A woman drives through woods in winter. On either side of the car, tall trees stand and sulk, resisting winter’s demise at the year’s turn. The woman is scared. She is the fifth carer for the old man, and no one has told her why. But she’s heard the stories and she is afraid.
It’s New Year’s Eve but that makes no difference to the woman. Her sons are at work, her husband sleeps. There is no party for her. Claire and Sue had offered to bring wine round but, as ever, she had pushed them away. What was the point? It was another year of it; there was nothing to celebrate.
She is getting older, they all are. Her life has grown small, shrunk to the size of the labels she wears – nurse, carer, cook. Recipient of Universal Credit. At home, she feels trapped, in the street, invisible. No one looks at her. There is nothing remarkable about old people. She has signed her name on so many forms, so how come she’s almost forgotten who she is?
The light is dying, and the road ahead narrows and fades. This piece of woodland, in spring, is covered with flowers but in winter, it feels barren, brooding. She turns on the headlights and slows to avoid potholes and fallen branches. The trees shoulder together, thick as thieves. A deer darts out in front of the car. The woman is mesmerised by its velvet eyed grace, almost forgetting to stop. But she is going slowly, and instinct takes over. They pause, nose to bonnet and the woman sees briefly in its face the same fear that’s in her own. Then it’s gone, swift and slender, a flit between trees.
The car lurches on until the road itself ends, a footpath disappearing into the forest. The woman was warned of this.
‘Are you sure?’ Her boss, Maureen, narrowed her eyes, looked her up and down with a doubtful face. ‘It’s very isolated, the cabin. You’ll have to walk for ten minutes in darkness once the road ends. That’s why no one will do evenings.’
The woman nodded. But it was only a half-hour drive away and better pay (double for awkwardness, triple for New Year). Apparently, the latest carer threw in the towel just before Christmas. Maureen coped but wanted a regular now.
‘I’ll take it,’ she replied. What else would she be doing on New Year’s Eve?
Now, she stops the car, gathers her things, gets out. As an afterthought, she leans in and puts the interior light on so she will see it on her return. When she slams the door, there’s a fluttering, a rustling. It makes her jump. She stands there for a moment, thinking of all the hidden life around her, barely perceptible in the grass and trees: mice, foxes, owls. I should live in a forest, she thinks, picking up her bag and torch. She breathes in the scent of soil and dampness, strangely energised. The cast of other people’s worries – her mother’s health, her husband’s gloom – always processing through her head, clump to a halt. As if from a distance, she observes them, puzzled, unused to their silence. Then she switches on her torch and marches towards the path.
The torch is very powerful. ‘Don’t look at it, ever!’ Maureen had barked. ‘It will literally blind you.’
So, she holds the bulky gadget carefully pointing away, its mighty eye picking out every twist and turn in the path ahead. She avoids mud, steps over roots. She likes the sound of her feet swishing against the long grass. Strange that at home, in the light, she feels as though she’s falling, heavy with the sadness of those she loves. But here, alone in the dark, with the light of a single torch, she strides ahead, confident. Her legs feel strong, her sixty-year-old body supple. She could walk forever.
At last, she sees a light. She stops, turns off her torch. It’s only a pinprick but the tiniest light offers hope for a journey’s end. She switches on the torch again and points it down. The light ahead grows bigger. She can make it out now: a lantern strung on a branch; behind, a wooden cabin. She has arrived.
She hesitates briefly outside the sturdy building then knocks on wood that, even in the darkness, she can see has weathered to the colour of trees. A snuffling sound comes from the other side of the door and the low drone of a radio, music.
‘Hello?’ she calls. The word repeats itself, bounding and rebounding through the woods. The snuffling becomes louder accompanied by a series of small barks. A dog. Maureen did not mention a dog.
There is a banging and scraping as if someone is struggling to get to the door. It swings open. And there he is, the ‘woodland giant’. He is indeed tall – the crutch he is leaning on is far too short and he looks bent over, uncomfortable. He glares up at her with hostile eyes partly obscured by wild eyebrows. At his feet, bounces an eager terrier. He springs forward, barks and licks her hand. The woman smiles. She leans down and fondles his neck.
