Where do stories come from? Something happened last weekend to get me thinking about that. I was on a visit home, to where I grew up, on the East coast of England. My brother was there as well, and we decided to do something to help him with the training of his next adventure. I’ll explain what in a minute. But first of all I need to tell you about something that happened twenty five years ago, when I was just fifteen.
Fifteen is old enough to be drinking, but not old enough to be in pubs. So a bunch of us had gone camping for the night, with a few bottles of cider and, I think, a guitar. We wanted to get away from our parents, get drunk, maybe do some snogging if we got lucky. I don’t remember if I did get lucky, but what I do remember of that night feels almost as fresh in my mind as if it happened last week.
We weren’t in a public campsite, we were at a local beauty spot, and a strange one at that. It’s called ‘The Backwaters’, and it’s a place where the border between land and sea is confused. An near-enclosed bay where marshland meets farmland, divided by a low grassy dyke. At high tide the ‘sea’ side of the dyke looks like a huge lake, surrounded by low lying islands with winding channels that lead between them to the North Sea. At low tide it’s all just a wide expanse of thick, Essex mud. Arthur Ransome set Secret Water (his follow up to Swallows and Amazons) here, where innocent kids play around in boats, and play at being adults. I suppose this story has a flavour of that, but with added cider.
Anyway, we cycled there, we pitched the tents on a land-rover track on the land side of the dyke – the only piece of dry, flat land available – and we cracked open the booze. I don’t remember much about the evening, but you can probably imagine: bad guitar playing, pasta surprise on a camp stove. It’s what happened later that stands out.
It was around three o’clock in the morning – late enough that this fact alone made the whole thing odd. We were all asleep by then, but one of the girls was woken by the sound of an engine. She was worried about being run over by a drunk farmer in his tractor, so she climbed out of her tent, and that got me up too. We listened to the noise of an engine, loud and strange in the quiet of the night. We climbed up the dyke to see what it was.
The tide had come in and the moon was illuminating the water. We saw that the noise was the engine of a small, open boat. It was close by and coming closer, heading for a small wooden landing-stage fifty metres along the dyke from where we’d pitched our tents. There were several figures in the boat, silhouetted against the moon, and silent. Then we heard a second engine, a car this time.
The landing stage – a rickety wooden jetty – was connected to the main road by about a mile of farm track. The farm track is open to the public, but it’s not a road. My dad would take me here sometimes to practice driving, but he was never that keen because the track was so badly potholed. You had to really look where you were going and steer around them or the bottom of the car would scrape the ground. So when I saw that car I immediately knew something was strange about it. Not just that it was driving to a desolate landing stage in the middle of the night, apparently to meet a strange boat. But that it was doing so in the darkness, with its lights switched off.
We whispered together and decided to get closer, crawling through the long grass on the top of the dyke. We kept low – on elbows and knees – until we found a spot behind some low shrubs, maybe fifteen metres away from the jetty. We lay there and watched.
As the boat neared the shore the figure in the bow flashed on a torch. They caught hold of the jetty, jumped out, and tied the boat up. The car arrived too, and reversed down the ramp so it was right next to the water. The driver and a passenger jumped out. More torches. Then the people from the boat began unloading packages, making a chain to pass them ashore and load them into the back of the car. They were working urgently, a little nervously. We could hear them talking, telling each other to hurry up, to keep the noise down.
We knew it was drugs in the packages. This part of England is only a short crossing from France and there were often stories about drug smuggling operations on the local news. People even talked of finding blocks of hashish washed up on the beaches. Apparently smugglers would attach them to fishing gear, wrapped up in cellophane. A bigger boat would carry them close to the UK coast and drop them off, attached to a buoy, then a smaller local boat, unlikely to be stopped by customs, would pick the drugs up and bring them ashore. But sometimes rough weather would mean one of these blocks would wash away. I always kept an eye out on the beach, but I never found one.
But even if we knew it had to be drugs, the rest of the picture didn’t fit the stories. The people working in front of us – they weren’t burly Russian thugs, or London gangsters, or Columbians with moustaches and machine guns. They were just – normal people. They were young – twenties, early thirties at most, both men and women. They were dressed normally, they were well spoken, and for all that they were telling each other to hurry up and keep quiet, they were joking, pretending to drop a package, or push each other into the water. It was obvious they were having fun.
