FLIGHT

Adrian scarcely knew where he was. He had run blindly straight for the trees, the little wood at the back of the estate. Racked by grief and anger, he was still running hard; if he stopped he felt he would collapse to the ground, sobbing, beating the earth, screaming. He had to stop thinking about what had happened, what had been said, just fling himself forward. He scraped the side of his head on a branch rather painfully and slowed down to a half run, half walk; he could feel blood oozing from the graze but he went back to an almost full run, ignoring his shortness of breath and the pain in his side.

It was darker under the trees and he slowed to a fast walk despite himself; his body didn’t want another injury. It would be quite light out in the open for several hours yet, but here the ground was deep in shade and there were roots and tangled briars everywhere. Quite often he was faced by barriers, either where the trees, which were some kind of pine, were too close together or where there was a dense clump of bushes. Progress was becoming increasingly difficult and slow. He needed to find a path. He concentrated on working his way to the left, hoping to come across one of the many tracks that he knew ran through the wood. Sure enough after only a hundred yards of searching he found one, at right angles to his progress more or less. He didn’t want to turn left, back towards the estate; he had nothing to go back to. He turned right, intentionally heading further into the darkening trees.

Along the path itself visibility was much better and he was able to speed up again to a half run but even at this exhausting pace he could not outdistance what had happened; the dreadful shape of that irredeemably lost and betrayed happiness kept pace with him, looming over him, its threat further shortening his breath. Frightening images of the future, of waking at night alone, of coming home to an empty flat, of seeing only one dressing gown on the hooks in the bathroom, kept breaking in so violently that he had to stop. Each time he shivered, shook himself and set off again as fast as he was still able to. The path he was on was not one he recognised, being better defined, better surfaced and more travelled than most of the little tracks in the wood and he was surprised that the trees still showed no sign of thinning. He began to realise that he must, in his unseeing flight, have walked through the narrow neck of the woods that ran into the main forest and was now on a bridle path that could go for many miles. He decided that suited him fine; he would take his chances, walk until he came out somewhere new and different. He would walk away from the past.

How could all his deep certainty and glow of happiness about their future have been so wrong, so false, so far from being shared? All those nights, those smiling eyes! How long ago had the betrayal started? It had to be weeks, more likely months. That hurt almost as much as the thought of never seeing him again.

He arrived at a clearing which was a junction of five ways, giving a choice of four onward directions; three were along smaller paths but the bridle track he was on seemed to continue in the same direction opposite. He hesitated, trying to recall the shape of this end of the forest on the map. He would usually of course have looked at Maps but he had taken nothing with him, no phone, no wallet, not even a coat. He was fairly sure that straight ahead meant many more miles of forest so he thought he had better try one of the smaller paths leading off to the left or right; he decided right might lead out sooner.

Standing there allowed the reality back in. Of course he hadn’t had the honesty to do it face to face. He had deliberately waited to tell him until he was on the point of leaving the country, actually at the airport, so there was nothing he could do – and then apologised as if he had been late for a meeting. “Sorry I didn’t let you know earlier!”

He strode off along the right hand track he had chosen but it soon became narrow and uneven. The conifers had given way to large oaks and chestnuts whose branches formed a dense canopy above him, increasing the gloom, but he welcomed the need to focus on walking safely. The path gradually became difficult to follow; once or twice he had to retrace his steps to find it again when what had seemed the continuation turned out to be just the false promise of a gap between trees that then petered out into thick undergrowth, but each time it had become better defined again after a while and he comforted himself that it seemed to know where it was going.

It was now night, he realised, not just under the trees but in the outside world. He had been walking for ages and he couldn’t understand why he hadn’t emerged from the forest; it wasn’t that big surely. At least his eyes had grown accustomed to the deepening darkness and he could see 10 or 15 yards ahead, which was enough to avoid bumping into things. The path showed up as paler than everything else, grey with hints of dark brown and the occasional lighter tones of stones or gravel. He found he had made another false turn following a number of apparently connected openings clear of undergrowth between trees. He managed to return with some difficulty to the last point he had reached on the path but couldn’t see any better opening than the one he had mistakenly followed.

He stopped. He didn’t want to go back. The thought of returning to the flat made him feel physically sick; it was the same as remembering, thinking, things he must avoid.

