I sit here by our swimming pool, with one eye on my son in the water and the other on the seagulls lazily drifting, circling on high. Actually they're not just drifting; they're climbing on thermals off the nearby fields, spiraling up to a certain height from which they know they can set off south across the bay on their long evening glide to Brixham to meet the fishing boats coming in to harbour. And never once having beaten a wing across all those miles, just gliding, they'll be there in plenty of time to beg for sprats as the fish are unloaded.
It's instinct with those birds; they've been doing it for so long that now they don't even think about it, they just do it. It's like at ant-flying time, or flying-ant time, if you prefer: those two or three of the hottest days of summer when all of a sudden the ant queens make up their minds to .y and establish new hives or whatever ant nesting sites are called. Yes, for the gulls know all about that, too.
The crying of gulls: plaintive, sometimes painful, often annoying, especially when they're flight-training their young. But this time of year-well you can always tell when it's ant-flying time. Because that's just about the only time when the seagulls are silent. And you won't see a one in the sky until the queen ants stream up in their thousands from all the Devon gardens, all at the same time-like spawning corals under the full moon-as if some telepathic message had gone out into an ant aether, telling them, "It's time! It's time!"
Time for the seagulls, too. For suddenly, out of nowhere, the sky is full of them. And their silence is because they're eating. Eating ants, yes. And I amuse myself by imagining that the gulls have learned how to interpret ant telepathy, when in all probability it's only a matter of timing and temperature: Ma Nature as opposed to insect (or avian) ESP.
And yet . . . there are stranger things in heaven and earth- and between the two-and I no longer rule out anything . . .
My son cries out, gasps, gurgles, and shrieks . . . but only with joy, thank God, as I spring from my deck chair! Only with joy-the sheer enjoyment of the shallow end of the pool. Not that it's shallow enough (it's well out of his depth in fact, for he's only two and a half), but he's wearing his water-wings and his splashing and chortling alone should have told me that all was well.
Except I wasn't doing my duty as I should have been; I was paying too much attention to the seagulls. And well-
-Well, call it paranoia if you like. But I watch little Jimmy like a hawk when he is in the water, and I've considered having the pool filled in. But his mother says no, that's just silly, and whatever it was that I think happened to me out on the moors that time, I shouldn't let it interfere with living our lives to the fullest. And anyway she loves our pool, and so does little Jimmy, and so would I, except . . .
Only three weeks ago a small child drowned in just such a pool right here in Torquay, less than a mile away. And to me- especially to me-that was a lot more than a tragic, if simple, accident. It was a beginning, not an end. The beginning of something that can never end, not until there are no more swimming pools. And even then it won't be the end for some poor, unfortunate little mite.
But you don't understand, right? And you never will until you know the full story. So first let me get little Jimmy out of the pool, dried, and into the house, into his mother's care, and then I'll tell you all about it . . .
Have you ever wondered about haunted houses? Usually very old houses, perhaps Victorian or older still? Well, probably not, because in this modern technological society of ours we're not much given to considering such unscientific things. And first, of course, you would have to believe in ghosts: the departed, or not quite departed, revenants of folks dead and long since buried. But if so, if you have wondered, then you might also have begun to wonder why it's these old houses which are most haunted, and only very rarely new ones.
And, on the same subject, how many so-called old wives' tales have you heard, ghost stories, literally, about misted country crossroads where spectral figures are suddenly caught in a vehicle's headlights, lurching from the hedgerows at midnight, screaming their silent screams with their ragged hands held out before them? Well, let me tell you: such stories are legion! And now I know why.
But me, I didn't believe in ghosts. Not then, anyway . . .
My mother died in hospital here in Torbay some four and a half years ago. And incidentally, I'm glad about that; not about her dying, no, of course not, but that she did it in hospital. These days lots of people die in hospital, which is natural enough.
Anyway, it hit me really badly, more so because I had only recently lost someone else: my wife, when we'd divorced simply because we no longer belonged together. It had taken us eleven years to find that out: the fact that right from the start, we hadn't really belonged together. But while our parting was mutually acceptable and even expedient, still it was painful. And I would like to think it hurt both of us, for I certainly felt it: a wrenching inside, like some small but improbably necessary organ was no longer in there, that it was missing, torn or fallen out. And at the time I'd thought that was the end of it; what was missing was gone forever; I wouldn't find anyone else and there would be no family, no son to look up to me as I had looked up to my father. A feeling of . . . I don't know, discontinuity?
