(aka Tears & More Salt Water)
As I prepare to move this Saturday, I am awfully glad to have had such a lovely final couple of weeks to look back on…
Last Wednesday, I left home for the mother-of-the-bride’s house to stay the night before the wedding. I made it about two minutes down the A459 before I started bawling. An hour later, I pull myself together to knock on the front door.
I’m greeted by my friend, who is beaming, surrounded by a kitchen-full of her closest friends and family. Everyone is smiles and laughter; there is so much love in that kitchen. And I promptly burst into tears again.
Abi is someone I met years ago when I was a different person, living a different kind of life. She was also quite different then. We met at the university through a support group for the welfare kids. Once a week the welfare officers would shepherd some of us into the sports hall for some either half-hearted or cut-throat badminton, depending on people’s moods that week. The idea was to get the loonies out the house/library and give them a sense of community, some physical exercise and some good ole fashioned socialization. (I proposed calling it ‘Madminton’ but it was rejected on grounds of political correctness. Opportunity missed, if you ask me.)
Abi was the cool older postgrad who made everyone laugh. I needed laughter at that time in my life so I naturally gravitated toward her. (And I think my Terry’s Orange Chocolate brownies clinched the deal.) Over the years, she has never failed to make me laugh. She has also spent countless hours reassuring me, calming my panic attacks, messaging me after I got out of hospital each time. Listening to me talk about boys n’ girls, listening to me curse and cry over my family and, later on, listening in bemusement as I jabbered on about climbing. Countless horror films were watched and bottles of wine drunk together. There were always plenty of hugs. A sofa to sleep on. And no shortage of ‘Oh shit mate I’m so sorry what’s happened??’ She has always been there to pick up the slack of the others in my life. I will always feel a rope tethering me to Brum, or wherever she goes.
And I quickly learnt that Abi was not just the cool and funny gal she seemed to be. I learnt that we had hurt in many of the same ways in the past, and were both still struggling against the periodic blows life will unfailingly deal. I only regret that over the years of friendship there were times when our pain made us both turn inward, isolate, and I couldn’t always be there for her as much as I would have liked.
Before COVID hit, Abi asked me to be one of her bridesmaids. Over two and a half years later, I am stood in her mother’s kitchen with the rest of the bridal party. The following day I am stood in the bridal suite, helping do up about a thousand buttons down the back of her wedding dress. We are all there. We are stood in the upstairs atrium, all of us. Abi, her bridesmaids, her brothers. We are all beautiful, and we almost look grown. I lean back against the wall and blink up at the ceiling.
After the ceremony, there is a seemingly endless list of photos to take. The bride and groom with her parents. With his parents. With the bridal party. With her family. With his family. With her work friends. With his work friends… Finally we managed to cram all 100+ attendees into a final photo, and we then drink and laugh our way through dinner. Then the speeches start and the quiet sobbing on my part restarts. The best man, her dad, her mum… Her younger brother stands up to speak at the end: ‘Abi is the most annoying, bossy, infuriating and-‘ he chokes trying to get the word out, ‘kind person’.
I look around the room at the group of delightful weirdos, misfits and loved ones Abi has collected around her. I am proud to be one of them. I am overjoyed, beaming, to know that it’s not just me who thinks Abi is amazing. The bride and the groom are profoundly loved, all day long.
I think about how different both Abi and I are these years down the line and I realize that there is a relationship and a bond there that continues to endure, to be completely relevant in the face of changing lives. There is something more fundamental than circumstance or hobbies or banter, than what we think we must look for in our loved ones. I look at the groom and feel so much love for him because my friend has found that fundamental connection in him- for life.
Later in the evening, I think briefly about my own wedding- the one I absolutely never want to have. I think instead about the life I want to lead, the places I want to go and the people I look forward to meeting as I go about living well. I think about the love of my life, because it is a day all about love, and I realize not for the first time that it is not a person that comes to mind. The thing with which I have now shared a profound bond with- that fundamental connection- for several years. The thing that lifts me up, validates me, cheers me on, shows me I am beautiful and strong. The thing I have given my head, heart, soul and bank account to. The last thing I think of as I fall asleep and the first thing I think of when I wake up.
I listen to love songs as I drive toward it.
The following morning I excuse myself from breakfast early and motor west. The hangover hits an hour in, and the following four hours of Good Friday traffic passes in an exhausted blur of caffeine, codeine and cracking tunes.
