Crimson China

Chapter One

Sometimes it would be so easy to succumb—to slip beneath the icy surface of her life without a trace. Angie has blundered through the first half of her existence, she thinks drunkenly. Why not cut a fast path through the remainder? 

She is nearly through the bottle before she realizes that this is what her mother must have felt, the night she drove onto the sands. The thought makes her recoil. She did not empathise with her mother during life. Why should she do so in death? For the first time, she wonders if her mother’s blighted spirit has not lodged somewhere deep inside her, like a canker. 

She switches off the car’s engine and stares out across the vast expanse of bay. One year ago today, her mother had sat in this same spot, contemplating death. She had been diagnosed just before Christmas with cancer of the liver. (Too much bile, Ray had said.) Within four weeks it had spread to her lymph nodes. The doctors recommended that she cease treatment and enjoy what little time she had remaining. This, apparently, had been beyond her. 

The sand had swallowed her car like an offering. It could
happen in minutes, the police told her afterwards—such was the perilous nature of the quicksand on the bay. A local fisherman had spotted her mother’s blue Fiesta lurching across the sand a few hundred yards off Hest Bank. When he’d looked up moments later, the car had vanished. For several days, the coastguard scoured the shores for her body. In the end Angie’s mother was declared missing. The police sergeant informed her that without a body there could be no death certificate. Angie had stared at him uncomprehendingly. But her house and her possessions? She’d asked. He shrugged. The law says seven years, he replied. Before that, you can presume nothing. 

Six weeks later, after a bad spring storm, the roof of the car had reappeared like an apparition, half a mile out, silted up with mud and sand. The corpse inside was water-logged and barely recognisable. Angie was called to the morgue. The pinched male attendant apologised twice before unzipping the black plastic bag that contained her remains. There was little to identify: the body was bloated, especially the torso, and the skin withered like an old turkey, its bleached surface waxy and riddled with strange bumps. Angie had asked what happened to her skin, struggling to keep her voice steady. The attendant coughed nervously. It’s the cold, he explained. The muscles contract and push the follicles up. I’m sorry for your loss, he added. This last word reverberated in the air between them, like a badly plucked string. Yes, she thought. There had been many losses. Right from the start. 

The coroner recorded death by misadventure. But Angie knew better. Unable to face the cancer that was slowly eating its way through her organs, her mother had driven out onto the sands at low tide, swallowed a handful of sleeping pills and let nature hurry its course. Perhaps she’d hoped never to be found. That was Ray’s theory. Her brother Ray said she’d done it out of spite. Seven years she would have made us wait, Ray said. But the sea spat her back in the end. 

Thank God for drink, Angie decides. Over the years she has learned that bad things fall away in the presence of alcohol: guilt, anger, boredom, fear. It’s the aesthetics of drink she has always loved: the tinkle of ice in a glass, the pleasing chink of bottle against rim, the amber beauty of the liquid as it tumbles forth obediently, the marvellous heat in the back of the throat. And the melting away of the self in the process. There are few things in life she prefers. 

But she likes the sea...