So we left at midnight from Monument. Kicking out time in Croydon. Kebab shops rushing with towered stacks of polystyrene boxes. Then breath down and sharp up into wilderness, a piss into the darkness and the wind. The city red white lights blink stupidly: What are we doing?
Glorious isolation tempers the crawling hills and headwinds, lips chapping and chafing. We flee through successive villages: maps, eats, witching heartburn. The moon with us almost all the way, a mousey nibble from full. Gatwick traffic ruffles our panniers, commuters workwise 3.30am.
Then, before we know what is happening, it is happening. The sky turns not black. It’s scratching grey well before we get to Ditchling, with its mildly threatening signpost: The Beacon. Brighton, the same signpost flatly states, is the other way. We press on ahead.
Well, the others press on ahead: I pause for another piss in the lea, exposed to cars, pleased with their early starts.
Then 1.5km of up: gentle undulations growing stern, tucking themselves round the next corner, treating me to the odd glimpse of summit, and spreadout picnic blanket of all the miles we’d travelled from Haywards Heath to the Sussex Downs.
The morning mist raffled across, hazing the view, indistincting the horizon, the sun still snaffled in its quilt, like good Easter bunnies.
I didn’t stop, determined to catch the summit without pause. My signature S-shaped turns deceiving me, but not the mountain, into a gentle incline. One S twists into descent after bumping the kerbside.
I hack on to the last corner, catch sight of Anna’s bike proud against a post. Anna herself leans rockside, searching where the sea should be on any other spring morning. Adrenalin, cannabinoids, dopamine, endorphins come rushing late to the party, blown on by the wind that crashes our thin-coated bodies.
Paul walks the last few feet to join us. A man with a dog tips his jaw at our climb. The dog nuzzles the gate to his gallop. We slither off the mountain, in a long Brighton descent, passing those like us picking themselves up after a long night out. Girls barefoot and legs sliding up to party frocks, guys stomping cross traffic in voices for soundsystems and jaegermeister.
The last flats through The Level dew and wedding cake Pavillion cream, to the cusp of England, staged by Harry Ramsden’s chip shop, set with a dozen naked bodies and backs scrawled with I don’t care hair of post-middle-age.
They slap across the sharp beach stones and flack into the slick sands that slip under a thin drink of seawater, running out a gradient that slopes and slops Francewards. I clench my feet in disability above icy numbness. Chasing, shouting, bellowing obscenity and jubliation, I march among the bodies and backs, submerged chest-deep, salt smacking my lips as uneasy waves worry the pier pillars.
“Happy fucking Easter!”