Sunday, 17 October 2010
Into the Trees
Nigel Coutts-Couttington or The Old Coot as he was somewhat irreverently known did not like the countryside. As a civil servant of Her Majesty's Government, who loved order and neatness he found the countryside quite disorderly and possibly on the verge of rioting. While he loved a well cultivated garden with a lawn, he disliked the countryside for its dirtiness, its wildness and all that was against conformity.
It was possibly not his favourite promotion as Assistant Chief Secretary of Rural Affairs then and Muriel his wife remarked upon it as he knew she would. One of the things that he loved about her was that he knew what she would say and when she would say it. Whatever else she might be, Muriel was consistently conventional in all things and perfect for Nigel. Living in their charming suburban home in Surrey with neighbours who were as conventional as themselves suited them. While others might dream of a cottage in the countryside with fields, trees and the like, Nigel and Muriel certainly did not. Suburbia was their idea of happiness and they would stay there.
So you may imagine his disquiet when he was ordered to Loamshire in the middle of England, a county best summed up by one wit of a journalist as leafy, loamy and lugubrious. Nigel, with all the cunning working for the civil service had taught him tried to hand the job to one of his subordinates. Alas, it did not work and one might be forgiven for suspecting that Sir Caldwell, Nigel's boss had arranged the visit to Loamshire because he knew of Nigel's dislike of the countryside. In any case, Nigel packed his suitcase with much sighing and some irritability (including large jars of coffee, tea and sugar and the accoutrements of a long voyage). He had booked a room at the local inn at Quainton where he was to stay. From there he was to visit the local farms and make notes on the woodland areas also. It had not gone un-noticed that a child had gone missing in the woods at Titheland and while a police investigation was under way, Nigel had been asked to check the woods himself as a representative of the Government and the Office for Rural Affairs.
Muriel kissed him tenderly with something of the air of a woman from a Victorian melodrama. She wondered if she might ever see him again and if she did, might he not be changed terribly?
Nigel harrumphed at the thought that the countryside might change him and suddenly resolved to go up there and tame the wilderness to the good behaviour of a Surrey garden. Meadows would become lawns, trees would be trimmed as if they were large box hedges and the flowers would be replanted if necessary. He would take no nonsense he decided, the countryside would jolly well do as it was told. You may realise that he was not over-familiar with countryside in its natural state as one might say.
He arrived with some surprise at Quainton railway station, for he had not expected it to have a station. He had passed wistfully through London on his way and even the city of Leicester that was foreign to him he would have preferred. Still he could not stay in Leicestershire, he must go on and on he had gone. He took a taxi (he was expecting a horse and cart) to the King's Head Inn and there the landlady, a stout charming woman called Mrs Dearlove showed him to his room and told him the house rules.
"I 'spect you'll be wanting some food after your long journey," she said with the soft tones of a Loamshire accent.
Nigel said that he would certainly be wanting supper and followed her back down to the bar. The inn was wood panelled and quaint. An old Welsh Border Collie dog wagged its tail wearily at Nigel but did not lift its head from its paws. It was stretched out near an open fire that had a stone surround and a laid brick hearth. Nigel, for all his suburban angst suddenly felt very comfortable and sighed softly to himself. Mrs Dearlove said she'd bring him some roast chicken and vegetables and he asked if he might have a pint of Scroggins' Original a beer that was possibly made by Scroggins but was far from original. In line with his prejudices, Mrs Dearlove told him she only had Grey Lady Beer made by a local brewery. Nigel sighed again and said he was sure it would do in the tones of someone trying very hard to be very tolerant... and not succeeding greatly.
Despite his misgivings, the meal, which he ate by the fire with the dog glancing up at his meal sorrowfully was very good and he became if anything more comfortable. He went for a brief walk about Quainton and was relieved to see the same sort of shops that he recognised in his suburban home town. Perhaps, he thought, this job might not be so bad after all.
The first week was a mix if anything. He visited farms wearing his Barbour wellington boots and waxed jacket and bowler hat for he was a civil servant after all. The farmers, a bluff, rough-hewn lot were kind and welcoming, despite him being a government representative. They kept the more territorial dog away from him, guided him gently away from potholes and cowpats and offered him mugs of hot tea and home made cake. There were small mishaps, but for the most part, he found himself enjoying the work and liking the farmers a great deal. They were not suburban and they were a little too fond of the countryside, but he liked them well enough.
The last week was however another thing altogether. The local police had provided him with all the information they had been able to gather but if they could make no sense of the child's disappearance, neither could Nigel. He chatted to Mrs Dearlove about the disappearance of the child and offered his own explanation that the child had most likely got lost in the forest. He was shocked at Mrs Dearlove's expression at the thought. She had gone quite pale and her hand flew to her throat.
"Dear God, I hope not sir. If that little girl has got lost there, she'll never be found again. Mostly they don't get lost and they always have a small cross made by the blacksmith with them," she said nervously.
Nigel did not enquire into the meaning of the cross made by the blacksmith, it did not seem relevant to him. Instead, he went out the following morning after a sturdy breakfast. Mrs Dearlove handed him his coat with a little smile and wished him luck.
"If anything comes at you sir, cross a stream. They can't cross after you, see?" she said.
