It's Not a Donkey Farm

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Chapter 6

The second time Daria woke up that day, the sun was blazing high in the sky and it’s warmth had already permeated the inside of the van. Daria stretched and smiled, momentarily forgetting where she was, as she slowly emerged from her deep sleep. She accidently knocked her hand on the van roof with her outstretched arm, and frowned with uncertainty as she gradually realised she wasn’t in her bed at home. Daria felt a very unwelcomed weight return and she rolled onto her side as unwanted memories of the previous evening pierced her consciousness. She sighed and squeezed her eyes tightly shut. Trying to blank it out, to repress re-living the fear and wretchedness she’d felt. But she couldn’t. Daria slowly sat up and reached for Opa’s espresso kettle. She held it in her hands and sadness crept over her. Through tears, she found herself apologising to the man who had influenced her more than any others.

‘I’m so sorry Opa. I’ve tried, I really have. But that was too much. It was all too much. I can’t do it. I know I’m close, but it doesn’t end with just going to your house. That’s another beginning. I’m not ready for that. Not yet. Why can’t you be with me? I just want you here. I can’t do this without you. Maybe it’s too soon. I don’t know. I just don’t know anything anymore. Except that Paul was right. They were all right. I just can’t.’

Daria forced herself to focus on making coffee and sorting the van, not always succeeding as images of Paul kept emerging, images of him as comforter, offering guidance and support. She sat in the van, sipping coffee and finishing the brioche, not ready to pull back the curtains and face the day. Daria knew she should call people, as promised, but she couldn’t face any of it yet. Slowly and deliberately, she washed and dressed, choosing her clothes with care. She wanted to know that she looked good as it might help her feel better, and put on a pair of black skinny jeans and a pale lilac t-shirt, with purple canvas ankle boots, an outfit that she had bought on her shopping trip with Lois. Clothes that had a connection with a special time at home. She put on her make-up and ruffled her hair back into its choppy style. Pouring another coffee, she glanced at the clock and was again surprised at the time. Realising that she must have slept for about eight hours, she pulled back the curtains and opened the van’s sliding door. Warmth and brightness poured over her as she was captivated by the view. She sat on the step and clutched her cup, feeling the wondrousness of an enormous blue sky and a yellow sun gleaming down on innumerable shades of green from grass and trees and bushes that all dotted the surrounding hills. Daria remembered that she’d wanted this pure gorgeousness the day before and felt it was snatched away from her as she had fallen into pure misery.

‘Shit’ she said, Remembering that she’d promised to ring Alfie Norton before lunch. Daria didn’t want to speak to anyone. She just wanted to drive, to turn round and drive home as quickly as she could. She’d worked out that she could get the ferry the following day and would only have to spend one more night in the wretched van. But Alfie was bound to ring if she didn’t contact him first. But not yet, Daria thought, I’m not ready.

Feeling the sun warm her face, Daria got up and sauntered along the car park to where she had entered the woods the day before. How unintimidating it looked, how safe, how normal. How different. She almost felt as if her experiences should have been a dream. She sighed and returned to her van and went to find her phone. She needed to tell Alfie Norton she was going home.

Daria was surprised to see that he had already tried to call her. Several times, in fact. Fearing it must be bad news, she returned his call straightaway.

‘Daria’ Alfie sounded excited to hear from her ‘thanks for getting back to me. I know I’ve been calling earlier than we arranged, but it’s such a beautiful day I wanted to show you a fascinating little place not far from the park. Rather than meeting in Limoges. You did make it there ok? How is everything?’

‘Yes, yes I did. Thank you. But there’s been a change of plan and...’

‘A change? Are you going straight to Ayen? Shall we just meet there?’

‘No, no that’s not what I mean.’

‘You’d rather go alone? Oh don’t worry. I do understand. It’s such a big thing and...’

‘No. No. I’m not going alone. I don’t want to go alone. In fact, I don’t want to go there at all.’ Daria could feel herself being tearful again.

‘What? At all? What happened? Look, stay there. Tell me where you are, I’ll come over and...’

‘No. I’m going now. I’m sorry that...’

