Friday, December 05, 2008

Can Of Worms

I didn’t need to notice the brooding clouds that tipped over the tops of the surrounding cliffs like peeping Toms to know that my chase was futile – or that I was in trouble. I was never going to catch Jack. Not only was he faster than me at clambering over the slick, glistening rocks, at taking such a treacherous route towards the coves, he had the strength to keep up a momentum that required visiting a gym every day; I used to stand and smoke my cigarettes in their doorways, just to show my contempt for those that gave up so much of their time in those places. Another regret? As I leaned over into a clear rock pool, hacking up my lunch of five-bean salad, it was fast turning out to be another one. Not for Jack, but for me.

I recovered enough to call out his name, my voice hoarse as my vomit-burned throat tightened. I coughed again, spitting a caustic taste from my mouth. I’d never wished for a moment that this would happen. What had made me come here, to this desolate place with its amphitheatre of cliffs, endless coves and crashing waves to share such news with Jack? What protection was it really offering me? I’d already made one mistake and, now, another was unfolding in front of me. There seemed nothing I could do to stop the rollercoaster. And I so wanted to get off.

I watched as the rock pool I’d been upending my lunch into rippled and distorted. I felt wetness against the back of my legs, a stinging on the back of my neck. It took me a second or two to realise it was the sea encroaching. Here, amongst sharp, talon-like rocks, was not the place to be when the tide is moving in. I’d venture that it’s not a place to be, full stop. Period, as our American cousins so like to say: as it seemed I was coming to a bloody end it was more than apt, and the irony wasn’t lost on me as I chose to continue clambering. Only when I’d made up some ground did I slow down some, better to prevent any more of the cuts and bruises that mottled my palms and shins. The saltwater was a constant reminder of their presence.

I scanned the grey granite cliffs for some sight of Jack, but I couldn’t locate him against the jagged backdrop. I’d found it so exciting, inspiring and poetic when I’d first laid eyes on the view; how each time I looked at the towering cliffs and the sheer drops that stirred a long-forgotten vertiginous feeling at the pit of my stomach, I found myself falling in love with what this area had to offer me. An escape.

This part of the world is famous. Not just for the job losses when the local fishing industry collapsed in the mid-Sixties, or the rife drug abuse that blighted it for much of the next ten years, but also for its breathtaking coastline. That’s how it’s always described in the glossy brochures: breathtaking. I’d moved here eight years ago, long after the problems had ceased to be and the place had reinvented itself as a holiday destination. I was looking for a change, a break from the city and the way it hurries people to an early grave. And I’d found it; not at first – let’s just say that the locals were distant – but after some time. I felt accepted, at last. I felt I had roots.

Of course, I was saddened to leave behind my good friends, but they all promised they’d visit, and often. And they did. At first. Once it became clear that my new place wasn’t somewhere they could just pitch up, any old time, without prior notice, they stopped. It was a long drive, they said; lots of people from London drive down now and the roads are always jammed, they implored. Because if it weren’t for those two things they’d be around like it had been before, when I had the flat.
There was the convenience of the flat being central, I conceded, but I thought there was more to our friendship than just somewhere to crash, or come back for a quick snort to perk up the night before hitting the clubs. I still believed that, even though no one has come down for over three years. It’s not as if I’ve been banging on their doors, I visited sporadically and always “only for the day”. I wanted to leave the city behind, not the people I loved, but it seemed that it wasn’t going to turn out that way.

Except for Jack.

We’d met one night when Julie and I had gone on a ‘girl’s’ night out. She’d just split from her demonic boyfriend, Colin, and needed some cheering up. Nothing had been arranged, she just turned up, knocking on my door at 9pm, all dressed in glam and glitz, half-pissed, asking if I fancied a drink. As I said, a flat in central London didn’t make for a quiet life.

I’d never really got on with Julie; I was on the periphery of her group of friends and, apart from buying one another the odd drink or her coming up to the flat to drink, smoke and toot into the night, we’d not spent a lot of time together one-on-one. But that night, it all changed. It was the night we met Jack.

I saw him first, standing in profile, his back against one of the glittering pillars in the nightclub. Julie was hammering back the tequilas (free until 11pm on Ladies’ Night) and I was smoking one of her cigarettes.

I didn’t usually smoke, but I found that doing so made making friends easier. Asking for a light was probably the most over-used chat-up line in the world. We’d both had a couple of lines of some powder Julie had in her purse; she claimed it was pure Bolivian coke, but it tasted like shit. It brought my heartbeat up to its peak and that was all I cared about. If I was going to spend the night in the company of someone I hardly knew and wasn’t particularly fond of, I needed something to grease the party wheels.

