The Source of the Lea part four
Trouble was, Fowler, I didn't see her again that week, or even that term. By the summer holidays, I reckoned she must have moved away, so I tried to put it all behind me. As the holidays wore on, though, I found I just couldn't get my mind off her. I managed to lose the few school friends I'd ever made.
My old man wasn't well at the time, so I biked it over to see him on the last Saturday of the holidays. It was a bit sticky that day, and as I pedalled up to Five Springs, the sweat dripped into my eyes. Wiping my brow, I didn't see a figure stepping onto the path in front of me until it was too late. I swerved, and took a nasty tumble onto a patch of dirt by the corner of the flats. Standing up and brushing myself down, I somehow knew who it would be. Judy stood there, studying me with an amused look in her eyes. I realised just how deep brown her eyes really were.
I wanted to ask her what had happened over by the river bank all those months ago, and where she had been since. But I couldn't find the words.
"Hello," was all she said. I was still tongue-tied. Then she did something that changed my life forever, and not for the better. She reached out and took my hand. You see, Fowler, I hadn't had much experience with girls. In fact, that was the very first time I held a girl's hand. Her skin was so soft. My bike quite forgotten, she led me across the car park towards the Spinney.
"I'm going to show you something very special," she said. All I could do was look at her. I thought how she'd grown up since I'd last seen her. Like she'd become a woman and me still a child. "The real source of the river is just over here, through the trees." Well, I would have followed her to the ends of the earth. Maybe I did at that.
We took the old path into the Spinney, but soon left it behind, wading through thick undergrowth. The trees closed in, blocking out the light. The going wasn't easy, huge stinging nettles blocking our way. I couldn't keep hold of her hand any more, and suddenly she was out of my sight. I panicked and crashed around, finally falling through some bushes into a clearing, landing painfully on my knees.
The place seemed all wrong. I don't know how, Fowler, but everything was a bit weird. Like I was still looking through those grimy windows with dad's binoculars. The trees seemed too high, their trunks too smooth, their shapes just not right. There was something about the shadows.
And yet everything looked somehow familiar.
There was no sign of Judy.
Across the clearing, the mouth of a huge concrete drain emerged from the chalky ground. A trickle of brown water ran from under its rusty grille and disappeared. There was movement from the gloom inside.
Judy appeared, ducking to get through a gap in the grille, and everything made sense again. She tilted her head, and without thinking I followed her into the tunnel. I hardly noticed the graffiti, the rubbish we had to stumble through in the dark, or the freezing cold air coming from deep inside. Rounding a curve into complete darkness, she took my hand again. I felt happiness like I'd never known before.
"We're very near now," she said. We stopped for a moment. "This is where it all begins. This river. Your life. You can choose the direction you want to take, just like the river does. Which way do you want to go?" As she spoke, I could tell her face was getting closer to mine, and her breath was like flowers.
Then she kissed me. Softly on the lips. In the darkness. That was the moment I knew she had me forever, that surely nothing would ever compare with that instant. As things turned out, I was right.
Her hand slipped from mine as she walked on, but she'd left a burning impression on me the way the sun does on your eyes long after you close them. I followed her deeper and deeper into the tunnel. It was slowly getting lighter. The walls were opening out, and I could see shapes at last. We came to some kind of underground lake.
The true source? I was flabbergasted.
I could see endlessly in all directions. Lights flickered from great distance both above and below the surface of the water, which glowed a cold, lifeless blue. As my eyes adjusted, I looked out across the water. A sailing boat was some way off, heading towards us. In the far distance I could see more boats. We stood on an old wooden jetty.
Turning to me, Judy smiled. I felt frightened for the first time. Glancing at that impossible lake, I could make out shapes under the surface, dark things moving swiftly. Thinking of what I'd seen by the river bank, I jerked away from the water's edge. The boat was getting closer now. I could make out a group of shadowy figures aboard, huddled together.
I don't mind saying, right then, there was no way I wanted to find out where it might take us!
Mesmerised, I hadn't seen her reaching out for my shaking hand. She so nearly touched it. I felt the warmth from her skin for the very last time. Had she made contact right then, would my life have turned out for the better? Or far, far worse? Don't s'pose I'll ever know. I turned and ran.
My mind was a blank, but somehow I made it back onto familiar ground. Grabbing my bike, I raced to dad's flat, surprised to find out I wasn't even late.
*Pocock exhaled noisily, collapsing into his armchair. It made me realise how energised he had become as he had told his story. Peering at me through rheumy eyes, he expected some kind of reaction, but I really didn't know what to make of it. Least of all what to say. At that moment I doubted his story. Later, I had cause to revise my opinion.
"You know, Fowler, I've tried loads of times to find that clearing again. It seemed so close to Five Springs, but also a lifetime away.
"I've never got over her. I feel like my life has been put on hold. The truth of it is, the rest of my life might never even happen. Each time I pull myself together, I catch a glimpse of her, maybe at the shops, or as she gets on a bus. She's always just a bit too far away. But you see, Fowler, I hope to meet her again, and I wonder what might have happened had I let her take me with her onto that boat."
I shuddered at the thought. Then something else occurred to me.
"So you thought it was her I may have seen when I entered the scout hut at the reunion?"
"Yes!" His eyes widened. "You said you hadn't, but did you really?" I thought briefly about telling him what he wanted to hear, but I couldn't do it. I shook my head slowly.
It struck me how late it must be. Thanking him for his hospitality, I shook his clammy hand.
"Look, Fowler, I know there's no time tonight, but I'd love to hear all about you. Your lovely wife. Your kids." He tried a smile. "Promise you'll come back?"
I assured him I would. He seemed inordinately pleased.
At that, he descended into torpor. I let myself out.
*His story played on my mind. I did feel sorry for him, but I just couldn't bring myself to return to that filthy, damp house. I assured myself I would visit him when my work took me back to the area.
I wasn't surprised, however, to hear of Pocock's demise.
Steve O'Brien, another of the school friends I had barely recognised at the reunion, called me at work to break the news. I must have given him a business card. He said he had seen us chatting in the scout hall, and had thought I might want to know. Apparently, Pocock had been found dead one morning, sitting in his armchair. O'Brien added that there were some irregularities about the circumstances.
Contacting the authorities to see if I could be of any assistance, I found out that I may have been the very last person to speak to poor Pocock. He hadn't been found for some time. Luckily, it hasn't been necessary for me to give the full details of the remarkable tale he related to me that night. For, despite his body being found in his living room, the cause of his death was attributed to drowning.
The polite, pleasantly-spoken police officer on the phone told me, in the strictest confidence, that his lungs had turned out to be full of river water.