The moon was still visible but scraps of black cloud floated across her face. She might've been veiled, like a Sultan's daughter in the northern night. Below her lay a wooded area where caterpillars munched on oak leaves and blue tits incubated their chicks. A young woman named Amber trudged through these woods feeling anxious. A wolf-grey moth landed on her fleece-covered shoulder, drawn by her head torch.. Her nose caught salt from nearby sea and a breeze cooled her sweaty forehead.. Amber called out "Saul! Saul!" but no one responded. That day a child on a school trip had gone missing and Amber Belfield was one of many who were searching for him. They had split up to cover more ground so now she was alone. Amber was new to the area herself and so had mis-calculated how long she would take to get back. The reason for her visit was to photograph wildlife. She had already photographed bats in a ruined house. Its last owner had, during the 1940s, been revealed to be a Nazi sympathiser and hounded out of town. In the present the young woman called base and explained her situation, and they replied that it wasn't a problem. Amber recalled seeing an art gallery in a nearby town and wished she was there now. What if the youngster was badly hurt? She drew on memories of helping an injured adult and reassured herself, then adjusted her rucksack.
"That kid gets obsessed with things," a stressed teacher had said earlier. "If he saw or heard something he's fixated on then he'd have stayed behind studying it. it. Now he could be f-face down in a ditch for all I know. Please help us to find him." Amber had been like that as a teenager and so could empathise.
In the present, movement in the undergrowth caught her eye. Yes, springy tendrils were waving in a bramble patch. Amber stiffened as a roe deer bounded across her path. The animal was harmless but something had frightened it. Large areas of the wood were in orca-black shadow, but moonlight penetrated in places. An early sycamore leaf dangled above her, like nature's protective hand.
Two men walked across her line of sight. Time seemed to have stopped. She told herself they were probably other searchers, but couldn't stop the fear which rose in her mind. They didn't have head torches; why not? Amber braced herself, ready for a quick getaway.
They came walking towards her, over bare earth where summer leaves shaded out the undergrowth, then halted in the moonlight. To be honest, one had a face like a constipated wolverine. His companion had more rounded features. There was a whiff of fish about them. It wasn't easy to see detail in shadows from the trees, but Amber thought there was something unusual about their clothes. They were a bit scruffy but retro. They looked and sounded young, perhaps still in their teens.
"Hello," said wolverine face. "I'm Frank Morgan and this is my brother Taran."
"Amber Belfield. I'm looking for Saul, the young boy who was reported missing today. Are you?"
"Ah, I think we can 'elp you there." Frank lead them over to where ferns grew in a hollow. They ducked where branches rose up, then dipped down to form a natural arch; whether triumphal or an entrance to something's lair depended on the viewer's mood. Frank bent over to look at the spot. Amber expected him to pull out a phone and use its light but he didn't so she did. The glow revealed the print from a training shoe, near dark ash roots. Glancing up Amber caught sight of Taran, who stared at her phone as if he'd never seen one. She felt surprised and un-nerved, then photographed the print.
"Its from young Saul," Frank announced. "I'm pretty sure of it."
Taran quipped "no matter what you do Frank, you'll never be pretty."
"Lady, I apologise for my brother - I should've taken him back to the stork and asked for a refund."
Amber wasn't offended, just wishing they would get on with it. She wouldn't normally have trusted two strange men, but if this was bad for her how much worse must it be for a child? If there was any chance of finding him then she had to take it come what may. All three of them set off to continue the search.
Amber fell a short distance behind as her companions knew these woods better than she. The woodland floor felt uneven, as if the earth had pimples. She overheard Frank and Taran.
"Are you sure about this Frank?" Taran asked.
"Scared of the dark are you?
"I'm scared of lettin' people down. You told me there was nothin' to worry about all those years ago, remember. Look 'ow that ended."
"i'm only here to please you."
"No, you could've made an excuse and left me to it. You don't 'ave to play the big man tonight, and you were never as good at that as you thought."
Amber didn't like the sound of that, but decided to continue because of Saul. She had learned self-defence in case of any threat in a lonely spot, but would only use it as a last resort - especially when outnumbered. She felt puzzled by Taran's remark about "all those years ago" as he seemed young to be talking like that.. There was an oak tree up ahead.. An ash sapling stood beside it, straight and slim like a little sentry. Taran called out "Here he is!" and Amber hurried through an understory of willow herb, blackberry bushes and hazel. Fallen leaves stuck to her boots. All three of them crouched down, near a rhododendron stump and posts on a rotting fence. Amber caught a whiff of fox's scent mark. There in the torchlight lay a twelve year old boy, on his back and unconscious, hair matted with dried blood. "Looks like he fell out of a tree broth," said Frank. Amber bent over Saul, ascertained that he was breathing and felt that his skin was cold.
