The Miraculous Cairn | Christopher Priest | Granta Magazine

The Miraculous Cairn

Christopher Priest

The island of Seevl lies like a dark shadow over my memories of childhood. It was always physically there, sprawling across the horizon opposite Jethra Harbour, blurring sometimes into the low clouds of storms, standing out at other times as a black, rugged outline against the southern sky. Its landscape was not unlike that of the mountains around Jethra, but there was a saying among us that the rocks and soil our ancestors had no use for had been thrown out to sea to make Seevl.

The closeness of Seevl to Jethra had created an inevitable bond–family ties, trading agreements, old alliances–but although to the Jethrans it was just an off-shore island, politically it was a part of the Dream Archipelago. Journeys between mainland and island were forbidden, except with official permission from the Seigniory, but a ferry still ran every day in defiance of the ban, openly and commercially. Officialdom turned a blind eye, because trade was important to Jethra, and crucial to Seevl. I myself travelled to Seevl many times, three or four times a year, for several years of my childhood.

It was twenty years since I had visited Seevl, and sixteen years since leaving Jethra. The last time I saw the city was when I left to go to university in Old Haydl, and I had never returned. Twenty years of mixed fortune, with most of the success on the surface, misleadingly. I had a passable education, an interesting career. I had avoided war-service so far, and was now probably too old to be caught up in it, except incidentally. Many friends of my own age (I was thirty-four) had volunteered, but it was not for me. As a teacher I was officially exempted, and if I searched my conscience I knew that the work I was doing was more useful than any war-work might have been. I had done well in teaching, or well enough to have self-esteem and the respect of my colleagues.

In my private life, though, those twenty years had been less successful, and it was returning to Jethra, with Seevl looming on the horizon, that brought it to mind.

Jethra was the old capital of our country, but because of the war and the need for decentralized government, there had been an exodus to the newer, less exposed cities inland. There was still a token government presence in Jethra, but the Seignior’s Palace was unoccupied, and the Senate House had been bombed at the outbreak of war. Now there was just the fishing, and a certain amount of light industry, and Jethra had become a large, desolate ghost of a city.

A return to the place of childhood is a gathering of reminders. For me, Jethra was life with my parents, schooling, old friends with whom I had lost contact…and Seevl. Not an uncommon grouping of memories, perhaps, but between them they had the effect of reminding me of what I had become. This became clear as I sat on the train going to Jethra, thinking of the past. I had not actually chosen to make this journey–because there was family business I had to resolve–but neither did I make it unwillingly. I was curious to see Jethra again, and nervous of travelling to Seevl, but I felt it was time, after twenty years, to confront the past.

When I was a child, the closeness of Seevl had a foreboding quality for everyone, and certainly for the other children at school. ‘Send you to Seevl,’ was the ultimate childish threat, with unstated connotations of eternal damnation and terror. In our alternate world of invented myth, Seevl was populated by bogeymen and creeping horrors, and the actual landscape of the island was thought to be a nightmare terrain of crevasses and volcanic pools, steaming craters and shifting rocks. This vision was as true for me, in an imaginative sense, as it was for all Jethran children, but with a child’s unconscious ability to see the world from a number of different viewpoints, I also knew Seevl for what it really was.

It was no less horrifying to me in reality, but its horrors were acutely personal.

I was an only child. My parents, both Jethrans, had had another child before me, but she had died a year before I was born. I came into a world where my life was guarded, for reasons I could not begin to understand until I had almost grown up. In some ways I can now sympathize with the protective way my parents brought me up, but it meant that when I was more than just a child: in my early and middle teens, I was still being treated as some precious object that had to be guarded against all the possible dangers and threats of life. While youngsters of my own age were hanging around in gangs, and getting into scrapes, and learning about sex, I was expected to be at home, sharing my parents’ friends and interests. These were numerous, and although some were not uninteresting, they were hardly the normal activities of a teenager. Other filial duties, though, I entered into with a sense of duty and numb acceptance, suppressing the urge to evade them. The most unwelcome of these was to go with my parents on their regular visits to see my father’s brother on Seevl.

My Uncle Torm was a few years younger than my father, but had married at about the same time: there was a photograph in our livingroom of the two young men with their brides, and although I recognized the youthful versions of my father, mother, and uncle easily enough, it took me years to realize that the pretty young woman holding Torm’s arm in the photograph was my Aunt Alvie.

In the picture she was smiling, and I had never seen Alvie smile. She was wearing a gay, flowery dress, and I had never seen Aunt Alvie in anything except an old nightgown and a patched cardigan. Her hair was short and wavy, cut attractively about her face, and Aunt Alvie’s hair was long and greasy and grey. And the girl in the picture was standing beside her new husband, raising one leg to show her knee coquettishly to the camera, and my Aunt Alvie was a bedridden cripple.

Torm and Alvie had moved to Seevl soon after their marriage just before the war started. He had taken a clerical job at a catholic seminary in the remotest part of the Seevl mountains; his reasons for this I do not understand to this day, but I do know that it caused a bitter, if short-lived, row between him and my father.

They were there with their new baby on Seevl when war broke out, and were unable to return to Jethra. By the time the war had settled into its interminable routine of attritional skirmishes, in which a certain amount of movement between Seevl and Jethra was possible, Aunt Alvie had been taken ill and was not to be moved.

It was in this climate that my parents made their occasional week-end visits to Seevl to see Torm and Alvie, taking me with them. For me, they were week-ends of unrelieved dreariness and depression: a voyage to a bleak, windswept island, to a cramped and dark house on the edge of a moor, a house where a sickbed was the centre of attention, and where the conversations were at best about other adult relatives and at worst about sickness and pain and false hopes of a miraculous recovery. The only distraction from all this, and the ostensible reason for my being there, was Torm and Alvie’s daughter, my cousin Seri. She was a few months older than me, plump and rather stupid, and we were the worst kind of companions to each other. The prospect of her company did nothing to relieve those long days of dread before a visit, and afterwards the memory of it did nothing to help me recover from the profound moods of depression that always followed.

As I left the station, a young woman in Seigniorial uniform opened a car door and walked across to me.

‘Are you Lenden Cros?’ she said to me.


‘I am Serjeant Reeth. I am your escort.’

We went to the car, and I placed my bag on the back seat. She held the door open for me, like a chauffeuse, but before I was properly seated she walked around to her own side. She started the engine.

‘Where are we going?’ I said.

‘The ferry does not sail until the morning. We will stay overnight at the Grand Shore Hotel.’

She drove out of the station square, and turned into a main road leading towards the centre. I watched the buildings of the city through the window. We had lived in the suburbs, and I knew the centre only superficially. I recognized buildings, names of streets; and some had vague but poignant associations for me. As a child, I had known Jethra’s centre as the place where my father worked, where my mother sometimes went shopping; and the street names were landmarks from their territory. The city now looked disused and unloved: there were office blocks, shops, civic buildings, but many of them were boarded up and litter blew across the steps. There was not much traffic in the streets: several cars in various stages of decay, a few trucks, a surprising number of horse-drawn vehicles.

We were held up for a few seconds at a large intersection.

I said: ‘Are you from Jethra?’


‘You seem to know where you are going.’

‘I arrived this morning. I’ve had time to explore.’

The traffic moved on, and the conversation ended.

I had never stayed at the Grand Shore Hotel, had never even been through its doors. It was the largest, most expensive hotel in town. In my childhood it had been the scene of society weddings, business conferences, and many glittering civic occasions. We drew up in the car park outside the main entrance, with its imposing and solid facade of smoke-dirtied red brick.

Serjeant Reeth stood back as I registered. The clerk pushed across two pieces of white card for my signature. One was for a room in my own name, the other, an adjacent number, was for Serjeant Reeth.

A porter took my bag, and led us up the wide, curving staircase to the next floor. There were mirrors and chandeliers, a plush carpet on the stairs, gold paint on the plaster ceiling-mouldings…but the mirrors were unpolished, the carpet was worn and the paint was peeling. The hotel’s grandeur was inherited from the days before the war. The muted sounds of our climbing seemed like memories of those famous parties of the past.

The porter opened the door to my room, and went in ahead of me. Serjeant Reeth went to her own door and inserted the key. For a moment she glanced back at me, and something in her expression took me by surprise: I detected a curiosity, a quick interest?

I tipped the porter, and he left. He had placed my bag on a low table by the door, so I took out my clothes and hung them in the wardrobe. I went to the basin, washed off the grime from the train journey, and put on clean clothes. Then I sat on the edge of the bed and looked around at the dingy room.

It was an unexpected position from which to contemplate my past; I had imagined that we would go straight across to Seevl, and had not realized that we were, of course, dependent on the ferry. How were we to spend the evening? I supposed the policewoman would have arranged that, too.

I recalled the look that Serjeant Reeth had given me, as we went into our rooms. She reminded me of someone I had once known, a girl of about the same age, with similar build and colouring. She was one of many lovers I had had at one time, when a succession of young women had passed through my life. Perhaps if I had met Serjeant Reeth then, she would have been one of them, but I was older now. I knew that such affaires almost always ended in emotional disaster; I had had no casual pick-ups for years, preferring the less intense discontents of sexlessness. Serjeant Reeth was the same sort of reminder of the past as Jethra itself had become, and she induced in me much the same quality of depression….

I was thirsty, so I left my room and went towards the staircase, thinking I would visit the bar. When I reached the head of the stairs I thought I should, out of politeness, see if the policewoman wanted to join me.

She answered my knock at her door after only a moment’s delay, as if she had been standing there, waiting for me.

‘I’m going downstairs for a drink,’ I said. ‘Will you join me?’

‘That would be nice. Thank you.’

We went downstairs and found the bar. It was locked, and there were no lights on inside. We went into the lounge, rang a bell, and in a moment an elderly waiter came to serve us.

When he had taken our order and left the lounge, I said, making conversation: ‘Have you worked as an escort before, Serjeant Reeth?’

‘No…this is the first time.’

‘Does the work come up very often?’

‘I’m not sure. I have only been in the Seigniory for a year.’

Just then the waiter returned with our drinks.

‘Will you be dining in this evening?’ he said to me.


When he had gone, I looked around the lounge; we were the only people there. I liked the airy, gracious feeling in the room, with its big windows and long velvet drapes, the high Consortship light shades, and the broadbacked wicker chairs grouped around the low tables. There were dozens of potted plants, great spreading ferns and tall parlour-palms, lending a feeling of sedate livingness to an otherwise decaying hotel. All the plants were green and alive, so someone must still be looking after them, dusting them, watering them.

We sat in silence for several minutes, and I had plenty of opportunity to try to assess my companion of the next day or two. I placed her age at about twenty-four or five. She was no longer wearing her cap, but the uniform–stiff, sexless, and unflattering–effectively neutered her. She wore no make-up, and her hair was drawn back into a bun. She seemed shy and uncommunicative, and unaware of my regard.

At last, it was she who broke the silence.

‘Have you been across to Seevl before?’

‘I was taken there several times as a child,’ I said. ‘What about you?’


‘Do you know what it’s like there?’

‘I’m told it’s bleak. Is that how you remember it?’

‘More or less. It’s twenty years since I was there. It won’t have changed much.’ I tried my drink, swallowing much of it, hoping it would ease the conversation. ‘I used to hate going across there. I always dreaded it.’


‘Oh…the mood of the place, the scenery,’ I said vaguely, avoiding specific memories. The seminary, Alvie, the open moors, and the dead towers. ‘I can’t describe it. You feel it as soon as you land.’

‘You sound like my brother. He says he can always tell if a house is haunted.’

‘I didn’t say the place was haunted,’ I said, quick to the defence. ‘It’s a question of the landscape. And the wind…you can always hear the wind.’

Jethra itself was built in the shadow of the Murinan Hills, but beyond these, to the west, was a wide, straight valley that led northwards into the foothills of the northern range. For all but a few short weeks at the height of summer, a polar wind came down the valley and escaped out to sea, whining across Seevl’s treeless fells and moors. Only on the eastern side of the island, nearest to Jethra, were there villages of any size, and the only port, Seevl Town, was there. One of my clearest childhood memories of Seevl was seeing it in the springtime. I could look out to the south from my bedroom window, and see the blossom shining pink and white and bright red on the trees along the boulevards in Jethra, and beyond, out in the blue Midway Sea, there would be Seevl, still with its wintertime crust of snow.

Serjeant Reeth’s mention of a brother had given me, for the first time, a little information about her background. I asked her about him. He was also in the Seigniory, she told me, serving with the Border Police. He was hoping for promotion, because his unit was soon to be shipped across to the southern continent. The war was still confused and confusing: neither side would admit to being the first to send an expeditionary force to the south–claims and counter-claims came from both sides–but almost every week there was news of more troops being sent out. That very morning, before setting out from home to catch the train, I had heard government claims that the enemy was building a transit-camp on one of the islands in the Dream Archipelago. If this was true, it marked a new stage in the war, because the political status of the islands was controlled by a Covenant of Neutrality.

It was a precarious state of the neutrality that had involved me with the Seigniory: the request from the Father Confessor that I should visit my uncle’s house to sort out his belongings had been channelled through the Seigniorial Visa Department. If it had come direct to me, if the priests at the seminary had had my address, I could have slipped across unofficially. But that was not to be. Thus my need to be escorted, thus Serjeant Reeth.

I was telling her the reason for my trip–the need to sign papers, to permit furniture to be burned or given away–when the waiter returned. He was carrying two menus, discreetly implying that the dining-room staff were ready for us. While we perused the menu, the waiter drew the curtains, then led us down the corridor to the dining-room.

My last visit to Seevl. I was fourteen.

There were examinations at school and I was trying to concentrate on them, but I knew that at the end of the week we were going to see my uncle and aunt and cousin. It was summer, and Jethra was dusty and windless. Sitting by my bedroom window, distracted from my revision, I looked frequently out to sea. Seevl was green then, a dark, tough green; a coloured lie, a deceit of lushness. Day followed day, and I thought about feigning illness: a migraine attack, a sudden bout of gastro-enteritis, but at last the day arrived and there was no avoiding it. We were out of the house soon after dawn–in the cool, lovely light of summer, when no one else is about–and hurried down to the stop to catch the first tram of the day.

What were these visits for? Unless my parents spoke in some adult code I have never been able to decipher, they went out of a combination of habit, guilt, and family obligation. I never heard anything of interest discussed, in the way I now know educated adults can discuss matters (and both my parents were educated, and so was my uncle, although I cannot be sure about Alvie); there was news to impart, but it was stale news, trivial events in the family, not even interesting when fresh. Everything that passed between the four adults was familial or familiar: an aunt or cousin who had moved house or changed jobs, a nephew who married, a great-uncle who had died. Sometimes, photographs were passed around Alvie’s sickbed: Cousin Jayn’s new house (hasn’t he done well?), or this is us on holiday, or isn’t she a lovely baby? Family banality it was; it seemed so when I was a child and it seems so now. It was as if they had no ideas they could externalize, no sense of the abstract; or, if they had, it was deemed dangerous, not to be spoken of. News of the family and old conversations revisited were a levelling device: it was almost as if they were instilling a sense of mediocrity into Alvie, to bring her to their level, to make her, that is, no longer ill. Mediocrity as medicine.

And where were their recollections? Did they have no past together that they could reminisce about? My only hint of this forgotten past was the photograph taken before I was born, the one in our living-room. I was genuinely fascinated by it. When was it taken, and where? What were they doing that day? Who took the photograph? Was it a happy day, as seemed from the picture, or did something occur later to mar it? Why did none of them ever mention it?

It was probably Alvie’s sickness. It suffused everything in past and present: her pain, her discomfort, her doctor, and her pills. Death surrounded Alvie’s sickbed, and occupied it. The disease was creeping through her. Every time we visited her she was a little worse. First her legs lost all sensation; then she became incontinent; then she could not take solid food. But if her decline was steady, it was also slow. News of further deterioration came by letters, so that whenever I saw her I did so with the prospect of seeing her arms withering, or her face decaying away, or her teeth falling out; the ghoulish imagination of childhood was never satisfied, disappointed even, once I had resigned myself to having to visit her again. There was always an inverse surprise: how well she looked! Only later, as the depressing news was exchanged, would we hear of new horrors, new agonies. Yet the years dragged by and Alvie was still there in her bed, propped up by eight or nine pillows, her hair in a lank skein over one shoulder. She grew fatter and paler, more grotesque, but these changes would happen to anyone who never got exercise, who never went outside. Her spirit was unfailing: her voice was always pitched on one note, sounding sad and dull and dreary, but the things she said were self-consciously normal. She reported her pain and setbacks; she did not complain about them. She knew the disease was killing her, but she talked of the future, even if it was a future of the narrowest vision (what would I like for my next birthday,what was I going to do when I left school?). She was an example to us all.

Whenever we made our visits, one of the priests would come in to see Alvie. I always suspected that no one ever came from the seminary unless there was someone there from the outside world to witness it. Alvie had ‘courage’; she had ‘fortitude’; she ‘bore her cross’. I hated the priests in their black clothes, waving their white hands sanctimoniously over the bed, blessing not only Alvie but my family, too. I sometimes thought it was the priests who were killing her; they were praying not for a cure but a lingering death, and they were doing it to make a theological point to their students. My uncle was godless, his job was just a job. There was Hope in religion, and to prove it to him the priests were killing Alvie: no one works in the service of the Lord as one toils in the vineyards. We shall save.

The last visit….

The boat was late; the man in the harbour office told us the engine was being repaired, and for a joyous moment I thought the trip would have to be cancelled…but then the ferry appeared in the harbour, coming slowly to the quay to collect us and the handful of other passengers who stood with us.

It seemed, as soon as the boat was outside the harbour, that we were almost upon Seevl: the grey, limestone cliffs were dead ahead; but it was an hour’s voyage to Seevl Town, the boat swinging far out to sea to avoid the shoals beneath Stromb Head, then turning in again to take the sheltered passage beneath the cliffs. I stood apart from my parents, staring up at the cliffs, watching for occasional glimpses of the high fells beyond, and feeling the onset of the real, stomach-turning dread I always felt as we arrived. It was cold at sea, and though the sun was rising quickly, the wind came curling down on to the passage from the cliffs above. My parents were in the bar with the other passengers, and I shared the deck with crates of livestock, packing-cases, newspapers, cases of drink, two tractors.

The houses of Seevl Town, built up in terraces on the hills around the harbour, were constructed from the grey rock of the island, the roofs whitened around the chimney-stacks with bird droppings. An orange lichen clung to the walls and roofs, souring the houses, making them seem not warm, but crumbling. On the highest hill, dominating the town, stood the derelict remains of a rock-built tower. I never looked directly at this, fearing it.

As the boat glided in on the still water my parents came out of the saloon and stood beside me, one on each side, like an escort, preventing flight.

There was a car to be hired in Seevl Town; an expensive luxury in Jethra, but a necessity for the wild interior of the island. My father had booked it a week before, but it was not ready and we had to wait an hour or more in a cold office overlooking the harbour. My parents were silent, trying to ignore me as I fidgeted and made fitful attempts to read the book I had brought.

Around Seevl Town were the few farms on the island, rearing their scrawny animals and growing their hybrid cereals on the barren soil of the eastern side. The road climbed up through these small holdings, following the perimeters of the fields, and turning through sharp angles and steep climbing corners. The surface had been metalled once but now it was decaying, and the car lurched uncomfortably in the potholes and the wheels often spun on the gravelly sides. My father, driving, stayed silent, trying to master not only the dangerous road but also the controls of the unfamiliar vehicle; my mother sat beside him with the map, ready to direct him, but we always got lost on Seevl. I sat in the back, ignored by them both, except when my mother would turn to see what I was doing; I always did nothing, staring out of my window in mute suspension of thought.

It took nearly an hour to reach the first summit of the fells, by which time the last farm, the last hedge, the last tree, were miles behind us. There was a last glimpse of Seevl Town as the road went over the crest, and a wide view of the gun-metal sea, flecked with islets and the indistinct shape of the mainland coast.

On the moors the road rose and fell with the whim of the country, winding through the scrub-covered land. Sometimes, the car would come out from a high pass, where on each side great crags of limestone loomed over the scree slopes, and the blast of wind from the north would kick the car to the side. My father drove slowly, trying to avoid the loose rocks on the road and the potholes; the map lay unconsulted on my mother’s knee, because Father knew the way. Yet he always made mistakes, took the wrong turn or followed the wrong fork, and then Mother would sit quietly at his side until he realized. The map would be taken from her, the car would be reversed, and we would go back the way we had come to the place where we went wrong.

I left all this to them, although, like Mother, I usually knew when we went wrong. My interest was not with the road, but the landscape it passed through. I never failed to be appalled by the gigantic emptiness of Seevl, and Father’s wrong turnings had for me the double advantage of not only delaying our eventual arrival at the seminary, but also of opening up more of the island to my eyes. The road often passed the dead towers of Seevl. I knew the islanders never went near these, but I did not know why; whenever the car passed one, I could scarcely look towards it for fear, but my parents never even noticed. If we passed slowly, I would cower in my seat in anticipation of some ghoul of legend making a rush for the car.

Later in the journey the road itself deteriorated into a rough track, consisting of two gravel paths divided by a strip of long, coarse grass that scraped against the floor of the car.

Another hour passed, and then the road went down into a shallow valley where four of the dead towers stood like sentinels along the ridge. The valley was treeless, but there were many sprawling thorn-bushes, and in the lowest part, beside a wide stream, was a tiny hamlet with a view of the sea and the mainland. A part of Jethra could be seen: a black spread against the side of the Murinan Hills, and it seemed close and foreign. Outside the village we climbed the high fells again, and I looked forward to one of the scenic surprises of the journey: the island was narrow for a distance and crossing the moors the road touched on the southern side. For a few minutes we had a view of the Midway Sea beyond Seevl, with island after island spreading across it as far as the horizon. I never really considered Seevl to be a part of the Dream Archipelago. That was a different place: a lush, tropical maze of islands, hot and tranquil, forested or barren…but always dozing in the equatorial sun, and peopled by a strange race with customs and language as bizarre as their food, clothes and homes. But this fleeting glimpse, from the window of a car lurching along an unmade road on a cold grey island, was as close as I would ever be. The rest was dream.

Another valley; another hamlet. I knew we were approaching the seminary, and in spite of myself I was staring ahead, looking for the first sight of it.

After dinner, Serjeant Reeth and I returned to our rooms, she because she said she wanted a bath and to wash her hair, and I because I could think of nowhere else to go. I sat for a while on the edge of my bed, staring at the carpet, then went to my suitcase and found the letter from the Father Confessor at the seminary. It was strange to read his ponderous, circumlocutionary sentences, full of a stiff intent–meant not only to engage my sympathies, but also to intimidate me–and to try to reconcile this with my adolescent bitterness about him and his priests. I remembered one occasion of many: I had been walking on a lawn at the seminary, innocently close to one of the flowerbeds, and a priest had appeared and reprimanded me severely. They could never leave it at that, because they had insights into the universe and I did not, and so I was warned of hell and my imminent and inevitable destiny. That priest was possibly now this reverend father, and the same implied threat was there: you must attend to your uncle’s affairs, or we will fix the fates for you.

I lay back on the bed, thinking about Seevl, and wondering what it would be like to return. Would it depress me, as Jethra had done in the afternoon? Or would it scare me, as it had done in childhood? The priests and their heavenly machinations held no terror for me; Alvie was dead, and now so was Torm, both joining my parents, and a generation was gone. The island itself–as scenery, as a place–interested me, because I had only ever seen it with child’s eyes, but I did not look forward to its emptiness. The dead towers.. .they were another matter, one I put aside. I had never come to terms with those, could only shun them as the islanders did. The difference, though, the factor that wrenched me into adult perspective, was the presence of Serjeant Reeth.

Her name was Bella; this she told me during dinner, and I, with wine inside me, had been unable to stop myself smiling. I had not known that policewomen had names like Bella, but there it was. She had an innocent quality to her, a certain wide-eyed ingenuousness; I liked it, but it made me feel my age. It seemed during the meal that our roles were reversing–that I, being older, was becoming her guardian for the journey. It had been too easy to forget that she was a member of the Seigniory, that if I spoke too freely or took her into my confidence, what I said might go into her report, might find its way on to a file.

Now I was alone again, it became a matter of personal reassurance. However much I might rationalize my fears, I did feel considerable trepidation about visiting Seevl again. If my Seigniory escort had been someone else–a man, perhaps, or someone older than myself–I might have indulged in psychological dependence on them.. .but because Bella was who she was, I felt differently. It would be I who took her to Seevl, not the other way around.

It was still too early to go to bed, so I found a book in my case, and lay on the bed to read it. Some time later, I was subconsciously aware that Bella must have returned to her room, because I heard her moving around.

Then, making me start a little, there was a tap on my door.

‘Yes?’ I called.

‘Are you asleep, Lenden?’

‘No…come in.’

The door opened, and she put her head round. She had a towel wrapped about her hair.

‘I’m sorry to be a nuisance, but I’m trying to dry my hair. The plug on my drier is the wrong one. You haven’t got an adapter, have you, or a screwdriver so I can change the plug?’

She came into the room, closing the door behind her. I stared at her in surprise. She had changed out of her uniform, and was wearing a loose, silken wrap. Her face was pink, and where her robe was open at the neck I could see her skin had that glowing cleanliness that follows a hot bath. The wrap was thin and white, and I could not help but see that she was full-breasted, dark-nippled. Damp ringlets of hair fell from under the towel.

‘I’ve got a penknife,’ I said, trying not to reveal my reaction. ‘We can take a plug off something in here.’

She stood by the door, holding her electric drier as I looked around for some appliance I could plunder. There was an electric radiator by the wall, but it had no independent plug. Then I saw the bedside lamp.

‘Turn on the central light,’ I said. ‘I’ll use this.’

‘I know it sounds stupid,’ she said, and gave me a little embarrassed smile. ‘I have to dry my hair like this, otherwise it goes frizzy.’

I found my penknife, and started to unscrew the plug. She made me feel capable.

‘Sit down, Bella. It’ll only take a couple of minutes.’

She sat on the edge of the bed, folding one knee over the other, while I knelt on the floor, picking at the screws of the plug with the knife-blade. I did not look up at her; I was suddenly too conscious of her presence, her young body, her casually revealing wrap.

At last I got the plug off.

‘Give me the drier,’ I said, looking up at her. The towel had loosened, and more hair was falling free. I wanted to reach up and stroke it. She put a hand to the towel, rubbed it gently against her head with an up-and-down motion.

‘She said: ‘Do you think we’re the only people staying in the hotel?’

‘It’s very quiet. I haven’t see any other guests.’

The closed bar, the silent lounge. We had been alone at dinner, the lights on around our table, but the rest of the room in darkness. The attentive waiter, standing by the serving-door, had been responsive to every move we made, every request. And the menu had been a full one; the food had been freshly cooked, and was attractively served.

‘I looked in the register this morning,’ Bella said. ‘No one else has booked in for more than a week.’

I looked up at her, but quickly bent my head over the plug. She was still towelling her hair; as she raised her arm she stretched the thin fabric of the robe across her body. The garment was working loose.

‘It’s the quiet season,’ I said.

‘I tried room-service just now, to see about the plug. No one answered.’

I screwed the back on the plug, and passed the drier up to her.

‘That’s fixed it,’ I said.

‘Do you mind if I dry my hair here? It won’t take long, and I’d like company.’

I sat opposite her, in the one easy-chair in the room. She leaned down to connect the drier, then unwound the towel and played the warm stream of air over her. She swung her head, loosening the hair, then combed it through, playing the heat across it.

She was awakening things in me that had been dormant too long; I wished she had not come, yet I could not resist the feelings in me. With her hair loose, she looked so young! As she dried her hair she was looking directly at me, with her head cocked on one side. She combed out several strands, holding them away from her head in the hot current, and as the hair dried it fell in a light cascade about her shoulders.

‘Why don’t you have your hair like that during the day? It’s much more attractive.’

‘Regulations. The collar must be seen.’

‘Isn’t it a strange job for a girl to have?’

‘Why?’ she said. ‘The pay’s good, and it’s a secure job. I get a lot of travel, and meet people.’

‘It just seems unfeminine.’

She was fingering the vee of her wrap, where the fabric crossed loosely above her breasts. ‘Do I seem unfeminine?’

I shook my head, knowing that I had not meant it that way.

Her hair was dry. She bent down to unplug the drier, and for an instant, as her wrap fell forward, I caught a glimpse of her breast.

‘Would you like me to stay?’ She was sitting erect on the bed, looking at me.

I turned away, not knowing what to say. She got up from the bed, gathering the robe around her, and walked across to me. She gripped my arm lightly, just above the elbow. Her face was close to mine, and she was breathing quickly. I wanted to stroke her breasts, wanted to kiss her.

Still not meeting her gaze, I said: ‘I’d like you to, but–’

I willed her to interrupt me before I had to invent an excuse but she stayed silent.

‘Do you find me attractive?’ she said.

‘Of course I do.’

She released my arm and picked up the drier, coiling the flex around it. She walked slowly towards the door.

‘Please don’t go!’ I said.

‘I thought you wanted me to.’

‘Not yet… I want to explain. It’s not your fault, and please don’t be hurt.’

‘I made a mistake,’ said Bella.

‘No…I’m not ready, that’s all. I can’t say why.’

She paused, with her head down, then turned and came back to me. For a moment her fingers twined themselves around my arm, and she kissed me quickly on the cheek. Before I could put my arm around her she stepped back.

‘Goodnight, Lenden.’

She went quickly from the room, closing the door quietly behind her. I stood where I was, my eyes closed, deeply ashamed of myself. I could hear Bella in her room: a drawer opening and closing, water running, then silence. At last, when I could bear to, I went to the mirror and stood looking at myself for a long time, stretching the skin around my eyes, smoothing the tiredness.

I undressed and went to bed. I awoke at intervals through the night, straining to hear some sound of Bella, urging her mentally to come back to my room…for that, at least, would have resolved an uncertainty. Through it all, the nearness of her, the little glimpses of her young body, I had been attracted to her as I had not been attracted for a long time. Even so, deep down, I was terrified she would return. This struggle between attraction and repulsion had dogged my life. Ever since Seri.

The ticking clock by Alvie’s bed, and the gusting wind rattling the window in its loose frame; these were the only sounds in the pauses between conversation. I sat by the draughty window, looking down into the gardens outside and watching a black-robed priest tending one of the flowerbeds with a rake. The lawns and beds of the seminary’s grounds were brightly incongruous on Seevl, an island within an island, constantly watered and fertilized and prodded. When we went in the winter months only the lawns survived, but today there were clusters of tough-looking flowers, gripping the paltry earth with shallow roots. If I craned my neck I could see the huge vegetable garden where the students were made to work, and on the other side of the grounds, invisible from Alvie’s room, was a small livestock farm. The seminary tried to keep itself, but I knew that food was brought in from outside, because it was part of my uncle’s job to organize this. Why had the priests lied about it, when I was shown around the seminary once? They must have known my uncle ordered food and fuel-oil from Seevl Town, so what was the point of maintaining the fiction that they were entirely independent of the world?

The priest at the flowerbed had glanced up when I first sat by the window, but since then he had ignored me. How long before he, or one of the others, came to see Alvie?

I looked across to the rising ground beyond the seminary walls. The skyline was a long, straight crag, with sloping scree beneath it, and below that the rank wild grass of the moors. There was one of the dead towers out there, a short way from the seminary, but it was one of the less conspicuous ones on Seevl, standing not against the sky, but against the duller background of the crag.

My parents had started to discuss me: Lenden was taking examinations; Lenden had not been studying properly; Lenden was not doing well. I sometimes wished I had the sort of parents who boasted about their child, but their method, at least with relatives, was to try to embarrass me into making greater efforts. I loathed them for it: the embarrassment I felt was the sort that made me resentful, even less willing to apply myself. I looked over at Seri, who was sitting by herself at a table in the corner of the room, apparently reading a book. She was listening, of course, while pretending not to, and when she saw me turn in her direction she looked back with a blank stare. No support there.

‘Come here, Lenden,’ said Aunt Alvie; it was the sort of moment I always dreaded.

‘Go to your aunt, Lenden,’ said my father.

Reluctantly I left my seat by the window, and went to stand beside the head of the bed. She stretched out a palsied hand, and took mine.

‘You must work harder,’ said said. ‘For the sake of your future. For me. You want me to get well, don’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I said, although I did not see the connection. I was acutely aware of my parents watching me, of Seri’s feigned indifference, and my embarrassment intensified.

‘When I was your age,’ Aunt Alvie said, ‘I won every prize at school. It wasn’t as much fun as being lazy, but in the end I was glad. You do understand, don’t you?’ She wanted my future to be like her present; she wanted to inflict her illness on me. I shrank away from her, as if her disease were contagious, but the pressure on my hand increased. ‘Now kiss me.’

I was always having to kiss Alvie: when we arrived, before and after every meal, as we departed. It was part of the dread. I leaned forward, presenting my cheek to her cyanotic lips, but my reluctance held me back and she pulled my hand towards her. As her lips touched coldly against my skin, I felt her pressing my hand against her breast; her coarse cardigan, the thin nightdress, the flaccid flesh. In turn, I kissed her cold white cheek, then tried to move away, but my hand was still clasped against her chest.

‘Promise me you’ll try harder from now on,’ Alvie said.

‘I promise.’

I tugged my hand away and, so released, stumbled back from the bed and returned to my chair. My face was hot with the indignity of the interview, and I saw a satisfied look on my father’s face. We had endless rows at home about the marks I got at school, and now he had recruited an ally. Sitting by the window, staring sightlessly out across the lawns, I waited for them to find another topic to discuss. But they would not leave me.

‘Why don’t you go out for a walk, Lenden?’

I said nothing.

‘Seri, take Lenden, to see your den.’

‘I’m reading,’ Seri said, in a voice that tried to convey preoccupation.

‘Seri!’ said Uncle Torm. ‘Take your cousin for a walk. You’d like to see Seri’s den, wouldn’t you, Lenden?’

‘Yes,’ I said. We were being dispatched; something adult and perhaps interesting was going to be discussed. Medical treatment, no doubt, details of bedpans and suppositories. I should not have minded hearing about those.

Seri and I looked at each other with mutual resignation, and she closed her book. She led me out of the room, down the gloomy and must-smelling corridor and out of the house. We crossed the garden, and came out through a gate in a brick wall into the main grounds of the seminary. Here Seri hesitated.

‘What do you want to do?’

‘Have you got a den?’

‘That’s what they call it. It’s my hide-out.’

‘Can I see it?’ I sometimes climbed a tree in the garden at home, to be by myself, but I had never had a proper hide-out. ‘Is it secret?’

‘Not really. But I don’t let anyone in I don’t want there.’

‘Will you let me in?’

‘I suppose so.’

We walked along a gravel drive edging one of the lawns. From one of the open windows there came the sound of voices chanting a psalm. I walked with my feet scuffing up the gravel, to drown the sound, because it reminded me of school.

We came at last to one of the long wings of the seminary building. Seri led me towards some railings beside the base of the main wall, beyond which were some narrow stone steps leading down to a basement. A priest, hoeing a flowerbed, paused in his work to watch us.

Seri ignored him, and went down the steps. At the bottom she got down on her hands and knees and crawled through a low, dark hatchway. When she was inside she turned around and stuck out her head to look at me. I was still waiting at the top of the steps.

‘Come on, Lenden. I’ll show you something.’

The priest was working again, but glancing back over his shoulder to look at me. I went quickly down the steps, and crawled in through the hatchway.

Seri’s hide-out had once been some kind of store or cellar, because there were no windows and the hatch was the only way in or out. The ceiling was high enough for us to stand erect. It was dark and cool, and Seri was lighting three or four candles placed high on a shelf. The tiny cell smelled of match phosphor and candlewax and soot. There were two up-ended boxes to sit on, and from somewhere Seri had found an old mat for the floor.

‘What do you do in here?’ I said enviously, thinking at once of all the fantasies I could live out if it were my own.

‘That’s what I’m going to show you.’

The candles cast a weak yellow light, although now that my eyes had adjusted from the bright daylight it seemed perfectly adequate. I sat down on a box.

I had been expecting Seri to sit on the other box, but she came and stood in front of me.

She said: ‘Do you want to know a secret, Lenden?’

‘What sort of secret?’

‘The special sort.’

‘All right,’ I said, without much interest, still very much under the cloud of Aunt Alvie and the others, and so assuming it was going to be something to do with that.

‘How old are you, Lenden?’


‘I’m fifteen. Have you got any hair yet?’

‘Hair?’ Of course I had hair; it was constantly falling in my eyes, and I was always being told to cut it.

‘This is a dead secret. Just between you and me.’

Before I realized what she was talking about, Seri quickly raised the front of her skirt, and with her other hand pulled down the front of her pants. I saw a tangly black bush of hair, at the junction of her legs.

I was so surprised that I almost fell off the box. Seri let go, and the elastic in her pants snapped them back into place, but she did not release the skirt. She held this high against her chest, looking down at herself. Her pants were dark-coloured and woollen, and the elastic bit into the plump flesh of her stomach.

I was acutely embarrassed–my own pubic hair had started growing some months before, and it was a matter of mystery, astonishment, and shame, all mixed up together–but I was also compulsively interested.

‘Let me see again, ‘ I said.

She stepped back, almost as if she were uncertain, but then came forward again.

‘You pull it down,’ she said, thrusting her abdomen towards me.

Nervously, I reached forward, took the top of her pants in my fingers, and pulled the cloth down until I could just see the first growth of hair.

‘Further!’ she said, knocking my hand out of the way. She pulled the pants down, front and back, so that they clung around her thighs. Her triangle of hair, curling and black, stood unambiguously before me. I could not stop staring at her, feeling hot and prickly, and with a sudden and quite unmistakable stirring of arousal. I said nothing.

‘Do you want a feel?’ Seri said.


‘Touch me. I want you to feel.’

‘I’m not sure I should.’

‘Then let me have a look at you.’

That, by presenting an awful alternative, resolved my doubts. I was too shy to let anyone see me. I reached out and put my fingers on her hair. It was coarse and wiry, and I recoiled in surprise, mentally but not physically. Seri moved her body against my fingertips.

‘Lower down, Lenden. Feel lower down.’

I turned my hand, so that it was palm up, and reached for the junction of her legs. It felt different there: less hair, a fold of skin. I snatched my hand away.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said, looking away. But I looked back, and Seri had moved much closer.

‘Touch me again. Go right inside.’


‘Then I’ll touch you.’

‘No!’ The thought of anyone, anyone at all, exploring my body; it was unimaginable. I was still growing; there was too much unexplained. I was ashamed of my body, of growing up.

‘You can put your finger right inside, if you want to,’ Seri said. ‘I don’t mind.’

She seized my wrist and brought my hand up against her. Her body was warm, and the hairs curled against my palm. She pressed herself on my hand, encouraging my fingers to explore the cleft beyond. I felt the soft damp flaps of skin, and my fingertip played on the warm recess behind. I was in a heat of excitement, eager to do anything. I wanted to slip into her, sink my fingers, my hand into her. But then, just as I was going into her, she stepped back and let the skirt fall.


‘Ssh!’ She crouched by the square of daylight that was the hatch, and listened. Then she straightened, and hoisted up her pants with a sinuous movement of her hips.

‘What are you doing?’ I was distressed by her sudden withdrawal.

‘Keep quiet,’ she said, softly. ‘I think there’s someone outside.’

‘You’re just teasing me, making an excuse!’

‘No…really. I heard something fall. Did you hear a clattering noise?’

‘No. Let me touch you again.’

‘Not now. I’m frightened.’

‘Then when?’

‘In a minute. We’ll have to go somewhere else. Do you still want to?’

‘Of course I do! Let’s go now!’ I was excited beyond anything in my previous experience. And this was Seri! My stupid cousin!

‘I know somewhere safe. Outside the seminary…a short walk.’

‘And then I can…?’

‘Anything you like, Lenden.’

She made me crawl first through the hatch, and she blew out the candles as I did so. I stood up at the bottom of the steps, then jumped with surprise. The priest we had seen earlier was standing at the top of the steps, leaning down with one hand on the railings, as if listening. He backed away as I looked up. I went up the steps, and saw him hurry across to where he had dropped his hoe on the path. By the time Seri had joined me at the top he was back at work, hoeing the soil with quick, sharp movements.

He did not look up as Seri and I walked hurriedly along the gravel path, but as we passed through the gate I looked back. He was standing with the hoe in his hand, staring towards us.

‘Seri, that priest was watching us.’

She said nothing, but took my hand and led me, running, through the long wild grass outside the seminary grounds.

A hired car was waiting for us in Seevl Town, with a Seigniory pass attached to the windscreen. I sat in the front seat beside Serjeant Reeth as she drove slowly up the narrow streets towards the hills.

I was in a complex state of emotions, and this revealed itself by a forced exterior calm and an unwillingness to talk. She needed me to direct her, so I sat, as once my mother had sat, with the map on my knee, wondering if we should need it.

Last night had not been mentioned. Bella had appeared at breakfast, crisp in her uniform, once more the policewoman. Her straightforward proposition, my embarrassed refusal; I could hardly bear to think of them, yet how I wanted to speak of them! I did not want Bella to think she had made a mistake, but still I was incapable of explaining. I wanted some formula by which we could bring the incident forward into today, in an acceptable form, but by her silence and mine we were simply pretending nothing had happened.

She had, however, awakened my awareness of her sexuality, and that could not be pretended away, by either silence or her starchy uniform. Waiting on Jethra dockside for the ferry, sitting together in the saloon of the boat, walking through Seevl Town to collect the car: I could not ignore her physical presence, could not forget that young body in the loose silk wrap.

Now we drove, and sometimes, as she shifted gear in the antiquated car, her hand or her sleeve would brush lightly against my knee; to see if it was as accidental as it seemed I moved my leg away, unobtrusively, and it did not happen again. Later, I let my leg move back, for the touch excited me.

Once, at a junction on the higher slopes of the moors, we went to the map for guidance. Her head bent down beside mine: another moment of physical nearness, but it ended as soon as we found the correct turning.

Watching the sombre green of Seevl’s fells, my thoughts moved imperceptibly away from that intrigue to the other, the larger: the island and the seminary. My recollection of the road was unreliable, but the mood induced by the scenery was a familiar companion, twenty years absent. To someone seeing it for the first time, as Bella was seeing it, Seevl would seem wild, barren, grossly empty. There was the roundness of line that betrayed the millennia of harsh winters and unrelenting gales; where the rock was exposed, no plant life clung to it except in the most sheltered corners, and then it was only the hardiest of mosses or the lowliest of lichens. There was a violent splendour to it, a scenic ruggedness unknown in our country. Yet to me, who had been along this route before, actual and mental, the scenery was merely the context. We passed through it as a hand, reaching through luxuriant grass, passes into a snake’s nest. The moors were neutral, but contained a menace, and for me, they were always coloured by it.

As Bella drove unsteadily along the narrow road I was already imagining ahead, seeing that valley at the other end of the island, with the cluster of grim buildings, the lawns, and the incongruous flowerbeds.

Seevl was an island made for night. Although on this day the sky was clouded, the sun broke through from time to time, casting for brief periods a bright, unnatural radiance on the windscreen of the car. We had the windows closed and the heater on, yet the cold reached us. I shivered every now and then, shaking my shoulders, pretending to be more cold than I really was, because it was the island chilling me and I did not want Bella to know.

She drove slowly, steering more cautiously over the rutted track than ever my father had. The car was in low gear for much of the time, the engine’s note changing continually, making me irrationally irritable. Still, we said nothing to each other, beyond intermittent directions. I watched for familiar landmarks–a cluster of standing stones, a fall of water, the dead towers–and sometimes I could direct her without referring to the map. My memory of the landscape was partial: there were long sections of the road that seemed new to me, and I was sure we had lost our way; then something I remembered would appear, surprising me.

We stopped for lunch at a house in one of the little hamlets, and here some preparation was revealed: we were expected; a meal was ready. I saw Bella sign a document, a form that would recompense the woman for her services.

When we reached the narrow part of the island and travelled along the road above the southern cliffs, Bella pulled the car on to the side and stopped the engine. We were shielded from the wind by a high, rocky bank, and the sun warmed us.

We stood outside, looking across the glistering sea-scape, the view that, as a child, I had only been able to glimpse from my parents’ moving car.

‘Do you know any of the islands’ names?’ I said.
Bella had removed her cap, left it on the driver’s seat in the car, and wisps of hair blew lightly around her face.

‘A few. Torquin is the biggest; we have a base there now. My brother will probably pass through Torquin. And one of them must be Derril, where the Covenant was made. I’m not sure which one that is, though.’

‘Have you ever been in the Archipelago?’

‘Only here.’

Only Seevl, the offshore island.

The islands we could see were different shades of green, some dark, some light. It was said that of the ten thousand inhabited islands no one was like any other, that a true islander, if planted blind , in a foreign island, would know its name by smell and sound alone. All I, a mainlander, knew was that the islands we could see from here were a part of the Dream Archipelago known as the Torqui Group, that they were primarily dependent on dairy-farming and fishing, and that the people spoke the same language as my own. This was school knowledge, half-remembered, all but useless.

‘Did you ever want to run away to the islands?’ Bella said.

‘When I was a kid. Did you?’

‘I still do, sometimes.’

‘At least you have come to Seevl.’

‘At least.’

Talking about something outside ourselves had eased the tension between us; it was as if we had slipped unconsciously into another language. It came naturally to speak in the same tongue, so I said: ‘Bella, about last night-’,

‘Lenden, I’m sorry about that.’

‘That’s what I was going to say.’

‘But it is I who should say it. I shouldn’t have come to your room. I made a stupid mistake.’

I found her hand, and squeezed it quickly. ‘No, not mistake. I wanted you…but I just wasn’t ready.’

‘Can we forget it?’

‘That’s what I want.’

Yes, to forget the misunderstanding, and the shame that followed…but not to forget what still might be. I thought about that for a while, as we leaned together against the side of the car, watching the sea.

I said: ‘We’ll have to stay at the seminary tonight. You know we can’t get back to Seevl Town?’

‘Yes, I know.’

‘They’ll probably give us rooms in the college.’

‘That’s all right. I went to a convent.’

She went around to the driver’s door, and opened it. We drove on. I knew it would take at least another hour from there, and the afternoon was drawing on. Bella said nothing, concentrating on the difficult drive, and I surrendered to my memories and the oppressive mood of the island.

Seri held my hand, and we leaped and ran across the rough ground, the coarse grasses whipping against our legs. It was the first time I had ever left the seminary grounds, and never until then had I recognized how the stout walls became a symbolic defence against the rest of the island. Out here the wind seemed stiffer and colder and we were more exposed.

‘Where are we going?’ I said, gasping because I was out of breath.

‘Somewhere I know.’ She released my hand, and went on ahead.

‘Let’s do it here.’ Some of the tension that had built up inside her hide-out had been dissipated by our sudden escape, and I wanted to go on before she changed her mind.

‘Out in the open?’ she said, rounding on me. ‘I told you this was a secret!’

‘There’s long grass,’ I said lamely.

‘Do you still want to do it?’

‘Yes!’ I said, sure of that if nothing else.

‘Then come on.’

She set off again, leaping down a shallow slope towards a stream. I held back for a moment, staring guiltily towards the seminary. There was someone there, outside the walls, walking in our direction. I knew at once that it was the priest with the hoe, although he was too far away for me to be sure.

I ran after Seri, and jumped across the narrow stream to join her.

‘There’s someone following us. That priest.’

‘He won’t find us!’

It was not quite obvious where Seri was taking me. The ground sloped up steeply from the stream, rising towards the high crag in the distance. A short way from us, built with the limestone rock of the island, was the dead tower.

I looked back, and saw we were out of sight of the priest if he was still following us. Seri marched on, a long way ahead of me, scrambling up the hillside through the windswept grass.

The tower was not noticeably different from any other of its sort I had seen on Seevl: it was about as tall as a four-storey house, with window-frames higher up which once had contained glass, but which now were broken. There was a door in the base, hanging open on its hinges, and all around in the grass were pieces of broken brick and tile. The tower was not wide: perhaps fifteen feet in diameter, and hexagonal. There had once been a roof, built in candle-snuffer shape, but now it had all fallen in, and only two or three beams stood out to revel its former design.

Seri was waiting for me by the open door.

‘Hurry, Lenden!’

‘I’m coming,’ I said, stepping over a heap of masonry, and looking up at the tower as it loomed over me. ‘We’re not going inside, are we?’

‘Why not?’ It’s been here for years…it’s quite safe.’

All I knew about the towers of Seevl was that no one went near them; yet Seri stood by the door as if it were just another hide-out. I was torn between my dread of the tower, and what Seri would offer me inside.

‘I thought these towers were…dangerous,’ I said.

‘It’s just an old ruin. Something to do with the college, when it was a monastery. Years ago.’

‘But they’re all over the island!’

Seri shrugged dismissively, and went through the door. I hesitated a few seconds longer, then followed her. She closed the door behind us.

Daylight came in through two windows set high under the ceiling, which was a bare skeleton: dusty joists and broken planking. A fallen beam lay at an angle across the room, propped up against the wall. The floor was littered with glass, plaster, and pieces of rock.

‘See.. .there’s nothing to worry about.’ Seri kicked a few pieces of rock out of the way, to clear a space on the wooden floor. ‘It’s just an old dump.’

‘Are you still going to let me touch you?’ I said.

‘If you want to.’

‘I do…but that priest was following us. You said it was secret.’

Seri started to say something, but changed her mind and turned away. She opened the door, and peered out; I stood behind her, looking over her shoulder. We both saw the priest. He had reached the stream and was walking along the bank, trying to find somewhere to cross.

