Encounter in the Forest

Our orange tent had tricked me with false sunrise. I shivered as mist lapped at my legs. It was too early for the clank and splash at the communal tap, the scent and sizzle of bacon. Dad, who’d woken when I crawled over him to unzip the morning, whispered ‘Shall we explore?’ My plaits bounced excitedly as I nodded. This was day five of ‘life in a foreign country’ and there was still so much to see. Admittedly, the border was a mere seventy miles north of our home in County Durham, but they had different pound notes and a blue-and-white flag, and people who sounded their ‘r’s as if rolling them across pebbled paths.

The chilly dawn gave no hint of what lay in wait for me: today would later be ringed in my diary with a dramatic ‘!!!’ Shrugging on my jumper, I stood under the awning and breathed in my new playground: Scotland.

Here were mountains bristling with heather the colour of bruised knees. Here was springy moorland where mischievous tussocks squirted water into my plimsolls as I ran across it. Here were wild raspberries that glistened like rubies and exploded with an unfamiliar tartness on my tongue, far more exotic than the blackberries picked from hedgerows back home. Here, wonder of wonders, I could see winter and summer on the same day, the snow-dusted peaks of the Cairngorms a backdrop to the sparkling shores of Loch Morlich where we camped.

Our holiday had been made possible with the purchase a few months earlier of our first car, a second-hand Ford Anglia. When Dad, who had passed his driving test at the third attempt, crawled to a halt outside our terraced house in ‘the jalopy’ as it was thereafter known, I cheered him as if he were Stirling Moss doing a victory lap at Brand’s Hatch. Mam had gone with him to collect it from the showroom. She hadn’t been impressed. ‘We’ll want windows putting in,’ she’d demanded of the salesman who had climbed into the driver’s seat and demonstrated how to wind them up.

‘Your father overtook two buses and a lorry on the way back,’ she’d announced with a mixture of pride and terror.

‘All stationary,’ Dad clarified.

The best thing about having a car meant we would be able to go camping in the summer. Anticipation of this filled me with stomach-churning excitement. Summer holidays had previously involved a bumpy coach journey to Bridlington to stay for a week at ‘Bon Repos’ Guest House. This establishment was owned by Elsie, a cousin of my gran’s, who gave us ‘a favourable rate’. Elsie had emigrated from Ireland to the Yorkshire coast long before I was born, but her accent remained strong. She always asked if we wanted our toast cut ‘tick or tin’.

I’d asked Dad what ‘Bon Repos’ meant.

‘Huh. She should think of a better name.’

I never slept well there: my legs tingled in the bri-nylon sheets; the snot-green candlewick bedspread moulted itchy tufts which made me sneeze and the resident Pekinese yapped all night long. Our landlady chucked all the guests out after breakfast each day with instructions not to return until evening meal time. Her parting shot while shooing us out of the porch rarely varied: ‘Will you just look at that sky! As long as there’s enough blue to make a cloak for Our Blessed Lady, it’ll turn out a grand day.’ Elsie must have amazing eyesight, I marvelled; she could always spot those elusive scraps of blue where I was aware merely of looming clouds and wisps of ‘sea fret’ settling on my cheeks.

Bridlington had two faces: it was building sandcastles, and fishing in rock pools, and steamer rides to Flamborough Head. But Bridlington was also steamed-up windows and smell of damp Mackintoshes in the Milk Bar. There, we would try to make a strawberry milkshake with three straws last through the endless afternoon as a grey sea boiled beyond the prom. Bridlington, too often, was lip reading the dialogue of the ‘Guns of Navarone’ or whatever happened to be showing at the cinema while rain hammered on its corrugated iron roof. I was ready for a change.

How was it we’d ended up in the Scottish Highlands, though? The scenic Lake District, Dad’s preferred choice, was much closer. We had Aunty Anne to thank. Mam’s sister had recently been plucked from the shelf at the advanced age of thirty by the treasurer of the local Scottish Dancing Society. They’d honeymooned near Aviemore, returning with tales of leaping salmon, bagpipe concerts, and most significantly, with a sprig of heather attached to the radiator grille of their Hillman Minx.

