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By Tony Lovell
The hand felt huge, its owner angry, impatient. It held his arm tighter and shook him harder.
For a moment the hand and the dream were joined, a threshold breached.
The boy opened his eyes. The house was dark and his eyes took a while to take hold of things. He got out of bed uncertainly, climbing into clothes he had to feel around for quivering, like a new-born bird. He could hear his mother in the kitchen, talking with Isobel, who sounded angry and confused, both of them whispering as if afraid of waking him. He parted the curtains; the world slept, anyway, had its black back against the glass.
‘He’s heard about something odd on the radio,’ his mother said, ‘he wants to go and look for it.’
She sounded muddled, too.
‘See what?’ said Isobel.
‘Some holes or something. Some holes that have appeared somewhere in Lancashire.’
There were few cars on the grey roads. They drove in the same direction as us, were filled with heads as equally sleepy as ours, some shouting, some silent. He saw a girl in her nightie, not fully awake, looking out at the world as though she were still in bed, dreaming everything.
‘So why so early, Dad?’ said Isobel.
‘It’ll be busy once more people hear about them.’
He was right. As they crossed through Yorkshire cars seemd to come from nowhere, the other lanes going in the opposite direction almost deserted.
Dad turned on the radio. Between the music the holes dominated everything.
‘We should get off the main roads,’ he said, ‘look for them where nobody’ll notice. They can’t have found all of them.’
The boy peered down at his father’s feet. He was wearing shoes but wore pyjamas, too, Mum her slippers. Isobel was fully dressed. Out of all of them Dad seemed most awake, staring ahead as if hunting something crucial to him, something his life depended on.
‘Has anyone been hurt?’ asked the mother.
‘No,’ the father said. ‘they don’t seem to have reached the built-up areas, or roads. Or at least that’s all that’s known. It seems they’re quite benign.’
‘That’s very strange -’
‘That’s what I thought. It’s why I’ve dragged us out.’
‘So we can be the first to fall in one,’ said Isobel.
The father ignored her. ‘Hundreds of them so far. They’re still counting them. Some say they’re appearing along ley lines.’
‘But aren’t they just made up? What are they, anyway?’
‘Lines of energy. Earth power.’
Isobel snorted, though only her brother heard. He shrugged, listening to what his father had to say.
‘That said,’ the father continued, ‘experts in such things have disagreed about the connection. They say they’re too haphazard for it, and too many besides. Not quit ‘linear’ enough.’
Isobel twisted in her seat. They’d been out only a short time but already she and her brother were feeling stiff and sore. The time to start school was imminent, and the idea that he was missing it for this strange journey preyed on the boy’s mind; his bodys clock screamed at him how wrong it was to be here, urging him to turn back.
‘Have you rang work?’ said the mother.
The father shook his head. ‘I’ve forgot the phone,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to call into some services.’
‘I don’t know why we’re not just doing it tonight. The things’ll still be here, I’m sure.’
‘That’s just it; they might not be. The effects that caused them might equally cause them to close again just as mysteriously. We’re going to see them while we still have the chance.’
The traffic began to slow down. The car ceased moving for a while and the father started drumming his fingers against the steering wheel. The boy didn’t mind the sound but waited and watched for his mothers usual response; her hand reaching over, clasping it in something resembling the thing she rarely did - an embrace.
‘Isn’t anyone else excited?’ the father asked as she did it.
The boy shook his head. ‘I’m too sleepy,’ he said.
Isobel said; ‘I’m like Mum - I just don’t know why we’re not going later.’
‘Is magic dead, then?’ said the father. ‘This is the sort of thing you have to seize, see as it happens, or as soon as dammit.’ He gestured to the other cars. ‘Even this lot know it. The things won’t be the same after today; they’ll be fenced off and bulldozed over before you can say Jack Robinson -’
‘- and it’s not just that,’ the father continued, ‘it’s all the eyes. The things won’t feel the same once there’s been a horde of curiosity-seekers ogling all over them, leaving all their Tourist Information leaflets scattered all over the place, all over the magic. We’ve got to catch it, while we can - a virgin mystery.’
‘I think that’s nonsense,’ said the mother, ‘when I went to see Stonehenge it was as awe-inspiring as when it was built. Gave me goosebumps, it did. If that’s not retaining it’s -’
‘You really think it was like that originally? We’re talking about two different things. Stonehenge back then was new - an accomplishment, I agree, but as new as one of our shopping malls. In the case of those stones they’ve acquired their magic through time, by hanging about all these years, being a focus of pilgrimage, question. These holes represent something entirely different - something not done by us but by something else - something bigger and older than us. Just don’t ask me what.’
