I wonder what possessed me to come here today. I have so many other, more important things to be doing today besides standing halfway up a hill on an irritatingly windswept Sunday afternoon. The stunning vistas? Well, maybe. The breathtaking sea air? Not so likely. The geographical value? Almost certainly not. No, it’s probably the chance to smoke through the rest of this pack when Miss isn’t looking.
One might suppose I’m here for a jolly good romp with my chums, but the sad truth is I don’t make friends easily. Sad to you perhaps, but I couldn’t really care less. Don’t get me wrong, I do have a few close friends, but frankly I prefer my own company to being pestered by other people.
It’s difficult for Miss to hold on to her papers against the onslaught of the breathtaking sea air, but to her credit she does manage to pin them down and start her delivery:
‘The cove has formed because there are bands of rock of alternating resistance running parallel to the shore (a concordant coastline).’
Miss is not a geography teacher. Some urgent family matter kept the usual old codger from dragging us here, so we’ve ended up with this mysterious creature from the darkest depths of the English department. It’s abundantly clear that she knows no more than I do about rock formations and river beds, less even. There is something about her, though, that means I can’t help but tolerate her encyclopedia-informed lecture.Well, I can barely hear it, for one.
I hang back, as usual, and slightly off to the side. Miss continues in her softly melodic voice, rhythm provided by the vaguely crashing waves behind her. I wonder if she knows they are coming steadily nearer. I suppose someone should tell her. That someone is not me.
Faux-Lecture done, it’s time to move on. I won’t lead the way back through the village, that’s not in my repertoire, but I’ll lodge myself within the bulk of the group, somewhere towards the back. A small house, an old pond, public toilets, an inn, an almost empty car park and we are clear of this town. There is a commotion at the front of the group, so I push through. A fourth-former is heaving against the gate with all his might and Miss is looking on with an abject worry embedded among her delicate features. It’s jammed. I place my superior hand on the boy’s back and he steps aside, staring up at me, gormless. I reach around the base of the gate to dislodge the mossy stone holding it shut and it creaks open, accompanied by a tuneful, ‘Thank you,’ and a brief smile from Miss.
Again, I let others go first. Nobody back here minds when I light up and start puffing away, quietly, but at a furious pace. In fact, it seems a few others are taking advantage of the situation too. I nod to the class stoner; complicity makes us allies, but not friends. He hasn’t reckoned the steep climb ahead of us, however, and he is categorically the least fit human I think I’ve ever seen. My own lungs can just about cope with smoke and slope, but his are more pressured, squeezed from all approaches by walls of enclosing fat. This is certainly not a man who will see his 50th birthday, but by the looks of his wheezing he might not even be a boy who will see his 18th. His paces are rapidly slowing and he’ll need to stop soon, but by the shrinking mass of boys it seems as though Miss will not stop. I double back and tell him to stop for a breath, I’ll wait with him. I snatch the crude roll-up from between his dry, cracked lips and kick it into the mud. His face betrays a moment of outrage before he sees the severity of mine. The job of a elder is, as they say, never done.
His breathing won’t slow, but we need to resume our climb or the group will disappear over the crest of the hill altogether. By the end I’m almost pushing him up, my hand firmly planted somewhere between where I imagine his shoulder blades should be.
Over the hill is chaos. Boys running amok in all directions, Miss unable to control a single one. Reluctantly, I shout at a boy too close to the cliff edge, with an unexpected ferocity, ‘Taylor!’
He spins about so quickly he almost stumbles, but his feet catch the ground as his frightened eyes catch mine, ‘Sorry, Stern.’
The other students have known me as Stern since my first week of third form all those years ago. It wasn’t something born of a specific occasion or scandal, but something which developed rapidly like a benign virus or an insubstantial rumour. I suppose it must be the natural resting point of my expression, or my tendency towards everything short and to the point. It seems to have stuck , this year in particular, and despite my total lack of interest in any position of authority, I have become a sort of unofficial prefect in the eyes of the younger boys. I must say, it has its benefits.
At the sound of my bark the rest of the boys soon fall into line and stand to attention. Miss glances at me gratefully, then drops her gaze to her notes to find the appropriate geographical know-how. Physically she is almost attractive. The thick-rimmed glasses send her hair out in waves to frame her petite face, but they also magnify her eyes to the extent that they cross the border into ridiculousness. Her figure is swamped beneath a khaki greatcoat and the season means she must wear boots, but her mind intrigues me. Certainly she knows little about the difference between igneous and sedimentary, but I can’t even fathom the breadth of knowledge she must have on literature and history. She seems to be able, when reading aloud about the formation of chalk cliffs, to quote lengthy passages of Matthew Arnold and W. H. Auden as if plucking them from the thick, salted air. Her gentle Scottish trill is soothing against the barbarian wind,
‘On these white cliffs, that calm above the flood
Uprear their shadowing heads, and at their feet
Hear not the surge that has for ages beat,
How many a lonely wanderer has stood!’
