This is how Salt Lick opens – somewhere on the Suffolk coast close to where much of the book is set, in a time between now and then.
Water trickles through gullies in the brick, loosening bonds that held the house together for nearly three hundred years. Rain and sea meet in the crooks, the filigree channels. Salt and fresh water seep into the brick and mortar. One wall has collapsed, fraction by fraction becoming sand, lulled back and forth by the waves. Other buildings, that once marked the back of the village before it gave way to fields, stand like rotten teeth in a mouth slack with the futility of further resistance.
A church rises from the sea, a small, solid island of grey rock. On the spire, a spike of metal, a weather vane with the only remaining arm pointing west, as if reminding the sea that it still has work to do. This way. The whole of England waits to be quenched.
A scrap of board that once boxed in some water pipes is inched from the shore by the waves, pulled to float away until caught in one of the unstable islands of waste circling slowly in the weary ocean’s eddies. A piece of timber, the upright of a door frame, swollen with salt water is finally dragged away by the backwash, to find a place further along the shore. It had framed a door that opened to a small kitchen, nearest the beach at the back of the house. Later it was a utility room off a bigger kitchen. More recently, an arts and crafts shop, the back door cleared and opened to customers on a narrow lane now lost under sand. The proprietor made most of her income selling naive paintings of seagulls on distressed-to-order board, designed to look as though they had been washed in by the waves, collected by the beachcomber artist to use as a canvas. Slowly slowly, the sea did the work for real, on the brick and board and mortar of the house crumbling on the threshold of the sea.
The wood that had fallen from the door frame was planed by hand and hung two centuries before, by a man named Matthew whose home was part of a hamlet further up the coast. A place where no land exists now. The door frame had been painted by twenty-two different hands. Some of the paint still clung in islands on the bare wood, from the first hard oily gloss of black, rubbed back for new colours, revealed by chips in the thickening paint. Then a bright sheen of white, and white again. Lastly a pale matt blue matching the sky behind the painted seagulls. The rusted stub of a metal hook half way along bled out a black stain into the sea-darkened timber. It had been put there by Elsa, her red nails and freckled skin, already slipping with age between the tendons of her hands, had grappled with a blunt bradawl to get the hook to bite. She hung a notice bought from an online supplier, a stern message in a friendly script reminding the beach-holiday drifters that breakages must be paid for. Elsa had died before the sea had reached her door. But only just. In her eighties, the shop no longer open, deaf to the calls of concerned neighbours and friends, she watched the sea fretfully. She watched her neighbours leave. All of them. She died, her nails still red, her chiffon scarf still puffing elegantly over her left collar bone, two weeks before the first storm surge licked her doorstep.
It crept up, storm by storm, washed through until the high tide reached the other side of the house, started making for the fields; the acid gold of rapeseed shot through with wilder brethren, no longer doused out of existence by spray-arms hitched wide as a field or dropped from buzzing drones. The sea intruded, in stormy times. The sea intruded. Another reason for the folk to make for the cities.
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