An extract from Halina Watts’ debut novel.
Into the forest
I took the train to the end of the Central Line and put the address in Google maps. I opted for the twenty minute walk even though Paul suggested I get a cab. It was sometime after 7pm and, in truth, a walk would help clear my mind. It had only been a week since Paul’s offer to lodge at his house and I was already moving in. I didn’t want to appear keen, but after I visited a smelly bedsit in a shed for £900 a month I messaged him straight away. Coco helped me pack my rucksack and said she would miss our late night chats, but I could tell she was relieved. Thankfully the footballer had kept me busy. After I found him on Facebook, his profile disappeared, so I spent hours trawling Instagram and Twitter and LinkedIn. I messaged him on them all but he hadn’t replied, and now a fear gnawed at me that he probably never would. Still, I felt good about work, my ability to go for drinks with Paul and June and not actually drink too much, keeping in check that erratic, crazed feeling that sometimes threatened to pull me apart. What I mean is I wasn’t fucking up.
A pigeon swooped overhead. I didn’t want to keep ruminating. The sky was grey but the greenness of the suburb was everywhere, as if all the plants and lawns and trees were being egged on by the scale of the other’s presence, the landscape so changed from the cramped, urban one I had left. There was a sign for the forest, which the map pointed towards, so I tightened my backpack and walked along the high street, past a post office, Tony’s Butcher’s, a newsagent and a pink shop with dream catchers, green faces and crystals, the slogan ‘You Are What You Think’ etched onto a piece of wood. I thought about the dreams I kept having, the ones where my teeth fell out, and decided I didn’t like the slogan. Closed signs hung in doors. Next to the shop was a park with a boy throwing a ball into a hoop, a grey fluffy dog running after it.
‘Zeltzy, Zeltzy, we gonna jump high,’ the boy yelled, zig-zagging around the yelping mutt.
I wondered if he was the only kid in this sleepy suburb and thought of my solitary childhood without siblings, long, infinite days wishing for a dog or cat but settling for a goldfish called George who died with a tumour stuck to his limp body. A flash of envy pulsed through me towards the boy and his dog. I laughed then, because how could I feel jealousy toward a child, what kind of ending would that have?
My phone pinged.
You lost? wrote Paul.
It was still light so I walked through the park towards the forest. The map told me to take a narrow path that would lead me to the forest’s northern edge. When I looked back the kid and dog were gone. Light dappled the forest floor even though the sun was losing strength. I wouldn’t normally venture into a forest on my own but it was a short walk and soon Paul and Gina’s house would appear. In any case witches and three little pigs and girls in red cloaks were for children, not adults, plus the forest had always been a safe space for me and it was where I had got to know Neon. I thought of that summer when we met, our sixteenth year, hanging out by the BMX trail, smoking blunts. Her running towards me, chest pushed out, keys jangling on bum bag before she climbed up a huge oak then threw herself off, scattering leaves, then gasping for breath. ‘Now your go,’ she had said and as her flickering gaze pierced mine, I wondered what it took to stare danger out, if Neon was all you needed.
I pressed on, shuffling through muddy debris, past a den someone had built out of branches. Here the light was darker and full of shadows. The path was well-trodden, lined with foliage and dense trees until it cleared into a mossy carpet, the path widening. In the middle of the path was a stone statue of a woman wrapped in a shawl. She looked sad, as if she was weeping, her head bent down. An odd place for a piece of art, but with the disappearing light, I couldn’t linger, I would return to it another time. Moss merged into forest and darkness covered everything. Crows made a ruckus in the sky. I was aware of a vague rustling sound but when I looked back it stopped. I carried on into the dark, and the sound edged closer.
‘Hello,’ I said but there was no response. My heart raced and I picked up speed, felt the full weight of my back pack, thinking who in their right mind lived in a forest? A tree creaked, like a door opening. I continued walking and the rustling returned, louder this time, as if it was right behind me. I began to run and then the sound receded, so I slowed, trying to look back but seeing only a dark shape between trees. Hooves clopped on the ground. And then it was coming for me. I ran further and further but my foot snagged on something and I fell over, holding my hands out to the floor. Leaves cushioned my head. I went to jump up, trying to ignore my rapid breath and wild, beating heart but the forest calmed then, and whatever animal was upon me had stilled. There was a low, mellifluous groan, a song of something in mourning. Looking back, a large beast appeared almost as a shadow, before disappearing into dark. Sweat gathered under my arms and on the top of my lip, dripping into my mouth.
