He was driving home.
He was tired.
Weariness, for the man in the silver car, was like a creeping disease. It had begun with him not weeks but months since, an insistent fatigue beyond sleep’s cure with roots that grew a little deeper each day; so now it invaded his very bones. He felt older, much older than his thirty-six years. Today he had worked late, swaddling that tiredness in a further layer of exhaustion, weighing upon his eyelids and blurring his reason.
This summer had been busy, and Paul Lamborne’s business, after many years of struggle, was on the threshold of success: the catering equipment it supplied was in demand, becoming a brand in its own right; but the helm had grown heavy in his hands. The business was growing, chasing finance for new premises, faster machinery, more raw materials; yet he had lost his love of the chase, his taste for small victories.
Corynna, his manager, had voiced her concern: “You’re trying to do too much. You don’t need to stay, Paul, I have it covered. Go home. Rest. Recharge.”
But he had stayed – he had persisted; held on grimly, joylessly. They were his orders, his promotional literature, and the completion dates were ones he had set. He knew Corynna felt stifled, knew she was good enough to take over, yet he could not yield his grip, any more than he could admit every night’s recurring truth. He dreaded going home.
Home? Hilltops was never that, not really. Never more than a very expensive roof that protected a string of complex and irresolvable debt; remortgaged to finance his business, Hilltops was never more than a field of battle upon which the lines were tightly drawn. Adrienne, his wife, entrenched in her contempt; he the aggressor, never able to press his advantage.
There had been a time when Adrienne had pleased him enough. There had been love between them, or at least something they could excuse as love, back in heady post-university days; the times when Paul was the beautiful young man and she the sophisticate who was courted by an eager succession of suitors. Perhaps Paul was the man she had been looking for, then. Perhaps his gentle energy, his quiet, distant manner satisfied her, for she was never a passionate woman and she had few sexual needs. Salivating young grads with nervous, uncertain eyes who danced on her strings amused her, but never tempted. Paul saw her as she was, focussed; and she was drawn to his perspicacity.
Maybe it was a flawed foundation for a marriage, a mutual admiration rather than a friendship, a partnership rather than a love: or maybe, very probably, it was the absence of children after fifteen torrid years of effort, that made their big house seem so empty; that turned infatuation to indifference, and, in these last few months, indifference into hatred.
A shared roof was all Paul had saved from the annals of his relationship; a house with bedrooms that stood silent and an ocean of bills that remained unpaid. Adrienne who rebuffed the creditors scarcely hid her scorn: because (as he thought) he had failed her, although she would not denounce his failure in any specific way.
If Paul was convinced she was seeking love elsewhere he was wrong. Yes, there were liaisons, but it was not love she sought – rather, a refuge from the crumbling tower of her own ambitions. If Paul judged himself to have failed Adrienne, she attributed her failure to herself. A bad marriage she relived every day; her mistake.
He had parked. He did not remember parking, stopping the car, at all, still less the careful manoeuvring that had positioned it so neatly in a recess of the hedge next to a five-barred wooden gate. Puzzled, he glanced at his watch: had he slept? No, the time was as he would expect.
How had he come to be here?
Momentarily confused, he back-tracked his mind over the things he did remember: locking the factory doors, driving away from the little town as it wrapped itself in the peace of evening. Ten minutes to the Great Kurton road, then the left turn, the steep hill to Jakey’s Folly and the winding lane beyond. He was on a route he knew, his house no more than five minutes away. He should be familiar with every detail, every pothole, every branch of every tree and yet – yet he did not recall this gateway.
Paul climbed from his car. The gate was old, quite weathered; beyond it, where he might have expected to see an open field there was no field at all, but a small wood. And the wood was so positioned it should be visible from his home, should it not? The view from Hilltop’s windows was stamped upon his memory, yet this was a feature he had never seen before.
