The road fell down a steep hill and the land shrank to a wasp waist. The Irish sea on our right, Luce bay on our left. Luce bay moved like mercury but the Irish sea churned. We agreed the steep mass ahead must have been an island once. David gripped his seat as I snaked up that treeless rock towards the lighthouse.
He had arrived the night before with a book and chocolates for my wife. An upper dapper cultured voice and expensive clothes and shoes. Bringing the bogus England of TS Eliot into my living room. The only thing connecting him to the world was one gold-ear-ring in his left ear.
I didn’t think working in Moscow after retirement from that backstabbing University English department was good for him. But for a man who spent his life giving to others—what else could he do? And here he was still giving to me after twenty-five years. A beacon that found me uneducated but intelligent in first year, found me drunken and ruinous, found me in prison, found me on the way up and kept finding me to this house, this serenity and this sea.
The road was mud-filled pot holes and a slurry wagon splayed shit in the air. I said Galloway was great in the sun but I was fighting against enormous weather. We parked in a puddle that David found when it poured over his city shoes. The gate was locked and I got a sense of twenty-five years when he slipped crossing the tumbled down wall landing with his hands out behind him.
—No thank you, he said when I tried to help. He struggled to his feet and re-orientated.
It should have been beautiful, it was spring and the daffodils were up but a South Westerly was straining the trees, branches crashed into each other and splintered twigs showered down on the squelching track.
David’s socks were wet, his trousers and shoes smeared with glaur. The arse of his coat was muddy and the corner damp. As a new salvo of rain came over, we drew our shoulders together and splashed up that track towards the church.
It was locked. So we huddled by the glass looking through our breath to the stones. David translated the Latin.
—Ah! the Chi-Rho, he said, and when I looked blank, like in tutorials, he told me it was the first two letters of Christ’s name.
—What does that mean? I said, pointing to another inscription.
—Initivm et finis. The Beginning and the End, he said.
We stood a while shivering with nothing to say. Then, during a gap in the rain, we sloshed back to the car.
And that’s why, when we approached the end of the peninsula, his shoes were dirty and the corner of his coat a large wet triangle. This quintessentially English coat was having a rough old day in Galloway. When I parked by sheer cliffs, flecked with tumbling gulls soaring down to the white claws of the sea, he pressed back into his seat.
—Next stop Ireland, I said, and laughed.
—Thank the Lord for handbrakes, he said, and his hand touched it, I think unaware.
We had meant to get tea at the cafe but of course it was shut. David read the opening hours and said it should be open.
— Galloway, I said.
He replied to that by looking south over the sea. As if he’d only just noticed it. The land dropped on all sides into the pound and roar of the waves. He took a step back as he examined the lighthouse, white and solid yet vulnerable surrounded by this power. He paused when I suggested the walk. He looked to the sky hoping for rain but it cleared. The clouds parted and a V of blue vectored on the lighthouse. A sense of awe bore down on both of us.
The path was spongy. I suddenly understood that just inches underneath was the rock-solid body of the One True Earth. From eye level everything fell away so that in your periphery vision was always the movement of the sea. I am afraid of heights but sometimes fear is a key into the clear calm space of the moment. The Now. It was having the opposite effect on David and when we came to the cottage he sat down. His right hand gripped the bench the way old men grip walking sticks. I said how great it would be to live here—right where the Earth runs out.
He said nothing. Moscow was bad preparation for this place. Here’s where culture got it’s kick in the teeth. Here’s where man is made acutely aware of lies and follies. Sophistication is squashed. Society obliterated. David leaned so hard into the bench there must be a stripe of realisation across his skin. Down where the Irish sea, the Solway and the Atlantic meet, the jebble rose in giant spikes.
— Mon, I said and walked on.
But we took a wrong turn and ended up behind and below the lighthouse in the roar of the southwest wind. You could taste the salt. White bits of sea flew past like candy floss. Then, an incongruous line of steps and a red railing. Like you might get on a steep hill of campus. It led down to the disused foghorn beyond the edges of the cliffs.
—I’m going down.
There was look on David’s face and his hand wrapped round the rail. Some foam puffed into his hair. I seen him back in tutorials assured and confident in Renaissance and Restoration literature. Separated from me by the schemes I lived in. But here he was, confronted. I turned and headed down. He could choose.
Halfway, I was surprised to see him descend hand over hand.
