Standing on the huge lettered rock, the clink of climbers' chains at the back of him, the breath of other untutored scramblings fading as they make their way back down the grassy, bee-infested footholds, he can see, lying in that open valley at the foot of Rombalds Moor, the town where he first learnt the art of forgetting. To the north hangs the first rise of the wild hill country, stretching up to the Scottish border, where sheep, strong enough to withstand the bitter winter chill, still graze. To the south, further down the valley, the haze of the once vast industrial complex, shaped like a heart, which pumped day and night for the body of the nation - Leeds, with its mills and great engineering works; Bradford, head of the wool industry; and beyond, in a ragged clump, the other working towns and their forgotten products, Huddersfield for worsteds, Halifax for rugs, Barnsley's linen, Morley's tweeds: Yorkshire's woollen right ventricle to Lancashire's cotton left. Caught in the middle, between the hills and the haze, stands the town of Ilkley, with its wide streets and avenues of trees, its tumbling wooden-bridged garden, and its regiment of imposing houses that snake up the hillside to touch the moor. Down there, to the right, is the open green of the Ben Rhydding Sports Club, where the journey that he must now follow, and in which he recognises he played no part, ended. Closer to the town on the other side, before the bend in the road, where the railings stopped, shines the meridian blue of the lido, which has hardly changed since he last played at its edge more than forty years ago. When he drove past earlier in the day and peeped through the fencing, though he could not be sure that the slide was still the same slide, there was no doubt that the pyramid fountain, with its concentric rings rising like a wedding cake out of the water into the air, layer on layer to the foaming, frothing top, was the same, the water cascading over the sides. It was as if he had never left, had never grown older, still six, the same water, the same laughter rising out of the splash.
The broad flat surface of the larger rock which is part of the entity known as the Cow and Calf is not a smooth rock, marked only by the weather and clambering hands. It is festooned with names, the graffiti of a hundred years and more, a diary, a census, a record of those who have come and those who have gone. Those of the previous century are more elaborately carved. Facing him as he pulled himself up was the mark of the hand of E M Lancaster of the XXIV Foot, 1882 (the same year that Sir Garnet Wolseley defeated Colonel Arabi Pasha at Tel-el-Kebir). There are messages from that time too, texts from scriptures chiselled out by zealous pilgrims in awe of the God who had created both them and this. Ranged in a half-moon like the message above a doorway, he finds the inscription S WILL FIND YOU OUT. Tracing the lost word, he understands swiftly that the S forms the last letter in the word "sins". SINS WILL FIND YOU OUT, says the rock.
He walks back and forth, treading on their memory, speaking their names out loud. E Douglas Hunsley 1895. Near to it, on the very lip of rock, the precariously named J Clarke, balancing his life out in 1814. Then
RS. SJ. AJ
Having come here for a purpose, to trace the fault line of his own history, he searches for the year that saw its inception. There are a number from that decade. KL, FS, 1953; a C Moss from the USA in 1951; in 1952 J W RAY; in '57 a bald Fishbury. Yet he cannot find one for 1954. 1954 does not exist. He is disappointed. He had hoped for a mark.
When he was taken on his tricycle (a red one with a boot which opened and shut) on to the main shopping area on a Saturday morning he would be always struck by how much room there seemed to be, not simply the width of the streets and pavements themselves, but the space to be found upon them; so few people to avoid, so much space to race up and down, space to bang and bash. He banged and bashed it so frequently that his mother had been told by the greengrocer that he had never seen a tricycle in such a state - though what could a greengrocer know of such things. It was so easy, head down, charging about, oblivious to what might lie ahead. He did not know then that the reason for this space, this emptiness, was not that it was a small town, or that its population was mean or had turned suddenly belly-up, but simply that while he banged and crashed below, the residential streets above were swarming with vans, green and blue and that deepening shade of shoe-polish brown which gave at once a sense of both independence and subservience, vans with their owners' names hand-painted on the sides, vans driven by men in aprons and caps, wielding baskets and order books and stubby pencils behind the ear; vans with back doors which swung open to reveal trays of bread and cake, a marble slab loaded with wet fish, a slatted wooden floor stained with the darkened blood of its hung meat and parcels of wrapped sausage. Boys there were too, boys on bikes, great cast-iron jobs with no gears for the steep roads, only a loaded wicker basket up front, a slice of metal from handlebar to saddle bearing their employer's name, a name that told the boy to mind his manners and no dawdling on the way back. Up and down they travelled all, to the houses where the matrons lived, waiting for their side-entrance knock. Those who lived in Ilkley had their goods delivered.
