The bus stop at the Barbican Gate, five minutes’ walk from the Dead Level Business Park, and just past the fork in the road by the abandoned Barbican inn, was deserted. The glass of the panel on the stop sign where the timetable should have been affixed was missing – indecipherable, faded graffiti occupying that space – but undoubtedly the bus departing the Sanctuary Café, Deadmans Beach, at 16:35 – that is to say, two hours later than the service that might have been caught by Edith Watkins on that fateful March day a year and six weeks previously – was due any minute.
The time difference was intended to allow for the change in sunset time, including the introduction of daylight saving, since then. Sunset would have taken place around six o’clock then, and soon after eight now.
But the weather was overcast.
A small velvet bag containing two dice was extracted from a left-hand pocket. The dice were rolled on the low brick wall that bounded the narrow pavement.
The dice showed five (two and three).
The double-decker bus could now be observed, approaching from the direction of Deadmans Beach, its destination board indicating: 201 Moorshurst. It came to a halt, the door folded silently open, the driver waited. Few passengers were on board.
The top deck was selected. Clearly, it was not where Edith Watkins would have ventured – she would probably have chosen one of the seats near the driver designated for those with mobility difficulties – but it afforded a better view of the surrounding environment.
So stop number five was the destination, selected by the dice. The bus slowed, and stopped. It waited for the solitary passenger to descend, then went on its way, and eventually disappeared from view. The sign above the bus service emblem showed that this was the stop for Thieves Bridge. Another sign pointed the way: to Thieves Bridge Village, and to the Industrial Ponds.
The weather was not only overcast, but breezy, as it would have been, insofar as we can tell, that inauspicious day. A nearby row of trees waved, and it was cold for the time of year. Yet beyond it seemed peaceful. There was no sound of birdsong or bird calling. An engine of some sort could be heard coughing in the far distance.
And there were fields visible to the west, grey fields where daisies and buttercups were present abundantly, and where one or two horses grazed among them. Patchworked among these, the brilliant lemon-yellow shapes of fields of oilseed rape, now come to flower, stood out, hard-edged against the steel-grey sky. Closer at hand was a meadow of a uniform but stippled white, resembling nothing so much as a shingle beach; but its constituents, on closer examination, proved to be not stones but an excess of daisies, so tightly and densely packed that no greenery was visible between the individual plants, this growth only petering out at the far right edge, where a small yellow patch of buttercups was cornered. This yellow was a of a softer hue than the acid tone of the oilseed rape flower. The fields formed non-symmetrical patterns of quadrilateral forms, their boundaries sometimes marked by ditches radiating from the Old Canal, but the watercourses themselves were rarely visible. All those edges seemed to be going into the ground. The location of the Old Canal itself, to the north (beyond the road), was marked by a line of birches, and beyond that could be seen the distant hills where the presently invisible village of Deadhurst would be concealed behind thickets of tall trees with their freight of rookeries and heronries.
And then to the east, the direction of travel, all was flat and open, as the Dead Level gave way to marshland beyond. On the horizon could be seen the row of wind turbines, their vanes slowly turning. It seemed as though, whatever the vantage point, these structures would always appear to be at the same distance, like the rainbow.
The community of Thieves Bridge appeared to consist of a row of perhaps a dozen custom-built houses and bungalows of all forms and sizes, presenting as an isolated outpost of the Deadmans Beach sprawl. The most modest was a converted railway carriage, painted Brunswick green, to which a timber verandah had been attached; the most ambitious, a two-storey construction of modernist flavour, its plate-glass windows impervious to inspection, a car-port embedded at ground level. Next door to this, a bungalow offered a window display of tightly packed cacti and succulents in pots. One or two of the dwellings were in a poor state of repair and were adjacent to ramshackle outhouses. All homes had front gardens of various sizes and scope, planted with hardy vegetation adapted to withstand the salt breezes coming in along the flats from the coast, and incorporating areas of tightly-packed pebbles and gravel. No inhabitants were visible.
The houses lined one side only of the unmade road, facing the west, a broken hedge marking the other perimeter, and here occasional vehicles were parked on the verge, where there were small masses of white narcissi. At the far end, a footpath intersected this road, and along it a young woman could be observed sedately leading two roan ponies, chestnut intermingled with white and grey, away into the distance.
Then, from the far end of the row, approached a group of people and dogs.
