Margaret Telford’s bones creaked as she closed the front door of her cottage and ambled to the garden gate. At her heels, a white West Highland Terrier named Alfie trotted excitedly, his slathering pink tongue lolling from the side of his mouth.
It was precisely six o’clock on a Saturday morning in early September. Children had returned to school the week before, bringing the holiday season to an abrupt end. Not that the town had seen an influx of tourists this summer, which was a good thing in Margaret’s mind. But it wasn’t a good thing for the town. No tourists meant no money. Now, most of the small businesses would be closing until spring with their pockets half empty.
No doubt about it—it would be a hard winter in more ways than one.
Reaching the gate, Margaret stooped to fix Alfie’s leash to his harness. A bolt of arthritic pain shot up her left leg. She winced.
“We’re certainly not getting any younger, are we, Alfie?” she said, rubbing her thigh. Alfie looked up with round, dark eyes and whined a little.
Porth an Jowl was a small cove tucked away between two granite cliffs like a secret. Margaret had lived at the very top for most of her seventy-six years. Standing here, as she did every morning, she had a fine view of the cove. On a clear day like today, with blue skies and little cloud, she could see all the way to the ocean’s horizon. As she began her journey downhill, she smiled to herself. No matter how many times she saw this view, it always managed to bewitch her.
Below, the town spread out in a half circle. Beyond it, lay a brushstroke of golden sand. The ocean was blue-green and flat. The sun, bouncing off its waves, made it shimmer and dazzle.
Teetering on the left cliff, the Mermaid Hotel, once resplendent and gleaming, was slowly crumbling into the ocean brick by brick. On the right cliff, Briar Wood was beginning to turn the colour of rust, contrasting with the old lighthouse that stood on the edge in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint.
The beach looked empty. This pleased Margaret. Having to make conversation with people these days felt like a chore. And now she was retired, chores were for other people.
As she and her companion reached the bottom of the hill, the view slipped away. The town was made up of a few wide streets with a square at its centre. Shops selling surfboards and wetsuits, and buckets and spades for building sandcastles, all had bright banners filling their windows declaring SUMMER SALE, 70% OFF or LAST WEEK BEFORE CLOSING, BUY ONE GET ONE FREE!
Alfie came to a halt outside the post office and promptly urinated on the bright red post box.
“Oh, Alfie!” Margaret said, even though the dog made a point of marking his territory in the same places each morning. The post office hadn’t opened yet, but Margaret knew that Mabel Stevens was somewhere inside, sorting out today’s mail. She also knew that Mabel Stevens would turn as red as the post box if she knew what Alfie got up to each morning. The thought made her smile.
Once the dog had finished his business, Margaret gave a soft tug on the leash and they moved on. The only sounds were the soft thump of her feet on the pavement and the clack and click of Alfie’s claws. It was like walking through a ghost town; just how Margaret liked it.
Reaching the beach didn’t take long. She left the town square via a short alleyway and emerged on Cove Road, which circled Porth an Jowl like a noose, providing the only way in and out.
On the other side of the road lay the promenade, and the beach beyond. The taste of sea salt on Margaret’s tongue grew stronger. She stopped at the edge of the road, eyeing the row of terraced cottages behind her. As much as she loved her home and the view that came with it, living at the top of the town was becoming increasingly punishing for her knees. At some point soon, these early morning walks would have to stop. And then what would she do?
Alfie was old but not old enough to be confined to the garden. And what about her own needs? These morning walks gave her purpose. Tugging on Alfie’s leash, she made her way across Cove Road and stepped onto the promenade. One of those seafront cottages would suit her and Alfie nicely. He would still get his walks and she would still have purpose. But living right on the seafront would, for half of the year, place her dead centre of the town’s tourist hotspot. She couldn’t think of anything more hellish.
Alfie had begun to yap and strain against his leash. He gazed longingly at the sand below.
“All right, all right!” Margaret said, half laughing.
