I’m here every day. It’s a beautiful place, especially in spring, when bluebells carpet the woods. Today, wide ribbons of autumn mist hover above the ground, camouflaging legions of rabbits as they snatch an early morning feed before the visitors trickle in. I wander among them and they raise their heads, noses twitching, ears piercing the damp white swathes. Perhaps, like me, they are drawn by the distant echo of rushing water, drifting on the chilly air. As always I follow the sound until it fills my head, drowning out all conscious thought.
If only my mother had let me see the Strid, I might have slept more easily. In my nightmares the monster sucked me into its greedy belly; churned, chewed and spat me out, limp and lifeless, many miles away. The odd snippet, passed between the women of the family, fuelled my imagination.
“I see it’s had another one,” my aunt would say, pulling in her chins and hoisting her bosom up to meet them.
Mam and grandma would shake their heads with meaningful nods in my direction and Aunt Bet would purse her lips. Later there’d be a whispered conversation in the kitchen and I’d hear exclamations of shock and horror with just an occasional detail.
“Nowt left but a navy slingback.”
Bolton Abbey was my mother’s favourite haunt and, even as a child, I felt the past as I gazed up at the graceful gothic arches of the old Priory. We ate our sandwiches in the shade of towering columns, watching children splash in the sparkling River Wharfe, placid now, its savage energies spent upstream.
The Strid lay between the Abbey and home. Aunt Bet would try to distract me with sweets or ‘I Spy’ as we passed, but I wasn’t so easily fooled. Long before we reached the sign that lured innocent travellers off the road, I felt the pull.
“Please, please can we go in?” I begged.
Dad raised his eyebrows at Mam, she glared back, and Aunt Bet shoved the bag of humbugs under my nose. I realise now they didn’t trust themselves to protect me. I was a wilful child. Supposing I couldn’t be restrained?
At night it preyed on my mind. Its fingers clutched my ankles, pulling me down through dense yellow foam into roiling black depths. A galaxy of bubbles swirling around my head. Sunlight dancing close by but always out of reach. Lungs bursting. Struggling to breathe. Twisting and thrashing, resisting the force. Water invading. One last effort.
Ragged gasps grazed my throat as I fought for air. I’d stay awake, counting rosebuds on my wallpaper, until I felt safe again.
I was seventeen when I first saw the Strid. It was my turn to choose the destination for a day out with my friends and, although school and boyfriends had pushed it to the back of my mind for a few years, I didn’t hesitate. The nightmares returned. My unsuspecting parents noticed the shadows under my eyes and thought a few hours in the fresh air would do me good. The knife shook as I cut my sandwiches.
I remember standing on the mossy rocks, calculating the distance to the other side and wondering what I’d been afraid of. It was just a river. The one I had paddled in; caught tiddlers with my hands. But narrower. And darker. And deeper.
The river is only treacherous when its power is underestimated and people don’t pay it proper respect. Like this lot coming across the grass. They’re about the same age I was. The boys are pushing each other around, showing off in front of the girls. They’re a handsome bunch, on the brink of manhood but still fresh-faced and fearless. It looks like they’ve been drinking and I can hear the clink of bottles in their rucksacks. The girls are excited, jostling to walk nearest the one they want. They’re silly and reckless and they’d be better off downstream where they can play safely.
One girl lags behind, pretending to look for something in her bag as the others rush towards the river’s edge. A sudden gust blows spray onto the rocks and the thundering turbulence of too much water forced into too little space is deafening. The ground vibrates with the eternal filling of subterranean channels by surging currents. The girl shudders.
One of her friends turns round and yells through cupped hands, “Come on, Amy!”
The others join in and she smiles and nods, edging forwards.
They’re standing together on stones worn smooth by countless feet. They sway about, laughing, and someone bunches their fists. One potato, two. They’re going to jump across. Who’ll be first?
“Come on, Amy.”
She hangs back. They pull her into the circle and she looks round, her eyes darting, panicking. Seven potato more. Her right hand is knocked out and she hides it behind her, holding it safe. One by one the youngsters step back, letting out their breath.
It’s Amy. They point at the route she must take. It’s easy, they say – look. They take her bag and move away to give her room. She stares at the opposite bank and tenses.
I step through the cheering crowd and touch her arm. She shivers and half turns towards me, her eyes blank with terror.
“You don’t have to do this, Amy,” I say. “It’s your decision.”
She hesitates and I wonder if she’s heard me. Her friends fall silent as she moves away from the edge and walks between them, up the bank. She smiles at their puzzled expressions and pulls an apple from her pocket. Her lips move but only I can hear the words.
“You’re welcome,” I say as I brush past. “Enjoy the rest of your life.”
She’s lucky I was here to guide her.
Many years ago, when I was young and foolish, I wish someone had been here for me.