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Reflections

A Way into the Woods

by Fiona Curnow

Forest Eyes

Who the hell was knocking on her door at this time of day?

There was just a shape behind the patterned glass. Dark. Swaying slightly. Something bear-like about it. Laura wasn't used to daytime callers. She wasn't used to being here during the day. Her maternity leave had started the previous week.

'Hello?' the shape began as soon as she'd opened the door a crack. 'I was wondering if you'd mind signing our petition. We don't seem to have got you down yet. It's about the wood. You must have had a letter from the council? Or seen the piece the local paper ran on it last week?'

'We don't get time to read the local papers.'

But she opened the door fully. And he smiled, showing the gaps where several teeth were missing. His hair was almost entirely grey but thick and unbrushed. He wore a denim jacket and the dark sweater beneath was unravelling in various places.

'Is it about the planning application?' she continued. 'I can't see it's anything to get worried about. There are laws to stop that sort of thing, aren't there?'

The man raked his bottom lip with his top teeth and snagged at a few wisps of salt and pepper beard.

'Not really,' he said. 'People think there are - but there aren't, not when it comes down to it. Please. It would be good if you could sign. The more local support we have the better. And it would butt right up to your garden.'

Laura had taken the pen without realising it. Putting her name to petitions was something she did. To save the whales, to stop fox hunting, to keep genetic experiments out of the food chain. Preventing seven acres of deciduous woodland turning into executive houses - that had to be a good thing . . . didn't it?

And he was right - whoever he was. The wood did come right up to their back garden. Not that you'd notice. When she and Adrian had moved here five years previously there had been a tall leylandii hedge to mark their boundary. They'd let it grow. Careers took up so much time. The house had been a place to sleep. Laura had never been especially curious as to what was beyond.

Slowly she formed the characters of her name and address on the paper he'd thrust towards her.

'You're missing out on so much,' he said when she'd finished.

'What?'

'You can't even see the wood. That stuff,' he waved a hand at the leylandii, 'it's impenetrable.'

'If the houses do go ahead we might be glad of that.'

'But there's so much beauty. Just a few yards away. Let me cut it down for you.'

He fumbled in the back pocket of his jeans and passed her a mottled business card that said, Charles Winterson, Landscape Gardener - and a local phone number.

'You want to cut the trees down? I thought you believed in saving them.'

'Those leylandii? Overgrown weeds. No wildlife value. No soul.'

'I'll have to talk to my husband about it.'

'You do that.' Then he nodded at her swollen belly and grinned in the way everyone did - the way everyone seemed to think her body was public property now. 'When's it due?'

'Mid December.'

'Well . . . Good luck.' He tapped the petition. 'I'll be in touch.'

By the time Adrian came home that night Laura had sifted through their paper recycling bin and found the letter the council had sent two weeks before. Things did that. They loitered in the corner of the kitchen for months. Sometimes she wanted to sweep it all into a bin liner and dump it at the end of the drive.

'A man called round about this today,' she said. 'He reckons it is worth doing something. He reckons it'll help.'

Adrian took the letter but he didn't look at it. He was looking at her. She could almost see the thoughts scrolling like an autocue across his forehead. Tenderness for her. The desire to make her happy. The admission that, with a little life kicking inside her, wider issues than the self might have begun to count.

'We'll write a letter,' he said. 'I'll do it on the computer at work tomorrow.'

Laura felt the knot between her shoulder blades ease. Adrian was taking care of it. Telling him about the leylandii could wait.

It was only the next day. But Charles was back on her doorstep again.

'Hello, Laura. Did you and your husband have a chance to talk about the hedge?'

She licked her lips and parted them to say that, No, they hadn't. But there was something about the corners of his eyes - something like a childhood friend - of whom her mother certainly wouldn't approve - calling her out to play again when it was long past time for bed.

'We thought perhaps if you started in the left hand corner,' she lied. 'Just take a couple down and we'll see how it looks from there.'

'That's what I was going to suggest. I'll get my tools from the van.'

Half way down the drive he stopped, turned back and winked.

'I like my coffee black, three sugars. Round about eleven would be good.'

'How much is this going to cost?' she called after him.

'Nothing.' He turned. íI'm doing this for the sake of the wood. Its energy's blocked.'

Some time later she took him the coffee. He sat on the heap of pungent leylandii branches and drank it. The cut wood gave off a scent that took her over. It even drove out the oversweetness of his coffee that had almost made her retch as she'd carried it out to him.

