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Reservoir 13

Jon McGregor


  4th Estate

  An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

  1 London Bridge Street

  London SE1 9GF

  This eBook first published by 4th Estate in 2017

  Copyright © 2017 Jon McGregor

  Cover photographs © Shutterstock

  Photograph © Sandra Salvas

  Extract from ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens by Wallace Stevens, copyright © 1954 by Wallace Stevens and copyright renewed 1982 by Holly Stephens. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, and Faber and Faber Ltd. All rights reserved.

  Jon McGregor asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

  A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

  Source ISBN: 9780008204853

  Ebook Edition © April 2017 ISBN: 9780008204877

  Version: 2017-03-08


  The river is moving.

  The blackbird must be flying.

  – Wallace Stevens



  Alistair McGregor




  Title Page


















  About the Author

  Also by Jon McGregor

  About the Publisher


  They gathered at the car park in the hour before dawn and waited to be told what to do. It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren’t being asked. The missing girl’s name was Rebecca Shaw. When last seen she’d been wearing a white hooded top. A mist hung low across the moor and the ground was frozen hard. They were given instructions and then they moved off, their boots crunching on the stiffened ground and their tracks fading behind them as the heather sprang back into shape. She was five feet tall, with dark-blonde hair. She had been missing for hours. They kept their eyes down and they didn’t speak and they wondered what they might find. The only sounds were footsteps and dogs barking along the road and faintly a helicopter from the reservoirs. The helicopter had been out all night and found nothing, its searchlight skimming across the heather and surging brown streams. Jackson’s sheep had taken the fear and scattered through a broken gate, and he’d been up all hours bringing them back. The mountain-rescue teams and the cave teams and the police had found nothing, and at midnight a search had been called. It hadn’t taken much to raise the volunteers. Half the village was out already, talking about what could have happened. This was no time of year to have gone up on the hill, it was said. Some of the people who come this way don’t know how sharply the weather can turn. How quickly darkness falls. Some of them don’t seem to know there are places a mobile phone won’t work. The girl’s family had come up for the New Year, and were staying in one of the barn conversions at the Hunter place. They’d come running into the village at dusk, shouting. It was a cold night to have been out on the hill. She’s likely just hiding, people said. She’ll be down in a clough. Turned her ankle. She’ll be aiming to give her parents a fright. There was a lot of this. People just wanted to open their mouths and talk, and they didn’t much mind what came out. By first light the mist had cleared. From the top of the moor when people turned they could see the village: the beech wood and the allotments, the church tower and the cricket ground, the river and the quarry and the cement works by the main road into town. There was plenty of ground to cover, and so many places she could be. They moved on. There was an occasional flash of light from the traffic on the motorway, just visible along the horizon. The reservoirs were a flat metallic grey. A thick band of rain was coming in. The ground was softer now, the oily brown water seeping up around their boots. A news helicopter flew low along the line of volunteers. It was a job not to look up and wave. Later the police held a press conference in the Gladstone, but they had nothing to announce beyond what was already known. The missing girl’s name was Rebecca Shaw. She was thirteen years old. When last seen she’d been wearing a white hooded top with a navy-blue body-warmer, black jeans, and canvas shoes. She was five feet tall, with straight, dark-blonde, shoulder-length hair. Members of the public were urged to contact the police if they saw anyone fitting the description. The search would resume when the weather allowed. In the evening over the square there was a glow of television lights and smoke rising from generators and raised voices coming from the yard behind the pub. Doubts were beginning to emerge.

