I CALL myself a writer. Of psychological thrillers. And I can boast a certain degree of success. Yet … well, I’m having a bad day. I’ve got an ingenious plot, a cast of characters, their lives magnificently intertwined, an unreliable narrator, and a breathtaking descriptive pause already written. But I can’t get started. I’ve been sitting here staring at my laptop for over two hours. I’ve made energizing tea, eaten chocolate, opened the blind, closed the blind, watered my cactus, eaten more chocolate, updated my submission files and played Spider Solitaire. However, my opening paragraph refuses to happen. I have been abandoned by my muse, cast aside by my creative goddess. Left alone to rot inside my own personal writerly oubliette. My brain needs to be shocked from its torpor or my life is over. Why is this happening to me? I reopen the blind, turn and yell into the hallway:
‘Daph, I’m going for a walk!’
Daphne pops her head around the door. ‘What’s up? Shall I come with you?’
‘No. Brain block. I need air, clouds, Unframed sunlight.’ I snatch up my notebook and inspirational biro and brush past her. ‘Don’t wait up!’
‘What are you talking about? It’s twenty past one. I was going to make pasta. And there’s strawberries. Where are you going?’
‘Everywhere!’ I effect a perfect dramatic exit. Befitting of a troubled author.
I make my way towards the church green, take up a writerly position on the bench beneath the old yew tree and grapple with that opening paragraph. OK, an opening sentence. Perhaps a word. My brain refuses to cooperate. It’s the sun. It’s too bright on the pages of my notebook, incinerating my thoughts before they can organize themselves. I move round into the shade. Nothing. After a while I close my notebook and resort to wandering amongst the gravestones.
‘My head is empty,’ I tell Edward Henry Moss: late of this Parish.
He fails to reply.
This wretched story of mine is going nowhere, unless … I look around for inspiration, glance up at the church steeple, at its pointy declaration of heavenly obedience. Its promise of eternity. Eternity? How unlikely is that? I let my eyes stray down towards the old lychgate, nineteenth century, witness to two hundred years of weddings and funerals that have passed beneath it. Photographed more times than Angelina Jolie: probably not. I look around me at the disparate gravestones, pink, white, grey, lichened, with their declarations of love and regret and hopes of heavenly reunion; at the plucked flowers, baked in the sun, withered too soon, their lives interrupted. Lives interrupted.
I wander over to check that they’re still there, still where they put them. Still where I watched them … put them. Yes, they are there. Of course, they are. I read the inscription, their names, not as golden as they used to be, bend over and pull at a wilted dandelion that’s growing amongst the ornamental gravel, but its roots go too deep. Just a few ragged leaves come away and bleed into my hand. I wipe my fingers down my thigh and transfer the sticky white latex onto my jeans, check that I haven’t smeared any of it onto my notebook. I’d never be able to write anything in a defiled notebook. It’s OK.
Reassured, I look up and spot the old side gate that opens onto Beech Lane, the chalky bridle way that skirts the edge of Dunton Wood. I have traipsed that path many times in search of inspiration. Occasionally, if you’re lucky you can find little clumps of mushrooms growing in the grass along the edge of the path. Now there’s a thought. I head for the gate. The promise of fungal inspiration, perhaps a brain full of creative distortion, has briefly calmed my writer’s anxiety. I catch sight of something out of the corner of my eye, someone moving. Something red. I turn to take a look, stumble against a low extrusion of grey marble, and holding my notebook high to protect it, land heavily against a matching grey headstone. My right shoulder takes the impact. Ouch!
I pull myself up into a sitting position and feel the deceased’s ornamental shingle imprinting itself through my jeans. I look around for someone who might have seen me fall. But there’s no-one there. I lean back against the offending headstone to assess the damage: my notebook is fine, but my shoulder hurts like hell. Probably not broken, though. I turn to sneer at his or her posthumous attempt to damage me and discover that the polished stone bears no inscription. Odd. Perhaps the grave-making person stuck the headstone in the wrong way round? Perhaps a death-bed instruction: ‘I will turn away from my fate … these remains will not be mine!’ I can’t be bothered to investigate.
I lever myself upright and brush myself down, make it without further mishap through the gate, and wander along the lane. Glancing from side to side. However, after ten minutes of searching I’ve found nothing. It’s too early in the year and the ground is too dry. And now I’m feeling really thirsty. Uninvited images of iced coffee and cold coke start to invade my thoughts. I wish I hadn’t eaten all that chocolate.
I collapse onto a tussock of grass and consider my plight. My shoulder feels OK. But my head still can’t think of that opening paragraph. If I’ve lost the ability to write, well, I’ll have to get a proper job. Heaven forbid, I can’t … I catch sight of a flash of red beyond the path. Then it’s gone. I frown at the trees opposite, get up and wander over to stand next to one of the big beech trees and instantly I’m aware of that damp, musty, foresty smell. Perhaps the mushrooms are growing in there. I glance back at the sunny path, disregard every warning I have ever been given about going alone into the woods, and navigate my way into the shade.
