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The Unshakeable Decency of Trees

By: Phyrebrat on the 5th April 2010 at 3:01pm

Short story - Romance - Supernatural

As I’ve said before we’re both suffering, and you shutting yourself away is not going to help. It’s not helping me either, and I miss you. Not all women are like her (and I bet you’re still wearing the ring??). I thought if I came by for a few weeks I could help with the housework and stuff. You know how I don’t like to interfere but let’s be honest, you’ve fallen off the radar and I think you’d benefit from spending time with some company. Oh, and I also picked up those CBT books. I know you’re probably rolling your eyes now, but they’re not like reams and reams of text. The big one actually is actually exercises. You write in it each day and ...

?

2

"Steve-o!" A happy voice shouted from his left as he fiddled with another broken gate; this time that of the Post Office cottage. Anxious at the prospect of making small talk with someone, Steven turned reluctantly and saw the wiry silhouette of Peeler coming up the lane from the same direction he’d come. He relaxed then, and smiled. Peeler John was sixteen, helped out at his family’s farm but was the antithesis of Sundew mentality, wanting to get to London as soon as possible.

"Still alive, then?" Peeler enquired.

"Just about," he replied, "how are things with you, Peeler?"

"Well, the usual, you know. I’m slaloming through life avoiding anvils and shit pies from the air."

Steven laughed. Peeler was the only person in Sundew who he actually liked even though he was over twenty years his senior.

"You still arguing with your Mum about going to Uni?"

"That for your sister?" Peeler asked, ignoring Steven’s question and nodding at the envelope in his hand.

"Yeah, she wanted to come down."

"Oh!" Peeler exclaimed and then with a sly look; "I guess that letter’s her formal invitation then, dress code and all?"

Steven liked Peeler because he was not infected with the fake Sundew mentality of artifice, of keeping up false appearances and niceties. He told people he didn't like them if he didn’t like them. He made an effort and was open and authentic to those he did. He did not dress his words or act subservient or deferent. He knew Steven had a bad time with his sister and he knew Fi had left Steven. He did not however attempt to sweeten Steven’s lot nether did he tread cautiously around those subjects. For that reason Steven had a great deal of respect for the boy. That and the fact that he was quite unaffected by his dreadful first name. How his parents could have christened him Peeler was beyond his comprehension. He’d asked Peeler why he was called this when they’d first moved in to Sundew and had gotten the simple response; "because that’s my name." He also loved the fact that Peeler had named his border collie dog "Tom The Cat".

"No, not exactly. Just a quick note to tell her that I’m fine and not to worry about me."

"Not to worry, or not to bother?" He smiled.

"Either. Both." Steven replied.

"Peeler John! Get in here now, willya!" came a voice from further down the road, in the opposite direction I’d come from. The farmhouse.

"Yes, alright old lady, don't fall off your titting stool." he mumbled and shrugged at Steven to tell him he had to go.

"Nice to see you again, Peeler." Steven offered his own smile.

"Where have you been? " The shouter enquired.

"Oh where the hell do you think, ma? I been down in Gosset’s field making love to his cows!" Peeler shouted in response.

Steven spluttered a laugh, aware that Pam John could see him from the farmhouse and turned to duck under the low eaves of the thatched Post Office cottage.

"Are you okay, like you're not sick, are you?" Peeler’s voice called from the other side of the gate.

Steven turned, surprised at the question. "Yeah, I’m fine."

"Okay, if you say so."

"Do I look sick?"

"You look -"

"PEELER SAMUEL JOHN! You work your jaw more than Gosset’s fattest cow!" his mother screamed.

Running down the lane towards his angry mother, Tom The Cat running happily at his feet, Peeler turned and finished what he was saying;

"- green!"

 

?

3

He didn't manage to get out of the Post Office for nearly half an hour. Not only was he subject to the usual interrogation by Merryl Pikepepper, who was the desk clerk, General Manager and sometimes postlady, but also because there were two people from the village ahead of him sending Easter cards and gifts abroad. He did not know the two people but after the extended transaction with Merryl and her rapid chain gunning of questions, he felt he knew much more than he cared. And he was irritable when it became his turn to be served. That could be a problem; if he didn’t treat Merryl with care, he could generate a whole new set of gossip which would set the small community on fire and bring more judgements to bear on his character. So, he suffered silently listening to the stories of Ruthie and her husband’s estranged family in New Zealand; and then to Doctor Fell who was busy relating to Merryl all the village’s medical conditions, who had what and what was to be done. Steven was disgusted to hear some of the stories and turned away to stare out of the warped windows at the front of the post office.

"Ah, Mr Hemlock, what a lovely surprise, we don’t see you in the village much these days." Merryl cooed from behind the weighing desk. There was no glass division and he could smell the fermented stink of boiled sweets on her breath.

Steven smiled back at her and mumbled that he had been very busy lately. It was the wrong thing to say;

"Oh, that’s right, Mr Hemlock. You’re doing up Pam’s farmhouse aren’t you? Yes."

"Well, planning for a laboratory extension, but.."

"And," she cut in, "I’m sure that Flight Squadron Leader whateverisnameis from Up North is keeping you on your toes as well!" It was a question, not a statement, but he ignored her and smiled again, making an awkward shaking gesture with his head from side to side.

"And now Mora tells me you have plans to design a new house for some big wig tellyperson!" She raked a fat hand through straggly hair the colour of stewed tea.

Steven had no idea who Mora was and from where she came by this knowledge, or what exactly Merryl meant by tellyperson but he smiled again and nodded.

As if taking a hint, Merryl dropped her shoulders and stepped back a little , crossing her arms over pendulous asymmetrical breasts, lumpy under her fawn polyester dress; "Well, I’m sure it’s none of my business," she smiled and then with no pause; "What can I do for you?"

"Just stamps, please." He said, waving the envelope casually. "I’m out, normally Fi would have stamps in her purse but..." He trailed off.

"I understand." Merryl said not looking in the least understanding, and added; "I suppose those trees are the only company you keep these days?"

"What did you say?" Steven asked, a little sharply.

"Gog and Magog. The two bell oaks on the heath. Mrs Hemlock said you had your own names for them?" She said, purposely. Using Steven’s surname on Fi was clearly engineered to generate a reaction; everyone knew they weren’t married and it had been the subject of much gossip on their arrival seven years earlier.

"Er..yeah." He stuttered feeling simultaneously caught out and vulnerable from the mention of Fi’s name, aloud. "I called them - call them Heathcliff and Catherine."

"Book of six?" She continued, offering a small red booklet of stamps.

He nodded and passed the change to her for the stamp book; "Thank you"

"Well, your name for them is nicer, not perhaps as nice as it could be."

"Why Gog and Magog?" He asked, momentarily interested in such odd names for his Heathcliff and Cathy.

"The road that runs between them leads up to the M27 which in turn, leads to the M3 to –"

"London." Steve cut in.

"Hmm. Traditionally Gog and Magog are the guardians to the City of London. Some old nonsense." Merryl chortled whilst she absently picked at some encrusted matter on the front of her fawn dress. She looked up, satisfied that the food had been removed and smiled indulgently at him. "Of course, Gog and Magog were also giants or demons or something from Genesis or The Revelation."

"Of course." He agreed, although had never heard the names before. "Well, I must get on. Take care of yourself and I’ll see you soon."

"Oh Mr Hemlock, no you won’t!" She chided. "It’s been months since we’ve seen you. It’ll be months again, I daresay!" She laughed girlishly, lips drawing back from her pointy little teeth in a leer and turned back to the old wooden drawer that acted as cash register. As Steven walked out she turned and said "Just pop it in the box outside, if you please."

