The light is starting to retreat, finally. The long bright day relaxes, I can feel the weight of the sun lifting.
Screams. In the meadow the swifts take themselves around me with brazen grace. Like the centre of a cat’s cradle the lines of flight cross and pass about and above me; skimming, shooting, ripping the air. An inch or two above the flowers, they race around, mouths gape to catch the insects, bodies waggle from side to side to gain every tiny advantage. I have to anticipate to see them, to look at where they will be before they can register in my addled, average head.
They are so close as they pass. So close. If I were a god, I might even stand a chance of catching one.
One day when he was about ten years old my next door neighbour Martin went out to play with a group of boys. Usually, this would have been with the kids from our group; we had a sort of gang. Not a gang in the way people might imagine it now, more a sort of Red Hand Gang, or Rubadub Mystery bunch, wandering the countryside and back lanes, inventing vaguely sinister scenarios and stories about lonely farmhouses or strange cars.
We climbed and hid in the huge trees along the Beck and spied on walkers and lovers; we thought about uncovering a smuggling ring, probably, although I don’t think any of us really knew what that actually meant; we muddled around with fantastical situations that might escalate and somehow involve us in scenes of mild peril. It never happened of course; we had adventures that evaporated as soon as we got hungry. A silly, happy group, getting muddy and tired and nettle-stung, grass stems waggling out the sides of our mouths, tanned, hair bleached by the sun, late wandering home.
Martin was short and often picked on at school; he was easily riled and the first kid our age I’d ever heard swear in front of his parents. He swore a lot, often for no good reason. We found it funny, but his parents didn’t, and I’d once seen his Mum smack him hard across the backs of his legs for yelling an obscenity in the garden. He had a brother who lived away, along the coast somewhere he said, but I’d never heard of the town he mentioned and I just assumed he was lying for effect, the way small boys do. The way I did. I can remember Mr Atkinson, our form teacher, and a bully of some standing, yelling at him in front of the class.
– Stop twitching, Baines!
and then smiling at the ripple of giggles it created, a reaction that must have hurt Martin far more than the reprimand.
But it wasn’t us who’d gone out with him. We were too busy. Steve and Kev had been to see me and Martin wasn’t in when we knocked, or at least he didn’t answer the door. So we forgot about him and without discussing things – for we knew where we were going – left the estate by our standard route; jumping into the tiny stream at the end of the cul-de-sac, near the house where one of our teachers lived.
Hopping off the brick arch into the ditch that ran along the field edge, we were immediately out of sight and able to skirt the last parts of town and vanish into the hedgerows. No one could see us, we knew that. The ditch was quite deep, and in places the mud turned to clay and made our trainers and legs a russet brown that dried swiftly in the sun, itching as it contracted. We jumped from side to side in the sections with the steeper sides, avoiding the tree roots and brambles, until eventually the stream opened out and then dried up and we were in a long path between hedges. After a mile or so we came out onto a path that seemed like a road to us, but wasn’t. Just a strip of cracked and weed irrupted track that was only used by farm vehicles and horsey types. Left to the potato farm, where old man Hickin consorted with the criminal underworld, we assumed, or right, to Short.
Short was tiny: it deserved its diminutive name, barely even a hamlet, really, just a farm and a couple of houses sitting on the bend of the river. Another smallholding a few hundred yards beyond that, and that was it. There was a copse on a slight hill that overlooked it, and we could see a chimney pot poking out above the trees, but nothing else. The problem was, the copse was the other side of the river, and even though we planned to make a raft or find a boat, the practicalities of such projects were beyond us. I’d often tried to nudge my parents into driving all the way around, over the bridge up river at Hythe, and then back again, to see the little wood from another angle, but why would they? What reason? I couldn’t possibly explain that there was something creepy about that singular and intriguing chimney pot, and so the idea floated away and out of sight.
To Short then we headed, and we ambled hopelessly slowly along the broken little track, looking for a straight hazel stick with which to lop the heads off cow parsley or overgrown thistles.
