All he does is watch the endless timid advances and hasty retreats of the English Channel washing over the rocks of the bay which stand stalwart against the slow invasion of a liquid oppressor. He is keen to find solace in the waves’ repeated motion; he looks to the rocks for something which remains solid in the face of such timeless adversity, but what he finds is not the peace he so craves. He finds an ancient battleground on which a war has raged since time immemorial, and continues to rage as he watches. Eventually, he thinks, the Channel will win – England will be swallowed into the sea like lost Atlantis before it, and it will not end with a cacophony of gunfire and explosions or a wild symphony of trumpets and drums, but with a short, sweet ‘plop’, followed immediately by a lasting silence, interrupted perhaps by the final tune of a migrating bird who will never return to her favourite nest.
Wasted. He considers for a moment mortality – I shan’t be here when the battle is lost and won and to think this brings him comfort as he imagines himself diving for relics of the past. In his mind he swims against the current to a small corner of what was previously known as Somerset, and pushing against heavy and rotting doors, enters an unassuming church. On the stone walls of the old building, which are greening, he spies a plaque with a short line of poetry upon it, “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.” The man was a fool, he thinks, England is gone and all that remains is an underwater wasteland, but I presume you’d think of it as more of a Waste Land. Marie’s German seasons no longer sweep over England’s sunken fields; no brittle brown leaves are lost under a carpet of forgetful snow. There is no Heimat to which the Wind blows Frisch, Ireland and Cornwall are gone and there is no place left above the waves for mein Irisch Kind to linger. Your Unreal City is less real even than before under a brown ocean; Philomel and Procne left these shores long before they ceased to be shores. He is somewhat taken aback when a shape floats over his vision – a girl. Her eyes are closed and she looks remarkably peaceful for one who must have died in such adverse circumstances. No, he thinks in her direction, there’s no need to hurry up, you’re far too late. Perhaps there are more like her, floating endlessly, lifelessly on the softly running waters of the Sweet Thames, swallowed up by the encroaching North Sea. No, he thinks once more, it is Phlebas with whom I sympathise the most. Dropped like a discarded apple core amongst tides of wasted verse, Phlebas understands the plight of the many, and now all who were once as handsome and tall as Phlebas are his eternal companions in the swell of deep seas. Where once there was no water but only rock, there is now no rock and water prevails, although to see its complexion one might not immediately think it water.
Back to his senses and back to the beach. He looks left and looks right and sees England laid out behind him, unaware of the coming onslaught. A small rockslide from the slate cliffs, caused by nothing, but not an uncommon occurrence in these parts. He traces the lines of the embedded slate meandering through the cliffside – up a little, down a little, for a short length remaining on a constant downward slope.
Disgust. He is done with this place and returns to the village behind him: a small house, an old pond, public toilets, an inn, an empty car park and he is done with this place. A wave of guilt, concern and barely concealed childish glee as he spies the old car with no ticket, but there’s nobody to check so, satisfied, he pulls on the gate. The wood will not budge so he wrenches. Nor will it wrench so he climbs, slowly mind. The climb is difficult and treacherous, but he manages, turning to see the more difficult and treacherous climb ahead – maybe the most difficult and treacherous climb. As feet slow, breath hastens and wheezing begins with earnest. With Earnest? In Earnest. But he is greying unashamedly and, constantly aware of bowed legs, holds no reservations about resting here. Ignoring better judgement and resorting to the next best thing, he lights up and begins to puff in earnest. In Earnest? With Earnest. Lights up a manky cigarette with Earnest Wisemann, the coolest cat in class. Ernie looks at him and grins a grin he never grins with one side open showing pearly whites with signs of yellowing edges, the other closed around a fag. He is still not sure why Ernie has chosen him; the boots, the jacket, the hair, all average. Smoking buddies for the day and so they hide behind a hillock on the hillside, watching their classmates traipsing up the hill two-by-two, all the while puffing away like discharged cannons. What an honour.
Up again and up again, up the hill to the top of the hill at which point he stands, as it were, atop the hill. Puffing once more but there is no cigarette so perhaps he is heaving instead with all his might to force brisk air through clenched teeth into starved lungs. All he does is watch his classmates traipsing down the other side, not too close to the cliff edge, but close enough to frighten teachers and passing dogs. Ernie’s on his bum a few metres back, chimney-like in his desperation to finish the fag before getting caught. Sir is gathering the children to count them – time to go.
The grass is greener than it was back then, but isn’t it always? If it’s greener on the other side then this is the other side – the other side of the hill perhaps, but not necessarily. The stick between his spindly fingers is bowing under his weight, bowing like the legs it supports and he fears for his life. The nails at the end of those bony appendages are as yellow as his teeth, stained by too many years of nicotine, and then some, and as he watches, one detaches from its lifelong home, extends its wings and takes flight among the grass seeds. Or it could be a butterfly. They’re common around here, the off-white ones. He was at one point an enthusiastic lepidopterist, but the craze did not last long enough for him to remember this butterfly’s name. Ernie. That should suit it just fine. Ernie the off-white butterfly flutters past the tufts on the edge, and hovering over the great drop, he seems to slow the beating of his off-white wings, slower and slower, he makes the effort look laborious, as if he is no longer capable. Eventually the flapping comes to a complete stop so that Ernie might finally rest and he floats down past the precipice, at first gradually and with heart-stopping grace, then faster, like a discarded stone until he reaches the swirling maw at the base of the cliff, where he disappears without grace, but with an inaudible plop, his heart finally stopped.