The wood of the gate felt cold and damp to his touch. The rust reddened latch disengaged with difficulty. Its hinges creaked. A narrow track scored in the meadow grass led his feet into the midst of the trees. Broom, golden bright in the full flush of summer mingled with whitethorn blossom to drench the birch and ash that were the first denizens of the wood. A few paces further and taller trees, solemn and stately, reached above his head in a filigree of evening shade. Might he have considered it odd that he had no wish to turn and go back? Did he glance over his shoulder to see whether the gate still gaped wide behind him? Had he done so he might have seen. Although not by his hand, the gate had closed.
Paul walked on – deeper into the woodland hush, and light became more difficult to find. The trees were closer now, their cover the more dense and stifling. Through pools of olive darkness the path made greater demands upon his senses; more than once he missed his footing and stumbled upon some unseen grassy tuft or protruding root. Somewhere in the canopy branches rattled. Startled, he looked up, half-expecting to see some broken branch or predatory bird descending upon him, but he could see nothing to justify the noise. As he passed through a pool of dappled sun those branches repeated their ominous message – and this time a shadow flitted.
Then a different noise; that of scrabbling claws on bark. Just ahead of him, a great and stalwart oak, and thence the sound. Hidden from him, something – something quite large and heavy – was descending the far side of its trunk.
A javelin of cold fear shot through Paul’s body, pinning him to the spot. Silence. The breeze had stopped; the world and all time within it ceased. He heard his own querulous voice stammer out: “Who…who’s there? What do you want?” And faint though it was, his terror echoed among the trees.
“I am here to lead you.” So quiet were the words he wondered if he had heard them at all.
A figure – veiled by deep shade – slid around the great tree, gripping the bark so it hung, suspended, some three feet above ground. Instinctively, Paul feared it. He could see so very little, merely the outline of a compact, ape-like form that exuded muscular strength, although it was no more than four feet in height. With practised agility it sprang from the tree and walked, almost glided upon two legs scarcely longer than Paul’s own thighs, into better light; revealing a body covered in fine, chestnut-coloured hair, only the face of which was hairless – snub-nosed, eyes black and gleaming, but human, or nearly so. Its thin lips pursed themselves as the creature studied Paul openly. What was it? Some sort of ape?
The ape – if ape it was – spoke. “Come, you will need me to guide you.”
A hand very like a human hand reached out to Paul, who stared at strong, claw-like nails that tipped near-human fingers. Man? He still needed to be convinced. “You live here?” He asked.
“Yes. In the trees.”
The figure had drawn closer now, too close for doubt. Its words, so softly spoken, confirmed it. Odd though its appearance was, this creature must be human.
“Annar waits.” It said. “Come!”
Rough, stubby fingers closed around Paul’s hand, tugging gently.
“I don’t understand.” Paul protested. Who, or what was Annar? Come to that: “Who – what – are you? Where is this place?”
The creature’s black eyes creased in what might have been a smile. “You will find out if you come with me.”
“If I don’t?”
In answer, those eyes glanced past Paul, as if inviting him to look back. And so he did, and he saw how the living forest had closed behind him. The track that would lead him to his car had gone. Instead, there was undergrowth intertwined; bramble and thorn in an impenetrable wall: a wall of darkness.
“You must follow. Come.”
What induced him to comply so meekly? Why didn’t he protest further? Did the hand that had taken his also take command of his mind? Though small in stature the creature’s grip was strong, its short stride purposeful and quick. As it moved the hiss of its breath kept time, a shallow, high sound that found a resonance with the trees. It knew its way through the woods, too; endless, endless woods. By this track and that, by gully and stream, Paul was led, and with every stride his confusion grew the more. The hours were passing. It would be night soon.
“Where are you taking me?” He demanded breathlessly, striving to keep up.
