Rob won’t come near the marshes. He says the place is full of ghosts, and if you’re down there as it’s getting dark on a lonely winter afternoon then I for one could believe he might be right. But for Rob it’s more personal. He was a twin but his brother died in a shooting, caught by a patrol whose orders were to shoot on sight. Jamie was only five but they shot him anyway. He shouldn’t have been on his own but he was. The twins and Dad were out eeling. Dad was down the bank with Rob checking the traps when he heard the shot. He guessed straight away what had happened but could do nothing apart from stuff his knuckles in his mouth to stop himself from screaming, and lay against the bank. Dad and Rob watched as Jamie rolled down the
slope and plopped into the river. The slow current took him away down to the sea. His body was never found. People didn’t ask questions back then. If a child disappeared then it was just rotten luck, but it happened. They shouldn’t have been out there, simple as that.
Alice and Neil paused at the top of Back Hill. Their bicycles had full panniers strapped to the front and rear wheels, containing all of the Mereman’s orders: a mixture of groceries, tools and animal medicines. Evidently, it had been quite a while since Witchety Susan had fulfilled an order, and Alice fretted that she would not be able to deliver every item on the long list. She wanted to make a good first impression and had managed to buy almost everything, and then Neil had stepped in and offered to help. There was no way she could ever have got Rob down there; way too far from the house for his comfort. To him it was a place of devils and bad memories. The sun had risen an hour before but the early morning air was still distinctly chilly. A sheet of shining mist lay across the marsh below. The whinny of a horse from somewhere in the distance reminded Alice that this was Terry's home. The Causeway was just visible, its great arches filled with cold whiteness. The road to Newmans also lay below the mist. It would be a long, slow, cold push.
The youngsters coasted their bikes to the bottom of Back Hill and cycled slowly and laboriously across the Causeway. At the far end they dismounted and wheeled their bikes down into the mist, attended by distant male shouts and a reek of woodsmoke drifting across from the traveller camp, to begin the long slog up the track to Newmans. The traveller camp had been another place of fascination for Alice when she used to roam, not that she had ever dared approach the collection of caravans and vehicles that had not moved for a decade. Terry must have been there then, but Terry never talked about her previous life; it was as if it had never been and she had somehow been born at the age of eight in the Seamarsh kitchen and just kind of took it from there. One day, Alice thought, she would want to revisit that early part of her life, if not the place itself. One day.
Once, the road to Newmans had been a smoothly tarmacked single track, but it had been poorly maintained and over the years had deteriorated into a mile and a half of ruts and potholes; difficult enough to negotiate with Mickey Davey’s waggon and horses, impossible with a fully-laden bicycle.
After forty long minutes of pushing bikes around rain-filled potholes a sign, faded and barely readable, announced that Newmans was fifty yards ahead on the right. They turned down the farm track and after another 300 yards Alice spotted their destination through the thinning mist; a holiday caravan, for that was what it once was, standing just inside the gate of a small hedged paddock about a quarter of a mile from the farm entrance. Alice had never before dared to approach the farm and felt nervous, despite the fact she was there on official farm business of sorts. Neil also looked ill-at-ease, although for different reasons. He wondered if he had been seen by any Wendon men as he had cycled through town. The hat and long coat hardly constituted a foolproof disguise. He didn’t think he was breaking any rules; he just needed to make sure he was back in time for his patrol shift at 2pm.
“It’s just ahead,” Alice nodded up the track. “You aren’t going to see very much this morning, I’m afraid.” Somewhere out on the marsh an unseen raven’s cark mingled with the strangulated yodel of a farm rooster as if in reply to her observation. The land knew of their arrival and the suggestion seemed plain enough – leave here now, this place is for the birds.
The youngsters leaned their bikes against the caravan. It had seen better days. The cream paint was heavily streaked with runs of green algae and the aluminium window frames were pitted and dull, though strangely the windows themselves were spotless and must recently have been cleaned. On the opposite side of the field, out of a small straw-littered lean-to the steamy breath of a diminutive brown horse plumed the sharp air.
