One time my ex took us on a weekend getaway to a notorious suicide hotspot so that I could take a video of them breaking rocks on the beach with a very small hammer.
At university I took a class on paradoxes and learned about something called the sorites paradox. Imagine you have a heap of sand. If you take one grain away, it’s still a heap, right? But if you keep taking the grains away, one at a time, eventually there’ll only be one left and it won’t be a heap anymore. The question is, is there a specific point at which it stops being a heap? It’s the sort of question that makes everyone but Philosophy undergrads gag (with good reason) but the point it illustrates is that the boundaries between two very concrete states of affairs can be irresolvably vague.
As it happens, the beach at Beachy Head is not particularly sandy, as many English beaches are not. Instead a huge chalk cliff sloughs off and casts white chunks into the sea. It’s beautiful, as if someone has taken a knife and cut the soft edges off a country. The distinction between the land and the sea is bluntly clear with nothing vague about it. The tide comes in and goes out again. J. and I got the train down to Eastbourne from London one Friday evening in November. The question is, how many parts of yourself can you hide in order to make a relationship work before you disappear completely?
J. and I moved in together after we’d been dating for eight months. I will say in my defense of this fairly rash decision that rent in London is outrageously high, I had just moved there, had broken up with my girlfriend of two years, didn’t have a lot of friends, had not yet spoken to a doctor about my depression and anxiety, was tenuously employed and my dad had just been diagnosed with cancer. But then, I don’t have to justify myself to you anyway. Let’s call it background information.
There’s a poem by Louis MacNeice called ‘Wolves’, the opening lines of which have rattled around my head for years, popping up and repeating themselves to me when my anxiety has set in and I am completely exhausted by carrying around so many thoughts:
I do not want to be reflective any more
Envying and despising unreflective things
The poem is about the sea, or at least the sea makes an appearance. For me it’s always seemed to be more about routine, analysis and exhaustion.
The tide comes in and goes out again, I do not want
To be always stressing either its flux or its permanence,
When we moved in together, J. had just started a fine art MA. This was the motivation for the weekend getaway, for J. to gather materials For Art, by the seaside, accompanied by me in what capacity I did not know, girlfriend presumably, not a capacity in which I was keen to do anything other than watch TV in bed. I should have just said that I didn’t want to go but I was so exhausted in myself that it didn’t even occur to me. So for your future reference if you want me to witness you breaking rocks you had better not be counting on me to do it from some laboured sense of spousal duty because as it turns out, that will not end well.
The video is 53 seconds long. J. is wearing a navy blue button-down shirt and jeans, a knee-length blue wool coat. In the background are white rocks and white cliffs. J. is frowning with concentration and against the wind, wielding a hammer and chisel, chipping away at the rock. Every time the hammer hits the chisel it makes a high-pitched ring that echoes. This video was included in the final art piece, along with three glass jars containing chalk, sand and sea-water. It’s also on J’s website. To watch it you would not know – how could you know – that I was ever there.
Collecting sand from beaches is a very animalistic thing to do really, very bird-like, taking little things to feather your nest and your memories. It’s strange because there’s something incredibly appealing about it despite the fact that you’re not going to do anything with the sand and sand is not particularly attractive as souvenirs go, besides which taking sand from a beach can be quite destructive. In Sardinia in 2015 they started confiscating sand that tourists tried to take home with them in water bottles as mementos. In three months over the summer they confiscated over five tonnes of sand.
It’s funny because I am normally quite in favour of getting a train to the seaside. For my birthday that year I had been set on going to Weston-super-Mare on my own, to eat fish and chips and walk along the beach thinking about the inevitability of death or whatever. You know, birthday things. J. told me it was sad that I wanted to spend my birthday alone so I scrapped my plan so we could spend the day together. That was a disaster of its own special kind ending in a fight, a broken glass and me crying in a graveyard, but that’s a story for another day.
