Exhuming the ghosts of war in England and Greenland
One night when I was sixteen, we stole a car and escaped from the city, driving north to the coast, to a secret place few of us believed really existed.
Like most teenagers, the driver drove to impress: the corners of the tight and bending English roads taken with barely controlled bravado;hedges, colourless in the headlights, speeding past with merry-go-round swiftness.
I sat in the back, packed tight with boys and girls, rocking, laughing, smoking, chattering, feeling the excitement of adventure and the press of the opposite sex, speaking loud, trying to show we weren’t concerned about the speed, arms slipped through seat belts but never fastened.
We were dizzy with the excitement of what the night might bring, what sights and dangers this adventure could hold, the sense of possibility palpable. In 1980s Britain, possibility was in short supply and only came to those who fought hard to find it.
The car stopped with the handbrake on, a show-off skid finding us in a small, isolated car park, lights and engine switching off quickly so as to hide us from passing traffic.
The night and the silence came as a shock. It was proper dark: fresh, unsaturated, and boundless, countryside dark, only the faint glow of a nearby town to spoil it. We were silent — for a moment — then before we could become too moved, someone broke the spell with a faked scream and we fell laughing into the night. It wasn’t cool to be moved by anything but music.
I walked to the edge of the hard surface and had a piss to show I wasn’t intimidated by the darkness. The wind was blowing in from the sea, and you could hear it bumping hard against the chalk cliffs not far away — the highest in the north, they said. The coastline here was battered by history, both real and fictional, a place of smugglers, sunken German U-boats, even Count Dracula’s ghost ship.
I’d always been afraid of the sea. It swallowed things up — people, boats, around here even whole villages — and nibbled away at the soft cliffs, taking bigger bites on stormy days, walls, houses, graveyards; it was never satisfied and always hungry. I suppose I was afraid of the emptiness just as some are afraid of the dark.
I went back to the others, who stood around talking, arms stiff and pushed into pockets against the cold, shivering a little with excitement as candles were handed out to be lit later on. Ricky, the one who was leading us to the secret, set off first across a plowed field, and we followed, slipping and cursing at the countryside as only city kids can, until finally we joined a path along the edge of the cliffs, its boundary marked by an old fence. A lone sign told tourists the names of the birds that lived on the tufty ledges below — white ones and black ones, huge colonies you could imagine squawking and shrieking on stormy days, every ledge covered in decades of stinky, fishy seabird crap.
Someone kicked the sign down and, picking it up, threw it with a spin into the night beyond the fence.