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She’d been lying awake since the crack of dawn, watching the sunrise creeping through the side of her curtains. She’d slept forty winks, on and off, and she’d been trying not to think about what time it was, to make it easier to nod off again. Her legs ached from tossing and turning. Her muscles were taut. It promised to be another one of those days that look like a permanent seven o’clock in the morning. She lay there, with the electric blanket on, her hands clasped over the duvet, thumbs twirling. She was thinking of the spot he’d told her about before he died. She’d been thinking about it ever since, every other day, and each single thing seemed a banal attempt at getting on with her life. She simply had to find out. She got up and held on to it.
Without switching the light on, she wrenched the wardrobe open and felt her way through her cold, musty clothes. She needed to put on several layers over her pyjama bottoms, for it was clear those toasty clothes – the only warm thing in the whole room that wasn’t her bed – weren’t going to come off. She found some black leggings. She put them on. They made her legs look varicose underneath. Over her pyjama top with a picture of a cat, she wrapped a plush jumper from the bottom shelf, and then her leather jacket lined with baby lamb skin hanging from the chair. From the doorknob, she picked up the fedora with the green feather. Ready to go. If she’d looked in the mirror before leaving the room, she would have laughed or screamed. When she hit the ground floor, she jumped straight into her walking boots and grabbed her keys from the mantelpiece.
She locked up mechanically. At the bending of the corner, she wondered whether she’d done it. (Did she lock up? She must have…) Out in the open, the town was waking up to market day, a couple of early risers setting up their stalls, making small talk, their breath steaming in each other’s direction. They tried to make eye-contact with her as she rushed past them, but she avoided their gaze. She didn’t want to talk. She sped between the lines of empty stalls, trying to take the shortest way possible out of the labyrinth. A few hundred yards down the road, the main town square was populated by a single man with a beanie hat and a can of something, who was conversing with the owner of the newsagents standing on the threshold. They didn’t even notice as she breezed through the square, past the laundrette full of eternally astonished dryers.
A dog owner startled her by good-morning her while crossing the bridge over the canal. She groaned in response. Everybody must think she needed a fix, or a coffee. But she didn’t. This was different. She had a cause. (She looked at the canal lock through the corner of her eye, where all the geese used to congregate, almost expecting them to come out and start charging against her.) She met a moment of hesitation crossing the other bridge over the railway tracks. Such a temptation. (She always thought this when crossing it.) So easy to just end things here. The railroad was a paradox. It promised eternity in each direction. She chose life once again.
Now it was time to ascend, up the straight road nearing the farm and then through the steep muddy hill. The quickest way. She knew what would happen now, and as she pictured it, it happened: a shepherd dog was crouching next to the entrance of the path leading to the farm. He looked like a mix between guardian and sphinx. She got a few inches away from him and he jumped into her hands, begging to be fussed. Yes, yes, yes, Shep, I know, yees, I know. Now, I need to get on. Good boy. Yes. Yes. Now let me get on. No. Don’t follow me. No. Stay there. Stay. He followed her all the way up the slope. She was getting dangerously close to the farm. Thankfully, it was too early and nobody was about. She went up the squidgy side of the hill that slid under her feet, a paste of pine needles, acorn caps, and mud threatening to swallow her boots. Soon enough the trees gave her cover.
Despite the strong heart pulsing in her ribcage, the moment she hit the shade of the trees, she felt safe. At the top of the hill, where the woods met with a lane, she stopped, sat on a stone stile, and surveyed her surroundings. She watched the steam coming out of her mouth melting into the crisp morning air. She rummaged in her leather jacket and found an old tobacco pouch – only a few wispy dregs and an empty packet of rizlas. She cut a piece of cardboard and rolled herself a ciggy. Miracles do happen. She had a lighter in the other pocket.
There was something comforting and yet triumphant about sitting at the top of these woods, the canopy of trees at once sheltering her and giving her a privileged kaleidoscopic view of the town below. It was a marvel how fast you could get out of the valley when you put your heart into it. As she idly smoked her cigarette, she felt educated and romantic. There was something enterprising about this particular spot. She’d never met anyone in this part of the woods, felt that this was somehow her own place. She was like one of the Lake poets, or like Bob Dylan. She had time to think such things. Roll-ups burn slowly.