‘But what’s happened? You are so close. You could be in your cottage within a couple of hours, if you want. What’s happened?’ Daria could hear the anxiety in his voice and was quite touched by his concern.

‘Nothing. It’s just been a mistake. That’s all. So I’m going home.’

‘Let’s have a coffee together first, please? Or lunch? We can meet in Limoges or I’ll come over to you.’

‘I just need to get...’

‘Please, Daria. Give me just an hour.’ Alfie sounded very serious now. ‘I know I don’t have any right to ask, I know I can’t tell you what to do. But ever since Mr. Nutter rang me and explained what had happened, what you’d found, I’ve been really intrigued. Yours is a really interesting story, you know and if you just went home, if you just returned to England, I’d feel, well I don’t know. It would be quite an unsatisfactory ending. I’ve been so looking forward to meeting you, I really enjoyed taking the photos, seeing the house, reading your emails. And you’ve travelled so far already. God, I hope that all doesn’t sound too weird considering we’ve never even met.’

The unnecessary anxiety in Alfie’s voice surprised and warmed Daria and she began to feel hesitant about going home immediately. She remembered that she had looked forward to his emails, seeing the photos of Opa’s house and the village. She’d made arrangements with him and she knew he’d done a lot of background work for her. He’d made it all so easy. He’d volunteered a lot of his time and energy for her, not least arranging something or other that meant she would have been stopping in Opa’s house. It would be letting him down and Daria didn’t like how that made her feel.

‘No. That’s not weird. You have done such a lot for me and I really appreciate it.’

‘What do your family say? Have you called them about this? Again, I’m sorry. It’s none of my business. I certainly don’t mean to pressure you. It’s just a shame, that’s all.’

‘No. You have a vested interest in this. I do realise that.’

‘It’s been fascinating for me, you know. But never mind. If you’ve made up your mind then I hope you have a safe journey back.’

Hearing the disappointment in his voice, Daria hesitatingly agreed to meet him at their designated cafe in Limoges. She thought that at the very least she owed him an explanation and she’d only be delayed by a couple of hours or so. She could still be home tomorrow.

She put everything away, found her sunglasses and drove off. The significance of her night in the park left her feeling drained. In the itinerary she’d made at home, this was the second big landmark in her journey and that had made it huge. The disaster it had turned out to be also made it huge. She wondered how one place, one night could represent an illusory dream and a terrifying nightmare at the same time.

Daria found herself beginning to relax as she left the park, but as she neared Limoges, she started to feel a bit unsure about how to explain. How could she say that she, a middle-aged woman with grown up sons, could really have thought she was going to be savaged by wolves or eaten by a bear in the middle of the night when lost in a forest in a torrential downpour? Nothing could sound more ridiculous, it sounded like a bad film. Daria began to wonder about what else she could say. Something reasonable. Ideas flashed around her head, somebody in the family was ill, someone had been rushed to hospital and had a broken leg. No, she thought, she’d already said she hadn’t spoken to any of them. Her anxiety rose again and Daria was feeling increasingly frustrated and was regretting agreeing to meet Alfie as she arrived in Limoges. And by the time she had reached the car park he had described to her, Daria was feeling very flustered and reversed into an old Citroen 2CV when trying to park.

‘Shit, shit, shit’ she said, as she got out of the van to see what she’d done, ‘I knew I should have gone home. I wish I hadn’t let Alfie Norton change my mind.’

‘Pardon?’ the driver of the little car was already standing next to it.

‘What?’ said Daria, now feeling confused and flustered.

‘I think you just mentioned my name.’

‘What?’ Daria felt really baffled now.

‘Alfie, Alfie Norton.’

‘What?’ Daria could barely believe what this meant ‘you’re Alfie Norton?’ She’d pictured him as old, as an old friend of old Mr. Nutter. This Alfie Norton was not old.

‘I am, yes. And am I right in assuming that my little car has just been hit by the van of Daria, formerly on her way to Ayen?’

‘Oh my god. Yes. I am so sorry. I was so shocked by it being you that I’d forgotten I’ve just crashed into you. I’m so sorry. Is there much damage? Have you checked?’ Daria felt embarrassed, awkward. No, she decided as she walked round to the back of the van, she was totally mortified.

