Chapter 14 – Into The Hunters’ Wood


He had slept for 24 hours. Straight through, no movement, no dreams, and now he felt stiff and starving. He took a rushed and cold bath. He washed his hair with a bar of soap that made his eyes sting.

He went downstairs, fed the dog, had a mug of tea and two soft old digestive biscuits he’d discovered in a cupboard he never even realised they had. He wanted to sleep again or at least he went back to his dark bedroom. But Adelaide had other ideas. She was insistent, nuzzling him, jumping up at him. He gave up and half an hour later the pair were walking across the Water Meadows, Adelaide leading the way, stopping to make sure he was following as she led them to Hunters Wood.

Lunsford hadn’t been back to the Wood since his early days courting Chloé. She didn’t like the place at all. She loved beaches and open fields, hill walking: she hated forests. The trees didn’t reveal anything to her, they hid lives and occluded views and seemed to encourage and amplify the winds.

One night, laying out in the Water Meadows on a blanket, she’d told him “It’s always dark in the woods, don’t you notice it? Always dark. I don’t imagine anything in there I’d want to meet. It’s damp, it rustles and the smells are of decay. All the undergrowth. It’s all so chaotic in there”, she paused and lay her hand on his chest. Nothing alive should be as old as some of those trees, she’d told him. Some of them were there during the Civil War, longer, further away in time. Like that Yew tree at the church, horrible. Alive before we were alive, and alive after we’re gone. He had taken her hand and thought about the sky and her and football and her.

He didn’t understand because to him those woods were touchable, explorable, climbable, even a little mysterious. The smells – even the damp – intrigued and excited him. She read Alice Wilson’s books on myth, legend, monsters and strange beasts and took them all a bit too seriously. He’d laughed at her, which was of course unfair. Chloé was the clever one, the intelligent one. She had a degree in chemistry. He had some O’Levels, and training in drawing other people’s designs.

But he loved Chloé, so they steered clear of the woods and kept to the meadows and the town.

“So, we never went into these woods, she and I. We never shared any time in the dark, mouldy, quiet. I liked those woods too”, he told Adelaide.

“So, why didn’t you visit them on your own? Chloé did things on her own. She was her own woman. You sat at home and did fuck all”, said his father.

He often mistook her fears for lack of realism or over-imagination. Since her death, however, he missed that imagination more than he could express. She was the reason that the television remained off. Every evening she would read and read out loud when she came to passages that fascinated her or made her laugh, or which she thought would interest him.

Her unfounded fears frustrated him though because back then he didn’t have any of them himself. Events unfolded as they would.

He stopped, Adelaide stopped and sat down, “Think of all the things I could have done but didn’t. Think of all the things she did. Despite all her anxieties and her fears about what terrible things were going to happen all the time. Despite all of that, she got on with life. She didn’t rest unless she needed rest. She kept you alive with her love and life”, he said to her. She wagged her tail.

“Whatever did she see in you? What are you going to do now?”, his father said.

“It’s unhealthy is what it is”, he’d told Chloé once during an argument about the speed he drove their car. “You need to trust me. It’s insulting, it really is the way you go on. I’ve never been close to having an accident”, he’d said.

“That’s not helpful, Martin. Calling me unhealthy because I worry that we might crash into a tractor or an animal around the next bend”.

“I know these roads. I know the bends. You need to trust me”.

She looked sadly at him, “It’s not about trust, it’s about that next bend. You can’t know what’s around it. No matter how well we both know the roads. It’s not that I don’t trust you, I don’t trust what’s next”. She smiled at him and then her anger came up and out.

“Seriously, Martin. When I ask you to slow down or take care, I’m not questioning your fucking skills. I’m questioning whether bravado will get us and someone else injured or killed. Driving from home to town isn’t a race. You don’t need skills. It’s a journey. It’s a bloody journey from our house to the shops”, she could feel herself getting angrier, “it’s an everyday act of… shopping for god’s sake. When I drive, we get there about two minutes later than when you do. Grow up and take my feelings seriously”.

“Feelings”, he huffed as the next bend curved into sight, and he slowed down.

“Yes, my feelings”, she said as they closed in on the rear of a tractor dragging hay bales, and he braked.

He’d thought about that conversation a lot after her death. She wasn’t proud of her anxiousness nor was she so disgusted by it that she tried to hide it.

He treasured what he and his mates called Common Sense. He tried to express this to her many times leading to the great mistake when he had accused her of being irrational. She’d told him to stop being so bloody arrogant.