‘Jesus fucking Christ,’ I said. The beast’s groan had stopped but the forest floor and trees pulsed with a soft hum.
I stood up and in the distance I saw a house. A huge house. Surrounded by wisteria covered walls. I straightened my back and wiped sweat off my head, then made my way through an iron gate, up a gravelled path, flanked by beds of manicured roses. The door was stone coloured with a panel of white and blue stained glass that looked like the crests of a sea. I grabbed the end of a brass fish tail and knocked the door, brushing leaves off my clothes and hair.
Paul opened the door dressed in jeans and a grey shirt, top buttons undone, leaving the hairs on his chest exposed.
‘Margo,’ he said. ‘You made it.’
The jeans were ripped which, I assumed, had been frayed through wear rather than as a fashion choice.
‘Well are you going to come in or what?’ he said.
‘Sorry, yes, hi. Thanks.’
I went to hug him but he had already turned round.
‘You didn’t walk did you?’
‘I did in the end,’ I said, following him down an olive coloured hallway, with high, airy ceilings. ‘I didn’t realise you lived in a forest.’
‘Not in it. More on the edge. If you come from the other side, it’s just down a small path. Beautiful isn’t it? You should have got a cab though.’
He turned round and I felt him trace my body with his eyes. I shifted on the spot.
‘Here, let me take your bag.’
I pulled it off and leaves scattered over the floor.
He laughed. ‘What happened?’
‘There was an animal,’ I said, still trying to regulate my breath.
‘What kind of animal?’
‘I’m not sure, maybe a horse. It was massive.’
‘Probably a deer, we have lots of them. Must be a good sign, they are normally quite shy. You got lucky, Margo.’
He smiled and I noticed the soft whiteness of his straight teeth. The smoothness of his skin.
‘Well I thought it was going to kill me.’
He laughed then.
‘Welcome to rural living, Margo.’
The walls were adorned with gold framed paintings and sketches of animals: a tawny owl, pigs and an elephant. Butterflies in glass. One big and blue, a type I had never seen before so that I momentarily stopped in awe of the brightness of the beautiful winged insect, amazed at how something so dead could feel so alive. We moved into a large sand coloured kitchen, its pinkness warm and welcoming. A marbled island and black stools centred the room, sparkling clean and tidy as if rarely used. A large silver mirror rested above a fireplace. In its reflection I could see antlers hanging on the opposite wall.
‘This is the kitchen, and that’s the laundry room,’ he said, pointing to a closed door. ‘We don’t cook much but feel free to use whatever you like.’
A cream Smeg fridge stood in the corner. Next to it was another small fridge, with a clear front, filled with wine.
‘So much wine,’ I said.
‘Of course, help yourself to that too. Shall we have a glass? To toast your arrival?’
Rent was £500 a month. A bargain. And now I would be drinking all their hard-earned alcohol. And then I remembered I wasn’t meant to be drinking at all. Still, I could have one. One was fine. One was okay.
‘Sure,’ I said, relieved at the prospect of feeling looser, and less affected by the fact I was moving into my boss’s beautiful world with his beautiful wife. I felt lucky and happy but also unsure of how to move in the space so I folded my arms behind my back.
He pulled out two glasses that were more like goblets and opened the smaller fridge.
‘How do you like your wine?’ he said.
‘Er, fresh and crisp.’
‘Same. With a dash of the unexpected. How about this?’
He showed me the bottle, labelled The Magic Grape.
I did not know wine but still nodded my head. ‘Delicious, I’m sure.’
A fly buzzed around us. He wafted it away and poured a glass. As he held one up to me, he appeared delighted, and I realised how much more energy he radiated outside of the office, the way he blossomed in his own natural environment.
