There was an awful grinding sound as Conner left the road. He bumped the earth bank and the car slid across a half-buried rock. He imagined sparks flying out like some cosmic chariot as he came to a halt. His daughter slept through, curling and uncurling her 23-week-old fingers. He had made no preparation for fatherhood, the same way he had made no preparation for many of his life events, but there was nothing he would not give up for her. Yet here he was, half on and half off the road in God-knows where. He had slipped back into his old ways. He had been playing the game.
When anxious a serpentine knot gripped his guts, just beneath his rib cage. He learnt this feeling as a child. His friends also had night-terrors something under the bed or hiding in the dark, or just the feeling of being abandoned by their parents. Different from his friends, he learnt to control these fears through an injection of panic.
He learnt this the first time he rolled down a hill in the park. Out of control, with the smell of grass and mud in his nostrils, he came close to smashing his skull on a fence. Later, he began climbing high into trees, especially Oak with their stout limbs. High on their thinnest branches rocked by the wind he achieved the same rush. From the ground it looked brave and with these exploits he developed the admiration of his friends. This though was a by-product. The aim was to induce panic deep inside his core. Panic cultivated fear. And it was fear that ripped through destroying the knot.
This experimentation continued into his teens. Walking with his friends in Town, he would close his eyes in the High Street. Standing stock-still he waited for the smell of a diesel engine. Then without warning, he stepped out into the road. He lost many friends during this experimentation – freaking them out. Gaining his driving licence extended his experimentation. During this period, he discovered ‘fine rain’.
Fine rain was not the thin mist that soaked through your denim on an hour’s walk with the dog. To Conner fine rain was the rain that allowed him to play an adult version of the game. His game. In the rain he turned the windscreen wipers to intermittent wipe. He adjusted the car’s speed allowing the rain to fully cover the screen, reducing visibility to an impossible smear. Then just as the panic alarm in his deep brain told him he was going to die; the wiper blade cleared the water. The road was stolen from the wobbly lines disappearing into grey. This he would do five, six, seven or more times. Depending on the type of road he sometimes travelled a long way loosing and regaining his sight. Sometimes he left his lane. Terror killed the anxious knot.
He played the game alone, or with passengers; the knot’s needs dictated the frequency. Passengers always noticed. Passengers always commented, sometimes stridently, but nobody ever got hurt. During one of these experiments though he did kill a fox. This he regretted, but there it was, dead by the roadside. A small amount of blood trickled from the animal’s nose, discolouring a puddle. Its coat, thick with winter, kept it warm while it slept. He paused the game.
The pause lasted longer than he expected. The knot did not even reappear at fatherhood. That first summer everything was marvellous; he viewed the death of the fox as a release. Nevertheless, in the shortening days the familiar feeling returned, his guts inside a net bag that would eventually pull tight. His daughter, Rebecca, was so beautiful and precious, but Conner felt the future pile down on both of their aspirations.
A wet Thursday, late October, sitting at traffic lights the thump of the windscreen wipers bounced around the inside his skull.
Conner turned them off. The sound of rain on metal, the sound of rain on the glass, chilled his bones. The first drops to hit the cleared windscreen spread, radiating amoeba-like tentacles. In the time it took for more to fall the first ones began to bleed into each other, racing down the screen. It was a strange erratic path as water joined amoeba joined water.
The tail-lights of the car in front sparkled like babbles at Christmas. Lines that had once been straight -tree trunks, lamp post and road markings, swayed. Big chunks were eaten out of them by unseen voracious mouths. It was more abstract when he closed one eye, first the left then the right. The image lurched and swayed.
The car behind blared on the horn. Twice. The car in front was twenty metres away when his wipers swiped left. He drove. Forgetting Rebecca in her car seat, he sought panic to eat his anxious, twisted knot. 37 miles later, as he bumped off the road, she filled Conner’s rear-view mirror, once more occupying his attention. His full attention. This time, fear had not prevented the net bag pulling tighter. He needed help.
There was no signal on his phone. The rain cocooned them in the car. He did not get out immediately. Conner waited, expecting to be told what to do. Rebecca slept. His instruction never arrived. He stepped out into the rain. Still no signal. He walked a short way up the hill, the way he had come. No signal. Ten more yards, still no signal. In other circumstances the golden Birch leaves would have made him elated, but they shone a radiant glow that could not fill his heart. Today, they did not stop the rain sticking his shirt to his chest.
