I saw a man throw himself off Beachy Head. It was a blustering spring afternoon, with a colony of sightseers tracing the white cliffs. He measured it up, stalking up and down the ridge, peering over the edge. A seagull trod air, almost still. For minutes the man had hesitated, stopping to tear a fistful of grass and toss it into the wind, or kicking at his shoes as a tennis player might. Hundreds of feet below, waves crested and slapped on the beaten rocks as he dropped.
The seagull, at this point perching on the grassy ledge, skipped over the edge after him.
I was standing up, scanning the bank for some external verification of what I’d seen. The man had walked his dog over to a bench, wrapped its lead in a noose around the armrest, and yanked it tight. He then turned, ran fifteen yards and launched himself over. From fifty paces away someone shouted. The animal was hissing and spluttering, up on two legs, the rope pulled taut around its neck.
I thought about the distance to the base of the cliff. Struggled to grasp its depth. For an hour I’d climbed the sandy track from the valley at Seven Sisters. A draining route up and up, round the fences where dog walkers held their pets on short leads, prompted by warning signs with menacing statistics about the dangers of the cliff edge.
At that point, the wind was blasting at me as if channelled through a tunnel.
Then the drop collapsed.
A ten-second fall snapped closed in an instant, as the sound belted up over the ridge. The ground firmed beneath my feet, grew through them. My heart, which had slowed to a gentle pulse, gathering like the sea, now lurched against my chest. Someone screamed as the violence of our weight filled the air.
I walked back to the road. Rolled down the hill on tarmac scattered with salts. Floating, wind rushing past me. My body was relieved of weight. My muscles of strain. My lungs flooded with thin air.