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It was my dad's idea to write about Lucas and Angel and everything else that happened last summer. "It won't make you feel any better," he told me, "it might even make things worse for a while. But you mustn't let the sadness die inside you. You have to give it some life. You have to . . . "
"Let it all out?"
He smiled. "Something like that."
"I don't know, Dad," I sighed. "I'm not sure I can write a story."
"Ah, now, that's nonsense. Anyone can write a story. It's the easiest thing in the world. How else do you think I make a living out of it? All you have to do is tell the truth, tell it like it was."
"But I don't know how it was, I don't know all the details, the facts--"
"Stories aren't facts, Cait, they're not details. Stories are feelings. You've got your feelings, haven't you?"
"Too many," I said.
"Well, that's all you need." He put his hand on mine. "Cry yourself a story, love. It works. Believe me."
So that's what I did, I cried myself a story.
And this is it.
I first saw Lucas on a fine afternoon at the end of July last summer. Of course, I didn't know who he was then . . . in fact, come to think of it, I didn't even know what he was. All I could see from the backseat of the car was a green-clad creature padding along the Stand in a shimmering haze of heat; a slight and ragged figure with a mop of straw-blond hair and a way of walking -- I smile when I think of it -- a way of walking that whispered secrets to the air.
We were on our way back from the mainland.
My brother, Dominic, had been staying with friends in Norfolk since finishing his first year at university the month before, and he'd called that morning to let us know he was on his way home. His train was due in at five and he'd asked for a ride back from the station. Now, Dad normally hates being disturbed when he's writing (which is just about all the time), and he also hates having to go anywhere, but despite the usual sighs and moans -- why can't the boy get a taxi? . . . what's wrong with the damn bus? -- I could tell by the sparkle in his eyes that he was really looking forward to seeing Dominic again.
It wasn't that Dad was unhappy spending all of his time with me, but with Dom away at university I think he felt there was something missing from his life. I'm sixteen (I was fifteen then), and Dad's forty-something. They're difficult ages -- for both of us. Growing up, having to be grown up, girl things, man things, having to deal with emotions that neither of us understand . . . it's not easy. We can't always give each other what we need, no matter how hard we try, and sometimes it helps to have someone in the middle, someone to turn to when things get too much. If nothing else, Dominic had always been good at being someone in the middle.
Of course, that wasn't the only reason why Dad was looking forward to seeing him again -- he was his son, after all. His boy. He was proud of him. He was worried about him. He loved him.
And so did I.
But for some reason I wasn't quite so excited about seeing him as Dad was. I don't know why. It wasn't that I didn't want to see him, because I did. It was just . . . I don't know.
Something didn't feel right.
"Are you ready, Cait?" Dad had asked when it was time to go.
"Why don't you go on your own?" I'd suggested. "You can have a 'father and son' chat on the way back."
"Ah, go on, he'll want to see his little sister."
"Just a minute, then. I'll get Deefer."
Dad's been terrified of driving on his own ever since Mum was killed in a car crash ten years ago. I try to encourage him, but I haven't the heart to push it too hard.
So, anyway, we'd driven to the mainland and picked up Dominic from the station, and there we all were -- the entire McCann family stuffed inside our decrepit old Fiesta, heading back to the island. Dad and Dominic in the front; me and Deefer in the back. (Deefer, by the way, is our dog. A big, black, foul-smelling thing, with a white streak over one eye and a head the size of an anvil. According to Dad, he's a cross between a skunk and a donkey.)
Dominic had been talking nonstop from the moment he'd slung his backpack in the trunk and got in the car.
University this, university that, writers, books, magazines, parties, people, money, clubs, gigs . . . the only time he paused was to light a cigarette, which he did about every ten minutes. And when I say talking, I don't mean talking as in having a conversation, I mean talking as in jabbering like a mad thing. ". . . I tell you, Dad, you wouldn't bloody believe it . . . they've actually got us studying EastEnders, for Christ's sake . . . something to do with popular culture, whatever the hell that's supposed to be . . . and another thing, the very first lecture, right? I'm just sitting there listening to this decrepit old lecturer rambling on about bloody Marxism or something, minding my own business, when suddenly he stops and looks at me and says 'why aren't you taking any notes?' I couldn't believe it. Why aren't you taking notes? Shit! I thought university was supposed to be about choice, you know? The discipline of self-education, freedom to learn at your own pace . . ."
And on and on and on . . .
I didn't like it.
