There are only a few days before we have to go home. Summer is nearly over. A flash of brilliant blue and green that came and went, like the dragonflies near the water’s edge.
Kristin and I are on the riverbank at the furthest corner of the farm. The fields end at a wall of hawthorn tangled with curls of ancient barbed wire, an impenetrable barrier that stretches all the way to the distant road. There is nothing here, just a few yards of scrubby field and an old feeding trough surrounded by thistles. The edges of things are always forgotten. Corners always unloved. The adults never come here.
We stand together on the shingle at the edge of The Pool, a broad, still section of the river formed by a sweeping bend where it flows from the open fields of the farm, and curves out of sight. Down here it moves between high banks, topped with densely planted trees. They grow so close together that it’s impossible to see more than a few feet beyond the boundary of the plantation. Here, at the edge of the wood, the water is a deep brown and cold.
‘You’re a liar. You’ll just hide and say you went.’ She laughs, trying to make out she isn’t afraid to go, and begins to walk back towards the house.
‘I’ll take pictures. Proof.’ I have a camera of my own. It’s small enough to carry in my pocket or on a string around my neck; an oblong of black plastic with a clip to attach flash cubes. The photographs it takes are grey and fuzzy like the ones they have in ghost books. Pictures that are supposed to prove they’re real, even though you can’t see anything. But I don’t mind; they are the pictures I like taking. Not holiday photos where everyone lines up and smiles. I take pictures of the places as they really are; empty car parks, bus stops, sometimes people, but only when they think nobody’s watching. Proof of what I’ve seen.
I look downstream, where none of us have been, where the river flows into the land beyond. I touch the knife in my pocket for reassurance, tracing the detail of the plastic grip and the single folding blade of cheap steel. It feels more dangerous because it was stolen.
Ahead of me the top of the bank is fenced off. The only way on is to wade along the edge of the river; through The Pool. But that is where the pike lives. A monster, at least six feet long. I’ve never seen a pike but I’ve listened to the stories about this one. I’ve heard anglers describe it to the farmer; the monstrous size of it, its immense age and cunning, lying in wait, perfectly still in the dark of The Pool. Caught more than once and hauled onto the riverbank, before fighting its way free and plunging back into the dark, into legend, before the camera shutter could click. I know I can’t back out, not after what happened at the village.
As I take my first steps into the water I look back. ‘You better not say anything to the others.’ Secretly I hope she will tell Alice and Sam. I know they’ll be impressed. But I’ll be in trouble if my aunt and uncle find out – or worse if they tell my father when we get home. I’d been reminded by him how good it was of them to take me, even though I’d rather have stayed at home. I don’t feel comfortable with them; they’re much posher than my family. You can tell by their car, and the way they call the Prime Minister Mrs. Thatcher when they’re talking about the news. In our house she’s just ‘Thatcher’, especially since dad lost his job.
Kristin and I are outsiders – guests of the family. It’s the second summer that I’ve been sent on holiday with my cousins, but the first time Alice invited her friend, Kristin. The plan had been for me to play with Sam and leave the girls to themselves, but Sam is only eight and I got bored. Then Alice was ill so Kristin got bored too. Alice and Sam are the sort of kids who are always catching colds or crying because they’re afraid of being stung by a wasp.
I wade out slowly. Under the high bank the surface of the water is like black glass. I begin to cross The Pool keeping as close to the bank as I can, my hand searching for projecting roots to hold onto.
I can feel the pike watching me. I sense it, down there in the dark. I want to go faster but the thin rubber soles of my shoes don’t offer much protection against the angular stones beneath the surface, and the aching cold makes it hurt more. I don’t show the pain in case Kristin is still watching. The water is half way up my thighs now, and here, away from the main channel the only ripples come from my churning strides that grow slower as the depth increases. In the gloom under the trees, the water seems heavier, as though gravity is stronger here. I stare at the glassy surface, watching for any signs of movement and suddenly become aware of my own reflection. I am sur- prised how serious I look.