Seri closed the door again. ‘He won’t come here. Not to the tower.’

‘But he is coming!’ It was obvious that he was following us.

‘Lenden, none of the priests will come here. They say the tower is evil. They’re terrified of the place…that’s why it’s safe for us.’

I glanced around nervously. ‘What’s evil about it?’

‘Nothing.. .it’s just their superstition. They say something wicked happened. A long time ago.’

‘But he’s still coming,’ I said.

‘You wait and see what he does.’

I went to the door and opened it a fraction of an inch. I peered through the slit, looking down the hill for the priest. He was some way away, standing still, looking up towards me. I closed the door, and told Seri this.

‘You see?’ she said.

‘But he’ll wait until we come out. What then?’

‘It’s none of his business,’ she said. ‘He won’t know what we’re doing. I know him…it’s Father Grewe. He’s always poking around, wondering what I’m up to. I’m used to it. Shall we start?’

‘If you want to.’ The mood had left me.

‘Get undressed then.’

‘Me? I thought you–’

‘We both undress.’

‘I don’t want to.’ I looked at the rubble-strewn floor, shyly. ‘Not yet, anyway. You do it first.’

‘All right. I don’t mind.’

She reached up under her skirt, and pulled her pants down her legs. She tossed them on the floor.

‘Now you take something off,’ she said. I hesitated then complied by taking off my pullover.

Seri undid two buttons on the side of her skirt, and it slid down her legs. She turned away from me to drape the garment over the beam, and for a moment I saw the pinkness of her buttocks, slightly dimpled. ‘Now you.’

‘Let me feel you first. I’ve never done…’

Some compassion softened her determination to make me undress at the same rate as her. She smiled, quickly, then sat down on the floor, keeping her knees together and reaching forward to clasp her ankles. I could see none of her secrets, just the pale curve of her thighs, rounding towards her buttocks. Her sweater finished at her waist.

‘All right. But be very gentle. You were jabbing me before.’

She sat back, resting her elbows on the floor behind her, and then she parted her legs. I saw the black thatch of hair, the whorl of pink skin, revealed but mysterious. Staring at her, I moved forward, crouching down. I was suddenly as excited as I had been before; it switched on like a motor, compelling me towards her almost against my will. I felt a tightness in my throat, a sweatiness in my palms. That passive, lipped organ, lying between her thighs like an upright mouth, waited for my touch. I reached forward, ran my fingertips across the lips, felt the warmth of them, the moistness behind. Seri sucked in her breath, tensing herself.

Something small and hard whacked against the door, startling us both. Seri swung away from me, turning to one side; my hand brushed against the top of her thigh; then she was away from me.

‘What was that!’ I said.

‘Don’t move.’ She went to the door, eased it open and peered out.

I heard, distantly: ‘Seri, come out of that place. You know it is forbidden.’

She closed the door. ‘He’s still out there.’

She sounded surprised, as if she forgotten him. I had not, and I looked around for my pullover. ‘Is he coming in?’

‘I told you…he won’t come near us. I’ll have to go and talk to him.’ She picked up her skirt and stepped into it, buttoning it again at the waist. ‘Wait here, and don’t let him see you.’

‘But he knows I’m here. I’ll come with you. We ought to be going back to the house, anyway.’

‘No!’ she said, and I saw the quickness of her temper. ‘There’s more to do, more than just touching. That’s only the beginning.’ Her hand was on the door. ‘Stay here…keep out of sight, and I’ll be back in a few moments.’

The door slammed behind her. I peeped through the crack, saw her running down through the long grass to where the priest waited. He seemed angry, but she was uncowed, standing near to him and kicking idly at the grasses while he spoke.

There was a faint, musky fragrance on my fingertips, where I had touched her. I drew back from the door, and looked around at the filthy interior of the tower. Without Seri I felt ill at ease in the old ruin. The ceiling was sagging; what if it fell on me? The constant wind of Seevl blustered around the tower, and a piece of broken wood, hanging by the window-frame, knocked to and fro.

Minutes passed, and as the aroused excitement faded for the second time, I began to wonder guiltily about the possible consequences of being caught here. Suppose the priest told Torm and Alvie that we had been up to something, or that we were gone long enough for them to guess anyway? If they knew the truth, or even a part of it, there would be a terrible scene.

I heard the voice of the priest, in a freak silence of the wind; he was saying something sharply, but Seri’s response was laughter. I returned to the door, put my eye to the crack and looked out at them. The priest was holding Seri by the hand, tugging her, but she was pulling back from him. To my surprise, I realized that I was not witnessing a conflict, but what seemed to be a game. Their hands slipped apart…but it was an accident, because they joined again immediately and the playful pulling went on.

I stepped back, very puzzled.

We were in a part of the seminary I had never seen before: an office just behind the main entrance. We had been greeted by a Father Henner, thin, bespectacled, and younger than I had expected; condolences on the death of my uncle, a tragic loss, a servant of God. He handed over the key to the house, and we went for a meal in the refectory. Father Henner did not eat with us; Bella and I sat alone at a table in one corner of the room. Night was falling beyond the stained-glass windows.

I could hear the wind, made louder, it seemed, by the airy space above us, the high, buttressed roof.

‘What are you thinking, Lenden?’ Bella said, over the sounds of the students clattering their dishes at the other end of the hall.

‘I’m wishing we didn’t have to stay. I don’t like this place.’

Afterwards, Father Henner took us across to the house, leading the way through the grounds with a battery flashlight; our feet crunched on the gravel pathway, the trees moved blackly against the night sky and the vague shape of the moors beyond. I unlocked the door and Father Henner turned on a light in the corridor. A dim, low-wattage bulb shed yellow light on the shabby floor and wallpaper. I smelled damp rot and mould.

‘You’ll find that much of the furniture has already been removed,’ said Father Henner. ‘Your uncle bequeathed the more valuable pieces to the college, and some of the effects belonged to us already. As you know, we have been unable to trace the daughter, so with your permission the rest may be destroyed.’

The daughter…ah, Seri. Where are you now, Seri? She left the island soon after Alvie died, but no one knew where she went. My parents would never mention her, and I never asked. Today she would be somewhere in the Archipelago.

‘What about my uncle’s papers?’ I said.

‘They’re still here. We can arrange for them to be incinerated, if you will separate the valuable ones.’

I opened a door into a room off the corridor. It had been my uncle’s office, but now it was empty, with pale squares on the walls where pictures had been; a dark patch of damp spread up from the stone floor.

‘Most of the rooms have been cleared. There’s just your dear aunt’s room. And the kitchen. There are utensils there.’

Bella was standing by the door to my aunt’s room. Father Henner nodded to her, and she turned the handle. I experienced a sudden compulsion to back away, fearing that Alvie would still be there, waiting for me.

Father Henner went back to the main door. ‘Well, I’ll leave you to your work. If there’s anything you need, I shall be in my office during the day.’

I said: ‘We need somewhere to stay.’

Father Henner opened the door, and his black habit blew in the sudden wind from outside. ‘You may use the house, of course.’

‘We were expecting you to give us rooms,’ Bella said.

‘In the college?’ he said to her. ‘I’m afraid that would not be possible. We have no facilities for women.’

Bella looked at me questioningly; I, stricken with a dread of spending a night in the house, shook my head.

‘Are there proper beds here?’ Bella said, pushing open the door and peering into the room, but my aunt’s folding screen was there, making it a temporary corridor into the room and blocking the view of the rest.

Father Henner was outside. ‘You’ll have to make do. It’s only for one night, after all. God be with you.’

He went, and the door slammed behind him. Quietness fell; the thick walls effectively muted the wind, at least here in the centre of the house, away from the windows.

‘What are we going to do, Lenden? Sleep on the floor?’

‘Let’s see what’s in there.’

Aunt Alvie’s room; my dear aunt.

Pretending to Bella that it was just an ordinary room, pretending to myself, I went past her and walked in. The central light was beyond the folding screen, so the way was shadowed. At the end, facing us, someone from the seminary had stacked two huge piles of old documents; tomorrow I would have to go through them. Dust lay in a gritty film on the top sheets. Bella was behind me; I looked beyond the screen to see the rest of the room. The double bed, Alvie’s bed, was still there, dominating everything. Tea-chests had been brought in to the room, two extra chairs were crammed against the wall, books lay in uneven piles on the table beneath the window, picture-frames rested on the mantelpiece…but the bed, piled high with pillows, was the focus of the room, as ever. By its head was the bedside table: dusty old pill-bottles, a notebook, a folded lace handkerchief, a telephone, lavender-water. These I remembered.

Alvie still lay in the bed. Only her body was missing.

I could smell her, see her, hear her. Above the bed, on the wall behind the top rail of the brass-fitting, were two dark marks on the wallpaper. I remembered then: Alvie had had a characteristic gesture, reaching up behind her to grip the rail with both hands, perhaps to brace herself against pain. Her hands, years of her hands gripping like that, had left the stains.

The windows were black squares of night; Bella drew the curtains, and dust cascaded down. I could hear the wind again, and thought: Alvie must have known this wind, every night, every day.

‘Are you all right, Lenden?’

‘Of course.’

‘Well, there’s a bed, at least.’

‘You have it,’ I said. ‘I’ll sleep on the floor.’

‘There’ll be another bed somewhere. In one of the other rooms.’

‘Father Henner said they had been cleared.’

‘Then…will you share? Or I could go on the floor.’

We stood there in awful indecision, each for our own reasons. At last we came to silent agreement, changing the subject, pretending to look for enough space on the floor for me to lie down, but it was inevitable we would share. We were both tired, and chilled by the cold house. I let Bella take charge, and she tidied the bed, shaking out the old sheets to air them a little, turning them over. Spare pillows went on to the floor, extra covers were found. I busied myself, trying to help, distracting myself from the thought: Alvie’s bed, Alvie’s bed.

At last the bed was ready, and Bella and I took it in turn to use the bathroom upstairs. I went first, and when Bella went after me I sat on the edge of Alvie’s bed listening to the sounds of her footsteps on the bare boards above. Here, in this room, my fears were conjoined: the shadow of my past and how it barred me from Bella, the memories of Alvie, and the winds and darknesses of Seevl that surrounded the house. I heard Bella above me, walking across the room, and she started down the wooden staircase. I made a sudden decision, stripping off my outer clothes and sliding in between the sheets.