As if his words were a signal, the creature stopped. “Here is the place. Now we must wait.” It settled itself upon a tree-root, drawing its big, blunt knees up to its chin, so Paul saw how the longer hairs beneath that chin draped, and how very like a beard they seemed. Thankful for the rest, he seated himself on a fallen tree-trunk, casting about warily for any sign of danger. Had it been he who somehow, by some code the creature recognised, selected the place? There was nothing distinctive about it. He could see only a continuation of the trail they had been pursuing, as he calculated, for more than two miles. It would be dark before he could eventually discover the way out. How, in all the years he had lived at Hilltops, had he failed to discover this woodland, never noticed the gateway that led into it? And it must be a substantial forest, unless his guide had been leading him in circles.
“Welcome.” The sudden appearance of the little old man surprised him. Paul had neither seen nor heard his approach. Where had he come from? Had he been sleeping? Was he, perhaps, dreaming this?
Garbed in skins the nut-brown hue of the woods, this old one’s form was so shrivelled and spare it might have been easy, with Paul’s tired, slightly misted eyes, to avoid seeing him at all. Human, though, he certainly was. His shoulders were hunched, stooping his protuberant nose towards the bed of leaves upon which he walked. The nose had a drip poised at its end. A yellowed beard waited to collect it.
Released from the mesmerising grip of the creature, Paul felt his anger rising. This had gone on long enough. “Oh, what now? Another woodland tour? What’s your role – let me see – the philosophical sage? Am I going to get words of wisdom next? Or do you just want a handout? Don’t ask me; I left my money in the car, and I can’t tell you where that is. Ask the hairy guy, yeah? He knows, I don’t. I’m lost, you see?”
Two grey eyes – disturbingly large, penetrating eyes – met Paul’s critical stare. “Or rather you are found?” The old man said in a crackling dry twig of a voice. “I did not choose this meeting. Did you?”
A snappy retort formed on Paul’s lips, then seemed to evaporate. He felt his annoyance ebbing away, as if the creature’s hand had once more taken his. “Explain?” He said at last: “Who are you? What is all this?”
“I? I am Annar. That is to say, the Old One.” Annar motioned to the creature, still hunched on its tree-root. “He is Bul, which means tree-sleeper. It also means ‘many’. Names are not important here.” The old man gave an elaborate, if somewhat creaky, bow. “You are welcome among us.”
Paul shook his head. “Look, Annar; whatever you’re trying to make me believe, I’m not sold, okay? I need to get out of here – this wood – now. Yes? Can you show me the way? Is it far?”
“Far?” The old man looked puzzled. He looked at Bul, but Bul merely grunted. “I cannot answer you because I have never sought a way. There is the green land, of course, and a Great Water where the world stops, but our people rarely go there now. “Is that what you seek?”
“What I seek is my way out of here. This ‘green land’ of yours would be a start.” Paul snapped, dredging up renewed ire from somewhere. Yet his resolve was wavering. He wanted to diagnose this pair as being mentally ill, but somehow that wasn’t working. Their reduced stature, their physical appearance argued against such simple answers. Could they really be woodland dwellers who had adopted this forest as their home? That was ridiculous! Tramps, maybe? “Look, just tell me the way back to the road, okay? What’s-his-name, Bul, here, doesn’t need to take me. Just point.”
“Road?” Annar frowned. “No, no, there is no road.” He lapsed into silence, so once again Paul experienced one of those timeless moments when the birds ceased their treetop songs, and not even a breeze stirred. In that space Annar and Bul seemed immovable – lifeless and aged as statues hewn from stone. Maybe there really was no road.
“Alright,” Paul spoke slowly, choosing his words with great care. “Where exactly am I?”
“Where?” Annar considered the question. “You are here. Here is the forest, and the forest is as old as time. As for roads, there are only the paths you make, when the trees have earned your respect. I? I am of the Old People, and for summers beyond memory the forest has been our home, though once, before the wild ones came in boats to drive us away, it is said we tilled the green land. Those are skills long forgotten. I would not know them.”
