The Girl on the Hill

The Girl on the Hill


   It was a gentle sea breeze that blew up lightly over the cliff’s edge, bringing with it the smell of the ocean. It was an emotive smell. A smell of times gone by, good times had by the beach during those long hot summers of his youth, digging holes in the sand and building sand castles as high as he could. There were faded memories of his mother, lying in the sun, clutching a book or a cigarette, sometimes both, and then of his father encouraging his sand castle building and jostling playfully with his brothers in the surf.
   Good times… A long time ago. Faded memories that no longer held him quite as firmly as they once did. Nothing more than memories. Stories told a long time ago that couldn’t be told again. Stories told with people that were no longer around to make more memories, or people who had their own lives to lead. What good were memories, he asked himself as he stood at the cliff’s edge, with his feet edging closer to the drop with very second that passed, with no one to share them with?
   The darkness had found him when he was young and quite incapable of dealing with it. He had folded under the weight of the stress. It was a different world back then. No one understood his pain. No one. It was an indescribable something that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He had never been able to perfectly explain it. Still couldn’t. The darkness had enveloped him long before it became popular. There was no one to help him then. How much different would it have been, he often mused, had he been young today. So much different….
   He shuffled closer to the edge. The view was magnificent. A hundred feet, at least, of cliff edge that folded down to the sea where crisp black teeth stuck out from the water, beckoning a traveller on. Just one more step and then…
   ‘Are you going to jump?’
   The voice startled him. He turned to find a young girl, possibly ten or eleven years old, stood behind him licking an orange ice lolly. She had a mess of blonde hair, a dirty elf-like face and no shoes. He never did understand that. The no shoes thing. It was odd, but he let it pass. She was wearing a pink dress with green flowers and it looked to him as though her mother had found a beautiful little dress but had forgotten to wash the little girl that went into it.
   ‘No.’ He said simply.
   The girl looked unimpressed. ‘Yes you are. I saw a man jump once. Well, I nearly saw him jump. Lots of people were telling him to jump, and I didn’t think that was very nice. Mum wasn’t happy. The police had closed the road and we were stuck for hours.’
   She let out a knowing sigh, then straightened her dress before sitting, cross legged, on the floor. 
   ‘Why are you going to jump?’ She asked, as though the answer was actually important to her.
‘I’m not.’
‘You’re not a very good liar,’ she said, biting the top off her lolly and rolling the ice around her mouth. ‘I mean, you must have a reason. Do you not like life any more?’
   ‘You’re too young. You could never understand…’
   ‘So, you are going to jump then.’ She said, satisfied that her first impression had been the right one. 
   ‘I get sad, sometimes.’ She went on. ‘My dad says that it’s okay to get sad, that people get sad all the time. The thing to do, so my dad says, is not to dwell on it for too long. He said it passes, like all things do. He says, “This Too Shall Pass” like he’s a priest or something. He’s not. He’s a painter.’
   She took another bite from her lolly and left some of it around her mouth. ‘Do you think it will hurt?’ She asked, bending her neck so that she could see over the cliff edge. 
   He paused.
   ‘I… I… I hadn’t thought about it.’
   He hadn’t either. But now he was thinking about it. Now the black granite teeth took on a whole new aspect. Damn the girl.
   ‘I mean, I think it will… for a second, at least. Don’t you?’
   Now all he could think of was that second. That final second. The granite teeth… the pain… that last moment. 
   ‘What if you changed your mind?’ She asked. ‘You know. Like, half way down, I mean. That would be sad. I mean, it would be too late then. And then… bang. You’re gone.’
   ‘It would definitely be too late.’ He agreed. 
   But he wouldn’t change his mind. Getting here had been a long process, fraught with what ifs and arguments to the contrary. This was the final step. Literally. He couldn’t see any other steps to take. This was the final path. The last one…
