Thursday, 1 November 2018

Joe Potts left the guest house pub that evening as he had done many, many times before. He trotted down the steps from the doorway and stopped to breathe in the clean countryside air which was just starting to cool after the sunny and cloudless summer’s day. He noticed that the outdoor spotlights were lit and shook his head at the waste of electricity when there was so much light left in the sky. He even went as far as tutting and sighing loudly but when he looked around there was no-one watching to draw him on his complaint. Maybe he’d mention it tomorrow to the manager, he thought. Everyone knew how much he hated waste. Many a time he had held court on the subject on wasteful Council and Government mismanagement and anyone who tried to make a point of defence would be threatened with the steel cap of his boot, which was a mark of how passionately he felt about important issues. Pondering on the issue of the spotlights, he wondered if he might even get a free pint out of it – he was, after all, trying save the place some money. 
He checked his watch and noticed how scuffed the glass was looking and the scratches on the gold plating. He rubbed it with his thumb thinking he ought to keep the thing in his pocket while he was at work. But now he thought about it, maybe Management ought to provide them all with better protective gear. Big thick gloves that go up your forearms and protect your watch. It was a scrap metal merchant, for crying out loud – he was tired of complaining about scuffs and scratches and the metallic tang he could never get off his fingers that tainted anything he touched. Even the overalls they provided were crap. He was always telling them to buy better ones – ones that didn’t tear so easily. They were lucky he didn’t insist on them buying him a new watch. 
Then he noticed the time: it was almost quarter past seven. He tapped the watch face and brought it up to his ear to check it was still ticking. He hadn’t realised it was so late – no wonder he felt hungry for dinner. Still, he always found that a couple of pints after work were good for taking the edge off. He always arrived home in a better frame of mind after a drink and that was better for everyone.
He jangled the loose change in his pocket and looked around for the taxi car that was usually parked in the small car park; but its space was vacant. This wasn’t rare and usually if you waited awhile an opportunistic cabbie would turn up to take advantage of the remote location of the pub. 
Joe looked over to the other side of the quiet road at the countryside ahead of him. Then he assessed the sky again. It only takes fifteen, maybe twenty minutes to walk home across the forest, he thought to himself. He didn’t want to get caught in the forest after dark but there must be a good half hour, forty minutes of light left and he wouldn’t amble like he does on a Sunday afternoon. And anyway, at his advanced age he should try to get all the exercise he could. 
A fleeting thought passed through his mind to go back into the pub and use the public phone to call Rita. Not because he didn’t want her to worry, but because he wanted his dinner to be ready when he arrived home. But it was just a fleeting thought. He had taught her long ago that feeding him was her responsibility and if she messed up the timing of the dinner she should arrange an alternative.
Joe stepped onto the road only faintly aware of an engine getting louder. No, getting nearer. Approaching. A car approaching. Joe turned to see a red sports car glide around the corner. He winced as he felt the squeal of tyres like an impact, but when he opened his eyes he was still stood in the same spot. The car had stopped inches away from him.
Joe stared at the young man behind the steering wheel who bore a mirror image of his own shocked expression. The engine ticked over its deep predatory note. No accusations of blame were raised. There was just the cold touch of a brush with catastrophe. 
Joe was the first to move. As he tried to regulate his breathing he forced his quivering legs to take him over the road to the dirt pathway. He moved quicker, unable to co-ordinate himself into a run but trotting through the cover of the large oak trees that lined the field. He looked over his shoulder in time to see the red Toyota sports car drive on.
Soon he was walking through farmland in a field occupied by cows. The smell in the air was pungent and Joe was glad it was light enough to see where he was treading. After the shock he had just had he didn’t want to have to put up with Rita moaning about what she needed to clean off his boots. Of course, she didn’t so much as moan; it was worse than that. She’d try to make him feel guilty by not looking at him, answering everything with something short and polite or taking herself off and inventing chores somewhere else in the house. He was wise to her ways. 
With his blood and his thoughts now beginning to race again he switched his mind back to the car. Why was that idiot driving at such a stupid speed? he thought to himself. Round these parts any man or animal could be in the road. They think that being in an expensive car makes them better than everyone else and gives them more rights than the rest of us. Having more money means they can do what they like does it? Let’s see them do a real day’s work. Try working a week at the yard. Arrogant kids get my blood boiling, ran his thoughts growing louder with each footstep through the grass. Like the new site manager. He’s too young to be talking like he does. He ought to watch himself the way he talks to people. 
The toe of Joe’s boot caught a tree root and he stumbled, just managing to keep his footing thanks to a thin pale birch tree. He kept his hand on the cool, smooth bark. The trip had quietened his thinking and given him a moment to take stock of his surroundings. He hadn’t noticed that he had already turned off the field and entered the forest. He still had his bearings though and could see the way forward along a parting in the grass where it had been trodden down. He wasn’t in the least bit bothered by the fact that everything had become a silvery grey. He did however, quietly resolve to keep his mind on the walk and away from all those folk in his life who have no other use but to aggravate him and fill his head with dark thoughts. 
The ground became drier the deeper he went into the forest. The flattened grass path had become a bald and crooked track. After a few minutes of walking Joe became aware of how his lungs were beginning to struggle with the effort. He cursed out loud rather than to himself to remind the world that this was yet another cross inflicted on him that he had to bear. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath and to allow the fates the chance to savour the trial they were putting through.
