Dinah has often been characterized as rather temperamental – what old women like to call incorrigible and modern behind her back – but that doesn’t mean that she’s overreacting. Not at all.
Honestly, only half of the anxiety she's feeling is due to the train fiasco, she thinks, as she sets her small suitcase down on a bench nearby. The other half is all Lucy-Ann and Philip’s doing for organizing this entire trip in the first place, in such a terribly cryptic way.
For example, if one is to belgin a letter with Oh, I have the most wonderful news!, it should not be followed by But you must hear it from us in person, when both said persons are far away. It’s shamefully inconsiderate.
Then again, the picture Lucy-Ann painted is an entrancing one, full of ocean winds and Craggy-Tops and old adventures like in their childhood. We might camp in the old house again, while it’s still summer, and maybe relive the good old days. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Wonderful, indeed. It would have been wonderful if a sudden rockfall hadn’t forced the train to stop and be delayed for a day, stranding Dinah hours away from the city and only one station away from Craggy-Tops. It would have been wonderful, also, if there were a blasted telephone in Craggy-Tops, so that Dinah might call Philip and Lucy-Ann.
The station she’s currently in is a mess of people hurrying back and forth, and a train is already whistling in the distance, which only serves to push the crowd lingering near the tracks towards Dinah, who is really, really not enjoying how these hols are starting out.
It’s been nearly four years since all of them lived together with Mother and Bill, and it’s been much too long since she’s seen the others. Although that’s not to say that she isn’t aware of every single detail of their lives; Lucy-Ann is the most dutiful letter-writer Dinah has ever met, keeping all four of them connected, and even with Jack’s last ornithology trip – to Australia, this time – Dinah doubts a letter ever failed to meet him.
Philip’s plans to pursue Veterinary Medicine were postponed some years ago, when Mother needed him at home, and his stay in the house quickly brought about a chicken pen and a small tribe of goats. Dinah is sure that he has many more creatures than that, of course — but even Mother probably can’t quantify them. Since then, Dinah suspects that the continued postponing of Philip’s study plans has something to do with being only an hour away from where Lucy-Ann is currently studying to be a schoolteacher, but that’s another matter.
The train rushes, screeching, into the station, and Dinah turns her head away as the wind buffets everything in its way. She really ought to stop sulking in the station and see if there’s a possibility to hitch a ride. She did bring trousers, so the walk from the main road to Craggy-Tops itself shan’t be too horrid, if she can only get someone to drive her close enough. There are already people descending from the train – someone must be in the same predicament as her, and driving in the right direction…
Gripping her suitcase, she trudges into the crowd, children running past her, adults shouting after them. Near the first carriage is a gaggle of complaining people yelling at the conductor. As she looks around, her eyes find a tall redhead man with a face full of freckles, and at his side—
“Blow your nose! What a noise! What a nose!” Screech.
Kiki sees her before Jack does, craning her white neck and bobbing her head up and down in excitement. “Hallo, hallo!” the parrot shouts, drawing alarmed stares from the people around them. “How do you do, hallo!”
In a second, she is being joyfully hugged by Jack. He’s certainly more tanned than the last time she saw him, nearly a full year ago – Australia does do that to one – but his green eyes are just as cheerful as ever as he grins widely down at her. Kiki jumps up and down on his shoulder, wings flapping.
“Oh, Kiki,” Dinah says with a bright smile, and her horrid mood vanishes. “It’s so lovely to see you both!”
Jack looks over her head at the crowd excitedly. “How did you know I was here? Have you come with Tufty? And Lucy-Ann?”
“No, unfortunately.” The reality of the situation sinks in again, but at least she’s with Jack, now, and somehow it doesn’t seem as irritating as it did a few minutes ago. “I got here only half an hour ago. It’s such good luck that we found each other!”
“We could hitch a ride,” Jack says, watching the groups of people leaving the platform. “I’ve just got a rucksack; you?”