'Don't know how you can drink it like that.'

'It's the way I like it. Mind you,' he poked a tongue tip into one of the gaps in his teeth, 'it's cost me.'

She shoved her hands deep into the pocket of Adrian's walking fleece - none of her jackets were big enough now - and wondered if she should leave him to get on and work, or stay.

'Sit down, why don't you?'

He patted the resinous heap beside him.

She did. And it creaked a little under her weight and gave so that he leaned towards her for a moment, then away again. They giggled like children.

'What d'you think?' he asked.

She craned her neck to see what he'd done to the corner of her garden. And for a moment she didn't say anything.

He'd opened a tall, narrow window for her into the wood. Like a door into an exceptionally private room. All that she could see through it was dappled in a shaft of low October sunlight. She'd never imagined it could look so beautiful.

'Charles, thank you . . . My God, what's that bird? It's stunning.'

'That's a bullfinch. Mr Bullfinch. There's his mate - she's duller - down there by the bramble. They're always together, if you know where to look. Now I've opened things up they'll start coming in to your garden.'

'You did all that with a bow saw? I thought you professionals used chain saws all the time.'

'Not if I can help it. Not for this. Bloody racket. Anyway - keeps me fit.'

She looked. It did. He was stripped down to a T-shirt and the muscles on his arms and shoulders weren't those of an average man in early middle age.

'Bob Dylan,' she read the faded writing from his T-shirt: a collection of tour dates from the mid-seventies. 'My dad used to like Bob Dylan.'

'Yeah? Does he still?'

'He doesn't listen to him much these days.'

'Figures. The times they are a-changing - and then they changed back again.'

'That sounds cynical.'

'The young don't have the franchise on it. Nor on revolution.'

He grinned, though, to take the sting out of it. She was reminded of something but it took her a moment or two to figure out what. It was like the beginnings of those late night conversations she'd had at University. The kind where a curious intellectual tension was built up . . . that could only be released by sex.

Laura caught her breath. She wasn't attracted to Charles. She couldn't possibly be.

She'd been wondering how she was going to explain the gap in the hedge to Adrian. But it was long dark by the time he came home. He didn't notice anything.

Laura sat bolt upright, fighting for breath. It had been that sort of dream - so vivid, so utterly vivid - it left her wondering for a moment where reality stood.

She looked at the flashing dots between the alarm clock time. Three fifteen. Yes, fix yourself on them. Something everyday. Something real.

Adrian stirred and reached up to squeeze her shoulder.

'What's wrong, love?'

'I had . . . a dream.'

'About something happening to the baby again?'

'Yes,' she lied.

'It's okay. Come here . . . Nothing's wrong with the baby. You're safe. Baby's safe.'

She lay back down again, back into his solid arms. He fell asleep long before she did.

As soon as Adrian had left for work next morning Laura rang her sister. She'd had three kids already and was on the committee of NCT this and that. She'd know.

'Hello, Jayne?'

'Laura! Everything okay?'

'Sort of. It's just I had this really vivid . . . dream.'

'Don't worry. It's not unusual to have nightmares in the later stages of pregnancy.'

'No - it wasn't like that. There was this guy I know. We were - making love. Jayne, it was like nothing I ever . . . '

'Look love, that's not unusual either. The increased blood supply to the uterus has a lot to answer for. I'm surprised you haven't experienced anything like that sooner.'

'Stop talking like a text book. I didn't phone my midwife. I phoned you. Jayne - he's totally unsuitable. I don't even fancy him. He must be nearly Dad's age.'

'Laura, it was only a dream. You can't help what your subconscious gets up to at night . . . Everything else okay?'

'The practise contractions - the Braxton Hicks - they're getting stronger. Uncomfortable, sometimes.'

'I know. It's a good sign. They'll help the baby's head engage. Listen love, I'm sorry but I've got to drop the kids off. Catch up with you and Adrian soon?'

Laura put the phone down. That had done a lot of good.

Four weeks until her due date. And she still hadn't ordered everything she needed from the catalogues. She filled in the form, hoped she'd allowed for enough re-usable nappies, and put her credit card number in the box. Then she walked down to the village post office. It went quiet when she entered. She and Adrian might have owned their house five years but they didn't live here.

On her way back she ran into Charles.

'Laura, great news. I've been in to see them at the planning department. They're strongly recommending refusal when it comes up at the next meeting - and I think most of the councillors are with us, too. Course, the developers will probably take it to appeal. They budget for that these days. But it's looking good. I was going for a walk in the woods to celebrate. Come with me?'