I make it to the campsite and spelunk my way into the boot of my car, clambering over heels, dress and bouquet, to find my tent. Pitch up. Timed- a new personal best. I can pitch up blindfolded with winter gloves on (I practiced) so doing so in this beautifully and surprisingly tranquil campsite is a simple joy. After heading back out for food n’ fuel, I arrive back at the campground completely shattered and still terrifically hungover- and am immediately talked into going for a curry.
I love these people. The phrase ‘chosen family’ has a particular meaning to people like me, and the people I chose to spend my time with are there for a reason. They are good people. Funny people. Brave, adventurous, reliable, surprisingly touching at times- people I am proud to know. I think about how I will be moving far away from these people soon.
It is perfectly acceptable to cry your way through a wedding ceremony. I sense it would not be quite as appropriate to cry with joy and bittersweet excitement for the future throughout a Friday night curry with your climbing club. And honestly, at this point, I am exhausted beyond tears.
We make the usual chat- make plans for the following day that are perfectly prospective, dependent upon tomorrow’s conditions and entirely likely to change. We catch up. We laugh, a lot. I try not to fall asleep in my seat and slip under the table. I have a very reassuring conversation with someone who tells me about the intrepid things he did in his youth, his prioritizing of adventure, the bemusement of his ‘normie’ colleagues in their bank holiday weekend group chat, the way his family wrote him off as single for life because they thought he’d never find a woman who’d want to go tooling off round the globe doing crazy shit. (He is now married to the club’s president.)
I briefly entertain the notion- that I might one day find someone with the same ethos and hunger for both life and adventure as me- and dismiss it for now with an amused wave of the hand.
The following day, we leave for Saddle Head, just a few minutes down the road. I spend a beautiful, sunny day climbing the top half of a cliff above crashing, salty waves with two rather cheeky members of the club. Trad is the greatest form of play and adventure. Even on a low grade route, you feel as though you are doing something terribly grand. You can imagine yourself the first person to scale the rock before you, and yet you are proud to be connected to the long history of climbers behind you. You admire the gear- it’s tactility- the dichotomy of chunks of metal and precise mechanics.
We get in four routes as a trio. The rock is delightfully sharp. It cuts me, bruises me, stretches my muscles and keeps me on my toes. It heats up the longer I spend with my hands on it. It pulls no punches, and gives the greatest reward when it’s treated with respect. What more could you ask for?
The people aren’t bad, either. We tease, we poke fun. We break banter without hesitation to discuss the serious realities of the dangerous thing we have mutually decided to delight in and pursue. I am joyed to see one of my partners climb for the first time in too long, knowing all too well the feeling and trepidation of return to the sport. I am joyed to see the other smash his goal for the day, stepping out into open space, rising above the drop-off to resume being a sarcy lil rascal after only the second piece of gear. The crag morale is good today, everyone easing into the unexpected sunshine. Sunscreen is passed round.
We get back to the campsite and the backs of my hands are burned and my palms are rough. Later, we walk through sleepy Pembroke, the town already closing down around us as we attempt to forage. There is the excellent fish and chips, the desperately needed cold drink, the usual ease with people with whom you have spent the whole day climbing.
I sit outside my tent for a while, late that night, wrapped in my wool blanket. The stars peek through, the waves crash nearby. I sleep better that night.
I wake up quite a bit earlier than the rest of my club. Amusingly early, to some. But that quiet hour or two on my own is precious. I stand in the middle of the campground and can sense the world peacefully asleep around me. I pretend I am the only person awake in the whole world. No one is watching, and I can drift off into the cool bluing sky.
Every morning on weekends such as these, I sit watching as my fellow climbers emerge from their bags, tents or bunks. The jovial chatter grows around me. If you are in a hut, the kettle clicks on and off. If you are in a campsite, tent zippers are pulled open and closed, followed by the click of gas stoves. The English do love their tea. The repartee begins, led by the morning people, who tease the late-risers, then later tell them to get-a-fucking-move-on. Plans are solidified. Mugs are washed, if there’s time. Groups depart for their chosen adventure.