He began a methodical sweep search in gradually larger curves left and right to locate the faithless path. Several times he thought he had discovered it, but it always petered out after a few yards. He realised that this was becoming dangerously confusing as it became more and more difficult to remember where he had left the curve of the sweep search to follow the last false path. He ended up walking faster and faster in what he hoped were matching curves to left and right, first to find the continuation and then in increasingly worried efforts to retrace his steps and find the original path.

He realised that he had lost all sense of direction and didn’t know which way was back any more. What was he to do? He wondered what it would be like to spend the night here. He hadn’t spent a night outdoors since his teens. He looked around; trees, shrubs and undergrowth on every side merging into the surrounding darkness a few yards away. He thought he could see a few sparks of stars through the branches and foliage above. It was late spring and the weather was quite mild and fair, at least at the moment. He didn’t want to meet anyone or talk to anyone. He could walk on to somewhere new and different in the morning – he was bound to find a path when it was light again. He could look for somewhere that might provide a bit of shelter, a large tree, a hollow or something.

He gave up on the path and started to pick his way through the forest, occasionally having to push through undergrowth but managing to walk round the densest patches. More often than not there was a more open space near the trunks of the trees but these gaps didn’t lead in a consistent direction and it was difficult to keep any sense of a heading. Not that it mattered, he thought, as he had no idea where he was going anyway.

He continued to make his way slowly through the pathless forest for a long time, becoming more skilful at groping, hands extended, through low branches and taller undergrowth, bushes and brambles, learning to pause in the space under one tree to peer through the dark to find the next, getting better, he hoped, at going in a straight line to avoid wandering in circles. He had no idea what time it was but it was much later when he came to a stop without being sure why. He realised after a moment that he was on the edge of a larger clearing and that was why he had paused in his journey. As far as he could tell in the darkness it was mainly covered in long grasses and bracken, or something like bracken.

Standing still on the edge, peering about, he became aware of faint noises, rustles, perhaps a flutter of wings, a miniscule creak, from within the forest on the other side. There was more light in the treeless space of course; he looked up and saw a sky lit by a moon behind thin cloud or mist and a generous sprinkling of stars in the clear bits. When he looked back to earth, the trees on the opposite edge of the clearing appeared darker and the interior of the forest behind them inky black; the noises sounded more obvious, nearer.

Continuing his mad race through the trees no longer seemed attractive or necessary, especially glancing across the glade at the forest night beyond. He was weary of searching out the next paler space that promised a way forward and physically very tired, emotionally drained and in need of sleep. Could he find a spot in the clearing soft and sheltered enough?

He walked into the centre of the space and looked about him through the dimness. There were areas of long grass, bracken and various tall weedy clumps. He could make out suspiciously bramble-like low tangles in the some of the grass but no obvious nettles or thistles. He made for the thickest clump of bracken and started to investigate it with his feet, pushing the stems apart with the toes of his trainers. He knelt down in the centre of it all and felt the ground. It was dry enough, mostly covered with dead bracken fronds but of course there were knobbly protrusions, stones and twigs and stuff. He made a den for himself, flattening an area of about his own length and breadth and leaving the bracken and other plants standing around it. From another area of foliage he gathered an armful of old dead fronds and then returned to the ‘den’, lay down and covered himself as best he could. There was a smell of cold earth and of the dry fronds, like straw.

His high-neck sweater, jeans and trainers had kept him reasonably warm so far but he knew lying down and trying to sleep would be a different matter. Luckily there was very little wind and the surrounding plants and even the trees around the clearing did give some protection. His preoccupation with the practicalities of sleep and shelter was shielding him from his thoughts, he realised, and his grief and anger had somewhat subsided.

On his back looking up at the broken cloud and stars, different questions arose. What was he supposed to do about the flat? He could scarcely afford to keep it just on his salary and of course the rental agreement was in his name. How long had Stanley been planning his getaway?

There was something sticking into his neck just above the roll of his sweater and what felt like a stone below his right shoulder blade. He shifted slightly to his left and turned on that side, which was then tolerable in a prickly, chilly sort of way once he had rearranged the fronds over him. He supposed he could advertise for someone to share the flat but the idea brought a vision of a stranger in the spare bedroom, originally Stanley’s, that suddenly made him want to cry. ‘Too soon to think about such things,’ he thought, ‘too soon and too late, too late.’ In the midst of that despair he must have fallen asleep, exhausted by the waves of emotion and the hours of furious walking.

