Authors: Eoin McNamee
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General, #Action & Adventure - General, #Children's Books, #Action & Adventure, #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #Children: Young Adult (Gr. 7-9), #Ages 9-12 Fiction, #Time, #Science Fiction; Fantasy; & Magic
The Navigator (The Navigator Trilogy, Book 1)
For Owen and Kathleen
There was something different about the afternoon. It seemed dark although there wasn't much cloud. It seemed cold although the sun shone. And the alder trees along the river stirred and shivered although the wind did not seem to blow. Owen came over the three fields and crossed the river just below the Workhouse on an old beech tree that had fallen several years before, climbing from branch to branch with his eyes almost closed, trying not to look down, even though he knew the river was narrow and sluggish at that point and that there were many trailing branches to cling to if he fell. Only when he reached the other side did he dare to look down, and even then the black, unreflecting surface seemed to be beckoning to him so that he turned away with a shudder.
He had woken early that morning. It was Saturday and he had tried to get back to sleep, but that hadn't worked, so he had got up and got dressed. Before his mother could wake, Owen had slipped out of the house and down to Mary White's shop. Mary had run the shop for many years. It was small and packed with goods and very cozy, with good cooking smells coming from the kitchen behind. Mary, who was a shrewd but kindly woman, had smiled at Owen when he came in. Before he had even asked, she handed him a packet of bacon, milk, and half a dozen eggs. He had no money, but then he never had. Mary used to write down what he got in a little book, but now she didn't even bother with that. As always, she could see his embarrassment.
"Stop looking so worried," she had said. "You'll pay it back someday. Besides, you have to be fed, for all our sakes."
She often said mysterious things like that, telling him that it was a pleasure and a privilege to look after him. Owen didn't know what she meant, for no one else seemed to think that way. Sometimes, when he walked through the little town at the bottom of the hill, you would think he had a bad smell the way people shied away from him and whispered behind their hands. It was the same in school. Sometimes it seemed the only reason that anybody ever talked to him was in order to start a fight. He knew that he had no father, and that his clothes were older and more worn than those of the other boys
and girls at the school, but something seemed to run deeper than that.
"It's not that they don't like you," Mary had said, in her curious way. "They see something in you that both frightens them and attracts them as well. People don't like things that they don't understand."
When Owen got back to the house, he cooked the bacon and eggs and took them up to his mother. She woke and smiled sleepily at him, as if awakened from a pleasant dream, then looked around her and frowned, as if bad old memories had come flooding back. He handed her the tray and she took it without thanking him, a vague, worried look on her face. She was like that most of the time now.
Then there was the photograph. It had been taken shortly after Owen had been born. His father was holding him in the crook of one arm, his other arm around Owen's mother. He was dark-haired and strong and smiling. His mother was smiling as well. Even the baby was smiling. The sun shone on their faces and all was well with the world. After his father's death, Owen's mother had taken to carrying the photograph everywhere, looking at it so often that the edges had become frayed. As a reminder of happier times, he supposed. Then one day he noticed that she hadn't looked at it. "Where is it?" he had asked gently. "Where is the photograph?"
She looked up at him. "I lost it," she'd said, and her
eyes were full of misery. "I put it down somewhere and I don't remember. ..."
Now he made a bacon sandwich for himself and took it to his room, where he sat on his wooden chest to eat it. The lock on the trunk was missing and it had never been opened. There was a name on it, J M Gobillard et Fils. It sounded strange and exotic and always made him wish that he was somewhere exciting. Owen knew that his father had brought it back from somewhere and had insisted on it being put in his room, but that was all he knew about it.
He looked around. The only things he really owned in the world were in that room. The old chest. A guitar with broken strings. A dartboard. A set of cards and a battered CD player. There was a replica Spitfire hanging on fishing line from the ceiling. There were a few books on a broken bookcase, a pile of old jigsaws, and a Game Boy.
Owen stood up on the chest and scrambled through the window and onto the branch of a sycamore tree. He swung expertly to the ground from a low branch and set off across the fields.
Owen crossed the burying banks below the mass of the old Workhouse and climbed the sloping bank, passing through the long, tree-lined gully that split the slope. It wasn't that he was hiding from anyone. He just liked the idea of being able to move about the riverbank without anyone seeing him. So he found routes like the gully, or tunnels of hazel and rowan, or dips in the ground that
rendered you suddenly invisible. The riverbank was ideal for this. There were ridges and trenches and deep depressions in the ground, as though the earth had been worked over again and again.
It took ten minutes to skirt the Workhouse. It was a tall, forbidding building of cut stone perched on an outcrop of rock that towered above the river. It had been derelict for many years and its roof had fallen in, but something about it made Owen shiver. He had asked many people about its history, but they seemed reluctant to talk. He had asked Mary White about it.
"I bet there are ghosts," he said.
She'd leaned forward in the gloom of her small shop and met his gaze with eyes that seemed suddenly stern and blue in a wrinkled face.
"No ghosts," she had said, giving him a strange look. "No ghosts at the Workhouse. But there are other things. That place has been there longer than anyone thinks."
It took another ten minutes to reach the Den. Owen checked the entrance, as he did every time. A whitethorn bush was bent across it, tied with fishing line. Behind that he had built up a barrier of dried ferns and pieces of bush. The barriers were intact. He moved them carefully aside and rearranged them behind him. He found himself in a clearing just big enough to stand in. The space was lit from above by the sunlight passing through a thick roof of ferns and grass, so it was flooded with greenish light. In front of him was an old wooden door
he had pulled from the river after the winter floods. He had attached it to the stone doorway of the Den with leather hinges, but it was still stiff and took all his strength to open.
