This is another Weird story about Brighton, written in January this year. (800 words)
Rumours persist about the burning of the West Pier. What you’ve heard isn’t true. Hundreds of people were watching but none of them talk the incident, or the weeks leading up to it. If someone has told you what happened to the West Pier, they were wrong or lying.
It wasn’t the owners of the Palace Pier that did it. Despite their public statements on the West Pier regeneration, the rival operators had more to gain from the project than they had to lose. Nor was the fire set, as some people claim, by the West Pier Trust. They certainly had a motive: renovating a grade 1 listed pier would be forbiddingly expensive. Replacing a ruin is cheaper, but that’s not enough reason to murder a landmark. No, the West Pier was torched by a small group of heroes as hundreds looked on.
The weeks leading up to the fire were almost unbearable. The pier was invading minds, growing more and more powerful. Dreamers found themselves walking long circles of the deck, down one side and back up the other, shuffling, staring at their feet. Rest failed to refresh the dreamers, as if the dream-walks exhausted them, as if the pier was stealing their energy.
In these dreams, it wasn’t the sea and shoreline of Brighton beyond the railings. Instead, the pier was transported to other places. Sometimes one would see stark, barren cliffs. Other times there were piles of refuse, burning, reeking noxious fumes, dreamers coughing as they promenaded. One time it wasn’t sea below the pier’s boards but a pit of bleached bones, as if the bodies of millions had been stripped to skeletons.
The pier wasn’t a wreck in these visions. The buildings were new and clean – but the windows were opaque, the doors sealed. We paced past, knowing there was something inside these structures. We knew not what it was, or whether it was one thing or legion. More than once I woke sobbing, not sure if it was fear or sadness I felt. I expect other people had the same awful awakenings.
Those who could sleep carried on their lives, but those who couldn’t, who dreamed of the pier, they recognised each other by their sallow eyes and dazed stares. When dreams are no refuge it drives men mad. The pier had to be stopped but we could not bring ourselves to discuss it. I tried a couple of times, only to find my mouth drying up, turning away as my tongue failed me.
I don’t know who finally did it, who managed to break the pier’s spell, but I knew it was going to happen. The town was dead quiet that night, the pubs empty. The all-night shop at the bottom of my street had been open continuously for a year or two, across Christmases and New Years. They closed at dusk that day. The streets were clear but I found myself walking. I knew something was happening and I knew that it involved the pier.
There were others walking towards the seafront, drifting in the same direction. I arrived at the Palace Pier, could see the West Pier’s hulk in the distance, but didn’t dare approach it, not directly. I disappeared up Pool Valley, heading West on the back-streets, away from the shore. A friend had a penthouse in Embassy court and I knew I could watch from there.
Back then, Embassy Court had yet to be renovated and the building was decayed and sickly. There were some who said it would need to be pulled down. Before I went inside, I looked up and saw people leaning over the balconies, looking east. I was not the only one to have come here. I buzzed up to my friend and climbed the steps to her apartment. The front door was left open, no-one there to greet me. I walked into the main room, which opened to the balcony. A crowd watched from there, nobody I recognised. I took my place at the railing. I did not know what would happen, only that I should be there to see it.
I imagine there were people watching from across town. Sussex Heights must have been full of viewers, and I imagine there were others on the race hill. All the insomniacs waited until they saw the fire, looked as it took hold. Nobody said anything, nobody cheered. The only sound at the first sign of fire was a sigh.
Now the Palace Pier stands alone. To its left was once the chain pier, now gone. To its right, the ruins of the West Pier. A ghost on either side, its neighbours both disappeared.