Bella switched off the central light as she came in. She saw that I was in the bed, but her expression remained neutral. I watched, and did not watch, as she undressed in the glow from the table-lamp. The blouse and skirt of her uniform; suspender-belt and stockings; black pants and a sensible bra. She stood naked, looking away from me, finding a tissue to blow her nose on.

As she lay down beside me I felt her skin cold against mine, and realized she was shaking.

‘I’m freezing,’ she said, and turned off the light. ‘Will you hold me?’

My arm went easily around her; she was slim and her body shaped itself naturally against mine. I could feel the plump weight of her breast on my arm, the prickle of her hair against my thigh. I was getting excited, but did not move, hoping to conceal it.

She ran a hand lightly over my stomach, then up to my breasts. ‘You’ve still got clothes on.’

‘I thought–’

‘Don’t be frightened, Lenden.’

She slipped her hand inside my bra, caressed my nipple, kissed me on the neck. Pressing herself to me she unhooked the bra and slid it down my arms. Her head ducked down, and with her hand cupping me she took a nipple in her mouth, sucking and pulling on it. Her hand crept down, went beneath the fabric of my pants, and her fingers slipped expertly between my legs. I stiffened, excited and terrified.

Later, Bella sat astride me, her hair falling loose and touching my face. I caressed her beautiful breasts, playing with the small firm nipples, licking and kissing them. She guided my hand to her sex, but as soon as my fingers felt the bristle of hair, I snatched away. Again I was guided there, again I pulled back.

‘Touch me, Lenden, oh, touch me….’

Bella was kissing my face, my neck, my shoulders, but I could not touch her. I shrank from her as once before I had shrunk from Seri, but Bella took my wrist in her hand, thurst my clenched fingers between her legs, clamped down on me, thrusting herself against my knuckles in repeated spasms. Afterwards, she sprawled across me, her sweat dripping down from her temples and into my open mouth.

I left her in the bed and stood, shivering, by the window. I leaned against the wall by the frame, staring out into the gusty night. The dark was impenetrable. There were no lights, not even the subdued glow of a cloudy night, and I could not see the bulk of the moors.

Bella turned on the table light, and after she had lit a cigarette I turned to look back at her. She was lying with the cigarette between her lips, her hands gripping the brass rail of the bed above her head. Her hair fell down across her shoulder, partially covering one breast.

‘You do prefer men, don’t you?’ she said.

I simply shook my head, and waited by the window until she had finished her cigarette and turned out the light. In the darkness I returned to the bed. Bella did not stir, and I curled up against her, resting my head on her shoulder. I started to drift towards sleep, and I laid my hand gently on her breast. The bed smelled of bodies.

While Seri was outside the dead tower with the priest, something happened to me, and I cannot explain it. There was no warning of it, and I had no premonition of fear.

My main preoccupations were intense sexual frustration and curiosity about what Seri was doing. She had suddenly and unexpectedly illuminated an area of my life I had always kept in the shade. I wanted the knowledge that she was offering, and I wanted the consequent knowledge of myself.

But she had told me to wait, to stay out of sight… I was prepared to do both, but not for long. I had expected her to get rid of the priest somehow, but instead she was out there apparently playing with him.

Thus preoccupied, I barely noticed a low, snuffling sound that came to me over the noise of the wind. I was picking up my pullover, retrieving Seri’s pants. I was going out to join Seri, because I wanted to know what she was doing.

I was stuffing her pants into the pocket of my skirt when I heard the noise again. It surprised me: because I had heard it the first time without really thinking about it, I had subconsciously ignored it, but when it came again it was both strange and half-familiar. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. It was animalistic, but there was a human quality to it, too, as if some beast had managed to form half a word before reverting to its usual grunt. I still felt no fear, only a sense of curiosity. I suspected that Seri had returned, and was playing a joke on me. I called her name, but there was no answer.

Something about the animal quality of the noise had made me hesitate. I stood in the centre of the crumbling tower, looking around, thinking for the first time that perhaps some predatory beast was in the vicinity. I listened, trying to filter out the persistent noise of the wind, trying to distinguish the sound again. Nothing.

A beam of Seevl’s bright cool sunlight was striking in through one of the high windows, illuminating the wall beside the door. This, like the rest of the tower, was decaying; and, a short distance from the door-post, the plaster and brickwork had fallen away, leaving a jagged hole about the size of a man’s head. Beyond, the cavity of the wall was revealed, with the great, grey bricks of the main structure dimly visible behind. It was one of several holes in the wall, but it caught my attention because some instinct told me that this was the source of the noise. I stepped towards it, still suspecting Seri of some complicity; perhaps having got rid of the priest she had returned quietly to the tower, and was fooling around outside the door.

Something moved inside the cavity, and although I was staring straight at the place I saw only a dark, quick movement. The sun went in, as one of the low clouds covered it, and it seemed suddenly much colder. Moments later the sun came out again, but the chill remained; I knew then that it was in me.

I placed my hand on the brickwork, leaning slightly towards the hole, trying to see down into it. I did not want to go too close, yet I was convinced someone, or something, was in there, and I wanted to know what it was. There were no more movements, no more noise, but an almost tangible sense of presence remained.

I was no longer alone in the tower.

‘Is that you, Seri?’ I said, and the sound of my voice seemed too loud and too feeble, simultaneously. I cleared my throat, noisily, giving Seri a chance to declare herself…but there was no response.

I moved my hand further into the hole, until I touched the bricks on the far side of the cavity. There was something warm in there, because I could feel a gentle heat, as of a living body. I reached down, into the dark.

There was a violent noise, a movement that I felt without seeing, and something grabbed my hand.

It pulled, dragging my arm down into the hole until my shoulder scraped painfully against the bricks. I screamed in surprise, gasping in terror. I tried to pull back, but whatever it was that had taken hold had sharp claws or teeth and they were biting into my skin. My face was jammed sideways against the wall, the skin of my bare upper arm was grazing against the rough bricks.

‘Let go!’ I shouted, helplessly trying to tug my arm away.

As the thing had grabbed me I had instinctively balled my hand into a fist, and I could feel it contained in something wet and very warm, hard on one side, soft on the other. I pulled again, and the grip of the teeth tightened. Whatever it was in there was no longer dragging me down, but was holding me. Whenever I pulled back, the sharp teeth tightened around me. They were backward-pointing, so that to pull against them dragged my flesh against their edge.

I unbailed my fingers slowly, painfully aware that to loosen them was to expose them. The tips pressed against something soft, and I clenched my fist reflexively. I shuddered, wanting to scream again, yet lacking the breath.

It was a mouth that had seized me. I knew that from the moment it had taken hold, yet it was too horrible to believe. Some animal, crouching in the wall, some huge, rank animal had taken my arm in its mouth, and was holding me. My knuckles were jammed against the hard roof of the mouth, my tightly balled fingers were against the coarse surface of the tongue. The teeth, the fangs, had closed about my arm, just above the wrist.

I tried turning my arm, attempting to twist it free, but the instant I moved, the teeth closed more tightly on me. I shouted in pain, knowing that the flesh must have been torn in many places, and that I was surely bleeding into the animal’s mouth.

I shifted my feet, trying to balance, thinking that if I could stand firmly I could pull harder, but as the animal had dragged me down it had pulled me over. Most of my weight was on the shoulder jammed against the bricks. I moved a foot, shifted some of my weight on to it. The fangs tightened on me again, as if the animal sensed what I was doing.

The pain was indescribable. The strength that held my fingers closed was draining away, and I could feel my fist loosening. Again my fingertips touched the hot, quivering surface of the tongue, and drooped down towards the throat. Miraculously, I still had the sensation of touch, and I could feel the hard gums, the slick sides to the tongue. It was the most disgusting thing I had ever felt in my life: wild, bestial.

The animal, having firm hold of me, was trembling with some kind of incomprehensible excitement. I could feel the head shivering, and the breath rasped in and out over my arm, cold against the wounds as it inhaled, wet and hot as it exhaled. I could smell its stench now: sweet with the saliva of gross animalism, rancid and fetid with the smell of carrion.

I tugged once more, in desperate, disgusted terror, but the agony of the biting teeth redoubled. It felt as if it had almost bitten through me; I had a ghastly, flashing image of withdrawing my arm at last, and seeing it severed through, the sinews dangling from the stump, the blood pumping away. I closed my eyes, gasping again with horror and revulsion.

The tongue started moving, working around my wrist, stroking my palm. I felt as if I were going to faint. Only the pain, the intense, searing agony of torn muscle and crushed bone, kept me conscious to suffer longer.

Through the veils of pain I remembered Seri was outside. I shouted for help, but I was weakened and my voice came out as a hoarse whisper. The door was only a few inches from me. I reached over with my free hand and pushed at it. It swung outwards, and I could see down the slope, across the long grass. The brilliant cold sky, the dark rising moors…but no sign of Seri. I was alone.

Staring through tear-filled eyes, unable to focus, I stayed helpless, leaning against the rough brickwork as the monster in the wall slowly ate my arm. Outside the wind made light-coloured patterns on the thick, waving grass.

The animal began to make a noise, a reprise of the first sound it had made. It growled deep inside its throat, and beneath my helpless fingers the tongue was quivering. It sucked in breath and the head tensed, and then there came a second growl. Somehow, the sound made my fevered imagining of the animal more detailed: I saw a wolfs head, a long snout, flecks of foam. The pain intensified, and I sensed the animal’s increased excitement. The throat-noises were coming regularly now, in a fast rhythm, faster and faster as its hold on my arm tightened. The agony was so acute that I was sure it must have almost bitten through, and I tried once more to pull away, quite ready to lose my hand for the sake of release. The animal held on, chewing more viciously, snarling at me from its hidden den below. My head was swimming; unconsciousness could not have been far away.

The animal noises were now coming so quickly that they seemed to join into one continuous howl; the pain was intolerable. But then, unaccountably, the jaw sagged open and I was released.

