The Last House on the Marsh
Here there is no divide between land and sea, just a blur of blue where the mud flats rise. Then miles of water-logged green, heavy with the smell of salt and rot, running right up to the sea wall which ziz zags all across this land, holding back the treacherous waters of the Wash. This is a land borrowed from the sea, a land so flat it ends only where the curve of the earth falls.
Across this land a motorbike stutters, suddenly roars. Turning off the main Boston Road, it cuts along lanes, edged by dykes. Cows raise their heads, butterflies shimmer along low hedges. A scatter of startled birds blooms from a twisted tree. The warm salt wind ruffles the marsh grasses and the fields of billowing corn. Still the motorbike comes. It turns right in Burton Feldyke, onto Skidds Lane, past the Village Hall and the red brick bungalows.
Nellie Lancing is cutting her lawn with shears. The lawn mower broke a year ago. She hears that distant motorbike whine. A bird watcher, or some young chap from Boston who fancies a dip in the creek? Five minutes later, stopping to ease her back, she sees a figure at her gate. Lost, she thinks. She never has visitors. Only Ron from the Fruit and Veg, the vicar, or occasionally an RSPB volunteer.
Nellie doesn’t usually let people through the gate. You have to be careful. You never know who might be sizing up the place. But the motorbike man is already striding up the cracked cement path, his steps both purposeful and uncertain, his waterproof jacket rustling. A white hand moves up and tugs the helmet off.
Hello. Will. William. Perhaps you don’t remember. Great nephew.
Under the waterproof, his body is narrow, his trousers belted low at the hips. He wears a tight jumper with a T shirt underneath. A ring pierces his ear and his hair hangs to his shoulders. An expensive-looking camera is slung around his neck. As he looks into Nellie’s eyes, another face swims back to her from the past. The boy presses her hand hard – but then his tapering fingers slacken and slide out of hers.
The face is new born, unprepared, but she knows it immediately. The dead made flesh. The shears nearly drop from her hand. Why would he come? She sent him some money and a card on his eighteenth birthday but she’d never expected to see him. His face is paper pale, his eyes chestnut brown. A few pimples gather close to his nose. His lips are raw and bitten, a scatter of sparse stubble covers his chin.
Nellie finds herself staring at the shears which she has put down on the garden table. Nothing has changed and yet he is here. What does he want? Nellie has nothing to give. The boy is saying something about work experience in Lincoln, physiotherapy. He failed some of his exams. Would have called first but he couldn’t find the number.
Nellie, suddenly conscious of the unravelling sleeve of her jumper, motions to the bench under the apple tree and he sits down. She has only coffee to offer, no milk. He doesn’t seem to want coffee. She can’t take in his words but notes that studied ease, that openness of look, which come from an expensive education. Yet his hands flutter, his face is pinched.
His eyes roam round the garden, the geraniums in their terracotta pots, the wind-scoured red brick house with its peeling window frames, the hedge she has allowed to grow tall, as it provides some protection from the wind, and much else besides. The boy’s face is amused, condescending. Clearly the family home is not what he expected. He takes out a cigarette and lights it with clumsy hands.
Silence falls between them. Above them sea gulls wheel and shriek. From out on the marsh, the salt wind carries the yelps of excited children inland. The tide is out so they’re catching crabs or making mud slides. It’s not the same as Skegness or Mablethorpe but there’s still laughter to be had if you don’t mind the mud. The boy’s cigarette has blown out and he lights it again, drawing in deep breaths.
So how is your father? Nellie asks.
A sudden bitterness clouds the boy’s eyes, he shakes his head, blows smoke from between his teeth. Oh he’s all right, the boy says. Same as ever. I haven’t seen him for a while. How long since you last saw him?
Seventeen years perhaps? You must have been three then.
Oh well, I don’t suppose you would find him much changed. He never changes.
So there’s been a row, Nellie thinks. The seed of it was already there the last time she visited. The wavering three year old, standing amidst the over grown daisies, crying at the barking dog in the lane. His father laughing, mocking, telling him to grow up. And physiotherapy in Lincoln? That can’t have been part of the plan. Surely this young man was intended for London, for work as a solicitor, or something similar.
