The Poacher’s Wood – Chapter 1

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series The Poacher's Wood

snowy forest

CHAPTER ONE

Friday, December 19th, six days before Christmas

The snow had stopped about two hours before. Renee had finished her walk, and she descended the last bit of the forest trail, like she did about four times a week. She walked along the footpath between the lake and the main road and crossed the street to the pub.

Tonight the Shaman Arms looked festive to her. The real tree filled the pub’s front window and white lights hung along the lintels and over the door canopy. Inside, the red tinsel and multicoloured paper chains adorned the walls.

Carol the owner, a woman in her 50’s wearing a holly-patterned Christmas sweater, was clearing a table.

“This isn’t fair Carol, my boots are clean. This is discrimination,” Renee said.

“You sound like my ten-year old. Always complaining. You can have a pint on the house, to compensate, but only today,” Carol said.

Carol was a friend, but she was particular, and she made walkers sit in one section of the pub, and all the rest who had just got out of their cars or walked from their houses, could sit where they wanted. The non-walker side had a  jukebox and was closer to the bar which meant Renee spent less on music and beer when she had muddy feet.

The forest surrounded the water on three sides almost as if it was tucking in the lake. A short paved road with no through-way lined one side of the lake where people parked when they were fishing. Once you entered the forest you could smell the conifer perfume and there was a gradual but steep incline to the forest top.

A quiet country pub, the Arms’s food and atmosphere  made it popular within the local parish. After Renee’s forest stroll she would usually drop in at the pub, if even for just a coffee.

Now she was inside the pub, Renee’s face was numb from outdoors. She breathed on her fingers and rubbed them together, then applied them to her face. At the bar she ordered chowder and the free lager.

She sat down in the walkers section, in the burgundy cushioned booth she normally sat in, and took off her coat and gloves and put them beside her.

Tonight Renee had been dressed warmly, gloves and a hat and her fur-lined walking boots, so she felt sensible. A few inches of snow had fallen. Nothing slushy, fresh snow still soft and powdery. Sometimes though, if she went for a run in the woods, even if it was cold and snowy, she would wear shorts, and would jump through the snow drifts, when the snow piled up against the fences and near the stiles she couldn’t avoid being knee deep in it, she would arrive home with her legs pink from the cold. She saw the other walkers wrapped up like sherpas, as if they were ascending Everest, with their walking sticks, and glaring at her like she was crazy.

She asked Carol for the dessert menu, because as she had just ordered the soup, she was wondering about having the toffee pudding later that she always told herself she couldn’t have. She was afraid that if she had it once, she might make it a regular thing, but she was thinking of risking it.

“By the way, my lamp is beautiful,” Carol said. “I have it up in our lounge upstairs. I thought about putting it in the pub, but I didn’t want to risk it getting broken. Not that people are rowdy in here. But accidents do happen.”

Renee made stained-glassed windows and lamps in her spare time. She had been making them for some years now. She had made a Christmas lamp for Carol and given it to her early so she could enjoy it over the holidays.

It was then she noticed there was a man sitting two booths over, in her section, that she hadn’t seen before. He was drinking a coffee and she figured he was probably a few years older than her. He had a grey wool coat folded on the seat beside him. He had a kind face, and was sitting on his own. When she was looking over at him he noticed her and smiled.

“Hello,” she said to him across the room. “Have you been trudging through the mud too?”
“I haven’t. I just liked this booth because I could see the lake.”
“You’re on holiday?” she asked.
“No,” he said.”Just in town on business. It’s very pretty here. You live locally do you?”
“Yes, just down the road,” Renee said. “I’m a regular here. It’s a nice area to live in.” Renee collected her coat and her pint, then asked first, “Mind if I join you?”
“Please do.”

Renee went and sat across from him and tucked her belongings into the corner. She looked across at the gentleman and smiled. It was strange for her to sit across from someone at the pub, so often she ate there alone. She introduced herself, and found out his name was Darrell.
“You were saying you are here on work?” Renee asked.
“That’s right, just for a few days.”
“You’re staying at a hotel?”
“Actually, I’m staying in a room upstairs,” he said. “I just wanted something local. There were some nice hotels farther out, a bit too far out.”
He had an American accent. Renee remembered now that the pub did rent out rooms upstairs.
“You’re working so close to Christmas. What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a history writer and a journalist.”
“You are a long way from home?” she asked.
“I’m from Seattle.”
“Your wife and family are there?” Renee asked.
“No, I’m divorced, he said, “Grown kids.”
Renee wasn’t seeing anybody at the moment. She graduated with a Liberal Arts degree from university and had a couple of boyfriends after college. She then lived with somebody for quite a few years before it ended, but there were no children from the relationship. Now she found herself middle-aged in an area where it was difficult to meet someone with half a brain that was single.

“A history writer. That sounds interesting.” Renee said. “There’s a lot of history in this area. That forest was once part of a royal forest and the Earl at the time used to hunt there. It was his forest to hunt in. Sometimes poachers would be caught and they would be hung for poaching, right next to this pub. They used to be kept prisoner in one of the pub rooms. When I learned that, I thought it was spooky.”

