Carruthers wasted no time getting changed. He’d cut fifteen minutes down to ten, not wanting their break ruined by Chelsey’s insatiable desire to flirt. He knew that Chelsey never took things further, she wouldn’t do that, but her tendencies irked him just the same.
Now as he returned downstairs he’d almost reached the bar before the chatting couple became aware of his presence; he felt like an uninvited arrival at a private party. Finally made aware by Noades’ sideways glance Chelsey swung round, her laughter rapidly dying away. ‘Oh, Martin – you were quick.’
Disappointed are you? Carruthers came so close to uttering what he was thinking but let the moment ride. Instead, he slapped his hand on the bar with a show of cheerfulness he didn’t feel. ‘Right then, are we off?’ And then with a flick of the head towards Noades, ‘See you later.’
‘Yeah, catch you later, Robin.’ Chelsey tilted her head and gave her dazzling smile before casting eyes over Carruthers maroon vest and matching shorts. ‘Nice and sporty I see. Let’s see if you match up to the gear you’re wearing, shall we? Now then, where do we get the cycles from?’
‘A place called Evans’ Hire, just off the High Street according to the hotel receptionist,’ Carruthers replied as they descended the steep hotel steps onto the bustling village street.
‘Nice guy, that Robin, I must say,’ Chelsey said glancing back at the hotel lounge windows. ‘Helpful too, and that’s good. Just goes to show there’s more to a decent bartender than pulling pints.’
If you’d spend as much time on your writing as you do eyeing up men. But Carruthers merely gestured as they reached a junction from which the car park lay to the right. ‘There it is - that hut to the right, by all accounts.’
‘Yep. Let’s go for it, hubby.’ Chelsey brushed against him and he felt the pressure of her sublime figure. Carruthers responded by placing an arm around her waist and drawing her tight to him. There were times like this, all too rare these days, when they must have seemed the epitome of the perfect couple, in contented bliss. And in early days they were – before –
He stopped, blinked, brought back to earth by the tug of Chelsey’s arm. They were at the hut and the attendant had asked a question which Carruthers, deep in reminiscence, hadn’t heard. He’d have been happy to have kept on walking, to have savoured their togetherness.
They were provided with mountain bikes which were fully serviced and handed maps detailing routes through the forest ranging from undemanding to the most rigorous.
But Chelsey was having none of it. She’d heard from Robin Noades about a reptile centre close by the Ornamental Drive area he’d described and it seemed to him that anything Noades recommended would take precedence over everything else. He hoped this wouldn’t blight their stay.
The attendant provided them with bottled water and cycle kits, and with Chelsey already abandoning the maps to the holdall he’d given them, they set out along the route Noades had suggested. His diagram, Carruthers noticed with an air of resentment, was in her hand.
Despite the air of proficiency his cycling attire gave him, Carruthers would concede that Chelsey was the better cyclist, and it was he who felt the heat more, as, after not much more than ten minutes, they reached the turn-off highlighted on Noades’ map.
They were soon in the heart of the Forest. Carruthers was surprised how quickly it closed in on them, the foliage of the big trees seemed to rear up at them, seemed about to burst across their paths spurred on by the breeze, before they found and turned into the narrow Ornamental Drive, flagged on both sides by the giant Douglas and Redwood trees to which Noades had referred. Their height and density afforded some shade to a day of increasing humidity.
Not far along the Drive they came to a clearing and Chelsey brought her cycle to an abrupt halt, forcing Carruthers close behind into a collision-avoiding manoeuvre.
‘Some warning might help,’ he said crossly, but Chelsey was paying scant attention. She’d slipped nimbly off her cycle, and with one hand on the handlebar, the other on her hip, stood staring at the huge oak. ‘Would you look at the size of that,’ she said without removing her eyes from the tree, ‘that’s surely the biggest oak I’ve ever seen.’
Carruthers dismounted and wheeled his cycle to where she stood in admiration. ‘It must be centuries old. Just think, Martin, what tales it could tell if it were a living creature.’ Her gaze fell to a plaque standing at its foot – “The Knightwood Oak,” it says here.’
Carruthers caressed his chin; he couldn’t resist a quip. ‘I’m surprised your new friend Robin didn’t mention it to you.’
‘Oh don’t be like that, Martin.’ Chelsey stretched out a hand and gave his a squeeze. ‘Now you know what I put up with when you get calls from Casey bloody Jennings every five minutes.’
‘That’s a gross exaggeration and you know it.’ It wasn’t the heat of the day that was colouring Carruthers’ complexion now, it was Chelsey’s failure to come to terms with her own behaviour – but she might have read his irritation for her mouth curved into a half-moon smile as she wrapped her free arm around his waist. ‘Oh come on, let’s not quibble. It’s lovely here and nice and cool under the shade of these huge trees.’ She planted a soft kiss on his cheek, instantly dissolving Carruthers’ coolness.
