The darkness crept slowly across the land behind the house – here on the Atlantic fringe night seemed to deepen more slowly than anywhere else in the country, not here the sudden rush of blackness falling but the slow transition through a thousand shades of blue if you were lucky, the sun dipping red over the horizon but leaving its reflection high in the sky for a long time after. But then, once the remaining light had abandoned the strand and began beaming noon on the US, the lack of streetlamps, the paucity of cars and the sparseness of the village, even now with the new estate on the far cliff, left the night to itself and the sky shone with moon and stars in whorls of galaxy arms, satellite trackers crawling like lice across the vast space from horizon to horizon. The sky, even now, never so completely black, always that tinge of darkest blue to remind them that there were oceans straight up above as well as out there beyond the last cliffs.
The noise of the sea, indefinable except as that which it was, washed through all their lives to the point where it was never noticed except for winter storms, when it came so loud and so close that it brought the fear of it washing right up to your door and out the other side. A primal fear perhaps, borne out of countless wrecks and fishermen lost, missing, swallowed up and forgotten by a coastline even now still used to such losses. It wasn’t a romantic notion to think of the villages and towns along this stretch of harsh granite coast to be wedded irrevocably to the sea and to the pain and anguish that it washed in equal measures with the joy and pleasure as it splashed on the tame sand. The last wreck was only a few years ago, and the one before that not even as far back again. The next would happen at some point. At least a dozen of the people at the wake had walked on the beaches as grown men and picked up timber, clothes, fuel drums and, poignantly, wallets with salt stained photo’s of family, within the last five years – boats trying to beat time by cutting between the cliffs and the nameless rocky island standing out to sea with a grim expression and dead power. Skippers, either too cocky, too inexperienced or too awed by the technology that they felt could make their passage easy and invincible, running against the rip and being ground into the hidden rocks that once were the cliff itself. They counted themselves lucky that there hadn’t been a fuel leak from any of these frail craft so far – just one would spell the end of the line for the village, livelihoods still depended on that stroke of luck and turn of tide which had held for so long, but which they all reluctantly knew couldn’t hold for ever.
Occasionally there was a return to the supposed roots of the village – word would always get around quickly if a night tripper, evading the almost nonexistent customs’ presence, had reason to discard or otherwise throw overboard its load. Perhaps surprisingly, given the ease of the coast for hiding, these incidents happened at least once every two or three years. Some amateur drug runner, usually a nice young sailing club guy with his own yacht, would fear the customs men, panic at the sound of an outboard, and then the merchandise which might have made its way from South America otherwise unhindered, would be sent crashing into the North Atlantic with the only payment being the crew’s freedom - if they were quick enough.
Plenty of the locals would soon be on the beach with the incoming tide, scouring the crevices and kicking over all manner of detritus that washed up on the tideline. Occasionally there would be a rumour that it was some high class Columbian cocaine that had been bundled into the waves, but no-one had ever found any here – word had it that someone had found two bales down in St Agnes three or four years ago – but these stories were by their nature pretty hard to verify. There had been a few bales of grass, once some tightly wrapped bricks of hash, presumably from the continent, washed up over the years. These were a different matter altogether and the ownership was never in dispute – they belonged to everyone who could smoke them – and for a couple of good weeks after there was no shortage of beach parties and the air somehow smelled that bit sweeter. The only losers, if you could call them that, were the local dealers, but since they had no need to buy anything even for themselves they were also quite happy with a few weeks off and the police left everyone to it after a desultory wander around the beach until their boots got wet and it seemed like a better idea to ask some questions up at the pub or the hotel.
The amount of houses in the village which had decking or porches made from marine quality timber however remained unknown to the local cops…
Jaz and Cowry wandered along the footpath across the top of the cliffs on the north side of the bay, Jaz pulling on a roll-up, Cowry occasionally sipping at a beer he’d brought with him from the house. The wind was picking up and bringing the salt spray over in a fine mist, dampening their heavyweight autumn shirts, making them squint their eyes into the darkening gloom. They headed out beyond the last houses and past the tideline far below, before turning wordlessly away from the path and scrambling down a few feet to the edge of the cliff. Disappearing as soundlessly as spirits from the view of those who might see them from above, down onto a wide ledge full of roots and lean grasses, a throne of sorts above the blue black sea.