“That’s what I was thinking.” Dinah lifts her suitcase towards him. “It’s light; I’ll manage. Have you just arrived in England?”
“The day before yesterday,” he replies with a grin. “I’m still knackered. But I think the prospect of going to Craggy-Tops has killed any tiredness in me!”
They make their way through the station building to where cars are milling about. Dinah has never been to this town; after all, Jo-Jo never wanted to take her in the car anywhere – which, in hindsight, was probably for the best.
Jack manages to find a helpful couple with a car soon enough. The elderly man and woman are happy to help them, although the man seems rather startled by Kiki. The wife, on the other hand, wastes no time on patting Dinah in the back and smiling at them brightly as if they are family already.
“Of course we can take you, dear! I’m afraid there shan’t be much space up front, but if you don’t mind being a bit jostled, the back of the truck’s not bad.”
“Oh, we don’t mind at all,” Dinah tells her hastily.
“We’ll veer off West a few miles before town, but if your Craggy-Tops is on the coastline I daresay you’ll be at walking distance,” the old man says, nodding. “They’re loading up our truck now, but if you wait here we’ll drive past and get you.”
With one last pat on the woman’s part, the couple crosses the busy street, leaving them behind.
“Well, I’ve spent the past year hitchhiking, so why stop now?” Jack grins, and sits down on the front steps of the station, looking up at her. “How’s the city been treating you, Dinah?”
“Quite well,” Dinah replies, joining him on the stairs. There’s something terribly unfair about today’s fashion, which has all but eliminated trousers for women from the market, but that hasn’t been stopping her, much to the chagrin of her nosy landlady. Oh well, who’s laughing now? At least she can sit on the steps comfortably. “I’ve been promoted. I’m Head of Sales now.”
Ambition is valued in business, and while Mother may have hated her job in the city, Dinah thrives in it. She left shortly after Mother started to recover, and now she’s able to send Mother money, rather than the other way around, for the first time in her life. Perhaps, soon, there’ll even be a chance to pursue other, more ambitious dreams.
“I can’t imagine life in the city,” Jack says, pulling her attention back to reality. “But then again, I don’t think I’ve lived within a hundred miles of a city for the past three years.”
Dinah laughs. “It will be nice to relax. I loathed Craggy-Tops when I lived there, but I think it shall be lovely for a short while.”
“If it’s the four of us, it’s always jolly.”
He says it in an offhanded manner, a small smile on his face as he looks towards the busy street, but Dinah can’t help letting a comment slip. “A bit different, maybe.”
Jack meets her gaze. There’s something there – a guarded sort of awareness, the same kind she can feel in herself. She doesn’t know how to approach the subject of Philip and Lucy-Ann; how to put into words what she thinks – what she knows – is happening, or how she feels about it. She doesn’t think Jack knows how to do either of those things, either. Jack has always been better with birds than with people, after all.
There’s the rattling of an engine nearby, and she looks up to see a blue pick-up truck turn the corner, struggling to make its way through the crowds of people leaving the station and crossing the street to get to it. Guiltily, Dinah is glad of the distraction. Standing up, she seizes her suitcase. The truck stops nearly in front of them as a gaggle of someone’s grandchildren hurries past, pushing a pram.
Jack says nothing more as they climb into the back of the truck, only offering her a helpful hand as she swings her leg inside. There are a few boxes wrapped in paper and plastic, but otherwise there’s quite a bit of space and it shouldn’t be too uncomfortable. Dinah turns to look through the window into the cabin, but the sun is behind them and reflected off the window, it’s almost blinding.
“Well, we’re off to Craggy-Tops!” Jack says, leaning back against the cabin. “Off to the sea and the wind and the waves!”
“Off to Craggy-Tops!” Kiki pipes up, dipping her head against Jack to avoid the wind ruffling her feathers. “Off to Craggy-Tops, and the see and the weasel.”
Jack laughs and scratches her poll. “And the birds!”
