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More strangers in the wood
by Jack Beeton

Based loosely on my ‘Strangers in the Wood’ storey (which didn’t draw any attention) I would be interested to hear about the kind of strangers you may encounter on that same journey through that dark and creepy wood, and what they may get up to.

Title: The Clearing
Author: Lydia Millslow

(I don't know if this is what you had in mind Jack, I'm not very good with poems - I do hope it's ok)

It’s always hard this time of year, with the sun bright and the flowers in bloom. It reminds me of that summer and how my heart was broken.

I moved here shortly afterwards. I moved to this village, in the middle of nowhere I suppose, and settled with my thoughts.
For nearly a decade I’ve replayed things and considered what I said, what I would have said if given more time. But time was taken away from me, it was stolen and it hurt so much. It still does.

He was my best friend you see. He was my go-to guy, my confidant. I could talk to him about nearly anything and whenever I needed he was there, even when I didn’t know I needed him. He was the one person in my life who never let me down, not once.

At first I thought him leaving was a let down. He had failed me in the biggest way, by leaving me alone, by abandoning me. Of course that passed with the worst of the grief. It wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t anybody’s, it just happened like things have a habit of doing.

So when I left my cottage yesterday, my cottage in this picturesque village, I never thought for a second I would see him. Lying in bed early in the morning I decided, for no reason I have since been able to fathom, to take a walk in the woods. They almost back on to my garden you see, and for years I’ve looked at them and wondered what was within.

I stepped out of my door and felt the warmth of the sun.
I couldn’t help but look up at the clear blue sky although it didn’t make me feel much of anything at all. Nothing seemed to if I’m honest. The grass was yellowing, crying for moisture in the middle of this dry spell, and the flowers, though bright, were wilting. Not yet ten-thirty, the heat was already building and we were due another scorcher I could tell.

Well anyway, within a few moments I was shrouded by the trees. The canopy shielded me from the worst of the sun and I basked in the shadows and isolation. All the time my eyes darted, keen to know of another’s presence so I could avoid it. But there was none.
I was all alone, alone with the birds above and soil below. Despite the heat-wave the smell of the dirt climbed to my nose. It was pleasant and fresh and seemed more realistic than the perfume of flowers.

I don’t know how long I walked. The pathways, if you could call them that, were sparse. Nobody really came here any more. Dog-walkers used the brook on the other side of the village and the children hung around other parts, areas holding more mischief and adventure.
Looking back revealed no history of my steps and had I cared I might have worried about finding my way home. As it was I continued to walk, soaking in the atmosphere but seeing very little. It was only when I came across a clearing of lush grass and daisies my eyes took notice.

Above, the sky was pure and the heat rained down here. The only shade on offer came from an oak which stood, as if by design, in the middle of the clearing.

Stepping into the light my heart raced, from the heat I thought. It was only after several steps I was stopped in my tracks, stopped when I saw him, under the oak.

He sat with knees up to his chest, a book balanced on them. He was lost in the pages before him and hadn’t noticed me at all. I wanted to call out but had not the voice so instead I took timid steps forward. Gradually the shade of the oak welcomed me in and I sat in the grass next to him.

‘Hello,’ I whispered, unable to produce more.
He looked up and smiled, closed the book and replied, ‘Hi.’
We stared in silence, not uncomfortable, for a few moments.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked.
‘I was waiting for you, but you’re here now.’
He sounded so normal, just like he used to.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Don’t worry about it, tell me how you’ve been.’

My eyes diverted. They found the grass and how my dress tangled with it around the edges. I felt ashamed as I told him, ‘Not very good, not for a long time,’
‘Why? What’s wrong?’
‘I miss you.’
‘I miss you too you know,’
‘I wish you hadn’t gone,’
‘So do I, I’m sorry,’
‘I don’t know how to get by without you,’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ He touched me then for the first time. With a bent finger he lifted my chin and forced me to look at him, ‘you’re stronger than this, you just don’t know it.’

I couldn’t say anything. As always he spoke with an unwavering confidence, matched by his dark, steady, eyes. He always seemed to be right in whatever he said. If he told me it would happen, it invariably would, if he told me I could then I could. How could I not believe him now? How could I not have faith? He’d never steered me wrong.

