At last he quietened and began to laugh. When he finally stopped he heard a noise a little way off through the trees. He sat up and looked around, brushing his coat clear of crushed leaves, hoping no one had seen his foolish display of abandonment. He heard a whistle and then a small chestnut spaniel with drooping silky ears trotted into the clearing. It stopped and looked at him, then turned and ran off. David stood up and just caught a glimpse of a woman in a pale blue coat catching hold of the spaniel’s lead and walking away. But before she disappeared from sight, she glanced back over her shoulder in his direction.
She looked slightly familiar. He was sure he had seen her before. But where? He had often come out walking at this time, but he did not think he had seen her here in the woods before, like some of the regular dog walkers he encountered later in the day. He glanced at his watch. It was nearly 8.15. Caroline would be waking and wondering where he was. But instead of turning and going back the way he came, David started walking in the direction of the woman with the dog. He didn’t hurry. He was sure he would not lose her as he could hear her calling and whistling every now and then.
After ten minutes or so the whistling stopped and just as he began to think she must have returned to her car, he came across a cottage in a clearing. He had not been there before, but he remembered hearing somewhere that there was a house at this end of the woods. A thin stream of smoke was blowing from the chimney, leaving a sweet oaky scent in the air. Evenly cut stacks of logs were piled in the porch and he could see more wood in an open barn to the side.
While he was wondering who lived here, the woman he had seen earlier emerged from an outhouse with a bundle of kindling in her arms. She stopped and stared at him and he realised that it was the woman who had come to the constituency surgery. It was Mary Reid.
“Sorry if I startled you. I’ve just been out walking. I didn’t realise you lived here.”
“I thought you might turn up,” she said, still gazing at him with calm blue eyes. “Come inside and have some breakfast.”
He followed her to the open kitchen door, aware of her confident stride and her tight jeans. She dropped the wood into a basket beside the stove, then washed her hands in cold water in a cracked belfast sink. He stood in the doorway, waiting while she dried herself on a grey towel.
“You can keep your shoes on. Hang your coat up there,” she said, waving at a row of pegs by the door. “Eggs and bacon alright with you?”
David suddenly realised he was very hungry. “Great, thanks. The fresh air’s given me quite an appetite.”
She cut thick slices of crusty white bread on an old carved bread board on the kitchen table. “I love it out there early in the morning. At this time of year there’s never anyone around . You could take all your clothes off and roll in the leaves completely naked and no one would ever know.”
David knew she must have seen him in his moment of abandon and her words instantly transmitted an image of a dark triangle framed by white thighs and he felt an unsettling quiver. But Mary’s face was impassive as she laid the bread under the grill to toast and poured tea. He cleared his throat, then was startled by a black cat rubbing against his leg.
“Do you often walk your dog this early?”
“Generally. Even earlier in summer. I love the way the light changes.” She stood by the stove, gazing into wooded visions, the spatula idle in her hand. “The trees make wonderful shapes and shadows. Sometimes I have to just start drawing them as the sun comes up. They make such strong lines with charcoal.”
to be continued December 28