“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back,” writes Solnit in Wanderlust. Perhaps it was the distance travelled or the time elapsed, but once I left Brighton three things happened within the space of a few hours that made me reflect upon that sentence.
The first was brief: a sudden fear of disconnection with the coast. I boarded a busy morning bus from Brighton to Peacehaven, and within minutes felt anxious that I did not have my feet on the ground. I couldn’t tear my eyes off the coastline from which my feet had been severed; when the bus ducked inland briefly at Rottingdean, I felt a wave of irrational panic because I could no longer sense the sea.
The second was more substantial: a shaky reunion with the coast as I walked over the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters. Land that was smooth, grassy and fairly level formed folds that were accentuated the closer they came to the edge, then were sliced short, like a block of Viennetta. The cliff’s verticality was picturesque from a safe vantage point, but unsettling to walk on. There was nothing in its face that would break an accidental fall. As at Brighton beach, I had an odd sense of the land being active; I dismissed it because the chalk underfoot was new and strange to me; I was used to granite. I began to climb up and into the folds, noticing that there were no signs warning people of the sheer drop. People sat close to their edge, chatting and eating, possibly dangling their legs.
Then the land stopped correlating with cartography. I came across concrete pillboxes that perched quietly on the land, collecting litter from previous visitations, waiting, perhaps, to be used again. They were not on the map, and the implication of this hit me as I recalled that I was coming closer and closer to France. Then, the reverse: on map paper heavy with orange contour lines, I walked over ancient settlements and tumuli, their age indicated by the use of calligraphy script. On the ground itself, I saw no trace of these features, nor felt their imprint under my feet. Recalling my anxiety on the bus, I stopped looking at my map. From now on, I would follow my instinct and trust my feet. This was when things began to go wrong.
The cliffs were tough. They tugged at my calves as I scaled one fold after another. I was sure I had counted more than seven. And I was tired; really tired. I noticed that each fold had paths made from ruts in the chalk, little white nicks in the thin, grassy scalp that would make the climbs more manageable. Perhaps they had existed for centuries, for millennia. My eyes dropped to focus on my feet. Then followed the head. Left foot, right foot. The rhythm helped my mind wander, it returned to Brighton beach and lingered there. Then a wick of wind brought me back to the present; still walking, I lifted my head.
The land had vanished. Only dark sea and light sky, two separate halves of blue.
My back foot on the edge transferring weight – the lifting of the front leg
Reaching for land that wasn’t there –
The backward stumble of the body, as it screamed at the mind
To step away from the ed
A feeling of calm would eventually replace the convulsive waves of adrenaline and the deep breaths, the shake in the hands and legs. I should have seen how the path I had chosen streaked, from twenty metres inland, diagonally towards and over the edge, a route that had once continued upon land long since lost, eaten away by the sea. My mind returned, its shock fading while it threw forward disjointed memories of Alton Towers, a page of a book I was reading, the sea kelp near Bognor Regis, and my parent’s bathroom.
I started to walk again, checking each step until there were other things to worry about. Light was beginning to fail. Bracken was thickening and replacing the grass. Mist curled over the cliff. I hadn’t yet reached Beachy Head, the famous suicide hotspot. I returned to the map, worked out where I was, and saw that I was near a road that would take me there in safety. I moved inland.
The road was deserted, sweeping through the down-land. I dragged my feet on the asphalt, my shoulders rolling forwards. Once more, my head slipped down. Then the sound of a car, and a flash of approaching headlights. I moved onto the verge. As the car passed, I read ‘Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team’ on its side. Its engine note dropped as it slowed, and I turned to see it pull up at a lay-by, where it could see for miles around.
I’d heard of a suicide patrol team that watched over Beachy Head, approaching jumpers and offering help. This had to be them. The car’s engine was still running; I decided to watch. Perhaps they had been alerted to a potential suicide victim; perhaps they were looking to see whether cars had been abandoned further up the road.
The car continued to idle. I continued to watch.
Something had to happen.
Then a window was wound down. Despite the mist, I could see the driver, a woman with her blonde hair tied back.
“Are you looking for me?”
Each word clear, enunciated. A gentle, imploring emphasis on the ‘me’.
“Me?” I placed my palm onto my chest, mirroring her clarity. I didn’t know what else to do.
“You were looking in my direction. I wondered if you were looking for me.”
She too had been waiting for something to happen.
The hand on my chest formed a dismissive wave, an act of bravado, almost, to make it appear that I was fine. “No no, I’m not.” I turned and started to walk, realising how I must have appeared: alone, lost, depressed.
I never did make it to Beachy Head. By chance, a bus soon came along the road, ‘Eastbourne’ on its front. I boarded it before I could change my mind. This time I did not look out of the window, out at the mist. I stared at the face of my mobile phone, waiting for it to show bars of signal, feeling a flush of relief when they appeared.
“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back”: Solnit surely didn’t mean for her sentence to be experienced in quite this way, for her verb to darken and sharpen. Lying in a cheap hostel bed at Eastbourne that night, I listened to traffic outside the window. I stroked my thumb over the screen of my phone, held under the covers. I thought of the patrol car, possibly still out there, rescuing souls from themselves or from the land. I thought of Brighton beach, and I tried to sleep.