Harry Stayt

Harry Stayt is an outdoor activities instructor who lives alone in a cottage on the edge of a huge, mad-made lake buried deep in the countryside. Harry lives for the outdoors and can’t stand being shut away. He typically begins each day with some strenuous exercise, and today is no exception. And yet, unbeknownst to Harry or anyone else, today will be a day like no other. In the space of an hour and a half – just over eleven miles of running – the world will change forever.

Given the choice, if they didn’t need to get up and go to work, school or whatever each day, most people would probably prefer to spend their mornings in bed. Harry Stayt is not like most people. Harry is up, washed, dressed and ready to run by eight o’clock at the very latest, usually much earlier. Harry does not enjoy being cooped up inside. He is an outbound activities instructor, qualified to teach (amongst other things) rock climbing, abseiling, caving, rafting, canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking and hill walking. The summer holiday season has just ended and he has no lessons booked for the best part of the next three weeks. For the first time since early summer he now has some time to himself. Harry being Harry, he intends to spend much of this time doing most of the things he’s usually paid to teach.

Harry loves to run. He rents a small cottage in a village which is nestled on the banks of a large, man-made lake. A single, continuous road of some eight miles in length encircles the lake, and this road is his daily running route.

Harry sat on the front step of the cottage and tied his laces. He looked out over the stunning view which greeted him. There could be no better way to start each day, he decided. The world was silent save for bird song, the rippling of the water on the surface of the lake and the occasional distant rumble of farm machinery. And if this was his favourite time of day, he thought, then early autumn was his favourite time of year; a brief, quiet interlude between the busy summer holidays and winter snow and ice.

This morning was picture perfect. The sky above him was clear, uninterrupted blue, and the lush greenery all around was just showing the first signs of beginning to turn. The shades of green which had been present all summer were about to disappear and be replaced by yellows, oranges and brittle browns. And the air… Christ, even the air tasted good this morning. Cool but not too cold, dry but not parched, and with a very gentle breeze which blew at him from across the surface of the water.

All around Harry, the population of the small village were beginning their morning rituals and daily routines. As he locked the door of the cottage and zipped the key into his pocket, he looked around at the few houses and shops nearby and smiled inwardly. What was it about human nature that made people so desperate to restrict themselves with routines like this? He didn’t understand it. He’d moved as far away as he could from the city to escape the relentless boredom and monotonous familiarity of the rat-race, but even here, out in the middle of nowhere, people still seemed to crave these ritual-like patterns of life. All around him the same people did the same things they always did: Gill Rogers was opening the village store, putting the same goods out on display in exactly the same place as yesterday. Her husband was taking the usual delivery of bread, milk and papers. The small school gates were open and children were beginning to arrive. It was happening everywhere he looked. In some ways he was no better, he had to admit. He often ran the same route at the same time of day and he always performed a well-rehearsed stretching and loosening exercise routine before going out. Although he wanted to believe otherwise, maybe he was as regimented as the rest of them.

Warm-up complete, Harry checked the door was locked, then started his stopwatch and then began to run. He moved slowly at first, knowing that the first few footsteps were crucial. He’d had more than his fair share of avoidable injuries over the last couple of years. It suited his body to start slow and gradually build up to something resembling a decent pace. This was just a simple training run. He didn’t intend overdoing it.

He jogged out through the village, acknowledging a couple of bemused folk as he passed them, then ran across the dam and began his usual clockwise circuit of the lake. He’d done this many times and knew it was more sensible to run clockwise because the majority of the children who attended the school lived on farms and in other villages to the east. The timing of his run today had been carefully considered so that he wouldn’t reach the busiest stretch of road until the school traffic had been and gone. He expected the rest of the route to be quiet. Harry didn’t expect to see more than a handful of people while he was out and that was how he liked it.

Three miles in, and the village had long been lost in the distance. A heavy canopy of trees bowed over the road, giving Harry shade from the cool but relentless sunlight. The branches changed the sounds around him, muffling the very distant rumble of village noise and traffic, making every birdsong and animal noise seem directionless, and amplifying the constant thud of his feet pounding the ground. Even his breathing seemed inordinately loud now.

The peace and tranquillity was disturbed momentarily. The sound of a car’s engine (which could have been anywhere between half a mile and a couple of miles away) was abruptly and unexpectedly silenced. Harry then thought he heard the crack and spit of splitting wood. It could have been anything, he quickly decided, but it was probably nothing. One of the local farmers working their land on the steep banks of the lake perhaps? An off-season sightseer? He ran on regardless.

The lake was roughly quadrilateral in shape. He had already run along its longest side and had just followed a sharp bend in the road around to the right. He was now running along the lake’s shortest edge and the dense forest of trees to his left, the grey tarmac ahead and the glare of the sun bouncing off the water’s calm surface to his right were all he could see. His foot scuffed against something unexpectedly and he looked down and saw that, for some reason, the ground here was covered with debris. Slowing down but not stopping, he tripped and kicked his way through the tangled branches of a sapling that had been felled and dragged across the road. Hit by a car perhaps? A few metres further still and he saw long, dark, arc-shaped scars which stretched ominously across the tarmac, then more debris where something had churned up the mud and gravel at the side of the road. To Harry’s right now was a steep bank which dropped down towards the water. The tyre marks ended there. He knew what had happened before he’d seen the car.

