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Authors: Betsy Tobin

Crimson China

BOOK: Crimson China
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Crimson China


Praise for Betsy Tobin’s
Bone House


“A gripping narrative shimmering with psychological depth.”
New York Times


“A surprisingly delicate murder mystery, tempered by great detail and remarkable control.”
Los Angeles Times


“Mesmerizes the reader with its gentle mysticism, carnal themes, and dreamlike qualities… A fine gothic novel which burrows under the skin.”
The Times


“An elegant, haunting novel…The realistic period detail is meticulously rendered, and the naturalness of the heroine’s thought processes and inner life adds to the authenticity.”


“A polished debut novel… Tobin’s neatly measured prose cuts through a tangle of dark and dirty secrets with pearly clarity and precision… Her writing has weight and resonance.”
Time Out


“Wonderful, poignant and gripping… Betsy Tobin has skilfully portrayed life in a 17th-century English village as well as written a compelling mystery.” Tracy Chevalier


“An entertaining and highly original first novel.”
Harpers &


Praise for
Ice Land


“A vivid evocation of an ancient volcanic land… Tobin combines the sensuality of Angela Carter with a profound feeling for a violent, unstable and fascinating landscape… this world pulses with subversion and unexpected passion. An elegy not merely to a different age… but crucially to a tradition of storytelling; the gathering around a bright fire to hear tales of hardship magic and love. It is surprising just how resonant they still are.”
Daily Telegraph


“Tobin’s novels are dark and bloody, sensual and mythic. They are also set in a past that, thanks to her skill at inhabiting her characters, seems often more immediate than the world around us… Tobin inhabits this pagan land with the passion and intensity of her characters.”


“A lyrically written epic inspired by the beauty and history of that island, and the rich world of Norse mythology that infuses that island, and the rich world of Norse mythology that infuses mythology.”
Sunday Telegraph


“Tobin’s descriptions are triumphant.”
Time Out


“One does not often meet a heroine with the power of flight, but Betsy Tobin’s characters are hardly ordinary people… Not just a good story, but one of the greatest – beautifully told.”
The Times


“Tobin captures this world in all its complexity: the fierce feuds, the slyness and warmth of a people who will sacrifice a daughter to kin, and slit the throat of kin for the sake of a stranger. Here is a world where magic and mystery rise from the currents of  nature and not in defiance of in.”
Independent on Sunday

In memory of all those
who perished at Morecambe Bay
on February 5th, 2004

Share the sweet and the bitter

          Old Chinese proverb

Sometimes it would be so easy to succumb – to slip beneath the icy surface of her life without a trace. Angie has blundered through the first half of her existence, she thinks drunkenly. Why not cut a fast path through the remainder?

She is nearly through the bottle before she realises that this is what her mother must have felt, the night she drove onto the sands. The thought makes her recoil. She did not empathise with her mother during life. Why should she do so in death? For the first time, she wonders if her mother’s blighted spirit has not lodged somewhere deep inside her, like a canker.

She switches off the car’s engine and stares out across the vast expanse of bay. One year ago today, her mother had sat in this same spot, contemplating death. She had been diagnosed just before Christmas with cancer of the liver. (Too much bile, Ray had said.) Within four weeks it had spread to her lymph nodes. The doctors recommended that she cease treatment and enjoy what little time she had remaining. This, apparently, had been beyond her.

The sand had swallowed her car like an offering. It could happen in minutes, the police told her afterwards – such was the perilous nature of the quicksand on the bay. A local fisherman had spotted her mother’s blue Fiesta lurching across the sand a few
hundred yards off Hest Bank. When he’d looked up moments later, the car had vanished. For several days, the coastguard scoured the shores for her body. In the end Angie’s mother was declared missing. The police sergeant informed her that without a body there could be no death certificate. Angie had stared at him uncomprehendingly. But her house and her possessions? she’d asked. He shrugged. The law says seven years, he replied. Before that, you can presume nothing.

Six weeks later, after a bad spring storm, the roof of the car had reappeared like an apparition, half a mile out, silted up with mud and sand. The corpse inside was water-logged and barely recognisable. Angie was called to the morgue. The pinched male attendant apologised twice before unzipping the black plastic bag that contained her remains. There was little to identify: the body was bloated, especially the torso, and the skin withered like an old turkey, its bleached surface waxy and riddled with strange bumps. Angie had asked what happened to her skin, struggling to keep her voice steady. The attendant coughed nervously. It’s the cold, he explained. The muscles contract and push the follicles up. I’m sorry for your loss, he added. This last word reverberated in the air between them, like a badly plucked string. Yes, she thought. There had been many losses. Right from the start.

