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Chapter 3: The Choice
Eddy awoke, shivering and damp. The ferry ploughed its way through the white caps, creating a see-saw motion which made him queasy. His travelling companion was nowhere to be seen, and for a second the unsettling thought crossed his mind – that he had dreamed her into being. And yet, her bag was still next to his in their temporary ‘nest’. He picked it up, and slinging his own over his shoulder, made a quick reccy of the deck.
It was early morning. Dawn was a red smear in the east. The chilly fog, bitter on the tongue, dissipated the sunlight in a thin veil. Seagulls keened noisily overhead, skirling about the funnels, which belched their grey smoke into the air.
Towards the rear of the deck, overlooking the stern, he found her – her tall, slim figure a dark outline against the pale mist. As he approached he heard her speaking – a strange guttural tongue – to herself, to the sea:
Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan,
siþas secgan, hu ic geswincdagum
earfoðhwile oft þrowade,
bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe,
gecunnad in ceole cearselda fela,
atol yþa gewealc…
The lonely sound seemed to echo the bleak vista; the haranguing gulls; the tang of brine. Eddy sensed a deep longing and loneliness in her words which echoed his own emptiness – something he had never been able to articulate or even acknowledge until now.
Sensing his presence, Fenja stopped mid-sentence. She turned and he saw the glister of tears in her eyes.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.’ He ventured closer. ‘It was … beautiful – weird, but beautiful.’
She scowled at him and went to light a cigarette, covering her lighter with the flap of her jacket.
‘What did it mean?’
Fenja took a drag of her cigarette and scanned the skein of wave-patterns unravelling from the wake of the ship.
‘It’s just an old poem…’ she shrugged dismissively.
‘Please, I’d like to know.’
Fenja gave him an appraising look, and then exhaled a wraith of smoke. She continued, shifting into English: ‘…atol yþa gewealc … the terrible tossing of the waves, where the anxious night-watch often took me, at the ship’s prow, when it tossed near the cliffs. Fettered by cold, were my feet, bound by frost, in cold clasps, where then cares seethed; hot about my heart – a hunger tears from within the sea-weary soul.’
‘Wow, that’s pretty awesome. What language is that?’
‘An old one, spoken by seafarers who crossed this Whale’s Road, as we do – to Britain.’
‘Far out, Fen. Were you a literature major or something?’
She looked at him scornfully.
‘Mm, shall I get us a coffee?’
‘Frappacino, right? Brrr. It’s chilly enough for me. I need something hot! Seeya in a mo.’
Fenja watched him go. Then turned back to the waves, she continued, a little contemptuously:
‘That man knows not,
to whom on earth fairest falls,
how I, care-wretched, ice-cold sea
dwelt on in winter along the exile-tracks,
bereaved both of friend and of kin,
behung with rime-crystals. Hail showers flew.
I heard nothing there but the sea’s sounding,
Fenja didn’t seem very talkative after that, although Eddy was full of excitement at their crossing. They were making progress, albeit painfully slowly. After twelve hours the gloomy coast of Britain appeared and by then Eddy was glad to see it. The sea seemed to put his companion into a strange mood. He was looking forward to being back on dry land – with two wheels under him and the road stretching ahead. He’d been checking out the route on his phone, and just before they docked, he approached his impromptu passenger with a suggestion. She scanned the dreary docks of Hull with cold eyes. It didn’t look promising.
‘Well, this is the parting of the ways…’
‘Listen, I have a suggestion to make.’
She turned to look at him – stiffening.
‘No, nothing improper. I know you’re not the kinda gal to try it on with…’
She narrowed her eyes to slits of ice.
‘Not that that wouldn’t be nice…’
She glared at him.
‘But what I wanted to say was – how about I give you a lift to Liverpool. That’s where the ferry leaves for Man, doesn’t it? Where your big powwow is?’
Fenja sucked on her cigarette, scanning the docks. ‘Very well.’
