“Where are you from?”
Neck half craned from the phone that had just died in his hand, the young man hadn’t seen this old man in a ragged coat a second ago, nor had he seen any of his surroundings ever before in his life.
“Brinian? Where’s that?”
“Rousay… Where am I now?”
“Rousay, why that’s in… That’s in Orkney! You might be the most Northern one I’ve met, and I’ve been riding the line for decades. Might have been one from Shetland… Think it was Brindister.”
“where am I? I was just there…”
“Aye, it’s confusing, no easy explanation… We’re in Bridgend.” The old man raised his eyebrows and pulled a grimacing smile, possibly meant to be interpreted as a welcome.
“what?” The fear rises.
“Bridgend. Wales I think. Congratulations, boy, you’ve just ridden the line! One of the longest continuous steps I think I’ve ever heard of!” The phone is still out, and still dead. The old man knows what the device is, but hasn’t had the attention or chance to become familiar with it.
“You look a bit peaky, son. I know a place. Come for a sit?” The old man lays a hand on the Orcadian’s shoulder, gestures with his other hand, and, without looking ahead, steps forward, forcing the younger man to as well. They step, feet moving, and they also, step, they are put into the line and they step forward.
“Here we are. Just as I remember; been a little while since I was last here mind.”
The young Orcadian drops his phone. “Fuckin’… OhmiGod, oh God.”
“Easy son. It’s just a pub. They say Edward Teach drank here. C’mon boy, just let me get you there, eh?” Gently, the old man walks the younger to the door of the Llandoger Trow. “We’re… We’re somewhere different.” Fear has passed into pure bewilderment in the young man’s eyes. “Aye son,” the older man says with a knowing smile. “I’m sorry. I’m gonna explain, it’s just best we sit somewhere good, you know?”
“so where are we then?!”
“Well, we were in Bridgend, and we stepped, lad, we stepped into Bristol. I stepped us here.”
The old man silently exhales through the tips of his mottled moustache flecked with ale foam. He is relieved; he tries to help them all, and he usually tries to take them to the Llandoger Trow, not for any real reason other than it being his favourite, but if they’re screaming, or crying, or anything extreme, it’s not easy; he’s there often enough to get recognised, not something he can say about anywhere else. The Orcadian is still has a slight tremor as he tries to grip his pint, but he is at least curious. “How does it work?”
“Hold on. Two steps back, now; what’s your name?”
“Sig. You?” The words are short bursts; in the face of what is going on, banal introductions merely waste time and breath.
“Jack.” The old man shifts in his seat, leans forward. “And I couldn’t tell you the scientifics. Whatever ‘it’ is, it works. I’m pretty sure anyone could do it, too, but I don’t know why only a few of us have stumbled into it. You just… Feel the line, you find it branching out in front of you, and you… Step.”
“What does.. What’s the line? This makes no sense.”
“The line is, well, it’s just there. I don’t know if it’s, like, geological, carried by the stones, or biological, or cultural, but it’s there. You’ll know it properly soon, you’ll get a feel for it. It’s the straightest line there is and it zigzags to everyplace it can.”
Maybe it’s a trick, Sig thought. Some midnight prank, it couldn’t be truly possible to go from Brinian in Orkney to Bridgend in Wales, to a pub in Bristol, to converse with an apparent madman, contradicting himself at every explanation. Surroundings don’t lie, though, and there is no way this is Brinian, and the step they took did seem to obliterate Bridgend into something completely different, an old city dock. “Where can it go, this line?”
“the line’s sort of, fishhooked, y’see to certain places. It’s trying to shoot off around the universe, but something has snagged it. What do you notice about the places we’ve been?”
“well, yes, but similar in one way. Think of the names. Bridgend, Bristol, you came from Brinian you say.”
“The names have the same first three letters?”
The old man smiled apologetically. “Yes. That is apparently what catches the line.”
“I don’t understand at all, Can you explain-“
“It is unexplainable.”
“But you’ve just told me a lot of how it works already?”
“I’ver told you how it works. I’ve told you what you’d learn yourself. I have not explained it, as I cannot.”
“Is it that complex? We’ve just stepped it twice.”
“It’s not complex. Medical law’s complex, but you can still learn it, you can have it explained to you step-by-step. There is no explanation for travelling the line. On its surface it is understandable, in its essence it is unexplainable.”
“Don’t let it trouble you. Why would you need to know? Why would you need to know the physics of it when you can step from Brisbane to Brighton?”
“Aye, though I wouldn’t recommend abroad too much, you can wear yourself out, and it’s not so easy to find the line. You don’t want to be stuck out there for too long.”
“So you’ve travelled all over? All over the line?”
“Yeah, I’ve travelled all along the line. When I first discovered it I just used it to go to as many places as possible; two, three every day, maybe less if they weren’t boring. You know, it’s sad, it does seem to keep you locked in to English speaking places. Different languages don’t seem to favour ‘Brih.’ After a while I bored of that, and set to truly walking the line, hoping to meet it in the middle, to walk it in a circle. It didn’t work; can’t explain why, after a few years I ended up in the same place I set off from, but you could feel it, the line did not overlap on itself. It is the straightest line there is. After a while I just set into what I do now, look for the signs along the line for a newbie, or a fellow traveller, anyone to help along the way a little.”
He knows exactly where he wants to go. Back to Brinian, cold, rainy Brinian, just find the line this one time and never trip up on it again. What about time? Can a straight line accidentally slip gently through time, to the past, into the future?
They are outside the Llandoger Trow now. “I can feel it there, but it’s like it’s surrounded by a bubble. Like a membrane, like a womb. It’s like that part of the line, the time part, is unfinished; you can get a feel for the blueprint of the path but if you were to take a step you’d find that there was no road there. You’d fall.” The old man’s eyes are darting in the night air. Is this what finding the line looks like? “Think I’ll step out… Step on over to… Brierfield. Aye, Brierfield, and find a place to kip.” The old man’s eyes swat to Sig’s. “You’ll be alright?”
“aye, aye I spose so…”
“well, alright then. I’m sure our paths will cross again.” The old man looked like he tripped over himself, his ragged coat clapping like a pigeon’s wings in the air for a brief moment before the sole of his shoe scraped a last time on the dockside and he was gone, tumbling up the line to Lancashire.
Feel the line… Sig blinked in the night air. He screwed his eyes shut, he darted his eyes around like old Jack. He held his breath. No line in the air. How had he done it before? Just as he began to panic about the strange journey he’d have to make from Southern England to the Isle of Rousay, he felt it. Unsheathed in front of him, both minute and infinitely long from behind Sig and on in front of him, he felt the line. Taut as a wire, sharp as a razor, gleaming on the dockside, immeasurably straight but pulsing with the roundabout of places it joins up all over, Sig’s breath left him, his eyes unblinking and his mouth open, and he stepped into the line and out of the dock, and into a cemetery. The cemetery at Brinian, Rousay. It was night, but he could hear the sea churning strong, he could see the stars, and he could feel the whiplash streak of the line screening forever in all directions, the straightest edge there was. Unexplainable.