Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Clearing


I speak from experience when I say that last year's self-catering holiday home was above average and rather unusual. Shortly after our arrival, I remember standing at one of the quaint little upstairs windows, watching Karl heave our bags from the car. As he carried the bags inside, I transferred my gaze to a lovely old deciduous wood which completely surrounded us. The house was a large, square building on a quiet part of the south coast. It sat in the centre of this wooded clearing at the end of a long, single-track road, well out of sight of our nearest neighbours.
Karl clumped into the bedroom, dropped a bag from each hand and flopped onto the bed.
‘That's me done. I hump them, you unpack them. That’s the deal.’
‘I'll unpack mine,’ I said sweetly. ‘Then I'll make a cup of coffee. I'll unpack yours when we get home, when my holiday is over. That’s the real deal.’
Karl closed his eyes and grunted, so I wandered off downstairs to make further explorations of the house and garden. The house was clean and well furnished, not so functional and second-hand as some self-catering places we've been to. I was pretty sure the owners used it as a second home, but the garden was what I liked best.
To be honest, it could be described as a minimum maintenance garden eschewing neatness in favour of a natural look. So it would be rather shaggy to some eyes, but just right for the house, with its surrounding sweep of mature woodland. It fitted my townie notions of a country garden more closely than anything else I'd ever seen. It had massive rhododendrons, gnarled old apple trees and straggling lilacs, while honeysuckle twined its way round red brickwork.
Instead of a house in a clearing, it blended into the woodland via that garden, with no formal dividing lines between one and the other. It was not even possible to tell if the effect was deliberately contrived or the happy result of semi-neglect.
‘Badgers.’
Karl's voice startled me out of my reverie. I turned round to see him holding a book in his left hand while stabbing a king-sized digit at the open pages.
‘What?’
‘Badgers. It says in the visitor’s book that badgers come into the garden at dusk and eat anything you care to put down for them.’
I took the book from his hands, reading for myself the comments of previous holiday-makers. They all mentioned the badgers and their feeding habits, which seemed to be charmingly indiscriminate. According to the visitor’s book, badgers were omnivorous creatures who would eat almost anything, including breakfast cereal, dog food and toast and jam. While I read about the badgers, Karl's interest faded away and he wandered off towards the woods. I went back into the house to brew up some coffee and freshen up after the journey.
I remember lying in bed on our first night, savouring the silence surrounding our house. City folk rarely know real silence or real darkness. There is always the rumble of a passing vehicle on the nearest road or someone slamming a car door and the sky is never quite free from the orange glow of street-lights. To me, silence is like a singing in the ears, as if one’s hearing becomes hyperactive with nothing to do, with no background noise to be screened out. Modern ears, when they encounter true silence are rather like deprived workaholics. With nothing to do, they fidget and invent sounds of their own to try and screen out the silence.
On impulse, I eased myself out of bed away from Karl's slumbering bulk. I parted the curtains to absorb some inner peace from the surrounding woods, but saw little beyond the glass of the window. There was no moon and even if there had been, the trees were high enough to shut out what little light there was. I climbed back into bed, snuggled up to Karl’s broad back and fell into a deep sleep full of oddly disconnected dreaming.
Morning finally found its way through our outer palisade of trees as a shaft of sunlight triumphantly bore down on us through window and dust motes, sending Karl and I downstairs in search of coffee and croissants to be eaten in the garden.
‘I need a few bits from the shops, shampoo and suchlike,’ I told Karl as I brushed the last few flakes of pastry from my fingers.
‘Okay.’ He sat slumped in a slightly dusty wicker chair, sipping noisily at his coffee in his usual, non-committal fashion. ‘I'll go for a walk - see if there are any decent beaches round here and then meet you for lunch,’ he added after another slurp of coffee.
 It was too late in the year for spending much time on the beach, but the weather was still sunny and warm, almost an Indian summer. The road, or rather track, petered out when it reached our house, narrowing into a footpath through the woods, signposted to the nearby village of Deeming. I left Karl to clear up after breakfast, grabbed a bag and my purse and followed the path into the trees.
The woods grew right to the edge of fragile cliffs overlooking a narrow strip of beach and as the path meandered its way in the direction of the cliff edge, I was able to catch glimpses of the sea through the trees. About half way through the wood, the path brushed by a small clearing which went right to the cliff edge. There was a wooden slatted bench set facing out seawards.
The walk to the village turned out to be no more than thirty minutes. I'd collected my shopping and set off back by a quarter to ten. I shouldered my bag, promising myself a couple of hours of relaxation in the garden while Karl was out on his beach-searching ramble. Anyway, I'd detected the onset of one of his surly moods at breakfast and had no desire to spend the entire day in his company.
By the time I reached the clearing near the cliff edge, the bench had been taken over by an elderly couple. The man was in the act of pouring tea or coffee from a Thermos flask, while the woman rummaged around in what I took to be a picnic bag.
‘Good morning,’ I called out, waving and smiling, feeling distinctly sociable for a change.
