Dull grey foam swallows the boulders at the cliff base. The foam, cliff and sky all fade into one, grey on grey on grey.
So this is it, is it? This tiny fucking rock in the middle of nowhere. We’re somewhere north of Norway apparently, but the journey has been so long and disorientating that we could be in fucking Antarctica and I wouldn’t know any better.
I’m on a boat with fifty other inmates and a dozen guards. A boy with greasy ginger hair is spewing over the edge of the railings. No one else is looking at him, they’re either staring up at the cliffs, the swirls of sky reflected in their eyes like cartoon hypnosis, or ahead, like all they have to do is suspend belief for long enough and they won’t be here anymore, they’ll be back in their cosy cells at their favourite detention centres. But this suits me just fine, hell, I don’t think I’ve ever left the town I was born in, and I’ve definitely never left England. I couldn’t even if I wanted to, I don’t have a passport, and in my more existential moments I wonder if I even qualify as existing, what proof is there after all?
I don’t know what this place’ll be like, but a change from high streets lined with 24 hour takeaways and vape shops is more than welcome. I’m the least cultured person I know, I watched seven minutes of Cats: the Musical on VHS and that’s about it, but even I walk down those dead-end streets sometimes and think fuck, was this what it was all for? The world wars and that, conquering the world, the Magna Carta, and now I’m avoiding eye contact with beggars, overwhelmed by the choice of which cuppasoup to buy, like having a say on that will make up for not being able to make a choice about anything else. Because life’s just shit, isn’t it?
One of the guards jumps from the boat to the weathered jetty, looping the rope in his hands around a pole. He points at the ginger boy, who is bent over, muttering under his breath.
“You!” the guard shouts, “Off!”
The boy raises his head. His eyes narrow, he wipes the last of the vomit from his chin and swings a leg over the railing.
“Up there!” the guard orders, nodding towards the end of the jetty where a rusted ladder snakes up the cliff face.
The boy glances at it,
‘Are you fuckin’ kidding me?’
I admire how his voice carries no hint of fear, he just seems irritated, like this trip is an inconvenience taking him away from far more pressing matters.
‘Go’ the guard orders, his fingers tightening around the baton hanging at his waist.
The boy sighs, moving towards the ladder. His body emits the moody defiance and fuck-offery only a teenager is capable of. He begins to climb, but is only a few feet above the jetty when the rung beneath his foot snaps. He jolts in mid-air, dropping to the jetty’s slippering planks.
‘Fuck this, that ladder’s done in, haven’t you ever heard of health and safety?’
‘Get up the ladder’ the guard orders. Other inmates have started to pile on to the jetty now, but I hang behind. I’ve never been known for my proactivity.
It’s tempting to write me off as just another product of my environment, but I’m not some poster boy for broken Britain. I grew up with both my parents, which is a luxury nowadays. We didn’t have much, but I got what I wanted generally speaking, the new PlayStation for my birthday or Christmas, but always on finance. And my parents loved me, I know they did, they were a bit emotionally stunted at times, but that’s a generational thing, isn’t it? Even when I first started getting into trouble, they tried to be diplomatic. It’s not their fault, I’m just a bad kid.
Looking around, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to imagine we are all on a school trip, a trip to Russia, perhaps, to learn about… What have they got in Russia? Vodka? Prostitutes? But school implies hope, which we’re all out of, either ruined by our families or ruined by ourselves. You can’t fix either of those things, what they instil in you is a penchant for self-destruction, so even if you get out of juvy and everything is okay for a few years, BAM, something shit happens and you just don’t have the tools to build yourself up again. Instead you implode, you quit your job and start daytime drinking, bills become an optional expense, and just like before, you’re a crumbling tower and your family and friends are civilians running for their fucking lives, doing their best to dodge your destruction lest they become collateral damage. They say all that bullshit supportive crap, but I don’t believe they mean it, and to be honest, I don’t blame them, it must be exhausting to be emotionally shackled to someone who never seems to learn.
We all watch the showdown between the guard and Ginger. I’m sure we all want the same thing, a bit of violence to re-energise us after the long trip, some good ol’ fashioned petulant rebellion to remind us who we are again.
Ginger moves away from the ladder towards the guard, their eyes locking.
Before Ginger even speaks the guard has anticipated what he’s going to say. He pulls his gun from its holster and points it at Ginge. The crowd of inmates on the jetty falls silent, no one moves.
I try to decipher the guard’s expression. He doesn’t look nervous or scared. It’s an expression that’s new to me, and I wrote the book on pissing people off.
The boy laughs, snappy and self-assured like a dog’s bark.
‘You think that scares me? This ain’t no North Korea, I’m British, born and bred.’
He says what we’re all thinking, evident in the way no one moved aside when the guard pulled out his gun. This is a dick-measuring contest and Ginger has just called the guard’s bluff. We’ve seen plenty of guns, had them pointed at us hundreds of times, but the police can’t just shoot us, they might as well be pointing super-soakers for all the power they have.
‘I’m going to tell you one more time,’ the guard breathes, ‘get up the ladder’
Ginger smirks, ‘Shoot me then, go on, you ugly little shit’
The guard exhales, his right eye twitching. I watch him lower the gun, my heart pounding as I realise how much I want him to shoot Ginge.
Then, several things happen at once. The guard lifts the gun and pulls the trigger and the bullet tears through Ginger’s head. His mouth hangs open stupidly as he falls, and although I’m nauseous with terror I have to suppress an overwhelming urge to laugh.
Around me, the other inmates are screaming, shoving each other aside to escape the guard but with nowhere to go, waves lapping hungrily at three sides and the broken ladder the only alternative.
Three inmates tumble into the water. The boat’s hull crushes them against the jetty. They claw at the sky, their gaping faces obscured by the fizzing froth.
No one on the jetty tries to help them. The guards ignore them too, herding the last inmates from the boat to the overpacked jetty.
They all have their guns out now, waving them at us incoherently. A terrified girl with bleached blonde hair grabs a ladder rung and begins to climb. Once she reaches the midway point without falling, others follow. The three bodies in the water have fallen still, the last thing I see is a government-issued plimsol piercing the water’s surface before slipping from view.
I’ve been carried from the boat to the jetty by the surge of inmates eager to follow the orders the armed guards shout at us. Behind me, the boat’s engine roars to life. Two more inmates crash into the water. One falls feet from the spinning blades and there’s a crack, like a carrot snapping in half. The water turns a muddy red as a terrible scream pierces the low shouts of the guards.
The rope is pulled loose and the last guards leap from the jetty, clinging to the boat’s damp railing.
The boat splutters for a moment, then flies forward. The guards are gone. I stare after them, a mangled hand floating in the water nearby. We are alone.
I am the last inmate to reach the clifftop. I don’t know what I was expecting, some sort of unity or camaraderie, driven by a need for information if nothing else.
But when I reach the top of the cliff, no one is there. I’m alone.
About the Author
Lauren Vandewalle is a 27-year old prose fiction writer currently studying towards a MSt in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.