  At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but they were too far off for the sound to carry and no one came out to watch. The dance at the village hall was cancelled, and although the Gladstone was full there was no mood for celebration. Tony closed the bar at half past the hour and everyone made their way home. Only the police stayed out in the streets, gathered around their vans or heading back into the hills. In the morning the rain started up once again. Water coursed from the swollen peat beds quickly through the cloughs and down the stepped paths which fell from the edge of the moor. The river thickened with silt from the hills and plumed across the weirs. On the moor there were flags marking where the parents said they’d walked. The flags furled and snapped in the wind. At the visitor centre television trucks filled the car park and journalists started to gather. In the village hall the trestle tables were laid with green cups and saucers, the urns rising to the boil and the smell of bacon cobs drifting out into the rain. At the Hunter place there were voices coming from the barn conversion where the parents were staying, loud enough that the policeman outside could hear. Jess Hunter came over from the main house with a mug of tea. A helicopter flew in from the reservoirs, banking slowly along the river and passing over the weir and the quarry and the woods. The divers were going through the river again. A group of journalists waited for the shot, standing behind a cordon by the packhorse bridge, cameras aimed at the empty stretch of water, the breath clouding over their heads. In the lower field two of Jackson’s boys were kneeling beside a fallen ewe. There was a racket of camera shutters as the first diver appeared, the wetsuited head sleek and slow through the water. A second diver came round the bend, and a third. They took turns ducking through the arch in the bridge and then they were out of sight. The camera crews jerked their cameras from the tripods and began folding everything away. One of the Jackson boys bucked a quad bike across the field and told the journalists to move. The river ran empty and quick. The cement works was shut down to allow for a search. In a week the first snowdrops emerged along the verges past the cricket ground, while it seemed winter yet had a way to go. At the school in the staffroom the teachers kept their coats on and waited. Everything that might be said seemed like the wrong thing to say. The heating pipes made a rattling noi
se that most of them were used to and the mood in the room unstiffened. Miss Dale asked Ms French if her mother was any better, and Ms French outlined the ways in which she was not. There was a silence again in the room and the tapping of the radiator. Mrs Simpson came in and thanked them for the early start. They all said of course it wasn’t a problem. Under the circumstances. Mrs Simpson said the plan was to follow their lessons as normal but be ready to talk about the situation if the children asked. Which it seemed likely they would. There was a knock at the door and Jones the caretaker stepped in to say the heating would be working soon. Mrs Simpson asked him to make sure the yard was gritted. He gave her a look which suggested there’d been no need to ask. When the children were brought to school Mrs Simpson stood at the gate to welcome them. The parents lingered once the children had gone inside, watching the doors being locked. Some of them looked as though they could stand there all day. At the bus stop the older children waited for the bus to the secondary school in town. They were teenagers now. It was the first day back but they weren’t saying much. It was cold and they had hoods pulled tightly over their heads. All day they would be asked about the missing girl, as if they knew anything more than they’d heard on the news. Lynsey Smith said it was a safe bet Ms Bowman would ask if they needed to chat. She did finger-quotes around the word chat. Deepak said at least it would be a way of getting out of French. Sophie looked away, and saw Andrew waiting at the other bus stop with Irene, his mother. He was the same age as they were but he went to a special school. Their bus pulled up and James warned Liam not to make up any bullshit about Becky Shaw. It snowed and the snow settled thickly. There was a service at the church. The vicar asked the police to keep the media away. Anyone was welcome to attend, she said, but she wanted no photography or recording, no waving of notebooks. She wanted no spectacle made of a community caught in the agony of prayer. The wardens put out extra chairs, but people were still left standing along the aisles. The men who weren’t used to being in church stood with their hats bent into their hands, leaning against the ends of the pews. Some folded their arms, expectantly. The regulars offered them service books opened to the correct page. The vicar, Jane Hughes, said she hoped no one had come looking for answers. She said she hoped no one was asking for comfort. There is no comfort in the situation we find ourselves in today, she said. There is no comfort for the girl’s parents, or for the family members who have travelled to the village to support them. No comfort for the police officers who have been involved in the search. We can only trust that we might meet God among us in these times of trouble. Only ask that we not allow ourselves to be overcome by a grief which is not ours to indulge but instead be uplifted by faith and enabled to help that suffering family in whatever way we are called to do. She paused, and closed her eyes. She held out her hands in a gesture she hoped might resemble prayer. The men who had their arms folded kept them folded. The warden rang the bell three times and the sound carried out through the brightening morning and along the valley as far as the old quarry. At the end of the month the sun came out and the fields softened. The still air shook to the thump of melting rooftop snow. There were rumours and only rumours of where the parents might be now. They were beside themselves, it was said.

  In February the police arranged a reconstruction, bringing actors over from Manchester. There had been no leads and they wanted to make a fresh appeal. The press were allowed up to the Hunter place and given instructions on what to film. The day was clear and edged with frost. The press officer asked for quiet. The door of the barn conversion opened and a couple in their early forties appeared, followed by a thirteen-year-old girl. The woman was slim, with blonde hair cropped neatly around her ears. She was wearing a dark-blue raincoat, and tight black jeans tucked into calf-length boots. The man was tall and angular, with wiry dark hair and a pair of black-framed glasses. He was wearing a charcoal-grey anorak, walking trousers, and black shoes. The girl looked tall for thirteen, with dark-blonde hair to her shoulders and a well-acted look of irritation. She was wearing black jeans, a white hooded top, a navy body-warmer, and canvas shoes. The three of them got into a silver car which was parked outside the barn conversion, and drove slowly down to the road. The photographers ran alongside. At the visitor centre the actors waited for the photographers to get into place before climbing out of the car and setting off towards the moor. The girl lagged behind and three times the actors playing her parents turned and called for her to hurry up and join them, and three times the girl responded by kicking at the ground and slowing a little more. The two adult actors held hands and walked ahead, and the girl quickened her pace. This sequence of events had been drawn from police interviews, it was later confirmed. The two adults kept walking until they’d gone over the first rise and dropped out of sight, and a few moments later the girl dropped out of sight as well. The cameras photographed the empty air. The press officer thanked everyone for coming. The three actors came back down the hill. Work started up at the cement works again and the roads were silvered with dust. The freight trains came shunting through the hill and around the long bend between the trees. A pale light moved slowly across the moor, catching in the flooded cloughs and ditches and sharpening until the clouds closed overhead. On the riverbank towards the weir at dusk a heron stood and watched the water. A slow fog came down from the hills overnight. At four in the morning Les Thompson was up and bringing the cows across the yard for milking. Later in the day the vicar was seen driving to the Hunter place. She was inside for an hour with the missing girl’s parents, and she didn’t speak to anyone when she left.