It was then that he became aware of the deathly quiet beyond his raspy breathing. As he drew each breath he held it for a sore second straining to listen to the silence. It was as if nature had stopped to watch him; this blithering idiot fumbling through the trees. Then he saw something that froze his body with a billion needles: A human form shrouded in black was stood up ahead partly hidden in the thicket. 
Neither of them moved. It was facing him, Joe was sure, but he couldn’t see a face because of the black hood. Damn this half-light, he thought. Well whoever they were they’d chosen the wrong man to creep up on. Joe looked down and found a decent-sized stick about the length of his arm. He picked it up testing the weight and girth but when he looked up again the figure was gone.
How could they have moved so fast and so silently? He could even hear his own clothes rustle. It was unnatural. It was like… the spectre of death… whispered a voice at the back of his brain.
Hearing things now, he thought. Stupid nonsense. It was that last pint; gone to his head. Probably dodgy. He had told the girl behind the bar that the bitter was looking cloudy and now he was seeing things and hearing voices. She didn’t believe him. Thought she knew better. He decided to have sharp words with her next time he saw her and teach her that that she’s far too young to know everything.
Joe kept hold of the stick as he set off again. It was too short to comfortably use as a walking stick but it felt like a conduit for his anger and frustration which was seeping out, turning the very air dark. Indeed, the forest was coloured in slate grey now. Thin branches were reaching out from nowhere to poke at his face and chest despite the effort he was making to defend himself by waving his arms. He glanced up at the sky between the trees wondering how it could be so dark at ground level when the sky was still light. It wasn’t fair.
A cold trickle of sweat ran from the back of his neck and spread down his spine, gluing his shirt to his skin. Seeing the hooded figure had tightened the inside of his stomach, but the fact that he hadn’t seen him since left him with a sickening anticipation which gripped his bowels and tickled his bladder. This, he realised for the first time in his adult life, was fear.  
His breathlessness became shallow and he whimpered each time he half stumbled or caught himself on something sharp. Why hadn’t Rita insisted he eat some of that healthy rubbish? He cursed her for always serving up what she thinks he wants. She always went for the easier life. Didn’t that stupid woman realise she was killing him with all that fried food? 
I’ll have bloody words with her when I get back, he thought or maybe said out loud. And the Council, for that matter. I’ll go round their office and kick down their bloody door demanding to know why they hadn’t put some kind of pathway through this forest – or does everyone have to drive a bloody car now?
The dark was closing in around his eyes. He could see little green illuminations of the glow worms; come not to light his way or accompany him, but to fool him and distract him. He jealously kicked at them but his standing leg slipped backwards on the leaves and he dropped forwards to the floor, letting go of his stick while his forearms and hands took his full weight. 
Stupid. He had barely noticed that he was climbing a slope. He paused, telling himself that he was taking a moment to reclaim some air to his lungs when actually it was getting harder to deny the fact that he wanted to stop. 
To sleep?
No. He calculated that he must be less than half a mile away from home. Half a mile away from home comforts, food, television. 
Unless you’re walking in the wrong direction… 
The voice in his head again. He was doing it again; letting his thoughts race away when he should be concentrating. The encroaching darkness may have spoiled his vision but what could he hear? He listened. 
That sound. Like a rush of wind. Passing cars. It was the road that led to his housing estate. He almost laughed. Strength returned to his limbs. He hadn’t lost his bearings after all. 
Joe climbed to his feet and moved forward pushing his way through the prickly darkness, trying to ignore the pain. He was going to get home and Rita better not say a bloody word about anything. 
As he stumbled and twisted and slipped on the false floor of dry leaves he briefly caught sight of the orange lights from the road. Where? It had teased him from his peripheral vision. He tried to open his eyes wider and lead with his face but a thousand needles scratched at his eyeballs and he yelled out. 
Then the ground beneath his feet betrayed him. His feet slipped back, he fell forward heavily, this time on his abdomen – like knitting needles through his chest – and he began to slide back down the slope. He kicked his legs to stop himself but only succeeded in twisting onto his side and he began to roll. And as his world turned over and over, faster and faster; he felt vomit burn the back of his throat and dry earth fill his nostrils. Then the ground deserted him completely. His stomach lurched and he dropped heavily without a bounce and with a force that loosened his whole body.
It was a few moments before Joe Potts realised that everything was silent again. He was numb but assumed it was due to the cold. Strange for the temperature to drop so suddenly on a Summer’s night. Oh well, he thought, not so bad being cold if you can’t feel it. 
He was on his back staring up at the tiny glow worms which were now bright blue. No, not glow worms; Stars. Funny how it’s not until you’re immersed in darkness that you appreciate the light. As his breathing became dangerously shallow he thought of Rita sitting diligently over his cold dinner. He was barely breathing at all now. He felt himself fading. Sinking. Then he knew true darkness.

The next evening Joe Potts once again left the guest house pub. On this particular night, he looked over at the car park and saw a taxi waiting patiently as the driver read a newspaper. Joe dismissed the idea of paying for a ride home, not when it was only a short walk away. He assessed the sky, unaware that he had done so every single evening for many years now.
He looked at his watch and once again made the same observation about its abused condition and who was to blame. He noted that it was quarter past seven and, as ever, it was later than he realised. Then he briefly considered phoning Rita, but if he had done he wouldn’t have got through to her; not only had the area code changed since he last used a phone, but she had died many years ago – several years after Joe’s own death in that deep ditch hidden in the forest. 
Once again, the ditch silently waited for him as it had done every night since the first time. Joe crossed the road. This time he didn’t startle any passing traffic with his ghostly form. Then he walked along the dirt track that would forever take him into the darkening forest.