What is the past? I don’t mean personal memory – I mean the distant past beyond living experience. History is the way the past is told, an altogether different thing. But what is this past? In what does it consist? In one sense, of course, we carry our past within us, in the nucleus of every cell in our bodies – that acronymic DNA that we have been bequeathed and that, in turn, we cut and shuffle and deal out to our children like so many packs of cards. But there are other things besides. There may be family stories, memories that are handed down, soon to become distorted out of all proportion or simply fade and be forgotten. Then there are the artefacts, the scratchings of pens on fading documents – census entries, birth certificates, perhaps even a diary or a collection of letters. Other than those traces, is the past anything more than quaint old build- ings that we treasure far beyond their material worth and the objects that sit in museums – this pewter bowl, that rusted cutlass, these gems, those pieces of pottery – to be glanced at indifferently by schoolchildren on field trips? But a past that only consists of the artefacts is like a skeleton unearthed in an archaeological dig. Where is the flesh and blood? Who were the people? What did they feel? Where have they gone?
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 while, 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 maybe it was an old coat. A coat’d be useful once the salt had been washed out of it.
They ran, stumbling, 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 hear.
“He’s dead,” Isaac whispered.
“What’ll we do?” his brother Abraham asked. “Go and tell someone, do we’ll get into trouble.”
They didn’t move. The eye stared. There was sand in the earhole. 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?” “Just seein’.”
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 among 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 sudden sunlight.
The 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 Demon’s land.”
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 been paying attention when most needed.
“Let’s see what else’s there.” Emboldened by familiarity, he rummaged among 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 the north and south. You could just make out the masts of ships at Lowestoft. Closer, fishing boats were 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 into trouble.” “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 I’ll tell.”
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 their 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?” “No.”
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 all 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?