The Goddess of Saddleworth Moor
One: The Oversight
Children can be very precise about their age and Walter Luff was one such child.To anyone who asked, he was currently almost six and a quarter, with the almost heavily emphasised. He could scarcely wait for the day when he could drop it altogether, which would come, Walter knew, three months to the day after his birthday, when he thought it might be fair to say that he was almost six and a half. But since he had recently discovered thirds, he was in two minds: halves were better but thirds were quicker.
It was usually friends of his father’s, mathematician friends of his mathematician father, who asked him his age. They expected nothing in return, of course, especially from this funny little boy with his fishy, protuberant eyes and sing-song voice, who did not look altogether normal. But from Walter’s perspective, these large and unfamiliar people with faces he could not see properly were asking him personal questions, which must mean they required personal answers. So, he could read all the words in the newspaper too. And then, to provide just one example, he could go on to warn them about the salt problem: that if all the water in the sea suddently evaporated, the left-over sodium chloride, which was what you called salt in chemistry, would form a layer that was ten feet thick — everywhere. Answers like these, in their splendid attention to detail, should go a long way to demonstrating that he was every bit as grown up as anyone, especially his father, could wish.
But did they? Walter could not tell; they kept their faces to themselves. Even though it was they who had started the conversation, these generally unknown grown-ups either said nothing but stood there, or said nothing and walked away. Even the ones he thought he recognized did it. Perhaps none of them were as grand as they looked, or were unaware or even disbelieving, dangerously disbelieving, of exactly how much salt there really was. Or perhaps it was just he himself that they disbelieved. It was upsetting. He worried about it. Until there came a day when he ceased to care.
The day in question was cheerful and uncomplicated. It arrived in the early summer of 1940, when all you might expect of the book-lined office-cum-snug of a comfortable detached Edwardian house set in a couple of acres near Bletcheley was there in plenty: dust motes dancing in weak sunlight, the faint, rank smells of various slowly drying fabrics intermixed with traces of last night’s coal-smoke, the lingering chill that only forty years of cool wet English winters can bequeath, the irritating tap-buzz-silence-tap arhythmia of a pre-season bluebottle against a window pane, the rich, rough scent of leather and the holier-than-thou perfumes of Mansion polish and Brasso. And in this particular cared-for but empty room with its camouflage-themed decor and heavy furniture — a brown study if ever there could be — was Walter, silent, rubbing his shoulder, and listening. Near him, a large book lay open on the floor.
It was a very adult room for a temporarily wounded small boy to be standing in alone. But that was its fascination. Each tantalising glimpse of its gloomy and unsuitable interior had stoked Walter’s curiosity, as did the almost furtive way his father went in and out, first unlocking the permanently locked door, then locking it behind him. That neither he nor the room were on any account to be disturbed was not something Walter needed to be told, nor was it a surprise: a state of not to be disturbed on any account was one Walter’s father occupied most of the time. But that didn’t mean you couldn’t peep. Whenever he could, Walter tried to be in or near the study, positioned at a variety of angles with a variety of viewpoints, whenever his father went into it, or when the scraping of chairs or the banging of desk lids suggested he might be coming out. It was this habit, unfailingly noticed by his father and unfailingly ignored, that had put Walter where he now found himself.
About three weeks ago perhaps, after more chair scraping than usual, Walter had settled himself three-quarters of the way up the staircase, looking through the balustrade, a fresh vantage point with correspondingly fresh possibilties. The study door opened — he saw the top shelf of a bookcase, a row of massive, leather-bound covers — then his father blocked the view, glanced upward, saw Walter, said nothing, closed the door, locked it, and walked across the hallway into the sitting-room. But he had left the key in the lock. Without any thought at all, Walter ran downstairs on tiptoe, put the key in his pocket, ran back upstairs and sat down in exactly the same place and in the same position, face against the balustrade. It would look as though he had not moved. Then he waited, amazed and terrified at what he had done. When his father came back for the key, he would look at the door, then at Walter, and this time it would not be a casual glance. He closed his eyes.
But his father did not come back. Had he simply forgotten the key was in the door? Was it a trap? If it was, and the key had gone, and Walter had gone too, then what would his father think? That he’d taken the key. He must stay where he was if he wanted to keep it. And he did want to keep it. He had taken a risk he didn’t begin to understand and now he wanted something to show for it. So he stayed on the staircase, getting stiffer and more uncomfortable as the minutes passed, pressing so hard against the wood that his forehead began to hurt. Absolutely nothing happened. Slowly, it began to dawn on Walter that his father might have made a mistake. His father? A mistake? It was the strangest idea he could think of. But had it not happened? It made Walter feel peculiar. Liberated would have been a better word, but Walter was only six, and that was too difficult an idea for a child. Nonetheless, it gave him the room — the opportunity, the courage, maybe — to decide what he would do next, later that night, in the June dusk. He let himself quietly out of the kitchen door, walked round the side of the house to the big iron grating that covered the rainwater run-off, pushed the key through the bars, and dropped it into the black water below. It was now lost.
To be continued. . . .