Gripping the railings, she took the stone steps one at a time. Together, they reached the beach and their feet sank into the soft sand. Margaret shielded her eyes and stared out across the beach. Low tide had been at three this morning. She could see the ocean in the distance. It would be a long walk, but the joy she would feel watching Alfie bounce through the surf would make it worthwhile.
With Alfie straining on his leash in front of her, she got going. Up ahead on the right, The Shack was dark and silent, its metal tables and chairs stacked up against the wall. Sometimes on summer nights, when the air was still, she could hear music blaring from the bar, all the way up to her bedroom window. That was another good thing about the season coming to an end; she might actually get some sleep at night.
Alfie was now choking himself, no longer able to restrain his excitement. Bending down on creaking knees, Margaret fumbled with the catch and took a moment to free him. Before she could stand up again, Alfie raced ahead like a bullet, yapping and bounding in the direction of the ocean.
Chuckling, Margaret followed him. That stupid dog never failed to amuse her. It took just thirty seconds for Alfie to become a dot on the horizon. Margaret squinted. It was only when she saw a flurry of wings burst up from the tide that she knew he had reached his destination.
Pausing for a moment to catch her breath, Margaret glanced back at the town, taking in the tiered rows of two-hundred-year-old cottages that climbed all the way to the top. She turned back to the beach. A large, rocky arch protruded from the lower half of the left cliff and planted itself in the water. Locals called it The Devil’s Gate. There was a legend behind it; one she thought was utter nonsense.
She pushed on, heading towards the ocean tide. Now that she was closer, she could see Alfie happily bounding in between the waves and chasing after the gulls, who were already growing tired of his games. Margaret called out to him but was ignored. She quickened her pace and was rewarded with aches and pains.
Those damn seagulls were a nuisance. Of course, their abhorrent behaviour was thanks to the tourists. Each summer, hordes of them descended upon the beach with their ice cream cones and Cornish pasties and home-baked goods, and they would throw their scraps to the birds, ignoring the signs all over Porth an Jowl that blatantly commanded: DO NOT FEED THE SEAGULLS. And of course, the gulls grew bigger and more aggressive.
Then came the news reports of young children being attacked, ice cream cones snatched from their hands. But still the tourists fed the birds and laughed as the creatures swooped over their heads. At the end of each season, the tourists would go home. But the gulls remained, fat and growing more dangerous with each passing season.
She knew Alfie could handle himself, mostly. But there had been a story last summer about a small terrier who had been torn to pieces by a flock of gulls right in front of its owner.
Her legs aching, Margaret hurried towards the shore. Alfie was oblivious, splashing and barking, the sea birds flapping around his head. But then he froze. Forgetting the birds, he pointed his nose into the air and sniffed. Margaret came closer. Alfie suddenly turned and dashed through the flotsam, racing along the edge of the beach.
Margaret followed with her eyes. He had come to a halt and was barking loudly. Turning direction, she attempted to catch up with him. As she came closer, she finally saw the cause of his excitement.
There was something on the beach. Lying at the edge of the tide. Something that looked like an animal.
At first, she thought it was a seal, washed up on the shore. It wasn’t unheard of to find seals splashing in the waters of Porth an Jowl. Upon occasion, even dolphins could be seen.
But as she drew nearer, as her ageing eyesight pulled into focus, she saw that it was no seal.
It was a body.
It lay face down on the beach, half in the water, as Alfie continued to bark and growl.
Margaret drew nearer, her skin slick and clammy beneath the early morning sun. The tide rushed back in, suddenly animating the body, making its arms and legs sway up and down like a marionette.
“Dear God,” Margaret whispered.
It was a boy. He was naked except for a pair of torn shorts. Purple and yellow bruises covered his limbs and back. The tide drew away again and the boy grew still. Alfie’s barking grew to an unbearable pitch.
