The sea froze that winter. The shallow tidal run rippled over the shores and then froze to a solid sheet. Ice formed on the groynes and the metal struts of the pier. The bait diggers had to break through two inches of ice to dig for the buried lugworms. It was the coldest winter for decades, and the men on the lockpit had to work shifts to prevent the harbour gates freezing.
‘You’ll not go down there,’ Frank Elwiss threatened his wife, and she laughed delightedly as she cleared the dinner things, banging the pots down into the sink and pushing him out of her way. ‘It’s dangerous, Cath, you hear me!’
He was on afternoons, and due to go on duty for two o’clock, and as he spoke he was fastening the straps of his overalls, struggling with the cheap elastic she’d used to mend the shoulders.
‘You listening to me, Cath!’
At the sink, she turned round and leant back against the cold enamel. She’d already taken her brassière off in the lavatory, so that her nipples stood up firmly in the cold. ‘You’ll what?’ she said quietly, and when he looked up, she moved closer and helped him fasten the last button. ‘You’ll what, Frank?’ she whispered, letting him kiss her neck and press against the thin material of the dress. ‘You’ll what?’
Laughing, he pushed her back against the sink, his face red and confused.
‘Isn’t there time?’ she asked, raising her eyebrows innocently as he opened the kitchen door.
‘You just listen to what I tell you. All right.’
Out in the small back yard, he wheeled his bike out of the coal shed and opened the passage gate. He didn’t turn to look at her. When she heard his footsteps going up the narrow passage, she laughed suddenly, feeling the colour rise in her face. ‘Silly bugger,’ she said angrily, massaging her breasts where the hard buttons on the overalls had hurt her. ‘Daft silly bugger.’
When the boy woke up, she dressed him in the new coat with the imitation velvet collar and walked with him down the road to the railway crossing. All week, he’d been asking to feed the gulls.
‘They’ll die, Dad,’ he said, his eyes shining, his voice piping in his excitement.
‘So’ll you, you go down those sands,’ Frank said. ‘It’s dangerous, winter tides.’
‘Don’t be stupid, Frank. It’s all froze, anyhow.’
‘They’ll die, Dad, if we don’t.’
She lost her patience in the end. He was always going on about the foreshore, the coastal tides and the creeks out beyond the fairgrounds.
‘I know what it’s like,’ he said when she laughed at him, his black hair falling in his eyes and his cheeks shining. He was getting fat, all the steam puddings she kept giving him. His eyes were bruised with lack of sleep. When his mother came round to see the boy she looked at Catherine angrily, snapping at her about dust on the mantelpiece.
‘I don’t mind you doing it,’ Catherine smiled insolently, enjoying the little woman’s fury, her confusion. She was dark, like her son, but quick and nervous, irritated by Catherine’s sullen movements and untidy red hair.
‘You should listen to Frank,’ Mrs Elwiss said when she heard them rowing about feeding the seagulls. ‘You’re a stranger, these parts. He knows the sands. He knows what he’s talking about.’
Catherine laughed at her.
‘Clever, aren’t you.’
‘I can’t help it.’
‘You wouldn’t talk to your own mother like that.’