‘Hello!’ she says warmly. ‘They didn’t tell me about you!’
The old man snorts. ‘You’re useless, you are,’ he tells the dog. ‘You’re supposed to protect me from strangers, not befriend them.’
The dog looks up at him, head on one side. The old man harrumphs but the woman sees a change, a softening. He turns and clumps back towards his chair by the hearth.
‘You’d better come in,’ he calls over his shoulder.
So she does, closing the door, putting down her things, removing her coat. The dog snuffles her bag and torch with a curious nose. She hangs her coat on a hook near the door and looks around. It’s an Aladdin’s cave.
There are leather chairs, lamps, a wood-burning stove; books line every wall. The surface of a large table and antique desk are covered with papers, the wood floor strewn with rugs. This must be murder for a man on crutches, but their colourful threads make the room sing. A kitchen area to the right of the door boasts a wooden worktop, Aga and red tiled floor. Everywhere there are wooden carvings, some clearly fashioned for a purpose – a scoop chair, a stool, a set of bowls – others, decorative. There is a cat, a mouse, a reindeer. And next to the fire, a beautiful branch, smooth and polished to a shine.
The old man has retreated to an upright chair on the other side of the fire, painfully hoisting his leg onto a stool. Behind him, a half open door reveals a lattice window, the corner of a bed.
The woman is enchanted. ‘What a beautiful house!’
‘You think?’ The old man sniffs. He bangs his walking stick on the ground so suddenly that the woman jumps. The dog, now curled in front of the fire, doesn’t flinch. ‘It’s a savage place to live when you can’t bloody walk!’ he shouts, voice rising with each word. His accent is Irish, his voice gravel.
The woman is still. There’s a sigh from the dog, a hiss from the fire. But beyond the house, in the air between trees, stretching for miles in every direction, silence. The old man glances at her from beneath shaggy eyebrows. His expression is curious. She picks up her bag and takes out a clipboard, latex gloves.
‘So will I help with the leg?’ she says.
He roars again but this time she is ready and, like the dog, doesn’t flinch.
‘I don’t want your bloody help!’ His vehemence makes him cough which at least diffuses things. She moves swiftly to the sink and pours a glass of water. By the time she’s placed it on the table near him, his face is purple, eyes streaming. He picks up the glass, his body shuddering with the effort of not coughing. He drinks greedily.
She pulls a chair over to where he’s sitting and waits, quietly, next to the leg. After a while, he recovers.
‘Well, you’re a funny one,’ he says. ‘Most of them have left by now.’
She gives him a steady look. ‘It’ll take more than that to scare me off,’ she says, ‘I’m used to awkward bastards. I’m married to one.’
At this, he throws back his head and laughs. The skin on his chin, beneath his beard, is red and tight. ‘You’re Irish, aren’t you?’ he says. ‘Not much of an accent left but I can tell. It explains your bloody-mindedness…’
Truce. She smiles. A stillness. They are quietly assessing each other for possibilities. A log spits. Somewhere outside there’s a call. She tilts her head, listens.
‘Is that an owl?’
‘It is.’ He sighs and begins to roll up his trouser leg.
‘I didn’t think they hooted in winter.’ She actually has no idea. She’s just trying to keep the wolf (his temper) from the door (her job).
He has finished rolling up his trousers. The wound gapes redly from beneath the bloodied bandage. He allows himself a small breath. He looks at her.
‘You clearly don’t know much about owls then.’
Calmly, she begins to take what she needs out of the bag. ‘You’re right,’ she says, placing her things on the rustic table between them – antiseptic, tweezers, a fresh bandage, a tub. She pulls on the gloves and sets, gently, to work.
‘I was feigning an interest to stop you shouting,’ she says.
This time his laugh is less hearty. He is gripping the flesh of his leg, either side of the wound with both hands. His face has paled.
‘You have so many books,’ she says as she works. ‘What do you like to read?’
‘Everything,’ he mutters through clenched teeth.
