The movement of the water far below me was almost hypnotic, even though the mood of the sea was clearly an angry one. Successive foam-flecked waves squeezed into the tiny cove and raced to a shattering conclusion when they crashed into the uneven rocks; each roaring crash producing a cascade of droplets that momentarily formed circular patterns of white froth on a temporary pool of gently rocking calmness.
I'd been there for over half an hour, growing colder by the minute, and I'd become so accustomed to the pattern that I was no longer Taken by surprise when a particularly large one cast itself into oblivion and sent spume flying upwards to coat the hardy plant life on the cliffs with delicate white blossoms.
'It isn't difficult,' I told myself, 'you just need to wait until the tide goes out a little further -- until you're certain the rocks will do the job properly.'
Surviving injured; probably crippled and helpless, was the only fear that remained. The thought of being paralysed, of becoming entirely dependent on others; that was the only thing I could think of that could be worse than my present situation.
It was very nearly time to go. I took a long look around to make sure no one could see me -- a pretty unlikely possibility given the place, the time, the conditions -- and decided to smoke the final cigarette from the packet I'd bought earlier in the evening. I even managed an ironic smile at the 'Smoking Kills' warning on the cover.
Isn't it strange that, even at such a moment, I felt obliged to put the empty packet carefully in the litter bin? What did that say about me, I wondered.
Turning my back to the wind and placing the cigarette between my lips and tried to work the cheap, throwaway lighter. The first effort produced a tiny spark, barely visible even in the darkness of that raw night. The second attempt produced nothing at all. I thought it was down to the coldness of my hands but, as I tried again and again, I finally realised that it was the flint that had chosen that moment to give up and die.
"Oh... bother!" I said out loud. Even at a moment like that I couldn't bring myself to use the one of the coarse expressions so frequently heard from my friends.
The sudden, loud 'click' startled me; and the flare of unexpected light almost made me drop the cigarette.
"Don't be frightened, my dear. I'm only offering a light," a rich, deep voice said as I realised that a 'Zippo' type of lighter -- the kind with a windshield on it -- was being proffered to give a light. I was ready to panic, ready to scream -- for all the good it would have done in a bleak and lonely place such as that -- but, somehow, I managed to contain it. I even managed to mumble a 'thanks' when I tilted my head forward until the end of the cigarette dipped into the quivering flame and caught light as I drew on it.
I still hadn't dared to look at the man's face but, as I heard the faint snap of the lighter closing, I stole a quick glance but, by then, he had already turned away to lean on the railings and was looking down at the restless waves below.
"Fascinating... isn't it?" he said gently and, when I didn't reply, he went on, "I can't help thinking that parts of that turmoil down there have seen more than any human being could ever hope to."
Momentarily, he turned towards me and I tried to get a look at him, but all I got was an impression of a face that was far younger than the voice before he turned away again and continued:
"They've been in every sea and ocean, every river, stream and lake. They've looked down on the Earth from dark clouds and from white and fluffy ones. They've fallen to the ground as snow or rain or hail. They're what every living creature on the planet depends on, and yet they've also been the source of death to millions. And when they're gathered together in a huge mass, they become a power that no force in this world can ever hope to resist or conquer."
His voice faded away and, I must be honest, I wondered what sort of nutcase I was sharing my bleak and lonely place with. I was frightened. He was taller than me and he looked a good deal stronger and, for any female, let alone a miserably unhappy 17-year-old, it was not a situation to be welcomed.
"You don't have to be scared," he told me, seeming to sense my thoughts, "I'm not interested in hurting you, or harming you in any way. I'm sorry if I alarmed you when I turned up so suddenly; I'm afraid I do tend to move very quietly."
He waited then as I finished my cigarette, dropped in on the pitted tarmac surface, and ground it out beneath the heel of my shoe. For a moment, I just looked down at it and then I heard him say: "Go on... put it in the bin. You know you want to!"
"How do you...?" I started to ask, but he interrupted;
"I saw you dispose of the packet. You've been well brought up, young lady. Go on... put it in the bin."
I did as he suggested and then, still not sure it was the right thing to do, I followed his example and returned to my position, leaning on the rail and looking down at the turbulent waves. As far as I could tell, because I didn't dare to look at him for a while, he remained completely still and the silence grew until it became uncomfortable.
"So, what brings you out here at this time of night?" I asked, and could have cursed my stupidity. Not only had I spoken in the ridiculously 'plummy' voice that had been instilled in me at my private school, I'd also given him an opportunity to ask me the same thing. And then what could I say?