On closer approach, this group resolved into eight or nine individuals, with a dozen or more dogs circling them, all of the same breed: grey, black or peppery in colour, with white socks, shaggy moustaches and sharp pricked ears. The individuals talked and laughed among themselves while their animals darted from side to side, investigated the verges or trotted back to look quizzically at their owners, who were mostly of late middle age or older, evenly balanced as to sex, and of generally jovial disposition. They were dressed principally in fawn, with some exceptions and eccentricities.
Greetings were exchanged. One or two of the dogs approached and greeted in their own fashion.
In response to enquiry, one man, in his seventies perhaps, sporting a heavy salt-and-pepper moustache that lent him an uncanny resemblance to his dog, explained: We’re the Schnauzer Walking Club.
Had they been out on the marshes?
Oh yes, interrupted a corpulent woman with a smiling face, her head covered in a baseball cap, the dogs love it out there.
But you have to be careful, the moustached man warned, it’s treacherous in places.
The dogs know their way.
Just follow the designated paths, advised the moustached man (who, despite the chill, was wearing shorts, bare below the knee, with hairy shins disappearing into yellow Crocs), and you’ll be all right.
The designated paths, echoed another, a cerise-faced woman, before wandering off to attend to an errant dog.
The Schnauzers, they’re very intelligent.
They know the ways.
It was helpful to be reassured on these points. Further questioning elicited the information that this outing took place every month, regardless of the weather. Had they, then, recently observed anything of a disturbing nature: lost individuals, persons in distress, evidence of trauma?
Oh, said the woman in the baseball cap, fending off a Schnauzer puppy that had suddenly decided to distract her attention by leaping up at her repeatedly, oh, there’s always weird things going on out there. People do get into trouble.
But no dead bodies, we haven’t seen any dead bodies recently, if that’s what you mean, interrupted another man, in a sleeveless puffer jacket. At least, nothing human. And he roared with laughter, as though he had just cracked a joke. And his partner, who walked with the help of a single crutch, a dog lead in her other hand, joined in the merriment, their dog meanwhile reaching eagerly on its leash to sniff another. And all the dogs leapt and trotted.
The party started to move off. Two couples were beginning to load their pets onto parked vehicles. Others moved in the direction of the bus stop.
The Schnauzer Walking Club were left behind, and so, eventually, was the settlement of Thieves Bridge. A look at our position on the GPS-generated map on the phone screen revealed a blue dot on the threshold of a great nothingness. Ahead, in the real world, could be observed sodden fields dotted with sheep each accompanied by lambs, and then empty fields criss-crossed by ditches, and then, far beyond, the grey shimmer of the Industrial Ponds.
A solitary woman approached down the designated path.
She was perhaps in her sixties, of medium height, had short, dark, greying hair fringing a woollen hat, and wore a navy anorak over a green jumper, jeans and walking boots.
But she did not respond to the greeting. Close up, it was observable that her eyes were large and lustrous; they looked in this direction but they saw no-one. In her hands she held a dog lead, and kept twisting it round repetitively.
Hello, are you with the Schnauzer Walking Club?
She had stopped in her tracks. It was as though she had heard the greeting, but either did not understand it or did not know where it was coming from. She still did not appear to see anyone in her path. She looked from side to side, then her gaze returned. She continued to twist the strap.
Have you lost your dog?
She looked around her, as if this idea might just have been put into her head, and the dog might reappear at any instant, from any direction.
They went that way. The Schnauzer Walking Club. If you’re with them.
She continued to stand there, apparently uncomprehending. The fingers of her hand went on turning the dog lead over and over, and then a curious fact became evident. She had six fingers on each hand. It was necessary to count them and count again, just to make sure, but when the hands remained still for a moment or two, the number became incontrovertible and the fact was established.
A smile of encouragement was offered to her, and a pointing hand.
Without warning, she smiled back, as though with thanks, her face transformed for an instant.
And then all of a sudden, her brief smile faded again and, still silent, she resumed her silent walk, past our position, in the direction of Thieves Bridge. And was lost to view.
A little further on, in a hollow just off the path, was encountered what appeared to be a research station, a small compound nestled within the adjacent banks studded with patches of marram grass, encircled by chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire. The compound contained several ranks of wooden frames, each holding rows of samples of metal tiles in a variety of different colours and finishes, deliberately exposed to the sun and wind in what was clearly a scientific experiment. Some of these tiles had already experienced considerable weathering, others had evidently been more recently installed, or were less susceptible to adverse local conditions. There was no information provided about it other than three KEEP OUT notices, spaced regularly.
