Two Cries, Two Cliffs: An essay on near-death experiences by Tim Robinson

This essay is taken from Tim Robinson's new book, Experiments on Reality

A cliff-face on the Aran islands. Photograph: Regina Kohl/ullstein bild via Getty Images

A cliff-face on the Aran islands. Photograph: Regina Kohl/ullstein bild via Getty Images

 

Eurydice in Hades

Last Wednesday, which is only a week ago, M and I strolled out from our flat in West Hampstead to a little second-hand bookshop half a mile away on Cricklewood Lane. Having looked along a short shelf, she picked out one book, then sat down and explored no further. On the way home she stopped on the steep part of Messina Avenue and told me she was exhausted. I said that, in view of the life-shaping decisions we had been living with for some months, this was no wonder; and I took her hand. We went on homewards, at a relaxed pace and in harmonious mood.

Arrived, I went into the kitchen, made us tea, and brought it into the living room. When I placed M’s cup before her, with some trivial remark, her response was obscure. She mouthed something, with a faint smile; I asked her how she felt, and could make nothing of her answer. I spoke again; she was obviously trying to articulate a reply but failing to bring to mind the words she needed. Her gaze was wandering, vague. I knelt before her and hugged her, pleaded with her to tell me what was wrong. There was a froth of saliva on her lips. Language had left her, like leaves blown off a tree.

At that moment the doorbell rang. It was Anna, M’s lifelong friend; she had two pots of hyacinths in her hands, one of which, it seemed, was for us. I cut short her explanations and brought her into the living room. M was lying obliquely in her chair, head flung back, mouth and eyes gaping. Suddenly she arched her back and howled. I had never heard so terrifying a sound. It was not a shriek of human pain but a long, low-pitched animal roar, very loud. I seemed to see that noise as a burst of flame racing through her brain.

I tried to ring our doctor’s surgery, but could not get through. Anna was already calling the emergency services on her mobile phone; when they answered she handed the phone over to me. I tried to follow the instructions a responder gave me, but it was impossible to hold M’s head as instructed and handle the phone at the same time; nor could we get M off her chair and spread her out on the floor, for by now she was convulsing, great shudders running down her arms and upper body. As she quietened I did not know if my life-long love was alive or dead. Then she partially focused her eyes on me; it was like a crack opening in a wall. But the empty speech-bubbles still clustered on her lips.

Then through the window we glimpsed figures in high-visibility vests running down the street from where an ambulance was parked. Anna let them in, and one of them, a young woman, announced that she was now in charge of the scene of the incident, so I relinquished the phone and, while the medics spread M out on a stretcher, hurried around collecting an assortment of items that might be wanted. In no time at all we tumbled into the ambulance, and while it lurched and howled down the street the leader struggled to find a vein in M’s arm and attach her to a plastic bag full of some elixir of life suspended above her.

My memories of the following days are confused. We arrived at the hospital in the early evening; Anna went home to her family obligations when it became clear that no immediate developments were likely, and over the next 12 hours we – a little procession: M somnolent on a trolley, a porter, a nurse, myself – trundled from cubicle to cubicle repeatedly, as in some complex board game, as new arrivals in worse shape than we were had to be accommodated.

I dozed on chairs, wandered down silent but watchful corridors, found an urn dispensing hot water for tea, was given a small bag of crisps by a stranger. At five in the morning a bed was located for M, and I slept intermittently beside it, and when M became more lucid I tried to tell her what had happened. When she was fed, I scrounged a few bites off her plate. But I was not allowed to spend a second night in the ward, and so took myself home, and slept deeply.

Four mornings after the seizure, on my arrival in the ward, I found M sleeping peacefully. I sat and watched over her. When she stirred I greeted her with a gentle hullo and waved to her through the liana-like medical paraphernalia hanging between us. She awoke rejuvenated, sprang out of bed with a glad cry and a flood of words; she seemed to me to be washed in silver light. She had been thinking: never again, she said, would she tell a troubled young friend of ours to pull himself together; never again would she tell me to straighten my shoulders. She overflowed with love, and I was an Orpheus come to lead her out of the underworld, and who would not look back. But this was a euphoria induced by the steroids she was taking; since that blissful reunion, looking back has shown us that we have stumbled frightfully close to the brinks of cliffs.

