The beach was an escape. A long, empty strand, a smear
of sand and shingle beaten by waves and stretching away into the haze
of distance. Nothing much but marram grass grew there in the shifting
surface, along with sea kale and sand couch and a creeping bindweed
with pale pink trumpet flowers. But out to sea? A glimpse of sails,
tan sails bending towards the south. People going miles and miles.
To where? To the ends of the earth, wherever they were.
The two boys walked along the shingle for a bit,
hoping to find something, anything, that they might have. Sometimes
you discovered things washed up. Bits from ships. Wood and stuff.
Useful, maybe. When there was a wreck, then all the people from the
village would be out looking. Kids wouldn’t get a chance. Like
the previous year, after that great storm when there were twenty ships
cast up and wrecked. But on a day like this, with the sun in the sky
and a fine, cool breeze from off the water…
It was something, sure enough. Below the shingle,
on the flesh-coloured sand, a mass of grey just where the waves broke.
Not a rock. There were no rocks round here. Maybe a dead seal. You
saw seals often, their heads bobbing in the water, like people swimming
almost. Or an old coat. A coat’d be useful once the salt had
been washed out of it.
They ran, stumbling through a patch of shingle, down
onto the sand, and stopped.
A head. Seaweed for hair. White skin and a barnacle
beard. A single, glaucous eye glaring up at the sky. One foot was
buried in the sand, the other moved with the breaking of the waves,
as though the man was beating time to some tune that only he could
‘He’s dead,’ Isaac whispered.
‘What’ll we do?’ his brother Abraham
‘Go and tell someone, do we’ll get into
They didn’t move. The eye stared. There was
sand in the ear hole. A hand lay like a dead fish beside the face.
Mauve lips. Blue nails.
Abraham put out a foot and pushed.
‘What you doin’?’
‘That’s insulting the dead.’
‘I’m not insulting him. I don’t
know him. He’s just dead.’ He crouched down and pushed
his hand in among the folds of sodden cloth.
‘Hey! What you doin’ now?’
The cloth clung to his fingers as he felt around
inside. It was like groping in the guts of some dead animal, a rabbit,
maybe. Except they were warm whereas this was cold, the chill of the
grave. Then his fingers found something tough, some different thing
amongst the cold cling. He pulled his hand out to see. It was a leather
purse, like a mermaid’s purse, one of those egg cases they sometimes
found along the beach. The curate, who called himself a student of
God’s natural wonders, had told them they were the egg cases
of sharks. But inside this purse, no embryo dogfish. Instead, when
Abraham pulled it open, there were two gold coins, gleaming in the
The two boys breathed deeply. A woman’s head on one side; on
the other, a shield. ‘That’s the queen,’ said Isaac,
trying to take one.
Abraham snatched it back. ‘Them’s mine.’
‘Them’s not yours, them’s ’is.’
‘Them’s gold and them’s mine.’
He took one of them and put it to his mouth to bite it, not because
he knew why but because he’d seen that done, at the market in
Lowestoft. There was the taste of salt but nothing more. Except the
hard touch of metal. ‘Gold,’ he repeated.
‘That’s theft, that is.’
‘No, ’tisn’t. That’s salvage.’
Isaac was stumped. ‘What’s salvage?’
‘It’s where you find something and it’s
yours. Finders keepers, like.’
‘Where d’you learn that?’
‘I heard people say it. Boat people.’
Isaac pondered the matter. ‘What’ll happen
when you try to get the worth of it? They’ll know ’tain’t
yours. You’ll be done for thievin’. Could be sent to the
Abraham pondered the possibility. Did he believe
in demons? People went to the demons, it was said, arrested for thieving
and sent away forever to the other side of the world where the demons
lived. Demon’s Land. But was it true? Were there really demons?
People said you had a guardian angel sitting on your shoulder and
looking over you and he’d never seen one of them either. He
shrugged demons and angels away and crouched beside the figure whose
guardian angel had clearly not being paying attention when most needed.
‘Let’s see what else’s there.’
Emboldened by familiarity, he rummaged amongst the clothes but there
was nothing further of interest, just some sodden papers in an inside
pocket, the ink all blurred. The two boys stared without comprehension
at the ruined writing before stuffing the pages back.
