A noise like the amplified boom of cannon fire rumbled through the downpour. A moment later a deep splintering crack wrenched across the ground. Inside the rundown chalet Lizzie sat bolt upright, bashing her chestnut coloured head on the shelf directly above. Pressing one hand against the smarting lump she shuffled from under the duvet, stumbled wide awake now towards the window and yanked back the curtain.
The roar resonated out of the grey dawn as though mortar fire ripped the earth apart. As the floor shuddered she splayed her feet and arms, hands poised to break the fall. Then as stillness gradually descended again she peered gingerly back through the raindrops teeming down the window. The first signs of daylight cast their dull perspective over the buildings but the torrential rain distorted visibility. Taking time to focus she realised that there was something very wrong with one of the other chalets.
Without warning it jolted backwards and despite the difficult conditions she saw the roof sever as reverberations stampeded across the grass. Holding tightly onto the window sill she held her breath as the walls trembled. As soon as the movement stopped she hurried from the bedroom, across the living space and unlocking the front door swung it open. A strong gust howled around her slim frame bringing with it the cold breath of the northeast wind.
Shivering she slammed the door shut and returning to the bedroom pulled on jeans, boots and a thick jacket over her pyjamas. Remaining still for a moment she listened to the rain hammering down on the roof then coming to a decision zipped up her coat.
Outside the sound of rupturing stone, rock and wood blasted across the ground and hit her full in the chest. She gasped feeling the weight of the elements pressing her backwards. Only by bending her head against the prevailing gusts and driving rain could she force her way towards the cliff edge and the precariously positioned chalet.
It was harder than she thought. Immediately she was drenched, her hair sticking to her face where it was blown, her trousers cold and wet against her thighs. She hunched her shoulders amazed that she had left her warm bed for freezing rain then determinedly clenching her fists fixed her eyes on the building.
A dog barked. The chalet's front door banged open and shut slapping back against the cracked frontage, slamming closed and once more blasting wide as the gale ploughed through the gaping fissures and broken window panes. Remaining at a short distance Lizzie glanced to her right along the line of dark chalets then over her shoulder at the ones behind. There was no sign of lights being switched on or movement of doors opening or appearance of worried neighbours. She told herself that others would at that moment be dragging on their boots and coats and soon be joining her and she looked with anticipation of their arrival at the collapsing chalet. Then she saw them. Several feet inside the broken doorway an elderly couple both dressed in their outdoor clothes clutching each other.
'Hey!' the wind snatched away Lizzie's voice. 'Here, come on.' Frantically she waved her arms but stepping forward hesitated when she caught sight of the long drop into the foaming waves thundering against the cliff face below. The water, dark as cold granite, hit the rocks spurting up pale foam as it rose and pounded back against itself. It hit the land again with the force of a winter sea and pulled back in readiness for the next onslaught. Her heart thumping she glanced quickly around towards the other chalets. They remained silent and dark. Still nobody appeared and she looked back at the couple but they were no longer in sight. Shivering she edged nearer but still couldn't make out where they had gone. Then the dog barked again.
'Here, boy,' Lizzie stared deep into the gloom of the building and then froze. The two figures knelt on the floor, their heads resting on each other's shoulders as they clung together as though praying. They seemed oblivious to the barking dog, her frantic shouts and the fact that the chalet was collapsing around them.
'It's this way,' she yelled, slightly closer, 'come on, move.'
Barking wildly the dog ran towards her. The couple didn't even turn their heads. It ran back, looked at Lizzie then again at the couple.
'Get up,' she shouted. The wind and rain fought against her. Towering waves smacked the cliff. She clenched her frozen wet fists together tensing her body against the damp misty air.
'It's going to go,' she cried.
Still they didn't acknowledge her. She glanced around once more wondering what to do then looking back at the couple and hesitating for barely a second crept forward carefully extending one foot through the doorway. The chalet groaned and creakingly shifted. She screamed, jumping onto solid ground and staggering backwards looked again over the surrounding buildings. Still none of the other residents appeared and she felt herself begin to sweat in spite of the cold. All the doors in the outcrop of chalets remained resolutely closed. There was not one sliver of light leaking through any of the tightly drawn curtains. A pale grey clung to the entire area and only the sound of rain, wind and crashing surf permeated the dull air. Shaking Lizzie wiped away the rivulets dripping down her face and hurried towards the nearest chalet. Grabbing the balustrade she leapt up the steps and hammered a fist against the wooden door.