We didn’t really give Martin a second thought at that point. It may have been he’d had to go into town with his Mum, or to the chapel with his Dad, or he may even have gone on holiday to visit his brother. At ten, the grand machinery of the whole made-up adult world barely made an audible hum until we were personally affected. And plans were pointless. He might turn up later, or tomorrow, or in two weeks.
Along the final approach to Short, the road suddenly went straight for about a half mile. We decided it was an old Roman road. A stream, we called it the Beck ran alongside for a while and in between these two lines contouring our little world, stood two enormous Holly trees. The previous summer, to our great delight we had discovered that beyond the sharp points of the outside cover, they were hollow, and we could all climb up and sit inside them. Sometimes all in one, sometimes split between the two trees.
This was a revelation. Some days we would sit there for hours. We were perhaps just a dozen feet from the track, but even had you stood there and stared directly at the tree you would not have been able to see us. And of course, no one ever did that anyway, because what a pointless thing that would be. Consequently we eavesdropped on the world as it drifted past. Through the gaps in the leaves we could see the red rooftops of the handful of dwellings in Short, we could see people walking their dogs approaching us and gradually decipher the garbled speech as it drew nearer and nearer. When we remembered, we’d bring binoculars and watch the heat haze thickening the air above the tiny community.
An idea occurred to me, and I jumped down into the ditch and up to the base of the trees and looked up inside them, but they were empty. No Martin.
At the far end of the straight track, there was a quick left hand turn and the hamlet simply seemed to happen. Houses, brick and tile and edges and stone where previously there had been shades of green and it was always quiet. We never saw anybody. The farm entrance was ungated, just a large open space leading off the track. Once in a while there was a pale blue tractor stood there, but not today. The houses were shut and still, the air behind their windows black and empty. It was all gathered along one side, as the river took over the opposite side of the road. A meander that eased up to the houses and then, as if not really approving of what it saw, easing just as carefully away again. We jumped off the road and down onto a pebbly, eroded space, not exactly a beach, but I think that’s what we called it, and from there at the apex of the bend we could see the coming water and the gone. It never moved very fast, we hardly, if ever came along here except in summer, and so only really saw it as it trudged along before us. The opposite bank was steep and reedy and there was no purchase. Even if we had managed to get across it was unlikely we’d have been able to clamber up onto the far side. Above the river the trees moved but never uncovered their secret, just that chimney pot peeking above them.
We sat on the rocks and threw a few smaller stones in.
Above the water, swallows and martins skimmed the surface. My brother said the martins nested in the banks further along, but refused to offer anything further to back that up when I pushed him on it. I had no reason to disbelieve him other than a desire to dismiss something I wasn’t able to know personally.
There were screams, too. At the edge of what I could hear, screams from the other bank. Above the other bank. Far above. I looked into the sky, covering my eyes against the sun. I wanted to sneeze, but after a few moments I could see them, swifts careening and slanting through the air above the copse. Tilting and dropping and grazing the top of the branches. I guessed they were hunting different kinds of insects to the ones the swallows found gathering above the cool water. We were all looking at them, me and Steve and Kev, all mirroring each other, faces twisted, arms up against the sun.
– Is that noise them?
– I think so.
I knew, but tried not to give it away. My brother and my Grandad talked about this sort of thing a lot, tried to get me interested, and seeing and hearing them was an echo from the house, from cool rooms shuttered against the sun; from the quiet breathing upstairs, the need to get out, to not make noise.
I made a face and spat onto rocks by my feet. The sun dried the dark wet mark and picked the pebble up and felt its warmth in my hand. I lobbed it with a plop into the river.
We walked back along the road and, as the two Holly trees loomed, broke into a run to reach them first and pick the prime branch to sit on. There was one curve that allowed you to almost lie down full length, if the others didn’t mind sitting side by side opposite. We scrabbled into the tree, wincing past the initial push into its darker centre. Immediately we fell silent. It was close and warm in here.
