GLANCING back the way she’d come, Libby saw he wasn’t following her. The deserted embankment climbed into the mist, the diffuse glow of the streetlights hung far overhead. She sobbed once and turned to look where she was going. There was no pavement under her feet because no one was meant to walk here, but she kept on walking, trampling ruderals and drinks cans, letting her momentum carry her across the tarmac and onto an eyot of weeds trapped between the intersecting roads. She stumbled at the next kerb, remembering too late to check for oncoming headlights through the mist and tears, then crossed anyway and skidded down the gravel bank. She didn’t particularly care if she was run over.
At the bottom of the slope she held to the straight line she’d started, cutting down the next street when she reached the far pavement, wanting to leave the car behind as quickly as possible. But then the car wouldn’t be there any longer, Matt would have driven off when the lights changed, what else could he have done? The North Circular rushed like a tide above her, carrying him away into another part of the city. She imagined him at the wheel, staring in front of him in that distant way he had, his eyes gone strangely flat and opaque as though covered by an animal’s third eyelids, a fine impervious film.
Although by now he might be looking completely different, his face might have relaxed and he might be listening to one of his bloody awful albums and thinking it served her right for acting like a child. First giving in to her tears and then not making sense and then screaming at him in the car and just to top it all getting out and running off across such a busy road. She couldn’t remember exactly why she’d done it. The mist had seeped into her mind, her thoughts were indistinct or came looming at her too suddenly. She didn’t see how it was going to work. It had been four years now. She was in her thirties. Loving someone was no guarantee you wouldn’t make each other miserable.
The truth of this started another wave of sobs and she pushed her eyes into the back of her wrist, mantling her face, not wanting to be seen like this. But there was still no one around to see her.
By the time she’d got herself together Libby was totally lost. She was now walking down a side road past a chain link fence and a row of Portakabins. Lumpen forms emerged from the mist: rusting freezers and mattresses growing ever more sodden, an estate car stencilled with an Alsatian’s head. It was hard to believe that this was London. She passed another parked car with the windows steamed up and kept looking straight ahead of her, not wanting to know if there was anyone inside.
Was this a dodgy area? She had no idea how far round the North Circular they’d come. If something did happen there wouldn’t be many people out in this weather to hear. But she was still too upset to be afraid and a vague superstitious feeling stopped her from turning back. Now that she’d started this way she’d have to go on till she got somewhere.
Before long the road brought her up against a wall of undergrowth. She thought at first she’d reached a dead end but then spotted the footpath over on her left, a defile between the heaped brambles like the entrance to a maze. Again she was aware of a doubt as she set off down it, but nothing more, not actual concern yet. After twisting back and forth it abruptly let her out into what felt like an open space. At first she couldn’t see anything beyond a few shadowy trees and a stretch of grass which lay in the crook of the path. The effect was so theatrical – the apron waiting in front of the ashen curtain – that she half-expected someone to appear, but of course no one did.
Then she noticed a signboard at the edge of the path. Going up to it she saw the wooden frame bore the legend, ‘Edmonstone Marshes,’ but there was no map, no information of any kind that would reveal where she was, only a faded description of some rare species of moth which bred here. That was just the way things were going today. The name of the place was no help either. She’d heard of Edmonton, Leytonstone, Walthamstow, but never Edmonstone. It bothered her somehow.
All the same, there was nothing else to do but carry on into the Marshes. The path took her over canals and past derelict pumphouses and the giant corroded skeletons of gas rings, dividing in places, complicating itself around her. Although she could tell how easy it would be to lose your bearings here and end up walking in circles, she found it impossible to remember where she’d come from because her mind was always returning to Matt. The blinkering mist had shown her something that had been too obvious to see before.
They were imbalanced, he didn’t think about her in the same way she thought about him. It wasn’t that he didn’t care, but he never seemed to notice how she was feeling, at least not until it was too late. Even today she’d ended up driving back from his parents through the mist though she’d told him about her sleepless night, the migraine she’d had first thing. Of course, that was right – she’d been driving, not him. Why had she thought it was the other way round? A memory began to stir, but before anything definite could come to her she looked up and felt herself flinch. There was someone else on the path.
Libby slowed almost to a halt, then shivered and walked forwards. An older woman was standing on the bridge in front of her, staring down into the water below. She’d startled Libby both because she’d got used to being alone in the mist and because for a split-second she’d thought she recognized her. It only took another glance to see that the woman was a stranger, but the mistake was a little disconcerting. And perhaps part of her still wanted to make sure, because as she approached the woman she heard herself saying, ‘Hello there.’
