By James A. Beaumont
In the morning rush of Waterloo station, I move forward, squeezing through the turnstile in a trance; oyster card coming out in reflex, beeps lost to the ambient noise of eight a.m., card to wallet, wallet to pocket, feet to escalator, haltering steps as they clink on board.
I stand to the right, tight in-line with the suited man before me and we descend into the bowels of the underground. Routine thoughts of the day ahead bounce back and forth in my mind: the Harrison Report needs to be proofed; next week’s conference arrangements finalised. Then something grabs me: a flicker of colour to the right. A digital advert of a tree framed in the last moments of sunset, its boughs stretching up into a wide, leafy canopy. An animal grazes beneath, a silhouette against a backdrop of vermilion.
I can picture it so clearly, even now.
It was summer, twenty-three years past.
First it’s the smell of pollen in the air. The touch of sunshine on bare skin. The waft of a warm breeze and the corn brushing against your legs.
Twelve years old and there I was, standing in our new farm, watching the hills roll into the distance.
I scoffed it down – with Henry it was always a race – but a swear word had me sent to do the dishes, followed by a little time on the porch to think about what I'd done. That was when I saw it. The sun was about to set and my eyes fell on a huge oak tree at the edge of the garden. Just moments before, the tree had simply been part of the backdrop – the silent sentinel, mum would later call it – but as the sun lowered, it announced itself.
I crept towards it and the leaves of the tree rustled. Under its shadow, I held out my hand to touch the bark and savoured the feel of the rough oak against my hand.
The horizon was a panorama of sloping farmland at the head of a darkening city, the chimneys of power stations spouting out smog, black against the backdrop of the sun.
I stood there for several moments, "deep" in adolescent thought.
Then I heard something I’d only ever heard in films: the cantering of hooves. There was a snorting sound. I turned sharply, drawing back deeper into the shadow of the tree as it approached. It was a girl on horseback.
For several moments, I just stood there, unsure of what to say, the blood pumping through my chest, my palms flat against the trunk.
She was young, but a few years older than me perhaps. She wore faded jeans and a chequered shirt. Boy’s clothes. But the face looking down at me was anything but. She had long dark hair in a ponytail, left hanging over one shoulder.
Seven seconds of silence before I spoke. I said the words that came, ‘Who are you?’
‘Do you live ’round here?’ My eyes flickered over the farms in the distance.
‘I am . . .’ she paused as if searching for the right word, ‘close.’
'Oh. And where are you from? Before, I mean.’ That was right, wasn’t it? Who are you and where are you from? That was what grown-ups would say when they met for the first time.
Kateryna smiled. It was a strange smile – pleasant, but it didn’t quite fit on her somehow.
‘You-crane?’ I spoke out, testing the words. In my mind I thought of a place with large yellow cranes hoisting cars into the air. But I knew at once this couldn't be right; the girl had an exotic look to her and I thought it must be a jungle country, like the Amazonians I had seen in documentaries.
‘Is it far?’ I asked.
The same twitch of the lips. ‘It is . . . quite far.’
There was another silence and the horse stepped restlessly to one side so that Kateryna had to pull on the bridle. She said something in a soothing voice, the words another language as she reached out to touch its head.
Kateryna caught me watching. ‘You want to stroke her?’
I nodded and stepped forward.
‘She won’t bite.’ And her laughter accompanied these words, light and colourful.
I came closer and reached out to touch the mane. My hand was close to Kateryna’s and she drew hers back at the last second.
The horse shook its head at my touch and went still.
There is something about the eye of a horse. I felt myself falling into it: a tiny pool that could swallow me whole. Was it seeing me? Was it thinking thoughts like mine?
Was it me?
‘What’s her name?’ I asked.
‘Veeter,’ she seemed to say. ‘It means – the wind.’
I can picture now the wind rustling through the leaves in the wake of this new word, a secret incantation never before uttered. But my story is rich in hyperbole and I know it.
‘Veeter,’ I repeated.
Veeter held my gaze.
I looked back to Kateryna. My adolescent mind was trying to make sense of her. What basis was there for comparison? My mother? Nikita Robinson, the kiss chase enthusiast from year five? Alice Baker, daughter of our last neighbour, who would go out into the back garden and scream loudly whenever she wasn’t getting her way?
Kateryna was silent. Her eyes flickered over the branches above, mouth slightly parted. I took in a breath to say something but as she looked back and our eyes met, my breath left in a rush.
‘I have to go,’ she said.
