The flood sirens woke me. I opened my eyes to a light show on the wall - the flash of torches outside the window. The digital clock glowed green: it was five past five. Jasper leaped onto the bed, whimpering and wagging his tail. There was a heavy knock on the front door, a muddle of voices, footsteps on the stairs, and then my bedroom door opened. Dazzled by the landing light, I could just make out Mum’s face.
‘Mum! What’s happening?’ I was still fuzzy.
‘Don’t worry. It’s just a safety measure in case the sea breaches the flood barrier. Bring the litter tray and cat food upstairs, and make sure Max is safe on the landing. I’ll get dressed and fetch the torches and Jasper’s lead.’
I groped around for jeans, socks and jumper. It was mid-February and freezing cold. The rattling windows couldn’t keep out the shrieking and howling of the wind - if Dad was still with us he would have called it a malevolent banshee - that tormented the sea on the other side of the dunes, the only thing separating us from the snarling waves. In less than five minutes I was standing outside the front door with Mum and Jasper.
‘Let’s not go to the village hall yet,’ I pleaded. ‘We could go to the top of the dunes and have a look.’
‘I’m not sure it’s safe.’ Mum gnawed on her bottom lip.
‘Go on, Mum. I really want to see what the spring tide’s like.’
We locked the door and battled against the banshee’s blasts, heads down, forcing our way to the end of the terrace. A small crowd of villagers had already gathered at the bottom of the lifeboat ramp, hoping to see some action. A police car perched at the top, behind the barrier. Waves crashed over it, soaking everyone. The policeman, safe in his car with the window down a crack, was chatting to Sonny, the old man from the cottage two doors from ours.
Before we could make it to the bottom, there was a loud groan from the barrier, a terrifying boom and the sea burst through, washing the squad car down the ramp towards the crowd that scattered in all directions, some back down the road and some up into the dunes. Mum yelped as Sonny bounced off the police car; he was flipped by the waves and then slid down the ramp on his back. His mouth gaped but his scream was drowned out by the wind, waves and gasps from people who had turned back to watch the drama. Sonny lay unmoving in the sodden sand and swirling sea water. Mum dashed over to help him and I followed with Jasper. The policeman’s face was white as bone as he struggled to open the car door against the flood and wade through the water to join us. Between him and Mum, they lifted Sonny by his armpits and started to haul him towards the car. Sonny’s hand grabbed the policeman’s arm and his legs jerked puppet-like until his feet found solid ground. The policeman guided him onto the back seat of the police car and explained that the St John’s Ambulance team at the village hall would take care of him - he was lucky he wasn’t crushed.
I grabbed Mum’s hand; we were both trembling and Mum looked like she was about to get into the car with Sonny. I shook my head and pulled her away. ‘He’ll be in good hands, Mum.’
There was a break in the crowd to allow the police car through. As the policeman started up the engine, I darted round the car, pulling Mum towards the narrow sandy path that led up the dunes.
‘Let’s go up there now. There’s nothing you can do for Sonny and there’ll be plenty of people he knows at the village hall.’
Mum nodded and we scrambled up the uneven path to the top of the dunes, Jasper running ahead, choking and yapping as he pulled on his lead. Spray soaked us, dripping from our hair and leaving a salty residue on our lips. Our eyes streamed, irritated by grains of sand whirling around us. Jasper snapped at bubbles of dun foam, whipped onto the dunes by the punishing wind.
In the early morning light the sea was like molten lead, the crests of waves silvered by the moon that struggled to break through. I was unable to make out the horizon; the clouds and waves had joined together in their fury. The roaring wind took my breath away. We huddled together, watching the waves being whisked into a maelstrom.
I had never seen a storm like this. We’d been here nearly a year and every time I heard the rush of the sea or the cry of gulls through an open window, I was amazed at how different it was to the turmoil of city traffic. The background noise here was more like lungs than a heartbeat – the constant rise and fall of the tide.
Standing on the dunes, every wave, every gust of wind and every spit of spray felt like it was meant for me. I pulled my waterproof jacket tighter and tugged the zip right up. I wasn’t going to let it in. Over the winter, I had blocked out the night sounds by diving under my duvet, otherwise I would never have fallen asleep. Usually Mum was the brave one: I only walked Jasper on the beach when it was calm and the tide was out but she went out at all times of day in all kinds of weather.
I could hear Mum’s voice; she was talking to a manic-looking woman with frizzy hair. Her glasses were covered in salty smears and I was surprised she could even see us.
