The world is in limbo at 4am. I don’t know whether it’s late or early. The sun hasn’t started to rise, but the stars aren’t quite visible anymore. The crickets have stopped chirping, but no birds are awake to sing yet. Do you ever wonder whether you’re reaching the end of your life or the beginning? Can you pinpoint the moment when someone you are becomes someone you were? When do you start using past tense when talking about people you know (or knew)? What’s the difference, if there is one, between is and was and used to be? These are the questions that 4am asks me, and I have no answers for it. Maybe that’s why, in this bleakness in between light and dark, I get the most visits at this time. I’m usually on my third pot of coffee by then, so awake (and so tired) I go full minutes without blinking. I’m usually about to let out the breath I take in every day once the sun starts to set and think that, for today, everything must’ve been alright in the world. I’m usually right. But sometimes, maybe two or three times a month, I’m not. That’s when I’ll pull on my jacket, head outside to the edge of the windy cliffside, and invite whoever it is who was about to leave this world to stay awhile.
“You don’t have to do this,” I might say, grabbing their hand and gently pulling them back. They’ll turn to face me, both annoyed and relieved at the interruption, and I’ll notice something about them. Sometimes they look pretty young, sometimes they’re dressed very nicely, sometimes they have an engagement ring on, sometimes they have something in their hands–a necklace, a letter, a picture. Sometimes they’ll have taken off their shoes. I never really understood what that was about. Are they afraid of getting their shoes wet? Do they worry about trudging around the afterlife in damp socks? Do they hope someone will find them? They usually won’t say much, if anything. Most of the time, they aren’t even crying. But they’ll always come inside. Some will have a cup of coffee. I’ll have two. Usually, though, they’ll go for tea.
I won’t ask them why, but sometimes they’ll tell me. This is when they’ll start to cry, if they weren’t before. Once they get to the part about how lonely it is, no matter how many people are around you, that’s when they’ll start. I’ll tell them that it’s ok, that everyone has people who love and care about them and that I’m sure they are not as alone as they think they are. I don’t mind lying to keep people away from my home.
“Thank you,” they’ll say.
I’ll nod. Afterwards, I’ll find a place on my mantel and they’ll leave me their name. They’ll stay until the sun rises. I’ll hope they never visit me again. Usually, they don’t. Usually Beachy Head is a place they’d rather not remember.
The delivery boy comes on the first Monday of each month with my groceries. It’s the only package I ever get. The 24-hour Waitrose is a fifteen-minute drive from my cottage on Beachy Head. Fifteen minutes there, fifteen minutes back, half an hour getting groceries. It’s just too long to be gone. For over a year, the delivery boy hasn’t asked me why I can’t come to the store myself, and for over a year I haven’t asked him whether or not he should be in school. We have an understanding.
“She’s a beautiful day today, isn’t she, Miss Kayla?” he asks.
I like his accent. Something about British children (he must be about seventeen though, old enough to resent being called a child) is off-putting and charming at the same time, especially with the odd drawl people from Sussex seem to have. He’s got a ruddy complexion and a pleasant, customer service smile.
“It is,” I say. 64 degrees fahrenheit, a slight breeze, partial clouds. It’s very nice for November, but I’m sure by next week it’ll be bitter cold and gusty, especially up here. I tip him £10 and take my groceries.
“Thank you!” he says, always chipper. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” I say back, but I can tell it sounds weird coming out of my American mouth.
I return to my post. I spread smooth peanut butter on soft white bread while I keep watch. It’s only 5:43pm but maybe someone had a bad day at work. I never have bad days at work. Sitting solitary in the comfort of my own quiet home, I make calls and ask people if they’d like to spend money on something they’re not already spending money on. I’m thankful when they hang up on me. Most of them do, but some are too polite, or maybe too lonely, or maybe too bored to give up the brief company. I’m thankful I’m paid for hours and not commission. I’m thankful this job lets me focus on living here on the cliff.