Woods

The Changing Place


......It was all coming back now. Every revolution of the car's wheels wound his memory back as they took him closer to his destination. As the luxurious machine sliced through the virgin snow, the years reeled away, returning him to that day a lifetime ago. A lifetime ago? Yes - although in reality only ten years had past. A mere decade ... yet how full it had been, so rich and eventful, and so different from that other existence. The existence that until now had been a blank.
......The lane twisted snakily through the wood, the sheltering trees on either side allowing only a thin layer of snow to settle on its surface, presenting no hindrance to the powerful motor. The headlight's beams reflected off the stark whiteness, illuminating the otherwise unlit lane and transforming what in other conditions would have been a dark, foreboding place into a Christmas card scene. Little effort was needed from him to control the car; it was as if it knew its own way to where it was travelling and would carry him there regardless of which way he turned the wheel. Lulled by the gentle purr of the engine, he let his attention stray from the road ahead. As if he were seated in a cinema, memories played on his mind's screen and the years fell away. It was as if the Change happened only yesterday.
......Ten years to the day ago; ten years almost to the hour as he realised from the dashboard clock; and he had no doubt when he arrived at the Place it would be ten years to the exact moment. It had been snowing then too, but much harder. The car he was driving then bore no comparison with the one he drove now. It stuttered and shuddered, protesting loudly as he had willed it to keep going. Bought for a few hundred pounds and held together by hope, he had despaired of it surviving much longer.
......Then, as now, it had been the week before Christmas and he had been driving to his parent's to spend the holiday at their new home. It had been the first time he had visited them in their isolated backwater, and the way was new to him. He had run into the snow when he still had half the journey to complete. The snow had been light at first, but the further he had travelled, the heavier it had become. Curtains of white had closed around him, fat flakes the straining wipers had little effect on had obscured the windshield, and a uniform blanket had obliterated any landmark that might have given a clue to his whereabouts. Inevitably, somewhere along the winding country roads, he had taken a wrong turning and become lost.

************

......He could understand his father choosing to spend his declining years in such an out-of-the-way place. After so long as just another rat in the race, it must be bliss to live in such splendid seclusion, far away from the pollution, the noise, the stress; he could not blame him wanting to get away from it all when he retired. He just wished his parents had given him clearer instructions of how to get to them. Now he was lost in a seemingly endless wood and his old rust bucket was on its last legs.
......At least the snow wasn't as bad here; the trees were keeping the worst of it off the lane. All the same, the car was spluttering alarmingly; he had to find some civilisation before it packed up on him altogether. How he wished he could afford something better. Still, what could you do on a student's income?
......He drove on, coaxing the car as hard as he dare. Once he got through the wood, surely he would come upon a village or a farm or something? The lane twisted on, the trees bordering it becoming denser. They arched overhead, their branches meeting and intertwining. Only a sprinkling of snow got through now. It was claustrophobic, like driving through a tunnel. His weak lights did little to penetrate the darkness. At every turn he expected to find himself back in open countryside, but the woods merely got thicker, even more enclosing. Surely, they must end soon? Another turn, and still more trees.
......He began to feel panicky. A combination of worries: concern for his parents, who must by now be wondering where he was; for his car, which might break down or run out of petrol before he got to them; the fear of being stranded all night in the cold - all preyed on his mind. More than this, he had developed a near supernatural dread of the wood. For some time he had been avoiding looking to either side of the lane, keeping his eyes fixed firmly ahead. Despite his efforts though, his gaze persisted in straying to the side windows.
......It was dark out there - scary. The trees appeared to be getting closer, almost as if they were marching slowly towards him. He strained his eyes, were things moving in there: shadowy, indistinct shapes that disappeared when he tried to focus on them? And there, above the grinding of the engine, wasn't that whispering? Could he hear voices in the trees?
......Stop it, he told himself, forcing his eyes forward. He was just tired. He had been travelling a long time and his weary mind was playing tricks on him. Just then, the car shuddered, almost stalled. Then the engine picked up again and carried him on. Please keep going ... please don't break down here!
......Hold on! The trees were thinning ahead. Had he come to the end of the woods? At last! He slowed the car and squinted through the windshield.
......No! This couldn't be true! The wood hadn't finished - but the lane had. He had come to a circular clearing. Snow lay thickly on the ground and a last few flakes fell from a starless sky. All around the almost perfect circle the trees clustered as thickly as ever. Behind him the lane emerged from the tunnel of trees; in front - nothing, just trees. The lane simply ended.
......Then the car stopped.

