The Island

Issue 52 by Ben Tufnell

The Island

1.

Eva leans against the doorframe and watches Daniel as he works. As he passes her, carrying bags and boxes to the car, she also watches the street. With one hand she shields her eyes from the brightness and with the other she meditatively strokes her belly. It is a fine spring day but infused with a strange stillness, a peculiar quiet. The sky is clear and she notes again how odd it is to look up and not see a mesh of vapour trails above the city.

Finally, Daniel locks the car and they go back inside. She makes him coffee as he goes around the house once more, checking that the windows are locked. She can see that despite his calm exterior he is in a state of turmoil. She takes deep breaths and tries to be still.

When it is time to leave, he helps her up and walks her to the car. As they get in, she notices a face in a window of a house on the other side of the street, watching them. As Daniel starts the engine she says, ‘Smith is watching. Do you think he’ll report us?’

Daniel looks at her and shrugs. ‘Who cares?’ he says. ‘It’s too late now.’

They drive through deserted streets. Black bags of rubbish are piled up on every corner. In places they have been ripped open and empty tins and bottles and vegetable scraps spill across the pavements. The foxes are getting bolder, she thinks. There are broken windows. Some shops are boarded up. The only people Eva sees are a ragged queue of people waiting patiently outside a pharmacy, their faces hidden by masks.

Daniel drives carefully. He has researched a route that will avoid the army checkpoints, but they are still watchful. At the first petrol station they come to he slows and pulls in, but when they see the signs on the pumps he takes them back onto the road without even stopping.

Soon after, as they enter the suburbs, they find a petrol station that is open. The queue is short with just two cars ahead of them. As they wait, Daniel puts on latex gloves and a surgical face mask to cover his mouth and nose.

When it is his turn, he puts as much fuel in as he is allowed, knowing they will need more, and then goes into the station to pay. The shelves are empty. Daniel makes a contactless payment using his bank card and leaves as quickly as he can.

They both feel a palpable sense of relief when they finally leave the city. There were suburbs where they see fires and did not dare stop. On the motorway they watch for police. In the distance, plumes of smoke stain the sky. Every time they come to a service station they pull in and if fuel is available, Daniel puts as much as he is allowed in the tank. Every time he leaves the car he puts on gloves and the mask and is careful to discard the gloves before getting back in. At one stop he finds a few things still on the shelves; biscuits, boiled sweets, washing liquid, and some cans of soft drinks in the fridge. He buys them one each and, getting back into the car, is careful to wipe them down with disinfectant before handing them to Eva, who opens them.

*

What had surprised them, and everyone else, was how quickly it had developed from something remote and abstract, a developing crisis somewhere on the other side of the world, one of many stories on the evening news, into a tragedy that affected them directly. And that did not just affect them but twisted the shape of all their lives into grotesque new forms. Even when the first cases were reported in the city, there was a general feeling that the government would quickly contain and neutralise the problem and it would all blow over in a few weeks at the most. They watched in horror as the number of cases in parts of Asia and in countries like Brazil and India began to escalate sharply and were thankful they lived in an affluent nation with an excellent public health service. They still felt it would not affect them. And then suddenly it was in Europe and then, in what seemed like just a few days, it was everywhere. The airports were closed. Public transport was shut down.

There were reports of panic buying. Friends told them the supply lines to the shops had shut down. That crops were rotting in the fields. There was no one to pick them. That was when Eva and Daniel first started talking about leaving the city. Daniel sheepishly confessed that he had been secretly stocking up for weeks, buying rice, pasta and flour on his daily journey home from work. Just in case, he said. He had not wanted to worry her. But, to be honest, he admitted, he was so fearful that he often found it hard to sleep at night. She hugged him and they agreed it was best to be prepared.

And then she laughed. ‘Oh my god, you’re a Prepper!’

A year before they had seen a documentary about so-called Preppers, those people, often on the fringes of society, who were making careful preparations, laying in supplies and in some cases arming themselves, ahead of the disaster that was to come. What form that disaster was to take – nuclear, biological, genetic, climatic, computer failure, asteroid impact, pandemic – no one could agree. The only thing they seemed to know for certain was that it was coming, and sooner than expected. The presenter of the documentary was known for his dry humour and his cynicism, and without saying it outright it was clear that he regarded those he interviewed with a kind of awed contempt. They were crazies, extremists, nutcases, the programme seemed to say. The survivalist dream was an ‘escapist fantasy.’ It poked fun at them, and together Daniel and Eva had laughed at the crackpot conspiracy theories, the outlandish views, the spectacle of armed survivalists getting ready for the Revolution, the dissenters from every extreme of the political spectrum, the militias-in-waiting, those buying up empty plots in New Zealand and the southern reaches of Chile and Argentina, the bunker dwellers. The incredible pessimism of those who were convinced it was going down were an alien force.

Daniel swore. ‘I’m not. No way. This is just temporary. A temporary precaution. Not like those guys. And anyway, we haven’t got a bunker.

‘What next, an assault rifle? A hunting knife?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. I’m just being careful.’

Nonetheless, he spent a day going to each of the local supermarkets in turn, filling a rucksack with what was left; oats and rice, beans, tins of tomatoes and fruits. Packets of dried soup. Dried fruits. Olive oil. Soap. Candles. He got their camping gear down from the attic.

The decisive moment was when Eva went to the clinic for what should have been a routine scan. She discussed the situation with the doctor. She hoped for reassurance but was shocked when he told her that she was now considered to be high risk and that she should think about self-isolating until the crisis was over. There had been nothing on the news or in the papers about this and for Eva and Daniel it changed everything. It was the first time they heard that phrase, self-isolation, which was to become such a regular part of everyday conversation.

That evening they began to make preparations to leave. They argued about whether or not to go. Both of them felt that to run, to flee, would somehow be a failing. It would be a moral capitulation, but also an admission that things were really falling apart. They should stay. They should play their part in society. But what part might that be, in the present circumstances?

It would just be a temporary measure, they agreed. Daniel brought up the food from the cellar. They began to pack their bags.

*

They drive for the whole day, chasing the sun as it eventually begins to dip towards the horizon and tint the sky with apocalyptic pinks and oranges. Like a painting by Turner, Eva thinks. They stop often at petrol stations, as Daniel tries to keep the tank as full as possible. Only once does Eva leave the car, to stretch her legs and relieve herself in some rubbish-strewn woods that bound a deserted layby and picnic area filled with debris.

The motorway is almost empty. The information panels display messages warning them to STAY AT HOME. They are relieved when they finally turn north onto minor roads leading through a range of downland hills before turning west again and crossing the border.

