Authors: Bernard Beckett
Colin looked at the place where the knife had been, high on the thigh. A dark stain of blood spread across the trousers. He
watched it in the strange light, fascinated by the size and shape, and whether it was still spreading. Dougal watched it too, his head hanging down, not moving, apart from his chest still heaving with the effort of almost killing.
‘You stabbed me.’
‘What if I bleed to death?’
‘You were going to strangle me.’
‘I was just playing, that’s all.’
‘You won’t bleed to death. I think it’s stopped already.’
‘It hurts. Aren’t you going to help me?’
‘Put the knife down first.’
‘You’re daft aren’t you? I’m not going to stab you now. There’s been enough stabbing.’
Colin stood, but didn’t move forward. Dougal looked up and the pain was obvious on his face.
‘If I was going to stab you, I’d wait ’til you was asleep wouldn’t I?’
‘That doesn’t make me feel so much better you know.’
‘All right then,’ Dougal threw the knife to the ground. ‘We’ll make a pact. Take the knife. Go on. Pick it up.’
Colin did as he was told.
‘Now cut your finger.’
‘Because we’re making a pact aren’t we? Blood brothers.’
‘I’m not cutting my finger.’
‘I’ve got a hole in my leg.’
‘But you didn’t put it there,’ Colin argued.
‘You think I don’t know that? Jesus. Come on. Why are you always so soft?’
‘I’m not soft.’
‘Do it then.’
‘Can I do my thumb instead?’
‘Do your cock if you want to. So long as it bleeds.’
Colin held the blade to his thumb and hesitated at the thought of it.
‘I’ll do it for you in a moment.’
‘I’ll do it.’ He pulled the blade quickly across the thumb and felt its sharp edge melt through his skin. ‘There, it’s bleeding.’
‘All right, now put your thumb against my leg, where the bleeding is.’
‘So the blood mingles. So we’re blood brothers. So we agree never to hurt each other again.’
‘Now say it.’
‘Say, you are my blood brother.’
‘You are my blood brother.’
‘Right, that’s it then. We don’t have to worry about the knife any more. Help me with this. I think it’s still bleeding.’
The wound wasn’t as bad as Colin had feared. The blood had already thickened at the surface and the cut itself was no more than an inch long. Colin soaked his shirt in water from the nearby stream and washed the surrounding area as best he could.
‘Does it hurt?’
‘Course it hurts.’
‘Did it go in far?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘I think we should just leave it then, see how it is in the morning.’
‘Not much else we can do.’
Colin hacked a clump of wool off the sheepskin and used it as a bandage, tied around the thigh with a thin cord of leather cut off his belt. He knew it wouldn’t do much, but it was better than doing nothing. Not that he felt too bad; his throat still ached every time he swallowed and when he lay down to sleep his thumb began to throb.
* * *
It might have been the pain that kept Colin from giving in totally to sleep, or it might just have been the dream was ready to come.
Colin didn’t recognise the house, but he understood where he was. The valley from a different angle was still the valley. On the horizon the hills had moved slightly, as if settling into their long slumber. They were closer to the lake and the breeze carried the smell of mud and swamp and bulrushes. And although the Sowbys’ was the only valley house Colin had seen, this house was not a valley house. It was too large, three times as big as the Sowbys’ easily, built with the intention of being seen. The paint was too new, and the trees on the lawn too broad, too susceptible to the changing seasons, too like home. The grass was mown, and the driveway splitting it in two was smooth gravel. No hens pecking at the dirt, no tired truck waiting for work. No dogs to bark, no fences to sag, no cows to stare you down.
But still it was the valley, there was no doubting that, and when Colin saw Dougal, barefoot and covered with the grime
of work, smudging his way across the scene before disappearing around the side of the house, it came as no surprise. In his half-awake half-asleep world, Colin asked himself the obvious question. Even without the abuse, there was a certain sense in running away from the Sowbys’ place, but why would anyone ever want to escape from this? And just like being awake, the dreaming only showed the event. It didn’t give the reasons.