************

......A wheel hit something buried in the snow, a tree branch or a large stone, the car jerked and he was jolted back to the present day. He really must watch this woolgathering; it would not do to wrap himself around a tree before he even got to the Place. He knew, even as he thought it, that this would not happen to him though. Nothing would prevent him from being at the precise spot at the precise time. Why, if he had the inclination he could take his hands from the wheel, shut his eyes and put his foot to the floor. No accident would befall him. He would get there. It was a foregone fact.
......The headlights pierced the night. The trees, in stark, dark contrast to the snow, looked like tall, thin soldiers advancing on him. With a smile, he remembered that other time when his imagination had populated the wood with all kinds of horrors. Hysterical nonsense!
......True, this was not somewhere you would want to linger. Since that first time he had been here, he had found out quite a bit about this area. Local gossip, old books and newspapers revealed a dark history of unexplained happenings. Predominant among the stories were the ones of strange disappearances and even stranger reappearances. Anyone entering this wood tended not to be seen again or, if they were, they were somehow changed. Descriptions of these changes were hazy, but all accounts agreed: those who came out of the wood - if they came out - were different.
......Legends abounded, going back as far as anyone could remember. Witchcraft, Satanism, black magic: these and more esoteric theories had been put forward. The fact remained no satisfying conclusion had ever been arrived at or seemed likely to be. Attempts had been made over the years to build roads through and otherwise develop the wood, but always some calamity seemed to occur to prevent such projects. There was the famous incident of fifteen years ago when contractors moved in to flatten the whole lot and build a prestigious housing estate. Disaster followed disaster. Machinery either constantly broke down or apparently developed a life of its own: five men were maimed by plant gone inexplicably out of control. Nothing went right. The company in charge of the operation finally pulled out and another was brought in with equal lack of success. In the end the entire undertaking was abandoned, and beaten, useless machines still lay rusting among the trees. Meanwhile, the entire area was shunned, only the ignorant, the foolhardy and the lost ventured here anymore.
......Oh yes, and those in the know, he thought with a grin as he reached into his designer jacket and pulled out a fat handmade cigar. Igniting it from the dashboard lighter he dragged deeply and luxuriously exhaled, filling the car with a cloud of expensive smoke. As he breathed the rich aroma, he saw himself again as he had been ten years ago. How young he had been, how green, how nave. And how timid. He had panicked like a scared rabbit when he had realised he was stranded in that clearing.

