Chapter 1: At Druce Coven Halt
The station at Druce Coven was a lonely place. The line that served it was for most of its length a single track that wound through the bleak and lovely countryside of the Welsh and English borders from Manchester in the north to Bristol in the south. It meandered through desolate villages and deserted halts where sometimes only a thin strip of platform and a green painted hut indicated that here was indeed a stopping place.
William, who had taken the train from Manchester, was the first to arrive at Druce Coven. His sisters, Mary and Alice, coming from London, would change at Bristol and their train was expected ten minutes later. It had been arranged that Uncle Jack would meet them and drive them back to Golden House, a journey of some twenty miles. But when William alighted from the train, dragging his heavy suitcase after him, and slamming the door, he was surprised to find that he was alone on the platform. Uncle Jack hadn't arrived and no other passengers got off the train with him. There wasn't even a guard on the platform, nor a ticket office, because the train was more like a bus and fares were paid to the conductor on board. For a moment he wondered if he was in fact in the right place. Leaving his case he walked toward the wicket fence, where a gate swung and creaked in the wind. Beside the gate, a long sign with white letters painted on peeling green proclaimed that this was DRUCE COVEN HALT. That was where he had been told to expect his uncle. At least, he thought, I'm here first. Mary and Alice wouldn't have liked it, being younger. And, he had to admit, it was a lonely place even for him. He shivered and looked around apprehensively.
It was a cold, dull December afternoon. The rain that had been threatening all day pressed heavily on the swollen clouds. A thin wind moaned through the struts of the fence and tugged at a loose board on the roof of the seat shelter. The station was situated in a deep cutting, so that it wasn't possible to see the country that surrounded it. A bridge crossed the cutting. Ahead of him, toward Bristol, the line disappeared into a dark tunnel.
William stuffed his hands into the pockets of his anorak and kicked a stone. It skidded and clattered against the opposite side of the track, where the steep bank was overgrown with weeds and stunted shrubs and trees. He walked a few steps along the platform, then turned and walked the same number back. Then he looked at his watch. The Bristol train was due in eight minutes. He retraced his steps to his suitcase and sat down.
At the top of the bank opposite to him, a thick belt of trees crowded up to a solid wooden fence. As he looked at them, a fox suddenly broke cover and stood, with one front paw raised, looking down into the cutting. The brilliant red of its coat seemed almost to flash with light against the dull surroundings. William leaned forward, surprised and excited by its unexpected appearance. As he did so, the animal turned its head and stared at him. It seemed to William as if the fox's eyes were in a direct line with his own, as though for a moment they were both of them held by some invisible string.
"Hello there!" a voice called, breaking the unnatural stillness in the narrow cutting.
So surprising and unexpected was the voice that it seemed almost as if it had been the fox who had spoken, but William knew that was ridiculous. Still, it remained staring at him for a moment longer, then, as silently and stealthily as it had arrived, it disappeared once more into the undergrowth.
William shivered and blinked. He felt cold and disappointed. He had liked the fox. It had been almost a friend on the desolate platform. Now that it was gone, he missed its company.
"You, boy. Hello!" the voice called again, bringing William back to the present. Turning, he saw a man leaning over the bridge, looking down at him. Once again eyes searched out his own; once again the invisible string seemed to connect William to the man who was now looking at him. The eyes of the man, like the eyes of the fox, seemed to probe into William's mind, as though they were searching his thoughts. He tried to look away, but he was unable to do so, so powerful seemed the gaze.
"Lost your tongue, boy?" the man called.
"No," William replied, his voice coming out almost defiantly, but, as he spoke, he stood up. He felt a surge of panic, and glanced nervously over his shoulder, as if searching for somewhere to hide.
"I'm sorry," the man said more gently. "I startled you. But surely -- aren't you expecting someone to meet you here?"
"My uncle," William replied.
"Ah, yes. That's right. But -- you're alone?"
"My sisters are coming from London. They'll be on the next train." Although the man asked such direct questions and although his eyes continued to stare so deeply into William's, he didn't seem altogether unfriendly.
"Stay there," he now said, and a moment later William saw him walking down the short, steep track to the gate in the wicket fence and out onto the platform in front of him.
"What's your name, boy?" the man asked.