Then they are on smaller roads winding along the bottom of deep wooded valleys. Little towns and villages nestle within the landscape, yet they see very few people. Eva looks at Daniel and can see he is tired. He keeps running his fingers through his dark curly hair or tugging at his eyebrows. But she can see also that some of the tension he has been carrying for weeks has lifted.

The light is beginning to go when they arrive at the lake. The surface of the water is still and reflects a purple sky flecked with mauve and salmon pink; like a beaten sheet of silver, or the inside of an oyster, thinks Eva. It’s important to pay attention to such things, and take pleasure, she says to herself. Especially now. Daniel turns the car lights off and insists on driving through the twilit village peering from side to side to see if anyone is abroad, but all is quiet. If people are still there, they are keeping behind closed doors.

They take the small lane that leads down to the water’s edge and are relieved to see a small boat moored at the little jetty.

*

After the panic buying, things deteriorated quickly. It was astonishing how fast it swept through the population, incapacitating not only the hospitals but the police and fire services too. The army came out on to the streets and enforced the order that everyone was to stay at home. A total lockdown had begun. The only reasons to leave the house were to seek medical attention, or to get food. Strict curfews were imposed.

The first riots came soon after. Soldiers shot a civilian in the street and that started it. He had been out at night, which was forbidden, and had not stopped when ordered. But when it was revealed that he was a young black man with a hearing disability, parts of the city erupted. In truth, it was a situation that had been brewing for weeks, cooked by the strangely warm weather and the restrictions. For many, the shooting was just an excuse.

Daniel and Eva lived on a desirable street not far from one of the flashpoints. On the news they watched footage of burning cars and shops just a short distance away, where, in fact, they often shopped and met their friends. Standing on the doorstep, Daniel was sure he could hear it, a vague but terrifying turmoil. It was too close, way too close, and that proximity was utterly unnerving. As Daniel looked up and down their street, he half expected a mob to appear with burning torches, and to begin smashing windows and looting. That night as they lay in bed listening to the wailing of sirens, they discussed again, as they had done many times by now, the possibility of leaving. Daniel had placed a hammer on his bedside table.

‘But where would we go?’ said Eva. Her family was in another country, now cut off from them. Daniel was an only child and his parents had passed away years ago. All their friends lived in this burning, fearful city. They had not seen any of them for weeks.

It seemed like they both had the same idea at once. ‘The island!’ said Daniel, and he knew that Eva was smiling in the darkness. ‘Of course!’ Paradise, they called it. It was remote, inaccessible. They could hide there.

They had been just once before. They were on a holiday, walking in the nearby mountains. One day, deciding to do something different, they rented a boat and rowed out across the lake to the island, taking a picnic with them. The lake was vast and beautiful, and the island felt like a sanctuary. In a small clearing, with a view of the mountains, they laid out a blanket and ate. And then made love. They did not know if the island had a name, but afterwards they nicknamed it ‘Paradise’ and it became an in-joke, a shared secret. If a friend suggested an outing they didn’t like the sound of, they would smile at each other and say something like ‘I’d rather go to Paradise.’

As they prepared for their journey Daniel looked carefully at various maps and discovered that in fact the island had several names. The most popular was Ynys Afallach, which was translated variously as ‘The Place of Fruit’ or the ‘Isle of Apple Trees’. And he remembered that there were indeed apple trees there; they had eaten some and they had been sharp and juicy and refreshing. Now, that seemed like a good omen.

*

They hide the car in amongst some trees and Daniel unpacks what they need for the night: the tent, bedding, the stove and some food. It is dark when they steal the rowing boat.

Eva sits nestled against their things, feeling large and heavy, facing forward towards the island, while Daniel faces backwards and rows. As they cross the black water, the moon appears above the dark silhouette of the mountains. A brilliant array of stars is sprinkled across the sky. Daniel notes that some lights have appeared in the shadows where the village lies, and a few are dotted along the shore of the lake. So, some people are there. He remembers that the side of the island facing the little harbour is heavily wooded and when they came before they had to go around to the far side to find a clear stretch of shore where they could land. He is pleased to find that he has remembered correctly. Just as he is beginning to feel that he can row no more, the shadowed mass of the island dips down and the bay appears in the beam of his torch and he guides the little boat in.

Using the torch, he finds a small clearing back from the water and quickly sets up the tent. He will move it the next day, to a site hidden from the shore. Inside, he gets the stove going and sets water to boil. Then he goes back to the shore and pulls the boat clear of the water.

They eat soup. Daniel can barely keep his eyes open. But he is filled with a profound sense of satisfaction, the feeling of having done a job well.

They fall asleep quickly, Eva lying on her side and Daniel pressed up behind her, his arm protectively around her. That night they both sleep deeply and peacefully, even Eva, whose sleep in recent weeks had been erratic and often disturbed by horrific nightmares; cities burning, demonic toys, contagion.

2.

Daniel wakes early with the light. Being careful not to wake Eva, he dresses and quickly leaves. He rows back across the lake to the jetty and fills the boat with the remaining supplies from the car. While he works, he doesn’t see anyone. There are no cars. But as he returns to the island, rowing much slower this time, he sees a tractor making its way along the shoreline farther down the lake. It is a sign of life.

When he gets back, he finds that Eva has taken the tent down. She has boiled water and tea is ready for him.

The island is shaped like a letter C. It is mostly wooded; elegant pines and many low and gnarly oaks gather together and there are also dense ferny gullies and thickets of rhododendrons. The northern end of the island rises up to a narrow peak from which almost all the lake can be seen and below rocky crags fall dramatically down to the water. The shore of the island weaves in and out forming little bays and coves. In the centre, amongst the largest trees, is a broad grassy clearing. This is where Daniel intends to make their camp. He and Eva carry their luggage there and he puts the tent up, taking great care to make sure the peg placements are sound and the guy lines properly tensioned.

It is mid-morning and Eva makes coffee. They sit together on a log and Daniel says, ‘Listen.’

‘What is it?’ Eva cannot hear anything.

‘That’s just it. Peace.’

She leans against him. ‘Thank you,’ she says.

With their camp set up, Daniel makes a pilgrimage to see the apple trees. They are on a small rise, close by the camp. Here are scrub and low bushes but none of the mature trees that fill so much of the island. It had been late summer when they came before and the trees were laden with golden fruit, flecked with redness like jewels, and so momentarily he is shocked to see them so bare and abject. Three trees, one much larger than the other two. Twisted, their bark is an enchanted silver that from certain angles gleams as if it is burnished. He imagines that many years ago someone came over to the island, just as they had done, and sat for a spell in this spot, where there is such a good view across the northern arm of the lake, and ate an apple. After, they would have thrown the core away into the bushes, and by some miracle of nature it rotted down and the seeds, or just one of those seeds, found itself with the right conditions to send down a root and to send a up a shoot, and to seek the light. And many long years later, an apple had fallen from that tree and rolled a little way down the hill and again a seed had found its home. And so on.