Chelsey took stock of her bearings. ‘Let’s not follow the road all the way to the reptile centre; let’s be more adventurous and take one of the trails – see the area in its natural habitat – I mean, without the traffic.’
‘Yes, but I don’t think the maps we were given will be comprehensive enough; we could end up getting lost, honey – I say we stick to the straight and narrow.’
‘Oh nonsense, Martin!’ Chelsey let out a big sigh. ‘Who gives a damn about the maps? And anyhow, if we do get lost…’ Chelsey broke off and thumbed at a wooden bollard in the ground. ‘There’s hundreds of these little wooden signposts around.’
She mounted her cycle as if the issue was decided, shooting a glance at her husband. ‘Come on you, hop on. Where’s your pioneering spirit?’
‘Where it should be; entrusted to our ancestors.’ But nonetheless Carruthers conceded and the pair set off on a track which seemed to run true to the road.
The tall trees afforded shade to a sultry afternoon, like huge protectors from the hot sunlight, as they followed the stony track through firs intermingled with colourful shades of rhododendron and azalea; heading towards what Chelsey thought was the reptile centre.
But the further they travelled, the more Carruthers got the uneasy feeling they were on the wrong trail. The track that had originally been aligned with the road had developed an arc, seeming to swing them away from their intended direction, and in branching off and taking a course they thought would correct their route, they found it tapered off before finally disintegrating amidst a clearing scattered with giant redwoods.
Carruthers nudged Chelsey and applied his brakes. ‘We’re lost,’ he groaned. ‘I knew we should have stuck to the main drag.’
‘Oh that’s right, blame me.’ Chelsey slid off her cycle, held the flat of her hand to her forehead and blew through her teeth, as she stared at a series of maze-like mini-trails which looked like leading nowhere – and then she spotted a picnic area. ‘There – those three guys, they’ll put us straight.’
‘They’re likely lost as well.’ But Carruthers yielded to the whites of his wife’s eyes, ‘Okay, let’s go find out.’
The trio was largely obscured by the thicket, sitting cross-legged on the grass, only Chelsey’s keen eyesight could have picked them out; he certainly hadn’t.
Carruthers slipped through the gap in the thicket ahead of Chelsey and saw the man to his right slip a thickly rolled cigarette to a dark vested, scraggly haired individual in the centre, who fixed him with an unwelcoming, wild eyed stare.
‘You folks lost? Yeah, sure you are.’ His smile was more of a sneer and his uneven, yellow teeth, blended in with his swarthy skin. ‘Where you be wanting?’ the man asked as the smile faded.
‘The reptile centre,’ Carruthers said stiffly. ‘If you could point us in the right direction?’
‘Point you in the right direction?’ The wild-eyed man drew on what Carruthers had no doubt was a joint and sent smoke billowing into the air. His gaze flitted past Carruthers and rested on Chelsey, where it hung. ‘Don’t know why you kind of folk can’t keep to the straight and narrow.’
‘What we kind of folk asked for, were purely directions.’ Chelsey thrust her cycle against a hawthorn bush and stepped forward. ‘If that’s not too much for your fuddled minds? She wafted the smoke towards them. ‘No offence, but will you pollute someone else with that muck?’
‘Now you listen here, lady, we ain’t bothering no-one.’ A gaunt guy to Chelsey’s left, wearing khaki, his face criss-crossed in a network of fissures, accepted the joint and narrowed his eyes. ‘Now if you want help I reckon you ought to show a little more civility,’
‘Fat lot you three ignoramuses know about that. I am not prepared to be spoken to in this manner.’ Chelsey, her voice raucous in the quiet afternoon, turned, grabbed her cycle, raised and turned it through the air in a blaze of fury and started back through the thicket, a glance over her shoulder followed by a single utterance, ‘Creeps!’
‘Chelsey!’ Carruthers held his head, exasperated. ‘Look, I’m sorry fellas, my wife’s been under a good deal of pressure of late. She’s a writer you know,’ he offered, as if that explained everything.
‘That a fact? She obviously don’t write no books on good manners.’ The one with the wild eyes coughed, spat on the grass. ‘But what the hell – I guess we can all get uptight at times.’ He scratched his long, unruly black hair and locked his gaze on Carruthers. ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do, not the one to bear any bad feelings like – I’ll show you the right route through to that reptile place.’ His eyes shifted to Chelsey, now waiting in the clearing, her fingers tapping furiously on the handlebars of her cycle. ‘But I’d watch your wife’s temper, if I were you. It could get you into a whole lotta trouble. I sure wouldn’t want to see that.’
‘Don’t I know it,’ Carruthers muttered, already wishing he’d stayed in Chiswick. He wasn’t really sure about the vagrant’s last remark but he accepted the man’s directions gratefully and catching up with Chelsey beat a rapid path back to the road.