He went back to the car. He opened the rear door and sat with Rebecca. She began to stir, he carried the smell and chill of the forest. She would be hungry soon. This was no longer fine rain. Across the road a deer moved between the trees. It disappeared before he turned his head to look fully at it. There had been no traffic in all this time. Conner had to act.
The boot contained every possible thing a child may need, but he had no coat; there was a golf umbrella -green and blue. He took Rebecca’s changing bag -her food, her nappies and spare clothes. He sensed the deer return. Conner turned, seeing nothing except the occasional leaf, made heavy by the rain, fall.
Unclipping his daughter from her seat, sliding her into a waterproof ‘all-in-one’, Rebecca screwed up her face but stayed asleep. Conner held her tight. She smelt of baby. He smiled.
Choosing forward over back, it was about four miles to the next village. Juggling Rebecca, the changing bag and the umbrella he tried to protect all against the rain. In indoor shoes he could not avoid the puddles and the rivulet of water running along the edge of the road. The water quickly soaked his socks, cold water iced his feet. His heels dragged with an exaggerated ‘slosh’. Stopping to re-position Rebecca to the other shoulder he looked around, not sure what to expect. Still no traffic. He was left with a feeling that it would be soon, whatever was coming. Was that another deer further on? A bird screeched an alarm as flew, a kaleidoscope of pink, blue, white and black. Then nothing. Conner shivered with the cold, he had to press on.
A few more minutes, water soaking up his trouser legs, he reached a track on the left. A sign pointing to the village read, ‘One and a half miles’. He looked along the road to the bend. The track was less than half as far as the road, but it would screen him from help that was certainly on its way. The rain dripping from the leaves was now the only sound. Late afternoon was shedding its veil to reveal the arrival of evening.
Conner assessed the options again. Less than half the distance. This was the instruction that moved him. He looked along the track, water polished the gravel either side of a grass central ridge. His shoes noticed the transition from firm to soft. Each step pressed down slightly, and the mud reached the uppers. With each step the smooth bottoms of the shoes slide slightly, but still noticeably, back towards the road. It was as though they did not want to leave what they knew, for an unknown future. The trees made the track a darker route. Small birds with long tails flew across his path. Was this a sign? Connor pressed on regardless reaching an Oak tree with its deeply fissured bark and decades of observation, its first branches appeared at about three metres. The leaves were a mix of browns and greens, acorns were hidden. Another shrieky bird lifted pink from fallen leaves. Rebecca started to make the sounds of hunger. Connor’s knot tightened further, it was slowing him down. By now he was almost doubled up in agony.
He reached the next Oak, its trunk hollowed out. It had lost some upper branches and the trunk was split at the bottom. He noticed the detail of a moth on the edge of the slit like lichen -greens and greys. He touched the moth with his outstretched finger. It flew in to the cavern where the guts of the tree should have been. He looked inside, and an idea constructed itself. He took a changing mat out of the bag. He placed the plastic side down onto the mud and leaves, the pink elephant and lemon-coloured pony face upwards. He lay Rebecca on her back and while he pressed the handle of the umbrella down into the mud she began to cry. He tried to block out the sound.
Connor peered inside the trunk again. Looking up he could see the sky, still grey, rain splashed onto his face. He knew what to do. He used the hollow trunk as a chimney. The pain had not subsided, but he was able to climb. He knew he was going to get release when he reached the open sky. He had not climbed to branches waving in the wind for many years, but inside the chimney there were plenty of hand and foot holds; it was easy. The opening to the sky was getting larger and looking down the entrance was shrinking. It was working, he was pain free. Soon the knot would be gone too.
The hole at the top was big enough to climb through. It was going to take some manoeuvring, but he could see a branch on which he could stand and look across to the village, its lights would be twinkling by now. The hole was just over shoulder width, so he would have to raise one arm at a time. Bracing his legs to push upwards, out first went the left hand followed by the left arm. Then in front of his face brushing his nose as it went the right hand followed by the right arm. Pushing with his calves, hamstrings and quads. got his head and torso through the hole. He reached out to sides of the hole. He pushed again, arms and legs working together, his ribcage was born to the world.
Deep breath. Fresh air. Knot untangling. Next push. Nothing moved. Connor could not go higher. He relaxed. Deep breath. Try again. No progress. He tried to slide back down, but his belt had snagged beneath the rim. He wriggled his feet to push again, they slipped from the nodules that had supported him so far. His legs dangled freely. The belt he wore to hold his belly in place, now held his belly in place. There was no longer a serpent holding his guts the tree had performed the magic contained in the game. His game. Below, far below, an unfed baby.
Dryobotodes eremita -Photo Matthew Casey