Roy stepped on to the path that ran along the top of the wall. He stood, rucksack on his back, and looked out over the parapet: at the rough and tumble of roofs, at the river weaving its way southward, its waters sparkling in the sunlight. Yes, sunlight. For here, in the city of York, on this day in early September, the firmament was finally clear; here, he mused, a cloud truly would be lonely.
Steadying himself against the stonework, Roy studied the ancient quarter. There, laid out on the green before him, was a cross-section of the past, the strata of British history stacked like stone tablets on an earthen shelf. The twin arms of the wall, pillared with posterns, eroded at the elbows, encircled the remnants of a castle – a single squat tower – and the ruins of an abbey, a jumble of rock and rubble. Enclosed, too, was the medieval village, its rickety townhouses rising, Roy knew, from rich Viking roots. Soaring above the scene, held aloft on the palms of the ramparts, was its pinnacle: the mighty Minster, an ornament both ethereal and earthly, a cross of gleaming white gold, a creation that crowned creation.
Taking a deep breath, he turned back to the wall. The Minster was his ultimate destination. First, though, he planned to patrol the path like a Roman sentry, to air his anxieties. He was alone, but not lonely. Having fled London the day before, he felt calmer already. Sylvie had slipped out of sight, certainly, but not out of mind, for he could sense her presence still. Together, in this fairy-tale town, they would make sense of what had happened; together, they would make a decision.
He set off eastwards, feeling strangely exposed. Over time, as the town had spilled out into the surrounding countryside, the wall had stopped being an extremity; before long, it had evidently become a bond rather than a barrier, a bridge between the old area and the new.
Roy’s stomach gave a gurgle, and his thoughts went back to breakfast: to the tea room in the Shambles, as they called it; to the waitress, a mousy woman with a shading of down on her upper lip, who had, without warning, brought him a second boiled egg.
‘Off to chocolate town then is it?’ she had asked.
Awkwardly, he’d told her he didn’t like chocolate.
‘Ah,’ she had said. ‘But ladies do.’
He swatted at a gnat. Did Sylvie like chocolate? Did she eat boiled eggs for breakfast? And what, he wondered, did she think of York? He grimaced. New York would be more to her liking. Stumbling, he clutched at the parapet. She had been toying with him, surely, on that last day in London, tipsy on the brandy he ought to have kept to himself. She barely a woman; he barely a man. He having outgrown his manhood, faded and fat; she in full bloom and facing him again now, in the vision he had vowed to forget. To see and yet not to see.
It was ridiculous. The pause had been protracted; in the end, though, he had turned away, lurching to the window, looking back to become the pillar of salt he believed himself to be. She had gathered her things in silence: typewriter, coat, purse – and, he realised later, the pad on which he had scribbled the last shameful scene. Only then had she left him.
At Fishergate Postern – the square tower that marked the end of the first stretch of wall – Roy took the pitted stone steps down to the ground. Crossing the bridge over the River Foss, he strode towards the remains of the castle, the tower sitting hunched on its magnificent mound of grass-covered earth, its shoulders around its ears, looking all the world, Roy realised, like Shakespeare’s Richard, the foul bunch-back’d toad. Roy shuddered and glanced around. The leaves of a nearby oak were stirring in the breeze, and clouds had appeared along the horizon.
Tightening the straps of his rucksack, he set out up the long strip of steps that led to the tower. Sweat broke out on his back and he was soon breathing hard. Above him, about halfway up, a figure sat on the steps, smoking a pipe; a figure Roy recognised.
‘You’re the man from the hotel bar,’ he panted, stopping alongside.
‘Tha’s right, mate. One-Eyed Jack, the ghost. Pleased ta meet you ag’in.’
His scarlet jacket, pistol and leather eye-patch lay on the step beside him.
‘Coming up?’ Roy asked.
‘Up there? Not on yer nelly, mate. This is as far as I ever go. Ghosts give me the willies, and that chopping shop –’ he jabbed a thumb over his shoulder ‘– is full of ’em.’
Roy gazed up at the tower, at its flat austere face, its imposing impervious bulk.
‘Going down then?’
Jack winked and whistled a refrain.
‘Of course,’ Roy said, ‘the nursery rhyme. “And when they were up, they were up, and when they were down they were down.”’
‘And when they was only halfway up,’ Jack added, grimly, ‘they was neither up or down. Ol’ One-Eye calls his own tune these days. Dukes be damned.’
With a nod and a wave, Roy continued the climb, sweat beading on his brow. The higher he went the more hunched and unholy the tower seemed to become. Wasn’t he, Roy, a lot like Shakespeare’s king – as ugly as a toad, as prickly as a hedgehog? And yet hadn’t Richard’s ‘honey words’ won Anne over?
Roy thought of the ‘modern’ ending he’d written to impress Sylvie.
‘Forget words,’ she seemed to say to him. ‘Follow your feelings. Where the bee sucks, there suck I.’ Head spinning, Roy slowed to a stop. It was beyond him – that was his feeling. Turning his back on the tower, he trudged down the steps, the words of Jack’s nursery rhyme ringing in his ears. The ghost, he noticed, was gone.