At the midway point in the ancient spiral staircase, looking down into the little courtyard with the fountain, Martina paused. She liked to keep an eye on her staff, but discreetly. What was he up to now? Zak appeared to be enraptured – staring into space. For goodness sake, she thought, how difficult can it be to go in with a plastic bucket and a little shovel and remove a year’s worth of coins from a fountain, skim off a few floating leaves? Not exactly rocket science, even at his age. At once she felt guilty. Fifty-eight wasn’t that old, and what she had just thought was ageist. Fierce, when necessary, Martina did at least try to be fair to her staff, and honest with herself.
The main gates should have opened five minutes ago. Gatehouse had radioed up – punters queueing nine deep outside. Pushchairs, kiddies and cameras all over the place. It was the end of September and the start of the castle’s Autumn Flower Festival. Sunny it might be, with that low, intense sun of autumn, but it was none too warm to be standing about outside. The castle looked fantastic at this time of year – red, orange and gold leaves carpeting the lawns and lakes outside; and in every room that was open to the public, one and sometimes several huge, dramatic displays of autumn flowers and foliage supplied by all the top groups in the county. People looked forward all year to this Festival; they wanted in – and in was where she needed them to be. The castle had lost money last season – combination of a dismal British summer and the failure of the static balloon as an attraction. Unfortunately, that had been her idea. Balloons went down a storm back home in the States but for some reason people here didn’t seem to want to pay £25 for a ticket, to be tethered at treetop height, not flying anywhere. It had been a blunder, and she was desperate to make up for it. No one, as the Foundation had obliquely pointed out, was indispensable.
They were waiting for Zak, just Zak. What on earth was he staring at, sat on the edge of the fountain, bucket and shovel in hand? Oh come on Zak, she thought, don’t make me come down there and tell you off. I don’t have time.
Zak was looking at the Bird of Light. There was always light in the central courtyard. It was a strange place for that. When the sun was shining it reflected randomly off the leaded glass panes of the surrounding windows. Sometimes the light dazzled him (his eyes were not too good, nowadays). Sometimes the windows looked blind, like they’d grown cataracts. Cataracts of light. It had been, for him, a place of worship, yet what he was worshipping he could not have said. But suddenly, today, there was the Bird.
He had turned his back, to begin on the coins and leaves, but somehow he knew it was there. He knew something was there. Just afraid to turn round. Terribly afraid. It was watching him. Even with his back turned he could see… unusual light. Light cascading off the walls, bouncing off the cobbles. Light shining on the fountain, light crashing into other light. He couldn’t explain it. It wasn’t natural.
It was a soft voice, but he hadn’t turned.
I am here, Zak. I have something to say to you.
He kept trying to shovel up the coins. Delusions? After all these years? How long have I been sober? Will it never let me go?
It’s good news, Zak. Please turn.
It was the ‘please’ that did it. He turned. And saw the Bird. At least that’s what it looked like. What it might have been. Except it was so tall. Could birds be tall. White wings, but they gave off light. It must be…
It’s about Beth.
And now it was replaying in his mind, the night he met Beth. It was if the Bird itself was controlling his memories.
They had met in the Station Hotel. He’d been drunk, as usual. He was rehearsing his last order. Time for another one, Joe? He was rehearsing his walk across the room to the bar which, by this time of night, felt like being on a fairground ride. So many chairs. And the chairs seemed to tilt and move. So easy to trip and then… there wouldn’t be another one. Joe would tell him he’d had enough. Joe would call him a taxi and pay for it himself. Joe was a good bloke.
But this night, there was this girl. He didn’t remember her coming in but there she was, perched on a bar stool, chatting to Joe as if they were old friends. Yet she’d never been here before, he was sure of it. She had long hair. Fair. Real fair, not dyed, that almost-mouse colour. She had dropped her carpet-bag at her feet. It was battered, that bag. She had been places.
And there was that picture again, the one he had seen before. He had seen her in some African market, or somewhere like Zanzibar. She was ahead, then she turned and smiled. Such a beautiful smile, and for him. And at her wrist there were bangles of all colours. They glittered in the sun, and the sky behind her head was so very blue, like no sky he had ever seen before. The Bird brought this back to him.
And then something strange had happened. Her train pulled in and he watched her get up to leave and he was thinking, that’s it then, she’s going, but she didn’t go, or least not at once, no, she stopped and came over to him, and she stood in front of him, looking into his eyes, and she said, My name is Beth. Come with me.
And then she was gone, and he couldn’t believe it had happened. He must be imagining. And then… Zak was up and staggering full pelt towards the door, chairs scattering in all directions as the room rocked and swerved around him. He was running across the gravel, he was heading for the platform. The whistle blew, train doors were slamming. He had to make it to that train; he had to catch her…
He had something to say to her. Good news. Such wonderful news.
She was fifteen years younger than him, but after that she never left his side. They had travelled the world for a while, then did what others do. They found a house and married, and tried for children. But the children hadn’t come.
They’d had all the tests. He’d assumed it was him, being so much older, but it wasn’t. There was something wrong with her. She’d had operations, and tablets, and tests. Nothing worked. Beth hardly ever mentioned it nowadays, but he knew it still hurt. Yes, he had wanted children by her, but she… It was something different for women, a greater grief.
It’s about Beth. Good news.
When he emerged from the courtyard he was dumb. The Bird had punished him for his disbelief. How am I to know? Zak had asked. What proof can you give me? I am getting old and Beth – she’s getting on. Forty-one next birthday. How can this happen?
His name will be John, said the bird. His name will be John. He will touch no drink. He will give you both great joy. He will be filled with light – this light. He has come to prepare the way.
The way for what? Zak was trying to say. Only no sound come out.
Today of all days, thought Martina, as she followed Zak in the ambulance. She guessed it must have been a stroke – something in the brain department – yet he was walking OK – in fact there was a spring in his step. But, she thought, people don’t just suddenly forget how to speak if they’ve got nothing wrong. Maybe something less scary, like laryngitis. But it wasn’t as if he’d had a sore throat, even – not that he’d mentioned. And the man seems so ridiculously, insanely happy. Positively joyous. What sort of lunatic would be happy on their way to hospital? Poor Zak, she thought, he’s got a wife and… now she thought about it she wasn’t sure. He had never mentioned a family. But definitely a wife.
Martina reached across and laid a hand on his arm, hoping to reassure. For all his faults, she had a soft spot for Zak. He was a sweet old guy. He smiled at her – the biggest and broadest of smiles. And there was this weird kind of shining-ness about him.