Martins was lost, and he knew it, though he couldn’t decide if knowing it made it better or worse.
Of course, he couldn’t be truly lost. This was southern England, in the 21st Century, not some endless African savannah, or colossal American mountain range. He was in a wood. An English wood. A bit spooky, perhaps, as the evening came on. But hardly dangerous.
No need to be alarmed, then, no need to send up a flare (even if he had one, which he didn’t), no need to worry about the dead battery on his phone. Except that, he had been looking for the path back to the car park for three hours now, and he couldn’t seem to find it, and the wood, he knew, wasn’t that big. He should be out of it by now, back at the road, or at least in some field or other, trying not to trip over the sheep.
At one point he thought he had reached some kind of boundary fence, and through it he had seen, a few yards away, two horses, one white, one black. They had looked at him for a long time, and then wandered over, no doubt expecting him to give them food. He didn’t have any, and stupidly found himself explaining this to them, and apologising. But the horses just went on gazing at him, neither pleased nor annoyed, and when he realised that the field in which they stood was completely enclosed by the wood, and therefore did not provide a way out of it, he walked away, and was somewhat unnerved to discover, when he turned back a few minutes later, that the horses were still there, watching him.
He thought that locating the track leading away from the main gate to the field might bring him inevitably back to the road, but after about half a mile it disappeared into a maze of other tracks, and he was lost once again. He began to wonder if he was going in circles.
When he left the car park earlier that afternoon he had climbed along a path clearly waymarked, with occasional signs indicating the wildlife one might expect to see, and a map of the valley, with “You Are Here” and a large arrow written prominently in red. Likewise, though it was a weekday in February and the sky was overcast, there had been other people about, mostly, like Martins, of a certain age, though they had all said hello to him with varying degrees of enthusiasm as he passed them on the footpath.
But now he could see no markings anywhere, and all the people seemed to have disappeared hours ago, as soon as the already feeble daylight had started to leach from the sky. Martins cursed. He was dressed sensibly, he had his waterproofs, good boots, a bottle of water, even half a Twix. He considered retracing his steps back to the field with the horses in it, and spending the night there, if necessary. He wasn’t in bad shape for a man of his age. A night out of doors probably wouldn’t kill him. Whoever owned the horses would no doubt visit some time tomorrow to feed them, and he could reveal himself, allay their alarm by apologising in a classically embarrassed English way, and they would both laugh, and the stranger would take him back to his car, make sure he was all right, was there anyone he could phone? Perhaps he might like some coffee, or a bite to eat? And Martins would say, No, that’s very kind, thank you. I’m just glad to be out of that wood.
But of course he couldn’t retrace his steps back to the field. He couldn’t retrace his steps anywhere. He was lost.
There was a soft creaking away to his left, that made him turn suddenly. He thought at first it was a lorry or coach changing gear as it came down the hill, and that the sound might somehow guide him back towards the car park, but there was something about the sound – some kind of agency to it, Martins thought – that he felt to be unnatural, and he realised he was really frightened now, in a way he could not remember being for many years, and as he realised this he realised also that it was now almost completely dark.
Of course, his eyes had been able to adjust gradually, so he was hardly blind, but he always forgot how quickly day turned to night in winter, and he had forgotten something else, too, because he had not expected to need it. His torch.
He stood there for a moment in the darkness, thinking. He felt like shouting, or crying, but did neither. The thought nagged at him that he must try and stay quiet, that he mustn’t attract attention, that he wasn’t alone – and that whoever else was in the valley with him was watching, and, in some way that he couldn’t fathom, wished him harm.
He shook his head, rubbed at his shoulder. He ate the rest of the Twix, and drank some water. And then he sat on the ground, and waited.