He wasn’t sure how long he had slept when he woke to find it even darker. The sky had disappeared into covering night so that he could scarcely see the stems surrounding him but he realised there were soft sounds coming from nearby, moving around; ‘Footsteps, very light footsteps,’ he thought, ‘and that’s what woke me.’ The noise wasn’t threatening in itself but he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stirring at the strangeness of it out here in the middle of the night. He imagined a fox or even a badger but it sounded like two feet rather than four and though light was still too loud, at least for a fox.

He didn’t know what to do. He was lying very still, totally concealed, but needed to know what was out there. If he poked his head out he would certainly startle whatever it was and it would either bolt or attack, though it didn’t sound big enough to be a threat.

Very slowly he lifted himself on one elbow and with the other hand began to part the stems of the bracken on that side. He could only reach about two thirds of the way through the surrounding screen of foliage, which meant he could see very little, but he was able make out a small form as its movement brought it opposite one of the gaps. He had little impression of its shape but it appeared to stop momentarily here and there and shorten before moving on. It certainly wasn’t big but he couldn’t think what animal it could be – too big for a fox and nothing like a badger or a dog.

With great care he pushed himself up until he was able to look over the top of his den. For a moment he could see nothing in the clearing but darkness but then he realised that the two pale spots close together some way off were its eyes and then he saw it, facing him, unmoving, on the edge of the glade. In the same moment it turned and fled, disappearing in a flash into the forest. He thought it was about the size of a small child and he was fairly sure that it was on two legs and had a tail. A monkey? Where would a monkey have come from? And its arms didn’t look right for a monkey somehow – still, what else could it have been? He had had the briefest glimpse of it in near darkness; it was probably just his disturbed state and the poor light that had given it that edge of weirdness.

He was standing now, peering into the trees on the far side where he had lost sight of it. His instinct was to follow it, to find out for certain what it was, but there was no way he would be able to track it at this time of night, or probably at any time. However he didn’t feel like lying down on the ground and trying to sleep again. He wondered what time it was - he wasn’t even wearing a watch – he guessed about 4 or 5. He set off towards the trees, not sure how he had taken the decision but telling himself he would have one more go at finding a path.

It was now extremely dark inside the forest. At first he was blind and put one or sometimes both hands out protectively. He did actually trip over something, probably a root, and half fell, ending up on his knees with both hands on the forest floor. Apart from a couple of tiny thorns in one palm he was none the worse. By the time he got up his eyes had adjusted again and he could slowly find a way forward or what he hoped was forward. There seemed to be no end to the trees, no sign of thinning. Again the faintly lighter columns of the trunks of the full grown trees were his main guide posts, as they were nearly always free of the inky pools that were bushes and thickets. Even so he had to force his way through some thick and thorny tangles, frequently scratching his hands, and several times his forehead and cheeks. He realised that he was making a huge commotion in these struggles; the deep silence around him was broken otherwise only by occasional shy rustles from the undergrowth. There was of course no sign of the monkey or whatever it was.

He had been making gradually faster progress when he realised that he hadn’t been forced to detour round either major trees or undergrowth for several minutes. He looked ahead and could see fifteen to twenty yards of clear way before the darkness closed in and hid everything again; the trees themselves began almost to line up on either side. A few minutes later his suspicion was confirmed; he had found a path, not a well defined one, still covered in grass and other low plants, but a continuing, connected gap nevertheless. Despite his tiredness he picked up his pace, sensing that he might have found a way out. He was suddenly eager for human company, light and warmth and an end to trees.

The gap sometimes narrowed almost to nothing but in the main was easy to follow until, long after he had slowed down to normal pace again, he began to notice signs of greater travel; there were stretches of bare trodden earth, the space between the trees became almost a pace and a half wide and there were even banks at the side at times, as if the surface had been worn or dug down. He was beginning to see more easily; he had no idea what direction dawn would be but light seemed to be seeping into the darkness.

He came suddenly to a fork: a small path to the left that almost immediately twisted further left and disappeared from view and a much broader track almost straight ahead that had been treated with sand or some other light-coloured and hard-wearing substance. Since the left hand path seemed to be doubling back and was depressingly like the ones he had been travelling earlier, he didn’t hesitate but started along the surfaced one, which headed straight on and gave promise of arriving somewhere.