‘So you don’t think they’re just natural?’ said Isobel.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Look - there’s a helicopter -’ said the mother.
They turned to look where she pointed. To their left, in sky hazy with the impending mid-day heat hung the object, distance rendering it no more than an insect.
‘they’re counting them,’ said the father, ‘putting it all in order.’
‘Richard,’ said the mother, ‘they have to - for safety. Stop being so childish about it. If they’re staying they’ll affect the maps and everything, and they certainly can’t have people falling into the bloody things.’
‘I do understand that, you know. That is why I’m rushing to get to them. It’s only one morning, for God’s sake.’
The mother turned to him. ‘I just don’t want to hear you ranting again, like you do, about the poor bloody world and your fellow mans injustices to it. You always sound like it’s your fun people are trying to spoil. You never seem to understand anything. In fact you never seem to want to, sometimes - it’s like you want everything shrouded in bloody mystery…’
‘Maybe I do.’
Isobel yawned and drew her feet up under her. She closed her eyes, opened them, closed them, kept peering across to the helicopter. Some cars had begun driving towards them now, in the other lane. The boy looked at the faces of the occupants and could tell just by looking at them who had seen the holes and who had not; those who had looked blank, their eyes inward, filled with the strangeness they’d seen. The father saw it, too, he could tell - it made him frantic, jerk the car forwards when he could get the chance.
From the dashboard the boy heard the sound of the indicator, ticking like a time bomb. They were leaving the road.
‘We going for some grub?’ said Isobel.
‘Jesus,’ said the father. ‘No. We’re following the helicopter.’
‘Looks like we’re not alone in that,’ said the mother.
For the first time the father smiled. ‘We can shake them off…’
There was a clamour of car horns when they pulled off, suddenly. Another car overtook, missing the bumper by inches. The father reached for the horn but before he could his wife reached over once again and held him back. ‘No,’ she said, ‘don’t; he’s looking for magic, isn’t he? Like you? Just forgive him.’
The father did not answer.
Isobel complained. She was hungry, hadn’t eaten any breakfast and now wanted to stop for some - a coffee, a burger.
‘Isobel -’ began her father, but didn’t finish. A motorway services lay to their left and he pulled in, the traffic going in still heavy, still moving slowly. ‘This is going to take hours,’ said the father. ‘I just hope you enjoy it.’
The place was heaving with people. To save time the father chose the burger bar, he and Isobel queuing while the boy and his mother waited outside, browsing round the shops. ‘I’m going to ring everyone,’ said the mother, ‘the school and work. I can’t not let them know. You wait in here.’
She left the boy in the shop. He looked through the CDs, the books, the toys. He heard people talking at the checkout about the holes, showing one another newspapers and wondering why there were no pictures of them yet. ‘You think there would be, wouldn’t you, what with today’s technology,’ said a woman a little older than his mum. Her friend shrugged. ‘I’ve no interest,’ she said, ‘I just want them out of the way.’ The boy wondered which she meant - the holes or the people trying to see them. He walked to the entrance and saw his mum still trying to talk in the phonebox, jiggling the receiver with her fingers, her mobile lying on top of the coinbox. Somewhere behind him a little girl was trying to pull her mum outside, begging her with tears in her eyes to go home with her.
‘The phones are off,’ said mum when she came over to him, ‘even my mobie’s hissy. We’ll ring in the car.’
On the way out she bought one of the papers. ‘At least this war’s done,’ she said. ‘All that build-up and stress and then this - this fizzling out. You’d think it had never happened.’
The boy asked her for money to buy some chocolate. ‘Your dad’s buying you food, love,’ she said, ‘if he’s remembered to bring his money.’ They walked to the burger bar. ‘He’s taking forever.’
They found him and Isobel seated near the window.
‘I thought you were in a hurry?’ said the mother to her husband.
‘Five minutes won’t hurt,’ he answered.
Isobel glared at her mother. ‘Aren’t your legs killing you? -- I’m in agony. These seats became empty while we were passing them, and I thought as you were looking round anyway -’
‘I was waiting for you!’
‘Isobel -’ said her father.
‘And you owe me some money,’ she said to him.
The mother stared at the two of them. ‘you didn’t bring money,’ she said.
‘Isobel lent me some. I told her I’d pay her back.’
