Chapter 1. The world returns to a new kind of normal.
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Maeve got out of the house early, not too early, but early enough to miss the pre-work runners, and hopefully to be well on her way before the dog walkers, and the ladies on their exercise outings who shared secrets in loud voices, were up and out. It was months since she had accepted that spirits could communicate with her. This revelation ending up in a desperate chase to save a life, along with the police and a media storm had changed everything. Even though her mother Ada, who was the famous medium, had managed to draw most of the attention away from the rest of the family. Maeve had taken to walking the woods further away, towards Fordwich. It meant a short cycle first but this area, touching the old military base, was a lot less manicured than the ancient Blean forest, so generally less frequented and much quieter.
This morning her timing was spot on. Not a soul. She left the road and took the inconspicuous path alongside the youth centre. The shell of a rusting burnt out car was rotting in the undergrowth. She had been here enough times that she was no longer concerned the culprits might be lurking nearby, and actually thought this was a good way to keep the woods private and casual walkers away.
The summer had gone, and it seemed that the earth had turned overnight from hard baked that needed a pickaxe to break it, to a squelchy sea of mud. The sun was low in the sky, glinting on the water left by the overnight showers and showing off the yellows and oranges of the beach trees against the clear blue above. She hopped from side to side of the path to avoid the worst of the puddles and muddy tracks left by the off-road bikes, finally getting deep enough into the woods to have a carpet of leaves underfoot. Now she could breath. There was a warm silence. The smell of the earth felt right, restorative. Her spirits lifted.
Maeve wasn’t sure if it was the effect of the colours or that earthy smell that did it, but as she picked up her pace she felt happy and at peace. Walking on her own was the time that she could let her thoughts flow, she noticed the vividness of the green in the moss, as she mentally set the world to rights. ‘How much has changed in the last year? Who would have thought that a pandemic would sweep the world? Sure there were films like ‘Contagion’, but that’s Hollywood not real life. Yet here we are in ‘Lockdown 2’, where wearing facemasks has become the new normal, and you are more nervous of strangers getting too close because they might infect you, rather than rob you.’
The family dynamics had radically changed too. Maeve hadn’t really processed this and was still living day to day which the pandemic was helping with. Her daughter Marianne had gone to college, this was her first term. There had been that debate which most families in the same situation had probably had, ‘what was the point in going to University if all the lectures could be online and at some point most likely would be online? Especially if the second wave was going to be as bad as they thought it might be!’ In the end Marianne had been both logical and firm, “I need to get used to being away from home and to settle in, and even if a reasonable amount of the course is online, I will still get the tutorials. I need to start managing my life on my own.” That was that.
Maeve and her younger daughter Orla, had driven Marianne up to Cambridge.
They had made plans to go for a last celebratory lunch together before leaving Marianne. They dropped all her belongings off and Marianne took them up to her room. Then, as they should have expected, the students had to ‘bubble’ in groups and the family were told not to meet up again in person. Marianne FaceTimed them to show the interior, telling Maeve that her rooms were clean and friendly and that she would be fine.
So in the end it was a rushed and brutal parting, where Orla and Maeve suddenly found themselves standing by the car not knowing what to do. Neither wanted to celebrate without Marianne, both feeling a little lost. Instead they opted for a service station take-out on the way home.
‘Thank God for FaceTime’, thought Maeve, at least we will be able to talk to her and won’t feel so far away. She hated the thought of Marianne being lonely. She didn’t want to think of the gap Marianne would leave in her life, that wasn’t fair. She reflected ‘your job as a parent is to prepare your children for flight’. Still she didn’t like to think of all the students alone for the first time, and probably many now quarantined in their own rooms.
A squirrel jumping from tree to tree and dropping acorns brought her back to the here and now. Part of her loved the random noises in the woods but another part was still nervous of coming across something more sinister. Some years back she had stumbled upon a homeless gang who had either been on drugs or alcohol and who made her realise that in the middle of the woods she was pretty far from help. They hadn’t seen her and she had turned smartly back-tracking out of the woods but it gave her a fright.
In the first lockdown the Council had gathered up all the homeless and given them shelter. Maeve needed a change and had come back to give these woodlands another try. She found that the atmosphere was completely different. Now you were more likely to meet a poodle in a Burberry coat than a crazed tramp.
As she had passed the hollow with the big oak tree dripping with curtains of ivy, she wondered how old it was, guessing definitely more than a hundred years. Inelegantly she scrambled up the incline to where the woods opened out to reveal gorse and rabbits. ‘Kissing is out of fashion when the gorse is out of bloom’, she remembered from childhood. She stopped to carefully sniff the flowers avoiding the thorns. As she breathed that slightly coconut smell in, she was immediately taken back to summer holidays in the north of Ireland and the joys of a Wall’s smiley face ice cream at the end of a mountain treks.
Smiling, she walked on, slipping on the muddy edges of the tracks as she descended back under the trees thinking her mother Ada, she could hear her shouting ‘hands out of pockets!’ She guiltily took her hands out just in time to stop her falling over on another slide. This brought her thoughts to Ada. Lockdown had been hard on both of them. Maeve and Ada had faced some pretty raw truths this year and they were building a new relationship. Ada had a heart condition and had turned seventy so was in a high risk category, hence she had been self shielding pretty much since March. They had managed weekly outings over the summer, still being careful and staying outside. Beach walks in Sandgate with a takeaway coffee perched on the concrete slipway overlooking the sea and the honey coloured shingle. But it wasn’t the same. No hugs, no dropping round and staying for dinner. The children, who were now young adults but still her children, had been adamant, ‘we want to have Ada round for years, we don’t want to be the ones who killed her!’ So they kept their distance.
By now Maeve had done a big loop around the reed lake and was heading back, when she heard some rustling noises. She was idly thinking that there must be more squirrels this year, or maybe it was the blackbirds routing through the leaves for worms. Then, crack. In this part of the woods, in the hollow under the tree canopy, there were no other sounds. The traffic from the city was far away, and the little plane that had been buzzing around had gone. That was definitely a crack, a stick breaking. Abruptly pulled out of her revery, Maeve stopped, and looked. Nothing. Silence. A bit too silent. She had had the woods to herself this morning. As she moved she had disturbed the wildlife, the birds flew off and settled back after she passed. The field mice and the squirrels had rustled or jumped to a safe distance. But here, nothing else was moving. She looked as far as she could see. The trees had been shedding their leaves and the undergrowth had died back so she could clearly make out the structure of the trees and the layout of the woods. Slowly, she did a three-sixty degree turn, and took it all in. A few stray leaves fluttered down to the ground, the wind was blowing gently through the trees, nothing else. ‘Sometimes there are just cracks’, she thought, ‘a branch that finally can’t take the weight anymore, it has to happen even when there is no one to see it.’ Still it put her on edge.
Then in the stillness she was forcefully hit by a wave of incredible sadness. It passed. It was not her sadness. She felt a sense of direction, something was calling her to follow it.
As if she could smell it, Maeve instinctively, knew where to turn, knew exactly which direction this sadness came from. Her experience was still limited but it felt like a spirit reaching out from the other side, this time no words, just emotion. As she moved closer the waves of feeling were so strong that she had to stop and stand still until it passed. It was draining and the tears were flowing down her cheeks, she knew this wasn’t her sorrow, but she cried all the same. She reached an area with dried bracken under the trees and if it wasn’t for the sharp intensity of feeling that was guiding her, she might have stepped on the body.