Come the morning the mist had cleared and wiping the condensation and black muck from the window I felt my stomach drop through my body to see just how close I had come to death the night before. From my vantage on the upper floor of the house I could see my car, inches away from the edge of the cliff, the track I had been following plunging straight off it into the surf and rocks below.
I swallowed and gathered my wits, pulling on the still-damp clothes from the night before and stumbling out onto the landing. In the cold light of day the dank old house didn’t feel half so threatening or strange. It just seemed somehow sad, a bygone reminder of decades before. Perhaps the nineteen-fifties? It had that impoverished, rationing and hard-graft feel to it somehow. Make do and mend, threadbare but prideful and don’t let anyone say otherwise.
The bathroom, when I found it, was – comparatively – a strikingly modern room, or at least it had been in the nineteen-seventies when avocado was all the rage. There’s not really such a thing as a quick bath, it’s a ritualistic affair, running the taps, testing the temperature, laying out the towel and so on. It wasn’t very clean though and I made it as fast an affair as possible, barely dipping myself into the tepid water and immersing myself into its depths as fast as I could, washing my hair with soap – I had nothing with me.
The stairs protested my modest weight as I clambered down in search of breakfast. Breakfast has never been something that the British have done particularly well. The much-vaunted fry-up seems to be a guilty indulgence and about the best you can hope for is a couple of slices of toast or a bowl of soggy cereal-in-milk that tastes like water because the full-fat is ‘bad’ for you. This humble little shit hole was no different and while I could have torn through a trough of bacon I had to make do with a bowl of limpid bran flakes with a few blackberries sprinkled on top for colour. They didn’t even have orange juice, just water.
There was no sign of the old man or the old woman while I ate my breakfast. The girl of the house, presumably their daughter, was the one who served me. She was dressed plain but looking at her it was hard to believe she came from the same stock. She had the red hair, a tumbling mess of bright red curls barely held in check with a hair band. Her figure was a delight and almost made the breakfast palatable. It certainly stopped me from the whole indignant and demanding American guest act, and instead I smiled and nodded in that special British way and assured her that everything was just fine.
Somehow I managed to drag myself away from the table to look outside. Everything was damp with drew and wisps of the mist still lingered around the house and a few lonely looking trees that clung to the cliff. I retraced my steps back to the car and gingerly climbed in. Triple checking I was in reverse and ready to go before I started the engine and backed away from the precipice.
I didn’t want to spend any more time in house just yet, so I left my suitcase in the trunk and climbed back out once I’d gotten the car back next to the house, slamming and locking the door after I hauled my coat out and pulled it on, the first warm, dry thing I’d felt since I arrived.
As the sun rose higher I strolled down the edge of the cliff face and looked for a way down. There was a path, though it looked a bit treacherous. Old plastic ‘danger’ signs were dotted along it but someone had rigged up a rope you could hold onto as you went up or down the steep slope and so, palms burning as I stumbled down a little fast and clung to the rope, I made my way down to the beach.
The last couple of steps I jumped down onto the yielding sand and wrinkled my nose. There was a lot of weed washed up, a tide mark that was sticky with decomposing sea life, oil, tar and plastic, hopping with sand fleas as I trudged past it and down towards the waterline.
The sand was grey, rough, yielding unpredictably underfoot, making me stumble and sway. In some ways it was more like mud than sand and it wasn’t the colour I’d been expecting. Where do you even get grey sand? Here and there dotted amongst the sand were pebbles, and some of them looked a little odd, bright red shining up from the muck. I bent down low and picked a piece up. It was rough like pumice and light in my hand as I tossed it up and down, catching it out of the air as I finally realised what it was; red brick, washed down to a smooth surface like the rest of the pebbles. Perhaps part of the lost village that was just out there, beneath the waves.
The whole beach was dotted with these little red reminders, artefacts of the town that had sunk. Now I’d seen one I could see more and more, bright red standing out against the dull grey sand. I swayed slowly down the beach, following the bands of the tide lines, stopping every now and then to crouch and pick up one of the rounded pebbles. Brick wasn’t the only thing to have been warn smooth, pieces of glass, worn opaque were dotted amongst them. Green glass, blue glass, clear glass. Had it been bottles? Windows? Something else?
It was just scraps though, bits and pieces, nothing earth-shaking, nothing important, nothing to give me any sense of connection or of history. Nothing to link me to the people who were the ancestors and cousins of my own town, so far away. This place, these people, they were meaningless to me. I tossed a smooth lump of brick into the sluggish waves and sat, immediately regretting it as the dampness of the sand soaked into my ass.
That’s when I saw it.
A glittering, shimmering in those lazy, foamy waves. It wasn’t the sun on the water, there wasn’t enough sunlight for that. It was something else. I hefted myself up, struggling back to my feet, soaking my shoes and socks as I stepped into the wetness. Something about it seemed foul, I didn’t like to linger there. It wasn’t just the rotting weeds but something else, something more that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Still, I steeled myself and thrust my hand into the froth, plucking out a single golden coin from the grey sand.
I held it up in the pale, wan light and brushed the crumbling remnants of the sand off it as I stepped back out of the water, shaking my feet. The coin was gold, that much was certain, but it wasn’t round, it was more like a child’s drawing of ’round’. Rough and ready, a crude image of something. Maybe a horse? Maybe a stag? The letter ‘C’, ‘V’, ‘N’ stamped into it. It didn’t make much sense to me, like nothing I’d ever seen before but maybe the strange family at the house could tell me more.
I pocketed it with a frown and looked back out over the sea as a larger wave washed the sudsy water up high enough to re-soak my shoes and for a moment, just a moment, the pointed tip of the church steeple, breaking the dull surface of the sea like a broken tooth, peeking from behind blackened lips. The only sign of our past, the history I’d come to find and, somehow, it made me shudder.
Damp and none the wiser I stopped at the edge of the path that slid back up the cliff and raised my eyes to the house that was squatting at the top. It was an even toss which was least hospitable. The sloshing murk or that slumping shit hole and its lurking yokels.
At least I might be able to get some food at the house.