Matthew High. We knew it would be him. Even before Hannah turned him over, we just knew it.
It was Annie who saw him from the road. “Look,” she said, and when she pointed at the dark shape out there in the shallow water, there was only one thought in all our heads—please God, let it not be him. Let it be any of the others but not him, not Matthew High. At the beginning of the marshes we took off our boots and our stockings and hitched up our skirts and ran along the high grassy mounds above the channels, hopping over the gaps where you could hear the creep of the tide trickling in and filling them up. He was out on the sand, and even though we all knew it would be Matthew, when we were quite close, Annie said, “Who is it?” because the truth was we couldn’t tell for sure. Even then, from the look and shape of him, all blobby and blown-up, it might have been someone else. He was lying on his front in just a shirt which was up over his head in a sodden lump of cloth. We went towards him through the shallow water and stood around him like a kind of crescent moon with our backs to the sea, and I remember feeling the water lapping at my heels, thinking that if we all stood aside now and went back the way we’d come the water would rise and cover him again and take him back and Bella High would never have to know. I looked at Annie and Hannah to see if they were thinking the same thing but I couldn’t tell. Their eyes were down, looking at the dark and swollen body of Matthew High.
Hannah stepped forward and took hold of the soggy mound of cloth at his head and squeezed it. She wrung it out and smoothed it down a little way and when Annie helped her turn him over the two of them pulled smartly at the filthy hem to cover his naked parts. His face was the colour of a thunder cloud, and one of his eyes was gone. There was a wound in the ugly swelling of his ankles, a slice of his soft flesh beginning to uncurl from around the bone, like the peel from an orange. White sea-lice crawled in the open seam. Hannah knelt beside him and put her arm behind his neck and tried to raise him but she couldn’t move him. He was half sunk down in the wet sand and even when we lifted the hanks of his long hair so there was nothing holding him down, we couldn’t shift his weight, only roll him to and fro. So Hannah took his arms and Annie and I took his feet and we tried again but we still couldn’t move him. It was like trying to drag a hammock full of stones. I wondered if we might have to leave him after all, but Hannah said we should probably bring a door and put him on that—wait for him to float up with the rising water and float him to the shore and carry him home to Bella on the door.
She looked at Annie and asked her if she’d go with her and help her take the door off its hinges at the back of her place and bring it down, but Annie was staring at Matthew and biting her thumb and didn’t seem to know how to answer, so Hannah turned to me instead.
“Peggy,” she said. “We have to.”
“Do we?” I said.
“Yes,” said Hannah, in a firm voice, so I said all right I’d go with her if she wanted me to, but wouldn’t it be better if I stayed behind with Annie to hold him while the tide came in? If there weren’t two of us to hold him when he floated up out of the sand we might lose him again.
Hannah seemed to think about this, and for a moment I thought she was going to say, Well, perhaps that would be for the best, if we lost him again, but she didn’t; what she said was that she’d go back by herself for the door and collect Mary on the way to help.
So Hannah went off to fetch Mary and the door and Annie stayed behind with me and while they were gone Matthew High rose up slowly out of the muddy sand on the incoming tide. We took a hand and a foot each, Annie and I, and held him there while he rocked back and forth on the surface of the rising water. I looked at Annie. She was thinking about Bella, you could tell.
“They will have to hurry,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, “They will.”
You have to see the tide here to believe it: once it starts properly on its way—once it’s finished its long slow trickling start—it comes racing forward in a great greedy rush, and even floating in the water Matthew High was heavy and hard to hold onto and kept sinking down beneath the surface. I kept looking at Annie. I knew what she was thinking because I was thinking it too—that we could both of us let go of his hands and feet and leave him there till the tide turned and let him ride back out on it like a Viking and be dragged down by the current; the sea would take him and Bella would never know. I think there was a part in all of us that day that was tempted, even Hannah, and while I stood there in the freezing water with Annie Cotton, I thought, well, if they are too long we will just have to let go and that will be that and no one could ever blame us. Faster and faster the water rose up around our waists and our skirts swirled around us like weed on top of the grey water and so did Matthew High’s long thick hair. He lay between us like a big puffy eiderdown. There was a weight to him though, even in the water, a gravity. He was swollen and cold but he was so solid it made you want to cry out. I thought of Bella and I wanted more than anything to let him go, but we could see the others now, coming back with the door, Hannah trotting smartly in front, Mary behind.
“Look,” said Annie suddenly for the second time that day, and this time she was pointing to a shell, lodged in the mucky hollow where Matthew’s missing eye had been. It was small and white and shaped like a helter-skelter. I picked it out and closed my hand around it and pressed its point into my palm to feel the sharpness of the pain.
When Hannah and Mary came splashing towards us we pulled Bella’s husband to them and when we had him on the door we floated him to the shore and carried him over the grassy mounds between the channels and laid him on the shingle between the marshes and the road and that was when we saw Bella High heading along the road in her rubber boots and her long jumper and her yellow skirt.
Even from this far off, it was obvious she didn’t know yet. You could tell by her walk that she hadn’t seen anything.
“You go and tell her, Peggy,” said the others but I said I couldn’t do it. I knew I couldn’t be the one to tell her. I knew the words would lodge in my throat like a splint of wood and I would stand there looking at Bella High’s lovely face with its sparkling grey eyes and its sweet mouth and all those glossy chestnut curls falling over her shoulders like a shower of bells and I knew I didn’t have the strength for it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to drag the words up. They would stay there like a great clot, or a hard pebble, stuck in the narrow tightness at the dark back of my mouth. You could tell none of the others wanted to do it either. No one had the stomach for it, not even Hannah, not really. Annie looked at her feet. They were cold and dirty and covered in black sand. She was shivering. Mary was gawping at the bloated mound of Matthew stretched out upon the door.
At last Hannah said, all right, she would go. She would go home and put on her mourning bonnet and then she would go to Bella High’s house and tell her to prepare for a funeral and then the rest of us could bring Matthew to her.
We watched as Hannah set off towards the road above the shingle beach and Bella, further up, carried on along it in her yellow skirt. Moving against the stone walls and the dark gorse at the road’s edge she looked like a piece of sunlight or a daffodil petal or a rich curl of fresh butter, and I felt a kind of burning in my chest, looking at Matthew lying with his flabby upturned face upon the door.