There was a growing brightness above the trees where the track vanished into the distance and he realised that it must be heading East towards the dawn. After his struggles through the dark the well-kept track seemed like a grand highway to him, even though he knewit was only a bridle path at best. He felt surprisingly fresh and wide awake and strode along at a good pace, aware of the woods around him gradually losing their sinister darkness and emerging into familiar form.

After an hour or so of vigorous walking he found himself mounting a very long hill in almost full daylight, still surrounded on all sides by trees. When he reached the top he paused for a rest and to have a good look around. He could see for many miles ahead and behind but the foliage hid most of the view on either side. By walking up and down a bit he managed to find a couple of vantage points, one on each side, where there were gaps in the trees. The forest seemed to stretch forever in all directions. There were no landmarks to recognise, no sign of towns or villages, or even single houses. He didn’t want to think about how impossible this was. Where was he? At least the track must be going somewhere and as he looked ahead he noticed that some way on, perhaps about half a mile, it disappeared into a dip which hid a section of country, he couldn’t tell how much. He had to go on.

About ten minutes later he was looking down from the top of the dip into a little valley with a small village spread along both sides of a river. It had a bridge near its centre and a main road that ran first on his side and then on the far side and almost the whole valley had been cleared of forest.

The track joined a side road through a very sturdy, locked barred gate which he was obliged to climb over. It was still very early and there was noone about as he followed the road down and turned into the main street. Most of the houses were terraced, all of them built of a dark stone. He walked on towards the centre with the bridge but suddenly stopped dead. In the front garden of a house there was a large cage hanging from a tree and in it the creature he had seen in the clearing, he was absolutely sure. It appeared to be sitting or squatting; it was about the size of a child of four or five he thought and remarkably human in form, though with a fuzz or very short fur over much of its body. He couldn’t see the face but the back of the head was equally human in shape. As he watched the creature slowly stood up with its back to him and he saw it had a short tail. He had certainly never seen or heard of anything like it, anywhere. He stared, trying to get his brain to turn it into something recognisable, hoping it would suddenly resolve itself into a monkey.

A rather disagreeable looking, skinny man in his forties or fifties came out of the heavy front door and strode up to the fence.

“Can I help you?” he asked. It was a challenge.

“Excuse me, but what is that in the cage?” he asked, almost pleading.

“As if you didn’t know! I’ve got a licence and I’ve no time for you do-gooder trouble makers. This is private property. Move on or I’ll call the marshals.”

Adrian gaped at him. The man turned abruptly and went quickly towards the door.

“Could you at least tell me the name of this village?” he asked desperately.

The man gave a disgusted grunt and disappeared inside.

Adrian continued up the road in a daze. Where had he ended up? What was that creature? Licence for what? To keep that miniature human looking creature in a cage?

As he approached a crossroads he nearly ran into a woman coming round the corner. They both stopped just in time. She gasped, then looked at him intently, almost rudely. She was, he thought, in her fifties, but very fit and brisk in movement.

“I must apologise,” she said. “I was in a hurry to get back – more haste etc.”

“I’m sorry, my fault, I wasn’t looking where I was going,” he said. Then, after a pause in which the woman continued to examine him with unusual interest, “Could you tell me where I am? I’m afraid I got lost in the woods.”

She started as if shocked, her face showed an expression of excitement, even alarm, then softened into something like concern or even pity.

“You’ve come through the woods? Really? You’d better go into the marshals’ office by the bridge. They’ll be able to help.”

“But where am I?”

“This is Oldbridge, outpost 31 – but that won’t mean much to you I imagine. I’m sorry but I can’t help any further – I’m late as it is. Just go into the Marshals.”

She gave him a piercing look, of pity? and then hurried across the road and disappeared into a house right on the street.

He stood for a few moment trying to collect his thoughts. He had wanted to end up somewhere new but not somewhere like this, a nightmare place where he understood nothing. When he had allowed himself to consider the practicalities of getting back, still loathing the idea, he had vaguely thought he might go into a police station and announce he was lost, explain he was without money, id, phone or anything and asking for help. But marshals? What were they?

He found the place very quickly; it was right next to the bridge on the other side of the river, an imposing, square building built of blocks of the same dark stone, with small windows, a flat roof with a parapet and a massive door which was wide open. He walked in hesitantly. A youngish, rather fine-featured man looked up from the table where he was working.