"William. William Constant."
"William Constant," the man repeated quietly, and then he smiled and was silent. He was tall and thin, with a high forehead and receding hair. His eyes were very pale; blue-gray and flecked with gold that seemed almost to sparkle. His hair, what was left of it, was wispy and long; the wind blew it in a haze of red around his head, like a cloud. He was wearing a long black raincoat, buttoned to the chin.
"Well, William Constant," he said at last, "you're the oldest, are you?"
"Yes. I'm thirteen."
"And the others? Your sisters?"
"Mary is eleven and Alice is eight."
The man nodded, a slow, deliberate movement of the head.
"And you're going to stay at the Golden House, am I right?"
"My uncle lives there. D'you know him?"
"I've seen him, yes. And his wife. It is his wife, is it?"
"Phoebe. That's her name."
"Sort of," William replied reluctantly. He did feel a bit nervous under the penetrating gaze and, although he didn't at all like this cross-examination, he found it difficult not to answer the man's questions.
"There's no need to be afraid, William. I mean you no harm," the man told him, and reaching out, he put a hand lightly on William's shoulder.
"I'm not afraid," William protested defiantly, but really he wished that he wasn't all alone with this man who stared so searchingly into his eyes as the fox had done.
"Is it the first fox you've seen?" the man asked, seeming to read his thoughts.
"Well, I've seen them on television, of course. But I've never seen one in the wild before."
"There are badgers at the Golden House and otters in the river. You'll see them, as well, I dare say."
"Do you live near here then?"
"I know the area," the man replied quietly, and as he did so, his face looked sad.
"We're staying there for the Christmas holidays. Our parents are working abroad. They're both doctors. They're out in Ethiopia, working in a hospital. Well, it's more of a camp, really..." William knew that he was suddenly speaking too much and too fast, but the man's sad expression made him want to fill in the silences.
The man's hand was still resting on his shoulder. It felt heavy and now it gripped at William's anorak, so that he was pulled toward him.
Distantly, behind him, William heard the long, plaintive whistle of an approaching train.
"Here's the train," he said, without looking around. "You'll be able to meet Mary and Alice. What's your name, by the way? So that I can introduce you?"
The man clung to his shoulder, staring into his eyes.
"My name is Stephen Tyler, William. Will you remember that?"
Much nearer now, the whistle sounded again. William turned and saw the diesel train come out of the gloom of the tunnel toward him. With a hiss and a shudder it came to a halt. For a moment nothing happened, then one of the windows opened and a girl with short brown hair stuck her head out.
"William," she called. "Can you help? The door's stuck."
William hurried along the short platform and opened the door for her. The girl climbed out and turned back to drag down her suitcase.
"Here, Mary, I'll do that," William said, trying to push past her.
"I can manage," his sister retorted, pulling at the heavy case.
"Will. Help me instead," Alice, his younger sister called, appearing at the open doorway. "Only hurry, or the train'll start again."
As William lifted Alice's suitcase down onto the platform he glanced back to where Mr. Tyler was still standing, watching the arrival. Then William swung around, and taking Alice's hands, he helped her to jump down onto the platform.
As soon as he slammed the door, the train started to move off. Alice held on to William's hands for an instant, then jumped up and gave him a kiss.
"Don't be soppy, Alice," he protested. Then he remembered Mr. Tyler. "This man knows Golden House quite well," he said, and he turned to introduce his sisters.
"What man?" Mary demanded.
The platform was empty.
"How funny. There was a man here...You must have seen him. I was standing with him, when you called to me from the train. Where's he gone?"
"I didn't see anyone," Mary said, bending to pick up her suitcase.
"But he was here."
"Well, he isn't here now, is he?"
"But -- where did he go?"
"I don't know," Mary said, with an unhelpful shrug. "Oh, this suitcase weighs a ton."
"Maybe he got on the train, Will," Alice said as she also picked up her case.
"I suppose so," William said, still puzzled by the man's sudden disappearance.
"There's Uncle Jack," Alice squealed, and, dropping her case once more, she ran along the platform to where a man wearing jeans and a sweater was hurrying down the track toward the gate.
"Sorry I'm late!" he was calling. "I got held up by some sheep."
Copyright © 1990 by William Corlett