“It seems rather extreme to kill someone just for hunting a pheasant,” Darrell said.

“Where the gallows were there is a stone-paved garden area now, and a bench. It’s hard to imagine that such cruelty would exist here. All this quiet farmland and forest. I thought things like that happened closer to London, not in north-west England,” she said.

“I like to know a place’s history,” Darrell said. “It lets me know where I stand.
“Is that why you write about history?”
“Perhaps.”
“Somehow, it creates more of a contrast,” Renee said. “The forest is so beautiful, you wouldn’t think it could be the setting of such crime and punishment.”

Renee looked out the window and relived momentarily that night’s walk out in the forest. The snow whitened everything and carpeted the floor through the trees. An old moon was only a slice that dangled in the clear air, the stars hung heavy with the snow coating them and weighing them down a little.

Carol walked by their booth and asked her if she wanted a top-up and took her glass.

“Sometimes I think I am good at chatting up people to get out of sticky situations,”Renee said, “But if I was caught for poaching, I don’t think I could charm myself out of it.”

“Nor could I,” Darrell said.
“Are you researching something in the area?”
“Yes. I’m doing some research about druids, not far from here. There are some caves.”
“The Copper Hill caves. I know where those are. I’ve walked up there in the past. A bit of a trek, but a nice walk on a sunny day.”

“I haven’t been up there yet,” Darrell said. “I just arrived yesterday. Spent most of my time so far getting over jet lag. I was up reading and wandering around the lake at about three-thirty in the morning. I thought the fresh air might make me sleepy but it didn’t.” He sipped his coffee. “My flight was delayed because of weather, then it was dark flying over so I didn’t see much. Watched an in-flight movie, had chicken and broccoli for dinner, didn’t drink, slept a little, I guess. I don’t mind flying.”

“Do you normally write about English history?”
“Occasionally. Mostly it is American.”

Carol had brought Renee’s soup over to their booth. Darrell ordered a pint. Renee thought about how she was going to order the toffee pudding before and how she wouldn’t now because it wouldn’t seem very ladylike, her scoffing it down in front of him. She had seen people eating it before, with ice cream on top and its toffee sauce dribbling down the sides. She might do that another time when she was alone. He had ordered a salad and a cheese and onion pie, which he was eating.

“So, you mentioned you lived nearby?” he said.

“I live at Stockwell Cottage. It’s just down the road. It is actually owned by my parents but they moved to Spain two years ago, so I rent it from them. I like it there, it is comfortable and it has some nice views up to the forest and over the fields. I’m a regular in the pub though, I like chatting with the owner and some of the people, and otherwise, it would mean just going home, and missing out on what was going on.”

“What do you do for a living,” Darrell asked.
“I work in an office in the next town. It’s about a 15 minute drive away.”
“Not a long commute then, that’s good.”
“The office I work in is actually an old house, and I work in one of the bedrooms.”
“Really?”

“It’s weird. I look out the bedroom window from my desk and there is a church and a churchyard right next door. All through the workday, on some days more than others, funerals and weddings take place at the church. We see the limousines or cars arrive for the wedding and see the bride get out of the car and approach the church We can see her dress and all the wedding party. Sometimes they have weddings when the weather is beautiful, and I think, what a beautiful day to have a wedding. On other days we see the funerals. We see them carry the coffin, and try and guess who the person was that died, how old they were, and whether they were male or female. We look at the size of the coffin and the mourners, whether grandparents or parents or husband or wives or sisters or brothers or friends. Some days the funerals are on the sunny days,” She took a sip of her beer.

“Have you ever been married?” Darrell asked.
“No, I haven’t,” Renee said. “I’ve been to weddings though.”
“My wedding seems so long ago, it seems like it was a different person,” Darrell said.
“Did you get married in Seattle?”
“No, in Oregon.” He paused. “So what do you do in your office between watching other people’s life events?”

“The office is part of local government. Town planning. Going through planning applications and doing the paperwork for them. Sometimes I get to colour in plans with pencil crayon.”

What Renee saw during her day at work definitely made her think a lot about life and death as she typed away at her computer, with piles of files towering around her, and her mug of instant coffee going cold on her desk.

“We drink instant coffee,” Renee admitted.
“How awful.”
Renee didn’t like her job. She didn’t know how she ended up in it. Some days it felt like some kind of a black hole, sucking her in. The only good thing was that it covered the bills for now.

“I apologize. I’m just venting,” Renee said.
They had finished eating and Renee had finished her pint and her new friend had as well.

“So, what are your dreams then?” Darrell asked.

“Well, it’s a funny thing. It is very pretty here, the lake and the forest, and the cottage, but none of it feels like it is mine, and sometimes I feel like the job just drags it all down. But I get this way before Christmas. So many memories and expectations.”

Renee reached for her coat. “Well, I better get going. Thanks for the company.” With that Renee put on her coat and said hopefully she would see him around. He said sure thing,  that he was planning to stay at the pub until just after Christmas.

Photo Credit: DaiRut via Compfight cc

 

The Poacher’s Wood is a work of fiction. Names, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Certain characters may be composites or entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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