Turning from our view of the village, we looked down across the meadow on the other side of the Beck and out, past the vast bank where the warren was peppered with dozens of burrows, to the far hills that eventually became the Wolds. The nearest of these, covered in a dark sheet of trees, and against the pale green fields as it rose from a tapered start to a bunched mass above the crops, we called the whale’s back, since it looked to us like some mighty hunted thing surfacing to crush its assailants. On the blustery days, cloud-strewn and its surface rippling, it seemed to move across the sea of green.
No one along the road. No one to spy on. I heard the screams first and immediately peered up to try to see through the leaves and branches. Star flare sunlight through the gaps. I squinted and looked around, but Steve punched me in the shoulder and pointed down at the meadow.
There were figures, four boys, one of them quite a bit smaller than the others. Waist deep in the grass. Their feet ripped up the goose grass as they stepped over, careful big footsteps. Looking down onto their heads and shoulders, they were like a hunting party; they moved through the green like sharks easing through a flood tide.
Two days before, we had taken the car and left college and just driven, hearts and hopes withered and darkened, and found somewhere none of us knew.
Late morning, the Sunday of the stolen weekend starting to stale and fracture. Unflinching reality two hours distant. In the dew-cold dead light we left our lodgings in the village at the bottom of the hill and walked the footpath through a sheep-sleeping field to the chalky rise. Long-imprinted white footsteps zigzagged up to the top of the ridge, and our hangovers beat their wings for a moment before lifting and vanishing into the sharp air.
We walked through wet grass, the damp staining our boots and then jeans darker and darker, a band of blue and brown that seeped into our socks and chilled the skin. The ridge rose and rose and at the top we looked back and around, and realised we were level with nothing, with nothing but the skylarks that lived down in the valley. The bird – at first I could hear him but not see him – rose and rose from the valley floor and I picked him out. Directly in front of me, a handful of yards beyond the edge of the path, out into the wide air. I’d never seen one so close, or without squinting up into the sun. At the top of our climb, him and me.
The wind was extraordinary; it compelled and pushed us toward and then away from the edge. It fought and cajoled us. We squinted into the force of it and look out across the Vale, down on to Dragon Hill and the tower of Uffington Church beyond that. Oxford was off to the right, but I didn’t really know where, or what to look for peeking from behind the glare. Directly above the Manger, that great smooth whorl of chalk and grass, the wind thumped hard into the hill and roared up the chimney formed by the curve of the land. It threw the tails of my coat behind me as I leaned into it, past the normal tipping point, the force of the thing holding me there.
There were joyous curses behind me. A thrilled and happy terror at the power of this place. Every loose thing, jackets, scarves, rucksack, flung out behind us like banners and flags as we shouted pointlessly into the gale. In the perfect bell curve of the Manger, the scimitar shadows of swifts carved the air and defined more and more perfect contours on their own invisible intuitive maps. They screamed as they hunted, tearing through the wind.
Matt saw him first, the figure running at the hill. He pointed him out to John and me and we watched as he tore across the field and then began climbing. Up he came, legs furiously thumping into the ground. No bag or coat just boots and shorts and a ragged shirt that whipped about in the chopped and swirling air. Up and up, a straight line up the hill. A hundred metres succumbing to him. Up and up, arms powering; as he drew closer, thundering right up toward us I could see he wasn’t puffing his cheeks out, but opening his mouth, opening and closing it, into which he took great horrendous gulps of air.
He appeared at our feet, bouncing up from the gradient onto the edge, and pushing past us, hardly seeing us. He stopped and turned. We said nothing, didn’t know what to say
. – Kings. Princes.
He breathed in deeper and deeper. Swallowed.
And then he was down, leaning forward, hands on knees and gasping. Properly, like anyone else would. We stared at each other and then back at him. I took a step to him and in that moment he was up, and leaning back at the waist and bellowing in a great primal shriek to the sky. We continued to stare and he stopped and leaned down again and laughed into the ground and I recognised him.
– The air. It’s in…the air.
