Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Out there, in the emptiness of night, something was very wrong.

It was summer 2003, and I was standing on the south coast of England looking out across the pebbles and into the darkness. I couldn't see anything. Of course I couldn't, there were no lights down there.

There were lights behind me on the busy main road, car headlights, shops, heck there were even a few stars above me. There was also a dimly-lit pier stretching out ahead of me on my left, which apart from the theatre at this end, was closed-down and locked-up for the night. However ten metres across the beach directly in front of me, I couldn't make out a thing.

What really bugged me though, was that I couldn't hear anything either.

There should have been waves.

Some gentle lapping maybe. A buoy? At the very least some gloomy visual reflection of the night sky?

No. Apparently, some enterprising power had stolen the English Channel.

I made my way forwards across the tiny stones as far as the gloomy edge of the illuminations' illumination, but those ten or so paces revealed nothing more.

It was very spooky, in that surreal, ghostly, irrational sort of way. Out on the beach, in the darkness, alone, at such an unusual time, I felt quite afraid. I really wanted to know what had happened to the sea, but the feeling of danger that the emptiness ahead brought out of me was too much.

Over at the theatre, the show had just finished. I could see small groups of people emerging, animatedly chatting and laughing, just 30 yards away, yet completely unaware of my invisible presence on the beach.

So who else might be similarly watching me from within the deeper darkness?

I knew it was just my paranoid imagination, the result of there being less oxygen around at this time, but then wasn't it reasonably possible for a mugger or someone to be lying in wait for lone pedestrians out there?

And then I remembered. I had a personal rule in those days, one that repeatedly popped into my memory whenever I literally least wanted it to. It's one that still pesters me sometimes today.

The rule was this: whenever I am afraid of something, I do it.

I hated myself for coming up with that rule. But I really hated myself for it as I slowly stooped off into the darkness.

I wanted to know where the sea had gone, and I didn't want to miss out on that knowledge just because of a non-existent thing called fear.

The ground was still dry here. Well, that figures, 2003 was the hottest summer in years. As I placed one footprint in front of the other, I think I was muttering Psalm 23, what I could remember of it anyway. If nothing else, the sound of my own voice made me feel less alone. There was still no sea anywhere though.

Another of my irrational fears is clocks. They prove that something sneaky is going on, something sinister that you cannot even begin to perceive, let alone take measures against.

Most clocks look as though they are still, but they're lying. Every time you look at one, you know that it has moved, but you'll never catch it in the act, so you can never do anything about it. They are all slowly taking away everything you have, no matter how precious, and there's no defence. The fact that they have faces which are always looking at you just makes them worse.

Big clocks are even more threatening, because they appear to be hiding lots of gigantic uncaring machinery inside, ready to chew you up should you be unlucky enough to fall in.

To my left, as I walked without asking through an area where the mighty sea never allowed anyone to tread, the pier's enormous clock-face scowled down at me, in arrogant disapproval.

I kept walking. I had to, there was still no sea.

As I made my way past all the seaweed-covered metallic scaffolding which criss-crossed underneath, I couldn't help but glance nervously all around. Anyone could be hiding out here. I found some reassurance from looking back at the warm colours of the street, because that was well-lit and still looked safe, but it was becoming more and more remote, while I was already well swallowed-up in the night.

Still no sea. Still no sound. Just the distant traffic. I was - incredibly - approaching the end of the pier now. This was unheard of, even in daylight. Was I going to continue walking through the night all the way to France without my passport? Would I reach the centre of the channel by midnight, just as the angry sea suddenly returned? Might I trip in the darkness and fall down a really really big plughole?

The things that go through your head. I'm sure I was shaking all the way.

I still couldn't hear anything.

The soles of my shoes were at last beginning to let in just a little bit of water from the sand and miniature boulders though.

As I stopped and looked out across the dead still pond between myself and the rest of Europe, I knew I had come as far as I could. It was peaceful, and the stars were beautiful, but I still felt guilty by the very fact of my presence. Like I was trespassing out here, and nature itself was about to punish me.

I was however pleased that I had made it. I tried to take a photo but, well, it was never going to look like anything that made sense.

Making my way back past the big looming clock, which had indeed pulled its usual unkind trick of moving slightly, I don't think I stopped shaking until I reached the road again.

Throughout, the sea had been a darn sight stiller - and quieter - than I had.

Upon later reflection, I realised what I had found so deeply disturbing about the whole episode. Not just scary, but inwardly draining.

For much of my life, I had pictured life after losing one of my parents as looking similarly desolate. I had thought that the world would seem like a gigantic ball of never-ending desert. Lifeless, hopeless, and without anything that I really wanted to find anywhere.

Father had passed away over a year earlier, and that bleak image had indeed described something of how it had felt. On one occasion in that first month I had sat on a train platform, with the impression that everything out of sight - that is, everything beyond the buildings that surrounded me - was desert. Of course I knew that it wasn't, but I couldn't prove that, and so the feeling had nothing to temper it.

Now this night by the gritty empty pier had represented something of a confrontation with that perception. I sure wasn't keen to go back down the end of the promenade a second time, but I had faced an embodiment of my worries and overcome it, by relying on God.

Perhaps I should have found whoever had stolen the sea and thanked them.

But then, how do you find someone who steals 75,000 km2 of water?

Answer: by chance.

Yes, as luck would have it, tonight, over six years later in 2010, I found myself standing on the exact same eerie spot on the same seaside road, at night again, realising that they had pulled-off the same stunt once more.

No sea.

Well, I didn't need to head out there again, did I? I mean I'd done all that before. And tonight I had things that I had to get back to do.

Hmm, was I just making excuses? Because, if I was, then I was still scared. And I used to have this rule...


... grrrrr...

Heading off into the darkness once more - the winter darkness this time - I found myself on a much lighter journey, lighter in terms of my outlook anyway.

No shaking, no worry. I did keep an eye out around me just in case there were any seedy sorts looking to mug me under the pier, but again there weren't.

I was a little tense, but there was nothing in my heart that I could honestly call fear.

I got to the clock, and laughed out loud at it. Again I couldn't see or hear any water anywhere, but I just kept on advancing forwards, past all those rusty, seaweeded scaffolding-poles. They really should remove that seaweed sometime.

It occurred to me that people probably drop spare change through the slats on the pier above, but I didn't have me metal-detector with me. Still no people.

At some stage, I did encounter someone down there, and a huge animal with teeth and claws, but it was just a local walking his dog.

Then... uncharted territory.

I reached the end of the pier.

This was unthinkable. I mean the whole point of building a pier was surely because no-one can ever walk-out this far, wasn't it? Sorry local council, you were a bit short-sighted on this one.

Well, maybe not all that short-sighted.

For at the very end of the pier, on the ground, at the base of the furthest-most piece of scaffolding, were a group of workmen with tools and a spotlight. Maybe it was they who had drained the English Channel so that they could carrying out some routine repair-work, using those machines that were creating such great big dangerous-looking sparks.

Or maybe this time they were stealing the pier itself?

I walked past them, taking a moment to gaze back at the pier from the wrong end, and continued on out into the unknown.


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