‘All ten of the men and boys who’d gone to sea that day were dead, drowned. The fishwives said it was all the girl’s fault. That she was cursed. The girl was devastated when even her own mother, in her grief, agreed.’
Extract taken from Down by the Sea
By Sue Lawrence
Published by Contraband
The girl walked up the cobbles of Laverockbank Road, then stopped to look back down the street and out to sea. The low, grey clouds reflected on the water, which was swirling up into frothy, foam-crested waves. ‘A guid day for the fishin’,’ her mother had said before handing her a ragged bag of belongings and pushing her out the door. Her home, in the long row of tiny fishermen’s cottages on the shore, was only a ten-minute walk, yet she felt she was miles away, so alien did it seem coming up the hill towards these big stone houses where the rich folk lived.
She had never been up this way. She’d never even been to Leith and certainly not to Edinburgh. But she had been to Granton one day in the summer for the gala day when she was allowed to sing in the choir. The Newhaven Fisherlassies, they were called. Aged thirteen, she had sat in the front row, cross-legged, wearing the uniform of all the Newhaven girls and women: a red-and-white-striped petticoat and yellow-and-white-striped apron with its deep pouch. And around her head, she wore a paisley shawl. Her mother had scraped all her thick, dark hair back off her face before tying the shawl round the back of her neck. She could still feel the skelp her mother had given her when she complained she was tying the shawl too tight.
Her big sister Dorrie, one of the older girls, had stood at the back of the choir of twenty or so and she and Ruby Gray had started off the singing. ‘Caller Herrin’, ‘Caller Ou’’ and ‘The Boatie Rows’ were the only songs she could remember off by heart. What a day that was! People clapped and told them what good voices they had, what a fine choir they were. Granton didn’t have one and they wanted to hear Newhaven’s girls’ choir to see if it was worth starting one. Newhaven had a school and Granton was having one built; the nearby village wanted to copy everything. Only one mile along the shore, Granton seemed like a foreign land. Only once in all her fourteen years had she ventured out of Newhaven.
The girl gazed out at the water, looking beyond the harbour where a flock of herring gulls soared and dived. Though it was an estuary, the locals always called it the sea, it was so vast. She looked over the broad span of the Firth of Forth where she could just make out the hills of Fife.
Her father had said there was a king who lived in Fife, but Pa was always joking, so she didn’t know if that was true. Her father used to smile all the time and was always cheery, even, according to her brother, when he was out in gale-force winds on the sea. When she thought of him she felt tears prick her eyes but then she bit her lip hard, to stop them. She just had to accept that Pa and her big brother Johnnie were gone now. All ten of the men and boys who’d gone to sea that day were dead, drowned. The fishwives said it was all the girl’s fault. That she was cursed. The girl was devastated when even her own mother, in her grief, agreed.
The girl turned back round and looked up at the trees with their orange leaves rustling in the autumn breeze. She headed left and walked along the pathway towards the big house. Her stomach tightened at the sight of the imposing building ahead.
The girl stepped onto the doorstep and put down her bag. She bit her lower lip, distracted, as she tried to remember who she was meant to ask for. She gazed up at the great stone house then reached up to the door and pulled the bell. She looked down at her tatty dress and pulled at the hem. It was her older sister’s and was far too baggy on her. Well, she had nothing else to wear. At least she had shoes on, black shoes that she’d only ever worn on Sundays and gala days, shoes that were now too small but her sister’s shoes were still too large. She was more comfortable in bare feet but Ma had insisted she squeeze into these for the walk up the hill.
There was a grating noise as a key turned in the lock and then the huge wooden door creaked open. In the gloom, the girl could make out a plump figure with an angry scowl on her face. She was about to say her piece when the woman hissed, ‘What’s an urchin like you doing at this door?’
‘I’m Jessie Mack, Ma said I’d to come and …’
‘Aye, to come round the back door. The front door isn’t for the likes of you.’ The woman jangled the keys on a large metal ring in her hands, picking out a smaller one. ‘I’ll unlock it just now.’ She pointed round the corner of the house and slammed the door in Jessie’s face.
Jessie picked up her bag and trudged round the back, her shoes pinching her toes. She bit her lip once more. Hard.
Down to the Sea, by Sue Lawrence, is published by Contraband, priced £8.99
‘We have been living on a knife-edge for so long I know this is something big.’