Hallsands, Devon, 1917
The wind and heavy rain coming right off the sea rattled the cottage windows and pounded on the glass. Betty shuddered; she’d lived in this village her entire life, and seen the destruction the sea was capable of, but she’d never felt so menaced by it before.
‘If you’ve got anything about you, you’ll get down there and rescue what you can!’
Betty almost jumped out of her skin at the sharp order from her mother-in-law. She’d been so engrossed in watching the terrifying sight of huge waves crashing on to the beach far below, licking up to where her own house stood, that she hadn’t heard Agnes come into the room. Her mother-in-law’s threatening tone was even more disturbing than the scene beyond the window.
‘But it’s almost dark,’ Betty protested. ‘It’s far too dangerous to go there now.’
‘So, you are happy to lose all your belongings, and my son’s, and sponge off me once your house is gone?’
Betty couldn’t think of anything worse than being forced to live permanently with Agnes. She was a cold-hearted, mean-spirited shrew of a woman, and the only reason Betty was in her house now was because she’d come to see her husband. Martin had been staying with his mother and grandfather for a month now, since being sent home from France suffering from a leg wound and shell shock.
In truth there wasn’t much point in visiting him. He spent all day hunched in a chair by the fire; the only thing that could rouse him from his stupor was a sudden loud noise. When the door banged he would dive to the floor, gibbering in terror.
‘Of course I’m not happy to lose everything, but everyone else in the row has left their homes to find shelter somewhere else for the night. They say tonight’s high tide will sweep the whole street and all the houses away.’
‘Quite so, but you’ve got a few hours yet. Stop being so feeble and get down there.’
Betty glanced anxiously at the scene beyond the window. The sky was like lead, the sea the same colour, but as the huge waves uncurled to show peaks of pure white they reminded her of a savage dog’s teeth. As she was the daughter of a fisherman who had lost his life at sea, she knew better than anyone how cruel it could be.
When she looked back at Agnes, she saw she had picked up a lump of bread dough and was kneading it on the table. She was attacking it with such force her knuckles were white, and Betty could imagine one of those large, rough fists slamming into her face if she didn’t obey her.
‘I’m not sure I can even get down the lane,’ Betty said fearfully. She had experienced enough rough weather in her life to know that when the path was wet and strewn with shingle, it was treacherous. She suspected that the strength of the wind could send a wave high enough to snatch her up and toss her into the sea.
‘Rubbish, don’t be so pathetic,’ Agnes snarled at her. ‘You’ve always been spineless, I don’t know what my son ever saw in you.’
Betty went over to her husband, putting her hand on his shoulder, but she knew she could expect no help and support from him; he wasn’t even aware of his wife’s presence, let alone that his mother was nasty to her. His physical wounds might be healed, but it seemed the mental ones would remain forever.
Many people viewed his problem as a ruse to escape being sent back to the front. But Betty knew what ailed him was as real as the wild sea outside. God only knew what horrors he’d been subjected to in France, but they were vicious enough to rob him of his strength, his health ‒ even knowing what it meant to be a husband.
‘Why are you always so hateful to me?’ Betty asked Agnes. She knew she was pushing her luck asking such a thing. The woman was as quick to slap as she was to humiliate. ‘I’ve never done anything to you.’
Agnes’s lip curled back. ‘You’re so mealy-mouthed. You think you’re better than anyone else, especially since you got that new job.’
Betty took her cloak down from the peg by the door. She had been lucky to get the housekeeping job in Kingsbridge. A girl of twenty-two, whose only real skill was helping her father to fish, wouldn’t expect to get such a position. But at her interview she’d gone all out to convince Mrs Porter she could do it and, surprisingly, the woman had agreed to give her a trial. Perhaps she was just a little smug that she’d made the grade. But wouldn’t anyone be?
Yet if Agnes hadn’t insisted Betty hand over half Martin’s army pay, she wouldn’t have needed another job; she could have made some extra cash gutting fish, making new crab and lobster pots, here in Hallsands. As it was, she had an eighteen-mile round trip to Kingsbridge on a muddy lane full of potholes. She left in the dark and came home the same way. And now the pittance Martin got for being invalided out still had to be shared. Suddenly Betty didn’t care how dangerous it would be to go down to her house. Anything was better than being in this poisonous atmosphere with such a spiteful harridan and the shell of the man she had married.
‘I am better than you,’ Betty said as she pulled her hood up and secured it. ‘But then almost everyone is. If I don’t come back, it will be on your head.’