Beyond that was the shimmer, suggesting the presence of the Industrial Ponds. So it turned out. They were tranquil, with not an angler or any other human in sight. The path went right round the grey trembling water. Once it would have been toxic, but no longer. We had been assured – by Gordon Prescott, among others – that it had been restored to full health, that fish stocks had recovered. The occasional discontinuous ripple, running counter to the prevailing wind, would be evidence of this.
Near the right bank, a pair of mute swans could be seen sailing slowly. There was some observable bird life beyond them; binoculars revealed possibly greenshank, possibly plover. Beyond the far bank, a rook suddenly dived with a rough croak and was lost in undergrowth between some trees. To the south, a double V suggested a pair of herring gulls catching the breeze.
Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. The familiar five-fold peal.
So there were marsh frogs in these waters.
Silence descended, and weighed heavily. But not completely, as was soon evident. A muted hum could now be detected rising and falling, and also, far off, the intermittent call of a ewe.
Then again: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.
And an echo across the lake.
There was no visible sign of the amphibians. Possibly they were dwelling in the reeds close to the near bank. This region had been described as uninhabited. Clearly, of habitation there was an abundance – but not of the human kind.
The water closest to our position was almost black. There was an object stuck in it – in the shallows. With the naked eye, it was hard to discern detail, but binoculars revealed it to be the wrecked remains of a baby buggy, half-submerged. Of the child, there was no sign.
Without warning, a sudden turbulence broke the surface near the shore. For the briefest of instants, a shiny, mottled dorsal fin was visible before plunging back into the depth. It was undoubtedly a monstrous catfish. It did not return.
And now the perspective started to become unstable. There were density changes in the air, between those distant objects on the opposite bank and the observer; these changes possibly being caused by heat from sources far from this present location: chimneys, vehicle exhaust, roofs or roads. The path encircled the ponds, then led away into poorly mapped areas. A thicket was encountered – the cold wind blowing softly through dwarfed willows – and then terrain that might be described as willow carr, that is to say in transition between marsh and meadow. Marsh frogs were no longer audible. In the open country now visible, tall wooden poles, eight in number, the height of telegraph poles but bare of any encumbrance or detail, were observed to be grouped together; to be more specific, five in one group, three in another. Their purpose was unknown. The spacing between objects increased. From time to time, a plank bridge had to be negotiated over a ditch running between fields.
A sudden movement interrupted the stillness: a hare. The animal leapt from cover and bounded away from our position, being eventually lost from sight in the adjacent field.
And then inaccessible across another ditch, some fifty metres distant, a hoarding came into view, weather-battered, its wooden frame corrupted by rot. In block capitals, it proclaimed:
The lettering was sans-serif, a very much faded tan in colour, shadowed to the bottom and left in a slightly deeper colour, the background creamy but rough. If this was an advertisement of some kind, there was no clue as to what it might be promoting. Its enigma as an object of religious contemplation was satisfyingly complete.
The global positioning system had failed. There was no electronic signal discernible. The path forked; then forked again. There was no basis for any decision as to which fork to take. Therefore this had to be taken randomly. A field was skirted. The oceanic marshland continued ahead for mile upon mile.
A sheep called nearby. After a few moments the call was repeated, sounding closer. On mounting the shallow crest of a small dyke, the animal became visible, a lost ewe sheltering by the ditch in the lee of the slope with its single half-grown lamb. The rumps of both animals, the older and the younger, were caked with dirt. The ewe’s eyes were briefly turned in our direction; she called again. She seemed bewildered. The lamb staggered; it was possibly lame. The flock would be some distance away. A catastrophe had separated these two from it, and it was only to be hoped that the shepherd would eventually locate them. There was, in any event, nothing to be done.
It was no longer clear what manner of path this was. A step to either left or right resulted in the foot sinking into soft mud; and on retreating, the former path was difficult to regain. Hillocks protruded. Animals would be burrowing here.
It could, however, be estimated that we were close to the point where the rook had been observed from the other side of the ponds to dive. At any rate, there were two of them now, to the right of the path, if path it was, loudly squabbling on an isolated tussock. One had a scrap of something in its beak which the other, its eye glinting – it could clearly be seen – coveted. And there was something bulky hidden in that undergrowth, something precious to them, something from which that disputed scrap may have been torn. As one moved sharply in the direction of their battleground, the sweet smell of decay became evident. The birds stopped their fight, froze in their positions, alert to the approach. A step nearer – and they instantly fled, flapping their wings rapidly until each settled on a bush, separated from each other and from the location that had been their battleground. The object in the undergrowth remained still. The scent increased in intensity. Further approach was difficult. It was constrained by vegetation.
