by Jo Dearden
Cloudless skies and bright sunshine had tempted them to venture out, although winter was still hovering in the crisp air. The sun made it feel warmer than it actually was, their spirits lifted with the first signs of Spring. Green shoots emerging from cold earth. Scattered snowdrops. Daffodils and Crocuses waiting to bloom.
They were sitting outside the hillside pub, sipping their coffee after a sandwich lunch and a couple of beers. A patchwork of fields lay beneath them. Julie put on her large tortoiseshell sunglasses. Tim was studying the ordinance survey map he had brought. He loved maps, planning a route, finding different paths. ‘We should make a move,’ he said folding the map. ‘I think I can see a different way back’.
As they got up to go, Julie saw a man watching them. She had noticed him earlier and had wondered why he was alone. He appeared to be similar age to them, mid-thirties. He had neatly cut dark hair and the traces of a beard. He looked like any other walker, sturdy boots, thick grey cable sweater, navy hooded padded jacket. She smiled at him, but then wished she hadn’t. He didn’t lift his gaze while they put on their coats and picked up their phones that were lying on the table.
They set off down the hill. Julie glanced behind. She couldn’t see anyone following them. She grasped Tim’s hand. The road forked at the bottom. The footpath sign showed both directions. They chose a different path from the way they had come. After a while the track ran out. There was a stile, beyond which was a ploughed field. The footpath seemed to go around the perimeter. ‘Shall we go back the way we came,’ Julie asked. ‘It looks pretty muddy.’
‘We’re here now. It’s quite an adventure really.’ Tim said.
‘Ok, well you can clean our boots,’ she laughed. As she jumped over the stile, something caught her eye, a flash of dark blue. She told Tim about the man she had seen outside the pub.
‘I’m sure he won’t bother us,’ he said.
They could see a wood in the distance. It was perched on top of another hill. ‘Do we have to go up there?’ she asked. ‘I don’t like the look of it.’
‘No, I think we can walk round the edge.’ He squeezed her hand.
It took longer to reach the wood than they had anticipated. The hill was steeper than it had appeared. When they got to the trees, they realised they would have to walk through them or go back the way they had come. They stopped to catch their breath. The temperature was dropping. Grey clouds had appeared. Julie shivered. They could see a low mist unfurling in the distance.
‘It’ll be ok,’ Tim said. ‘The map shows a hamlet with a Church at the bottom of the hill on the other side’. They plunged into the wood. It was dark. Most of the trees had formed a canopy, blocking the light. It was noisy. Twigs snapping. Leaves crunching. Undergrowth crackling. But Julie heard another sound. She clutched Tim’s arm. ‘Jesus, did you hear that?’ Tim swung round. He caught a glimpse of something blue. ‘Who’s there,’ he shouted. Silence. ‘Come on. Let’s get out of here,’ he whispered. They stumbled on. Loose branches snagging their coats. Eventually, daylight began to filter through the trees. Moments later they had reached the other side.
The mist they had seen swirled in front of them. They could just make out the hamlet below with the Norman Church tower rising above the gloom. ‘I don’t think this place has a pub. Maybe we could shelter in the Church until the fog lifts.’ Tim said. They ran down the hill towards the Church, but they found the oak studded door was locked. Tim twisted the handle several times, to no avail. ‘What shall we do now?’ said Julie anxiously. Tim noticed an old wooden bench on a path near the gravestones. He pulled Julie towards it and got the map out of his pocket. It was difficult to see in the fading light. ‘I think we’re nearly at the place where we left the car,’ he said. ‘Let’s try to get there before it gets dark.’
‘This place gives me the creeps,’ Julie said. The fog was enveloping them like a shroud. Just before they reached the Churchyard gate, she slipped on a loose paving stone and fell clutching her ankle. ‘Oh Christ! It really hurts,’ she moaned. Tim tried to help her up, but she couldn’t put her weight on it. ‘I think you must have sprained it,’ he said. He tried to carry her but only got a few yards. ‘Sorry Jules. I think we need help.’ They heard a rustling sound. Out of the gloom the man in the navy jacket stood before them. ‘What do you want? Why are you following us?’ Tim said.
‘I can help you,’ he said.
‘Why should we trust you? You’ve been sneaking up on us all afternoon.’
‘You haven’t got much option, have you?’ he said.
‘No, we can manage. Please just leave us alone’. Julie started to cry.
‘I won’t hurt you. I’m not like that.’
‘Ok mate, you can help me carry her back to our car,’ Tim said.
The two men then carried Julie to the walkers’ car park at the beginning of the trail they had followed earlier. Tim was right. It wasn’t too far away.
‘Well, thanks a lot,’ Tim said, as the man helped him get Julie into the passenger seat of their car.
‘Could you give me a lift?’ the man said.
‘Don’t you have a car?’
‘Do you live near here?’
‘Not really. Well, kind of I’spose’.
‘What d’ya mean?’
The man stared at Tim. ‘I’ve fallen on hard times. I’m homeless,’ he said.
About the author
Jo Dearden trained as a journalist with the Oxford Mail and Times. She did a degree in English Literature with creative writing as a mature student. She co-edited her local village newsletter for about ten years. She also worked for a number of years for the Citizens’ Advice Bureau. She is currently a member of a creative writing group, which is stimulating her writing again. Jo lives in Suffolk.