She hadn’t been there for twenty years but when she reached the end of the row of houses she found she still knew the way. There it was, the footpath; a narrow strip of concrete between two high garden fences. It led down to a bridge over the motorway, and from there into the next estate, the next collection of boxy houses and neat gardens, built around a confusing network of curving streets that, if you did not know your way around, always seemed to come to a dead end.
Before the bridge, between the motorway and the back fence of the gardens, there was a strip of woodland, left when the estate was built to act as a barrier to the sound of lorries and cars moving in and out of the city. When she was young the fence between the path and the woodland was wire, and it was their way into the woods. However often someone was dispatched to reinforce it, new holes would soon appear, so that anyone who wanted to could crouch down, step through the fence, and disappear beneath the canopy of trees into the undergrowth of ferns and bushes, trying to avoid the sudden sharp prick of the brambles that lurked within.
It was there, between the gardens and the tall sound wall of motorway, spray-painted with personalised declarations of love, hate, and crude messages of loyalty to football teams, that she spent her summer evenings during those last years before she left home for good. What could she remember now? Warm beer and fumbling fingers. The smell of badly rolled joints and the tang of blackberries, still too sour to be picked from the bush. If you followed the long-cleared path through the woods it would lead you to the back of a supermarket car park. Beer and wine from the aisles, running the gauntlet of the checkout queue and the knowing look of a friend’s older sister who worked the Saturday shift. Across the car park and once more into the bushes.
It was their place. Two distinct groups used the scrap of woodland between the pathway and the supermarket in her time, from different schools but with little animosity between them. Later, as the end approached, relationships developed across this divide, and those who had been left behind coalesced into one group, sitting together in the small clearing against motorway sound wall, a small bonfire burning in front of them as they felt the vibrations of the long distance lorries rising up from the ground and through their backs.
As she returned now, she thought about that time in a way she had not for years. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of summers. A collection of long evenings, the sun speckled on the forest floor, broken up by the branches of the leaves and trees above. It can only have been a couple of summers, but it was more than enough. There were plenty of firsts in what they called their forest, plenty of reasons to remember.
Now she walked down the path between the houses, the tarmac beneath her feet uneven from the tree roots that had stretched out in the years since she had lived away. Beyond the back garden and the old wire fence had been replaced with a concrete structure, but there were tell-tale signs that this was still a boundary easily breached. A seemingly discarded collection of breeze blocks, piled up alongside a nobbly tree, just before the path lifted up onto the motorway bridge. Muddy ground at the front, on the edge of the path, dried hard in the summer sun.
She could see her way. Step. Reach. Grab. Pull. She was over and down in a second, and with no need to hide in the undergrowth.
The path, worn by decades, led her through the trees. Her feet felt more roots, bits of brick and glass and whatever else had been discarded. It was clear as soon as she entered the half-lit, shaded space, that when they had left all those years before they had soon been replaced. And in turn, the woodland was used by others, for a summer or two, before being handed over, unspoken, to those who came next. At the clearing she stopped, holding her hand to the motorway sound wall to feel for the lorries as she read the latest declarations of love and hate, trying to remember the intensity of such emotions as she had felt them back then.
Her thoughts turned to the final evening. She had known it was the final evening even as they had hurried back down the path to the fence, ducking through the path, the normal fears long extinguished as they knocked on the first of the doors on the street, asking to use their phone. No mobiles then.
She was looked down at the debris resting in the centre of a blackened fire circle when the figures emerged from the gloom to stand in front of her in the clearing. Two girls and a boy. Aged anywhere between twelve and eighteen. At what point had she lost the ability to tell? They were shocked to see her, smiles turning to frowns turning to scowls.
‘Are you lost?’ one of them asked, unmistakable hostility in his voice.
She shook her head.
‘No,’ she replied, and made her way towards the edge of the clearing. ‘I know exactly where we are.’
When she was enough steps down the well-trodden path that she knew would lead her to the supermarket car park, she heard the sound of their voices. The moment was over for all of them. Laughter. Beers would be opened. Cigarettes smoked. They would have forgotten her already, safe once more in the place that was theirs, and would stay that way, for a little while longer yet.
Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig