As it moved across the landscape the terrified sheep fled up and down the slopes in all directions, trying to get away from the noise and the slipping shadow. The machine itself was well out of sight before the silence came down again.
The lark’s song was severed.
Simon pulled himself to his feet and slung the canvas bag across his back. The intrusion of ugly sound and sight had fractured his peace and sense of ease as it had unsettled the sheep and silenced the bird.
He took the path that led steeply down the Peak, following the fingerposts to Gardale.
The bed was stripped, the mattress bare, the sheets and blankets piled by the door. There were pale shapes on the walls where his posters and calendar and photographs had been. His bag was by his feet, packed, zipped. Ready.
He was ready.
He’d been ready since six.
Only he wasn’t ready, Andy realised. He was panicking. His stomach had dropped into his bowels twice and he’d had to make fast for the bog.
He thought of the days and nights spent imagining this morning, planning for it, dreaming about it, counting the hours to it. And it had come and he was shit-scared of it.
He understood why so many of them went out and chucked a brick through a shop window or grabbed a woman’s handbag. Anything to get back to safety, like racing back to touch ‘home’ in the playground when you were a kid.
It was different when you had people waiting for you, kids to rush up to you, a wife desperate for you, you wouldn’t be able to see the back of this place fast enough then.
He shook himself, got up and did thirty press-ups. He was fit; working out in the kitchen gardens and playing so much soccer and basketball had seen to that. Sweating, he lay back on the thin mattress. Right, he said, OK, you’re fit, and you’ve got a future out there.
He rolled over on to his side and went back to sleep.
The streets were awash and the gale was blowing so hard he could scarcely stand against it on the station platform. He went back inside the steamy buffet. The train was announced as running forty-five minutes late. Flooding on the line.
People were talking about it. He got another mug of tea and a doughnut.
An hour ago, he’d walked out of the prison gate carrying his bag, him and two of the others, but he’d got away from them fast; besides, they had people waiting for them. Families. He hadn’t expected ceremony but still he was shocked how quickly it had all been over. The things they’d been holding for him were spread out on the counter, gone through and signed for; he was given his money, his train pass, waited in the passage with the others and then across the strip, and out through the gate. The jangle of keys for the last time.
Rain, driving into your face and a gale knocking you almost off your feet.
‘They’d a car completely overturned in Simpson Street.’
‘Eight trees down somebody said.’
‘Can’t have been, there ent eight trees in the bloody town!’
‘Kids haven’t gone to school, too dangerous.’
‘St Nicholas church roof was ripped half off.’
Andy sat holding the mug between his hands. He felt unreal. People talked and got up and sat down and came in and went out through the buffet doors and no one took any notice of him. No one knew where he’d just come from.
What would happen if they did?
It wasn’t being out on his own, buying a mug of tea and a doughnut, waiting for a train, none of that fazed him. It was nobody watching him, nobody taking any notice. He hadn’t been invisible for four and a half years but he was invisible now.
The gale hurled itself suddenly at the doors swinging them wide open, crashing an empty chair on to the floor. A child in a red anorak screamed.
He remembered his mother. She’d only been to see him half a dozen times, scurrying into the visitors’ room, head bent and eyes on the floor for shame, and after that she’d been in and out of hospital, then too ill. He didn’t think of that crumpled-looking person as his mother, he thought of the one he had run to when friends of Mo Thompson’s had slammed his fingers in the door for fun and the one who had finally found him when they had taken him down the Wherry to one of the sheds and locked him there in the dark, but not before telling him that the scratching sounds in the roof were rats. That had been his mother, with thick arms and red hands ready to beat the lights out of his tormentors and a voice like a foghorn you could hear three streets away. She had shrunk. There had been grey stains on her coat and dirt in the folds of her neck. When she had leaned over the table between them in the visitors’ room she had smelled.
The woman behind the buffet counter was trying to wedge one of the doors with newspaper but it kept coming away from her hand and now the rainwater was sloshing under it and over the brown linoleum floor.