“Let’s talk about what you think is irrational shall we?” she’d asked.

“Voting for someone because you’ve always voted that way. Choosing to buy one pair of boots over another pair of boots because the first pair are a nicer colour even if they’re not as hardwearing. Choosing the hurtful word when the context is about feelings, friendship or the end of a friendship. Taking the pretty route not the direct route. Being scared about something that you can’t describe accurately. Waking up in the morning wanting not to be awake ever again. All irrational to you, Martin. But they’re all fucking real. Some of them are choices, some are things no one can do anything about. When you say, ‘rational, reasonable, logical’ or ‘common sense’ you’re talking about yourself, about your choices and your predilections most of the time but you’re confusing that with objectivity and eternal fucking truths!”

She’d stormed out that day leaving him angry and betrayed. They’d been married for two years at that time and he thought it must be the end.

She’d been cold in her anger, unflinching, certainly not open to discussion, not open to, “Calm down honey”, or “you’re shouting, people might hear”. She wasn’t going to calm down, she’d told him later in their fat, saggy beautiful sofa. Sometimes there was a need to get heated. Other people could mind their own business. This was their marriage, she said, not other people’s. She called him a name, the name of a brute, a codeword between them ever since, and she kissed him, and then they listened to music.

Lunsford thought about this as he walked behind Adelaide, and he missed Chloé very much.

“She had a life and she brought it to the house and now it’s all gone. She invited Mick’s wife Jeanne over”, he told Adelaide.

She stopped and looked back at him, checking in, making sure he was still progressing into the heart of the woods but he’d stopped on its fringes and was shaking a little. The dog tracked back and looked up at the man quizzically. She barked because she needed to be in there amongst the smells, the damp leaves and other animals.

“Quiet now Adelaide. Quiet. I’m coming”. He pushed open the kissing gate, letting the dog through first before passing over into the woods.

The narrow, stone-paved track in front of him soon disappeared as the holly bushes, bracken and brambles and guelder rose encroached and then engulfed it. Lunsford and Adelaide made their way further and further into the interior not seeing the badger setts low down or the tangles of mistletoe high in the branches of dying trees.

The smells of the mulching earth, the bones, pelts and animal remains that made it brought him back to Churchfields and the sight of his father, dead rabbit in hand, blood down his shirt, beer on his breath, pain in his plans.

Adelaide barked at a squirrel. Lunsford shook himself clean of that past. He’d know these woods so well into his young life when he climbed the trees and hid in castles made with the fallen branches. In the autumn and early winter months he and his friend Mick, would search out mushrooms and berries to eat or sell. There were only a few kinds of both known to the boys with the knowledge passed down to the other kids.

Lunsford looked around and realised that he could no longer even identify the trees around him. Decades of adult work had washed away that unnecessary knowledge. He stopped, stood still as a peacock and listened. Despite the lateness of the year, there were still birds singing. Most of them were singing warnings to each other about Adelaide.

Lunsford couldn’t name a single song and this saddened him. He crouched down and picked up a handful of the rotting leaves and soil that made the forest floor and moved it from hand to hand. He breathed it in hoping to be informed and transported by it. He longed to be brought back to a time when its smell and texture were as familiar to him as his own house. Nothing of the sort came. All he sensed was decay, damp, grit, shame, his hideous father, and the blood and fear of those creatures that hadn’t been successful in their flights. Prey and praying.

He stood up and looked for Adelaide who was looking back at him, her front paws resting on the flank of a massive fallen tree. She was panting, having sprinted left, right, centre and back, looping around the man, chasing smells and shadows. She looked as if she was smiling at him, beckoning him on, telling him to be less worried about things. It was mad fun, all of it. Forget the memories that weren’t coming back or were coming back broken. Her experience of memory was different, much less importance was laid at symbols and altars. The tears and sacrifices that people drenched their lives in meant less than a nearly caught pigeon to Adelaide. She wanted to go deeper. She wanted a drink of water, she could smell it somewhere, but it wasn’t close, so it was time to move on.

Lunsford tried to pat her on the head but she was too quick for him. She was happy. Simply happy, excited and at the same time at ease. His own descent into the guts and entrails of his loss fought back. Loss of memory and not being able to move on from memory, what a bind to be in.