Time passed quickly and Colin, as if perched up a tree, felt a coldness rise up from the grass as the light slipped out of the day. The darkness didn’t last. Its end was heralded by the urgent pounding of bare feet across the lawn, stopping directly beneath the tree where Colin sat, as if Dougal had turned to view his handiwork. Then came the first of the flames. An orange yellow tongue licking the inside of a window. There was a scream, a woman’s voice, and an urgent answer from another part of the house, a man this time. Another flame, and then another, and then, as if the first had been scouts checking the scene before giving the all-clear, a whole army of fire leapt from its hiding. The sky was alight with the fierce attack. Colin could feel its heat and smell the smoke of lives laid to waste.
Every one of the dreams Colin had, good or bad, ended with an image which would jolt him back to the world. The falling asleep was always gentle, the waking abrupt. This was no different. Colin felt his gaze drawn to the front door, its frame only occasionally visible through the fire. It opened suddenly, and a brighter, more intense light burst through the gap, before it was hideously filled by a dark figure, stumbling forward, clutching at the burning walls for support. Colin wanted to look away but the dream wouldn’t let him. He was lower now, back down on the ground. His eyes were Dougal’s eyes and the
face they stared into, consumed by flame, melting before them, was the face of the grey man.
‘I’ll hunt you down,’ he cried, in a voice that was the sound of a body when the life has already left it. ‘I’ll hunt you down.’
And the man may have run forward then, or he may have collapsed and lent his body’s fuel to the flames. Colin was awake before he could know, sitting and shaking and dripping sweat. And Dougal was awake too, sitting up with his arms around him, and urgently telling him ‘sshh, sshh,’ even though Colin didn’t know he’d made a sound.
So Colin shushed, and watched and listened, but the only thing not right was Dougal’s shaking beside him, and the way his own heart was still pounding.
‘Sorry to wake you,’ Colin whispered. ‘It was just a dream. I dream things.’
‘It wasn’t no dream,’ Dougal whispered back. Colin turned to see the whites of Dougal’s eyes, expanded with fear and moonlight. ‘He’s here.’
‘Who’s here?’ Colin asked, although he knew the answer as well as Dougal.
‘He’s followed me.’
‘From the fire?’
‘You seen him too haven’t you?’ Dougal shifted beside him, so he could keep watch in every direction, and winced with the pain from his leg.
‘Only in a dream.’
‘What did he look like? Tell me what he looked like.’
‘I couldn’t tell. Not properly. There was a fire. He came out the front door. He said “I’ll hunt you down.” But just in my dream, that’s all.’
‘He’s grey now. Grey as the night. And he leaves a trail where he goes. A trail of ash.’
‘You’re imagining it,’ Colin told him.
‘So how come you’ve seen him then?’ Dougal challenged. ‘How can we both be imagining the same thing?’
‘Not imagined. Dreamed. It’s different.’
‘I seen him out here twice, and both times you’ve seen him too. He’s real. The Grey Man’s following us.’
‘But he can’t be, if he’s dead,’ Colin reasoned. ‘The fire would have killed him.’
‘I didn’t say he was alive.’
‘A ghost? I don’t believe in ghosts,’ Colin told him. That wasn’t true, but it wasn’t untrue either.
‘Doesn’t matter if you believe in him or not,’ Dougal told him. ‘He’s coming after us either way.’
‘Me? I didn’t do anything.’
‘You’re with me.’
‘I wasn’t, when it happened.’
‘We’re blood brothers now,’ Dougal stated, like he was some expert in the matter. ‘That means he’s after the both of us.’
And Colin said nothing, because there was no arguing with that. And because of the dreams he couldn’t explain, and the sudden chill that had crept up his spine. Because of the darkness that, no matter how hard he peered into it, revealed only the most obvious of its shapes, and reminded Colin of all the things he would never be able to explain.
‘We’ll sit back to back,’ Dougal told him, ‘so we can look out in both directions.’
‘And what do we do, if we see him?’ Colin asked, but Dougal didn’t answer. Colin swivelled and leaned his back against
Dougal’s. He could feel their spines touch at the point where their backs curved, and then move slightly aside as they settled one against the other.
‘How’s your leg?’
‘I can hardly feel it. Keep watching.’
‘Why did you burn the house down?’
‘He deserved it.’
‘What did he do?’
‘You want the sheepskin? I’m getting cold.’
‘Have it. I heard a woman’s voice too. How many people were in there?’
‘It was only him that burned. I made sure of that.’
‘It’s murder you know. The police will be after you.’
‘They don’t know it was me. They might think it was an accident.’
‘Not if we both ran away on the same night.’
