Devil’s Claw Bay
Almost indistinguishable in the darkness, a group of hooded figures stood in a cluster just beneath my bedroom window. The moon was veiled but the glow of a yellowy street lamp partially lit the cobbled road.
The gathering chanted in a monotonous thud – the double glazing blunting their words. There were maybe twenty people down there, all turned towards someone or something at the centre of their group. The chill January air reached inside me, shivering through my nightgown.
Why weren’t our neighbours out on the street complaining? Why weren’t there lights on in the facing terraces?
Henry got out of bed. His size twelves made the boards creak as he crossed the plush carpet and came to stand by me. ‘I know we’re in the back and beyond but this is strange.’
Anxiety ballooned in my chest, although, there had to be a simple explanation. Maybe a film crew had taken over the streets? But no cameras or bright lights were visible. Inhaling deeply, I tried to recall my meditation tapes; I was currently trying to think myself thin, maybe I could think myself calm. My long exhale fogged the glass but my heart refused to slow. I glanced at the alarm clock – two am.
‘I’ll check Mum.’ I said and left my husband, still staring down at the mob.
I quietly entered the room next door. My mother’s covers were thrown back and the bed was empty.
‘She’s gone,’ I shouted. Dashing onto the landing, I flung open the other two bedroom doors and that of the bathroom – all empty.
Henry joined me, looking bemused.
I hurtled down the stairs and Henry thudded after me.
In the kitchen, I turned the downlighters from low to high and scanned the newly refurbished area but Mum wasn’t there. The bolt was still secured to the rear. I pushed open the living room door. A chill breeze lifted my hair.
‘Holy crap, Henry. You said you’d locked up.’
‘I did. I bolted it.’
Not bothering to respond, I stuck my feet in my trainers and threw my raincoat over my nightwear before darting outside. My pulse throbbed in my throat as a vicious blast of salt air hit me. The ocean roared somewhere in the distance but the mob was louder. Their words no longer muffled.
‘Devil Child,’ they repeated, and a chill colder than the elements cut into me.
My mother was somewhere in the freezing night and these strange folks might have seen her. I moved toward the gathering. Cobbles glinted with frost as my feet slid perilously over them. My heart was trying to bolt but I forced myself to stand behind the cloaked forms.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, in a high-pitched tone designed to cut above the strange incantation.
‘Devil Child,’ they chorused, seemingly oblivious to my presence.
I muscled my way into the throng, determined to find out who was in charge. A short, slight woman glared up at me. I caught a savageness in her dark irises, and my progress faltered. She returned her attention to the centre of the collective and I did the same. I blinked as my mind took in the scene. At the core of the group was a shrunken figure dressed only in a white nightgown. The woman’s confused eyes darted among the surrounding people before locking onto my own stunned gaze.
‘Ruth,’ she shouted, though that wasn’t my name.
‘Mum,’ I said, reaching out and grabbing her frail hand. Her fingers were freezing. I pulled her to me. The chanting stopped and the focus of the sinister crowd fell on us.
Henry’s voice. ‘What’s going on? Why are you terrifying an old lady?’ He rested a protective hand on my shoulder.
A tall, stooped man motioned for the group to disperse and they receded like a black tide, vanishing into the darkness. The figure stepped towards the three of us and my spine stiffened. His face was concealed by both his hood and shadow but the moon-shaped, smooth edge of his pale jaw was exposed. He appeared old as his lanky frame bent forward.
‘Agnes Blythe isn’t welcome here. You have until dark falls on the Sabbath to leave this village,’ he said in a croaky whisper.
‘We’ll do no such thing,’ Henry said.
‘You shouldn’t have brought her back. She’s evil and we don’t forget those that sin against us.’
‘What are you talking about? She’s just a sick old lady.’ Henry’s chest puffed out and the heat of his anger was palpable. My husband wasn’t easily riled but this situation was enough to infuriate a Quaker.
‘There’ll be no peace for Agnes Blythe whether she lives or dies. The Devil always finds his own,’ the stranger said.
Mum broke free of me and raised her fist. ‘Gerald Birk, if I’m to rot in Hell, then you will too.’