The flesh of his naked finger is raw, red and tight, unlike the brown, weather-beaten skin draped loosely over his face. They told him his skin would be like leather, now, but leather is tough and rigid, and his skin is soft, squishy, as if there is too much. With his raw, nail-less finger his prods at a wrinkle on the back of his other bony hand, and he counts a full five seconds before it regains any semblance of the way it looked before. That’s me, he thinks, that’s England.
Not the first Ernie to fall here. He remembers very clearly seeing the trail of smoke curling upwards from over the edge. He gave no indication – he was happy on the outside, he was the coolest cat in class, they were smoking partners for the day. Was it my fault? he thinks again, but this kind of thinking will never reach any conclusion so he casts it aside. And yet, he cannot dispose of the thought, it haunts him, so to speak, like a ghostly apparition or an ill-fitting sock.
The time has come to descend the steps, but where are the steps? The top few are just as they have always been, lodged firmly into the rock, but after that…? the clay of the cliff has washed them away and they sit, broken and battered, upon the pebbled beach below. This climb- this is the most difficult and treacherous. Until this point he thought he could achieve anything, so long as he put his mind to it, even with bowed legs and an even more severely bowed stick to support them. But this? Well it can’t be helped and I must get down, he thinks, his mind racing through the myriad possible ways to fall and die here. He starts on the lowest remaining step, feeling its concrete safety urging him to stop, before placing his stick into the clay below. Damn, it’s stuck. He lets go, he put too much weight on it, it stays exactly where it is, standing erect submerged halfway into the wet clay.
Best foot forward, or so they say, but he can’t remember which is better, so he devises a test. Tossing a coin into the air and watching it fall heads-up into the mud before him, he extends his right foot off the step with trepidation. It slips almost instantly on the clay and he forces himself backwards, breaking his fall with outstretched arms and cursing the coin – that shan’t be coming back with him! Clearly his left foot was the winning appendage and he tries again, this time placing his better foot gently upon the mud, which to his delight, holds fast – perhaps a little too fast as he almost trips again, expecting his disobedient foot to move.
Careful, you’re not as young as you once were. Oh, don’t I know it. What a sweeping and somewhat stupid statement – nobody is ever as young as they once were, since youth is by definition always past tense. People have deluded ideas about youth being the future, that tomorrow is for the young people, and perhaps it is, but on the day after tomorrow, tomorrow will be yesterday and the young will have lost another irretrievable day of youth. We spend our youth looking forward – if it’s not good now, it will be better tomorrow; if these times are good, keep tomorrow at bay – roll on tomorrow or push it away, it’s always on our minds. Why? Tomorrow is unknown, unknowable, unsafe. Forget tomorrow, look back to yesterday, to yesteryear, for it is in our past that we might find youth again.
Realistically, however, he’s not as young as he once was and this descent is difficult and treacherous. He’s slipped too much already and he is scared – scared of falling, of death. Is he scared of death? Am I scared of death? Who isn’t scared of death? He’s not. He’s seen so much death, so much decay; he has watched his own body decay in front of his rapidly failing eyes and death is no doubt approaching, it barrels forwards with a crushing inevitability, following us each day as we race through this life, running either away from it or towards something else. Every so often it catches someone trailing behind the pack: the old, the sick, the weak, it’s actually extremely efficient. Efficient and inevitable, so what use is there in being scared? Surely it is better to simply accept and jog along at a comfortable pace, falling back from the pack in your own time rather than faltering unexpectedly and being picked off by a vengeful assailant without a face.
I’d still rather not die today, he thinks, replacing foot after foot carefully and ever so painfully slowly. Eventually he’ll reach the bottom, eventually we all will, but he hasn’t time to spare a thought to the return journey and after a significant while he is there, at the bottom, among the pebbles. Can he see-? No, not quite yet, he needs to follow the shoreline a little way. The pebbles are almost as hazardous as the wet clay slope where the steps used to lay, and every footpad sees a disappearing sole, vanishing into the deep shale of the beach like small men in thick snow. Can he-? No, still no. This beach is odd, the wild waves of winter have forced the stones over one another, pushing them back away from the sea as if they were unwanted guests at a party for one solitary wash, alone in its vastness. This has formed a wall of pebbles extending from one end of the beach at the stone cliff and eventually petering out further along as the waves are weakened by underwater obstacles. To reach the water, one would need to breach this low wall – not a difficult task – but the descent on the other side, a sheer slope of shale with nothing at the bottom but the English Channel, advancing and retreating and all the while depositing more unwelcome stones.
There it is, finally, the great stone door surrounded by sea. He sees it now, now for the first time, and he feels an overwhelming sense of disappointment. All these years, waiting, hoping, longing to see- to see this? He admits it’s impressive, a true wonder of the natural world, but he can’t shake that dark feeling of- of what? Of total and absolute nothingness, crushing, but nothing. Like the empty space between the conjoined stacks – nothing.
Photo credit: Tony Shertila