My mood is unduly affected everyday by the weather, more so than most, more than the pathetic fallacy in Miss’ recitations. So as the wind fades to a gentle murmur and the sun fiercely burns away patches of cloud, as Miss lets out an audible sigh and continues her verse in a calm tone, I find the stern frown casting lines over my brow dissipates. I can’t help but look up and be blinded – the momentary pain is satisfying and the technicolour behind my eyelids is inspiring, red turning immediately to bright, searing white, then cascading through shades of yellow, orange bright to dull, back to a stationary red and, as clouds return, through blues and deep purples, like the impression of lilies reflected in a still pond.
They have moved on and I am once more at the back of our caged society. I am joined this time, however, by an unfamiliar face. It is the job of the prefects to know the names and faces of all the boys, not mine. He sees the gradual but listless attempts at recognition in my expression and jumps to negate any social awkwardness, a sweet gesture, ‘Barker, sir, I only recently arrived into the Lower Sixth from Harrow.’
‘From Harrow?’ the natural sarcastic tone may cause my surprise to appear feigned, so I quickly add, ‘What on earth possessed you to transfer to our dump?’
‘My father. “London is no place for a young chap such as yourself.” A good deal of rubbish, if you ask me, but I’m loathe to come into a dispute with the old man and the scenery is certainly more inspiring.’
He looks at me expectantly, as if waiting for a response. I look out to the Channel and grunt my agreement. We make to rejoin the group, Barker and I, but our pace is languid and they pull further away. We speak little, but I am in no hurry to be rid of Barker’s company. The sharp contours of his face are pleasing, offset against relaxed curls of almost red hair, darkened presumably by years of life in the capital. Unlike many of the Lowers, his frame is compact and in proportion rather than the gangling beanpole standard, or the occasional elephant seal. He is like a red setter, alert but in an easy, relaxed fashion. The nose which he follows has a small bump at the bridge, as if to suggest something distinctly Roman in his bearing.
Before long the group has disappeared altogether, but I fail to notice as Barker and I have entered into a civilised but meaningful debate on whether Peter Grimes can drag Britten from the gutter he fell into with the fragmented Paul Bunyan. Without hope of catching the other boys in their swift exodus, we decide to remain here until they return. The wind is regaining strength after his momentary rest, however, and it is necessary to find some form of shelter.
‘Perhaps the rocks surrounding the beach?’ Barker suggests. I nod and we begin the descent to the pebbled cove beneath chalk cliffs and clay slopes. I catch a glimpse of purest white surrounding the sea-green iris of Barker’s eye, which widens as he slips on the steep clay. I grasp his arm and he swings around to face the slope, steadying himself against my waist, ‘Shit,’ he exclaims involuntarily, ‘sorry, sir, I should know not to trust my right foot.’
‘No matter,’ I am eager to ease his conscience, ‘and enough of the sir, alright?’
‘Right you are, Stern.’ The descent is consciously slower and more silent after the brush with danger, but eventually we reach the bottom, as all things must. I wonder, coming from London, if he has ever seen the Door before. I forget at times that I am privileged to encounter natural beauty everyday. He has, of course, and we hasten to find a suitable rock to break the wind so we might continue our discussion.
A short way down the beach, there is a figure staring at something – at the Door, perhaps at nothing. I won’t rush to disturb his contemplation, as I would expect myself from another, but the situation forces my hand.
‘Are you alright, sir?’ The wind seems to have muffled my call, so I repeat, louder.
‘Hullo?’ The elderly figure is visibly startled and looks about him for the aggressor.
‘Sir, your feet. Your feet are getting wet.’
The old codger turns his face towards my voice and down to his feet. The encroaching tide has risen to meet his ankles, licking at the uneven patch on the knee of his slacks. I am somewhat surprised to see a lack of movement in him, he simply stares at his feet.
‘Please, sir!’ Barker calls out. His voice is slightly deeper than mine and carries further across the wind. This seems to bring the old man to attention and he starts once again. Slowly, and with an excruciating effort, he pulls his sodden shoes from the wash and trudges back to the safety of the beach. He raises his hand to us, but mostly in Barker’s direction, ‘Thanks, lads.’