"It's always been a place that I had a particular attachment for," he answered easily and without hesitation. "I used to come here quite a lot when I was young. It wasn't like this in those days, though. It was just a rough patch of level ground; they didn't tarmac it and make a car parking place until later." He paused for a moment, and then went on, "I'm told they call the road 'Marine View Drive' nowadays... and this bit is the Panorama Carpark. When I was a kid, it was Sea Road and The Balcony... I don't know why they changed it. I dare say they call it progress. I haven't been able to come here for a very, very long time."
"Oh! Why's that?" I asked, my curiosity overcoming my fears for a moment.
"That's a long story," he replied, and I could almost hear the smile in his voice. "Let's just say that I've been in other places and circumstances prevented me from returning. But what about you?"
It was the question I'd dreaded. What could I say? I desperately wished I had another cigarette to light, just to give me time to think. It wasn't even as though I touched the things normally and the ones I'd smoked had already given me a sore throat, but I wanted time to think and the other possibility -- telling him it was none of his business -- wasn't really an option when he'd been so polite with me.
"You can tell me to mind my own business if you want to," he said, and I almost jumped out of my skin because it was exactly as if he'd been reading my thoughts. Then he gave a throaty little chuckle and went on, "But I don't think you will, will you? You're too considerate and too well-mannered for that!"
"What... I mean... why do you...?" I began to stammer and flounder, but he gently cut me off.
"look, it's nearly two in the morning," he said, "it's a pretty awful night and yet you're here. You're an apparently well-balanced, intelligent and pretty teenager... seventeen, right?" He waited for my nod, and then went on, "You're her on 'The Balcony' and you're all alone and you're staring down into the waves... so it doesn't really take a mind-reader or a genius to work out what you're thinking about, does it?"
The cold suddenly seemed even colder. He was right of course; my only thought had been that my life was a complete and utter mess and that I wanted to end it. I'd planned to stand on the top railing, spread my wings and, just for a second or two, know the freedom that the seabirds felt as they soared through the sky. Then I would crash onto the jagged rocks and... oblivion.
"I can't stop you... not if you really want to," he said, "in fact, it's not for me to persuade you of anything. I mean... you don't know me. I'm a complete stranger, right?" Again, he waited for my cautious nod, and then he said, "But I'm going to ask you to do me one favour."
I stiffened, wondering what was to come. Was he just a predator, perhaps, looking for some kind of sexual gratification from a teenage girl who'd made up her mind to die anyway. And if so....
"As I said before, I'm not interested in harming you in any way. The favour I was going to ask is that we both sit down on that bench over there and we swap stories. Don't fret... I'm not intending to touch you... I just want to hear what it is that can bring a girl like you to something like this. What can cause that kind of despair?"
And then, before I even had time to frame a reply, he'd moved away from the rail. For a second or two I lost sight of him completely, and then I heard him gently summon me to the bench. Still very apprehensive, I shuffled across the tarmac and sat down on the bench, cautious enough to remain beyond his immediate reach at least.
"So, what's happened that's made you feel like this?" he asked, and there was a warmth and a kindness in his voice that made me feel a little more comfortable.
"My father," I began and then felt tears welling up -- as if I hadn't cried enough -- but I just about managed to hold them back as I went on, "My father... died. Last week... it was his funeral yesterday." And then I couldn't hold the tears back any longer. I began to sob almost uncontrollably and I pulled out my already soaked handkerchief, blew my nose on it and tried to regain some semblance of composure.
"You loved him?" the stranger asked.
"Yes... yes, I did. He was...." It was all I could say without releasing another flood of tears. How could I explain that Dad had been my hero. How could I tell anyone how much that sweet and gentle man had meant to me; how he had always been the one I could turn to whenever I needed some help or encouragement. I'd already been over what seemed like a million examples of the times that he'd 'been there' for me when I most needed someone; how privileged I'd always felt when I compared his loving, caring ways to some of my friends' parents.
The stranger said nothing for a while. He gave me time to calm myself. I'd almost expected him to make a move... to try to put his arm around me or something; but he didn't. When my breathing returned to normal he just spoke very quietly, saying, "That isn't everything though, is it?"
At first I just shook my head, not trusting myself to speak until, taking a deep breath, I finally said; "No... that isn't all of it. Yesterday... after the... after Dad's funeral... Mum told a secret that they'd kept from me for all these years. She... she told me that... that he wasn't my real father."
"Go on," he said quietly as I hesitated.
"She had a very brief affair with a young man and fell pregnant. I guess it's a familiar story, really. The young man just disappeared. Her parents.. they're both dead now... threatened to throw her out of the house if she didn't have an abortion. My dad... and he'll always be my dad to me," I said with a quite unnecessary defiance, "He asked my mum to marry him. He knew about the baby but he loved her so much that he didn't mind. She said he'd never... even in the heat of the worst argument... thrown that up at her...." My voice trailed away as I tried not to cry again.
