An Ever-Rolling Stream
Original characters and situations are copyright © Ceres Wunderkind 2001, 2006
The country bus wheezed and groaned with the complaints of old age as it came to a blessed stop by Banbury Cross. A solitary passenger alighted, a stocky middle-aged woman with a large rucksack which she dropped to the pavement in front of her. It was the late afternoon of a fine summer's day, warm and drowsy.
Adèle Starminster shouldered her rucksack and walked down the hill into the town proper, with its shops and pubs, passing by the market where the stallholders were thinking of packing up and going home as there would be little more trade that day. Several of them pointed and stared at her as she passed; she was outlandishly dressed in a beige denim jacket and trousers, with a green scarf tied at her neck and heavy boots on her feet. A red felt cap was pushed down over her head, almost completely hiding her stiff dark hair.
She stopped by a horse-trough and methodically looked about her as if she were noting down the properties of all the buildings that comprised the town centre of Banbury. After a while she found what she was looking for and walked down a side street, stopping outside a small commercial hôtel. She looked up and down its unprepossessing frontage and, deciding that she and it made a reasonable match, pushed open the jangling front door and went in.
'Single room for one night, please,' she said to the skivvy who appeared from some dim and frowsty room downstairs. The woman looked at her suspiciously, her mongrel-daemon snuffling in her arms.
'That'll be twenty-five shillings. In advance,' she said after a short pause.
Adèle handed over the outrageous amount without complaint and followed the servant up two flights of dingy stairs to a small room at the back of the house, meanly furnished with a narrow bed, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers. 'Breakfast is seven-thirty to eight, lights-out at eleven,' and she was left on her own.
She placed the rucksack by the window. It overlooked a jumble of narrow streets and alleys, redolent and noisy. 'We've seen worse,' Lysander said.
Lifting her butterfly-daemon from his accustomed place on her collar and putting him in the palm of her hand, she admired, as she did every time she looked at him, the delicate grace of his brightly coloured wings. 'Much worse, Ly,' she responded. 'Much, much worse.' And she sighed.
Later, she washed and changed into clothes that were less likely to attract unwelcome attention; a tweed skirt and jacket over a cotton blouse. She dabbed a little powder on her cheeks and put on some pale lipstick, for luck, she supposed. Thus prepared for all the excitements that the nightlife of Banbury had to offer she set out to find somewhere to eat. She foolishly chose a restaurant with aspirations to Frankish cuisine, perhaps for nostalgic reasons. The chef seemed to think that Frankish cooking meant garlic, butter, tough meat and undercooked vegetables, but she sighed, as before, and paid, as before, without demur.
After her unsatisfactory dinner Adèle started to make a tour, as it seemed, of the pubs and hôtel bars of the town. She spent very little time in each one and none of her visits appeared to be successful. She worked her way systematically up and down the streets, visiting the King's Head, the Cog and Sprocket, the Lark and the George, leaving barely touched drinks at every establishment.
Eventually she found herself outside a small tavern, the Waterman's Arms, not far from the canal. Heaven alone knew why she hadn't started her search there in the first place. She was tired of the funny looks and sullen responses she had been getting all evening, but as this was all part and parcel of working in her profession she merely sighed again, shrugged her shoulders, and opened the door. She pushed her way to the bar, acutely aware that the labourers and boatmen who crowded the room were staring at her.
'Yes, love, and what can I do for you?' The barman was not accustomed to serving unaccompanied women and his manner was unfriendly. His squirrel-daemon glared at her from her place on the bar top. She was used to this kind of reception and she replied in the best way she knew. Show them you mean business. Make them take you seriously. Don't smile. Look in their eyes – never, ever drop your gaze or you will lose their respect and not get it back.
'You can do two things for me, landlord,' she said. 'First, I'll have a pint of best.' She waited while the beer was poured; thin, bitter Midlands ale.
'Thank you,' and she handed him two shillings and sixpence. 'The second thing you can do is to tell me where I can find a man I'm looking for.'
'Oh yes, and who would that be?' She would kill him if he winked at her. 'Someone knocked you up, has he, love?' He laughed coarsely.
She ignored it. 'He works the narrow boats – Kennet and Avon, Grand Junction. And the Oxford Canal.' She passed a slip of paper over the bar. 'Do you know him?'