'Hello?' she shouted. 'Is anybody in?'
There was no answer. She banged again but the building remained in darkness. Grasping the door handle and twisting she shook hard. It was locked. Almost falling down the mossy steps her knees buckling under her she scurried to the next building where she slipped on the drenched wood and grasping the hand rail as she raised her numbed fist struck the door. It not only remained closed but it too was locked. Tears pricking her eyes, the pressure in her chest almost unbearable, she stumbled to the next silent chalet. On seeing that the curtains were drawn wide open and the place in darkness she immediately left it and hurried on to the next. The moment her hand hit the dark green door it miraculously opened.
'Hello?' The outline of a tall man leaned forward.
Lizzie gasped, breathing hard and pointing into the drizzle.
'One of the chalets,' she could feel sobs rising in her throat.
He peered at her more closely.
'Who are you?'
'There are people in there,' she wiped a hand over her face. 'I think it's going to collapse.'
She couldn't believe that her voice sounded so weak but she knew that was as loud as she could make it. Stepping back she willed him to hurry. He stared past her for a moment before flicking on a light switch and illuminating his towering, wild-haired figure. The rain gusted suddenly across the veranda and she hunched her shoulders as the squall sliced through her coat. She could see the blue of a kitchen unit with a pile of beach wood propped against the side and she caught an unexpected whiff of the ripeness of apples. All at once she felt dizzy and reached again for the balustrade. Closing her eyes as she swayed, she immediately reopened them stamping her feet from side to side trying to focus on the room through the half open doorway. And then he reappeared.
'Which one?' he asked marching past.
'Over there,' she slid in the grass trying to catch up.
He had a long, sure stride. With his collar up and a hat pulled low on his head taming the wild hair his face was hidden and she couldn't fathom what he was going to do. As the twisted shape of the chalet loomed in front of them they could both see that it was in an extremely precarious position. Lizzie glanced at the man again. He didn't break his momentum and within seconds they reached the edge.
'Shelley! Gordon?' he cupped his hands and shouted.
His voice rang out deep and loud. Hearing wet footsteps Lizzie turned to look behind. An older man probably in his early sixties hurried awkwardly towards them until finally he slid in the mud only to hold himself up by grasping at the taller man's arm. He squinted directly into Lizzie's eyes.
'Who the fuck are you?' he spat.
'Lizzie Juniper,' she stuttered, 'I was telling...' she paused but the taller man didn't speak. 'There's two people trapped in there. And their dog. We've got to get them out,' her words tumbled over themselves.
The older, stockier man pushed her roughly aside as he pulled at the other's sleeve turning him around and away from her. She glanced at the chalet sensing movement. With a whisper of crumbling soil it shifted again, severing apart as a huge slice of land fell away.
'Oh, my God,' Lizzie whispered.
The chalet creaked to a halt as suddenly as it had begun to tilt and now teetered precariously on towers of turf and stone. The back and one of the side walls had broken away and between them the wind and gravity were sliding furniture across the floor. Curtains flapped, bedding tore off the bed, ornaments smashed against the walls and interior doors ripped free of their hinges. Suddenly a chair spun violently through the air and into the dull morning sky.
'Where are they?' her shrill words snatched away.
As soon as she'd spoken she made out the man balancing on the edge of broken floor and instinctively she reached out. Without warning, the older man blocked her way.
'Get back to your chalet,' he ordered.
They heard the groan of wood then the crack as it splintered. As the old man turned to look Lizzie slipped past but he managed to grab the sleeve of her coat and yanking her back barred her from nearing the edge again. They faced each other ready to spar as the wind ripped at the cliff face and chunks of soil crashed into the thundering waves. Dust lifted into the air.
'Can you see him?' Lizzie looked at the younger man.
'Gordon?' he shouted striding up and down along the front of the chalet which lay almost completely on its side.
Several other residents now hurried towards them. Another elderly man appeared from the far side of the chalet. He shook his head and gesticulated towards the building. About twenty metres away the woman from the sole caravan amongst all the chalets desperately held back her husband.
