Ping. A sound like ice cracking underfoot. Laura drew the duvet up over her head but Max kept jumping onto frozen puddles in the potholed lane. Ping. Ping.
‘Stop it, Max. Let me sleep.’
Slowly she came awake. Her bedroom was dark, but a finger of moonlight lifted the hem of her curtains, traced a pale silvery course across the floor. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and padded to the window. Drawing back the heavy fabric, she started as a pebble struck the pane at eye level. Then she saw the gleam of Zach’s eyes, his unmistakable height. She slid up the sash.
‘You’re mad as a rabid crow,’ she said.
His teeth flashed white as he laughed softly. A sound that caught in her own throat. ‘Only mammals carry rabies.’
‘Come down. Bring your swimming costume and a towel. And dress warmly.’
Was it arrogance or sheer idiocy on his part? Whatever it was, she liked it enough to be downstairs and out the backdoor within ten minutes, twelve at most—the last two spent swearing Max, whose bedroom adjoined hers, to secrecy. A light sleeper, Max was torn between fraternal misgivings and the lure of a midnight adventure. ‘Then can’t I come too?’ he’d asked. But even without the sweetener of a week’s dustbin duty, he’d have covered for her.
They wheeled the motorbike down the road and around the bend to the bus stop before firing up the engine. Zach had brought a helmet for her. As they rode away, she heard that horrid Doberman of Kathleen’s begin his fiendish yelping behind their fence. And hoped that the light which came on was attached to a movement sensor, not the long nose of a meddling parent.
Half an hour later Zach led them through a dense woodland, bracken and overhanging branches and several small rodents truculent at the disturbance. A path difficult to find by daylight, and impossible at night. But Zach knew where he was going. Perhaps he always did.
They spoke little, which added to the air of mystery. Zach had refused to divulge their destination, and there was something of her brother in the way his lips twitched at her questions, as if he could hear the real ones, the ones she wasn’t asking. Though Olivia would clutch her head in despair at Laura’s stupidity—and tell her that she deserved to be raped or murdered—Laura inhaled the damp woodsy smell, felt the chill breeze stir her hair, watched the last unfallen leaves shiver delicately in the moonlight. Listened to Zach breathing just ahead of her, and wondered that such an ordinary sound could be so reassuring.
The path ended abruptly in a steep rise, which loomed above them like a black iceberg. A rockface impassable as the boundary between species. Its surface glistened with moisture, so that Laura held out a hand to see if it had begun to drizzle. Then she realised that the stone contained flecks of a crystalline substance, perhaps quartz or mica, which reflected the moonlight with an intense and intoxicating radiance. She touched a fingertip to the rock, then surreptitiously to her lips. But there was no milky taste. So much for the metaphors of poetry. They slipped like a rich ice cream over the tongue, yet left you hungry.
‘Now what?’ she asked.
‘We’re almost there,’ Zach said, pointing to the rock.
I can no more climb that than outswim a seal, Laura thought in dismay.
‘Watch your head.’ He dug a small torch out of his backpack and snapped it on. A thin, powerful beam lit a narrow gap between crag and the leaning trunks of beech and oak, some uprooted and seemingly barricading their way. But Zach hugged the rock, ducking to a crouch at the first obstacle, and swept the torchlight before her to illuminate the ground.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘It’s easier than it looks.’
She followed him, only once scraping her back on a dead trunk when nearby scuttling in the undergrowth spooked her. She gave a small cry, which brought Zach up short.
‘OK?’ he asked, playing the light over her face.
‘Yeah, just got up too fast,’ she said, unwilling to admit that she could be frightened by a mouse or vole.
‘Not afraid of the dark?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Good. It’s going to get much darker in a little while.’
A few steps further, and Zach handed her the torch, while he lifted away several leafy tree limbs, cut and artfully arranged as camouflage, to reveal a narrow cleft in the rock.
‘It’s a tight squeeze at first, but widens out quite soon. After about twelve metres, you’ll be able to walk upright.’
‘What is it? An old mine?’
‘Cave,’ was all he’d say.
The floor of the passageway was remarkably clear and unbroken, though it sloped steeply downhill, and Laura wondered whether somebody—Zach?—had removed any debris. A thick layer of soft reddish earth, fine and dry as sand, ran through her cupped hand like seconds in an hourglass. Laura wished she understood more about geology: what process had laid down these bands and swirls of sinuous colour on the walls? Murals that told a story in stone—surely an ancient story—if only you could read it. Soon after straightening, she paused to follow a particularly rich orange-and-madder striation with her fingertips.
