They’ll be panicking in the office by now. They’ll be looking through your emails and see all the unanswered messages, bold and flagged. Important. And then they’ll slowly realise that this is just the start of it, this is just scratching the surface. You push the thought of the locked cupboard where you’ve kept all those outstanding new customer loyalty card accounts to the back of your mind. You stand on the edge of the cliff and focus on the sea, which stretches out to the horizon in front of you. You close your eyes and breathe in the air—hints of seaweed, a faint whiff of manure, and an aftertaste of cut grass. You see, you tell yourself, that’s all behind you now.
You left the tourists behind some time ago. The ascents too much for their Primark-soled shoes and muffin-topped leggings, the walk from the village car park to the ice cream van is enough for them. Fifty-a-day lungs heave at the quarter-mile path to the cliffs, red-faced with the effort to get an ice cream and a nice view. No, now it’s time for the serious walkers. For walking boots and fleeces, laminated OS maps worn around necks.
It’s been three days since you left without telling anyone. They would put the first day’s absence down to a mistake, a miscommunication. On the second day they would have started to worry but today, today they’d start to dig, maybe pry the cupboard door open, outstanding documents exploding out at them. Tomorrow the police would probably be called, an investigation into the thousands of unacknowledged customer loyalty points, which all lead back to you.
You walk along the coastal footpath. The climbs are steep and the descents that follow send shooting pains up your shins. Your toes mush up at the end of your new boots, which you’re sure are half a size too big and you regret not wearing the right socks when you tried them on. You bought them two years ago with good intentions but this is the first time you’ve got them out the box. You thought you were fitter than you are. You’ve been running again recently. You ran a marathon a few years ago but now you can’t seem to get the stamina back, you couldn’t get the motivation to keep at it. Now the lactic acid builds up in your calves, you can feel the muscles start to burn and cramp. The pain focuses your mind and gives you one simple aim: to get to the bottom of the hill.
You came here with school once, a two-day geography field trip. One of the boys smuggled in a bottle of vodka and you got drunk for the third time in your life, sitting on the top bunk in a cell-like room. You thought life was complicated back then, trying to get that girl in the other class to notice you. With a hungover head Mr. Henderson made you point out the coastal formations, the geology of the cliffs, and you said something about sedimentary rock and coastal formations. It’s coming back to you now, as you look along the line of cliffs that undulate like a roller coaster in front of you.
You see the limestone stack, formed by an exposed weakness in the headland, beaten by water and wind until it cracks and it’s just a tiny stab of land cut off, standing solitary in the shallows waiting to crumble into the sea. You see wave-cut platforms, formed by the continual pounding of waves at high tide, hydraulic action, yes that’s what you call it, scarring the cliffs with lines that become deeper and deeper until it can’t bear the weight of the cliff above and the land collapses. You smile that you can still remember all this terminology and smile more when you know no one is going to test you on this shit again. You like these coastal formations. They remind you of all the processes that are happening all the time; right now as you look down at the waves hitting the beach you know the land is changing. Even though you can’t see it you feel assured that on some tiny microscopic level, something is different from the second before.
The sea is calm, the sky cloudless and the morning sun so bright you have to squint, but the early spring breeze is cold and makes your ears sting. Your teeth hurt as you breathe heavily in the cold air. It’s like that pain you get after you’ve been grinding them together after a stressful dream. That’s been happening a lot recently. That one where you’re at your desk at work and someone’s calling you into the head office and the voice is familiar but you can’t place it and you can’t get up off the chair and you clench your teeth tight with the effort it’s taking you to try and move and your teeth wobble and your tongue rolls over them and you flick one out, the taste of blood fills your mouth and you feel the hole, fleshy like a nectarine and then the next one falls out, blood dribbles down your chin. You wake up fingering your teeth to check they’re all there and you wish you felt relieved.
It’s nice out here. You reach the top of another hill—must have climbed a couple of hundred metres—and take a moment to catch your breath. You’re face to face with the seagulls. They fly into the wind and then relax and let the breeze carry them backwards, wings outstretched like they’re floating; even an ugly bird looks graceful in flight. You wonder why you didn’t give it all up earlier and move somewhere like this. Maybe that’s what you’ll do. Get a job in a local shop, rent a small house, maybe a flat in a little village and just exist.
That hollow feeling you’ve been carrying everywhere with you recently hasn’t followed you here; it slowly ebbed away the further you travelled. You can’t pinpoint the exact moment you started to feel the hollowness; it didn’t happen in one moment, more a gradual process, like someone eating a yoghurt with a spoon, taking really small mouthfuls, so it’s a surprise when all you have left is a spoon rattling around an empty plastic tub. And then one day you were at your desk and your supervisor dumped the new accounts to be processed and you thought to yourself, no. I don’t want to do this. And you’ve thought that before but this time you actually didn’t do it. You opened the cupboard next to your desk and put them in and locked the door and thought, well that was easy.