The barman read it, scratched his head and frowned; then smiled as recognition dawned. 'Oh, you're one of his!' He gestured to the potboy. 'Jerry, just pop into the snug for me and tell this gentleman' – he showed him the piece of paper – 'that there's a lady waiting for him in the bar.'
The boy pushed through a low door at the back of the room and returned moments later with a small, rat-faced man, somewhere in his middle thirties, thin and weatherworn, wearing overalls and a felt cap. 'What is it, Fred?' he asked the barman.
'This lady here says she'd like to see you.' He pointed to the woman at the bar. The man looked at her blankly.
'Who is you? We've never seen you in our life.' His bird-daemon, sitting on his left shoulder, gazed at her.
'Yes, you have. Arthur, don't you know me? I'm Starminster, of the Chronicle.'
He looked her up and down, unimpressed. She stood her ground, aware that this was a crucial moment.
'So it is!' He scowled and spat on the floor. 'What does you want?'
'I want to see you, Arthur. I want to talk to you.'
'What for? What the hell does you want to talk to us about? Why should we want to talk to you?'
She could not help being taken aback by his hostility. 'Please, Arthur, can we sit down somewhere? I've been looking for you all night.' He stood still for a moment while his daemon whispered in his ear.
'All right. But no notebook this time. Not for long. We is very busy.' He led the way into the back room.
It was small and stuffy with a low-beamed ceiling, lit by flaring naphtha and a coal fire burning in an iron grate. There was another man sitting on a bench; a few years younger than Arthur, she thought, with sandy hair and a similar outdoors look to his face. Arthur sat down next to him and Adèle faced them over a deal table, her drink in front of her.
'Let's do this the posh and proper way, seeing as how we has a lady guest. Miss Starminster – it is still Miss, we supposes – this is my mate and partner in crime, Stan Tulliver. Stan, meet Adèle, the reporter we've told you about before. The one who sent me and your sister to Bolvangar.'
'Pleased to meet you.' The younger man held out his hand and Adèle took it. Arthur scowled at them both. Lysander took his accustomed pace of safety behind her right ear and regarded Sal, Arthur's magpie-daemon, with wary attention. Stan remembered his manners and introduced Cora, his thrush-daemon, to them.
'Arthur's told me lots about you – how you found out about that place they took us to and got him and Maggie on the airship to come and rescue us. I've always wanted to meet you.' Arthur looked away and glowered into his beer. Stan carried on chatting to her in a friendly and unassuming manner.
He was, she decided, with his fair hair and ready smile, a very personable young man.
She told him yes, she was still a reporter. No, not a crime reporter, nor a Court reporter, nor a feature writer. She was a foreign correspondent, travelling around the countries of Europe, sending back despatches to the news desk in London by a-gram and telephone. Stan said that he had been working on the waterways of Brytain for five years, all of them with Arthur. 'He's a Number One. It means he's an owner, picking up jobs wherever he can, not an employee of some big carrier firm. He's free to do what he likes – he's his own boss.'
Adèle asked about Stan's mother and his sister Maggie. 'Do you see her, when you're in London?'
'No. She died, see. She died getting us out of Bolvangar. I hardly remember her now.'
'She died? Oh. I'm sorry, Stan. I didn't know.'
'You didn't bloody know because you didn't bloody ask.' Arthur's voice was low, bitter and harsh. 'Where was you when we got back? We tried to find you, but you'd gone. Skipped town, had you?'
'I was in prison.'
'They came for me the day after you and Maggie left for Bolvangar. They took me away and questioned me. Then they put me in Reading Gaol. I had two years of solitary confinement; the bench, the crank and picking oakum. That's tearing old ropes apart.'
'We knows about oakum.'
'So do we.'
Their conversation foundered. Arthur looked at his watch, said 'I'm going,' and shoved his way out of the bar.
Stan got up to follow him. 'We're off early tomorrow,' he said. 'Got a load of perishables for Oxford.'
So I got her killed, Adèle thought. For a story. She finished her pint and returned to her hôtel and went to bed where she slept fitfully, to be wakened by a banging on the door. Was she all right, and if she was could she kindly shut up and stop her blasted screaming and crying, 'cause it was making one hell of a racket and it was three o'clock in the morning and some people had work to go to.
Adèle set out from the hôtel at seven o'clock the following morning; early enough, she hoped, to catch Arthur and Stan before they left Banbury. She passed again through the Market Square and down Factory Street to the canal basin.