‘Iron oxide,’ Zach said, ‘and perhaps organic traces from the forest’s leaf litter.’
‘Beautiful.’ Then she listened for a moment. ‘Is that the sound of water?’
Again Zach’s soft laugh.
After another three or four minutes, the tunnel narrowed again, and they came to an irregular belled opening, draped on the left from roof to floor with a cluster of opalescent pleats, which hung overhead from the mouth of what appeared to be a dark conduit far too small to explore. Laura ran her hand along the fluted surface, to assure herself that it was really stone, not supple folds of cloth. The sound of water was louder now, and a vaguely familiar smell reached her nostrils.
Zach turned and faced her, blocking the passageway. His head still grazed the arch, despite hunched shoulders.
‘I’m going to switch off the torch. Wait right here till I say.’
She stared at him, suppressing her first twinge of uneasiness since opening her window. Perhaps he was just testing her trust in him. Or her nerve. She couldn’t decide what annoyed her more—Owen’s compliancy, or this high-handedness of Zach’s. But she’d come too far to back down now.
He smiled as she craned her neck, trying to see past him. ‘Hold on to the sides with both hands, and don’t walk forward. There’s a nasty drop ahead.’ He waited till she put out her arms to brace herself, then extinguished the light.
‘Remember, don’t move,’ he warned, his voice already receding in the darkness.
And the darkness was total. Within a few seconds Laura realised that the absence of light magnified her other perceptions, so that Zach’s movements echoed around her, while the water flowed ever closer, closer. The air was warmer, too, and she had the feeling that a fine mist was softening her skin. A memory floated to the surface of her mind. That smell—Zach’s hair, the first time she’d been near enough to notice.
All at once she understood what they’d been futilely explaining to her for years in maths about their beloved zero: nothingness was not simply an absence, but something real and solid and substantial. She could feel the darkness enclosing her like a caul, a second skin . . . drawing tighter . . .
What was he doing down there? Even simus couldn’t see in the dark, could they? Though with those eyes . . .
Two or three clicks, followed by a skein of high-pitched squeaks at the threshold of her hearing. She dropped her hands, stepped forward, cried out.
‘Zach! Where are you?’
‘Damn it, Laura! Stay where you are! You’re going to fall.’
Laura grabbed blindly behind her for support, and her fingers met with stone. She swallowed nervously.
‘What was that?’ she asked.
‘Vampire bats. Don’t worry, I’ve put out a saucer of blood. They won’t come after you.’
It took her a moment to grasp that he was teasing, and a moment longer to regain her composure.
‘Very funny,’ she said dryly. ‘How long is this going to take? I need a wee.’
‘Two minutes. No longer, I promise.’
She wouldn’t go so far as to claim they were the longest two minutes of her life, but they gave her plenty of time to imagine in glorious detail what she’d do to Zach once she got an opportunity, starting with Max’s secret cache of itching powder. She’d reached the point of sponging it off and applying a soothing body lotion when she realised the direction of her thoughts. Quit that, she told herself firmly.
‘Ready?’ Zach called up to her.
‘I’ve been ready since you started slinging pebbles at my window.’
‘Then close your eyes and don’t open them till I tell you.’
‘As if it could get any darker,’ she grumbled, but complied. Not just stupid, but barking mad.
Her eyelids reddened slightly, and she fought an impulse to raise them.
‘OK.’ His voice was suddenly directly below her. ‘Have a look.’
After the darkness, even the low light blinded her. She squinted first at Zach, saw that he’d shed his jacket and pushed back his sleeves. Then gasped as her eyes swept the cavern, her vision clearing.
‘Like it?’ he asked.
She heard a strange note in his voice and glanced at him. Unsmiling, he gazed back at her with a face like a meticulously laid table—starched white linen, polished silver, hothouse flowers. As if he expected a Michelin inspector, someone who’d casually jerk away the tablecloth and then stomp on the wreckage. And deny the long-coveted star.
‘Zach—’ She took a deep breath.
‘It’s—it’s the most wonderful gift anyone’s ever given me.’
She would remember his smile forever. Which was an even a better gift, though she couldn’t possibly tell him.