‘To you,’ I said. ‘Thanks for being such a great boss.’
‘Hey, I’m not your boss here, okay, this is your home and there’s no hierarchy. I’m just Paul.’
I felt myself blush, as if his words were an invitation to something, although I didn’t know what.
‘Come,’ he said. ‘Let me show you your room, and then you can meet Gina.’
I had momentarily forgotten Gina, and the sudden thought of meeting her made me nervous.
‘Don’t look so terrified,’ he said, laughing.
‘I’m not,’ I lied.
He led me into a living room with another large fireplace, golden walls, and lilac windows. More gold framed pictures but instead of animals there were photographs of beautiful natural spaces. Vast, unending salt flats. Cascading waterfalls. The edge of an ice cap.
‘These are stunning. Did you take them? The salt flats look familiar.’
‘No, Gina did except for the salt, that’s by Sebastiao Salgado, her favourite.’
‘I love that image too.’ There was something soothing about the white, never ending salt and I had regularly found myself googling photographs of the landscape, zooming in on the cracked surface, then zooming back out, marvelling at the bright blue sky and the dazzling crystalised salt.
‘See already you have so much to talk about. Both science geeks. Both love Salgado. And you met that time. I’m sure she’ll remember.’
He looked at me then, sipping The Magic Grape and I thought I saw his eyes sparkle with something but I didn’t know what. We lingered on the spot so that time slowed, and I felt unsure about what to do next.
‘Come,’ he said, so I followed him up a beautiful staircase that curled round to the side. More butterflies adorned the wall. Fluorescent green and yellow. Deep pink and shimmering browns. I read somewhere recently that a scientist had brought back to life a once extinct butterfly and I wondered if Gina knew the man, if life-giving was her speciality too.
At the top of the staircase on the wall was a photo collage of happy people in fascinators and posh fitted dresses. In the middle Paul and Gina posed. Grinning. He wore a blue suit, she wore a white one. She held a yellow bouquet, a small lacy veil over her face. They looked how a couple just married should look. Totally in love, as if the passage of time couldn’t weather them or their feelings.
‘That was so long ago,’ he said. It seemed he wanted to say something else, but he pulled back and carried on down the hallway. ‘Ta da. . . this is your room.’
The corridor had the same olive walls, but there were no paintings or taxidermy, just a long windowless tunnel. Paul stood at the end, and for a moment it felt like I was back in the forest. I walked towards the room. He stepped into it, and turned on the light, its sharpness making me wince.
‘Sorry. Hang on.’
‘It’s fine, don’t worry. It’s just so bright.’
‘I always use the lights by the bed if I’m in here. They’re softer but come morning the room will be flooded with natural light. It’s one of my favourite rooms. I sometimes use it to meditate or read.’
He turned on the side lamps which emitted a low, golden glow and clicked off the ceiling light.
‘It’s beautiful,’ I said.
‘You’ve got an ensuite too, there are fresh towels in the cupboard under the sink.’
‘Thanks, now I have no excuse not to wash.’
‘Hah, wait till the morning. The view is special.’
One wall was all glass and white shutters. I peered through and saw a line of trees, a meshy space of forest floor. Branches swayed and shadows moved in the dark. I couldn’t see the mournful statue or the boy and his dog or the beast or badgers or foxes. I mean I knew that was all out there, rustling, and being, and cunning, out of reach but also close, yet in this moment it was as if I was looking at a painting, a static perfect darkness.
I turned to Paul and he looked momentarily troubled.
‘You finish up here and unpack,’ he said. ‘You can explore the house another time. Come down when you’re ready and meet Gina.’
He turned to leave.
‘Thanks Paul,’ I said. ‘I love it.’
He looked back and smiled. ‘Feels good to have you here, Margo.’
He left and I lay on the bed imagining Neon obsessing over the little animals and sketches, the smell of oak and pine sifting through the forest into the house. It was her perfect place. And then I thought of the footballer, the need to get a decent story. I looked at my phone. He still hadn’t replied and I wondered if somehow thick forest foliage, the brick and stone of this house and Paul’s warmth could make the worry disappear.