Margaret tore her eyes away and stared into the water. Where had he come from? She could see no boats on the horizon. No ships. She stared up at the scorched exterior of the Mermaid Hotel towering above, then glanced across to the lighthouse on the opposite cliff. That particular coastal stretch had become infamous within the county due to its popularity as a suicide hotspot, earning itself the name Desperation Point.
As Margaret returned her gaze to the boy’s battered body, a question forced its way into her mind.
Was this the Pengelly boy?
She glanced back at the town. It was at a time like this where owning a mobile phone would have been a good idea. Her eyes found their way back to the body, drawn to it against her will. She knew of the family, although she’d never paid much attention to the children. The missing boy’s mother owned the flower shop, which had been owned by the Pengellys for generations. Until recently, her tear-streaked face had made frequent appearances on Margaret’s television screen.
Was this the Pengelly boy lying at her feet, his face half covered by sand, the rest hidden by a wet mop of dark hair? It had to be. But Margaret was sure the boy whose face had been repeatedly shown on the news was younger.
A wave of nausea rushed over Margaret. Alfie continued to yap. Stooping down, she reattached the dog to his leash.
“Quiet,” she said in a hoarse voice. But Alfie would not be quiet.
Margaret thought about what to do. The cove’s police station had been closed since last year. Budget cuts—it was happening all over Cornwall, leaving whole areas under the care of stations several miles away. Fat lot of help that was on a day like today, Margaret thought. She would make her way back to the town. There was a phone booth next to the bakery. She would call the emergency services from there. It would take her at least ten minutes.
But the tide was already making its way back in. By the time the emergency services arrived, the boy would be halfway out to sea.
Margaret cursed under her breath. Stooping down once more, she reached out with trembling fingers and prodded the boy’s shoulder, feeling the bones underneath. He was painfully thin, as if he hadn’t eaten a scrap in the two months he’d been missing. She could not leave him to be swept away. The last thing she needed was the inhabitants of Porth an Jowl whispering behind her back.
Letting go of Alfie’s leash, she gently turned the body over. The boy’s head lolled on his neck, his mass of dark hair concealing his features. Being careful to avoid the bruises, Margaret grasped his arms. She began to pull, dragging him away from the tide.
There was no weight to his body. Alfie probably weighed more. What a terrible thing, she thought. She dragged him for several more metres, until her hands began to ache with arthritis and the boy’s body had made long, winding tracks in the sand. Satisfied he would now be safe from the tide until the emergency services arrived, Margaret set him down.
She stared at her hands. They felt dirty. Wiping them against her skirt, she glanced at Alfie, who had ceased barking and now stood with his tail tucked between his legs. He nudged up against Margaret’s calf and let out a low whimper.
She would have to explain to the police why she had moved him, but the family would be grateful that she had not let him float away. A thought passed through her mind: at least there would be a lovely floral arrangement at his funeral.
She stared down at the boy once more, who now lay on his side, those bruises reaching around his ribs and torso. The hair that had been covering his features had slipped away a little. The more Margaret stared at him, the more she grew uncertain that this was the Pengelly boy. And now, as she stared at the child’s deathly pale face, a memory surfaced in her mind and she was overwhelmed by a nauseating sense of familiarity.
“But it can’t be . . .” she gasped. Her elderly mind was playing tricks on her. Tightening her grip on Alfie’s leash, Margaret turned away from the boy. Alfie wouldn’t move.
“Come on now,” she said.
The dog continued to whimper and stare at the boy. Margaret gave him a sharp tug and Alfie began to growl. She watched as the dog moved in closer and then, to her shock, licked the boy’s arm.
“Stop that this instant!” Margaret hissed. She gave the leash another sharp tug but Alfie stood his ground. He licked the body again, his wet tongue cleaning sand from skin.
Margaret grabbed the leash with both hands and was about to forcibly remove Alfie’s paws from the sand, when she felt someone staring at her. She turned, scanning the length of the beach. She was quite alone.
“Come on,” she said, this time her words trembling with fear.
She glanced down at the body one last time. The hair across the face had parted slightly.
A dark eye stared up at her. It blinked once.