The woman raised her head. ‘Oh, hello sweetheart.’
She turned round as though expecting to talk. It would be too much of a snub just to carry on past; besides, she had a nice face. Libby drew up opposite her on the bridge.
‘Sorry, I’m a bit lost.’
The woman nodded. ‘Everyone feels like that in the mist.’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Libby, although she wondered whether the woman had understood. ‘Can you tell me where I am?’
‘You’re on the Marshes sweetheart.’
The woman had the sort of accent that was dying out in London. She was thin with a lined and hollowed face, but her eyes were surprisingly gentle and understanding. She wore heels, a skirt and a smart black coat, her hair was tinted and arranged in a do. In fact she looked almost dressed-up, as if she was going to a wedding – or more likely a funeral.
‘Do you know how I’d get to the nearest tube?’ asked Libby.
‘There’s no tube round here.’
‘You’ve got a walk ahead of you.’
She smiled apologetically. ‘I’m really sorry, but I don’t know this part of town at all and I left my mobile in the car and now my boyfriend’s driven off with it. Could you maybe tell me where I need to go?’
The woman patted her arm. ‘That’s all right. I’ll show you the way.’
‘Will you? Oh thank you so much.’
‘You don’t need to thank me. Let’s just have a little rest for a minute and then we’ll be off. Is that all right?’
‘It’s perfect. It’s very kind of you.’
The woman smiled at her wearily and went over to the side of the bridge. She leant back against the cast iron with its pattern of mindlessly-repeated tags and let her eyes close. Libby saw how tired she looked and felt guilty for not noticing before. ‘Is there a bench anywhere round here?’
The woman opened one eye. ‘On the Marshes?’
‘My feet are sore, that’s all,’ said Libby, although from the woman’s tone it was obviously hopeless. She propped herself against the railing, trying to guess what authority was in charge of this place and why they didn’t want its visitors to sit down. Were they that worried about disturbing their precious moths?
Now the other eye opened. ‘You walked here then?’
‘That’s right. I’m Libby, by the way.’
‘Hello dear,’ said the woman, without offering her own name. ‘Walked from where?’
‘From the main road, actually. I got out of the car. I was having a row with my boyfriend and I’d had enough and I got out and just marched off.’
‘Did you really?’
Libby laughed, enjoying the way the enveloping mist had somehow overturned the usual rules of London and she was now talking about this terrible thing with a complete stranger. ‘Yeah. I can’t quite believe it myself. It’s a bit childish, isn’t it?’
‘Well, I don’t judge.’
She glanced into the woman’s eyes and thought, That’s right, you don’t judge, do you. ‘But I get so frustrated. I mean, I love him. I do.’
‘They say that’s what matters.’
‘I know. But it’s hard.’
‘There, there. I wouldn’t worry about it if I was you. Everything seems so important at the time and it’s only later you realize.’
‘It don’t mean a thing.’
For some reason prickles climbed the back of Libby’s neck. She hitched up her shoulders to shake them off, heaved out a breath. ‘Oh, but this was different. I’ve always wanted children and he must know that and now…I can’t wait forever.’
The woman reached over and rubbed the fabric of her top between finger and thumb. She made a tutting sound. ‘You walked all the way in this?’
‘I had to.’
‘You should have a coat on.’
Libby caught herself just in time. What she’d been about to say was, ‘Yes, Mummy,’ a mistake she hadn’t made since prep school. And then she saw all at once why she’d thought she recognized the woman. Mrs Cleeves: she reminded her of Mrs Cleeves. She’d been the matron in her boarding house and in her first terms away from home Libby had spent hours in her cramped, cabinet-lined office, receiving a regular dole of plasters and biscuits and soothing words while her temperature was read. Though thinking about it, the two women weren’t all that alike. Mrs Cleeves spoke with a Dorset burr and her face was ruddy, whereas this woman was quite pale. But a trace of Mrs Cleeves’s atmosphere lingered about her, something coldly comforting like a medicinal smell…
Coming back to her surroundings, Libby noticed that the mist was thinning. She could now make out the dark canal gliding into nothingness on the far side of the bridge, the path running on ahead past the overgrown bank and stands of spindly silver birch until it turned a corner. The distant spate of the North Circular filled the silence.
Suddenly the woman spoke up. ‘You don’t have a fag, do you darling?’
‘No. I didn’t think you would.’