Inspecting the trees, he sees that there are tight little buds, dark and glistening, at every extremity. The leaves are coming.

After, he climbs to the summit and looks toward the shore. He can just make out the village, nestling in the crook of the arm of the mountain behind it. He sees no movement along the road that runs along the lake shore and no boats on the water.

As he makes his way back to the camp, he gathers dead wood from amongst the pines, and then stacks it next to the tent.

Eva wanders through the trees to the south and, finding wild garlic, picks handfuls of the pungent leaves. She uses them to make an omelette for their lunch and, smiling, Daniel proclaims it the best he has ever eaten.

After, he seeks out a fishing place. Where the rocks begin to rear up a series of small coves have deep and clear water in them. He can see fish moving in slow orbits; perch and tench, he thinks. He will come back later and set a line.

Yes, he thinks, everything is going to be fine. We did the right thing.

When he gets back to the camp, he finds Eva has laid out a blanket on the grass and dozed off in the sunshine. He watches her for a long time. I will do anything to keep her safe, he thinks.

The first few days on the island are blissful. They explore and organise themselves and everything is full of potential. Daniel swims naked in the glass-clear cold lake and Eva watches him. The sun shines and the sky is blue and the air and water around them are so clear that Eva sometimes feels as if she is suspended inside an immense diamond. She wonders sometimes, in the night as she drifts off to sleep, if they have somehow passed through a portal into an enchanted land. The fearful world they have come from is so very far away. She wonders sometimes if it even still exists.

Many birds live on the island: coots and moorhens, busy in the reeds at the edge of the water, a grey heron fishing every day in the same spot, meditative and patient. Daniel likes to watch it, sometimes even for hours, finding in its stillness a kind of example, a calm he cannot help but aspire to. Goldfinches and robins live in the bushes around the camp and are not shy to come and take crumbs from them. In the night, an owl lulls them to sleep with its haunting song.

Like Eva, Daniel feels an extraordinary lightness. But he allows himself less time to dream and instead tries to be practical above all else. He becomes absorbed by the physicality of the tasks he sets himself; he chops wood, he digs a pit for rubbish. He fishes in the coves. He cooks. Several times every day he goes up to the summit and monitors the lake road. He remains alert. They have no signals on their phones and they soon lose power anyway, but he has brought a small radio and every evening he turns it on quickly to check the news reports. He only does this away from Eva for he is anxious not to worry her. In fact, she shows no interest in the outside world, seeming happy to live in the moment and attend only to their immediate circumstances. And after a few days, she even stops asking what is happening beyond the lake.

Daniel whittles a stick and carefully cuts notches in it to mark their days. He sharpens one end and pushes it into the ground outside the tent.

The days pass and, despite everything, despite the crisis unfolding in the world beyond theirs, they are happy. Eva feels large and heavy and small and light at the same time. She is becoming more radiant than ever, thinks Daniel. Life is moving inside her.

And life is blooming on the island too. In the days after their arrival, Ynys Afallach awakes from its winter sleep. Spring comes with sudden surprising glory. Since the crisis began, the weather has been strangely warm and bright and there has been hardly any rain. But now, all at once, the island has blossomed. Through the woods there are suddenly dense carpets of bluebells, primrose, wood sorrel. The tight knots of ferns unfurl slowly from day to day. Explosions of bright yellow daffodils appear, and great drifts of foxgloves with huge pink and white flowers filled with nodding bees. And finally, the dense thickets of rhododendrons burst spectacularly into bloom and are covered in papery masses of mauve and scarlet flowers. Everything illuminated by the bright spring sunshine.

The air itself is clean and fresh. They can smell life, revival, newness. The turning of the season.

Birds fill the island; in the trees, on the water, in the air. They soundtrack this astonishing efflorescence. Eva watches the robins and finches busily flitting back and forth, intense and purposeful, building their nests amongst the trees. They chatter and sing excitedly, filling the air with raw music, which mingles with the steady hum of the bees.

Daniel delights in listing for Eva each new daily development; each new bud, each new flowering, each new sighting of bird and beast. He says to her, happily, ‘It’s like it has been waiting for us!’ He excitedly documents it all, making notes with the help of his battered field guide.

Eva holds her belly and feels that she is part of this incredible flowering.

*

One day they are sitting together and looking out over the lake. The sun is setting behind the black mountains and the sky is tinted with a wash of lilac.

‘I keep on thinking that this place is like the Garden of Eden,’ Eva says.

Daniel nods and smiles. ‘But without the serpent?’

‘Yes’, she laughs. ‘No serpents. And no apples, sadly.’

‘Well, not at this time of year anyway.’

Daniel pauses and looks out across the water.

‘Do you know, they think they’ve found the actual site of the Garden of Eden? Archaeologists, I mean.’

‘Really, where?’

‘I can’t remember exactly. In the Bible it says it’s at the source of four rivers. I think it’s somewhere in Persia, or Mesopotamia as it was called. Where the Tigris and the Euphrates run into the sea. I think it might be Iraq. Or maybe it’s Armenia. I think the rivers start in the mountains there.’

‘I love those names. So evocative.’ A dreamy look passes over Eva’s face. But then she says, ‘Hang on, I thought it was at Glastonbury?’

‘What, the Garden of Eden?’

‘Yes. Vale of Avalon and all that.’

‘No, you’re thinking of the Grail,’ Daniel replies. ‘Didn’t King Arthur hide it there?’

‘I thought there was a theory that Jesus came to Glastonbury. Or perhaps it was John the Baptist?’

Daniel laughs. ‘I think it was Joseph of Arimathea, actually.’ He considers for a bit. ‘The Latter-Day Saints think it’s in Missouri.’

‘What, the Garden?’

‘Yes, Jackson County to be precise.’

Eva rolls her eyes. ‘Is that the Mormons?’

‘Yeah. Crazy Mormons.’ Daniel smiles.

They look out across the lake.

‘We should go one day,’ she says.

‘Where?’

‘To see the Garden of Eden.’

Daniel nods in agreement. ‘We should,’ he replies.

‘Wherever it is.’

*

One evening, after they have eaten, as they sit looking up into a star-speckled sky, Eva asks, ‘How long can we stay?’

‘We have food for a month,’ Daniel replies patiently, for they often have this conversation. ‘But we can perhaps eke that out further, especially if I can catch more fish. But we only have fuel for another week or so at this rate, so we need to save that. From now on we need to try to cook on the fire. Which I guess means we should wait until it’s dark to cook, as we’ll make smoke.’

Eva nods. ‘I’d like to stay a long time. Not forever. But for longer, you know, than we planned. I know it’s a dream, but I love it here. I really do.’

