October 26 1859
How can it be?
I stand on the edge of a high cliff. Holding back hair that whips across my face, I shield my eyes and squint through the stinging wind. Lifeless bodies dash against the rocks beneath me.
The ship disappears beneath the surface, battered by one huge wave after another. Rain mixes with tears that burn my eyes, and I feel as if I have woken from a nightmare of such terror my whole world has become horribly distorted. I know the sea. I have lived with the ocean all my life. I have been raised to respect Mother Nature, and to underestimate at my peril the power of the ocean. But I have never witnessed such a storm as this.
How can it be?
I have no memory of reaching this cliff. The last thing I remember is being wrapped in mother’s arms on the rolling deck as my da strapped a belt around my waist.
“Women and children first,” he said. “Now, hush! You keep your hand on this belt; it’s all we own in the world, my angel. My precious angel. You keep it safe for Da. And you take good care of your mam. I’ll see you on the other side.”
Cold lips press into my cheek. Calloused palms cup my face for the merest of seconds.
The other side of where? I want to ask. But he’s gone and the ship is lurching violently beneath my feet.
“Da! Help … help me!”
A sound like a gunshot rips through the air.
“Port anchor’s let go!” someone shouts. “Sweet Lord! Brace the yeards, lads, starboard won’t take the strain, else!”
I bury my head in my mother’s bosom; she wraps her shawl around me. The shrieking wind carries away the sounds of crying children, sobbing women, men barking orders. I cover my ears as strong hands lift me, push me towards the lifeboat. I grasp my mother’s hand tighter.
“Starboard anchor’s gone! We’re heading for the rocks! Get Captain Taylor!”
Seconds later, a ripping noise shakes the whole ship. The wooden deck shudders, and the bow gives out a loud moan. The ship tilts and I lose my footing, screaming as I slide towards the inky blackness, pulled by the weight of the leather pockets about my waist.
Water engulfs me.
Coldness engulfs me.
Darkness engulfs me.
How can it be?
I watch from the cliff edge as a pale dawn breaks. No golden rising sun, no blue skies, no welcoming warmth – just a gradual fading of blackness into misty grey.
The Royal Charter – the steamship that has carried my family from Hobson’s Bay, Australia to a ‘better life’ in England – is still being pounded by the storm. With every massive wave that crashes over her, I expect the ship to disappear, but after each surge of the tide she reappears as if trapped by the jagged rocks and unable to find release.
Bodies pulled and tossed by the furious tide, pushed inland one minute and dragged back into the white foam the next. Men I’d seen issuing orders; women I’d spoken to; children I’d spent many hours with over the past weeks. I close my ears to the screams and cries that circle my head like squawking gulls.
I stand there for seconds, minutes, hours, days … I know not.
The spray of the ocean is on my face. I hear the roar in my ears. I taste the salt on my lips.
But I know it cannot be. I know this cannot be real.
The truth hits me. Bile fills my mouth; I double over and retch.
When I straighten, I stand in silence and calmness. The storm still rages all around me, but I am protected. As if in the eye of the hurricane, my own space is quiet and still.
The answer is suddenly clear.
My name is Angelina Stewart.
I am eleven years old.
And I am dead.
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust – in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection into eternal life.”
As the breeze carried away Reverend Thomas’s closing words, Sarah Morton raised her coat collar and stepped towards her father’s open grave. Knowing what was expected of her, but hating the ceremony of it all, she flashed a look at the mourners, lined up like crows on a power line. She shuddered and gave a weak smile, hoping to see even the tiniest glimmer of warmth in one of the pale faces. She saw none. They were all strangers, even the faces she vaguely recognised. Nothing had been voiced loud enough for Sarah to hear, of course, but she could well imagine the whispers and knowing looks passing among the small group.
The plaque on the mahogany casket gleamed as Sarah bent and lifted a handful of earth, pressing her fingers into the cool dampness before letting it drop. It rattled the coffin lid, making her wince. She lifted her other hand, kissed the single red rose and allowed it to fall.
“Goodbye, Father. I love you,” she whispered.
It was terrible to think of her father lying inside that wooden box, cold and empty, lifeless as carved marble. He wasn’t there, she knew that. He’d be the first to tell her he’d already gone to a better place … but he wasn’t here to ask.
And it was his name, Owen Williams, (1942 – 2011) embossed on that small, bronze square that moved her now more than anything. It made it too real. It hurt too much. Seeing his name inscribed there as if he’d won some prize or been presented with a trophy.
She turned away, unable to bear the rattle of soil on the coffin lid, like the tapping of her father’s fingernails trying to attract her attention. An icy tide rushed through her veins, and she stumbled as her heels snagged in the green baize surrounding the grave. The ground spun suddenly nearer. She squealed, biting down on the noise, stirred by a wave of panic. Strong hands grabbed her elbows, pulling her away from the grave mouth.
“It’s okay, Sarah. Come on, now.”
Warm breath and the reassuring voice of her husband grounded her. Her head swam with the aromas of roses, lilies and freshly tilled earth, and the overwhelming need to cry burst to the surface, even as she tried to regain her composure.