This morning, two of us head to Flimston Bay, with one to follow. We’ve decided on a day of adventure, which loosely translated at the beginning of the day to an opportunity to put into practice some new skills on some easy climbs. I make the fateful agreement to set up the hanging belay if he sets up the ab. We find our slab pretty easily, to the outward-looking left side of an idyllic Welsh bay. It is gloriously sunny, and the thrum of new adventure is indeed passing through us, rebounded by the surf and the rock. My climbing partner sets up an ab point which he will later describe as ‘a 7/10’ and as I begin to teeter over the edge I laugh, ‘That might be the last photo that’s ever taken of me!’ I am referring to the faith I have inexplicably decided to put in his first ab build, not what is awaiting me at the bottom of the slab. If I’d only known.
I ab 3/4 of the way down the route. Dynamic rope on a gentle slab doesn’t make for the smoothest ab, but as I totter my way down the face, I keep an eye on the rock below me, watching for the level where it darkens, wet. At 3/4 of the way down, I can see the rock has been sprayed some five metres below me. It is a sunny day. The ‘cave’ (a small niche) where the hanging belay is meant to occur is further down still and completely soaked. I make the call that we won’t be climbing the full route, and I will attempt to set up a belay point mid-route as we’d discussed at the top.
I side step on the rope, sat slightly back, its stretch giving the sense of a precarious stance, examining the rock. There are plenty of cracks. I feel the rock, it’s cool dryness, sharpness and permanence. I note a couple of particularly good placements- that one could certainly take a .75- that one a mid-sized nut-
Suddenly I am pressed against the slab, freezing cold and soaking wet.
Have you ever jumped into a cold pool? Done a bit of wild swimming? Picking the sudden leap into the chill, rather than the steady easing in? When the cold water goes over your head, it knocks the breath from your lungs. For the initial few seconds, you feel nothing. The extreme change in bodily circumstances clears all thought and feeling from your being, and you involuntarily freeze within the sudden freeze.
That’s what it felt like. A couple seconds of total nothingness, and then sudden cold as I realized I was now nose-to-rock with the slab I’d just been inspecting, spitting a mouthful of salt water. A couple more second for it to even register what had happened.
All around me, three metres above me, the rock was soaked. I was soaked. The rope I was abing off was soaked. The 60m on my back was soaked. All the gear and the harness it’s racked on- soaked. My goddamn bra and pants- soaked. I suddenly feel about 20 kilo heavier, and suddenly my entire body is shaking from the cold. I feel the cold quite badly these days, and my body literally shakes with the cold, and probably the rush of adrenaline now flooding in as I snap to.
At the top- the dry, warm, sunny top of the route- we’d agreed on a communication system. Fun fact- I can’t yell. I used to find this fact quite upsetting, born as it is from childhood trauma- but now it’s perfectly funny to me. I practice. I literally practice yelling. I drive into the middle of nowhere, walk into storms, cruise down the motorway at 80mph- and shout as loud as I can possibly bear. I yell. I holler. I practice being loud. But it turns out I still need more practice, as my climbing partners and I discovered above the waves at Saddle Head the day prior. So we agree on a backup system- three tugs on the rope means everything is a-okay, I’m safe n’ secure, come on down and join me. Six tugs means- I haven’t been able to build the belay, conditions aren’t good, or simply- I don’t like it and I want to come back up RIGHT NOW please.
Another wave hits me.
I look up to my climbing partner and, wanting to get the message across ASAP, hold up six fingers. I climb up a little to take my weight off the rope.
Another wave hits me. I realize that the waves are not getting stronger or heavier on my back, and start to relax. I pick the first crack I see and jam a cam into it. Psychological protection.
Another wave hits me. I am now timing my actions to happen in between waves. I grab the rope below me and tie a figure of eight on a bight. It’s the best idea I’ve got.
Another wave hits me. Clip it in with the first screwgate I can get my paws on. I pause, bracing myself for another drenching. The wave crashes below me, the spray reaching my waist- the Celtic Sea is faking me out.
I laugh, now enjoying myself immensely. I strip my ab.
The next wave’s spray reaches my neck and I give the thumbs up, get one in return, and start climbing.
As another wave dunks me, I look at the mess of rope below me. 20-odd metres of sodden tangle. A problem for later, I think, just desperate now to get out of the line of fire as my whole body is convulsing from the cold.
A final wave licks my heels as I climb. I get firmly above the line of spray and feel myself tugged back down. The wave-made knot of rope is snagged below me. I tug at it, trying to flick it away from the slab. A rather frantic few second of flicking and tugging ensues, during which I run through the theory of self-belaying in my head- why don’t I climb with a fucking knife?!- I’ll never hear the end of it if a rope gets left behind unnecessarily! I wrestle with the rope until it finally comes free and I can start laughing again. I flake it over my knee, create some sort of sodden mess of a coil, clip it through a sling at my back, and resume climbing.