‘It’s ok. No damage. But you’d hardly guess by the noise it made. I thought my little chicken chaser had had it. So no worries, Daria. Or would you prefer Mrs, Ms... er, I’ve forgotten. Sorry.’

Alfie looked as self-conscious as she felt, which made Daria laugh considering she had just crashed into him, damage or not.

‘Daria. Please call me Daria. Shall we go to a garage and let them look it over. You never know and I’m sure I passed a little place just past the bridge. God, I am so sorry. ’

‘It’s fine, there’s no damage. Now, shall we introduce ourselves in a somewhat more civilised way? If you’ve finished damaging my property, that is.’

Daria looked sharply at him. That was the type of remark Paul would sarcastically make, but then she relaxed as she saw his brown eyes twinkle. ‘Just like Opa’s’ she thought.

‘I think I have’ she replied, grinning at him and she held out her hand ‘hello. I’m Daria.’

He returned the handshake. ‘Welcome to the Limousin region, Daria. Are you hungry or do you just want coffee? I know of a cafe where the breads are delicious. I promise you.’

Again, Daria was warmed by his smile so she got her bag out of the van, locked it and chatted as they walked.

‘Thank you for being so understanding. About your car, I mean. And yes please, I’m starving.’

Daria glanced up at him. Scrutinising his appearance, Daria realised she thought him an attractive man. And that was a thing that she’d not even thought about considering for years. Long before she really knew her marriage to Paul was an empty shell. Alfie was about her age, she thought. His nose was soft and chin was strong. She already knew she loved his eyes. He turned to face her and she felt herself redden, as if she’d been caught staring.

Daria reprimanded herself. ‘What are you doing? Why are you looking at him like that? Idiot’ she thought.

‘Here we are’ said Alfie as they arrived at a tiny cafe whose tiny glass paned window display was packed with breads and rolls of every shape and size. Smells of coffee and cooking filled Daria’s senses. ‘Mind your head as you go in. The doorway is unbelievably low. And there’s a step down.’

But somehow, despite his warnings, Daria not only banged her head but she also underestimated the depth of the step and tumbled straight into Alfie.

‘Sorry. Sorry. I’m fine. Honestly. Let’s just sit down’ she said as she untangled herself from him. Daria felt that his grin and reassurances weren’t helping matters and she was beginning to feel a bit alarmed about making a fool of herself in front of him again. ‘Can we go to one of those tables outside? Is it waiter service?’ Daria could hear her voice rising in tone and volume.

‘Good idea’ said Alfie seeing and feeling Daria’s discomfort and being amused and sympathetic by it at the same time. ‘It’s such a lovely day, I should have thought of that and yes, it’s waiter service. Here’s a menu’ he said when they reached the table Daria had chosen.

As they sat, under a colourful huge umbrella round a small hexagonal wooden table, a waiter immediately appeared and Daria deferred to Alfie’s choices of sundried tomato breads with a platter of local cheeses. They both declined wine and had apple juice, a regional speciality as Alfie assured her.

‘So’ said Alfie when the waiter had gone, ‘I would guess that you’ve had quite a time since you arrived in the region, if you’re ready to leave already. Can I take it that your experience of wild camping, if that’s what you did, was not quite the idyll you’d hoped for? ’

Daria snapped up her head, again looking for Paul’s condescending smile in Alfie’s face. But found warmth and sympathy and, so much so, that she burst into tears.

‘Sorry. Sorry. I don’t mean to cry’ she said amid his cries of concern and looks of alarm. She blew her nose on the hanky he offered her and looked at him. ‘God, this hasn’t exactly been the most conventional of mornings, has it?’ and she attempted a weak smile she tried to mean. ‘Sorry. It has not been my intention to repeatedly embarrass myself in front of you, believe it or not. I did not set out to see how many times I can make a total idiot of myself in an hour.’ Daria was hoping humour would deflect her overwhelming feelings of self-consciousness.

‘Look. Why don’t you just pour it all out? Something has happened that has had such an effect on you that it’s made you change your mind. I can see you’re not physically hurt, but it must be something. And if you’re determined to go, then what difference will it make to tell a relative stranger? Our paths are not likely to cross again and you might just feel better.’