‘I’m not scared of the police. I’m scared of him.’
‘Will there be people, when we get to the sea?’
‘You ask a lot of questions.’
‘There’s a lot of things I don’t know.’
‘I already knew that.’
Colin stayed awake longer than Dougal. He heard Dougal begin to snore and then felt his weight slip away as he curled up on the ground. Colin stood then, stamping the ground because he liked the solid feel of it beneath his feet. Solid, real, safe. He turned slowly, checking the full circle of bush. He was frightened; a proper fear that would outlast the night. But he was tired too, and there was no battle tiredness couldn’t win eventually.
HEY woke early and ate the last of the meat. In the light of morning the Grey Man seemed less frightening, little more than an apparition trapped in the world of dreams, unable to reach through to this place of decaying leaves and biting southerlies. Colin didn’t mention him, and neither did Dougal, although he made them bury the last of the bones before they moved on.
They headed back inland, through the thickest bush Colin had seen so far. Although it was plain Dougal’s leg was hurting, he didn’t mention it, and if anything went faster than the day before. They climbed directly up to a new ridge, and then to Colin’s surprise, turned left.
‘This is taking us back the wrong way,’ he protested. ‘We should be going that way, where we saw the sea yesterday.’
‘Already told you, sea’s everywhere.’
‘So why are we going this way?’
‘Cos it’s the right way.’
The right way was thirsty going, and exposed to the wind once they were above the bushline. Despite the cold the day
was clear and Colin could see that Dougal had set a course for the highest peak in the range.
‘You’re just trying to make me suffer aren’t you?’
‘So why don’t we go round it?’
‘Cos that’s not the way.’
‘You don’t know that.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I know it cos I’m smarter than you. I know it cos you don’t know nothing.’ Dougal’s favourite argument.
‘What say I stop following then?’
‘Can’t. Blood brothers.’ His new favourite.
Colin had a favourite argument of his own, silence, and he stuck to it, dropping back now and then and forcing Dougal to wait, to make his point.
‘That’s it. That’s where we’re going.’
Colin followed the line of Dougal’s arm. On the other side of the ridge the land fell away steeply. They were only a mile or two from the coast, close enough to make out a collection of buildings, houses maybe, but square and basic, clustered on a small piece of flat land at a point where a split in the hills widened to a tiny valley.
‘Be all right.’
‘Who are they?’
‘Dunno. Fishermen probably. Look, there’s a boat.’
‘They might call the police if they see us,’ Colin said, surprised that Dougal, who had more to fear, hadn’t thought it himself.
‘They won’t. There’s no phone.’
‘There’s a truck though. They could say something, when they go in to town.’
‘They won’t.’ Dougal’s gaze didn’t shift from the village, and an open mouthed smile took hold of his face, like he was looking down on the promised land. Colin looked back on the buildings just as a shadow of a cloud swept across them. One by one they darkened in warning.
‘I don’t think you know anything at all. I don’t think we should go down there. I don’t think it’s safe.’
‘I’ve got a feeling, that’s all,’ Colin said.
‘A feeling eh? Well I had a dream. Come on, we can get down this way.’
The way down was as steep as it had looked from above. They were forced to back their way down drops of sheer rock, faces to the cliff, hands soon bleeding and fingers aching from grasping at holds too small to spread their weight. Five times they were forced back, to choose another route, and once Colin was sure they were stranded, stuck on a ledge with no way back or forward. But Dougal hardly seemed to notice. His usual edgy energy had been replaced by an even more annoying calm. Colin had no choice but to follow his lead. Colin let his mind go numb and the emptiness was soon filled with the sounds from below; the growing roar of the ocean, the shrieks of seagulls searching out a meal, the knocking of a boat’s engine as it worked its way towards the horizon.
