My hand patted my tummy. As soon as I realised what I was doing, I yanked it back on to the steering wheel.
I looked over at Chris, to see if he had noticed but he was just idly staring out of the window, looking at all the beautiful, rustic scenery as it glided by us, like dandelion fluff floating on a gentle breeze. He had this idiotic half-smile on his face. I used to find that endearing, I thought. And then, of course, I found myself thinking of what had happened. Like I think of anything else anymore, I thought. It sticks to my thoughts like a bad smell that lingers or a pip in your teeth that won’t dislodge no matter how hard you prod at it. I focused on the road in front.
Nerves, I thought. That’s why I’d nearly done what I’d done with my hand. Driving around those narrow country lanes can be a bit daunting. You never know what’s round the corner and even going as we were at a snail’s pace, you still worry some thoughtless lunatic is going to come speeding round the next bend. And, with all the bushes and greenery around you, some of it blocking the view at the side of you entirely, you can sometimes feel like you’re driving around one of those mazes, the ones with all the hedges, and that you’re getting nowhere and could easily become lost.
Chris and I went to Hampton Court once, when we were first going out together. We got lost and just spent the whole time laughing and staring into one another’s eyes and holding one another’s hands. To be honest, I don’t think we were really paying that much attention to finding our way through or where we were going. Too loved up. I remember feeling the flutter of his pulse through the palms of his hands and it giving me a warm glow inside...Just then, navigating my way through those nerve-wracking country lanes, it felt like something that had happened to two other people, different people and not us. And, then, of course, I remembered once more how he’d let all that be defiled and a burst of anger coursed through me. I glanced at him, again. The idiotic half-smile was still on his face. The seeming innocence in it wound me right up and got my ruddy goat just then.
“I suppose to you, coming from the big city, coming out here to the sticks is a novelty” I blurted out. I tried to invest as much of an edge to it as possible, making his attitude sound as socially ignorant as possible. I couldn’t help myself. It was the innocence in his smile...I just had this urge to get at him.
Only he didn’t notice. Which peed me off even more. He just flicked his eyes over to me and must have thought I was being nice and making conversation because he gave me this good-natured smile. “I suppose” he said, in an easy, friendly tone. It was the first time he had spoken for a while. We hadn’t said much the journey over. I had been grateful for the silence. “It certainly is peaceful out here. Quiet”. Some people would say lonely, I thought but didn’t say. He sniffed the air and closed his eyes. “The air is certainly bloody fresher for starters!” You wait until they start mucking the fields. The stink of shit is everywhere, I thought but, again, didn’t say. “And...God...look at how beautiful it is...” He sighed. “It really is idyllic”.
I allowed myself to take in the scenery while remaining focused on the windscreen at the same time. I had to admit, he was right about that. It was beautiful. I always loved being surrounded by nature when I was a girl. There’s just something so, well, natural and healthy about it, compared with the city. So much green...It had been open fields all the way for quite a while, ever since we’d passed the turning from Bog’s Trotter Cross, which had had one of those quaint old-fashioned white picket signs you get out there. Bog Trots, as the locals call it, one of the surrounding villages that lead off from Ravenford, the small Hampshire town where I grew up. Now that really did feel like something that had happened to somebody else...
It must have been the gentle flow of nature beside me, which actually did feel kind of soothing, because, after a bit, I felt mean for getting at him. He is trying, I suppose. That’s why we’re here after all, I thought.
So I glanced over at him again. He doesn’t look much older than when we’d got lost in Hampton Court, I thought. A few lines and creases here and there but still the same old Chris, with his blue eyes that I used to like to get lost in and his browney-blond hair that I used to like to sift my fingers through. Not lately though. Thinking that made the old resentment come back, so I jolted my eyes back to the road where they should have been anyway.
“Ravenford forest should be coming up soon. Probably after the next bend” said Chris, after a bit. I gave a so-so nod back to him and noticed he had got a road map out and it was open in his lap. Living stereotype, I thought and couldn’t suppress a little grin.
“What is it?” he asked. I had stared back out the front window but could feel his eyes on me and knew they probably looked well-meaning.
“Nothing” I said.
“Okay” he said, in total ignorance. “Once we get past the forest, we shouldn’t be too far from the cottage”.
“Ooh. Can’t wait” I said. I tried my best but I just couldn’t keep the sarcasm out.
He sighed. I found that I was glad to hear it. “You could at least make the effort”.
I shrugged. “I am, aren’t I? I’m the one driving”.
“That’s not what I mean and you know it”.
I didn’t bother to say anything and just kept watching the road and the greenery drifting by.
He sighed. “We’re doing this for us, remember?”
I just shrugged. I knew if I said something, everything would flare up. I didn’t really want that not while I was concentrating on our driving and, besides, he was right. We were doing this to stop the rows.
He sighed a third time. “We both agreed, didn’t we? We needed to get away. Bit of peace and quiet, away from the hurly burly of the city and our jobs. Change of scenery. We both thought it might help”.
“It would have been nicer at the coast. Would have made it seem more like a getaway”. I needed to have some sort of comeback. I hated when he was the reasonable one. He didn’t deserve to be, I thought.
“The coast will be too crowded this time of year. The world and his wife will be there. The country will be quieter. Besides, I thought you’d appreciate being back here. Back home and everything”.
I nodded. “I suppose” I said. It had brought back nice memories, driving through the old town on the way here, I’ll give him that. Scenes from a happier time and from another life. I suppose I must have been happy once, I thought. “Sorry” I found myself saying out loud.
I think he went to pat my hand, then, but thought better of it and just stared out of the window. My left hand moved towards my tummy but I managed to wrench it back up again and jammed it back on the steering wheel when I realised what I was doing. I glanced at the countryside which, like I say, I found soothing. Helped take my mind off where it didn’t want to go, anyway.
I gave a mental sigh. I supposed I should say something nice, as he was making the effort. It was why we were out here, after all. “I want this trip away, too” I blurted out. “I want this to work, too”. I glanced over and he gave me a thin smile. I could tell he probably wanted to pour more love into it but didn’t have the courage. I was glad. I don’t think I could have faced it. His eyes drifted back out the window and mine returned to the wilderness beyond the windscreen. I did find myself wondering, as I was finding myself doing a lot with increasing frequency, if what I had just said was really true.