The man returned a slight smile and a nod, lifting the flask in a kind of picnicker's greeting, while the woman looked up briefly from her bag, flashed a bright little smile then busied herself again like a small bird.
‘Pleasant spot.’
The man's voice came from behind me as I strode off. A thin, reedy voice - rather distant. I glanced back but they were both busy with their picnic.
'What a nice idea - they must be having their elevenses or even an early lunch,' I remember thinking as I re-entered the trees.
Karl failed to turn up at lunch time, so I read for a while in the garden before falling asleep amid all that lovely quiet. Karl finally turned up by early evening, claiming to have walked at least a dozen miles along the coastal path. He’d caught the bus back.
We watched the sun drop below the trees over a couple of bottles of wine, then put Cornflakes and some rather disgusting tinned meat stuff on the back lawn. Presumably the tinned meat had been left by previous occupants but was still okay for badgers. Karl was hoping to photograph the badgers. He set up his camera and tripod in the conservatory, which was to be our observation post. He fancied his talents as a wildlife photographer, but never quite made enough effort to get some really good pictures.
We watched as the light faded. Soon a couple of black and white snouts appeared in the undergrowth at the lawn edge. Karl was enthralled as the badgers gobbled up meat first then cornflakes, snuffling around the lawn, not missing a crumb. I don't think he could have seen badgers before because he seemed really surprised when they turned up, as if he'd bracketed them with mythical creatures from childhood. All in all, it was a good day, the best for a long time.
The next day was bright and sunny too. We drifted off in the car to a beach about twenty minutes drive away where we actually sunbathed for hours. We drove back in the early afternoon, affected by that dry, gritty lassitude which sun, beach and idleness can produce. It must have been about a quarter to three when I asked Karl to drop me off in Deeming so that I could collect a couple of bottles of wine for the evening.
‘You go on in the car, I’ll walk back through the woods,’ I said when Karl seemed ready to come with me to the shop. I also picked up a bottle of Rioja, intending to treat myself on the bench overlooking the sea. Karl would be sure to disapprove of me drinking wine from the bottle, and on a bench to boot! He’d say it was unladylike but I didn't care.
In the event, I didn't get the chance to be unladylike, because the same elderly couple occupied the bench in the clearing. I wasn't quite up to sitting in on their picnic with my collection of bottles.
‘Good afternoon,’ I called out, trying to suppress both my annoyance and a too-obvious clinking of bottles.
The man gave his faint smile and nod, lifting up his flask as before. His wife was rummaging in the picnic bag again. She flashed me her smile, the afternoon sun glinting on her spectacles, hiding her eyes.
‘Pleasant spot.’
The man's voice was addressed to my disappearing rear, but I didn't look back this time. I remember striding on through that wood, counting points of similarity between my two meetings with the elderly picnickers. I recall my puzzlement too, when I realized that I knew of no points of dissimilarity, save the time of day.
Days slipped by as they do on holiday. We fed the badgers, went to beaches, drank wine and Karl even became quite jolly. We both agreed the holiday was turning out to be something of a success. It was on Thursday though, that the weather first showed signs of breaking. Small, high clouds floated across the sun, sending shadows racing up the beach, while the pure, azure dome of the sky was gone, filmed over with haze like the finest gossamer veil. It was one of those transient September weeks between late summer and the cool, misty mornings of early autumn. Although it was early evening, the light was beginning to fade rapidly and the warmth of the day soon faded to an autumnal chill.
Karl dropped me off in Deeming on our way back from sightseeing because I wanted to walk back by myself and a woodland stroll seemed a peaceful way to end the day. I faced the setting sun as I walked, so when I first reached the clearing, I couldn't see that the bench was occupied yet again. I suppose I was quite startled, because I stopped walking, shading my eyes to be absolutely sure that it was the same elderly couple. It was, so I carried on walking. Polite as ever, I called out my good evening as I passed.
The figure of the man was a dark shadow outlined against the red arc of the sun still sinking below the horizon, but I saw his pale, bony old hand round his up-raised Thermos. I felt a creepy, prickling sensation at the back of my neck as my eyes switched to the old woman and her interminable groping in that damned bag. She acknowledged my presence by looking up as usual, her glasses catching the livid red light of the sun, her face not properly visible, lost in sharp black shadows.
I walked on, quickly entering the trees, trying not to run but imagining their old eyes boring into my back.
‘Pleasant spot.’
I’m afraid that at that point I just broke out into a run. I ran through the woods until I reached the house and I didn't stop running until I burst into the kitchen where dear, homely Karl was pottering about making coffee. I stood at the door panting, getting more than my breath back. He looked up, quizzical – concerned even.
‘What's the matter?’
‘An unnerving experience.’ I managed a shrug and sat down, still out of breath.
‘Tell me,’ he said calmly, arresting my hand as I reached automatically for my bottle of Rioja.
‘You won't believe it.’
‘Try me.’
‘It's too bloody weird.’
‘As I said, try me.’ Karl uncorked the bottle of Rioja and poured me a drink, a small one, pushing it across the table. Well, I told him as best I could, emphasizing again and again the exact correlation between all three meetings. I explained how improbable it was, the weirdness of it and how he as a man of science must see that. He didn't though, not at first.