After two hours of false trails they reached the head of a steep gorge, where a small clear stream ran down through a shute of sharp stones and boulders. They followed it and after only ten
minutes rounded a bend to their first close-up look at the fishing settlement, the view of it framed by cliffs on either side. There were ten buildings altogether, huddled close beneath a massive outcrop of rock, its sharp triangular profile like a dark sail set against a storm. The buildings were indeed houses, but not a type Colin had seen before. Each was little more than a low rectangle of weatherboard, with a flat corrugated roof and small close-framed windows. Their squat shapes, crouched low against wind and sea spray, seemed at once both fragile and resolute. There were no yards, or boundaries marked, with the greatest distance between any two no more than ten yards. Long clumps of coarse grass, more brown than green, grew high around them, broken up by the smooth twists of driftwood and bare patches of large rounded stones. Two tractors, bright with rust, were parked up at the top of the beach. Beyond, the only thing visible was the sea, grey-blue and cold. The rest of the world, the curve of the coastline, the snow-capped peaks of the South Island they had seen from the tops, had disappeared. The air was salty wet with ocean, and carried the smell of kelp and dead fish. Colin looked behind to where they had come from and knew there was no going back. They were here now, even if it was nowhere at all. They had arrived.
‘Well then?’ he said to Dougal.
‘Shoudn’t we go and see them?’
‘Who do you think? The people in the houses.’
‘Yeah, I’m just getting my breath back.’
* * *
The man was bent down with his back to them, his hands working through the knots and tangles of a fishing net, blue checked shirt sleeves rolled high on his sun-darkened biceps, and there was something about him Colin recognised immediately. In the way he was whistling, as they approached, the way he stopped, as soon as he heard them coming, and turned and smiled. That look he gave the world, even at its most surprising moments, like nothing could knock him from his path. That sparkle in his eyes, like somehow the world looked better from there.
‘Careful,’ Dougal whispered at Colin’s ear, but there was nothing to be careful of.
‘How does he know your name?’
Gino stepped forward and took his old friend in a warm embrace that smelt of salt and fish and a hard day of working.
‘Ah, Gino, this is Dougal.’
Gino wiped his hand across the front of his shirt and offered it to Dougal. His hair was longer, his face darker with the sun, and roughed with stubble where before a beard had been.
‘Hello Dougal.’ Gino smiled, looking them up and down, from their bare feet to their filthy faces.
‘So, how did you find me then?’
‘I don’t know,’ Colin confessed. ‘We just got lucky I suppose.’
‘Don’t tell Mary that,’ Gino replied. ‘She’s not one to believe in luck.’
‘Who’s Mary?’ Dougal’s voice bristled with suspicion. Colin wanted to tell him there was nothing to worry about, that seeing
Gino made everything all right.
‘She’s the woman who’ll decide whether or not to let you stay.’
‘Never said we wanted to stay here,’ Dougal replied.
‘Course we do,’ Colin said.
‘You can then,’ Dougal said. ‘I’m not.’
‘Your timing’s good,’ Gino shrugged, as if there was no argument. ‘There’s plenty to do right now. I will tell you what. I will go and find Mary, and while I’m away you can decide if you would like to stay. Is that fair?’
He turned and wandered off before they could answer him.
‘Who’s that?’ Dougal demanded.
‘I know. But how do you know him?’
‘I met him up north, during the war. He was my friend. And then again on the boat. He was a stowaway. The Welfare Officer said he’d been caught but he must have been lying. And now he’s here. I met him in my dreams too. Don’t you see? This is good. We’re meant to be here. You did know where you were leading us. You were right.’
‘Dreaming people is soft,’ was all Dougal replied.
‘But we can stay though, if they let us?’ Colin pushed.
‘Just for one night, to get some rest and some food.’
Colin wanted to argue, and plead for something more, but Dougal was immune to both, and often his mind shifted without being pushed.
Gino returned without Mary, but with his smile still shining.
‘She must still be out getting shellfish. Doesn’t matter though. You can help me now, with cleaning out this net, and we can
swap our stories, and when we’re done she’ll be back and we’ll see what can be sorted out.’
‘I’m not working for nothing,’ Dougal told him.
‘You’ll be working for your dinner then,’ Gino replied. ‘I’ll feed you tonight, either way. You must be cold like that. Come with me and we’ll find you some clothes.’
Gino led them back to the first building they had walked past, the least impressive of them in what was a close competiton. The light blue of the walls had faded to a sort of invisibility. The front door was buckled and had to be kicked before it would open. Inside held no surprises. Along the far wall was a bench with a single tap over the sink, and a window showing not much more than the rock face which was less than twenty yards away. To the left a black cooking range, to the right a canvas hammock slung across the corner. There were two chairs, old and comfortable looking, some clothes spread about, and not much else. A single room dressed up as home, but after the nights in the bush, a mansion too.
