The clock above the bar was in fact set some ten minutes fast, allowing the tenant time to call last orders and serve while staying within the licensing laws, and once I understood this I had time for a whisky chaser before leaving. The rain had increased to the point where a theatre poster for a production of “Noye’s Fludde” seemed entirely appropriate and the pavements were slick and treacherous. I arrived promptly on Queen’s Street for the bus which arrived, to my chagrin, some quarter of an hour late. ‘The weather,’ said the driver. I dripped onto the floor of his bus and agreed that there was a lot of it about. Some fifteen minutes later and three miles north of Oxford, I stepped into the darkness at the corner of Beckley Road and Temple Lane and fumbled for my torch.
As you may guess, matters were about to take an ill turn and I am now typing this in my attic room at Belshade College, still shivering and not entirely from the wet and cold.
The torch revealed that the end of Temple Lane was a sheet of water from verge to verge. I attempted it, but within moments the flow was over-topping my shoes – I had dressed smartly for the ceremony at the Bodleian – and seemed only to get deeper the further I ventured. It was then that a sweep of my torch revealed a stile, reminding me that there was a footpath across the fields. This I had used only the day before as a shortcut between the college and the Abingdon Arms at Beckley but I had not before considered attempting it in the dark. However, recalling it kept to higher ground than Temple Lane, I swung my leg over the stile and made the best of it.
My torch was adequate for showing a smooth road surface but proved hopeless on rough ground and several times I stumbled and slipped. Cow parsley and other herbs lashed my shins and brushed my sleeves, until I was covered in seeds and plant debris. At some point, my copy of The Times slid from my pocket and tumbled into the wind which added to my unhappiness by flinging rain in my face. What had been dry, bare, earth the day before now churned, like potter’s clay under my feet, and left me floundering.
I had not engaged in such foolhardiness since I was a child when I habitually built dams and dens in the woods near our home in Kent. Perhaps it was that memory which excited my imagination, I cannot say.
Respite from misery took the shape of a patch of woodland straddling a narrow valley. Here, I trusted, the path would be in better shape and at least the trees would give some shelter. It was then the moon emerged from the dense cloud, and though it reflected bleakly off the bark of willow and alder I was cheered by its appearance, and swung my leg eagerly over the stile, only to discover the ground was considerably lower on the far side whereupon I lost my footing and my torch.
I found the torch by treading on the blasted thing but it was quite dead. How long the moon would last I could not say and I determined to get through the wood with all speed and followed the path down through the trees. I had a devil of a time stumbling over the roots and walked with one hand thrust out, lest I pierce myself on a twig, and one to save myself if I fell. I took to whistling to spark my courage, perhaps supposing that like a bat I might hear an echo and prevent walking into a tree. I cannot remember the tune but fancy it was a nursery rhyme.
There are few things so altered by the night as a wood. I had no difficulty walking through it by day, save for a patch of dampness where a spring found the light, but now it was as though I were being flailed alive and jabbed by angry fingers. I swear I never left the path, yet perhaps I cannot truly say. Certainly, my nemesis believed I had strayed.
Stanford Byle stood, as he always stood, gazing up at me, his face and eyes grey and shadowed his coat rough, seemingly made from the wood itself. The only thing bright about him was the gunmetal gleam of the shotgun crooked in his arm.
I clung to a tree. It was not a firm tree, only a young alder, and it bent under my weight.
‘The path lies yonder,’ Byle said and motioned with his gun. The moonlight reflected along the barrels.
Once, near fifty years ago, Stanford Byle had caught me nutting in his father’s orchard, my mouth dry from eating filberts, my pockets crushed with more of the pale brown nuts still in their papery dressings. Stanford Byle spent his days walking his father’s fields shotgun in hand, dealing death to crows, rooks, hares and other ‘vermin’ taking from their land. I’d seen what he did to his victims; the old barn with its cobweb of wire and bony, furry, feathery offerings hanging in the dusty air like sacrifices to some obscene God. Once even, for a dare, I had gone into the barn with my pen knife and cut down one of his death lines.
I still remember the way Stanford Byle had stood at the foot of the tree, me caught in the crook of its branches, Byle’s gun crooked in his arm, as though in the act of reloading.
‘This is ours. The path lies yonder.’
I hear the slowness of his voice. If Stanford Byle had ever been to school it had left no mark upon him. The evil hangings in the barn spoke of what skills he had.
I crossed myself and prayed even as I blundered through Wicken Wood, terrified of losing my way and finding myself at the edge of the stream with no bridge to cross. It is a wonder I am not blind from being poked in the eye by a twig and I will get some strange looks in the morning as I seem to have shaved myself with a harrow.
Stanford Byle must be an old man, or dead, by now, but he lived still in this nightmare as he had lived for many nights before. I do not know if the phantom followed me, nor did I hear the blast of his shotgun, as I have so often in my dreams, only that when I at last stumbled onto the wooden bridge across the stream and remembered that running water obstructs all magick my relief was so violent that I unbuttoned my fly and let loose into the torrent below.
I recall little else until I arrived at Belshade Hall. Digby, the night porter, greeted me with an incredulous expression and waved me through, only asking me to remove my filthy shoes before venturing upstairs. They are now steaming beside the radiator and I have a scalding cup of tea at my elbow. Curses upon Epsilon Belshade and his damned teetotal totalitarianism – if ever there was a moment for a hot toddy it is now!
I am weary to death, but could not have slept before writing. It is the month of October, nutting time in the woods of Kent. But this is Oxfordshire and there are no hazel or filbert trees in Wicken Wood, or none that I have seen: yet found in my coat pocket and now lying before me, pale brown and still wearing their papery dressings, are a dozen ripe filberts.
Have I been nutting again in farmer Byle’s orchard?