It’s a shame that I didn’t go because I particularly like getting the train on my own. It’s very peaceful. No-one wants to talk to me. Often I can get two whole seats to myself. I can almost always get a Cornish pasty at the station. I am sitting on a reasonably comfortable chair, either reading, or listening to a podcast, or occasionally writing something down. I spend so much time sitting down inside but on a train you can sit down inside and work on your computer and watch whole chunks of country move past at an attractive pace, feeling like you are actually getting somewhere, if not mentally than at least geographically. In the right circumstances riding on a train is like being in a high-speed library. Granted, a slightly shabby, 70s prefab library with a limited book selection, but then honestly I have a soft spot for the slightly shit institutional library.
Beachy Head is a white chalky headland about 500ft above sea level. A lot of people have killed themselves there, by jumping. There has been a lot of media coverage of deaths there over the years and it’s been suggested that’s why so many people keep doing it. I don’t really want to talk about it, to be honest. Instead let’s think about ‘Wolves’, again:
I do not want to be a tragic or philosophic chorus
But to keep my eye only on the nearer future
And after that let the sea flow over us.
One of the joys of travelling is bringing things back with you. When I was a kid, my dad used to travel a lot for business, and he would bring me back the tiny soaps that you get in hotel rooms. I collected them in a shoe box and I loved to take them out and smell them. I had a few that were in the shapes of turtles and they were my favourite. My most complex soap was a small pink cot with a seperate soap baby that fitted into it. I don’t know where it came from and as a child never thought it was strange, although I can’t think of it now without wondering where in the hell you would get a tiny soap-baby in a time before ebay. After a number of years and moves a lot of the soaps began to melt into each other, I can’t remember what happened to them in the end.
We used my hammer for the video. It was a peening hammer, for metal-working, which my friend gave me when he taught me how to arc-weld. It is extremely dainty, for a hammer. It was not designed for chiselling chunks off large pieces of chalk. J. brought a baby-sized hunk of chalk back home, wrapped up in fabric, in a suitcase. It was incredibly heavy. Months later I found it under the bed, crumbling. I was packing up my stuff to move out. I can’t remember what happened to my hammer.
At some point after the necessary video had been taken and the sand and chalk had been collected J. and I went to a strange old-fashioned ice-cream parlour near the seafront where I selected a giant and complex ice-cream sundae for us to share and the woman who served us was incredibly rude and also stared at me the whole time. The walls and ceiling were all tiled in shiny silver and black plastic and there was a rim of chipped gold edging around every table. I can remember that.
There have been times when I have lost myself. I don’t know where I’ve travelled to, whether it’s a space that’s always inside me that I avoid like the edge of a cliff, or whether it’s the same place I’ve always been and it just looks different for a moment in the haze. In the ice-cream parlour I remember J. tapped my hand with the back of a cold silver spoon.
I didn’t reply.
I had been staring. Not at anything in particular, just staring and feeling how profoundly I wished I was not in Eastbourne.
“Where did you just go?”
“Oh.” I frowned and considered asking what the question meant, even though I knew.
The ice-cream sundae was sickening and I ate it quickly and efficiently, as I did everything at that point in time. It was vital to do everything quickly and efficiently, because it was the only way I could do anything at all. Everything took on a uniform hue of laboriousness and eating ice cream felt the same as watching someone break rocks.
‘Wolves’ ends with a note more hopeful than that weekend did:
Come then all of you, come closer, form a circle, Join hands and make believe that joined
Hands will keep away the wolves of water
Who howl along our coast. And be it assumed
That no one hears them among the talk and laughter.
I have never been buried up to my neck in sand, probably because I’m an only child who didn’t go on a lot of beach holidays. Honestly, I’m not sure how often people actually go to the effort of burying each other up to their necks in sand, but I’ve seen cartoons and I can imagine. I think it must feel a bit like lying under a weighted blanket, if the blanket was also cool and damp and a little inconsistent.
I did not bring any sand back from Beachy Head, but when I came back there were certainly grains of something stuck in every corner of my skin causing me discomfort. I ignored them for a while longer, but they didn’t go away. Gradually they amassed as a pile of heavy grit in the pit of my stomach. It is so hard to notice the grains heaping up when there is no-one else looking and it took a while to realise that I needed to draw people close who could tell me when I had brought something back with me from a journey that I did not want.🗺️
Edited by Rachel.