It was only with these words that I became aware of the darkness, the blues of the sky almost drained.
‘But it’s dark,’ I said.
‘We will make it back before the sun is fully hidden,’ Kateryna replied. With that, she spurred the horse round and galloped off into the distance.
I watched her retreating into the horizon for as long as the sun would allow. As night began, more and more twinkling lights chimed on in the sky, my mother’s voice accompanying them as she called me back home.
Every evening I would return to the oak tree in the hope of seeing her again. I mentioned her to nobody. My mother thought I was getting fresh air before bedtime, and she encouraged it – so long as I didn’t stray past the tree.
Monday evening went by without any sign of the girl on horseback. Nor was she there on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, my mother took Henry and me down to the oak tree to read us sections of the novel she was writing. It was a fantasy tale for children. Under those rustling boughs, talk of elves and fairies seemed not so fantastical at all.
I was developing something of an obsession with fairies. I’m sure I believed they really existed and desperately wanted to find out what Kateryna thought, but she wasn’t there that night either.
The week passed slowly by. It was Sunday. The sheep were out and I was chasing them across the field. I reached down and picked up a stray branch, slashing it through the air and thinking of the silhouette I must have been making in the ebbing sunlight and how cool it must have looked in the distance, like a scene from one of the ninja films we watched with dad. I paused, mid-stance; a samurai waiting for the enemy to strike.
The sound of hooves.
My pulse quickened. I dropped the stick; I didn’t want her to see me playing. The sun was in my eyes and the figure on horseback a silhouette. At Veeta’s approach, a group of birds left the tree for the sky, the branches waving in their wake.
I took a deep breath. I was trying to play it cool; some instinct told me this was important. My hands were in my pockets, I’d seen this in a film where the guy had slicked back hair and the girls had liked him. As I came beneath the shelter of the tree, Kateryna was thrown into relief. She was wearing another shirt, several sizes too big for her and she had funny ears but I couldn’t tell why there were funny or why I liked them.
It was easy speaking to her though. She didn’t do a great deal of the talking but she would listen intently, her eyes locked to mine, only turning away to reassure Veeter.
We would speak of random things: of farms, of trees, of wildlife. She would tell me how it felt to ride a horse at breathtaking speed, and I would tell her about fairies and elves. Sometimes I would talk about my brother and how annoying he was and how unfairly my parents would treat me – taking my brother’s side in every argument.
‘It is normal to argue with your siblings,’ she said. ‘But you still love them.’
‘I do not love Henry,’ I replied. But Kateryna just smiled her smile as I went on being foolish.
We watched the sun dip to the horizon.
Henry and I argued a thousand silly things: the night light in the room we shared (I wanted it off, Henry on); my figures (Henry wanted to play with them but I was too fussy about how they were put back); story time (Peter Pan, NO Treasure Island!) and so on.
Dad had had enough. He made us clean out the stable.
That Sunday, my younger brother decided he wanted to come down to the tree with me. I tried my best to dissuade him, and arguments turned to fighting and I cried at my mother to keep him inside. As punishment, there was a six o’clock curfew; if shovelling animal droppings wasn’t enough to make us learn our lesson, then we would have to forgo playtime and TV for a week.
Evening came and I was sulking by our bedroom window, gazing down at the oak tree, my eyes alert for any sign of a horse and the girl who rode it.
I couldn't out anything before darkness settled.
Another week week passed, the summer holidays drawing to an end. Henry had not forgotten and so I made my way to the tree with my brother by my side. He would find my conversation with Kateryna boring, I told myself, and this at least would stop him from wanting to return.
We waited in the shade of the oak and, not surprisingly, Henry soon lost all interest.
‘Take me back inside,’ he said.
‘A little longer.’
But as the sun dropped, it was still just the two of us. I made my way back to the cottage with Henry skipping ahead. She would be there next week, I told myself, when I came alone.
I went there every night. Just in case.
You watch some TV. Fight with your brother. It’s bedtime. You sleep. Have breakfast. Do your chores. Play. Have dinner. And then the next evening is upon you. Waiting anxiously for the beginning of sundown. Retreating stealthily to the oak tree. Waiting some more. The sun lowers on the horizon. The air gets colder and colder until you’re left shivering. Eventually, darkness has crept around you. You’re alone. Kateryna isn’t coming and your mother’s voice calls you back home.
The pattern is not broken the next day and she doesn’t arrive that night either. Nor the night after, or the night after that. Days went by and then weeks but Kateryna from the Ukraine never did return.