“Good very early morning to you!” he said, “Where have you sprung from? We haven’t had any arrivals from Inner so far today.”

“I’m sorry,” said Adrian. “I got lost in the woods and spent the night there. I don’t know where I am.”

The young man’s face expressed a similar dramatic sequence of emotions to the woman at the crossroads, shock, fascination and then something gentler.

“And let me guess! You have no id, no papers, no money, no phone – just the clothes you are wearing. Right?”

“How did you know that? I was about to tell you … I left in too much of a hurry.” Adrian felt if the weirdness got any weirder he would start running back through the forest until he found something normal – but he rather liked the young marshal, if he was a marshal.

“Believe me, it’s not every day somebody turns up at this sleepy hollow after traversing the deep forest, but there have been quite a few, taking all entry points together, and all our records show that when people do make their appearance in this way, they’re invariably desperate to get away from something, always alone and without any personal possessions. Do sit down! I know you must be physically and emotionally exhausted and you will be beginning, now or very soon, to wonder if you have gone mad. I can only say that things should get better in time.”

Adrian sat down, feeling utterly shattered. “I don’t understand but – could you answer one question first - what are those weird creatures like human children with tails?”

The marshal looked nonplussed for a moment, then said. “Ah, you mean Ginnies! Where did you come across one of those? Oh, I see, you came in down the bottom end and saw the one that Jacob keeps in that awful cage; he’s a nasty piece of work but he has a licence so there’s nothing we can do, at the moment. You were very unlucky to run into him – there aren’t many left like him, I’m glad to say.”

“He was really aggressive – threatened to call the marshals – you, I suppose, he meant – when I asked him about it.”

“He wouldn’t have got any change out of me, as he well knew. He knows I think it’s a disgrace, like everyone else.”

“But what are they? I saw one in a clearing in the forest. ”

“That’s amazing, that you saw one in the wild; they’re extremely rare, shy and good at keeping hidden. They’re protected now and there’s a debate raging about their intelligence. You really don’t want to get involved in that business now though – it’s political, highly charged stuff. You need to rest and then get settled in. Excuse me for a minute or two - I need to make a call.”

The Marshal raised his right wrist and said “Outpost 31. Points of entry please.”

After a few seconds a rather bored voice said “P of E. How may I help?”

“I have a walker here. Could we have some assistance please?”

“A walker. Are you sure? Outpost 31 – well I suppose it’s as likely as anywhere.”

“I am sure – fits all the criteria. How soon can you pick him up?”

“Well, let’s say an hour. OK?”

“I suppose. I’ll do my best in the meantime.”

Adrian felt frightened. “Who’s coming to pick me up?”

The Marshal put a hand on his shoulder reassuringly.

“Look,” he said. “You’ve been through a lot and you have a serious amount of adjustments to make. We don’t have the facilities here to help you properly. The entry service has the time, the resources and the experience you need – and it’s not as if they are run off their feet.”

“What is this place? How did I get here? Everything seems crazy.” Adrian was almost shouting. “And what kind of policeman are you? You haven’t even asked my name.”

“OK, fair enough. My name is Greg. I haven’t asked your name because there is no way I can check it. You have no proof of id and there will be no records of you I am sure – so you could call yourself anything you liked, but tell me anyway.”

“Adrian, Adrian Glover. Now, what is this place and how did I get here?”

“Well Adrian, to take the second question first, I don’t know how you got here or where you come from. This is the problem – all we know comes from you, the people who have mysteriously appeared out of the forest, so you can see that your first question, what is this place, would be difficult for me to answer – but what I’d like you to do, not because it’s required or anything, but just because it’s usually helpful to you and to us, is just tell me how it happened. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to, but I know that events leading up to the migration event are traumatic, so I am happy to just listen until the support team arrives.”

Greg gave him a warm smile and sat back comfortably as if he had nothing else in the world to do. Adrian discovered an overwhelming need, despite the weirdness of his circumstances, to tell the whole story to a sympathetic listener and Greg was certainly that – so he began to explain how the future, all the plans and the hopes, had been so utterly destroyed by that casual phone call only a few hours ago. As he started to let it all out he realised that, despite his distress, confusion and exhaustion, he felt safe, here with Greg in the marshal’s office in this strange new place.

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