‘Cool!’ Eddy went to high-five her. ‘Looks like we’ve got a deal.’
Fenja stubbed the cigarette off on his palm. The flesh sizzled, reeked.
‘Ow!’ Eddy looked at the burnt hole in his hand in disbelief. ‘Jeezus!’
‘But keep your hands to yourself!’
She slinked off, as the tannoy announced disembarkation.
They got out of Hull as quickly as possible, taking the York road – when it soon became apparent the motorway was gridlocked. It was early evening and the plan was to get at least as far as that city before they stopped for food. The ride to Liverpool would take roughly two hours twenty, but Eddy was determined to make the most of it. There was something about Fenja that … fascinated him. Yes, his hand still smarted – making gripping the handlebar uncomfortable – but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d been drawn to something bad for him, as Siggy, his sister, would no doubt point out. There were a dozen messages from her on his phone, and half a dozen from his Mom, but he held off answering them. They could wait.
He had a hot one on his hands.
Eddy’s first impressions of Britain weren’t promising. The hinterland of Hull was, frankly, depressing. None of the charming quaintness he’d come to expect from cheesy movies. Red double deckers and postboxes, old-fashioned ‘bobbies’ on the beat, Big Ben and Olde Worlde pubs serving warm beer. It wasn’t even raining! It just looked drab – worn out suburbs and Legoland shopping centres, dismal high streets lined with empty units and big shed industrial estates. The countryside wasn’t much better … it seemed threadbare somehow. Of the picturesque villages and rolling, verdant hills he saw little evidence. Not so much the Shire, as just ‘shite’, as he overheard a local say when they stopped for directions – laughing coarsely. The people around here seemed, well, just odd. Hard-looking, unwelcoming faces like the grizzled coast-line: stern cliffs lashed by bitter seas.
At one point, pausing at a black-and-white striped pedestrian crossing, Eddy smiled as he saw an obese bald man in a tattered dress pushing an empty pram across – excruciatingly slowly. He tapped his fingers impatiently on his handlebars – until halfway across the bald man turned and shouted: ‘The voices in the sky told me it’s not safe for you to ride your bike.’ Eddy laughed about this with Fenja, but it rattled him a little – especially his passenger’s sober response. ‘He’s probably right.’
‘Come off it! Do you listen to voices in the sky?’
Fenja nodded. ‘You would be foolish not to.’
Right. Eddy had had his belly-full of such bullshit from both his grandfathers: incomprehensible Icelandic sagas from Gunnar (may his liver rest in peace); hokey Medicine Way shit from Running Bear. He’d grown up with it. Ever since busting out of High School, he had done his damnedest to avoid all of that hocus pocus. The only medicine he needed was rock and roll, a cold beer and a hot babe.
At York they stopped for fish and chips: they had to try them, Eddy had insisted. They sat by the castle ruins, watching the lads and lasses out on the town in t-shirts and mini-skirts. Eddy was impressed by the brevity of attire the local girls wore, or rather didn’t, considering how parky it was (according to one of the lads, brassing it out bravely, pint in hand). Fenja jabbed at her fish it suspiciously with the wooden fork.
‘Boy, they’re pretty hot around here. Alot of blondes – they look a bit like you. But not as …’
He remembered the cigarette butt, and held back. ‘How’s the fish.’
‘Better than these chips. I could only manage half of them.’ He belched.
Fenja didn’t react.
‘How about we go for a beer?’
‘How about we go?’
‘Hang on – you’re not doing all the driving. It’s a long ride after a long trip. What’s the rush?’
‘Why would I want to spend a moment longer with you than I have to?’
‘Hey, and I like your company too, Fen. You’re a barrel of laughs. You need to lighten up.’ He threw the rest of the chips in the bin. ‘I’m going for a beer. You can walk to Liverpool if you like, or come for one to wash down this English grease.’
On the way to the nearest pub they passed a visitor centre. Fenja froze outside and gazed through the glass at the display – a Viking longship.