The wharf-side was lined with narrow boats; some moored up in pairs – Nottamun Town and Scarboro Fair, Celerity and Rapidity, Hazel and Fiver – and some solo craft – Rose of Tralee, Cressy, Chesford Fulmar. She did not see Arthur's boat, so looking about her and noticing a large brick building bearing a wooden sign TOOLEYS BOATYARD she walked round to the side of it and knocked on the workshop door. A boy, an apprentice no more than fourteen years old, answered.
'Yes, miss?' he said, wiping his hands on his leather apron.
'I'm looking for Arthur Shire. Do you know his boat?'
'Yes, miss. But it's not here. Him and Stan was off early. They'll be nearly at King's Sutton by now. What do you want him for, anyway?' He grinned at her in an infuriating way. She ignored it.
'Thank you, young man. Where can I catch a bus for King's Sutton?'
'Market Square, miss. Next one's at nine. You can get a decent cup of tea at Bewley's in the High Street.'
She thanked him again and, having plenty of time to spare, walked up and down the waterfront, looking at the boats, admiring their bright paint, polished brasswork and neatly coiled ropes. Then she turned and went back up the gently sloping street past the lonely market, still waiting for the day's business to begin, to the High Street and Bewley's café.
- 0 -
Two hours later, the bus dropped her in King's Sutton. She knew that Arthur, with nearly three hours' start, would have passed through the village long before her, but she was physically very fit after the spring campaign and looked forward to a vigorous walk along the shady towpath in pursuit of him.
The Oxford Canal meanders its way north and south, content to follow the contours of the land rather than force its way though it with cuttings and embankments. Had she known this she could have saved herself several miles' hike and caught up with Arthur within an hour or so by taking short cuts across country. Instead, it was nearly two o'clock before she caught sight of him. Or Stan, rather, sitting on the stern rail of the Jimmy with his right arm resting lightly on the tiller, Cora perched next to him.
There were two boats. Arthur was at the controls of the lead craft, the Maggie, which was, it appeared, powered by a steam engine. Behind, pulled by a tow-rope, was the Jimmy, with Stan at the helm.
'Hello, love,' he called out, in response to her wave. 'Fancied we might see you again.' His face was split by a broad grin – his frank open expression a great relief from the dour look of his colleague. 'Can't stop now —' he pointed ahead at Arthur, busy stoking the Maggie's boiler, 'boss won't allow it. See you at the next lock – it's only another mile.'
It was becoming very warm and the trees that had sheltered her in the earlier part of the day had given way to open fields, but she shouldered her pack again and strode past the two boats to the lock, where she sat down with her back against her rucksack, drank from her flask, and waited for them to catch up with her.
The gentle clatter and puff of the Maggie's engine woke her from a light doze. She stood up and watched the leading boat and its acolyte pass through the lock, impressed by the smooth coordination between the two men as they manoeuvred the heavy craft one by one past the gates. 'Chuck us your stuff,' shouted Stan, and she passed her heavy rucksack down to him and clambered after it into the cockpit of the Jimmy.
'I didn't know boats came in pairs,' she said, as the tow-rope took up the slack and they continued their progress southward.
'Oh yes, we can carry twice as much cargo if we double up,' he replied. 'Boss looks after the motor boat, pays the tolls and all that. I keep the butty out of trouble behind him. And we both work the locks. It's easier on a wide canal like the Grand Junction – we can lock through side-by-side – but there ain't so many locks on the Oxford, so it all evens up in the end.
'Brew up for us, love, and get yourself something to eat,' he said, so she stepped down into the small cabin forward of the cockpit and found a teapot and kettle on the stove and a loaf of bread and some cheese in a locker next to it. Stan watched with approval as she quickly and efficiently made mugs of sweet India tea for them both and a thick cheese sandwich for herself. 'You've done this before,' he said as she sat on the gunwale and passed him his mug.
'No, but I've used field stoves plenty of times. Yours is just the same.' They ate and drank and talked companionably as the Maggie and Jimmy continued their unhurried journey south. Adèle felt herself relaxing for the first time in many months as the slow steady rhythm of the Jimmy's motion wrapped itself around her. She found herself noticing things – the agreeable canal smell of old vegetation and still water, Welch coal and steam, the gentle plash of water passing by the stern of the Jimmy and the sewing-machine whir of the Maggie's engine ahead of them. Stan pointed out landmarks as they passed; a church tower which appeared first ahead of them, then to the right and then the left before finally disappearing astern as the canal looped its lazy way through the landscape. The clouds passed overhead, patterning the land in patches of light and shade. Their peace was disturbed only once, by the slow drone of an eastbound Zeppelin passing far above them.
