'On First Seeing the Sea' by Pippa Chappell
(after "Dover Beach")
She grips the railing hard, her gloved hands straining to anchor her reeling self, to quell the vertiginous terror that broke across her with each motion of the waves. Around her, the world pushes off into an expanse blackness, leaving only the light flecks of her gloves to meet the moon-blanched foam of each breaking roll of the sea before her.
Again, again, the water lurches towards her, then with a grating roar of pebbles sucks her out, out, into that impossible darkness. She holds tighter, dismayed by the swell of that ebb and flow. The stygian night threatens to overwhelm her, surging through her with each breaking wave.
She gasps, the salt on her lips and tongue threatening to drown her, the breath of the night-wind lifting her hair like the displaced seaweed dangling ghost-like at their guesthouse door. She shrinks from the dewy touch of the night on her neck, her lungs constricting against the dank air, more like the sea itself than the sooty city air she had left behind that morning.
Again, again, begin, and cease, and begin again. Each push of the tide forces the sea air into her tremulous lungs, then with each melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, she feels her very self drenched, swept with confused alarms of struggle, willing a flight to safety, to the dry warmth of their room with its crackling fire; their guesthouse bed with its pilled counterpane and brass warming pan promising comfort and sleep; the solid, polished washstand with its patterned jug. To a door she can close, a window across which she can draw the heavy curtain. Each of these, its own harbour, its own safe haven.
Beside her, this new husband, newly hers, breathes deeply, draws the darkness in, drinks the salt air, flings his thin arms, invigorated, out against the water and the night. She knew that look: he was writing. He had brought her here straight away, pausing only to deliver their bags – the trunks to follow – to their guesthouse, not giving her time to unpack, to collect herself, her thoughts. She had imagined the sea in clear south-coast sunshine, the light dazzling on tiny ripples of jade and aquamarine, elegant birds wheeling in artistic arcs above, and sand, golden and soft, beneath her feet. Not this. Not night and darkness and her ears filled with churning sound and just a twisted iron rail standing between her and the edge of the world. Not a straight drop, inches from her feet, to a darkling plain she could never have imagined in her familiar London streets. Not this grating roar, this endless melancholy. This loss of faith in all things good and known.
“Ah, love,” he sighs. “Let us be true to one another.”
She finds herself unable still to release the railing, her only anchor, and take his proffered hand. Relief breaks over her, then, as his encircling arm becomes her safe port.