Summer would soon be over and then I’d be starting my new school in the village. One Saturday I went on a daring mission to find her. I travelled out early in the morning towards the farm I’d decided must have been hers. I found it deserted. I trekked to the neighbouring farm and met the old farmer, Mr Tilworth, a man I’d often seen speaking with my father. He was leaning on a low fence and eyeing me curiously.
‘What you doing out here, young man?’
‘I was looking for someone,’ I told him. He raised his eyebrows. ‘A girl. She’s a few years older than me. She rode a horse and said she was from a place called the You-crane.’
Farmer Tilworth scratched his beard and squinted. ‘The Russians?’
Russians? I thought to myself. They lived in snow and wore funny hats. I knew for I’d seen them in films. Kateryna was from a land rife with rain forests, but grown-ups don’t like being corrected.
‘They moved last week,’ farmer Tilworth said.
It’s funny: even now I can remember the feeling of those words. The twisting, the shortness of breath, the weakness in the legs for accompaniment. Twenty-three years since and there’d never been anything quite like it.
‘Moved?’ was all I could manage. ‘They couldn’t have.’
He was still looking at me keenly as he leant on the fence. ‘’Fraid so, my boy. A strange lot, if you ask me. Kept ’emselves to ’emselves. Even sold me the ’orse you were speakin’ of, and the price the old man wanted fer it were a steal.’
He turned as he spoke and I followed his gaze to a brown mare that stood grazing a short distance behind.
On its own, without her legs spread atop it, it was like looking at something deformed.
There was a silence, which farmer Tilworth finally broke. ‘Made the girl sad it did, ’er old man getting rid of the animal. Seemed shameful chargin’ so little when it obviously meant so much to ’er.’
I couldn’t think of anything to say.
‘Like I say, they were gone soon after.’
And so was I. I started walking off, direction unknown. Farmer Tilworth called out but the words didn’t reach. I don’t know how long I was walking or where the path took me. I remember moving through a cornfield in a daze, drooping like the stalks in the wind. By the time I came to the oak, the sun was once again sinking out of view.
I reached out and felt the bark of the tree. As I glanced back over my shoulder, I almost expected to hear the sound of hooves. And then she would be there, perched on her mount, her long hair hanging behind her, as long as the mare’s bushy tail. She would have that look in her eyes. Her mouth would be drawn in that curious expression, almost threatening to smile but not quite reaching. I would ask about Veeter and tell her all my worries of school.
I sank to the ground, back against the tree. It was a silly thing to cry over – somebody I hardly knew. But that was all I could do. The sun set. Darkness fell. And there was twelve year old me, crying at an oak tree.
The advert fizzles away in a flash of pixelated light. Now an island beach somewhere, a muscle-toned man hand-in-hand with his beautifully tanned wife, frolicking towards the foamy sea, the logo of an airline company stamped across the skyline.
Only seconds and I will be at the base of the escalator, stepping off with the rest of them. Imagine if I were to see her right here in this moment. If, my eyes wandering to the right, to the rows of people rising to the street, I might suddenly chance upon her face. Older, to be sure, perhaps barely reconcilable with the memory of long ago. But it would be her.
Numerous faces I have never seen rise past me. I have gone down the same escalator almost every day for the past eight years of my life and yes, sometimes I see some regulars, fellow commuters, but never anyone I know.
Some of them are old. Some young. Some stand with their headphones in or their hoods up. Some wear smart business attire. Others have their mobiles out, already tapping away before the signal returns at the top. One or two have their arms held around one another; a boy hugging the girl in front of him, they cannot be more than sixteen; a woman clutching her child.
It’s just as I’m about to step off the escalator that it happens. The screens around us flicker and one advert is replaced by another.
A tree framed in the setting sun, an animal grazing under its leafy canopy.
As I step off, I pause mid-step and the merest syllable of a laugh escapes me. Someone from behind is pushing and I sidestep to let the rush of people flood by.
From my vantage point, I peer back up at the squares of orange and black, working their way to the top.
Seconds pass and I’m still stood there, unsure for a second where it is that I’m actually going. I blink and the advertisements have changed: now a close-up shot of a fragrance. I turn and rejoin the crowd in the tunnel. My hand brushes against the tiled wall as I walk. A rush of wind as we come onto the platform. 1 minute. People crowding in. Jostling for space. We hear it before it comes. Careening onto the track. Beeping doors opening. Crush to find space within. Whirring. Vibrations. Move. Move. I reach out for something and all I feel is the cold touch of aluminium against my hand.