We turned a bend and could see sparse, open countryside to our right. I used to play in those fields on family picnics, years ago, I thought. Not anymore. It’s been bought and owned. Lots of white keep-out signs dotted here and there, like electric pylons, marred the landscape. No more children dancing in the green, I thought, with genuine sadness. On our left, the grand mass of trees that was Ravenford Forest came into view. Mum and Dad would take me there for family outings, too. Like I said, happier times. I had loved to run through the woods. Play hide and seek behind the trees. The trees seemed taller and the forest seemed thicker than I remembered, though. I felt a little shiver shudder through me at the idea of getting lost in such a place.
“Cor, look at that!” said Chris and a meaty finger pointed to the right of me. I took a glance. A deer, a female, was bounding across the field with wild abandon. I looked and found myself sighing with heavy envy. “You wouldn’t see that in London” he said, with a childlike laugh. I found that I did actually like hearing the jollity in it, just then. Like old times...
I found myself starting to smile back at him, only then there was this great wheezing groan, like a death rattle, from the car engine. A sharp jolt sent me and Chris punching forwards and Chris’ head slapped with mild force against the dashboard. I clamped on the handbrake, just in case the car had any ideas about rolling downhill but knew, in the coolness of my adrenaline rush, that the worst had probably happened.
We had stopped dead in the middle of the road. I wondered if someone, somewhere, was playing a cruel, ironic joke on us. If they were, I didn’t find the symbolism funny in the slightest.
“Shit” said Chris. “What did you do?”
I gritted my teeth. “What do you mean, “what did you do”? It’s not me. It’s just bloody died on us, that’s all”. I felt my face get hot. There was a whiny quality to my voice that annoyed me.
He just gave a heavy sigh and shook his head, with weary annoyance. I gritted my teeth again.
“I’ll take a look under the bonnet” he said, with a kind of tired scorn, and unclasped his seatbelt. He opened the door and swung himself out with a deliberate, belligerent motion.
“It’s that cheap shoddy hire company you used. I did warn you” I made sure I shouted out at him as he walked around to the front of the car. I noticed there was a bright scarlet mark on his forehead from the bump on the dashboard. Good, I thought, and a small smile flickered on my lips. Then I felt bad so I remembered the shake of the head he’d given me. Only that didn’t really shake off the guilt, so I forced myself to think of him and her. That did the trick, alright.
We went through the motions. He opened up the bonnet, twiddled around with a few things but didn’t really know what he was doing but was too proud to admit to it (like I say, living bloody stereotype), got me to try to switch the engine on but I think we both probably knew that we were screwed. You get that feeling, it’s almost like a sixth sense and you just know, deep down in your gut, when everything has gone to shit. I found my hand went to my stomach, like an instinct, so I pulled it away again with another sharp, frightened jerk. Chris must have seen because he turned away from me and got out his mobile. I heard a few choice expletives and got mine out and looked at it. No bars of any kind whatsoever. Welcome to the country.
He got in and slammed the door behind him. Temper, temper, I thought.
“It’s fucked” he said.
“So are we” I said. Although, I thought that was just you these days, but I didn’t say it. I wanted to, though. It crawled up my throat and I wanted to gasp it out, almost like being sick, but I swallowed it back down again, like I kept finding myself doing. I tried to tell myself that I knew what I was letting myself in for when I took him back. I don’t think I convinced myself, though. The questions bubbled up and I saw them together again, in my mind, laughing and giggling. They were always laughing and giggling in my head, anyway. Her hands touching his skin. His touching God knows what. Did he break a sweat, I thought? Did he make her break a sweat? Did he make her...Oh God...Did he make her climax? No, don’t do this to yourself, I thought and mentally shook my head. I felt the beginning of tears. My hand ached to touch my stomach.
“Can’t get a sodding signal on the mobile, either” he said, bringing me back to the here and now. He sounded like a lost little boy, just then. Part of me wanted to find it endearing but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
I sniffed and blinked my eyes. “I did tell you we should have gone with someone else. But no, like always, you wanted the cheapest on offer”. In a surreal way, it was almost comforting to be arguing about normal husband and wife stuff for a change. It wasn’t that Chris was a cheapskate, it’s just that he had one of those dads who drilled into him at a young age the “value of money” and consequently he always tried to save where he could, even if it was false economy at times.
He sighed an exasperated sigh which made me feel a bit better. “Thanks for that, Carrie. That’s a big help. We’re miles from anywhere, no signal, no working vehicle and that’s the best you can offer”. He mumbled something then. He probably wanted me to ask what it was, no doubt arsey and busting for a minor row to relieve the angry tension and his embarrassment because he knew I was right.
I really wanted to answer back but took a deep breath and tried to rise above it. I di not want to exacerbate things. “Okay, Chris. Let’s talk about what we should do then” I said, in as reasonable a tone as I could muster.
“I say we wait. See if someone goes past we can flag down”. His tone softened. I think he was probably worried, too. He’s got more to lose in an argument, after all, I thought.
“Chris, this is the middle of nowhere, remember? That’s why we came out here. For peace and quiet? It could be ages before somebody comes along”.
“Okay” he said, in a restrained tone. “What do you suggest?”
“I don’t...” I began and found my eyes resting on the forest to our left. In the light of the summer afternoon sun, it really looked inviting. It was such a bright day, you could see every contour and line of the bark of the trees and their leaves looked so proud and full. There was a verdant glory to them. A soft summer breeze blew through them at that moment, and the leaves moved in a sinuous movement, almost like they were waving me on and inviting me in. I got that shiver again, it went all the way through me, from head to toe, and I thought of a young girl running through the trees and laughing.
I looked over at my husband and I knew what would happen if we stayed there. If we waited. We would have a row.
I suddenly felt a bit claustrophobic and the thought of being shut up in a car with him, on a hot summer’s day...what would we talk about? What could we talk about? Chris hated uncomfortable silences. He would try and make conversation and every conversation, like all roads leading to Rome, all led to the same thing...The way I felt, all sorts of stuff could come out, stuff I knew, or thought I knew, I’d regret saying...Either that, or we’d be sat there in a palpable, embarrassing silence and it would be like one of those tumbleweed moments in old films.
“I think we should get out and walk and see if we can find help or try and get a signal on our mobiles” I said.