Inside, things were as he had left them. The Den was roughly two meters square, a room dug into the hillside, its roof supported by old roots. The floor was earth and the walls were a mixture of stones and soil. Owen had found it two years ago while looking for hazelnuts. He had cleared it of fallen earth and old branches and had put an old piece of perspex in a gap in the roof. The roof was under an outgrowth of brambles halfway up the steep part of the slope and the perspex window was invisible while still providing the same greenish light as the space in front of the door.
He had furnished the Den with a sleeping bag and an old sofa that had been dumped beside the river. There were candles for winter evenings, and a wooden box where he kept food. The walls were decorated with objects he had found around the river and in Johnston's yard a quarter of a mile away across the fields. Johnston kept scrap cars and lorries and salvage from old trawlers from the harbor at the river mouth. Owen had often gone to Johnston's, climbing the fence and hunting through the scrap. That was until Johnston had caught him. He winced at the memory. Johnston had hit him hard on the side of the head, then laughed at him as he ran away.
Before that, Johnston used to come to the house three
or four times a year, selling secondhand furniture, but he hadn't been back since he'd caught Owen.
But that had been last year. Now Owen had a lorry wing mirror, a brass boat propeller, a car radio-cassette, and an old leather bus seat with the horsehair filling poking through. He had also found an old wooden dressing table painted pink. He looked at himself in the mirror as he passed. A thin face, his hair needing a cut. He had a wary look. His eyes were a little older than they should be. He made a face at himself in the mirror and the eyes came alive then. He let the mask fall again and saw the same watchful face looking back.
He spent as much time as he could at the Den. Sometimes he felt that people were watching him, whispering that he was the boy whose father had killed himself.
--that was the word he heard. He could see it in people's eyes when he went into shops. A strange boy. One day he'd heard a woman whisper behind him, "Like father like son." "He'll go the same way," another voice had said. Sometimes it was just easier to stay away from them.
Owen sat down heavily on the bus seat. He knew he was in trouble. He'd skipped school again that week and spent his day around the harbor, where the river met the sea. He couldn't help it. He kept being drawn back. And yet when he got close to the edge of the dock, he could feel the terrible panic welling up in him. The coldness, the heavy salt greenishness of the water filling his mouth
and his lungs, and then the terrible blackness below. Each time he would come to as if he'd been asleep, finding himself many meters from the edge of the dock, his limbs trembling and his mouth dry.
It had been like that for as long as Owen could remember. He wanted to ask his mother if he'd always suffered from such fear, but she seemed so weighed down and lost in her own thoughts that she barely noticed him these days, and when he did ask a question she raised dull, lifeless eyes to him, staring at him as if she was struggling to remember who he was.
That was the worst thing of all, so he had stopped asking questions.
Owen emptied his bag. In the kitchen he had found some cheese and some chocolate biscuits. He took a magazine from the small pile that he kept in the Den. The cheese was a little stale and tasted odd with the chocolate biscuits, but he ate everything and washed it down with milk. Outside, the wind sighed through the trees, but the Den was warm and dry. These were the best times, he thought. No one knew where he was, but he was safe and warm in a secret place that no one else knew about but him.
He had found the Den a few years ago, when things were normal, or almost normal. Those were the days when he'd been able to talk to his mother. About most things, anyway. Except, of course, when he had tried to talk about his father. She would open her mouth as if to reply, but her eyes would cloud over and she'd turn away.
But at least then they had been happy, living together in the small house. "Me and you, son," she would say. "That's how it is, me and you." And he had been glad to have her. In school he had always been a loner. Not that anyone actually bothered him much. They just seemed to think that it was better if he went his way and they went theirs. Fine with him.
But then his mother started to change. She said that something in the house was "weighing on her." That there was something in the air itself that left her unable to think straight. She started to forget things. Little things at first, then it seemed as if she forgot almost everything, wandering through the house vaguely.
Owen read on until the light changed, almost as if a rain cloud had arrived overhead, the light dark but silvery, so he could still see the letters on the page. He listened for the sound of the rain falling, but there was nothing, not even the sound of the wind. In fact, a stillness had fallen outside, so complete that you couldn't hear the sound of birds or insects. Owen decided to investigate. He slipped on his jacket and heaved the old door open. He was careful to replace the branches that hid the door, even though he was aware of their loud rustling in the still air. He paused. There was a sense of expectancy. He began to climb toward the old swing, which was the highest point overlooking the river.
It took ten minutes to get up to the level of the swing tree. The air itself was dense and heavy, and Owen was breathing hard. He skirted the ridge until he got to the
swing. It was a piece of ship's cable that had been hung from the branch of an ancient oak protruding over a sheer drop of fifty meters to the river. The rope part of the cable had almost rotted away to expose the woven steel core. No one knew who had climbed the branch to put the cable there, but Owen knew what it felt like to swing on it. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. You knew that if you lost your momentum or your grip there was nothing to save you from the long drop to the stones of the river far below. Local children had used it as a test of nerve for years. For Owen, it wasn't the bone-crunching impact of the stones that he feared but the clammy touch of the water.
For some reason he couldn't explain he felt that there was someone watching. Almost without thinking, he crouched down behind a heap of old stones and peered out over the river. As he did so he saw a part of the bank below him start to move. At least he thought it was part of the bank, but as he looked closer he saw that it was in fact a man. He was wearing some kind of uniform, which might have been blue to begin with but was now faded to a grayish color. There were no insignia on the uniform except for heavy epaulettes on the shoulders. The man's hair was close-cropped and steely gray. In one hand was a narrow, metallic tube, almost gun-shaped, and on his belt there were oddly shaped objects--thick glass bulbs with narrow, blunt metal ends.
There was something else strange about him and it took Owen a little while to work it out. Then he realized