I reach the pebble beach beyond The Pool. I am out of sight, now. Gone. At the farmhouse it will be as though I don’t exist. I am alone. If I slip and smash my skull on the slippery rocks that would be it. I could keep going. Run away. Only Kristin would know.
I climb across a sloping face of rock. I have entered another world. The river is different here. No shimmering rapids and no meadows. Curling, quiet, watched over from the darkness between un-thinned pine-woods that line high banks. The ground is soft with deep drifts of needles that seize every sound and keep it, returning nothing. The hum and clatter of summer’s wings has gone; not a single bird crosses the stripe of sky that follows the river’s path through the woodland. The water here has forgotten how to sparkle or to murmur as it passes. Only fallen leaves floating along its dark centre betray any movement.
It is difficult to imagine that this is the same water the sun had beat down on only half a mile away. Up near the house, in the shallows where we played, it splashed, flew sparkling through the air as we ran along the silt beach.
It is different this year, with Kristin here. There were two teams now; boys and girls. But there was something else too. As the four of us walked back shivering to the house after playing in the river, I was mesmerised by Kristin. Overwhelmed by her self-confidence. Fascinated by the way her hair fell across her eye and the coldness of the goose-bumped skin on her arms.
When I followed her to the village, it was to make sure she was okay. She’d gone alone. Alice was in bed and Sam had gone bird-watching with his father. I found her easily enough. The village is tiny; a shop with a petrol pump outside, a village hall made from corrugated steel and a few scattered cottages. We sat on the wall beside the shop and ate the sweets she’d bought until a couple of local kids, a boy and a girl, arrived. They were older than us, fourteen or fifteen, and tough-looking. We watched them turn down a narrow track that led behind the buildings.
‘Come on, let’s spy on them.’
I sensed trouble and wanted to go back. But she was fearless.
The two kids went around the back of one of the sheds. We snuck along the edge of the track and crawled through long damp grass behind a tumble- down wall. By the time we poked our heads around the edge of a missing wall section, they were kissing. I started to snigger. Kristin didn’t; she was suddenly serious, as though she was watching something important, not a couple of village kids feeling each other up. I started to pay attention too. Lying crushed together in the lee of the wall I noticed the smell of her skin and the heat of her body beside me. Our arms and legs were touching. It felt different from when we played in the river, when our skin was ice-cold and our fingers numb. I moved away from her, embarrassed, but she was paying no attention to me. Her eyes were glued to the gap in the wall.
I took out my camera, tilted its lens towards Kristin and pressed the shutter. She pretended to be annoyed, as she did every time I photographed her. She preferred to strike a pose, like one of her favourite actresses. I wound the film on and we both turned our attention back to the village kids.
They didn’t see us at first. I’d just taken their picture when the boy turned and looked straight at me. We scrambled to our feet and ran for it. He was much faster than me. I never even made it as far as the road. He grabbed me by the neck, his long fingers pressing inwards like pincers. He ignored Kristin. She stood a short distance away, unsure what to do. She didn’t leave, but she was keeping her distance.
‘What are you doin’ you fuckin’ little pervy?’ I said nothing. ‘Spying on us were you?’ The girl joined him and they pushed me back behind the sheds. Up close, they seemed much bigger. Kristin stood on the track nearby, pas- sive and safely out of range. The boy pushed me against the wall and took something out of his pocket. A penknife.
‘You stay there pervy.’
I couldn’t speak, so I stood with my hands clamped to my side, palms sweating. He unfolded the blade of the knife and they took it in turns to throw it at the shed wall, close to where I stood. I was afraid I’d look like a coward if I ran. Afraid of what he would do if he caught me again. I tried to remain still, to look unafraid, but each time the knife struck the wood beside me, I jumped involuntarily. Sometimes it stuck, sometimes it bounced off.
It was Kristin that spoke. Without a hint of fear in her voice, she said; ‘If you don’t let him go I’m going to call the police.’
The girl replied, ‘If you try it, I’m gonna knock your teeth in. He your boyfriend is he?’
‘No. No way.’ At that moment I hated her almost as much as I hated them. The boy turned back to me and came in close. He held the knife up to my face.