“Haven’t been here for a while”, said a voice out of the gloom. It was Dave, sitting at the far end of the ledge with his legs dangling insouciantly over the thin air and smoking a joint in the dark.
“That’d be right”, answered Cowry as he felt his way towards him. Shielded from any artificial light here it was simultaneously pitch black and at the same time even more stars filled the sky, even with the misty air hanging around them. The three men sat together but didn’t speak another word for maybe five minutes. The silence was full of history. Each second was a week, a month, a year remembered, nothing to fracture the continuity, nothing needed to be spoken.
Dave wordlessly passed the joint to Jaz, he sucked in a few tokes and then flicked the end off the ledge, it’s bright red tip falling through the air, pulled left and right by the wind and the unseen rocks until it fell too far and was extinguished by the distance and maybe by the water down below.
“Long time indeed”, Jaz repeated. “ Not been back down here much for years, thought we might find you down here though.”
Dave made a small sound that might have been a laugh, might have been a word even. He wasn’t a great talker – occasionally he’d lapse into singing some repetitive hook from a song in a way that expressed he wasn’t taking it too seriously, that it was just another way of removing some of the flotsam lodged in his brain. In reality it was his way of covering up all the flotsam that had accumulated there over the years, to stop him thinking about all the what if’s and what could have beens, all the wrecked years, missed chances, cold nights and burnt out possibilities. He wasn’t unhappy, never really had been, he was just existing here and there on the scraps of life that came to him and, most people would agree, making a pretty decent sort of life out of them. With his brother’s death he’d suddenly realised that he was quite a rich man, his mother’s estate having been divided between them was now all his and more besides. But none of that mattered, it was all tied up in houses and the shop and he knew he couldn’t get rid of any of them. Inside he felt happy that Joe was up there in the stars, in some vague belief system that he had and which revolved around half read slightly off centre books on the world that lay outside of the seen and now. But it still only took the wrong thought or the wrong word about Joe and Dave was silent again for hours. It had been a shock, but no-one, including Dave, had really let it all sink in yet.
They sat there gazing into empty space. It seemed that this was defining day for all of them, more so even than the day when Joe had died – only a week ago but it seemed like another world away. Dave had found him slumped down in an armchair, cigarette still in an ashtray beside him, the smoke lazily wrapping itself around the room. It must only have been a minute or two before that it had happened. He looked surprised, but he was smiling a kind of goofy smile that seemed to Dave as though he knew it was going to be over with quickly and, if you had to go at all, then this was preferable to the agonies of the cancer ward, the hospice or the long slow decline of the nursing home.
But then, back just seven days, it felt like he’d just gone away for a while, that no-one would be surprised to see him turn up at the shop, striding back from one of his long coast path walks or maybe rolling in hungover after a spontaneous midnight jaunt to a club in some far distant town that had taken his fancy. He’d often gone off on longer trips, over to Sri Lanka every winter whilst the shop stayed closed for the majority of the time, his reward to himself for the long, hot and ever lengthening summer seasons where he would be lucky to get to the sea from one month’s end to the next.
But he hadn’t. Today his absence was as tangible as the hand painted coffin that they’d seen off through the velvet drapes at the crematorium. It invaded every conversation and every move. The funeral was, everyone said, closure – and in some ways it was. When the guests came back to his house for the sandwiches and quiche afterwards the mere fact of being in there without his big frame filling half the room and his presence taking over the other half was enough to ram home the point that wherever he was he wasn’t coming back to enjoy the buffet. But in other ways all the funeral allowed some of them to do was to start to acknowledge that things had now changed irrevocably – it had opened up a fracture in their lives as real as the ones running down the cliff which led inevitably to the sheering off and falling away of so many old connections and certainties. There would always now be the time before and everything else that followed would be the time after. Continuity had failed and they were no longer able to act as if everything flowed in a seamless pattern.
Down below the incoming tide started to break against the rocks. It’s rush and retreat building in air devoid of any other sound. Unseen it was unleashing memories and the three men sat there allowing it to wash over them.