There must have been small houses in Ilkley, but in truth he cannot remember any. Even the ground-floor flat in which his family lived was part of a large semi-detached building, one of a long row following the flow of the river. All he can recall are large houses that sat deep in dark and hidden gardens, or if not protected thus then guarded by a bleak set of steep steps after which one stood, an intruder, in a porch of almost feudal dimensions, with a sluice of a letterbox out of which poured words of harsh dismissal. There had been something uncertain about these houses, every man jack of them now converted into residential homes for the old and sick or centres for such conspiratorial-sounding organisations as the World Mohair Centre. For in his childhood, though it was reputed that ordinary families lived in most of them, like the inverse of a lucky dip, an ungodly number contained the residue of a past age - crazed old men made mad with money, hiding somewhere between the front door and the neglected garden that ran riot behind their treacherously spiked walls. Somewhere up the hill lurked the man who had bought a grand piano back from Leeds and, having enough grand pianos in his mansion already, placed it under a chestnut tree, thumping out its warped notes whenever the fancy took him. Down the road, in another gloomy pile, sat the half-blind widow who every year gave a fireworks party of fabulous dimensions to which the only close witnesses (excluding the rockets) would be her terrified Pekinese and her profoundly deaf gardener. Money seemed to cascade out of these overflowing pockets, pointlessly and endlessly, like the wedding-cake fountain he so favoured at the lido. The Ilkley Cure. Drowning in money.
Looking down to the long stretch of the town he can see it all, or rather nearly all. One thing is hidden from his view, and yet he knows it is there. It is the thing he is seeking out; his eye can trace the line he knows it takes, following the clues of the bridges and the roads and the line of trees that mark its path. For it is not the Cow and Calf which dominates the town; it is that other thing - that wet tumbling thing, the thing that never ceases, which is always on the move, even when frozen, expanding, contracting, flowing ever forward - the river, the Wharfe, rising at its source some two and a half miles above Oughtershaw, falling six hundred feet to its junction with Skirfare and then through hills of rock to Burnsall, the woods of Barden, the old Priory and its graveyard and then Ilkley, Otley, Wetherby, Tadcaster and the Ouse.
In summers past there were boats to hire, and for the price of a pint you could push out from Mr Dell's stone landing stage, trail your hand, and glide under the overhanging branches along its quiet brown water, see the park, the sports club, the tennis club float beneath the New Bridge, watching the town at play. They play there still, leaving their satchels and shoes in the bridge footings halfway across to wade about in the water. Near his old garden gate lies the sandbank where families gather to bathe, with an overhanging branch from which the braver souls can drop in. Swimming, splashing, even a little dam-building. But in the winter and spring, in the flood months, when the snows have melted and the moors let slip their icy cover, the river becomes a rage, charging head down, furious, impatient, twisting and turning, thundering through the town, the colour no longer the clear brown of the soaked peat, no longer something which one might want to drink, but dirty yellow and sludgy white, like a rabid dog foaming with flecked spittle, snapping at the town's heels, making those who approach it wary, fearful lest it strike out in its all too predictable wrath. This too is the water of Ilkley. It is the same stuff, after all. But try a dip now. And what of the little dams you made? Here comes a great snagging branch and a dead sheep. Here comes the foam, here comes the thunder. Here comes Michael Airey on his tricycle, with his nanny and his brother Jonathan and sister Nicola in tow. It is Tuesday afternoon, March 30th 1954. Here comes the Ilkley Cure.