‘He wasn’t very nice to me in the queue. He got angry because the member of staff looked at him funny. They were busy…’
‘Has he apologised to you?’
‘I will,’ the father said.
But he didn’t. Instead he chose not to speak at all, chose just to drive in silence, leaving the remnants of his meal sticking out from under his seat.
‘The helicopter’s gone,’ said the mother.
The father scanned the horizon. ‘Could have used him, too,’ he said. ‘He was over there, wasn’t he?’
‘Maybe he’s flown down a hole,’ said Isobel.
The father drummed his fingers on the wheel. The mother slapped them. Outside the car people were watching the convoy that crawled through their streets, their faces expressing intrigue, puzzlement. The boy met several of their eyes and was surprised to find himself worried at how they looked at him, as if they were almost fearing for them.
‘We’re heading into town,’ said the mother. ‘You want to be going the other way.’
Dad slowed the car and began reversing into a pub car park.
‘We should be asking people if they’ve seen any,’ said Isobel. The father ignored her, concentrating on manoeuvering the car.
‘That is a sensible idea,’ said the mother, glancing and smiling at her daughter, ‘isn’t it?’
‘I’ll ask people later,’ said the father, ‘when it looks like it’s going to take all day.’
‘I - want to find one nobody’s seen,’ he said. ‘I can’t make you understand it.’
‘I wish you would understand,’ the mother answered. ‘I’d no idea it would take this long. When you woke me up this morning I was actually half interested in the bloody things. Now you’ve just driven any I had out of me. Right now I’d be happy just to the see them on the telly.’
Isobel laughed and the father screeched the car out into the road, car horns blaring all round him. ‘You can all fuck off, too,’ he shouted.
They sped back the way they came. The mothers face was red and even Isobel seemed uneasy. The boy, too, felt his heart racing at his father’s unusual - for him - outburst. The car moved faster now and the boy wondered whether the other cars had seen something, the helicopter, perhaps, and were all following it the other way. He didn’t say anything, glad to be moving; staying still, it seemed, just seemed to make everyone angry. In a short time they were in open countryside.
‘Look out for hills,’ said the father eventually. ‘Somewhere high. Even a small one will do.’
They passed through few vilages now. Enough time and silence had elapsed for the father to sound almost cheerful again. He had tuned the radion to a local station and each time a sighting of a hole was mentioned the boy saw his forehead crease, the concern in his eyes growing, as though time were running out for him. He even looked older than when they’d set off that morning, his optimism falling away with the distance they’d travelled, his boyish enthusiasm giving way to what looked like despair.
‘Dad,’ said Isobel, ‘do you think this all means something?’
‘I don’t know. I mean I suppose so, yes. I’m not sure what, of course - only that it’s a real mystery. And people chase mysteries… All I can tell you is that the minute I heard about them something inside me told me to come out and see them; and I’m not - obviously - alone in that.’
‘But the reasons for people coming out here will be different,’ said the mother. ‘Other people will feel nothing when they see them. They might come out just for curiosity, because of all the brou-ha-ha, because they feel they should.’
The father looked across at her. ‘Gawp and laugh and chuck their beerbottles down them,’ he said. ‘Like that dolphin we saw on the beach back home. After a week of awe and wonder it was slashed to bits, had its eyes poked out and was burned -’
‘Dad -’ said Isobel, in almost mock disgust.
‘That’s what happens, if you don’t get there quick, if people see something for too long. People just get bored. Hang on - what’s this?’
The boy stuck his head between his parents and looked ahead. At either side of the road were several cars, parked up on the verges beside the dry-stone walls. The father stopped the car and both the boy and his sister opened their windows to see what was happening.
‘There’s no-one inside them,’ said the mother.
The father frowned. ‘They’ve found one,’ he said, and opened his door.
They got out. The father seemed reluctant to but couldn’t have gone any further even if he’d wanted to; the road, already narrow to begin with, was jammed with cars either side, spilling over from the verges and paths making any way through them impossible.
Isobel walked up to her father and tapped him on the shoulder. ‘It feels strange to me, this,’ she said. ‘I don’t like it.’ She wrapped her arms around herself. It was cold and a thin mist was forming, giving the impression of being on higher land than they were.
‘Someone’s coming,’ said the mother.
They all turned. Driving slowly towards them were two cars. ‘Police,’ said the father. ‘Great.’
The cars stopped and two officers got out of each.
