Tuesday 23 August 2022

Red Lights by Jenny Palmer, a cup of tea

 I normally go for my afternoon walk straight after lunch. My favourite walk is downhill, past the meadow where the chickens run out onto the road, followed by the narrow road to Ings End, with the brook at the bottom. I must be careful here of any oncoming traffic. I’m climbing up the hill towards Stopper Lane, when I notice two red lights directly in front of me. It looks like the flashing lights on the wings of a low-flying plane, and it is coming straight at me.

 As I get nearer, I realise it isn’t a plane at all. It looks more like a ball of fire. It can’t be the sun as it is already mid-afternoon, and the sun is over to the west by now.  Perhaps a tree has been struck by lightning or a high-voltage electricity pylon has exploded and has set fire to a tree. This is often the explanation given by the electricity board when the power goes off, as it is wont to do. Something like that could well have ignited a fireball in the tree canopy. Fires spread easily and can easily turn into conflagrations in hot weather.

The red ball is glows ever brighter. It is dazzling.  As I approach, I notice a footpath sign into the field leading to the coppice.  I normally try to avoid walking in fields, especially ones where there are marauding cattle, intent on protecting their young calves. But this field is a hay meadow. The cattle and sheep have been kept out all spring, allowing the grass to grow long and luscious. The grass is interspersed with a mixture of wildflowers: buttercups, yellow rattle, clover and meadow cranesbill.

            It has rained heavily during the night, so the grass is soaking wet. I wish I’d put on my walking boots, instead of my trainers. The path isn’t visible because of the long grass, so I head straight across as the crow flies. It doesn’t take me long to realise that there haven’t been any high voltage explosions or fires.  What I am seeing is someone in a red jacket, dangling from a rope. A tree surgeon, possibly. He must have gone up there to conduct essential service work, such as lopping off dead branches. I can’t imagine how he has got up there. There is no sign of a ladder or a winch in the vicinity. Somehow or other, he has got entangled in the ropes and is now swinging helplessly back and forth in the wind, with his arms and legs flailing about in all directions.

I can’t help thinking it was foolhardy of him to even attempt to go up there in the first place, without knowing how he is going to get down.  He shouldn’t be in the coppice, anyway. Doesn’t he know that coppices are sacred places? They are markers of where there were once human settlements. Over thousands of years the ancient buildings have fallen into ruin and disappeared until all that’s left is the trees. I remember a coppice from my youth. There was one on an outcrop of rock, known as Fairy Hill.

‘Don’t you be going in there,’ the farmer used to say, whenever he saw us playing nearby.  ‘It is the home of the little people. If you go in there, you might never come out.’

I am wary of going into the coppice, but I can’t leave the man dangling like that and there is no sign of anyone else around. I am no good at climbing trees. And if I shout up, I doubt if he’ll be able to hear me, what with the wind howling so loudly. Anyway, it looks as if all the life has gone out of him now. It might be best to call emergency services and ask them to send out air ambulance. 

When I finally reach the edge of the coppice, I look up and try to focus. What I see isn’t a person in a red jacket dangling from a rope at all. And it isn’t a plane with flashing, red lights or even an orange fireball. It is one of those celebratory balloons, the type you buy for birthdays and special occasions. It must have got caught in the branches and its metallic surface has turned a bright, shiny, red colour in the afternoon sun.   

‘Try to concentrate on the lights in front of you,’ a voice is saying. ‘It will soon be over.’

I remember I am not on a walk at all. I am in an operating theatre, having a cataract removed. The eye surgeon is leaning over me, with a set of surgical instruments in her hands. As they wheel me into the recovery room, I’m longing for the cup of tea and the sandwich they have promised me.

About the author

Jenny Palmer writes short stories, poetry, memoir and family history. Her stories are on the Cafelit website. Keepsake and other stories published by Bridge House, is available on Amazon. Her work is sold at the Pendle Heritage Centre in Barrowford and at No 10 Literature and Lifestyle in Clitheroe. 

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