The bunker hung out over the seething waters. The concrete was rotted and its railing squeaked and moved when I touched it. David took a step back so that his coat was against the wall. The waves swept in and slowly up, hanging a foot above the rail for a moment before sinking back into a sonic boom.
—Fuck sake David this is magic! I shouted.
I can only remember his eyeballs.
I walked round the parapet careful not to depend on the railing. Every step away from David was a step into space. Round the other side the concrete melded with the sheer rock. An urge came upon me and I risked the rail. I stood on the ledge, pressed my thighs into the rail and leant out allowing fear to raise me up. In the schemes I learned how to transform fear into exhilaration; the alchemy of every day life. The white of a wave came eye-level—I smelled iodine before it fell.
When I made my way back he had both hands on the uphill railing and was twisted away from the sea.
—Are you okay David?
His hair was awash with wind.
—I am trying to pull myself back uphill but I can’t move, he said, so matter of fact I understood how his culture’s bottled emotions eventually dissolve who you are. The schemes let loose the dogs of war. David totally controlled; me—out of control. He refused my help and forced himself up with an effort I admired. His brogues scraping in the rotting concrete, his hands rock climbing and his coat a dangerous sail in the wrong wind.
At the top he held onto a bolt protruding from the whitewashed wall. I could see he feared the cliff-top walk back. He had used up too much courage. That’s when I seen it. A gate. A red-painted gate at the precarious end of the cliff. But it was only fifty feet away.
—Look, I said.
But he glanced out over the edge and moved closer to the wall.
—It’s a gate, I said, —Save us the walk back round the cliff.
—It’s the edge of the bloody world, he said, but in his tone was agreement.
I started along. And he, with his shoulder to the wall, followed. I took three steps and waited. No words. I wanted to leave his pride intact. We were soon dangerously close to the edge. I was leaning into the wall and David had both hands on it. He looked like man searching the paint for microscopic life-forms.
—How far? He asked.
There were no grips now and if he slipped it would be useless. A two hundred foot drop into the washing machine of the world.
Sideways he crept towards that gate. One of his brogues slipped and he went down on one knee. Some loose rock clattered over the edge into the roar. He twisted upright and moved the last five steps with his nose against the wall. The gate was padlocked. David froze with two hands flat on the wall and his back to the sea like a man about to be shot. I thought he was going to cry. I suggested climbing but he had aged. Not old. But he wasn’t climbing this gate.
—What do you want to do?
He didn’t answer. The tip of his nose was dusted white.
—We’ll have to go back, I said.
He shook his head in a resigned yes.
—Do you want to go first?
He shook his head no.
The path was steeper looking down. Glossy boulders just asking to be stood on.
—I’m going to work round you David so don’t move.
I pressed across his coat, my heels inches from the edge. The electricity of death shot through my soles. I almost froze spooning with him but drew up the old alchemy and moved round. I patted him on the back.
—You can stick your hands on my shoulders, I said.
—No thank you.
The wind howled as I began picking my way down. Every step felt like a step on ice. I was sure David would go tumbling into the sea. That he’d keep the stiff upper lip and not even scream. That all I would see was his coat flapping as he turned heels over head into the raging foam. Then—he was gone. There was nothing in my periphery vision except the whitewash of this wall and the blur of the red gate. I thought he really was dead till something moved at my cheekbone. David was on his arse. His hands out behind and his heels digging in as he bummed down that muddy path. His coat tails flapped behind his shoulders. His shirt had worked out and his tie flopped on his white belly.
—I am ashamed, he said, —I am totally ashamed.
—Of what? I said, —Fear? I’m feart too.
—I am utterly ashamed, he said and for a moment I thought he was going to leap into the sea.
But his face found dignity and he motioned me forward with a flap of his hand. I got to the railing and stood facing out to sea with him in my field. He passed in that grotesque inverted all-fours posture and disappeared round the corner.
He was tucking in his shirt, his shoes were soaked, his socks were wet, his trousers had wicked up water to the knees, his shirt was grubby from his hands, his elbows were glaur, his coat was embedded with mud and threaded by rocks, his hair was everywhere and when he turned I seen anger on his face for the first time in my life.
—Shall we go? he said.
I nodded and let him lead the way. He converted his shame into an anger that got him back round the cliff edge. When we got to the car he offered to remove his coat and shoes.
—Don’t be daft, I said, —Get in.
As we drove away it felt like we were leaving the very edge of the world.
Late afternoon small talk. But beneath he blamed me for what happened. For his shame. For the very rawness of nature. Then we passed a sign.
