I don’t know when it started. There was a time, there was a time when people did this kind of thing around here. I don’t know if I can tell you this. Can I tell you about this? There was a time when everything was so much looser, like there were no boundaries to things back then. And we were abandoned, I guess. Out on the edge. Before this thing developed. You know? We all have that, don’t we? We all have some of that in our lives.
She broke off and looked out of the window. Outside, the sea mist thickly moved. A long arm of fog was lifting above the tall houses and slowly reached towards the forest, it was taking its hard message from the North to the firs. Dank air. Copper-coloured light. Birdless sky. The closed terraces shovelling cold through their thin rooms, and those rooms lit with uneasy fires all the way from the old town to the low tight sea houses out alone on the East cliffs. It was February and the long winter was at its deepest. A lone car groaned and gargled through the street, its tail lights bloated and waned in the haar. Then it was gone and the world seemed even more silent. He twisted in his seat back towards her and she coughed thickly and began working her thoughts again.
Let me tell you then. She was sixteen. Maybe a little older. Her mother had gone off to Smethwick, or some place in the Black Country, for work they said, but it was some kind of affair that took her there. They were no good. Ever since the Cartwrights moved here in the 20s, they were all bad. Every one of them. So the young one, she was left here because it seemed the right thing to do, I guess. And he, he was to look after her and that was that. Because the mother had gone. She had gone and there would be no reconciliation. Nothing. He wasn’t much older than you, really. Just a lamb. He’d been fishing that season, there had been no catches for a month. Anyway, she left him and went off. Just like that. And the seas were empty and he had the girl.
She moved to the grate and lifted a piece of coal and placed it gently in the centre of the weak fire. Small sparks squalled in the grate. The wind raised again and the casement rattled like it was shuddering with the dead weather. She moved to look out, drawing her cardigan around her throat. Then the wind settled again and the high trees settled in the glass and the shadows slowly settled and she turned from the amber light of the window and slumped back in the chair, every feature sagging with fire light.
She was fine for the first year. She had some friends from the village. They’d hang around Petersen’s place and take the Caister boys there. Jay Riley and his friend Karl, you know those boys? They would hang around there hoping for something to happen. Something lurid, I imagine. She was probably having sex with them, though we didn’t know that then. Back there in the grounds, there were these mattresses you’d find, pressed into the corner of the gardens, kind of dirty, lonely places, but the kids smoked there and ate what they shot and did their business in the corners and had sex and she was into all that. Even then. She was into that. But that was before this all happened.
He took a cigarette from the pack in his pocket and lifted it to his lips, then thought better of it and put it back, tamping it down in to place with his fingertips. He was watching her carefully, her hard white head, the foxing on her cheeks and throat. The thin straight ridge of her nose. The collapsed mouth. He watched her tiny eyes, the colour of a gas flame. He shivered suddenly. He pulled his hair back from his face and realised that it was wet. His brow was frozen. He wiped his nose on the back of his hand and leaned forward, leaned right into the heart of the story.
There was a bad summer and the rains had flooded the West fields and many of the houses had taken in water, and all through June and July it just rained and rained. There was no end to it. Some boats went out, but the weather was high and heavy and the seas kept them inshore and the hauling was tough and the catches poor. He’d been drinking heavily and then the engine gave in. It just died on him and he was left with nothing. So she began working. If you understand me. She took to it and some of the boys didn’t like that they had to pay now. And the weather being bad, the mood in the town was cruel. So there was, there was a degree of bitterness about all that.
Somewhere in the iron cold of the hall, a clock struck two, and something shifted in the house, ratcheting in the near dark. She was looking right at him now. She was looking hard into him, to see where he was with the story. To see how it was working on him.
At least she was putting food on the table. None of them can deny that. But something had changed in her and when she met people at Channing’s or the bakery or St Faith’s, everyone knew that she had been broken by the weather and all that bad luck and that this would lead nowhere. Nowhere good. She was left staring too far North, I guess, into a bad sea. Like the looking had worked free of her, really, like her eyes were open, but what she saw — well, she didn’t see what was coming, that’s for sure. She didn’t see that.
He leaned further in, pressing his thighs together to push out the chill in them.
Some said that all that beef, all that pork and the game they had on their table that summer, that that was a payment from Isaac Channing to her. Some said that. But at least they ate well. Ate better than most at that time. But all the same. All the same. That was a payment, you see.
He breathed heavily through his nose and noticed the air whiten in front of him. He reached for the pack again and stared at it and put it back. Then he looked up at the window. It was rust-dark now, what light was left in the old town was just a line of ochre wedges below the street lights, beside the draining angles of the night. Nothing moved. Nothing yielded.
Then Fordman came. Peter Fordman. He came in on a train from the Midlands before that line was closed. The old goods line. He arrived with six trunks they said. That’s what they said, six trunks. Before we knew it, he was moving in on Leonard Street and waiting for the great and the good to call. Just like that. Like he was somebody.