Slowing down to walking pace, he neared the edge of the bank and cautiously peered over. Some five metres or so ahead and below him, wedged tightly between two sturdy trees as if it had been caught, was the wreck of a small red car. Panting with the effort of his run but still in full control, Harry quickly and carefully clambered down the bank, knowing that he had to help. He hadn’t seen anyone else in the last half hour and chances were it would probably be at least as long again before anyone else passed by. It was down to him alone to try and help whoever it was who had crashed. As he made his rapid descent, it occurred to him that there didn’t seem any obvious reason why the accident had happened. There were no other vehicles around. Had it been a mechanical failure? Swerving to avoid an animal wandering across the road? Had something happened to the driver? A heart attack perhaps? Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter now. Dealing with the aftermath was all that was important.

The driver’s door had been wedged shut by the awkward angle at which the car had come to rest. The windscreen was shattered (it had been pierced by a thick, low-growing branch) and he pushed the remaining glass out of the way and peered inside. The driver was dead. The same branch which had smashed through the window had impaled the chest of the stocky, grey-haired man. Jolted out of his seat by the sudden, violent crash, the man’s face had smashed into the steering wheel. Blood, bone and shattered teeth dribbled down his chin. The appalling injuries suffered by the driver were so extreme that, for a few seconds, Harry didn’t even notice he had a passenger alongside him. A woman of similar age, she was dead too. Harry looked into her lifeless face and tried to work out why. She was still anchored into her seat by her safety belt, and had no obvious wounds other than traces of blood around her mouth. Perhaps her injuries were internal? A qualified first aider, he instinctively leant across and checked for a pulse. Nothing.

Harry’s options were limited. Did he stop with the bodies and wait for another motorist to pass (which would likely be some time) or did he try and get back to the village to get help? Although harder, the second option was clearly the most sensible. The people in the car were dead; there was nothing to be gained from stopping with them. Harry quickly scrambled back up to the road, brushed himself down, then started running again, continuing his clockwise circuit of the lake.

What started as a gentle training run had become something far more difficult. As well as having to contend with the shock of what he’d seen, Harry also now needed to get his body working again. He’d only stopped running for a couple of minutes, but that had been more than long enough for his muscles to begin to tighten. He forced himself to try and maintain a steady pace, but his head kept telling him to run faster.

Finally another sound disturbed the overwhelming silence. Harry could hear a plane in the distance. He rounded a gentle corner at the bottom of the lake and began to run the relatively straight two and a half mile stretch of road back up into the village. The sunlight flickered through the trees, blinding him intermittently. The run was getting harder. He was beginning to feel cold and the ends of his fingers and toes had begun to tingle. Had the temperature dropped, or was it shock? He’d run this route many times before and he knew he was more than capable of completing the distance, but now he was beginning to doubt himself. And the plane’s engines seemed to be getting louder and louder.

At the side of the road a twisting mountain stream tumbled down the hillside, disappearing under the road and trickling into the lake. That was Harry’s two mile mark. If he pushed hard he knew that he could be home in around fifteen minutes now, but it would take every scrap of energy he still had to do it. His legs were hurting. Christ, that plane sounded low…

When the noise from the plane’s engine became deafening and was so loud that he could feel it through the ground beneath his feet like an earthquake, Harry stopped running again. It didn’t sound like one of the military jets that often flew down the valley or even one of the smaller civilian aircraft that frequently passed over. The aircraft was moving in the same direction as he was, coming from behind and flying along the length of the lake towards the village. He could see it above the trees now, and he saw that it was far lower than any plane he’d seen here before. At this point the slope of the bank down to the lake was relatively gentle and he jogged down to the water’s edge to get a better view.

The plane passed overhead, dropping fast. It was no more than fifty metres from the surface of the lake and it was falling rapidly. As Harry watched, its nose and starboard wing drooped down as if it was simply too tired to keep flying. The inevitable seemed to take an eternity to happen. The rapid descent continued until the tip of the plane’s wing clipped the water, then the aircraft somersaulted forwards, flipping over and over and breaking into several huge pieces which landed in the lake with a series of massive splashes, vast plumes of water shooting high into the air.

Harry didn’t connect the two crashes he’d seen until he found a third. Kenneth Hitchcock, the local postman, was dead in the middle of the road next to his motor-scooter. Letters were blowing casually like leaves on the breeze. Harry scooped several of them up before realising there was probably no point.

By the time he arrived back at the village, he knew that something terrible had happened.

By the time he made it home, the wreck of the plane had sunk beneath the surface of the lake and the water appeared deceptively calm.

By the time he arrived back at the village, everyone else was dead.



Autumn: The London Trilogy omnibus edition