Her hand closes over his. She laughs – it’s a deep and throaty laugh. Her hand closes over his – it’s a strong hand, a brown hand; ornate silver rings glint on every finger.
He allows himself to be led along the mossy brick path. The morning’s rain drips from the shiny beech trees which loom resentfully around the small cottage. She pushes at the door. Swollen with damp, it resists her for an instant. He gazes into her clouds of hair. It is so blond that he wonders if it is white – white, candyfloss hair. Child-like, she has attempted to restrain the frothy strands with strips of tatty, coloured cotton, twisted randomly.
He knows what will happen, what always happens. He should be at college this afternoon, facing the turgid delights of ‘A’ level geography. He knows he will spend the night beside her. His throat tightens in remembrance of their nights of exploration, each knowing the other so completely within their separateness.
They step into the room. Familiar smells greet him – incense and oranges – glossy, swelling oranges piled into her much loved blue and white bowl. They were ever-present those oranges – unchanging. Did she not eat them? Did they never rot?
She gathers the sleek black cat in her arms, plucked reluctantly from the lumpy armchair, and turns to face him. The low autumn sun, a honey gold, slides between the soggy towering beech trees and thrusts dustily into the room. It shines on her smiling face. He blinks, slowly and deliberately. He is reluctant to turn away from her gaze; reluctant to face the truth of that sun so cruelly illuminating the lines on her face.
‘Tea?’ she asks and, stepping towards him, the brown hand strokes his face.
They sip the scalding pale liquid, each savouring the delay. Damp fungal air sweeps through the open sash windows. Beyond the low garden wall, lush grass slopes towards the river – glistening where the sun strikes, yet blackly mysterious in shadow. She lifts her head in recognition as a fishing boat pushes upstream towards Totness – chunk, chunk, chunk, chunk.
He looks into her eyes, those crazy-lady eyes, beech leaf brown in their wisdom. She has unlocked for him the beauty of the river – the joy of discovery of the blackest beetle wandering amongst the leaves or the dusty, gossamer wings of an insect in momentary stillness. She sees things in him too that others, his ever-distant parents or those inaccessible, unfathomable girls of his own age, all fail to notice.
He lies beside her in the dark quiet and she makes his heart soar. Not with love, not for her, but for the validity she offers him. She has held up her mirror, enabling him to glimpse who he is and who he might become.
His hands travel over the contours of her hip; his fingers trace her small breasts. Brown eyes on his, smiling, childlike, they draw close. Body to body, their minds melt together until the daybreak. Yet each day break he spends with her is harder. He is pulling away from her. He fights it; his body and his mind want to stay with her in this place by the river but his rational eighteen-year old brain intrudes with the coming of the light. She is a traveller lady at rest; their paths have crossed. He longs to travel with her, to share her longings, share her every moment but he must make his own journey.
The faded, floral curtains move gently in the early breeze. From the bedroom window, he watches the empty tripper boats making their way from the overnight moorings back to the quay at Dartmouth; the dark waters of the Dart are churned in expectation of the new day. He loves this river, her river, her chosen place. As a youngster, he’d never given it much thought. It was just a place to swim in summer and mess about in a dinghy with his mates. He knows now its magic and its menace. He sees how it echoes his mood – placid at slack water on a July day as he lies in her arms or tide -running, in full flood, turbulent in its insistence to move on.
Eyes fix on his, their fingers entwine.
‘Time to go,’ she smiles.
He moves towards her; his eyes cloud into a frown. She smiles and nods.
‘Trust me; it’s time for you to go.’