Nigel did not understand then. He went with a local man, Billy Jarvis to the woods. Billy had always lived around Quainton and knew the woods better than most. He had a slow, wild look and a haunted air about him as if he had once had a scare and never forgotten it. He was a quiet, gentle man however and Nigel liked him. They went out of Quainton and up a small hill through a meadow that was full of poppies and cornflowers and tall grass. The sky was clear and bright with a mild breeze that brushed the long grasses against their legs and made gentle waves of the meadow. They went over a stile and onto a path that led into the trees. There were at least six streams that crossed the wood, but they were not deep and both men waded through them easily. Billy kept one hand in his jacket pocket, an old tweedy, patched jacket that was clearly much loved. He seemed to be clutching onto something but Nigel did not remark it. The light fell pleasantly through the pale beeches of the forest and Nigel found himself enjoying the walk. Ahead of them suddenly was a large clearing and there upon a fallen tree sat a very attractive young woman. Her beauty intimidated Nigel a little. He was not used to beautiful young things and in any case there was something slightly wild and predatory about this woman. Billy had backed away against a tree and stammered with what Nigel suddenly realised was fear.
"Good morning miss," he said civilly and introduced himself with his full title.
Usually it impressed, even mildly, but the young woman just smiled and said softly, fixing her green eyes upon him,
"I do believe you are looking for a child," she said.
It was said as if she not only knew it but knew the whereabouts of the child and did not care who knew it.
"Why yes we are," Nigel said, "Have you seen her? I understand her mother is worried that she might be hurt. By the way, aren't you a little cold in that thin dress my dear?"
The woman laughed then, a soft low, wild laugh that made Billy Jarvis whimper.
"I do not feel the cold, I am about as old as the wind and the trees and the dark earth," she answered, adding,
"The child will not come home, she will stay here."
It was clear to Nigel then that the woman was one of those rebellious types of whom he did not approve. She was probably a fifth columnist or a dangerous feminist (he was not entirely sure what either was, but he was sure they were against the government).
"Now look here, young lady," he began, "I am a government official and if you don't want to spend the night in prison I suggest most strongly that you hand the child over immediately."
The woman looked at him then with a slight trace of amusement on her face. Billy Jarvis had suddenly dashed forward and grabbed at Nigel's arm, but now his blood was up.
"Her mum will understand sir, come away. Quickly sir, come away and don't argue with her," Billy told him.
"O pull yourself together man, for God's sake!" Nigel snapped.
The woman stood then even as Nigel turned to her and he reached into his pocket for his civil service badge. She began to sing, but Nigel had suddenly drawn something hard and metallic from his pocket, sure it was his badge and held it up before him. The woman shrieked then and seemed to fly away through the trees on the gentle breeze. Nigel frowned and held the metallic object in his hand. It was a small circle with a cross in it, roughly made as if by a hammer. He was about to say something when a small voice said,
"Hallo Mr Jarvis. I've had such a dream..." and before them stood a little girl in a grubby pair of jeans and a grass-stained shirt.
Billy stepped forwards then and picking up the little girl in his arms turned and said quickly to Nigel,
"Come on sir, quickly, before she comes back with her - friends."
Nigel did not fully understand but obeyed. He had had quite enough of the woodland for the day. They went back towards the stile at a rush and Nigel wondered what the rush was. He did not know why Billy should be afraid of a young woman with red hair, green eyes and a thin green and red dress. All he knew was that he did not want to get lost in the trees.
As they crossed over the stile, they heard a furious cry and the wind picked up suddenly. Now Billy Jarvis ran through the meadow and with a nameless fear driving him on, Nigel followed, huffing for he was not as fit as Billy. Behind them the grasses seemed to be pushed aside and to whip furiously against their legs as they ran.
"My child! Mine!" came a voice from the woods, a voice rife with rage and power.
Billy did not look back and neither did Nigel. The little girl said nothing but buried her face into Billy's shoulder as he ran. When they reached the edge of Quainton, Billy turned up the high street and fled towards the smithy's forge. Only when he was standing within the forge did he put the girl down and tell her to stay put. The blacksmith seemed bemused until Billy turned and said,
"The Queen of the Trees."
The smith suddenly took up rods of iron and placed them across each other about the forge. Nigel frowned but watched, struggling to regain his breath from the running. A winding, whirling of leaves and twigs flew through the streets and outside the ring of iron crosses within the whirling greens and browns and greys, Nigel saw the young woman in green and red. Her hair seemed to blaze with a wild light and her eyes were filled with rage.
"Give her to me! She's mine and I will have her! Give her to me or I shall make you pay!" she screamed.
Nigel put his hands over his ears in sheer terror for he had never seen such fury in his life. But Billy and the smith held up rods of iron and bid her begone. The smith took his own iron pendant and placed it about the neck of the child and handed her two iron rods.
"Take her now if you dare," he boomed back.
The young woman shrieked and disappeared, whirling back up the streets.
"Forgot your cross didn't you Millie?" the smith said to the little girl.
"I lost it in the woods and then she came and I fell asleep and had such weird dreams," the child answered.
Nigel grabbed at Billy's arm and shook him.
"Good God man! Who in blazes was that woman?" he asked.
"A faerie sir, the Queen of the Trees," Billy told him.
It was on the tip of Nigel's tongue to say that faeries did not exist, but the look on Billy's face made him swallow the words. That and the wild experience he had just had. He still does not like the countryside and has since transferred to the Office of Inner City Business, which is considerably safer.