Wandering northward along a road lined with blackened red-brick buildings, Roy came to the River Ouse, and the low bridge that spanned it. Standing on the upstream side, his elbows on the stone wall, he gazed down at his shadow as it writhed on surface of the sluggish waters. He could feel the tug of the current, flowing blindly southward, and he fought to resist its pull. Unbidden, though, the memories came. Of a visit to the Tasmanian town of Ouse with Grandfather Woods, when he, Roy, was a child. Ouse, where two convicts, runaways from Sarah Island, had emerged from the wilderness. Having escaped from one island, they had been captured on another.
Shaking his head, Roy straightened and was surprised to see a man in a black frock coat standing beside him, smoothing a moustache that didn’t need smoothing.
‘My apologies,’ the stranger said. ‘But if you’ll excuse me for saying so, I know how you feel. I, too, am frustrated.’
The man held up a hand. ‘No need to apologise, no need at all. Frederick Guppy, librarian, is my name. On a tour of this fair town, you see, with other attendees of our annual conference.’
He waved dismissively at a cluster of men strolling towards the end of the bridge. ‘Fools, every one. What, I ask you, is the point of discussing the science of, say, paper preservation when books are being wilfully mutilated every day.’
‘Mutilated?’ Roy exclaimed.
Guppy leaned in close. ‘Vandalism is my special subject. I presented a paper on the topic yesterday. Ruffled some fur, I assure you.’
‘I’m an author,’ Roy said, before he could stop himself.
‘Really? And your name, sir, if you please?’
Roy told him, reluctantly.
‘Ah, the Australian!’ Guppy cried. ‘But you, sir, are part of the problem. Your species of story attracts the wrong kind of reader. The kind that uses an unwashed knife to mark the place in a book, or scribbles shopping lists in the margins.’
‘Is that so,’ said Roy. ‘And what would you have me write?’
‘Something a little less low.’
‘A more exotic species, perhaps, like a kangaroo?’
The librarian looked at him, blankly.
‘Good day to you, sir,’ he said, and, raising his hat, walked on.
Roy stared after him, shivering as a gust of wind buffeted his back. Below, on the surface of the water, his shadow sank out of sight as a curtain of cloud closed over the sun. Suddenly, he felt exhausted. To change direction he would need energy; he would need strength to swim against the current.
‘Don’t be silly,’ Sylvie seemed to say. ‘Why swim when there’s a perfectly good path?’
Taking his arm, she led him across the bridge and on to a track that ran northward along the river beneath a row of tall elms. Soon he came to another small postern – ‘Skeldergate’, a sign said – in the shadow of which he stopped to smoke, musing on the old custom of calling streets ‘gates’ and gates ‘bars’. Stubbing out his cigarette, he climbed the steps and found himself again on the wall. By now the sky was cluttered with clouds and the breeze was brisk. Jamming his hat on his head, he set out to walk the last section of wall. As he rounded a bend, the road to London came into view on his left, and ahead he made out the turrets of the keep through which his bus had passed – very narrowly – last night, on his way into town.
He had planned to visit York all along, but events in London had rather advanced his plans. Stunned and shaken, he had caught the first thing going, a big black Leyland, and had tried not to think about Sylvie on the seven-hour journey. He’d thought, instead, of Dick Turpin, and of the highwayman’s mad midnight dash between the two towns. That tale had been one of his father’s favourites, probably because he himself had had a touch of Turpin’s reckless spirit. Had he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps?
Roy strode through the keep. Should he have behaved more like his father? Surrendered to his desires, qualms and quibbles be damned?
A gust of wind whirled the hat from his head, whipping it over the wall. Peering over the parapet, he gave it up for lost and hurried on. Rookwood was one of the few books his father had given him. His mother, on the other hand, had given him many books, although never directly. Adding links to the great chain of literature, she had called it. Her books were shelved in the drawing room and yet Roy felt the weight of them – their gravity – wherever he went. All the worthy male authors standing stiffly side-by-side: Dickens, Hardy, Thackeray and his mother’s favourite, George Eliot, whom she would never have believed was a woman. Jolting along in the bus, watching the countryside rumble by, Roy had recalled her reading aloud from The Mill on the Floss, the passage set in York: Maggie fleeing to the town with her would-be lover, Stephen, whom she ultimately spurns, fearing for the state of her soul. All roads led, it seemed, to York.
In a daze, Roy passed through the final postern.