He is staying at Moorview Hotel, on the Skipton Road, built by Joseph Smith, adventurer, explorer, a very strange place indeed, not because of its decor or proprietors, far from it, they could not be kinder, but because of the fact that it is identical in shape and structure to the house four doors down in which he himself grew up. When he takes his breakfast it is in his parents' bedroom he cuts his bacon and slices his egg; when he steps into the high-ceilinged drawing room it is his parents' front room in which he is standing (under which bay window lay the entrance to his holly house), and when he knocks timidly on the back-room door to ask a wholly unnecessary question, it is the bedroom he shared with his elder brother into which he peers: the long window at the back overlooking the lawn, the little forest and the dip where the iron swing stood, and beyond that the nettles, the little gate, the towpath and the river.
It is stranger yet, for sitting in his room, preparing to go out and roam the town, he has discovered that it was in this very house where the event that he imagined had brought him here reached its dramatic climax, for up this very garden stumbled the stabbed boy, bleeding from the knife wound in his neck, banging on this back door, banging not simply from blind hope but because he knew that the doctor lived here. "A man has stabbed me," the boy said. "Am I going to die?"
This was the story he had come for originally, the stabbing of a schoolboy on his way to the playing fields of Ghyll Royd School; this stabbing at the bottom of his own garden, with the police cutting down the nettles in search of the discarded knife; this stabbing by the ragged man who had sat on the bench waiting, a man from the dark town of Leeds, a man who lived an odd life with another odd man in an odd lodging, an intruder who had found Ilkley out and come to punish it for its sins - its wealth and privilege (had he read the rock's scriptures?) - who had gone out that day filled with an uncontainable rage, who found its echo bubbling alongside him on that winter path. He had written a note to his lodging companion, beginning in a curiously scriptured tone, one of dignity and composure, and ending in a throwaway fatalism that stretched far beyond his time: "I write this with deep regret. This morning I smashed my bike up. I was trying to fix the rear light but I could not make it work and it seemed to get the devil in me. I could not help myself. I don't know what I am going to do and I don't care."
So Peter Lawrence Hudson of Victoria Road, Hyde Park, Leeds possessed himself of a dagger-type knife known as a "William Rogers knife" and came to Ilkley by train. "I'd made up my mind to kill someone and I sat down on a seat for two or three minutes and two lads came past me on bicycles. I walked slowly along the river bank and heard something behind me. I saw a lone boy on a bicycle. I waited until he approached. When he saw me he stopped. I stabbed him. He dropped to the floor and I ran away, ran away to the Skipton Road, hid the knife and walked about Ilkley." Later Hudson sent a postcard from Blackpool to the police wishing them well in their investigations, informing them that if they looked hard enough they might find the knife one mile south of the river (hidden, in fact, under a laurel bush in a small plantation in Queen's Road). "I may give myself up but don't bank on it. Signed Potential Killer. PS. I have got a new knife."
They caught him within a week. He showed no remorse for what he had done.
This was the tale he had gone to retrace, as a witness to times that had not changed, but when he presented himself at the offices of the Ilkley Gazette to find the record of this event, it was not this story which drew him close. It was the other, the one that taught him the art of forgetting, how to erase all foolish memory that might otherwise keep him awake, ticking in his head. He had been leafing through the years '52, '53, '54, unable to remember in which the stabbing took place, half expecting to see a photograph of himself in the infant percussion band, or perhaps his brother's name. Didn't he win some sort of writing competition then? Whatever, he could not find what he was looking for, though he became more and more mesmerised by the grainy pictures unfolding before him. First the wedding-cake fountain, a photograph of men cleaning it in preparation for the summer months to come, and though he did not immediately appreciate the significance of this, as he turned the pages slowly, photograph complementing photograph, ordinary photographs not of weddings or Rotary clubs but everyday pictures of the town's innocent, steadfast heart, townsfolk skating on the winter tarn, mending the wooden bridge crossing the tumble of Herbers Ghyll, he began to feel the warmth from the quiet municipal pride that such towns as Ilkley generate steal over him. But he could not find the story. The woman at the newspaper's office, eager to help, rang the retired editor. "Look for the picture," he advised, "not the story." Moments after she put down the phone, he turned another long page, and there, at the bottom, was the photograph he had not expected, not the towpath and his garden gate and a policeman standing in the tangle of the slippery bank, but another, of an empty road and a line of trees and an unexplained end to a wooden fence. Above he read:
"Considerable sympathy has been aroused in Ilkley this week by a tragedy which resulted in the drowning of Michael John, the six-year-old son of Mr and Mrs W E Airey, of Beckfoot House, Middleton, Ilkley."