But I had still had my mother-for a little while, anyway. My poor dear Ma.
Now, with all this talk of ghosts and death and whatnot, don't anyone take it that I was some kind of odd, sickly mother's-boy sort of fellow like Norman Bates, the motel keeper in that Hitchcock .lm. No, for that couldn't be further from the truth. But after my father had died (also in hospital, for they had both been heavy smokers) it had been my Ma who had sort of clung to me . . . quite the other way round, you see? Living not too far away, she had quickly come to rely on me. And no, that didn't play a part in our divorce. In fact by then it had made no difference at all; our minds were already made up, Patsy's and mine.
Anyway, Patsy got our house-we'd agreed on that, too-for it had made perfectly good sense that I should go and live with Ma. Then, when it was her time (oh my Good Lord, as if we had been anticipating it!) her house would come to me. And so Patsy's and my needs both would be catered for, at least insofar as we wouldn't suffer for a roof over our heads . . .
Ma painted, and I like to think I inherited something of her not inconsiderable talent. In fact, that was how I made a living: my work was on show in a studio in Exeter where I was one of a small but mainly respected coterie of local artists, with a somewhat smaller, widespread band of dedicated, affluent collectors. I thank my lucky stars for affluent collectors! And so, with the addition of the interest on monies willed to me by my father, I had always managed to eke out a living of sorts.
Ma painted, yes, and always she looked for the inspiration of drama. The more dramatic her subject, the finer the finished canvas. Seascapes on the Devon coast, landscapes on the rolling South Hams, the frowning ocean-hewn cliffs of Cornwall; and of course those great solemn tors on the moor . . . which is to say Dartmoor: the location for Sherlock Holmes'-or rather Arthur Conan Doyle's-famous (or infamous) Hound of the Baskervilles.
Ah, that faded old film! My mother used to say, "It's not like that, you know. Well, it is in some places, and misty, too. But not all the time! Not like in that film. And I've certainly never seen the like of that fearsome old tramp that Basil Rathbone made of himself! Not on Dartmoor, God forbid! Yes, I know it was only Sherlock Holmes in one of his disguises, but still, I mean . . . Why, if the moors were really like that I swear I'd never want to paint there again!"
I remember that quite clearly, the way she said: "It's not like that, you know," before correcting herself. For in fact it is like that-and too much like that-in certain places . . .
After she'd gone I found myself revisiting the locations where we had painted together: the coastlines of Cornwall and our own Devon, the rolling, open countryside, and eventually Dartmoor's great tors, which my dictionary somewhat inadequately describes as hills or rocky heights. But it was the Celts who called them tors or torrs, from which we've derived tower, and some of them do indeed "tower" on high. Or it’s possible the name comes from the Latin: the Roman turris. Whichever, I’ll get to
the tors in a moment. But first something of Dartmoor itself:
All right, so it's not like that faded old Basil Rathbone Hound of the Baskervilles film. Not entirely like that, anyway; not all the time. In fact in the summer it's glorious, and that was mainly when I would go there; for I was still attempting to paint there despite that it had become a far more lonely business . . . often utterly lonely, on my own out there on the moors.
But glorious? Beautiful? Yes it certainly was, and for all that I don't go there any more, I'm sure it still is. Beautiful in a fashion all its own. Or perhaps the word I'm searching for is unique. Uniquely dramatic . . . gloriously wild . . . positively neolithic, in its outcrops and standing stones, and prehistoric in the isolation and sometimes desolation of its secret, if not sacred, places.
As for outcrops, standing stones and such: well, now we're back to the tors.
