Negative Space by Louise Kenward
by Louise Kenward
The shoreline at Beachy Head, its lighthouse, has always pulled at me. Standing on the cliffs, the lighthouse beneath looks far away, out of reach and inaccessible. The urge to jump is a physical one, of body not mind. I've looked down at that red and white striped beacon, warning ships or beckoning those who go to jump, many times. Each time fighting my own urge to jump when faced with my fear of heights – not to die, but to experience the feeling of falling, of freedom perhaps, untethered. I have the same sensation on aeroplanes, imagining what it would be like to be caught by a cloud, terrified I might just try it. Light and darkness. The South Downs, the edge of the land. Views across the Channel, of calm seas or wild waters, a place with steep, crumbly, chalk cliffs. The fragile sea bed solidified and pushed upwards, defying gravity. Perhaps this is what compels us to jump. The cliffs are not at height at all, I am standing on the sea bed, some millions of years ago.
Small wooden crosses edge the cliffs, flowers are laid, messages to those lost. For those who have decided, made up their mind and gone with clear intention, it is also an unforgiving place. Many who have jumped have landed, not on the rocks or in the sea, having abandoned their cruel world, but part way down on a ledge – life changing injuries sustained. Suicide and its attempts are brutal. Some people have jumped many times and survived. I know of at least one who did not go to jump but lost their life nonetheless.
A few times each year the tides are particularly low, the land the lighthouse stands on becomes exposed. I planned a walk around the bottom of the cliffs. I thought it might be balm for a relationship that never quite was. It seemed symbolic of a place to let things go, to say goodbye.
I take a different path to my usual walk upwards. Seeing new openings in hedgerows and brambles I resist the instinctive urge to follow familiar routes – lines in landscape, worn by boots. My pace slows and I remember: his impermanence, a lack of intent, drifting as the breeze, the tides; my wondering, where he might land and whether I could hold on.
The chalk cliffs are fragile. Most years there is land fall as a chunk of coast lets go of its surrounds. Sometimes it can be predicted, at other times not. It usually happens after bad weather, rain chiselling at grooves and runnels in the surface washing away fabric, undermining structure. Echoes of the people who arrive in desperation, seeking peace, an end, their own fabric loosened from land, weakened by loss.
I exhale deeply and look across green stretches of familiar cliff top, the sun is glowing in the distance, rings of light on the surface of the water. Details of landscape lodge with internal experience, wandering while wondering. My frustration at others around me, feeling hemmed in, the narrowing of paths, I slow my pace. My frustration with him, his own lack of solid structure. Like the chalk cliffs, a strong wind and they are blown away. A time in his life as shifting as the tides, he feels out of reach yet he clutches me closely. I wish he would just let me go, so I can stop drifting along beside him, almost out of sight but then pulled in or pushed away, left behind and picked up again. I want to loosen his grip, I am held at arms length, never close enough but never quite out of reach.
I recollect the beginning, the excitement at sharing so much and the promise of what might be. Weaving myself through him, making new stitches, new memories, new connections between each other. Layering of each other, as the soft chalk is layered along the lines of flint in the cliff face. Then the anxiety of when, if, he would leave again, as had been his pattern. Sporadic, fleeting moments of friendship, looks suggesting more. Longing. He was here for a while this time, might stay.
“I'm not good at this.” He says. “It takes me a while.”
“I'm scared too.” I say.
“I don't want to fuck it up.” He says.
I will him to be able to connect, to act.
Negotiating the tricky footsteps down the cliffs to the shore feels like these early conversations - listening, responding, treading carefully, looking where I'm going, what I'm walking on, wondering what might be lying beneath the surface. I thought I was equipped to start to reveal things, thought I had equipped him with all he would need to know to tread carefully. More honest and open than I ever had been. I trusted. Tentatively moving forwards, watching where I step, looking up from time to time. I check again, where I am, looking out at the view. Something unlocked, I had forgotten this part of me, it felt foreign, new. I didn't know what to do with it and gave it freely. Open to the elements, I bared my soul. It felt risky but I was compelled to, had been encouraged, trusted that it was ok. My curiosity left me unable not to look, to see what's there, what might be. I had forgotten past pain. This was not the same, would not be the same, we would make sure.