************

......Now what?
......He made a few half-hearted attempts to restart the car but knew it was futile; the engine had cut out with the finality of a last breath.
......God, it was dark. Cold too. Most of all, though, it was so creepy. Without the benefit of his lights to soften the shadows, the wood around him looked solid, an impassable wall, only the circular patch of sky above relieved the sensation of being totally closed in.
......He had to do something. He could not just sit here letting his imagination run rampant. He was beginning to think the clearing was shrinking, squeezing him ... and didn't something move just then? There, where it was darkest of all.
......This was no good. He had to get a hold of himself. His hand went to the door handle, moved away, then returned. There were only two options: stay where he was and pray someone found him before he became a gibbering wreck, or get out of the car and try find a way out of this damned wood on his own. He could not imagine another human being - not one in his right mind, anyway - just happening along in such an awful place on such an awful night. That left only one option.
......Taking a deep breath, he opened the door and stepped out of the car, ankle-deep in icy snow. Shivering, he pulled his flimsy coat tighter around him and looked about. He began to walk around the clearing, at first keeping close to the car, its familiarity his sole safe haven. Feeling slightly braver, he widened his circle until he reached the margin of trees.
......Close up they were not as threatening, they were just trees after all. Nor were they as tightly spaced as they had appeared before. Perhaps he could find a way through them? But which way? One direction was as bad as any other; he seemed to be in the very heart of the wood: whichever way he took would make him even more lost than he was now; he could end up walking in circles until he came down with exhaustion or hypothermia.
......And did he really want to go among the trees? For just a little while he had almost overcome his fear of them, almost persuaded himself there was nothing ... wrong ... about them. Now his fear was back, turning into something more. For some time, he had been seeing movement again. Not outright and direct, but sneaky and subtle, on the periphery of his vision. Out of the corner of his eye he would catch a flicker of motion then, when he turned towards it, nothing, or it was just a branch shaking in a chance breeze.
......Then something caught his attention. Directly in front of him: a darker shadow, something still and hulking, black and silent. He found his feet taking him towards the shape despite his sudden terror. He approached slowly, almost tiptoeing. What? How the hell? An earthmover - a big, rusting lump of machinery with the half-decipherable name of a plant hire company in flaking paintwork on its side, its bucket profuse with shrubbery. Out here ... in the middle of nowhere? Why? How?
......Shaking his head, he returned to the clearing and to his car. Only one thing left to do: he would have to trudge back down the lane that had brought him here, hope he could find a turning he had missed before. Remembering a blanket he kept in the boot, he went to the back of the car. It was going to be a long, cold walk, the blanket would help, though it wouldn't look very elegant wrapped round him.
......His hand on the lid of the boot, he paused, looked up. What was that? A soft, purring sound, getting louder. He straightened up, looked around, his ears pricked. It was getting louder, closer. He moved from the car locating the direction the sound was coming from. Then, suddenly, the whole clearing was bathed in strong, white light.

************

......Almost there now. Just around the next bend and he would be at the clearing. He brushed his hand through his hair in an unconscious concession to tidying himself up after the long drive. Catching himself in the action, he dropped his hand, smiling. The one he was about to meet would be concerned about his appearance, yes, but not about a few stray hairs out of place.
......A little further. There it was. The clearing, and, standing by that old wreck of a car, blinking in the headlight beams, there he was.