‘Morning sir,’ said one of them. The father didn’t answer. ‘If you’ve come out here to see the holes I’ve got bad news I’m afraid - there’ve been some accidents involving them. We’ve been sent out to stop as many people as we can from approaching them. Sorry, sir.’
‘We’ve travelled miles,’ the father told him. ‘We’ll be careful. We’ll even come with you.’
‘I’m going nowwhere near them, sir. There’s people coming out to fence them off, and from what I’ve heard it’s the best thing for them -’
‘Yes, sir. If you come back in about a week I’m -’
‘A week -’
The boy thought his father was going to hit the man and closed his eyes in anticipation. He saw his eyes bulge and he stepped forwards. The officers seemed so surprised they stepped back, then the father fell, his foot squeaking on the wet grass, and one of them tried to catch him. When he stood his pyjamad knees were green and brown.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘we’ve come across the country for this. We don’t want to see fences and folk looking down them like their some sort of novelty. This is a once in a lifetime thing; I’ll only go off and look somewhere else -’
‘I wish you hadn’t told me that, sir. I might have to do something, with that information,’
The father gasped. ‘No -’
‘They’re dangerous things, sir - you don’t know how dangerous. We’ve had a small child - a little girl and one of her parents -’
‘I’m sorry,’ the father said. ‘Sorry to hear that.’
‘Anyway, if you do go looking you’ll only find more officers like ourselves, sir. They’re being manned all over the place now, as we find them.’
The father calmed down. The mother said ‘Have you seen any?’
One of the officers who hadn’t spoken stepped forward. ‘We’ve been told not to go near,’ he said, ‘though we’ve seen one from a distance. They’re - odd things, is all I can say. I’d keep away from them myself.’
‘Could I not come with you now, to join these people?’ said the father, gesturing to the other cars. ‘Presumably they’re still here -’
‘We couldn’t, sir,’ said the first officer.
‘And you’d arrest me, if I tried,’
The father walked to a style in the wall. In an instant two officers were beside him, arms spread.
‘If this is a joke that’s all well and good,’ said the officer, ‘however if crossing here is something you intend to do then I’ll be forced to take you with me to the station. As it is I strongly recommend you go back to your car and take your family back home. These holes are highly dangerous and I recommened you leave and come back when they’re safely fenced off, at which point I’m certain you will be able to appreciate them just as well as you would now.’
The boy saw him blinking. He could see he was impatient now and saw his father saw it, too. The boy also saw the hand of another officer reaching for his truncheon.
‘Dad,’ he said, ‘I don’t want to see these holes.’
His father turned to him. He seemed puzzled.
‘They’re only worried about us,’ the boy continued. ‘They just don’t want us to get hurt.’
The policeman looked at him. ‘Wise words, young man,’ he said. He turned to the boys father. ‘I think you should do what your son says; he’s right - we really do just have your best interests at heart.’
‘He does have a point,’ the mother said to her husband. She turned to the policeman; ‘He reads mysteries, you know. He was just a little excited.’ She said it in a way that implied some sort of illness.
They turned to walk away. The boy looked back and saw a look pass between the officers that troubled him; a shared smile, a sharp light in their eyes that changed their faces so entirely it was as though they’d removed masks. He was glad they were going.
‘Where next, Dad?’ asked Isobel, later.
‘I have no idea.’
‘You mean we’re not going home?’
He didn’t answer.
‘You mean you don’t know him by now?’ said the mother. ‘We’re going hole-hunting again, aren’t we?’
Isobel sighed, the sound desperate. ‘I thought you were listening to that man,’ she said. ‘If we find one I’m not going. It’s stupid.’
The man didn’t speak. His son looked at him through the mirror; his mind no longer seemed on the road - he seemed driving somewhere inside his head, with them not there. He felt he could almost see the mans thoughts; it was almost breathtaking. He seemed caught up in some mental battle with something real and invasive within him, something tangible only he was in touch with.
‘Do you want me to drive for a while?’ said the mother.
Her husband looked at her.
‘You’ve been driving for four hours…’
‘It’d be a good idea,’ said the boy.
His father turned to glance at them. He looked exhausted. ‘I’ll find somewhere to pull in,’ he said. ‘To be honest I could do with a walk.’
Isobel leant forward. ‘I could go for that. My legs are killing me.’
‘It’s because you insist on sitting like that,’ said her father. ‘Bloody feet on the seat and everything.’
They drove for a few minutes, the father following no particular route besides roads with little or no traffic, him steering the car off in the opposite direction whenever another appeared.