Dinah smiles. Off to Craggy-Tops, indeed. As the truck leaves the crowded station and sets off towards the countryside, she raises her face to the sky and can already smell the sea.
When Dinah wakes up, the sun is gone. The air has chilled, and shadows have fallen over the back of the truck. For a moment, she fears that she’s somehow slept the day away, but then she sees the stone ridges on either side of the road and realizes that they’ve just reached the mountains. The sun has sunken into the grey clouds above – that’s more like the Craggy-Tops she remembers.
Sitting up, she looks at Jack. He’s still sitting with his back to the window, sleeping, and Kiki’s head is tucked under her wing next to him. His watch reads three p.m., just about forty minutes since Dinah remembers falling asleep, which ought to be all right – the fork in the road towards Craggy-Tops must be close ahead.
She tightens her jumper around her body. The mountains look taller than she remembers, probably because it’s been years since she’s been here. The truck speeds down the highway, jostling them a bit more than she had expected, and little flashes of green and white crop up between the rock on either side, plants and streams surviving even in the salty wind.
There’s a particularly violent jolt as the street curves, and Jack starts awake, looking around sleepily. He meets her gaze and then closes his eyes again. But the street isn’t supposed to curve here, Dinah realizes suddenly.
She turns to look through the window at the elderly couple. With the sun hidden, it’s finally easy to see through. The man is staring straight ahead, and beside him are a few more boxes. And... the old woman is not there.
A sudden jolt of alarm runs through her. When she looks at the driver again, she realizes it isn’t the elderly man at all.
Heart pounding, she reaches towards Jack and shakes him awake. Kiki squawks, upset at the interruption, but Jack blinks blearily at her.
“Jack, I think we’re on the wrong truck.”
He pushes himself up so he’s sitting straight, rubbing his face. “What?”
“I think we’re on the wrong truck.”
“That – that’s not possible,” he says, brow furrowed. He turns to look through the window. “We— oh.”
They stare at each other blankly for a moment. Kiki cocks her head and stares at them, too. Then the car swerves suddenly with a screech of wheels, and Dinah finds herself clutching Jack’s arm as they fall sideways in the cargo bed.
“I don’t think we’re in the right part of the mountains, either,” Dinah breathes, nearly lying on the floor of the truck, Jack barely clinging to one of the walls in front of the window. How could they have been mistaken? The truck stopped…
But not for them, she realizes with a jolt of horror. There were many people on the street in front of the station, so many that cars had to stop many times to allow them to pass. And with the racket of it all, the driver likely didn’t even notice two strangers climbing into his truck.
“Dinah,” Jack says, his tone tense. “We need to get off this truck.”
Dinah follows his line of sight and sees what Jack is seeing: the driver, taking a swig from a bottle that is most definitely liquor. The truck swerves again, curving on the straight road, and Dinah looks around desperately. There are no signs of nearby inhabitants, although the once steep walls of the cliffs have evened out somewhat, shadowy paths winding through them, clusters of grey-looking grass cropping out here and there through veils of mist. There might be paths there, although the cliffs give her no idea of how close or far they are to anything familiar.
“I don’t believe he’ll be stopping anytime soon,” Dinah tells Jack. “We’ll have to alert him.”
There’s no other choice. Jack reaches forward and raps on the window once, twice, three times.
The man’s head turns suddenly, blotchy face and reddened eyes meeting theirs. And he lets out a scream.
For a moment, the car turns so precariously that Dinah is sure they are going to crash into the rock, but then they pull up abruptly and are pressed against the window, breathing heavily, hearts pounding. The man leaves the engine running but jumps out of the cab, and when Dinah manages to peel herself off of the window, she realizes that the man is holding a knife.
It’s a long, sharp knife, and the way he’s holding it makes it clear that he sees them as a threat. That, combined with his reddened eyes and stumbling gait, make it clear that he’s too far gone for any hope of civilized conversation. Spluttering curses, he reaches over the truck towards them.