On Eastern Dartmoor my mother and I had painted that amazing jumble of rocks, one of the largest outcrops in the National Park, known as Hound Tor (no connection to Doyle's hound, at least not to my knowledge). But along with a host of other gigantic stacks, such as the awesome Haytor Rock or Vixen Tor, the Hound hadn't been one of Ma's favourites. Many a lesser pile or tranquil river location had been easier to translate to canvas, board, or art paper. It wasn't that we were idle, or lacking in skill or patience-certainly not my mother, whose true-to-life pictures were full of the most intricate detail-but that the necessities of life and the endless hours required to trap such monsters simply didn't match up to our limited time. One single significant feature of any given rock could take Ma a whole day to satisfactorily transcribe in oils! And because I only rarely got things right at the first pass, they sometimes took me even longer. Which is why we were satisfied to paint less awesome or awkward subjects, and closer to home whenever possible.
Ah, but when I say "closer to home" . . . surely Dartmoor is only a moor? What's a few miles between friends? Let me correct you:
Dartmoor is three hundred and fifty square miles of mists, mires, woodlands, rushing rivers, tors carved in an age of ice, small villages, lonely farmsteads, and mazy paths; all of which forms the largest tract of unenclosed land in southern England. The landscape may range in just a few miles from barren, naked summits-several over five hundred metres in height-through heather-clad moorland, to marsh and sucking bog. There, in four national nature reserves and numerous protected sites, Dartmoor preserves an astonishing variety of plants and wildlife; all of this a mere twenty miles from Plymouth to the south, and a like distance from Exeter to the east.
Parts of the moor's exposed heath contain the remains of Bronze and Iron Age settlements, now home to the hardy Dartmoor ponies; but the River Dart's lush valley-cut through tens of thousands of years of planetary evolution-displays the softer side of rural Devon, where thatched cottages, tiny villages, and ancient inns seem almost hidden away in the shady lee of knolls or protective hollows.
Dartmoor is, in short, a fascinating fantasy region, where several of the tors have their own ghosts-which is only to be expected in such a place-but I fancy their ectoplasm is only a matter of mist, myth, and legend. Most of them. Some of them, certainly . . .
I won't say where I went that first time-which is to say the first time anything peculiar happened-for reasons which will become amply apparent, but it was close to one of our favourite places. Close to, but not the precise spot, for that would have meant feeling my mother's presence. Her memory, or my memory of her, in that place, might have interfered with my concentration. And I'm not talking about ghosts here, just memories, nostalgia if you like: a sentimental longing for times spent with someone who had loved me all of her life, now gone forever. And if that makes me seem weak, then explain to me how even strong men find themselves still crying over a pet dog dead for months and even years, let alone a beloved parent.
And there is no paradox here, in my remembering yet needing to hold the memories to some degree at bay. I missed my Ma, yes, but I knew that I couldn't go on mourning her for the rest of my life.
Anyway, it was in the late summer-in fact August, this time of year-when less than an hour's drive had taken me onto the moor and along a certain second-class road, to a spot where I parked my car in a lay-by near a crossroads track leading off across the heather. Maybe a quarter-mile away there was a small domed hill, which faced across a shaded shallow depression, one of Dartmoor's more accessible tors: an oddly unbalanced outcrop that looked for all the world as if it had been built of enormous, worn and rounded dominoes by some erratic Titan infant and was now trying hard not to topple over. An illusion, naturally, because it was entirely possible that this was just one massive rock, grooved by time and the elements into a semblance of many separate horizontal layers. And here I think I had better give the stack a name-even one of my own coining-rather than simply call it a tor. Let's call it Tumble Tor, if only because it looked as if at any moment it just might!
My mother and I had tried to paint Tumble Tor on a number of occasions, never with any great success. So maybe I could do it now and at least finish a job that we had frequently started and just as often left unresolved. That was the idea, my reason for being there, but as stated I would not be painting from any previously occupied vantage point. Indeed, since the moors seem to change from day to day and (obviously) more radically season to season, it would be almost impossible to say precisely where those vantage points had been. My best bet was to simply plunk myself down in a spot which felt totally strange, and that way be sure that I'd never been there before.
As for painting: I wouldn't actually be doing any, not on this, my first unaccompanied visit to Tumble Tor. Instead I intended to prepare a detailed pencil sketch, and in that way get as well acquainted as possible with the monolith before attempting the greater familiarity of oils and colour. In my opinion, one has to respect one's subjects.