You were surprised how long you got away with doing nothing. How easy the excuses formed in your head, how convincing they sounded as they came out of your mouth, so that you started to believe the lies and told yourself, yes of course you’ll get the work done, you’ll start after lunch, or maybe tomorrow, or maybe next week. And then it was like you just had to see how long you could last for. And months pass, half a year. But you were left with all this time on your hands, playing out the scenarios of how you were going to get caught, what would happen, what you would say. And then you thought maybe you won’t get found out, maybe you’ve just proved your own insignificance. And you worked it over in your head, again and again, the empty time exposing the weakness and forming cracks until it was all you could think about. You couldn’t sleep, didn’t want to eat.
Three days ago you couldn’t fit anything else in the cupboard and you just swallowed the small key without thinking, like it was a paracetamol. You could feel the path it took down your throat for hours afterwards, a metallic taste on your tongue. You threw some belongings in a car and drove south until the land ran out and you met the sea. And there was this village with a little bed and breakfast, owned by this sweet old couple and you thought how nice it is when things work out.
Now there is a feeling that has replaced the hollowness, one that says you can’t stop. That so long as you’re walking everything will be ok. So long as you stay moving nothing can catch up to you. The creeping fear of being caught waits everywhere like the villain in a horror movie, waiting with his mask and dagger. And you start counting your steps, but it creeps in, between the numbers. There’s something over your shoulder waiting to catch you. You turn around quickly and there’s nothing there except the cliffs, the beach, and the sea, and you try and slow your breathing down. The sun is low in the sky, you’re not sure where the afternoon went but your legs continue to propel you forward.
As you come to the top of another hill you see an overhang in the cliff ahead, and you walk right to the edge of it. You kick a few rocks over and peer down and you know the ground could just collapse under your weight and there you’d go, tumbling in a mass of broken earth and plant roots to the shore. The tide is on its way out. The swash and backwash slowly erodes the beach. Stone and bone to sand in a few short million years. Corrasion. Attrition. Longshore Drift. You lie down. Your face buries into the grass and you can taste the salt on the individual blades, feel the sand-like soil on your lips. You let your right arm hang over the edge. All the blood rushes to your fingers and it feels heavy, full of gravity.
You keep thinking you can feel the key somewhere inside of you. Words like duodenum pop into your head. Colon. Foreign object. And you’re back on your feet now. Still on the coast path. Your legs are really tired, must have walked at least twelve miles, maybe more, it’s getting hard to keep track. The sun has nearly set; how long were you lying down for? You can see a village in the distance, a caravan site litters the hill. A few lights burn orange in the early evening. And you don’t want to walk to the village because the path might end there and they might have called the police by now, even though you’re hundreds of miles away, they could have traced you here; the loyalty points thief. You watch the TV, you know how these things work. But you can’t go back, your feet will literally not turn around.
Your legs keep on moving. You reach the summit of another cliff and you see it. A jut of land extending into the darkening sea. The currents and suspended particles have pushed and rubbed at it over geological time and punched out a huge arch about fifty yards off shore. It’s as tall as a two-story house and easily as wide and you wonder how many tens of millions of years it took to get that big. The very last of the sun sets in the middle of it, reflecting in the water like a melting orange. A picture postcard shot. This is just too perfect and up ahead you see a worn path scale down the side of the cliff to the beach and before you know it you’re scrambling down it. Your feet disturb loose rocks and they go tumbling down the cliff side ahead of you. Your legs give way, the gradient is so steep that the only way you can stop to rest is to sort of fall into the cliff face and let it hold you in a cold embrace.
And you’re on the beach now, the moon has replaced the sun in the sky, there are grazes on your hands that sting and you can’t remember when you hurt them. There are so many gaps in your memory. The arch lies within reach. It looks even bigger down here, almost as if it’s doubled in size. The sand shifts under your feet and you wonder why you’re heading towards the now almost-black water, it’s cold and it’s dark and no one knows you’re here and you know no good can come of this. You want to be in the salty water, because salt is a disinfectant, right? And you want to be disinfected. So one boot comes off and then the other. Socks peeled off, fleeces unzipped, limbs naked and shivering. You step into the freezing water and start walking, more and more of your body disappearing into the dark sea. You look back at your clothes and think you shouldn’t be leaving clues for them to find, to track you down.
The water is up to your waist, your feet are cut by something sharp on the sea floor but the cold quickly numbs the pain. Seaweed slides past your ankles. Your body convulses with cold but you shuffle on, eyes focused on the arch, until the water rises to your chin and your feet lift off the ground and you’re swimming.
It’s nice under the arch. You have to fight against the current, which keeps trying to send you back to the beach but you lie on your back and paddle and look up at the arch, the jagged white limestone glowing in the moonlight. And it begins. You lose all feeling in your feet and hands and the numbness spreads up your calf muscles and through your forearms. The sound of the waves breaking on the arch replaces the voices of your supervisor, your colleagues, the police sirens and helicopters that have been on loop in your head all day. And you know that you’re in amongst the processes now, you can’t feel it, but you know the water must be working on you, the suspended particles rubbing away at you. There’s a pain in your head now, the cold water chatters your teeth and you’ll stop paddling in a bit and let yourself be deposited back on the land and you know on some level, some tiny microscopic level you’ll have changed. And you will stop swimming. In a minute. Just one more minute.