Flickers in the fields at night. Weird humming sounds. Some crap about a white thread.
That’s all my boss told me when she sent me here: a site visit to Arse-End-twinned-with-Nowhere. I hope I’ll get some sense out of the landowner. Dan Harper. Calls himself an agripreneur. He doesn’t look like a fruitcake—drives a shiny Range Rover, drones about net returns.
We walk down a rutted track through blank, silent fields. Dan seems jittery. I guess he doesn’t want his neighbors to know I’m here. Many are still bitter about the solar farm’s approval. I stumble on a clod, and he side-eyes my shoes. They’re mid-heeled Kate Spades—the ones I always wear to work. But I’m a long way from Islington now.
“So, er, Yasmin, what’s your job, exactly? Or is it a training program?”
Patronizing git. I smile brightly and tell him I’m a community engagement officer. Give him the corporate spiel:
“At EcoSolar, we’re committed to maintaining relationships with our highly valued local partners . . .” etc.
I don’t mention that it’s a delicate time for our planning application at Graveley, five miles away. That’s why Head Office is worried about the “strange phenomena” here. Load of nonsense, spread by bored yokels. But it’s making headlines, stirring up sparks. The last thing we need right now.
Dan unlocks a security gate and leads me into a sloping field. The panels stand in rows, shining blue-black in the sun—no obvious sign of damage. He points down at the ground.
I can’t see anything at first. Then: a thin white thread. Cotton, I suppose. Laid along the grass between the panel-rows, as if marking out a path. I don’t know what to say. Is this it? No wonder the police weren’t interested. He says it appeared three days ago.
“I pulled it up and threw it away. The next day it was back, longer. And again yesterday.”
I have to act like I’m taking this seriously, so I carefully follow the thread. It runs straight ahead toward the center of the field. Then turns an abrupt angle and leads up the hill, along an access path. Then left to the field-edge and down the slope again. It goes on, crisscrossing among the rows, as if guiding us through a geometric labyrinth. Each time it turns a corner, the thread is pegged to the turf with a scrap of copper wire. After what seems hours of awkward slogging, the string-path abruptly stops. Halfway down a row. Nothing special there, as far as I can see. I take photos, just to look like I’m doing something.
Dan is convinced it’s the anti-solar lobby. Wounds are still raw from the battle, though this plant has been running for months. My boss warned me that the NIMBYs fought hard for this little field—protests, legal disputes, death threats. No wonder Dan’s nervous. Says he still can’t drink in the Rising Sun. Now he’s off on a rant.
“The worst was Oliver Pelham, who owns most of the land round here. He blackmailed the vicar, bribed the Parish Council. The village was at loggerheads. Most of them against me. Clinging to outdated pastoral dreams. These fossils don’t understand, the rural economy has to modernize!”
I nod and smile. That’s basically ninety-nine percent of my job in community engagement. I’m baffled, though. Why would anyone get riled up about this place? A blandscape of mottled greens like limp broccoli. It’s the middle of June—shouldn’t the countryside be all blossom and birdsong? The only sound is a huge tractor in the next field, spraying god-knows-what. I’m so bored of these squabbles. Progress versus preservation, blah blah blah—all this fuss over a few acres of clay! I need to get to the bottom of this mess ASAP so I can head back to civilization. I’m sick of ditchwater coffee and curious stares. I want to walk on pavements again. My feet are killing me.
Dan reckons he knows who’s to blame.
“There’s a girl. Been hanging about for a few weeks. Not from round here. One of those barefoot hippie types, flowers in her hair. Ignorant luddites, no respect for innovation.”
I tell him I’ll look into it. A dogwalker approaches and Dan hurries me to the gate.
“Try not to stand out, right? I don’t want any more hassle.” He looks doubtfully at my turquoise blouse and long black braid. Fat chance of me fading in ’round here. I start to say something reassuring, but he strides off. Rude.
I trudge back toward the village, wondering what I’m doing with my life. Surely I’m too young to feel burned out like this? No, not burned. Fizzled. I had passion, once. Thought my work at EcoSolar would help to save the world. Then I got sent into the field—literally. Slogging through stagnant counties, an endless round of grievances and gripes. My energy has drained into this sullen earth, its strata of inertia and greed.
At the top of the slope, I catch my breath and gaze across the khaki plain. Miles of flat fields and windowless metal barns. In the east, a chain of pylons dominates the ridge. A figure stands beneath the nearest steel tower. Leather coat, neon pink hair. She looks even more out of place than I do. Is that the girl?
I want my lunch. I want these shoes off. But mostly I want this fuckery sorted out. I trek toward the pylon, sweating, wishing I’d brought sunglasses. From the ridge, I look back to the far slope of the solar array. The panels gleam in glassy lines, like an I Ching pattern. Behind me, an old lady sits in an overgrown cottage garden, hens scratching around her feet. I hurry on before she can snag me with chitchat.
