I’ve just had a story rejected in a way that made me feel I’d won the Man Booker.
The promise is that With A Little Help will have a live audience soon.
Till then, I reckon it’s earned its place here.
With A Little Help
My mate Keith was looking for a way out. He rang me at three in the morning wanting to know about cliffs in general and Beachy Head in particular. I got his drift immediately and felt quite flattered that he’d contacted me for advice. My feeling was that Beachy Head’s a bit obvious, which is how I came up with the Pembrokeshire plan. It’s miles from anywhere, as far west as you can get without sailing for Ireland. There’s so much cliff path and so few walkers. Even fewer now, in February, when the days are short. I used to go on holiday there as a kid. It always rained and we always spent the whole time digging. Beaches. Woodland. Riverbanks. We thought we’d find treasure. Secrets. The key to something. But I only remember burying my prize red spade and not being able to uncover it again.
Well now, Keith got in the car and set the sat nav for Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire’s main town. However, being a tight bastard he only bought enough petrol to get that far, not realising that Haverfordwest is some considerable distance from the actual coast.
He must’ve still had his wits about him because he wrote a little cardboard sign. Maybe he’d seen pictures of the hippy kids hitching lifts to Woodstock, though I’m not sure he related to hippies. And I’m pretty certain he never felt love was free.
What Keith was committed to was honesty, which is why he set off on this journey to start with. So his sign was to the point:
Imminent suicide. Swift, uncomplicated lift required to coast, or near.
Now as you or I or any average person would understand straight away, getting all that on a bit of card twenty inches by ten is a tall order. Keith, to his credit, managed it, but if you were motoring along the Haven Road you’d have needed x-ray spex to have a hope of reading what he’d put.
So I’m guessing there was this thing going on where drivers, especially those little white-haired ladies who struggle to see the road never mind a handwritten sign, slowed right down to have a look. They had to just about stop before they could read it. Then as soon as they got the gist, they stamped on the accelerator and pulled out so wide to avoid him that oncoming traffic had to mount the pavement.
Fair play to Keith – him being nothing if not bloody-minded – he decided to walk towards the sea. You can always tell where the coast is thanks to the amount of wind blowing in off it. For city boys like Keith, weather in general causes no end of grief but this must’ve been especially fucking tedious as, in anticipation of his demise, he’d skipped his last barber’s appointment. He hadn’t wanted to squander the cash or torture himself over whether to leave one last tip. Consequently as he walked his fringe would’ve flipped itself under his eyelashes and away again, getting more and more irritating. Like being slapped in the eyes with a paintbrush.
And of course he wasn’t dressed for the seaside. Down there the cliff paths have puddles the size of the Irish Sea, water pouring everywhere like the whole country’s leaking, so he would’ve soon been in mud to the ankles, like the earth didn’t want to let him go. Or was determined to reclaim him, depending on whether or not you’re a glass half-full type.
I got a call from Keith just before he started walking. The reception was rubbish but what he said made me worry that I’d given him a bum steer. He wanted to be sure he was going in the right direction. I suddenly wondered whether you wouldn’t want to be a bit closer to home if you were going to do the deed. And for the first time I was a bit concerned that he should be doing it at all. I’ve no problem with rational decision-making. Our lives are our own and I am ok with the idea of cheating death by choosing your own place and time. Keith was too, I know, because we’d talked about it down the pub, hypothetically, you know, and not unless we’d had a few beers, because, as I’ve established, Keith wasn’t one for idle chitchat.
But it suddenly struck me that there might be an alternative for Keith, and that maybe he wanted more from life than he thought he did. Maybe in fact he wanted so much he thought it was impossible.
But this is just conjecture. At the end of the day all you’ve got to go on is the facts. And the most important thing a mate can do is help a friend out. So I told him to take the third right off the Haven Road and eventually he’d hit the sea. He said ok, fine, back on track now and then the phone line packed up.
You go down endless country lanes with spiky hedgerows, all thorns in February but stuffed with flowers and birds in the summertime. Then you strike a few bungalows. After that a lonely-looking pub. And then the road drops down and turns, rolling along the water’s edge, scraping along wet, black sand and cannonball pebbles before wheeling away up the hill and back inland.