She pauses in her efforts to peel away the congealed bandage. ‘Are you alright?’ she says.
He’s gripping his leg so hard that the flesh has changed colour. She wants to tell him to stop but can see he’s struggling to keep control.
‘It’s for mating,’ he tells her.
‘I’m sorry?’ The bandage is coming off but pulling at the wound. She is slow, as gentle as possible. His reply is between gritted teeth. But now his voice is so soft she must strain to hear him.
‘Part of the reason they call at night is to attract a mate.’ She can feel his glance, but she’s looking down, with a frown of concentration. ‘You and I don’t need one of those, I’m guessing,’ he adds, ‘since the wife’s warm in her grave and you have an awkward bastard.’
She looks up as he knows she will. Their faces are close. His eyes are intelligent, brown-flecked green, young eyes in old skin of the softest leather. She pulls the last of the bandage away and dumps it in the tub along with the gloves. She pauses for a moment, looks into the fire. The flames leap and twist.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says, ‘about your wife.’
He nods. She looks around. The room smells of woodsmoke and books. The carved footstool, the rough-hewn table and chairs make her think of a hobbit house. Simple, almost childlike, the pieces have pleasing lines and gleaming surfaces that ask to be touched.
‘You’re a carpenter,’ she says.
‘I am.’ He sighs. ‘That’s what got me into trouble.’ He jerks his head in the direction of the leg. She begins slowly to clean the wound, pretending to ignore his wince.
‘I’ve never hurt myself cutting it up for the burner, but this…’ He picks up a piece of wood from the other side of the chair, ‘this is what finished me.’
The woman puts a piece of bloodied gauze in the tub and pauses, a fresh piece at the ready. Her eyes follow the piece of wood as he lifts it closer for inspection. It’s an almost complete circle of wood, still rough, weathered by the elements, rings and whorls thrown liberally across its width. The top right side is cut on a diagonal, straightening the curve. The upper part of the diagonal is stained. It looks as though someone has tried to scrub it.
The woman looks closer. ‘Is that blood?’
‘Yes, it’s blood,’ he grunts, ‘my blood. My very own. Talk about blood, sweat and tears for your trade…’
‘How did you do it?’ She’s nearly finished. She tapes the new dressing in place, around the edge of the wound.
‘Like a fool, I didn’t line it up properly on the bench and it slipped. I sliced a vein.’ He puts the wooden circle on his knee and slumps his head, eyes lowered towards his leg. ‘They say they can treat the wound, but there’s permanent damage to the blood supply. I’ll be disabled for life.’ A sigh. ‘Old, disabled man living off-grid. Doesn’t sound great, does it?’
She stands and picks up the tub, pulling out a bag for surgical waste with her other hand. Tipping everything in, she takes it into the kitchen area, locates the bin, lifts the lid. As she peels off her gloves and dumps them into the bag, she wonders why such a terrible thing, like the loss of a lover, doesn’t stop life hitting you with more.
She walks back to the stool, sits by the fire. The flames leap and twist; the clock strikes nine. She imagines looking down at the forest, a bird’s-eye view, seeing the spread of it, the criss-cross of paths, the belts of trees, then homing in on the cabin, with its pitched roof nestled beyond the road. Down, down, inside so you could see the tops of their heads, hers and his, looking into the fire, each holding a sorrow so sharp, it slices them in two.
The dog yawns and stretches. Carefully, the old man puts the wooden circle back in its place. He leans down and opens the wood burner, chucks in a log. She sees his stubborn jaw, the strong, precise movements of his hands. This is not a man used to depending on others.
The fire roars. He shuts the door. She watches the colours change behind the glass – red, blue, yellow, orange. They transform the room. Again, she thinks of the light, how in winter we are drawn to it, like moths.
‘My husband has dementia.’ He turns his head, watching her. She is as surprised by this revelation as he is. ‘It’s early-on, but his father died of it and the outlook’s not good.’
He nods, leans down, scratches the skin above the wound. She starts to speak but he lifts his hands and begins to roll his trouser leg down.