But time cannot be staved off forever, and soon she had to lift her cold bottom from the stone steps. She crossed the road and looked at the tall field ahead, round like an apple. Her head turned to both sides. No one in sight. She must get on, find the place. She took the well-trodden path up the field – a favourite with walkers of the Pennine Way – and as she was reaching the top, she saw the monument. There it was, a needle of rock stood against the sky. She had two navigation points now: the obelisk and the pine plantation next to it, promise of her destination. She had to go in between them. She knew there was a way. She’d never taken it before, but she knew it was there, she’d find it, she would find it, she said to herself between breaths as she struggled up the steep field.
Once she went past the farm with the back garden full of hydrangeas, it was easy, flat land. The road became windier as she got closer to the Victorian folly. It turned this way and that, up the pike, with loose stones crumbling and crunching under her feet. A few stranded sheep looked at her with demonic eyes. What did she want? What did they want? They knew what she was after. Like fuck they did. Keep munching on those dry sprigs. She was getting closer to the moment of decisions. Oxygen and exercise were releasing endorphins and she felt elated. She didn’t cross the wall leading to the monument, but eyed the pine trees to the left of the crossroads.
The path into the woods was boggy, unexpected marshland dotted with stones from the crumbling wall, planted by walkers – a hikers’ hopscotch. She leaped on them with unsteady knees, feeling panicked. What would really happen if she put her feet in the bogs? Wet feet, that’s all. After a few minutes of traipsing and eeking whenever she threatened to dip into the peaty water, she arrived at the stile separating the field from the pine wood. It was not a wood, really, but a plantation: row after row of spookily arranged pine trees ready to be chopped off. They worked on her. It was quiet, eerie, another place where she felt out of sight. The path cutting into the trees suddenly looked too easy, so she circled it through mounds of dry grass that were only trodden on by deer and stray sheep.
She was full of trepidation, taking big strides down the path on the far side of the woods. She turned a last bend in the road and took a first look. She stopped, her mouth open. There was a reservoir in the nook of the valley. It could well have been the moon. A silent expanse of water framed by fields of ochre moorland, and to its right, the very place she was looking for. This must be it. Small, inconspicuous, yet incongruous – a little cluster of trees in the middle of this nothingness. Next to the reservoir. She was so close now. She was convinced she’d be there in no time. She could almost touch the water at the bottom of the field with her fingertips. But the landscape had a deceitful depth. The field turned out to be a maze of paths with occasional yellow-pointed logs signalling the way, small wooden bridges crossing a web of subterraneous streams trickling down. She followed the trail of sheep droppings and cow dung. There were no cattle in sight. Where did all the shit come from? She trudged down towards the water. An imposing fresh-looking wooden gate with a heavy metal latch greeted her at the bottom of the field. She locked it behind her with a clang and realised there was a deep moat surrounding the reservoir, like those around old castles, blocking access to the water. In her mind, she had pictures dipping her feet into it, delaying the end of her trip.
The pine trees were beckoning, alien-looking, serene, steady, like they’d been expecting her. They were the only specks of green in a landscape of brown and yellow. They were calling her. The rhythm of her strides accelerated in this last stretch. She could feel the rough bark on her hands. The small forest, however, was surrounded by thick wooden fences entangled in rusty spikes. One last hurdle. She’d had to find a side access.
She struggled through an uneven field of bogs and loose stones. She could now spot the entrance, through a wooden stile. She advanced quickly, with determined steps and shallow breaths. Then a sudden stop. The stile had a round plastic sign screwed on it – a human figure with a foot on a hill and the other on the next hill, a red bar crossing it out. Keep out? Don’t roam? Why put up a stile if you aren’t supposed to use it? She looked around. Nobody. She couldn’t hear the wind, only the approaching sound of a fly that she never waited long enough to see. She’d ignore the signpost and cross the stile. Nobody would mind. Two steps.
A dry thud.
She’d made it.
In front of her, a narrow path tore into the forest. She felt different. Her mind was clear, as if her mental torpor had been caught in a dream catcher. This is where he’d told her the place was, where it was hidden. She’d find it, and then she’d be alright, like she’d done him a favour. He’d talked about the spot so much, had wanted someone to know where it was all hidden in case something happened to him, you know, in case he went. She’d find where it was. She took one initial step, awaiting a sign, like an alarm going off.
Another step, then another.
Somewhere in her mind, she abandoned her body, and she saw herself from the other side of the stile, watched herself burrowing into the small heart of the forest, plunging in, her footsteps muffled by the branches that embraced her, until she eventually became the shadow of a tree.