As he walked towards the gate he dropped off the envelope into the well kept red pillar box inside the front garden of the Post Office. A cloud-haired middle aged lady with a bumblebee jumper and blue jeans passed him. She entered the Post Office and he heard more cooing sounds intermingled with partly intelligible chatter. Just before the door closed shut and the jangle of the bell drowned out all noise for a moment, he thought he heard something that made him seethe. Yes, it’s been a while now and the Police have still not found her. He could walk back in and shout at Merryl, remind her that his wife left him, that no Police were involved and that it was vulgar and disrespectful of her to infer that she had met with some kind of foul play. But then that presupposed that she was talking about him and that he even heard it correctly. Besides, so what? Let her gossip. If he was going to be honest with himself, he didn’t actually care that much.

He pulled the gate closed behind him, wondering how Bumblebee had managed to get the damn thing open and looked up. The sky was vibrant; pink cirrus clouds were being smeared high up in the atmosphere and lower down at the edges of the darkening horizon were patchy stratus clouds illuminated the colour of bottle green and blending to a deep lapis blue. No matter what he felt inside, outside, his life was beautiful.

It was in this frame of mind that he began his journey home and he did not rush even though dusk was approaching. Steven doubted he would have caught the last post and Merryl was certainly not the kind of person to have rushed the mail out. No, urgency was quite a rare thing in Sundew, notwithstanding Peeler’s mother and her entreaties to run home, and the early evening crept on with a movement as slow as the pulse of the village.

He arrived at the bottom of a long-sloped incline with a cold dribble of a stream running along the base. Both the stream and the escarpment ran parallel to the B-road that wound into Sundew. By cutting across it and up the hill, through the woods took Steven on a direct route home rather than the one offered by the circuitous country lanes.

As he walked across the tangled knot of roots that anchored the trees to the side of the hill groundwater flowed here and there over the mahogany surface of the ground, echoing the appearance of the roots with its spidery meandering. The air was cold clear and alive with the sounds of water, the hushed chatter of leaves, and the multicolour sky broke into the dark shaded woodland reflecting off the many rivulets that chased each other lazily down the slope. Steven stood for a moment and marvelled at the beauty, at the appearance of the forest floor. It was as if someone had scattered minerals and gemstones all over the area.

Aware that time was getting on, no matter how slow the natural rhythm of the place was, he pulled himself out of his reverie and walked to the crest of the hill. As he came out of the woods and on to the grassy top, he could see the subtle outside lights had switched on around his house and the spectrum of colours in the clouds was reflected in the full length floor to ceiling windows that ran along the front and back of the lounge. Walking forward staring at this serene view he did not see the marshy puddle in front of him and stepped into it fully with his right foot, up to the ankle.

Cursing he hopped across the puddle awkwardly and stood at the other side shaking his wet foot. The trainers were old, his million milers, as Fi referred to them and she was always trying to throw them out. He wished she had, he would have probably been wearing something more appropriate for a cross country hike.

Enough sightseeing

By now his foot was very cold and the darkening day had brought a chill edge to the crispness. He looked behind and to his left, beyond and to the side of the hill and saw Catherine, then to the right to Heathcliff. Three miles away he guessed.

He became less aware of his awkward cold foot as he ran the last few minutes to his house. He didn't bother with the gate, just jumped over the low stone wall again and was fishing in his hoodie pocket for his house keys when he realised his foot was no longer cold. Still, he removed both his trainers and walked through the hallway into the lounge. The wooden flooring was cosy now the heating had come on and he slumped into the right hand side of the sofa, avoiding the spring.

When Steven brought up his foot to remove the wet sock he was surprised to notice it was dry. Perhaps it was the other one and he’d got muddled. He swapped feet. That sock was dry, too. Strange, he thought, and wandered out to the hallway to pick up his million milers. Both were dry inside. Bone dry.

Bemused and confused, he shuffled back into the lounge, the bottoms of his jeans dragging on the wood floor and stood in front of the panoramic window, hands on hips. Wait a minute he thought and looked at the bottom of his jeans. The right leg was still dark blue from the bottom to halfway up the shin. What the Hell? He thought and walked quickly back to the hall to grab his trainers, walked into the kitchen and put on the hard halogen spotlights, dumping his shoes on the central island work surface.

Steven examined the right trainer closely. Holding it up, smelling it, putting his hand right in and down to the toes. Nothing. No dampness. He stood there for a moment barefoot, lost in thought and not even consciously thinking about the whole wet trainer enigma. A last shaft of sunlight had swept across the sky and cut through the kitchen spearing Steven in its orange blaze. He stood there absorbing the heat and light of it, almost transcendent, before it either moved below the horizon or a cloud obscured it. He began to wonder what had happened to the damp trainer as he absently turned his ‘wedding’ ring on the finger. He stayed this way for over minute before snapping out of his trance. He flicked on the kettle to make himself a pot of tea and as an afterthought took out the big plastic bowl from the chocolate ceramic cupboards underneath the kitchen sink and filled it with hot water. Then he added some bath salt Fi had brought back from Turkey. Some mineral mix from the Pamukalle salt terraces that she had sworn by but then never used in her own baths after the first time when she came out into the lounge, soaking wet with a small towel that barely covered her; what a load of old shit Steven, why the hell I - ? They smell like compost! And then she was gone, back into the bathroom, angrily pulling the plug, angrily turning on the shower, angrily washing herself in the shower. She was an impulsive hot head, that was for definite. And now he remembered she had found another use for the bath salts which was why she relegated them under the kitchen sink, but he couldn’t recall what it was.

He emptied the kettle into the teapot and carried the bowl of water out into the lounge, setting it down on a towel in front of an armchair which he had swivelled round to face the ancient oaks in the distance. It would be dark by the time he got settled but that was fine, too; with no ambient street lighting the sky would be alive with stars, like more gemstones.

Steven padded into the bedroom and undressed, putting on a thick white bath robe and came back to the kitchen to pour out the tea. God, he could smell the bath salts in the other room from here! He wondered why on impulse he had added them to the water knowing how smelly they were and supposed it was just a subconscious leap he made following getting his foot wet – or not – in the puddle atop the hill.

With the tea in one hand and large black towel in the other, he settled down into the chair and put his feet into the bowl. What pleasure. Although the water was just a little too far on the hot side he made himself sit till his skin became accustomed to the temperature and he relaxed his lower back into the seat. It was twilight and a small amount of stars switched themselves abruptly on. The heathland flowed darkly to the horizon where only the silhouettes of the hill and the two trees could be discerned.

Steven reached over to the side table which had his digital radio/CD player. It was one of those funky all-speaker affairs that had a dock for his MP3 player but he liked to use it for the radio. It could pick up all sorts from around the world and many times he’d been pleasantly surprised at the stations he had snared. Once he’d even listened to tide times and shipping news because there was something so rural and cosy that harked back to a less complicated life. Ironic that he needed this digital radio to make communion with it. He flipped the rocker switch and from some distant land an ancient piano drifted lazily out of the speakers. Steven thought of sandy beaches at dusk, of red hot sunsets, and of sipping icy white wine on a beach house veranda, arm around his love who sat next to him on the wicker loveseat. They sipped and sank deeper into the overstuffed cushions. He daydreamed as words joined the opening chords of the song and a sweet and soft voice petitioned;

In the gloaming, oh my darling

When the lights are soft and low

And the quiet shadows, falling

Softly come and softly go.