It had been a long hot summer and the ground was very hard underfoot, the soil crumbling as I climbed perhaps one third of the way up the knoll to a stone-strewn landing where the ground levelled off in a wide ledge. The sun was still rising in a midmorning sky, but there in the shade of the summit rising behind me I seated myself on a .at stone and faced Tumble Tor with my board and paper resting comfortably on my knees. And using various grades of graphite I began to transpose my oddly staggered subject onto paper.
Time passed quickly . . .
Mid-afternoon, I broke for a ham sandwich with mayonnaise, washed down with a half thermos of bitter coffee. I had brought my binoculars with me; now and then I trained them on my car to ensure that it remained safe and hadn't attracted the attention of any overly curious strangers. The glasses were also handy as a means of bringing Tumble Tor into greater resolution, making it easy to study its myriad bulges and folds before committing them to paper.
As I looked again at that much-wrinkled rock, a lone puff of cloud eased itself in front of the sun. Tumble Tor fell into shade, however temporarily, and suddenly I saw a figure high in one of the outcrop's precipitous shoulders: the figure of a man leaning against the rock there, peering in a furtive fashion-or so it seemed to me-around the shoulder and across the moor in the general direction of the road. Towards my car? Perhaps.
The puff of cloud persisted, slowly moving, barely drifting, across what was recently an empty, achingly blue sky, and I was aware of the first few wisps of a ground mist in the depression between my knoll and Tumble Tor. I glanced again at the sky and saw that the cloud was the first of a string of cotton-wool puffs reaching out toward Exeter in a ruler-straight line. Following this procession to its source, I was able to pick out the shining silver speck that had fashioned the aerial trail: a jet aircraft, descending toward Exeter airport. Its long vapour trail-even as it broke up into these small "clouds"-seemed determined to track across the face of the sun.
I looked again at Tumble Tor, and adjusted the focus of my binoculars to bring the lone climber-the furtive observer of some near-distant event?-into sharper perspective. He hadn't moved except to turn his head in my direction, and I had little doubt but that he was now looking at me. At a distance of something less than four hundred and fifty yards, I must be visible to him as he was to me. But of course I had the advantage of my glasses . . . or so I thought.
He was thin and angular, a stick of a man, with wild hair blowing in a wind I couldn't feel, some current of air circulating around his precarious position. He wore dark clothing, and as I once again refocused I saw that indeed he carried binoculars around his neck. Though he wasn't using them, still I felt he gazed upon me. I tried to get a clearer view of his face but the image was blurred, trembling with the movement of my hands. However, when finally I did manage to get a good look . . . it was his narrow eyes that left a lasting impression.
They seemed to glow in the shade of the rock with that socalled "red-eye" complication of amateur photography: an illusion-a trick of the light-obviously. But the way they were fixed upon me, those eyes, was somehow disconcerting. It was as if he was spying on me, and not the other way around.
But spying? Feeling like some kind of voyeur, I lowered my glasses and looked away.
Meanwhile, having swung across the sky, the sun had found me; soon my hollow in the side of the hill, rather than providing shade, was going to become a sun-trap. And so I reckoned it was time to call it a day and head for home. Before I could put my art things aside, however, a tall shadow fell across me and a deep voice said, "Aye, and ye've picked the perfect spot for it. What a grand picture the auld tor makes frae here, eh?"
Momentarily startled, I jerked myself around to look up at the speaker. He was a dark silhouette, blocking out the sun.
"Oh dear!" he said, himself startled. "Did I make ye jump just then? Well, I'm sorry if I've disturbed ye, and more so if I've broken yer mood. But man, ye must hae been concentratin' verra hard not tae hear me comin' down on ye."
"Concentrating?" I answered. "Actually I was watching that fellow on the tor there. He must be a bit of a climber. Myself, I don't have much of a head for heights."
"On the tor, ye say?" Shading his eyes and standing tall, he peered at Tumble Tor, now bright once more in full sunlight. "Well then, he must hae moved on, gone round the back. I cannae see anyone on the rock right now, no frae here." Then, stepping down level with me, he crouched to examine my drawing close up. And in my turn-now that the sun was out of my eyes-I could look more closely at him.
A big, powerful man, I judged him to be in his mid-fifties. Dressed in well-worn tweeds, good walking boots, and carrying a knobbed and ferruled stick, he could well have been a gamekeeper-and perhaps he was.