It was the first time he had seen the name in print even though he had carried the sound of it with him for more than forty years. Michael Airey, six years old, who lived in the white house halfway up the hill on the other side of the valley, opposite where he now stands. Michael Airey, who helped him push the nursery school summer house round on its circular rail, in imitation of the great marshalling device to be seen at York, the railway turntable. Michael Airey. His best friend. The boy had been out with his nurse, his sister and his brother, out for a walk along the Denton Road. It was Tuesday afternoon and he was riding his tricycle, given to him, like his very own, at Christmas. Jonathan was walking beside his nanny; Nicola was in her pushchair; Michael rode ahead. As they reached the spot known as Nell Bank, Johnny cried suddenly, "Michael! Michael!", but though the nanny ran to the end of the fencing she could see nothing. The Wharfe was very close, very fast, swollen with the might of the moor. She ran for help.
He devoured the story, fingering the letters, tracing the words, speaking the name out loud. At first he was paralysed by the potency of the page, unable to move. It seemed to him that there was nothing, apart from the arbitrary date, to suggest that this event had not taken place that very week. Like the river forever passing, it seemed that Michael Airey was still here, still drowning, had never stopped drowning, still riding that last cold journey down to Ben Rhydding and the Sports Club and the stretching arm of Police Constable Smithson, the water cascading over him . . . turning, turning, turning. The Ilkley Cure.
He left with a photocopy of the story under his arm. He has been walking about the town ever since, first along the other side of the river, past the sewage works, making his way out towards the little island that lies near the spot, standing at the water's edge, looking down the slow bend where the branches hang and the water sings, thinking of all the quiet things of life this bend must have seen. Later he crosses the suspension bridge and walks back to the place itself, a place that seems hardly changed, though the river is a good deal lower than it would have been that late March afternoon. Now he is standing on the Cow and Calf. Halfway up on the opposite side stands the white of Beckfoot House, Michael Airey's home, suddenly glinting in the sun. He sees the slope of the garden and the expanse of French window directed south towards Leeds, and the little road that leads down. He sees it all so clearly from the vantage point of this rock. Here comes Michael Airey now, with his nanny, with Jonathan holding the kite, a toy thing on a simple string, and his sister in the pushchair. It is mid-afternoon. They have left the house no doubt after Listen with Mother, sung the nursery rhyme and heard Daphne Oxenford tell the story. There is a slight wind in the air, and they are wrapped up well. Michael pedals down the slope, the others follow. When they reach the Denton Road and the wide stretch of grass by the bank, the nanny unfurls the kite and together they watch it flutter over the raging water. The river thunders and roars only a few feet away, almost next to them. It is both terrifying and wonderful, but they are worried that the kite might snag a branch or dip too far into the water. They move on, a walk to the lido perhaps and then back to the house for tea. Michael Airey climbs back on his tricycle and pedals ahead. Suddenly his brother calls; the nanny does not know why but all of a sudden there is an empty space, nothing, no Michael, no tricycle, no cry, nothing. Michael Airey has gone, one moment gleeful and purposeful and pedalling like crazy; the next moment, gone, falling under, choking, cold, frightened, gasping, gulping, fading, dead. Now he has passed his nanny and his brother Jonathan and his sister Nicola; now he has left his tricycle, more battered now than his friend's will ever be; the boot is waterlogged and the bell no longer rings; now Michael Airey has released his grip, he is turning and twisting, floundering under the rage of the mad wet plunge, under the toll bridge, past the man now running alongside, trying to keep pace with him - he saw something floating down the river which looked like the back of a head, face downwards and absolutely limp - his nanny's calling voice fading, the water roaring. Who passes that spot now and thinks of him? Who remembers Michael Airey and what he might have been - Jonathan, Nicola, the nanny who flew the kite? What became of her? Did she marry, have children of her own? What coloured tricycles did they receive on their sixth birthday, and by what rivers did she let them ride? And when she peered round her children's bedroom door and looked at their sleeping heads, did she think of Michael Airey - so much Michael Airey one moment and then Michael Airey no more?