My eyes quickly adjust to the sparse light and I forge on, following the dank, mushroomy fragrances. Listening to the weird cracks and flutterings. Perhaps I should write a forest into my plot. A cold and menacing forest. Perhaps the first paragraph should be a description of the forest. I’m inspired. Perhaps I’ll write a different plot altogether. About things that happen in a forest. Yes, about strange things that happen in a forest. But, suddenly, after only a short distance in, my progress is blocked by a large branch lying across the path. It must have fallen quite recently because its leaves are still fresh and healthy. Still unaware of their fate. Getting around it will mean negotiating my way through dense nettles on either side. Brambles and poison ivy. I consider abandoning but, again, there is that same flash of red. Disappearing through the trees.
Someone is probably going ahead of me, foraging my ideas, collecting my inspiration. I glance back towards the lane, then, bracing myself, pick my way through the nettles and hurry on, deeper and deeper into the forest, being sure not to stray from the narrowing path. Never, never stray from the path.
I rehearse foresty phrases, woodland scenarios. After perhaps five minutes, maybe less, I stumble upon a small clearing, full of buttercups and speedwells growing up through the grass, turning their minute petals towards the dappled light. I glance up and catch my breath: a girl is standing alone on the far side of the clearing, watching me approach. She has thin red lips and short brown hair, almost boyish. And she’s wearing a red dress. She looks sad and too young to be in the forest on her own. Adult responsibility takes over:
‘Hello. Are you OK? Where are your parents?’
‘Oh!’ I’m not sure how to respond to such an unexpected declaration. So, I say, ‘Are you with someone?’
‘I’m with the others.’ She watches me with her big brown eyes, unsmiling, lifts her hand to brush away a lock of hair that isn’t there, and I can’t help feeling I’ve seen her before.
‘Where are they? The others?’
‘They’ll be here soon. I came ahead of them.’
Weird. ‘OK, I’d better wait with you until they get here. Just in case. What’s your name?’
She frowns: ‘My name is Caroline.’
‘Oh, that’s …’ But I’m distracted by the sound of footsteps hurrying towards us through the trees. ‘Ah, here comes someone now.’
A small girl, much younger, steps into the clearing. She is wearing a smaller version of the same red dress and she has the same striking brown eyes and brown hair, longer and tied into bunches with blood-red ribbons. They must be sisters. You can see the family resemblance. Although I think it’s odd, that any parents would encourage their children to wear identical clothing like that. It crushes individuality. I mean, it’s not as if they’re twins. And then I remember: she said her parents were dead. Oh dear! Perhaps they live in an orphanage and the red dress is part of the uniform. Do orphanages still exist? I’ve no idea. I ought to say something:
‘Hello! We’ve been waiting for you.’ I clutch my notebook to my chest and glance over at Caroline: ‘Are you both lost? Would you like me to walk back to the lane with you? It’s not that far if you stay on the path. And it’s beginning to feel a bit cold in here.’ Beginning to feel very cold in here.
The smaller girl wanders straight over and stands looking up at me. She doesn’t smile either. ‘I have just had pneumonia,’ she says, ‘but I’m better now.’ It’s almost an accusation.
I dither, search for some kind of supportive response: ‘I think I had pneumonia when I was little, but I’ve been alright ever since. Loads of people get pneumonia. So, I wouldn’t worry.’ I watch her walk over to stand beside her older sister. ‘I’ve been perfectly healthy ever since. Healthy as a horse. Well, apart from the appendicitis. But I don’t remember much about that.’ I’m not sure why I’m sharing this information with these two girls. I don’t like the way they are looking at me. They’re beginning to give me the creeps. Caroline, interrupts my thoughts:
‘My appendix ruptured six months ago. I had peritonitis.’ She continues to not smile. ‘They had to cut all my hair off when I was unconscious because it was impossibly tangled.’ Her language seems too old for her years. ‘The surgeon told my parents I was lucky to survive.’
‘Oh dear!’ I can feel my mouth going dry. I consider just walking away, perhaps running away. And leaving them to it. I glance back along the path but, again, adult responsibility intervenes. I can’t possibly leave these two children alone in here however weird they are. Then I remember that Caroline mentioned others: ‘Is it just the two of you? Look, it’s not really safe for you both to be wandering around in the trees like this. You ought to let me …’
‘No,’ interrupts Caroline. ‘It is not just the two of us. The others will be here soon. Then we will accompany you. We must all accompany you now.’
OK, this is really starting to spook me: ‘What do you mean? Who else is there? Accompany me where? Back to the lane?’
‘No. To the place we must all go.’