"I . . . I do hope I'm not trespassing here," I finally mumbled. "I mean, I hope this isn't private ground."
"Eh?" he cocked his head a little, then smiled. "What? Do ye take me for a gillie or somethin'? No, no, I'm no that. And as far as I ken this ground's free for us all. But a trespasser? Well, if ye are then so am I, and hae been for some twenty years!" He nodded at the unfinished drawing in my lap. "That's a bonny piece of work. Will ye no finish it? Ye'll excuse that I'm pokin' my nose in, but I sense ye were about tae leave."
"Was and am," I answered, getting to my feet and dusting myself off. "The sun's to blame . . . the shadows on the tor are falling all wrong now. Also, the back of my neck was getting a bit warm." I stooped, gathered up my art things, and looked at the drawing. "But I thank you for your comment because this is just-"
"-A preliminary sketch?"
"Oh?" I said. "And how did you know that?"
Again he smiled, but most engagingly. "Why, there's paint under yer fingernails. And ye've cross-hatched all the areas that are the selfsame colour as seen frae here . . . stone grey, that is. Ye'll be plannin' a painting-am I no right?"
I studied him more closely. He had tousled brown hair-a lot of it for a man of his years-a long weathered face, brown, friendly eyes over a bulbous nose, and a firm mouth over a jut of a chin. His accent revealed his nationality, and he made no attempt to disguise it. The Scots are proud of themselves, and they have every right to be. This one looked as much a part of the moors as . . . well, as Tumble Tor itself.
Impulsively, I stuck my hand out. "You're right, I'm planning a painting. I'm Paul Stanard, from Torquay. I'm pleased to meet you."
"Andrew Quarry," he came back at once, grasping my hand. "Frae a mile or two back there." A jerk of his head indicated the knoll behind us. "My house is just off the Yelverton road, set back a wee in a copse. But-did ye say Stanard?"
"Paul Stanard, yes." I nodded.
"Hmm," he mused. "Well, it's probably a coincidence, but there's a picture in my house painted by one Mary May Stanard: it's a moors scene that I bought in Exeter."
"My mother," I told him, again nodding. "She sold her work through various art shops in Exeter and elsewhere. And so do I. But she . . . she died some nine months ago. Lung cancer."
"Oh? Well, I'm sorry for ye," he answered. "What, a smoker was she? Aye, it's a verra bad business. Myself, I gave my auld pipe up years ago. But her picture-it's a bonny thing.
" I smiled, however sadly. "Oh, she knew how to paint! But I doubt if it will ever be worth any more than you paid for it."
"Ah, laddie," he said, shaking his head. "But I didnae buy it for what others might reckon its value. I bought it because I thought it might look right hangin' in my livin'room. And so it does."
Andrew Quarry: he was obviously a gentleman, and so open-so down-to-earth-that I couldn't help but like him. "Are you by chance going my way?" I enquired. "That's my car down on the road there. Maybe we can walk together?"
"Most certainly!" he answered at once. "But only if I can prevail upon ye tae make a little detour and drop me off on the Yelverton road. It'll be a circular route for ye but no too far out of ye're way, I promise ye."
As I hesitated he quickly added, "But if ye're in a hurry, then dinnae fret. The walkin's good for a man. And me: I must hae tramped a thousand miles over these moors, so a half-dozen more willnae harm me."
"Not at all," I answered. "I was just working out a route, that's all. For while I've crossed Dartmoor often enough, still I sometimes find myself confused. Maybe I don't pay enough attention to maps and road signs, and anyway my sense of direction isn't up to much. You might have to show me the way."
"Oh, I can do that easily enough," Quarry answered. "And I know what ye mean. I walk these moors freely in three out of four seasons, but in the fourth I go verra carefully. When the snow is on the ground, oh it's beautiful beyond a doubt-ah, but it hides all the landmarks! A man can get lost in a blink, and then the cold sets in." As we took off down the steep slope he asked: "So then, how did ye come here?"
"Yer route, frae the car tae here."
"Oh. I followed the path-barely a track, really-but I walked where many feet have gone before: around that clump of standing stones there, and so on to the foot of this hill where I left the track, climbed through the heather, and finally arrived at this grassy ledge."
