Writer’s Note: I was listening to a podcast on birds through history when I first came across ‘Climmers’ (or Climbers). This led me to some early twentieth-century film footage of Climmers working at Flamborough Head in Yorkshire. Although silent, the film was so atmospheric that my character’s story emerged soon after. A routine working day, perhaps, but what more could lie behind a perilous life on the cliffside?
A sharp salt wind whips at my back as I prepare the ropes. The dizzying rocks below, taunting the edge of my vision. Hidden, revealed, hidden by the stirring waves. Asking the same of me each day. It does get easier; it is getting easier. The first time, like jumping into the promise of death.
But I’m still here. “If you find yourself flush, Henry, I’ll be waiting. Not a fortune, mind, just enough to see us wed,” Amelia declared one morning as we parted ways at the church-gate. Not really the place for talk of wages, but it had to be said. As sure as the Kittiwakes circled the foam, I believed she’d wait.
As I fasten my armguard the lads prepare to lower me over. The eggs sit ready, nestling in nooks like delicate treasure. They may not shine, but they gleam as gems in our eyes. I test the rope’s anchorage, it holds strong. Nearly there, check my helmet-strap one last time. Tales of loose rock tumbling onto climmers and cracking bone, enough for caution in the toughest. “Ready, Henry?”
“Yes. Let me down.”
The cliffs are as white as the lace on Amelia’s best frock. Like the pendulum of a crazed clock, I begin to bounce to and fro. My practiced legs spring me out, weight carries me back. I pluck the eggs one by one, place them in my bag. Shut out the raucous cries of the Guillemots as I intrude. “We make a shilling a dozen,” I once told her, lifting my chin with pride.
My young knees are robust enough, but the twinge of impact still hits. As the rope chafes my salt-stung palms, I reach for the last batch. Amelia had taken my hands once, touched the soreness with her soft fingers. “I’ve a balm that could soothe those,” she’d said, kindly. I think I’d welcome a little caring now. My first lass had found another fella; I didn’t want to give Amelia time to do the same. The bag bulges with bounty; ascent beckons.
The chaps are leaning into it like a tug o’ war as I meet the cliff top. “Greetings, Henry!” Morris exclaims, puffing from the effort.
“Good to be back, lads.”
I unload my haul into the waiting baskets. “Nice work. You’ll have a gold watch in your pocket yet!” Morris says, cuffing my arm. “Time to go again?”
Checking my helmet and armguard, I pause. The north wind is lurching, the clouds thickening behind us. For a moment, I consider it. The baskets are not yet full. I listen to the waves beating below. “Ah, not today. Weather’s turning.”
The gulls will lay more, as plainly as I’ll return tomorrow. I offer Morris a wry grin. “I’m better use to her alive, gold watch or no.”
“Aye. As sure as eggs is eggs!” And Morris laughs, just as the rising wind whips his cap away to the blue.
Christine Collinson writes historical short fiction. Her first Novella-in-Flash was longlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2022. Over the past four years her work has featured in a variety of publications, including anthologies from Ad Hoc Fiction, Reflex Press and Ellipsis Zine. Find her on Twitter @collinson26.