“Look, indulge me, because I don’t understand this.” Paul coaxed, as gently as he could. “See, Annar, I have to leave here – I have to get home. Time is…” He glanced down at his wrist. In disbelief he saw that his watch was missing; so, too, the band of reddened flesh where a watch might have been. It was as if he had never worn one.
“Time?” The old one smiled at the brown loam before his sandaled feet. “Time is nothing to you now. “The green land is far – far beyond your reach. Here, in the forest, is your home.”
The shock, finally the lightning bolt of the truth. “I’m never going to leave, am I?”
“You cannot. You have come to us from another place, but you are in need of peace, and now your home is among us you will find what you seek. Do not fear – it is a good place. You will learn to be happy here.” The old man said. Then he turned away, directing his voice into the darkness of the trees. “Come forward, child.”
At his beckoning a green curtain of undergrowth parted, revealing a tall, graceful figure, disguised by the deep shade.
“This is one who has loved you for many summers. She also comes to us, and her place is with you.”
Shyly, the figure stepped into the open, allowing a shaft of sunlight to play upon golden hair as her face was exposed. Paul could not restrain his surprise. “Corynna?”
And the old man smiled. “Be as one.” He said.
“His missus is a piece, in no mistake!” Commented the police sergeant. “She seemed more annoyed than anything else.” He shook his head. “Grief takes some strange forms, don’t it? Anyway, what brings you back here this morning, Mister Berrisford? You don’t normally want a second look at these.”
The Claims Assessor cast a critical eye over the wreckage. A course of events that was obvious enough – too fast into the bend, a slight clip of the bank, a rapid, airborne barrel roll and impact: bounce once, airborne once more, bounce again. By the time it plummeted into the hedge the silver car was already beyond recognition, a tangled mess of scrap metal. No, he had no need to doubt his findings.
“Paul Lamborne, eh? The Gov’nor, no less. He’ll have been well covered, I expect?” The sergeant prompted. “A bit of a drain on your company’s coffers, eh? Might you just possibly be seeking a loophole, Chas?”
“We’ve got one.” Berrisford replied. “At least from the life insurance aspect. There’s no body.” He watched with a fascination he always experienced as a recovery truck raised the wreck, disposing of a last, very slim chance that Paul’s remains were somehow concealed beneath it. Shards of hedgerow snapped and crackled as the wreck’s departure revealed a perfectly cut gap, allowing him to stare into the empty fields beyond. “I’d imagine that’d be a neat fit for a gateway, wouldn’t you? We can’t have a claim if we don’t have a body. Not after an incident like this.”
“No-one could have survived that.” The sergeant said, almost reverently. “He can’t have been thrown clear, neither. The seat belt’s intact and fastened.”
“Then where is he? I’d expect some signs of serious trauma; blood, body parts. There’s none. Even if he’d managed to ride out the impact, with the state he’d have been in he’d not have gone far.”
“No sign of him.” The sergeant replied. “We checked the fields and hedges for near on a mile, and there’s no other cover. It’s a strange one.”
“Very.” Berrisford acknowledged. “As a matter of interest, has everyone been informed? He was well known locally, wasn’t he?”
“Yes. Well, his immediate family anyway. As for his business, though, there’s something else that’s odd.”
“Odd? How do you mean?”
“Well, I expect there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, but his manager (nice girl, always liked her) can’t be found anywhere. She was due to go to work this morning and didn’t. What’s more, she doesn’t answer her ‘phones. Mind, it’s too early to make judgements. I’m sure she’ll turn up.”
“Yes.” A shivering breeze found the new space in the hedge and prickled Charles Berrisford’s flesh, as if to remind him of the bare landscape beyond. How he hated the desolation that generations of farming had wrought upon this land! This would have been forest once, before the works of man laid it low. If he half-closed his eyes he could still imagine them.
“A cold summer this has been.” He said. “You’re right, of course. I’m sure she will.”
© Frederick Anderson 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.