Over the last few weeks I have shared excerpts from my novels about Thomas Radwinter who traces his family history, and then later investigates other people’s stories, and not just genealogical ones, but mysteries in their everyday lives.
Over the next month I am sharing excerpts from my other novels; this is the opening chapters of ‘night vision’:
Beulah realised she was lost and had a flash of fantasy about being totally lost and Neil, anxious and concerned, coming to find her… But of course that really was nonsense, she thought unhappily.
She wandered on, climbing slightly and hit a track and followed it until it disappeared and she was wandering aimlessly once more. The trees were in full leaf, but a sombre and dreary green in the grey afternoon light. There was no wind and fancifully it seemed to Beulah that she was watched. She had no notion of time, and didn’t care.
There were rocky outcrops now as she walked into an ancient and long abandoned quarry, and it was here she saw the tree, the tree she was moved to climb. It had branches at just the right inviting height and she smiled to herself as she reached to catch hold and pull herself up.
She had a rush of excitement, a sort of thrill she hadn’t had for so long that it seemed it was when she was young. But I’m not old! her inner child cried, forty-seven, that’s old, her real self replied.
It was a wonderful tree to climb and soon she was eight foot off the ground and she stopped and smiled and wondered when she’d last done that. She could see the rocky walls of the quarry more clearly, covered with ivy and unfurling ferns and long trails of some sort of vine.
Beulah began to climb again, not looking up, enjoying the feel of the bark, the smell of the leaves. Sun shafted through the branches, the weather clearing at last and she glanced over at the cliff and then back again in disbelief.
There was a sculpture of a hanging man suspended on the rock in an impossible place. It was carved out of wood but she couldn’t quite see it because a branch hung down. It was difficult to climb higher but she had to get a better look at the figure on the rocks.
Beulah reached for the next bough and had to stretch for it, a broken off stump protruding awkwardly. She still couldn’t see the carving and lacing her fingers together, pulled herself up awkwardly, bumping her breast and grazing her face. The discomfort made her feel alive and she smiled as she wedged her foot on the broken stump and pulled herself onto the next branch, swung her legs over and sat peering at the figure.
It was not a carving at all; it was a stunted trunk of a tree growing out of the side of the quarry, she could see that now, but its natural provenance made it even more remarkable. It still looked exactly like a hanging man, the rounded chest straining above the concave belly; a swelling of some canker round the hips suggested he was swathed in cloth, or wearing britches, or as if he had a satyr’s fleecy legs or was Pan himself.
A grooved channel running down the lower part of the twisted trunk marked his legs pressed together and then a splay of aerial roots gave the impression of cords binding the ankles and hiding the feet or cloven hooves.
Above the swelling chest, the head lolled forward, the top of the tree pollarded or deformed by some growth. The face was hidden but the sun highlighted a bent nose, parted lips and the line of the brow; gnarled protuberances, lumpy and knotted looked like curls of shaggy hair. On either side, twisting branches, like bent arms, came together as if the wrists had been bound, and tangled vines of ivy hid the hands.
It was the most amazing thing and Beulah stared at it, mesmerised. It was strangely moving, a primitive god unexpectedly revealed, sacrificed for some dark magical mystical reason. She looked down; she was nearly thirty foot above the ground. From below the hanging man would look like a twisted and deformed tree, growing out of the rock face. Only from here was the mystery revealed.
“You are wonderful,” she said loud enough for the figure to hear. “I could worship you,” and she was amused at her foolishness.
How strange to laugh; it seemed a long time since she’d last laughed at anything. She sat for a while staring at the figure; it was a soft pale taupe, the colour of a person who spent time out of doors all year round, a young person whose skin hadn’t coarsened… Definitely a satyr or Pan.
The camera which they’d almost left in their old house was stuffed in her fleece pocket; wrapping an arm round the trunk of the tree, she struggled with the zip and found her phone not the camera. It spun from her hands and tumbled onto a pile of last autumn’s leaves.
“Bugger you!” she said to her phone. “Well, you’ll have to wait till I come down.”
It was difficult to get to her other pocket and she clung awkwardly onto the branch above.
“Jesus, I hope I don’t fall,” she muttered.
She had somehow lost her confidence; whether it was the phone falling or the realisation that she was higher than she intended, she felt unbalanced. She held the camera, one handed to her eye but the foliage obscured her view so she shuffled from sitting into a crouch. There was an annoying twig with too many leaves but she took a shot anyway then wobbled and clutched at the branch above.