‘I see you round here again, right, an’ I’ll cut your balls off.’
He shook me slowly by the neck, almost playing. The girl behind him sniggered as he dropped me and he slapped me hard on the side of the head. They strolled off towards the main road at the head of the valley. I started walking in the other direction, back towards the farm, but Kristin watched them go. She stared until they were out of sight.
‘What you so interested in those hedge-monkeys for?’
Finally she turned around and snapped, ‘You ruin everything.’
I wasn’t sure what it was I had ruined. ‘It was you that wanted to spy on them.’
‘You’re such a coward. Why didn’t you fight him? Why don’t you stop following me around?’
Once she’d said that, I couldn’t walk back with her. I turned round and headed back to the petrol station. She should never have said that. Not after I went to the village to find her. But she had said it. I was ashamed that I hadn’t fought back, and that she had seen my failure.
I wanted to go home. I decided I’d call my father. There was a phone box in the centre of the village, cleaner than the ones in our town. It still had all of its windows and even had a directory on a shelf. I dropped a ten pence coin into the slot and dialled. It seemed strange to think that 150 miles away the phone in our hallway was ringing. I suddenly felt the distance, imagined the miles of wires slung between poles stretched across the country to the one place in the world I knew. I half expected some other version of myself to answer, but it was dad that picked it up, sounding tired.
‘Nothing. Just wanted to say hello.’
‘Okay.’ I could hear him doing something else while we were talking. A metallic clatter. He could have been working, or it could have been the lid of his tobacco tin. There was a long pause before he asked, ‘How are your cousins?’
‘I’m taking pictures. Like you said. So you can see what it’s like. ’ ‘Good.’
‘Okay.’ I was trying desperately to think of something I could tell him. Something I had done. Something that would impress him. But what Kristin had said was true.
‘See you in a few days,’ he said.
‘Dad?’ But he’d gone.
I hung up the receiver and pushed the door of the phone box open.
I took the knife from a display board in the petrol station. The shopkeeper was looking the other way. He was a fat man with grey hair and a grey coat. He was out of breath with the effort of moving some boxes along the floor with his foot. I slipped the knife into my pocket and chose some sweets so he wouldn’t be suspicious. Standing at the counter, I pushed down my fear as I waited for him to serve me.
‘Will there be anything else?’ He knew. I felt the colour draining from my face. But he just smiled, ‘That everything is it?’
I nodded and put the money for the sweets on the counter wordlessly. I felt the knife in my pocket as I put my change away. Outside, all I could think of was the others’ faces when I told them what I’d done and showed them my weapon.
When I got back to the farm, Kristin was where I expected; with Alice, ly- ing on a rug in the meadow. She was reading a magazine, laughing in the fake way she does when she tries to sound like somebody off the telly. As I got nearer, I realised they were talking about the boy from the village. When they saw me, they shut up. I pretended I hadn’t heard.
I took the knife out and showed them, longing for Kristin to beg to have a go throwing it. If Alice hadn’t been there she would have. By the time I’d had a few practice throws, Sam had arrived. I told him it was a hunting knife and let him have a go throwing it.
‘Where did you get it?’ Alice asked, ‘You don’t have enough money.’ ‘I took it. From the shop.’
‘You idiot,’ Kristin said.
The flicker of excitement that had briefly appeared on Alice’s face van- ished, ‘Yes, you idiot. What if you’d been caught?’ She made Sam stop playing with it.
Bruised, I wandered away from them, along the river bank. There was no breeze and the sun’s heat was gathering in the hollows of the meadow. I lay on my stomach looking at grass stalks in the water. Silver bubbles clinging to them like mercury, defying the current. Turning my head I stared along the surface of the river, eyes screwed up against the dazzling white of the glare bouncing from the water as it burst over stones. I looked past the rapids to the edge of the farm, where the trees almost touched above the river, sending it into a gloomy green darkness.