They discuss it again. The plan is, has always been, they will stay as long as possible. If things get better they will go home. If something happens to Eva, they will leave and seek out the nearest hospital. They originally thought it might be a few weeks. Now it seems likely to be longer. The burning shops, the empty petrol stations and the army patrols are vivid in Daniel’s mind.

The days are unseasonably warm but that night it is cold, perhaps because the sky is cloudless. Despite the chill they continue to sit outside. The air is so clear and fresh and the wheeling firmament, dusted with millions of stars, is so beautiful.

*

One evening, as they sit waiting for water to boil, watching the flickering of the fire and the glow of the embers, Daniel says to Eva, ‘Do you know there’s an interesting legend about this lake?’

‘Of course not,’ she replies. ‘But you’re going to tell me it, aren’t you?’ She leans against him.

‘Well, it is said that a great serpent or dragon lives in the waters. Supposedly it emerges every hundred years and feeds on local livestock. Sometimes it goes into the village and burns down the church and destroys a few houses too.’

‘When was this?’

‘Oh, hundreds of years ago I suppose. Thousands, even. Anyway, once upon a time, as they say, a famous knight came to kill it but the monster snatched him up and carried him down into the depths of the lake and kept him there. It was a pestilent beast, very corrupt, as they used to say, and when it came out of the waters a miasma would accompany it.’

‘A miasma?’

‘Yes. A cloud. A foul cloud. Poison gas. Anyway, this cloud or mist would come out of the water with the dragon and drift across the land and anyone who breathed it would become very ill. All the wildlife would flee and the crops would wither too.’

‘Like a plague?’

‘Like a plague.’

‘Did it have a name?’

‘The dragon? That I don’t know.’

‘Is he due to come out again anytime soon?’

‘Undoubtedly. Maybe he’s out there already, roaming the land.’

‘Perhaps he caused all this, with his miasma.’

‘Maybe.’

Silence. They listen to the crackling of the fire and gentle sounds of the wind in the trees.

‘It’s also said there’s a great palace at the bottom of the lake, filled with gold and gemstones. The dragon’s hoard. You know it’s one of the deepest in the country? And Arthur was here too. But he was pretty much everywhere in these parts at one time or another, it seems.’

In Eva’s mind’s eye she sees the great serpent, powered by its huge and serrated tail, its knifelike claws held close at its sides, gliding though the darkness far below the surface of the water. It is enormous. Its eyes are black, like those of a shark. Its skin is rough and cratered, like that of a crocodile. It is darkness itself, darker even than the green gloom of those icy depths. It passes under a huge stone archway draped with weed, the entrance to its palace, and circles around a great tower, and with a thrust of its huge tail slowly rises up in a lazy spiral, past the battlements to where a flagpole tethers a ragged banner which sways and curls in the current, and on the banner is the emblem of a dragon.

And far above the surface of the lake is black and still.

*

Every day Daniel goes up to the summit and sits for a while, carefully watching the shoreline and the road. Occasionally cars pass but as time goes on they become less and less frequent until eventually he realises that he hasn’t seen one for almost a week. He doesn’t know if this is a good sign or a bad sign. Several times he sees groups of people, but it is too far away for him to be sure of how many or what they are doing. It seems to him these sightings too are becoming fewer and fewer.

One day he sees a thick plume of dark smoke winding up into the sky somewhere farther down the lake. He wonders if it is just a bonfire, a clearing of garden debris, or something more sinister. It looks too big for a bonfire, and the smoke is too dark. Again, he doesn’t know if it is a good sign or a bad sign.

What he hears on the radio fills him with dread.

Catastrophe. Pandemic. Disaster. Emergency.

When the reporters talk about the numbers – hundreds of thousands, millions – he cannot believe it.

Then, one evening, he turns on the radio and there is only silence. No static, just an ominous vacuum. He checks the power and it is fine. There is just no signal to receive. It is as if that other world, the world they came from, has ceased to exist.

He wonders if he should cross to the shore and investigate. It would be good to know what is really happening. But the risk seems too great. He keeps on thinking of that column of black smoke. But eventually, turning it over in his mind, he realises he has to know if the world is still there. The notion that it is not, that it has gone, terrifies him.

When he returns to the camp, he tells Eva what he intends to do. She tries to dissuade him but he is adamant and points out also that some of their supplies are getting low and so he should investigate possible ways to restock. Remember, there is a store in the village, he says.

He waits several hours after nightfall before setting out. It is cold. A clear night and a bright moon to light his way. He rows across the lake and instead of mooring at the jetty he follows the shore for a quarter of a mile and then draws in amongst some trees that bend down to the water’s edge. He ties the boat up and then follows the road along the shore to the village.

At a crossroads he turns right and makes his way up the main street. The houses are dark but the metalled road is silvery in the moonlight. A car is parked at an odd angle across the road. He peers in through the window and sees that the keys are still in the ignition. The door is unlocked. He leaves it.

Halfway up the street he finds the post office and village store. The front door has been broken open and the panes of glass smashed. Fragments of glass lie across the road, glittering. Cautiously, he enters, holding his breath. Everything is quiet. Inside, he takes out his torch and sees that the shop is in disarray. The shelves have been cleared and debris litters the floor. The newspapers stacked by the counter are weeks old. The headlines are about the Royal Family. Loaves of bread are moulding inside their plastic wrappers. The bottles of milk in the broken fridge have set solid. In a storeroom at the back, he finds matches, batteries and tins of peaches. Beneath some old magazines here is a box of chocolate bars. He puts it all in his bag.

Farther up the street he sees that the front door of one of the houses is wide open. He pauses on the threshold and then notices a piece of paper pinned to the door. There is writing. He takes it down and stepping into the shadows, covertly uses his torch to examine it. It says:

Gwynne,

We have gone to the Castle with several other families. It will be safer.

Come find us as soon as you can.

We love you

M & D

As he ponders the meaning of this – which Castle can it be? – he hears voices. Leaning out into the road he sees the beams of torches flicking across the road at the top end of the street, perhaps three hundred yards away. He quickly pins the paper back in place and runs back down to the lake, keeping close up to the side of the road, using the verge so he won’t be seen.

His heart is beating very hard when he reaches the boat. He quickly unties it and pushes off but then lets himself drift for a bit, catching his breath. The lake is a black mirror that doubles the moon and the stars and is very beautiful. Just for a moment he imagines he is drifting through the depths of space, unmoored from everything that he knows.

When he gets back to the camp, Eva is awake and waiting for him.

He presents her with the chocolate bars with a flourish. He tells her only that the village is deserted. He doesn’t say anything about the broken windows, the looted shop, the note, or the voices he heard.