Eventually, on high ground, views of fells and moors all around them, they stopped.
The father got out first. Whether it was the scale of the place or the silence his strain had vanished, and without speaking to the others he was off across the coarse grassland while they stretched and stood, letting the blood in their veins re-familiarise itself with their bodies.
The mother watched him half-walk, half-stumble across the landscape, his eyes darting here and there like those of a nervous dog. Her own were fixed on him, the boy noticed, and had never looked more sad. ‘I’ll put the radio on,’ she said, and looked away.
‘He’s such an bastard,’ said Isobel, almost to herself. The boy blushed.
The sounds of another local station came from the car. A female presenter with a Lancashire accent was in Pendle talking to some people in the area. They were talking about the holes, and witches. ‘There’s a cluster of them here, at the foot of the hill,’ the woman was saying, and spoke to an old woman. ‘I think it’s them,’ the old woman said, ‘still angry and hurting at what was done, what those men did to them.’ The presenter did not laugh, but Isobel did. ‘Woooo…’ she said, ‘better watch yourself, Dad.’
The mother glared at her. ‘Are you waiting here?’ she said.
The grass on the moor clawed at their feet. It hid water - black, peaty liquid that oozed into the mothers slippers, the boys shoes. She and the father, still partly clad in their nightclothes looked to their son like two sleepwalkers, some stragglers from a dream.
The father shouted as they approached him. ‘It’s too flat to see,’ he said. ‘They might be feet away and I wouldn’t be able to tell.’
At this the woman and boy stopped walking. They could see what he meant; they stood on a vast, featureless plateau that looked out over to peaks and hills farther away.
‘If you want to go,’ the father said, ‘you can. I’ll stay here for a bit. Ten minutes?’
Mother and son walked back to the car.
‘There’s a pub,’ said Isobel, ‘just down the road. I could murder a drink.’
‘OK,’ said the mother.
It stood near a small clump of trees, camouflaged by its drabness. One car stood outside.
‘I hope Dad knows to come here,’ said the mother.
They stepped inside. The place was empty and unlit, smelled of stale pleasures and looked very, very old. The floor was of bare, beer-brown floorboards that heightened the sounds of their footfalls, causing the boy to think of pirate galleons. ‘It feels very authentic,’ said his mother. ‘It’s like they’ve done nothing to it for centuries.’
They went into the bar. Dark, mismatched furniture blended with beamed ceilings and walls, the windows small affairs that let in little light. At the far wall stood the shadowy cave of an unlit fireplace, the warm light it should have offered supplied instead by the empty flickering of a games machine which stood at the far side of the bar.
‘I can hear someone through the back,’ said Isobel, ‘shouting -’
‘Telly,’ said the boy.
They walked to the bar and peered downa tunnel of a corridor that led to what looked like a snug; there was someone there, moving toward them.
‘More people,’ it said. ‘you gave us a fright.’
‘Sorry,’ said the mother. ‘We’ve been out on the moors. Do you do teas?’
The figure - a small, almost elderly woman with hunched shoulders nodded. ‘Teas is easy,’ she said. The boy thought she looked dirty but on closer scrutiny realised she was just dully coloured, faint stubble and hair on her chin smudging her lined face. The coat she wore was the colour of a dying lawn and her fingers, the boy saw, were almost the colour of bruised carrots. ‘Is that all?’
‘That and a seat will do,’ said the mother.
‘I suppose you’ve come for these oddities,’ said the woman.
The mother looked down at the nightdress peeking from under her coat. ‘I suppose it looks like we’re up to something unusual,’ she said.
‘We wouldn’t be here if we had.’
‘Husband here? He need a drink?’
‘He’s still looking.’
The woman turned and disappeared down her tunnel and returned with three cups on a tray. ‘You did say three, didn’t you?’
‘Sorry,’ said the mother, ‘my son’ll probably just want some pop. Is that right?’
The boy nodded.
‘Always pop, with boys.’ She made to take the tea away.
‘I’ll have that,’ said the mother. ‘I can finish two, I’m sure.’
When the woman returned she said; ‘It’s always men gets these bees in their bonnets about things such as this. Funny, it is.’
The mother said; ‘It’s because they’re surrounded by mothers.’
‘Mebbe. Myself I think it’s ‘cause they don’t have to hunt anymore, but still feel as though they have to. They hunt for silly things, get hungry in their heads instead of their stomachs.’