The way he spoke, his constant swearing, the way he smoked his cigarette and waved his hands around like a phony intellectual . . . it was embarrassing. It made me feel uncomfortable -- that wincing kind of discomfort you feel when someone you like, someone close to you, suddenly starts acting like a complete idiot. And I didn't like the way he was ignoring me, either. For all the attention I was getting I might as well not have been there. I felt like a stranger in my own car. It wasn't until we'd almost reached the island that Dominic paused for breath, turned around, ruffled Deefer's head ("Hey, Deef") and finally spoke to me.
"All right, kid? How's it going?"
"What's the matter? You look different. Christ, what've you done with your hair?"
"I was going to ask you the same."
He grinned and ran his fingers through his dyed-blond crop. "Like it?"
"Very nice. Very beach bum. Is that how they all look in Liverpool?"
"Well, they don't look like that," he said, flicking at my hair. "Nice style. What's it called -- the Hedgehog?"
"Hedgehogs have spikes," I told him, readjusting a ribbon. "These are plumes."
"Plumes? Yeah, right." He puffed on his cigarette. "What do you think, Dad?"
"I think it's very becoming," Dad said. "And, anyhow, I'd rather have a hedgehog in the family than a neo-Nazi surf boy."
Dominic smiled, still looking at my hair. "Und was denkt deiner Liebling davon?"
"Simon," he said. "What does Simon think of it?"
"I've no idea."
"You two haven't split up, have you?"
"Oh, don't be so childish, Dominic. Simon's just a friend --"
"That's what he wants you to think."
I sighed. "I thought you were supposed to grow up when you went to university?"
"Not me," he said, pulling a face. "I'm regressing."
All the bad old memories of Dominic were beginning to creep back. The needling, the snide comments, the way he treated me like a stupid little girl . . . I suppose that was one of the reasons I'd been a bit wary of his coming back -- I didn't want to be treated like a stupid little girl anymore, especially by someone who couldn't act his own age. And the fact that I'd had a year without being treated like a moron only made it worse. I wasn't used to it anymore. And when you're not used to something, it's harder to put up with it. Which is why I was getting annoyed.
But then, just as the irritation was beginning to set in, Dominic reached across and gently touched my cheek.
"It's good to see you, Cait," he said softly.
For a brief moment he was the Dominic I used to know before he grew up, the real Dominic, the one who looked after me when I needed looking after -- my big brother. But almost immediately he turned away with a shrug of his shoulders, as if he'd
embarrassed himself, and good old big-voiced Dom was back.
"Hey, Dad," he boomed. "When the hell are you going to get a new car?"
"And why should I be wanting a new car?"
"Because this one's a shit heap."
The island sky has its own unmistakable light, an iridescent sheen that moves with the moods of the sea. It's never the same, but it's always the same, and whenever I see it I know I'm nearly home.
Home is a small island called Hale. It's about two and a half miles long and one mile wide at its broadest point, and it's joined to the mainland by a short causeway known as the Stand, a narrow road that bridges the estuary. Most of the time you wouldn't know it's a causeway, and you wouldn't know it's an island, either, because most of the time the estuary is just a vast stretch of reeds and brown ooze. But when there's a high tide and the estuary rises three feet or so above the road and nothing can pass until the tide goes out again, then you know it's an island.
On that Friday afternoon, though, as we approached the
island, the tide was low and the Stand stretched out before us, clear and dry, hazing in the heat -- a raised strip of pale gray concrete bounded by white railings and a low footpath on
either side, with rough cobbled banks leading down to the
waterside. Beyond the railings, the estuary was glinting with that wonderful silver light that comes on in the late afternoon and lazes through to the early evening.
We were about halfway across when I saw Lucas.
I remember the moment quite clearly: Dominic was laughing uproariously about something he'd just said while patting his pockets in search of another cigarette; Dad was doing his best to look amused, tugging somewhat wearily at his beard; Deefer, as usual, was sitting bolt upright in his very-serious dog-in-a-car pose, blinking only occasionally; and I was leaning to one side to get a better view of the sky. No . . . I can do better than that. I remember my exact position. I was sitting just to the right of the middle of the seat, cross-legged, leaning slightly to the left, looking out through the front windshield over Dominic's shoulder. My left arm was stretched out around Deefer's back and my hand was resting in the dust and dog hairs of the blanket on the backseat. I was anchoring myself in this position by gripping onto the rim of the open
window with my right hand . . . I remember it precisely. The feel of the hot metal in my hand, the rubber trim, the cooling wind on my fingers . . .
That was the moment I first saw him -- a lone figure at the far end of the Stand, on the left-hand side, with his back to us, walking toward the island.