Daria thought that there was nothing quite like the sympathy and understanding of a stranger, so she told her unusual story. As she described getting lost in the forest and the sudden onset of a storm, he grinned and chuckled. When she spoke of getting soaked, muddy and scratched, laughter punctuated his sympathetic disbelief. Daria felt a little affronted at first, but his laughter was so infectious, that she found herself joining him. And as she spoke of bears and wolves and the car full of teenagers as well as the handle of the van falling off, he was holding his sides he was laughing so hard. And Daria found herself doubled up with laughter as she described falling over.

‘Now that is a funny story’ said Alfie ‘incredibly dreadful for you, of course. What an extra-ordinary experience. Unfortunate is not the word. But it is funny as well.’

‘I can hardly believe it happened now. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in all my life. But you’re right. It does sound funny it’s so ridiculous’ Daria carefully wiped her eyes, not wanting smudges on her face ‘oh god, I feel better. Thank you Alfie. Thank you for making me laugh.’

‘My pleasure’ he said ‘I’m glad you didn’t find my laughter offensive. I know people do sometimes. I have been known to laugh at very inappropriate times. I can’t help it really.’

‘I actually think you’ve given the whole thing a bit of perspective. It doesn’t feel quite so horrendous now.’ Daria looked up at him sitting opposite and found his eyes seeking hers. Her stomach leapt as she looked at him and then she felt embarrassed at her response, in case he realised. Realised what she was feeling. ‘What am I feeling though’ she thought, definitely surprised, baffled and yet undoubtedly attracted to him ‘god, he’s gorgeous.’

Daria felt incredibly relieved when she heard the chink of ice against glasses behind her, indicating their lunch had arrived. As the waiter laid out breads, cheeses, olives and juice, Daria realised she was incredibly hungry.

‘And that’s how you change history’ said Alfie.

Daria pulled her eyes away from the food and looked at him, a hint of a frown on her face.

‘What?’

‘What?’ he replied, suddenly unsure that he may have offended her.

‘What did you say?’

‘And that’s how you change history. Was that wrong? Are you ok?’ Alfie was sounding concerned again.

‘No. I mean yes, I’m ok. You just surprised me for a minute. What do you mean?’

‘I just meant that when you look at something that has happened in a different way, when you sort of feel the thing differently, then you change it. You change its meaning. So you change the way it affects you, the sort of impact it has on you. Et voila, you change history.’

‘Opa used to say the same. And I’ve never really heard anyone else who has that sort of life philosophy, if you like.’ Daria smiled at him and her frown slipped away.

‘I think I’d like to have met your Opa. He certainly knew how to weave a mystery. Here, try this cheese. You always get complimentary olives here, too.’

Alfie changed the subject so quickly that Daria wondered if he was being sensitive about Opa and about her decision to go home.

They began eating, praising the food and the apple juice and Daria found herself enjoying Alfie’s company. He was relaxed and genuine, open about himself and others and she found herself telling him about her sons, work and even her relationship with Paul and his last minute attempts to try to stop her. In turn, Alfie spoke of his work, moving to France because of a broken heart and his somewhat eccentric sounding mother in Coventry. They discovered their work had a lot in common as he was an archivist for the Notaire. Which is why he had been able to find out so many things for her.

When they’d finished eating and sat back waiting for coffees, Daria felt lighter, relaxed.

‘Thank you, Alfie. Thank you for this lovely lunch, for making me laugh and for changing history’ she said ‘I’ll never forget your kindness and I have enjoyed your company. But I really...’

‘Are you still determined to go? I was hoping to have changed your mind.’

‘Yes. I, I...’ Daria paused then took a deep breath. ‘I don’t know what. But I do know that even though I can see a funny side to last night and god knows, it all feels like a million years away now, at the time, during those moments, I couldn’t cope. I just couldn’t do it. And god knows what this future holds for me. I don’t want it to be too hard. I don’t want to not be able to cope again.’

‘Except that you did cope as well. You’re here now, aren’t you? You got through it. And you’ve even laughed about it. Isn’t that what coping is? How could anything worse happen? So even if you went through exactly the same experience again, it wouldn’t be as bad because you’d know what to expect.’