When the trees are sobbing faintly

With a gentle unknown woe

Will you think of me, and love me

As you did once, long ago

The tune carried on for another minute, Steven became lost further still in the lyrics and nostalgia of the track before the announcer cut in, politely waiting for the last chord to finish. He explained that Billie Holliday recorded it on top of a pre-recorded version by Glenn Miller, and that the end result was what we’d just heard. He then announced to the listeners that he was going to entrust Ms Holliday to keep the atmosphere cosy with another of her tunes, Someone to Watch Over Me.

Steven surfaced from his daydream again to find his water had gone cold. How long was I gone for? he asked himself and saw that the waxing crescent moon was high. As he became more aware of his surroundings, less meditative, he concluded he must have fallen asleep. The water really was cold now but thankfully the smell of compost had long gone. He took his feet out of the bowl and pivoted sideways so he could put them on the towel which was laid on the floor adjacent to it. Something felt odd. The towel was fluffy under his soles and he bent down to retrieve it and rub his feet. He froze in the action as he realised what was amiss. His feet were dry.

More importantly, the bowl was empty. Not completely empty, there was maybe less than a millimetre of water at the bottom but certainly it had lost six inches. He jerked up and ran to the wall and flicked the light switch on, wondering if the leaked water would have ruined the flooring and heating underneath. Preparing for the worst he looked over his shoulder at the chair, now bathed under a reading spotlight, and saw that the floor was also dry.

Immobile and bewildered, Steven stared down as his mind wrestled to find a solution to the mystery of the missing water. The heating had switched off a while ago and a coldness had descended on the ground floor, his bath robe offering little warmth against the chill. The coldness brought him out of his thoughts and he felt a great defeat. Not much had really happened today but the incident with Merryl, and the letter, its unidentified stain, the sense of otherness in the woods and the subsequent soaking of his foot in the puddle all seemed larger than their sum. They took on a proportion which exhausted him and so he padded across the cooling wooden floors and up the open stairs to the bedroom he once shared with Fi. Sleep was what he needed. Sleep and forget about today. Small steps.

Tossing back the thick cream coloured duvet he dropped heavily onto the deep mattress and let the numerous pillows engulf him. The bed clothes were clean on – the only practical thing he had done that day was to change the bedding – and the sensation of the clean sheets on his clean feet was delightful. He sighed out deeply and turned on his side to peer out of the windows which carried on up to the first floor from downstairs. Looking at the two trees on the horizon from the front of the building’s glass facade he began to dip into sleep, mind unravelling slowly and free-associating as he fell. The last thing he remembered before falling asleep was Fi; the only thing this mineral crap would be good for is plant food as she shoved the Turkish bath tonic under the sink with the rest of the houseplant sundries. Then he slept.

He was back in the woods near the crest of the hill only now it was full daylight, warm and sunny. There was a humidity in the air and a light mist hung there also. Trees were in full leaf but were far more diverse than the pines and firs that predominated the few oaks, beeches and silver birches in the New Forest . Although it was hot and bright, the place seemed alive with water. Rainbows shimmered like mirages between trunks and disappeared as he moved. The air was fresh with cool water and smelled clean. Looking down at the ground Steven saw that he was naked and the thought calmly came to him, I’m dreaming all this. However, there was a lucidity and realism that seemed different to a typical dream and the fact that he could even discern it was a dream suggested something a little stranger.

No birds sang and he saw no New Forest ponies. No rabbits, no deer, in fact he couldn't even see any insects. No fauna, pure flora and earth, water and the fire of the Sun. The experience felt shamanic in its elemental nature and he looked up at the sun that beat down through the heavy foliage. He could feel the heat of it on his skin and felt energised, and at the same time was aware he was not breathing. Standing still transfixed under the sun’s rays he became aware of a more subtle tidal breath cycling in and out of his skin as opposed to his lungs. He stared upwards in a state of bliss, eyes fully open to the sun but not dazzled or blinded. It was then that the sun darted to the west and disappeared with the light as a more subtle, silverlight illuminated the forest. He was now staring at the moon and stars and was aware of his out breath as opposed to the inhale. Still in the skin, but outwards. The silence of the place seemed even more concentrated. Drips of water and something else. The noise of intelligence. Again the sky tilted away and the sun came up and he was bathed in its concentrated beam. This repeated again and again, cycling through sun and moon, inhale and exhale, the moon waxing slightly larger with each revolution. And each time day returned, Steven felt the presence of someone grow more intense.

What is that?

He turned back and saw the oaks, firs and ivy had formed what looked like a circular door. It was about twelve feet high and irregular in shape but more or less oval. And as he moved to look at it, trails were left by the motion of his head and eyes.

Then it all stopped. The branches held their circular position but all the movement ceased. What am I meant to be seeing? Thought Steven. He couldn’t imagine what this meant – if indeed it meant anything – but it was a natural response to the fact that he felt awake inside his own dream. Millions of tiny black shadows and shades of green held their shape in front of him and as he stared slack-jawed he saw a pattern. Not a pattern exactly, more like a Magic Eye picture. As soon as this occurred to him, the image before him clicked into view, just as it did in the 3D pictures he used to look at. Moving his head, the image changed its aspect and retained its three dimensional appearance. A twelve foot high face.

Two thick branches from each oak had formed eyebrows and the ivy poured over the top of the head to give a shaggy appearance of hair. A holly bush at the bottom had formed an open mouth with teeth. The firs had lined up to form a smooth beard and the ears were composed of smaller oak branches. From the nose which was made of silver birch came streamers of ivy. They spread from the nostrils and crept to form laughter lines. A neck complete with Adams apple was constructed from ferns.

Steven stood before the face of the Green Man speechless and foolishly patted where his pockets would have been, looking for his mobile, wishing he could take pictures. It made no move, it made no attempt to communicate or vocalise anything. It simply hung there, immense yet benign.

Steven however, did speak. Without thinking, and really without being aware of it he began to sing softly to the verdant edifice;

In the gloaming, oh my darling,
when the lights are soft and low,
will you think of me and love me,
as you did once long ago?

It shifted and the vines and branches began a slow silent retreat as he finished the last line. Within moments the forest had returned to its static character and Steven felt the dream state slipping. Or rather reasserting itself into something less tangible. Something that he had no control over. His consciousness was altering towards a proper dream state where his sense of self began to vanish. Aware that this was occurring and sad that the shamanic vision was ending, he looked down at his hands. His body was covered with thousands of little green mouths. Tiny stomata opened and closed slowly; two green lips taking slight gulps like fish mouths. Steven screamed himself awake.

He thought as he counted off the twenty eighth appearance of the moon, now an almost invisible crescent. The intelligence or presence seemed right in front of him, yet all around him but he could see nothing. He turned a full circle but saw no one around him, although a slight breeze had picked up and was disturbing the leaves. Still comfortable in his nudity and the surreal environment he wondered why the breeze could not be felt on his own skin. In front of him were two small oak trees and a cluster of dense firs. As he looked at them he realised it was not the leaves that were moving but the branches. The branches wobbled and trembled softly as if an invisible hand was shaking them slightly. Stepping closer to the oaks (these are my dream versions of Heathcliff and Catherine) he noticed something even stranger; the branches appeared to be reaching, slowly straining, to meet one another, to entangle and embrace. Ivy vines ran along the branches like trains and stretched out to meet others. Momentarily he looked behind himself and noticed that all the trees and ferns and bushes around him were leaning towards the two oaks as if an immense gravity was sucking them. Amazed he stood smiling, watching the moving, living forest.
he said to himself and began a lopsided lope down the other side of the hill towards his modern cottage. He could daydream all he wanted when he got home to the warmth and solitude of his lounge. Could settle himself in one of the armchairs or sofas and lose himself with Heathcliff and Catherine.