My hand flew to my mouth. I hadn’t heard Mum utter a coherent sentence in months.
The four of us stood for a moment like statues as something akin to shock descended on me at least. Then the cloaked man slapped my mother’s face. Henry lunged at him but her assailant was too quick, retreating at speed down a nearby alley. After a few stunned seconds, Henry gave chase.
‘That’s it, scarper as usual,’ my mother said, as they both disappeared.
‘Henry, be careful,’ I called out, wondering what my husband intended to do if he caught the strange fellow – citizen’s arrest? My arm encompassed my mum’s narrow shoulders. Alone in the street, the blackened eyes of the surrounding windows stared at us and I sensed the scrutiny of unseen watchers. I guided Mum across the sloping cobbles, somewhere, below, the ferocious surf continued to crash.
Inside the cottage, I closed the door before sitting Mum beside the pine kitchen table. I wrapped a blanket around her and rubbed some warmth into her bony hands. Her cheek was red and I feared an almighty bruise would bloom.
Devil child – why were they chanting such a thing? And what sort of man slaps an old lady? And how did he know Mum’s name? The questions were whirling in my head when Mum’s voice interrupted them.
‘You shouldn’t have brought me back.’
‘Mum, it’s all right.’ I glanced in the direction of the front door, hoping Henry would return.
‘The dark moon is rising and the black tide is turning,’ she said, bringing my attention back to her.
‘Mum, you’re making no sense.’
She stared at me. ‘Ruth, you’re not safe here.’ Then her face crumpled. Her mouth opened but nothing came out. She was once again the dementia inflicted women she’d been for the past four years. I draped a wool blanket around her. I made sweet tea, holding the cup to her trembling lips. She took a few sips but then shook her head. I gulped the rest down, though I yearned for something stronger.
I settled her back in bed. Leaving the night lamp on, I walked softly to the door but she called out before I reached it.
‘Ruth, don’t leave!’
I turned around. She was sitting up. The lamp lit her skeletal features in an unkind and rather ghoulish way. Her watery, blue eyes were wide but there was no recognition within them. I’d become a stranger, sometimes called Ruth or sometimes called Jenny, my sister’s name, but rarely called by my own.
‘It’s me, Mum – Lydia.’
Her gaze was unwavering but vacant.
‘Everything’s fine. We’re in Helsham, at your old house. The place where you grew up. I moved slowly towards her again and perched on the bed.
She grabbed my hand with a force I was unaware she still possessed and my heart leapt. Her face scrunched as a tear slid down it. Ten years ago, on her seventieth birthday, her sapphire eyes had sparkled with life and she’d looked at least a decade younger – now she looked a decade older.
My throat constricted and my voice cracked. ‘Everything’s fine, Mum.’ I released myself from her grip and gently pushed her back until her head once again rested on the pillows.
‘Oh, Mum,’ I said, stroking her wrinkled brow and patting down her white hair which was intermingled with a few dark patches – a feeble reminder of her once glossy, black crown. She’d always taken such pride in her appearance, if she could see herself now she’d die of shame. Tomorrow, I would sort the whiskers protruding from her chin and buy some hair dye. The disease was washing away her dignity as well as draining her of colour.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, though I knew it wasn’t. How long was she going to be trapped in this nightmare? What was I going to do without her? Although I knew, I’d already lost her years ago when my face became a tangled composite of many others.
‘Ruth,’ she whispered. Her eyes brimmed, making her blink. ‘I’m sorry.’
I had no idea who this Ruth person was or why she was sorry but I nodded and smiled. Her lids closed fully and her breathing deepened. I tiptoed out of the room and waited. All was quiet.
Downstairs, I turned the lounge light off and went to the window. My breath still visible in the cold, inhospitable air. Our Vauxhall sat outside, across from it was an Escort and a white van which suggested the facing homes weren’t as deserted as they appeared. My vision strained looking for Henry’s tall, robust frame but the street was deserted. The wind howled and cried in the frozen night.
Hurry home, Henry. This place felt like we were at the end of the earth. It was Lancashire, I told myself, not some savage land.
I was just about to call the police when the front door flew open.
‘Thank the Lord,’ I said, rushing towards Henry.
