It’s another day and a night before they let me leave the hospital. Uncle Pete picks me up in his black Rover, driving slowly over the chain of mini roundabouts that gets us out of Spalding on to the straight lonely roads of the Fens. There’s still been no word from Charlotte.
‘Hobby,’ he says, ducking his head to look at a small bird of prey hovering by the side of the road. The hobby drops to the ground, bouncing back into view with a field mouse locked in its talons, before disappearing low across the fields. I press my head against the warm glass, my mind weighed down with the hazy fug of medication, and watch the earth stream by in an endless blur of yellow and green and gold.
Above stretch millions of square miles of unsullied blue sky.
Years ago, in my grandfather’s living room, I read that the mean radius of the earth is three thousand, nine hundred and fifty-nine miles. I remember thinking how disappointingly small this was and how anxious I became at the idea of billions of minuscule people and animals and cities being stuck to this minute green and blue ball out in the middle of space. A few months later I threw a marble out to sea on Brancaster beach, proclaiming to my family that the marble in the sea was as proportionally irrelevant in terms of mass to the unknown mass of the ocean as the earth was to space. They had laughed and continued walking ahead, the wind tugging at their clothes as though trying to pull them into the water.
The sea was choppy that day. I remember this vividly, but I remember everything vividly. That’s the problem. It had swayed and dipped like crude oil, its surface veined with seaweed where thin dirty crests appeared and disappeared unevenly in the swell as though they weren’t quite sure which way they should be heading. I remember, too, grains of sand skimming across the hard plane of the beach, a sharp January wind that carried with it the decaying scents of the sea and the marshes to the east. On the hazy spine of Scolt Head avocets gather in their hundreds. To my left, like the iron finger of some long-fallen robot, I can just make out the top of the wreck poking through the water.
Back in the car, I stare directly at the sun. It’s high and bright, and I’m thinking someone, God perhaps, is trying to burn a hole through the universe with a magnifying glass when the scent of sulphur drifts eerily through me. I’ve half been expecting it. After a seizure of that size, there are often little aftershocks: partial seizures no one can see but me.
‘You OK?’ Uncle Pete asks.
I hold out my fingers and study them in the strange fluorescent light. It feels like I’m in space. Everything is both big and small at the same time. Everything is beautiful yet frightening. There is something quite beguiling about the aura, before it takes me, that is, something about the intensity of the light, its still prismatic sharpness before it shatters into millions of glittering particles. When I’m in the aura I get to see below the surface of everything. I get to see the wires that hold the universe together. Within it, I listen to the even hum of the Rover and I can’t help thinking about that marble, only I’m not thinking about it floating freely in the clear abyss of the ocean. I’m thinking about it covered in silt on the sea bed.
Uncle Pete clears his throat, like he’s testing a microphone. The resonant boom distorts in my head. He looks at me for a few seconds, dark eyebrows pinching over a flat nose, but whatever it was he was going to say, he doesn’t say it. Instead, he looks back to the road flowing smoothly beneath us. He screws up his forehead as he thinks, concentrating on his driving even though there are no other cars about. It’s just an empty straight line pointing forward, its neat edges trying to join up somewhere in the distance. I could even drive on a road like this.
I like Uncle Pete. He doesn’t talk to me like I’m an exchange student. He doesn’t shadow me as everyone else seems to do. He and Aunty Anne own a white-bricked cottage on the North Norfolk coast where Charlotte and I spent part of our holidays when Mum and Dad were both working. There’s a long sandy nature reserve there. For most of the year you can spot curlews, godwits and lapwings, and in the winter, when the sky feels as cold as the sea, there are geese, twite and redstarts.
‘She didn’t want to come here in the first place,’ I say in a monotone voice that doesn’t really sound like my own.
‘No,’ he says. ‘But that’s no reason for her to put your mum and dad through all this, is it?’ He’s trying to sound angry, but I know he isn’t, and as though to compensate, he runs his right hand awkwardly through his hair.
‘Do they still think that’s what happened?’ I say. ‘Do they think she’s run away?’