‘My husband’s terrible, but he’s never done anything like this. Have you seen them on the telly, the holes, by the way?’
The woman nodded. ‘Aye.’ She took the mothers cup. ‘Top up?’
The mother shook her head. ‘What were they like?’
‘They did have something about them. Have you ever been to stonehenge?’
The mother and daughter nodded.
‘Well they say it’s a spooky old place, don’t they? Seeing these things made me think just of how that sounds.’
The mother laughed then hid her face with one of her hands. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I don’t know why that sounded so funny.’
The boy looked at the woman; her face had changed, imperceptibly; something in here eyes. He wondered whether his mothers words had hurt or even angered her.
‘Stonehenge was a bit funny,’ said Isobel. ‘I couldn’t go up to it.’
‘Really?’ said the woman. ‘I allus wanted to go there. We have a circle of our own here - a tatty little thing, it is, but it gets its interest; we’ve seen lights over there, after sundown.’
‘Witches?’ asked Isobel.
The woman nodded. ‘I suppose so, yes. I could never see the point of all that, myself, chasing spirits and the like.’
‘I wish my husband shared that view - at least today, anyway,’ said the mother. She looked down into her empty cup and put it back on the table. ‘Hope he’s alright out there, that he finds us.’
The old woman winked at the boy. ‘He will,’ she said, ‘seeing as we’re the only place for miles. Come on - I’ll get you that drink.’
The mother passed the woman the cup then looked at her son. ‘We’ll go, soon,’ she whispered.
The boy was worried, although the pub was a strangely comforting, almost familiar place; it felt old and frequented, a place people came to dirty from work and had perhaps known all their lives. For a moment he had the feeling they’d been in there hours and, for a frightening second, realised he’d almost forgotten his father was out there, still searching on the moors.
His mother slurped at her tea, apologising. ‘It’s hot,’ she said. ‘Thanks.’
From the other end of the room came a series of beeps and chimes which gradualy evolved into the semblance of a melody; the games machine, a robotic voice offering rewards for knowledge.
Isobel got up and walked over to it.
‘It’ll bleed you dry, mind,’ said the landlady.
Isobel fumbled through her bag and took out some silver. The music changed, became a fanfare of jubilation and urgency, almost as if moved by the girls attentions.
The boy watched her a while, heard her clatter the knobs. ‘You know this one, Mum?’
Her mother got up from the table and joined her.
The boy turned and looked out through the window across the moors. The sky had darkened and a wind now fingered the grass gently, ruffling it as though searching for something lost. For a moment the boy imagined the object to be his father, and wondered whether he’d found one of the holes, or if he’d even come back and tell them if he had.
‘He’ll be alright.’
It was the landlady. The boy turned to face her and was surprised to find her smiling quite warmly. The look he’d seen earlier had gone, revealing now only an unexpected sense of perceptiveness, one he found vaguely disturbing.
‘You know men are just like boys,’ she said, ‘they lose none of their desire to find mystery in the world. It’s a dull place for them you know, adulthood; their toys have gone and they’ve gotten to know all about everything. You, you’re still young enough to find everything strange and exciting - the world a place to explore and find surprises in. For your poor dad he’s missing the feeling that there’s anything still out there, anything that might puzzle or frighten him.’ She turned and looked to the corner. The boys mother and sister were still being heckled by the machine, though it seemed they were at least giving it a challenge. ‘they seem happy enough,’ said the woman.
‘They’re quite brainy,’ said the boy. ‘My mum used to be a teacher.’
‘And you’re not? Brainy, that is?’
‘I know some things. I know a lot about films and books. They usually ask me for help on those. I don’t know about history or sport, though.’
‘I don’t know anything,’ said the woman.
The boy found the answer strangely alarming, for it couldn’t be true. He broke away from her gaze and strode over to the window to concentrate on where his father had got to.
Where were they again, he thought? Yorkshire? The moorland looked so anonymous and blank. The fells and hills seemed to have fallen away from view, or been absorbed by distant rainfall or mist. A sense of panic rose up in him; surely, he thought, the man - his father - must be lost. As if from nowwhere tears pricked his eyes.
In his mind he saw him, standing on the black lip of one of his holes at last, staring down into the darkness and forgetting him, his mother and sister, finding something down there richer than family, more rewarding than life.
The picture was so vivid the boy had to look away from the window, almost gasping with dread. He turned and saw his mother looking back at him, smiling reassuringly. He tried to return it but couldn’t. ‘Are you winning?’ he said, instead.