Nellie knows how such rows can be. She remembers her older brother Henry. That boorish certainty passed down in the bone marrow of the family. Tolerance, difference, all mown down in the great drive towards some supposedly better life. Tenderness, concern are such small weapons to raise against such men. Resistance ends in the bottle or the shot gun or both.
You sent that card and the money, the boys says. You said I could come.
Of course. Of course.
He asks if she has any family photographs. He’s doing a documentary photography course and his project is about family history. He wanted to be a photographer, he says, but he couldn’t make any money doing that. Nellie thinks with shame of the holes in the carpets, the broken tread on the stair, the old sofa blocking the hall which needs to go down to the tip. When you live on your own, you let things go.
But still she picks up her cane, which is propped in the porch, and leads him into the house, up the back stairs, along the low corridor, into the back bedroom. The curtains are drawn so she pulls them open. The photographs are there on the dressing table arranged on stained lace mats. People in fancy dress, natives of some other country you visited once but now can hardly remember. The pictures are discoloured, their moments dissolving.
My parents. Here. Your great grandparents. My mother died when I was ten. They wrote it down as pneumonia. Then my father. Yes, he was a pilot. That’s why this house is called The Pilot’s House. It was his job to go out across the marsh to meet the ships and bring them in. A heart attack and then the tide came in. His body washed up the other side of the Haven, at Freiston Shore.
The floor boards creak. Nellie is conscious of the dust surrounding the lace mats.
My brothers. Look here. Henry, your grandfather. Yes and Alfred. Died young. She keeps her voice steady, takes care not to look at the boy as he stares into that photograph. A mirror image. Does he see it?
So sad for you, he says.
I am eighty, Nellie says. What can one expect?
Alfred, he says. I didn’t know until recently.
Nellie feels some liking for the boy then. He’s said the name. On a shelf beside the dressing table, are the wooden carvings of birds that Alfred liked to make. Also tiny boxes and baskets, stacked full of Alfred’s treasures. Pieces of glass from the marsh, the skull of a bird, the cracked shell of an egg, turquoise and speckled even now. She passes one of the wooden carvings to the boy and he turns it in his hands.
Nellie opens a drawer, pulls out a sheaf of paper.
He liked to draw.
Nellie hasn’t looked at the drawings in years. But she doesn’t need to, they’re often in her mind. Drawings of birds on the wing, twisting suddenly, dipping and turning, slicing the air. She’d never intended to show this boy so much.
Here – with his friend Westy.
Wearing cricket sweaters, their arms are looped over each other’s shoulders, as was the way of young men then. Both look so blameless, so obviously doomed. Nellie wants to shout at them, to make sure that they hear her warning this time, even through the walls of so many years.
As Nellie leads him back downstairs, Will says he’ll visit again. These family disagreements are so unnecessary. Sins of the fathers, all that. For a moment Nellie starts to feel some pity for him but cuts off that feeling at its root. She mutters some polite response, hopes he has understood that she doesn’t want to repeat this meeting.
After he’s gone, Nellie pours herself a whisky, her hand gripped on the side of the kitchen sink. She heads to the gate, walks across the field to the sea wall. For a moment she looks inland, sees the pylons, the telephone wires looping. And the tower of Boston Stump, that one vertical in so many layers of horizontals. Parents are shepherding their children in off the creek now. Their legs caked with dried mud, they trail nets and damp towels. Stopping to tip up buckets of crabs, they holler and jig with delight as the crabs run back into the creek.
The tide is coming in, the day waning. The sky is banked with pleated clouds, rolling ever onwards across the unceasing sky. In the far distance, the silver light of the sun touches on the edge of a formless cloud. Same house, same view, same tides washing in. She thinks then of Alfred, sees him far out on the marsh. Drawing, or carving, or running after the birds, his arms flailing. A black silhouette against the mellow rays of the washed sunlight.
Alfred – his hands feathery as he played the piano. When he was younger, before all the trouble began, he used to sit in the window seat with Westy, who walked across from the village. His father was the baker there. Together they made up comic songs, Alfred playing and Westy singing. Or made daisy chains which they looped around her neck.
That was before Westy had joined the RAF, gone up to Coningsby. Alfred had taken the bus then to see him, or pedalled on his bicycle. Nellie had tried to warn him. So many times Alfred went – until Westy went out to Malaya. Or was it Kenya? He’d stayed out there, they said.