The chamber was lit by a lantern placed next to a gently steaming pool. An underground stream trickled over a canopy of glittering white flowstone, tinged with streaks of red and salmon and coral, and cockled at its lower rim. Laura peered up, but the stream’s inlet was lost in the shadows near the roof. She wasn’t good at such estimates, but at its highest point the cave had to be at least three times Zach’s height. The roof dipped and rose erratically, with projections less like stalactites than whorled and tendrilled and scalloped frostwork, all pearly with minerals and condensation. The slowly drifting mist added to the sense of enchantment, so that for a moment Laura thought she must still be home in her bed, dreaming.
Zach extended his hand.
The descent from the cantilevered ledge on which Laura was standing wouldn’t have been particularly tricky if it weren’t for the deep fissures in the rock almost directly below, where catching a foot might mean a twisted ankle or nasty gash. The stone, for all its sumptuous appearance, was unrepentant, and in places sharp as knapped flint. She let Zach guide her, and was pleased to see the glint of approval in his eyes as she sprang without hesitation.
‘Behind those toadstools you’ll find a run-off channel for the stream. You can pee there, and change into your costume at the same time.’
‘Promise you won’t peek.’
‘How else can I be sure you won’t sample the fungus?’
At school he rarely bothered with jokes at all, and then only the sort which made enemies. And the formations did in fact resemble huge pale-grey puffballs, some waist-high, one as tall as she. With disappointing alacrity he fished their costumes from his backpack and went to strip by the pool. She watched him tug off his jumper. She watched him slip off his jeans. She watched in the trap of her own looking till the knobs of his vertebrae appeared; the vulnerable notched hollows of his lower back. He’d turned the tables neatly on her, damn him. Eyes now fixed on his ‘toadstools’, she picked her way over undulating mounds and depressions and crevices, at one point hugging a smooth apron protruding from the wall. Despite years of quick-change practice, she chose to dawdle, so that Zach was already lolling in the pool when she returned.
‘How warm is it?’ she asked.
‘Ten minutes till hard-boiled.’
She snorted and slipped into the water at the spot he indicated.
For a while they were quiet, basking in the warmth, mesmerised by the play of lamplight over rock as fluid as the water which had shaped it.
‘Are there really bats?’ Laura asked.
‘Yeah.’ He pointed upwards. ‘Clever creatures. Harmless.’
But if there were any in residence, she couldn’t detect them.
‘They emit sounds at a much higher pitch than you people can usually hear,’ he added, noticing her scrutiny.
‘You mean that simus have better hearing?’ she asked after a short reflection.
‘A wider frequency range.’
Her eyes were drawn to the tattoo on his chest. His lips thinned, and he plunged under the water, to surface with his back to her. He flicked back his long hair, smoothed it down with his fingers, and clambered from the pool.
‘Don’t stay too long, the heat will drain your energy,’ he said, and disappeared with towel and tracksuit behind his toadstools. By the time he reappeared, Laura was seated on the lip of the pool, toes dangling in the water and shoulders wrapped in her towel.
‘Are you hungry?’ he asked.
From his backpack he removed a packet of sandwiches and a flask. He poured them some coffee.
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I’ve forgotten an extra mug.’
Laura bowed her head to hide a smile. He wasn’t the sort to apologise.
They split the sandwiches between them, passing the flask’s steel screw-on cup back and forth. Too sweet for Laura’s taste, but hot and delicious—no instant coffee for him.
‘Do you come here often?’ she asked, having spotted a good-sized plastic crate in a niche. How had he managed to lug it through the first section of the tunnel?
‘Whenever I can.’ He waved a hand towards the crate. ‘I’ve even slept here for a night or two, on occasion.’
‘A perfect escape.’
‘For a while.’
Laura set her sandwich down next to her. There were so many questions she was longing to ask, but his mood was precarious. And she was ashamed of her ignorance.
‘Why did you bring me here, Zach?’
He stared at her, then leaned forward. Laura held her breath, conscious of the tension in him. She was reminded of her granddad tuning his fiddle—a minute adjustment made all the difference between harmony and dissonance. Sometimes he’d make the strings caterwaul like a fight-primed tom, yowl like a cruising queen, while Laura giggled in delight. She had a good ear, she could still remember most of his tunes. And his peals of laughter, the time she’d turned the pegs without permission and doggedly snapped all but the lowest string.
With a lopsided smile Zach rose and made his way to the storage box, from whose depths he extricated a black oblong case, the kind that might contain a woodwind instrument.