"I see." He nodded. "Ye avoided the more direct line frae yer vehicle tae the base of the tor, and frae the tor tae the knoll. Verra sensible."
"Aye. Ye see those rushes?" He pointed. "Between the knoll and yon rock? And those patches of red and green, huggin' close tae the ground? Well those colours hint of what lies underfoot, and it's marshy ground just there. Mud like that'll suck yer shoes off! It would make a more direct route as the crow flies, true enough, but crows dinnae hae tae walk!"
"You can tell all that from the colour of the vegetation? The state of the ground, that is?" He obviously knew his Dartmoor, this man.
He shrugged. "Did I no say how I've lived here for twenty years? A man comes tae understand an awfy lot in twenty years." Then he laughed. "Oh, it's no great trick. Those colours: they indicate mosses, sphagnum mosses. And together with the rushes, that means boggy ground."
We had reached the foot of the knoll and set off following the rough track, making a detour wide of the tor and the allegedly swampy ground; which is to say we reversed and retraced my incoming route. And Quarry continued talking as we walked:
"Those sphagnums . . ." he said, pausing to catch his breath.
". . . That's peat in the makin'. A thousand years from now, it'll be good burnin' stuff, buried under a couple of feet of softish earth. Well, that's if the moor doesnae dry out-as it's done more than its share of this last verra hot summer. Aye, climatic change and all that."
I was impressed. "You seem to be a very knowledgeable man. So then, what are you, Mr. Quarry? Something in moors conservation? Do you work for the National Park Authority? A botanist, perhaps?"
"Botany?" He raised a shaggy eyebrow. "My profession? No laddie, hardly that. I was a veterinary surgeon up in Scotland a good long spell ago-but I dinnae hae a profession, not any more. Ye see, my hands got a wee bit wobbly. Botany's my hobby now, that's all. All the green things . . . I enjoy tae identify them, and the moor has an awfy lot tae identify." "A Scotsman in Devon," I said. "I should have thought the highlands would be just as varied . . . just as suitable to your needs."
"Aye, but my wife was a Devon lass, so we compromised."
He grinned. "She said she'd marry me, if I said I'd come live in Devon. I've no regretted it." And then, more quietly, "She's gone now, though, the auld girl. Gone before her time. Her heart gave out. It was most unexpected."
"I'm sorry to hear it," I said. "And so you live alone?"
"For quite some time, aye. Until my Jennie came home frae America. So now's a nice time for me. Jennie was studyin' architectural design; she got her credentials-top of the class, too- and now works in Exeter."
We were passing the group of tall stones, their smoothed and rounded sides all grooved with the same horizontal striations. I nodded to indicate them. "They look like the same hand was at work carving them."
"And so it was," said Quarry. "The hand of time-of the ice age-of the elements. But all the one hand when ye think it through. This could well be the tip of some buried tor, like an iceberg of stone in a sea of earth."
"There's something of the poet in you," I observed.
He smiled. "Oh, I'm an auld lad of nature, for a fact!"
And, once again on impulse, I said, "Andrew, if I may call you that, I'd very much like you to have that drawing-that's if you'd care to accept it. It's unfinished, I know, but-"
"-But I would be delighted!" he cut in. "Now tell me: how much would ye accept for it?" "No," I said. "I meant as a gift."
"A gift!" He sounded astonished. "But why on earth would a body be givin' all those hours of work away?"
"I really don't know." I shook my head and shrugged. "And anyway, I haven't worked on it all that long. Maybe I'd like to think of it on your wall, beside my mother's painting." "And so it shall be-if ye're sure? . . ."
"I am sure."
"Then I thank ye kindly."
Following which we were quiet, until eventually we arrived at the car. There, as I let Quarry into the passenger's seat, I looked back at the sky and Tumble Tor. The puffs of cloud were still there, but dispersing now, drifting, breaking up. And on that strange high rock, nothing to be seen but the naked stone. Yet for some reason that thin, pale face with its burning eyes continued to linger in my own mind's eye . . .