The coroner recorded death by misadventure. But Angie knew better. Unable to face the cancer that was slowly eating its way through her organs, her mother had driven out onto the sands at low tide, swallowed a handful of sleeping pills and let nature hurry its course. Perhaps she’d hoped never to be found. That was Ray’s theory. Her brother Ray said she’d done it out of spite. Seven years she would have made us wait, Ray said. But the sea spat her back in the end.

Thank God for drink, Angie decides. Over the years she has learned that bad things fall away in the presence of alcohol: guilt, anger, boredom, fear. It’s the aesthetics of drink she has always
loved: the tinkle of ice cubes in a glass, the pleasing chink of bottle against rim, the amber beauty of the liquid as it tumbles forth obediently, the marvellous heat in the back of the throat. And the melting away of the self in the process. There are few things in life she prefers.

But she likes the sea. That is why she moved to Morecambe after her divorce, into her mother’s deserted bungalow. Her mother had bequeathed the house to her: a small, one-bedroom brick and stucco cottage in a suburban cul-de-sac with a long narrow garden at the back that had been her particular obsession. On the night Angie moved in, she had locked the garden door and thrown the key in the back of a drawer, not caring what became of her mother’s flowers and shrubs. Over the ensuing months, she had marked the garden’s decline with something akin to satisfaction, until it became little more than a dense jungle of weeds.

Now she stares out at the gathering dusk. The tide is set to turn, but it will be hours before the water comes galloping across the bay. Her ex-husband hated the sea, hated the feel of sand in his shoes, the stick of salt in his hair, the endless lapping of waves. He was a terrible swimmer too, something she did not discover until after they were married. Their holidays were invariably of the mountain sort: Snowdonia, the Alps, the Pyrenees. Water did not feature, though she’d sought respite in other forms of fluid. It was a relief to live alone again, to line the empty bottles up along the counter without fear of recrimination.

Outside the night is ugly, just as they said it would be. The beach in front of her is empty, but further down the shore a dirty white van crawls along, snaking its way around rivulets and patches of wet sand. She watches as it stalls briefly, then creeps forward across the sands. A moment later, she hears the muffled roar of engines out to sea. Two quad bikes, laden with hunched figures, come racing in across the flats. They pass the white van, now heading optimistically out towards the water. She sees the driver
of the first bike gesture towards the incoming tide, but the white van trundles on unheeding towards the fishing beds.

She had not been planning to come. She’d slept badly and woke late, losing much of the day in the process. At half past three she’d driven to the shops and bought a bottle of whisky, and on the drive home, before she’d even realised, she’d turned right at the level crossing and was heading towards the shore. She drove past the far end of the gravel car park, stopping just beyond the battered wooden warning sign, the one her mother had not heeded.

Angie closes her eyes, struggling to shed her mother’s memory. The drink takes its toll and she dozes off, dreaming of this same shore, only the day is sunny and she is a child of nine or ten. She skips across the sand to the edge of the water, her toes dipping into the frothy yellow edge. Don’t wade out, calls her mother. Or you’ll be sucked under. She turns to see her mother on the blanket flicking through a magazine, her dark brown hair tied back in a pale yellow kerchief. When she is no longer watching, Angie wades out so that the water rises to her neck. A swell lifts her briefly off the sand, and for an instant she is flying. Then she hears her mother’s voice, calling.

Angie wakes with a start, disoriented, her mouth dry. Outside night has fallen. She strains to see the ocean through the darkness, though she can hear the sound of waves close by, together with the patter of rain. Her mother’s voice is still in her ear, so real that she half expects her to appear in front of the car. She reaches for the key in the ignition, but as she does she hears the voice again, faint but unmistakeable, torn by the wind. Terrified, her heart flaps wildly inside her chest. She stares out at the blackened night. Why could her mother not stay dead?

She waits, the storm outside taunting her. When she can stand it no longer, she takes a last pull of whisky and steps out of the car, buttoning up her long woollen coat. At once the wind pitches her sideways. She can hear the roar of the tide, the sound merging
with the rain and the howling of the wind. She stumbles across the soft press of sand, daring her mother’s spirit to call to her again. But when her feet hit the water it is far, far colder than she expected. For a moment she falters. The icy water surges up to her knees, and she can feel the sand sucking at her shoes. She screams into the wind, her voice merging with the memory of the other. She moves forward, sloshing through the waves, crying out again when the wetness hits her groin. She does not stop until the water reaches her breasts, arms floating out in front of her. She feels her body start to sink.

