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The Man In The Woods By Roger Harvey; SATURDAY SHORT STORY.

There were all kinds of stories about the man in the woods. The most potent of these had him as a murderer, or at very least a bank robber; a violent desperado or an escaped convict who would steal anything from anyone and kill again when it suited him.

At 13 years old, I knew none of this was true. It couldn't be. The man in the woods had been there for months without a single policeman coming to investigate. Never once was the village sealed off or the woods surrounded by police cars and vans.

Armed officers with tracker dogs never plunged through the undergrowth, howling and whistling to set up the heart-stopping chase of my youthful imagination. I can't say I was sorry. I rather liked the idea of a strange man living in my favourite place. It was like finding Ben Gunn on Treasure Island; but of course he hadn't been marooned, and I knew he wasn't a hermit. I tended to agree with my father that he was nothing more than a poacher and a tramp.

Yet this explanation did not make him commonplace. The mysterious fears he inspired wouldn't completely go away. While he almost certainly took rabbits and pheasants when he could - and probably trout from the river, too - "proper" poachers poached and ran away. "Proper" tramps tramped. This man was staying put. He had built himself a shack, which was almost more fascinating to me than the man himself. It was like a tree-house on the ground, made of trunks and branches which had been broken not sawn, and roofed with layers of evergreen brushwood, which gave it a truly wild appearance. Tarzan might have made it for Jane - but then it would have been dry, romantic and inviting. This looked spooky and dank, full of spiders and fungus, and I scarcely dared go near it. I wouldn't approach the man either. As far as I could tell, nobody did. My father and I, walking in the woods, might glimpse his dark-clad figure, shambling between the trees, always off the paths, always at a distance. Sometimes we knew he'd seen us, for he would suddenly change course to avoid any meeting; sometimes we knew we were completely unobserved. We were stealthy and full of country knowledge. We knew by standing motionless in our clothes of camouflage colours we would probably not be seen, and treated the man as we might a roe deer sniffing its wary way excitingly close to us. But although there was a sinister fascination about the strange human interloper, we would have preferred to encounter the deer. To me, the woods seemed lovely in every season. They comprised three or four separate plantations of beech and oak, so ancient that they had grown together to fill the entire valley, and mixed in more recent years with conifers, hazel, and birch.

The vistas and moods of the place were rich and various, with dense undergrowth, stately trees and many glades and clearings. Best of all was the young river running through it to join a bigger one at the end of the valley. It was deep enough to hold mysterious pools of trout, shallow enough to ford at several places, and had magically tinkling waterfalls. My father and I enjoyed our weekend walks together through a place we both loved, perhaps for different reasons. My father liked the solitude he would share only with his son; I liked to watch for birds and animals, and came to know every corner of the woods, so the map of them would grow utterly familiar in my mind. Back home on Sunday evenings, going to bed in summer lightness or under frozen winter stars, I could navigate the woods in my head as surely as if I were trailing their paths. I felt more alive there than anywhere else. This summer the bluebells were more brilliant than ever, like patches of sky collapsed on to the forest floor, the very light of Heaven brought to Earth. In the contrast of their purity with the man's dark and unexpected presence lay my mixed feelings about him. I might pity him now, but at my age then it never occurred to me to feel sorry for him. I wasn't the only one. He was talked about around the village, but never with much compassion. In From 35 any case he did not inspire sympathy. He looked angry not forlorn, belligerent not pathetic.

If he was a victim, it was of circumstances beyond my ken. I assumed innocently that he had chosen to live in the woods and was more or less happy doing so. While part of me recoiled from him, another envied his freedom and the strange powers and knowledge I felt certain he possessed. He might be an unwelcome vagrant from town or village and fearsome because his history was unknown - but surely he would understand all the forest lore I wished to master myself. He would know where the woodpeckers lived and where their nesting-holes were; holes I had tried to find so many times when I had heard their drumming, or the strange "yaffle" cries of the green woodpeckers from the far side of the wood where the mansion's park began. He would know more badgers' setts than the one we had found, and be on intimate terms with all the woodland creatures from frogs to goldfinches. Above all he would surely have come to understand the rhythm of the seasons, and feel himself part of the tiniest changes in weather, leaves, and river: rhythms and changes I knew and appreciated but couldn't actually live with. He might look rough, but in his very wildness a wisdom must reside. In this spirit I determined to contact him, perhaps even somehow befriend him. It would seem outrageous. My friends wouldn't understand and my parents wouldn't approve. It would have to be done lightly, secretly, without any fuss and without making a great issue of it. Just a talk to him, to let him know there was someone who felt the same love of the woods, then I'd leave him alone.

I'd be approachable. Whatever his failings or even crimes, he must realise I was no threat to him. Although I liked to think of myself as grown-up, he would certainly see me as a child - which would be to my advantage: he wouldn't be afraid of me. I knew I would be very uneasy in his presence, but I convinced myself some kind of good would come from the meeting, if only I could manage it properly. I would take him some food. I wouldn't stoop to stealing it from my parents' kitchen. I would buy it myself with my own pocket money one Saturday morning. After weeks of secretive planning and much debate with myself, this is exactly what I did. With surprising ease after so much hesitation, I found myself approaching his crazy-looking shack with a packet of biscuits, some milk and a box of Corn Flakes. The journey might easily have been futile, but he was at home. He emerged long before I reached the door and stood, looking suspiciously at me, standing his ground as any householder might.

I waved a greeting and hurried towards him, lest he should turn away or I should lose my nerve. I felt triumphant, foolish, and anxious all at the same time - as if I were on my way to feed a shy and dangerous horse which was actually letting me approach. Close up, he looked younger than I had imagined him to be. He was surprisingly clean-shaven but his face was dirty. From creased and sallow skin, narrow black eyes peered at me harshly, and I caught his pungent unwashed smell. "Clear off," he said loudly. I was more annoyed than anything. "But I've brought you some food!" He showed me yellow teeth. "Don't want it. Clear off home and leave me alone." Suddenly rather frightened of him, I did. The trees seemed to close around me, and only the path home was clear. I told no one about my curiously aborted adventure. If my mother noticed she had a little more in the way of biscuits, milk and Corn Flakes, she never mentioned it. I had been wrong about the man in the woods. He was nothing like the romantic characters I had cast for him. He wasn't the doughty pioneer in his rightful landscape, he wasn't the Indian brave at one with the forest, he wasn't the wise renunciant in tune with Nature.

He was narrow, crude, ignorant and dirty, trespassing on good land and living in squalor for some impenetrable reason better left hidden. No wonder he inspired fear and hatred; he was fearsome and hateful. I did not consider the possibility that we might seem so to him. He Continued to live in the woods for the rest of that summer, then one October weekend, we saw that his shack had collapsed. It must have been empty for some time; when my father and I went up to it, no sings of human occupancy remained between the broken branches which had supported flimsy walls and grass was growing over the floor. We realised what had once seemed a substantial building would easily rot away through the coming winter. Of the man or his belongings there remained no trace. I was pleased to find him gone. Leaves fell and savage winter held the valley in a frozen fist. Then spring sunshine sparkled through fresh green, the forest floor bloomed again and the woods became once more the paradise of late boyhood: wild but cosy, lonely but safe. Roger Harvey is a poet, playwright and novelist who lives in Whickham. His latest book, The Writing Business, is available from limelight classics.com. For more information about Roger and his work please visit roger-harvey. co.uk.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Aug 18, 2012
Words:1656
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