He spoke into the grass.
– Everyone, everything. Their breath.
He grins. Breathes.
– Capture it. Hang on to it. Take it in and keep it.
Matt and John were smiling, a moment from twirling their fingers by their heads in a gesture of lunacy. They walked over to me and pushed me along. We had barely turned away before they were laughing.
– The fuck. Go, go. Go. Before we’re caught up in some fucking slasher movie.
He was still standing there as the path dipped and passed us and him out of sight. At the last moment I think he may have looked across and begun to wave.
One of the boys in the meadow stood separate, barely moving, and he was screaming. A high, frantic wail. We knew that it was Martin. The others didn’t care, they didn’t stop or go over and see him, they just carried on moving slowly through the field.
We knew them, we knew all about them, or so we had decided. On my first day at Junior school the biggest, Jimmy, had split my head open as he pushed me against some railings. One day, my Mum assured me, they’d leave and school would be better. That sort of boy always left first. She said it with great confidence.
We had always avoided them, but here was Martin dragged along, thrown in with them. Now, legs shaking and stomachs turned to water, we scrambled to get out of the tree and find him. Into the ditch and through the hedge, the meadow all of a sudden around us and itchy and coarse. Nettles and thistles, the drone of bees. Jimmy and his friends were ahead of us, but moving away all the time. Martin screamed again. We moved toward him. A shout from the far side.
– Got one!
The figures, their backs all toward us, suddenly changed tack and moved right, tearing through the long and clinging grass. Martin stood a few yards away, looking directly at us. His face was red and crushed, tears and snot rubbed into his skin.
A commotion, someone arguing and then a deep and braying cheer from the other side of the field. We all turned, and then swung back as Martin screamed again, leaning back at the waist and howling into the blue. There were shouts and the boys were on us, running through the cow parsley, threatening smiles across their red and sweaty faces. They pushed into and among us. They were bony and hard and not us. Not us. They poked Martin in the shoulder and laughed to see his tears.
– Grow up, you poof.
We said nothing, just looked. Then looked at the ground. Then up again.
– Poof. Fucking poof.
But Martin cried. And infant wails escaped, he was like a lost toddler, abandoned by his parents, his lip trembling and shoulders shaking. A great snot bubble blew out from his nose and the savages snorted with glee.
– What a fucking spaz.
Martin held his hands up desperately as if to plead, but the boys were moving in and my belly lurched in fear. I was going to be sick. Kev and Steve shook and looked from left to right, their eyes bright and shiny, mouths open. But Martin’s gesture changed, his open hands clenched into a point and he jabbed his finger to me. A needle of cold hate and fear lurched down inside me and my stomach churned again. I thought I was going to keel over, but the hand on my shoulder wasn’t a strike, it was a push and I was over, out of the way, landing on my side. I hurried up as the lads forced themselves past me and looked down at the ground.
– Mixy. Look at him. Ha. Fucking mixy bastard.
Jimmy grinned down at the rabbit. It shook and shivered in its little scoop of grass. Its eyes, glued shut, could not see him as he leaned down and leered at the dreadful diseased face. The other boys bunched in and crouched down over the tiny beating little bump.
Martin put his hand on my shoulder and pulled me back a step. Kev and Steve looked at us and began to move. The others were arguing.
– My turn. My turn.
We ran. We turned and ran. I heard the shouts and the cheers. We jumped and raced across the grass to the road, the stings not registering until we were almost home. I didn’t look back. I didn’t need to see them jump in the air, heels first, weight focused on that tiny point on the ground, or see them dance with delight at their prize, or go searching for more through the long grass. But I heard their yelps and squeals and screams.
I step carefully and slowly through the meadow, the heavy-headed grasses click and whip against my boots. Back on to the path, back to the car. They’re everywhere now, the swifts, rushing in from all sides, the light almost vanished. I guess that the flies drift slowly to the ground as the day dies and the air cools and the swifts follow them. I turn back and watch them tumbling down and feasting.