Of course, Jack didn’t clock me first, that I admit. But later on, back at the flat, as Julie was heaving up those free tequilas, we hit it off. I remember he left abruptly, something about a night bus not running. I really can’t remember. He’d scrawled his number down, asked me to give Julie his best and then was off. I had another of Julie’s cigarettes and went to bed. It was only the next morning that both Julie and the phone number had gone. Two weeks later I ran into them on the tube. They had arms around each other. They looked up; I glared. Embarrassing hellos and small talk followed. I could sense those around us eavesdropping as the tension heightened. I wanted to hit Julie, to scratch at her face. But I smiled, made my excuses and got off at the next stop.

She’d snatched him from me. It was something I could never forgive her for. Never.

But I couldn’t stand there reminiscing, as the sea was closing in quickly again. My shoes – totally wrong for environment I found myself in, although that hadn’t been an immediate concern when I’d left home that morning – were sodden, a squelch leaking out each time I moved over a rock. I tried calling again, scanning the rocks and cliffs for any trace of Jack.

Almost instantly, I was overcome by a feeling of pity for myself; while literal waves were breaking around me, a different kind of wave was crashing on my emotional shore. I sat down, my own salty tears dripping into the foamy sea. I tried to pull myself together, taking deep breaths and holding them to try and reduce my battering heartbeat. I could still taste the sick in the back of my throat and I started to heave again. The water was around my ankles now, capillary action drawing it up my cotton trousers: another ill-considered garment to choose from my wardrobe, in hindsight.

As I struggled against the incoming tide and the sharp teeth of rock jabbing into my hands, I began to think again about what had led me to be here, half-submerged in salt water, clambering for my life. And what I now knew was the love of my life. Calling Jack’s name had made me realise just what he meant to me. I looked back to the thin strip of beach, now some hundred yards away and lapped by a white foaming tongue of waves. There were about twenty people standing, arms crossed, just watching me. No cries, no shouts, no mobile phones being barked into, emergency services called into action by the frantic words of a worried friend, relative or caring stranger.

I recognised some faces, mostly Jack’s friends, interspersed with a few locals – those who didn’t attend the weekly church service – who had seen a crowd gathering and had come down to see what all the fuss was about on this Sunday morning. It didn’t occur to me to wonder why they weren’t rushing to my aid, to rescue me from this predicament. Some of them were still wearing their party clothes from last night’s bash at the pub. Glittery dresses, casual suits, the odd under-dressed person in jeans and sweatshirt who had left after my outburst and gone home to bed, had time to recover and change their clothes.

Because that’s where things had started to unravel for me, at the party. I can’t even remember what the occasion was, for whom this party was being held. I do recall the free bar for the first hour, how I was determined to pack in as many drinks as possible and then slow down for the rest of the night, keep myself topped up. Except this time there was no flat around the corner complete with mirror, blade and a wrap of powder. And I’d forgotten that as the rum was being gulped down as if my life depended on it. In a weird way, it did. My life did depend on getting drunk, because I’d decided I needed to let Jack know how I felt, what he meant to me and how I’d felt so betrayed when he took up with Julie. I wanted to do the same to her, to show her how she’d hurt me; I wanted to take Jack home and to wake up next to him in the morning.

That’s how it had played out in my head, the alcohol easing me into a comfortable frame of mind, making me feel as if I could do anything, even tell Jack how I felt. Now, with water playing around my thighs and splashing up against my lower back, I realised how stupid I’d been, like some love-struck teenager with hormones surging through my body. I could see it now: I’d been a bit of an idiot.

I’d invited a few old friends down from London, knowing Jack would come with them. They’d readily agreed, assuming, no doubt, that I’d be providing the drugs and a place to crash out and recover. But I hadn’t been able to score and so the mood wasn’t as upbeat as I’d hoped. The free bar was helping, but I was too busy throwing drink down my throat to really take in what was happening around me. The only thing I could focus on was Jack and the message I had to tell him.

I almost took the chance when we were standing together in the toilets, letting out some liquid, but I bottled my chance at the last moment, mumbling something inane about how it was like old times, my sentences stuttering to a halt as I fought to make some sense of the words pouring out of my mouth. Jack told me to slow down on the booze, zipped up, patted my shoulder, washed his hands and left. I remember it took me several seconds to stop grinning like a clubber on an E.

As I left the toilets, a squeal assaulted my ears as a microphone was plugged in to the pub’s PA. They’d hired a karaoke machine and were looking for volunteers. Within a second’s thought I stuck my hand up and was called over. I took the microphone, tapped it like some kind of pro singer, cleared my throat and looked at the song options. I wanted something that could get my message to Jack, something that would set up a chance to tell him how I felt, and to do it with Julie right there. Of course, they were no longer a couple now, their fling lasting only a couple of dates. To me it was obvious why it wouldn’t work: Jack wasn’t interested in the girls.