Creatures of air and earth

In writing about cliffs, not a centimetre of exaggeration is necessary or even permissible; all cliffs worth writing about are frightful. The cliff on the brink of which the following misadventure took place is part of the magnificent range of sheer precipices forming the Atlantic coastline of the island of Árainn. They rise to nearly 300ft in places but at the point in question are only about 100ft high. But that was enough to shake me like a rat in the jaws of a terrier.

Clay is a rarity in Aran; the glaciers of the last Ice Age scraped the rocks clean of it. But in some places along the rim of the cliffs there are crevices full of clay, consolidated, smoothed and bevelled off by millennia of rain and spray. One of these, a cleft some three feet wide, is tempting; one could slide down the bulge of it into a little rock-floored alcove of the cliff face, from which one would surely have a fine lateral view of waves crashing against huge blocks of stone fallen from the cliff faces of a great embayment. One day I did this.

My friends had wandered farther along the island, leaving me craning to see the fulmars (magnificent in flight but almost helpless on land) swerving through the air to land on the ledges of the cliff, tucking their degenerate little legs under them and resting on their bellies. I eased myself down the slope of clay onto the flat rock sill of the alcove, and peered round a projection of the cliff face at the fulmars, some of which were just a few feet from me; one of them, a male surprised in the act of coupling, launched himself into thunderous emptiness directly from his mate’s back. I was intruding into a space not mine.

I turned to scramble back up to the cliff top. The sleek clay slope confronted me, offering no handhold. The rock on either side of it was equally smooth and unhelpful. I am no climber; in all my years of sticking my head out from the cliffs’ rims to sketch the ledges and crevasses so familiar to the bird-hunters of Aran’s bygone centuries I had never before ventured even so small a step in their ways. There was some sparse vegetation above the clay, just out of my reach; but it seemed to me that if I stood back far enough to take a leap and grab onto it, I would be horribly near the dizzy outer edge of the rock slab I was standing on. It would be shameful to have to shout to my friends; in any case if they had missed me they would have assumed I had wandered off botanizing and dreaming in the stony little fields of the interior. It was unlikely that anyone else, tourist or islander, would come by this remote tract of the coastline until my disappearance had been noted and a search mounted. A touch of panic settled upon me like a little bird on my shoulder.

But here in the right-hand edge of the clay was a round hole, just above my head. Rabbits choose to live, love and breed on the brinks of these awesome heights if outcrops of clay offer the possibility of burrowing, unlike the armour of rock covering most of the land. I thrust my fist into the hole and crooked my wrist; I had a grip, and could pull myself up a bit, enough to let me grasp a rocky protrusion and drag myself back into a world of solidity and safety. I lay and breathed for a minute or two, then strolled on as if nothing untoward had occurred. I did not tell my companions what had happened, nor did I tell M about it on my return, nor have I written or spoken of my debt to a rabbit until this moment of writing.

The Iron Bar

The cliffs of Inishbofin, off Connemara, are very different from the orderly cliffs of Aran, carved by the ocean out of massive horizontal layers of limestone, for here the strata have been thrown about by multimillennial tectonic forces, and now outcrop at every angle. Along the uninhabited south-east coast sparsely grassed slopes plunge at 45 degrees or more into the sea, providing some acres of crag-riven grazing for sheep and goats. At intervals along this coast, strata of some softer rock slicing vertically through the rest have been worn away by the sea to form narrow cliff-sided creeks. These are fearsome places, with walls of blackened rock up to 80ft high, I would guess, at their inner ends, where the inrushing breakers work and work at enlarging them, excavating sea-caves that will ultimately collapse, adding loads of rock to the litter of boulders fretting away at the floors of the creeks. The steep slopes, often slippery with spray, around the heads of these ravines are worn into little terraces by the passage of sheep and have to be negotiated with care. My lapse of care was momentary, but took me terrifyingly close to a deadly edge.