I imagine Keith stopping here. He looks out to sea. The beach has two great cliff-arms that stretch round in a semi-circle, like they want to touch each other but can’t reach. They are very big and very black and Keith wonders how the hell he’s supposed to scale them in his trainers. I bet he thought the road would take him to the top of the cliff which would have made the next step reasonably straightforward. And which side to scramble up? Not another decision. He would’ve promised himself he didn’t have to make any more. It’s getting dark down below, like the cliffs are eating up the light. Eventually he notices the steps cut into the cliff to his left. I see him heading up and up, leaving a lot of the darkness behind. On top it’s still daylight and the view is fantastic and the clouds look like mermaid’s hair, all combed out, and the perfect curve of the cove below in the last of the sunset is streaky like a seashell but Keith can’t stop because you see his mind’s made up.
When Sarah left him because she could never get him to tell her anything, right down to the last Do you want me here or not? Keith said he’d decided that was it, the cat could fend for itself, he really needed to remove the obligation to say things other people wanted to hear. Because it was never conversation he felt he got but interrogation, what do you do, where are you from, what did you do last night? And mostly he hadn’t done anything, or been anywhere, he’d just been being alive, painting, decorating, buying baked beans and sausages and eating them in front of the television. He had no aspiration to do anything more but everyone seemed to expect more of him. Expect him to expect more. Especially Sarah. In the beginning they’d eaten their beans together, but then the questioning began. When shall we move somewhere bigger? Where shall we go on holiday? Shouldn’t you get some new clothes? What are your plans? You must have some plans… And she got more and more agitated when he didn’t say anything.
But to be fair, what was he supposed to say? By the time he’d thought of an answer to the first question, which was something like We don’t really need a bigger house because this one has three bedrooms and there’s just us and we share the same one, she’d asked several supplementaries.
One night he told me Sarah had stopped laughing at the stuff he liked on TV. So now he had to pretend he wasn’t laughing, or hold a cushion over his stomach and push his face into the top of it so that any kamikaze laughter got sucked up before it made a noise. When he’d had a lot more beers he told me he’d taken to keeping pornography in an old chocolate box on top of the wardrobe. Sarah had never mentioned it but once he pulled the box down and someone had written FUCKWIT in the dust on the lid.
When she left he didn’t seem that surprised and none of his mates were. He looked like he was getting on with it. I saw him once a month or so, at football or whatever. And then I heard his mum died. I meant to ring him up but the time never seemed quite right. I’d got this new PS3 and my god it’s brilliant, you can sit down and next thing you know it’s three in the morning. Who wants to be rung up at three in the morning?
So I’m imagining him up there, on the cliff top, and I’ve got to admit it’s getting tough now. But he’s made up his mind. All he has to do is execute his plan and that means just sticking one foot in front of the other, which is all he’s been doing for years. One. Two. One, Two, One. But there’s a bit of a delay. Maybe something feels wrong, like he’s crossing the traffic somehow. People go from left to right or right to left along the cliff path, not straight out. He stands on one leg for a minute then puts the other back down. The sea looks like mussel shells, gaping open, a million hungry mouths. Keith can’t stop. He looks ahead. There’s a little clearing in the bracken. A short pathway made by a sheep. He points himself at it. The cliffs are running with ink. The rocks are black leather nails. Keith has no choice. He’s made up his mind. He inhales and feels the cold wet air inside of himself and outside. He takes a run down the little sheep pathway and after three paces there is nothing beneath his feet. He is flying and dropping. Flying and dropping.
But what if this is when he changes his mind? If this is when he thinks, bugger me Stan, you could have stopped me. You could have told me I didn’t have to do it just because I’d decided to. You could’ve helped me find something that made me want to stay alive.
So here’s another version. Where I come blasting down the M4 in the van breaking all land-speed records, scream off the motorway at Haverfordwest, pull over so fast when I see Keith standing by his car that he gets thumped into a ditch and breaks his legs. Where he ends up spending six months in the general ward of Withybush Hospital. Where I make him do some real thinking and proper talking that gets somewhere.
And maybe at 3am we’ll help each other see there is only one human ambition, and that’s to share another day.