She barked again. She was insistent. She was thirsty. She turned her back on him and trotted on, further into the woods, deeper under its interlocking branches and winter bird songs. As he walked, the ground became a bed of soft, brown pine needles. The trees shot up around him, straight as an old woman’s fingers. He didn’t remember pine trees in any part of the woods. These were strange, unnatural, recognisable, almost manmade compared to the other natural, twisting grotesques. The more he looked at the pine trees, the more he saw architecture more than nature. These had been planted in rows, in ranks, in files and not by the hands of a million pagan gods – more like one tractor going back and forward all day.

He looked for Adelaide, but she was nowhere to be seen. This worried him. By now he was deep in Hunters Wood and not only was the light thinning, so it seemed was the air. He called her name and waited.

He called her name, this time with more urgency.

Nothing. Not even leaves rustling. No sound.

Half an hour passed, during which he became unfamiliar and uncomfortable with his own voice, which gradually sounded like a recording played back to a room full of strangers. Each time he asked her to come back he could also hear his aloneness.

Nothing. Not even rustling. Even the birds are silent.

He stood in the quiet hoping for her return. Then he started yelling to himself in anger and disappointment. Where was she? Out of the quiet he thought he heard talking. He heard the leaves falling, as badgers and the other evening creatures began to move in the undergrowth.

Again, he called for her and again he waited and again she didn’t come. He felt foolish. He’d known the animal for less than a week. She was a stray after all. An all autumn coloured shaggy stray dog who had wandered into his house. He had given her a name for no other reason than that was the first name that came into his head. He had started to imbue her with magical powers of thoughtfulness and insight. He’d started to imagine that she had a voice to speak to him with. But she was a stray dog. Just a stray dog. Of course, she’d wandered off, just as she’d wandered in.

He stood by the husk of a fallen tree that lay on the dampening forest floor like the massive arm of an ancient woman, severed from her body and left to rot on the ground. He picked his way through brambles and dead, yellow bracken, his boots sank to their laces into the black mud, so he imagined himself becoming part of the place. As he moved in what he hoped was her direction he was misdirected by streams of brackish water so dark that anything, even a savage pike could be lurking there. As he moved in what he hoped was her direction he questioned why he was even doing this. He could be at home in the parlour, reading a book, drinking some tea, enclosed, not fearful. He knew his fear wasn’t of animals or wood ghosts or county monsters though, it was that he might not see the dog again.

He reached a wide, flat, circular clearing surrounded by malformed oaks and beech trees and those pines. A truly terrible yew tree stood to the west of the circle, casting its shadow onto a twisted Ash with its old man’s skin. There was no Shalford in sight. Crosschester was lost.

“Adelaide!” he called again, elongating her name like a child lost in a fairground calling for his mother. “Adelaide!”

The darkness in the branches was hard, not a soft evening shade, not a shade at all. Here in the woods, the darkness crackled with the remains of the day’s light.

“Adelaide!”, he thought he cried out loud but realised that he was only calling for her inside himself.

An owl called to her partner across the clearing with no reply. Lunsford was cold, his old boots were leaking.

“Not the best, are they?” a voice low-down to his left said in a matter of fact way.

For a moment Lunsford was certain that Adelaide was finally talking to him. Either his mind had finally given in to a year of opiates and confusion or the dog was magic and everything he’d ever known was broken. What surprised him most about either of these probabilities was that neither of them bothered him too much. He was surprised that Adelaide’s voice was so mellow and male. He’d imagined that she would sound like a rather scruffy but ultimately able and energetic young woman. Certainly not an estuary drawl. Lunsford had visited London twice in his life for a total of 16 hours and all the accents had jostled together, sharp elbowed and lump hammer jawed shouting and carping. He looked down at the voice.

“Afternoon sir”, said a very tall young man with cropped, red hair. He was wearing light green overalls and builders’ tan boots, and he was making up a small fire from sticks and dried moss.

Lunsford hadn’t seen him when he walked into the clearing.

“Good afternoon, Mr?” he said.

“Just call me Fawley”, said the young man standing up and proffering his long-fingered, badly manicured left hand to be shaken.

“Good afternoon, Mr Fawley”, Lunsford replied, trying to work out how to make a left-handed greeting.

“Just Fawley. Want a smoke?”

“No thank you, I don’t”, Lunsford thought too much about his handshake and not having touched another human being for months or not wanting to be seen as an easy mark – the young man looked hungry, maybe even desperate – he applied too much pressure.

Fawley released Lunsford’s hand, “Bloody hell, there’s no need for that. It’s supposed to be a greeting not an arm wrestle. Calm down”.

“Sorry, sorry”, Lunsford was embarrassed, he dropped both arms to his side. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen a shaggy brown dog have you?”

“First thing’s first”, said Fawley, returning to his fire lighting and looking up at Lunsford with beautifully clear, grey eyes, “What do I call you? What’s your name? I can’t keep calling you sir, can I?”

“Lunsford”, said Lunsford, crouching down next to Fawley.

“Mr Lunsford? Bob Lunsford? Lunsford St John-Stevas?” The fire had taken on life, and Fawley was adding fuel. He reached into a heavy cloth bag and took out a tin of sausages and beans. This surprised Lunsford who had assumed that the young man would have foraged some food or, more likely, would have no food at all.

“Martin Lunsford”.

“Do you want some sausage and beans Martin?”

“People just usually call me Lunsford”.

“I can see that, no worries, Lunsford. As it goes, I have seen your dog, just a few moments ago actually. Happy thing isn’t she? Up to her ears in vim.”

Lunsford grinned despite himself. “Oh, she’s not my dog really. She just turned up and hasn’t left yet. She probably likes the food and warmth”.

“And the company?” Fawley was stoking the small fire, adding twigs and dry leaves.

Lunsford looked at the ground, shook his head, “I’m not good company”.

Fawley opened the tin with a small knife that he’d also taken from the bag. “Sure you don’t want some scran, Lunsford?”

“No, I’m fine really. I just want to find the dog and to get home”, he paused, he was hungry. He looked around and saw a lean-to made from fallen branches and topped with interlaced bracken that surely hadn’t been there when he arrived. It had a wide mouth facing east, and a floor covered in more of the bracken.

“Do you live here, Fawley?”

“No”, he chuckled. “I stay here every so often but I don’t really live anywhere much. I travel around doing odd jobs. I like forests and woods, and this one’s a corker during the colder months. Lots of cover. Don’t know if you’ve noticed but the deeper in you come, the warmer it is too. Bloody useful that. Are you sure about the food?”

Lunsford stood up. No matter how hungry he was he still didn’t quite trust this Fawley character. He really needed to get back to his home but he was still unable to think about being there without the dog.

Fawley placed the tin of beans and sausages into the fire and called out, “Adelaide”. Two minutes passed during which time Fawley took a billycan, an old green glass bottle of liquid and two teabags from his bag.

“Adelaide”, he said, softly. He added the teabags to the billycan and poured clear liquid from the bottle on top, then he balanced it precariously on top of the tin of sausages and beans.

“Nice name, how did you come up with it?” asked Fawley.

Lunsford thought for a few seconds, looking into the fire and then into the forest, then back at Fawley. For the first time it occurred to him that Fawley knew the dog’s name. How on earth was that the case unless he also knew the dog?

“I don’t know. I suppose she just looked like an Adelaide, and she answered to it”, he replied.

Adelaide came in from the north, head-up, tail wagging, tongue lolling, twigs and leaves sticking out every which way. She trotted over to Fawley, licked his hand, and sat down looking at him and then at the fire. He reached out his left hand and pushed his long fingers through the fur on her head, she vibrated and leant against him making a low, peaceful growling noise.

Lunsford was certain that the two of them knew each other, it was no coincidence that the dog had led him to this spot and to this man. He re-examined Mr One-Name Fawley.

Tall, thin, everything about him was thin, from his nose to his fingers. Weirdly thin, as if he could turn to one side and be only a slit in the air. His hair was straight and short. Lunsford looked more closely while trying to hide this fact. There were silver-grey threads running through the young man’s hair, the firelight and low evening light also suggested that these same threads ran through this skin like another circulatory system. Absurd. What was less absurd, however, was that for some reason this Fawley had managed to lure Lunsford into this strange circular clearing. He’d heard of this kind of crusty, homeless people with their trained dogs. He had seen one of them begging near the Market Cross in town before they were moved on.

How easy would it be to rob someone out here, deep in the wood? Murder them. Then leave them to rot into the mulch. Lunsford wanted to run but this Fawley character obviously knew the blasted forest so well that that there would no point in it. He would only get more lost, more exhausted, colder. That dog, that fucking dog, it looked up at Fawley, then wandered over to where Lunsford was crouching down like a frog.

It was wagging its tail, looking friendly, looking like calm company. But no. Everything was falling into place now. The trees around him closed in, the brush and bushes appeared to grow thicker. One of the owls called to its mate but received nothing in reply, just a silence like its own flight.