 

?

4

The next morning Steven woke more naturally feeling well rested despite the nightmare he had suffered. The bedroom was bathed in bright light and expecting it to be between seven or eight in the morning he was shocked to notice the old fashioned flip digit clock on the bedside table said 11.11am.

Vaulting out of bed he ran to the en suite and set the shower running then jogged naked downstairs to flip on the percolator and warm some bagels. As he filled the glass coffee pot from the tap to put in the percolator reservoir he noticed a dull ache in his wrist and knuckles that became more pronounced as the jug became heavier with the water. He set the jug onto the drainer when it was half filled because just holding it was agony and he felt his grip slipping.

Steven’s hands were swollen at the knuckles on both hands and when he relaxed his hand, the fingers seemed to have retracted a little. Hardly noticeable but they had definitely taken on a more clenched aspect. He looked at his left hand and noticed the same thing, a slight flexion in the fingers and a soreness when he rotated his wrist. Troubled a little, he wondered if a bath would be better for his sore joints than a shower but figured he’d wasted enough time sleeping in.

Dismissing the curious condition and hoping that a shower would ease the somewhat arthritic ache, he hurried into the shower and let the hot water prickle his back as it ran down. He held the wrists and hands together, clasped loosely as if in prayer, moving them under the hot flow to soothe the twist he felt in the bones.

Twenty minutes later Steven was out of the shower and seated on the sofa with his food and a large cup of tea. Still in his bath robe, he had also brought down a towel to dry his feet. The tray containing his late breakfast put aside on a small coffee table. Steven pulled his left foot up to his lap to dry his feet and began working the towel between the toes and round the heel. When he got to the little toe he yelped in surprise when touching the knuckle of it produced a great pain. On the raised knuckle area was a little brown lump no more than a few millimetres in diameter, looking like the bump of an ingrown hair. He rubbed it lightly and carefully and could easily discern the raised area. His glasses were on the table so he put them on and awkwardly pulled his foot and face nearer to each other, straining and puffing with the effort.

Close up it looked like a blackened piece of raised hard skin but it was very painful when he applied more than the lightest pressure. Maybe I cut myself when I stood in the puddle, he wondered but quickly realised that his right foot got wet and that if a rock or something had cut him it would have had to have penetrated his trainer. They were old and shabby but not falling to pieces. Turning his foot this way and that he wondered what the hell it was. Cancer? Was it cancer? He thought also of all those tropical illnesses. He’d heard about worms that got into people’s bodies and those snails in India or Egypt that went under the skin. Drinking his tea and staring at the foot which was now uncomfortable on his lap, he realised he may have to visit the doctor. The dreaded Fell. After the episode in the Post Office he realised anything he took to Doctor Fell would be all over the village the next time he saw Merryl. Not that he thought the condition was anything embarrassing but if it was something serious – like cancer – then he would rather keep that to himself.

Cancer? Listen to yourself

He reached over and pulled the tray towards him and then onto his lap, putting the foot back down. Slowly and without enjoyment he ate the bagels which had cooled to a tough chewy consistency, and drank the rest of his tepid tea. The only enjoyment he got was from the March sun which beat down on him as he sat in silence on his sofa.

At some point he had fallen asleep in the chair because he woke around three o’clock on the sofa to a late blizzard and a horribly dark afternoon. Snow lay over the front garden in unspoiled beauty, an icy duvet spreading out in all directions. The hedgerows along Gosset’s Field and the gorse bushes dotted on the heath stood out in stark contrast with the white of their tops and the surrounding fields. The temperature had dropped outside and a wind was picking up, blowing big snowflakes in skirls against walls and bushes and trees. In the distance Gog and Magog were invisible beyond the veil of the racing flurries.

His head was lolling forward, chin to his chest and hands either side of him, palm up. His neck ached from being flopped forward as he dozed. The prolonged position it had been in had caused it to stiffen and ache. His lower back had been rounded as he had slumped and trying to straighten he realised that also ached. His thigh muscles had settled and creaked when he shifted, in preparation to stand and go upstairs to get dressed. He pushed his arms down onto the sofa to help raise his stiff body upwards and felt his triceps seize, also stiff. I guess i really am coming down with something then. He thought, wondering if the cold trip of yesterday and the foot wetting had tipped his low immune system over the edge and given him flu. There was no telling who had what in the village. He’d seen two people in the queue before he saw Merryl and there was Peeler. And one of those people in the queue was Doctor Fell who had probably been exposed to the current bout of illnesses around the village. Certainly the ache in his body felt flu like and Steven thought that before the day was ended he would be in the bath again. Or bed.

Gathering himself he tried to stand and was surprised at the enormous effort he took and the tangible pain. As he raised up slowly he could feel almost every point of articulation on his body whining in pain; his lower jaw, connecting at the back of his skull, the small of his back, the sockets where his legs connected with the pelvis, even the ribs as he breathed. Steven straightened up with great effort and he could feel the whole infrastructure of his skeleton creaking. No, not just feel it creaking. He could hear it creak.

He laughed again, this time nervously because there was a difference between hearing a bone click when one stood and hearing one’s body screaming like twisted wood. Now that he was standing steadily, albeit stiffly, he could feel the pain in his buttocks. As his weight shifted slightly from side to side the creak in them shifted also. He stood there, painfully testing the creaking sound, moving slightly forwards and back using his hips. The sound followed his movements and Steven was startled at its volume. He was reminded of a galleon in the open seas around the time of the Spanish Armada conflicts. The whine and creak of twisted ropes and wood as the ship rose and fell on the rolling sea sounding just like the whines and creaks of his own body.

After a moment in this standing position he realised he had no accompanying headache or congestion in his nose or sinuses and counted his blessings. Not flu, then. He also thought randomly of calamine lotion. He noticed a sense of settling as if his body was fluid and every time it stopped it began to harden. The more he moved the more fluid he became and the aches reduced. At this discovery he relaxed a bit and began to move a little more freely, heading awkwardly for the open stairs and thinking he better not get into the bath or bed just yet, then he really would freeze up. The more he moved the easier his walk became and after only a few steps he was able to jog up the stairs and suffer the ache only in his shoulder and elbows as they moved in sympathy to his legs. By the time he reached his bedroom however, even they had loosened up. Sadly, Steven noted, his wrists and fingers still hurt.

Behind two long dark cherry wood doors was his wardrobe. Pulling them open with a little strain at the wrists Steven walked inside and shook off his bath robe. He stood before the full length mirror set into the far wall which was ten feet away and turned slowly looking for any other weird symptoms. Seeing none he turned to face the rails that travelled the length of the closet, pulling out an old tee shirt from one side and a long pair of baggy sweat pants from a wooden chest next to the doors. The socks and underwear were in a seat and drawer unit at the end next to the mirror and he made his way down to it. As he heard the mirror he noticed something else was different afterall. His skin had a different look to it that he couldn’t put his finger on. Maybe it was the light in here. Maybe just part of his symptoms. He did not know. Starting to get cold he examined himself from head to toe, close to the reflection and saw nothing immediately apparent until he rubbed his arms softly. They felt different. Papery. Had he remembered to cream his body after his shower? He was convinced he had. He lightly pinched the skin and it creased like it had been sunburned. It was also a little shinier than normal but the elasticity had lessened.