‘Perhaps we could go to a shop. And how about a café? I’d love to buy you a cup of tea.’
The woman shook her head. ‘There ain’t no caff on the Marshes.’
‘Oh, right. It’s very lonely here, isn’t it?’
‘It can be.’
‘But then I suppose it’s the mist.’
‘That’s right, the mist, the mist…’
The woman made a face like she was talking about her husband. It occurred to Libby to ask, ‘Sorry, what’s your name?’
‘Mary. You call me Mary.’
That’s just right, Libby thought – then felt the prickles stalking her scalp again, remembering it was Mrs Cleeves’ name. But there had to be so many Marys in that generation it wasn’t even much of a coincidence. ‘Do you live round here?’
‘This is where I come from. I’ve never left.’
‘Honest to god. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked the Marshes. I’ve seen a lot of mist.’
Libby grinned. ‘I’m glad I met you, Mary. I was feeling wretched before.’
‘Because of your fella? Because of what happened?’
‘Yeah. I feel better now though.’
Mary patted her arm again. ‘Well…We should be off soon.’
Libby squeezed the fingers resting on her sleeve. They were so cold that she let go with a gasp as if she’d burnt herself. But before she could suggest they start walking, Mary said, ‘That’s the thing about mist.’
‘It’s easy to lose yourself, if you know what I mean. It’s easy to not see things coming. You mustn’t dwell on it.’
‘No,’ said Libby, before realizing she didn’t understand. ‘Dwell on what?’
‘In the car, Libby.’
‘But I didn’t say anything about the car.’
Without warning a memory breached the untroubled surface of her mind: Matt yelling, his eyes bulging. She must have mixed everything up. She had been driving and he had been the one screaming at her. She shook her head.
‘Sorry, maybe I did. I’m getting confused.’
‘You’ll remember it all in a bit.’
‘I don’t know. I can’t think straight.’
But even as she said it other images were beginning to come. First Matt’s look of disbelief as he braced himself against the door panel, then an inexplicable set of lights charging at her from the mist. She retreated a few steps towards the middle of the bridge, staring at Mary.
‘Oh my god. I hit something.’
‘Did you? What else?’
‘We were fighting and…Where’s Matt? God, I just left him there.’
Mary started after her. ‘No you never. You wouldn’t’ve done that.’
‘How do you know? I can’t remember getting out of the car.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m trying to tell you, Libby.’
Her stomach turned and she felt the ground slew out from underneath her and she was plunging through space. Mary reached for her arm and she staggered back. She was panting now, faster and faster, her heartbeat surged in her chest. She thought of a car out of control, an accelerator held down blindly.
‘Fuck. Fuck. What’s happening?’
‘Olivia,’ said Mary, gently remonstrating. ‘Take deep breaths.’
Libby retreated further. ‘Who are you?’
‘I’m just Mary. I’m here to show you where to go.’
‘I want to go home.’
‘Now darling, you’re a sensible girl.’
She stood watching helplessly as Mary approached, her heels keeping up an even click on the path. From this angle she looked almost identical to Mrs Cleeves: the same crows’ feet and disappointed mouth, the same soft grey eyes which had always looked sorry that they couldn’t help. Her hand closed round Libby’s elbow.
‘See? We’ll be on our way then.’
Libby shook her head, unable to find words. Mary took a pinch of her top again, sighing to herself. ‘They never have a coat.’
‘Get off me! I don’t know you!’
She twisted free and set out along the path, snivelling, gasping. There was no protest behind her, no sound of following heels. The mist had almost lifted and she could finally see where she was going. She kept on past the silver birches and round the corner, hurrying now at the thought she might get away. The path began climbing sharply as though intending to fight her. She struggled up to the top of the rise and stopped, staring in disbelief.
She was standing looking down into a valley, its limits lost in mist. There was no sign of the familiar London skyline. The path lay below her in a grey delta of concrete, branching again and again and joining up with itself and leading her eye to sudden dead ends. It ran past tracts of sedges and weeds and stagnant canals and flights of mossy concrete steps going up to vanished buildings and on and on through a rusting wasteland, winding off in all directions into the mist that obscured the horizon.
Libby could no longer feel her heartbeat or hear herself breathe. The North Circular had died away. The Marshes were silent. She became aware of someone standing at her back. ‘Come on then. Come along.’
‘I know, sweetheart.’
Thin cold fingers guided her forwards. Once they were a little way down the path they relaxed their hold and the two of them started walking side by side. After a while Libby let herself be taken by the hand.