Apart from wishing that Dominic would shut up braying, my first thought was how odd it was to see someone walking on the Stand. You don't often see people walking around here. The closest town is Moulton (where we'd just come from), about nine miles away on the mainland, and between Hale and Moulton there's nothing but small cottages, farms, heathland, the ranges, and the odd pub or two. So islanders don't walk, because there's nowhere nearby to walk to. And if they're going to Moulton they either drive or take the bus. So the only pedestrians you're likely to see around here are hikers, bird-watchers, poachers, or, very occasionally, people (like me) who just like to walk. But even from a distance I could tell that the figure up ahead didn't fit into any of these categories. I wasn't sure how I knew, I just did. Deefer knew, too. His ears had pricked up and he was squinting curiously through the windshield.
As we drew closer, the figure became clearer. It was a young man, or a boy, dressed loosely in a drab green T-shirt and baggy green trousers. He had a green army jacket tied around his waist and a green canvas bag slung over his shoulder. The only nongreen thing about him was the pair of scruffy black walking boots on his feet. Although he was on the small side, he wasn't as slight as I'd first thought. He wasn't exactly muscular, but he wasn't weedy-looking, either. It's hard to explain. There was an air of hidden strength about him, a graceful strength that showed in his balance, the way he held himself, the way he walked. . . .
As I've already said, the memory of Lucas's walk brings a smile to my face. It's an incredibly vivid memory, and if I close my eyes I can see it now. An easygoing lope. Nice and steady. Not too fast and not too slow. Fast enough to get somewhere, but not too fast to miss anything. Bouncy, alert, resolute, without concern and without vanity. A walk that both belonged to and was remote from everything around it.
You can tell a lot about people from the way they walk.
As the car got closer I realized that Dad and Dominic had stopped talking, and I was suddenly aware of a strange, almost ghostly, silence to the air -- not just in the car, but outside as well. Birds had stopped calling, the wind had dropped, and in the distance the sky had brightened to the most intense blue I'd ever seen. It was like something out of a film, one of those slow-motion episodes played out in absolute silence when your skin starts tingling and you just know that something stunning is about to happen.
Dad was driving quite steadily, as he always does, but it seemed as if we were barely moving. I could hear the tires humming on the dry road and the air rushing past the window, and I could see the railings at the side of the road flickering past in a blur of white, so I knew we were moving, but the distance between us and the boy didn't appear to be changing.
It was weird. Almost like a dream.
Then, all at once, time and distance seemed to lurch forward and we drew level with the boy. As we did so, he turned his head and looked at us. No, that's wrong -- he turned his head and looked at me. Directly at me. (When I talked to Dad about this a little while ago, he told me he'd had the very same feeling -- that Lucas was looking directly at him, as if he were the only person in the whole world.)
It was a face I'll never forget. Not simply because of its beauty -- although Lucas was undeniably beautiful -- but more for its wondrous sense of being beyond things. Beyond the pale blue eyes and the tousled hair and the sad smile . . .
beyond all this there was something else.
Something . . .
I still don't know what it was.
Dominic broke the spell by peering through the window and grunting, "What the hell is that?"
And then the boy was gone, whizzing past into the
background as we left the Stand and veered off toward the east of the island.
I wanted to look back. I was desperate to look back. But I couldn't. I was afraid he might not be there.
The rest of the journey was something of a blur. I remember Dad making a curious sniffing sound, glancing at me in the mirror, then clearing his throat and asking me if I was all right.
And me saying, "Uh huh."
And then Dominic saying, "Do you know him, Cait?"
"The droolee, the urchin . . . that thing you were gawping at."
"Shut up, Dominic."
He laughed, mocking me -- "Shut up, Dominic . . ." -- and then started on about something else.
I remember Dad changing gear and gunning the car up Black Hill with a rare burst of confidence, and I vaguely remember passing the sign that says Beware Tractors, only the T and the R are hidden behind a hedge, so it says Beware actors, and whenever we pass it one of us always makes a point of saying, Look out, there's John Wayne, or Hugh Grant, or Brad Pitt . . . but I don't remember who it was that afternoon.
I was somewhere else for a while.
I don't know where.
All I can remember is a strange, buzzy feeling in my head, an intensity of excitement and sadness that I'd never felt
before and probably won't ever feel again.
It was as if I knew, even then, what was going to happen.
Over the last year I've often wondered what would have happened if I hadn't seen Lucas that day. If we'd crossed the Stand ten minutes earlier, or ten minutes later. If Dominic's train had been delayed. If the tide had been high. If Dad had stopped for petrol on the way back. If Lucas had left wherever he'd come from a day earlier, or a day later . . .
What would have happened? Would everything be different? Would I be a different person right now? Would I be happier? Sadder? Would I dream different dreams? And what about Lucas? What would have happened to Lucas if I hadn't seen him that day? Would he still . . .
And it's then I realize how utterly pointless such thinking is. What if, what might have been . . .
It doesn't matter.
I did see him, and nothing can ever change that.