3.

Soon after his nocturnal visit to the village Eva begins to cough. At first it is not much, like some dust or something has caught in the back of her throat. But it persists and by the evening she is hacking every few minutes and her throat is raw and painful. Daniel watches her carefully and when they go to bed, he gives her some painkillers.

She hardly sleeps that night and neither does he. In the morning she is tired, very tired, and cannot summon the energy to move.

In his head, Daniel goes over the symptoms again and again. Most likely it is simply a seasonal cold, or a chill she has caught. But in the back of his mind lurks a dreadful spectre. He knows Eva must be thinking the same thing but neither of them mentions it.

He cannot get his thoughts away from the bars of chocolate he brought back from the village. Were they somehow contaminated? And the cans of soft drink he bought them in the service station. Had he cleaned them properly? He sees her lifting the can to her lips and drinking.

The next day, Daniel goes to the cove to check his fishing lines. Coming out of the trees, he sees movement out on the lake. It is a boat, a small dinghy with a motor, making its way slowly up from somewhere at the far end of the lake. And now he can hear it. A vague drone like a persistent insect coming towards the island. He runs back to the camp. Eva is lying on a blanket. Urgently he tells her to go into the tent and to stay there. Someone is coming, he says.

He picks up the axe and runs back to the shore from where, concealed amongst the trees, he can watch the boat, fear and apprehension roiling inside him. Two figures. One at the stern, seated, obviously steering, and the other at the prow, standing and peering intently at the island. The boat stays offshore by a hundred yards or so and slowly makes its way around the island, the engine revving, coughing and spluttering. Daniel sees that the men – he can see now that it is two men – are heading toward the shallow bay where he and Eva first landed. What are they doing?

He races down through the trees and steps out onto the coarse beach as they round the headland and come level with the bay. He lifts the axe and rests it across his shoulder, so it is clearly visible.

The boat comes into the shore and the engine sputters out in the shallows.

The man standing in the prow is huge. Daniel is amazed he can keep his balance as the little boat bobs on the water. He wears a dirty brown jacket and a shapeless cap which, pulled down low over small dark eyes, gives him a threatening appearance. His face is ruddy and his hands are massive and red and Daniel sees that he steadies himself with a walking stick that is more like a cudgel.

Behind him sits his mate, short and broad, and red-faced too. He grins and moves his mouth as if he is chewing on his tongue.

‘What you doing here?’ shouts the big one. He has a thick accent. There seems to be something amiss with his mouth, like he has the wrong number of teeth.

‘Nothing,’ replies Daniel. His mind is racing but he doesn’t know what else he can say.

‘I said, what you doing here?’ shouts the man again, an edge of anger in his voice.

‘Nothing. Just camping. Just for a few days.’

‘We saw smoke.’

Daniel curses himself.

‘Just for a few days,’ he says again. In his mind’s eye he sees the whittled stick outside the tent, and the line of cut notches getting longer and longer.

‘You can’t be here.’

‘Surely, it’s not a problem?’ shouts Daniel, aware of his absurdly proper metropolitan accent. ‘We’re not disturbing anyone.’

‘Don’t matter. It’s not allowed. You’ll have to go. Pack it up.’

‘Sure, sure.’ Daniel hesitates. ‘But, anyway, who says we can’t be here?’

‘I do.’ He pauses, allowing the weight of his words to settle. ‘I fucking do.’

He is a very big man.

The boat shifts in the water and Daniel notices for the first time that the second man, the one hunkered down by the engine, has a shotgun resting across his knees. Instinctively, Daniel brings the axe off his shoulder and holds it across his body, feeling its weight.

‘How many of you?’ shouts the big one.

‘Just two. Just me and….’ He doesn’t finish the sentence.

‘Just you and the wife, is it? Well, well, well.’

Daniel doesn’t reply. He feels he has made a crucial error.

‘Well?’ shouts the big man. ‘Are you going to fuck off?’

Daniel hesitates. ‘We’ll pack up,’ he calls back. ‘It’ll take us a while but we’ll be gone in a day or two. Okay?’

The big man nods and the little one gurns like he has just heard a dirty joke.

‘Mark me, lad,’ shouts the big one. ‘We’ll be back to check. We’ll be back to see. And if you’re still here, laddy, there’ll be some big fucking trouble. For you and for wifey too.’

The look on his face, a weird mix of anger and lechery, makes Daniel feel sick. In it is contained an ocean of aggression, a universe of toxic humanity and meaningless violence. It is a way of being of which he has no experience.

The big one gestures to the little one who fiddles with the engine and starts it up with a puff of blue smoke. Slowly they move off, and Daniel watches them go around the head of the island and out of sight. His heart is beating like a drum roll and he is short of breath. ‘Fuck, Fuck, FUCK!’ he spits, and he beats his fist against the side of his head.

He lays the axe on the ground and, cupping his hands, splashes his face with water.

Later, when he gets back to the camp and sees Eva, he is reminded with a shock that she is pregnant. It is not that he has forgotten, but it is showing now and he sees it as if for the first time. Not only that, but she is ill. His thought processes are disordered and he realises he has lost track of time.

He looks again at his map, his eyes flitting over lines and symbols, searching in vain for a castle. In this land of castles, he can find nothing close by that is not a ruin.

The men have spooked him, but he knows it would be folly to move camp now, even if they knew where they might go. Even if Eva were not now so unwell that she sometimes coughs blood.

That evening, Daniel explains that some men had come across to the island. He had spoken with them. It had been perfectly amicable, he lies. True, they asked them to move on, but he didn’t think it was something they need worry about. Nonetheless, from now on he, Daniel, will have to spend more time watching. Just in case. He doesn’t tell her about the threatened return visit and tries to convince himself that it is a threat the men are unlikely to follow up on.

But Eva is not really listening. She is sick.

She lies in the tent for three days, coughing and retching. Her forehead is hot to the touch. Daniel nurses her and tries to hide his fear. Incredibly, on the fourth day the cough seems to have gone. She is still weak but in the following days she makes a definite recovery. To Daniel’s immense relief the characteristic lesions and penny sores do not materialise, and he is able to convince himself that it was only a cold, a seasonal affliction, nothing too malign. But then slowly he begins to realise that something else is wrong. Something possibly even worse. Not only is she exhausted but Eva doesn’t feel right. She cradles her taut belly in her hands and anxiously awaits a sign, the push or kick of life inside, but she feels nothing.

And then, one night, she miscarries. Blood pours from her and Daniel is helpless. He tries to be practical, brings towels and hot water, but in truth he is overwhelmed by what is happening.