At some time during that long sleepy afternoon it became an understood thing that Adèle would unroll her sleeping bag in the Jimmy's cabin and Stan and Arthur would bunk down in the Maggie. They tied up that evening by the canal side as the light was beginning to fade. Adèle and Stan joined Arthur in the cabin of the Maggie. She was beginning to understand the customs of narrow boat life – she could appreciate the need for extreme tidiness and cleanliness that was enforced by the snug living quarters of a working boat. She saw the delight that the boat people took in the beauty of their craft; in their hand-painted decoration of roses and castles, not just on the outside of the boats but also on all the items of tin-ware that they used – buckets, mugs, lights. The cabin was filled with shelves carrying lacy-patterned Delft ware, lockers both above and below packed with provisions and necessities, all gently lit. The romance of the waterways was beginning to seduce her; so that she could imagine herself abandoning her career and taking to the life afloat, leisurely cruising the rivers and canals of Brytain, far from the cares and troubles and fighting of the wide world beyond.
'It's not always like this, you know.' Arthur interrupted her reverie. 'Winters is cold, the cut freezes up or the banks bursts, you is stuck for weeks sometimes with no work and no money. Or you has to stand at the tiller in the rain for hours at a stretch and you never gets dry. There's breaking your back loading and unloading the goods, and stoking the boiler and keeping the boats clean. It never stops even when there's no cargoes and you goes hungry.'
It was as if he had read her mind. She looked across at him and caught a glimpse of his eyes, which until now, it seemed, had always been shaded and hidden from her. They were indigo blue, like a baby's or a young child's, and they seemed to be infinitely deep, giving her the kind of feeling that she had once had when looking down from a great height into the waters of a Norgian fjord. Eyes like those, she thought, would be able to see anything they wanted to see, and she shuddered with a mixture of fear and wonderment. Arthur smiled grimly. 'It'll take more than a summer afternoon's cruise to make a gyptian of you.'
Stan broke the silence that followed this remark by handing out enamel plates and filling them with a thick meat and vegetable stew, generous and satisfying. Adèle was ravenous and she spooned hers up eagerly, wiping the plate clean afterwards with a hefty wedge of bread. There was beer and tea, and she shared a bar of nougat that she had brought back from Frankland; a rare delicacy which Stan munched noisily and Arthur chewed on with quiet appreciation.
Stan saw Adèle back to the Jimmy after the meal and she wondered if he was going to make a pass at her and how she would respond if he did. Probably the occasion would not arise; a straightforward, healthy, good-looking young man like him would not be very interested in someone like her. They stopped by the Jimmy's gangplank and she wished Stan a good night. His response surprised her.
'You saw his eyes, then.' She nodded. 'They always do. There's a string of women – and men, too – all up and down the country who have seen his eyes and can't forget them. Did they think you were one of his lovers, back there in Banbury?' She nodded again. The skies were clear and the bright pinpoint stars and lambent moon looked down upon them. Stan paused, uncertain. Then: 'He's still looking for her. He still thinks he'll find her again one day. Everyone he's ever gone with has had something about them – something that reminded him of her.'
'Still? After twenty years?'
'Still. But you're different. I've never seen him look at anyone the way he looks at you. What happened between you, back there in London? I can't tell if he loves you – or hates you.'
'Both, I think. Stan, I must talk to him. I can't bear it the way things are now. But he's avoiding me.'
'He'd never have let you on board the Jimmy, let alone the Maggie, if he didn't mean for you and him to talk, sooner or later. Give him time, Adèle. He's a deep one. A visionary, if you know what I mean. Ever since Bolvangar, he's had the ability to see things. He an important man among the gyptians.'
Adèle stood on tiptoe and kissed Stan on the cheek. 'All right, Stan. I'll wait. And, thank you.'
'For not blaming me.'