‘Scottish heather is particularly lucky,’ Aunty Anne pronounced; and how could we doubt the word of one whose husband was rumoured to wear tartan pyjamas? Superstition outweighing logic, Mam decided that we must have some, to keep us safe when Dad was driving.

Our journey north had been without incident. Lashing the tent and assorted paraphernalia onto the car roof had taken quite a while. Then there were two returns to the house: the first, so that Mam could make sure she’d switched off the cooker.

‘You know it’s off, Mam. We had fish and chips for supper so you didn’t have to turn it on last night.’

‘Very well Miss Clever Clogs. If you want to risk getting back from holiday to find a heap of burnt rubble, then fine, let’s not bother to check.’

The second, even less worthwhile in my opinion, was to collect our picnic which had been left on the kitchen counter: a grease-proof paper parcel of white ‘doorsteps’ filled with Heinz Sandwich Spread, a concoction which I nicknamed ‘bottled sick’.

And then there’d been all the unscheduled ‘detours’, neither Mam nor Dad being possessed of a great sense of direction.

‘Dad, you’ve been round this roundabout twice before. Look, there’s the Formica factory.’ He swerved violently to get into the correct lane. I determined to pick some heather at the earliest opportunity.

Somehow we made it to our overnight stop in a pit village near Dalkeith, and a room above a noisy pub where the smell of stale beer seeped through the floorboards. Dad had ordered a very early breakfast so we could make a good start; consequently I dozed most of the onward journey. When I woke, the vista of slate roofs and glowering slag heap accompanying my fried egg and potato cakes had disappeared. In its place, a paintbox- bright landscape.

Our campsite lay between lake and forest. I was giddy with the freedom and instant camaraderie that this canvas village promised. Pitching the tent that first night had made dad sweat. When I’d helpfully pointed out that it still dipped and wobbled, he’d muttered under his breath prompting a ‘Language, Dennis!’ from Mam. A kilted giant emerging from his sleek-skinned hideaway next to us had offered ‘A wee tweak?’ and within moments, he’d bullied our slouching shelter into stiffening its spine. Now, the lighting of the primus could begin, a ritual accorded no less reverence than a Japanese tea ceremony. The stove gave an oily, slightly metallic flavour to baked beans and cocoa alike. I wanted to live here forever.

Each dusk, tree shadows stretched out their limbs and sprawled across the grass; rustlings, creaks and hoots punctured the air. When night fell, thick as a pelt, those formless noises were muffled by my yawns and I crawled contentedly into my quilted cocoon.

A snore from the giant’s lair rumbled round the site as Dad and I picked our way around guy ropes over the dewy grass. Soon my toes felt the tickle of pine needles on the forest floor. The mist was drifting away, only a few tendrils remained snagged on the bark of the Douglas firs; the milky-whiteness overhead was slowly draining to reveal a pale-blue upturned bowl of sky. Dad paused, inhaled noisily and beat his chest. ‘Eh, pet. Can you taste it?’ His eyes twinkled; since we’d been on holiday his forehead had sloughed off its workday creases. I giggled and stuck out my tongue the better to capture the sweetness of the morning as we walked on through the gradually-waking woods.

Without warning, a creature materialised on the track in front of us in startling close-up. My brain punched the freeze-frame button as I halted mid-step, not daring to breathe. I stared, mesmerised, at the branches sprouting from his head; I thrilled at the closeness of his quivering, fungus nose and sleek rust flanks; at the paler, matted fur under a gently heaving belly from where drops of moisture fell between stone-like hooves. Above all, I was transfixed by his unfathomable, liquid gaze. Was he looking at me, or through me?

The screech of an unseen bird ricocheted through the trees and the beast bounded off, fading to a sepia smudge. The endless moment passed. Dad and I walked back hand in hand, our shared encounter too big for words. But, every now and then in the half-century that followed, in that blurred space between sleep and waking, I see again, reflected in the stag’s dark lens, a freckle-faced ten year old, eyes wide in amazement.

© Moira Ashley
This won First Prize in the Charroux International Literary Festival, October 2019, for 'Short Memoir'
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