The girl is kneeling beneath the pylon. Looks maybe twenty, not much younger than me. She glances up, stands, starts walking away. When I call out, she runs, vaults a fence. By the time I reach the spot, she’s vanished. But she’s dropped something. A ring of copper wires—little scrappy bits, twisted together to form a kind of crown. Daisies are threaded among the tight-woven strands. The effect is half-folky, half-industrial. Creepy. When I lift it, the wires are warm. My fingers tingle. I drop it and turn to go. Then find myself picking it up and cramming it in my bag. I don’t know why. But I’m sure this girl is the troublemaker. I need to find out what she’s up to. I need to make it stop.
I eat in the pub: dry sandwich, soggy chips, as dull and tasteless as the décor. Ranks of pale-faced sports teams stare from every wall. Three men in work boots bluster at the bar. Grumbling about piece-rates and their stingy boss, Pelham. I tune them out, until their talk shifts to the girl.
“I saw that weirdo with the gyppos. They called her Bríd—”
“What, like a breed of dog?”
“Nah, it’s Irish, innit—”
“She’s a whatchercallit—cyberpunk, right?—obsessed with solar tech and all that electronic stuff. That’s why she’s got those freaky wires round her arms—”
“Bollocks, I heard she’s gonna set the PV farm on fire. Serve that prick Dan Harper right—”
“She should be arrested—”
“Should be fucking sectioned—”
“I’d like to get that dirty bitch in the back of my van—”
They laugh loudly. One glances at me, and I stare at my plate. The greasy stodge sticks in my throat. I leave the crusts and go. Wonder if I imagined it. Or did their macho bullshit mask a sense of unease? This girl—Bríd—she doesn’t fit within the fences of their world.
I’m unsettled too. There was a moment at the pylon, just before she ran. She held my gaze and something stirred, crackling like a current. An energy I haven’t felt in years. She doesn’t nod and smile, doesn’t fade and blend in. I don’t know if she’s dangerous, or crazy like they say. But in this deadening place, she’s the only live wire.
I’ve persuaded Oliver Pelham to talk to me. He told me to meet him after bell ringing at the church. I listen outside, still queasy. When the peals stop, I find him at the entry porch. He’s unmistakable: half jowls, half tweed. Holds the door with pointed chivalry and an old-money smirk. Calls me Jasmine. I don’t bother to correct him.
Inside, someone hunches over the altar. The old lady from the cottage on the ridge.
“GOOD EVENING JOYCE!” he bellows.
She ignores him and carries on arranging flowers, humming softly.
“Poor dear,” Pelham stage-whispers, shaking his head. “Terrible tinnitus.”
He leads me up a winding stair and onto the tower roof. The air feels charged, as if the bells’ vibration hasn’t quite faded. Turns out he’s brought me here to deliver a lecture on the English Countryside.
“You people don’t understand the importance of conservation.” My face is carefully blank. He points to a white scratch that zigzags from one horizon to the other. “That’s the Icknield Way. Five thousand years old. Over there is Arbury Banks, an Iron-Age fort.” Staring, I make out a hummock ringed by a fence.
“And now you inflict this monstrosity!” He flings an accusing arm at Dan’s field. The panels are ink-dark in the evening light. Shards of a black hole.
“The countryside is no place for industrial development! Look at that hideous wind farm.”
His finger jabs at turbines, far to the north. They stand like pale daisies, plucked to their last few petals. Turning slow in the hazy air. Love me. Love me not. Clouds flare with wild color: neon orange, electric pink. Pelham goes on.
“Our rural way of life is under threat, what with incomers, outsiders. Like that so-called traveler hanging around. We don’t get the proper old gypsies in painted wagons, oh no. It’s all transit vans now. Smartphones and illegal raves and ludicrous light-up dresses. No respect for tradition.”
I nod and smile. Again. Think that his “tradition” is as vibrant as his silent, spray-drenched fields. The stillness is shattered by a yell. I turn to look. A small figure stands on the white path, near the pylon-ridge. Bríd. And a mob of kids. Lobbing stones and cans.
She runs, hare-fast. Her coat flies out like crow wings. A flash of white dress beneath.
Pelham is explaining his plan to have undesirables relocated to estates in Luton. I leave him mid-sentence and clatter down the stairs.
At the edge of the village, I pass the lads. They stare at me and jeer. She’s not there. I run past the solar farm and over the plain to the ridge. Ignore shooting pains in my shins. Pass under the pylons. Follow the pale track. I don’t even know why. To help her? To stop her? Whatever—it’s no use. There’s no sign of Bríd.
I stop, panting. The sky has dimmed to sulfur gray, the fields are faded moss. I miss London’s twilight glitter. Can’t get my head round this place. It isn’t one thing or the other—no urban buzz, no rural bliss. Not civilized, but not wild. An insipid in-between.