He frowned. “And leave the car? Someone could vandalise it or break in”.
“It’s a heap of shit, anyway”.
“That’s not the attitude. Anything happens to it, they’ll probably charge us”.
“Well, we have to do something. We can’t split up. It wouldn’t be safe and one of us could get lost on our own”. There’s a joke there somewhere, I thought, with cynical irony.
“We’d have to leave our luggage behind, too. It could get nicked”.
“We only have a few clothes and books and stuff. The most important stuff, our phones, your wallet and my purse, we’ll keep on us, in our pockets. I have to do something. I can’t just sit here and wait. And bake. It’s hot”.
“But go where? That field is private property”. He nodded his head in the direction of one of the keep-out signs on our right. “Some farmer or carrot-cruncher could come out and take pot-shots at us with their shotgun for trespassing”.
“Don’t be silly and stereotyping” I said. “I’m a carrot-cruncher, remember?” But he was right. I could tell we would get no help there. The sign wasn’t friendly. Like the rest of them, it had harsh red letters on a stark white background. “KEEP OUT! PRIVATE PROPERTY!” It looked so incongruous to its surroundings. There was a disturbing kind of...malignancy...to it.
He shrugged. “Well, where else? Not along the road. It would be too dangerous with these narrow roads”.
I scoffed. “You don’t need to tell me. They’re a bugger to navigate in a car”.
“Well, where then?”
I looked back over at the forest, like I was acting on some kind of instinct. The leaves were waving me on in another breeze. I got the shiver again. I thought of the little girl and thought I could see her face, smiling and laughing...It probably wasn’t a good idea but, I don’t know, I had had such a hateful time of it, I just wanted to remember what it was like to be happy. “We’ll go in there” I said and nodded my head towards the forest.
He looked at it and curled his lip. “No way. Absolutely not. We won’t get a signal in there and we could get lost, too. You told me about it yourself, about when you used to go in there as a kid. There’s no real footpath or way through it. It’s just dense wood”.
Looking at the forest now, I was surprised that the land hadn’t been sold off like everything else. I suppose, even though it wasn’t the most user-friendly place, it was a local landmark and there probably would have been a protest if it had. “But there’s a housing development on the other side. One of the estates in Ravenford that the forest borders. They put it up in the sixties, during the London Overspill. There’s bound to be someone who’ll let us use their phone and we can call the car rental company or a taxi. Or we’ll probably be able to pick up a signal there”.
“But we’d have to walk through the whole thing. It must go on for miles...”
“Well, I’m sure you’re a big and strong enough lad to manage it” I said and surprised myself by giving him a playful tap on the thigh.
He looked down. I think he was surprised, too. Had it been the first time I’d touched him since...
“Anyway...” I found myself saying, followed by an awkward cough. “It’s probably miles in diameter, but probably not to walk through it. I wouldn’t have thought it would take more than a couple of hours or two”.
He raised an eyebrow at me which made me want to smack him. I resisted the urge to narrow my eyes at him.
He shook his head. “I don’t like it”.
“Please, Chris...I can’t stay here. I just can’t”. I was pleased with myself. There wasn’t a pleading tone to my voice. It just held firm. “We may meet someone in there who can help. There may be people who live there. People who look after the forest or something”.
He gave a resigned sigh and nodded his head. “Okay, then”.
“Thanks” I said. I tried to make it sound as friendly as possible.
We both got out and shut the doors.
The summer son was blazing. It seared at my exposed skin, especially the back of my neck. I felt a little overdressed but at least we were, as it had turned out, dressed sensibly for a trek through a forest, both in our blue jeans, which should cover our legs well, I thought, and wearing our white trainers. Chris had a black t-shirt on and I had a white sleeveless blouse top on, which might present us some problems, I thought, leaving our arms bare but it was too hot to cover up. I got a hairband out of my jeans pocket and wrapped my long, brown hair (hair that Chris had once loved to caress in tender affection, and which I had now been considering getting cut short) into a ponytail as I figured it would get on my nerves, flapping about as we walked.
Chris locked up the car. Then we both stared up at the trees.
It was quiet. Eerily so, in a way. In that moment, it almost felt like the world had ended and we were the only two people left alive. The silence was so all-consuming. Not so much as the tweet of a bird or the sound of a tractor in the distance. And the trees looked so tall and big...There was something, now I was right up close to them, defiant about them. “Come and have go if you think you’re hard enough”, it felt like they were saying. I mean they looked beautiful enough but I suddenly got this strange feeling, like I was an intruder about to trespass in some alien environment. They were so thick and dense that it was difficult to find an ideal spot to actually enter the place. If you were not careful, you could be scratched to bits by the branches. I looked at my bare arms and then back at the trees. Doubt started to gnaw at me and I found I wanted to pat my stomach again but stopped myself.
“We’ll be alright. After all, we’ve got each other, haven’t we?” I found myself saying.
He looked at me then and I couldn’t read the look in his eyes for a moment. There was what I can only describe as a...hesitant yearning...in them.
Do I love you, I found myself thinking in that moment. Do I really? I mean, is it normal to laugh when your husband injures himself on a car dashboard?
Time seemed to stand still for a second and I stared back and I wanted to smile at him but then, then I saw her face in my mind and I turned my head away and stared back at the trees.
Warm skin brushed my fingers. He wanted me to hold his hand.
I strode off, swaying my hand away from him and made for the place that had the widest opening. “Come on. We better get going” I said and marched into the dark and silent green. I didn’t turn around and look back.
Once in the woods, I relaxed a little. I could see now there was ample room to move about and the trees didn’t hem you in as much as I had worried they would. I sniffed the air. The scent of the woods was heavenly. Fresh and earthy. Wood mixed with grass mixed with mud. Heady. Wholesome. The kind of natural smell that feels good and right. I found myself sigh with actual pleasure as I looked up at the canopy of branches and leaves above my head. The light twinkled through, trying its best to illuminate us. It was still so quiet. I did hear a bird chirp somewhere off in the distance, though, but that was all. The little girl’s memories came to me, again. I was hiding behind trees while Dad pretended to look for me. Mum was telling me stories of fairies that lived and played in the trees. I started to rub at the bark of one of them and the rough texture tickled my fingertips. I realised I was smiling.
Only Chris had to spoil it. He bustled passed me, clomping his great feet on the ground and kicking away a dead branch with a sharp kick. Always has to be the one in front. Like I say, typical bloke. He stood stock still in front of me a few metres, like an immovable object, with his hands stuck on his hips, staring off into the distance. “So, which way?”
Broken from my reverie, I felt a flush of annoyance. Resisting the urge to jab two fingers up at him, I looked around me. I had hoped, when I first entered the forest, that something would look familiar. I had hoped I would see something I would remember but it was so long ago and it was just an unflinching mass of trees that it had been a forlorn hope. “I don’t know...” I said. I realised there was the hint of apology in my voice and I got mad at myself.
He let out one of his heavy sighs. I gritted my teeth. Everything he seemed to be doing was grating on me. I began to get scared, then, if this had been such a good idea after all. “Come on, o fearless leader, this was your idea”. I could have cut through his sarcasm with a knife.
I decided to ignore it. It was probably sensible in the circumstances. He was probably just sabre-rattling, anyway. He didn’t like being here and had to save face. “Suppose we just head straight. We keep going straight on, we’ll come to the other side, surely?” I suggested.
“Well, in the absence of anything better...”
I got a pang of warning again then, when he spoke like that. I found myself shivering, but this time not in pleasure. Goose pimples actually broke out on my arms. And when I looked around, the trees and bushes within the forest just stared back at me with supreme indifference. I realised then, in this dark and other-worldly place, and in the extreme circumstances we found ourselves in, it wouldn’t take much to tip us both over the edge. Would that be so bad, a stray thought came back to me? I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of the forest and that seemed to relax me.
“Come on then” said Chris, sounding like a Scoutmaster and he went marching off ahead, in front. Typical bloke, yet again. I found myself hoping he’d trip over a tree root.
We walked in silence. I think he must have realised, too, that we were on the cusp of something if we weren’t careful.
The sponginess of the turfy ground felt pleasant underfoot, almost like walking on a bouncy castle. The smell was still strong and potent and tickled my nostrils pink. And everywhere was just green and brown. This must have been what it was like when the world was young, I thought. I found I would pat the trees and caress the leaves with my fingertips every so often. It felt a little weird to not hear any sound of modernity whatsoever. Still, it was still so quiet and I liked it. Occasionally you’d hear something scampering around in the undergrowth. Like a kid on a camping trip, I found myself wondering what type of animal it was.
Chris turned around at one point and gave me a nervous look. “Do they have wild boar out here?”
I found myself smiling. I couldn’t help it. Despite everything, I had always found his nervousness adorable. At least that hadn’t changed. “No. Not that I know of. You’re thinking of the Forest of Dean”.
Something went scurrying through some leaves again and he actually jumped. “What about adders?”
I shook my head. “You really need to get out of London more, Chris”.
He gave me a sheepish laugh. I was reminded of old times again and Hampton Court.
I must admit that the novelty of walking through the woods soon started to wear off, though. My feet started to ache after a while and the air was close. Although we were shaded, it was still hot and uncomfortable. I did start to break a sweat and my armpits felt damp and my skin felt sticky. With no path, the branches of the trees would poke and prod at you and my bare skin started to feel a little sore in places. After a while, I started to feel anxious about us getting lost, too. We had started to walk in a straight line but the trees got in your way and cut you off and forced you to go around them and you soon found yourself meandering this way and that, going off course. I found myself remembering my Mum’s stories, for some reason, and, as I looked at the trees, I began to wonder if they really were possessed by mischievous sprites and whether they were up to no good and taking the mickey out of us. A shiver shuddered through me again.
How long have we been going, I thought, after a while? I found myself patting my stomach. Chris clocked me doing it at one point and soon stared straight off ahead when he realised I noticed. His face creased into a wistful expression.
He kept getting his mobile out occasionally in the vain hope of finding a signal but got nothing. It’s no cliché to say that the coverage in rural areas is shocking. It’s one of the reasons I was glad to move to London.
Eventually, Chris started trying to make small talk. I knew he would. It was inevitable. It’s his way of coping. Like I say, he hates uncomfortable silences. Also, whenever we found ourselves in a tricky situation, he often used to like to provide distractions for me, especially whenever I was down in the dumps. If I had had a rotten day at work, he would always crack a joke to cheer me up. I’d come home, tell him, offload my crappy day on to him and he would just smile and snort out a belter and I’d feel better. Or that time when Mum was ill, he would take me out somewhere after visiting in the hospital: pub, restaurant, fish and chips out of the bag in a parked car one time, anything to take my mind off it. That was just Chris. It was one of the reasons why I’d fallen in love with him in the first place. It felt like a lifetime ago, thinking on it, then.
“Getting a bit clammy. Good job we brought plenty of clothes with us. When we eventually get to the cottage, I’ll have a nice long shower, I think...”
Don’t you dare try and suggest that we both take one together, I thought, but knew he wouldn’t be so bold. I just nodded with disinterest.
Undeterred, he carried on. “It is pretty here. I can see why you liked coming here”.
I just nodded, again.
Still, he continued. “If nothing else, I’ll be glad to get away from the office for a few days. Work has been slow lately” he said. “Not many big contracts coming in. There’s been rumours of job cuts. Not in my department. Management always needs the creative types in advertising. But they reckon quite a few of the admin and secretarial staff may get laid off...” I think he realised straightaway that he’d said the wrong thing because he made this gagging sound in his throat.
I didn’t say anything. I was busy anyway, trying to avoid the branches of two wayward trees from snagging my top.
He tried again. “What about you? How are things at the school?”
I shook my head. His question had been pure panic, anyway. The conversational equivalent of a drowning person flailing in water. ”It’s the summer holidays, Chris”.
“Oh, yeah. Sorry. I forgot for a minute there. Heh heh”. He was nervous. We both were. Still, I wished he hadn’t mentioned the school.
I like teaching in a primary school, I really do. I always wanted a job where I felt I was making a difference. Only, him mentioning it made me think of the kids and thinking of them and their smiles and their grumps and their silliness made me touch my stomach. He winced when he saw me doing it and shut up, then. I found myself getting angry. He’d made my thoughts go to where I didn’t want them to. I wanted to lash out and say something, burn the anger away. So, I stopped myself and took a deep breath.