Eddy whistled. ‘That’s was one helluva boat! Look at the dragon-head!’
Fenja started to recite something, but Eddy couldn’t catch it.
‘Pity it’s closed. It’s gone five. C’mon, let’s go.’
The glass doors of the admissions area suddenly slid open and Fenja walked straight inside. ‘Hey!’ Eddy went to follow her. ‘You can’t go in there! It’s clo—’ The glass doors slid shut in his face. He banged on them, but Fenja had walked inside the museum, out of sight.
He paced up and down for a bit, wondering what to do – then decided a beer would help.
Fenja found him in a local pub, sipping gingerly on a pint of dark English ale.
‘Did you have fun?’
‘My people…’ Her eyes were full of light. She seemed happy.
‘They didn’t catch you then?’
‘My people!’ she called out, grabbing his pint and raising it in toast, then she set to downing it in one, before Eddy could stop her.
‘Hey, buy your own!’
When she finished she slammed down the glass and smacked her lips, wiping the froth with the back of her hand. A ripple of applause and a few cheers went up around the bar. A loud track kicked in on the juke-box. She started dancing, to wolf whistles – pulling Eddy up off his feet. He was a bit embarrassed at first, but was soon caught up in her enthusiasm. It was good to see her let go – and boy, did she let go! She started to dance wilder and wilder – grinding and gyrating amongst the men, who began clapping and stamping.
Suddenly, from the other side of the bar Eddy could see policemen in their distinctive black and Nor’man-shaped helmets. The landlord pointed over to Fenja.
‘Quick, we’ve got to get out of here!’ Eddy grabbed hold of the dancer’s hand and pulled her towards the door. Laughing, she danced out into the street.
The police tried to barge their way through the beefy clientèle but the drinkers barred their way, knocking over stools.
‘Come on!’ Eddy ran, and Fenja sprinted beside him – as easily as a deer. They raced around the corner, out of sight of the pub and headed down a narrow side-lane in the general direction of the bike. It paid off – they appeared right next to it. Eddy unlocked it, and chucked Fenja a helmet. ‘Get on!’ He gunned the engine and they roared off, Fenja singing behind him.
They stopped a safe distance outside the city, pulling over on a layby along a country road. The sun was low in the sky – briefly showing its face beneath the lid of clouds. Pulling off their helmets, they both laughed with relief. They had got away!
‘What did you do back there to raise the heat?’
‘Oh, just a little sight-seeing.’
Eddy raised an eyebrow. ‘What is it with you and electronics? You seem able to affect them…’
‘Oh, nothing. It must be my natural … magnetism!’
‘You’re telling me. You had those guys lapping out of your hands in the pub. You’re … quite a dancer.’
‘And so were you…’ She pulled him closer. ‘You have a wild side too, Mister Redcrow.’ She pressed against him. She held him there for a minute – groin against groin. He could feel the heat of her loins.
‘Damn, I need a slash. Hold it right there!’
Fenja laughed and let him go. When he came back she was on the back of the bike, helmet on.
‘Let’s go, Redcrow!’
Arms folded, he looked at her in disbelief. She was pulling the strings alright! He shook his head. On a whim, saluted.
‘Are you sure you don’t want me to wait with you?’
They were standing outside the ferry terminal at Liverpool. It was dark.
‘No, you go on. You have brought me so far.’
‘Well … look after yourself.’ He shuffled awkwardly. She handed him back the spare helmet.
Fenja pulled him to her and planted a hot kiss upon his lips. She lingered there and something crackled between them.
For a moment, Eddy looked at her – her elfin face close to his. Then, settling into it, he closed his eyes.
There was a flash and crack – and an image streaked across his mind’s eye like a sigil of lightning. An intricate knot of sharp lines – three interlocking triangles – scolded into his mind like a brand.
And far off, inside, reverberating through his whole body – the sound of thunder.