'No trouble, miss.' Stan handed her on to the Jimmy and returned to the Maggie, whistling a few tuneless notes as he went. Adèle laid out her sleeping bag on the lower bunk in the Jimmy's cabin and, full of sun and fresh air and stew, fell swiftly into sleep, from which she woke only twice, each time seeing two deep pools of violet hovering before her. And neither she nor Lysander had any bad dreams at all.
- 0 -
The following morning started early, with Stan banging on the cabin door and handing her a mug of chai and a hot bacon sandwich. 'Shake a leg, down thar below, me hearties!'
Adèle rubbed the sleep from her eyes, washed in the pull-down basin next to her bunk, dressed herself and climbed into the cockpit, Lysander on her collar. Outside it was chilly, the Jimmy's decks and tarpaulin covered with dew and the sun floating low over the misty fields, a burnt-orange disc. There was smoke rising from the Maggie's chimney, so she stepped gingerly along the wet gangplank to the bank, walked up to the boat and rapped on the cabin window.
'Able Seaman Starminster reporting for duty, sir,' she announced to Arthur as he popped his head out of the door. 'Splice the mainbrace, me bully-boys, shiver me timbers!' She saluted smartly.
'Where's your parrot-daemon and your wooden leg?' he grinned. 'We'll be settin' sail in twenty minutes. See you're ready, or we'll keel-haul you!' She could hear Stan chortling inside over the washing-up. 'Pieces of eight, pieces of eight!' cackled Sal, while Cora did her best to stay upright on the draining board.
- 0 -
Adèle stayed with Arthur in the Maggie when Stan returned to the butty boat and they set off. It quickly became clear to her that, unlike the Jimmy, the Maggie carried no passengers, but she welcomed the opportunity to take part in the running of the boat. She admired Arthur's compact grace – he moved around the cockpit like a cat, every action precise, economical and completely effective. He spoke little, and then only to give advice, or to issue instructions, for, as she quickly realised, she had a great deal of boat-craft to learn.
At the first lock they came to he gave her a crank-handle with a square hole on its axis. This was a lock-key and it was used to raise and lower the gate and ground paddles that let the water in and out of the lock. 'And always raise the pawl when you wind the paddle up or down. Only amateurs and idiots let the ratchet click or drop their paddles.' She leaned her back against the great balance beams of the lock gates and opened and closed them when she was ordered, taking pleasure in the simple physical effort of the work; the feel of her feet against the brick foot-stops in the ground, the yielding of the gate to her weight as the water levels equalised on both sides of it. She shut the gates behind the boats and ran ahead to them, stepping aboard as they set off again.
'Some locks come in flights, like Foxton, or Devises on the Kennet and Avon. That's tricky, especially when there's the two of you. You has to think ahead, get the levels right before you starts. If we was paying you, we'd have you running ahead to set the locks ready for us.'
She admired the steam engine, gleaming in polished brass and red-and-black paint. Arthur showed her how to keep the oil levels topped up in the cups that fed the crank bearings. She listened happily to the whir of the flying valves and the spinning governor, ghostly in the bright morning light. He pointed out the intake for the boiler and the filters that kept the steam-water free from floating debris.
As they approached the next lock, the engine's steady beat suddenly changed, becoming slow and strained. 'Weed,' said Arthur, and disconnected the drive to the propeller, waving to Stan to warn him that he was stopping. He opened a hatch in the cockpit floor and, looking down, Adèle could see straight through it to the propeller-shaft below, clogged with long strands of chickweed. At his bidding, she reached into the water and pulled the damp clinging stuff away from the propeller, freeing it up again. She looked up, her arms full of green vegetation, to see him smiling down at her. 'Give us that lot,' he said, and threw it onto the bank side.
Again she caught sight of his deep blue eyes and again she felt dizzy with vertigo, a sensation that there were great depths below her; that she might fall, and never stop falling, into those immense pools of velvet azure. If he saw her discomfiture he gave no sign of it, but replaced the hatch-cover and set the propeller spinning again.
She wondered what was happening to her. She reminded herself of what Stan had said the previous night; that there were people the length and breadth of Brytain, wherever there were boats and gyptians, who had seen the eyes of Arthur Shire and been seduced by them. She was nothing special, whatever Stan said, and yet here she was, standing next to Arthur in the cockpit of the Maggie, working with him, her Lysander and his Sal side by side on the coaming above the cabin door. It was a false intimacy, she knew, but their physical closeness was having the effect of attuning her mental processes to his, so that she found herself anticipating his movements and being ready, without conscious thought, to obey his orders.