  The investigation continued. By the end of March the weather had warmed and the parents were still at the Hunter place. There was no news. Jane Hughes went up to see them again one morning, and on her way past the Jackson place she saw Jackson and the boys out front of the lambing shed. They wore the looks of men who’ve been working hard but see no need to admit it. They had mugs of tea and cigarettes. The smell of breakfast being cooked came from inside the house. It was only when they saw the first children on their way to school that Will Jackson remembered he was due at his son’s mother’s house, to fetch the boy for school. The van wouldn’t start so he took the quad bike, and he knew before he got there that the boy’s mother wouldn’t be happy about this; that it would be one more thing for her to hold against him. When they got back to the school the gates were locked and Will had to call Jones out of the boilerhouse to let them in. He took the boy down to his class. Miss Carter accepted his apologies, and settled the boy down, and asked Will if he might think about the class coming to visit at lambing time. He told her they’d started lambing already and she looked surprised. She asked if there weren’t more to come and he said if she wanted to arrange a school trip she’d have to put something to his father in writing. It was the most she’d heard him say in weeks. When he got back to the yard his brothers were all inside the shed. They’d lost a ewe while he’d been gone. There was a meeting of the parish council. Brian Fletcher had trouble keeping people to the agenda, and eventually had to concede that it was difficult to pay mind to parking issues at a time like this. The meeting was adjourned. The police held a press conference in the function room at the Gladstone, and announced that they wanted to trace the driver of a red LDV Pilot van. The journalists asked if the driver was considered a suspect, and the detective in charge said they were keeping an open mind. The girl’s parents sat beside the detective and said nothing. In the afternoon the wind was high and the clouds blew quickly east. A blackbird dipped across Mr Wilson’s garden with a beakful of dead grass for a nest. There were springtails under the beech trees behind the Close, feeding on fragments of fallen leaves. At night from the hill the lights could be seen along the motorway, the red and the white flowing past one another and the clouds blowing through overhead. The missing girl had been looked for. She had been looked for all over. She had been looked for in the nettles growing up around the dead oak tree in Thompson’s yard. Paving slabs and sheets
of ply had been lifted before people moved away through the gates. She had been looked for at the Hunter place, around the back of the barn conversions and in the carports and woodsheds and workshops, in the woodland and in the greenhouses and the walled gardens. She had been looked for at the cement works, the huge buildings moved through with unease, people nosing vaguely behind pallets and forklifts and through the staffroom and canteen, their hands and faces slick with white dust when they ghosted on down the road. At night there were dreams about where she might have gone. Dreams about her walking down from the moor, her clothes soaked and her skin almost blue. Dreams about being the first to reach her with a blanket and bring her safely home.

  By April when the first swallows were seen the walkers were back on the hills. At the car park as they hoisted their packs they could be heard speculating about the girl. Which way she might have headed, how far she might have gone. North and she’d have been over the motorway by nightfall. East and the reservoirs would have been in her way. West and she’d have come to the edges, where the heather and soil frayed out into air and the gritstone rolled away from the hill. The weather she’d have been walking through. And in those shoes. There were so many places to fall. How was it she hadn’t been found, still, as the days got longer and the sun cut further into the valley and under the ash trees the first new ferns unfurled from the cold black soil. In the evenings the same pictures were shown on the news: an aerial shot of the search party strung across the moor; the divers moving through the water; the girl’s parents being driven away; the photograph of the girl. In the photograph she matched the description of what she’d been wearing and her face was half-turned away. It made it look as though she wanted to be somewhere else, people said. The girl’s mother was again visited by detectives. Sometimes there were new questions. At the school before the children arrived Miss Carter filled aluminium jugs from the dinner hall with water and arranged in them cut branches of willow tight with buds. On the allotments the purple broccoli was sprouting, the heads snapping off cleanly and too sweet on the tongue to get a decent harvest home. Surveyors were seen up on the land around the Stone Sisters. There were rumours they worked for a quarrying firm. The annual Spring Dance was almost cancelled, but when Irene suggested holding it in aid of a missing-children’s charity it became difficult for anyone to object. Sally Fletcher offered to help organise it, once Irene had looked pointedly at her for long enough. The divers roped up again, slipping into the reservoir while the herons sloped away overhead. The trees came back into leaf. A soft rain blew in smoky clouds across the fields.