Dinah reels back, snatching her suitcase from the corner. Behind her, Jack fumbles with his rucksack, and Kiki is screeching, circling overhead and swooping down towards the driver. The knife glints as he stabs at the air.
“Kiki!” Jack yells, and the parrot flies towards him. Dinah is already climbing down from the truck alongside him, the suitcase dragging behind her.
He grasps her arm and they run, towards the shadowy, misty paths between the rocky walls of the mountains. Behind them, the driver yells obscenities, stumbling after them.
Kiki yells them right back.
Everything is covered in mist when they finally look around. Walls of rock are all around them, and Dinah suddenly feels smaller than she ever did in the city. Even Kiki’s poll is flat against her head. But when Jack looks at Dinah, it’s with a kind of gleam in his eye that she hasn’t seen in a very, very long time.
“I don’t know where we are,” he says, but his eyes are fixed on hers intently.
Wordlessly, Dinah kicks off the shoes from her feet, and as he watches, opens her suitcase and pulls out her worn walking shoes. They’re cracked around the layers, laces frayed into an ugly brown, but she matter-of-factly puts them on and when she straightens again, Jack is grinning.
“I suppose we’re on an adventure, then,” she says, and grabbing his arm, pulls him along to where the cliffs level out into something climbable.
By the time they’ve finally found their path out of the hollow of the cliffs, and are ascending to the top, they’ve found a comfortable way to attach Dinah’s suitcase to a length of rope that Jack mysteriously has in his pack, so that she can carry it on her back. It looks awkward, but feels more comfortable than getting blisters on her hands from carrying it, and anyway she needs both hands to climb properly.
“We need higher ground, Kiki!” Jack calls out to the parrot as she soars above them, cutting through the mist. “Tell us what you see!”
Kiki squawks from above faintly. “Wipe your fee-ee-eet!”
Dinah looks up at the grey sky. It isn’t cold, not with their walking, but she really hopes the mist will clear somewhat as the day progresses or the dark will bring truly terrible conditions. “Do you think we’ve got the direction right?”
“Well, it’s been a while since we’ve been in these parts,” Jack says, looking around pointlessly. “I don’t think we’ll know until we can actually see where the coast is.”
“The station shouldn’t have been more than an hour away,” Dinah muses, as Kiki swoops back down and perches on a rock just ahead of them, gnawing on a pebble. “By car, that is. If we were going in the wrong direction for forty minutes…”
“There is some advantage to being on foot. The mountains get in the way of the roads, anyway, and we did our fair share of exploring around these parts.” Jack sits down on a rock and setting his rucksack on the floor. He pulls out a water bottle. “I imagine that once we can see where we are in relation to the coastline, we should be able to find our way. Water?”
She takes it from him gratefully. She emptied her own bottle in the train, a fact she now bitterly regrets. There are sandwiches in her handbag, though; she’d intended to eat during her trip but had never gotten to doing so. She’ll save them for later – in these situations, food is precious.
“Tufty and Lucy-Ann probably would have come eventually,” Jack says, rather remorsefully, putting the bottle away once they’ve both drunk from it. “It might have been better to wait at the station.”
“Who knows, with Philip,” Dinah says with a roll of her eyes, although she doesn’t really mean it. “He’s always too busy with animals to think of humans.”
“I’m sure Lucy-Ann will keep him on his toes,” Jack says.
Dinah doesn’t know what to say to that. It’s not something she’s prepared to talk about, really; not something she knows how to talk about. She prefers to think of Philip and Lucy-Ann as something happening in a vacuum – separate from the reality of the four of them, having adventures together; or of her and Jack, wandering the cliffs alone.
It was easier to do in the city, far away.
She finally musters the strength to look up, but Jack is already looking elsewhere. She wonders if he is feeling at all like she is. If the prospect of finally arriving at Craggy-Tops brings him just as much dread as it does joy.