“I’m stopping for a bit. My feet hurt” I said.
“I think we should keep moving. The sooner we get to the other side the better”.
“I’m stopping if you don’t mind”.
He shrugged. “If we even get to the other side, that is” he mumbled.
I ignored him and leaned against a nearby tree, only the rough tickly texture of the bark had lost its magic and its appeal to me now. Still, I found myself staring at it all the same. I saw that a couple of lovers had been through this way because they had carved their initials in the bark, inside a heart with an arrow through it. “G.A 4 B.C”. I wondered who they were. I wondered if they still felt the same about each other now. My fingertips traced the outline of it. I looked over at Chris and for the second time that day, wondered if I really still loved him.
“Ready? We better get going”. He cut into my thoughts.
I gave a sullen nod and we marched off. He didn’t try and make conversation this time. Probably had learned his lesson. We walked on in definite silence.
After a while, I could see he was starting to get pissed off with it all. His face and eyes took on a sour look, like a toddler in a tantrum, and his lips were stretched tight and thin.
The heat started to get to me and my feet soon started to ache again and I wanted to stop but thought it was probably best to try and plough on, even though this was starting to get heavy going. Sometimes it felt like you were going uphill and the backs of my legs would start to pull, other times it felt like you were going downhill and you felt a little like you were in free-fall. The trees were just everywhere and it felt like they were deliberately huddled around me. I found myself remembering my Mum’s stories again, making me shiver up more goose pimples when I looked at them. I know it sounds mad but I really started to feel like the place was alive and had a mind and a will of its own. Something scurried through the undergrowth at one point and I know it sounds crazy but the rustling noise it made sounded like a nearby sycamore was laughing at us. And all the while we kept meandering this way and that, off course, almost like we were being manipulated into going the way the forest wanted us to.
Eventually, we reached a crossing where several empty spaces in the trees forked off in all directions but, of course, not straight ahead. That was barred by a massive oak that had fallen over. Even if we had managed to clamber over its trunk, beyond it the trees were so thick and dense that there was no way you could go through them. So we had to make a choice of where to go, even though that meant seriously abandoning our “straight-ahead” policy.
“Oh for God’s sake!” Chris whined when he saw it, sounding like a petulant child. He sighed. “I’ve got to do something” he said to himself, with an intransigent shake of the head. He cupped his hands to his mouth. “Is there anyone out there?! Hello?! Hello?!” He must have shouted himself hoarse.
“Feel better?” I said, after a while, and after heavy silence had been the only response.
“At least I’m doing something practical instead of making snide remarks” he shot back.
“Ooh. Colour me impressed”.
This was it. I knew it. I could practically taste it. Trapped in this place, getting lost, hot and irritable... The tempers were fraying... The battle lines were being drawn up. But the situation wasn’t hopeless enough yet, not for an all-out row. I knew he wanted to say shut up. It was written all over his face. His skin had flushed a little but for some reason, he thought better of it and marched off to the left. Like I say, the situation wasn’t desperate enough yet, I suppose. I didn’t know if I felt relieved or annoyed.
“Oh? So, we aren’t going to discuss the best way to go, then?” I said and shrugged my arms at him.
He turned around. “Does it bloody matter?” he snapped back and then turned around and continued to storm off.
I shrugged and followed him, resisting the strong urge to walk off in the other direction.
As before the forest seemed to force you to go the way it wanted you to go. You’d try and head straight, (or what you thought was straight. It was difficult in all that green and wood and branches to really get your bearings), but a tree or clump of trees would get in your way and you’d be forced to go around it and out of your way. I can’t remember how long we tramped on and on for. My feet began to weep with a nagging ache, almost pleading with me to stop, and my body felt slick with sweat. This far into the forest, everything seemed denser, even the air, which felt thicker and heavier and oppressive. It didn’t smell as fresh as before, either, like the smell had gone off somehow. Gone rotten, almost. That’s how it felt like to me, anyway. Everything just all looked the same which didn’t help because you felt you weren’t getting anywhere. Neither of us spoke.
And then, after we had been trudging for ages, I saw it and got this gnawing sensation immediately in the pit of my stomach.
Just up the way, on a tree in front, carved into the skin of its bark, was a heart with an arrow through it. And the letters: “G.A 4 B.C”.
Now, of course, they could have carved another one. That was a real possibility. But I knew they hadn’t. I just knew. That feeling in your gut, again. It looked exactly the same to me.
“Um...Chris...” I found myself saying. “I’ve...um...That carving on the tree. I saw it earlier. We’ve...” It was enough to make you feel sick. “We’ve gone round in a circle”.
“WHAT?” It was like a cry of pain. “Oh for fuck’s sake!” he said and leaned against a nearby tree. He slumped to the ground and rested on his knees, massaging his temples with his fingertips.
I looked at him, feeling all sorry for himself and it made me angry. He didn’t deserve it, I thought. Not after what he had done. And, what with one thing and another and feeling adrift and cut off in that ancient place, I couldn’t help myself. A funny thought occurred to me and I had to say it. “When you think about it, this is a bit like a metaphor for our marriage”. I gave a little laugh. It sounded a bit weird.
“Oh, don’t! Don’t bloody start all that, just don’t...” He continued to massage his face. “We’re in enough of a mess as it is”.
I shrugged. “Well, we wouldn’t be if you’d hired a decent car from a reputable company instead of being a cheapskate”. My voice had just the right amount of sardonic malice in it. It made me swell with a kind of vindictive pride.
I could feel it, though. It was coming...
“Oh, yeah? And whose idea was it to come into this fucking forest in the first place?!”
The tempers had frayed. The situation was hopeless enough now. We were lost. Trapped, even.
The storm, that had been threatening all afternoon, finally broke.
“I’m sure if you had Clarissa with you, she’d have probably found a better solution. After all, she does things for you I can’t these days” said a strained voice. I realised it was my own.
He let out an actual growl and got to his feet. “I knew it! I knew you’d bloody bring that all up before long. It’s been like waiting for the axe to fall. You can’t help yourself, can you, Carrie? Any chance you get, you have to rake it all up and beat me up with it”. I noticed that his pupils had seriously dilated now and his skin had gone a strange, pale colour.
I just shrugged, though. What right did he have to make himself out to be a victim? “Oh, I’m sorry. My husband screws another woman and I’m not supposed to say anything?”
He shook his head with a real exhausted exasperation. “But you said, you promised you wouldn’t keep...” He gave a weary sigh and ran a hand through his hair. “Look, I’m not going to pretend it didn’t happen and I know what I did was wrong. I know that. I hate myself and it kills me to think of what I’ve done to us but you took me back and you promised if we were going to move forward as a couple that you weren’t going to keep throwing it back in my face! If we’re going to make this work, you can’t keep hitting me over the head with it and reminding me of my mistake every time you feel upset with me!”
His reasonableness and his logic just made me more cross. No way was he going to make me the arsehole here. And was what it he’d said? “If we’re going to make this work”...Suddenly, in the ponderous silence and heated green of the forest, and the fraught tension of our situation, I wondered if that was what I really wanted? I let out my outrage. “So, what, I’m just supposed to sweep it under the carpet and forget how it makes me feel? I can’t. I keep seeing it, picturing it...” I closed my eyes up tight, then opened them again. “You went with another woman, Chris! For God’s sake!”
He held his arms out in an open gesture. “I’m sorry, Carrie. I am. I really am. I hurt you and it makes me feel like I’m shit but I...I’m trying, alright. I’m trying. What do you want me to do? You tell me. What do you want me to do?” And I knew. I knew what he was going to say then. “How can I make this right?” But he didn’t say it. For some reason, he stopped himself. “We can’t keep doing this” he said, instead. He sounded tearful.
I didn’t answer. I just turned my back on him. I couldn’t stand the pleading insistence in his eyes. It was too raw, too close to the nerve. I saw the tree with the initials carved into it and felt like it was mocking me. My mother’s stories about the things supposed to haunt and live in the trees came to mind, yet again and I felt the whole place was mocking me in that instant. I find myself getting properly angry. So angry that I no longer wanted to hear his excuses. I was tired of them.
“It was just a drunken mistake, that’s all...You know that. I didn’t mean....” he said, with a dry-sounding sob.
“She always had a thing for you”.
“I know but...”
“You told me that she was always bending over to pick things up in front of you or leaning over your desk when she had to drop off paperwork”.
“I know but I told you because, well, I didn’t take it seriously. I mean, we laughed about it”.
Suddenly, the thought of laughing about somebody else’s issues made me feel this overwhelming sense of guilt. Even for her. And that made me even more resentful. “It stopped being funny” I said. I think what hurt the most is that I hadn’t taken Clarissa seriously because I trusted Chris. I thought he wouldn’t do anything like that. I thought I knew him. I thought he would have looked beyond her blond hair that came straight out of a bottle and her face that’s had work done to it. I saw the twist of her lips at one of Chris’ office parties once. No way was that natural. “Were you always harbouring a thing for her, too?” I found myself saying.
“God, we’ve been over this. We had a row, like we always do nowadays ever since...” But he stopped dead, then.
I felt myself tense up and my hand rub my stomach.
“We had a row” he said, after a hard swallow, “and I went to the pub to get pissed because I was mad at you and she was there and had had a few as well and, I don’t know, I was angry, felt sorry for her, like I say, they’re talking of making redundancies with the secretarial staff and she’s been so lonely since her Eddie left her and she was showing me some attention and...”
“Flattered your ego, you mean”.
“Oh God, we’re really doing this, now of all times...” He sighed. I turned back round and looked at him. He had this curious look on his face that threw me for a second. It was like he was sizing up what to say next but I didn’t get the feeling it was to try and win me round. “You know what? It was nice to have a conversation with a woman who had feelings for me that didn’t end in a row”. I just raised my eyebrows at him. He knew he’d said the wrong thing but I think he wanted to keep digging. It had been a hell of day and we were in a desperate situation and I don’t think, judging by the flashing angry look growing on his face, he cared. “You know all this. I don’t know what you want from me...” Then he looked down at the earthy ground and mumbled something to himself. It sounded like “Wish I’d never started this ruddy thing” but I couldn’t be sure because it didn’t really make sense.
“I took you back, Chris, because I believed you when you said it was a mistake. I love you and I wasn’t about to lose you on top of...” I patted my stomach. “...on top of everything else...But that doesn’t mean I can just get over it. I see her with you, in my mind. See her touching you and you...touching her...See you doing things that should be special and private between us and...it’s just so wrong”.
He didn’t answer straightaway. He turned his back on me and wrapped his arms around himself. “What a fucking mess...” he whispered.
I looked away and stared at the forest, hoping to find something to try and zone out on to forget the cruelty of my situation, even for just a second. It had never seemed quieter in that moment. The silence was eerie again, like it had been before, just before we first entered it. It felt all-pervading. It felt like a heavy weight pressing down on me. Suddenly it was broken by a summer wind blowing through, causing the branches to make this creaking sound. I felt I was being mocked again because, in that moment, it really bloody sounded like laughter. I felt so hot, as well. My throat was dry and there was such a gnawing ache in my stomach that I could feel nausea creeping up my throat. A tight band had formed on my head and I was a bit dizzy, too. “Was she better than me?” I blurted out. My lips were dry, so I licked them.
“Oh God” he said and turned with his arms still wrapped around himself, like he was giving himself a cuddle. “Don’t go there. Don’t go anywhere near there, for God’s sake”.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ then” I said, with a disgusted scoff.
“You’re a real piece of work, you know that?” He let out another weary sigh. Eventually, he spoke. “It was...different, that’s all” he burbled.
“What the bloody hell is that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know...It was different, that’s all”.
The forest suddenly felt like it was spinning around me and I thought my legs would give out. There was a dull ringing in my ears but, even so, I could still hear the creaking of the trees in the wind and the whole inhuman place around us still felt like it was laughing at me. The nausea gnawed away even more. Those words...Did he even realise how horrible what he’d just said was...“I can’t do this anymore, Chris. That’s it. We’re over”.
His face was bright scarlet, yet tears were at the corners of his eyes. But I didn’t care. I just turned my back on him.
“You know what your trouble is, Carrie? You’re so bloody selfish. You think you were the only one that got screwed up by what happened. I’m hurting too, you know. Do you ever think about that? Do you think you were the only one who lost something?” He sniffed a heavy, wet sniff. “No, you don’t. You just shut yourself away from me. What do you want me to do?”
I shrugged. “Be a husband”.
“I’ve tried being a husband but you won’t let me...” He stopped and let out a large sigh. “You know what? You need help, Carrie. You’re not well. You shut me out, you row all the time...”
“Well, my husband did sleep with someone else...”
He ignored me and talked over me. “You keep rubbing your stomach all the time for God’s sake. I don’t think you even realise you’re doing it”.
I looked down. My fingertips were kneading and pressing my stomach like crazy, like it was a lump of dough. I didn’t bother this time to pull them away.
“For God’s sake, say something!” said Chris, his voice really raised now.
I knew he was riled but, like I say, in that moment, I just didn’t care anymore. I didn’t answer.
“It’s your bloody fault we’re lost as well. Carrie could only think of herself as usual.” His voice became a cold snarl. I could actually hear the spittle slosh in his mouth. “Do you know what, you practically drove me into her arms?” His breathing had become a bit laboured. The storm had turned into a tempest. “You want to know what it was like, do you? Do you? It was the best I ever had. She made me come and I made her come. And you’re right. I wish she was here now!”
Ten months of misery came out of me then. I started to tremble, then I turned around, walked up to him and slapped him, hard, across the face.
He didn’t say anything, nor even move. He just had this dejected look on his face and kept his head hung to one side.
“You bastard!” I said to him. Actually, it was more of a scream. “You know what I went through! It wasn’t you that...” I choked a little. I still couldn’t say it. I knew, though. When he had shouted I’d had a moment of clarity. I knew in that moment before I slapped him, looking at his seething hate-filled face, why he’d done what he’d done. He blamed me for it all and had wanted to get back at me.
I slapped him, again, then, as I realised that. Again, he didn’t move.
“You utter shit!” I sobbed. Tears prickled at my eyes. I felt like I was going to throw up. I looked around me and suddenly felt very hemmed in, like an animal caught in a trap. The forest overwhelmed me in that moment. Tree after tree after tree seemed to whirl around me and were just everywhere. I needed to get away. Get away from him. Get out of that cloying, alien place.
I turned and ran.
“Carrie!” he called after me. “Carrie, for God’s sake, come back! You’ll get lost! I’m sorry! Carrie!”
I didn’t look back. I just bombed along as if my life depended on it.
My feet thumped the ground, hard, and on a couple of occasions slipped a little on the soft, grassy forest floor. Branches twanged and stabbed at my face, too. I got a scratch at one point. My right cheek felt sore and wet. Still, I ran. At one point, I realised my hairband had come loose and my long hair trailed about, this way and that, occasionally slapping my forehead and cheeks but I didn’t care. Still, I ran. Yet more of the trees poked and prodded at me. I got that feeling once more, like they were alive. At one point, a branch of one tree clutched at my shoulder and stuck there and wouldn’t move. I found I hated the insentient touch of it and shouted out in horrified annoyance. “Get off!” I snarled. It must have been heard all over the forest. I shoved outwards and it broke off and went flinging away into the distance. I ran on. My breathing became hot and shallow. A stitch started to burn in my side but I didn’t care, just kept running. I had to get away.
Except...except it was difficult, like the forest didn’t want me to leave. Like before, I would have to stumble around things and couldn’t keep to a set path. My adrenaline rush soon ebbed away and I was left with aching feet and a stinging pain in my side.
I pulled up. It was hopeless. I was in a small clearing with a grassy floor but all around me was just tree with no exit in sight.
I pulled up sharp and bent over, breathing heavily in and out, in and out. I wheezed and sighed. Tears dappled my eyes and my nose felt sniffy. I touched my wet cheek and looked at a small speck of blood on my fingers.
“Oh God” I sighed. My other hand rubbed my stomach something chronic.
Eventually, I sank to the forest floor and wiped at my face and eyes and continued to breathe in and out. It was very heavy. I wiped my nose on my hand as well.
“Carrie” said a husky whisper, suddenly, from behind me. Chris. My husband. He sounded out of breath. He must have followed all the noise I had made. I wondered why he had bothered as he obviously hated me so much.
“Fuck off” I uttered.
“Carrie...I...I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say any of that”.
I didn’t bother to dignify it with a response. I just rubbed my stomach.
“It’s this situation...being stuck in this place...being lost...it’s got to me. That’s all. I just, I got a bit carried away. A bit angry and tense. I’m sorry. I really am”.
“I don’t believe you” I sniffed.
“I know”. His voice sounded sad, grief-stricken almost, like my words had stung him worse than the slaps I’d given him. “Whether you believe me or not, I am genuinely worried about you. You need...we need...help...counselling or something. I’m sorry”.
I got up, made a harsh sniff and turned and looked at him. I stared hard into his eyes, into his sad, innocent-looking, dewy eyes, which I had once sighed at and got lost in. “You blame me, don’t you? You went with her just to get back at me, didn’t you?”
“Oh God...” he moaned and ran his hand through his hair. He stared at the floor. He looked like he wanted to throw up himself then. He swallowed hard. “This has got out of hand. I’ve let things get too far. I never meant for...I should never have started this”. He gave several vehement shakes of the head to himself and closed his eyes, like he was in pain.
“I thought it was the best you ever had”.
“Carrie...” His voice sounded funny. He looked up at me and his face had gone so pale, I really thought he would throw up now. “I’m sorry. I...” He coughed. “I...made it up. I never slept with Clarissa.” His lips trembled and his hands shook.
My head started to spin again and I felt like I would fall over this time but managed to right myself. My mouth felt really dry now, though, and I literally thirsted for a drink of water. I didn’t know what to say. It was like one of those dreams where you go to speak and no words come out. “What?” I eventually gasped. “You...you made it up?” My voice was a croak. “You made up that you slept with another woman?”
He just gave a sheepish, pleading nod.
“What...Why...That doesn’t... Whatever lunatic reason for?” I shook my head. I thought I had it figured, though. “You bastard. You hate me that much. Wanted to hurt me. Wanted me to suffer because of what happened”.
“No...” he said and waved his hands out in a placatory gesture. “God, no.”
“God, you’re sick. That’s sick. And you say I need help”.
“Please, Carrie, I...”
“God, this is worse! It would have been better if you had slept with someone else. I’m married to someone who plays bloody mind games...”