He held out a hand. She didn't take it. She hadn't seen him since the night of that dream - which she refused to let colour her response to him. But her refusal wasn't working.

'Technically speaking, wouldn't that be trespassing?'

He gave her one of those looks again: a mixture of amusement - and pity. It was the pity that did it. She took his hand. The skin was drier and rougher than she'd imagined.

'You spend too much of your time with indoor folk, he said. 'Your hands are soft.'

'It's not exactly public footpath going underfoot,' he continued as if to justify keeping hold of her hand as he led her through a gap in the fence. 'We can't have you tripping over - not now. You're okay, though. You're with me.'

She'd noticed small symbols - looking like they'd been woven from young willow stems or something - hanging on the planning application notice. There were more in the trees. She bit her tongue against asking Charles about them. She wasn't sure she'd like the answer.

There was a commotion overhead. He paused and looked up.

'Mallards,' he said. 'Spend their days in the pond over the other side of the wood. They shouldn't be flying back to roost this early. Something's disturbed them. I donít like that.'

He was leading her deeper into the wood. There was no definable path. She wasn't sure any longer which direction was 'back' and she wouldn't be able to find it without him. There was something else. He'd opened a door onto a restless, sexual curiosity she thought she'd worked through at University. It was easy to write it off as hormonal. Laura wasn't sure she still believed in easy answers.

Charles stopped.

'Laura, I'm sorry. I didn't think . . . You were getting out of breath there. Here, rest a minute.'

He waved a hand towards a mossy log. She sat down and the damp from the moss seeped straight through her maternity leggings.

'Look around you,' he whispered. 'Haven't we got something worth fighting for?'

And despite her cold thighs and discomfort she answered, 'Yes - it's beautiful . . . Even at this time of year.'

'Even?' He chuckled. 'I think I love them all the more in autumn. The way just a few leaves cling to the very tips of the branches. Like people cling on to things sometimes. And the way there seems so much more space - more sky - between the trees. It brings it home how vulnerable they really are. And then later when the mists close in and it's like walking through a series of rooms. You know . . . intimate.' When he caught her looking at him strangely he continued, 'You've guessed. I'm the campaign's wild card.'

'Charles . . . don't do anything stupid.'

'Laura, I'm touched. You care.'

Like in the childhood game, it was she who blinked and looked away first.

'I'm feeling better now,' she said. 'Let's walk.'

'Okay. I'll take you . . . somewhere that might surprise you.'

She held out her hand but he didn't take it. They walked in silence for a few more minutes. When they came to a small, vaguely circular clearing he stopped and took both her hands in his.

'D'you know where you are?'

Laura glanced round.

'Those leylandii - we couldn't possibly be . . . ?'

'Yes. That's your back garden.'

'You had me totally lost. Do you come here often?'

That corny question. They both laughed at the absurdity of it.

'I do,' he said eventually, 'but you'd never have known. You've always been out during the day - till now.'

Charles took a deep, deep breath and looked around.

'This place has a positive energy. It likes being visited. It likes being honoured . . . I wonder how long it's been since somebody made love here.'

'Charles, I'm eight months pregnant.'

'I know. It doesn't matter.'

'It does to me.'

'But if you weren't - you'd say yes?'

'Yes . . . '

She hated the child inside her. Hated it for giving her such wild desires and stopping her acting on them. Hated it for the way it would monopolise her body for months to come - leaving it sore, torn, wrung out, spurting milk. And by the time she'd recovered enough for sex to be a possibility again the man standing in front of her now might be . . . who knows where?

The baby kicked. And a strong Braxton Hicks contraction gripped her. Strong enough to make her gasp. Her swollen belly tightened to rock. It felt like retribution.

When it was over she wrenched her hands from his and stumbled for the gap he'd cut in her hedge. As she struggled through, a whippy branch smacked her in the face and the sawn end of another drew blood from her upper arm.

Later, much later, when the grey light was fading Laura took a large bundle of twine and her secateurs out to the corner of the garden. Savagely she bent down the springy leylandii branches from neighbouring trees and lashed them into place across the gap. She didn't want Charles' window into the wood. Now it was as if it had never been there. And Adrian wouldn't ask.

But when Laura went back inside to fix a drink she found herself making coffee - black, three sugars. It would take some time - but she could get used to it.

More Fiction:

~ Sundowning ~ Perishable Night ~ Tanuki


"Forest Eyes" by Charlotte Haney


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