Ahead, a tractor and trailer pull out of a farm track. Uncle Pete tilts his head to the right as he indicates, overtakes, then gently straightens the Rover, the sun catching on the windscreen in thin ripples of white light. ‘We just can’t understand it,’ he says and he sucks in air and turns away and stares out of his driver’s window.
I, too, look away, pinching the bridge of my nose against a swell of nausea, and try to organise my thoughts, but it’s almost impossible. My mind is like an aviary. It has been since I came round that night, the smells of linoleum and disinfectant expanding relentlessly in the warm synthetic air. Mum is sitting forward on a wooden chair designed for sitting back on, that hurried look of hers accentuated in the artificial light.
‘We can’t find Charlotte,’ she says. ‘We can’t find her anywhere.’
When I was younger, my dad gave me one of his old cameras. He had a small but unusual collection, which he stored in an antique ottoman chest along with numerous flashes and different types of lenses, most of which I don’t think ever worked. The camera was a Yashica. It had a worn brown leather case with a sleek metal handle shaped like a comma that would wind each frame forward with an unhurried and satisfying clicking sound. For a short while I photographed everything: people, birds, the sea, the sky, the sun, its glare almost blinding me every time and scorching indiscriminate coronas of light across the images.
The films were developed in a tiny shop beside the little cafe our nanny used to take us to after school, opposite Tooting Bec Tube station. I remember clearly the smells of bacon and cheese, wet hats and coats in the winter. Umbrellas would be crammed by the door, dripping onto the tiles like game fowl. We’d eat cake. Charlotte would look boredly out onto the street as, restive with excitement, I would pull free from their colourful envelope my new set of prints, releasing into the stuffy air the vinegary waft of developing fluid. The pictures were always disappointing. It was as though from each one something was missing, yet every now and again, by some technical fault caused either by myself or the camera or the machine at the shop, there would appear two images on the same photograph, one neither more prominent than the other, as if in some way both moments of time had aligned before me, the edges of these strange ghostly images always burnt a little in the corners.
There was one I framed. I remember. It was of Charlotte standing before an enormous Brancaster sky out of which had appeared a huge flock of crows, their wings curved like scythes and almost blocking out the light. This is what my memories look like: images and sounds and smells as clear and as vivid as that moment on the beach randomly superimposed onto the present. It’s been like this since I was seven years old, since my first seizure.
There’s a navy-blue car coming towards us. It’s so low to the ground it looks like a boat. Black smoke pours out behind it, trailing in thin spiralling ribbons into the sky. The sun glares in its windscreen. Uncle Pete winds up his window as a whiskery grey-haired man forms out of the sharp white light. He looks directly at me and smiles. His teeth are rotten. His eyes are as blue as crystals and make me think of the bright blue light in the centre of the ophthalmoscope Dr Chatterton used to peer into the back of my eyes. He has that innately contented look about him only people in the Fens seem to have, as though nothing can reach him out here, as though he is still miles from the mainland in every way possible. Something fires in his engine, sending two grouse up into the afternoon heat like deflating balloons. They collide with each other before settling back on the grass verge, shuddering and staring intently into the light as though not sure where they have just come from.
Uncle Pete glares in the rear-view mirror. When he feels he’s covered enough distance, he opens the window again and releases an exaggerated breath. ‘Your dad tells me she came to your room to see you that night, before they found you,’ he says, eyes set back on the road.
‘I don’t really remember,’ I say.
‘No,’ he says after a moment. ‘I don’t suppose you do.’
We don’t speak after that. Through the glassy air I watch the countryside unfurl, its tirelessly neat edge only occasionally knotted by a farm building or distant house corralled within a barricade of poplar trees. Wind turbines glimmer on the skyline. We pass three red-bricked houses moored at the side of the road. There are no others on our journey. They’re packed tightly together as though whoever built them was in some way concerned about space. A caravan, bruised with rust and dirt, balances on breeze blocks in one of the front gardens. Next door, sunflowers stare at the sun. The windows are boarded up on the third.
