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About the author:
He lists his hobbies as swimming, reading, watching lots of screen drama, and helping to republish the novels of Leo Walmsley.
What inspired you to write your book?
I got the title even before the story. I saw this girl on a Victorian magic lantern slide—well, she was a young woman, really—and I wanted to write about her. More than anything, I think it was the look in her eyes that got me.
Here is a short sample from the book:
IT WAS THE ROAR of the North Sea steadily growing louder that made Amy stop. It was something her father had said that morning: that the rent was due, and because her mother had been nagging him about not having enough coppers to buy a loaf of bread, that he and Mr Clough might go out in their coble, Crimson Lady, and shoot some fishing lines if the weather would hold off for just a bit. There was no denying that going out to sea on this day would be against his better judgement. The thought of it filled her with a peculiar uneasiness.
Standing in the Square, a stone-flagged area at the top of the short slipway, and closing her eyes for a second or two, she listened to the sound of the restless sea in the bay, breathing in the air charged with prickles and tingles by which she could sense the dangerous energy of the sea. And she knew there was little chance that the weather would not turn foul; a storm was due, of that she was in no doubt, maybe even a full gale from the south-east. It would reach the peak of its strength sometime late afternoon. To her, that such a thing would happen was as reliable as knowing that night follows day. Her father, a fisherman since he was a boy, would also know this, and yet even he often marvelled at Amy’s unerring ability to sense – nay, predict – the moods of the ocean. She dared to breathe; there was no way he would set sail in the present conditions, with their promise of danger, loss of equipment, damage to his fishing coble, or risk to his own and Mr Clough’s safety. With a sigh of relief, she could rest easy and go about her work.
She ran up Ogden’s Steps, a winding arrangement of uneven stone blocks that zig-zagged up the hillside between the cottages, many of them over three hundred years old and built back-to-earth against the southern side of the ravine. Her day’s catch of flithers she left outside the cottage door, with some seawater to keep them alive, and covered to protect against village cats. The next morning, when the tide would still be in, was when she would sit outside the cottage and separate – or skane – the shells, leaving the fleshy limpet morsels for her mother and her sister Beth to bait her father’s lines, nearly two hundred feet long. She picked up the bucketful of empty shells from that morning to take them to be dumped on the land behind some nearby cottages, and wondered what her mother and sister had done with her flither harvest from the day before.
That was when she heard a voice. It wasn’t even a complete word; it didn’t need to be. Just a stray tone on the air was enough to tell her who it was. Turning on the steps, she looked out over the Square. Berthed close by the harbour wall (although it was only a sea wall as there was no harbour as such) were the sagging tarpaulins covering the fishing cobles of their absent owners. Now there were only two fishing boats still in commission. One of them, a corfe about fifteen feet long, had belonged to a larger herring boat, sunk by a German U-boat captain. The crew had been cast adrift in its corfe, and, having enabled the men to get safely back to port, it had been abandoned, and then acquired by a village fisherman whose own coble had been holed.
Amy’s father and Mr Clough were walking towards Crimson Lady, a longer and leaner coble, dedicated for line fishing off the coast. Each was wearing knitted ganseys – pullovers, with identical patterns – and carrying a heavy circular skep containing the fishing lines, baited that morning from her previous day’s catch.
She called out to them. Her father waved. Mr Clough, the junior partner, was on his knees, beneath the fishing coble, loosening the chocks of its cart wheels. Running down to the Square she grabbed her father’s arm.
“Dad, you want help pulling ’em up there?” she asked, pointing to the open space further along the street where the fishing cobles were drawn for protection during ferocious weather.
When he didn’t look at her, she knew something was amiss.
“Dad, what you doing? What you doing, Dad? You mu’n’t go out! Don’t you know it’s coming on bad? I can tell.”
Instead of breaking off to speak with her, as he usually would, he continued to steady the coble on its cart as Mr Clough scrambled from beneath, pulling himself to his feet.
“It’s alright, lass, we’re not gonna be long.”
His calmness didn’t convince her.
“It’s growing, Dad. The sea’s growing. I can feel it.”
