Well, he’ll say, would you be thinking about your symptoms? A shock to the system. Frightening the patient back to life, d’you think?
As a child, I used to teeter on that brink, watching the churning suck-hole far below. Even to look was brave. But I’m on a lawn now. Safe. These gardens are a marvel: nooks and sunny spots and all the flowers that can live in such salty air. What an amount of work has gone into this, creating a pleasurable place.
The air is cooling in the swift spring twilight and the sea is an undulating navy serge. Going to see Uncle Hughie – it was a challenge. You’d see the curtains twitch in the house of death. He might or might not let you in. The neighbours’d be looking, the kids in the street calling out, astonished, Mammy! There’s a woman going in! You’d have to step over the gate because he kept it locked. But once inside he’d be fizzing with manic energy, keen to show off his bargains – multiple tins of soup or how much money he’d made from burning all the family photos and selling the albums. If he stopped, he’d die. Did he even sleep? He’d pull you down if you didn’t keep your head.
The door open just a chink and a chain-lock on: that generation on my father’s side. Quick to laugh, if that’s what they thought would get them by, but it never reached the eyes; intelligent, shrewd eyes. People alert, knowing they were begrudged what good they got; ready to be snarled at and turned on, expecting the rebuff and the smart put-down. One aunt would leave the receiver lying and walk away from a phone call rather than grapple with a yes or a no, wary of being trapped, of all that other people might expect or want. I got cut off, she’d say, blandly, later. Planning survival, not content.
There’s laughter from the Salt House and they all emerge. The Yanks are beaming. Up into the vast car and away for supplies. I take my leave by the door that gives onto the beach where the whirlpool lurks. Colour has drained away. Ahead, the island, like a stencil on a wall, presents itself in blocks of black. The strand to the left is grey; the village it leads to, a distant dark mass on the promontory; beyond that, a silvery veil of sky with a hem of cold light touching the sea.
I climb up on to the rickety wooden walkway that leads out to the whirlpool, over boulders and gaps. As a child, the thrill! It was a walk to Doom, clinging to the one hand rail, daring to glance between the cracks in the boards at the wavelets darting and retreating below. And then, a leap, to land on the great outcrop itself. And the sound! A booming, threshing roar from underneath; the spurt of white spray bursting through rock, grabbing the air and falling back, defeated – this time. There would always be a next.
But not for us. I know that now. There is a photograph of me as a toddler standing at this spot. I frown, all pudgy in my seersucker bathing suit, with a bow in my hair. I frown. My hand is in my father’s hand. That’s all of him that the photo shows, his hand and arm. He’s long, long dead. That swaying sensation at the brink. You know? Down in the chamber the sea rushes in and funnels and spins and races away, a chain of demons, roaring: Face your worst fears, my dear. Face us and live. Hold back and die. Such a seductive choir. I could just go, let go, give in and cease. My heavy head could droop, tipping the balance and I’d fall, slowly…
Throw me a rope, haul up on my chair! I mustn’t drown! Must I?
Which do you fear more: sickness or health? the demons cackle and sneer.
I am perched for a fall. Fling me out now! Be merciless. Kindness can kill, keeping everything unchanged. Let the sea salt my wounds. Then, with clear eyes, I will plan my content. I will!
Who am I babbling to? It must be to myself. I step back from the edge. I turn to look at the way I’ve come. The cliff that backs the strand is enormous, looming, and the sky over it starless and cold. The waves discuss the beach, over shingle, endlessly but they can’t be seen and I can’t make out the end of the walkway. The hole behind me chuckles and thuds. I baulk at the thought of the journey back across the rocks. Then a sudden tiny brightness flares, low down by the shore, like a mercury-silver gash in the darkest pane. Life! it giggles. Coming to get yooooo! The Yanks back for the night.
I have to laugh, stranded here with that hole at my back and that cosiness ahead. The wind catches my attention. It must have been seeping through my clothes, more like liquid does than air, for my skin, every inch of it, flinches, as though drenched all at once. I’m sharply aware of my shape in the darkness, my shape that the wind must negotiate if it wants to get ahead and of my need to move, for I’m no rock! So here goes. And I have to laugh at myself, slipping and wavering, cursing and sploshed. Very heroic. I pitch forward and grab something, and shells slit and skin my hand. Instinctively to the mouth it goes. A salty tang. Blood and sea.
When I make it to the beach-end of the walkway I sit down and I cry. It has to go. What? What has to? The family skin. I have to zip it off and let it go, stepping out of it somehow. I must unwrap myself, calling myself out of the devil’s maw. That’s no name for yer Granny! my uncle’s voice quips instantly, quick to belittle any serious stuff. Cover it up, quick, quick, or we’re all done for. The thing is never to look and see, he advises, nervily.
No. I must look. I must see. I must choose Life that’s coming to get me. Life, silly and tragic. Waving in the darkness, Harry’s daft, doomed, beautiful, what-the-hell roses reach for the sea over his garden wall.