And then she sees a blur of movement in the water: a man’s head bobbing out of the waves not ten paces ahead of her. He rises and falls in the darkness, arms flailing, and vanishes beneath the surface just as quickly as he appeared. She scans the waves, aghast. Who in their right mind would swim out on a night like this? Moments later, the man reappears down shore, caught in the treacherous current of the Keer. She hears the hoarse cry of a voice snatched away by the wind. And before she can think, she is pulling her feet free of sucking mud and pushing forward through the water, straining against the waves towards the bobbing figure, now desperately trying to claw his way out of the current’s flow.

She manages to come almost abreast with him, but by then the waves are breaking over her head and she knows that if she advances further she too will fall into the tidal current that is carrying him away. The man has seen her now and is gasping words she cannot understand. He thrashes against the water and suddenly his feet have caught the edge of something, for he rises up unsteadily, his arms outstretched towards her, desperate not to fall backwards into the torrent of current. She lunges forward, the water surging for an instant over her head, and reaches out blindly. She feels the clutch of fingers, feels the man’s desperate hand close upon her wrist. So this is death, she thinks, half crazed with fear. It is not what she imagined.

The water is so cold she can barely feel the man’s hand, only the force of his weight as she drags him backwards towards the shore. A huge wave engulfs them both and for a moment they lurch sideways in the dark, floating briefly, before she scrambles once again for a footing. He is naked from the waist up, while her clothes are now a sodden mass. The man cannot stand so she links her arms under his shoulders and pulls backwards with all her strength. Within moments they are staggering out of the waves in waist-deep water, coughing, clutching at each other. When they reach the shallows he falls to his knees. She yanks him to his feet, shouting at him over the wind, for the tide is still racing in and they are not yet safe. She carries on dragging him backwards until they reach the dry ground, where he collapses, gasping and coughing up water. She sinks to her knees, chest heaving, half frozen.

“You bloody idiot!” she gasps. “Another minute and you’d have drowned!”

The man raises his head to look at her, his eyes bewildered. For the first time she takes in his appearance: narrow eyes, a black stubbly head of hair, a long thin frame. Chinese, she realises. A cockler. One of dozens who have descended upon the bay this winter. She has seen them once or twice, tumbling out of tightly packed transit vans at low tide. How in God’s name did these people get here from the far side of the world?

For the first time, the man speaks, gasping out words in his own tongue. She stares at him uncomprehendingly, then without another word turns and stumbles angrily back towards the car, her sodden coat draped heavily about her knees. When she reaches the car she pulls off the coat and throws it onto the floor at the back, then climbs inside, slamming the door after her. Shivering, she turns the key in the ignition and the car roars into life. The headlights glow eerily: she sees the man lying on the ground some thirty feet in front of the car. Behind him, the waters of the bay
come rolling in. He pushes himself up and squints at her, his face a blur of confusion.
, she thinks. Drive away now. Ahead of her the half-drowned man can only stare, incredulous that she would abandon him to the freezing night.

“Shit,” she mutters. “Shit, shit, shit.” She opens the car door and trudges back to where he lies. “Come on,” she says. “Before you freeze to death.”

The man looks up at her uncertainly, so she bends down and grabs his arm, hauling him unsteadily to his feet. She half carries him to the car, and lowers him onto the passenger’s seat, swinging his legs in one by one, then shutting the door before climbing in herself. The man has started to shake uncontrollably now, his entire body wracked with convulsions from the cold. She fiddles with the car’s heater and turns it on full blast, then turns and rummages in the back seat for anything she can cover him with. She finds an old car blanket on the floor and a moth-eaten cardigan and tucks them around his body.

“We should get you to a hospital. You’re bloody frozen. And we should call the police.” She is thinking out loud now. She puts the car in gear and starts to reverse when the man grabs her forearm. His grip is surprisingly strong. She turns to face him.

“No,” he says. His tone is urgent: it is the first word of English he has spoken.

“No,” he says again. Perhaps it is the only word he knows? She puts the car in park.

“No what? No hospital? No police?”

“No.” He shakes his head.

With a sigh, Angie drops her head to the steering wheel. A moment later, she feels the weight of his gaze and when she raises her head, the man is gripping his shoulders to stop his body shivering. She sees his eyes sweep across her and alight on the near-empty bottle. Once again he speaks to her in his own language, his voice forming a question. Angie stares at him. Something
in his tone makes her uneasy.

“I don’t understand,” she says after a moment. “Speak English.”

The man hesitates, his dark eyes probing hers, and when he finally speaks, his tone is suffused with anger. He nods to her sodden coat and jeans, then to the bottle, his voice taut with emotion. She does not understand a word that he is saying, but his meaning is perfectly clear.

BOOK: Crimson China
8.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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