Where an eyebrow of cloud shaded the Isle of Sheppey from the white indifference of the sky, halfway between the grey oblong of estuary and the twin lines of the railway, we were caught by silly gusts of wet wind from the west. The late morning had the cast of bleak afternoon: the day was uncertain. Clide’s cigarette wouldn’t light (“Zippo’s were designed for these weather conditions, you wouldn’t believe it though would you…”) and Augustus had long since given up on his efforts with matches. Burnt fingers had left an echo of his father’s voice ringing in his ears (“Don’t want to be playing with matches, young August.”) and I, for myself, was getting tired of the whole endeavour.
I shielded the photocopied map with my body and tried to make sense of it again, “So that’s the Caravan Park.”
“It might be that one over there?” Augustus indicated another cluster of rectangular boxes back east towards Whitstable. I moved my finger back along the coast to indicate the caravan park that he had suggested – a spot of rain landed on the paper, just below the blue biro cross that Wassgotterspeck had inscribed. (“It’s right here, piece’o’piss, can’t miss it!”)
“Well, I’m pretty keen on giving up on this. I don’t think there really is a hidden railway station along this line.” I screwed the map up and put it back into my pocket.
“I don’t reckon anyone had any reason to lie,” Clide picked bits of tobacco out of his mouth, “What I reckon’s happened is that we’ve got ourselves into a muddle.”
“But the track’s right here! We’ve followed it backwards and forwards eight hundred times and there is fuck-all at the point specified by the cross: as there is fuck-all anywhere else!”
“I think you’re just being tetchy,” said Augustus, “you’re not reading the map right, are you?”
“Oh fuck off!” I pushed the map deeper into an inadequate pocket. A triangular corner stuck out. Augustus picked at it with his big mittens. I turned round and round trying to avoid him.
“Yeah, come on! Give us a look at the map!” Clide paced around me with his nicotine-stained fingers held out like some over-ripe bunch of sausages. I kicked at Augustus who backed away to avoid the boot and started walking fast, head first into the damp wind, “Oh, come on, man. Be reasonable!” said Clide, “We paid our share for the map.”
Augustus caught up with me and pulled at my arm trying to tug out the map with it. I turned abruptly to swing at him and the tattered paper burst in the air. Not as paper but as feathers. Three doves glowing with a soft golden light that had no place here on a wet bank holiday weekend. The doves circled each other like the coils of a DNA helix: their upward ascent held in check by a slowing of the natural order.
Sometime after that we found ourselves in a Shepherd Neame pub up Faversham Creek. I don’t remember exactly when the manifestation stopped happening or how we had got there. In fact, I viewed the three of us entering the pub from outside, as if I was hovering above the road looking down on the three hooded pilgrims – fuzzy and indistinct and apparently invisible to the local kids in their puffer jackets and the red faced seadogs of the dried-up creek.
“They are carried on wings of angels,” an old voice told me, “the boats are lifted by the hosts of heaven and placed into the estuary.”
“They bob like corks, don’t they?” my voice said.
“Pretty things aren’t they? They’re under the protection,” the old voice said.
My head didn’t adjust for the duration of that afternoon and neither Clide nor Augustus mentioned the map again. We were quite happy to sit there at our table; our coats drying on the big, round, iron radiators; drinking slow pints of a local brew and eating peanuts. An unrecognisable news programme showed us quick-cut images of darkened city streets, where the brick was deep green and the golden mozaics of a grand Basilica cut into the night air. A procession of cowled and masked hierarchs paced, stately and ancient, out into the cobbelled streets.
My memories of the conversations in the pub are fragmentary and fractured. Sometimes there was jeering applause as Clide scored another goal in the shove ha’penny tournament. And I heard my voice recite a poem to one of the barmaids: the recitation seemed to be in hebrew and although I do not speak hebrew I somehow knew that it had originally been the composition of a king, perhaps Solomon.
And then there was that airy laughter that I will never forget. A hilarity edging on madness, like one might feel under the influence of butane or solvents. Augustus banging his fist on the table, “We can’t get through to it! We’re being held at one remove!” he would insist, gesturing obscenely at the small television screen. And then he was sitting on the floor with one of the sailors who was talking to him in hushed tones. Again Clide scored a goal and raced around the bar, “I’m the winner, I’m the winner!” And then we were back again in that strange phased laughter: Augustus’s head was next to the television screen. The lines of the picture bowed around the corners of the tube, “I can see inside!” he revealed.
Experimentally, he put his head inside the picture. His face flickered with the coloured interference of the screen. The barman sat cross-legged upon the bar in a profound state of meditation:They’re cultist, occultists, satanists, I thought. And then I saw the soles of Augustus’s shoes sticking out of the screen – his elated head being helped through on the other side by a uniformed halbardier.