Written by Carolyn
I’m writing to you in bed by candlelight from the hut in my garden. My daughter Li Chen, currently playing some infernal game on her telephone, is in her own bed also in the hut. We’ve been sleeping out here since we came back from China in August. Our new kitten has a rabbit’s foot in her mouth and is haring round the room chased by the new puppy. The tide is in and waves are breaking on the sea wall 10 metres below the hut. The surge and splash of spray is punctuated now and again by a deeper sound like a growl or a roar which takes place when a larger roller pounds the wall sending a reverberation through the cliff and up the legs of my bed. This a vigorous tide but nothing remarkable, nowhere near a storm.
There were plenty of storms last winter, so many the sea broke right through the western flank of our sea defenses and carried off 400 square metres of my neighbours’ garden. We’re semidetached unfortunately. I was still in Xi’an when it happened but nothing could have been done at the time anyway. When spring came a contractor was consulted and by late summer trucks were rolling down our track delivering tons of large rocks which have now been placed carefully behind a strong new wall of oak planking.
I found life in Xi’an somewhat relaxing and certainly considerably cheaper than here. When visitors come to the cottage they adopt a blissful smile walk straight to the edge of the cliff and declare, ‘ Ahh to live here would be to live with no worries at all, this is paradise you know that don’t you!’ I don’t spoil the moment by mentioning rock bills, I simply return the smile. Input from me is not needed anyway; they’re deep in their own world of thought. The extravagant beauty of the landscape juxtaposed with the romance and audacity of having a house in such a precarious position is a poem itself.
But the reality is this kind of life doesn’t suit everyone. It doesn’t even suit my neighbours. All five of them have normal homes and only dip in and out of our life on the edge.
The cottages were built in 1818 by the Navy on behalf of Customs and Excise to combat the smuggling that was going on in the Haven. It’s here the River Cuckmere meets the sea and if you follow the river upstream a few miles you’ll come to the medieval village of Alfriston which is full of secret trapdoors and underground passages built to hide smugglers and their untaxed British wool, French silks and gin. It’s said that one night here at the Haven in the 1700’s there were 200 men, customs and smugglers, battling it out on the beach. When I bought the cottage 25 years ago the customs men at the nearby port of Newhaven presented me with an excellent pair of binoculars so I might keep an eye on things. But apart from a few fishing boats who started netting the mouth of the river to catch spawning sea trout a decade back, I’ve seen nothing illegal. Perhaps I should be on the lookout for illegal immigrants but it seems to me they run from such troubled lives and have such difficult journeys I’d be more inclined to go down with tea and blankets if they did land. It’s the waves and the seabirds on the waves that I like to look at.
I’d better go to sleep now. In two days’ time my mother is coming to stay for Christmas and the house is a terrible tumble, we must get the furniture back in and the fires roaring before she arrives. Every time she rings she asks if we have moved back into the cottage yet, ‘I’d have such a terrible time getting down the garden steps to go to the toilet in the middle of the night’, she says. I did suggest she could go on the grass outside the hut. “Pee on the grass, I’m not doing that I’m nearly 88 years old, besides I’d be seen from the beach!” Not at night mother and not in the wind and rain and driving sea spray I might have answered but didn’t of course. This will be the first time she’s ventured down since we’ve been back so I must get things right. “Li Chen please stop playing that computer game you’ve got a ton of firewood to saw up in the morning.”