- 0 -
Not long before noon, the Maggie and Jimmy passed through the Isis lock and reached the Hythe Bridge Street basin in Oxford. Arthur told Adèle to stand aside while he and Stan unloaded their shipment, which she was glad to do, as it was a strenuous business. Arthur and Stan stood in the holds and heaved the sacks of grain which comprised the boats' cargo into nets which were lifted from the hold by a small crane and stacked by the side of the wharf, ready for shipment to mills and bakeries throughout Oxford. When, after nearly an hour's hard work, both holds were empty, Arthur disappeared into a small office – more of a kiosk, really – and re-emerged with a leather bag, chinking with sovereigns. He and Stan huddled over their earnings in the Maggie's cabin, sharing the money out between them.
Adèle had been seized with doubts as she sat on her rucksack on the wharf side, watching Arthur and Stan work. What should she do now? Should she offer to pay for her passage from Banbury? Would they pick up another load immediately and set off without her, or would they ask her to stay with them for a while longer? How would she and Arthur part? Would they ever see one another again? She was very aware that there was unfinished business for them to settle. So she went up to the Maggie, knocked on the window and waited for Arthur to come out; which he did a few minutes later.
'We's taking on a load of clay next, for Coventry,' he said. 'It's a horrible, mucky job, but it pays well. And needs must,' he added.
'What shall I do now?' she asked, annoyed at how plaintive, how dependent, she sounded.
'Oxford's a lovely city. Put up somewhere nice. You'll like it.' He grinned.
'I know, but —' Was this it? Was this all there was? Would nothing ever be right between them? Was the closeness that she had felt that morning nothing more than her own silly imagination?
Arthur saw the frustration in her face and relented. 'I'm sorry – it's not fair to tease you. Look, Stan's got a friend he's very keen to see,' he winked at Stan, who had somehow, while she wasn't looking, transformed himself from a boatman to a smart man-about-town, 'and Oxford's a lovely place, just as I says. We's not loading up 'til tomorrow, we've got our pay and I'd like to show you round. How's that?'
'I want to find somewhere to stay and freshen up. Where shall we meet?'
'We'll see you in front of Jordan College in one hour.'
Arthur returned to the Maggie. Adèle set her disgraceful old cap straight on her head, picked up her rucksack and headed into town. She found a friendly chintzy little guesthouse around the back of St Giles and settled in.
Just after two o'clock, dressed in her civilian clothes and looking, she hoped, sufficiently respectable, she stationed herself by the porter's lodge of Jordan College. Not long afterwards Arthur appeared, sober in blue serge.
He took her arm and guided her into the High. She noticed that his cat-like grace seemed to have extended to embrace them both, so that they glided through the busy streets of Oxford as if enclosed within their own private bubble. They spoke little as they followed the tourist trail around the colleges and bookshops of Oxford and the crowds parted and flowed around them, as the still waters of the canal had parted and flowed around the Maggie and the Jimmy. They bought caramels from a stall in the Covered Market and lemon sorbet from a street vendor on the Broad. They leaned against the iron railings of St Cross Road and looked at the children and nurses taking the air in the Parks.
And eventually, inevitably, they found themselves crossing the river Cherwell at Magdelen Bridge and stopping to look down on the water below. The words that had been lying submerged within them all afternoon were rising to the surface now, ready to be spoken. They looked at each other, acknowledging this fact, and turned into the Botanic Garden, passing through the formal gardens and glasshouses near the entrance to the lawns by the waterside, where they sat side by side on a wooden bench.
Arthur spoke first. 'Stan'll be leaving us soon. We'll be needing a new man for the Jimmy.'
'Is it serious, this girl he's seeing?'
'Not yet, but it will be. We knows. We sees it.'
'Is it very painful?'
'Having him here? Yes, but it's a good pain, if you sees what we means. It was kids like him was the reason we went to Bolvangar in the first place. It was saving kids like him got my Maggie killed.'
'Seeing him, so beautiful, healthy and strong…'
'Yes, it helps.'
'What did happen in Bolvangar?'
'All of it, you means?'
'You're not getting your notebook out?'
'No. I'm taking a holiday from journalism.'
'All right, then. After you saw us off at that place in Fleet Street we got to Bolvangar without too much trouble, we supposes.'