Jack is looking upwards, his voice almost a whisper. There are birds perched in patches of discolored grass overhead, too far for Dinah to make out, but Jack clearly recognizes them. In a second, he’s pulled out his camera.
“Razorbills. They’re nesting.”
Letting go of the whirlwind in her mind, Dinah walks over to where Jack is standing. The birds are lovely, small and black, with white bellies and legs. They seem to stare at them suspiciously from the crevices above.
“They only lay one egg each year,” Jack says quietly, eyes glued to the binoculars. Kiki sits quietly on his shoulder, accustomed to his birdwatching by now. “They come in pairs – see, here comes the other one, now. Mates for life. Gosh, I haven’t seen them in years. I’ve been away for too long.”
“No razorbills in Australia?”
“No,” he lets out a low laugh. “Not at all.”
A lot has happened to Jack in Australia, she learns, and yet nothing at all. While he can tell her all about bird species and the rarities of the continent’s flora and fauna, he mentions very few people by name, and from the way he clambers up the rock to catch a closer glimpse of the birds nestled above, Dinah knows that he’s still the same Jack who used to live with them in the cottage for all those years, before they all left home.
“I prefer birds,” she tells him, hands in her pockets as he clambers down, dusting the dirt from the palms of his hands. He cocks his head at her, much like Kiki, who is currently pecking at something she found in a patch of grass.
Dinah shakes her head. It was more of the end of a thought than a sentence she meant to speak out loud. “I prefer birds to, say, mammals,” she explains. “I’ve never been put off by them the way I am with Philip’s animals. I suppose it’s because they’re less… crawly.”
Jack laughs almost evilly. “Think of how many crawly ones must live in Craggy-Tops now.”
She makes a face at him.
Ahead, the rock grows steeper and suddenly climbing is no longer a leisurely activity, more something that involves strategically hauling their luggage onto jutting rocks and pulling themselves up after it. Dinah goes first, ignoring the dirt that digs under the fingernails she once kept neat for work, feeling her trousers scrape against sharp edges as she scrambles onto flat ground above. The mountain seems to go on forever. If only the mist saw fit to recede somewhat, they might know where they are.
“You’re fast for someone who hasn’t been climbing in a while,” Jack says, infuriatingly less out of breath than she is as he alights on flat ground, but he looks rather impressed. “I suppose it’s the hotheadedness from the business world. I always thought you’d do well in a role like that.”
He takes the lead in the next climb, throwing his rucksack ahead of him and then doing the same with her suitcase, but it takes Dinah a moment to move after him. An odd chill has settled over her bones.
“A role like what?”
She tries to make it sound nonchalant, but it isn’t a nonchalant question at all.
From above, Jack can’t see her face. “Where you get to speak your mind,” he says, and then teasingly – “Tell people what to do, and use your authority.”
“Funny,” she says rather coldly. He’s teasing, she knows, but she can’t help it. “You’re not the first one to say that. It seems that all anyone focuses on is how mean they think I’ll be.”
Jack laughs, oblivious. “You’re just intimidating, Dinah.”
Dinah stops fumbling with the rocks and straightens, back taut like a bow. “Well, maybe I don’t want to be intimidating,” she snaps, glaring up at him. Her heart is pounding. “Maybe I’m sick of receiving such awful backhanded compliments as if I ought to be thankful for them.”
Jack turns to stare at her with wide eyes. “Dinah, I didn’t—”
“Forget it,” Dinah says sourly, returning to the task at hand, kicking at pebbles that go crashing down. “I don’t care.”
“I said forget it.”
She hates this. She hates it. As they climb up the last of the cliff, Dinah can’t even muster the strength to look at him, although she can see, from the corner of her eye, that he’s slowed his pace and waited for her to catch up with him so that they can reach the top together. She hates that this is always how it ends; either with a man so furious he calls her a bitch, or men like Jack – too respectful, too hollowly kind to even begin to try to understand.