That settled it. He was taking himself to see a doctor. He could go West out of the New Forest to Lowe or East to Southampton; both were equidistant to Sundew. Both had big hospitals and he would happily sit in A&E for hours at either place now that more symptoms had manifested. Steven sat in the cushioned seat recessed into the side of the drawers and pulled out a pair of boxer briefs and white sport socks. He stood to put the underwear on then sat back down to pull on the socks. When the sock went over the sore bump on the edge of his little toe a burning hot sensation exploded in the foot and travelled up to the shin, his vision starting to grey out. He screamed out in shock, gritting his teeth against the pain. After a few seconds the wave of searing pain subsided and colour flooded back into his vision. The end of the sock was saturated with blood that throbbed out of his little toe.

He moved gingerly, hobbling comically on his right heel to prevent the blood from staining the carpet, and reached the shower. When it was running at a cooler temperature than he would normally shower, he pulled over the wooden laundry basket to sit on. Without removing the sock, he stuck his leg into the large cubicle and let the sock become drenched. When he was convinced the blood had been washed away and the sock was completely wet he turned off the water and leaned forward to peel down the sock. It came off inside out, rosy pink from blood, and he tossed it over his shoulder onto the large black slate floor tiles where it landed with a low slap.

Under close examination it was clear that the little lump had been responsible for the blood. Although it was no longer bleeding, a clear plasma had welled around the area and discharged every so often to run down the side of his sole. There was still a darkness to the lump which seemed a little bigger now in terms of its diameter but did not appear to be so raised as before. Wincing in anticipation of the pain, Steven touched the area softly with the pad of his little finger. It did not cause any pain and the action cleared the small reservoir of plasma that had built up again. Now he could see the lump was actually concave, like a tiny crater in his skin, and had the unpleasant look of a bed sore or ulcer. Inside the ulcer was a small brown-black object that may have been coagulated blood but to Steven’s eye looked more like a small coarse hair. Steeling himself once again he took the edge of his little finger and gently prodded the black thing with his nail. It flicked against the nail and appeared to writhe or swim in the sore.

Steven was disgusted. A current of nausea and revulsion whirlpooled in his belly and swept up his back to his cheeks as he stared at the blue shower tiles, zoned out and wrong footed. Unable to place this latest symptom in a sane frame of reference, and fearing invasion from some kind of worm, he comforted himself that at least his foot was no longer hurting and would not hinder his driving.

Not long afterwards, Steven was pacing the lounge looking for his car keys. He so rarely used the car these days that he’d removed the bulky jelly mould key with all its bells and whistles, from his house keys. It was a black tank, a four wheel drive BMW X5 and out in the country it needed cleaning every week. Since Fi had gone Steven was even less motivated to get those kind of chores done and so the car languished in the garage as he languished in the lounge. However, now he wanted it. He threw open drawers in the sideboard and cupboards over the kitchen. Rugs were lifted and cushions thrown off the sofa. The keys could not be found and he cursed himself for putting the beeper on the same ring as the keys themselves because now he could not even locate them that way.

"Fi, Fi, Fi." He mumbled. "Where are you when I really need you?" She used to get so frustrated with him when he didn't hang the keys on the hook in the kitchen. He shook his head in defeat and walked to the windows that looked out over the heath towards Heathcliff and Catherine /Gog and Magog. The snow had eased off but a boiling, low layer of black cloud still hung over the area as far as could be seen, and the wind had really picked up some speed now; even the snow on the ground was being torn up and smeared into tiny glacier peaks. At every vertical surface snow drifts leant giving the effect of a negative shadow. Trees bowed low under the enormous weight of what Steven estimated to be around nine or ten inches of snow. Across the quiet road from his house the 20MPH sign had been rendered unreadable as snow had been blasted against its lollypop surface and the litter bin next to it looked like it was part of the sign itself, the drifts having fused them together.

Steven turned from the window and snatched the TV remote from the coffee table, finding the news channel. It was nearly half past the hour so he anticipated a weather report. When it came it confirmed his suspicions, the whole of the East and South Coast as far along as Lowe was gripped in a big freeze.

"Meteorologists have been warning of the unseasonal cold snap for weeks now, and local councils have been stockpiling salt and grit following the problems last year where grit supplies ran out." Said a reporter who was stood next to an inundated pillar box and in front of a hill down which a mass of children sledged and screamed. His nose and cheeks were bright red and he squinted into the camera as wind whipped the flakes around, lifting the lapels of his Car-Salesman overcoat and growling into the microphone.

"The system is a complex one, the vacuum created by the departure of one front to the Continent literally dragging this Scandinavian front down the North Sea before reaching the British Isles." The reporter continued.

He tuned out as the beautiful aerial footage of pastoral landscapes covered in snow intercut with cars rolling sideways off motorways and pensioners clearing their own pathways. By the time the final image of a robin pecking at seeds on a snowy bird table came he was staring at his foot again.

He’d been stood in front of the large TV that was mounted on the wall against the chimney breast for a few minutes and his body had settled again. It took him a little effort to move to the sofa and sit down so he could examine his foot again which was now giving out a little twinge.

The crater was still there but had dried up somewhat. The wormlike thing inside was now larger, as if it had come out a little more and now that there was more of it, it was clear that it was finely tapered. The tip was almost hair thin, and white but as it tapered out and became thicker, it darkened to a brown which disappeared into the bottom of the sore. Dreading the feverish thrashing of whatever it was but unable to resist, he poked the thing again, this time with his index finger and noticed a strange texture to the thing. It did not wriggle as it had seemed to before, but it did spring back to position after he let go of it. For the second he had it between his thumb and finger he was reminded of an uncooked beansprout. It was now about a centimetre long and no longer sat in the ulcer but extended outwards for three quarters of its length.

Something about the tone of the reporters brought him back to the television;

"...yes, Sue, indeed. The big surprise is that in most affected regions, the ground was wet and the snow would not have normally settled. However, it did because of the drop in temperature and volume of snow. Now it’s here, it looks like it’s going to be with us for a few weeks and the thaw after that could last up to two weeks. Residents in affected areas are asked to stay indoors where possible and check the BBC website for links to rescue service instructions if needed."

"You look awfully cold so I think we’ll let you get into the warmth! Ron Jermane, thank you very much."

"Thank you, Sue." Ron replied after a slight delay.

The issue of the car keys now seemed moot. He pulled on the sock and slipped into his unlaced boots, and dragging on a thick fleece while fiddling with the door chain and latch one handed. The door opened inwards and a large wedge of snow fell into the hallway. That solves that, Steven thought. I’m not going anywhere even in a four wheel drive.

Without going outside further, he pushed the door but it did not shut properly under the weight of the snow that had fallen in. Leaving it slightly ajar, he sighed and made to move into the kitchen to get something to sweep the snow out. His foot was no longer hurting, his joints were okay as long as he stayed relatively mobile but his skin was still dry and out of sorts. He counted up the things that were wrong and found the conclusion inescapable. He had contracted some kind of sickness or condition and that he must get it checked out.