Afterwards, Eva weeps with an astonishing emetic intensity, like she is trying to purge her body of something awful. Her face is a mess of snot and tears, and her features seem to have become unstable, to be melting. He tries to comfort her but she is remote to him, in another world. She will not accept his comfort. She lies there, in the flickering candlelight, weeping and sobbing.

Eventually, he walks down to the shore and sits looking out across the water. The moon is reflected as a series of fragments. He has a sense that the universe has cracked, that it is on the verge of disintegrating.

*

Eva lies still for days. Sometimes she sleeps and sometimes she cries softly to herself. She will not allow Daniel to touch her. She does not eat.

He is consumed by guilt. Did he cause it somehow? He wonders if what has happened is somehow linked to their coming to the island. He keeps telling himself that it was the right thing to do, that it would have been so much more dangerous to stay in the city. But despite this, he has too many questions to which there are no possible answers. He cannot help but feel that he has failed Eva in some way.

They both blame themselves, but never the other. Something fundamental has broken.

Away from the camp, Daniel chops wood furiously. A large tree has fallen at the south end of the island and he sets to it in a mania, with an awful energy. He tells himself that he is being practical, making preparations, getting organised, but really it is a way for him to vent his rage. He chops endlessly until the forest floor is carpeted in splinters and he has blood and blisters all over his hands, on the palms and between his fingers, and he is so tired he can no longer lift the axe. Only then can he stop.

He continues to watch the lake and several times he sees the motor boat but it doesn’t come near to the island. Nonetheless, he thinks, it is only a matter of time.

One night, while Eva lies still in the tent, he takes the boat and rows back across the lake. He lands some way along the shore from the little jetty and hides the boat in the bushes, and then walks up into the village. He has no clear idea of what he hopes to achieve, just that he must see how things are.

As before, the streets are quiet and empty. There are no lights anywhere. He wonders if people are asleep within or if, like himself and Eva, they have all fled for some other sanctuary, somewhere even farther from the centre of things.

Finding a phone box, he lifts the receiver but hears only silence, an unnerving void.

*

The next day Daniel sits watching his fishing lines, thinking. Come dusk he prepares another expedition. When it is dark, he once again crosses to the shore and conceals the boat amongst the trees. Again, he walks carefully through the empty streets, looking at the blank windows of the houses.

At an opening he leaves the road and walks down a driveway, around the side of a house. A garden is there. The black forms of bushes and shrubs, lawns and beds, are marked out in the moonlight. He crosses the lawn, angling towards a silvered greenhouse, and, as hoped, finds a vegetable patch. It is ragged and filled with weeds. Clearly it has not been tended for some time. Nonetheless, with his torch, he picks out potato plants and broad beans. He digs into the earth with his fingers and brings up clusters of the pale young tubers. He picks handfuls of pods and puts everything into a plastic bag he has brought.

The back door of the house is unlocked and he slowly eases it open. It gives onto a small kitchen that is filled with a sour smell. He hesitates and then retreats.

Farther down the street he comes to a row of small terraced cottages. Again, he goes around to the back to the gardens. He prowls for vegetables, but it is too early in the year for there to be much. He takes some spring onions and cuts branches of rosemary, fragrant in the darkness.

The back door of one of the cottages is unlocked and he enters. The air is stale. He finds the kitchen and with his torch locates a cupboard with tins of food. He does not take all of them, just a few. There are two bottles of red wine and he wraps them in tea towels and puts them in the rucksack he has brought with him. In the beam of the torch, he can see that the table and the worktops are covered in a thin film of dust.

He switches off the torch and stands still, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. The cottage is small and cramped and the ceilings are low. Silvery moonlight provides a little illumination, washing the furniture in colourless light.

Leaving the rucksack in the kitchen by the back door, Daniel slowly makes his way through the house. He has the strange sense that he has entered a vacuum in which nothing has been moved for a very long time. At the bottom of the stairs, he hesitates and then very carefully, one step at a time, he climbs up to the first floor. The landing has three doors. One is a bathroom, he guesses. The other two will be bedrooms. One of the doors is open and he steps through and finds himself in a room in disarray. A bed with clothes and bags piled up on it. A chest with all the drawers pulled out and the contents strewn across the floor. A bedside table lies on its side, a lamp next to it. The curtains are open and moonlight shafts in, making deep shadows that he suddenly feels could be concealing almost anything or anybody. He backs out onto the landing.

The third door is closed. He quietly and slowly turns the handle and pushes the door open. Inside is another bedroom. The curtains are drawn and it is very dark. A single shard of moonlight lances in through a gap at the window and paints a line of light across the bed. Daniel can see a figure lying there and his breath stops in his mouth. He stands very still and waits. He listens intently but can hear nothing but the pumping of his own blood and the roar of the air inside his own ear canals.

The form on the bed does not move. It does not draw breath.

Finally, Daniel clicks on the torch.

An old man lies in the bed, as if asleep. His eyes are closed, and his face has a gentle expression. He lies on his back and the sheets are pulled up to his chin. His hair is fine and grey and his face is pale, and Daniel realises that he is veiled with a thin layer of dust that makes his features soft and indistinct.

Daniel’s mind races. His first impulse is to flee; he half expects the figure to suddenly rear up, as in a scene in a horror movie. But then he thinks that he should pull back the sheets and check the man’s arms for the tell-tale sores. But he cannot bring himself to do this. He cannot bring himself to touch anything in the room, which now seems to him to be as inert and as terrifying as a tomb. He backs away and retreats down the staircase.

In the kitchen he shoulders the rucksack and leaves, softly closing the door behind him. As he walks down the street towards the lake he can feel tears coming to his eyes. He will say nothing of this to Eva.

*

Some days after his nocturnal visits to the village, Daniel too develops a cough. It begins in the morning, an itch in the back of his throat that won’t go away, and it quickly becomes much worse. In order to conceal it from Eva he takes to spending more and more time away from the camp. Not that she is even aware of his presence, or lack of it. He dutifully tells her he is going to the lookout or to check the fishing lines, but he doesn’t know if she is even listening, and really, he is so weary and so strung out with fear and worry that he just finds a hidden place amongst the trees and lies there. A raging noise begins to fill his head, like a sea confined in an impossibly small space, and it prevents him from sleeping or even resting properly. He feels as if he is being roasted on a fire, and sweat pours from him.

At night, he takes his sleeping bag to a small clearing on the other side of the island and lies there, trying to stifle the panic that is blooming within.

When he coughs, there is blood. The back of his hands and his chest itch terribly and he scratches so much and so hard in the night that he breaks the skin.

Two days later, in the pale light of dawn, he sees that several purple blisters, each about the size of a penny, have arisen on his forearms.

Eva, lost in her own labyrinth of grief, does not even notice that he is not there. She doesn’t eat, and she feels herself becoming weaker. She welcomes the sensation. She wants to disappear. She lies in the tent and only leaves to wander into the trees to piss or shit.