I told him it was where Churchill and Eisenhower planned D-Day. That opened him up and he was interested to go there. Really interested to go there.
It sits between two sheer cliffs, down a narrow one-track road. I could feel David tensing in case nature would give us a re-run of the lighthouse. But the road levelled to a lawn, manicured gardens and a lodge of Victorian splendour.
—Oh my, said David, and even the car breathed a sigh of relief.
There was a wall at the bottom of the garden, some palm trees where the gardener looked up and bent again to his work. Beyond that a powder beach with orderly waves coming in.
Reception was empty but David rang the bell. A girl came out.
—Can I help you?
—Is it possible to have tea?
—Certainly. If you could come this way.
She led us to a room overlooking the lawn, the wall, the distant gardener and the sea.
—Would tea and scones be a bother? asked David.
—Not at all.
We sat in silence as she lit the fire then left. David got up and dried his coat at the flames.
—The smell of burning wood, he said. And we let silence fall. We were easy in that silence. The silence twenty-five years of friendship brings. The antithesis of our early silences. If I turned up early he would pretend to look for a book and when he found it, pretend to be trying to locate things in it. I’d read the current text over and over and listen to the sweat run down the side of my ribs. When the door opened so did we. I was good with an audience but alone I was exposed. But here we were; two Buddha smiles and the day’s events shared. Simply shared.
There was a chair with a plaque.
—Hey, this is the actual chair Churchill sat in, I said and sat down.
—Never in the field of human conflict, I said, —Has so much been owed by so many to so few.
—Quite, he said.
The flames licked.
The logs cracked.
Then it came out.
—David, I want you to know that this is true. I owe a lot more to you than you think. You might even have saved my life, know, back all they years ago. Know what? Know what you’ve been like for me? A lighthouse.
We looked at each other. The steam was rising from his clothes.
—Thank you, he said. We could hear now the distant clink of cups coming through the rooms. And waves. The sun was going down.
A waiter arrived with a tray. Silver tea pot—the poshest of posh bowls of cream and jam and long shining spoons and other silver accoutrements.
—Good afternoon gentlemen.
—Good afternoon, said David.
I said nothing.
He poured two cups of tea, delivered some small talk about the weather, the sea and the Irish coast that could be seen on a clear day. But beneath, calculating the permutations of David and me. Then he looked directly at David’s earring and made up his mind.
He placed more logs on the fire and bid us ring the bell if we required assistance. The clotted cream, the scones, the jam and the tea were all perfect. It was the High Tea of the Great Gods. I leaned back. The sun was behind the horizon now. I could see him staring at me. I could feel his feelings. But things were so easy I was able to let them be.
When he started he spoke with thoughtful pause. Living the day, savouring it, before revisiting it with me.
—You know, he said, — I’d completely forgotten about the stones of the old church. The weather was quite dreadful then of course. I think for that reason I had expunged it from my memory.
He looked at his shoes. They were emblematic of his fall. We smiled at his shoes.
—Then there was the scariness of the Mull of Galloway, he said, —How I wish I'd had the courage to walk those few yards to the corner of the wall, instead of proceeding on my bottom!
I made a sound and lifted my hand to interrupt and excuse him but he stopped me.
—No no no—it was the sense of getting to the very verge of the environment that supports human life: those waves crashing against each other as two seas converge; and the car parked on a slope, with a frail fence that would have been no defence if the car were not safely in reverse gear.
He paused again, breathed in the surroundings. Smiled. Continued.
—And then, with that contrast that is peculiarly Scottish, to this country house: the fire lit specially for us, the silver tea-service and bone-china cups, the newly baked scones and truly excellent raspberry jam—impressive without being pretentious, a sense of authenticity in the lifestyle, that is completely irresistible. "Good afternoon, gentlemen....”
When the tea was finished we went onto the beach. It had been a day of all weathers and as we stood watching the black rollers come in we realised it had been a day of all things.
—Who’d’ve imagined way back then that you and me’d be sitting twenty-five years later having cream tea in the very place Churchill and Eisenhower planned D-Day?
He put his arm round me and gave me a squeeze. It took an effort for me to return the gift. But I did. And on that note, the day was complete.
© Des Dillon 2008
This electronic version of "The High Tea of the Great Gods" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author. It appears in the author's collection They Scream When You Kill Them, published by Luath Press Ltd, Scotland, Sept. 2006. Book ordering available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
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