Chapter 8. Not what she expected.
As if to banish any remaining ghosts, Maeve went up towards the entrance to the disused barracks and part way up the steep hill, by the telecoms mast, then using the hidden stile she dived into the woods.
As soon as she had taken a few steps, she breathed in the smell of fresh leaf mould, as the sounds of traffic died down and the blackbird and robin took over.
This time she was nervous. She was worried about relaxing in case by accident she tuned-in to any unpleasant spirits. The image that Ada had left her with, being that she might unwittingly poke a wasp’s nest from the other side, was not one that gave her any comfort at all. So she concentrated more on the real world, on nature and her surroundings. She made her way through the blackthorn bushes that were laden with juicy sloes, and was passing the strange little apple tree, noting the remains of the small yellow apples on the ground, when she heard a sob.
A real world sob and then someone speaking and blowing their nose. She dodged round the tree and walked a few steps through bracken, where she found the source. A middle aged, reasonable well dressed woman, who must have been talking to herself, was sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree. She had a much used cotton hanky clutched tightly in one hand and was emphasising her point with the other. As Maeve got closer she thought she heard,
“Yes, yes, I know, its all for the best. But why? I am good too. Am I not good enough?”
The woman became aware that Maeve was approaching and stopped abruptly. She seemed to give herself a shake, as if to pull herself together. Then she turned and managed a smile.
With some trepidation, Maeve who never liked to intrude on people’s private business spoke,
“Are you alright? Can I help?”
Still smiling the woman replied with a confident voice, as it to indicate that this was quite normal,
“Thank you for asking. I’m fine, just resting for a moment. When the wind catches my eyes they stream.” She said by way of explanation, as she waved the hanky in Maeve’s direction.
“So long as you are okay? It’s a lovely day for a walk.” Maeve finished on what she hoped was a positive, everyday sort of comment. She back-tracked through the bracken.
‘Well at least that was a living experience. And not a homeless psycho.’ She thought to herself and immediately felt bad at calling anyone a ‘psycho’ even to herself. When she was uncomfortable with a situation, or she hadn’t really thought it through, she found that it was all too easy to pick up and use stereotypes. They gave her the feeling of distancing herself from whoever or whatever it was, she could imagine that it’s ‘not us’ or ‘well that’s not me anyway’.
Since finding the body and talking to John, she had decided that she didn’t know enough about other people’s situation. And the pandemic had made her want to help the living. She had already discovered that her ‘gift’ could save lives in the real world as well as helping those on the other side find peace. Ada’s question was weaving it’s way through all of these thoughts. What did she really, really want?
She would have picked up her pace but the wood hadn’t dried out yet. But stopping herself from sliding was a good way to ‘be’ in the present and release any stress or tension, while letting her mind do its work. She found herself laughing as she grabbed at a leaf to regain balance, as if that would have been of any use, but balance regained she went on.
Keeping her thoughts on the present, she noticed that the woods had gone quiet again. ‘Uh oh’, she didn’t like the idea of that. Again there was no rustling of small animals. ‘So what are my options’, she thought, ‘that woman is not very far away, but I’m not sure she would be much help.’ She decided to press on as quickly as she could and make for the open ground with the gorse bushes and rabbits.
Making her way, still slipping, and now cursing the off-road cyclists who had muddied the path, she was scrambling up the last bit of steep incline before the open ground, when she heard a voice in her ear. She nearly jumped out of her skin, but that’s hard to do when scrambling upwards. So her feet lost their grip, she slid back down, and almost gracefully fell flat on her face, well mostly on her stomach, but she had felt it on her chin and her nose too.
The voice was still talking, as she tried to get up, and kept repeating,
“Miss, miss, spare a few coins. I’m hungry, haven’t had nuffin to eat in days, Nuffin.”
The mud and the cold and the shock of falling over, dispelled Maeve’s fear, now she was irritated,
“Well if you want some money, the least you could do is help me up.”
“Oooh, I can’t do that. No can’t do that, can’t do that, no, no, no.”
So Maeve gave up, stopped trying and half turning towards the voice, sat down in the mud. Her ‘would be’ assailant was right beside her, really close, he had indeed been whispering in her ear. As soon as she could see him she knew that he was a spirit. Now she was really cross with herself.
“Bloody hell! If you want some help, why on earth did you give me such a fright?”
“You was walking so fast, you didn’t hear me. You slowed down a bit here and I got closer. Didn’t mean no harm, miss. No, no. No harm, miss.”
There was something about him that felt familiar, he reminded her of someone, but she didn’t have time for that now, she was still sitting in the mud. She did notice his clothes which were threadbare and caked with mud, old-fashioned, more like rags really. And his boots were leather that had been repaired many times but still had gaping holes in them.
She was about to ask him another question, but he had gone. She realised why as she reached round to push herself up, and looked straight into the face of a man who was holding his hand out to help her out of the mud.
This man was real. She was so grateful for a warm hand, that she didn’t hesitate, and in an instant she was back on her feet. With the momentum of the upward movement she briefly moved that bit too close to him. She smelt his body, which surprisingly, didn’t smell of soap, it was more earthy than that, not unpleasant, but of someone who spent their lives in the outdoors.
He was handsome, short salt and pepper hair, with a warm smile and direct gaze that made you trust him straight away, probably athletic but looking a little gaunt at the moment, and he had that trendy slightly unshaven look. All in all, it was enough to make Maeve feel embarrassed, as she was covered in mud.
As soon as they were both stable, and had enough distance between to take each other in, Maeve’s rescuer also looked sheepish as if he didn’t know what to do or say. His vulnerability gave Maeve confidence and she wanted to relieve his discomfort, so stretching out her hand she said,
“Thank you. I’m Maeve and I really appreciated the help.” As she offered him her hand she saw the muddy state of it, and added, “Actually you probably don’t want to shake hands I’m filthy!” They both smiled, he still wasn’t forthcoming, and Maeve was getting cold.
“I think I’ll make my way home to a hot bath. Hopefully I’ll see you another time to thank you properly.” He seemed hesitant and either couldn’t or didn’t want to talk.
Then in a bit of a rush he said,
“I’m Matthew. I’m often here.” His voice was rich, and warm. Safe. With that he turned and walked off on one of the side paths that lead through the undergrowth to the reed lake. Fishermen often spent days there, with small green tents for shelter. Maeve guessed that was why he was in the woods.
Once the image of the hot bath had entered her head, it was all she could think of. She stopped thinking of the mud and the cold, walking as quickly as she could focused instead on the bath. If there was still enough hot water after Orla, then steaming hot would be best. The big question was, would she have a relaxing lavender bubble bath soak, or rejuvenate with a fizzing bath bomb? And then she thought after the bath maybe hot chocolate with a shot of brandy to stave off any potential long term effects, yes that would work.
She didn’t notice that the woman she had seen sitting on the fallen log was still there. Watching.