The skies are grey. Damp, decomposing leaves cover the ground, making my path slippery in places. The wind is cold and sharp against my face. My breath plumes before me then dissipates into the thin air as I walk through it. I look down to Ella. Her head is down, moist nose sniffing the ground and I wonder how many different scents there must be for her to seek. Ella’s ears dangle, flopping gently against her face. She has the typical spaniel face; her straight white nose has a smattering of brown splodges which descend from between her hazel eyes.
“Heel girl, heel. Sit.”
Ella turns and sits down in front of me, eager for my next instruction. Her eyes glisten as she waits for my command.
I pull a dog treat from my pocket. “Good girl. Wait.” I kneel down and unclip the lead from her collar. “Wait. Wait. Go on then.” I fling out my arm as I give the command and Ella runs into the distance but returns like a boomerang.
I always enjoy my early morning walks with Ella. I like studying our location to see what people have done in the woodland and surrounding landscape. I can identify the age and gender of a person based on a change from the day before. For example, there are areas of the leaf-strewn ground that have been disturbed to reveal the sludgy, underlying mud. This was done by children, they have been using the mud as glue to build their bases and as ink to write on trees around the woods, marking their territory. I scratch it off.
There are scuff marks on every tree in one cluster, the scuffs are from the children’s dirty shoes. As they climbed up the trees they left their mark. They would have been here during the late afternoon, after they finished school, because glimmering slug trails are visible on the trees’ bark and slugs prefer the dark, damp night time. One tree however does not have the shiny lines because they have been rubbed off. An empty beer bottle sits at the foot of the tree, covered in piss. A man came here in the early hours; depressed and lonely, he comes here most nights. He is most likely around the age of fifty and he’s local. He got pissed whilst walking to no particular destination, ended up here, laid down by this tree.
Only a few dog walkers come through here, a dozen or so, possibly a couple more. There’s always one that leaves its dog’s shit on the ground for someone to step in. On this occasion someone had it follow them home via their shoe. Most likely the drunk man who’s a size ten foot, judging by the print left in the relatively big shit on the ground.
I know these woods better than anyone. These woods are mine. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t visit.
As we walk along the higher grounds of the woodlands, I notice more details. Dry fox scat, must be a day old. I wouldn’t have missed that yesterday so it must have been excreted just after I passed. I see balls of ginger fur rolling in the breeze. It’s not from a fox it’s from a pet cat; the fur is too fluffy and light to be a wild animal’s.
I move to the edge of the higher grounds and look over the naked lower woodlands. I scan the meandering dirt paths. The leaves on a few of the paths have been disturbed by the footfall of walkers, but not all. The trees are thinner down there; some of their leaves still have life in them. The dead leaves have blown from the higher grounds but some have been carried by the children to be used in their bases.
Through the stark and leafless trees, I see her; she’s walking her Springer, ‘Bussy’. She has a slight bounce to her stride as she lets Bussy gallop around the lower woodlands.
She has that horse rider look; tight fitted riding trousers and boots, a black woollen jumper and a white shirt.
Her brown hair is woven into a plait and dangles over her right shoulder.
I see her most mornings. I remember the first day I saw her; an instant attraction. I think she’s beautiful. She has such pensive blue eyes; they remind me of a blue sky right before the sun descends. From different angles, I catch the glint from her eyes, similar to the sparkle of a star in the night. Her skin is pale but in this cold she has rosy red cheeks that match her deep red lipstick.
Every time I see her, I want to talk to her. I want to get to know her, and I want to be her friend.
As I walk along the woods watching her from the corner of my eye, I once again pass her without saying a word. I wish I could pluck up the courage to speak to her but I simply can’t. She’s the first woman that’s caught my attention since Cindy.
I will not speak to her today. I will one day, but I will do something different to engage her attention. She usually completes the lower woodland walk in six minutes and forty-two seconds; she misses the deeper woodlands and goes home, I believe. I want to find out more about her so I will bypass the lower woodland and exit from the upper woods in two minutes, where she will have to walk up the slope to enter the upper woodlands and then exit onto the road. I will be far enough up the road that she will not see me, but I will see her.
“Ella, here.” My dog bounces back to me. “You need to be on the lead for this, little girl.”
I turn and retrace the path we have just walked. I reach the middle of the upper woods and then exit onto the road. I wait a couple of seconds and then I see the woman also exit the woods. A natural smile settles itself upon my lips; she must be special to make me smile so unexpectedly.
I walk down the road at the same speed as her. I never do this. The last time I walked down this road was when I followed a girl home when I was a kid.
I had forgotten about the detached three bedroom homes on the left, opposite the woods. This road always seemed like a wall, a divider protecting me from the world full of cruel and heartless people. The woods were where I felt most comfortable as a kid and even now, their reassurance remains with me.
As she reaches the crossroads at the bottom of the road, she hesitates, looks both ways and then jogs across and into the garden of a house. I stop walking and concentrate on which house is hers. There are two detached houses. There’s a fair amount of land for the two homes. A line of bushes separates their front gardens and it’s probably the same around the back.
She walks Bussy in my woodlands, so behind the houses must be private land, a farm possibly?
I can’t stare too long but I am intrigued already. I will come back.
I walk up the road and turn left into Lavingsham Close. Ella begins to tug harder towards the bungalow, recognising the familiar scent.
As Ella and I enter, I let her off the lead. “Go on then, get a drink.”
Ella sprints off through the sitting room and into the kitchen. The sounds of her claws against the wooden flooring, followed by the sound of her slurping, always makes me laugh.
I go into my sitting room and walk over to the wall filled with pictures of Cindy. I close my eyes and contemplate my mental image of the woman from the walk. I open my eyes and look to Cindy; they are so alike. They both have those mesmerising eyes that is easy to get lost in. The dark brown hair that weaves across their heads and down onto their shoulders, and they have the dark red lips and pale complexion, with rosy red cheeks in the cold.
I stroke the face of the woman from the woods and turn away. Realising what I had just done, I turn back to the wall and notice that it was Cindy whose cheek I was stroking.