Ghosts in the cliff house my family once rented

It was cheap to rent in the 1970s, and was remote, wild, spooky, damp and illuminated at night by beams from the lighthouse. It was painful to leave

‘Sometimes, when the sea mist came down and the foghorn hounded the dense sky, the house disappeared entirely.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

‘Sometimes, when the sea mist came down and the foghorn hounded the dense sky, the house disappeared entirely.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

 

We were walking the cliff path in riotous autumn sunshine, sweatshirts tied around our waists. The day was hot, the blackberry bushes picked clean.

We were talking about the past as we walked, talking about the the desert-boot days of the 1970s, the yellow-fingered, nicotine-stained days of our youth.

I was walking with my brother, who celebrates his 60th birthday today, his beautiful, ethereal-looking teenage daughter, and an old mate of his who has rolled with the country’s punches over the past few decades and now finds himself with a career in banking and a soft-topped car with a roof that folds itself up like a bony elbow.

He had driven us to the start of our walk with the roof down, he and my brother in the front seats, the wind rustling the remains of their hair.

We ruminated about his life, which nowadays includes dinners in highly strung restaurants and spasmodic bouts of ballroom dancing: a far cry from the wild, skint, occasionally vegan days he and my brother shared in their sparse Donnybrook flat.

It was more than half a lifetime ago, when I used to walk across St Stephen’s Green in my school uniform to visit them, spread miso paste on stale sliced pan, learn to roll cigarettes, and get the bus back home again.

We walked, the four of us, along the winding coastal path, past the Lion’s Head and the old bathing place that used to be decorated with mosaics, where bathers would dive off the rock into a sparkling sea. Now the pathway down to the jutting rock is overgrown, sealed off with wire. There used to be an iron gate to pass through, and a path, hewn out of the cliffside, leading down to the platform.

We walked past the lonely cottage that my parents rented for a couple of years after our suburban family home was repossessed: a long, low cottage, modernised in recent years, crouched on the side of the cliff.

It was cheap to rent back in the 1970s, and was remote, wild, spooky, damp and illuminated at night by beams from the lighthouse. The only access was down a narrow right-of-way from the road above, a tough, stiff climb back up.

Sometimes, when the sea mist came down and the foghorn hounded the dense sky, the house disappeared entirely, as if it had drifted off its moorings and floated out to sea.

I was lonely there at the beginning. My brother and sisters, older than me, had dispensed with the furniture, but there was something extraordinary about living in that narrow little house where sea salt crusted the windows and the moonlight, reflected on the open sea, looked solid enough to walk on. A couple of years later, when we had to vacate, it was painfully hard to leave.

We walked on, around the back of the lighthouse, where, no matter how balmy the conditions or creamy the autumn sun, a chill is always in the air. The cliffs face north, hunched over, dark and brooding, like a hero in a cheap romance. At their base, rocks growl, sharp as flick-knives. These cliffs are wet, dark, unscalable, etched green by slippery moss. It is around here that the rescue chopper sometimes has cause to hover.

Kittiwakes nest here too: faithful, domesticated, feathering their vertiginous nests, chatting about hurricanes. They don’t seem to notice the cold, or the haunting nature of the place.

On the way back to the dapper car, the talk was scattered: gender reassignment and geishas, grandchildren and travel, poor art and questionable wealth. (In my experience, bankers get confused by people who attempt to make their living in the arts. Maybe they think it’s like playing poker for matchsticks: not a whole heap of remuneration, just a lot of tension, occasional bursts of excitement and bags under the eyes from staying up all night).

And, of course, as is the way among old friends, there was the comprehensive organ recital, in which the condition of once hard-pressed livers and lungs are assessed in the sharp light of age.

We drove home towards the city, my niece in the front seat, the warm wind lifting her long, blond hair.

We have walked that landscape many times over the years, misspent youth eroding as imperceptibly as the cliff face. The ground, treacherous in places, feels solid there. It’s a walk to revisit, on ground that holds firm to the past.

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