Two weeks later Will comes again. Nellie has just come back from Scandon Marsh. She works there as a volunteer, going on her bike now that the clutch on the car has gone. She’s the RSPB’s oldest Lincolnshire volunteer. At a supper in the White Hart in Boston they gave her a plaque. A hint that she should retire? But Nellie won’t do that. People come from the towns and they don’t understand the tides, the danger.
There’s no need, she says to Will.
He’s come in a car, bringing with him a borrowed lawn mower. He says he can also find someone to fix the car. And maybe ring on his mobile, find out about the phone line.
Always blows down, Nellie tells him. I don’t need the mower. Ron will come soon. He does all that.
But still Will mows the lawn, so she makes him a cup of black coffee which he drinks, sitting on the bench under the apple tree. He asks about her voluntary work. Down at Scandon they have allowed Coastal Realignment. That means they have moved the sea wall, given up some land which was reclaimed centuries before.
Meetings had been organised in the Village Hall. Better for wildlife, they were told. Better to let this bit go, make the whole coast safer. Many shouted those arguments down. What we need is solid investment in coastal defences. This is the most fertile land in England. Shelves in food shops stacked high with potatoes, carrots, lettuce, beans – all bought down from Lincolnshire. All across the world the sea levels are rising.
That’ll be for your generation, Nellie says to Will.
She remembers the floods of 1953. Up in the north of Lincolnshire people were swept out of their bedroom windows, such was the force. Charlie came from the village in one of the farm trucks. No time to take anything except a coat and a change of clothes. Skegness, Mablethorpe, Ingoldmells Point – all gone under. The roads submerged, the trains stopped, the telephones down. Great black sheets of water spread over the land. They gave out that three hundred died – everyone knew it was more. Most of the bodies were never recovered.
After the water retreated, Nellie came back to the Pilot’s House. Everything was covered with a layer of grey slime which took days to wash out. Sheep were dead against the field gate, their coats grey and flattened, their stomachs swollen and breaking open, flies gathering. You had to keep a handkerchief pressed to your face. Even a year later the smell still clung to the earth. The cricket pavilion from the village had been washed down and sat perched across the sea wall. Nellie is glad to have seen the worst.
She does not tell Will any of that. Soon enough the conversation comes around to Alfred again. Nellie knew that it would.
Can I ask you? I loved those drawings.
Nellie wonders what he already knows.
He died in an Asylum, she says. Or he should have done. Rauceby Asylum. But he finished up at North Sea Camp. It was a Borstal then, just across the Haven. We never did know why he was taken there. It was after the war – and the floods just a few months before.
And that was where it happened?
Yes. On the marsh there. No-one knew how he got the gun.
You didn’t try?
No. No. What was there to know? He was gone.
That night Nellie sits at the kitchen table. Wind is worrying in the chimney and the sky is Bible black. The roof of the shed is rattling. She must get it nailed down sometime. But now Nellie finds herself short of breath, her blood pumping fast. Images rise up and take hold of her mind. Alfred sitting at the desk in the sitting room, his head down, his ink pen digging into the paper, writing for hours without stopping. Nellie had believed he was writing a book. Until the day came when she looked at the page and none of it made any sense.
Then he was dancing out on the marsh. People thought he was trying to catch birds but Nellie knew it wasn’t that. Perhaps if he drew them often enough he would grow wings. Surely none of it mattered? The Pilot’s House is the last on the marsh. Nellie could keep things private. Yet one is always at the mercy of the world. And Alfred did keep going to Coningsby, even when he knew that Westy was not there.
It was late August when they came to take him. A bronze day with a low mist settled on the marsh. They came without any warning, no letter or message. A low black car parked close to the house. Men from the Asylum and the police. Ropes and nets as though they had come to hunt a wild animal.
Quietly, quietly, he went with no need for the ropes or nets. Nellie asked them not to take him, she pleaded with them and cried, tugging at the sleeve of one of the doctors. He is quite happy, she said. He is very happy. But she was only a girl of twenty and they were men.
The next time Will comes, he tells her he has been to the Records Office in Lincoln. Why? Why? What is it that he wants? He thinks all these questions will lead to healing but they will not. He’s trying to put the words together so that they make sense. Nellie also had attempted that, after Alfred was gone. Hours and hours she’d spent, reading those garbled pages. But she could find no pattern, no explanation, no story to tell.