Dartmoor is crisscrossed by many paths, tracks, roads . . . none of which are "major" in the sense of motorways, though many are modern, metalled, and with sound surfaces. Andrew Quarry directed me expertly by the shortest route possible, through various crossroads and turns, until we'd driven through Two Bridges and Princetown. Shortly after that, he bade me stop at a stile in a hazel hedge. Beyond the stile a second hedge, running at right angles to the road, sheltered a narrow footpath that paralleled a brook's meandering contours. And some twenty-five yards along this footpath, in a fenced copse of oaks and birch trees, there stood Quarry's house.
It was a good sized two-storied place, probably Victorian, with oak-timbered walls of typical red Devon stone. In the high gables, under terra-cotta pantiles, wide windows had been thrown open; while on the ground floor, the varnished or polished oak frames of several more windows were barely visible, shining in the dapple of light falling through the trees. In one of these lower windows, I could only just make out the upper third of a ravenhaired female figure busy with some task.
"That's Jennie," said Quarry, getting out of the car. "Ye cannae mistake that shinin' head of hair. She's in the kitchen there, preparin' this or that. I never ate so well since she's been back. Will ye no come in for a cup of tea, Paul, or a mug of coffee, perhaps?"
"Er, no," I said, "I don't think so. I've a few things to do at home, and it's time I was on my way. But thanks for offering. I do appreciate it."
"And I appreciate ye're gift," he said. "Perhaps I'll see ye some other time? Most definitely, if ye're out there paintin' on the knoll. In fact, I shall make it my business to walk that way now and then."
"And I'll be there," I told him. "Not every day, but on occasion, at least until my painting is finished. I'll look forward to talking to you again."
"Aye," he nodded, "and so we shall." With which he climbed the stile with my rolled-up drawing under his arm, looked back and waved, then disappeared around a curve in the hedge.
The forecast was rain for the next day or two. I accepted the weatherman's verdict, stayed at home, and worked on other paintings while waiting for the skies to clear; which they did eventually. Then I returned to the knoll and Tumble Tor.
I got there early morning when there was some ground mist still lingering over from the night. Mists are a regular feature of Devon in August through December, and especially on the moors. As I left the car I saw four or five Dartmoor ponies at the gallop, their manes flying, kicking up their heels as they crossed the road. They must have known where they were headed, the nature of the uneven ground; either that or they were heedless of the danger, for with tendrils of mist swirling halfway up their gleaming legs they certainly couldn't see where their hooves were falling! They looked like the fabulous hippocampus, I thought- like sea-horses, braving the breakers-as they ran off across the moor and were soon lost in the poor visibility.
Poor visibility, yes . . . and I had come here to work on my painting! (Actually, to begin the second phase: this time using watercolours.) But the sun was well up, its rays already working on the mist to melt it away; Tumble Tor was mainly visible, for all that its foot was lost in the lapping swell; a further half hour should set things to right, by which time I would be seated on my ledge in the lee of the knoll.
Oh really? But unfortunately there was something I hadn't taken into account: namely that I wasn't nearly as sure-footed or knowledgeable as those Dartmoor ponies! Only leave the road and less than ten paces onto the moor I'd be looking and feeling very foolish, tripping over the roots of gorse and heather as I tried to find and follow my previous route. So then, best to stay put for now and let the sun do its work.
Then, frustrated, leaning against the car and lighting one of my very infrequent cigarettes, I became aware of a male figure approaching up the road. His legs wreathed in mist, he came on, and soon I could see that he was a "gentleman of the road," in short a tramp, but by no means a threat. On the contrary, he seemed rather time- and care-worn: a shabby, elderly, somewhat pitiful member of the brotherhood of wayfarers.
Only a few paces away he stopped to catch his breath, then seated himself upon one of those knee-high white-painted stones that mark the country verges. Oddly, he didn't at .rst seem to have noticed me; but he'd seen my car and appeared to be frowning at it, or at least eyeing it disdainfully.
As I watched him, wondering if I should speak, he took out a tobacco pouch and a crumpled packet of cigarette papers, only to toss the latter aside when he discovered it empty. Which was when I stepped forward. And: "By all means, have one of these,"
I said, proffering my pack and shaking it to loosen up a cigarette.
"Eh?" And now he looked at me.