Schubert was playing somewhere downstairs. It reminded me of home, Dad always blasting Verdi or Madama Butterfly or the Out Of Africa soundtrack, as he twirled round the conservatory, glass of sherry in hand. In that moment I missed him and wanted to text him but then remembered we weren’t speaking. Smells of cumin and spices floated into the room and I realised The Magic Grape was all I had consumed since breakfast. I brushed my hair and teeth and glossed my lips, lined my eyes in blue and black. I wore a silk white shirt and black leggings with grey Moccasin slippers, an outfit Coco had given to me as she made space in her wardrobe. I followed the scent of spices and almost skipped down the golden staircase.
In the kitchen Paul stood at the cooker, stirring a pot.
‘Ah finally,’ he said. ‘You were gone ages.’
He wore glasses which had steamed up and a navy apron embroidered with trees over his clothes. On the marble island there was a cardboard box.
Paul poured a glass of wine.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘Cheers. I just need to finish dinner prep and then I’ll take you to meet Gina.’
We clinked glasses and he peered at me. Through spices I could smell his woody cologne. But there was also something else. A stale, sulphur smell. He turned back to stir the pot then clicked off the heat. I sipped wine and leaned into the sulphur which seemed to be coming from the box.
‘Everything okay at work?’ he said, brushing down the apron and taking it off. ‘Any luck with the footballer?’
‘I found him after trawling through hundreds of Facebook posts about sweaty gym sessions, and bulldogs in weird outfits.’
‘Jesus. Poor you. But you found him. Brilliant! Have you told the others?’
‘I told June. She was hassling me so much. Big Boss got me writing a story about giant snails invading Britain.’
‘Yeah I heard about that. He’s just testing you.’
I smelt another whiff of sulphur.
‘The story about the comet went in as a forty word blob, Paul. I don’t think he likes me.’
‘He does. But he’s pushing you to do better. And you will. I have a good feeling about the footballer.’
He was being so positive I couldn’t say the footballer was obviously never going to respond, that he didn’t want to be found. I took a few more sips. Paul smashed into the onion, as if the action would reduce the stinging eye sensation that its silky layers would inevitably bring.
‘Remind him it’s all off record to begin with.’ He put the onion in the pot and began to cut a chicken breast into thin slices. The knife was short and sharp, like a dagger. He blinked and wiped his eyes with a tea towel. ‘Just play it straight and you’ll be fine.’
‘Okay, I’ll try.’
‘How was it leaving your friend’s house?’ he said.
‘Yeah, fine. Her boyfriend is moving in at the end of the week so it’s perfect timing. I’ll miss her but it’s for the best.’
In truth I didn’t know what was for the best, and leaving Coco’s place had made me feel even more adrift in the city.
‘You think three’s a crowd?’ he said, staying focused on the chicken. He blinked.
‘Well, no. But I didn’t want to be a third wheel when they’re in that beginning lovey stage.’
‘That’s fair enough.’
He finished with the chicken, sliding it into the pot. He put the knife on the chopping board and looked up at me.
‘Come. Let’s go and see Gina.’
He turned to leave and I followed.
‘Hey, can you bring the box?’
‘Sure,’ I said.
I turned back for it and as I picked it up the stale sulphur smell got stronger. I looked into the box and immediately recoiled in horror at the sight of mice, all nascent and fluffy, as if they were sleeping. I stepped back, and dropped the box on the floor.
I glimpsed into the box, to be sure I’d seen right, but the mice weren’t sleeping, they were dead. I turned away, a nauseous feeling rising in me.
‘Oh don’t worry about that,’ he said, smiling. ‘They’re Gina’s.’ He picked up the box. ‘Come, follow me.’
My heart raced.
‘What does she need with dead mice?’
I followed him through folding glass doors that opened onto a patio with a wooden table and chairs and a large lawn flanked by wild flowers and ground spotlights. At the end there was a log cabin with a window and a net curtain, a figure inside. Its picturesque beauty moved me and I found myself rooted to the spot.
‘It’s for taxidermy,’ Paul said. ‘She does it in her spare time.’