Like splatters of blood, poppies dot-to-dot the grassy verge as I go over in my head all I can remember from that night, trying to filter old memories from those of the last few days. Somewhere in the darkness I hear the blistering crackle of rain. I go to the window nearest my bed, where the sky is bearing down like an enormous sheet of beaten metal. Lightning flickers behind it. I blink, startled, as a bee thumps softly against the windscreen, leaving the faintest smudge of grey and red on the glass.
Uncle Pete swerves around a dead rabbit. ‘She’ll be OK,’ he says quietly, I think more to himself than to me.
Glennfield appears as a pale green smear on the horizon. As we draw closer, the shapes of the church bell tower and the tall grey chimneys of the Manor House slip gently into focus. Crows and rooks, minute specks of black against the clear blue of the sky, circle above. Our new home, our new start, the Old Abbey, had centuries ago been built on what is now the southern furthest edge of the village. For over ten years it had been boarded up and left to ruin. Lined up along the road by the village sign are two police cars and two large white vans.
The Rover slows and stops as a full-set officer in a short-sleeved white shirt beneath a bulletproof vest leans into Uncle Pete’s window. He has a thin moustache and a face that on other occasions, I guess, would be cheery. He looks around the car. ‘You from the village, sir?’ he says. There’s an even note of distrust to his voice.
‘My sister-in-law lives in the Old Abbey there,’ Uncle Pete informs him. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Procedure, sir,’ he says calmly, ‘that’s all,’ and he looks across at me. ‘You must be Simon.’
I don’t answer this. In the rape field to the west of the village I’ve noticed a long line of men and women dressed in dark blue overalls wading waist high through the scraggly green crop that just a fortnight ago had been yellow and luminous. A hundred metres or so up the farm track villagers are gathered, keeping a respectful but observant distance.
Uncle Pete speaks but I can’t hear his words anymore. I can’t hear anything. The aura’s turning. It’s darkening its edges. I need to focus, concentrate on my breathing just as I’ve been taught: in through the nose, out through the nose. At the same time my brain begins to recite whole passages of text from memory, trying to anchor itself to the present. The words appear as a landscape of tiny black dots in my head. They’re from Bewick’s Swan, the book Dad bought me from the Wildfowl Trust at the far end of the village.
Whatever this is, it feels real. It is no longer in the safe immunity of my mind. It’s out there in that field, where everything is clear and solid and comprehensible, where men and women are poking at the land with sticks, looking for my sister. My mouth droops. It tastes bitter and metallic. I widen my eyes and tilt my head as distances become undefined, as though in forced perspective, uncertain of exactly where they belong in this unfamiliar terrain. I don’t want her to be missing anymore. I don’t want her to be out there, cold and lonely and frightened. I want her to be safe, and as I think this, time separating itself imperceptibly from the now, I see through the radiant glare of Uncle Pete’s windscreen little bugs of rain crawling down the glass from the night Charlotte disappeared.
I’m at my bedroom window. Squares of netted light float in the darkness, scarred by the rain and seemingly unattached to the village itself. In the distance, thunder breaks from where, out over the fields, the clouds are dark and foreboding, twisting and turning like waves, making shapes in the sky.
There’s another police car parked outside our front path. Uncle Pete pulls up before it, where we sit for a while not talking until eventually the aura settles and I am fairly confident I won’t black out. A small group of people are standing outside Mrs Neal’s house. They look as frightened and uncertain as we do, staring at us through the soft bleary air. I want to be seven years old again, I tell myself, in a cafe looking at photographs, back in the time before the fits started, before my memories began to layer themselves on top of each other like reels of film, before the blackouts and the not knowing.
‘Ready?’ Uncle Pete says. A single bead of sweat drips down the side of his face.
‘We’re all scared,’ he says, and he takes a breath through his nose. ‘But it’s going to be alright. You’re going to get through this. You’re a good person. Remember that.’
But as I step out of the car into the bright day and head up the stone path to the front door, I wonder how true that is. I am a good person in that I love nature and birds and life and I don’t want to harm people even if they are cruel to me, but I also know I am uncommunicative and solitary. And I’m a liar. These are not attributes that make a good person.
It’s been three months since the move. The scaffolding is down and the house stands tall and pallid against the empty sky. I half expect to see a face up in my window as I did on our first day, but there is no one there.