he old witch is there,’ said Raditch, peering over the top to Six-Mile Beach.

‘Well settled with her knitting.’ ‘It’s all right. We’re plenty,’ said Grinny. ‘We’re plenty and we have business,’ James said with some bluster — he was as scared of her as anyone. He shook his empty sack. ‘We have been sent by our mams. We’re to provide for our families.’ ‘Yes, we’ve come all this way,’ said Oswald Cawdron. ‘We have.’ And down the cliff we went. It was a poisonous day. Every now and again the wind would take a rest from pressing us to the wall, and try to pull us off it instead. We would grab together and sit, then, making a bigger person’s weight that it could not remove. The sea was grey with white dabs of temper all over it; the sky hung full of ragged strips of cloud. We spilled out onto the sand. You can fetch sea-hearts
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two ways. You can go up the tide-wrack; you will find more there, but they will be harder, drier for lying there, and many of them dead. You can still eat them, but they will take more cooking and, unless your mam boils them through the night, more chewing. They are altogether more difficult. Those of us whose mams had sighed or dads had smacked their heads for bringing that sort went down towards the water. Grinny ran ahead and picked up the first heart, but nobody raced him; hearts lay all along the sea-shined sand there, plenty for all our families. They do not keep, once collected. They can lie drying in the tidewrack for days and still be tolerable eating, but put them in a house and they’ll do any number of awful things: collapse in a smell, sprout white fur, explode themselves across your pantry-shelf. So there is no point grabbing up more than your mam can use. Along we went, in a bunch because of the witch. She sat some way along the distance we needed to go, and exactly halfway between tideline and water, as if she meant to catch the lot of us. She had a grand pile of weed that she was knitting up beside her, and another pile of blanket she had already made, and the end of her bone knitting-hook jittered and danced at her shoulder as she made more, and the rest of her looked as immovable as rocks, except her swivelling head, which watched us, watched the sea, swung to face us again. ‘Oh,’ breathed James. ‘Maybe we can come back later.’
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‘Come now, look at this catch,’ I said. ‘We will gather them all up and run home and it will be done. Think how pleased your mam will be! Look at this!’ I lifted one; it was a doubler, one sea-heart clammed upon another like hedgehogs in the spring. ‘She spelled Duster Kimes potty,’ he whimpered. ‘Kimeses are all potty,’ I said. How like my dad I sounded, so sensible, knowing everything. ‘Duster is just more frightenable than the rest. Come, look.’ And I thrust a good big heart into his hands, sharp with barnacles to wake him up. The ones that still float are the best, the most tender, though the ones that have landed, leaning in the wet with sea-spit bubbled around them, are fine, and even those that have sat only a little, up there along the drying foam, are still good. The other boys were dancing along the wrack up there, gathering too much, especially Kit Cawdron. He was only little and he had no sense; why didn’t Raditch stop him? We would have to tip most of that sack out, or half the town would stink up with the waste. ‘They’ll not need to go as far as us,’ said Grinny at my elbow. I dropped a nice heavy-wet heart in my sack. ‘We could get them back down here, to walk along with us, maybe.’ No sooner had I said it than Grinny was off up the beach fetching them. He must have been scareder than he looked. I busied myself catching floating hearts without sogging my pants-hems. Some folk ate the best hearts
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raw, particularly mams; they drank up the liquor inside, and if there was more than one mam there they would exclaim how delicious it was, and if not they would go quiet and stare away from everyone. If it was only dads there, they would say to each other, ‘I cannot see the attraction, myself,’ and smack their lips and toss the heartskin in the pot for boiling with the rest. If you boiled the heart up whole, that clear liquor went to an orange curd; we were all brought up on that, spooned and spooned into us, and some lads never lost the taste. I quite liked it myself, but only when I was ailing. It was bab-food, and a growing lad needed bread and meat, mostly. Anyway, the wrack-hunters came down and made a big crowd with us. Harper picked up a wet heart and weighed and turned it, and emptied his sack of dry ones to start again. Kit Cawdron watched him, in great doubt now. ‘Why don’t you take a few of these, Kit,’ I said, ‘instead of those jawbreakers? Your mam will think you a champion.’ He stared at a heart glistening by his foot, and then came alive and up-ended his sack. Oh, he had some rubbish in there; they bounced down the shore dry as pompons. His brother Oswald was dancing in and out of the water-edge, not caring what Kit gathered. I picked up a few good hearts, if small. ‘See how the shells are closed on it? And the thready weed still has some juice in it, see? Those are the signs, if you want to make mams happy.’ ‘Do they want small or big?’ Kit said, taking one. ‘Depends on her taste. Does she want small and
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quicker to cook, or fat and full of juice? My mam likes both, so I take a variety.’ And now we were quite close to the witch, in the back of the bunch, which was closer, quieter, and not half so lively as before, oh no. And she was fixed on us, the face of our night-horrors, white and creased and greedy. ‘Move along past,’ I muttered. ‘Plenty on further.’ ‘Oh, plenty!’ said Misskaella, making me jump and stiffen. ‘But no one wants to pause by old Misska and be knitted up, eh? No one wants to become piglets in a blanket!’ Her eyes bulged in their cavities like glistening rockpool creatures; I’d have wet myself, if I’d had anything in me to wet with. ‘We’re only collecting sea-hearts, Misskaella,’ said Grinny politely, and I was grateful to him for dragging her sights off me. ‘Only!’ she said, and her voice would tear tinplate. ‘Only collecting!’ ‘That’s right, for our mams’ dinners.’ She snorted, and matter flew out one of her nostrils and into the blanket. She knitted on savagely. The bone’s rustling in the weed sent my boy-sacks up inside me like startled mice to their hole. ‘That’s right. Keep ’em sweet, keep ’em sweet, those pretty mams.’ There was a pause, she sounded so nasty, but Grinny took his life in his hands and went on. ‘That’s what we aim to do, ma’am.’ ‘Don’t “ma’am” me, sprogget!’
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We all jumped. ‘Move along, all of you, and stop your gawking,’ spat the witch. ‘What’s to see? You think I’m ugly? Well, so are your dads, and some of you yourselves. Look at you, boy-of-Baker, with your face like a balled fist. So I’m out alone? What of it? You think all women are maundering mere-maids like your mams, going about in a clump? Staring there like folk at a hanging — get out of my sight, before I emblanket you and tangle you up to drown!’ Well, we didn’t need her to say it twice. ‘You can never tell which way she’ll go,’ murmured Grinny as we scuttled on. ‘You did grand, Grin,’ said Raditch. ‘I don’t know how you found a voice.’ And Kit, I saw, was making sure to keep big Batton Baker between himself and the old crow. ‘Sometimes she’s all sly and coaxy? And sometimes she loses her temper like now.’ ‘Sometimes all she does is sit and cry and not say a word or be frightening at all,’ said Raditch. ‘Granted, that’s when she’s had a pot or two.’ We collected most efficiently after that, and when we were done we described a wide circle around behind Misskaella, on our way back to the foot of the path. ‘From behind she’s not nearly so bad,’ I said, for she was only a dark lump down there like a third mound of weed, her hook-end bobbing beyond her shoulder.

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