“The round tower soared up, black and glistening, against the slate grey of a late-October sky. As Rachel and her brother walked towards it across the moor, from the east, it was framed by two leafless, skeletal ash trees. It was the hour before dusk on a windless afternoon. When they reached the trees, they would be able to rest on the bench that stood between them, and look back towards Beverley in the near distance, the neat clusters of houses and, rising up in the midst of them, the monumental, answering greyish-cream towers of the Minster.
Nicholas flopped down on the bench. Rachel – then only six years old, eight years his junior – did not join him: she was impatient to run up towards the black tower, to get close to it. She left her brother to his rest and scurried onwards, squelching her way through the cow-trodden mud that surrounded the foot of the tower until she was right up against it, and could lay her hands upon the gleaming black brickwork. The flat of both hands upon the tower, she looked upwards and could not comprehend the size and scale of it, the perfect, lucid curve as it arched itself, like a sway back, against a threatening sky through which a pair of rooks were now skimming, cawing and circling endlessly.
‘What did it use to be?’ she asked.
Nicholas had joined her now. He shrugged. ‘Dunno. Some kind of windmill, maybe.’
‘Do you think we could get inside?’
‘It’s all bricked up.’
There was a circular wooden bench running all around the base of the tower, and when Nicholas sat there, Rachel sat beside him and stared up into his pale, unresponsive blue eyes, which for all their coldness only made her feel how lucky she was, how blessed, to have an older brother like this, so handsome and confident. She hoped that one day her hair would be as blonde as his, her mouth as shapely, her skin as downy and clear. She nestled against his shoulder, as close as she dared. She didn’t want to be a drag upon him, didn’t want him to become too aware that, in this strange and unfamiliar town, he was the only thing that made her feel safe.
‘You cold or something?’ he asked, looking down at her.
‘A bit.’ She inched away slightly. ‘Will it be warm where they are, d’you think?’
‘Course it will. There’d be no point going on holiday somewhere where it’s cold, would there?’
‘I wish they’d taken us with them,’ said Rachel feelingly.
‘Well, they didn’t. So that’s that.’
Jonathan Coe (Birmingham, 19 augustus 1961)