Talking to Ed had raised so many unexpected questions. My mind couldn’t settle on any of the pieces of information enough for me to think them through. I understood, kind of, how the friendship between Elly and Ed had come about, but I couldn’t really make sense of the nuances. For a few nights after talking with him in the pub I’d been subject to horrified ‘realisations’, mostly depicting his influence as deeply sinister, that with subsequent more measured consideration seemed most likely to have arisen out of my paranoia. I wondered whether a similar state of mind had been at work in my inchoate suspicions of Jason, and began to berate myself for tolerating my own ignorance to this extent; the lack of factual information, of specificity, allowing virtually anything to be true. I’d read Elly’s diary, yes, and her file, but I realised that I hadn’t done it in any kind of spirit of inquiry or analysis, it more about restoring contact with her. Actually, it was reverential. Perhaps if it had been more forensic I’d have felt too uneasy about it, it would have felt more like an act of betrayal. I doubted whether anything she said in it would have determined my beliefs about her guilt over Becky, or her disappearance, one way or the other. My thoughts turned to Jason and what I could make of my feelings towards him. Those accusations that I’d held for a long time and only recently used against him (that his goodness, through those things he did that raised everyone’s estimation of him, was his sin) might have, more than anything else, expressed my own fear. Well maybe it wasn’t his goodness per se that antagonised me, but more his dishonesty. But then, I thought, actually, isn’t virtue, real virtue, often only expressible through behaving as though something is true? Whatever the case, I couldn’t find a way to trust him, and anyway there wasn’t much that I could do about Jason and me by then. There was only me, and the file, left at home to voice things. I placed my index finger between two of the papers, and leaving it there to mark the position, pulled out the one underneath it. It said:
“As this year draws to a close I’m reminded of my debt to the future, my decision, a debt gathering interest week on week. GF is here. He understands what mother wouldn’t. I need this danger; this threat to my insularity. Not because danger is pleasurable, like for Rose, but because I need to know that I have it in me live another life. I need to survive in a bigger life than my own. Mum does believe, in fact has often commented, that hardship is good for people, but the hardship she means is different; it doesn’t translate to this.
This dialogue was deeply unfair; I felt that. There was nothing I could do to argue my side of things, and I didn’t have the chance to change sides either. Elly was acting like God, fixing my opinions in time forever. I decided to bloody well show her then. If she wouldn’t apologise, then neither would I! It was a nice feeling for a while until it dawned on me that I had absolutely no idea what it meant. Was I going to stand by the things I’d said and done, or was I going to renounce them unapologetically? I was going to have to sort these things out.
“Jesus Christ Elly, what did I do to deserve this?” I was looking at my artful house coat hanging on the back of the door, whilst cursing the intrusion of these feelings into the relative peace that I’d managed to create after Jason left. I’d only just begun to feel capable, grown up, when here I was, less than a week later, in the mire again. Although I couldn’t say that this particular mire was a place that I recognised, emotionally that is. In most senses it was unfamiliar.
I missed the dogs, realising this more keenly now that I had decided to risk seeking out Ed by the river. He’d said he was having a break, fishing, for a week or so was it? If so, he’d probably still be around today. It was odd how the conversation with him, that had raised so many worrying ideas, seemed to diminish my sense of risk at meeting him alone outside. Maybe that’s how people get caught out, finding themselves through their own negligence in inescapable danger. It was an idle thought that I dismissed. Having the dogs would have helped no end; not because they would know how to defend me but because they would make me less strange, less estranged from the act of walking. As it was, my riverside walk was very awkward, made worse by the need to scan the path and bank for signs of Ed’s presence.
It must have been a few miles out from the car before I caught sight of the domed green shelter. At the same time I heard the merest punctuation on the water surface. I held my breath to discern further signs, but there was nothing more. It occurred to me that it might be really bad form to interrupt a fisherman, that speech might undo hours of preparation, hours of readying the fish to bite and the hand to respond. Or these speculations might have been way too romantic about the process. The point was that I had no way of knowing what my approach would mean and how I’d be received. He might even feel stalked, though that notion thankfully only occurred to me afterwards.