Eddy started shaking. His limbs … wouldn’t stop shuddering. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know—‘
She placed her finger upon his lips, then turned on her heels and walked away.
Eddy shook his head, tried to recover. ‘Wait! Will I see you again?’
She paused and looked back briefly. ‘If the Norns will it.’
And she was gone.
Eddy crashed in a backpackers. He was wiped out and slept like a dog – snoring loudly – much to the annoyance of his fellow dorm-mates. The man below kept kicking his bunk, trying to make him shut up. The pounding became thunder in his dream. He was chasing Fenja across a rocky plateau where rock pools bubbled and steamed. Above, a sky dark with storm cloud. With each flash of lightning he caught a brief glimpse of the sigil from Fenja’s kiss. It seemed to whisper to him, something he couldn’t quite catch in a strange language. Just on the cusp of hearing it a heavy kick from below woke him up – he sat upright in his bunk, body clammy, breathing heavily.
For a moment, in the dark, he wasn’t sure where he was.
Then the smell of socks, of body odour, brought him back.
Sighing, he flopped back onto the mattress and was soon fast asleep.
He rose late and missed breakfast. The bunk-kicker was gone. The dorm empty except for his belongings, which he checked. Nothing missing. After freshening up, he grabbed a coffee and a snack from the vending machine and decided to check his emails.
There were about a hundred from his sister.
Sighing, he clicked on Whatsapp. Typed ‘S’. It would be about eight over there – if he was lucky, he’d catch his sister before she went to work.
Finally, she answered.
‘Eddy, is that you, you dirtbag? Christ, where have you been? We’ve been worried sick!’ Her voice was a little distorted. Not a great connection, but it’ll have to do.
In the background he could her hear the sounds of the kitchen. The TV. Voices.
‘Wait a minute.’ She turned down the breakfast show. ‘Mom! Dad! Give me some space here. It’s Eddy! I know… I will … Just let me talk to him for now, okay! Sheesh!’
‘Sounds like all is well…’
‘Now you listen up, Eddy!’
‘Uh-oh, it’s that tone,’ he groaned. ‘Tsunami warning.’
‘Damn right. You’re way out of line. Not returning our messages. Letting us worry. We’ve been following the news and it looks like a real shit-storm over there in Euro-land. When we heard that Candy got back, we didn’t know what to think. I managed to collar her at Tergesen’s. She said you had split up. She didn’t have anything nice to say about you. You’ve blown it, little brother. You really are one tremendous fuck-up.’
‘Oh, here we go again.’
‘Yes, again and again – until you …’
‘Get a life, I know the drill.’ Eddy had heard this a thousand times before. ‘“When are you going to get a proper job? When are you going to settle down?’”
‘Eddy, you can’t be a teenager forever! Most of us grow up. You waste your talents in part-time jobs…’
‘It supports my music career…’
‘Music career? An axe-man in a pub rock band. The Runestone Cowboys…? How are you ever going to be taken seriously with a name like that? As far as I can see you guys just play for beers and kicks. As long as you can ride your little bikes and squeeze a few little chicks, you’re happy.’
‘Yep, that about sums it up. Simple needs: the secret of happiness. When was the last time you were happy, sizzers?’
‘How dare you! I love my life. Mom, we’re leaving in five!’
‘You were always the smart one – you’ve got a degree in history. First one in our family to graduate.’
‘The only one, by the looks of things.’
‘And what you’re doing with it? A clerk in a bookstore.’
‘Hey! You know how hard it is to get a job with a History degree? Anyway, Mister Forbes’ List – don’t lecture me on career choices!’
‘Ah, it’s just like old times. Absent makes the heart grow fonder, hey?’
‘I’m … sorry. But I … care for you, you dumb ass. Don’t waste your life away.’
‘Jeez, big sis. I luv ya too.’
‘Then listen up, you big lunk. There’s a job going at the local garage – they need a bike mechanic. I got chatting to Bill when I took the old jalopey in for its MOT. I said you’re pretty good with the tinkering. He told me you should give him a call. ASAP. Otherwise, someone else’ll get it.’