He has not forgotten the name, and looking out upon the scene, from Beckfoot House to the ground-floor flat on the Skipton Road, he is trying to understand why he has carried the name within himself for so long; what has driven him this close to the drowned boy? There is a part of him that believes that without Michael Airey's death he would not be himself; that Michael Airey made him, made him think of the mystery of Michael, of what he was and what he might have been, save for the simple trick of - what? A bump in the road? A flick of the eye? A look back to nanny?
Now, standing on the rock, he wants Michael Airey to be always here, for people to read his name and perhaps wonder. He wants to carve out Michael Airey's name and hold it fast on this slab of rock, but he carries no hammer or knife and he knows that a smudge of stone would be washed away before the winter is out. He searches in his pockets for something sharp. A paper clip? A clinking sound distracts his attention. Below, a young man is teaching his girlfriend the art of seeking handholds, standing underneath her, holding her body a touch more than the immediate tuition demands. Next to them a boy is adjusting the saddle on his mountain bike. On the ground between them, beside a set of ropes and pulleys, there lies a small efficient hammer. He calls down to the couple and asks them if he might not borrow it for moment. The man looks warily at him, as if he fears he might snatch it up and hit them about the head with it, so he tells them what he wants it for. The man, looking disdainfully at his incompetent footwear, tells him that he is not sure, that he doesn't hold with that sort of thing, writing on the rock. He shrugs his shoulders and begins to search for a stone. It is better than nothing. The boy with the mountain bike calls up, "You could try this", and throws up a small spanner. He has never been very good at catching, and as it travels through the air he worries that it will hit his hand and bounce away down some impossible crevice. But it homes into his palm like a falcon coming to the glove. He walks over to where he can see the white of Beckfoot House and the path and the tricycle pedalling down. He starts scraping out the letters. It is harder work than he imagined and he cannot fashion the letters as neatly as he would like. But he is still Michael Airey's best friend, the only best friend he ever had, the only best friend he will ever have. Perhaps Michael Airey is his only best friend as well, his constant companion, keeping his counsel all these years. And it comes to him, in the chipping and scraping, remembering those unhurried photographs in the local newspaper, that there is more to do here than this simple dig of rock, that looking out over Ilkley he wants to seek out other walks upon other Ilkley paths, to set his compass to Ilkley's field, to journey into its distant cries and soliloquies. Though no historian or archaeologist, there is spadework he could do here, lifting turf and rock, forgotten artefacts that he might wipe clean, a threshold he might cross. And though it is clear that his life too lies scratched somewhere upon Ilkley's surface, as far as possible he wants for the town to take the lead, for Ilkley to be the principal and Ilkley to be the chorus. So let it be Ilkley, then, and as many of its folk as the town can muster. And let it be your Ilkley as much as his. For we are made from the towns and counties of this land. Our bones lie here, on our doorstep and under our feet.
It is done. He smoothes the rock over, brushing the chipped dust free. The name is clean and fresh:
On Ilkley Moor: the story of an English town is published by Picador on 27 April (£16)