If asked, she would never have imagined he’d settle on clarinet. Yet once he began to play, its rich liquid timbre suited him perfectly. He stood quite still, his eyes focused on an inner space. Mozart, she thought. There was no hesitation, no fumbling, no harsh notes. It became almost painful to watch him, and she closed her eyes and let the music slowly cocoon her in radiance.
And like a chrysalis suspended from a sun-glazed leaf, she shivered at each new breath, at each rise and fall of the melody. It welled from a source as far beyond her reach—and perhaps his—as the headwaters of light itself. How odd that deep underground, and with eyes shut tight, she could look at long last into the sun.
‘The Adagio from Mozart’s clarinet concerto,’ Zach said.
Until he spoke, she hadn’t realised that he’d stopped playing. She said with an effort, an immense effort, as though she were small once more and sleepy, very sleepy, and the room was thick with smoke and laughter and the voices of the fiddlers, and her gran was lifting her struggling from the settee, ‘Play something else.’
He launched into a chortling Klezmer freylach, embellished with boisterous trills and a shifting tempo that didn’t quite follow the beat. Soon she was laughing, then improvising aloud, their voices riffing and razzing and rollicking together off the walls and roof. He ended in an upwards chromatic run, punctuated by a slower staccato. She burst into applause.
‘More,’ she implored.
‘It’s getting late. Another time.’
She finished her coffee while Zach packed away his clarinet. When he came to stand by her with a proffered hand, she risked a question which had been itching for days like a new-formed scab.
‘What about the boy? Have you found out anything?’
He dropped his hand, stowed the flask and the wrappers from their sandwiches in his backpack. Laura was learning to wait it out with him, rather like watching for a splinter to work its way to the surface of your skin.
He looked at her at last. ‘Yeah, I’ve been given some information.’
‘Will you go to the police?’
His laugh was short, and bitter as dock.
‘But you can’t just let him get away with it!’
She rose to her feet and wrapped the towel more tightly around herself. She was beginning to get cold.
‘What are you going to do?’ she asked.
‘Take care of it.’
‘How?’ she insisted.
‘You don’t want to know.’
‘But I do.’
For a moment he studied her face, then shrugged. ‘Since you’ve asked.’ He folded his arms across his chest. ‘When I finish with him, the bastard won’t be abusing anyone ever again.’
‘You can’t mean—’
‘Squeamish about full castration? I can just geld him, if you prefer.’
‘That’s insane . . . barbaric.’ Those rumours—surely they were exaggerated.
A soft whooshing, less a sound than a quiver of the air. Laura ducked as a small dark shape hurtled past. It disappeared into the tunnel, never in any danger of collision. Zach hadn’t moved, though his lips were pursed.
Laura stared after the bat for a moment, then rounded on Zach.
‘If that’s your idea of a joke—’
‘Go back to your nice safe boyfriend, Laura. It was a mistake to bring you to a cave inhabited by wild animals.’
His mouth crooked at the corner, but there was no smile in his eyes. Not much of anything, in fact.
Angrily, Laura swooped towards her clothes, which she’d left on a ledge of shelfstone overhanging the pool. Too late, she heard Zach’s warning cry.
She felt a sharp burning sensation on her forearm, like the time at a concert when she’d swung the back of her hand into a lit cigarette. Surprised, she looked down. Two puncture marks, a few drops of blood.
Zach was already at her side. He examined her arm, then snatched up her clothes.
‘I’ll help you dress. Time to go.’
He held out her sweatshirt. ‘Come on, slip it on.’
She rubbed her fingers over the bite, which was beginning to hurt. Zach grabbed her hand and pulled it away.
‘Don’t do that. You’ll only spread the venom faster.’
Only then did she fully apprehend what had happened.
‘A snake?’ she asked.
‘An adder. Rarely fatal, so you don’t have to worry. But we need to get you to hospital as soon as possible.’
‘I don’t want to go to hospital.’ She stepped back, swung her head from side to side, feeling trapped. Her heart beating fast. ‘Oh god, not more trouble. My dad. My mum.’ The last came out strangled, as though someone had upholstered her face in plastic wrap.
‘We’ll deal with it.’
She could breathe again. Zach helped her into her clothes, even tying her trainers, then made her lie down on the ground while he dressed quickly and tossed their stuff into his backpack. A brief attempt to use his mobile came to nothing. ‘No reception,’ he muttered. From her towel he fashioned a sling for her arm, which he slipped round her neck.
‘Now listen,’ he said. ‘You shouldn’t move any more than absolutely necessary, to slow absorption of the poison. I can carry you some of the time, but you’re going to have to use your limbs to climb into the tunnel. After that, we’ll immobilise your arm in the sling.’