“Jack,” I shrieked into the microphone, “this is for you!” And the opening bars to Hit Me Baby, One More Time by Britney blasted out of the speakers around me. People were clapping, laughing, pointing. Except Jack. He had a quizzical look across his face and he seemed to be searching my own face for answers. I belted out the song, my eyes fixed and focused, as if I were singing just for him. When I’d finished, I blurted out the words that brought me to the predicament I currently found myself in, chasing him across the rocks, about to drown in the rising tide. “Jack?” I said. “I love you!”

There are some things you never forget: your first kiss, leaving home, the loss of a pet. I could now add the look on Jack’s face to that list. And on looks on the faces around him – some staring open-mouthed at me, others looking at Jack, waiting for his reaction. Someone took the microphone from me, I don’t know who it was. Everything stood still for a split second. The music started again and I physically jumped as I was pulled back into the reality of the situation. And that’s when Jack turned and ran.

Others followed him out of the door. I managed to get back to my seat and I drained the last of my free rum. I felt sick, the floor spun. Why had I opened this can of worms? What had I done? I needed some fresh air and no one tried to prevent me from leaving. No one consoled me.

I wasn’t sick until I’d got home. No one else was there; I had the place to myself. I didn’t know if anyone would come back tonight or whether they’d slip in during the early hours and remove their gear, sleep in the car or leave immediately after collecting the assorted bags of clothes and bedding. Secretly I hoped Jack would come, would make it all better, all right somehow. I pulled myself into bed, dragging the sheets into bunches over my still clothed body and drifted into sleep.

I woke to noises in the kitchen. I thought it was a burglar, until the previous night’s nightmare came back to me. I felt terrible, physically and mentally. I crept through to the lounge, my entrance stopping conversation and making several people examine their toes or the carpet.

“Morning!” I exclaimed with faux cheeriness. A series of mumbles came back. “I’m just popping out for a paper. Okay?” I was lying. I couldn’t face staying in the house and knew they’d take it as their opportunity to get out and back to London. I decided to take a walk, perhaps go down to the beach instead; I was hoping the brisk breeze would help me recover. I hadn’t considered that other people I didn’t want to see would have the same idea.

I popped into the convenience store, grabbed a five-bean salad that I thought might settle my stomach. It was almost lunchtime by now anyway, so I decided to dispense with traditional breakfast food. I parked myself on the bench outside, normally a magnet for local youth, and shovelled half the salad down my throat. It helped a little and I regained some energy and verve. So what if I’d made a fool of myself last night, I hadn’t hurt anyone really. Unless you included me in that, in which case I’d cut deeper than anyone in a long time.

Standing up, I tipped the remains of my lunch into the over-flowing plastic bin next to the bench and took decided I needed to get to the beach, to stand, looking out to sea as I contemplated how I was going to pick myself up, paper over the cracks and get on with things.

I saw them before they saw me; it as Jack, and he was with her, with Julie. Of all the scenes to witness! I called out Jack’s name and they both turned towards me. Julie peeled away from Jack, began walking up the beach towards the town centre; he walked towards me. I smiled and walked over to meet him halfway.

“About last night…” I began to say, but Jack cut me off.
“I want you to stay away from me, to stay away from Julie and the rest of us. We’re not interested, not anymore. Got it?”
He turned to walk after Julie. I kept pace beside him and began pleading with him to rethink what he’d said.
“When things have calmed down, you’ll see it was just a silly drunken moment. I love you, but if you don’t want to admit your love for me, then I underst…”
“Love? What the hell do you know about love?” Jack’s voice was tinged with emotion, the anger bubbling underneath. “I told you to stay away, now don’t make me do something stupid. Understand?”
I did, but somewhere in my brain the part responsible for being sensible was unable to function. I had flicked the off switch. There were tears streaming down my face, my fists were clenched. I told Jack he couldn’t do this to me, I needed to still see him. I told him I loved him once more. And then he took off on a run towards the cliffs and coves. And I followed.

I was being buffeted about more, half-swimming and half-wading out in the increasingly choppy waves. The tide was coming in faster now. I’d made a huge effort to get to the beach and was making progress. I was going to make it! I felt the adrenalin pump again, felt elated that I would survive. I was sure Jack would make it to safety, that this near-death experience I’d gone through would make him change his mind. I guessed he was sheltering in a cove, or maybe he’d got to the cliff path and was walking back to the town.

It had never occurred to me that he’d be on the beach, not until I spied him, his arm around Julie’s shoulder, draped like a fine silk scarf. I stopped kicking my legs, I felt so dumbstruck. A wave took me, slamming my legs into the rocks, grazing my hands and knocking the wind out of me. But I didn’t feel it. I was numb from the cold salt water, numb from the sight of Jack and Julie moving up the beach, leaving me to my fate. I could hear the coastguard’s sirens, so someone had had actually alerted the authorities. But by then I’d lost the will, lost the fight, lost it all.