The object could, however, now be glimpsed. It was pale, swollen. It appeared to be a torso, or part of a torso. It was difficult to make out its shape. It lay partly covered by the shrubbery. It had the stillness of death.
There were white feathers scattered around. That was a clue. Now it could be ascertained it was the carcass of a large bird, almost certainly a swan, badly decomposed and half sunk in mud. Part of its neck could be seen. We withdrew. No sooner had distance been re-established than one of the rooks walked back towards the location of the carcass, the other having flown off meanwhile. Then with jerky motions it recommenced pecking, extracting what looked like a jelly-like substance. A few feathers flickered in the breeze.
The paths re-forked. Decisions were now once again being taken using chance procedures. But at a further intersection a broken down sign pointed, its weathered lettering showing as “Marsh Farm”. However, there was no sign of any farm. A second look at the sign produced uncertainty as to what its text established. Here, clearly or unclearly, words were beginning to lose their shape. The more one examined them, the less certainly did they signify. There were also no electronic signals apparent any longer. The mobile phone was dead. It was almost as though – absurd thought! – the electro-magnetic spectrum was no longer present.
No buildings, no human-made structures of any size, were apparent. But those cathedrals of cloud, bearing down on this marshland! They made their own structures, changing by the minute, and their depth created the illusion of a mirror of the land below, which itself was an ancient sea, of course, the ghost of a shallow ocean that had retreated millennia ago, hiding beneath it, in the manner of a palimpsest, evidence of even older times, of unimagined undersea forests, now turned to coal and other sediments. Coal, no longer worth extracting, but nevertheless buried there still.
And then, a minute later, there was a man-made structure up ahead, or the semblance of one. It seemed to be a barn, set on a slight rise, sheeted with rusting corrugated iron. Its distance from our position was uncertain, perhaps indeterminate. But if this was Marsh Farm – and how could it have been missed from view such a short time ago? – then there was the possibility of a farmer, who could give advice on our co-ordinates. If it could be reached.
There was now thunder in that sky; it was the colour of bruising. Isolated raindrops manifested.
The barn was reached, but at some cost. Although at times it appeared very close at hand, such that one could reach out and touch its side, the approach journey seemed to take the best part of an hour. On arrival, finally, it appeared vast in dimensions. But its wide interior space had been abandoned. There was an uneven dirt floor underfoot, littered here and there with the remains of straw bales, and on this floor our damp footprints appeared. It was reminiscent of a crime scene. But what crime might have been committed here? At least it offered shelter from the rain, which could be heard drumming softly on the roof far above. Wrecked wooden benches tilted. A faint scent of the animals that might have been housed here once – or that of their ghosts – still remained. An opening in the far wall offered a concrete path that led beyond. At the other end of this there appeared to be a farmhouse, but its windows gaped, revealing no content. It seemed as though centuries had gone by, and here with the passage of that time came unknown memories, arising out of their sediments. But the notion of the death of the electro-magnetic spectrum now appeared doubly absurd, for one could feel electricity and awe in abundance. The spectrum, of course, permeated everywhere, but was here simply beyond human vision. Volumes formed, and dispersed with inexorable movement. There were squares, quadrilaterals, multilateral shapes of various shades. Through this disorder, this cascade of consciousness, was it possible to regain some semblance of control? One shape, standing perhaps for human awareness, had to be moved to the “danger” area as though on a computer screen. One had to do this very slowly so that it entered the danger area only very gradually, for if it were to touch the edge too suddenly there would be a loud bang and everything would vanish, not just the computer screen, or even the computer itself, or whatever device it was that all this was mediated by, but the very world, so that nothing would exist except one’s bare consciousness. The field would become a tabula rasa.
The presence of the observer interferes, as it always has done, and always will.
The farmhouse was a mere shell, as could be seen when it was approached, for daylight was observable through the broken glass and empty spaces of its upper floor windows – but its doors and ground floor windows were barricaded against entry. There was no shelter to be obtained here, and so it was necessary to retreat to the barn. And now the storm was fully raging. The lightning and its concomitant thunderclap must have been directly overhead, for there was barely a gap between them. There was a bang. Then there was nothing. And then something again.
It appeared there was a world – out there – that was not the real world. The storm flew overhead. And night was beginning to fall.
Hello! Is anybody there?
(There is no reply.)