   ‘Wouldn’t you be missed?’ She asked.
   ‘No. Not really. There’s my brothers…’
   His brothers, with their own successful lives. They would miss him for a bit, he supposed. But they had their own lives. They would go on, like they always had. He was an insignificant part of their lives. A shared history, a united past. Occasional cards at Christmas and birthdays. 
   ‘I would miss my brother.’ The girl continued, ‘I mean, I don’t like him. Boys smell. Especially him. But I think I’d miss him if he wasn’t there.’
   ‘Why don’t you like him?’
   She looked at him as if he were stupid.
   ‘Because he’s a boy.’
   ‘Of course. That’s a sound argument.’
   ‘Urgh.’ She said. ‘You sound like him. I think all boys are stupid.’
   He smiled. ‘I think I’d like your brother. He sounds very sensible.’
   ‘He smokes too. He thinks no one knows.. But I know…’
   ‘I think you know too much for a little girl. Besides, should you be talking to strangers?’
   ‘I’m not a little girl. I’m nearly twelve. Mum says I’m going on thirty. Whatever that means. Adults say stupid things.’ She tutted. ‘And of course I don’t talk to strangers. But you’re different…’
   She paused, expecting him to understand why he was different. He didn’t.
   ‘So you thought you’d come and talk to me?’
   She turned her ice lolly side ways and carefully manoeuvred the remaining ice from the stick and into her mouth. 
   ‘Yes.’ She said, letting a piece of lolly slip out and onto her dress. ‘You looked like you needed someone to talk to. And there was no one else here…’
   ‘That’s… very kind of you.’
   ‘Not really.’ She said. ‘I was having a nice day and I didn’t want to have it spoilt by watching you jump off a cliff. I think that would upset me…’
   Yes. He supposed that would upset a young mind.
   ‘And, you know, I do think other people would miss you. Not family and friends, although of course they will. I mean other people. People you haven’t met yet.’
   He laughed. ‘Really? People I haven’t met yet will miss me? How does that work?’
   He wasn’t sure if someone of that age knew what derisory meant, yet the look she struck him certainly suggested she did. 
   ‘Well,’ she said. ‘Do you ever do something and then wonder afterwards if you had started ten minutes later that it would have been different?’
   He wasn’t sure he had, or even if he knew what she meant. His look must have told her as much. She sighed.
   ‘I didn’t explain that very well.’ She paused for a moment trying to gather her thoughts. ‘Yesterday,’ she went on, ‘my Dad left for work late. He usually leaves for work at 8:30, but yesterday he left at 9. When he got to the main road he pulled out and hit a car coming the other way. He’s not a very good driver. But you see… if he had left at his usual time, he would never have hit that car. He must have thought all day, “Why didn’t I leave on time? Things would have been different.”’
   ‘I’m not sure I see how that relates to me?’
   ‘Because,’ she said, slightly exasperated. ‘He did something that changed someone else’s day. If he had left for work earlier, or simply didn’t exist, he would never have hit that man in his car.’
   ‘But that would have been a good thing?’
   ‘Possibly,’ she mused, ‘but what if the man he hit had to go to hospital and in hospital he fell madly in love with one of the nurses, got married and had lots of children and one of those children grew up to become an amazing doctor and found a cure for cancer? If my dad doesn’t leave for work late, or doesn’t exist, then that doesn’t happen. You’ve changed things. Don’t you see?’
   ‘I - I think so..’
   The little girl got up and straightened her dress. He stepped back from the edge. 
   ‘Your argument is,’ he said, ‘that whether we know it or not, we effect others peoples’ lives.’
   ‘I think so.’ She said. ‘You may not like your life, but you don’t know for sure that your life       isn’t a vital part of someone else’s…’
   He moved further from the edge. 
   ‘You’re a sharp little thing aren’t you?’
   She smiled. ‘Does that mean you’ve changed your mind?’
   ‘I won’t jump today. I can’t promise about tomorrow.’
   It was a funny thing about the Darkness that he hadn’t noticed before. It only takes the smallest spark of light to brush the darkness away. Keeping it lit would be a challenge. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, he felt his strength return.