He caught my intense eye quite casually, and nodded towards me at the same time as gesturing to me with an open hand to sit alongside. I looked silently as he reeled in the delicate, perfect fish, having been unaware, in my watchfulness of Ed, that it had taken the bait. I continued to watch as he deftly held and released it. Then he looked over to me:
“What d’you think of fishing?” he asked.
“I’m not sure that I do…think about it. Why do you like it?”
He was quiet for a while, watching the released fish, as if he’d forgotten that I asked him anything, then he said “The traces of a fishes life are so much more elusive, lighter, than the creatures on the land”
“Well, maybe, but you get to appreciate these things when you study tracks and traces and intertwined actions for your occupation.”
I nodded and was about to find something else to ask when he started a more captivating exchange:
“Elly used to fish quite a bit here. She wanted to experiment with different methods. In fact she at one time or another tinkered with every fishing tradition that I’m aware of, even down to carving holes in the ice on the lake, which proved unrepresentatively easy. She knew that.”
I must have looked blank at this disclosure.
“She scorned the idea of licences and the notion of illegality of course, so had to be pretty clandestine about it. The only thing that bothered her beyond the effectiveness of the technique was the impacts on the fish.”
“Yes, that sounds like her. So what was that about then? Did she share your fascination” and I tried to paraphrase his reason and ended up sneering “with the ‘difference’ of fish”, and as I heard myself another fascination they shared came to mind; “and with the intricacies of death?” That sounded melodramatic when amplified by the subsequent pause.
“Actually it’s not the intricacies, in the way that you imply, that concern me, nor, I think, that concerned her.”
I waited. He sighed deeply. It could have been that he felt exasperated, or bored, but it seemed more that he was preparing his lungs for the difficult job of fueling an explanation that would stretch the facility of his words. Like composing an answer when a child demands to know why the sky is blue.
“So much of the content of acts is interchangeable, isn’t it? I mean, you intend to say something in one way or another, or achieve or create something, but that something is an abstraction. It isn’t concrete, it is symbolic. Well, death is very vocal, very expressive, but there are analogues, and it itself can be analogous.”
It suddenly occurred to me that Becky was dead. I’d touched a rock whilst foundering in this tricky water, and clung to it; the brute fact that made the conversation sickening. Becky was dead, perhaps, even more tragically, when she’d retracted her suicidal gesture and wanted instead to live. How could a conversation like this one even be possible, between the bereaved? The question unasked, I shook my head darkly instead.
“Death wasn’t Elly’s choice” he said.
“What the fuck do you mean, death wasn’t Elly’s choice?” I would have taken my tears elsewhere but then how would I ever find out what I needed to know?
“You drop Elly’s name into this but what about Becky…your own daughter?” I was surprised how the outrage in my voice when I’d started had turned to a pitiful pleading by the end, as though I was begging him to show some feelings I could understand. It wasn’t that he spoke callously, or with any edge that marked him out as malevolent in any way, but why didn’t he just…back down in some way. That’s the best I can do to describe what I wanted of him – for his words to buckle and leave him stranded.
“Yes…Becky. But your interest is in Elly”
Of course that was right. But since he now mediated my connection with her, my understanding of her, what he said, and what he made me think, had to be bearable. I wiped my face with my sleeve, not bothering to complete this, continuing as I sniffed:
“Indeed. Of course. Do you know what happened to her? Do you know where she is?” I was calling his bluff. Taking back the power.
“I don’t know where she is, no. What I can say is that she planned to leave.”
“And did you try to stop her? Didn’t you ask her where she was going?”
“No, not either.”