‘It didn’t, it doesn’t feel like it. I was so scared.’

‘I don’t mean to undermine what you went through, I really don’t. But I do want you to change your mind. You’ve travelled hundreds of miles for this. So, I’ve had an idea. Let me first explain about what I found out. Then see if you want to go. And then I’ll shut up. I won’t try to change your mind again.’

Alfie leant forward, a smile on his face and Daria felt herself liking the way his face lit up.

‘Ok’ said Daria beginning to admit to herself that she felt unsure about whether she had made the right decision. She was also intrigued about what he had to say. There was so much to find out about Opa still. And she was trying to stop thinking about the effect Alfie was having on her.

‘Ok. Great’ he said, smiling with relief ‘so you remember you emailed me saying that you didn’t want to know any details about the house in Ayen until you got there. Well, as you say you’re going home, at least you’ll know a bit more about Opa, sorry Eugene Fevrolet, before you go. I refer to him as Opa in my head, sorry if that sounds disrespectful.’

Daria’s heart began to thump. Her night in the park had dominated her thoughts. She had put her own fears first which is why she’d almost forgotten why she was taking this trip. The trip that Opa trusted her to make.

‘No, I don’t mind you calling him Opa, especially as you know things about him that I don’t. I’d forgotten about all the arrangements you’ve made, the things you’ve already done for me, more than photos. I really do appreciate all that and agreeing to do all that work. I realise it was quite a thing to ask a stranger. I hope you didn’t mind.’

‘I’ve loved it. My life can be a bit routine at times and something like this doesn’t happen every day. More coffee?’

‘Yes, that would be lovely. Ok, tell me about Opa. But slowly please. I don’t feel as if I can absorb much. So no names yet. I just want a bare outline to begin with. Is that ok? I think I want to listen to it slowly to stop it feeling too big, too much to take in.’ Daria said, beginning to feel a real excitement and as he began to speak, she recalled her Saturday morning and how she’d understood Opa’s motives. And she remembered how, when walking along the riverbank the day before, she’d realised that this adventure was what he’d wanted for her. To take a chance, a risk. To experience a life beyond the expected. And so far, it had certainly been that.

*

Later, when they’d finished coffees and she’d sat absorbing Alfie’s incredible tale unwilling to comment as he went along, she asked if they could find a park or something, somewhere with a bench where they could sit, with trees and grass. She wanted a peace to take it all in, to think about what she’d heard. So he led her to a park, walking in silence. Sitting on a bench, Daria poured out the many questions that had been bouncing round her head and he patiently repeated sections, sitting silently during her silences. And Daria knew she had to stay. She had to continue with her journey.

‘I can’t go there today, though. I need a bit of time to think about it. Then I can face them. Are they definitely expecting me today? But don’t give me names of people. Not yet. This all feels too big still to make it so personal. Does this sound nuts? I just sort of need to feel my way through all this slowly.’

‘Don’t worry, Daria. This has to be right for you. And yes or rather they are expecting you to arrive at the house sometime today. They do know you’ve driven down and so weren’t going to bombard you tonight in case you were tired. But it’s just a phone call away. So they won’t worry if the house is still empty. I’ll do it now, shall I?’ Alfie walked away from the bench to make his call. And Daria just sat and her thoughts raced.

Although Alfie had only got an outline of the background to Opa having a house in France, Daria’s head still reeled. It was incredible, yet somehow normal for Opa. It was unbelievable, but typical as well. She felt moved when she thought about what he must have seen, what he must have experienced. How brave and how scared he must have been at times. How her experience of being frightened the night before must be nothing compared to the fears he must have had to overcome. Daria did not question as to why Opa had never spoken to her of these things. She trusted that she would find out the reasons. She knew that this was something that was part of the bigger picture about his life in France. And that it was part of the journey he’d wanted her to take.

Opa really had been part of the French Resistance near Vichy and apparently his knowledge of the countryside made him invaluable in smuggling people out of the country. There had also been some sort of family dispute and although Alfie knew it was serious, he did not know the reasons. Neither did he know why Opa chose not to live in Ayen nor why the English side of his family apparently knew nothing about it. Alfie also didn’t know exactly how Opa had been related to her Aunt Pearl.