Chelsey forged on, Carruthers felt himself losing ground, dug deeper into his dwindling energy reserves in a desperate attempt to keep abreast of her. He saw her glance at him. ‘Having problems dear?’ she asked, her voice annoyingly unruffled.
‘No, I’m up to it,’ Carruthers uttered between deep breaths, acutely aware of sweat trickling from forehead to cheek. ‘If we keep to the route the guy gave me we should soon be there.’
‘The guy’s name was Foulkes,’ Chelsey said, breathing easily while casting a critical eye over him. ‘You know, you really do need the gym.’
‘How’d you get that?’ Carruthers asked, ignoring her observations. ‘After all you stormed off ahead.’
‘Not before he handed the joint to his leather-skinned mate – when the guy acknowledged it he called him Foulkes – now that’s one creepy bloke, he only had to fix those horrible eyes on me and I cringed. Some guys you just can’t take to, you know?’
‘Perhaps not, but you didn’t have to be so damned rude,’ Carruthers uttered through gasps for breath. He mopped his brow with the flat of his hand; all he knew was that they were still climbing and despite Chelsey slackening off he was struggling to stay apace. ‘Well at least he helped us out.’
‘Did he – are you sure about that?’
Carruthers sighed, there she went again; she never could concede without questioning.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well my dear – unless it’s escaped your attention, and by the look of you it hasn’t – we seem to have been pedalling for quite some time, and although unlike you I can handle it, all I can see is forest, mile upon mile of trees, no perishing reptile centre in sight; makes you wonder if we’ve been pointed in the wrong direction, doesn’t it?’
‘Why would he do that?’ Unless of course, Carruthers considered with mounting apprehension, Chelsey’s “endearing” personality had needled him into it.
And a further five minutes of toiling up a relentless, never-ending hill in the heat, persuaded him that this might indeed be the case. He was relieved when Chelsey pulled up,
unleashing a string of expletives at the absent Foulkes. ‘For two pennies I’d nail him to that giant oak by his hair.’
‘Well, that would get us a long way.’ But Carruthers smiled at the image that flashed up. He knew that presented with a few tacks she was quite capable of doing it.
‘It’d give me great satisfaction, though.’ Chelsey sighed, reached across and placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘You look like you could do with a rest, truth is I could to. Let’s try and find somewhere to sit down awhile, then we might as well make tracks back.’
‘The question is where?’ Carruthers asked dubiously; they were surrounded by dense woodland, he was beginning to feel tired, and the climb had affected him a lot more than his wife, he reluctantly conceded.
‘We passed a clearing not far back, you were head down, so close to the handlebar you wouldn’t have seen it. I thought it might have been the centre but I’m pretty sure it was just a picnic area.’
‘Well at least it’s all downhill.’ Carruthers heaved his cycle around and they freewheeled back down the lane, and sure enough, Chelsey had been right.
The woodland opened out on their left to reveal a large enclosure surrounded by a low log-railed fence. Annexed to it was an oval shaped gravel car park, about two thirds full, leading to a kissing gate providing access to the picnic area.
After securing their bikes to the log fence, Chelsey led the way to a vacant picnic table where she removed her braid and shook free her hair. Perching on an unended log seat she took a sip from her bottled water, looking across at Carruthers, her eyes narrowed against the bright sunlight. ‘Well, that was a wild goose chase, engineered by that scruffy little middle-aged hippie, no doubt.’ She let out a long breath. ‘Oh well, it’s done now, no point in me harping on about it.’
‘No, indeed,’ Carruthers agreed, glad she’d let the matter drop. ‘I’ve been thinking,’ he said, drawing a finger across the table surface, ‘that we might cross to the Isle of Wight tomorrow if the weather stays like this. Chelsey?’
But Chelsey wasn’t listening; something had caught her eye, something amidst the woodland some twenty metres to their left. ‘What the hell!’ She was on her feet and flouncing across the grass towards the woods.
‘Chelsey, what is it?’ Alarmed by her movements Carruthers gave chase but Chelsey’s pace was so rapid she’d hurdled the low oak barrier into the woodland and had disappeared from his view before he’d a chance to get near her.
Carruthers reached the fence and then hung back, bewildered; the woodland was thick, and scattered with tiny trails that might have been the earth’s veins. He cursed his wife’s impetuosity and could only wander back and forth like a disconsolate border guard, until, some five minutes later, Chelsey marched back eyes blazing.
‘Chelsey – what on earth’s the matter?’ Carruthers ran forward, tried to take her hand but she waved him away.
‘Some guy was watching me through the trees. I saw the branches move, saw a shape. Someone was standing there – and when he realised I’d spotted him he shot away.’
‘I’ll go see…’
‘No Martin, it’s pointless. Whoever was there has gone now.’ She looked at him with an
expression full of hostility. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that Foulkes guy, he certainly
seemed the type…’
‘Are you sure there was someone there?’
