Angela's stories · December · finally

Then

By Angela Gallagher

THE wind was sharp and furious as she climbed to the top of the hill and snowflakes were starting to sting the air. The sky was dark and heavy with it. The skin on her face felt raw, as if stripped. What trees there were up here all leaned, permanently bent, in the direction of the prevailing wind. In the distance the blades of a wind farm turned elegantly, untroubled.

She stopped and looked around, unsure of her direction: with weather like this she couldn’t afford a wrong turn and the shortness of the winter day meant she had limited daylight. She scanned the distance until off to the left she spotted the top of a chimney. That must be it: her refuge. Altering her direction she took off with renewed energy, her desperation driving her on. The ground here was wet, slightly boggy, so that she could hear her steps on the grass – slap, slap, slap.

It was years since she had been here – not since she was a child – so she hadn’t really trusted herself to find it again, but this was where her mind had turned when she’d had to make a plan quickly. It was the only place she could think of that was remote enough to give her a place to hide and space to think. In years past it had been a den, a theatre, a romantic hideaway, a castle; anything her wild and restless mind could make of it. As she approached the building now she could see it was nothing more than a husk. But it was sheltered – in a slight dip and encircled by trees and bushes, as she stepped inside their protective ring the wind dropped perceptibly. The building still had windows, it still had a door.

Pushing against the latter it refused to give and at first she was afraid it might be locked, but leaning her shoulder hard into it was able to eventually heave it open so that she almost toppled into the single room inside. It was dark and musty but the roof was mostly intact with at least one corner where she could huddle without being snowed on. There was a small fireplace, but she didn’t know whether she dared light a fire for fear of alerting someone passing to her presence. But who would pass now, this late and this far away from anywhere? She decided she would go out and collect some firewood but wait until it was completely dark before lighting it. She blessed her filthy smoking habit – ironically Daniel had hated it, so she’d had to do it in secret – for meaning she had a lighter in her pocket.

She went outside again and in the eerie quietness of the sheltering trees she could hear her own footsteps on the twigs: snap, snap, snap. The gloom was leaning in now; it felt almost suffocating. She collected twigs and bits of branches that were lying close under the base of the trees in the hope these would be dryer, but nevertheless she wasn’t completely confident she would be able to light them.

Back in the hovel she piled her stash into the fireplace and added in some long-dried and brittle leaves that had probably blown in during the autumn, pushing them in between the twigs as her father used to do with bits of screwed up newspaper. Then she waited for darkness.

Now that she had stopped she suddenly felt overwhelmed with exhaustion but her mind wouldn’t let herself fall into a deep sleep. As she hovered in that deep syrupy state between waking and slumber her thoughts worked desperately, like a hamster on a wheel, spiralling backwards and forwards between now and ‘then’: the ‘then’ when everything changed.

Her life had been normal up till then. Normal. Had she really considered that the way Daniel had manipulated her life since they married was normal? She knew it looked normal to everyone outside their home life – so much so that she had started to believe it herself. No, ‘normal’ had actually stopped on their wedding day.

She’d made excuses and endured for years but there had come a point where her inner self had screamed. When her subconscious with its knowledge of the truth she had tried to suppress for so long, had finally said ‘enough’.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

She woke in panic to the sound of an old window shutter being hurled back and forth against the wall by the wind.

Breathing hard in the darkness, she sat for several minutes; time she spent readjusting to where she was and why she was there. At last she crawled over to the fireplace and put her lighter to the leaves. The fire she created was mostly smoke: the wood, despite her efforts, too damp to produce much in the way of flames. She heaped on more leaves but there was to be no friendly crackling hearth here.

She felt weary and defeated. Looking back she was surprised how calm and organised she had been in the immediate aftermath, as if another her had taken over, told her what to do and where to go, but now she felt lost. This place wasn’t the play castle of her childhood imagination anymore. It wouldn’t protect her, it wouldn’t sustain her. She knew what she would have to go through if she went back and didn’t have the energy to face it.

She sat for maybe another half an hour and then she got to her feet. Slowly, she took off her coat, dropped it onto the floor in the corner and went to the door. Then she walked out into the frightful arms of that wild night.

© Angela Gallagher 2016

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