Will also needs a story. But the one he’s creating isn’t true. She’s not a poor old lady, shut up out on the marsh all these years, grieving for the brother she lost. She may be solitary but she’s always been content. She liked her old job at the Fruit and Veg, she likes her voluntary work. She has her school friend, Maureen, in Spalding.
It’s true that the days were cruel after Alfred went. People stared and spoke to her slowly. They thought that Alfred’s problems were inherited and must soon show in her too. She did thinking of moving into Boston, taking a flat there. Fewer people would know her. But she couldn’t sell the house. After the flood, who would want it?
Then finally an offer came which was far too low. And on the way to the solicitor’s office, stopping suddenly in the street, rain beating down, the knowledge came to her that she couldn’t leave. It was the skies that held her. Every day – the joy of watching that vast and every changing spectacle of cloud and sun light, stretching far away on every side, infinite and generous. How could she have exchanged that for a pale unchanging slice of sky seen through the window of a terraced house?
There had been offers of marriage but she hadn’t wanted that. Charlie, whose family ran the Fruit and Veg, had always been her friend. Later she’d worked for him as a farm secretary, organising the lorries and the delivery men. That was before the foreigners came. And even though Charlie is dead now, his son Ron will always come if she needs anything. They aren’t family but the loyalty is the same.
I think it’s better, she says to Will. If you don’t come again.
Autumn is coming now, the evenings are shorter, the chill of winter blowing in. The fields are ploughed and the birds are gathering on the telephone lines. Will is standing at her gate, ready to put his helmet on. He’s sorry, he says. He never intended to cause any offence. She wishes him well and waves good bye, shuts the gate, goes to find a padlock. You have to careful.
How dare he assume she doesn’t know? Later, much later, she went to the Asylum. Time had unfolded a new world then – even in Burton people smoked strange smelling herbs, wore orange trousers and high cork-soled shoes. In the local paper it was advertised – Open Day. A spacious summer day, the sun lost behind high cloud, the wind bringing in the smell of salt. Rain had fallen the night before and turned every leaf a brilliant green.
Nellie recognised the wide corridors and high windows from her former visits but nothing more. Everywhere now was muffled by carpet, the doors closing with a pneumatic hiss, an exhibition of landscape paintings spread along the walls. The windows hung open and potted plants covering the sills. Women were unloading home-made cake from the backs of cars. It seemed like a village fête or a holiday camp.
Nellie had never intended to ask any questions. It was a former nurse who recognised her, remembered. Mr Roberts seemed no more than a teenager but he was the Director. In his office, model trains were displayed on a shelf. The high arched window hung open, an owl made of rattan was blowing in the breeze. Outside a brass band was playing, its sound both pompous and playful.
Nellie was like an animal caught in a trap. Pulling and pulling against the metal brace but she could not get out. In the cellars they had all the files from way back. Inside Alfred’s file was a sheaf of papers, cramped hand writing enclosed in black boxes. A letter she had sent to Alfred with a chain of daisies painted down the side in water colour. Nellie tasted something unpleasant in her mouth. That cake? Curry? It couldn’t be. Cakes don’t have curry in them. She worried that she might be sick.
A man born into the wrong era, they said. It’d be different now.
As she was leaving, Nellie trapped her hand in the car door crushing two of her nails. Two miles down the road she stopped in a lay by, gripping her crushed fingers to her chest, swallowing sobs. It was only ten miles further to North Sea Camp. As she drove through Boston and out the other side, the temperature dropped and the wind rose. A spray of rain gusted across the windscreen.
North Sea Camp – a low straggle of building, surrounded by wire fences, glass topped walls and security gates. She drove on past it, on towards the sea. The marsh here is like her own marsh – but wilder, ragged, brutal. Here you feel the whole of the North Sea pressing in and hear the distant smash of waves. Nellie was wearing only a summer dress, a thin cardigan. Her sandals had open toes but still she walked out along the creeks. The fine rain was coming in like so many grey curtains closing again and again.
Was it here that Alfred died, or a little further out? She didn’t know. It was hard to see. She wiped rain from her eyes. Surely there must be some trace of him. But there was only the water bubbling in the creeks, driftwood, cigarette ends, the sole of a shoe. A plastic bag, caught on a log, tugged by the wind. Then just to taunt her, or so it seemed, a bang like a gun. She braced herself then, ready to run to his side. But it was only a young man with a motorbike, that was all.