‘Of course I’m sure, dammit Martin.’ Chelsey made for the cycles, hands crossed to her shoulders. ‘You know how keen my eyesight is.’
Carruthers couldn’t stem his irritation. ‘What possessed you to charge in after him, anyhow?’
‘I wasn’t having being spied on by some arrogant little toad.’ She turned on him. ‘I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.’
Carruthers sighed, it was turning into a dismal afternoon and even the weather was beginning to correspond to it. The sky had developed a brown hue – possibly the prelude to a storm. He mopped his brow. ‘Perhaps we’d better head back to the hotel; this heat’s getting us both uptight.’
‘It’s got nothing to do with the heat.’ Chelsey stopped, fastened her braid. ‘I’m sure it was Foulkes, I got a glimpse of his scraggly hair and his silhouette fitted the bill. If |I’d have caught him I’d have knocked him flat.’ She looked away, glanced to the far side of the enclosure where a white-washed lavatory block was situated. ‘I need the toilet before we head back. You can unfasten the bikes.’
‘Are you sure you’ll be okay?’
‘I can manage,’ she snapped, ‘and if by chance I encounter the little runt, I will flatten him.’
Carruthers watched Chelsey stride across the grass to the toilet block some two hundred metres distant. He noticed she held her cell phone to her ear, wondered who she was calling or who was calling her, and felt a surge of resentment that she’d objected to him bringing his. This hadn’t been the start he’d been hoping for, not at all, and now the conviction that somebody had been watching her, and the fixation that it was this guy, Foulkes, had put an additional dampener on things.
He’d only her insistence to go on. Her senses were indeed first rate, but given her heightened state of agitation of late, he had to ask himself whether anyone had really been there?
Could the menopause be setting in early? He doubted it, and any suggestion she saw her general practitioner would likely incur her wrath; she was adverse to them these days in any case, owing to an unfortunate miscarriage a couple of years back which she’d marked down to negligence by her appointed midwife. He’d considered at the time that it had been no such thing, that it wasn’t the midwife’s fault at all but that hadn’t stopped Chelsey remonstrating, and it hadn’t helped things between them either.
He raised his head, a nagging awareness of Chelsey’s absence returning him to the present. She’d been some while, he was certain. Chelsey was normally brief as far as her natural habits were concerned.
But this was an exception, and the longer she failed to emerge through the strung out crowd of picnickers, the more his anxiety grew.
As the minutes ticked away without sign of her Carruthers decided he had to check. He commenced his walk, trying to match his pace to the leisurely air of the area but failing dismally, each anxious step towards the block seeming to increase his momentum.
Once he’d reached the toilets he could only hang about outside ineffectively. He looked around at the scene before him – the families, the children happily engaged close by in what kids did, like play ball, chase around, holler and shout – perhaps if Chelsey and he had had children then things would have been different – perhaps.
But this was not something to dwell on, particularly as time ground relentlessly on and still no Chelsey. He glanced at his watch without knowing exactly how long she’d been but reckoning now it must be longer than thirty minutes.
His unease deepening to the extent that he needed assistance, he sought help from the small information office located just behind the block. He explained to the guy behind the desk in the cabin his disquiet, and the sympathetic officer duly dispatched a young female assistant to check the ladies’ lavatory for him.
Any relief he felt at the prospect that Chelsey would emerge and all would be easily explained was dissolved when the young woman returned with a puzzled look on her face.
‘The toilets are empty, I’m afraid sir – you must have somehow missed your wife.’
‘No, that’s not possible…’ but Carruthers broke off. It was of course the only possible explanation. She must have taken a wider route back, possibly on account of continuing in private the mobile phone conversation she was having.
Carruthers took one more look around the area, but in any case there wasn’t much to see other than the forest encroaching onto the log railings at the rear of the block.
He hurriedly returned across the field, remembering as he did so, that he’d unlocked the cycles and left them unattended. Chelsey would be sure to remonstrate with him for that.
Except that she wasn’t there and the cycles remained untouched. Now Carruthers’ heart-rate increased two-fold, began thumping heavily in his chest.
His mind began to manufacture a series of barely rational thoughts – like, had she been right? Had there been someone stalking her – had that someone attacked her – taken her away –and had that someone been Foulkes – and had that misdirection been part of his plan?
But surely somebody would have seen – the place was full of picnickers - though would they have paid any attention? And Chelsey would have been certain to put up one hell of a fight – not only that but she was in the mood for it. And who had she been on the phone to when she’d set out for the lavatory block? And another thing – the only entrance and exit seemed right here, where he stood now.
Carruthers clasped his hands to his head. Out of the corner of an eye he saw a fair-haired female approaching. His heart told him it was her, but his eyes let him down.
‘Are you alright?’ the woman asked.