Daria wanted so many details that Alfie could not supply but she was assured that Opa’s family meant the offspring of his half sister. Even though Daria was fascinated by the idea that he had had a half sister who had children, Daria was relieved that Alfie did not mean that Opa had been married. Not entrusting her with that knowledge would have been difficult to bear, it would have been a sort of betrayal by him. But so many questions buzzed round her head, she felt she needed to give herself time to work it out, to put it all in some sort of order. She hoped to gain some sort of perspective and really rid herself of the previous nights experiences. She wanted to be able to completely focus on Opa’s story and not herself and her own fears. She wanted to feel brave enough to encounter Opa’s past.

When Alfie returned, he explained that a delay in her arrival at Ayen was not a problem and that she was assured a warm welcome. He reassured her that he had not given a reason, that he realised it might still be a sore point with her. Again, Daria felt warmed by his sensitivity.

‘So, how do you want to spend the rest of the day? I am at your disposal, if needed. But it’s ok if not. Are you going to book into a hotel for tonight? I know quite a nice one that overlooks the historic quarter if you want to stay in Limoges.’

‘Thank you. But no. No hotel. I’m going back to the park for the night because you’re right. Even if it all happened again, it wouldn’t be as bad. And it won’t happen. I won’t let it’ said Daria.

‘Wow. Really?’ Alfie couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice. Nor the admiration, ‘are you sure? Good for you.’

‘Yes, I’m sure. And I’d also like to take you up on your offer of being at my disposal’ Daria grinned ‘could we take a look around? I’d like to buy a bit of food, as well. It looks a beautiful town. Do we need to drive?’

‘No, we can walk. No where’s very far from anywhere here. And the timing of everything is up to you. Just say when you want to get back to your van. Was there anything in particular you wanted to see?’

Daria thanked him and took his offered arm as they strolled through the park. It felt incredibly natural to be walking with him and Daria found herself relaxing and laughing. She also liked how holding his arm made her feel. Then she remembered that there was something he’d wanted to show her that afternoon, that he’d called her that morning when she was still in the park. He explained that there were some prehistoric caves fairly nearby, which were full of different chambers and even contained some amazingly well preserved cave art. Daria could hear excitement and passion in his voice.

‘I haven’t been and it occurred to me that as they were relatively close it might be a nice thing. Apparently these caves are just amazing and so old. They date back to the Upper Palaeolithic, about seventeen thousand years ago. We haven’t really got time anymore today. But another day, perhaps? If you’re interested in that sort of thing? As you’re staying.’

‘I’d love to go’ Daria said, thinking it would be nice to spend time with Alfie anyway. ‘Ben, my youngest, loves all things prehistoric. He’ll be so jealous. Can you take photos inside?’

‘I don’t know, but there’s a sort of history or education centre there, so I bet they’ll sell postcards or books about it. Ok then, it’s a date. Well, I mean, it’s a time, when you know the time, I mean the time that you’re here’ and Alfie started laughing ‘shall I start that sentence again?’

Daria chuckled ‘I know what you mean. And that would be brilliant.’ Refusing to let herself consider it a date. It was a meeting of friends, she told herself.

He began telling her about an area not too far south of Ayen that was a World Heritage Site as it was so full of Prehistoric caves and artefacts. Alfie became more and more animated as he mentioned twenty five caves with art in them, finds of flints, bones and utensils. He had already been there, but offered to take Daria as he certainly wouldn’t mind another visit. Daria found his enthusiasm catching and told him about the various digs Ben had been on.

Daria suddenly remembered that she had calls to make, that she must ring her family.

‘They are expecting me to be on my way to Ayen. I don’t know what to say.’

Alfie heard the anxiety in Daria’s voice.

‘Tell them the truth. Why not?’

‘My god, I couldn’t. But ok. Number one: I don’t want to worry them. Two: it sounds crazy. Three: they’ll want me to come home. Four: they’ll come out here. Five: I’ll sound like an idiot. How many reasons do you want?’