The climbing is delightful. A really lovely cruising flow. I don’t stick to a particular line, just meander up a VDiff of my own creation. Rock so clearly formed by the waves which just knocked me about- pockmarked and jagged. Later that night, at home in the shower, I will realize my legs are covered in a mottling of bruises and nicks from being pushed up against that rock by the indifferent force of the sea. I will admire my war wounds. But I feel none of this as I look at my foot meeting hold on the sunny rock, the water that puddles underneath it in the little crack. I am laughing, absolutely joyous.
When I get to the top, my two climbing partners look at me warily for a moment, as though judging how it is appropriate to greet me, based on my state of mind, and all things considered. I look like a drowned rat, dripping water, shaking worse still from the cold. I grin, and they know it is okay to grin back. ‘You’re okay though, yeah?’ one of them checks and when I laugh, they laugh too. We can’t stop laughing.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again- I have never felt so cold in my life. I look out over the bay once again, try to remember how it looked before, when I wasn’t peeling wet clothes and gear off my body, hands juddering at buckles, teeth chattering. It is a kilometre walk back to the carpark and I shake the whole way back. Every couple of minutes we look at each other and burst out laughing. I lick my lips and taste salt.
When I get back to the car, I strip off every remaining piece of wet clothing and think how it has never felt so good to have dry clothes on my body. I wrap my wool blanket around my shoulders, clasped under my chin. I join my climbing partners at a picnic table. I’m handed a hot drink by one and chocolate by the other. I am profoundly content and unbelievably happy. One of them laughs and says, ‘This is just the best day.’ I’d been thinking it, too, but hadn’t wanted to voice it. Who enjoys dangling over a cliff edge, soaking wet and freezing cold? I do. Who enjoys feeling the fragility of their very being, and the chance to prove themselves to themselves in a moment of crisis? I do. Those are the only vows I’ll ever need. ‘Same,’ I grin. The breeze brushes my wet, tangled hair against my cheek as dark chocolate melts on my tongue.
We call it a day reluctantly and I say with all sincerity- thanks for keeping your head, too. Thanks for having my back.
On the drive home, I stop at a Starbucks. Young families, old couples, individuals hacking away at their keyboards. The barista makes small talk. And all the while, I am literally biting the side of my hand to stop myself from laughing, this crazy glee welling up in my chest. The dissonance between the situation I found myself in that morning- being doused by waves on the side of a cliff- and, two hours later, being stood in a services Starbucks ordering a frap is just too much for me. It’s too good. It’s too funny. I laugh and sing and holler the whole way home.
That night, I wash all of my gear, my rope, my clothes, my body. I didn’t lose any gear and I am vitally alive. Everything smells like the sea.
Once again, I stand alone in a house mostly packed up, soon to be vacated. The end of a relationship, the end of a tenancy, the end of almost a decade in this lil part of the world.
The following week holds a lot of changes for me, but not many endings. Not true endings, anyway.
I go to my last Tuesday night climb with the club at my local wall, which has been as much a home as anywhere else has ever been. Not many people are there- everyone is hungover or exhausted or otherwise recovering from the bank holiday weekend. Only the die-hard familiar faces are there. Somehow everyone already knows about my little escapade and they grin as I walk toward them before they can even get out some comment about waves and taking a dip. But I’m not leaving these people. In fact, I’ll see some of them in just two weeks in the Lakes. But I am leaving a home- the wall. I look around at a place I know so well, have spent so many hours at. A place that has been both hang-out and temple, communion and therapist’s office. I’ll be back, but it won’t be the same. I leave, get in my car and cry.
Speaking of- this week I also said goodbye to the only therapist I haven’t completely despised. In fact, I’ve grown to love her in less than a year. She listens to me recount my week’s adventures. I cry over the beauty of my friends and my love of the rock. I talk animatedly about how much I love the people in my life, how great Chesterfield is going to be, how awesome my new housemate is. I am avoiding what she wants to talk about. But she always finds a way to circle back to it. What she wants to talk about is me. ‘You’re really very brave,’ she says, and I cringe and recoil from the word. She is always complimenting me as statement of fact. Despite this torture, I still cry for the loss of her when I leave.
I submit a Change of Address form on my way out, writing in all caps: CHESTERFIELD. And I am on my way.