‘He’s got a belt.’
They undid the buckle and tried to pull at the belt
for a while, but nothing moved, the weight of the corpse, half embedded
in sand, holding the belt fast. When they dug into the sand to free
a leg they discovered no boot only a foot as white as chalk, toes
like pebbles. Boots would have been useful. ‘Maybe he’d
took ’em off to swim.’ Abraham had heard of people doing
that. You had to do that, it seemed, or the boots dragged you down.
But he didn’t know. Neither of them knew because neither of
them could swim. And neither had boots.
‘What’ll we do now?’
They looked round, along the stretch of beach running
down the narrowing lines of perspective to north and south. You could
just make out the masts of ships at Lowestoft. Closer there were fishing
boats drawn up on the shingle where figures moved about their fishing
business, oblivious to corpses or children mucking about on the sand
half a mile away.
‘We got to tell someone, do we’ll get
‘Our father then.’
‘He’ll lather us.’
Isaac was the nervous one, the one who always felt
the heavy shadow of his father. He contemplated the lathering they’d
get from their father – for what? Just for being and doing.
You didn’t get lathered for a reason. ‘Not if we show
him the money.’
Gold. Cole. How would he get the worth of it? Abraham
didn’t know how much, but he did know that it was more money
than their father would earn in a month and more.
‘That’s my money.’
‘It’s ours,’ said Isaac, ‘or
They made their way back through the dunes and the
low cliff, across the grassland that had once been common grazing
but was now enclosed by the local gentry, towards the cluster of cottages
beyond the tower of St Edmund’s church.
First thing they did was find a place – a crack
in the wall of the cottage – where they could hide the purse
for the moment. Then they could go looking for their father who was
working with others digging out a drainage ditch.
It wasn’t good to disturb the father when he
was working but they did it nevertheless – this was big news,
news that would stir the village. ‘Hey, Fa, we found a dead
’un,’ is what they said. What Abraham said, in fact, his
voice shrill but supported by Isaac repeating the same thing.
The men, all three of them, deep in the ditch, mired
with mud, stopped.
‘What you say?’
‘A dead ’un. A body.’
Their father leant on his spade and wiped sweat from
his forehead. ‘Where’s this?’
‘On the beach.’
‘Man, is it? You touch it?’
He nodded, stuck his shovel in the mud and clambered
out of the ditch. ‘Best not touch it. Might bring fever. Best
go and see.’
The most exciting thing to happen in Kessingland since
the big storm, that’s what people said. Down on the beach a
crowd watched as a local doctor and an officer of the coastguard splashed
through the shallows – the tide was flowing – to examine
the body. A stir of interest as the clothes were opened. A gasp at
the sight of a white leg. A muttering and not a few prayers as arms
and legs were lifted and the corpse was released from the grip of
sand and carried to the church by half a dozen men of the village.
A group of women – the usual busybodies – attended to
the winding. The word had got around that he was German, washed across
the German Ocean to end up on this miserable shoreline. Poor soul,
people said, so far from home. There was no money on him to pay for
a wooden coffin so they buried him in the shroud. A dozen and more
watched as the parson – the Reverend Lockwood – intoned
doom-filled words over the gaping grave:
Man that is born of woman hath but a short time
to live and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a
flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow…
From the boundary wall of the churchyard, Abraham
and Isaac watched this strange ritual, with the lowering of the corpse
and the solemn tossing of a handful of earth, like the earth itself
devouring its creatures.
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Mud to mud, the rector might have added but didn’t.
‘That’ll happen to us one day,’
Abraham said. In his own case, as it happened, he was wrong; but he
was right about other things – like the fact that the people
were mistaken about the German (if he was a German) having no money
for a coffin, because they didn’t know about the two gold coins,
secreted now in the outer wall of the cottage, did they? Isaac thought
they would rot in hell for what they had done, robbing a dead; but
Abraham only laughed. Hell was what they learned about in church and
Sunday school – eternal fires and devils and pain – but
at least it was somewhere else rather than here. At least it wasn’t
the drudgery of rising at first light and working through the mud
and the day and eating turnips and bread and fish, if you were lucky,
and going to bed as the sun went down, as though the night meant the
end of life. What did they have to lose, taking their chances in hell?