Christmas comes and Nellie wonders about Will. Should she send a card? She doesn’t have the address. Ron and his family ask her over for Christmas lunch, as they always do. January edges forward, day collapsing into day, each one the same. Nellie cycles out to Scandon. The bins are overflowing with coffee cups, sandwich wrappers, nappies. She has to call the Council three times to get everything cleaned up.
A fierce storm is forecast. Nellie listens to the local news on the radio. A tidal surge. Samuel, the old chap who organises the volunteers, comes out to say that they’re closing up at Scandon, putting the red flags out. They can’t take the risk. But the pumping stations at Burton and Slippery Gowt have both been upgraded. They will hold.
As the day passes, the sky turns gun metal grey and lies low and heavy over the marsh. Soon the rain comes down in torrents, smashing against the shed and the windows of the house. Nellie carries the bench in from the garden, wobbles on a ladder, wrapped in her sou’wester, to whack an extra nail into the corrugated iron on the shed roof. Should she lift the carpets? They’re hardly worth saving. Last time the water was a foot deep in the bedrooms. It’ll not come so high this time.
On the news it says that a bus has been blown off the road at Spalding. The high tide is due at seven. See how high that comes. Then it’ll all become clear. At five o’clock news comes from further up the coast, Scarborough. People are hanging onto lamp posts so they don’t get blown over. No harbour wall any more, it’s all gone under. Nellie pushes jumpers, trousers, underwear into a canvas holdall and waits by the door. Such is the howl of the wind, she never hears the car, only sees the headlights, and Ron hurrying up the path, head ducked down.
Nellie. Come on love. Best get you shifted.
Ron helps her to lock the front door – as though that will keep the water out. He holds her tight as they edge down the garden path. A gust hits them and he steadies her. The garden is sodden, plants beaten flat. The back hedge is straining sideways, its branches cracking. Ron’s flash light touches on the gate, the car ahead, a tide of water flowing down the lane.
We need to keep hold of the car door, he says. Come on Nellie, hold on here.
The door is nearly ripped from his hands. Nellie reaches out and together they hold it. Get in, get in. Nellie pulls herself in to the car and Ron slams the door. Soon he appears on the other side, stooped and battered, pulling his door open, keeping it gripped tightly as he edges into his seat. As Ron starts the car and turns, the head lights move along the sea wall, such a small and fragile bank.
What are they saying? Nellie asks.
Bad, Ron says. Worst in sixty years. Let’s hope they’re wrong. I think you’ll not stay in the village. Spalding may be best.
Maureen will take me.
Yes. Maybe John with the tractor.
They can’t see more than a few feet ahead. A crack of lightening forks across the sky, revealing for a moment a stunned landscape. The car headlights illuminate a shimmering wall of rain. The windscreen wipers screech back and forwards. The water is lying an inch thick on the road. Ron raises his foot slowly from the clutch, keeps the engine revving fast. A rotary clothes drier blows across, scratching against the car. Nellie raises her hands, frightened that the windscreen may break. Even though Ron knows the road, he nearly drives into the dyke at the end of Skidds Lane. As he edges the car back, Ron and Nellie give way to choked laughter.
Did they get the sheep in?
Oh yes. Yes.
At the edge of the village men are out in florescent jackets. Ron opens the car window. A dustbin lid dances across the road. The policeman ducks and shouts a warning. Nettie stares across to where the lights of Boston should be but sees nothing. The policeman says – anyone else to come?
Only Samuel now.
Outside the village hall, the vicar takes hold of Nellie’s bag, offers his arm.
Ah good to see you Mrs Lancing. Best not to risk it.
A slap of wind buffets against her, blowing her breath back down her throat. Wellingtons splash through waves of gathering water. Lights shine out, blurred, from the Village Hall. A fathers carries two sleeping infants, wrapped in blankets, their heads resting on his shoulders. Flash lights dance across the car park and distant roofs, sparkle on the black slick of surface water.
Don’t let them get settled, a policeman says. The vans are coming.