‘Right, first, what has already happened can’t worry them. Second, it doesn’t sound crazy, it sounds like the bad experience it was. Third, they won’t want you to come home when you’re so close to your destination. Fourth, I think you could prevent any of them from coming over if that’s what you want, but maybe it would help if someone did anyway. And finally, you do not and would not sound like an idiot. How many solutions do you want?’

Daria saw his grin widen as he spoke.

‘Sometimes, Alfie Norton, you are irritatingly rational. And right.’

And they smiled at each other. In a mutual understanding.

*

Daria sat on the step of her van and watched a flaming orange sun descend, set against a royal blue sky. It felt mystical, other-worldly, breath-taking. As she looked, Daria just let herself fly with fanciful ideas, she let her imagination race along trajectories that she would normally prevent. She envisaged the spirits of the trees on the horizon, remembering a story Opa had told her about an ancient people in North America who believed that trees move but so slowly that humans can never see it. She imagined magic and pixies, forest fairies and sprites, all dancing round in hidden mists amid tree roots and rambling ivy.

Daria simply let her environment permeate her being. The changing light on the trees, luminescent with shades of green; a lake glistening with the colours of a late spring evening, yellows and blues, jade and pink, with deep shadows rippling and merging; flocks of birds swirling along their route to roost. Daria heard the night-songs of birds all around, calling to each other, claiming and re-claiming territory and mates; she heard foxes and their strange eerie cries, as well as the grunts and bellows of unknown animals.

But Daria wasn’t scared this time. Instead, she sat and felt the wonder of what she saw and heard. She felt alone, but not the loneliness of the previous evening. She sipped her glass of red wine and ate what she thought was the most delicious cheese pie she had ever tasted. Feeling at peace, she thought about the strangeness of the day. A lot had happened between leaving the park this morning and now, she thought. From being determined to leave, to crashing into Alfie’s car, falling into him then bursting into tears. To hearing about Opa’s wondrous story and feeling excited about knowing more and meeting his family. She felt as if she’d been on an emotional roller-coaster, but had emerged stronger than before.

When she had called her three sons, she knew it was her laughter when describing the previous nights events in the forest that had dispelled concerns they had about her. Once over the immediate horror of her tale and needing multiple reassurances that she was ok, each had joined in with seeing the funny side. She told them of her bizarre initial encounter with Alfie and of hearing Opa’s story.

She didn’t immediately dismiss Jack’s remark about her fancying Alfie when she mentioned going to visit some prehistoric caves with him someday. And Jack didn’t miss the pause which prompted him to say that he was going to call a meeting with his brothers so they could discuss the idea of their mother wanting an affair with a Frenchman. She didn’t correct him about Alfie’s nationality; she did tell him that what she did was none of his business. Jack immediately noted the omission of denying wanting an affair and laughed saying he was beyond being shocked by his mother.

Daria also told the three of them that she had decided to go back to the park, but to stop somewhere different. That way, she would again be trying something new and it would help to ameliorate the association with the previous night. It would all look different. Be different. Anthony did try to persuade her to spend a night in a hotel, but he told her that he admired her bravery. And Ben had just seemed awestruck throughout her entire tale.

*

Daria stood up and stretched, carefully locked the van and checked her jacket pockets for her torch, mobile and bar of chocolate that she intended to munch as she walked. She followed a footpath that led further up the hillside and had incredible views of the surrounding countryside. Although the sun had set, the light was still good enough to see by. Daria just wanted to walk, to see where the path took her, before returning to the van. She saw farms and distant roads with the occasional car, fields of cows and she did get a fright when a deer ran out in front of her. So close, that she could see the dark brown hairs on its ears. She wasn’t sure which one of them were the most startled. When the darkness was beginning to prohibit any real views, she retraced her steps, glad that most of it was downhill on the return. She’d walked further than she had intended and it was pitch black when she got back to the van. The darkness was so deep, Daria felt she should be able to touch it. Patchy clouds prevented a completely starry sky, but the night was still spectacular. Daria saw shooting stars, a satellite and distant galaxies creating what she’d frequently heard Opa describe as an eternal sky.

Back in the van, Daria was surprised to see how late it was and although there were no time pressures for her, she got ready for bed and re-read the variety of bits of information she had got online about Ayen. This time she felt ready.

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