It was their usual Sunday afternoon walk over the hill, but today they had decided to increase the distance, realising too late that it would be dark before they got home. Chilly autumn air clung to their clothes and a thin, gauzy mist washed around their legs as they quickened their pace and were rewarded by the comforting glow of street lights, threading their beaded way across town. Little puffs of breath hung momentarily then dispersed as they linked fingers, smiling into each other’s eyes. Together they broke into a gentle run, weaving in and out of clumps of heather on the sandy path that would take them safely home.
Laughing and panting, they stopped for breath in a dip in the ground, a natural basin fringed by gorse, which hid the town from view. As they rested, backs bent, hands on knees, a slight change in atmosphere, an expectant thickening of the air, caught their attention and they looked up at one another as the faintest tinkling of bells reached their ears. The sound was hardly there and yet it wasn’t far away. They straightened, straining to catch the notes which rose and fell, sometimes to their left, then their right, then gradually all around. As their eyes adjusted, small soft lights began to emerge from the gloom, dancing to the rhythm of the chimes. They stood, transfixed, as the lights bobbed around them, up and down like fairground horses, slowly gaining speed until they were a blur of zig-zag wavy lines, reminiscent of headlights caught in a time-lapsed photograph. Faster and faster they whirled as the couple stood, mesmerised, at the centre. Time stood still; all thoughts, hopes and fears disappearing into the night.
Eventually the revolutions lost momentum, the neon lines broke and individual glows could be discerned for a moment before they vanished, blown out one at a time. In the absolute stillness that followed, the pair remained silent, dazed and disoriented. Then, as if waking from sleep, they stretched and turned to each other with mild surprise. Without speaking they continued on their way, swaying slightly, unsteady on their feet.
By the time they reached home normality had resumed and they followed their usual routine of preparing a meal. After watching a previously unknown television programme for a while they became aware that it must be later than they thought and, checking their only clock, saw it was nearly midnight. They cleared away the remains of their food and went to bed where they lay holding hands for a long time.
‘What happened out there today?’ she whispered finally.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, turning to her in the dark. ‘But it was nothing bad.’
‘What can you remember?’
‘Just coming home. That’s all.’
They lay a while longer until their breathing became regular and his gentle snoring filled the warm room.
She had first seen him coming out of a student union meeting during her first week of college. Half a head taller than anyone else, he stood out from the crowd. She was tall herself, which had not been a blessing, particularly at school where the teachers seemed to prefer smaller children. Unaware that she had grown into an elegant young woman, she tucked herself out of sight whenever possible, singling out tall people for observation and watching for behaviour patterns from the shadows.
She identified with him straight away. He was smiling and shaking his head as one of his fellow students said something and then wandered off, leaving the taller boy to himself. He was a loner too. She took in his appearance as he sat down on the steps and pulled a banana from his rucksack, inspecting the flesh as he meticulously peeled away the skin. He was skinny with floppy blond hair and heavy-lidded blue eyes, a benign expression on a sculpted Renaissance face. His clothes looked old, but clean and ironed, making her wonder whether he still lived with his parents. She imagined herself walking beside him, watching his features move as he talked, laughing at something he said. Could someone so perfect ever be interested in a mouse like her? She supposed it was possible, but not likely. In her dreams, perhaps. As she stared he looked up and caught her eye, smiling as she turned away, embarrassed.
Subsequently she saw him all the time and, feeling drawn towards him, she sometimes manoeuvred herself to be near, believing all the while that he was unaware of her attention. Almost a full term elapsed, during which she felt miserably alone, before an opportunity arose to speak to him, unobserved by her fellow students.
She had set out for a lonely stroll along the canal one cold, damp Sunday afternoon, having no idea that she would stumble across him. He was standing at the edge dropping bits of grit into the black water and dreamily watching the ripples spread out below. She hesitated mid-stride as she rounded the bend and saw him there, then gathering all her courage, moved forward to where he stood. She stopped beside him and wordlessly joined him in his study. Five minutes went by in comfortable silence until his hand was finally empty. He held it out to her and she took it, turning back with him towards town, which now looked warm and inviting with its brightly lit shops and houses. They stepped into a cafe, where condensation ran in rivulets down the windows, and sat at a corner table.