‘It’s just a coincidence,’ he said easily.
‘Well it’s a bloody odd coincidence if you ask me.’ I swallowed the wine in a single gulp. Karl frowned as always.
A couple of bottles of Sancerre took us through the remainder of the evening. I knew Karl didn’t see the weirdness of those elderly picnickers. By the time midnight had come and gone and under the mellowing influence of good wine, I was beginning to see it as a coincidence too. Unfortunately, about half an hour after midnight, I realised I had to be sure Karl really understood. Another phase in my alcohol intake I suppose. I had to explain the weirdness in a way even he’d understand. After a bit of searching, I came up with a pen and a piece of paper and slapped them down on the small table between us.
‘Right mister scientist, I'm going to make a list.’
‘A list? Okay – let’s make a list.’ Karl smiled one of his rare, broad smiles as he sat back in his chair.
‘Yes – I’m going to list every point of similarity between each of those three meetings.’ Karl watched as I wrote my list, the length of which even surprised me. Once finished. I handed it over.
‘People are creatures of habit,’ he said as he took my piece of paper in his big hand.
‘Maybe they are, but read that then talk to me about the laws of probability, about three chance meetings on three separate days at three widely differing times of day.’
‘Yes, yes,’ he said, tracing his way down my list with a finger like a banana.
‘When you've finished,’ I added, risking his disapproval by pouring a final glass of wine. ‘When you've finished I'll tell you about instinct and sensitivity and atmosphere and weirdness.’
He finished reading and handed the paper back. ‘What was the time of day for each of these meetings?’
‘Ten in the morning, three in the afternoon and eight this evening.’
‘So five hours between each one.’
‘I suppose so, yes.’ Actually I hadn’t noticed that.
‘Well,’ he said, glancing at his watch, ‘it's now twenty minutes to one. At one o'clock it'll be five hours since your last meeting. Let's go and check it out.’
‘But it'll be one o'clock in the morning.’
‘Exactly, if they aren't there, the chain of coincidence is broken.’
Karl fetched a torch from the car while I picked up the bottle and glasses. If that bench was empty, then I intended to celebrate a kind of exorcism. Outside, it had become quite breezy, with huge, stone-grey clouds illuminated briefly as they skimmed rapidly across a curl of moon. Karl shone the torch on the footpath sign, making the entrance to the woods seem like a disused railway tunnel, a dead black arch set in the trees. I suddenly changed my mind about the wine and left bottle and glasses at the base of the signpost. I seized Karl's arm in a firm grip as we set off.
There is no natural contrast quite so vivid as that between a woodland by day and in the dead of night. A wood is a living, breathing thing, serenely beautiful and friendly by day, aloof and alien by night. Night is a time set aside for creatures of the dark, creatures that touch and smell their way around. It is not a time for blundering, sight-limited humans. High wind-voices whispered through unseen branches as we cautiously followed our pool of torchlight. I had no real notion of progress until quite suddenly, a patch of grey appeared in the blackness ahead.
‘Wait, stop.’ I tugged Karl's arm.
‘What is it? Are we there?’
‘Maybe - switch off the torch.’
Karl switched off the torch. As we strained our eyes towards the patch of grey, it resolved itself into the clearing with a dark, indistinct smudge for the bench. The light was too poor to see anything more at that distance, so we edged closer without the benefit of torchlight. Just at that moment, we heard the first spatters of rain which very soon began to find its way through the canopy of leaves overhead. We stood together for a few moments while a livid flash of lightening forked across sky and the first boom of thunder rolled over our heads. The rain became a steady, hammering downpour, hiding what little we could see of the bench and slicing through the leaves above our heads as if they weren’t there.
‘This is becoming too ridiculous,’ Karl said.
‘We haven't checked the bench out yet.’
‘It's one o'clock in the morning and we’ve managed to walk into a bloody great storm. Just look at it,’ he answered, holding an arm out to the rain-curtained clearing.
‘We're wet already; a spot more can’t do any harm.’
‘A spot? You call this a spot of rain?’
‘Please Karl - let's break the chain of coincidence. I need to break it.’
‘Make it a quick break then.’ He sighed and switched on the torch.
‘No, not yet.’ I held back, uncertain, hoping perhaps that the rain would ease off enough to see the bench from where we were.
Karl knew I couldn't bring myself to cross that clearing and also knew I wouldn't go back to the house without a sight of the bench. Anyway, what are big, strong men for, if not to be of use on these occasions? He sighed - again.
‘Right, you stay here. I'll be back in ten seconds and you'll have to take my word for it if the damned bench is empty.’
He stepped into the rain and for a few seconds I could see the torch beam dancing in time with his stride. Suddenly I seemed to feel the earth groan beneath my feet, as if a slumbering giant had awoken deep beneath the woods. An inorganic stirring, massively indifferent to fragile organic life. At the same moment, I heard a kind of slithering, muted roar and part of the darkness in front of me sank away, replacing blackness by a grey view of the sea.
I'm not sure what I did next. I have an image in my mind of new, grassy edged cliff, glistening with wet, red clay like an open wound. I remember screaming Karl's name into the wind and rain, but I don't remember running back through the woods or using the telephone, although I suppose I must have done.