'They're still inside,' Lizzie cried out, 'We've got to get them to move.'
The old man glanced at the half dozen people who had gathered nearby and realised that they couldn't hear.
'Someone's got to go in,' Lizzie pleaded, 'we've got to be quick.'
'Anyone got some rope?' the taller man shouted towards the crowd.
Someone hurried forward and handed over a massive coil of hemp.
'Jez?' the old man interjected.
The taller man who the other had called Jez was already tying the rope around his waist. The man who had handed it to him wrapped the other end around a short concrete post. Jez caught Lizzie's look.
'See what you started?' he said.
'What?' Lizzie saw a gleam of amusement in his eye before he turned and inched his way to the cliff edge. 'I don't think it's safe,' Lizzie suddenly said, 'You'll be killed.'
She grabbed his arm then stopped, staring as the rain streamed down his face dripping from his nose and eyelashes. As one they turned their heads as a steady cascade of crumbling earth grew into a thunderous rumble and the section of cliff collapsed metres from their feet taking the chalet crashing with it into the sea.
Beginning at the horizon the sky turned a pale yellow over the charcoal sea. The waves scraped back from the coastline and seagulls wheeling above already cried for scraps. The wind dropped as the rain petered out leaving the air damp and chilly. On the cliff top the emergency services invaded the chalet park and abandoned their vehicles randomly across the grass. Randolph Brown's weather worn chalet stood about fifty metres from the cliff edge. He stamped noisily down the steps uncomfortable at having his home invaded. The Cummings, an affable retired couple, made tea for everyone using his kitchen as though it were their own. Mavis Cummings even poured a cup for the police officer who wrote down the details of what each of them had seen and asked for more sugar.
They crammed in and either stood or sat around the seventies style sofa and the long low table cluttered with tools from a half-emptied out box. Joyce Carmichael looked pinched and white holding a cup rigidly in her hands. Mavis, rounder faced and sparkly eyed, sat beside her sipping tea. Their husbands stood apart, gauging the squat officer by his questions as Jez told him that Peter Hawksworth was visiting his family near Leeds and the other missing resident, Marilyn Hopper, always stayed in Robin Hood's Bay on Friday nights. The Bowles remained in their caravan to be questioned as they didn't want to leave the children. A third talked to Lizzie in the chalet next door.
Gordon and Shelley Weston's home had stood furthest from the track that led to the main road. It had also been nearest the cliff edge. Next door was the Carmichael's home then the Cummings' then a brightly painted celebration of a chalet that had been unoccupied the previous night. Beside that stood Jez Maiden's and finally Peter Hawksworth's neat building next to the track which led steeply up the hill and onto the coast road. All in a line along the edge.
Those who owned chalets nearest the sea were immediately forbidden from returning until the representatives who'd come that morning from the Environment Agency and the Council had ascertained that the land and buildings were safe and then only in order to organise evacuation. The Chief Officer recommended they be out by the end of the week at the latest preferably in the next day or two.
Luckily there were no more storms forecast and bright, warm weather was expected. Even so they would need to move out as quickly as possible because the land was unpredictable. The Council Official wanted them to leave that morning but with the Environment Agency's reluctant agreement everyone promised to be out by the coming Friday. Friday, the 5th of November.
Randolph insisted on being questioned first and having made his curt responses he now paced outside the chalet smoking a roll up and muttering to himself continually glancing at the chalet next door and every now and then down the line to the Bowles' rusting caravan. He didn't once look at the deep indentation into the field where the Weston's chalet had stood.
Lizzie struggled to keep her eyes open as she stared at the mug of sweet milky tea in her hands. She felt sick. Greg Taylor watched her.
'This won't take long,' he said, 'Unless you want to get out of those wet things first? I can wait. Or do you want me to fetch one of the medics?'
Lizzie shook her dishevelled head without looking up. She couldn't summon the energy to strip off her dirty wet clothes or even rise from the chair where she slumped. She didn't know how to begin. Already it felt like a dream that she was struggling to remember. Only the terrified look on the old man's face, the sound of a dog barking and the thunder of crashing waves remained in her head.