Maybe ten minutes after they arrived the boat was empty and the car was full. They hung around for a few minutes, leaving like relatives after a family get together, then the people from the boat climbed back in. The people from the car did the same, and still with the lights off, started back down the farm track. The boat motored away into the darkness. Once they were gone we came out from our hiding place and walked down to the jetty, not quite believing what we’d seen. The only evidence it had happened were the tyre tracks, a few footprints in the mud, but apart from that, nothing. They were gone. And that’s where the story ends. Or at least, that’s where I thought it ended.
But like I said, last weekend I was back home with my brother and we decided to do something a little adventurous. We decided to paddleboard around the biggest island in the Backwaters. Because it’s so tidal you can only do this at high tide and that meant getting there at 5.30am. And in January, 5.30am is very much still the middle of the night.
The thermometer on the van said it was minus 6 as we drove there, slowing carefully before the bends so as not to skid off the road. I already had my wetsuit on, a coat over the top, plus boots and a hat, even so I was cold.
We drove down that same bumpy farm track, lights on, breaking the ice over the potholes. We stopped on the concrete ramp close to where the car had stopped all those years before. And I realised I hadn’t seen this place in the dark since that night.
It was a clear night and there wasn’t a breath of wind, but the moon was weak. I climbed the dyke and looked out. The old wooden jetty was still there, the water looked black and uninviting. But we didn’t waste any time – we had sixteen kilometres to paddle and if we didn’t get back in time we’d face a long walk through the thick mud as the tide disappeared around us. We carried the boards to the water, stepped warily on, and pushed away from the bank.
There was a strange dragging sensation, and watching the noses of the boards we could see we were pushing through a thin layer of ice that had formed near the bank. The boards were slippy because seawater on the deck was freezing and it was too dark to easily go in a straight line, so the first few miles were slow going, but then the blackness of the sky began to fade and we could make out the banks, the withies that mark the twisting channels that stay filled with water even at low tide. The surface of the water was like thick glass, a low fog hanging in some places. The only sound was the swish of our paddles, the occasional call of ducks and the violent splash of seals woken from their sleep and diving for cover.
Halfway around the island and the barges came into view. The sea side of the island is protected by a string of sunken WW2 barges that lie half in-half out of the water, rusting and covered in seaweed. We passed close enough to see the hoaring of frost on their exposed decks. Then we came ashore for a rest, a chance to force some movement into our frozen feet. Then we started upon the Walton Channel – used by yachts for mooring, the only place where you’re likely to see other human being around here. But even this was empty but for one boat. The rest were all hauled out for the winter, only their buoys were there, pulling against the tide in the early morning light.
And with each buoy we passed we noticed that tide growing stronger. Now we were making our way back into the Backwaters, and the tide was draining out against us. We dug in. Feeling hot now despite the coldness of the morning. And then we were out of the channel, past the marina and back into the wide expanse of water that we’d left from. Only now the sun was up, a glowing orange ball at our backs, and the beauty of the place was exposed. Perfect glassy flat water, flocks of birds arriving to feed on the freshly exposed mud. That meant we had to hurry up, but we’d timed it well, we could see the jetty ahead of us, already high and dry. The last thirty metres would be a walk through the mud, but we made it back.
It was a beautiful way to start the day, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that night, twenty five years ago, and when we were ashore, I went to look at the place we’d camped, and at the little low bushes we’d hidden behind to spy upon the smugglers.
And I wondered whether there might be some connection between what I saw that night and the book I’ve just finished writing, which deals with drug smuggling. It’s not entirely obvious – the book doesn’t feature smugglers on the Essex coast – but it does explore the characters that might become involved in smuggling, and why they do it, and how it changes them. I didn’t once make the link while writing the book. I didn’t once think of that night. But now I have, it seems almost impossible that the two things are not connected. I wonder if on some subconscious level I’ve never stopped wondering who those people were that night, how they got to be there, doing whatever it was they were doing, and what happened to them afterwards.
As more and more people know I’m trying to be a writer, so I’m suddenly being asked a lot where the ideas for stories come from. I always say I don’t really know, but I wonder if this gives me a clue. I wonder if the seed for The Desert Run has been germinating in my thoughts for the last twenty five years, planted by what I saw that night.