‘It really got going at about nine last night and we’ve been up here for most of it,’ she yelled over the roar of the sea, her voice rising with the thrill, though her face was grey and her smile slipped to one side. ‘I’m just glad it’s the weekend.’
‘We missed the start of it,’ Mum replied. ‘We were watching a film with the volume up and then we didn’t know anything until the flood wardens got us out of bed.’
‘I’m surprised you slept through it.’
‘That’s what duvets are for,’ said Mum, ‘to hide under. It’s Lily I’m concerned about. She’s back at school tomorrow, after the half term break. By the way, I’m Grace.’
The woman introduced herself as Helen; her partner was Bill and they had a boy with them, a lot younger than me, called John. He didn’t say a word. He just stared at me. I couldn’t make out his expression; everything was blurry with spray.
By half past seven the storm subsided and it was time to go home. As soon as Mum unlocked the door, I shoved it open and threw myself into the armchair by the fire, where I dissolved into the cosiness of the cottage, drifting off to sleep on a lullaby of waves that rocked me farther and farther from reality.
Through the fuzzy darkness of my dreams I heard distant voices, keening and screaming. Icy hands reached from below and grabbed at me, tugged and dragged me down towards the murky depths. Fighting against them, I thrust myself upwards again and again, but each time they pulled me back down. I screwed my eyes shut. I didn’t want to see them but I could hear their voices – just not their actual words. I held my breath for as long as I could and didn’t dare to scream.
I couldn’t hold on any longer. I gasped. Groping my way out of the darkness, my senses teased by breakfast smells, I blinked and rubbed my eyes - to find Mum standing in front of me with a plate of scrambled eggs on toast. She had sprinkled parsley and parmesan on the eggs and warned me of possible pieces of garlic. Hunger gripped my empty stomach and twisted it – until it was tamed by the first delicious forkful.
Mum reminded me that high tide was expected at around ten o’clock. The emergency was over and everything was calmer. It was time to take Jasper for a walk on the beach, just him and me. Outside a weak sun struggled to make its presence known and the never-ending Norfolk sky had softened to a dusty grey. There was nobody about: no children, no Sunday strollers, not even another dog walker.
I strode over the ramp, anxious to get going before the tide came in, and turned right at the bottom. Sand and marram grass had been torn from the dunes and left in haphazard piles. There was flotsam everywhere, even the rotting corpse of a small seal. Jasper pulled to sniff at it and I caught a whiff of eggy, fishy meatiness that made my stomach churn. I tightened my hold on the lead and didn’t let him off until I found a stone round enough to roll for him; he went bounding off to find it.
Then I heard it. A high, keening chorus drifting in from the sea. A haunting sound that clawed at my heart. There was more than one voice; they blended together in a chilling hymn with no words. As the volume increased, it was hard to tell if the voices were on the beach or in my head. That’s when I noticed it. At first a cloud in the distance, it shifted shape, a thick mist skimming the waves, rolling onto the beach. It sneaked across the sand and surrounded me, its damp fingers brushing my face. My mouth dried up and a frosty rawness crept over my scalp. I couldn’t see through the swirls of vapour but I could just make out Jasper’s familiar yap, faint and muffled.
I peered through the muggy mist, torn with terror, unable to work out how close the sea was or how far it was to the dunes. Shuffling in the shifting sand, I focused on the muffled yapping. Where was he? ‘Jasper!’ It was impossible to see through the mist. He wasn’t a year old, but he always came when I called. ‘Jasper!’ The frostiness that had started on my scalp crept over the rest of my body.
From out of the sea-fog a figure approached, carrying a smaller, wriggling form.
‘I found him up the beach,’ Sonny said. ‘He didn’t go far.’
Sonny was short and round-faced; his grey hair and beetle brows made him look permanently grumpy. I forced a tight-lipped smile and took Jasper from him, placing him back in the sand and attaching the lead. I didn’t want to risk losing him again. Sonny stood next to me, peering in the direction of the sea.
‘Do you hear them?’ he asked.
Above the moaning of the sea, I heard it again - a different tone, human and yet not human. Sonny was motionless, his ear listening to something that I couldn’t. ‘They just need to know we remember them,’ he whispered.
We stood together on the shore, Jasper twisting his lead around my legs, listening to the uncanny sounds. The breaking of waves reminded me where I was; the sea was making its way up the beach towards the dunes, the mist was lifting and I wasn’t sure how long I’d been there. I turned to ask Sonny the time, but where he had been standing there were two footprints in an empty patch of sand.