Now he held her by the arms, gently to care, firmly to protect, struggling to find the words that would explain why it was so necessary for them to go out in the bay, if only for a short time, and shoot a line. It would be hard work in a sea like this, but her father was the undoubted expert along this stretch of coast between Scarborough and Middlesbrough.
She went on:
“You mustn’t go, Dad, you know you musn’t.”
He shook his head, wishing she wasn’t here.
“Why are you doing it?”
He let go of her and sighed, looking around at the resting cobles, some of them already without owners, and the short, shuffling women – it didn’t matter that some were young and others were old because they all looked the same – each with a stoop that they wore like a badge of poverty.
“We’ll be alright. We know what we’re doing.”
There was something about his tone that Amy didn’t like. He sounded agitated, impatient.
“No, no,” she shook her head and stepped away from him, as if wanting to separate herself from the recklessness.
“I’ve got to do it!” he snapped at her. “You won’t understand. It’s my fault – I’ve never explained to you about money, and I should – I know I should. And I will, soon as we get back. But your mam and Beth have done the lines and it’d be a waste, can’t you see that? All your hard work will have been for nothing.”
“It doesn’t matter—”
“Well I say it does! And that’s an end to it. Right?”
She was standing a few feet away from him.
“It’s not safe—”
“Neither is going without food or a roof over your head. No great deed is done by falterers who ask for certainty. That’s from Eliot. Don’t worry, lass. Should be some cod for us, end o’ the scaurs. Then we’ll be back home for some tea. How’s that, eh?”
He hugged her, and she knew he had closed his eyes, like she had seen in the mirror once. She felt him tremble, and didn’t want to let him go; she never did.
After dumping the shells she walked back along Friar Terrace, still, with the gas street lamp shining its pulsing greeny-yellow glow on the wet flags. With only the roar of the sea in the background, she went along the tightly-packed cottages and stopped when she heard what sounded to be a woman in agony. Shaking, Amy had never heard such screams. Maybe a beast had attacked her. The screams became worse, and the woman called out, crying her husband’s name, and God’s, and Jesus’s, and her husband’s name again.
Over the years, Amy had seen village men beating their wives, even in public, as if it were the most natural thing to do. But she had never seen her father beat her mother. So maybe this woman had been particularly bad, or naughty, or nagging. Whatever she had done, Amy wanted to know more so that she might avoid being so chastised when she got married, as she expected she would one day – after all, that’s what all of the other village girls did, except the odd one.
Whatever this particular woman’s crime, Amy feared that she had gone too far, because when concerned neighbours knocked on the door they were turned away, having taken sheets, cloths, basins of water. All looked concerned, with knowing expressions, as if this was some tortuous process that just had to be gone through.
The unfortunate Mrs Larkin was now crying for The Lord to get whatever it was out of her belly, whatever such a thing could mean. And Amy wanted to be there; this was an opportunity too good to miss, to satisfy her curiosity, let her discover what no one was actually talking about.
When Amy looked in Mrs Larkin lay on her back, on a thin straw mattress on a strange arrangement, so Amy thought, of small tables of differing heights in the ground floor kitchen, thus allowing Amy an uninterrupted view through the window. There were no curtains, and, peeking around for a better view whenever the street door was opened, there were even fewer possessions inside the cottage than in Amy’s – not that the cottage was hers; her mother had made that clear many times. No, Amy must learn, she’d been told, that she owned nothing, not even the skirt and the bodice she stood in, nor the boots that she hated wearing, and she must always be thankful for each mouthful of food she was given, and never dare to forget it.
And right now, this poor woman was in agony, her knees raised, and with her small children getting under the feet of the other woman that was fussing around. Amy knew that the seeing-to woman was Mary Dunkerdill, who she occasionally saw visiting women, but never seemed to stay neighbourly with them for long. Maybe she wasn’t any good at staying friends.
After an agonising shriek that made Amy shiver, the activity inside became frenzied. The woman shouted at the children to stay in the corner and cover their eyes and not dare move. Then, when Mrs Dunkerdill grabbed the woman’s knees and dragged them apart, for the first time Amy saw the thick, black mass of matted hair at the top of her legs, and the sliver of pink, like a large eye of a drunken man, or maybe it was the demon eye from so many of the stories she’d heard as a young child, that now opened a little wider.