The dry hard moon was now half-hidden by a long, narrow cloud. She might've been playing peek-a-boo with cool, damp Earth. Amber ordered Frank and Taran to summon help and watch for other searches. Then she applied what first aid she could, laying her jacket over him, using her rucksack as a pillow for the casualty, then cleaning his injury and checking his airway. Feeling his pulse she deduced that his blood pressure was low. Taran held up a light. The young woman had to concentrate on Saul, yet felt sure there was something odd about that light. It looked more like an old fashioned lantern than anything from the 21st century, but there was no time to think about that. Amber couldn't remember being so worried, but had to conceal her fears for the boy's sake.
"Do you think he'll be all right?" Taran asked, looking towards the prone body.
"Don't worry broth,'" Frank replied. "She helped that bloke at the demo, didn't she."
Amber felt alarmed but also baffled. How did Frank Morgan know about that? She had, the previous year, been on a peaceful protest against the ivory trade. Thugs looking for trouble had attempted to hijack the demonstration. To cut a long story short, one of her friends had been assaulted and Amber had treated his injury.. Of course, these two must be members of rent-a-mob. That would explain much. She gritted her teeth, furrowed her brow and fought an urge to flee.
Saul groaned and began to stir. Amber said to him "its all right, you've had an accident but help is on its way. Soon you'll be back with your Mum and Dad." She ordered the youngster to lie still, then Taran's light went out.
"Do you mind!" Amber shouted. She looked up, her jaw dropped and both eyes popped. Neither Taran nor Frank was there any more. Surely they wouldn't desert her and Saul now? if they wished harm on the boy, why lead her to him? If they were running away, why couldn't she hear them?
Two lights appeared in the woods. Amber thought the brothers were returning, but neither light looked like Taran's. She called out and the lights drew nearer. At last she could see who carried them, and they were two men from the search party. They avoided stinging nettles, young and green, then helped Amber with the boy.
Next morning Saul lay in hospital with his parents at his bedside. The doctors said that he would make a full recovery and praised Amber for her treatment of him. She gave an account of how she had found him.
She left Frank and Taran out of her story, lest the episode undermine her credibility.
It emerged that Saul had been targeted by a bully and had climbed a dome shaped oak to escape from him. Saul had waited some time for the other boy to leave, then scrambled down only to fall and get knocked unconscious.
Amber asked one of the searchers "Who called to say I'd found Saul?"
"No one," he replied. "When you didn't get back before dark, some of us were more worried than others so me and my friend went looking for you. We saw a light in those woods and went to investigate, and that's how we found you both. The spot where he fell is a reception black spot."
"Ah, I see. I must've got confused with being under stress"
Amber returned to the hotel she was staying in, a Victorian building near the sea front. She needed to relax, then she remembered the art gallery, the one she had thought of that night in the woods. She googled it and found that it was holding an exhibition of historic photographs from the 1940s. She left her room and set off to view it. On the way she recalled with pride a photo that she had taken. It showed a bison in Polish mist, like a rock painting raised to life, and it had been shortlisted for a prestigious award. She walked past whitewashed cottages, iron railings and hanging baskets with red, yellow and blue blossoms, climbed a hill and entered the gallery.
Inside was a desk piled high with leaflets, also bare floorboards and several movable screens. One corner held a raised-up stage with a small piano and stacked-up chairs. Walls and screens were covered in black and white photographs of solders, sailors, airmen, women working in factories and children playing in car free streets.
At first the young woman felt that she was getting out of herself and relaxing. World War II couldn't have been easy to live through, but she knew that Britain had won and so could keep a distance. Then a large photo on a tall screen caught her attention and her mood changed.
That picture showed two young men sitting on the beach repairing a fishing net. Their sleeves were rolled up and a leather jacket lay nearby. Both were intent on their task so neither looked directly at the camera. A timber shack stood behind them. Amber thought "I must be mistaken!" She looked closer, trying to convince herself that it couldn't be true. No question, the image was captioned '1943.'
"They were ugly beggars, weren't they," said a female voice from behind. Amber turned and saw a middle-aged woman, grey but strong like a harpy eagle. She wore a name badge that said 'Rebecca.'
"Are you all right?" this lady asked. "Can I get you a drink?"
"No, no, its that photo," Amber replied. "It reminds me of someone I knew years ago," she lied as visitor's shoes clattered on the floor.
"If it was up to me I wouldn't have it in the room," Rebecca began. "See those boys mending that net? A few weeks after the picture was taken, they were both arrested for sabotage."