Three men went to help her. She fetched a mop and plastic bucket and started to try to push back the tidal wave of rain water.
The child was eating a chocolate bar and screaming at the same time as the windows rattled in the gale.
Andy wanted to go back. Here it was unsafe, the ground seemed to be moving beneath his feet and the fact that nobody knew his name scared him.
Somewhere outside, part of a tin roof sheared off and crashed on to concrete.
Mam, Andy Gunton muttered under his breath, and it was the woman with the strong arms and red hands he was talking to, Mam.
A confused echo came out of the speakers, possibly announcing his train, possibly announcing the end of the world.
The lights went out then and for a second everyone froze, everyone was silent, even the child.
The weather had caught them out. Heavy rain and high winds had been forecast but not a virtual hurricane, bringing such damage and chaos at the height of a Monday morning. The electricity did not come back on in the station buffet and the trains did not run again until the middle of the afternoon.
‘How the hell am I going to manage?’
The woman with the child had a baby in a pushchair and two cases. An emergency platform alteration meant that she had to cross the iron bridge. She was in tears, the children exhausted, the rain still lashing down.
‘Come on, my love,’ Andy heard himself say. He took the cases and after carrying them over the bridge, came back for the pushchair. The far platform was dangerously crowded. Rain was coursing along the gutterings and down in a stream.
‘You hold on to your little girl, I’ll get the door open and bag your seat, don’t fret.’
‘What’d I have done?’ the woman kept saying to him. ‘I don’t know what I’d have done.’
‘Someone else would have looked after you.’
‘You can’t trust everybody, though, people are funny. I can trust you.’
Andy looked at her. She meant it. Later, he thought, he would see the humour of it.
‘Where are you going yourself?’
‘Lafferton. Near Bevham?’
‘That’s the other side of the bloody country.’
‘You going home?’
He didn’t answer. He didn’t know.
‘What do you do?’
He opened his mouth. Rain was trickling down his neck inside his shirt. ‘Market gardening.’ But the train was drawing in. She was fretting over her children and hadn’t heard him.
Andy threw himself at a door as it slid by him and as the handle locks were released he was inside the train, pushing past to a seat, throwing the woman’s case across it before going back to lift the children.
‘You’re a saint, you know that, how’d I have managed? I’d never have done this, you deserve a bloody medal.’
It was another hour before he got on a train himself. By then, the lights were back on and the wind had quietened though the rain was still sluicing down.
There was no seat and no buffet car. He sat on his bag in the gangway, crushed next to a boy with a stereo making tinny noises.
There was no way he could let Michelle know when he might be arriving, and by now it scarcely mattered. The train stopped every now and then, for a few minutes, or half an hour. After a while, he slept sitting upright. When he woke, it was dark outside.
He wondered where the woman with the children was.
The boy nudged his elbow and passed across a can of lager.
‘Cheers. Where’d this come from?’
‘Had a couple or three in me bag.’
Andy took a long swig of the lukewarm gassy beer.
Four hours later, he walked up the concrete path of his sister’s house. It was still raining. From one end of the street to the other there was noise, television noise, music noise, kids screaming and adults shouting noise. The orange street light shone on a plastic tractor at his feet.
‘Bloody hell, you took your time.’ His sister Michelle looked nearer to forty than thirty and the hallway behind her smelled of frying food. She had visited him twice in prison, right at the beginning, before she married Pete Tait after divorcing the first no-hoper and started on another lot of kids.
‘What you been doing?’
Andy followed her through the house into the back kitchen where the smell of frying was strongest. Fat was spitting up from a pan of chips on to the tile-effect wallpaper. He dropped his bag.
‘There was this storm. Gales and flooding, or maybe you didn’t look out the window.’
‘Oh ha ha, I had to bloody wade through it to get them to bloody school, didn’t I? Did it stop the trains then?’
‘You had your tea?’