Eddy looked out at the street. The traffic. The pedestrians. Everyone rushing somewhere. What was he doing with his life? Where was he going? Did he really want to be a part-time rocker forever? The aftershow parties were good – but … what about his band? There never seemed to be enough time to organise themselves. They played the same old bars, going round in circles.
‘Well, thanks, sis – my career advisor!’
‘Don’t mention it, jerk. Call Bill, and come home.’
Eddy let out a sigh. ‘Okay, will do. Tell Mom I’ve booked a flight from Aberdeen, Scotland. I’m heading up there now. I should be back in a couple of days.’
‘She’ll be relieved. You take care, bro. Love.’
‘Love you too, sizzers. And … thanks. You’re a pain in the butt, but you mean well.’
‘Ring Bill! And get your red arse back here! No excuses!’
‘Not even a volcanic eruption!’
‘That’s nothing compared to your big sister’s temper!’
Eddy laughed. ‘Give my love to Mom, Pops and Grandpa. See you soon.’
Eddy rode. He had a big grin on his face. Rock music blasted through his earbuds as he revved the bike along the long road North. The northern English landscape was craggy and bleak, jagged fells looming out of the mist beyond the thin ribbon of road – which seemed vulnerable, as though its fate depended on the whim of angry gods, brooding from the mountain fastnesses.
Yet Eddy felt for the first time in a long while that his fate, perhaps, was in his own hands. The freedom of the road fostered that illusion – and he made the most of it while he could, for he knew, the further north he went to narrower his options would become.
Yet he had little choice, it seemed.
Aberdeen was the only airport still open and allowing flights to the US and Canada – for now, although who knows how long that situation would last? How many of his fellow countrymen were making their way their right now? Eddy took some consolation from the fact his bike allowed him to make swift progress. The travel chaos had infiltrated Britain like a virus, as they had discovered on making landfall – but it was with a warm feeling he reflected back on his brief time with Fenja. She was out of this world, that gal – so utterly other that it blew his mind! There was an aura about here – a fearless freedom, trouble, headfuckery weirdness, whatever – but Eddy found it intoxicating. He was hooked, and going cold turkey seemed less and less appealing.
Eddy pulled over at the brow of the hill. He had reached the English-Scottish border – the bare hills stretched into the grey distant: a kingdom of wind turbines and forestry plantations. He was expecting something more impressive. Border control. Heavy security. Instead, there was just a snack-trailer, portaloo and a sign, covered in stickers and graffiti, saying ‘Welcome to Scotland.’ It was hardly the Tex-Mex crossing.
Eddy looked at the long road ahead – two hundred miles to go to Aberdeen. He could make it by late evening, and catch the first flight in the morning. He’d managed to reserve a seat before he left Italy. He was one of the lucky ones. But then he contemplated a night in an airport terminal, the long flight. The prospect of a real job when he got back… He’d spoken to Bill earlier and he seemed keen for him to start as soon as he got back.
Eddy chewed things over as he devoured a roll, sitting outside the roadside café in his leathers. He’d come so far… A few more hours and he’d be home. His holiday would all be over. What a fuck up it had been!
Well, not quite.
He circled the butt-burn on his palm, smiling fondly. That kiss! And there was the dream. The sigil. Her strange songs. Her dancing. Her way of making things go haywire. That woman had magic!
Then his sister’s nagging came back to him, and beyond that, the chorus of disapproval of his Mom, Sitting Cloud; his father, Magnus; and his grandfather, Running Bear – buzzing in his mind like the midges of Manitoba. All telling him to: sort himself; eat well; man up; or, follow the good Red Road.
Eddy closed his palm, curling it into a fist.
He got onto his bike, fired it up, and turned it back – to the South – shooting off down the road.
Overhead, the glowering skies flashed with a sigil of lightning.
Extract of Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring
Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020