She stood up, trembling and sweaty, scared but determined to get a picture, hanging on with one arm, leaning away from the tree for a perfect view.
She held her camera steady, pressed… And nothing. Suddenly her hand slipped and her foot went and there was a heart-stopping lurch and she was falling –
But her wrist was grabbed and somehow she was swung and heaved up and she grabbed the trunk again.
“Are you OK?” a voice came from above.
“Bloodyfuckingbuggeringshitshitefuck,” she clung to the tree and the hand which had saved her. Her heart was racing, she was almost sick with terror and relief.
She released her hold on the hand and wrapped both arms around the trunk. She was weak and faint with the memory of the lurch and the jerk as she was grabbed and hoisted to safety and she slithered to sit down.
“Yes, yes, I’m OK,” and she giggled with a hysterical realisation of how nearly she’d plummeted to the ground.
“I thought you were gonna take a dive,” he had a soft American voice. “I should have said something, I didn’t think you’d come so high, then I daren’t speak in case I startled you.”
Beulah risked looking up but all she could see was a suede boot hanging down and a faded denim leg.
“I managed to startle myself well enough. Jeez, I thought I was going to kill myself,” and the hysterical giggling bubbled again. “I was trying to take a photo,” she looked up but couldn’t see her rescuer at all. “I wanted a picture of the hanging man, can you see him?”
“It’s a woman,” said the hidden American. “Look at the swelling hips, it’s definitely a woman.”
“No, it’s a man, a satyr maybe,” Beulah could see Pan perfectly now.
“You know, half man, half goat. Or it’s a man in a loin cloth or britches.”
“It’s definitely a woman,” he argued pleasantly with a smile in his voice.
“Well, I’m not going to get a photo of it, that’s for sure. I’m not climbing down and then back up with my camera.”
“I couldn’t believe you were going to climb up here,” he said softly. “I should’ve said something, but I didn’t want to make you fall.”
“Quite capable of doing that myself, thank you.” He chuckled and Beulah tried to explain her irrational act. “It’s not something I make a habit of.”
“Falling out of trees or climbing them?” he asked.
“I don’t think my husband loves me anymore.”
Who was more surprised at her words? The hidden man couldn’t have been more astonished than Beulah herself. Why on earth had she said it? She’d never consciously thought it; whenever her mind had strayed to thoughts about her relationship with Neil she’d quickly switched off the niggling doubts and anxieties.
“Is he having an affair?” asked the man, a gentle young voice.
“My husband having an affair? No way, no, it’s not him.”
“You’re having an affair?”
Beulah’s denial was slow and unhappy. She’d spoken to no-one about this. The rows, the accusations, the guilt, all had been conducted in private and now, in this bizarre situation, sitting up a tree in the middle of a wood, she was having this conversation with a man who’d saved her life and whose face she couldn’t see. It was like saying confession, entering the little box, the priest’s face hidden by a grill as the man above was screened by the branches and leaves.
“So you didn’t have an affair?” and then as if his mind caught up with his words “Pardon me, this is none of my business.”
“I had a friend… But there was nothing between us, nothing happened. We phoned and e-mailed each other with gossip and jokes…”
“Hmm, gee, it’s tough when things like that happen.”
“But nothing did happen! We met occasionally by accident, never alone, always lots of other people around. Absolutely nothing happened,” she’d begun to cry.
There was a silence from above then, “Do you love your friend?”
“No. Well, yes. As a friend. No, not really.”
“Except in my heart,” Beulah answered in honest misery.
Still silence, and then he said “That must be the hardest thing. And your husband?”
“He won’t forgive me.”
“But you didn’t do anything,” he said gently.
Beulah shivered. The sky was still bright but the sun had gone; the man above began to whistle, a low sad tune.
“I love my husband,” Beulah wiped her nose on her sleeve. “I’d better go. We’re moving house today but there was some problem with the contracts. I got to the place and the old lady’s still there and says she’s not moving after all. I don’t know where the van has gone and I don’t know where my husband is.”
“Worried about you, I should think.”
“I doubt it; anyway, I’d better go.”
“Can you manage, do you want help?”
Should she say yes so she could see him? But better, maybe to remember his boot and leg and gentle voice.
“I’ll be fine. It’s easier going down.”
“I hope it isn’t quicker. So long.”
She didn’t really think Americans said that and it made her smile as she clambered down the tree without mishap and she called a farewell and his goodbye floated down.
Find ‘night vision’ here:
… and here is a link to my other e-books: