It was the window that originally sold the flat to him. Not just for its height and the golden flood of light it let in, but for the way it framed a single tree opposite, one of the dense perimeter that fringed the park, easily a hundred years old and getting on for a hundred feet. Cut off from their context, the tree’s twisted limbs, heavy foliage and the dark spaces beyond suggested something far more wild and untamed than a small suburban park, though the slightest shift in perspective would bring railings and dog-walkers into view.
He’d seen the view in all its seasons over the six years he’d lived in the flat, knew it intimately, and could tell the year had passed the point of no return. Summer’s hyperreal greens had begun their long shift towards red, the first few fallen leaves blowing as early warning signs. The trees, receiving their data from deep in the earth and high in the air, followed the rhythms they’d been obeying since the whole area was the parkland of the old house, one of whose corners Francis’s flat occupied.
His home, high-ceilinged, wooden floorboarded, was carefully organised, spotlessly clean. His daily rituals were maintained to preserve order and banish chaos. Anything broken or decayed was immediately replaced or repaired. Francis took a similar approach to his appearance and habits. When confronted by the first signs of baldness in his mid-20s, he had bitten the bullet and cropped his hair to the bare minimum. His posture was ramrod-straight, kept so by a carefully-observed fitness routine to counteract the effects of working at a screen. He took care to cook from scratch, aware how easy it was to let oneself go as a single man; the siren call of the takeaway and the off-licence was always there, but he gained a certain pleasure from feeling that temptation and resisting it. Now sliding towards 50, this season when the air cooled and quietened felt familiar to him. He was distantly aware of his life emptying out, like the end of a party, airy spaces and hard surfaces asserting their presence as the faces and noise that had filled them departed, silences settling in their wake.
Francis had made a lot of money from a piece of software he’d designed a few years back, catching the exact moment when real cash followed the dotcom froth, so he didn’t really need to work. He still sat at his desk, positioned at the optimum distance from the window to appreciate the illusion of the tree, for a good few hours a day tapping away at one of his Macs, undertaking a little consultancy work for the company who’d bought him out. But if pressed, he would have to admit he’d been sidelined. The digital world he’d been a pioneer in had got exponentially faster, child geniuses shifting paradigms a dozen times a week. More and more of his time he knew was spent staring out of the window or attending to the demands of keeping the flat spotless, everything in its place, entropy held at bay.
George had suggested he join the ranks of the park’s dog walkers, but the prospect of some slobbering, demanding, unpredictable animal marauding through the calm and order did not attract him. Indeed he’d always done his best to keep George’s slobbering, demanding, unpredictable children out of his home as well, preferring to meet them in the park, where they could burn off their energy while only destroying public property. He saw his cousin every month or so, and they usually managed to exchange a few lines of conversation in between George’s efforts to maintain parental authority; a kind of forcefield generated from gestures, shouts and threats which just about restrained his free-ranging children and whatever small recruits they’d brought along from killing each other or vanishing entirely into the undergrowth.
However, Francis has come to realise that even if he and George had time to sit down and talk properly, they still wouldn’t have much to say. At a certain age, the shock of the new fades out of the world as people become certain of who they are rather than a cluster of possibilities.
On this occasion, as Francis’s mind wanders from his cousin’s efforts to start a dialogue, he notices the first drifts of golden leaves collecting on the edges of the park. Its wilder corners conceal a harvest of blackberries which has caught the interest of George’s brood, now gathering and gorging and yelping at the prickles. It dawns on Francis what George has been talking about for the last few minutes. He’s trying to set him up on a date with a woman he knows. Francis is taken aback. His last relationship petered out about five years ago, and he’s barely thought about such things since. He exchanges messages online with various people who claim to be female, but he’s not felt any urge for intimate knowledge of the people behind the avatars. Somehow, the whole business of sex and attraction seems to have faded from the centre of things. He responds to George’s idea with just enough interest to be polite and finds himself agreeing to email contact, before the conversation becomes too excruciating. It might do him good, he thinks. Other than George and functional exchanges with people in the local shops, the café he likes in town, the gym he tries to get to every week, he doesn’t have many interactions any more that aren’t mediated by a screen. There’s nothing unusual about that, apart from maybe my age, he thinks, defensively.
They are distracted by exited shouts from the children, who’ve now found a hole in the hedge, a half-hidden footpath into a strip of woodland left to go semi-wild along the edge of the park. Two of them have already gone haring off into the unknown; one, younger and shyer, calls on George and Francis for backup. The narrow way opens out into a clearing surrounded by woods; which must in reality only be a few tens of metres from the main road and whose paths and undergrowth are well-maintained, but which creates the illusion of a whole new shadowy continent to be discovered.
Afterwards even Francis admits he’d felt a kind of excitement at the sight of the grotesque tangles of the root systems where the earth had been leached away, exposing prehistoric, monstrous shapes. It was still part of what had been the estate of the Victorian businessman who’d owned the house, now left to its own devices in the interests of biodiversity, beyond the more manicured spaces of the park. The hum of the main road was audible, though the clearing seemed to generate its own hushed soundworld, a low dominant note which pushed the sounds of the outside world back into the periphery of things. He could see the red roof of the house where he lived, dimly discernible through the branches.
Much later, after George has cajoled his offspring into an estate car and lumbered off suburbwards, and Francis is back home streaming a movie with a glass of good wine, something of that shadowy space and its silences stays with him.
Eleanor is a recent divorcee and acutely conscious of it. She’s clearly working hard to stay focused on the date, on driving their conversation along lines she’s put planning into beforehand, but in unguarded moments he can see her focus turning inward, to a whole world of recent hurts and past resentments clamouring for attention, before she realises and pulls herself sharply back to the room, to the restaurant. He feels both awkward and flattered at the effort she’s going to in order to make this work for both of them. She’s about ten years younger than him, well-dressed, discretely made-up, but radiating hurt on all frequencies, snapping off her sentences whenever they drift back towards the unspoken last 15 years of her life, swerving round unexploded emotional landmines. He tries to imagine her in his flat, looking through his window at his tree, or in his bed, and can’t. He becomes aware however that he’s not only been unconsciously admiring the curves of her body under her dress, but that he’s been caught in the act. He feels his face redden. She doesn’t seem to mind too much. There’s now a feedback loop going on between them, of what isn’t yet attraction but is a certain pleasure in being reminded what it’s like to be considered a potential object of attraction.
He admires Eleanor’s grim determination to drag herself free of the collapsed marriage, the ex-husband hovering like a ghost at their feast, there in the spaces between the words. Francis realises that by contrast his own negative space is a simple absence of anything much. Is that better or worse? She’s tiptoeing away from a sleeping monster, I’m trying to put wrapping paper around a void. He likes those moments when she loses herself in the past but snatches herself back to the present. That movement between private and public is like something darting in the undergrowth, something that can’t be glimpsed directly. There are a lot of conversations going on at the table, only one of which is being spoken out loud. And at least one seems to have taken place at a chemical level, assisted by the nervous sinking of two bottles of wine between them. At the end of the evening there’s an unexpectedly spontaneous, unexpectedly mutual goodnight kiss, restrained but without hesitation, then she’s gone, giving him a parting smile which is entirely herself.
The next day, unable to settle to work, he visits the park alone. His thoughts all morning have returned to Eleanor but also to the woodland clearing. He walks his usual circuit through the surrounding streets first, the treetops a constant presence. He’s trodden these pavements almost every day since he moved in, but today everything seems volatile, each row of houses threatens to open up on something unfamiliar.
In the park, he takes the path through the hedge and wanders up to the bare roots of the largest tree, wondering how old they must be to have reached such a size. Were they here before the Victorian entrepreneur tamed the parkland and built his solid red-roofed home? Beyond, he notices something he did not see on the previous visit, a further path that winds into the deeper shadows, cutting through a hedge of thick, tangled thornbushes, older, less maintained than the way he’d come. He steps across the roots and follows it, soon the thorns press in all around, branches cross overhead, the daylight dims. After a while he realises the noise of the main road has entirely stopped. Which is odd, as he should now be right at the edge of the park. A bird chatters above and takes flight.
Finally, the path opens out again. He finds himself in another clearing, far larger this time, on the edge of more woodland. But these trees are higher, the spaces below them wilder, darker. Francis stops. How is all this contained within the park? He looks back. The woods are dense on all sides, apart from the mouth of the path he came in on. But the forest ahead – and yes, the word is unquestionably forest, stretches out on a scale that is impossible. Even the topography looks wrong, the trees slope upward towards a ridge that bears no relation to the landscape he walked through minutes ago, the one he’s seen from his window and walked his daily routine about for six years. The air is warmer too. It dawns on Francis that there are no gold or red autumn shades in the dense green ahead. The drone of insects and the cries of birds vibrate with savage life. He retreats through the thorns. For a moment he fears the path vanishing before him, or emerging into somewhere else impossible, but the clearing, the tree and its roots are waiting, the hum of traffic, the glimpse of his home through the branches.
“So Eleanor says it went well.” A question mark hangs in the air, growing with every second until it is in danger of swallowing the universe. “Mmmhmm”, Francis replies to stop it swelling further. “Well are you going to see her again?” “Maybe.”
“Bloody hell Francis, you can’t spend your entire life malingering in that flat doing the dusting. There’s an actual real woman out there who might actually be interested in you without you having to give your credit card details. Doesn’t that get your blood moving a bit?”
“I suppose so. She is a very nice lady. I’ll drop her a line in the week, I’m just a bit busy with a few things at the moment.”
George mimes a crowd cheering. “That’s more like it. I mean you know most of the women you talk to on that bloody screen are actually 20 stone truckers who live in a trailer in Acapulco? Unless that’s what you’re into?”
“Doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid. I said she’s a nice lady and I’ll call her. She’s a bit mixed up by the divorce thing though, I think she’s carrying a lot of baggage.”
“Everyone’s got baggage who isn’t 18 years old. At this moment she’s probably moaning on to her cousin that she’s a bit worried that this guy she’s just met isn’t wrangling three ex-wives and fifty kids like everyone else she tries to date and must be some kind of weirdo serial killer. Where have the kids gone?”
They track the children into the woodland, where they are attempting to climb the slippery bark of one of the trees. Francis’s eyes go to the far shadows and he realises there is no gap in the thorns. There is no path. He peers into the undergrowth and glimpses a brick wall and beyond it the tops of cars strobing past on the main road, only yards away. He stands silent, running through possible explanations. He circles the clearing. Nothing comes to mind, so he decides ignoring it is the only option.
Despite the lack of demands on his time, Francis finds himself unusually busy over the next few days, attending to things in the flat that have been bugging him for years but which have never merited action before, as well as getting involved in various machinations and rows in his extended online social sphere. But somewhere behind this activity, a decision has started to take shape, which takes him by surprise when it finally surfaces. He sends Eleanor an email. A relaxed and chatty one suggesting a next meeting. He feels a sense of creeping excitement as he presses ‘Send’.
The next day, he allows himself to visit a shop he doesn’t need to, just so he can walk through the park on the way home. There’s no one around whose presence might deter him. He drops any pretence of being here by chance and cuts into the clearing. It is deserted, but there is something about the depth of the silence that tells him what he will find beyond the tree, a sense of distance from the world, of something spilling into the space. The shadowy track is there, just as definitely as it wasn’t there before.
The forest beyond waits vast and impossible. Aside from the path which continues into its depths, it is untouched, a huge tract of ancient woodland. Francis knows little about trees but this is clearly no modern plantation of conifers, but a tangled, chaotic ecosystem, thousands of years old. He steps into its shade. The track climbs steadily through light and shadow. His ears attune to the sounds of birds and insects. The day is warm, and Francis has to take off and carry his overcoat. He walks for a good twenty minutes, nervous at first. He looks back regularly, reassuring himself. The path rises sharply and gains the rocky ridge. Now he can make out the shape of the clearing where he began, but beyond it is no park, no house, no city, just trees to the horizon. In that deep blue far distance, a range of mountains rises up, miles in height, their bases hidden below the edge of the world, the peaks and ridges capped with snow and ice glinting in the sun. Francis laughs with delight at the sight. From here onwards there is only the forest. He can hear a stream nearby and see some possible ways through the undergrowth ahead. Something else catches his eye in the long grass. He steps towards it and stops. It is a human skeleton, vegetation growing up through weathered ribs. From the eye sockets, glassy crystals, maybe gemstones, stare back. The forest itself feels watchful. He backs off from the ridge, retreats down the track, glancing back every few hundred yards. Again, he is relieved to regain the clearing and find the path waiting.
Francis awakens to an unusual sensation, a naked female body pressed against him, both warm and cool, hands caressing him to wakefulness. He rolls over, Eleanor smiles warmly. A second date, a third date, a doorstep embrace, the invitation into his flat. A degree of nervousness on both their parts; they’d put away another fair quantity of wine in anticipation of what was expected to happen at the end of the evening. Everything had done what it was supposed to, they’d made appreciative noises which soon gave way to genuine enthusiasm as they forgot their nerves and their self-consciousness. He must have acquitted himself alright in the end, as her hands have moved decisively to his penis, which seems every bit as keen for a repeat performance.