Barker moves to assist the man back up the treacherous clay path, but he holds no stick and is reinvigorated once on dry land, so I hold my companion back. Better not to interfere. I had not presumed, until now, that accents could penetrate whistles, but a thick Dorset tone follows the man up to the top of the grassy outcrop. It seems to me, in this moment, that he is in the process of purposely forgetting something, clearing his mind of yesterday’s thoughts.
Hours pass feeling like moments sustained by the vigour of Barker’s enthusiasm for every topic I choose. We discuss music, art, theatre, literature. Once, mid-flow on the influence of Oscar Wilde, he almost ventures to ask me a question, moving closer with a subtle air of nervousness, but his eyes flit to my face and, seeing the expression ingrained thereon, he pulls back, eager to change the subject. I long to explain this is simply a resting position and he should ask away, but it would be imprudent to force the issue and I follow suit.
My wristwatch tells me time has advanced at an unlikely pace, so perhaps the moment to return has come. The wind has died to a breeze which licks at wispy grass on the outcrop without any semblance of threat, and it licks too at Barker’s coarse hair as I follow him back up the treacherous clay gulley. Barker extends his hand at the top and I take hold to pull myself up, but the wet clay between our hands slips and I fall back a step. His surprise quickly forms a grin and a chuckle and he extends his hand again after wiping it on muddied trousers. This time equals success.
A flash of moving white in the corner of my eye reveals a painter as my head breaches the cliff edge. A figure on another outcrop. Looking back to face me, Barker confesses the group is still nowhere to be seen, so I wander in the painter’s direction, my interest piqued. Closing in reveals a woman, mid-40s, flustering to remove a ruined canvas and replace it with a fresh sheet. Her palette is coated with a dirty mauve, ugly and inexpressive, with a spot of pale beige, and resting against her chair are twelve, possibly thirteen discarded canvasses, each less complete than the previous one. She takes little notice of me and I watch her staring at the beach below, almost motionless save for a few short, asthmatic breaths.
‘I do wish you hadn’t told him to move.’ I jump almost clean out of my skin when she speaks, gravelly and a little too deep.
‘I… uh,’ a touch of the unexpected restrains me, ‘His feet were underwater.’
Her bushy mass of hair turns to reveal a small, mouse-like face, ‘He didn’t seem to mind.’
‘Well… I suppose I can only apologise.’
She harrumphs and returns to the scene before her, ‘What do you suggest I do now?’
I pace around to the other side of her easel, asking wordlessly to rifle through her unwanted canvasses. At her nod I pull aside the paintings, one by one, revealing each time a more accomplished vision of the Door. I take out the final one, the driest, and hold it at arms’ length, ‘I find this one to be very much more perfect.’
With eyes like bottle caps beneath high-strength spectacles she glares at me, ready to snatch back the masterpiece and insult my taste, but something in her changes and she stops herself. The wrinkles left by her frown dissipate and return as kind feet around smiling eyes. She turns from me back to the almost blank canvass before her, save for the tiny beige figure watching nothingness endlessly, and says to nobody in particular, ‘Perhaps tomorrow will be better.’
Her preoccupation proves she is finished with my company, but I linger for a moment. Tomorrow she will return with her box of paints and her easel and she will produce another collection of masterpieces, and none will be perfect in her eyes. Tomorrow will not be better, that I can be sure of.
I sling the perfect painting under my arm and jog back to join Barker above the clifftop. He is standing dangerously close to the edge, but nothing in his nature suggested either despair or a lack of sense, so my conscience is calmed.
‘Stern,’ he asks, looking still over the edge to the rocks and swirling sea below, ‘do you ever think about death?’
‘Of course I do,’ I pause for a moment, ‘we all do, but dying is not something which will happen to me today, so I rarely ponder it for long.’
‘But,’ he begins falteringly, ‘one day it will happen to you, as it will to me, and you shall have to confront it as a necessary errand of today.’
‘No doubt, but as I see it now, that day will forever be within the realms of tomorrow. I refuse to either to dwell on the past or pine for the future, since each is futile. I am a creature of the present; a child of and mascot for today.’
Barker ponders this for a good few minutes, then returns his sea-green gaze to me. A good-humoured smile breaks his through his lips and he nudges me playfully, ‘You’re not so stern.’
My face follows suit with a rare smile, ‘I think I see the others.’