The Last Message 

The Last Message

The footpath through the forest looked as if it had outgrown itself for at least the turn of two centuries.

If I had not known it was a right of way from Barymance to Stromper, I would have taken a different route. I pulled on my rubber nettle-waders to mid-thigh, providing as much protection as possible, and followed as best I could the map with which the hotel had provided me.

The line of the path on the chart took the form of a series of railtrack symbols, tracing an endless snake from the Town of Inns called Barymance to the seaside resort of Stromper, twining between the grid of number-alphabet designated squares which the mapmaker had deemed suitable for the coordinately unwashed such as I.

The only line, in fact, on which to hang the dirty underwear of my misplaced sense of direction was bedded in the trees like a ridged veining utilised by nature to transport sap from one end of the country to the other. It was a communication cord that allowed forest root-creatures to talk to one another, a historic path helping the fixed green things breed in and out, at the same time as giving man’s own Earthfree limbs the opportunity to find routes between.

I mused on these matters as I found myself in deeper and deeper forest conclaves. The birds at the top of the trees had grown silent, pent up with foreboding, tracking me with their right-angled stares from above clenched beaks.

My new wife had gone by water to Stromper, in one of the river paddllesteamers which often took fares into the bay itself. She would have already arrived at the sea-front hotel, drinking gins and tonic in the bar with other men who could only admire the curves of her young body. The sun would at this very moment be setting like an eye disease - casting those saltblood waves of flame that careered, creamtopped, towards the beach. She would have almost forgotten her husband who had chosen the more difficult path to reach Honeymoon’s end.

She had no feeling for the forest. I had none for the sea.

The darkness commenced at the level of my feet. The sky seemed to hang fire, hugging to itself any last reflections from glossy flickering birdwing, like a jealous lover of light. The branches appeared to pulse with a heartbeat of the Earth only the dusk could reveal.

Soon, I would not be able to perceive the face of the map: the tell-tale character lines, the frown of the contours, the earlobe tattooes of the landmarks, the ley-lines upon the palm of the river delta, the cross in a circle denoting Stromper, the edge of coast upon which that town was situated coiling an unreliable division between sea and land.

My wife had unbuttoned her blouse to the navel. The heat was coming off the sea, despite the night. Upon the balcony, men vied with each other to buy her drinks. And vied with women too.

I felt older than the forest. In fact, I AM old. This was my first marriage and, unless I could rediscover the forest path, also my last. I had fallen in love almost immediately, upon meeting her at a social gathering arranged by my dear mother. Although the whole thing may have been a match-making exercise, there was plenty I could have done about it. I need not have gazed at her innocent ankles nor the supple fleshy valley between the bones behind the knees above the calves below those topless thighs. I could have asked her outright to come to my bedroom so that I could explore her body with my inexperienced hands.

And she would have come, too.

That would have got it out of my system. But because of my foolish hesitation, the mystery remained and grew, became all-important, semi-religious. And, in so being, marriage was the only answer and prerequisite, the only outlet for my stifling scruples.

The wedding was simple, celebrated by a priest who happened to be my uncle. He had laid my hand upon hers ... the first and probably only occasion that our flesh touched ... and told us we were man and wife. My mother had smiled ... beneath the tears.

And so to the honeymoon. I had arranged it in my usual hamfisted fashion, digging out travel books and hotel guides, finally discarding them all for Stromper. I booked the paddle-steamer, a cabin suite for us two alone, a dance band to play outside our cabin door, rare cocktails to be delivered to our bedside, huge breakfasts for appetites far bigger than ours ... things arranged so meticulously, but with no real awareness of their effects or implications, as I was to realise far too late.

She was too young to encompass such an intense one to one relationship:
all she really needed was the company of many men and women; she sought nothing but laughter, voices, looks, innuendoes, peccadilloes, cockadilloes, canoodles...

I discovered this too late.

However, I did board the paddlesteamer with her, but subsequently stowed away in the catering firm’s empty crate as it was loaded back on the dockside. I watched the paddlewheels churn foam between the arms of the harbour, the craft disappearing like a wounded spider into the broken bloodyolk of the horizon.

In disgust, I threw the map away into the darkness of the forest. It was not even of this area.

I wrapped my arms around a tree-trunk which rose like a long huge brazil nut towards the sightless disoriented moonyellow patch upon the night sky. The wind had risen; the branches above kicked and pumped, much as the limbs of my wife would thrash when someone in Stromper settled upon bedding her for me. And a root of the tree coiled easily from the Earth, to gain my body upon its turnspit revolving endlessly but imperceptibly with the age-old cycles of Mother Nature.


The birds revived into their dawn chorus of words, telling of one who had died from heartbreak and had left his last message in their beaks.

(published 'Ammonite' 1993)

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