‘How come you’re here then?’ He sounds interested rather than nosy.
She holds her sigh inside, like a prayer. But perhaps he sees it. Those in pain can do that.
‘He’s mainly depressed right now,’ she says, ‘because of the diagnosis. He sleeps a lot. I can leave him for a few hours, for the caring and cleaning, until I can’t do them any more.’
He nods, picking at some loose threads in his sweater. He has big, square fingers.
‘He doesn’t talk much now. He just wants to sleep and watch police dramas,’ she tells the old man. ‘The bloodier, the better. I’ve tried so hard to get him to come out, to do the things we love – walking, going to new places – but he won’t. He says there’s no point.’
‘Well, I can see what he means,’ he replies, shrugging. ‘He won’t remember them, will he?’
She stares at him, annoyed. ‘Whose side are you on?’
He spreads his hands. In the background, the fridge starts to hum. ‘I’m just saying, is all. That’s what he’s probably thinking.’
‘How do you know?’ The silence is short, but it splits itself open, and she sees it.
‘That’s how your wife died. Of dementia.’ It’s not a question.
Outside, there’s a whisper in the trees. On the roof, the drumming of rain. The dog raises its head and scratches itself under the chin. It fixes its eyes on her reproachfully. Don’t go there the look says.
She tries not to think of the tragedy that awaits us all, and those we love, the end of things. The effort of this almost undoes her. She needs to go, to get out.
Frantically, she begins to tidy her supplies away. But they don’t seem to fit in the bag any more. She pushes, straining the canvas sides, miscalculating their width. To her alarm, her vision is blurred. Blindly, she shoves a roll of bandage into the bulging pocket.
‘Don’t cry.’ His voice is very soft, very gentle. She cannot look at him, cannot speak. She tries valiantly to swallow the lump in her throat, to still her trembling hands. Her heart knocks with the effort.
‘It will pass,’ he continues. How can this be the same man, the angry, violent man who no one will care for? ‘You go with it, what he wants for what he has left. But you keep some of life for yourself – your work, your friends, your passions.’ He gestures around the room, to his carved creations, his books.
She nods weakly. Mainly so she can take a breath.
‘Do you hear me?’ He leans forward and takes her by the arm, almost roughly, makes her look at him.
His eyes are aflame. She knows hers will be stained with tears and mascara. ‘Keep some of life for yourself!’
She wipes her face with her sleeve, nods again. He lets go.
She gets up, walks unsteadily towards the door, puts on her coat. He watches her.
She puts on her gloves, her beret, turns. She wipes her face again.
‘Thank you,’ she says.
‘You’re thanking me?’ He guffaws. ‘You’ve just changed my dressing! I’ll see you tomorrow. If you’re good, I’ll show you my books.’
He winks. She gives a weak smile, reaches for the door.
‘Goodbye. Take care,’ she says.
‘Happy New Year,’ he calls as she closes the door.
Happy New Year. It won’t be happy for Tom. But she thinks of his face when she enters the room, the blank expression lit with pleasure; the way he reaches out unsteady hands. There are still things in life to cherish.
She wonders if the faith of a lifetime – which she’d seen in the lusty singing of carols, word perfect – would help him in the months to come. There is this hope.
The torch throws the path ahead into sharp relief. The rain has stopped but the wind is strong. As she plunges towards the car, the trees raise their voice to a shout. She thinks of Mike (how dare they call him the woodland giant), how broken he must have been, how brave. Keep some of life for yourself, your friends, your passions… do you hear me?
She switches off the torch and stands for a moment in the wind, feels the chill of it, the pull. Around her, the winter forest moans and shakes. Yet in the months to come, beneath her feet, the unclenching of tiny fists – snowdrops, bluebells, gorse: the stubborn hope of the earth.
She takes a few steps, glances at her watch. The luminous hands inform her it’s not yet ten. Perhaps she’ll message the girls after all.
Looking up, she sees a dot of light, hovering between branches; the one from her car. It’s only a pinprick but the tiniest light offers hope for a journey’s end.
Jan marches towards it.
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