The sun flickered above the North Sea, as it tended to do on spring mornings such as this one. As if not quite sure whether it was late in going to bed or early in rising, it teetered near the horizon, projecting spackled patches of soft, yawning light onto the enormous stone wall of the castle that sat atop the cliffs. Everything was illuminated by the buzzing sun: the earthy sand, and the golden land, and the long green hairs of Scottish grass that fell over the cliffs’ shoulders and down into the whirling, wash-pot sea below.
The grass shivered in its salty, icy bath, wishing the sun would hurry up and rise. Along the path that traced the cliffs, scruffy seagulls perching on lampposts laughed down at the grass in their customarily pert manner. Seeing the birds lose their balance as their rubbery claws gripped in vain at the slippery steel rusted with years of salty rain, the grass laughed back with chattering teeth.
This age-old exchange continued as tiny mice far below pounced from leaf to leaf, so light that no detection of their modest and urgent motions could be perceived from a human or bird perspective. They hurried between the castle’s brick and iron, weaving paths of trodden earth behind them in tangled yellow flowerbeds. Occasionally they took the routes bequeathed to them by their furry ancestors, but more often they scurried in whatever direction they detected a discarded kebob or a Scottish flower. The mice were like that in those days—the mice were just like everyone else, easily swayed by their noses and stomachs.
The sandy beach was several dozens of yards—or metres, if that was your sort of thing—below the wall that surrounded the castle. To access the sands, you had to struggle down steep, wide steps that wound down the cliff’s side like a curled spine. Keeping one’s balance was a heroic feat to attempt in the damp Scottish weather, particularly when you had a bottle of wine in your hand, or a few drinks from the pub sloshing around in your stomach. No one could really say whether going down or climbing up was a more treacherous act, and no one ever really attempted to do either unless it was very early in the morning or very late at night.
During the warmer seasons the beach was a popular gathering place for the students at the university, who exploited the townspeople and police’s dislike for the hazardous steps as an excuse to do many things, among them: falling in love, breaking up, selling drugs, buying drugs, taking drugs, dancing, smoking, singing, crying, laughing, starting fires and putting them out, proclaiming God’s goodness, cursing His unfairness, and, on several occasions students even resorted to using the rocks to the west of the beach as a fatal place to fall from the castle’s high wall.
When someone did this, it was usually reported in the St Albas Chronicle as an accident. For one thing, the view from the castle wall was much more beautiful looking out than down, where stretches of volcanic rock had settled like crumpled, porous rags of a ruddy brown color. But standing on the wall, looking toward the horizon, the calm rocking of the welcoming waves before you, joyous in the moonlight and sunlight alike, it seemed indecent to be anything but alive. Being there even made you feel you could fly, if you thought thoughts that were happy enough. So it wasn’t a wonder that the locals thought it a cause for great concern, and an example of what was wrong with the privileged youth of St Albas, when anyone suggested by doing it that it might be possible to want to kill yourself in a place as beautiful as that.
On this particular morning, though, no one wanted to die. This wasn’t just because everyone had been drinking since the sun went down last night. It was because this was May 1, and everyone wanted to run into the sea.