I slumped weakly against the wall, my arm still dangling inside the cavity. The pain, which surged with every heartbeat, began to diminish. I was crying with relief and agony, and with terror of the animal which was still there below. I dared not move my arm, thinking that one twitch of a muscle would provoke another attack, yet I knew my chance had come to snatch away what was left of my arm.

My tears stopped, because I was afraid. I listened carefully: was the animal breathing, was it still there? I did not know if my arm had lost all sensation, but I could not feel the animal’s foul breath moving across me. The pain was almost indiscernible; my arm must be numb. I imagined, rather than felt, the fingers hanging uselessly from the mangled wrist, blood pulsing down into the animal’s open snout below.

A deep revulsion stirred me at last, and, not caring if the animal should attack me again, I stood away from the wall, withdrawing my shattered arm from the cavity. I staggered away, and rested my good hand against the low-lying beam. I looked at the damage done to me.

The arm was whole, the hand was undamaged.

I held it before me, disbelieving what I saw. The sleeve of my blouse had been torn as I was dragged through the brickwork, but there were no marks on the skin, no lacerations, no teeth-marks, no blood. I flexed my fingers, bracing myself against the anticipated pain, but they moved normally. I turned my hand over, looking at it from all sides. Not a mark, not even a trace of the saliva I had felt running across me. The palm was moist, but I was sweating all over. I touched the arm gingerly, feeling for the wounds, but as I pressed down on the sore areas the only sensation I could feel was of fingertips squeezing against good flesh. There was not even a ghost of the pain I had suffered. There was a faint, unpleasant odour on my hand, but as I sniffed at the backs of my fingers, at my palm, it faded away.

The door was open. I snatched at my pullover, which lay on the floor, and lurched outside. I was holding my wounded, undamaged arm across my chest, as if I were in pain, but it was just a subconscious reflex.

The long grass swept around me in the wind, and I remembered Seri. I needed her then: to explain, to soothe, to calm me. I wanted another human being to see me, and give me the reassurance I could not give myself. But Seri had vanished, and I was alone.

At the bottom of the slope, near the stream, a good distance from the tower, a figure in black stood up. His habit was caught in the band at his waist, and as he turned he was pulling at it, making it hang normally. I ran towards him, rushing through the grass.

He turned his back on me as soon as he saw me, and strode away quickly. As I dashed towards him he reached the brook, leaped over it, and hurried up the slope beyond.

‘Wait, Father!’ I shouted. ‘Please wait!’

I came to a place where the grass was flattened, and in its centre lay Seri. She was on her back, with her skirt rolled up above her waist. Her sweater had been pushed up to her neck, revealing plump little breasts, pink-tipped. Her eyes were closed, and her arms lay on the ground above her head. Her knees were raised, and her legs were wide open.


‘Do you still want to touch me, Lenden?’ she said, and giggled.

I looked at the place; a pale, creamy fluid trickled from the reddened lips.

A wave of nausea came over me, and I backed away from her, unable to look at her. She was still laughing, and as she saw my reaction her laughter became shrill and hysterical. She rolled around in the flattened grass, writhing as she must have writhed before.

I kept a distance between us, waiting for her to sober. I remembered that I had her pants in the pocket of my skirt, and I found them and threw them at her. They landed on her naked belly.

‘You’re…’ I tried to find a word forceful enough to convey the revulsion in me, but failed. ‘You’re filthy!

Her crazy laughing stopped, and she lay on her side to look at me. Then, deliberately, she opened her legs in tacit invitation.

I turned from her and ran away, towards the seminary, towards the house. I sobbed as I ran, and the torn sleeve of my blouse flapped around my arm. I stumbled as I crossed the stream, drenching my clothes; I tripped many times, cutting my knee, tearing the hem of my skirt. Bloodied, hysterical, bruised, and soaked through, I ran into the house and burst into my aunt’s sickroom.

My uncle and my father were supporting Alvie above a chamberpot. Her white, withered legs dangled like bleached ropes; drops of orange liquid trickled from her. Her eyes were closed, and her head lolled.

I heard my uncle shouting. My mother appeared, and a hand was slapped over my eyes. I was dragged, screaming, into the corridor.

All I could say, again and again, was Seri’s name. Everyone seemed to be shouting at me.

Later, Uncle Torm went out on to the moors to find Seri, but before they returned we had got back into our car and were driving, through the evening and night, towards Seevl Town.

It was the last time I went to Seevl. I was fourteen. I never saw Seri again.

We burned my uncle’s papers in the yard behind the house: black charred ashes floated up, then were whisked away by the wind. There were also some clothes, and some chairs and a table the priests did not want. They burned slowly, and I stood by the fire, watching the flames reflectively.

Bella, standing by the doorway, said: ‘Why do you keep staring at the moors?’

‘I didn’t know that I was.’

‘There’s something out there. What is it?’

‘I was watching the blaze,’ I said.

‘Have you ever been out on the moors?’

‘No.’ I kicked a chair leg that had rolled from the fire, and sparks flew. Something in the fire spat, and a cinder shot across the yard.

Bella came towards me, took my arm tenderly.

‘It doesn’t matter, about last night.’

I said nothing because I knew she was right, but also that it did matter.

‘Was that your first time?’ she said.

‘Of course not.’

‘I meant, with someone like me?’


What was she like, that was so different? She meant perhaps: was she my first female lover? I smiled sadly, thinking of the men I had loved, the women too. More women than men, over the years, because I only went to men in desperation. I, always the passive lover: excited and slightly appalled by their relish in caressing my body, envying them their lack of inhibition, and determined with each new partner that this one would be different, this one would find me active. No, in that sense, Bella was no different. I had not changed. I had thought a few years’ abstention, a gaining in maturity, would cure me of the irrational fear. I should not have put it to the test; I had been weak, thinking that the return to Seevl would, in itself, be some kind of exorcism. I had fallen for Bella’s youth, her hesitancy, her pretty body; these had drawn me, once again, to failure. I had not known that I had dried up, become a husk.

‘I’m only trying to understand,’ Bella said.

‘So am I.’

‘We’re alone.’ Bella, speaking softly. ‘Be frank with me.’

‘I am, I think.’

‘Will we see each other again? After this?’

‘Yes,’ I said, postponing.

‘I can travel freely. Let me visit your home.’

‘All right. If you’d like to.’

It seemed to satisfy her, but she stood with her hand on my arm as we watched the fire.

I wondered what it was she saw in me; surely she had other friends? I was several years older than her, and she made me feel it, with her economical body, her youthful mannerisms. I had my first grey hairs, my breasts had started to sag, my waist was full, my thighs were thick. I was the older woman, more mature and presumably more experienced, yet it was she who pursued. I found it very affecting and flattering.

If it had been anywhere else: not Seevl, not Alvie’s room and Alvie’s bed. Would it have been any different?

The inevitable failure…but also the inevitable seeking for an excuse.

The real excuse, if there was any at all, lay out there under the crag of Seevl’s moors.

That morning I had risen before Bella, and climbed from Alvie’s bed to go to the window. From there I had been sure I would be able to see the tower where it all had happened, but I looked and I had not been able to see it. The seminary gardens were just as I recalled them–although less well tended than I had thought–and so was the view across to the high, limestone crag. But there was no sign of the tower.

Bella was right: all that morning, as I worked through my uncle’s papers, I had looked frequently towards the moors, wondering where the tower had gone.

There must have been a rational explanation: it had become unsafe; it had been demolished.

There must have been a rational explanation that it was not there, that it had never been there. I shied away from that, unable to face the consequences.

Bella was still holding my arm, resting her cheek lightly against my shoulder.

She said: ‘I’ve a confession, Lenden.’

I was lost in my own thoughts, and barely heard her.

‘Is it important?’ I said.

‘I don’t know. It might be. There’s a file on you, in the Seigniory. Does that surprise you?’

‘No, not really.’ There were files on everybody; we were at war.

‘I read your file. I know a lot about you.’

‘What sort of thing?’ A tremor of concern.

‘Nothing political.’

No surprise; my isolation was almost total. ‘What then?’

‘About your private life. I suppose that’s worse really.’ I had drawn away from her, to face her. ‘The file told me the sort of person you are…the fact that you have had women lovers. There was a picture of you.’

‘When did you see this?’

‘When the assignment was posted. I volunteered for this, I wanted to meet you. I thought…it’s hard to say. I’ve been very lonely.’

‘And it’s hard to meet the right people,’ I said. ‘I’ve been through all that too.’

‘You don’t mind?’

‘I object to it being on file. But I don’t mind what you did.’

The fire was almost out. There was an old broom in the yard, and I used it to sweep the charred wood and ashes into a small neat pile. A few flames flickered, but they would not burn much longer.

There was nothing left for us to do at the house, and we had a long drive to catch the evening ferry. I took the key back to Father Henner’s office, while Bella carried our stuff to the car. Walking back through the grounds, alone, I knew that this was my last chance to find the tower. I left the path and walked through the gardens until I came to the wall. I found a gate, went through, and stood looking across the rough ground.

I could not see the tower, could not even see where it might have been. I was standing there looking for it, when Bella found me.

She slipped her hand into mine.

‘Something happened here once, didn’t it?’

I nodded, and held her hand tightly.

‘A long time ago?’

‘Twenty years ago. I’m not sure what it was. I think I must have imagined it. It all seems different now.’

‘I was just a child, twenty years ago,’ Bella said.

‘So was I.’

But thinking, as we drove back through the fells, it seemed different again. I was sure the tower was there, that it was simply that I had not seen it.

Bella talked, in the car, on the ferry, and we made our plans for future meetings…but we parted on the quay in Jethra, and I have not heard from her since.


Image © Hervé Simon

Christopher Priest

Christopher Priest was born in 1943 in Cheadle, a suburb of Manchester. He was educated at Manchester Warehouseman, Clerk’s Orphan School and, after leaving school, had a wide variety of jobs. Since 1968, he has lived entirely from his writing, which includes six novels, two story collections and one children’s book. His work has been translated into a number of languages, including Hebrew, Japanese, Russian and Bulgarian. In 1983, he was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists.

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