‘Hello’ he said.
‘Hello’ she replied.
He had let her in and she was thrilled.
After that there was no question – they were together and it seemed inevitable. He moved his sparse belongings into her tiny flat, changing nothing except her life. Their conversations were long and slow, their love quiet and deep, and they spent all their free time away from the bustle of student life, revelling in each other’s company. She realised with amusement that what she loved most about him, his abstraction from the world, might be the very thing that drove others away. She imagined her mother remarking on his dreamlike attitude; wondering whether he was under the influence of drugs.
‘No, Mother,’ she’d laugh. ‘Don’t worry – that’s just the way he is.’
She wasn’t ready to take him home yet. Her parents were delighted that, after her troubled years of isolation, she had a real friend at last, and there would be a fuss, questions, special treatment. She wanted to keep him to herself for a while longer before putting him through all that; it might change things between them and she couldn’t bear the thought of losing him. So she told her parents he was shy and begged them to be patient, although the note of anxiety in her mother’s voice increased as time passed.
His course was a year longer than hers, so she took at temporary job in a local supermarket until he graduated. Hardly anyone at the shop seemed to know she existed but she no longer minded, even preferred it, because it meant no distractions from her love for him. He was tender and affectionate, touching her lightly whenever she was close and holding her safely against the night. She had never realised such happiness was possible and longed for each moment she could be with him again. He had no family and she gladly filled the void.
As far as they could tell there were no after-effects from their experience on the hillside. They told no-one about it – and who was there to tell? Winter passed and bright spring days tempted them there once again. Glowing pink heather had shed its rusty coat and tight coils of new bracken unfurled between the stones. They took their customary path, breathing deeply of the clear air and skipping over boulders in their way, but their mood altered as they approached the area of their mysterious encounter and they crept forward, holding tightly to each other. Standing centrally in the grassy hollow they looked around for clues but found nothing more than a sheltered spot, perfect for picnics and sunbathing. Then they laughed at themselves, their happy voices echoing round the gentle slopes and up into the bright atmosphere.
The following weekend she lay in bed with a heavy cold, her throat raw and limbs weak. He wanted to stay in with her, but the weather was glorious and little white clouds chased across the endless blue. It was too good to miss, she told him, with assurances that she would be fine for a while without him. She slept, fitfully at first, then sank into a deep dreamless sleep. The room grew dark and she awoke with a start, realising it was very late and he was still not home. She pulled herself up into a sitting position, finding the ache in her back had gone and feeling much stronger, then reached for the clock and saw with a shock that it was almost midnight.
She knew immediately where he had gone and the blood began to pound in her ears as panic set in. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed, following her instinct to go out and find him but, before she reached the light switch, the door opened and he was back, his arms around her, warm breath on her neck.
‘Where have you been?’ she cried into his shoulder.
‘For a walk,’ he said, puzzled at the question.
‘But it’s so late. I was worried.’
‘Silly girl,’ he crooned, stroking her hair. ‘There’s nothing to worry about.’
He lay down beside her and her fears subsided.
The next night he began to walk in his sleep. At first he just sat by the window, apparently gazing out at the moonlit sky. When she tried to coax him back into the warmth of their bed there was no reaction. Stepping quietly towards him, she passed a hand through his glassy stare. The room was cold and his teeth were chattering, so she gently took his hand and led him back to bed. In the morning she told him what he’d done and he nodded, unsurprised.
He had talked very little about his childhood, skirting around the subject whenever it arose. Now he told her that, after his beloved parents died, he had begun to sleepwalk, often straying quite a distance from home. When it had become too much for his elderly grandmother he had been put into care. His foster parents’ answer to the problem was to lock him in his room at night and he had woken up on many occasions, stiff and cold, on the floor by his bedroom door. She watched his face in horror as he related these events without any trace of self-pity, and when he had finished talking he looked up and laughed at her stricken expression.
‘Don’t be sad,’ he said, pulling her to him. ‘Mum and Dad are still with me. I feel them every day, keeping me safe, especially when I’m outside, close to nature. I think that’s the reason I love the hill.’