‘Here, you can wear my coat. It’s warmer than nothing.’ He handed it to Colin. ‘And somewhere here there is a jersey I think. Here, here it is.’
Dougal took the jersey. It was light brown with dark stained sleeves and smelt of smoke and fish. Dougal pulled it on over his head and Colin was surprised to see it was slightly too small, its sleeves finishing before Dougal’s wrists began, the rest of it stretching about his thin frame, making him appear awkward. Colin wondered who it belonged to — Gino was far taller than either of them — and smiled at the sight of Dougal trying to move his arms.
‘It doesn’t fit,’ Dougal complained, his face showing he
thought little of the joke.
‘But it is better than being cold,’ Gino replied. ‘And you can keep it. Here, come on, there’s work needs doing.’
Gino led them back outside, and Dougal grabbed Colin’s arm, holding him back at the doorway, so he could whisper without being heard.
‘I don’t like him.’
‘That makes no sense. You don’t even know him.’
‘There’s something strange about him.’
‘You can’t know that yet.’
‘I don’t want to stay here,’ Dougal told him.
‘Let’s just wait and see. Please.’
Colin looked at Dougal but Dougal looked to the ground instead and shrugged.
‘Come on then.’
There were two nets, each stretched from the beginning of the stony beach down to the water’s edge where two empty boat trailers waited, their wheels half buried in the thin strip of sand at the sea, a distance of over thirty yards. Gino was working halfway along the first of the nets, and it was easy to see from the progress he’d made what his task was. Ahead of him the net was fouled with driftwood and seaweed, crabs, fish deemed too small when they were first cleared, and knots where the last struggles of larger specimens had taken place. Colin and Dougal watched him work and then mirrored his efforts on the second net. Although Gino worked quickly, using short efficient movements which spoke of practice, by combining their efforts the boys were able to keep pace with him. And as they did they talked, or more they listened, because
Gino was happy to tell his own story first.
‘You won’t believe it boys, but it is like Mary says, some things are so unbelievable they have to be true.’
‘You’ll meet her soon enough. She runs the village. Ron thinks he does, but that’s just the way Mary is. Now, back to my story. Mary likes a good story. So that would be my advice to you. Tell a good story and she’ll find a way of letting you stay here. We get a lot of drifters here, but not all of them can tell their story well, so not all of them are welcome.
‘You remember how it was on the ship Colin. I was without my tickets, and so the only way to shore was with swimming. The night before we were due to land, as we came in to the harbour, I sneaked out to the back of the ship, where Henry was waiting for me. I had a small bag, with my clothes and a few other things beside, and that was all. Henry told me he had done this before. There was a point, which could be found by lining up certain lights on the shore, and if I jumped just when he told me, the tides would help carry me in. So what I did is I paid Henry with the last of my money, and I climbed up on the railing and waited for his instruction.’
‘How did you know he wasn’t lying?’ Dougal asked.
‘He hadn’t turned me in.’
‘Because he wanted the money,’ Dougal countered. Apparently, it wasn’t just Colin who Dougal thought was stupid. Dougal knew better than the whole world. Not that Gino seemed to mind being challenged. He just smiled and shook his head.
‘Ah, you see, now that should have been obvious. But I am not that kind of thinker. I trust people. I trust life. I could hear
the water rushing by the side of the boat, far far below me in the darkness. Jump, Henry shouted, and so I jumped, as far out and as high as I could, just the way he told me.
‘And you will never have jumped off a ship before, so you won’t know this, but the sound is terrifying. The booming of the engines, it fills your head, and at night there is no up and no down, either way is black. So I felt a little bit of dying, but a little bit of living too, because some things are not meant to happen, and that night I was not meant to die.’
As Gino became more excited by his story his hands worked the net more furiously and Colin swapped a grin with Dougal as they struggled to keep up.
‘So I did the only thing I could do. I relaxed, and put my arms out, and let God decide. And he took me to the surface. There was air, the most wonderful air I have ever breathed, like kissing a beautiful woman. The ship has gone ahead, and the police and the city will have to wait, and I thank God, but too soon. Because the harder I swim towards the lights, the smaller they become, and I know then that the tide is carrying me back out to sea. Henry was mistaken, or like you said my new friend, Henry was just interested in my money. So, I think to myself, I will not drown quickly tonight. Tonight, I will drown slowly instead.