On the far side stood the monastery.
Jan climbed the step and stood astride the stile for a second while she looked at the broken piles of stone and masonry stretched across the field. In her imagination they looked like the weathered bones of some great, beached leviathan washed ashore and left stranded by the storm that had swept the medieval town away. The fractured arches were its ribcage, the window in the east wall a socket in its skull. Jan shook the image from her head and smiled, and then jumped down.
Having now served its purpose, Jan thrust the guidebook into her back pocket as she walked across the sun-baked meadow toward one of the few remaining monastery walls that still stood to its full height. At its centre was a doorway. Jan paused when she reached it and looked through the opening, down the hollow body of the nave, toward the pointed arch of the east window. She closed her eyes for a moment and tried to recall the image of the monastery that had appeared on Hal’s computer screen. This was the main entrance to the church, if she remembered rightly – the west door.
She stepped through it. As she did so, she felt her left arm knock against something, or somebody. She turned round and stepped back in a single movement. The entrance was empty. There was nothing, or nobody, there – nor in the field beyond. All was silent and still and clear-cut in the bright July sunlight. Jan stared hard at the doorway. It was far too wide for her to have brushed against its stone jamb accidentally. But she had definitely bumped into something. Or had she? She was rubbing her elbow, but that was instinctive. Perhaps it was all in her mind.
She shivered. It suddenly occurred to her that there was more of the chill of stone than the warmth of summer skies on this side of the entrance. She looked around. The walls along either side were barely higher than one metre and the sun was directly overhead. There was hardly a shadow to be seen. So why did she feel so cold? Was that all in her mind as well?
What Jan saw next made her blood run even colder.
It was Margaret. There was no doubt about it. Even though the vague, white figure was a long way off, Jan just knew that it was her. But how did she know? She could not possibly recognise her from this distance. And how could she be so sure? The Margaret she had met before had been melancholic – despairing, even. This girl was skipping carefree across the grass swinging a basket in her hand. But it was her.
Or is she just a figment of my imagination, along with everything else? Jan questioned her own senses for the third time. Perhaps there’s a part of me that wants so much to see Margaret again that it’s conjured up her image in my mind’s eye.
Whoever, or whatever, she was, she was fast approaching the monastery. Jan walked over to the remains of the wall along the north side of the aisle. It came up to just below Jan’s waist, and at first she considered climbing over it, but in the end decided to stand and wait for Margaret to come to her.
As the girl came nearer Jan noticed that she was not wearing modern clothes – she had a long, grey woollen dress on, that reached down to the ground. “I don’t think I’ve got an outfit like that in my mental databank,” Jan said to herself, and smiled, and as she did so she realised that she was not frightened. “She may be dressed like a medieval ghost this time, but she’s nothing like as sinister as she was before.”
But there was something slightly odd in her demeanour. Although Margaret was heading in Jan’s direction, she was not coming directly toward her. In fact, Margaret did not seem to be aware of Jan’s existence at all. Jan waved; she failed to notice. Jan called her name; she did not hear.
As much irritated as fazed by Margaret’s behaviour, Jan made to climb over the wall in order to confront her, but she hit her knee against … against what? There was nothing there to hit her knee against. She rubbed her kneecap. Instinctively?
Jan held up her hand in front of, but away from, her face. She moved it forward tentatively. Her fingers touched a wall. That is, her fingers touched the cool, flat, unyielding surface of dressed stone – but there was nothing there for her eyes to see. She put her other hand forward. It touched a wall. She reached out in all directions. Where her eyes could see only the weathered fragments of a wall up to the level of her thighs her hands could feel the fabric of a whole one.
She moved sideways, feeling her way as though blind, until she came to the point at which the invisible wall met the still extant west end of the church. She turned the corner, and dragged her fingers with her. She stared at them. The west wall was still standing – she could see it – but her fingers could not touch it. Although she pushed as hard as she could, until her fingertips bulged outwards with the pressure, they remained resolutely at least one centimetre away from the weathered surface of the ancient edifice.
It was as though she was able to experience the wall, through her sense of touch, as it had been when first built, in medieval times … when Margaret was alive.