‘Why does she need so many of them?’
‘To freeze them. Are you coming or what?’
‘Sorry, yes.’ I had never met a taxidermist before. Mum and Dad didn’t own anything like that and it always reminded me of dust and death, two things I didn’t have much time for. I trudged on behind him. As we got closer I could hear a requiem bleeding out. Paul knocked on the door. The music stopped.
‘Come in,’ a voice said.
He pushed open the door and Gina was standing behind a large wooden table flecked in different colours of paint. Wood shavings and tools scattered the surface. She wore white dirty overalls and goggles. Her hand rested on a brown furry animal. She pulled the goggles up onto her head.
‘Ah the famous Margo. How you doing?’
She had striking cheekbones and a perfectly sculpted nose. Full red lips and translucent skin. Her hair was tied in a loose bun.
‘So good to meet you Gina, thanks for welcoming me into your home.’
She wafted her hand as if she was shooing away a child. ‘Nothing to do with me. Thank Paul for that. He gets lonely, I’m always stuck in here.’
Paul looked at me and then back at Gina. He put the box on the table.
‘You know you’ve met before,’ he said, raising his eyebrows.
‘Really,’ she said. ‘Where?’
‘At a convention in Geneva. I asked you a question. But you probably don’t remember?’
She stopped what she was doing and stared vacantly into the cabin.
‘Yep, you’re right. I’ve got no idea.’
She shrugged her shoulders, slicing open the animal’s belly and prodding its insides.
‘It’s a weasel,’ she said. ‘We found him dead under a branch a few weeks ago.’ She turned it over. ‘See this long white stripe. Exquisite isn’t it?’ She thumbed fur, plunging her fingers into its stomach.
‘This is the hardest part,’ she said, her faced scrunched up. ‘If you get this wrong, it can’t be fixed.’
I felt sick as I watched her pull out a red, shiny organ. I looked to the floor then at the photographs stacked on the walls. I hadn’t taken it in before but everything was blue. Beams painted in a deep, dark navy. Photographs stuck on top. A colony of garden eels, long, skinny, pen-like fish weaving through them. A pair of golden gobies. Soft pink coral. Tourists swimming around a whale shark, the images taken below the water’s surface. Large parts of the wooden floor were covered in shells and it felt like we had stepped from the forest into the ocean.
‘I won’t join you tonight if that’s okay,’ she said. ‘I need to finish this off. Then I’m up early tomorrow for filming. Two more weeks and time off. At last.’
I found myself staring at her graceful, languid movements as she rearranged the decomposing animal. There was something otherworldly about her.
She caught me looking and held my gaze until I couldn’t do anything but look away, a shy reticence coming over me.
‘You can try it one day if you like,’ she said. ‘Although I’m guessing it’s not your thing.’ I felt her gaze cover every inch of my body. ‘You look too manicured for the grisly stuff.’
A wry smile appeared on her face. I didn’t know how to respond.
‘I love science and I love animals,’ I said, desperately.
‘Interesting. Well that will figure itself out.’
I didn’t know what she meant.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Good to meet you.’
‘Come on, Margo, let’s go,’ Paul said.
Gina raised her eyebrows. ‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, Margo.’
Paul looked at her. ‘That leaves a lot of things on the table,’ he said, before turning to go. Gina put her goggles back on and I left the cabin.
Back in the kitchen, I kept mulling over the awkward encounter. Had I said the wrong thing? I mean, of course I had, that confession to loving science and animals. Who would say that? It was fine, I kept telling myself. If she didn’t like me I would stay out of her way. Still, it was a shame. I wanted to get to know her, felt there were things we could share.
‘You know that’s just how she is,’ Paul said, serving up the chicken. The windows had steamed up. ‘She can be tricky at times, but I think that’s part of her charm.’
He looked at me then as if he didn’t think she was charming at all. We smiled at each other.
‘Shall we have another drink?’ he said, moving towards the fridge of wine. I thought of the footballer, and Neon and the handsome, helpful man standing in front of me.
‘Yes, go on,’ I said. ‘We might as well.’