He passed the lounge and walked back in on impulse to pick up the phone. There was no dial tone. The heavy snow on the telegraph poles must have knocked out the cables. Sundew still relied on old telephone junctions and poles – the residents had resisted most attempts to update the system and the advent and saturation of mobile phones meant that land lines were being relied on less and less anyway. Still wearing his fleece, Steven fished around the pockets and found his mobile. He’d call the national helpline for the NHS and get a list of care providers near him that did not benefit from Doctor Fell’s ministrations then take himself out there as soon as possible. His phone flashed intermittently telling him he had received a text message;

HI STEVEO. THIS IS PEELER. GOT UR NO FRM MA. DID U LEAV UR KEYS HERE RE SPREM LAB QUOTE? MA FOUND SOME. BMW?????

Steven laughed at the application of Peeler’s bold mind; SPREM was meant to be sperm and he was tickled that Peeler had referred to the artificial insemination lab as a sperm lab. So that’s where his keys ended up! He had been there a fortnight previously when Pam John had asked for another meeting regarding the extension to the sheds where the cows were to be overwintered. He’d planned on driving down but the day had been so beautiful and he’d been taken with the idea of walking through the woods now that the weather had improved a little. Although he had changed his initial plan, he had kept hold of the keys and must have mislaid them or absentmindedly put them down at Pam’s.

He saved the number in his phone then replied to the text;

Thanks Peeler, glad you found them. That’s solved a little puzzle. I’ll get them when the snow clears. Was going to drive to docs to have my foot checked out but couldn't find them! Thanks again.

Within moments a reply came;

KL. U WNT ME TO COME UP IN TRACTR> WOTS WRONG WIV FOOT?

To which Steven replied;

No, thanks. Car can’t drive in snow this deep. Nothing wrong with me, just gonna call NHS and see.

His phone beeped again and displayed the text icon of an envelope although it was split in two and carried the notification; Incomplete Message. Steven clicked to open it and saw only

OK STEVO, WHE...

He went to the phone menu and selected contacts and then the service provider’s directory enquiry line. The line rang quickly and after a brief chat involving deflecting the assistant from offering new products, Steven obtained the number for the NHS direct number.

The phone clicked and went straight to a recorded message telling him that all the lines were engaged and that he could call back or leave a message by pressing 2. He pressed 2.

"Please say your postcode, splitting the numbers into single digits, for example. S, P one five seven S U for SP15 7SU. Press one to repeat this instruction or two to record your postcode."

Steven pressed 2 and said; "S O FORTY TWO THREE. Oh shit –"

"I’m sorry, I didn’t understand, Please try again. Press one to repeat the instructions or two to record your postcode."

Steven pressed 2 and tried again; "S O FOUR TWO, THREE B P."

"S O FOUR TWO THREE B B". The annoyingly pleasant and eternally patient female voice repeated, "Is that correct? Press one if it is, or two to record it again."

He pressed two and repeated slowly; "S O FOUR TWO THREE B P."

"F O FOUR TWO THREE B P. Is that correct? Press one if it is, or two to record it again."

Steven screamed "fucking hell you bitch. S O FOUR TWO THREE B P!" and as he threw the phone down in disgust he heard the machine voice, "I’m sorry, I didn’t understand...". Infuriated, he picked up his phone and threw it against the chimney breast.

The phone broke apart in three pieces and clattered to the black slate heart.

"PERFECT!" he shouted, frustrated that his anger had now robbed him of the only method of communication he had; if the phone lines were down, then his internet connection would be too.

Best to check

404 Not found

Damn!

A hard little green lump had raised itself on the side of the nail. This one was bigger and did not hurt as much. Steven held it up to his face and pushed it this way and that with his free hand causing it to break the surface and a little cap of dried skin fell to the floor. Blood welled in this new crater and Steven could see the little black hair inside.

Strange and seemingly unconnected emotions rolled through his mind; missing Fi, hating Fi. The contradiction of the beautiful snow scene and his fear at being trapped inside with some strange condition (or even a worm!) inside him. He slipped the ring back on and decided to see if the hairs could not be removed with a pair of tweezers.

Just then a crack appeared in the low black clouds and a shaft of brilliant sunlight broke through, spearing him in its rays. Almost immediately he felt relaxed as he stood in it, transfixed. As he basked there, the clouds widened and broke up giving a blinding image of reflecting snow. More sunlight poured into the window and he began to feel looser and happier. More happy in fact than he had in months. Years, even. And the strange growths in the bumps took on a far smaller significance and he became unconcerned about them. Even as he felt them both move almost excitedly.

He snapped the lid shut and walked to the windows to see if the snow had abated. It had and as he stood there looking over the serene white landscape he grasped his ring and turned it round and around on the finger. It seemed tighter than usual and he made a mental note to get some water as his hands felt dry and swollen. He slowly rolled the ring up past his knuckles and off the end of the finger and held it between thumb and forefinger. As he rolled it he felt a hot pain to the side of the nail on his index finger, the fleshy part on the side near the fingertip pad. Rubbing this soreness with his other hand snapped out of his reverie immediately at what he discovered.
, he thought and walked to the study which he rarely used, and retrieved his laptop. A little orange light on the side was pulsing slowly telling him the battery was almost flat so he plugged it in before opening it up. It quickly came to life and he hit the icon for his internet connection. The cursor changed to a black and white pie that looked like a radiation symbol and Steven stared at it, willing it to display his homepage.

 

he thought. Talk about drama. You hurt your foot and now you’ve got cancer. Overnight? Steven snorted out a quick embarrassed laugh and decided he would have a look online at symptoms later if it got worse and not think about it until then. He was acutely aware however that his denial presupposed that it was not linked to his newly-arthritic hands, but reasoned that in his depressed state these could all be reactions to some kind of emotional stress. If that were the case then he certainly wasn’t going to go to Fell. He’d find another doctor out of the village.

 

?

5

Peeler John was worried. It had been three weeks since his text exchange with Steven Hemlock and the snow had begun to thaw three days ago when the April showers began. One day would be bright sun the next day nothing but rain. The temperature had risen and in concert with the rain this had removed most of the snow and ice.

He bounced his mobile in his hand; "I was thinking of going to see Steve, ma." He said, walking into the country kitchen which also doubled as her study.

"Mr Hemlock, not Steve." Replied his mother.

"Ma, you know Steve and I know each other, I’m not gonna call him Mr Hemlock just cos he’s building a bullspunk sanctuary for you."

"Oh! Lord, deliver my evil spawn and forgive his witless mind and wicked mouth."

There was a short pause before Pam continued; "The lab plans are probably what’re keeping him busy you know. The last thing he needs is a rude boy and his stupid little dog going up there bothering him!"

"He won’t mind. And I could take the car keys up to him. We must’ve had them for a month or more, ma!"

"Peeler John, you do have a point there. How has he lived without his car, I wonder?" She asked and then added "Mind you, he’d not’ve been able to use it for most of that time."

"Okay, so where are the keys?"

"Not so fast, Peeler. The snow may have gone but the roads are covered in mud and floodwater in places."

"I’ll take the tractor, ma!"

"Oh, just go on with you. Get out. The keys are in the wooden bowl by the front door. And be careful on that road!"

"I’ll be fine, ma. It’s a tractor for God’s sake."

"I meant be careful of other people on the road. And don't blaspheme."

He turned on his heel and ran out shouting "Tom The Cat! Come on boy!"

The route Peeler took would not have endeared him any further to his mother or to Gosset, the latter of whom owned the land through which Peeler’s tractor tore. As soon as he was out of sight from the main part of Sundew he turned left on to the bottom of the wooded hill, crashing through some low brambles that formed a natural border, and narrowly avoiding tipping the tractor into the ditch at the side of the road. Tom The Cat bounced along in the footwell at Peeler’s feet, happily peering out of the side and barking at pheasants and gulls.

The ground was exceptionally soft but the tractor hauled itself up the side of the wooded hill where the trees were sparse and within five minutes Peeler had reached the summit. He paused at the top, the dirty engine idling loudly and his dog looked up at his beloved master; Come on, what are you playing at, there’re things to do, birds to chase, fun to be had, sticks to catch, tails to wag.

"Just wait a moment, Tom The Cat." Peeler said to his dog who offered a smile. The dog dropped his long snout onto his paws, raising an eyebrow every now and then to check the status of the mission on his master’s face.

"That’s odd." Peeler said quietly and Tom the Cat woofed quiet agreement.

The outdoor lights were on and there was something big obscuring the front windows. Peeler engaged the gears and started the journey down the other side of the hill. Rabbits and hares fled in front of the tractor’s path disappearing down invisible holes only to pop up again after the belching machine had passed. Now he was nearer he could see the front of the house was dark, not obstructed, because the window had been smashed. The other panes had been reflecting the sun just not the main one, giving the effect of darkness which he had seen as an obstruction from a distance.

Peeler had to steer left down the hill, away from the house so that he could exit the field and come onto the road by the field’s gate and then double back on himself. He sped down the road which had dried to a limey white and approached Steven’s house from the side. He swung the tractor into the gravel driveway on the side of the house and switched off the engine. The silence that returned with the engine off was too intense and he had half expected, half hoped that Steven would have heard the tractor on the gravel and come out to look. He had not.

Tom The Cat was out and running off into the back garden and fields but Peeler ran along the side of the house and cut across the front lawn towards the front door. He sensed something was up and slowed right down as he neared the front porch. Preparing himself he turned at the porch to face the front door and screamed;

"Tom The Cat, you wanker!"

The hyperactive border collie had bounded out of the front door startling Peeler then turned and ran back inside. He was relieved that it was only his dog that had shocked him but the relief was short-lived as he realised the door had been open. He also noticed a small amount of leaves just inside the hall by the front door. A very strong breeze had picked up since he had left the farmhouse and was now blowing through the house.

He walked in, and noticed again the light was wrong. He’d been to Steve-o’s house only a handful of times but he knew the open plan well and it seemed too dark. With trepidation he walked slowly in and jumped again as Tom The Cat ran into the hallway again and arched his back, barking at his master; Peeler, Peeler, Peeler, Peeler...Peeler....Peeler, Peeler, Peeler. ...Peeler.

"Alright, shut up you idiot!"

He walked down the hall to where it opened out on the right to the lounge. The day was clear and bright – tomorrow would bring rain – and yet the room was dark.

"Oh, my..." he could not finish his sentence. The incongruity of the sight had left him gobsmacked.

In the centre of the lounge, facing the mirror was a huge tree. Its trunk reached up to the ceiling where it carried on through. Its roots meandered across the wood floor and disappeared into the ground. Branches curved away from the trunk and outwards, some through the front window, some through the back; none of them bore any leaves and all were brown and dry.

He dashed over to the open stairs and ran up to the first floor landing, turning back on himself. The master bedroom was above the lounge and the tree rose through the shattered floor, spreading its leafless canopy through the room and stopping a few inches short of the ceiling. The bed had been thrown aside, against the wall and all furniture had been smashed to the sides also as if the tree had grown in seconds.

Thinking of Jack and the Beanstalk, Peeler ran downstairs to the base of the tree to find Tom The Cat simpering and snuffling around the root system. Moving around the tree he came to stand in front of it with the huge windows behind him. Most of the glass had exploded onto the lawn, but some had ended up in the room itself, and Tom The Cat moved carefully with Peeler, avoiding that which had fallen inside.

"What happened here?" He asked the room but only his dog answered. Tom The Cat let out a sad cry. Peeler looked down and saw him looking straight up at a branch that reached out ending in five twigs like a hand.

Towards the end of the branch he noticed a small dark green bud that looked ready to unfurl. The only bud he could see was this one. As he looked for another he noticed something else, even more incongruous swinging from the same branch, a little further down. A shiny object hung there, speared by the third of five twigs.

A man’s wedding band swung and glinted. As Peeler stood mesmerised and bewildered, mute and dumbfounded at what this implied, the wind carried its howling sound through the tree. No, thought Peeler, Not howling, sobbing.

?

?

?

?

?

 

C.Bean

London

1st April 2010

?

He slumped back on the sofa, grazing the bottom of his spine on the broken spring that pushed eagerly at the backing cushion and let out a long moan. The half-read letter from his sister sloped down to the wooden floor and slid far across the room, wedging under a small door in the wall which was not much bigger than the A4 sheet of paper she’d used to write on. He stared at it, through the golden motes that rose and fell in the sharp angled March sunlight.

"’Actually is actually exercises’? What the hell does she mean by that?" He could hear her say it, using the word twice to try and convey some sense of authenticity or worthiness. Next she’d be recommending Malcolm Gladwell or that Celestine guy. That annoyed him more than the meaningless ‘not all women are like her’ line. And as for the CBT? Cock and Ball Torture, most likely because that’s what the women in his life – or rather out of it – seemed to enjoy doing to him lately.

Resuming his dumb stare his mind jostled with the different emotions her letter had triggered; his grief, his irritation. His fear.

"Scab picking! Thank you, Laura. Thank you for so carefully removing that one." He exclaimed, snapping out of his reverie, and shifting his weight so his back arched away from the discomfort of the eager spring.

Why was it wrong for him to spend this period of grief by himself? Why was her way right? She had never been right in her life when it came to her own baggage, but by God was she an expert on his. She had played a role of Big Sister when it suited her and he’d never worked out why she did it. They weren’t really friends and had little in common besides the surname, and even that was different for the ten plus years she’d been married. So why did she feel she should be doing something for him?

He got up and walked over to her letter, intending to bin it but realising if Laura didn’t get a reply, she was likely to just turn up unannounced. No, he would have to put together a considered response requiring lies and deceit to convince her he was fine and that they could do something perhaps in Easter (very soon, not ideal), or end of May (better, but still not good).

The letter caught a little as he pulled it from under the miniature door which rattled in its frame in response. He put his right hand against the spherical white door knob to hold the door steady, and pulled with the left. The letter came free. Steven stood, on the verge of tears again, and put it on the cheap coffee table next to his laptop.

Here’s what he would do: Make a cup of tea - standing with one bare foot on the other as he waited for the kettle to boil – bring it back to the lounge, sit down at his laptop and write a reply to his sister. Get it off his chest. Get it dealt with. Then walk down to the village and post it. The day was bright, if cold, and the walk amongst the pine walled lanes and open grassy areas would be good for him, good to clear his mind of Laura and Fi. Probably.

Or maybe email her. Nobodysfool66@apex.com. That would be quicker and then he would truly relax knowing she had been dealt with. Could he really be bothered to walk the half hour trek to the village? And then when he got there deal with the sympathetic caws and sidelong glances? All those bored busybodies at Sundew dying to comfort him, racing to comfort him in the hope that they could be the one to disseminate the latest crumb of gossip about Steve’s misery at being left by his wife.

Not that she was even his wife. As good as, but without the commitment, without the security. After seven years he was left with nothing to show but a gold band that had never been activated by the Church. But anyway.

No. Better to email. He knew he was the fool, he didn't need the oh-so-supportive Sundew community to hammer that one home.

He caught himself then. He wanted to stop analysing everything to the tiniest iteration. He wondered if there was a mental hangover equivalent from all this indulgence of over-thinking, over-reasoning. Steve felt a mental bile rise every time he regurgitated, revised and recogitated Fi’s departure from his life. Or The Event as he had come to refer to it.