The weather changes. A shadow seems to settle upon the mountains, and then the lake, the sky slumping exhausted onto the land and the water. It rains relentlessly for days on end, making a dark slick of everything.

4.

Eva wakes and realises she has slept well. The rain has passed and it is a beautiful late spring day. Maybe even early summer. How long have we been here, she thinks, and has no answer. It could be days, weeks or even months. The grass and the leaves on the trees that surround the camp are astonishingly green. The sky is a perfect mineral blue. She is hungry. She makes porridge with oats and raisins. She makes tea, for the first time in what must be weeks.

Daniel is not there. She wonders where he is and is filled with a need to see him. For the first time, she realises how far she has drifted away from him, and he from her.

She goes down to the shore and swims in the glittering water, feeling that a stain is being washed away. When she returns to the camp, it is as if she has passed back through a doorway, back into the present.

She spends the rest of the day tidying. And then she goes through their supplies to find something special with which to prepare the evening meal. She wants to make it celebratory. She picks wildflowers and arranges them in an empty jam jar. She assumes that Daniel is either at the lookout or perhaps fishing. She does not seek him out but feels a mounting excitement at the promise of his imminent return. But when dusk comes and he has still not appeared, she feels a quick stab of fear. She climbs to the peak and he is not there. She circles the island but there is no sign of him.

At the little beach she sees the boat is not there and feels a profound relief. He must have gone across the lake to check on the car, or to get something from it.

She waits for as long as she can but eventually, as the night grows around her, she falls asleep.

In the morning, Daniel has still not returned. Again, she wanders the island without finding him and now her fear blooms into panic. The boat is still missing. She peers out across the water, hoping she will see him, his back hunched as he returns to her. But then, as she looks away, she sees the prow of the boat poking out of the low bushes where it has been concealed. She missed it the day before. It is empty. The two oars lie side by side along its length.

Now she doesn’t know what to think. Daniel has disappeared. She vaguely remembers him telling her about the men who came to the island. She wonders if they returned while she was asleep and took Daniel away with them. But for what reason? And why would Daniel go without first telling her?

At the lookout she finds the little radio. She turns it on and there is only silence. She assumes the batteries have died.

*

Her appetite returns and in the following days she prepares elaborate meals, always enough for two, as if he might walk back into the camp at any moment.

Every day she wakes and searches the island. She traces the shoreline and goes up to the lookout. She spends many hours watching the lake. She follows the tracks they have worn through the woods. One day she notices a flash of colour in amongst the trees at the southern tip of the island, where the woods are most dense. She pushes through the undergrowth and finds a small clearing.

Daniel’s sleeping bag lies there, a strangely abject thing, and a weird thought strikes her. It is like a discarded snakeskin, she thinks.

Empty pill packets, painkillers, and a curled tube of antiseptic cream lie amongst discarded bandages stained black with crusts of dark blood.

It is like a crime scene and it fills her with dread.

He was ill, she thinks. He was keeping away from me. He was suffering alone.

Then, several days later, as she is sitting on the rocks looking out across the lake, she notices something brightly coloured bobbing in the water. With a stick she is able to fish it out. It is Daniel’s cap.

She cannot remember the exact cause of it, but she has a memory from the beginning of their relationship, of him wading into the sea with all his clothes on, just to make a point, only to win a stupid argument.

Now she cannot help but think that he went into the water. She has an image in her mind that she is unable to shake. Daniel, at the beach; sick, stooped, alone. His hair is long and tangled and he has a ragged beard. His eyes are haunted. He takes stones and fills the pockets of his trousers and his coat. He walks slowly into the lake. When the water is up to his neck, he begins to swim, laboriously, struggling to stay afloat. He swims out from the shore and in Eva’s mind’s eye it is becoming dark; the night is settling on the lake like a huge shadow. He swims out until at last he can swim no more. And then he drops below the surface of the water and all is still.

She doesn’t believe it. He would not do that to me, she says to herself. She says it again and again, as the scene plays out in her mind’s eye. But she cannot rid herself of the vision. Slowly, she apprehends a possible catastrophe. He has not abandoned her but has sacrificed himself for her.

*

The apple trees come into flower. First there are the leaves, their fresh new greenness luminous, unveiled, vivid, their shapes the simple leaf forms of a child’s drawing, repeated into infinity. Then the buds, tightly wound little fists of white and pink, unfurl into papery blooms with pale yellow at their hearts. Despite their small size the sheer mass of them – for they seem to cover the trees, a froth of life, a blizzard of blossom – is such that they create the impression of emitting light. The birds are delighted with them and Eva sees tits and finches flickering and darting between the branches. The flowers are an auger.

She eats well and gradually her strength returns. Every day she makes a round of the island and looks carefully into the thickets and coves but she no longer has any real conviction that she will find Daniel. If anything, she now fears the possibility that she will one day discover him, bloated and grey, knocking against the rocks. After, she always goes up to the summit and reads, occasionally looking up to scan the lake. They bought only four books with them to the island. They did not allow themselves more. Daniel, ever practical, packed a book on ‘bushcraft’ – a guide to fishing and foraging, cutting wood and making fires – and a field guide to the flora and fauna of the British Isles. He had planned to make a project of surveying and making an inventory of the island, and his notebooks are full of lists and little sketches. Before leaving home he had pasted maps of the lake and the area into the inside covers.

Eva has with her the two thickest novels she could find on their bookshelves at home: a battered copy of The Stand and a pristine edition of War and Peace. She reads them but is not lost to their fictional worlds. It passes the time, but it does not transport her. She wonders if she will ever be able to lose herself in a work of make-believe ever again.

One morning she goes up to the summit. Daniel’s notebook and one of the books are tucked beneath her arm, and when she looks out across the lake she sees that the sky above the village is dark with smoke. She has not seen any movement along the shore for a long time but now she sees that the village is burning. And from farther down the lake as well a column of black smoke curls away over the forests and towards the mountains. She puts the books to one side and watches the lake road carefully but cannot make out anything. What does it mean?

This ominous sight, those black columns of smoke like signs or augers, somehow shakes her out of the strange island dream she has been drifting along in.

She goes back to the camp and for the first time makes a careful check of the supplies. With a shock, she realises that they are now running very low and it is clear that her time on the island is limited.

How long have we been here, she thinks, and then corrects herself. How long have I been here? No new notches have been cut in Daniel’s tally stick in a long time and she has no idea how much time has passed since she became ill. It could be weeks, or it could be months. It could even, she thinks vaguely, be years.

The next day, smoke is still drifting into the sky from the village and for the first time she sees movement on the water. A small boat makes its way slowly up the lake and angles itself towards the island. She watches carefully and sees figures but cannot tell how many. Keeping its distance, the boat circles the island and then drones off into the distance.