‘We’ve lost our first pound,’ she said. ‘We’re doing OK but it’s definitely got its evil eye on our next one.’
The boy looked at his sister. Her eyes were fixed on the screen, her glare the one she had back at home when playing computer games, all tight lips and creased forehead. ‘We could have done with you on entertainment,’ she said to him, ‘Seeing as it’s all you know.’
‘Easy, Isobel -’
‘It’s true. It’s all he does, up in his room, watch telly and films, listen to his music. That’s his entire world.’
‘And yours, young lady.’
‘At least I have some friends. At least I get out.’
‘God Isobel - where has this come from? He’s not said a wrong word to you all morning -’
Isobel turned to face her brother. Her eyes were fixed forward as she moved her head, as though fixed inside her skull. They looked almost unconscious. ‘I’m sorry,’ she half snapped, her teeth seeming almost not to part. ‘It’s just - these things.’
‘I would have helped if you’d asked.’ said the boy.
‘She knows,’ said his mother. ‘Anyway, we should go. Your father’s obviously fallen into one of his blessed holes.’ She turned to the window. ‘And this darkness; we’re definitely in for rain…’
The room had indeed grown very dark. The boy noticed a quietness that had little to do with their silence.
‘It’s like night-time,’ said Isobel.
‘It’s started raining,’ said the mother.
‘He’s got to come back now,’ said Isobel. ‘No-one could stay out in that. Not wearing pyjama bottoms.’
They all stared out of the window. The skys grey deepened, bleeding down to the distant horizon in almost brush-like strokes. The moorland looked almost black.
‘I wish I could hate him some times,’ said the mother, ‘The idiot. ‘I’ll have to go and find him.’ She went to the door and disappeared out through it.
The boy looked at his sister. ‘We should go too,’ he said. Isobel frowned. ‘That’d be silly,’ she said, ‘it’s already risky both Mum and Dad being out there. And anyway - what if he comes back when she’s out there? No - I’ll keep an eye on you till one of them comes back.’
‘You can play on the machine,’ said her brother.
‘Is that what you think?’ She glared at him.
‘It’s the sort of thing you do.’
She looked over his shoulder. In the corner where the machine stood there was only darkness. The thing stood silent, lifeless.
‘She must have pulled the plug,’ said the boy. ‘The woman.’
Isobel shook her head. ‘No. I would have noticed. There must have been a cut. Where is she?’
She strode over to the bar and looked down the ‘tunnel’.
Behind her the door opened and something dark and dripping entered. It was the mother. ‘We’ll just have to wait,’ she said, her voice shaking with cold, ‘you just can’t move out there.’ She rubbed the water from her face and eyes. The boy noticed the blueness of her lips and the rims of here eyes.
‘The woman’s done a runner,’ said Isobel.
‘She turned the machine off,’ said the boy.
‘It’s not because of that. It’s ‘cause it’s so dark. We think there’s been a cut, because of the storm.’
‘It is dark in here,’ the mother said. ‘It’s like a cave or something,’
‘If she comes I’ll get us some more tea,’ Isobel said. ‘Looks like we’re here for the morning.’
‘Don’t you mean afternoon?’
Isobel blinked. ‘I hadn’t realised. It feels like we’ve been here ages, doesn’t it?’
The boy breathed suddenly deeply, aloud. His mother and sister looked at him as though expecting words to follow.
‘I’ve forgotten home,’ he said. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes.
His mother stepped forwards and held him. ‘Silly,’ she said, and smiled. The boy looked up just in time to see it slip away again., leaving something very much like concern in its place.
She shed her coat, draping it over one of the chairs. A pool formed instantly below, darkening the floorboards.
‘Is the loo in the hall, Mum?’
‘I should think so. If we find Miss Marple do you want another drink?’
The boy shook his head. Glancing across the bar he saw a figure shambling towards them down the corridor, a solid shadow breaking free of those that surrounded it. The room that had been down there before seemed to have been eaten up by darkness now; the storm must be right above them, he thought, and tried to push the image from his mind.
‘Hello?’ said the mother.
The boy didn’t like the silence of the moment that preceded the answer; it seemed too long, like a preparation.
‘They’re going,’ said the woman, ‘your holes. They’re starting to swallow themselves up again. Caving in, returning.’
She emerged from the corridor. Her eyes travelled from the mother to Isobel to the boy, and seemed, the boy thought, to have a bemused look about them, as though she were trying to remember who they were.
