Short story

It’s rare that I write about myself. In my novels, characters and situations are imaginary. I rarely bring myself into what I write, although I include what I know and if I don’t, my ideas will be inspired by other people or based on research. Many of my older characters have something of the inspirational men and women I am privileged to know personally, and I rarely allow a character to behave in a certain way without thinking or asking ‘Could *** do that?’ or ‘How would ***** react?’

But here’s a rare thing – a story about an early experience of my own. I wrote it in response to an exercise in a writers’group andf I thought I’d share it. I was about three years old and I remember it vividly.

I hope you enjoy the short story. I haven’t found a title for it yet.

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The damp stink of decay hangs in the air. Trees surround me, the tangle of spreading roots visible above the earth, and I stand close to a tall oak. I look up at a graze of light sky between boughs.

‘Stay there,’ my father says, his hands lost in the huge pockets of his coat.

He walks away and I do as I am told. My feet are firmly planted, but I don’t feel safe. I stare down at little wellingtons, wet mud squelching around them; at a few sodden twigs, skeletons of leaves. Empty acorns are scattered a few feet away. I watch the line of trees stretch as far as I can see and my father blends in: his coat is the same hard grey as the trunks, then he’s gone.

It’s cold, November. I know I have to stay where I am. A few leaves twirl down, dull orange, tumbling in the wind, spanned hands waving. I listen. The silence holds a breath and I wait. I gaze up again; branches interlocked, a canopy of foliage overhead, squeezing away the light.

I take a step forward and murmur ‘Daddy?’

 A twig snaps beneath my boot then there’s no sound. It’s quiet; then from somewhere in the distance, a wood pigeon coos, a low warning. I wonder if Death lives in the woods and if he is a man wrapped inside a tree, if he’s watching me now.

‘Daddy?’

I hunker close to a trunk, gnarled branches twisting up like knotty fingers, and put out my hand to touch the bark. It is rough, scratchy against my soft-pudding hands. There is a smell of rotting leaves, wet mulch, and I try not to breathe in too much.

A noise makes me jerk, a single crack like a whiplash, then there’s a fluttering of something falling from high, through leaves and twigs. I squeeze my eyes shut and try not to think. Another sound splits the air, exactly the same, a snap from a rifle, then the gentle tumbling.

I open my eyes and he’s striding towards me, feet soundless, tall in his grey coat. Then he’s here; he takes my hand.

‘Good girl.’

I notice my father’s coat hangs differently now; something else fills the inside pockets besides the barrel, something softer, still warm.

We walk back through the forest, with no sound but our feet snapping twigs and the sinking squelch of boots in mud.

My mother will be waiting at home: she’ll have everything ready, and then she’ll make supper.

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