The rain had stopped. The wind, too, had died. The thunderstorm had passed just as quickly as it arrived, leaving a great stillness behind. There was a hint of luminescence in the lighter cloud to the left, which would make that the west, for it was undoubtedly the faint and masked evidence of a sunset. And to the right, the outlines of the distant, easterly wind turbines could just be discerned on the darkening horizon. That meant the way ahead, northward, would surely lead back to the main road. It was only necessary to continue taking the fork in the path that kept the fading light to the left and the turbine silhouettes, insofar as they could be made out in the gathering dusk, on the right. With luck, it would surely be possible to arrive in time to pick up the last bus of the evening from Moorshurst to Deadmans Beach via the Barbican Gate, due at the Thieves Bridge stop at 21:15.
Domestic animals could now be heard again: the distant cries of sheep, the yelp of a dog. A human voice? Perhaps. Location was beginning to reassert itself, with greater strength every minute. The electronic device clicked into life; the time showed glowing in the dim light as 20:48. It was necessary to deploy a torch to guide the way now, to avoid a possibly catastrophic deviation from the path, whichever path was chosen. The world was made of flesh again. Currents flowed through it, and constituted it. Fields were skirted. Something scurried in a low hedge. There was a lingering scent of sewage. We were in open country, and car headlights and tail lights could be seen proceeding slowly in the distance.
With great difficulty, the road was reached, and the recognisable hamlet of Thieves Bridge, unfamiliarly approached from a different direction. There was nobody waiting at the bus stop. It was 21:11.
A single street lamp pooled the stop in light. Darkness was settling all about. In the rightward direction, the road to Moorshurst stretched to the bend; to the left, that to Deadmans Beach disappeared into the night. All was quiet. Presently, a low rumble could be heard. A faint light outlined the small grove of trees at the bend, and from here now approached the welcome sight of the illuminated double-decker bus, its destination board indicating in bright amber digits piercing the gloom: 201 Deadmans Beach.
The last bus of the evening was not uninhabited.
For on the top deck as the night greyed, as fields and ditches beyond the glass disappeared, briefly encountered human agencies flourished in their own individual ways, within their own consciousnesses.
The numbers on the bus varied slightly, perhaps two dozen on balance for the duration of the trip (at least as far as the Barbican Gate), plus or minus a few, evenly split between top and bottom decks.
There was muted chatter. Some were silent, even perhaps contemplative. At this hour the majority would have been workers at the end of a late shift. One appeared to be eating shrimps from a small cardboard container.
Car headlights approached from time to time, and in a rush were gone.
From one of the seats behind, there was a humming, or maybe a whining. It came and went, rising and falling in volume, but never loud, never above p – eventually revealing itself to be a woman’s voice continually essaying with varying success a hymn-like tune or dirge. And on occasion (but indistinctly) the tune may have been identifiable as that old favourite “Abide With Me”; but then receding in presence and definition, re-entering the category of indeterminate wail. The memory, the faint echo of the banshee.
At the third stop, a drunken man boarded the bus, ascended the stairs and lurched into a near-side seat. He laughed to himself from time to time. Where he had been, only he knew. He wore a gold lamé, or gold-lamé-effect suit, crumpled, and a trilby hat of the same material. The outfit had probably been purchased at a novelty fancy dress store rather than a tailor’s. His plastic spectacles looked fake too. He uttered vague imprecations to nobody in particular, and at one point attempted, but failed, to harmonise with the woman’s hymn or dirge singing. Following this, he slumped back in his seat, but moments later revived to start a musical performance of his own. With spectacular lapses in intonation, he burst into folksong:
How many gentle flow-ow-owers grow
In an English country … ga-arden?
The hymn-singing woman was momentarily silenced.
The drunk tipped his hat, and made his trick plastic spectacles light up, a bright lime-green, presumably at the discreet push of a button in his pocket: a feature that, despite his looking around for approval, went largely unappreciated by the other passengers. He continued:
How many songbirds ma-a-ake their nests
In an English cunt …
He paused here, and made the spectacles illuminate another four or five times. There was a brief moment of silence, then the woman resumed her murmured and dreamy rendition of “Abide With Me”.
No more passengers got on.
Fast falls the eventide.
Darkness – and the road ahead. The Barbican Gate.
The voice of a child from the back: Mummy! mummy!
Hello, is anybody there?
(There is no reply.)
Hello! Is anybody there?
(There is no reply.)
Who is it?
(There is no reply.)
I’ve got to go now. I’ll be off in a minute. I have things to do, I have to move on. Now’s the time, if you want anything. Is there anything you need?
(There is no reply.)
Who is that?
(There is no reply.)