Arthur told her about the aërial journey that he and Maggie had made on the Santa Maria.
'We still remembers that trip so clearly. But it was what we found at the end of it that really sticks in our head.'
He described what they had discovered that the theologians and doctors there were doing to the children and daemons they had abducted.
'We never saw them doing an intercision, or a kid what had had his daemon cut away. I'm glad of that now. Then – it seemed like the end of the world. You knows?'
'But you escaped?'
'Yes. There was a rescue party and they picked us up. But not before… Look, Adèle, you is going to say what they all said. You is going to say there was nothing we could have done. You'll come over all understanding-like and say it wasn't our fault.'
Arthur told them about the fire and how Maggie had been fatally wounded by Mrs Coulter's daemon.
'You didn't like her much, did you?'
She didn't like me either, Adèle wanted to say, but she didn't want to hurt Arthur so she said nothing. Lysander, whose distracted fluttering had reflected his distress as Arthur told his story, prompted her.
'We were so different. We could hardly talk to each other. Arthur, believe me. I feel just as guilty of her death as you do. With more reason, too. I sent you both into that awful place and stayed safe – well, I thought I was safe – in London.'
'What was it like – in prison?'
'I thought it was the end of the world, too. You were in the workhouse, so you must know how it was. It can't have been all that different.
'When they let me out everything had changed, of course. All those new freedoms, all at once. I was drunk on it for a while. Then I got my old job back at the Chronicle and took up my career where I'd left it.'
A pause. 'Why did you come looking for us?'
Adèle drew a deep breath and began. 'It all started around three years ago. I suppose I was getting a bit stale at the Chronicle so I asked if I could be sent abroad, to work as a foreign correspondent. It was that or lose me I told them, so they seconded me to the Paris desk.
'I absolutely loved it there. Paris is a lovely city, wide and spacious, and I quickly grew to think of myself as being at least half-Frankish. I had a pretty flat in a fashionable arrondissement and a little Citroën car, in which I learned to drive around Paris – which is quite an achievement, I can tell you – and the countryside nearby. The work was fun, I made lots of new friends and, for the first year and a half at least, I had a whale of a time.
'It was just starting to become a bit routine again when the trouble flared up in the Rheinland. You know, the disputed territories.'
'Didn't the Eastern Alliance take a Frankish city?'
'Yes, Colmar. I saw my chance and bullied McGregor – the editor – into letting me go to the front and do some real war reporting. I was so excited by it all. I went to a camping shop and bought lots of clothes and equipment —'
'No – those weren't the clothes I bought in Paris. They fell apart in less than a month. But you'll see.
'They attached me to an infantry platoon. The idea was that I would go through training with them, then off to the front line. Tell a story, you know? Get to know the soldiers, tell their story, get the readers on their side.
'I joined the Képis Rouges last January. The Red Caps. I thought they'd be really annoyed at being saddled with a woman, and a Brytish one at that, but they took me to their hearts straight away. They called me Tante Adèle – Auntie – and I didn't mind. They looked at my silly shop-bought gear, laughed their heads off, and did some kind of deal with the quartermaster-sergeant to get me kitted up properly.
'Oh Arthur, they were all such very beautiful young men! None of them was older than nineteen or so, and they were sweet and decent and very kind to me. They had dark hair, deep brown eyes and smooth faces. Half of them hadn't even started shaving properly.
'Training was hard for me. All those forced marches and endless drill and being shouted at all the time. I was determined to see it through so that I wouldn't be a liability to the Képis Rouges when it came to the real fighting. And, of course, I wasn't going to let them get away with thinking that a mere woman couldn't do every bit as well as them. We all got though it all right and moved up to the front in April. Colmar had been under siege for six months by then and the witch-daemon messages from inside the city were not encouraging.
'You've probably read the reports of the liberation of Colmar in the sheets.' Arthur nodded. 'Maybe even some of my stuff. I sent despatches back to Paris as often as I could. Well, I won't tell you again what you've read already. It was a bloody business, driving the Alliance forces back to the Rhein. But I got to understand something of the excitement of it too. They say that war consists of endless hours of boredom interrupted by moments of screaming terror – and that's right – but there were times when I felt so exhilarated I could shout out loud for the sheer pleasure of it.
