In the last second of the chosen morning, Emma lets go of a wooden post, one foot raised to step off the bridge. A brown wave leaps up at her and she falls into the air – peaty water in her mouth, a slow scream inside her head, like the buzzard’s mewing. In that single moment, between water jumping and ground slipping away – if there is space for such a moment – a shape in the corner of her vision becomes a young man walking.
He moves slowly, out of the wave and onto the bank beside her. The churning river must be eight feet deep, but there he is, the young man with a rucksack, his clothes all wet, a smile of anticipation and that split-second glance from his wide eyes. The question springs into her mind, a fragment from a half-forgotten conversation: Are you a person in my story, or am I a person in yours?
Fifteen minutes earlier, she is striding along the rough track, determined to reach the bridge before her little brothers, birthday or no birthday. The path is full of puddles, grass still wet from the rain. Wind sways white birch trunks, pulls at the wrinkled oak. The startled pigeons clatter from the trees.
The noise is all around her. Is it the wind on the steep slope above her right shoulder, roaring through the great oaks, their branches covered in lichen, thick strands of ivy climbing up gnarled trunks? Or is it the river itself, the writhing water below her feet on the left, glimpsed through the strip of woodland, the smaller birch and alder, the bushes whose names she can never remember?
The storm has filled her mind, the night of howling gales and rain, wind still tearing into the ash trees above her. It brings back the school project into her mind, and the coursework writing begins to repeat itself. There were four of them, the elemental storms along the river, in her version of the story. First was the Great Flood of 1771, the storm of water everyone knows from local history – bridges swept away, houses collapsing and people drowned. The next decade brought a storm of the air – water and wind together, tearing at the lime mortar, pulling down Hexham’s new stone bridge. Seventy years later came a storm of fire, the one that frightened her – men and women struck by lightning, a steam train off the rails and burning in the river. Last she found a storm of the earth – the ground itself giving way in the heart of the city, the wooden quayside, sucking scores of citizens into the Tyne. Four centuries before the Flood, with more people drowned than all the other storms put together.
What must they have been like, these huge storms? And now only a night of wind and rain, streams overflowing onto the track. This kind of storm should be in winter, shouldn’t it? Twelve hours of rain in the middle of August, it’s not natural, trees still bending in the wind, and the sun flashing on the deep water, mud-brown turning into darting points of white-yellow light.
Now it is alder and willow instead of the ash and oak. She must be further along than she thought. An owl glides off down the path, silent wings leading her on. What’s an owl doing here in the daytime? Dad would know, he’s the expert. But he’s way behind now, carrying all the luggage. A sudden gust of wind, and all the birds fly from the trees – chaffinch and crow, jay and jackdaw, robin and rook and wren – darting and flapping in every direction. In the last minutes of the morning, she reaches a tunnel of willows, where an arch frames the hidden path down to a wooden bridge.
Emma flies out of the tunnel of willows on a column of moving air, bound up inside the spell she sees – the wind tearing at the oak trees in an ancient storm, an owl drifting in its own silence beside the roaring water. There is a cloudless sky suddenly above her and she emerges into brilliant sunlight, her eyes blinking. The wind pulls at her shirt, rippling the sky-blue denim. She swoops down off the main track towards the bridge, windmill arms sailing in delight. For a wild moment she imagines she has conjured it all up herself: I have charmed the landscape and the weather, I wave my arms and the sun comes out.
It is even louder here, the wind in the trees and the roar of water, the river in spate, six feet higher than normal, the air still smelling of rain. In sudden sunlight after the dark woodland, the river’s surface pitches and rolls like boiling glass. Limbs of dead trees bounce down the valley, flashing in the sun, a slalom between submerged rocks. Torn branches float past, foliage twisted and mangled. Underneath the bouncing water, big stones are grinding in the river’s bed.
Along the wooded bank below her, the oak and the ash are still swaying and groaning, the holly and the ivy, full grown and overgrown. Stepping down towards the bridge, she sees grey lichen on the wooden rail, and remnants of paint, a darker green. She takes the last few paces to the bridge, pauses to look down. Eddies and whirlpools sway round the black rocks.
She is well ahead of the twins. There is time to walk slowly onto the bridge, to gaze into the tumbling water. The gale pulls dark hair across her face and for a moment she can hardly see. The roar she took for the wind is the river itself as it surges beneath her. And there is something more, a pulsing wordless voice, a heaving and gasping to and fro, as if she is herself the wind and the water. Gradually she feels it fade, and realises it is her own breathing.
Stopping at the far end of the bridge, she checks her watch as requested, the seconds ticking away. With her hand on the last wooden post, she is about to step onto the narrow path, but pauses again, unable to step off the bridge. Maybe it really is enchanted – that would be something! She peers at her watch again. One minute to twelve. Her brothers are racing each other down to the bridge, her mother walking behind them. Emma has to pause and let them catch up. The twins begin their stupid game, dropping sticks into the churning water. Eleven years old today and still little boys. She looks up to see where the buzzard is mewing; but there is only a flash of midnight blue-black wings, flapping north along the slope of the hill.
Her hand rests on the post, fingers touching moss in a crevice, green fur against the grey wood. Then comes the moment of midday, one foot on the muddy path, the other lifting from the wet wooden planks. The water surges and here is the impossible someone walking out of a wave. She has never seen this young man before; but she knows at once who he must be. Both boys point at the river and shout, but the wind pulls their words away. A break in the clouds. She is dreaming and it is happening so slowly, yet somehow all at once, as if it were charmed or spellbound. Here is the call of the buzzard, the great wave, the fall into the air, the letting go of a post – and the young man walking out of a river.
In what should be the next moment, all she can see is deep blue sky. Then there is wet mud on her jeans, and a sharp pain in her hip. Mum calls out and she gives a feeble wave back. The twins arrive, hands outstretched to pull her onto her feet. Even Dad has almost caught up, walking down to the bridge with heavy bags in each hand. How long has she been lying here?
She shouldn’t have been able to see him, that much was obvious. He has appeared for her alone, leading her out of the forest and across the wooden bridge, into the enchanted field. Here are the bejewelled trees, the refracted diamonds and rubies, emeralds, the pale sapphires, which the others would only see as raindrops hanging from wet leaves in the sunlight. Nobody else could possibly have seen him, they would never understand. They never did. Part of a nursery rhyme her mother taught her years ago floats into her mind: You cannot go where I have been, you cannot see what I have seen.
The most important thing is to keep it to herself. As long as they don’t find out, she’ll still be safe. If she tells them, it’ll be the same all over again. They didn’t actually say it last time, but she saw what they were thinking. Crazy daughter, loopy sister. She’ll not make that mistake again.
Hide him in the back of her memory, that’s the best idea. If they ask why she stopped, she was watching the magpie, or out of breath – though she stood for a full minute before the boys arrived – or admiring the power of the water. Out of breath, looking at the river, that’s the story. How could she tell them the truth, how would it sound? I tried to move forward, but I could not. No, that wouldn’t do at all.