   She looked sad. ‘Will you at least promise that you’ll tell someone. About today. About wanting to jump.’
   He nodded. ‘I promise.’
   ‘Good. I have to go, my mum will be missing me.’
   She turned away. The last he saw of her was her pink dress with green flowers merging with the grass as she skipped lightly away. For the first time in he didn’t know how long, he felt okay. Not brilliant, for sure, but the despair had receded. As he walked down from the cliff, along the coast path that struck down towards the beach, he felt like a new day had dawned. 
   And then the scream.
   A loud, deep, cast from the heart, panicked scream, that caused the hairs to stand up on the back of his neck. He looked about him and saw a young woman frantically running up and down by the water’s edge.
   ‘Please!’ She was screaming, ‘Please! Someone help me!’
   He got there in a second. She grabbed him by his arms. She had turned as white as a ghost.
   ‘I - I can’t swim…. Please, you have to help her… she was just paddling in the water…. and… then a wave… it swept her out!’
   He looked out at the sea which had turned dark and menacing. The waves had picked up and were crashing down on the shore. And then he saw her. Not far out, but far enough. She was flailing in the wash, her arms frantically trying to get purchase in the tide. But it wasn’t enough. She wasn’t going to make it…
   He never gave it a second’s thought. Not then at least. He didn’t have time to take his shoes off so he hit the water fully clothed and fully encumbered. He struck out powerfully, bringing each arm over his head and down into the water until he could feel the burn start in his muscles. But he didn’t stop. He reached her just as she was taken under by the swell. He reached down and grabbed her, bringing her back to the surface. She fought him to begin with, until he enveloped her in his arms and held her firmly above the water. 
   It took what seemed an age to swim back to the beach. By then a dozen hands reached out and helped them both to dry land. The mother was frantic still, but calmer. Fear had been replaced with joy, but the tears were the same. 
   ‘Good work, son.’
   An old man and a flat cap. A black dog. 
   ‘Good job you were here.’
   A pat on the back.
   Seemingly from nowhere a dozen older ladies appeared, attracted by the commotion, armed with towels and bearing flasks of soup. There was a lot about this day that he would never truly understand, the older ladies with their towels and soup just one part.
   The mother broke through the throng of well meaning passers by and hugged him, caring little for the fact that he was soaked through.
   ‘Thank you… thank you so much…’ She sobbed. ‘If you hadn’t been here…’ She stopped and let the unspoken truth pass over them. ‘Somebody else would like to say thank you..’
   She stepped to one side and the crowd parted before the little girl he had just saved. She was barely twelve years old, soaked through to the skin, with a waif like face and dirty knees. She was wearing a pink dress. With green flowers.
   The girl on the hill.
   But that couldn’t have been possible. How…? When he had last seen her she had been skipping merrily the other way. It just wasn’t possible. It just wasn’t….
   She was quietly sobbing but managed to mouth ‘thank you.’
   And then she was gone, swallowed up by the clucking ladies and their towels.
   He stood there for some time watching the gaggle of women and their lately rescued younger version leave the beach and head for warmer, drier climes.
   The man next to him patted him on the back again, said something encouraging and then called his dog to heel. Then he, too, was gone, with nothing but his footprints marking his exit.
   He stood there until the wind swirled about his legs, blowing sand and surf in his face. He smiled for the first time in ages. A good smile. A real one. Then he remembered the words of the little girl in the pink dress with green flowers.
   ‘This too will pass.’
   Maybe she was right. Maybe he’d ring his brothers. It had been a long time.
   Maybe he he’d hang around and see if he was a vital part of someone’s life, but just didn’t know it yet. Suddenly the ‘maybe’s’ drifted endlessly off into the future. 
   A new future.

The End

   
 

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© Gary Burroughs