‘I know it’s hard, but you have to carry on, you’re wasting your time and you know it. Look at this place,’ his eyes scanned the clearing and the surrounding woods. ‘it’s been here for years and you’re only finding it today, but you have found it.’
‘I don’t know how I found it,’
‘It doesn’t matter. It was here to be found and you did.’
‘Life isn’t that simple, I’m just so unhappy,’
‘You’ll find happiness too, even though you don’t know where to look.’
‘How can I find it without you? I loved you you know.’
‘I know you did, I loved you too.’
‘I should have told you, I should have told you how much you meant to me, you had no idea and then it was too late, I couldn’t tell you, you couldn’t hear me anymore.’
‘I heard you, I heard you in the hospital and at the funeral, I heard you at my graveside on those afternoons.’
‘But it was too late,’
‘No it wasn’t.’
‘It was, if I’d told you before it might have been different, it might have changed things.’
‘I don’t think so, but I’m sorry I couldn’t help. It killed me seeing you cry like that. I wanted to comfort you and be there.’
‘You’d always been there before,’
‘I know,’
‘And when you were gone there was nothing anymore,’
‘I know,’
‘I miss you so much, I just want to sit with you and ramble on about silly old things like we used to, I miss that so much.’
‘I miss it too,’
‘Then come back, come back with me,’
‘You know I can’t,’
‘Then I’ll stay here, you can’t leave me again, I won’t let you,’

He hugged me then. For the first time in years I felt him and I felt safe.
I squeezed him so tight and felt his chin on my shoulder. I knew my hair was ticking his nose too because it always did. His hands held me tight and I sobbed, sobbed at the empty feeling I’d been stuck with for so many years.

We stayed that way for a long time, until I could cry no more. His nose must have felt like an ants nest. Afterwards we sat against the tall oak in the cool shade, hands entwined. I told him about the village and the funny old lady across the street, Mrs Geoghegan.
She cleaned her curtains twice a week and climbed to her own gutters to get the mulch, despite being in her eighties. We laughed a little and talked of old times, hideous dates and lovers, day trips we took together, and somehow the afternoon passed us by.

With my head on his shoulder my eyes climbed skywards. The azure heavens were starting to deepen as the sun ducked below the horizon. I told him again I didn’t want him to leave.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said, stroking my hair and my face, ‘everything will be fine, you’ll see,’
‘I really do love you you know,’
‘I know,’ he said, ‘I love you too,’
‘I wish we’d had more time together, I wish I told you how I felt back then, we might have been happy together,’
‘I think we would have been too,’

After that another silence during which sleep took me. The last warmth of the sun covered us as we lay together and peaceful dreams danced around my mind. I could feel him breathing underneath me and above all else I was satisfied, safe and happy.

Of course when I woke he was gone. The sky was now purple, the grass cool and the oak hard against my back. I have no idea how long I slept. The stars glistened above in silence and I looked around desperately for him.

For a moment I was angry, angry he had left without a word, but it flourished and passed. I heard him tell me everything would be all right and I couldn’t help but have faith and believe him. I cried again but not like the tears of the years past. Something had changed. I didn’t feel empty like before.

I stood and entered the woods again. Beneath the cover it was as black as pitch, but somehow I knew which way to go. Nothing looked familiar for I'd paid no attention at the first time of passing. My feet led me as my mind wandered and before long my thirsty garden lay before me, my cottage sat as though nothing had changed, but something had. I had said the things I needed to say and I know people would say I’m crazy, but I’m sure he heard me.

Today I returned to the clearing. I don’t know how I did it but I did, first time. I hoped against hope he would be there, quietly reading under our tree. He wasn’t there, but I knew he had been. I knew because I felt his chin on my shoulder and his hands on my back, I felt him breathing underneath me. I felt his hand in mine and I saw his caring eyes.

I know he was there. I know he heard me as I heard him and though I wish he was still there, I can go on. I can because he told me I can. He also told me I would find happiness and to some degree I have already. Perhaps there is more out there, waiting to be found like that clearing in the woods. He said I would find it one day and I will, I’m sure.

But for now I’m content having said the things I wanted to, having told him how much he meant to me. I can rest easy knowing he loved me, and in the knowledge he was still there for me when I needed him, despite the gulf between us. I can rest happy, and safe, knowing my best friend, my love, held me in that clearing on that beautiful summers day.

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