‘What place we …?’ But before I can finish asking, I hear a shrill burst of crying. Infant crying. A young woman steps out of the trees, her lips strawberry red. She is carrying a tiny girl, perhaps two years old, perhaps older. They are both wearing that same red dress and they both have the same brown hair, the same deep brown eyes. The young woman pauses to calm the infant in her arms and then carries her towards me:
‘She is unhappy to be in this place that she cannot understand, and she still has pain from her broken arm.’
The tiny girl is watching me, her cheeks red, her eyes bright with tears. I glance down at her chubby arm, at her small hand grasping her sister’s sleeve. I feel a familiar twinge in my wrist: ‘She fell down the stairs?’ I ask. But I already know the answer.
‘Yes,’ says the young woman. ‘Yes, she fell down the stairs. Father forgot to close the stairgate. He was very upset.’
I can feel my legs trembling. ‘What … Who are you? Are these your sisters?’
She turns to look at the others and, as she does so, I catch sight of the scar on her left temple, just beneath her hairline. Evidence of the deep gash I suffered when I drove my new car into a tree the week after graduation. She turns back to me, shaking her head. Regretful. ‘We are not sisters. We are Caroline. We are all Caroline. We survived so that you could continue. Your life was once ours. And we cherished it. But now it will all come to nothing. And we must all end with you.’
I crush my notebook against my chest: ‘What are you talking about?’ Then it suddenly occurs to me that I might have actually found the mushrooms and now this is all some kind of weird bad-trip depersonalization; some mind-expanding, out of body, complete fuck-up experience. I close my eyes, breath slowly, start to count to ten and abandon at six. I open my eyes and the four girls in their four red dresses are standing beside one another. Watching me. I must be hallucinating. I have to snap out of it. Just walk away. Just make my way back along the narrow path and the bridle way and … and leave these crazies to find their own way out. I look straight at the young woman. ‘Look, if I were you, I’d take your sisters …’
‘You are us.’
‘OK, I’ve had enough of this crap! If this is some kind of game you play … Look, I’ll go straight to the police and tell them there are four girls lost in the forest. They’ll send a search party or something. I’m leaving.’
‘It is too late for you to leave,’ whispers Caroline.
‘What? Why is it too late?’
‘It is too late for all of us now. Because of this one thing you should never have done. We tried to stop you but you paid no attention.’
‘What? This is ridiculous! I just came out for a walk because I needed to clear my mind. I’m writing a novel.’ I hold up my notebook to demonstrate. ‘I’m a writer. I’ve been published.’
‘That is what we wished for. But now it is over and you must come with us.’
‘Well, I’m not doing anything of the kind. And, anyway, I … I’ve no idea what you’re talking about? What is this … this thing, this one thing I should never have done?’
The forest has fallen silent. Cold and silent. I watch them watching me, watch the four of them huddle closer. So close that the shadows that separate them have started to disappear; so close that I cannot regard one of them without seeing the others. I try to look away but I can’t. Close my eyes but I can’t. I am paralyzed, forced to watch as they slowly merge into a single body, their arms and legs growing and shrinking, becoming the same. Small shoulders drifting upwards. Strawberry lips and blood-red ribbons. Their mouths are coming to rest one above the other, touching but not yet one. Their eyes remain separate, reluctant to share what they see: two columns of sorrowful brown eyes still watching me. I can see their mouths, their lips moving in silent synchrony as their answer echoes through the trees all around me:
‘Caroline, you should never have walked into the forest today.’
‘But …’ I watch their merger continue until a single Caroline is standing before me, one Caroline, my size. Shimmering with four moments of my life. And, as they … as she, holds my gaze, I can see only myself looking back. I hear myself speak as her lips move: ‘Please, I don’t understand. This can’t be happening. It can’t be real.’
The one Caroline takes a step towards me extends her arms as if to embrace me, to engulf me, make me part of herself. Myself. I can see fear in her eyes. My fear. She utters a low groan as her head jerks forward and then back too far. I reach out my hand to comfort her. I hear a branch crack behind me, then another, and I turn.
A man is staggering into the clearing. Unshaven. Filthy. Hunched to one side. His face is twisted with malice and pain. I can hear his ragged breathing, a weird groan coming from his chest. He stumbles towards me and I notice that one of his shoes is missing. His foot is bare, bloodstained and torn apart by the jagged forest floor. Quickly, I turn to warn the others, warn this other Caroline. To tell her to run. But she isn’t there. And before I can do anything else, I smell sweat and fear, hot breath on my neck. Rough, desperate hands are closing around my throat. I feel my notebook slip from my grasp, my eyes pricking, my ears ringing with the sound of all my moments calling me back. The scent of the forest is filling my lungs. I can feel my bare knees crushing the buttercups and speedwells as the sunlight fades and my legs buckle beneath me. And now, as my story ends, I have it. My opening paragraph:
My name is Caroline. And I’m a writer. Of psychological thrillers. And I can boast a certain degree of success. Yet …