“Please Carrie, let me...let me explain...” he bleated, sounding like a wounded animal.
When I looked at his face I recognised the earnest expression on it. It was the same look on his face he’d had when I’d been in hospital and the doctors had left it to him to tell me what had happened. It stopped me.
He took my silence as meaning he could explain and, as he spoke, he kept gesticulating with a slow wave of his hands, which he had put together like he was saying a prayer. “I did go to the pub that night and Clarissa was there. She was pissed as a fart and, well, made a pass at me which I blew off but...it got me to thinking...You see...I...I didn’t know what to do...” He sighed and rubbed at his neck, as if he had a cramp. “You were hurting. I mean, you still are. You were in pain. You wouldn’t let me help you. You wouldn’t let me in. I really didn’t know what to do. And I knew you blamed yourself and were probably tormenting yourself because I know you. You think you have to rest the weight of the world on your shoulders when there are two of us to take the burden”. He swallowed hard. “But what happened with Clarissa gave me an idea. I thought...Oh God, it was so stupid...” He ran his hand through his hair, again. “I thought that if you had something else to, I don’t know, focus on, focus all your anger, aggression and pain on...it might help...might distract you from...from...” And he swallowed hard again. “From the other thing”. He looked sheepish as hell. He rubbed at an arm in an awkward movement. “I’m sorry. I thought I was doing the right thing. I figured if you hated me, then you wouldn’t hate yourself”.
I felt numb. Insensate.
“Say something” he whined.
“You..” I managed to stagger out. “You made me hate you, made me think bad of you, just to...Oh, Chris. That’s ridiculous”.
He shrugged. “I didn’t know what else to do”. And then he looked up and gave me a fixed and meaningful stare. “I love you Carrie” he said.
And I knew it was the truth. Not because of the earnest expression in his eyes. Not even because on some level I think I had always felt there would be an explanation, which is probably why I’d taken him back in the first place, but because it was such a Chris thing to do. It was the fish and chips in the car and the dirty jokes after work all over again.
And then tears welled up and my vision became blurred with them and then they burned thick trails down my cheeks. “Oh Chris...” And finally, after all this time, in the silence of the forest and with the obvious love on his face and in his eyes and the shock of his revelation, I finally choked out the words. “I lost our baby!” I cried.
My hand rubbed my stomach and suddenly I was no longer in the forest anymore. My mind took me to elsewhere. Instead of the natural green haze of the forest, all I could see was the clinical sight of my hospital room. Instead of smelling the lovely summer smell of country air, all I could smell in my mind was the iron, salty smell of blood. Instead of a gentle summer breeze on my cheek, all I could think of was the warmness, seeping down my legs. And the terrible pain that felt like my insides were dying. And all I could think of was the poor little thing that never got a chance...My hand rubbed my stomach like mad...
“Oh, Carrie... It wasn’t your fault. It was one of those cruel, terrible, disgusting things that Life throws at you. You did nothing wrong” he said and came towards me with his arms out wide. I didn’t need to think about it. I rushed into them and allowed him to wrap himself around me, after his hand pulled mine away from my stomach with a gentle tug. Feeling him around me, for the first time in God knows how long, it felt so good and right. He kissed my cheek where it had got cut. I could feel everything welling up in me and I shook. “You need to do this, Carrie. I know it hurts but you need to grieve” he said, his voice whispering a gentle whisper in my ear. I felt his beard stubble scratch my skin and realised, now I was up real close, that he had put on that aftershave he knows I like. I think that finally did it. I convulsed and ten months of pain and remorse shuddered through me. I didn’t know if I would ever stop crying. My cheeks started to feel sore and stung. My nose burned. I felt warm wetness on my neck and I realised Chris was crying too. We slumped to the earthy, soft, grassy floor and just knelt there, in one another’s arms.
Neither of us spoke for ages.
Eventually, after God knows how long and until we’d probably cried ourselves to dehydration, we parted and just looked at one another. He gave me a thin, helpful smile.
I looked up at the trees and, for some reason, they seemed to have regained their former splendour to me. The lush verdant green of the tree tops blew in a summer breeze and the leaves felt like they were waving at me again. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to feel the soft breath of the summer wind this time. It felt truly lovely. I shivered a little but this time with pleasure again. It carried a lovely fresh and clean smell on the air and I remembered my Mum’s stories again and wondered. I half expected to hear laughter...
And then I did hear laughter. It was gleeful, mischievous and happy. The shock of hearing it made me open my eyes and dart them around the place with total fright. I wondered if I might have gone doolally.
“Chris? Can you hear...?” I half didn’t want to hear the answer.
“Yeah” he said, with a frown, and got to his feet. “It seems to be coming from over there”. And he walked towards a set of trees on the opposite side of the clearing, twisted through a gap and disappeared from view.
“Well, bloody hell!” I heard him utter in amazement, a few seconds later. “Carrie! Come and see!”
I didn’t want to at first. All sorts of weird fancies ran through my mind. Still, I trusted him again and wandered over in the direction he had gone in. I twisted through the narrow gap and the leaves tickled my face.
“Just keep walking straight ahead, through the trees” he yelled back and so I followed in the direction of his voice. The laughter got louder.
The first thing that struck me was the light. Then the open air. And the clear, blue sky.
Stood in a massive gap between the trees, Chris was beaming at me. “Look!” he said and pointed.
I looked over. A trio of little children, a boy and two girls, were playing and laughing in a play park. There was a slide and swings and a roundabout and a woman, their mum presumably, was sat on some benches, smiling.
And beyond the park, lay the houses. Lots of them. The red-brick terraces stared back at us and felt almost like a truculent finger sticking itself up at us and the forest, showing off its modernity and urbanity.
“We’ve made it through, Carrie”. I looked at Chris and he was smiling like one of the children.
“Would you have told me?” I found myself saying.
“If we hadn’t got lost in this place...would you have told me the truth?”
He opened his mouth to speak but then closed it. His eyebrows creased into a frown. “Do you know what? I don’t know”.
I found myself smiling back at him and shook my head with mock despair. “Come on” I said. “Let’s get out of here”.
We walked off in the direction of the park.
I felt his warm fingers brush against mine again and this time I let them entwine together. And we walked toward the park, hand in hand, like two young lovers coming out of a maze they had got lost in.