“Well for one thing I wasn’t here to ask her, but I doubt that I would have done in any case. It would have interfered too badly in her objectives. She wasn’t like Becky, or Rose for that matter. I’d have definitely had something to say to influence them, had I been able, but with her, well, there was something compelling her towards a more profound involvement than towards something meagre. It feels destructive to you, what she chose, but I’d say it was only in the service of creating something. She’s never been a nihilist.”
I wanted to put in a word for myself at this point, and a word for everyone who’d invested their concerns in discovering her whereabouts and well-being, but this thought was hijacked by others:
“And what if she gets hurt? How will you feel then? And what if something happens to her and there’s nobody to think of her and try to to help?” My momentum was building until I didn’t need to think any more, just speak: “you’ve no idea what we’ve been through worrying about her and trying to make sense of this, it’s taken everything we’ve got. And if she comes back, how the hell are we going to take up where we left off? What will everyone do to her when they find her out? – that she just went and left us in the lurch, worrying, hoping, looking…wincing at the prospect of news as much as we wanted it. How the hell could she have decided that this was okay?”
“What do you make of it?”
“Outside influence is what I make of it.”
“Would you say it was uncharacteristic then?” He must have known I was accusing him, of the lesser crime of provocation rather than the offences that had been incubating in my mind up until then, but I could hear that his question was not a defence, not retaliatory, and it encouraged me to answer truthfully, that in fact it was not uncharacteristic. Actually, I could envisage such an act from Elly. I wasn’t conceding more though:
“But what if I’d never talked to you? I wouldn’t know would I?”
“And how were you, before we talked?”
“Well…I’ve been through a lot. I’ve split up from Jason.” I was going to mention the file, but jolted myself into seeing how that might appear to someone – me reading through her personal papers. It is what you should only feel entitled to do once someone has died, and even then only after a decent stretch of time.
“And how is that, being separated from Jason?”
“Well, it’s okay…I guess…actually…” I stopped. There was something to express. Something of qualitative difference had occurred, after all I had a boho housecoat, sheepskin rug and a breakfast set at the back of my mind, and an impression that I was alright in the same place in my mind as these. But there was a lot else besides that was disturbing me.
“It’s not that easy. It’s complicated.” We paused, both watching the water.
“When do you leave? Get back to…what was it?”
“Yes, your work.”
“I plan on visiting a site I’ve just recently happened upon locally, quite soon, when the weather is right. I think I’ll go straight there from here”
I wondered how he could do that. Wouldn’t he need lots of equipment, I asked.
“Well often I do, but thankfully what was once under the sea can often be found, well it’s evidence can, in rather more appealing and accessible environments. Often nice warm and friendly ones.” He smiled and raised his flask to me as he took a sip from it. “The most appealing location to me, though, was anything but…warm and accessible that is. South Georgia. With the Antarctic Survey. It was back in the ’80s, examining traces of invertebrates in sandstone and shale. It was the ice, though, rather than the rock, that dominated all of my responses and structured my memories. Elly asked me time and again about it, linking it in her mind with the polar travel expeditions I’d been a part of. I think it was all of a piece for her – the traces left and discovered by accident and by choice.”
“And the grandeur of nature perhaps. She seemed to love Coleridge, the Ancient Mariner, for the depiction of ice.” I knew that I implied the kind of conversation with her that we hadn’t had for years; jealous of his easy, first hand, access to her mind, given to him willingly. “What about her trail now? Could you track her…would you be able to find her? If you wanted to?”
“You want to hunt her down? What will you do when you find her?”
“Ask her why she left.”
“And do you think she’ll have an answer?”
I knew that she’d have many, and that I might not be satisfied with the one for me. I would probably want his answer instead, the one she would offer to him.
The misty droplets in the air were clearing into rain, not a great deal more wetting but a lot more intrusive. I couldn’t hear anything above the sounds it made on the trees and on the water. Holding my jacket around me at the chest and the hood I said goodbye to Ed, who sat back under his membranous canopy, and I struggled, out of balance, up the bank and back to the path.