The insecurity and instability of ground under foot was like the pebbles on the beach now. Growing blue grey pebbles, spherical stones failing to hold my weight with any reliability. They move and slip, twist and turn. I tried to keep my anxieties to myself, or name them, explain, not have expectations but to explore and test through touch. I tried to show him reasons to stay, to be the person it would be worth staying for. Several weeks, months passed, he was here, he was gone, he'd be back. He'd confessed to feelings. The looks had betrayed longing. The unknown now punctured, it could not be unheard. Conversations were intimate, penetrating outer layers of chatter, and inner layers of pain, exploratory, defining terms. Past hurts were shared, things to be alert to - a tendency to hide, to avoid, a wish not to. Intentions for this to be different. We cried together. With words and a kiss, the line from friendship was crossed.
At the bottom of the steps I reach a carpet of large blue stones. They are not well trodden, not nestled into softness or stacked together, they roll and turn. I have to stare at the ground to see where to put my feet, it shifts and moves under my steps. There's no chance of looking up and admiring the view here. Stones are mottled, indigo blues and grey whites. The smell of the air is fresh and clear. The sky is overcast, grey. Clouds bunched together hang in a thick sheet, impenetrable by the light. Despite the grey, it is warmer than it looks. I feel out of place, uncomfortable, my trousers a poor choice they are heavy and tight. I forge on. There is no clear path. The tide is still going out. It is rhythmic, constant, restless. I tune in to the waves, briefly ignoring the rattle of my own thoughts. It soothes.
I see a piece of small rounded chalk pebble and pick it up. Holding it, the surface is rough, pitted and soft, it's brittle and rubs off easily on my fingers. Crustaceans from the seabed pushed upwards make the cliffs, falling down again as the chalk crumbles. A fragile fabric. The pull is to return not to leave.
Walking the beach, picking things up was one of the things we shared, often meeting unexpectedly, doing the same thing, head down, pace slow. We'd share treasures collected – holed stones, shells, mermaids purses - the shoreline otherwise empty, weather keeping people from the edge. More and more commonalities emerged, time and again I noted something - an interest, an opinion, a character flaw. I revelled in these discoveries. Someone who would talk, listen, still look at me like I'm magical. But differences too, things that made me think, made him think. New ways of looking. We laughed. He had snuck into a part of me that I had forgotten.
He talked about fossils, of sea urchins, now echinoids – creatures replaced by sediment, creating a new object with only trace of the original.
“The flint gathers in the space the creature was, kind of like casting.”
I wonder how much he has seeped into the space I am, what it will take to recast, to refill the space he has made.
Pulling at the flint, it comes away cleanly, intact. The chalk suffers, crumbling and falling with every disturbance.
Walking now I ignore many holed stones, no longer difficult to find they shout at me as I walk past. Having been a great source of conversation I now find I avoid similarities, double check if something was my interest or his, as if he has claimed subject matters, objects, geography. Noticing things he'd like I have to consciously shift attention, an aversion to any reminder. I try to quieten these doubts while reclaiming shared interests. It is a clunky awkward process. How to separate us out again now that we are broken. Unpicking stitches, seams come away cleanly but leave indents in fabric. Can I now appreciate the things he has shown me? Can I return to my self as it was before, erase him completely? One holed stone stands out particularly. It is almost triangular with three bulbous rounded edges, coloured blue and white. The hole is exactly in the centre. I pick it up, it is heavy. Too big to carry, I place it on top of another rock, an almost perfect indent it makes a good fit. I recall the almost constant worry, was everything ok, was I doing the right thing. The almost constant uncertainty. Will he come back, is he still there, is this the time he goes and stays gone? Just as I think I will not hear from him again I get a new text message - a photo of a beach, a pretty view from where he is standing, somewhere he thinks I would like too. Maybe I'm wrong, things are confusing and I want it to be clearer, black or white, yes or no. These places of uncertainty are difficult to sustain.
I leave the stone behind.
A temporary relief would accompany the straight forwardness of conversations. Of course it's ok, of course I'm thinking of you, you aren't forgotten, he would say. I am left feeling a fool. Either way, I am not reassured, am not comforted. We've talked, I've explained, I feel rejected. These are not unreasonable feelings. He understands, did not realise, it was not his intention. He looks at me intently as he listens. This is new, different for us both. He is thinking about staying, if he wanted to he could stay, it sounds simple. He tells me he has lots to think about. He leaves again. Nothing changes. He passes through on the tide. I make contact less often, wait to see what he will do. Nothing. So much nothing. I am sure he has gone this time, lost interest. I channel everything I have to face the reality, to find out for sure. I ring, expecting it to ring out, go straight to voice mail. He picks up immediately. My insides fill my mouth. All is fine. I am assured my anxieties are not founded. I think things will settle. He has a lot on. I am patient, have been patient. He seems to think all is fine. I have no real responsibilities, a relationship open to the elements.
