I Must go Down to the Seas Again

A graduating student returns to Broadstairs and to the man under the cliffs whilst he considers the future.

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I don’t often feel desolate, but when I do I head to the cliffs. A single tarmac thread carries me down – past the cobbled walls of private estates, past the grabbing hedges that block the road. Past the old care home and the paddock where demure goats nibble on carrot tops or garden apples. The gulls cry, swoop and squat over mismatched gables; they find difficult purchase on the thatched roof of a country house. Opposite are the stables, mud leading through to the hay and the silos, taking a sharp turn up to the lighthouse. Flanking the path on both sides are sheep filled paddocks, ewes confer and chew anxiously.

Ignoring the diversion of the stables the road continues, past the golf course and past balding men in polarized sunglasses who counsel each other on the next club to use. Finally down past the pay-to-park field to the intersection: right was the blazing white lighthouse again. At night I would watch it pierce the inky black as it blinked rhythmically. The sea would pour into the sky and back, no delineation between the two. I normally sat by the mottled post and stared out – periodic lights from the wind turbines joined a neat line in space. Huge tankers sat in the background, outlined in the night as they transit quietly.

Sometimes I make it past the sand sprayed road into the car park where couples park with the lights off, past the broken beach huts and the cargo container filled with soggy cardboard and empty canisters. I make it to the edge, past the barren cabbage field over the ridged footpath over to the sea. Black rocks populate the ground below, cutting violently into the sea; waves lap them mechanically, invitingly.

Today wasn’t one of those days, today was a courtesy call. My feet jolted on the weathered grey ramp down to the beach, the sun tickling the back of my neck. I slipped my shoes off and held them in my hand as I moved onto the sand. The grains sucked me down, piling against the gaps of my toes and baking them with the latent heat of the mid afternoon. They shifted beneath me as I marched on, working against its motion always more tiring than expected. I carried on, following under the long shadow of the scarred chalk cliffs, towards the tide pools that were quickly filling up with the encroaching sea.

He stood out at the end of the rock pool, always in jeans and a t-shirt as waves lapped past his legs. I shivered as the water reached my shins and waded on. Walking over was slow, I was careful to tread lightly to avoid slicing my feet on the hidden rocks. He didn’t turn until I was a few feet away.


“Five thousand two hundred shrimp, three thousand crabs, roughly seven hundred cod and twelve dogfish,” he replied, implacable.

“I’m sorry, I’ve been busy.” This was only partly true. “I’ve only just got back for the summer,” I continued.

“What about Easter?”

I looked down, blue carpet shifting and refracting. “I was away.”

“Okay. How’ve you been keeping?” he said, pivoting.

“I’m alright- you?”

He smiled and shook his head slowly. “Same old, same old.”

“Sorry, reflex.”

“It’s alright.” He gestured at the cliffs further round, as the waves broke against them. “It’s not always the same. They wear away slowly, sometimes the rocks fall down.”

“Yeah, it’s just weathering-” I started before being cut off.

“There’s a difference between knowing something and knowing something.” He sighed and turned back to the sea. “You’re not here – it could be the crabs and shrimp that nibble away at it when no one’s watching.”

“I could leave a camera.”

He laughed softly and it echoed. “I guess you can these days.” A pause. “Do they still have that old ice cream shop on the front?”

“Yeah, still there. They’ve got one in Dubai now.”

“You know, I actually can’t remember where that is.”

“I’ll bring a map next time.” I have a raft I bring down sometimes – taped water bottles and a plastic tray. It’s easy enough to affix some laminated paper – news clips, poems, prints of photos, and it floats on the water.

“Is there going to be a next time?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why has it really taken you so long?” His dark eyes were piercing, though he probably didn’t intend them to be. I was indignant at first, but then conceded.

“You weren’t there. Back in London, I mean. I was at the top, peering down, and you weren’t there.”

“Did you expect me to be there?” he probed.

“No, but I wanted you to.” The confession. A silence fell between us; the cry of the birds and the heft of the sea didn’t break it, only amplified it until it was deafening.

“Sorry but I have to go, need to get stuff for dinner,” I said, finally ending the standoff. He turned away.

The tide had come in fully, the wading back considerably longer than on the way in. The sand clung to my feet, wet clay, strata forming as fresh sand was added. The sea mist had just begun to set, smudging the horizon into a soft gradient. I stopped on the ramp for a moment and wondered if he’s looking over from behind the curve of the bay. A lone seagull scrabbled away from a bacon butty as I headed up the ramp.