He could have been anything between fifty-five and seventy years of age, that old man. But his face was so lined and wrinkled, so lost in the hair of his head, his beard, and moustache- all matted together under a tattered, floppy hat-it would have been far too difficult if not impossible to attempt a more accurate assessment. I looked at his hunched, narrow shoulders, his spindly arms in a threadbare jacket, his dark gnarled hands with liver spots and purple veins, and simply had to feel sorry for him. Rheumy eyes gazed back at me, through curling wisps of shaggy eyebrow, and lips that had been fretted by harsh weather trembled when he spoke:
"That's kind of you. I rarely begged but they often gave." It was as if with that last rather odd sentence he was talking to himself.
"Take another," I told him, "for later."
"I didn't mean to take advantage of you," he answered, but he took a second cigarette anyway. Then, looking at the pair of small white tubes in his hand, he said, "But I think I'll smoke them later, if you don't mind. I've had this cough, you see?"
"Not at all," I said. "I don't usually smoke myself, until the evening. And then I sometimes fancy one with a glass of . . ." But there I paused. He probably hadn't tasted brandy in a long, long time-if ever.
He apparently hadn't noticed my almost-gaffe. "It's one of my few pleasures," he said, placing the cigarettes carefully in his tobacco pouch, drawing its string tight, fumbling it into a leather-patched pocket. Then:
"But we haven't been properly introduced!" he said, making an effort to stand, only to slump back down again. "Or could it be-I mean, is it possible-that I once knew you?" He seemed unable to focus on me; it was as if he looked right through me. "I'm sorry . . . it's these poor old eyes of mine. They can't see you at all clearly."
"We've never met," I told him. "I'm Paul."
"Or, it could be the car," he said, going off at a tangent again and beginning to ramble. "Your car, that is. But the very car? . . .
No, I don't think so. Too new."
"Well, I have parked here before," I said, trying my best to straighten out the conversation. "But just the once. Still, if you passed this way a few days ago you might well have seen it here."
"Hmmm!" he mused, blinking as he peered hard, studying my face. Then his oh-so-pale eyes opened wider. "Ah! Now I understand! You must have been trying very hard to see someone, and you got me instead. I'm Joe. Old Joe, they called me."
And finally I understood, too. The deprivations of a life on the road-of years of wandering, foraging, sleeping rough through filthy weather and hungry nights-had got to him. His body wasn't the only victim of his "lifestyle." His mind, too, had suffered. Or perhaps it was the other way around, and that was the cause, not the effect. Perhaps he had always been "not altogether there," as I've heard it said of such unfortunates.
And because I really didn't have very much to say-also because I no longer knew quite what to say, exactly-I simply shrugged and informed him, "I . . . I'm just waiting, that's all. And when this mist has cleared a bit, I'll be moving on."
"I'm waiting, too," he answered. "More or less obliged to wait. Here, I mean."
At which I simply had to ask: "Waiting? I didn't know this was a bus route? And if it is they're very infrequent. Or maybe you're waiting for a friend, some fellow, er, traveller? Or are you looking for a lift-in a car, I mean?" (Lord, I hoped not! Not that he smelled bad or anything, not that I'd noticed, anyway, but I should really hate to have to refuse him if he asked me.) And how stupid of me: that I should have mentioned a lift in the first place! For after all I was there to paint, not to go on mercy missions for demented old derelicts!
"Buses?" he said, cocking his head a little and frowning. "No, I can't say I've seen too many of those, not here. But a car, yes. That's a real possibility. Better yet, a motorcycle! Oh, it's a horrid, horrid thought-but it's my best bet by a long shot . . .
" And my best bet, I thought, would be to end a very pointless conversation and leave him sitting there on his own! Yes, and even as I thought it I saw that I could do just that, for the mist was lifting, or rather melting away as the sun sailed higher yet. And so: "You'll excuse me," I said, with a glance across the moor at Tumble Tor, "but I'm afraid it's time . . ." And there I paused, snapping my head round to stare again at the ancient stack; at its grainy, grooved stone surfaces, all damply agleam, and its base still wreathed in a last few tendrils of mist. ". . . Afraid it's time to go."
Excerpted from The Place of Waiting by Brain Lumley.
Copyright © 2008 by Brain Lumley.
Published in September 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.