'We were among the first troops to enter Colmar. It had been a beautiful mediaeval city, but the months of bombardment had destroyed many of its most ancient buildings and reduced the population to a terrible state of hunger and fear. Some appalling things had happened there. Children and daemons and … well, I won't dwell on it. In many cases, all I could do was watch them die. And write my reports and send them back so that the people at home would know about it.'
'And is that why you gave up your job and came looking for us?'
'Ah, you think you see that, don't you, Arthur! But that wasn't the reason. We knew, Lysander and me, that we would find awful things inside the city and we were, to some extent at least, prepared for them. What I wasn't prepared for was what I would find inside myself. After the initial shock had faded I found, as you'd expect, that I felt great pity for the citizens of Colmar and wanted to do all I could to help them.
'One evening we, that's all the boys of the Képis Rouges and me, were sitting drinking in an estaminet that the liberating forces had commandeered for their own use. We were all shouting and boasting and drinking too much and generally reacting to the grim sights we'd seen that day. One of the boys, little Jean-Claude it was, started talking about the people he'd been helping. We were handing out food, you know, and helping shore up damaged buildings. "The thing that really pisses me off," he said, "is what useless idle espèces de salauds these Colmarais are. They've been sitting on their behinds doing nothing for the past six months while we've been sweating our guts out and dying for them. They can't even put on a decent show of gratitude for us. Why, I'd like to–" and he went into a long and vividly obscene account which I won't repeat here.
'But Arthur, what was worse than listening to his nasty little fantasies was that I agreed with him. I wanted to do all those things and more. I despised the citizens for not standing up to the Alliance. I thought they deserved everything they got. And I shouted and thumped the table with the rest of them and called for another round of drinks and told everyone what fine fellows they were. We staggered back to camp drunk and happy, all boys together. We called ourselves the best of the best, the fighting Képis Rouges.
'The following morning I caught the first train back to Paris. When I got there, I told McGregor that I was taking a holiday, returned to London and stormed into the editor's office at the Chronicle. You see, up to that time I'd been writing exactly the sort of material the paper wanted to print. All about our brave honourable allies and the just war we were fighting, against an unjust enemy. Now I wanted to write about what war was doing to us, about how it was turning decent young men into vicious thugs. I couldn't forgive them for what they had shown me about myself, so I wanted, I suppose, to revenge myself on them.
'There was a huge scene. I was told that it was completely impossible for the Chronicle to print any such article as I wanted to write. I told them, in no uncertain terms, to stuff their job, went back to my flat and shouted at the walls for several days.
'I decided that I needed to get away from everything for a while, but I couldn't just head off without any objective at all. I'm not like that. So I looked through my old files and saw a name I remembered. You know the rest.'
'You still haven't said how you tracked us down.'
'Oh please, Arthur, I'm a journalist! We have our ways.'
They both fell silent, looking at the tourists in their rowing boats and the peaceful blue sky above, far from the conflict still raging across Europe. While Adèle had been telling Arthur her story they had faced each other across the bench. Now they both stared straight ahead and spoke softly, as if to themselves.
'We all carry our own hells inside us. Bolvangar, Colmar, Reading Gaol, the Tottenham Union. Every one of us has a place where we can't bear to look.'
'There's a little Mrs Coulter or Father Lugg in all of us.'
Adèle turned to Arthur and looked deep into his eyes.
'I never knew, Arthur – I never knew I was coming to you to be healed.'
'We didn't know if we could heal you – or if you could heal us.'
'When you called me to you?'
'Yes. When we called you to us.' He leaned over and she felt a light pressure on her shoulder. 'Goodbye, Adèle.'
- 0 -
When she lifted her eyes again he was gone. She sat very still for a few minutes, then sighed, rose to her feet and walked back to St Giles and her cheerful little guesthouse. 'Did you have a nice afternoon, love?' her landlady asked as she passed her in the hallway.
'Yes, very nice, thank you.'
She climbed the stairs to her sun-filled room, with its sprigged curtains and floral prints. She would stay here for a while, Adèle told Lysander. Stay, until she had finished telling her story to herself. Stay, until she could face the world again, look directly into its eyes, and not be afraid of it any more.Afterthoughts
I wrote this story before Guantánamo Bay, before Abu Ghraib, but I was not being especially clever or foresightful when I had Adèle describe how war turns kind young men and women into cold calculating killers; killers who despise the very people they are supposed to be protecting. That, I am sorry to say, is a very old story.