His sister sighed and stuck the kettle spout under the tap. From the next room the television screamed with skidding car wheels.
Andy sat down at the table. His head ached, he was hungry and thirsty, he was shattered. He didn’t want to be here. He wanted to be at home. Where was home? There was no home. Michelle’s was as near as it got.
‘You’ll have to sleep on the couch or up with Matt in his room.’
‘I’m not bothered. Couch then.’
‘Well, Pete’ll want to watch the telly till all hours, we got Sky, he watches sport.’
‘OK, Matt’s room. I said I’m not bothered.’
He looked up. His sister was staring at him as she lit a cigarette. She didn’t offer him one.
‘You’ll know me again.’
‘You don’t look any different,’ she said in the end, through a face full of smoke. ‘Older maybe.’
‘I am older. I was nineteen. I’m nearly twenty-five.’
She put a mug of tea in front of him. ‘Pete says you can stop just till you find something. Will they fix you up at the probation?’
‘Look, if you want me to drink up and go, just say, Michelle.’
‘Makes no difference to me. What you going to do all day?’
‘You ent never worked.’
‘What at? What can you do?’
‘I’ve been training.’
The chip fat spurted viciously. She dragged it off the gas.
‘What, sewing mailbags?’
‘You don’t know anything. You didn’t bother to come and find out.’
‘I wrote you, didn’t I, I sent you stuff, I sent you pictures of the kids. It was half across the bloody country and Pete wasn’t keen.’
Pete Tait. A squaddie when Michelle had married him but he’d got out when he fell off a wall on an assault course and slammed his back. Now he sat in a cubbyhole watching a shopping mall CCTV screen from two in the afternoon till midnight. Andy knew that much from the single-page notes Michelle had scrawled to him half a dozen times a year.
‘They’ll sort me out a place. Flat or something.’
‘You want beans or tomatoes?’ Michelle was opening a packet of corned beef.
Baked beans. Corned beef. Chips. Tomatoes. Prison food. He got up and poured himself another mug of tea. The woman with the luggage and the children came to his mind. Funny. You saw people. Talked to them. They went. You never saw them again. All the men in all the prisons. Never saw them again.
‘The kids watching television?’
‘They’re in bloody bed. It’s half past nine. I’m not one of those lets them stay up all hours.’
She set the plate of food in front of him.
So the television was having a car chase all to itself.
‘I haven’t eaten since half seven.’
‘You want bread and butter as well then?’
Andy nodded through a mouthful of beans and chips.
Michelle sat opposite him.
‘I don’t want my kids turning out like the rest round here and I don’t want them hearing stuff from you either.’
Stuff. The stuff was years ago, in another life. He hardly thought about it. He hadn’t been that nineteen-year-old for nearly six years in any sense at all.
‘There’s always jobs going on security. Pete could’ve put in a word, only I don’t know what they’d ask.’
‘You got to do something.’
‘I told you.’
‘What then? You still ent said.’
The television was wailing with police sirens. ‘Don’t you ever turn that off?’
‘You don’t even know it’s on, do you?’
‘I’ve only just bloody sat down, I’ve been on my feet all day. Anyway, Pete’ll want it on when he gets in.’
‘That’s three hours.’
‘Shut up, will you, who the hell do you think you are, telling me how to run my house, live my life, you’ve just bloody walked in after being in stir for five years, you’re bloody lucky Pete didn’t say no, sorry, no chance, he’s not bloody coming here, but he didn’t. He said you could come.’
‘Very nice of him.’
‘I’ve trained. They have a big market garden, we supplied veg all round, shops, hotels, schools. Big enterprise.’
‘What, digging and that, potato lifting? Sounds like hard work. You never had no practice at that.’
‘Well, I have now.’
‘They get you a job digging then?’
‘There’s a lot more to it than digging.’
‘Can you cut hedges? There’s one in front wants cutting and if you fancy digging up the concrete from the back I could have some flowers.’