The French Lieutenant’s Christmas

Twenty years ago I went to Lyme Regis.

It’s one of the oddest, most wonderful English seaside towns I know. Ten days at Christmas there was magical. Even though I nearly, very nearly, got killed, along with the person I was with.

It was my fault.

We’d driven down some hundred miles or so, staying in a friend’s flat that was the top floor of a building about 250 years old where the sound of seagulls woke us every morning for an early walk down to The Cob to see if the huge ship moored and obviously dragging its anchor closer to the beach each day was going to be still there or wrecked, until one morning it was simply gone.

We’d witnessed a car crash outside the town on a snowy road caused because someone was changing their CD and had been driving like an accident looking for somewhere to happen. So we set off to the west of the town, where the cliffs crumble into the sea, more each time it rains, a place you can hear the landslips, hear the water oozing through the mud and rock, which isn’t reassuring. We walked along the beach, looking for fossils, because we knew we were safe from the tide coming in. I’d read the tide tables. Except I’d read them back to front, so when I thought it was low tide it was high tide and now we were trapped between a rising tide and shale cliffs that were marked “Impassable” on the map.

We proved that was wrong but it wasn’t funny. We couldn’t go back along the beach. And as we climbed we found ourselves on all fours a few times, then literally surfing back down the cliffs on lumps of rock that had come loose. We didn’t have a choice. Both of us thought at one point that we might not actually get out of this. We didn’t have phones with us. We got up onto some sort of plateau of wind-blasted trees at some point, about half-way up, where we knew for the first time that we wouldn’t fall back into the sea. But there was no road or path leading to this place. We still had to climb the rest of the cliffs or stay there forever, so we climbed. It took hours. It wasn’t as bad, but it wasn’t great. Nor, when we reached the top, was finding we were in the middle of a huge bramble patch and had to go through it to get to someone’s farmyard. It wasn’t a day of choices, after the first wrong one. But we lived.

We went to church at midnight after we saw practically the whole town go past the windows of the Naval Volunteer, the pub we were in. There’s another pub at the bottom of the hill but I’ve never felt at ease there. It used to be used as a mortuary after shipwrecks. There were old people going along to the church, middle class couples wrapped in big coats and odder, young people, girls in their teens straight out of the pub and into the church standing like the beacon it was, bright lit on the hill in the dark.

I was given a saxophone that Christmas. Before we’d got home the mouthpiece disappeared and although we looked everywhere we could think of in that old flat and searched the car and pockets and everywhere else, it was gone. We drove to Bridport thinking there might be a music shop there but no luck. Except when we got back to the flat the mouthpiece was sitting in the exact centre of the floor. There was no possible way we could not have seen it if it had been there. It just wasn’t.

Lyme, where one summer we saw a family and their adult friends, all of them tall and blond and fine-looking throwing something down the Undercliff rocks, one to the other, passing it like a rugby ball and as it was thrown past we both of us thought, separately, ‘that’s a baby.’ We talked about it later. Years later we still both think it was their baby, wrapped up and apparently used to this.

More things as odd have happened there. More things more magical. I love that place. But I won’t be there this Christmas. Another year.

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