Everything around Lunsford was wrong. He could feel his bones growing heavier, and his head was starting to ache as if there was a beast in his skull slowly opening its jaws. He stood up and steeled himself or tried to. He felt such pressure on his skin that he was sure it would soon fall from his skeleton. Nothing was right. He was wrong. He was in the wrong place. The fire was too yellow. The air was too yellow. The treetops started shrieking as the wind accelerated overhead. All the birds were dead. His eyes were as dry as twigs. His mouth was full of terror. It wasn’t just the man now, not just Fawley and that dog, it was everything, the entire world was rejecting him.

He looked to the ground but he had no connection to it, never had, never could have. This world was escaping him, leaving him floating just above the dirt and the tiny bones of dead birds, the rotting pinecones and the blood from millennia of constant hunting and killing, hunting and killing, by men and animals, hunting and killing and he wasn’t there, he was disappearing fast, he had no connections.

There was so much silence though, rushing through his head. The only piece of him that remained was to that of a victim. He could do nothing. All things were to be done to him. All bad, all violence, all humiliation. There was nothing he could do to intervene in his own life.

Go home Mr Lunsford.

We don’t need you here.

You can’t ease the pain

“Sausages and beans, very sugary, all I’ve got though”, said Fawley. Adelaide walked back over to him, shrugged and lay down. She looked up at Lunsford who was now standing, floating, still and moving fast, open mouthed. She was Fawley’s dog. It was obvious. He was alone, floating, waiting for it to come so he could be left alone here to be sucked into the ground and forgotten. His voice was stilled somewhere. His memory was shaking. His memories were an avalanche.

Go home Mr Lunsford.

You can do nothing here.

You can’t ease the pain.

There is nothing you can do.

Go home

Far below, Fawley was eating his meal.

“I’ve got nothing you know. Maybe about two pounds and some change”, blurted Lunsford, almost relieved that he’d managed to piece together the mystery of the over-friendly dog, the visit to the wood, the sudden appearance of this young man.

“Pardon?” replied Fawley, obviously surprised.

“I don’t really have anything worth taking”, he took his wallet from his pocket and threw it at Fawley’s feet. Adelaide picked it up and wagged her tail.

“It’s been quite a lot of effort for not much return I’m afraid. I should really get going now”, he didn’t know how to move. He’d never been robbed before. He had expected it to happen during his London visits, or maybe in Crosschester after a particularly nasty home game against Waterville United, but not here and not in such a diabolical way.

God knows what else was in that bag, he thought. A gun? Knives? Black magic? An axe?

“Seriously, what are you going on about, Mr Lunsford?”

Fawley finished his meal, drank his tea and put out the fire with the dregs. Adelaide stood up and wandered over the Lunsford, when she reached him, she leant against his legs, looked up, and started that panting, smiling effort he’d become quite used to. She dropped his wallet at his feet.

“You’re going to rob me and kill me”, out it came. Stupid, showing his hand, making it plain to this man who could be a lunatic that he knew what was going on.

“I’m not, you know”, Fawley prodded the can of food. “Why would I?”

Adelaide placed her head under Lunsford’s right hand and demanded a stroke.

“You know this dog. You called her by name. She led me here. She led me to you. Why would she do that? She’s enchanted or you’ve trained her as a lure for marks like me”, Lunsford was sobbing now. Floating and sobbing and looking down on himself.

“I thought she was your dog though, brother. You said you were looking for her”. Fawley stood up. He took a pair of thick gloves out of his bag, reached down and removed the billycan and the tin of food from the remains of the fire.

“How did you know her name!?” screamed Lunsford, as angry and upset that he had lost his companion to this wood sprite or street thug, or whatever he was. “How did you know her name?”

“You were calling her name all over the woods at the top of your voice, for god’s sake”, Fawley looked sad but not shocked at the turn of events.

He smiled, “Lunsford, the quickest way out of here is that way”, he pointed towards the large oak using the long, slender index finger of his left hand. “Keep the central cathedral tower on your left. Keep St Eade’s steeple on your right. It’s not far and you’ll be on the paved path again. Home safe, and don’t stop along the way. It’s been interesting meeting you. See you again maybe?”

Fawley put his various bits and bobs back in his bag, which he slung over his shoulder and across his body. Lunsford saw that it had words and phrases written on it in what looked like felt pen. He couldn’t make them out. Fawley turned on his heel, checked back to ensure the fire was out and stalked off into Hunters Wood and the darkness.

Adelaide followed him.

Read the Free chapters

Prologue – Welcome to Crosschester

Chapter 01 – Darren was a skillful driver

Chapter 02 – If only there were words

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