In the old days (which outcrop like rocks in the present times of such islands) timbers from wrecks or from cargoes abandoned in storms were a boon for the islanders, and the creeks were natural collectors of such jetsam. Just above the head of one of these creeks, planted as if to mark its ancient and obsolete economic standing, is an iron bar, hammered into a crack in the rock, from which the bold lads of the island used to shin down on a rope when the tide was out. This rod, red with rust for many decades, stands like a beacon of human enterprise against the savage black rocks and white foam below it; I determined to photograph it against the dark gulf. This was not easy, the terrain around the opening of the gulf being too steep to stand on securely while manoeuvring for a legible perspective. I had disburdened myself of my shoulder bag, stuffed with maps, notebook, collecting-jar, bottle of orange juice, sandwiches etc., and it lay on the slope a few yards away from me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw it lean over as if with deliberation and begin to roll lazily towards the cliff edge. Without thought I leaped down the slope to retrieve it, and then lay pinned to the turf by gravity and breathless with the realization of how near I had come to the brink. In my mind an image of myself turning in the air, dwindling, dwindling, dwindling, and then plummeting into the white surge below, was insistent for some days after that, and for many a night.

The Mother

One night a few years ago the telephone rang, and a woman’s voice unleashed a flood of Connemara Irish mixed with some English. It took me some time to realize that I was being threatened with the High Court and “the finest lawyers in Ireland”, and longer for me to calm her enough to work out what was causing her evident distress. A book I had collaborated on, Connemara and Elsewhere, was soon to be published, and she feared that in it I might have mentioned the trial of her son on a charge of rape and murder, which I had written of in an earlier book, Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom. The setting of this grim event was a seldom-visited bay I had explored in the course of my researches. There I had come across a little memorial like a shrine built of a few rough stones and decorated with some pathetic trinkets and reminders of the dead girl, who had been found apparently drowned in this remote spot. One of these was especially disturbing: a small plastic figurine of a kneeling girl whose short skirt did not cover her knees and who might have been pleading for her life. My account of this crime and subsequent trial had kept carefully within the bounds set by contemporary newspaper reports. I summarise:

One Saturday night some years ago three local girls queuing for a disco had some trouble with a lad they knew. He eventually took himself off. One of the girls, it turned out, was too young to be admitted to the disco, and wandered off by herself. The next day her corpse was found a mile or so away among seaweed washed into the bay. The lad was arrested on a charge of rape and murder, which he denied. He had been seen around the village both before and after an alarm had been raised over the missing girl – and had changed his sweater between times. His mother was held too, and refused to answer questions about the lad’s movements that night; in fact she just kept singing an Irish song. The lad was found guilty and went to jail.

Now this folkloric character, the mother whose loyalty to her son was proof against all evidence or settled fact, was materialised in the form of a distraught voice on the telephone. I explained to her that the forthcoming book was a photographic study and made no reference to her family tragedy. But why, she wanted to know, had I written about it in that other book? It couldn’t have been a nice person like me who did so; it must have been those people in Dublin, publishers and so on, who put it in, for my book wasn’t that sort of book at all; it was about holy wells and old history. I tried to explain the importance of including the dark as well as the light in my portrait of the area – and meanwhile I was puzzling over her suddenly fond tone and her attempt to exculpate me. Then it came back to me: many years before the event that must have divided her life into before and after, I had stayed in her house for a few days while mapping the vicinity. Later I looked up my diary entry for those days, and found what might serve as a background note on the affair:

She’s from a family once well known for illicit poitin-making, and she visits them every Sunday, rowing herself out to their island. She’s a cheerful odd little woman, only 38 she says, with seven children, and a language student girl lodging. Her husband is sombre, moving around slowly with his cap on all the time. The kids I enjoyed, even their noisy TV and radio on simultaneously, and them all in a heap in front of the little turf fire.

After this belated recognition scene our discourse became fragmented. While expressing deep sympathy for her I tried to defend my writing ethic; how could I not have told the story behind that little memorial, having dealt similarly with every other feature of that shoreline? But she was unshakeable. Suddenly her voice rose to a howl: “But I’m his mother! I’m his mother!” And to that elemental plaint I could answer nothing.

This essay appears in Tim Robinson’s new book Experiments on Reality, published by Penguin Ireland

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