As they made their way down the Island side of the old bridge, Kevin noticed that numerous subtle changes were occurring in Tanji's appearance. Her face became less rounded, and her cheekbones more pronounced. Her ears seemed to take on a slightly pointed appearance. Her hair lightened, from the inconspicuous mid-blonde that Kevin was familiar with, to a much lighter and considerably more vibrant shade. She looked all together much more relaxed, and she smiled widely for the first time in his presence.
"You're a shapeshifter!" he exclaimed.
He had heard a little about this talent from the NISSA professor, and even seen the before and after effect on one occasion, but he had never himself experienced the transformation actually in progress.
She laughed. "Of course! Here, many people are."
Tanji explained that a large number of Islanders have some shape-shifting ability. It was something that younger people tended to experiment with, changing their features as a fashion statement, or to amuse their friends, or just for a special party. Practically everyone could make minor cosmetic changes: the shape of their face, the colour of their eyes: the kids revelled in it. There were even cosmetic shifting products which enhanced specific changes, so that you really could buy bigger, brighter, bluer eyes in a bottle.
"I used to change my hair and eye colour every day, when I was studying at the College. And some people used to compete to see how grotesque they could make their faces," she explained.
"But how can you ever recognise each other, if you can change your appearance so radically?" asked Kevin.
"Well, it is only possible to change so much. Besides, you get a kind of feeling that you recognise someone, even if they look quite different. In any case, it is considered polite to let others know who you are, otherwise it can all be very embarrassing."
Older people, explained Tanji, tended not to bother so much with changing their shape and usually left their appearance alone. Kevin, who was not someone who went for much in the way of cosmetics and personal beauty, and indeed never had been, had much sympathy for this approach.
People crossing to the Mainland were advised to use any shapeshifter talent they had to make themselves less conspicuous. Of course, they had to make any changes before they left the Island, since they could not change while away from Lyndesfarne, and they would be forced to remain in that form until they returned.
A very few individuals could make much larger changes in their appearance, in much the same way that some people could perform physical contortions impossible for everyone else. A trained and talented shapeshifter, Tanji observed, could alter almost any aspect of their appearance, adding or removing inches in height, and changing their bulk and weight, as well as modifying skin colour and facial hair. But even such unusual talents rarely made alterations to their apparent gender, and it was considered very hard to make a great change in apparent age.
As they arrived at the end of the causeway, Tanji pointed in the direction of the walled field that Kevin thought of as the car park.
"I have a vehicle here. Shall we use it?"
Kevin had seen Islander vehicles before, but only from a distance. In all his previous visits, he had never used any of the transports he had often seen parked up here.
"Sure. I've never been in one of these things. How do they work?"
"Um, I don't think I can easily explain. I don't know how to translate the words."
Tanji's personal transport consisted of a flattened translucent ovoid, virtually indistinguishable from the dozen or so other similarly shaped bubbles sitting in the field. Tanji guided him over to a particularly smoky grey bubble and made a complex gesture he could not follow. The colour faded, and the interior was revealed. It looked something like a two-seat sofa in dark red leather, with attached oversized footrests, which struck Kevin as rather incongruous standing in a slightly damp field. He strode over to feel the leather seating, and promptly walked into something he could not see.
"Ow! What's that?" he asked, slightly peevishly, rubbing his bruised knee.
"Oh, sorry. The, er, casing's still on. I think that's the word in English. Wait a moment, there. Now, sit down and keep still, and we will go together."
Kevin tried again, and this time he was able to climb onto the seating and sit down. Tanji make a gesture, and they were suddenly enclosed in a barely-visible bubble. Kevin sensed immediately that he was being sheltered from the wind, and it rapidly became noticeably warmer.
He reached out gingerly, and rapped his knuckles on the casing.
"So how do I get out?" he asked.
"Use this gesture."
Tanji illustrated a lift-and-twist gesture that looked to Kevin like she was operating a rather large and old-fashioned (but definitely invisible) door handle.
"But don't try it while we are moving," she continued. "I really wouldn't want you to fall out."
She smiled gleefully, and Kevin suddenly caught his breath, as if seeing her for the first time. He smiled back and then looked away, feeling inexplicably shy for a moment.
Tanji turned her attention to the vehicle. She began to make a series of complex movements. The sofa lifted a few inches from the ground and swivelled round, and then began to move slowly towards the exit. She seemed to be concentrating on piloting the transport, which left Kevin free to look around.
Judging by the "car park", several different kinds of transports were available. Many were larger and more squared-off, but with the same kind of grey bubble surrounding them. Dotted between the large bubbles were shapes which looked like motorbikes draped in dull silver sheets. He assumed that the latter were some kind of one-person transports.
On previous visits with old frog-face, Kevin had either walked to the New Bridge site, or more usually had ridden in an old-fashioned horse-drawn trap. He had noticed that horse-drawn transport was at least faster than travelling on foot, and would work equally well on either side of the bridge.