I must have phoned for help, else how could I have ended up in this room with Nurse Muir to look after me and Doctor Carlisle to visit me every day? They asked me a lot of questions at first, about how Karl came to fall down the cliff and what we'd been doing there so close to the edge. Many questions with people taking notes all the time.
They tell me that there has been no clearing and no bench by that path through the woods for twenty years, ever since a landslip took a bite out of the cliff, killing an elderly couple out for a picnic. At first, they even said I’d pushed Karl over the cliff and talked about a trial. I think Doctor Carlisle sorted that one out, because they stopped saying those things – it was too absurd.
Actually, I’ve noticed that Nurse Muir says the same things to me each morning - exactly the same. It’s too weird. I've started to make a list of the things she says and what she does. When I’m sure of myself I’ll show the list to Doctor Carlisle.

5 comments:

  1. In my opinion, the best yet. Absolutely brilliant. A bit like the short stories of de la Mare, but with a different prose style. Genuinely unsettling, and Karl is done superbly.

    One tiny quibble to an out-of-date Northener. It seems like a modern story, but it talks of a quiet part of the South Coast. Where's this, then?!

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  2. Sam - many thanks. It's actually a real location and a real house on the Isle of Wight from about thirty years ago. Between Ventnor and Shanklin if I remember rightly. It was a bit dodgy with bits slipping into the sea every now and then.

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  3. Ah, the IoW. That's cheating.

    Did you know Turgenev wrote "Fathers and Sons" in Ventnor? I looked up by chance and saw the blue plaque - happy day!

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  4. Sam - I did know and I suspect you may have told me! Many writers seem to find their muse by the sea - even if it's only Ventnor.

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  5. Ah, yes - repeating myself again......happens a lot these days.....(Shuffles off).

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