Sheer, sheer, the white cliff rising, straight up from the sea. Up there, unless you leaned over, you could not see the waves break, but for all the distance, the thunder of the water came loud. The wind tearing from the sea, rushing from a clear, high sky brought the salt tang of the sea to our lips. The two of us standing up there, on the very edge of the cliff.
“It’s a clumps of samphire, Molly” he said wit his high unmasculine voice. He then turned, “Molly, it is samphire. I said it was samphire, didn’t I?” I had heard him the first time but I could not reply. My chin was trembling: there was something in the back of the throught. I could not have spoken if my life depended on it.
I stepped closer, feeling for a firm foot hold. I was so close to him I could smell his tweed jacket. As he straightened so suddenly, it brushed against my skin. “hey look out, ” he said “I almost trod on your foot”.
I could not answer, so I got on my hands and knees and crawled to the edge. Heights terrified me and could not close my eyes, which made it even worse. The noise of the sea assaulted my terrified mind as I clung insanely to the thin grass. Three times he pointed the shrub out to me “Fleshly leaves. You see the fleshly leaves? They are used for samphire pickles. ” He laughed. He put his hand on my shoulder as he laughed. He followed me “he noted the fleshly leaves Molly? They allow the plant to store its nourishment, like a cactus, our native cactus, it was samphire at once, didn’t I although I have not seen it before, we could almost get it with a stick.
I could tell he was pleased with me for looking over the edge and he said I was coming along very well. I remembered how he had to persuade me to go up the smallest of cliffs at first, how he had even been a little firm. Now I was going up them all. It was quite a dangerous cliff too, he said. It was worth it when we were there though. If he had not insisted, I would have stayed at the bottom on the beach like a lazy puss. I called him Lacy, this was a name which he coined himself.
He put his arm around me when we got to a shelter turn in the path, he began to fondle me but dropped me at once when the coast guards came towards us. As they passed, he said good day to them and wanted to ask them what they were doing but they walked on quickly.
In the morning, I said I wanted to see the samphire again. He was pleased with me and told the hotel keeper that I was becoming quite the botanist. He had already told them about the samphire and mentioned that he had noticed it lower down where the path turned, although he had only seen specimens of it in a hortus siccus and illustrations in books. On the way, we stopped at the tobacconist on the promenade to but a stick. He was in high spirits. He pointed out straightaway that he did not smoke and made a joke about the shop being house of ill fume but the tobacconist did not understand. We looked at the sticks in the shop but did not find one for our money and we left. At the next tobacconist, by the peer, he made the same joke to the man there. I stood near the door, not looking at anything in particular. In the end he paid a marked price for an ash walking stick with the crook. At first he proposed a shilling less, he told the man that we were not ordinary summer people because we were going to live in the villa there.
Walking along past the peer towards the cliff, he put the stick on his shoulder with a commercial gesture. When we came back to the car park, there were many people going to the beach with picnics and rubber toys. Lacy began to sing “we are the boys that nothing can tire; we are the boys that gather samphire ” we passed another resident a tour hotel and pointed out that we were trying to get a bunch of samphire. The man nodded.
Upon our ascent he said, ” I will never go out without a stick again”; it was a find honest thing and a great help. He wondered if I thought it was a great help and how he had chosen the best one in the shop, especially as it was very cheap, though we had better go without tea tomorrow to make up for it. I remembered the discussion we had about an exact allowance for every day. He was walking a few feet in front of me and kept turning his head around for an answer.
The wind was fierce on top of the mountain and for the last hundred yards, I did not hear him say anything.
As we turned the bend of the path he shouted out “it’s still there, oh jolly good. It is still there, Molly” and repeated how he had first seen the samphire, and how he was sure of it at once.
I stared curiously for a moment over and up where the plant grew on the face of the cliff. The wind ruffling the thin fluffy hair that covered his baldness. I wondered whether it was possible that I saw beauty there, but the moment passed as his cry: go on, oh go on, for Christ sake, go on, go on, go on, oh go on. He made me look over the edge “note the fleshly leaves” he said and said something about samphire pickle. He said people would stare at them when they brought it back. That was just before he began to crouch over, he turned away and his voice was lost.
He leaned right over, it was quite true that he had no fear of heights. Once he had astonished the workmen on the temple of my uncle’s church by walking among the scaffolding and planks with all the aplomb of a steeplejack. He reached down with his left arm, his right leg double under him and his right arm extended on the grass; his other leg was stretched out along the break of the cliff.
That strong grip was in my throat again, my stomach was rigid and my lip was trembling. I could hardly see, but now my eyes focused on him. I was already there, closes to him – God give me strength as I pushed him and my arms were weak like jelly.
He turned his face instantly, baby-face with surprise and a shout unworded. Horror was also portrayed on his face. He had only been half up when I thrust at him. He got up using his stick for balance, gasping for huge lung fulls of air. He was screaming at me, interrupted by gasps, searching for air and life. “You pushed me, Molly you – pushed me. You – pushed me”.
I stood silent looking down at the sand. His voice rushed over me. I found that I could swallow again and the hamming in my throat was less. He had stopped gasping and was sitting there normally and using a lower pitched voice, “….not well; a spasm. wasn’t it, Molly?” he was saying and tying to convince himself that it was an accident.
I still stood there, stone still listening to him saying “…. Possibly live together? How can we possibly look at one another? After this?”
I turned and began to walk down the path. He followed at once. By my side he was and his face was turned to mine peering into my close face. His visage, his whole face, everything, had fallen to pieces: I looked at him momentarily – a very old, terrible frightened, comforting himself, like a small child. He had fallen off a cliff all right.
He touched my arm, still speaking and pleading. “it was that, wasn’t it Molly? You didn’t push me, Molly? It was an accident….” I turned dying face to the ground and there were my feet marching on the path: one, the other; one, the other; down, down, down.