She didn’t wait for the abuse and violence she knew would follow her retort, but opened the door quickly and left. For the first time in ages she had to stifle a giggle at her own daring; it felt good to strike back, even if she was going to regret it later.
Betty guessed it to be nearly four in the afternoon, as it was almost dark. She was well used to being in the dark, so her eyes soon adjusted, but the wind was another matter. It tore at her cloak, trying to pull off her hood, and buffeted her against the cottages she passed. But once she was on the narrow lane down to her home, she became really scared.
The wind and rain hit her, full in the face, so hard she could barely breathe, and so much shingle had been thrown up at the last high tide that it was extremely hazardous underfoot. She had to take tiny steps, feeling her way cautiously and praying that a big wave wouldn’t come just yet.
Finally, she reached her cottage. She had been born here, as her father Bert Grainger had been before her. She’d mourned a baby sister who died at two months old, and three years later her mother died after a miscarriage. Betty and her father had become very close after that; she’d fished with him, kept house and helped mend his nets. They were a tight-knit duo, yet he’d been delighted when sixteen-year-old Martin Wellows arrived in the village with his widowed mother. They were to stay with his grandfather, and Martin soon became friends with Bert’s daughter.
Martin asked Bert to teach him to become a fisherman, and in the process, he very quickly became like the son Bert had always wanted. Betty remembered that first year being so happy for all three of them. She had Martin’s company, her father got a helper and a stand-in son, while Martin learned so much from Bert. There was a great deal of laughter and good-natured banter between the three of them as they sorted the catch and mended the nets, and Betty sensed that Martin was reluctant to leave them in the evenings and go home to his mother.
She couldn’t say exactly when she fell in love with Martin, her feelings for him seemed to grow more intense with each passing week. Martin asked Bert if he could marry her when she was sixteen, and Bert laughed joyously, saying if he had to pick a husband for his daughter, it would be Martin. Yet her father still warned her about Agnes; he said Betty would need to be strong and stand up to her, or she would crush the life out of her.
Martin moved in with Betty and her father when they married, and for the first year of their marriage Betty was so happy that Agnes’s sharp remarks, her meanness and spite could be laughed off. But then disaster struck when Bert was lost at sea. Martin felt responsible for the accident. He felt he should have insisted his father-in-law wore his safety harness when the sea became mountainous, but although Bert had always made Martin wear his in rough weather, Bert often left his off. Swept away in darkness, he wasn’t even visible for any attempt at rescue, but Martin still felt he hadn’t done enough.
It was almost three weeks before Bert’s body was washed up further along the coast.
That was such a terrible time, and if it hadn’t been for Martin’s love and strength, Betty felt she might never have got over it. But he said their life together had to go on, he took on another experienced fisherman in their boat, and got Betty to come too when the weather wasn’t too wild. The pair of them loved their little cottage. On summer evenings they would sit on a bench outside looking at the view of the sea, talking about how lovely it would be when they were blessed with a baby.
Agnes had used the tragedy of Bert’s death remorselessly to point out that her son should’ve become a carpenter, like his own father, a much safer profession. Yet as she was living at Tern Cottage, with Ted, Martin’s grandfather, high up on the cliff, they didn’t have to see her much.
But then war broke out in 1914, and by the end of 1915 Martin felt compelled to join up with other men in the village. The last thing Betty remembered him saying as he was leaving was, ‘I’ll come back stronger, more determined to put Mother in her place, and we’ll make our baby.’
It was somewhat ironic that she remembered that promise so clearly. And now, two years later, here she was, risking her life at his mother’s orders, and Martin was sitting by the fire, oblivious to the danger she was in.
The front door of her cottage was bent like cardboard from the barrage of seawater, partially split by the force of the wind and hurled shingle. As Betty pushed it open, it fell drunkenly inwards on to the stone floor. Three or four inches of water had already flooded in, lying there dark and still, a dank smell reaching her nostrils. Betty had taken the two fireside chairs and the rug upstairs before she left on the previous day, in the hope that the storm would blow itself out. Yet she had sensed even then, as all her neighbours had, that there would be no reprieve this time. Maybe last night’s high tide hadn’t destroyed their homes, but a second extremely high tide and a bad storm would mean that by tomorrow morning the walls and windows would be gone, the furniture floating out to sea.
Even now Betty could hear the cottage walls creaking in the wind, and she knew she’d have to be quick. Picking up her skirt, she waded through the water to a candle left on a shelf, lit it and then climbed the already rickety, damp stairs. She grabbed a carpetbag from beneath her bed and stuffed what she could into it. All of Martin’s belongings were already up at Tern Cottage, and it was just that realization which set her thinking.
