Nick Reid stepped out of the newspaper building into the deserted Manchester street and wondered what the silence reminded him of. He took a cool breath of early morning air and stretched, wincing at the bruises he'd brought back with his report from the picketing. An unanswered phone rang in an office on Deansgate; a single car cruised past the department stores on Piccadilly, sending pigeons up from the roadway to wheel above the gable windows. Nick ran his fingers through his crinkly hair and tried to let the silence be itself. It couldn't be important to remember; he just wanted to wake up so as to drive home and sleep. He glanced up as sunlight snatched at the steep roofs through a gap in the clouds that were rushing a storm towards the Peaks. Memory seized him then, it felt as though by the scruff of his aching neck. "Diana," he gasped, and then he realised what else was wrong.
He limped into the building, across the lobby that turned his footsteps high-pitched, up the stairs to the library. The blank grey screens of microfilm readers gleamed dully under the tubular lighting of the small white room. He ought to call Diana--he couldn't even remember how long it had been--but surely there was no need to wake her up. He began to leaf through the file of the last few weeks' issues, looking for the article about the Peaks.
He found it in last Monday's issue, one of Charlie Nesbit's pleas to the readers not to take their holidays abroad when Britain had so much to offer. It read as Charlie sounded in the pub at lunchtime, poking the stem of his pipe at his listeners or puffing at it whenever he made a point he regarded as unanswerable: the Peak District is our oldest landscape, God's gift to walkers but still unspoiled by tourism...Nick scanned the paragraphs that listed places to visit, then reread the article slowly, hoping he was wrong. But he hadn't missed anything. There was no mention of Moonwell.
He made himself remember his first sight of the small town, the empty streets, the singing on the moors above. He was tired, that was why he was having trouble remembering, but had Charlie been tired too? Unless he came in unusually early, Nick wouldn't know for hours. He had to know. He limped back to the office next to the library, through the maze of glass cubicles, to wait at his desk.
An office boy dropped the morning edition on the desk and woke Nick from dozing. His report had been edited, even though he hadn't said that the police had seemed to resent his presence as much as the pickets had. Some of the feature writers were at their desks now, but there was still no sign of Charlie Nesbit. He was probably at breakfast, Nick thought, and grabbed the phone.
Charlie's wife answered. "Just a minute," she said curtly, and stifled the receiver with her hand. Beyond it Nick heard her complaining "That's the sort of thing I mean," and then the receiver fell on wood. There was a muffled argument before Charlie demanded "Well, what's so important that it can't wait until I've finished eating?"
"Charlie, it's Nick Reid. Sorry for interrupting."
"Glad you did, to tell you the truth. What can I do for you?"
For a moment Nick didn't know, and remembering felt like starting awake. "This may seem an odd question, but was the article you wrote about the Peaks subbed at all?"
"Not anywhere it mattered, no." He sounded amused. "Why, have they been toning you down again?"
"No more than usual. No, I was asking because you didn't mention Moonwell."
"Moonwell. You know, the place where I ran into all that religious hysteria. Even you thought they were going a bit far when I told you about it."
"Good God, son, are you still riding that hobby-horse? Can't you leave people's beliefs alone? There's few enough beliefs around these days, it isn't up to us to shatter them." He snorted and went on "Anyway, we've got a bad line here. It sounds as if you keep saying Moonwell."
"That's right. It used to be the old Roman lead mine. Where they decorate the cave every year, or they did until this year. Come on, Charlie, you must remember that."
"I'll tell you what, sonny, I've been at the paper a good few years longer than you, and it's been a bloody long time since anyone's accused me of not doing it properly or had reason to. Now I don't know what bee you've got in your bonnet this time, but you've caught me in the middle of an argument and I'm not about to get into another. Just take it from me, there's never been a place called Moonwell in the Peaks."
There is, I've been there, Nick wanted to shout, but Charlie had cut him off. Nick replaced the receiver, trying to stay calm, and reached in his jacket for his address book. Had he called Charlie in order to postpone calling Diana? What was he afraid to hear? Perhaps only the sound that greeted him when he dialled her number--the dull high-pitched tone that meant it was unobtainable.
The exchange could be busy, he told himself, and called the operator. "Moonwell," he said, and when she came back to check: "Moonwell in Derbyshire." Finally he spelled the name for her. "I'm sorry, sir," she said, "there's nowhere of that name."
Nick stared at the Moonwell number written in Diana's handwriting, saw the notebook tremble as his arm propped on its elbow wavered. "All right," he said, feeling oddly calm, as if now that his unstated fears were realised he would know what to do. It wasn't until he reached the stairs that he began to run.
Rain speckled the pavements and showered his face lightly as he ran to the car park. When he climbed into the Citroen he felt as if he'd gone past needing sleep, though his glimpse of himself as he adjusted the driving mirror didn't look entirely convinced, his large dark humorous eyes gazing out of his round face with its prominent cheekbones, broad nose and mouth, squarish chin that never seemed to have been shaved quite closely enough. He started the car and drove towards the edge of Manchester.
The Stockport road was full of lorries heading for the Peaks. Once a Boy Scout band held up the traffic for five minutes, and Nick lost count of the number of traffic lights that turned red just as he was approaching. Outside Stockport and the Manchester boundary the small towns began, narrow winding streets, terraces crammed with houses. Here and there one side of the street was occupied by a factory to let, the long blank limestone wall yellow as clay in the rain. Old folk in dusty cars pottered along the middle of the road, slowing for pedestrian crossings even when nobody was near, and Nick felt as if he would never reach the peaks that rose above the slate roofs. Then the road straightened and widened for a few yards at the edge of a town, and he trod hard on the pedal. Overtaking four slow cars, he raced towards the moors.
The gentle slopes glowed half a dozen shades of patchy green beneath the glum sky. Heather flared purple, limestone edges tore through the green; spiky dry-stone walls divided the rounded slopes like old diagrams of the human cranium. As the narrowing road wound higher, shrinking to a car's width wherever it crossed a river, the walls beside the verges fell away. A car had crashed through an arrowed barrier at a sharp bend and was rusting fifty feet below the road. Soon the barriers gave out, and only ditches separated the road from the steepening uplands, where sheep ripped up the tussocky grass and stared yellow-eyed at Nick's car. He hadn't seen a house or a signpost for miles when he realised that he no longer knew where he was going.
He stopped the car on a level stretch of road and switched off the engine. The side windows were printed with dots and dashes of rain, which smudged the peaks ahead. The windscreen wipers thumped and squeaked repetitively as he reached for the AA book and turned to the Peak District road map.
Eventually he closed the book on his forefinger and turned frowning to the index. Mooncoin, Moone, Moonzie, he read, and searched up and down the column in case the name was out of order. It was there, he told himself fiercely, opening the book again at the map. He could locate himself roughly on the page, where the main roads were fewest and farthest apart; the green blotch beside the Sheffield road must be the forested slopes ahead. He swivelled the book and moved his head as if he could rid himself of the blind spot that way. A sense that the name was there on the page if only he could see it made him want to cry out, lash out, anything to break the spell. He closed his eyes in case relaxing was the answer. Suddenly he didn't even know what he'd been looking for.
He lashed out blindly and punched the horn, which blared thinly at the deserted road. "Diana," he shouted, his voice flat and trapped in the car, "Diana from Moonwell," and remembered her long black hair whipping in the wind across the moors, her pale tapering face, wide greenish eyes. The memory broadened for an instant, and he recalled the day he'd met her--remembered driving away from Moonwell through the old forest beyond the pines.
"Yes," he breathed. He started the car and drove into the rain that pelted the roof and blotted out the peaks. He had to trust his feeling that the forest ahead was the one he remembered, had to trust that his instincts had guided him right so far. The pines rose above him until the slope to which they clung in their thousands was almost vertical, and he thought of a green army, giant arrows in the quiver of the limestone, green missiles. He almost drove past the road that plunged into the forest through a stony gap, its steep mossy walls streaming.
The trees closed overhead and cut off the sound of rain, as if he'd driven into a tunnel. He switched off the wipers and was alone with the hum of the engine. Now and then a gobbet of rain slipped through the branches overhead and spattered the windscreen, though he couldn't see the sky. Relaxation and the green dimness must be lulling him, for he didn't notice when the pines gave way to oak and ash. The road, having sloped down into the woods, was rising as the trees crowded closer. Either clouds or branches were massing overhead; the road had grown so dim that he switched on his headlights. The ranks of trees beyond the beams made him think of cave walls, their trunks stone ridges, dripping. He kept his gaze ahead, watching for the sky; he'd be out of the forest any moment now, if it was the right forest--surely it was. Exhaustion must be stretching time for him. He trod harder on the accelerator, gripped the wheel, eyes burning as he kept his gaze from straying to the moist dark walls, trees really. Suddenly they fell away, and he was out beneath the tattered racing sky.
The unfenced road led up towards a skyline strewn with rocks, a backbone spiky as a dinosaur's. Beyond it, he remembered now, the land fell steeply on the left towards overgrown chunks of rock large as cars. Once he reached the crest he would be able to see Moonwell above the dry valley, the single road beyond the town leading up to the moor. Yet he lifted his foot from the accelerator as the car surged forward, for he had an unsettling impression that the rushing clouds had come to a standstill overhead.
He ought to get to Moonwell before his exhaustion played any more tricks, if that was what was happening. Above all he wanted to see Diana, make sure she was safe. Fast but not too fast, he told himself, and pressed the pedal gently. There was no sound of traffic ahead. He'd switched off the headlights and was pressing the pedal more confidently at the moment when both car and landscape vanished into the blind dark.