They sat in silence ignoring distant shouts and the throbbing engines of vehicles coming and going. In the unbearable quiet of the room she could feel herself begin to tremble. The liquid in the mug she held rippled outwards and she stared at the widening circles as if it were the most important movement she had ever seen.
'I'll come back,' Greg said gently. Lizzie looked at him and frowned. 'You're going to catch your death,' he said, 'You get changed. There are others I can see. I'll go talk to some of them and come back to you.'
She let out a long breath. The police weren't usually thoughtful. If her eyes hadn't felt so dry and painful she would have cried.
'No,' she heard her voice say, 'Ask what you want. Get it over with.'
Greg looked unsure but he cleared his throat and read out her name, the address of the chalet park, her mobile phone number and date of birth and asked if the details were correct.
'When did I tell you those?' she asked.
'Just now,' he said, 'do you want me to put that down for you?' He took the mug out of her hands before she could answer and placed it on the table. 'Those details are correct?'
Lizzie nodded pressing her lips together. She could feel tears rising now at being shown unaccustomed kindness.
'I only moved in yesterday,' her voice wavered.
'Oh. Right,' he nodded, 'I don't think you'll be allowed to stop here if that's...'
'I know,' Lizzie interrupted, 'I'll be out by tonight.'
'Good,' Greg relaxed slightly, 'that's good.'
'I've got friends,' stressed Lizzie, 'they wouldn't let me stay here even if I wanted to.'
'Right,' he repeated, 'I'll, er,' he waved his pen. Lizzie put her hand around the mug of tea but didn't move it. 'Can you tell me what you saw?' he asked.
'I saw it fall,' her voice was almost a whisper.
'Do you know what time it was?'
She shook her head.
'Can you tell me the order it went?'
Lizzie looked at him. He was slightly flushed. He looked inappropriately neat and clean. She stared down at her dirty cropped nails and wondered if her mascara had run. She tried to remember what had woken her. It had been the heavy crash of the collapsing cliff. The driving rain and gusting wind had practically dropped now. The calm made her uneasy.
'I can't remember properly,' she put her hand over her mouth to stop her jaw shaking but her hand trembled unhelpfully. Tears spilled out of her eyes and the officer's features blurred. His face seemed too close and she could feel the slow rivulets meander down her cheeks and under the curve of her chin. With both hands she wiped them away.
'I heard a noise,' she said breathing shallowly, 'I looked out of the window. There was something odd about the chalet over there and then the floor under me started shaking. I got dressed and I went outside but it was cold, really cold and windy and the rain was horrible,' she could hear her voice crack and she stopped.
'D'you want a tissue?' he asked.
'There's some toilet paper,' almost inaudible she pointed towards a door at the far side of the room.
He walked slowly. The fluorescent light came on. Lizzie squinted and looked away, wiping her face again with her fingertips. Almost immediately he was holding out the roll and sitting down as Lizzie unravelled several sheets then balled them up in her hand.
'What did you do?' he eventually asked.
She knew he was thinking she was mad or a coward or a terrible person but she wasn't going to let those thoughts take hold.
'I tried,' she reiterated, 'but there was only me. I got hold of that tall guy and he eventually came out and then there were other people but it was so difficult. Someone had some rope and they tied it up and he put it round him but then the cliff started to go and it just fell away and the chalet... the chalet,' she paused for breath before whispering, 'You could hear it. They didn't scream. I didn't hear them scream.' She started crying in earnest now, shaking as she tried to stop herself.
'What did you do then?' he asked.
She stared at him appalled and wiped away the tears.
'I watched,' she said.
He didn't say anything. She looked at his pen moving over the paper. She no longer cared what he thought; he hadn't been there. She remembered the waxy feel of Jez's coat and the firmness of his large hand on the back of her head as he'd pulled her face towards his shoulder so that she could no long see.
'Did you know the couple?' his voice jolted her out of the memory and she shook her head. 'Can you name the other people that were there?'
'I don't know anyone.'
'Do you remember anything else?'
Lizzie had never seen a rock fall or even a landslide before. The local news reports had never brought home the reality of the devastation she had seen but now that she had witnessed first-hand how the waves could lacerate a cliff so that it collapsed she was petrified. For the first time she felt the terror of hearing land and everything on its edge crash into the sea.
She shook her head again.
'That's all I remember,' she said.