In his occasional paranoid moments, Kevin had noted that a mounted rider was probably the best way of tracking down a runaway visitor on either side of the bridge, and a light horse-drawn trap was nearly as effective. Not that anyone could have done a runner anyway, he thought, since the old bridge is always crowded with travellers. And where else would one go?
The new bridge site was about a mile and a half from the old bridge. For obvious reasons, the builders of the old bridge had selected the narrowest point for the crossing, and the straights widened rapidly on either side. Of course, modern bridge-building allowed for much longer crossings, and Kevin (accompanied by Bret, Ricard and others from both the Mainland and Island) had spent a couple of months inspecting and surveying prospective sites before selecting this one.
At the New Bridge site, the straights were much wider, and the surrounding mudflats and marshes narrower. On each side, a support tower had been constructed in a shallow part of the sea. On the Mainland side, a conventional (at least from Kevin's viewpoint) approach of steel-reinforced poured concrete has been used. For a long time, there had been cranes and barges full of concrete and steel clustered around the tower base as it grew steadily from the sea.
Kevin looked on as Tanji brought the transport through the site gate and up to the location where the approach road supports were still being constructed. As she manoeuvred the vehicle carefully around the clutter of debris that always seemed to be found on building sites, Kevin watched the building work progressing.
He had seen the same approach for the construction of the Island-side support tower a year back. Vast pale-grey building blocks were delivered on floating platforms, each marked individually in a spidery script Kevin could not read. The blocks were incredibly easy to move; they were nudged by hand from the delivery platform to the base of the tower as if they were made of expanded polystyrene filled with Helium. They literally floated in the air to the height of the tower, guided by a light rope, where they were grabbed by a construction worker on the scaffolding and placed very carefully, being finally edged into position. At a gesture from the worker, the weight of the block increased dramatically, settling into place with a soft crump. Then, over a period of perhaps two hours, the joints between the blocks faded, as well as the markings, and the material amalgamated into a single solid mass.
Kevin looked up, and noticed that one of the Watchers had appeared on a low headland a few hundred yards away. Unusually close, he thought. The Watchers did indeed seem to be increasing their mysterious activity as the New Bridge came closer to completion. The Watchers, mused Kevin, must have some kind of organisation behind them. Are they some kind of government audit group, or maybe a branch of the Secret Police? As he watched, the Watcher disappeared, using the simple expedient of walking down the far side of the headland and out of his line of sight.
Tanji brought the transport to a halt, and it settled to the ground. Kevin made the gesture he had been taught earlier, getting it right first time, to his considerable private satisfaction. The surrounding bubble dissipated rapidly, and he stepped out.
"I'm going to be busy for some time," he said to Tanji, "But I probably don't need to talk to anybody. Do you want to stay here?"
"Ok," she replied, "I've some correspondence I can catch up with. Call me if you want any help."
Kevin set off, working his way over the site area carefully and making copious notes in his reporters' notebook using a soft pencil. He would write them all up as a more formal report on his laptop computer when he got back to the Mainland. As so often happened, as he worked the hours just flew by, and it came as a surprise when the construction workers started wrapping up for the day.
He made his way back to the transport, and found Tanji sitting on the sofa and rapidly writing on what looked like a hand-held wood-framed slate.
"Hi. What are you up to?"
"I was just writing a few letters to old friends and colleagues. I just need to get this one sent."
He had heard about these magical writing slates. As he watched, Tanji jotted a few words at the bottom of the slate, and then make a sequence of gestures over the frame. Kevin could see that she was writing in English but, before he could take in more than a few words, the writing faded.
"Just a chatty note to an old friend," she explained.
Kevin climbed back onto the sofa, and they set off again. He had previously asked Tanji to made arrangements for them to stay overnight on the island, so she guided them to "The Walled Garden", which she insisted as describing as a hostel, rather than a hotel. He had stayed here before, and had found it really rather comfortable, in a low-key kind of way. It was not really a hotel in the style of the large anonymous buildings found all over the Mainland. Suits me, thought Kevin, it's rather like staying in a small and well-run private hotel.
Hello again, Kithyn.
I am now at the site of the New Bridge. My Visitor is working somewhere nearby, so I have a few minutes to write a reply to you.
I am coming to the opinion that Visitor Kevin is really quite clever. Clever Kev? For a Mainlander, he seems to be quick at picking up spells. I know it's a simple thing, but he got the Open Sealed Door gesture right at the first attempt. You will know that children often find this one tricky - and perhaps just as well! I would not want anyone falling out while in motion.
The Watchers seem to be very active. I really do not know what they are looking for. They do seem to be making everyone uneasy. Are the rumours true?
I had to laugh at Kevin this morning. I had used my shape shifting ability to made a very few minor changes to fit into the other world, as we have been taught. I reversed the changes when we returned, and he saw me doing it. He was so surprised! I am all over again struck by the differences between the worlds. I do not think I could ever live over there.
Kevin has come back now, so I better close. Thank you again for all your support over the last few months.
Your friend Tanji.
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