She hates that hearing those words from Jack makes her feel so hurt.
Through the mist, the sky darkens, and soon what seemed like a fun labyrinth turns into a more sinister maze of rocky pathways, each one leading to a more frightening, shadowy death. Somewhere behind the grey, the sun turns red as they reach the top of the cliff, but there’s nothing to be seen – only muted shadows beyond a thick veil of mist.
From somewhere in the wilderness below, however, Dinah can feel the forceful push of ocean wind. The tide must be going down by now, she thinks. The waves are pulling back from Craggy-Tops and the cavernous mysteries beneath it. It’s strange not to be able to see it.
She wonders what Philip and Lucy-Ann are doing, and then banishes the thought. Behind her, Jack squints, apparently equally frustrated. His brow is still furrowed from their earlier argument, and Dinah feels a splintered sort of feeling that she isn’t entirely comfortable with.
“I don’t suppose we’ll make it out of here before dark,” she says, her tone clipped.
Jack seems to have come to the same conclusion. He walks over to where his things are, and extracts a woolen sweater. He tosses it at her.
Dinah catches it. It’s worn and frayed, likely from years of use.
“Pillow,” Jack says simply, and sets out to find the softest patch of scraggly grass on the clifftop. He has a torch – she can see a little white halo of light moving about the solid shadow of the mountain in front of him, not quite reaching the depths of its crevices.
Dinah shivers. Kiki is perched stiffly on Jack’s shoulder and hasn’t said a word, perhaps sensing the tense atmosphere. She keeps cocking her head at Dinah accusingly, which only serves to irritate her.
Clutching Jack’s sweater tightly in one hand, Dinah sits on the cold rock and opens her suitcase. There’s a little water left, which they should drink before sleeping, but not much to eat. Ignoring the hunger in her stomach, she settles for pulling out a blanket and a few of her rolled up clothes. She ought to be wishing she were in Craggy-Tops right now, around a warm fire, but not even the hunger is enough to dispel the tension from her mind.
She’s always been the most insecure out of all of them, she feels. Philip has always had this innate sense of self-worth, and Jack has always been too focused on birds to care about what anyone else thinks. Lucy-Ann is too compassionate to ever spare a thought for her own flaws. But Dinah – Dinah generates anxieties for all four of them, sometimes, grinds them into her teeth and keeps them there, secret, until they make her head hurt and her eyes sting.
“This isn’t right.”
She whips her head around to see Jack standing nearby. His arms are crossed in front of him, but he’s looking away, like he can’t quite meet her eyes.
She raises an eyebrow. “What?”
“This isn’t right. You and I – we don’t have rows, Dinah.” His voice is low and tense, but not angry. It makes his words cut right through her. “You know who I am; you know what I mean when I say things. You know I don’t mean it like – like whoever else meant it.”
Dinah digs her fingers into the sweater, and when the words escape her, they don’t quite tremble. “Do I intimidate you?”
He pauses, his eyes glued to hers. “No,” he says, finally, and his mouth quirks slightly at a corner. “But I expect the Queen wouldn’t intimidate me if I’d known her for as long as I’ve known you.”
She allows herself a weak smile. It’s dusk now, and the clouds make only his eyes gleam, his face pale. She thinks, oddly, that she can’t see his freckles anymore.
“Most people think I’m cold-hearted,” she says. “I don’t want you to think that.”
“I don’t. I never have.”
And he’s telling the truth, she knows, when he reaches out and touches her arm lightly as he passes her – just a brush of his palm against her forearm, like he does with Kiki sometimes, when it’s been a while since the parrot has spoken and he wants her to know that he hasn’t forgotten her. It’s a small gesture, but Dinah feels something in her heart constrict nonetheless.
As he continues looking for a place to settle down for the night, she presses the worn sweater to her cheek tentatively, but it doesn’t feel unfamiliar. It’s as if this has been her pillow all along.