Road Ends - Prologue

The road was heavily overgrown and they had to stop the car half a dozen times in order to hack down shrubs or drag fallen trees aside. Once a sizeable beech blocked the way and they attacked it with a cross-cut saw. Simon had never seen a cross-cut saw before, far less used one, and he was predictably useless, but ridiculing him was part of the fun.

‘Would you look at this city-slicker,’ Tom said. ‘Keep your leg there and you’ll cut it off. OK, that’s better. Now pull the saw straight towards you . . . don’t let the blade bend or it’ll jam.’

Simon took the saw handles and pulled. The blade jammed.

‘As I was saying . . . ,’ Tom said, repositioning the saw. Simon pulled again. The blade jammed.

‘Back home we have real saws,’ Simon said. ‘Flick a switch and bam! You could deforest this whole state in ten minutes.’ He was American, from Alabama, and had a long slow drawl. Tom had been afraid he would be bored up here in the middle of nowhere for a whole week but he was game to try anything and seemed to be having a great time.

‘Province,’ Tom said. ‘Not state. And I can just see you with a chain saw. Give me plenty of warning OK? I’ll emigrate.’

He drew the saw back again, then paused, noticing the angle of the sun slanting through the trees, and glanced at his watch.

‘Actually, no offence, but I think Rob better take over or we won’t make it down into the ravine and back while it’s still light. OK, Rob?’

Robert was standing with his hands in his pockets, looking off into the woods, and seemed not to hear. Each time they’d had to stop to clear the path all three of them had climbed out of the car, but each time Robert had then merely stood and watched as if lost in thought. Tom was starting to find it both annoying and embarrassing. Rob was still not in good shape, anyone could see that, but given that he’d agreed to come with them he could at least make an effort to join in. He’d hardly said a word since they set off.

‘Could you give me a hand here, Rob?’ Tom said. No response.

‘Rob? Could you give me a hand?’

Finally Robert looked around. ‘Sure,’ he said. His face was a waxy colour as if he’d been shut in a dark room for a long time. He came over and took the saw handles and in less than a minute they’d made the first cut.

‘That was so impressive !’ Simon said, overdoing the awe a little. ‘Were you guys born knowing how to do that?’

Tom snorted. He and Robert took the saw to the other side of the road and made the second cut. No longer supported at either end, the log thudded to the ground. The two of them picked it up and heaved it off the road.

‘Right,’ Tom said. ‘Let’s go.’ He went back to the car and dumped the saw in the trunk.

Robert was looking past them, down the road.

‘Rob?’ Tom said again, not making much effort now to hide his annoyance.

‘There’s a lynx,’ Robert said quietly.

Tom turned and sure enough, there was a lynx not more than thirty feet away, crouched at the side of the road, watching them.

‘God!’ Simon said in an undertone. ‘Look at him!’

‘You don’t see many of those,’ Tom said. He was absurdly pleased, as if he himself had arranged for the big cat to appear. ‘ They’re night hunters, mostly. Consider yourself honoured.’

‘I do!’

The lynx watched them for a moment, tufted ears angled warily. Then it turned and was instantly gone. The three of them stood, peering into the woods, trying to make out the shape of the animal in the shadows, but it had vanished.

They got back into the car and carried on, the car jolting over the uneven ground, the woods closing in behind them. Finally they rounded a curve and up ahead the road abruptly came to an end, nothing in front of them but forest.

‘That looks kind of final,’ Simon said. ‘What do we do now?’

‘We get out. We’re there.’

Tom edged the car up until its fender was almost touching the sign that stood between the road and the nearest trees and switched off the engine.

‘What’s the sign say?’ Simon asked, leaning forward, trying to read it.

‘You need to see it,’ Tom said. ‘It’s great.’ He opened the door and got out.

It was an ordinary road sign, black and white enamelled metal, bolted to a stake that had been hammered into the ground. There were scabs of rust breaking through the paint and it was covered in dust and mud, but when Tom wiped the surface with his sleeve you could still make out the words.

Simon came around the car to join him. ‘ROAD ENDS,’ he read aloud, and gave a whoop of laughter. ‘Did they think you might not notice? Did someone put it there as a joke?’

‘I don’t think the Department of Highways is known for its sense of humour,’ Tom said. ‘The ravine’s right here; I guess they wanted to warn people.’

There was a sound behind them and he glanced over his shoulder. Robert was getting out of the car.

‘The ravine’s here?’ Simon said. ‘Where, exactly?’