“Take me home, Dom. Get me out of here. Please.”
Wrapped in his arms, she allowed herself to be led away. Keeping her eyes fixed on her patent leather boots, she concentrated on each step – but as she stumbled along, she couldn’t stop herself snatching another glance at the grave beside her father’s. She saw the grey marble, with years of green mould along edges that had once been white. The gold lettering had faded, so it was unreadable in parts, not that she had any desire to read the name. A clump of blackened flowers hung limply from a rusty wire vase, like twisted fingers reaching through from the earth beneath.
Dom’s arm tightened across her shoulders. Sarah knew he thought it was grief – accepting, if not fully understanding, the strength of her emotions. And partly it was. But mostly it was a sense of deep regret that made breathing, walking – functioning – difficult for her right now.
There were mumbled condolences and passing handshakes that Dominic handled with quiet authority. The weak, damp hand extended by Reverend Thomas offered little in the way of comfort, but Sarah managed a watery smile that failed to reach her eyes. She closed her ears to the meaningless string of words. Not once had she ever found solace in the church, and today was unlikely to be the day she found religion.
She kept her head down, chin tucked into her collar, trying her best to be invisible. No doubt someone would comment on her ignorance. For sure, it would be all around the village by nightfall that the young Williams lass was nothing more than a stuck-up London snob these days, too good for the likes of Moelfre. But she really didn’t care, not now. She was way past caring.
The strength of her antipathy astonished her and she questioned why she felt the need to protect Dom. Probably because she could imagine the hissed remarks. Back for a few short hours, and scarily, she could already see through Moelfre eyes. The cut of his navy suit – which even if they didn’t know was Armani, screamed expense – the Rolex, the sparkling smile and deep tan. Everything about Dom’s appearance that made Sarah’s pulse quicken, would count against him to this unforgiving breed. He was an outsider; a foreigner in their eyes, to be viewed with equal measures of suspicion and scorn. But then, so was she now, she remembered with a feeling of relief.
They reached the front of the small church. Sarah’s breathing returned to normal, calmed by the sight of the slate roof glistening in the damp autumn morning, and spiders’ webs, that laced across the ancient stonework like delicate ice crystals. A peal of bells rang out the hour; the chimes snatched by the wind and carried out to sea. Above the jutting spire, the sky hung in ashen ripples over mist that clung to the valley, and in the far distance the peaks of Snowdonia rose above low cloud. Even on a bleak day, the views across the island were enough to take her breath.
Sarah’s love of the island and its beauty had always worked in direct conflict with how she felt about her father. She was shocked to find the breakdown of the relationship still hurt more than a decade later. Surprised by how much she’d missed Anglesey. It felt good to be home, despite the circumstance.
Dom guided Sarah along the cobbled pathway, holding her tightly as she regained her strength. Her legs worked on their own, ploughing through the autumn leaves, the sanctuary of their BMW taking an age to arrive. She rummaged in her bag and fished out the keys. Soon, she’d be safe, cocooned inside, the outside world shut away.
“Mrs Morton! Excuse me, wait up. Mrs Morton!”
Sarah turned to see a man in his late thirties, tubby with ginger hair, trotting down the path. The bulk of his body strained against the shiny grey material of his double-breasted suit as he jogged. He swapped his briefcase into his left hand and came to a stop in front of them.
“So … so sorry to intrude at such a time. My sincere condolences.” He breathed deeply. Reaching into his inside pocket, he produced a business card. “Adrian Carter. Your father’s solicitor. I have a matter of some urgency to discuss with you and I wondered if I might arrange an appointment?”
Sarah took the card; the address was in Llangefni. From memory, her father had always used an old, established practice in Holyhead. He’d not mentioned anything about changing solicitors.
She cleared her throat and kept her voice low, aware of the dispersing mourners, who seemed to have slowed their departure. “Yes, obviously, the Will reading. But I’d appreciate leaving it a few days –”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible, Mrs Morton. Your father left specific instructions. As I said, it’s a matter of urgency. So, could I expect you in my office at eleven tomorrow?”
Sarah met Dominic’s eyes. He shrugged and nodded.
“Okay, yes. We’ll see you tomorrow,” she replied.
“Oh.” Carter flashed a look at Dominic and back again. “I’m afraid you have to attend alone.” He returned the briefcase to his right hand as he backed away. “Very sorry and all that, but it was one of your father’s requests. You have the address, Mrs Morton. I’ll see you in the morning. Good day to you.”
With that he marched towards the car park, scattering the last of the lingering mourners. Their gazes joined hers as he squeezed himself into a shiny green MG and reversed out onto the road.
Sarah re-read the business card as she settled into the car seat.
Carter, Carter & Sons (Solicitors – Cyfreithwyr) Llangefni.
“Okay now, babe?”
Pulling off her winter gloves, she ran the back of her fingers across Dom’s cheek, hoping to erase some of the worry lines embedded there.
“Get me through today and I will be. I promise.”