Martin’s hands were tingling. He hadn’t expected it to be so cold, but the mist enveloping the country park had brought the temperature tumbling down.
“Should’ve worn my gloves, Jean” he said.
Jean smiled her I-told-you-so smile. She never felt the cold, thought Martin ruefully, and even now, as they strolled along the frost-covered stony path, Jean’s cheeks held a rosy glow.
The North Downs Way stretched invitingly before them.
The silence of the woodland was broken only by the occasional whistle of a Robin or the rustle of a squirrel foraging in the dead leaves under the beeches.
They had met no other walkers this morning and the car park had been completely empty when they arrived. The visitor centre café was boarded up and undergoing a deep clean, according to the notice pinned to the door. This – and it being a weekday when families were busy elsewhere – probably accounted for the total absence of other visitors.
Martin and Jean had the woodland path entirely to themselves.
The mist shrouding the trees gave their surroundings an eerie appearance. Broken and fallen trees lay amongst the living and upright ones – still mostly bare at this stage of early spring.
“That one looks like a bear” Jean remarked, pointing at a dark stout tree stump whose trunk had been torn away by some fierce winter storm.
Martin smiled tolerantly. He was well used to his wife of forty years always looking to turn the everyday into something extraordinary.
Martin touched Jean’s arm lightly and they walked on.
Ahead of them, their path disappeared into a tunnel of overhanging evergreen; a tunnel through which they could see where the path split into two on the other side. Briefly the mist allowed a bright spell to strike where the path divided.
Martin had stopped dead in his tracks.
“What is it?” asked Jean, stopping also.
“Is that a woman there, on the right hand side of the path?” asked Martin quietly.
Jean looked. Sure enough, a human form appeared to be standing by the path edge. A woman, with what looked like a mop cap and long skirts, as if dressed for a period drama, standing completely still by a large beech.
“She looks like a ghost Martin” Jean murmured as they stood transfixed, staring at the distant vision.
“I’m sure she is” agreed Martin, mockingly.
The pair stood for several minutes, staring at the distant figure, looking for any signs of movement. When they saw none, they walked onward in that direction, through the pine-covered tunnel, all the while keeping their eyes fixed on the figure by the path ahead. With every step they took, her shape changed until finally when they arrived at the junction of the two paths, all they could see were gnarled and knotted tree trunks.
“Must have been a trick of the light” Martin said, sounding more assured than he actually felt, as the woman’s form had been so well defined that the hairs on the nape of his neck were only now subsiding.
Their walk continued until they reached the swing gate at the far end of the country park. There they turned and started back. Martin thought longingly of the flask of hot coffee and the sandwiches waiting for them in their car.
On the walk back, as they reached the place where the paths rejoined, Martin started to think about the vision they had seen there.
Jean had obviously been thinking the same.
“I want to find the place where we were standing when saw the woman” she said. “I wonder if she will still be there.”
Through the green tunnel they walked, then turned and looked again along the path.
“I don’t see her now” Martin said.
“No, me neither” Jean replied, disappointed.
They stood for a while, straining their eyes to make out the woman’s shape in the trees. But all they could see was the featureless beech tree standing where the two footpaths met.
“She’s gone” said Martin, drawing a line under the event. He needed a coffee.
And came face to face with the wooden effigy of a woman in mob cap and long dress. Malevolent eyes glared out furiously from her oak-dark features.
The effigy reached out suddenly and grabbed at the couple with her wooden fists.
It was Jean’s terrified screams that woke Martin from his shocked reverie. He grabbed Jean’s hand, tearing her away from the rough grasp of wood-woman, whose sharp claws had drawn blood from each of their shoulders.
They ran for their lives. Away, uphill they ran, crashing through the clinging undergrowth, trying to put distance between them and the horror behind them.
But with every step, running became harder, slowing them to a walk. Martin couldn’t breathe – he felt a steel band tightening around his chest. His leg muscles stiffened. Raising one foot after the other needed a herculean effort.
And Jean’s grip of Martin’s hand was becoming tighter, vice-like. He tried to look sideways at Jean, but his neck wouldn’t turn.
If he had managed to see her, he would have seen the roses in Jean’s cheeks were gone. And in place of Jean’s feet were dainty roots, drilling down into the soil, fixing her into position.
A position where she remains.
With the wooden effigy of Martin at her side.
Should you venture along that same path some misty morning, you might glance up and fancy you can make out, there upon the hillside, the figure of a man and a woman standing hand-in-hand amongst the fallen branches.
It may be a trick of the light.
But do not stand too long wondering.
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