It was then that I decided I would go downstream. The next morning. Early, while the others were still making breakfast. Alone. As far as I could go. I would have something to tell Dad. He’d be angry at first that I’d gone off alone, but he’d understand, be glad that I’d done it. I’d tell only Kristin where I was going. Whisper it to her that evening. A secret; something she couldn’t resist.
In the sunless gloom I feel cold. The skin on my bare legs and arms prick- les. Looking at the dark avenues between the trees, I begin to wonder how far I should go; how far do I need to go? How far downstream would the pike go? I touch the knife in my pocket before moving on and I feel some- thing I have not experienced before; the rush of being here, alone. The shadows connect with something inside me. A growing need for secrecy. A feeling of being on the edge of something that I almost understand.
I press on, picking my way across an expanse of moss-covered rocks, fol- lowing a beach of boulders until the river begins to change again. Emerging from the gloom, it is still surrounded by trees but they are thinner and the banks are lower and further apart. Through them I can see the land rolling towards places I have never been. Distant hills and towns that remind me the world is bigger than I’d thought. The water here seems alive again and has its voice back. I stop to splash my face. The river carries the earthy smell of distant territories; the headwaters on the moorland above the farm and the bright, cold streams that are never warm, even on the hottest day. My reflection is almost unrecognisable in the shimmering surface. The act of staring into the moving surface dizzies me for a moment. As I straighten I see, on the far side of the river, something bright, electric blue, like the flash of a ray gun. An object that is as alien here as me. I am immediately drawn to it.
The water is broad and shallow and being in the bright sun again has made me bolder. I begin to wade across the riffle but it is deeper than I thought and the current faster. The resistance against my legs makes me feel I’m barely moving. As I push towards the other side each stride is harder and harder. I pass the point of no return, the far bank is closer now and I have to hold my camera up to keep it out of the water. What I had thought to be a shallow stretch has turned out to be more formidable. If the others had been here, I would front it out, wade on and laugh at them. But alone, with only the noise of the distant rapids to break the silence, it’s different.
As I pause, looking for an easier path, I see something in the water; near the far bank, beneath overhanging trees, something breaking the surface. The long arc of a fish’s back, just beneath the surface. A massive fish. A predator. The pike is here. Perhaps it has been with me all the time, watching from the deep pools, waiting for its chance. Fear and the cold makes my legs shake with the effort of pushing onwards. Every piece of weed that brushes my leg has become something else now; the brush of a spiny tail or the taunting graze of a passing fin. But even in my need to escape, part of me is hoping I’ll be the first to photograph the monstrous pike.
I lunge out of the water onto the rocks, legs almost buckling beneath me. As soon as I sense safety, I aim my camera down towards the place I saw the monster lurking. I slither and crawl across the rocks for a clear shot. My finger is poised on the shutter release, but all I find is the tip of a branch dipping into the water, tugged by the current, sending out a curling wave of silver.
I sit for a moment. After the ice cold, the rocks are wonderfully warm. I look back to where I came from. It seems different from here. Like seeing a photograph you’ve taken and not being able to remember where you took it.
I get my breath back and turn to find the object I’d seen. Now that I’m closer, I see it’s just an old fertilizer bag, caught under a branch in the shal- lows. But there is something inside it. The glistening plastic bulges, fat with something. It’s partly weighted down in the water but bobs against the spur of rock that halted its journey downstream. I have to find out what’s inside. It’s tied tight shut, but I have the knife and the bailing twine wound around the neck of the bag feels like an invitation. Whatever the prize inside it, someone had thought to bind it thoroughly.
I think of the others, upstream. They’ll be sunbathing or making up some stupid game. But I have been further. Seen more. I have something they don’t have. I will know a secret they don’t.
The bag is heavy. I drag it, with effort, up the bank. Despite being tied up the bag has taken on water and whatever is inside, sloshes around as I drag it. I take out my knife. It’s cheap and barely up to hacking through the twine. I pull the blade upwards, sawing until the fibres give with a snap and I fall back as the contents of the bag pour out in a stinking flood of blood red, washing across my feet and carrying with it the broken bones and bat- tered pieces of the thing inside.
I take out my camera.