If you journey clockwise round the shore, dipping with the ebb and flow of the crescent bays and dodge the high tide flood you eventually reach Viking Bay. The heft of the town sleeps on top of the cliffs, overlooking the beach. Far different from my secluded bay, families come and go and play and leave chip boxes behind all year round. Burrowed into the cliffs are the beach huts- launching pads for armies of deckchairs, barbecues and parasols but also for late night parties beneath the stairs. Those chilly evenings around dying candles and borrowed vodka had a noetic quality to them, a circle of friends against the large dark sea that stretched and stretched into the night.

Maybe the cause of this mysticism was the shrine – an old icon of Our Lady that used to be housed in a chapel atop the cliffs. These days the Chapel is a pub – the old hymn board still hangs from the ceiling. Wall to wall shelves hold books on everything from history through horoscope to horticulture.

I stooped down into the entrance as I came in off the street; it was colder than I had expected for mid-August. Inside, however, it was cosy and warm. I grabbed a beer and headed up the narrow, creaking steps to the gallery that encircled the bar.

“Dan!” Adeline ran over to hug me before I could even put my drink down.

“How’ve you been?”

“Pretty good, you?” I replied.

A shrug. “The usual.”

“But new hair,” I said, looking at the bleached fringe. She laughed.

“Yeah – finals, stress, you know how it is.” I didn’t, but still smiled in agreement. I placed my beer onto the table opposite her daiquiri and sat down slowly. A lone candle threw limp shadows onto the table as it slowly died out.

“Any idea when Isaac said he was going to come down?”

“I think he said eight but he’s always late, I’ll message him,” she said.

“He’s more likely to respond to you anyway,” I replied. She glared. I quickly changed the subject: “How did your exams go?”

“Fine, the last few were pretty tough though.”

“I’m sure you nailed it. What’re you doing next then?”

“I’m not sure.” She paused, then continued, “There was a BBC thing in Manchester I was thinking about doing- presenter training stuff.” It made sense- she always had something to do.

“That sounds really cool! Does it pay well?”

“Oh god no, not at all,” she said, laughing. “It’s just that I’m tired of small towns – between uni and here I’ve never had to get the underground or visit big museums or live in a tiny flat.”

“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” I cautioned.

“Oh, of course.” She stopped, looked around a bit before locking eyes again: “But at least it’s cracked up to be something. Sorry, I’m rambling again – what’re you gonna do?”

“I’ve got no idea, not too many linguistics jobs out there.” Whilst that was true, it was also true I hadn’t looked very hard.

“There’s got to be something. You could work for the government, or the army. Like that movie with the hieroglyphs and the aliens.”

“I’ll get right on that, thanks.” Aliens might actually be better than the civil service.

“I’m sure you’ll find something to do, you always seem to land on your feet,” she said, rising from her chair. “I’m going to grab a drink, want anything?”.

“I’m good thanks, I’ll get something later.”

“Sure.” She quickly passed out of the room onto the gallery. I glanced around, before getting up to peruse the books on the shelves. After a while I picked out the same book I always did – a worn university textbook on context-free grammar. One of those books you picked out and promised yourself you’d buy when you could understand it . On the inside cover the price was scribbled on in pencil, £20. Not too bad for a textbook, and I might have time to read it now. I flipped through the pages, scanning over and noting any words I recognised.

My study was interrupted by Adeline’s return, carrying a bottle and a fancy glass. “What’ve you got there?” I asked.

“Rhubarb G&T – be warned it does make me emotional.”

“I’ll watch out then.”

“Oh yeah, Isaac messaged me, he said he should be here later.”

“He’s probably walking down.”

The night drew on, more drinks and catching up and joking about school. There was a nagging disconnect, one that’d been there since we started uni – the distancing that always happened when people met new friends, saw different places. Each time was possibly the last time we’d see each other. We’d both known this for a while now but tonight it was properly materialising.

The bell rang for last orders. “I guess that’s us then,” Adeline said.

“Yeah, I should get back soon, don’t want to be too late,” I replied. As we headed down, I grabbed the book off the table.

“Are you actually gonna buy that?”

I knew it was a silly idea, but I had always romanticised old books. “Might as well.”

“You know, this is the only time I’ve seen someone buy a book from here.”

It was late, and the wind had picked up. It dragged Adeline’s hair across her face as we stood atop the cliffs over the beach.

“Why’d you want to come down here?” I asked.

“I just wanted to see the sea really.” It spread out in front of us, dark and vast and restless; waves eating hungrily into the sand below. “I’m not going to miss much here, but I will miss this,” she continued.

