© C Walker 2012

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A Helping Hand


C Walker

Deep into the forest Julia ran, trying hard not to look behind. The thick fog embraced her. She left a shoe behind - stuck in the sodden leaves covering the ground. She kept on running. She stumbled and fell face down onto the soggy floor of the forest. Paralysed by fear, Julia waited. Nothing happened. Silence.

That's because nobody’s there, she thought, annoyed at her foolishness.

She pushed herself up and tried to clean off the mud and leaves. She shivered, the damp air was inside her clothes, chilling her bones.

She couldn't believe it was only half an hour since she had left work. She had been going to visit her friend who lived on a farm in Kent. Julia didn't like driving on the motorway, especially in the fog. She had thought it would be safer driving on the back roads. A choice she regretted.

Once she had reached the countryside, the fog was thicker. Visibility was down to a few yards. The tree had appeared from nowhere - or so it seemed. She tried to brake but was too late. Julia had braced herself for the impact and listened to the sickening sound of the car being crushed by the tree.

Shaken but not hurt, she had checked the car; it wasn't going anywhere. The map wasn't any help because she didn't know where she was. Grabbing the torch from the car she had decided to go for help. The batteries were dead. In the fog without the torch she had wandered off into the forest.

The whole episode had made her jumpy. Now, because of her stupidity, she was even deeper in the forest and further away from help. Julia decided to go back the way she came; hoping it would lead her to the road.

The silence was broken by rustling sounds from the undergrowth. Julia stopped to listen, straining to hear if it was more than the forest animals. Holding her breath, hoping her heartbeat wasn’t as loud as it sounded to her. She carried on, treading carefully; ignoring the dripping branches which brushed her face. The silhouettes of the trees loomed up in front of her. The menacing shapes made her feel uneasy. An owl hooted a few feet away and she almost screamed. Stop being so silly, she told herself.

She had almost given up when she heard a different sound; a child’s laugh. She stopped and listened; she heard it again. She headed towards the sound. The trees started to thin out and in the distance she saw a faint light. She couldn’t hear the child anymore but decided to head towards the light. As she got closer she could hear the sound of running water.

It must be a river, she thought. The sound got louder. Julia slowed down and tried to see the edge of the river. She edged closer and closer but the dense fog made it impossible for her to see. Suddenly, her feet gave way and she started to slide down the bank. She tried to grab the side but there was nothing to hold onto.

She plunged into the water. Julia caught hold of the root of a tree and held on. She tried to pull herself up; something was gripping her feet. Someone is pulling me in, she thought, starting to panic. She kicked out, frantically trying to free her feet. Julia felt her grip loosen on the slippery root. She searched for something else to hold onto. She touched something; it felt like a hand. She held on tight, worked her feet free and pulled herself out.

Breathing heavily, she crawled to the top of the bank and collapsed. After a few minutes, she looked around but could not see anyone. She was sure she had felt a hand. I must have imagined it, she thought. Every inch of her body was cold and damp. Sitting up she looked for the light she had seen. Relief swept through her body when she realised how close it was. Reassured, she headed towards it.

The light came from a house. What an isolated place to live, she thought as she pushed the gate open. It scraped along the path, the weeds and grass growing out of the path prevented it from opening too far. Cobwebs adorned the downstairs window. The light which had seemed so bright to Julia, shone gloomily through the dirty window.

She used the stained brass doorknocker and with each thud, flakes of paint fluttered to the floor. Julia began to feel uneasy; even from outside the house felt empty and cold. I haven’t got any choice, she thought, so I’d better make the best of it.

The door opened and from the gloomy interior a middle aged woman appeared.

"I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm lost," said Julia. " Please can I use your phone."

"Sorry, my dear," answered the woman. "I haven't got a phone, but you’re welcome to come in and get dry. I’ve a nice fire burning."

"Sounds wonderful, but I don't want to be any trouble," said Julia, relieved that the woman appeared friendly.

"It's no trouble, come in." The woman showed Julia into a sparsely furnished sitting room. Julia headed straight for the open fire to warm herself up.

"I'll find you some dry clothes and get you something hot to drink." The woman left the room. Julia looked round the room, noticing the black and white family photographs on the oak sideboard. She wondered if the child she had heard belonged to this woman.

The woman returned with a pair of trousers, a jumper and a mug of hot chocolate. "This should warm you up."

"Thank you. Are your children indoors, only I thought I heard a child outside?" Julia said, sipping the steaming hot drink.

"It couldn’t have been my children, they are tucked up safe and sound," answered the woman, glancing at the photograph on the sideboard.

"My imagination seems to have been playing tricks on me all night," said Julia, with a laugh. "I’ve been hearing all sorts of noises.

The woman smiled "I’ve made up a bed for you in the spare room, if you’re ready."

"Thank you for going to all this trouble." Julia followed the woman down the dimly lit hallway to the back of the house. Away from the fire, the house felt cold and damp. The woman showed her into the room and after saying goodnight, closed the door.

The house was silent. Julia felt like she had been wandering around for hours, but her watch said eight o’clock. Early for everyone to be in bed, she thought. She changed into the dry clothes and climbed into bed. The sheets felt damp and smelt slightly mouldy; but she was too tired to care. She fell asleep.

The next morning Julia was woken by a large dog licking her face. She tried to push it off but with little success. Opening her eyes, she saw a man pulling the dog off.

"He was only trying to wake you," said the man. "We thought you might be hurt."

Julia sat up, startled by this intrusion. "What are you doing in my roo......?" The words trailed off as Julia looked around. The remains of a room was all she could see. The windows were gone, the brickwork had large gaping holes in it. She looked down, she wasn’t in a bed; she had slept on the floor. "W...W…Where am I, what's happened?" she stammered, starting to feel frightened.

"I don’t know," replied the man. "Maybe you got lost in the fog last night."

" Yes, I was lost and a woman gave me a bed for the night," said Julia. "She lived in this house - but it wasn’t like this."

The man looked puzzled. "Nobody’s lived here for 50 years - it’s just an empty shell."

"It did feel strange - empty and cold, but there was definitely a woman here," said Julia, beginning to doubt her sanity.

The man helped Julia up. "Well, whatever happened, you’re safe now. My name's Ben, I live on the other side of the river. Come with me and we'll get you cleaned up."

Ben led the way to the bridge that crossed the river. Julia noticed it had a plaque on which read 'In loving memory of Elizabeth and John.' Ben noticed her reading it. "The bridge was built after they drowned in this river. They lived in that old house with their mother. One night they were out in the forest, they couldn’t find their way home in the fog and fell into the river."

"What happened to their mother?" Julia asked.

"She died two months later, a week before the bridge was finished," answered Ben. "When it’s foggy, some people think she watches out for anyone in trouble."

"I think she does," said Julia, as she looked down at the jumper and trousers she had been given the night before.