Nellie has done this before. It’s difficult for the younger people, those with families. They don’t know. Nellie helps the vicar’s wife lay out mugs on a tray, finds milk and biscuits. The biscuits look stale but never mind. Children are playing hopscotch, and swinging from the wall bars, at the end of the hall.
Nellie there’s a young man, the vicar says.
Oh. No. Him?
Nellie turns back to the urn. The water gushes out, scalds her hands. Nellie jiggles the lever, burning her fingers, but it won’t turn off. Boiling water is spraying all around, steam is filling the kitchen. The vicar’s wife wraps Nellie’s hand in a tea towel, gets hold of the lever, twists it off.
For pity’s sake, she says. Like we need more water.
Hysterical laughter cackles all about.
Nellie dabs at her hand.
Is it burnt? Are you all right?
Oh no, no. No problem at all.
But Nellie’s hand rages and throbs. Not as bad as the car door but bad enough. Some of the biscuits are soaked now, as well as being stale. Outside a siren is blaring. A policeman enters the hall. OK. OK. Listen now. Everyone will be moving on soon. No need to panic. Yes, the sea defence are down in Mablethorpe but they always have it worse than us. No, best to avoid Boston. If you do have friends or relatives we’ll do our best to get you there. Nellie slips past him and pushes her way into the loos.
She reaches for the switch but no light comes on. She flicks it a few times. Must be the fuse, maybe the water has got in. Above her, furred light seeps through frosted glass. Police radios are crackling, gabbling words from other planets. Despite her jumper and water proof, Nellie is shaking.
She rests her hands against the cracked tiles next to the basins and waits. Her face looms at her from the mirror, like something rising up from under water, staring, soaked and shocked. A sob rises and she wipes her hand across her mouth. What am I doing? Shut in the loos of the village hall, terrified of a boy and the damage his kindness might do.
Did he really come on his motorbike all the way from Lincoln? Just to look for her? He must be mad. She hears Ron’s voice. Come along now. The vans are here. A child is keening. A clamour of voices suddenly rises. The cellars of the Stump are filling. New boilers down there cost one hundred thousand pounds. The banks of the Haven cannot hold.
It took Alfred four days to die. The morning of the fourth day, that’s when his soul was finally taken. He’d shot himself in the head but the bullet hadn’t gone right through. You’d have thought he could at least have fired straight. Nellie had managed to get into Boston then, flagged down a stranger on a motorbike. Her skirts pulled up to her waist, her back pressed against the man’s leather jacket, hair blown in her mouth.
When they changed the dressings she saw the blood matted in Alfred’s hair, the blackened flesh where his cheek had been, a piece of bone, bright white, splintered. But he wouldn’t die, he wouldn’t. So that fourth morning, the last, she’d gone outside into the Bath Gardens, sat under a cedar tree. The first ray of sun in a long while. She couldn’t go back, she couldn’t. Only when he was dead. She’d hated him then. Others found ways of living with that stain. He had lost Westy but such things happens to many people. Why had he expected tolerance when there was none?
She became the loyal and courageous sister who nursed her brother to the end.
Are all stories lies?
Nellie, Nellie, are you done, love? Still room for one more in the van. She stumbles out into the lobby. A young policeman is wiping water from his face. Rain or tears? Out on the road, everything is alight with a shower of sparks which flit across the water, fizzle and bang.
Shorted out the mains. Never mind, plenty of flash lights.
From the dark hall, she hears Will’s voice – high pitched and weeping.
No, she says to the policeman. No. You take the van.
Nellie steps out into the shadowed hall. The vicar’s wife comes forward and then retreats. The families have all gone. Only a few men stand around, mopping up or drinking tea. Nellie finds Will crouched on a low bench – the kind that children use for gym classes. He fires words at her but she can’t understand them.
The men in the hall and the vicar’s wife are looking away, making themselves busy, washing up or switching the electrics off. Nellie feels the boy’s burning rage, his raw hurt. Will he not learn? We’d all like to grow wings and fly away. She sinks down beside him on the bench, stretches out her hand.
Samuel stamps into the hall, followed by two policemen. Voices are joining together in tortured chorus. The sea defence are down in Boston. Crashed right over the bank. Like bloody Venice. Tower Street, Church Street, Wormgate – and still rising. Soon be up to the top of the bridge. Sea wall at Slippery Gowt. No, no. Yes. Gone as well. God help us. What will be spared now? Who?