THE CLEARING

Set in a dense woodland, Alex Eastlake’s short story follows a lost young man as he tries to find his way back to safety. Illustration by Pedro Semeano.

It was only minutes ago that Christopher could still hear the calls of the group. He’d stopped to take a picture of a toad, which had been following him briefly, and when he looked up, he was all alone. There was no real track through the woods, the guide knew the route; she had the compass. Panic was starting to draw in. Christopher felt that his cries seemed to be losing distance, as the woodland thickened. Barely any light fell through the thick canopy. Dense, stringy moss hung from the branches of the old oaks, and a damp smell of organic waste permeated throughout.

Seeing that he had precious few choices, Christopher pushed on through in the direction that he believed the group had headed.

From the corner of his eye, Christopher noticed, in the gap between two stunted trees, what looked like a building in a clearing. Seeing a solution to his current predicament, he crossed the clearing and approached the house. Whoever was living there was sure to have a phone; there was bound to be a track that would lead to civilisation. He knocked confidently on the door. A long time passed in silence, and he noticed that there was no clear break in the surrounding tree line; no visible track. He decided to try the bell that hung from an old rope in the eaves of the porch. The sound rang off into the clearing. A bird flew from a nearby tree, then all returned once more to silence. A light shuffling could be heard from inside, then the sound of a key in the door. Christopher thought that he should probably announce himself, to avoid alarm.

‘Hi. I’m really sorry to bother you, but I’ve strayed from my group. Can you tell me the way back to the village, or could I use your phone?’

There was no reply from within. The key still turned intermittently in the lock. Suddenly, there was silence, then a click. The door opened awkwardly inwards, catching on the curtain, which hadn’t been pulled fully across. A small, very old face peered out from behind the door.

‘Sorry to bother you. Could I use your phone?’ Christopher repeated.

The curious and searching face suddenly broke into a beaming smile.

‘Of course you can. I’m sorry for my delay in answering, as I’m sure you can see, we don’t have many visitors. We weren’t sure if we’d actually heard the knock, or imagined it. The mind starts to play tricks as time draws on.’ She placed a finger to the side of her head, and rolled her eyes. Christopher felt himself become instantly relaxed. ‘Please, come inside.’

Christopher stepped inside. The door closed firmly behind him with a click. He followed her as she shuffled through the dark corridor and into the kitchen.

‘Tea?’ she asked with a grin. ‘Oh, and this is Graham, though I call him Vic. I don’t really know why now, it just seemed perfect for him. Doesn’t he look like a Vic? Yes, Vic. You can call him Vic.’ Christopher turned and noticed, for the first time, the slumped and frail-looking figure sitting in the armchair, just beside the door.

‘Hello there,’ Vic said with a strained smile. His wheezing voice seemed laboured, so Christopher merely replied with ‘hi’.

‘So, tea was it?’

‘Please,’ Christopher replied, quickly scanning the surfaces for the phone. The old lady filled the kettle, then placed it onto the stove and took a seat. Christopher followed suit, and sat opposite.

‘Lost, did you say? Terrible situation to be in. I hate being lost. Though I rarely stray further than our clearing these days. Hard to get lost in your own back yard.’ She looked him up and down once more, studying him. ‘Won’t you have a scone, while we wait for the tea? I made them this morning.’ He obliged; they were delicious.

‘Alan!’ the voice from the chair wheezed. ‘Looks like him, eh?’

‘Certainly does Vic. I saw it as soon as I laid eyes on him. Sorry dearie, it’s just that you look so much like our grandson, Alan. We basically raised him, after his parents’ accident. He was so good to us. He looked after us. But there comes a day when wings must be spread. He still pops by, though the gaps between are increasing. Hold on, I’ll find a picture for you.’ She shuffled from the room. The kettle began its low whistle. Christopher didn’t feel it his place to remove it. He turned to Vic and smiled. The old man stared at him.

‘It’s a beautiful house you have,’ Christopher offered, feeling awkward. The low whistle slowly increased in pitch. Christopher looked once more for the phone. The old man looked at him and shook his head. The door knocked against the chair. The old lady re-entered the room holding out an old photo, warped at the edges. In her other hand she held a camera. The picture was of a guy of about Christopher’s age; the similarities ended there.

‘An absolute doppelganger, eh?’ The old lady looked so expectant. Christopher couldn’t bring himself to let her down with his true feelings.

‘Umm, yep.’ The kettle reached fever pitch. He looked from the old lady to the kettle. She just smiled at him. ‘Should I get that?’

‘Oh, if you would.’ Her smile broadened. He turned to the stove and from the corner of his eye, he saw her nod to Vic.

‘Do you mind?’ she asked. Christopher turned. She was holding the camera. ‘It’s a polaroid, so we can see the results immediately.’ Her smile broadened further, her head slightly tilting. Christopher was starting to become edgy.

‘No, go right ahead,’ he replied, trying to feign relaxation. A bright flash stole his vision. As the room faded back into place he noticed that she’d moved over to Vic, and was fanning the picture above his head. They both held him with their gaze. For the first time, Christopher noticed the stain on the edge of the Belfast sink. A spatter of blood. The old lady followed his gaze.

‘A pheasant, dearie,’ she said, almost disarmingly coolly. ‘We have a trap. It was a kind of parting gift from Alan.’ Vic coughed. She shot a sidelong look at him, and then melted back into that Cheshire cat smile.

‘So, you said you have a phone?’ Christopher asked, trying to appear nonchalant.

‘Oh yes, of course. I’d almost forgotten that you’re lost. You know you seemed almost part of the family.’ She revealed that smile again. He was beginning to loath it. ‘Yes, it’s just up the stairs on the landing.’

He made his way from the room, and up the dark hallway to the stairs. The walls were dotted with pictures of the young man, Alan. He made his way to the top of the stairs and found the phone — an old relic of a thing. He lifted the receiver and heard a tone. For a minute, he thought he was about to lose hope. He swung the round dial around, to engage zero. No luck, just the same dial tone. He tried again, with the same result. He tried the other numbers. They all worked, except the nine; the nine and the zero. Without a zero, it would be impossible to make any calls. As he stood in frustration, he took a closer look at the portraits on the walls. He couldn’t be sure, but the face in one of the photographs didn’t look like the picture of Alan that the old lady had shown him. He looked to another picture. In the dim light it was hard to tell, but no, he was sure. It was a different face. He looked to another, then another. They all had different faces. They were different people. The only similarity, in fact, was the feigned look of relaxation. His heart started to race. He headed back downstairs to the kitchen.

‘The phone is broken,’ he said, his voice wavering. He realised he was talking to an empty room. His head began to spin. He looked to the table. Beside his half eaten scone was the photo, where he stood in feigned relaxation. He was practically on the wall already. His vision began to wobble; the scone, it must be. He felt his knees buckle, as he tried to steady himself on the edge of the table. He heard a click from behind him, then a shuffle.

‘Yes Vic, he really is a spitting image. Our saviour from the woods.’


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