Afterwards, he makes coffee as she wanders around his flat in his dressing gown, drawn inevitably to the window and the tree. Francis tries not to think about how long it is since he had anyone in the flat, let alone a lover who has spent the night. He feels a sense of exhilaration, of weight lifting from him, that doesn’t just come from the post-orgasmic chemicals in his blood or the fuzziness of a pleasantly sleepless night. Outside, the golden leaves are falling in their droves on the slight breeze.
Over the next few weeks, he revisits the park every other day, more scared now of the way through the thorns not being there than of those dead bones high in the woods. Most times he visits, the path is there. He has ventured a few hundred yards past the skeleton up on the ridge, carefully learning the terrain, fearful of losing the way home. If the entrance sometimes couldn’t be found from the park, was the path back sometimes closed as well? Early on he had taken out his phone – GPS, internet, network coverage, were all silent, just as he’d known they would be. He has noticed some discrepancies in time, sometimes he’d spend a whole morning exploring and get back to find no time had elapsed at all. And once, he’d left the daylight of the forest to find evening falling in the park. He’s noticed the light waning a few times, the sun sinking towards the mountains, and felt afraid of being trapped in the woods at night, alone with the dead man and whatever else the trees had yet to reveal.
As far as he could tell, no-one else has discovered the way here. He’s been back to the park with George and the children, the thorns were dense and impenetrable. He even contrived to go for a walk in the park with Eleanor and once again the way remained shut. She’s stayed over a few weekends now, but he hasn’t heard from her for a few days. George has been nosing around for gory details, but he has said nothing. Are we a couple? Francis wonders. So far, we’ve mostly got half-drunk and had sex. The ghostly presence of the ex-husband and the dead marriage has receded, she seems more herself, relaxed and funny. However, he’d lost all of this Saturday to exploring beyond the stream, where he’d found a vantage point that revealed it led to a broad river valley only a mile or so away. Returning home he found that time had moved against him and evening had fallen, but to his mild disappointment he had no missed calls from Eleanor.
On Sunday morning, the day ahead seems vast and empty, and he knows the only thing that will fill it. With walking boots on, and a rucksack with water and food to last two days in case of emergencies, he sets off for the park. The path is there, to his relief. He passes the skeleton like an old friend and traces his way through the forest confidently to the high vantage point further along the ridge. As ever it is a temperate day, in contrast to the frosty morning Francis has left behind, and he removes his outer layers and crams them into the rucksack, feeling the warm air against the cooling sheen of sweat on his arms.
As he threads his way down the high bank of the stream, pushing branches and creepers aside from his face, he becomes aware of something moving through the undergrowth a few hundred yards away. He stops dead. He hasn’t encountered any wildlife other than birds so far and he’s begun to relax about what could be in the woods. Now he curses his stupidity at treating this impossible place, whose relations with the world he has yet to even begin to understand, as some kind of country ramble.
He stays stock still as whatever it is recedes into the distance. Then from far behind he hears a second movement, back along the trail he’s made, getting closer. It’s tracking me, he thinks. He feels his body turn to cold water. Then he’s crashing blindly through the trees, stumbling on roots, until his foot snags and he stumbles over the edge of the narrow gorge that the stream has been slicing out of the landscape, rolling down in a shower of earth and stones, clutching at handfuls of vegetation, landing hard half in the water, winding himself. He gasps for breath and becomes aware of hard stones sticking into his back and one arm in cold running water. He limps to his feet, looks frantically up at where he fell from. He can’t see what’s pursuing, but can hear it getting closer. A moment of agonised indecision, to run splashing down the stream and try and outrun the thing, or to hide? He ducks into the overhang of the gorge wall, presses against it with terror. Will it see the marks of his fall? He can hear something inhuman breathing overhead. A low growl sends ice down his spine. He stares numbly at the red earth of the far bank, for a moment the sound of distant birds floats up mockingly on a quiet breeze. Is this where I die?, he thinks. An eternity passes, sweat soaks down his back, pain throbs from his grazes and bruises. Then he hears movements, getting further away, moving on downstream.
He stays frozen to the spot for hours, as the air darkens and chills, his clothes clammy from the sweat and water they’ve soaked up. Finally, his fear of the falling dark overrides his fear of the beasts. Ditching his rucksack, he works his way upstream, against the shallow but busy water flowing over slippery stones. He climbs the bank cautiously to regain the trail near where the skeleton lies.
The track leading to the clearing and the way home comes into view and Francis begins to feel relief, when a low growl again pierces the air off to one side. He spins round but can see nothing. Then, between him and escape, deep in the thickening shadows, he sees something move, its form indiscernible but darker than the surrounding gloom, its movement flowing like liquid or mist as it keeps to the edges of the wood, making its way steadily uphill. Fear breaks inside him. He runs in blind terror into the forest, crashing and stumbling and slipping on roots, undergrowth snatching and ripping at his ankles. He hears the beasts crashing through the wood after him and knows the pure terror, the ancient ancestral root of all fear, of being pursued as prey. He trips and bashes hard into a tree. They are almost on him. In panic he grabs at the damp bark, digs in with his feet, finds handholds, swarms upwards. The branches bear his weight, he climbs, dreading that they will follow, snatches his feet up out of reach of whatever pursues. He gasps for breath, clinging now to the last high branch that will hold him, the tree top only a few feet above in the darkening air. Below, as he manages to tune out the thumping of his heart and the rasp of his respiration, he can hear the beasts prowling, snuffling and snarling at the base of the tree.
Misery and self-pity well up as the hours pass and the damp night air slowly settles on him. He’s high in the forest canopy and above him a skyful of stars opens up as the last light vanishes. He has never really noticed the constellations before so has no idea if they are the same stars he could see from his window, but both possibilities, that he is somewhere entirely alien, or that these stars are the same ones looking benignly down on his home, fill him with an unutterable loneliness. It flows through him, overwhelming all thought until he is unsure whether anything exists except the sky and the quiet sounds of the breeze moving through the tree all around him.
The animal smell of the beasts below draws him back to his situation, trapped on his slippery perch as the night grows cold. He thinks of his home, and thinks of Eleanor’s face on their first meeting, of that moment of glimpsing that secret movement from private to public; a glimpse of someone’s true self, something impossible to capture except in passing, something more naked and intimate than what they’d shared in his bed. Deep within Francis, something ignites, born of despair but becoming something else, both a cry of loss at all the lives that he will never live, and its shadow twin, a cry of sudden joy in who and what he is, of inhabiting the life that up until now has just been happening to him. In that moment, he feels the starlight running through his bones.
The trees themselves seem to shift, the forest reshaping itself, he feels its immense shadowed life ranged behind him at his command, feels this whole world running through him like dark electricity. He begins to understand. Fear leaves him and he is distantly aware of the branches rattling around him as he moves, aware of descending the tree. His feet touch the dark grass and the beasts are upon him, their forms shifting blackness, their eyes red with pure hunger, beyond any reason. He lets the cry that’s been building deep within roar out of his mouth, a sound he’d never have believed possible.
The beasts howl and gnash, their breath fetid in his face. But they are retreating, becoming formless, melting away like shadows before the sun. The last red flecks of their eyes are watchful to the last for any hint of weakness as they vanish like sparks from a cigarette end on a cold winter’s night, retreating to an infinite distance before winking out entirely.
Ahead the way lies open and clear to the bottom of the hill, the track is broad. The forest stands obedient and subdued as he descends to the clearing and emerges from the thorns. In the park the sky is clear and moonlit, the cold night is still. Through the trees he can see the lights of home.
The message from Eleanor was apologetic, particularly about doing the deed by email. An old friend had got in touch out of the blue about going travelling in South America, something she’d dreamed of doing all her life. (Francis recalls her mentioning it on their second date, when the wine had loosened their tongues). The friend was heading out imminently and Eleanor had decided on the spot to go, so was at her friend’s in London trying to sort out her visas as soon as possible. She hoped Francis didn’t mind and apologised for breaking things off suddenly, as she’d been having a nice time and though it had just been a casual thing really, it had helped her to get to grips with a lot of issues. She probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to go travelling without it, rather ironically. She’d keep in touch and really hoped he met a nice woman in the meantime.
Francis sits back at his window. He hasn’t been in the park for a while and suspects he wouldn’t find anything there now. The view outside is more fascinating than ever to him, even though it is the same view he sees every winter, to him it is something entirely changed this year, a new year waiting to be born. He watches the tree opposite, totally black now against the sky. From a high branch, the last golden leaf of autumn falls.