‘Don’t get yourself all worked up. Just a bunch of idiots.’ He held me while I clung to his solidness. It had been a long time since I’d been in his embrace and the intimacy, although comforting, was somewhat disconcerting. His arms encircled me like a fortress and I longed for our relationship to return to what it once was.
‘We should never have agreed to come.’
‘A little late for regrets,’ he said.
I looked down at the hard polished boards which ran through the ground floor. It had been me who’d persuaded Henry to leave behind our home. He was right, we had to make a go of it.
We sat at the kitchen table drinking more tea as Henry described his pursuit. He’d followed the cloaked man through a graveyard and into the countryside beyond. The stranger had been surprisingly swift and Henry had lost him on the cliff tops. He described how the winter sea had lashed at the exposed rock making it hard to hear as well as focus. He imagined the scenery would be spectacular during the day but it was treacherous in the dark.
I’d seen images of the steep cliffs and the horseshoe, sandy beach, beneath them – Devil’s Claw Bay. The beauty spot had apparently been given its name because the locals had reneged on a promised sacrifice to the Devil many centuries ago. Satan had sent a huge raven to seek revenge. The bird’s claws wrenched a first-born girl from the arms of her mother and the Devil’s servant flew over the cliffs, intending to drop the child into the jaws of the hungry ocean. However, the infant clung to life and wouldn’t release her grip. Desperate to carry out its master’s bidding, the raven circled for hours. Eventually, the bird gnawed off its great claw and the baby fell. It was said she’d hollered louder than a colony of screeching gulls before disappearing and her cry could still be heard on the coastal winds. Following the child’s death, the sun was eclipsed and the tide turned black as the water and sky merged. The next day the huge claw supposedly washed up and formed the half-moon shape of the Bay. A sinister reminder to keep your word, to the Devil at least.
The black tide is coming – was my mother referring to the old folklore? Did she think the Devil was coming for us? And those people, were their words connected to the myth? It was all nonsense of course but, after tonight’s strange episode, it was easy to imagine the locals buying into dark stories from the past.
I searched my phone for information on the Bay. A picture came up of the beach at night. The curved shore was filled with cloaked people, holding lanterns. I showed the image to Henry and we read the words beneath. The ceremony was called The Black Tide Gathering and though there was no precise date given, it apparently took place in January. During the ritual, locals threw offerings in the sea to appease the Devil but they were thankfully just fruit and veg. I thought it strange that I’d imagined such a tide receding as tonight’s gathering broke up. Maybe my psyche was more attuned to this place than I realised?
Ridiculous, I told myself. This coastline was as foreign and unknown to me as the folks that inhabited it.
‘So I was right,’ Henry said. ‘Just some weird ceremony.’
My husband liked nothing more than being right. He was generally always right, or so he thought.
We finished our tea and decided to leave calling the police until morning. It was doubtful they would do anything worthwhile in the middle of the night. Plus, neither of us could make any sense of the events and we were both exhausted. It had been a long drive to this remote corner and Mum had spent most of the journey grabbing at the door handle, trying to jump out – thank goodness for central locking. And though my sister had furnished the house, we’d still had to lug all our clothes and personal possessions here. Henry bolted and locked the doors, the keys jingling in his hand as we made our way upstairs.
I once again tried to sleep. Henry and I both vigilantly keeping to our own sides of the bed and lost in our respective worlds. In the darkness, whispers I couldn’t quite hear filled my head and presences I couldn’t quite see, flittered across the room. Outside the wind continued to moan and periodically battered the window. I thought of the drowned child, was it her voice the storm carried? I wasn’t one for the supernatural but this place had a disquieting energy. It was as if the atmosphere carried a weight that pressed down on me, as if something more than ice ran through the air. Of course I was being silly, fanciful; I was just over-tired. But then I replayed the stooped man’s words – You have until dark falls on the Sabbath to leave this village. What would happen if we remained? Would some giant raven descend on us and carry us away? Drowning us in the treacherous tides that frequented this picturesque but deadly coastline. The cottage was quiet, refusing to answer my questions, though I could sense its unease as I stared up at its ancient beams.