‘We thought you’d gone,’ said his mother. ‘We were after some more of your tea.’
‘Two,’ the woman said.
‘That’s right,’ said the mother. ‘You guessed right.’
The womans eyes were fixed on the boy. ‘You wanted the toilet, didn’t you,’ she said.
‘I think I can wait actually,’ the boy said. ‘I don’t think I’m desperate any more.’
The woman looked away from him, to the window. The boy followed her gaze.
Outside, against a pale strip of sky stretching across the width of the horizon, he could make out a distant figure, stumbling across the landscape. For one strange moment he forgot all about his father and thought it just a man, lost in the rain.
Then, eventually, he remembered.
‘It’s Dad,’ he said, the words almost a yell. ‘He’s come back again -’
His mother had moved to the wall where she sat with his sister, sipping from their teacups. He couldn’t remember the woman bringing them. ‘Mum?’
He didn’t like the way she said this word. It were as though she couldn’t see him in the gloom and had been uncertain who he was. ‘He’s coming back,’ he said again. ‘He’s here, now -’
‘He knows his way back,’ said Isobel. ‘He isn’t stupid.’
The mother started to laugh when usually she would have snapped. Was there alcohol in this tea, the boy thought? Isobel smiled at her mother. The boy felt he’d missed something and started to feel he had been to the toilet after all, down the dark passage to a yellow room that served both men and women and had a cigarrette burn on the window sill.
‘Mum - please let’s go out and shout to him. I’m scared -’
He stared at them both, trying to fathom from their faces what was going on, why they were suddenly so relaxed.
They looked down into their cups as if searching for something, reading tea leaves perhaps - like the boys grandmother had used to do, so he’d been told. He began to feel they had drank something grown-up, after all, had begun enjoying themselves too much in the place; or perhaps, he thought too, they were even just being very sensible, unlike his stupid, selfish father, out there wandering the rain-lashed moors looking for his mysterious world and letting them sort themselves out however they wanted.
He ran to the door and opened it. He was going to call out to the man, beckon him here to where it was safe and dry, give him some sort of welcome. He seemed suddenly a child-like figure; the boy pitied him, he realised, and saw something that perhaps had always been there despite the selfishness that so often separated them from him - that his preoccupations with certain things now seemed small and innocent, and, no doubt, a sign of some inner sadness. The boy wondered too whether it was they, his family, who had somehow disappointed him, or whether it was just their actual presence in his life that caused him to withdraw into himself so much, and not how they were as people?
The darkness of the hall startled him. He was certain the door had been glass panelled when they’d came in, not the heavy oak that confronted him. But then as he approached and placed his hand to it he realised he’d been right; the panels were there - it was the darkness beyond that had made them seem so solid and opaque.
The glass was textured, like pebbles. He pressed his face to it and looked out but saw nothing, then put his hand around the knob and turned. It wouldn’t move. He pushed and pulled, the knob a slippy, stonily rigid thing that refused him his attempts to turn it, then put his shoulder against the glass, pushing with all his strength, something soft on the floorboards stopping his feet from taking hold.
The boy felt tears forming and a throbbing behind his ears. From the room behind him came sudden laughter; it sounded like more people had entered the place from somewhere for there were more voices than just his mother and sisters. Maybe this door was locked at a certain time of the day and one at the back was used instead? Then there was an instrument, a thrumming sound the boy was unable to pinpoint. Someone started to sing.
He grunted and pushed and then, shockingly, with a squeak, the door gave. Something had pulled from the other side; the door shook in his fingers. Looking down at his feet to something that caught his eye he saw something falling in beneath a surprising sliver of light; it moved, collapsed, and he kicked it to one side.
The hand took his wrist and squeezed. It pulled so hard he felt his skin would tear, the earth clawing at his clothes and torso leaving scrapes he knew would certainly scar.
Then another hand circling the first,and a gasp of breath in his face, the smell of it one he knew and loved.
They rolled away from the lip, the man sobbing.
‘They’ve gone, haven’t they?’ said the boy, spitting out the sweet-tasting earth, picking lumps of it from round his gums.
He felt the man, his father, nod, and tried to make out his face in the dazzling sunlight. When his eyes adjusted he found the mans drinking him in, scanning every last inch of his face, worshipping him. He was seeing the man opening at last, like a flower, seeing years of getting things wrong falling away with each passing second.
‘I’m sorry son,’ he said.
The boy looked into his eyes, realising.