‘Just there, through the trees. The bushes hide it, so be care-ful. In fact, maybe I’ll go first.’

He picked his way through the trees and undergrowth, going slowly because it was possible that there had been some erosion since the last time he’d been there and he didn’t want to walk out on an overhang by mistake. Suddenly the ground ahead disappeared, just fell away, a sheer drop of two hundred feet to the river below. Instinctively he stuck out his arm to stop the others.

‘Christ!’ Simon said, hastily stepping back.

Robert joined them and the three of them stood looking down. The ravine was narrow, not more than thirty feet across, and the rock face on the other side glistened grey and green in the rising spray from the river below. As it rose into the air the spray caught the sun and a rainbow arced up and across the gorge, fantastical and unreal. From somewhere in the background, somewhere unseen, there came a sound like rumbling thunder.

‘I’m getting soaked,’ Simon said, wiping his face with his sleeve. ‘Where’s all the spray coming from?’

‘There’s a waterfall just around to the left. A big one. That’s the sound you hear – the thunder. If you go down to the bottom you can get right around behind it – there’s a cave. I’ll show you.’

‘We’re going down there? Are you kidding?’

‘There’s a path. It’s steep, but it’s OK.’

He glanced around. ‘You coming, Rob?’

He and Rob had been down to the falls countless times when they were kids. It had been one of their favourite hikes. They’d cycle as far as they could up the road and then abandon their bikes and go the rest of the way on foot. They’d kidded them-selves that no one else knew the cave was there, though of course all kinds of people did. The road had been put in by a hydro company, who’d thought it was a good place to build a dam. But in the end they’d found somewhere better and moved on, leaving the road to be absorbed back into the woods.

Robert nodded. ‘Sure.’

‘Good,’ Tom said. ‘Let’s go.’

The old path, when he found it, was overgrown but still pass-able. For the first hundred yards it ran parallel to the edge of the cliff, then started to descend down a gully carved by millennia of rainwater and spray, rapidly becoming steep.

Tom said, ‘Better go down backwards from here on. It’s slippery, so watch your step. There are good handholds.’ He looked past Simon, up the path, but he couldn’t see Robert.

‘Rob?’ he called. ‘You coming?’

‘Sure.’

From the faintness of his voice he was still back at the top of the cliff.

‘Is he OK?’ Simon asked, keeping his voice down. ‘He seems kind of . . . quiet.’

‘Yeah, he’s fine,’ Tom said dismissively. ‘He’s been through a bit of a rough time recently. Nothing serious.’

Nothing serious.

The truth was he was embarrassed by the state his old friend was in and didn’t want to have to explain. Didn’t even want to think about it, in fact, because he’d been very sympathetic for a long time now, over a year, and he was just plain tired of the whole thing. Today was a perfect day, the sun flickering through the trees, the spray drifting gently in the air around them, beading every leaf, every frond of every fern with silver light, and here he was with a friend from university, a great guy, funny and smart, from a different background, who knew things Tom didn’t know but who rather against expectations was prepared to be impressed by the things Tom did know. So in every regard, except for Rob’s behaviour, it was a perfect day. And the past is the past, after all; what’s done is done and you have to move on. Robert had missed the final year of his degree but he’d be able to make it up, and for Simon and Tom the university years were behind them and the future was out there waiting.

They were more than halfway down now. The thunder of the falls filled the air; you could feel the reverberation inside your chest like the bass notes of some great and ancient instrument. Tom looked up at Simon, who was cautiously climbing down after him. No sign of Rob yet, but he knew the way. Tom waited until Simon was close enough and then reached up and tapped his shoe.

‘You OK?’ The thunder of the waterfall was so loud he had to shout.

‘Yeah!’ Simon yelled. ‘It’s fantastic!’

The two of them grinned and carried on down.

____________________

He listened as their voices faded into the rumble of the falls. He was thinking about the lynx. The way it had looked at him, acknowledging his existence, then passing out of his life like smoke. He was very grateful to it. It was the first thing – the only thing – that had managed, if only for a moment, to displace from his mind the image of the child. He had carried that image with him for a year now, and it had been a weight so great that sometimes he could hardly stand.

Until this moment the fear that it would accompany him to the end, enter eternity with him, had left him paralysed, but the lynx had freed him to act. He thought it was possible that if he focused on the big cat, if by a great effort of will he managed to hold it in the forefront of his mind, it might stay with him long enough to be the last thing he saw, and its silence the last thing he heard above the thunder of the falls.

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