Better to go to Sundew and post it he reasoned, revisiting his earlier obsession. Steven realised an instant response to his sister would send a signal that he could be reached and would reply speedily and even more worrying, she would then possibly send her own speedy response thus prolonging the exchange.

A few minutes later he was seated at the table in front of his laptop. In the bright sun the steam from his drink rose slowly and he stared at it as if scrying an answer. How would he start his letter? Fuck off you interfering bitch? he thought and snuffed out a short laugh. Hardly the approach that would keep Laura from the door. If anything it was sure to get her down here even quicker. His gaze drifted to her letter and he noticed a dark stain at the bottom right hand corner. Coming out of his vacant stare, he realised it wasn’t a stain really, more like something had stuck to it.

"Christ knows what’s behind that little door." Steve mumbled, looking over at the shoebox sized access door. He and Fi had lived here for seven years and only opened it twice. Behind it was the gas main with a large L shaped stop-cock that they’d turned on when they moved in and then twiddled again when they’d had the kitchen refitted along with a new gas hob.

He picked the letter up and examined the not-stain closely, clumsily putting his small, gold rectangular lensed spectacles on with his free hand. Holding it closely to his eyes, he noticed the lump was a dark purple-brown and smelled of abra melin. Hell, it looked like abra melin, too. At this thought, a sharp pain lanced his chest and his stomach dropped a storey; Fi was always burning incense and oils and he wondered if she had used the small recess to store her spices and tinctures. Sliding back from the table he stood and wandered over to the little door and reached down to the white knob to give it a little tug. It clicked open and he looked inside, seeing only the cold grey metal housing of the box and the safety tag on the handle. The sun was angled right into the space and illuminated it brightly. Nothing.

Straightening up Steve kicked the door gently shut and flopped down onto the sofa again. Remembering almost too late the broken spring, he shoved his hand behind him as he sat to protect his back.

"OW!" He shouted as the spring finally broke free of the restraining sofa fabric and the sharp, curled edge sliced into the pad of his right index finger. He shook it and sucked the bead of blood that had erupted from the cut, squeezing the finger and holding it up to his face. Steven recoiled from it and spat onto the floor as he found his mouth flooded with a strange floral taste that was as much a scent as a flavour.

The finger was obviously tainted from the abra melin - or whatever it was - on the letter, and it was this that he had tasted. Wishing to get rid of the earthy yet aromatic taste, he hurried to the bathroom and overfilled the cap for the mouthwash and gargled. He stood at the white basin, swilling it around his mouth for a couple of minutes before rinsing and drinking two glasses of water from the tap. Satisfied he slunk back to the lounge, set himself before his laptop and began the task of replying to his sister.

Thanks for your letter, Laura. It’s nice to hear from you.

He stared at the single line; cursor bar goading him to type more. How does one write on eggshells? He’d been walking on them for years on the rare occasions he and Fi had stayed at Laura’s but how was he to compose a letter that would tell her, effectively, to piss off without creating more drama?

You’re right, I have been keeping myself away from people lately but I don't really think it’s a problem. Not yet, anyway. Wait till I take root on my sofa and then you can worry.

He smiled wondering if the lame attempt at humour would reassure her.

I just don't need to be around people now. Not just yet. I’m hurt and talking to others is not really going to make me feel better. I know it may sound self indulgent or selfish or whatever but I think that just this once I can be. I’m not having thoughts of suicide, not thinking of tracking her down and killing her, not thinking of doing anything like that. But I have been keeping active

This was a total lie.

and the community here in Sundew are far too nosey to let enough time pass without an unsolicited visit to let anything happen to me.

He’d not worked for over a month at the practise he founded but his draft board was in the study and he had no shortage of requests for commissions. Indeed, most of the work he had been getting came following an article in the local glossy community magazine on his self built home here in Sundew. What happens when a horticulturist meets an architect? Steven Hemlock shows us around his new self-build in Sundew and tells us how he went about designing and creating a home that complements the local topography, has a low energy footprint but the aesthetic of a grand mansion. After that opening paragraph and the following copy, his workload increased. Sundew was full of city folk with two homes, one here in the New Forest for weekends and holidays and one in Fulham, Notting Hill Gate or Golders Green. There were also the "Nectarines" as he and Fi had referred to the families who were born and bred in Sundew. She’d decided on the name and he’d gone along with it not understanding until she had said one day that Sundew sounded like a posh nectar. Fi’s crazy associative mind in action again, he’d thought at the time, but it stuck and became a term they used to distinguish new blood from old, conveniently forgetting that they themselves were Nouveau Nectarines.

Work is building up and I have three commissions at the moment for weekenders from London. A TV agent who seems a little unrealistic in terms of impact to the local environment (not to mention how well he’ll be received here), a retired RAF guy from some top secret listening post – Menwith Hill, I think – and an extension to the farmhouse at the south end of the village. They’re now branching into bovine artificial insemination and need a lab facility that will keep with the existing character.

He hoped this paragraph of hard facts and day to day life would show Laura he was fine and that his life was a timetable of normality. Of course he omitted the hard fact that the initial commissions were sat on his office desk in the back room underneath an empty chocolate bar wrapper, greasy with oily fingerprints from his diet of comfort food.

I should be finished my initial quotes by May so I was thinking I could pop up for a weekend and see you then. We could even go out in Town; Don't laugh, but I’ve heard really good things about The Lion King.

Anyway, I hope you realise I am okay and that you don’t need to worry. Really, Laura, please don't worry. These things happen and I’m old enough to cope. In fact it’s so nice here, it’s like a kind of convalescence for me. You know the big front room window looks out over the heath and sometimes I find myself staring out at Nature until dusk arrives. All that beauty keeps me buoyed up I suppose. It’s hard to feel down in the face of such a wonderful view! There are two trees - oaks, I think – that stand on the horizon, one East and one West. I call them Heathcliff and Catherine. They’re like mute, ancient pets. Kinda like tortoises I suppose. Huge bell canopies about three miles away from my window but they seem so close that it’s like having company. It’s terribly decent of them.

The last passage was the only real truth in the entire letter. He did feel comforted and spent an awful lot of time staring at the view from the lounge. He read the paragraph again and wondered if he should delete it, especially the random association with tortoises perhaps. Nah, sod it. She knew he was a space cadet about some things and had always been accepting of his more esoteric interests. She’d just think it was an extension of that.

I’ll speak to you soon, I promise. Just let me get these next couple months dealt with and I’ll be back in the swing of things.

Love

p.s Hi to Toby!

With the letter complete, Steven scrawled his name under "Love" and added a kiss which he immediately regretted; it was not his normal custom and he figured it may undo his contrived air of nonchalance. Taking an envelope from a drawer in the kitchen he added her address from memory and left it on the kitchen work surface.

A few minutes later he was ready for the trip to the village, wearing his comfortable but tatty trainers, jeans, polo shirt, jumper and hoodie. He left the house and squinted in the late afternoon sun as he fiddled with the catch on the low metal gate to the front of the property. It wouldn’t open and in frustration he leapfrogged over the vitrified wall and carried on down the lane towards the woods that lay between his home and the main road to Sundew village.

 

 


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  • City of London, United Kingdom

    Phyrebrat on the 5th April 2010 at 3:02pm

    oops... something seems to have gone awry ;o) there's a whole chunk missing near the beginning. Did I extend the word limit?