Return to the water
Laura felt like such a fool, why on earth hadn’t she tried this before? But perhaps they would have tried harder to stop her before, maybe now all this time had passed the threat to her really had receded. Replaced, she thought as she headed for the nearest tube, by a much bigger threat to them all.
Laura knew where she was going, sort of. She had looked up the Thames tide timetable online, and worked out how to get from the flat to the river. She emerged from the Underground in a street she recognised from her drive into the City with Joseph. How long ago that seemed now. Undeterred she made her way to the riverside and the pier. It was still early and there was a while to wait for the first tourist boat. She bought a ticket with money she’d borrowed, stolen really, from Mrs Patterson’s purse, and felt horrible for doing so, but needs must she told herself. Now she stood on the pier, looking down at the water through the gaps between the wooden slats.
“Don’t look down, you’ll get the fear!”
Laura jumped at the voice, but it was only the attendant trying to make a joke. She smiled weakly at him, relieved to hear his walkie talkie crackle into life with some unintelligible instruction that sent him scurrying back into up the ramp to the ticket office. She watched the river warily but there was nothing moving on the water until the riverbus came into to view. There weren’t many tourists at this time of day, and she was able to sit in the same seat as when she’d been on it with Joseph. She wanted the view to be the same, to be sure of recognising the place she was looking for.
The boat made steady progress downstream, and Laura remembered lots of the sights that passed by the window. She remembered too how she and Joseph had chatted, how he’d taken her into his confidence and told her about the world of the Riverways. And look where that got me, she thought, but then she sat up and cupped her hand against the water streaked glass to try and see better. Yes, that was definitely the place, there was the wooden jetty with its stretch of exposed muddy beach beneath. She stood up and made her way to the front of the boat, ready to disembark at the next pier on this bank. The stop couldn’t come quickly enough, and she was thankful to be the only one getting off.
Once she’d reached the road, Laura paused for moment. They had hailed a taxi last time, but she’d only taken a small amount of money from Mrs Patterson, so she would have to walk. She may not have spotted the alleyway from a moving vehicle in any case, it was narrower than she remembered and she almost missed it even on foot. At the bottom was the wrought iron gate. She felt through the bars for the catch but her hands were not as strong as Joseph’s and she couldn’t move it at all. Frustrated she kicked at the wall beside her, and then looked up. The gate wasn’t that tall, ten feet maybe, and she could squeeze her feet between it and the wall and stand on the hinges. The mortar was worn away between the stones of the wall creating some perfect hand holds. With a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure she was unobserved Laura started to climb, and in a couple of minutes she was astride the gate. Realising at this point that she hadn’t fully thought the operation through, she was forced to simply drop down on the other side and landed awkwardly on the top step, grabbing the gate so she didn’t fall.
She steadied herself and wondered fleetingly how she’d gone from the quiet confines of the British Libray to this. The steps led down to the muddy shingle where they’d found Edgar and Cara. A few yards to the right was the drainage outflow and the tunnel into which Joseph and the two youngsters had disappeared leaving her to collect the van. This meant, or so she hoped, that it must be an open entrance to the Riverways. Laura was determined to find some answers, and it seemed to her that this might just be the only place she was going to get them.
Sitting on the bottom step while she plucked up the courage to make her next move, Laura wondered what was different to the last time she’d been beside this stretch of river. They had been in a panic then of course, racing against the sun, but that was not it. She took a deep breath and then she realised, it was the smell. It didn’t smell the same, and now it reminded her of something, a distant memory from childhood. Closing her eyes she let her mind wander and then it came to her: holidays in Littlehampton – she could smell the sea.
Laura stood up at once, there was no time to lose. The river was not as low as the last time she had been down here, and the little beach was narrowing as the tide came in. She didn’t really want to have to wade across, so it was now or never. She jumped down from the step onto the mud which was firm below her feet, and cautiously picked her way across to the tunnel entrance.
It was cool inside and dark, getting darker with every step away from the opening. She walked close to the wall, her hands brushing the smooth Victorian brickwork and keeping her steady. Soon she couldn’t see anything at all, but she continued slowly, placing one foot in front of the other and using the wall as her guide. Could that be a faint blue glow ahead? She wasn’t sure, but then the wall beside her suddenly stopped and she almost stumbled. Reaching out with her hands she realised that a side tunnel was branching off to the right. What should she do now? She had no idea which way to go so there was only one thing she could do.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
Laura turned slowly in a circle, calling in all directions, but the faint echo of her own voice was the only response. Then she realised that spinning around in the pitch dark had been an error: she now had no idea which way she was facing, and if she’d wanted to retrace her steps she couldn’t.
“Hello?” she tried again, “anyone, hello?”
There was not even the faintest glimmer of light, but then she heard a noise, could it be footsteps? The hairs on the back of her neck stood up in alarm as she had the sudden sensation she was no longer alone and this had probably been a terrible mistake. Pointlessly she closed her eyes and whispered into the darkness.
“Laura, is that really you?”
The voice was right beside her and she leapt back with a startled yelp, straight into six inches of cold water and banging her shoulders against the wall. There was a bit of a kerfuffle and then a welcome pool of blue light glowing from a torch.
Once her eyes adjusted she could see it was Edgar holding the torch, Cara beside him, both of them staring at her curiously.
“What are you doing here?” asked Edgar. “Father said you’d gone away.”
Laura climbed out of the drainage channel without daring to look at exactly what she’d stepped into.
“I had, sort of. It’s your father I’ve come to see. This was the nearest way in I thought I could find. I remembered it from when…” she tailed off.
“From when you and Joseph had to rescue us,” Edgar finished the sentence for her.
“We were in such trouble,” Cara grinned. “Sorry if we frightened you Laura, we’re not really supposed to be down this way but we like to keep an eye on things and we thought you might be an intruder.”
“She’s trying to make it sound exciting,” Edgar said, “when what she actually means is that we were just checking for blockages, and animals.”
Laura looked suitably alarmed.
“But don’t worry, we didn’t find any. Come on, we’ll take you from here.”
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