They are watching her. Watching and waiting.

She feels very exposed.

It is time to leave.

*

At noon the next day the boat approaches again. Eva is there. When she spots it crossing the lake, she goes down to the shore to wait. She assumes it is the same people who came before, and has no reason to believe they will be hostile; for Daniel had told her they were friendly. Nonetheless, she has seen the smoke and she is wary.

It takes forever for the boat to cross the expanse of water and she waits patiently.

Two men are in the boat, one big man and one little. The big one stands in the prow steadying himself with a stout stick, and his companion sits back by the engine. They are smudged with grime and soot. When the little one cuts the engine, the sudden silence is shocking. To fill it, Eva calls out to them.

‘Greetings!’ she cries. ‘Hello! It’s good to see you. Where have you come from?’

To her surprise they make no response. The big one is looking past her, scanning the woods, waiting, and the little one is preoccupied with something at his feet.

There can be no more than twenty paces between them.

‘Are you from the village?’ she calls. ‘I saw smoke.’

The big man shakes his head. His expression is grim, and Eva suddenly experiences a profound sinking feeling, as if a heavy weight had been placed in the centre of her chest.

‘Where is the man?’ shouts the big one. ‘Where is he?’

He peers into the trees as if willing Daniel to step out. Eva turns and looks back into the woods, half-expecting Daniel to appear. But nothing happens.

‘He’s here,’ she says, but she knows it is not convincing.

Bullshit’ spits the big one. The little one licks his lips and rubs his eye with a filthy fist.

‘We’ve been watching’, says the big one. ‘You’re all alone. No one to look after you now.’ He grins but his face has no humour in it. ‘You must be lonely.’ His face is red and his teeth are like rotting fenceposts.

She shakes her head, defiantly.

‘This isn’t your island,’ he shouts. It is simply a statement of fact. ‘You can’t be here.’

Eva feels very afraid.

‘Might be best you come with us, don’t you think so, Jones?’

The little one nods and whistles through pursed lips. Now she sees that he has a shotgun lying across his knees. He strokes it like it is a pet.

What happens next happens very quickly.

The big man makes as if to step out of the boat and immediately and without thinking she stoops and picks up a stone from the beach – it is cold and hard and smooth and fits perfectly into her hand – and hurls it at him as hard as she can. It strikes him hard in the centre of his forehead and momentarily his black eyes are wide with surprise. His mouth falls open and there comes a strange moment of stillness, like the film has slowed, is getting slower, coming almost to a stop, and then the mark on his forehead quickly becomes darker and a single line of blood creeps down between his eyes. In slow motion, he falls forward, tipping out of the boat and into the water. As the boat lurches the little man is thrown to one side and his shotgun goes off – a deafening explosion that echoes and rings across the water –blowing the end of his foot off and spraying his face with blood and bone and pieces of leather. From the trees behind her Eva hears many birds take flight, complaining angrily.

The big one lies in the water, face down, and doesn’t move.

The little one is half-blinded. He screams and writhes in pain and with his thrashing about he tips the gun over into the water. In a panic he starts the engine. The sound is grotesque; too loud. He is sobbing and trying to hold his foot and work the engine at the same time. Somehow, he turns the boat around, sending little waves washing over the prostrate form of his companion, a dark form low in the dark water. He revs the engine, and it makes a harsh noise like an animal in agony, and the boat shoots away. It quickly retreats into the distance, listing at a strange angle, and passes around the edge of the bay and out of sight. The whining of the engine recedes and the familiar quiet slowly settles back upon the island.

Eva stands still for a very long time, watching the water lapping at the shore. After a while she goes over to where the big man is bobbing in the water. She pushes him with her foot. The body moves a little. His hat has come off and she sees that his scalp is criss-crossed with fine purple veins and is blotchy with psoriasis. The folds of fat around his neck are like rubber rings. Grimy. A dark red stain is slowly spreading into the water around his head.

Eventually, the birds return to the trees.

She goes back to the camp and burns everything.

*

First, she finds the car keys and the bag with all their bank cards and documents. And then she throws a few items of clothing into a small rucksack. She begins to pile everything into a mound in the centre of the clearing. She pulls down the tent and throws it on. She puts Daniel’s notebooks into the bag but everything else goes onto the pyre. She lights it and at first it takes an age to take. There are no flames, just a grey smoke that curls up into the air and drifts off through the trees. But it no longer matters if it is seen.

She runs around the camp, gathering up armfuls of their possessions and throwing them all on to the fire. She piles on firewood too and drags across some fallen branches. Now the fire has caught and orange flames are spreading as well as strange flames of blue and green as the synthetic fabrics ignite. A thick column of smoke rises into the sky.

As the fire becomes more intense she feels the heat on her face. She throws more onto it and watches it burn. She feels kind of crazy.

In her mind’s eye, somewhere far below the surface of the lake Daniel drifts slowly, waiting. Close by, deep in the shadows, the dragon stirs and wonders if it is his time.

*

It is late afternoon when she leaves the clearing and makes her way through the trees to the bay. The big man’s body is still floating in the shadows. She retrieves the shotgun from the shallows before pulling the boat out from its hiding place and dragging it down to the water’s edge. She carefully stows the few things she has with her and pushes the boat into the water until it lifts. She climbs in and, using an oar, awkwardly pushes away from the shore.

Looking back, she can see the column of dark smoke rising into the sky from the centre of the island. A haze hangs over the water and away from the island, towards the shore where the village lies, more smoke is drifting across the landscape.

She sets off, moving slowly. As she rows, she sits facing back towards the island. The farther away she gets the smaller it becomes. She tries to fix the shape of it in her memory.

She imagines the dragon slowly circling the island, deep below in the cold dark water, obscure in the shadows. The occasional thrust of its unspeakable tail.

When she gets to the middle of the lake her arms and shoulders are aching. She stops to rest and enjoys the sensation of drifting. A lovely stillness and quiet has settled upon the water. She twists in her seat and peers towards the shore of the lake, to where the village lies. The mountains are pale, inscrutable, and the villages nestles below. Several columns of smoke curl up into the grey sky. She can make out the jetty she is heading towards and on it she sees a figure, standing very still, waiting.

About the Author

Ben Tufnell

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Ben Tufnell is a writer and curator based in London. He has published extensively on modern and contemporary art and his most recent book is In Land: Writings About Land Art And Its Legacies (Zero Books, 2019). Selected art writings are archived at: bentufnell.com. Short stories have been published or are forthcoming from Litro, Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, Nightjar Press and The Fiction Desk. He is represented by Charlotte Seymour at Andrew Nurnberg Associates.