped in a dressing gown. Up before his parents, presumably, scanning the channels for cartoons. He’s too far away to be certain, but he feels sure that their eyes are meeting, and in a split second in which the sea feels utterly calm, the boat completely still, he becomes convinced that the boy has raised his hand, and is waving to him. A moment later the world comes lurching back to life, salt wind howling and the boat physically leaning into the current that pulls it slowly, inexorably out to sea.
He waves back.