The landscape changes and shifts, large white rounded rocks begin mingling with the hard blue stones. I slip and stumble. How easy it would be to fall, how unforgiving the surfaces are. I regain my balance and walk more cautiously.
White rounded rocks, more like giant pebbles, solid heavy leaden spheres, chalk that has fallen, moulded by elements. Hepworth sculptures. The pristine of the white merges to a stretch where there is green patterning on the surface, it's slippery. I clamber across and fall. I go down as I had feared. Face to stone, arms barely stopping me. I silently swear, stupid woman. It hurts. I taste blood. My lip is bleeding and my leg is swollen and tender to touch. There is not the time or space to feel sorry for myself, the tide will soon turn and take me with it. I continue to walk, watching my step all the more carefully. I've sand in my shoe, the surface is not as it seems. I've grazed my elbow, skin scratched away, not quite bloody. I dab tissue at my lip. The stones have become boulders, blocking the way, so many obstructions. Looking up I can see flatter areas of rock revealed by the sea, tide escaping, open rock covered in seaweed, pools of whelks and starfish left behind. I head towards the open expanse, the lighthouse now in sight. Slippery underfoot, the sludge coloured seaweed is fat and juicy. I look into water filled crevices of the rocks, at flora and fauna hoping to see movement. It is still. The seaweed is more beautiful on closer inspection, not sludge coloured but rich chestnut, translucent in the light. It is wet and soft, smooth to the touch.
Even larger, person sized craggy rocks, covered in russet lichen, are now in front of me. The landscape shifts and morphs with ease, without warning. The diversity even in this short piece of coastline is surprising. I didn't think it would be this hard going, I didn't think there would be so many obstacles. It looks so different from above, standing on the cliffs, sea and shore. I pick my way through the rocks, rough and jagged, they give my boots a better grip. I move slowly, looking at my feet. Standing, I stare upwards back at the cliff face, staggered at the scale, the flatness, the piece that looks ready to fall. I notice patches of grass, staggered drops, not enough to climb down but enough to fall and get stranded, to break a leg, a back, a neck. My smallness is striking.
I had tried, really tried, to be open and honest, clear in what I said and understanding of his feelings. I had pushed, held back, trying to find a new response, trying to see how this new precious thing was going to work. He would respond when I pushed, when I asked. He'd call, text, arrive at my door, meet me in town, stand tall, look strong. I didn't want to push, to keep asking. I didn't want to keep needing, keep taking control. I wanted to see what would happen if I stopped. It went into free fall.
Despite intentions, assurances, those early conversations, the overwhelming strategy he took was to do nothing. I think he saw this as the safest route. Even after pointing out the idiocy of this plan, it did not change. I was left, am left, frustrated and confused. There was something missing. Something he hasn't said, intentionally or not. Missing information leaves gaps. Gaps that I will happily fill with self criticism, created narratives, hostility and anger. Fairy tales created from dust and lint, snatches of nothings I can no longer hold on to. I feel hurt and manage to do all I can to perpetuate that, trying desperately to find out, to know, what changed. Learning it will help I reason. I'm just picking at scabs. What strand of truth to hold on to, what I've heard? I could call. He'd be there. Even if the phone is answered, he isn't there. I so want him to be there. I know enough, I need to let it go. I rub salt into wounds a little longer, wide open wounds, with 'what ifs' and 'what might have beens'. Salt a cure for all ills. I reflect on my fall. Even though I watched my step, I couldn't stop myself. I fell and got hurt. My thigh is now swollen, I can feel it tight beneath the fabric of my trousers. Tender to touch. Trying to process pain I am processing pain. Perhaps the physical is easier to grapple with. My lip is still bleeding and sore.
The landscape softens, flattens, blue grey pebbles, an expanse of slippery green seaweed covered rock, uncovered by the tide. I have reached the lighthouse. It is a beacon to warn people to keep away. Today, in the sun, I am a moth to a light. The tide only just goes out far enough to allow me to walk around it. I look up at the cliffs. They do not look so high from here.