She understood completely, sensing the wide open space was his spiritual home, where he could stretch his long limbs and breathe freely. Her love for him swelled inside her as she resolved to make up for his tragic experiences and become everything to him, as he was to her. She relaxed against him, believing the worst was over now that he had opened the door to his past, and he would settle back into their life. The following night, however, he rose again, staring blankly out of the window until she persuaded him back to bed. It continued every night for two weeks, by the end of which she was tired and overwrought.
The next night she fell into a deep sleep and awoke to an empty bedroom. The door to their flat was open, as was the outer door they shared with their neighbours. She pulled on some clothes, stuffing his jeans and sweatshirt into a bag. Running out into the street, she had no doubts which way to turn and set off towards the hill, her heart in her mouth. She covered the half-mile or so in record time and, as she stopped to catch her breath, saw him coming down their usual path towards her. He was moving slowly and evenly, staring straight ahead. Realising he was still asleep, she walked quietly beside him, slipped her hand into his and they continued home together.
It happened again a few days later, but this time she knew nothing about it until his cold skin on hers jarred her into consciousness, while he slept on, unaware of the clinging outdoor air. Alarmed by her inability to protect him, she tried to persuade him to see a doctor, hypnotherapist or anyone else who might be able to stop his midnight ramblings, but he just smiled calmly and insisted no harm would come to him and that it would come to a natural end.
‘How do you know?’ she asked, but he waved her worries aside, unperturbed.
The longer it continued, the more serene he became, gliding through the days in perfect happiness. He spent hours staring into space, an amused little smile playing around his mouth, occasionally laughing with joy as a bird landed on the windowsill or a leaf, caught up by the wind, spiralled past. It wasn’t as if she could complain that he was ignoring her or becoming cold; quite the opposite. He touched and stroked her whenever she was near, holding her close and making love to her with an intensity that left them both exhausted.
She tried to put her fears aside and enjoy what she had, but she was acutely aware that his behaviour was becoming more extreme. He seldom went to work but spent his days outdoors where he said he was getting many new ideas for his research. No-one would miss him, he told her; sometimes weeks went by without him seeing another soul. She wished she had someone she could tell, but there was only her mother and she would worry. She felt it would be a betrayal and all she could do was watch and wait.
She didn’t have to wait for long. It was the third week of June and the days were long and clear. He was daily becoming more radiant, but occasionally when she looked up and met his gaze, she caught a fleeting glimpse of sadness in his eyes. Cold fingers of dread squeezed her heart at such times and she held him yet more tightly as if to enclose him in the safety of her body. She went to bed wondering what the night would bring, tossing and turning until dawn broke and she felt it was safe to go to sleep.
She was ready the night he rose and left the flat, pulling on her clothes with practised speed. Following him out and closing the doors behind her, she walked a few yards behind through the lit streets until they came to the foot of the hill, which rose pitch black before them towards the moonless sky. Without hesitation he began to climb the path and strode briskly forward. Half running to stay close and stumbling over unseen rocks, she followed in his footsteps, laden with dread and almost blind with panic.
Reaching the rim of the basin he stopped for a moment before picking his way between the gorse bushes, paying no attention as they scratched his skin. She waited at the edge, unsure what to do for the best, then deciding to remain undiscovered, crouched behind a dense bush. She could dimly see that he had reached the lowest point and was standing completely still, his arms hanging by his sides. An age seemed to pass, during which she became chilled, until her shivering became shaking and her breath coarse and rasping. Just when she thought she couldn’t stand it any longer, a warm draught blew past her, accompanied by the unmistakable tinkling of tiny bells.
As she watched, her heart thumping crazily, a faint mist settled about him and, like fireflies in a belljar, soft bursts of light appeared in a perfect circle and began to dance around him, rising and falling as they increased their speed. Fascinated, she stared as the lights whizzed round until they merged into one flashing band of brilliance, illuminating him as though he were standing in a shaft of sunlight. But it was more than that. A childhood memory came rushing back, of her father lighting one sparkler from another, the dazzle momentarily doubled until they were separated.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the luminous ribbon widened until it rose above the top of his head and reached the ground, shrouding him from view. Forgetting herself, she came out of her hiding place as her lover disappeared, wringing her hands and calling his name. There was an abrupt change in momentum in response to her presence. The swirling mass began to shrink from the bottom upwards and she saw, to her horror, that the ground beneath was empty.