Amber felt her stomach turn over but she tried to hide it. "Were they convicted?" she asked, dreading the answer.
"Oh yes, they went to prison with hard labour. They said a Nazi sympathiser, who owned a house near here, coerced them into it but the jury didn't believe them."
"Where were their parents?" Amber asked, raising her voice a little as a motor bike whizzed past outside.
"The father was in the forces and their mother had died; I'm not sure how."
"Surely someone else would've looked after them."
"Not back then, they'd have been working full time since they were fourteen and the older boy would've been nearly old enough to fight."
Rebecca moved to let a family walk past, through a gap between screens, then continued saying "even if it had been true about them being coerced, which I doubt, they were still dodgy characters."
"Why, did they do something else?"
"When they met that Nazi, it was when they tried to burgle his house one night. He woke up, caught them at it and... oh, I don't know what really happened next but according to them he threatened them with a gun." Both women looked back at the grey-toned photograph, then Rebecca said "those two ended up cutting telephone lines and starting fires at local factories. Nobody was hurt, but I didn't want their picture in this exhibition. I was outvoted on that one."
"Was there any doubt as to whether they were guilty? I mean did new evidence come to light years later?"
"To be fair we weren't sure at first who the younger boy was. He and his brother went gambolling illegally, and little brother used a false name, Terry I think. At first I wasn't sure if it was the same youth in our photo and who got locked up, but we did more research and now I'm sure of it. I don't know why the other one used his own name; perhaps he was just more cocky. Terry's real name was Taran; its Welsh for thunder."
"Perhaps after all these years...."
"Its very well attended, don't you think."
"Yes it is Amber agreed while scenting coffee, Africa in a jar of glass. She looked at the picture again. Frank looked a bit cheeky but Taran seemed careworn, despite being younger. Did he have a guilty conscience? Was he only going along with stealing because Frank was older and he,Taran, had no one else to look after him?
Amber left the gallery and flopped down on a public bench. She felt as if she would never move again. As a gentle breeze lifted a strand of her black hair and gulls called above, her thoughts were in pieces. After some time the worst of her fatigue passed, but she was still confused and unsettled.
Slats on that bench started feeling hard on her flesh. The breeze cooled. Amber shifted her position and forced herself to get up. A couple with a black labrador walked past her seat. Their animal panted softly. The young woman returned to the small Victorian hotel where she was staying and locked herself in her room. Then she collapsed on her bed, staring up at the white ceiling, and shook from head to foot with the shock of her encounter. Amber tried with all her willpower to stop, but it was a long time before she could. When at last she was able to she rang her parents, explained that she felt ill and arranged for them to take her home.
How many stories were hidden in the past of this hotel? Quite apart from the guests,there would be plasterers who had decorated its dining room ceiling; kitchen maids sobbing in bed, away from home for the first time; smart young waiters thinking every woman in town wanted them and chefs bellowing at their staff. Who could say what else?
If something bad happened in some places, did it leave a lasting imprint? Had the Morgans left a mark like that? Did pebbles in the waves match the colours of their jumpers? Did the sea breezes carry salt from their sweat? Were the local nettles nourished by their bones?
Why had they come when Saul needed them?
Amber might have been shaken but she still needed to earn a living. After a couple of weeks she returned to those woods in daylight and took pictures of roe deer, also of jays, titmice, flycatchers, and woodpeckers. In her imagination she compared jays to cherry blossom with attitude and woodpeckers to flying nails.. She sold her photos to a magazine that specialised in wildlife and they proved popular with its readers. She kept in touch with Saul and, when he left hospital, he sent a text to let her know. He said that he wanted to be a wildlife photographer and she had inspired him to do so. The young woman was touched and gratified by that.
After her work was published Amber returned to the beach, this time in daylight but early on, before most visitors had arrived. Saul accompanied her and they each carried a large bin bag. Between them they picked up large quantities of plastic that the tide had washed up. Just as well they were alone as Saul was shy. While crunching on rounded pebbles she asked "how are things at school?"
"Better than before," Saul replied. "The boy who bullied me moved to another town. His Dad was caught running a website for Neo-Nazis, so they had to get out of here."
Amber recalled how Frank and Taran had been coerced, and she knew why they had come to Saul's aid; The boy took out his camera and photographed an elegant tern as it flew overhead. Its black scalp was like a brunette's bobbed hair and he caught it well.
Amber felt cool sea breezes and zipped up her fleece, then scooped up two plastic bottles. She paused, looking out over dolphin grey waves. She could, with a little imagination, hear someone's name in beating waves: "Taran, Taran," and silently wished him Godspeed.