"And?" the stranger asked quietly.
"Sorry?" I sniffed.
"And what else?" he said, "there is something else... isn't there?"
"Yes... there is," I admitted, not even bothering to wonder how he knew. It seemed that the stranger could see into the very depths of my thoughts and, yet, somehow, it didn't frighten me anymore. "I had my first... experience... y'know? It was a couple of months ago. I thought he was a wonderful person... but he isn't! It was just the once... it was painful... and unpleasant... not at all what I'd dreamed of... and... and... he boasted about it to all his friends. When I told him I'd missed my periods he just laughed. He said not to try and blame it on him, called me a little slut, and told me to just fu... go away."
"That was today?"
I nodded, recalling the despair I'd felt then and thinking that I was just waiting time. My life was... ought to be... over.
"Can I tell you a little story?" the stranger asked, adding, "it won't take long. Then if you like, I'll go away and leave you to do whatever is you want to do."
I nodded, vaguely in agreement, and he began.
"It's about a young man who didn't care about anyone but himself... a bit like your young man from the sound of it... but this was a good few years ago. He was one of those kids that things seem to come easy to. His parents were fairly wealthy, he was an excellent all-rounder at sports and he was good at his schoolwork... when he could be bothered to do it. Being self-centred, once he was old enough, he wreathed havoc among the local females. There were times when it seemed as if he only had to smile to get whatever he wanted from any of them.
"Gradually, though, the initial excitement of that began to pall on him a bit. He started to look for new and different thrills. He crashed two fast cars that his indulgent parents bought him -- both times he was drunk, completely out of his head -- and then he got busted for drugs. Of course, his parents cut his allowance to stop him buying stuff like that, so he started borrowing, or sometimes stealing, from his friends. He got kicked out of school and, as his parents had finally had enough of him, kicked out of home as well.
"Of course, being the kind of person he was, it was all everyone else's fault as far as he was concerned. He left the city, eventually, and came to live near here."
"Is that how you knew him?" I asked, becoming engrossed in the story.
"Well... I was here at the time," he replied, "Anyway, he went from one job to another... got caught stealing again... got caught dealing pot... was lucky not to end up inside. His looks had faded, and all that easy charm had disappeared, but he still had a bit of luck going for him. One of the girls he worked with took a shine to him. I mean, he was in his twenties by then and she was quite an innocent. She was convinced that it was the great love of her life and so they began an affair.
"The problem was that he'd moved up the ladder in the drug dealing business. He had a lot of money's worth to distribute... but something happened. The money went missing. It was probably while he was too drunk to know what he was doing one night and someone stole it off him; it wouldn't have been difficult. Unfortunately, he knew that no explanation would do. The people further up the ladder would exact a revenge that would be painful and final... a lesson to anyone else.
"So, one dark and miserable night he got very drunk. The last time anyone saw him, he was headed out along Sea Road. The theory is that he either fell, or jumped, from here."
It made me gasp aloud, but he continued;
"That's the thing about that cove down there. It doesn't matter whether you hit the rocks or the sea itself... those tides and currents will carry whatever's left of you way out into the depths. I mean, no one knows... not for certain... that that's what happened to him... but he was never seen again."
I felt shivers running up and down my spine. I wanted to ask a hundred different questions, but I didn't dare to speak.
"The thing is," he went on, " the girl who loved him was already carrying his baby. He didn't know that... he never knew that. If he hadn't been so stupid... and so selfish... he might have known the kind of joys that your dad knew. If he'd only had the sense, or the conscience, to a good deed for someone other than himself, he might have found peace eventually.
"Do you know the poem that begins, 'No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea...?'"
"John Donne," I whispered, barely able to speak at all as it felt as if my throat was constricting.
"That's the one," he said, "I said you were intelligent, didn't I? I bet your mother's proud of you, isn't she?"
I could only nod. Silent tears were streaming down my face.
"Go home, my love," he breathed, "Tell her that you love her. She needs you. You're a not selfish person. You're so much better than that."
"But who...?" I started, but he whispered,
"No... no questions. I'm leaving now... I'm going for the kind of rest I've wanted for a long time."
I bowed my head and I cried and sobbed as I 'd never cried before. And then, knowing that it was the only thing to do, I stood up, turned and began to walk back towards my home.
"That's good... go home, Emma... go home," I seemed to hear the stranger's voice say, but it must have been just inside my head because there was no one there and, in any case, he couldn't possibly have known my name, could he?