Butter melted over the potatoes, even though they were barely done. It formed a slick, oily puddle around the limp white fish that squatted on the plate, taunting me. The edge of the fork wouldn’t cut it, it was barely done at all, I had to tear at it with my knife to pull pale, translucent, rubbery mouthfuls from the fillet. Not that this seemed to bother my hosts whose open mouthed chewing surrounded me without any sense of shame or manners. For all the prayers on the walls they hadn’t said grace and we sat, chewing at each other in uncomfortable silence while I forced my way through the meal.
The whole time the two women stared at me, one milky-eyed gaze and one clear. The younger woman, maybe the daughter? Her eyes were keen and green and she stared at me with unalloyed fascination in a way that made her demure and old fashioned clothing seem somehow inappropriate. The man watched me too, but the gaze of the women was something you felt, almost physical, like being pinched and prodded and judged and it was making me nauseous, as though the food wasn’t enough to do that all by itself.
I finally managed to choke down the last rubbery bite, the watery taste of the fish lingering in my mouth, making me salivate – but not with hunger – as I tried to break the silence. “I found a coin, down on the beach this morning.”
“Oh, ah? A shilling or somethin’ from the town reckon?” The old man opined between picking his dentures.
“No, older I think,” I said, low and quiet, unsettled by the stare of the women. I fished in my pocket and plucked out the old golden coin I had found, setting it on the stained tablecloth and pushing it over towards him.
The old man plucked it from the table and picked it up, holding it up close to his rheumy eye for closer inspection. “Ah, celtic, yes, very old, and gold too. We get detectorists down from time to time, looking for these sorts of things but this place I hard to find and the cliffs can be dangerous. Especially after a storm. We find some bits and pieces from time to time I can show you after we eat, if you’re interested…” He let the last word hang, elongating the vowels strangeley and smiling to me with a peculiar twinkle in his eye.
“Oh, aren’t we finished?”
The old woman got up hurriedly and scurried out to the kitchen, returning with a horrid looking rice-pudding with a leathery black skin. I swallowed the welling saliva in my mouth as best I could. “Lovely.”
My stomach growled as the strange old man lead me up to his room, pausing every few steps on the creaking stair to turn back and make sure I was following. He seemed excited somehow, licking his lips, his hands wringing together limply as he took me into his bedroom and turned on the light. It was so dim it only seemed to lengthen the shadows and, frankly, I was glad I couldn’t see too well.
The room had that same pervading smell of damp that plagued the whole house. The curtains were drawn and faded by the sin and filthy cobwebs clung to them and festooned every corner. Beneath the damp was another smell, stale sweat, body odour and the hanging miasma of barely cooked fish from the kitchen below. All that was forgotten though as the wizened old gnome dragged a case out from under the bed and flipped it open. Even in the light of that fly-speckled bulb it glittered and the reflected light from the case lit the old man’s face up in a buttery glow.
“We find things time to time as well… a little retirement fund,” he winked.
It was amazing, a trove of gold coins of all different sorts, golden torcs, clasps, broaches. I was no expert but it all looked crude, old, ancient even.
“Afore the Romans, an’ perhaps a little after too,” he offered as picked up a torc, a sort of golden collar, and turned it in my hands. “A professor came some time back an’ told us all his theories,” he laughed, a sort of snorting cough. “Don’t know much about it all myself, but he left some books if you want to read about it.”
“I’d like that.” My voice sounded strange to me, low, reverential almost. To be holding something so old, so priceless. I set it back down, carefully, in the case as the old man rummaged around some more, dragging out another battered suitcase, turfing out old clothes and heaving out a couple of books.
“Villagers used to find this stuff all the time, there were a little museum of the stuff in the church. Professor said they were offerin’s or somesuch. I weren’t paying too much attention. Here you go,” he laid the thick, hard-backed books in my hands. “Best read them, if’n you’re interested. I s’pose you’re staying another night?”
I nodded, and he seemed pleased with that, ushering me back to my room as he hobbled back down the stairs to give the good news to his wife. I sat and cracked open the book, straining to see in the dim light of my room and poring over the absent professor’s materials.
The books were old, musty, going back to the twenties and the thirties and they spoke of archaeological finds I had never heard of in a style of English as dusty and as old as the books themselves. The print was small, hard to read in this light, the content dry and academic and beyond my understanding, but I strove to learn what I could even as it seemed to do its best to send me to sleep.
What I could understand seemed fascinating. The ancient celts had a tradition, it seemed, of offering riches to their gods in bogs, rivers, lakes and pits. Just the sorts of things the old man had in his case. Though there were no weapons, no armour, no shields amongst his trove.
Here though, these were offerings to the sea and I saw little in these books about such a thing. Would such offerings be found given the tides and storms? The sheer size of the sea? If the water were an entrance to the underworld as some speculated what greater doorway could there be than the sea? This must have been why he came here, seeking to find out, to understand to comprehend why so much should be found here in this lost town, of all places.
I read all afternoon and into the evening, it grew dark, my eyes watered with the strain. I was clutching at straws but something inside me felt that the answers to the past of my family and of the town here just beyond my reach in these books. I just couldn’t find them. When I next looked at my watch the hands read after midnight and I was taken aback. Had I left the room and eaten again? I couldn’t remember. My eyes were watering from the strain of reading but still I couldn’t put the books down.
Then there came a soft knock upon my door.
I wiped away the drizzling tears from my cheek and set the book down a moment, folding down the corner of the page and opening the door.
The daughter – I assumed – stood there, wide green eyes looking up at me. Her feet were bare and she rocked on her heels an unsettlingly false smile on her lips. “May I come in sir?”
Sir? The demure politeness seemed to go beyond her dress to something else and, unbidden, the thought came to me that her parents must be cruel to keep her so beaten down and silent. Even those words were barely a whisper. I nodded to her and turned back into the room, closing the books and setting them aside. “What did you want?” She gave no voice to anything but the door clicked shut and there was a flutter of fabric. My back stiffened as I turned and I bit my lip as I looked at her, rising slowly to my feet.
The old-fashioned dress was in a pile at her feet and her loose-limbed, slender body was naked in the dim light. More shadow than flesh and what could be seen was pale and white. “I don’t think…” I began, but she stopped me in a moment, stepping up to me, soft and lean and small against me, urgent and shameless, her mouth at my lips, silencing me as she pushed me back with surprising strength onto the creaking little bed.
I didn’t even try to protest, even though I knew it was a bad idea. It had been a while since the willing girls of London town and even the cynical fashionistas of Soho hadn’t been as forward, as demanding as this girl. She held me down, squirmed on top of me and stripped me bare, tearing buttons and scratching flesh with rough nails in her eagerness.
“Everything,” her voice a sibilant hiss in the dark as the light caught her eyes, flaring them red like an animal in headlights. Her sharp nails and long fingers twisted my watch from my wrist and then it was just us. Skin an hair, nails and teeth and nothing more.
She was cool, but wet, demanding and fierce, sharp little teeth biting into my shoulder as she writhed to me. There was nothing I could do, nothing I wanted to do as this demanding girl whose name was still a mystery to me took what she wanted with a fierce and consuming need until she quivered against me, sharp little teeth biting into my shoulder, stifling what slight little gasp she made, taking me over the edge so hard, so sudden, the edges of my vision dimmed.
By the time my sense came back to me, she was slipping away again. She left me spent, exposed, the cold of the room freezing my damp flesh as the sweat evaporated. A flash of milky leg, hip, breast. The whip of red hair tumbled from its pins. The brief flare of her dress clutched in one hand and she was gone again, leaving me confused and thirsty, shivering as the bite from her teeth began to throb.