‘I can walk.’
‘Fly too, I expect.’
At the mouth of the tunnel, Zach made a stirrup with his hands to give her a leg up, but despite his strength, it took several tries to drag herself over the lip and onto the ledge. Her right arm was beginning to throb, its muscles unresponsive to her increasingly desperate commands. Without her swimmer’s stamina, what would Zach have done? She made it at last, but only because of his single-minded determination not to give up. She knew no one else who would have been able to lift her so high.
After a brief rest, she crawled forward to make space for Zach, who mounted easily. He used his sleeve to wipe away the film of sweat on his forehead, but he wasn’t out of breath. Impatient, though.
‘I’ll walk,’ she said.
‘Put your arm in the sling.’
He waited till it was adjusted to his satisfaction, then tucked away the torch and picked her up without taking the least notice of her protests. Moving quickly, he seemed to have no difficulty navigating in the dark.
‘Just like a bat,’ she murmured into his chest, and giggled.
By the time Zach could no longer walk erect, her arm was swelling noticeably. Despite his caution, he jostled it as he set her down. She gasped, then knelt with her head low, a touch giddy. A touch short of breath. Zach switched on the torch.
‘Look, I don’t think you can manage this. I’m going to leave you here for a few minutes while I go ahead and lash together some branches. We’ll use them like a sledge to pull you out.’
‘No! Don’t leave me alone in here.’
‘Laura, exertion will only make things worse.’
He stared at her, his pupils dark as obsidian.
‘You said an adder isn’t deadly.’
Dark as the berries of black nightshade.
‘Please—’ She heard the quiver in her voice.
He hesitated so long that she wondered what it would take to convince him of something really difficult. At last he said, ‘You go first. When you’re ready.’
It was still dark when they emerged, as though no time had passed. Her vision blurring slightly, Laura put out a hand to steady herself against the rockface. Her legs were as slack as old elastic, so that she could almost believe she’d just come out of the pool from a long training session.
‘Are you OK?’ Zach asked.
She nodded, but as she stepped towards him the top of her head began to float away from the rest of her body. Instantly he wrapped his arms around her, lowering her to the ground, gently brushing her hair out of her eyes. He whipped out his mobile. His end of the conversation retreated into the shadowland beyond the trees.
At one point along the trek to the roadside Laura roused herself to his panting.
‘It’s too far, put me down.’
Her chest felt tight, as if she’d squeezed into a wetsuit several sizes too small. Then she realised that the laboured breathing was coming from her, not Zach.
Only metres from the ambulance she stirred again.
‘You know, I think I’d like to kiss you,’ she said.
‘What, now?’ His buttery caramel laugh, the moreish one.
The ambulance crew had been waiting for them beside their vehicle, rear doors already open. Zach explained what had happened.
‘Good job,’ the paramedic said, ‘we’ll take over from here.’ A tall beefy man, mid-thirties, shaved head, sultry accent.
Within seconds he and the technician had laid Laura on a trolley inside the ambulance, started their assessment.
‘You’re sure it was an adder?’ the paramedic asked.
‘Allergic reaction, then.’
The paramedic slipped an oxygen mask over Laura’s face, checked her pulse, listened to her lungs, administered an injection. He continued to monitor her blood pressure and oxygen levels.
‘Blue her in?’ the EMT asked the paramedic.
‘Best to play it safe.’
‘That your bike?’ the technician asked before swinging into the driver’s seat.
‘Yeah,’ Zach said.
‘We’re off then.’
The paramedic began to close the rear doors.
‘Wait,’ Zach said. ‘I’m riding with her.’
‘Sorry, mate, against the rules. You know that.’
Zach shoved a hand between the doors, and the two stared at each other. Laura raised her head from the stretcher. Her eyes were pleading above the oxygen mask.
‘If you’re afraid of losing your job, I’ll tell them I forced you,’ Zach said. ‘At gun point, if you like.’
The paramedic made a thoroughly unprofessional sound, then glanced from Zach to his patient, and back to Zach again. He let out a deep sigh.
‘You needn’t worry about my skin, lad.’ He jerked his head to indicate that Zach should hop in. ‘My people went through this sort of thing for plenty of years. Come on, your girl’s waiting.’
Thanks to Tom Reynolds, London EMT, blogger, and writer, for his generous and invaluable advice regarding this chapter.