A sign reads ARBURY BANKS. The so-called ancient fort is a low hump of turf. A strand of white cotton is caught on the fence. I climb over. Graceless, tired. Snag my Yumi skirt on the stupid, needless barbs. Writhing free, I stumble and twist my ankle. Fuck. The wire crown falls from my bag.
There’s no one here. I sink to the ground. Think of Bríd kneeling, bare feet in the grass. I wonder why she came—flower child or techno-freak or whatever she is. What does she see in this barren nowhere-land? What can she feel that I can’t?
I pick up the crown. A daisy drops off, its pink-tipped petals closing with the dusk. I pull them slowly, one by one. Yes/No. Yes/No. By the time the last falls, I’ve forgotten the question. If I had one at all. I’m drowsy, exhausted. I lie back, the wire-ring warm in my hands.
Stars appear. Cold flowers of fire. Not still but slow-spinning, like blades. I drift in ice-white noise. The galaxy revolves round its own black heart. I give in to the darkness, the magnetic hum of dreams.
A crow flies down the Milky Way and lands on the fence post. It cries three times, piercing me with flint-spark eyes. I see it is Bríd. She shrugs off her feather cloak, finger-combs her ultraviolet hair. Dust on her feet and sunlight on her tongue. She points to constellations I’ve never seen before. Tells me things I almost understand, of the old powers and the new. Of currents and resistance, the wire and the track. Her hands weave a silver thread like cobweb on the sky.
I’m woken by a rooster’s call. I’m stiff and cold. Alone. It’s still dark, but the stars are faint. Did I sleep out here all night?
I try to remember what Bríd said. The day’s eye, the chain-maker— The force in the fuse of a flower— A power whose dwelling is the light— Words I half-remember, fading like a dream.
The wire crown has gone.
One thing I know: she promised to show me something. I have to move, now. I limp toward the village. Pause beside the cottage on the ridge. The sky pales to pigeon gray. I look across the fields to the solar array. Bríd is there. Walking slow among the panel-rows. Crisscrossing. Tracing her labyrinth. Weaving a pilgrimage of right-angled lines. In the half-light, her dress is bone pale. The air prickles with ozone as if waiting for a storm.
At the eastern horizon, a glint of gold appears. Rays lick the highest panels, silvering the veins of each silicon cell. Bríd’s path leads her into the light. Copper gleams at her neck, wrists, ankles. Sparks fly where her feet touch the earth. Her crown is a halo of flame. She seems to . . . flicker? I rub my sleep-groggy eyes. She’s not treading on the grass but a little above it.
I feel heat on my back and turn. The sun rises huge over Arbury Banks. A sound shivers the air—I can’t tell if it’s Bríd humming or the panels themselves. She reaches the center of the field. Her hands dance as if pulling on a thread. Drawing down the sun. Calling it closer, along the white path. Shadows wither as the ball of fire swells—the sky so bright it sears my eyes. I cringe against the wall, my stuttered prayer swallowed by the nuclear blaze. Shield my face—snatch a glimpse through shaking fingers. Bríd is incandescent. I’m frozen—will she burn?
A tremor shakes the track. Crows shriek up from the trees. Pylons judder, groaning, as their cables writhe. Through half-closed lids, I see Bríd twist, thrusting both hands to the ground. The terrible brightness flares, then fades. She falls and lies still. I hold my breath till I see her move, curling on her side.
A rooster calls again, close, on the garden wall. Someone stands on the other side—the old lady from the church. I’m quivering. Can’t move my limbs. She laughs.
“Touch the earth.”
A hen scratches in the daisies. I stare, dumb. Taste burnt metal on my tongue.
I kneel, gasping. Crush the cool grass with my hands. She talks, but I hardly hear. Something about Pylon People. Ley-riders chasing electric dreams. Sparks flash when I close my eyes. My retinas are burned with a shining form. A girl who holds the sun in her arms.
Joyce’s words drift through a static haze.
“Don’t see many Wire-Walkers these days. I thought they were all gone. Back to Hookland, or beyond. . . . I almost went with them, once. A long time ago.”
Rising, squinting, I look for Bríd. Only her coat remains, crumpled on the slope.
“You never stop hearing it, though. The doctor may call it tinnitus, but I know it’s the Hum.”
Joyce smiles, gazing out across the plain. I let my eyes open fully at last. See the fields waking to the midsummer light. The panels like altars, tilted to the sky. Gleaming pylon sentinels, their singing web of wires. Distant turbines weaving rings in the air. The path a bright filament spun through the living land. All pulsing with a power—a power both old and new. Not diminished but transformed.
Something moves in the distance. I’m not certain at first. Then rays catch her pink hair, neon as the dawn. I watch as she walks the silver line into the west. Until her form dissolves in the current of the track.
Rumpus original art by Dolan Morgan