Alice tried the door handle – the caravan was unlocked. As she stepped inside what she saw took her by surprise. Far from the chaotic decay she had expected, the interior was sparse, neat and immaculately clean. The place did not even smell damp. There were signs of recent occupation. On the draining board sat an upturned mug and a single spoon and next to it on the spotless gas stove sat a camping kettle. On a coat hook behind the door a tartan dressing gown, complete with plaited waist cord, hung next to an ancient-looking waxed waterproof jacket.
Neil dumped his panniers in the doorway and went back for the others. A hand-written note on the table asked for the supplies to be stacked on the floor. Alice begun unpacking and was soon joined by Neil. When they’d finished Alice said “Fancy a brew before the ride back? The note says to help yourself.”
“Yeh, why not?” Neil sat on the bench seat and looked outside through the bay window. “The mist’s clearing,” he said, nodding towards the window. “You can see the farm entrance now.” Alice followed his gaze. “Wonder if he knows we’re here?” he added.
“We have to put that bucket on the post next to the gate when we leave,” Alice replied, “so probably not.” Being this close to the Newman place still made her feel uneasy. She had grown up with stories about the Mereman. When they were badly behaved Dad would threaten them with a visit to the Newman farm, “where he chops any children he catches into little bits and feeds them to his ducks.”
The kettle came quickly to the boil. Neil found another mug along with an old coffee jar half-filled with herbal tea. “Smells good,” he reported. “Must be freshly made, I’ll bet.” Neil poured the drinks and they sat opposite one another at the table. They sipped their tea in silence, both appreciating a rest before the return leg. Neil finished first. He looked around the room. “It’s cosy, isn’t it? It feels safe, somehow, miles from anywhere, miles from anyone. It’s like nobody knows we’re here.”
Alice sat back and took in the features of the room. They had a few minutes, so there would be time to explore a little. She tried to imagine some of the families who had made this their holiday home back in the days before the Great Death, when there were such things as holidays. A small wood-burning stove that filled a recess in the middle of one wall would easily keep the room warm on cold evenings. There was a toilet of sorts, actually just a curtain-fronted cubicle containing a wooden seat with a lid built into the rear wall. Lifting the lid revealed a drop into a pit that had been dug beneath the caravan. The hole was too dark to tell if the facility had been used in recent times. The end room contained a double bed, complete with mattress, and in an alcove behind a curtain she found an empty clothes rail. Alice lifted the corner of one of the faded curtains, only to be startled by the brown pony who now stood just outside and stared back at her, nodding its head and snorting loudly. Time to go, she thought, and returned to the main room to see Neil rinsing his mug. He took hers and did the same, leaving them upended on the draining board.
“I’d take a holiday here any day,” Neil said. “You know, I’ve never had a holiday.”
“Me neither. Whoever takes a holiday anyway? Nobody, not nowadays. They’re a thing of the past, don’t you know.” The youngsters laughed at the absurdity of the idea.
Alice pocketed the Mereman’s new list. She was pleased to note it contained far fewer items than today’s delivery. She smiled happily, then turned to pick up the panniers before taking a last look round. “But it would be fun to have a holiday here, I imagine,” she said finally, more to herself than to Neil.
“Hey! Next time, let’s bring some bacon and bread. We could have a fry-up!” Neil said as they readied their bikes for the return journey.
Alice felt confused. “Next time? But I thought this was just a one-off; wasn’t it?”
“I guess that’s up to you. If I’m not on duty I’ll help again, gladly. Purely for selfish reasons, of course. You’ve no idea how boring my day job is. Let me come, please. Being with you, being a small part of your life, makes things seem a bit more normal, somehow.”
Alice shrugged. “Do you have a pencil handy? I’ll leave a note asking the Mereman if he’d mind. Not you, the cooking I mean.”
Outside, the sun had burned off the mist and the air had heated up noticeably. The sun and the exercise warmed them as they cycled back to Goodfleet. The sea, pale and blue, had also emerged out of the thinning mist. In the far distance white wind turbines, tiny and toy-like, turned slowly. Alice tried to imagine their next visit. Going on holiday with a soldier. It sounded very exotic, even if it would only be for an hour.