Agnes knew there was nothing of Martin’s here, so why had she taunted Betty into coming down here? Was it in the hope she’d be swept away?
But surely no one was that wicked?
The more Betty thought about it, the more she sensed that was exactly why Agnes had goaded her. So why not give the crone her heart’s desire and not go back? She could easily slip away now under cover of darkness.
This cottage had been owned by her father, so it had passed to Betty and Martin on his death.
A dilapidated cottage wouldn’t be worth anything, of course, but there could possibly be compensation, because some years ago massive amounts of shingle had been taken from the beach here to sell to Plymouth harbour. This had weakened the village’s defences against the sea. With no one to fight their corner against the powerful and greedy businessmen responsible, the cottage owners had done nothing in the past. But Agnes was made of the right stuff to tackle them. She was like a terrier with a bone where money was concerned, so she could be relied on to fight for compensation for her son.
Standing there by the spluttering light of the candle, listening to the sea and the wind roaring, Betty asked herself what there was to keep her here in this village.
Her parents were gone, and while there were people here she’d known all her life and was fond of, they could never make up for being forced to live with a spiteful, cruel woman who carped incessantly. And there was Martin. She loved him, but he was now a sad, traumatized wretch who sat all day rocking himself. He didn’t even speak to her ‒ let alone wish to make love to her ‒ and if she stayed, she would be looking after him forever.
It was undoubtedly cruel to run out on him, and if it wasn’t for his mother she wouldn’t even consider doing so. But there was no way she could spend another week, let alone years, under the same roof with such a bully. Agnes had always resented Betty for taking her son away from her, so this way she could keep him for herself forever. Martin would be unaware his wife had gone.
Betty had never owned much, but she scooped up a string of green glass beads hanging on a nail on the wall. They had been her mother’s; her father had given them to his bride when they got married because they matched her eyes. Betty’s eyes were green too, and she had her mother’s red hair and pale skin. On the nightstand there was the photograph of her parents on their wedding day. It had faded, but their youthful faces still seemed to gleam with expectation. Perhaps it was as well they hadn’t lived long enough to see this cottage they’d loved so much fall into the sea. To know that their daughter had to run away to keep her sanity.
It was only then that Betty remembered the money hidden beside the little fireplace. When she got the housekeeping job in Kingsbridge, she knew Agnes would insist on Betty supporting her, as Martin had done. She told the woman she earned five shillings a week, when in fact she earned six, and each week she tucked away a shilling in a little bag behind a loose brick.
The brick was difficult to get out with only candlelight to see by, and when her fingers finally touched the small linen bag, she snatched it up and tucked it into the bodice of her dress. She guessed there was something in the region of three pounds in it. She had always intended it to go towards a new fishing boat when Martin came home from the war. But he was unlikely ever to go fishing again, and she wasn’t stealing, it was her own money.
Suddenly she heard the window downstairs crash in. She had to go now, or she might be washed out to sea.
Putting the carpetbag on to her shoulder, she went carefully down the stairs. She paused near the bottom, holding her candle aloft and looking in horror as a huge wave came hurtling into the cottage. Like a greedy white-tipped hand, it snatched up a wooden stool and retreated with it. Betty knew she must rush out then, through the water, before the next wave came.
She was barely out of the door, and just a few steps up the lane, when an even bigger wave came. This time it filled the doorway, and seconds later the bedroom window was swept outwards with the force of the water, a chair riding and spinning on the crest of the wave. If she had still been in there she would’ve been snatched up along with the last few sticks of furniture.
Terror made her rush to the top of the lane. Once there, she paused to catch her breath and take stock. All her old neighbours had gone to take shelter in either the mission hall or a friend’s home; no one else would be crazy enough to come out in this weather, so she wasn’t going to be spotted. Her boots were soaked through, as were the bottom of her dress and cloak. In a short while she would be freezing cold, but she would have to bear that.
The main thing would be to get beyond Kingsbridge by morning, to be safe from running into anyone who knew her.
As she passed the end of the lane, she glanced sideways towards Tern Cottage. She imagined Martin moving his chair closer to the fire, trying to block out the roar of the wind and the sea. She was certain his mother would be laying the table for tea and pretending to show some concern that Betty was taking so long.
Betty smirked at the mental picture. She didn’t want to trudge for miles, cold and wet, but she had no choice. If she wanted everyone to believe the sea had swept her away, she must keep going until morning and then invent a new story about herself.
‘You’ll never see me again,’ she said aloud, looking towards Tern Cottage. ‘May God forgive me for doing something so wicked. But you are to blame, Agnes Wellows!’