Helplessly she watched as the funnel rose high into the air, hesitating for a split second before erupting into a glittering fountain, illuminating the heather and blinding her with its intensity. She stared into the dark, her eyes filled with the afterglow, long after the twinkling cascade had faded. Then she sank to the ground, feeling the earth where he had been. It wasn’t even warm. There was no trace of him having been there at all. In desolation she lay down on the spot where he had stood and wept until dawn began to break.
A dim glow appeared to the east, defining the horizon and spilling watery colour into the landscape. Chilled to the marrow, she uncurled painfully and forced herself to stand, rubbing her frozen limbs. But as the pale light spread across the sky, she was suddenly gripped by the idea that he was safely back in their flat and she began to run, leaping over rocks and laughing out loud as the certainty grew that he would be waiting for her. Bursting through the door she flew into the bedroom where the empty bed stood just as she had left it. Even then, hope didn’t die. She showered and changed into dry clothes, made herself some tea and sat down to wait.
By nightfall all her dreams and expectations were dead. She put her head down on the table and cried. Eventually she slept a fitful, dreamless sleep which left her hollow and unrefreshed. For two days she sat watching the door, but in her heart she knew it was useless. No-one called and she was totally alone; more alone than ever before.
She knew she should report him as a missing person, but who would believe her story? When her mother called she pretended she had a cold to account for the strain in her voice and, if the college eventually rang to ask where he was, she would say he had the flu. She went to work, thankful she had something mindless to occupy her for some of the time and even volunteered for extra shifts to cut down the hours she would have to spend by herself. She felt herself withering away and was glad.
By and by she began to visit the place where she had last seen her love. Time and again she stood in the exact spot, offering herself up to the ether, but there was no relief. Then one day, when she had virtually given up and her body was almost too wasted to carry her there, something happened. As she stood in the usual place, there was a sudden stillness, a blanket of silence as the wind dropped, through which the faintest ringing of bells could be heard. It lasted for no more than a few seconds and even as she strained towards it, it was gone, replaced by the rustle of the breeze through the gorse, the distant rumble of traffic and the cry of a buzzard wheeling high above. Her knees gave way and she sank to the ground, her soul transfused with a dizzying cocktail of certainty and joy.
She staggered home, physically weak but mentally rejuvenated and lay down to sleep, feeling relaxed and at ease. Tomorrow she would begin her preparations, but for now, it was enough to know she was no longer alone.
The next day she gave her notice at work and to her landlord. There was no-one to ask why and, for once, she was grateful. Then she paid the outstanding bills and cleaned away all traces of their life. She took their belongings to a charity shop and wrote to her mother saying that they were going travelling and that she would be in touch when they were settled. It was cowardly, she knew, but what else could she say?
It was her third night on the hill and she was beginning to lose strength. Her confidence that he would come for her, however, was undiminished. She sat, too tired to stand, staring into space, every nerve alive to any changes which might signal his arrival. Eventually she lay down, the better to concentrate. At last, when she was beginning to lose faith, a shimmering light appeared above her in the darkness and, as she gazed into it, a wonderful warmth enveloped her, welcoming her in. Her heart almost exploded with happiness as she reached eagerly towards it and gentle hands helped her through.
She was found early next day by a man walking his dog. The weak morning sunlight still hadn’t reached her, but he knew there was little it could do to warm her now. He held the dog by the collar as he negotiated the slope down to where she lay on her side, an ecstatic smile on her ashen face, arms outstretched towards an invisible saviour. He studied her for several moments, marvelling at the serenity of her expression, before realising he knew who she was. The beautiful girl from the supermarket whose eye he could never quite catch. The one he’d seen many times over the last couple of years, walking by herself on Sunday afternoons, her lips gently moving as though she were reciting poetry, a far-away look in her eyes. He shook his head sadly as he reached for his mobile phone, allowing the straining dog to run free.
The young black labrador, his energy seeking release, bounded joyfully back up the hill. With the sun on his back, the wind in his tail, and the bells on his collar ringing merrily, he raced away across the springy heather.