“Do you remember when Katie lost her phone?” I prompted.

The memory sparked something in her and she perked up. “We spent so long looking for that!”

“- And it was by the beach huts the whole time,” I finished.

“Or when we had that disposable barbecue one April and it rained and rained.”

“We had to hide under the stairs and we all stank of smoke after. My mum thought we were smoking weed.”

“That’s what I’ll miss,” she said, still staring out to the sea.

“We’ll keep in touch, won’t we?” I replied.

“Yeah, obviously. But it’s not easy, is it?” We both knew Isaac was out somewhere else, and it stung.

“I guess.” The moonlight rippled in the water, refracting and dancing and vanishing. “It’s getting late, we should head back.”

Just round the corner from the Chapel is my favourite fish and chip shop. It’s been there as long as I can remember and is still there to my knowledge. Inside it’s sparsely decorated, excepting the large National Geographic fish poster and the classic chippy blackboard. On the tops of the little aluminium table is a drawing of the history of the beaches and the lighthouse. Gangs of smugglers used to heft contraband up to the town under the cover of night, hiding from the glare of the lighthouse. The lighthouse will be there for a while, the cliffs longer. The gangs, the people, they’re long gone. The chips are quite nice though.

The black tarmac sizzled in the heat, the haze smudging the thin line ahead. My old satchel bounced against my side as I walked down. Summer was drawing to a close, but it was still scorching hot. The cliffs framed the sea as I approached, drawing up towards me. It was quiet today: the summer holidays were over and people preferred Viking bay, which suited me fine. The hot sand burned my feet, followed by the relief of the water afterwards. I tracked the same journey I always had; careful to avoid slipping.

“I was starting to think you weren’t coming back.” His lips were drawn thin with amusement.

“I’m not very good at leaving. Never have been”.

He smiled at this. “I guess we have our differences then.” He didn’t normally make jokes. “How’ve you been?” he continued.

“Good. Not done much over the summer. I did apply to a PhD programme.”

He looked indignant, hurt even. “So that’s what this is.”

“What what is?” I said, trying to sound confused.

“You’re leaving. Properly leaving, I mean.”

“Possibly- I don’t know yet, there’s lots of maybes.”

“You could always find something here,” he said. I think he knew it was a bad idea before saying it, and he preemptively lowered his gaze.

“I don’t think I can really.”

“Where are you going to?”

“Gloucester, up in the Midlands.”

He bristled. “That’s quite far.”

“Not really – I’ll be coming back loads anyway.” He digested this silently; a squabble of gulls raced overhead towards the cliffs.

Finally he spoke: “It’s going to be very boring.” He turned back. “You know-”, and stopped himself, “-you know how empty it is here? How crushingly empty?” He gestured around madly. “The worst bit of it – the worst bit of all – there are days I feel like I’d do it all again.” The ferocity startled me, and I stepped back. “I’m sorry, that was too far,” he muttered, speaking more to himself than to me.

“It’s okay,” I responded.

“No, it’s not.” It was difficult, watching him. We stood there for a while, both waiting as the waves rolled past. I had nothing to say, so I slung my satchel down, took out the raft and placed it down.

“I circled Dubai,” I said, pointing towards the map. He squatted, and peered down for a moment.

“I thought so. They really have one there?”

“Yep.” Another moment. I grabbed my bag again and got the book out, opened it and placed it onto the raft.

“What’s this?”

“Stuff I learnt about at uni – or stuff I’m going to learn, not sure yet.”

“Don’t you need it then?”

“I’ll find it online.” He stared, savouring each word on the page. My skin tingled as the sun bore down on me. I should’ve worn a hat. He slowly stood upright.

“If this is the last time you visit-”

“It isn’t”

“- if it is, I need you to do something for me.” His voice wavered, close to breaking. “My sister- Sarah Templeton – she lives on Crow Hill. I need you to tell her I’m sorry. Tell her Harry is sorry.” He had never told me his name before.

I nodded, “Of course.”

“And stay safe.”

“I’ll see you soon,” I said, and waved. He smiled, waved back as I headed back to the shore. He was still waving as the cliffs blocked my view. The beach was still empty save for an old man walking his dog and a plastic bag. I strolled up the ramp to the cliff top. Looking back at the path home I suddenly turned round, and stood on the cliffs where’d I’d been all those years ago. He was still reading those two pages; he didn’t see me. I walked past the fields, past the golf course, up the road and off into forever.

Ronan is a second year physics student at university who writes fiction as a hobby.

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