It took about three quarters of an hour to make it to the clifftop. No sign of anyone. Dave’s car was parked up near the hotel road but the hotel was shut. Terry sat down on the grass and waited. There was still plenty of time to leave today if he wanted to. Plenty of time to stay as well. The sun was still warm and he lay back in one of the sandy hollows carved out by the wind and rain. It was secluded and he was in no mood to really see anyone and pass pleasantries. His face felt the breeze, his stomach felt like lead. He was stupid and naïve, angry at himself and so very sorry about what he’d said to Ali. He just wanted to make it right again and didn’t know where to start. It had taken him and his quickly lit temper just a few minutes to blow it and, now that he had, there was that familiar feeling of never having been able to say the right thing in the right way at the right time. He missed her already and all he wanted to do was make it better.
It was a while, lying there, gazing at the sky, pulling out blades of grass between his thumb and forefinger, twisting and worrying them into balls of chlorophyll, before he heard any other sound. The sound of scratching and scrambling, distinct from the steady wash and crash of the waves below. He sat up. Seconds later Dave’s head appeared over the clifftop. He pulled himself up with a grunt and started to pull something else up from below. Ali wasn’t with him. Dave looked agitated and swore loudly a couple of times apparently at nothing. Terry didn’t want to speak to him – the body language was enough to make it clear that Dave wouldn’t be welcoming. He had these moods and you were advised to steer well clear of him when he fell into one. Even Joe kept away for days sometimes.
Dave walked fast, back towards the car, jumped in and switched on the engine in one motion, spraying coarse sand as he pulled away and dipped down towards the paved road. The gears screeched as he hurtled around the first right hand bend and disappeared amongst the high walled lanes, noise absorbed by the thick banks of stone and earth.
Terry sat there for a moment, then, curious he walked over to the edge where Dave had appeared a few minutes before. His mind was clearer now than it had been a while ago. Thoughts of the past chased out by the lure of the present, a puzzle to work out, a sense of needing to know that pushed out the self pity and the stupidity he felt.
There at the top of the cliff was a ladder, securely staked in with two huge wooden pegs, just below the eye line of any casual passers by; pegs of the type used to secure marquees or circus tents. It was just in a heap on the grass, hastily pulled up. Thick coils of weathered hemp grey-green with age. Terry stood looking at it. He pushed it experimentally with his foot, towards the edge – it was surprisingly heavy and hardly moved. He bent over and found the bottom rungs, lobbed them over the edge, their weight taking down the rest of the coils and rungs in a clattering scramble to obey gravity. It fell straight and clean, no tangles. Terry stood still, looking over the edge to where the ladder seemed to end. It wasn’t long enough to make it all the way to the ground, he wondered what Dave had been doing – hell, it wasn’t like the ladder had been hidden, he didn’t feel like he was snooping. He decided to give it a try.
The difficult part was getting onto the ladder in the first place, he edged backwards to the topmost rungs and, still holding on to the cliff, let his feet feel their way down until they stopped on the next rung. Then the next, until Terry was confident enough to stand upright against the ladder and trust it to take his whole weight without relying on the clifftop. He was breathing heavily and starting to sweat. He wished he’d taken off his jacket. Part of it was exertion but the greater part caused by his unreasonably thumping heart. He looked down and his heart raced faster. The tide was well in and the rocks below were threateningly vicious. Like fins and humpbacks breaking through the waves, speckled with scars and encrusted with barnacles, sharp and solid. He’d scrambled up them from the beach before at low tide and even then they seemed high enough from ground level. The distance between him and their tops now gave them added scale, not diminished but enhanced by the perspective. Somehow more part of their parent cliff from up here than they ever were from below.
He wondered idly how long ago they’d fallen and taken up their new location, down in the wash and thunder of the sea. Centuries ? Decades ? No-one ever seemed to see them fall, yet there were always those who could recall the old landscape of the beaches, before this arch had crumbled to a stack or that rock had moved to change the way the water flowed across the beach. Sometimes there would be a big rockfall after a storm, but other than that no-one saw the rocks move – although imperceptibly day by day they moved as surely as anything else on this planet. Nothing stayed the same for a moment.
Gingerly he felt his way down the ladder, blood thumping in his ears each time he took a foot off a rung and let it down to the next, that instant instance when he was stepping out into space. His hands never left the rope sides, sliding them down each time, making sure that he didn’t let go. He could remember something about always having three points of contact from when he’d gone climbing years before and now he was making sure he used that knowledge deliberately and surely.
He took his time, slowly and surely until he reached the last rung, just touching the grass of ledge where it fell. There were signs that the bushes had been disturbed recently and he could swear he could hear something. Somewhere close but out of sight. With a deep breath he stepped off the ladder, still holding tightly with his hands, the skin stretched white across his knuckles with effort. Then onto the ledge. Solid ground. He sighed with relief. Next he pushed through the scrubby bush that lay in front of him and stumbled into the darkness of the cave behind.
“Jeez….! Shit !”
Before his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he was hit full in the face and fell back against the side wall of the cave, smacking the back of his head against the dusty rock as he went down, landing on his back and blinking the tears out of his eyes. His nose was throbbing and his skull aching.
“Bastard !” – he was kicked in the side of his leg.
“Bastard!” – another kick as he instinctively curled up into a ball.
“Whoaaah! Hey…no…..” he fended off a third kick, recognised the voice. “Ali, Ali, what the hell, it’s me – Terry !” He put his hands out in front of him, partly to ward off any blows, partly to show he wasn’t about to swing them at her – a gesture of surrender.
“Terry…?” The voice was filled with anxious surprise, but also with suspicion – it came from the other side of the cave, a dark corner.
“Yeah – Terry. What the hell is going on, why’d you hit me ?”
“Oh god Terry! It really is. I thought that you were Dave. The bastard. He ran off and left me here, I couldn’t get out. He’s so sick. He , he…” She started to cry. Then she stepped forward, out of the gloom and Terry saw her face for the first time since that morning. She came towards him and hugged him, sobbing loudly into his shoulder. He could feel her hot wet face against his neck and let himself relax to hold her, pulling her close and holding her tight. Wanting nothing more than to erase the last twenty four hours. It almost felt possible now. She shook, out of cold, out of fright, out of relief ? Terry pulled her even tighter and forgot about his bruised face.
After an age they relaxed and she stepped backwards to look up at him, his eyes adjusted to the gloom, she looked small and tired. “I want to go now.” Was all she said. He nodded, took her hand.
“There’s a ladder,” Terry added superfluously and kicked at the dust on the cave floor. So many questions he wanted answered and so many that he wanted not to have to ask. But for now it felt better. They were together and he started to think that whatever it was that Dave had done it had done them a favour. It had after all brought them back together, however unlikely the setting.