************

......What?
......Dazzled, he held his hand in front of his face, peered through his fingers. Two orbs, like giant, staring eyes, blinding.
......A car. It was a car!
......But ... Out here? Why? What was another car doing here? Was it possible that someone else had taken a wrong turn? What did it matter ..? He was not going to be stranded in this godforsaken place all night after all.
......The strange car drew up to a silent halt, its headlights dipped but remaining on, illuminating the clearing. He could see it was an expensive vehicle, sleek and polished, reeking of money. If you were to be rescued, it might as well be in style.
......There was a pause, during which he was aware of being keenly observed by a shadowy figure inside the car. He felt scared suddenly: just who - or what - was in the other car? It might be some psycho who preyed in the depths of the night in lonely places.
......He was conscious of holding his breath and readying himself to run or fight, he knew not which. Then the car door opened and a figure stepped out.
......As if by some signal things began to happen then. Strange things. For the first time he noticed how the moon hung exactly in the centre of the circle of sky overhead: an enormous full moon, lambent and unnaturally bright, it cast an eerie, sickly light on the clearing. There had been no breath of breeze before, and there still was none inside the clearing, but outside it, a veritable gale blew. The trees rocked and swayed, bending alarmingly as the wind howled - no, that was the wrong word - it screamed through the crowded trunks and branches. Above, angry clouds swirled and spiralled in a mad dance around the fantastically coloured and glowing moon. While, within the circle, it was preternaturally still and quiet: deathly so, nothing moved, not even a hair of his head, and the noise of the wind seemed somehow separate, distant. It was like standing in the eye of a hurricane.
......All this registered on his senses only marginally, he was aware of it and terrified by it; but his fortitude could only cope with one assault at a time, and at that moment he was more concerned by what his eyes were focused on. The driver of the car was walking towards him.
......"I don't believe this ... who are you?"
......It was like looking in a mirror. The man approaching him, dressed in an elegant suit so incongruous in this wild place, apart from being perhaps a few years older, was the exact image of himself.
......Too dumbfounded to speak again, he stared wide-eyed as the man neared. The closer he came, the more apparent the similarity became. The same eyes, the same nose, the same mouth, the hair, somewhere between straight and curly, the exact same shade of brown as his own - why, he even had the same small scar on his cheek, like the one he had acquired falling off a bike when he was seven. It was incredible.
......The man stopped in front of him, held out his hand and grasped his own - his skin even felt the same. They stood a moment, staring into each other's eyes. It was like looking into his own soul. The man smiled.
......"Don't be alarmed," the man said, still holding his hand.
......"But..." Words failed him as the face he shaved every morning looked back at him from another's body - a body the same as his - and used the same voice that came from his own lips.
......"Yes, I know it must be a shock and very hard to comprehend, but there's more to come. I've got even more surprises for you." The man - the other him - finally let go of his hand and raised his arm to consult a heavy gold watch that must have cost a fortune, "And there's very little time for you to prepare for them."
......"What ... what are you talking about? Who are you?"
......"Ah, what am I talking about? I'm talking about your... our future - and who am I? Who do I look like?"
......"Who ..? Well... You look like me, uncannily so. It's unbelievable...
......"Yes," the man cut him off, "I look like you - you look like me." He came closer, grasped him by the shoulders as if to support him, "We look alike because," his grip strengthened, "We are one and the same person. You are me - I am you."
......He staggered back against his own car, "What do you mean? Are you saying we're twins or something? But that's not possible - I am an only child."
......"Yes, I know, and no, I'm not saying that - I repeat, we are one."
......"Oh, come on! This is complete rubbish!" and he turned to leave - and realised he had nowhere to go. He was stuck with this... madman?
......"Look, I don't expect you to believe me, and I haven't time to convince you. You will come to accept the truth later - when I'm gone. I can tell you all kinds of things about yourself, things only you could know, but," he looked at his watch again, "Time is very limited. For now, you will have to accept my word, and this."
......The man moved his tie to one side and unfastened the top buttons of his shirt, "What are the chances of two different people, meeting for the first time in a place like this both having one of these?"
......"But I've ..."
......"Yes, I know, you have one exactly like it. You have always said you must have been born lucky - perhaps you were." As he said this, the man refastened his shirt, covering the birthmark on his chest.
......What was going on here? This was getting weirder and weirder. The clouds were circling the sickly-looking moon faster and faster; the wind was whipping the trees harder, bending them all in the same direction - as if it were blowing around the clearing... Or was it that the clearing itself was spinning? Spinning faster and faster. Now this - he fingered his own chest, rubbing the place where he knew his own birthmark to be. The mark he'd had all his life and assumed unique to him alone - his 'lucky' mark - the one in the shape of a four-leaf clover.
......Consulting his watch again, the other said, "Now, there is very little time left. You will just have to believe everything I say. You will find out the truth of it in the future. For now you will just have to listen closely to me," he raised his hand and stroked his face, " I can tell by your expression that it is starting to happen already."
......It was true: he had been staring intently at the other's face. He had assumed it was just his imagination; now he was not so certain. Originally he had thought the man only a few years older than himself, but now there were subtle changes. There were wrinkles he was sure had not been there before, and was the other's hair thinner and interspersed with grey? Did he look somehow more aged?
......"Ah, you can see it, can't you? It will become more apparent soon. The thing is, I cannot exist in the same space as you. I've already told you we are both the same person. That is true - except for one thing - I am you in ten year's time."
......"Oh come on!"
......"Please listen, there really is no time for debate. You see, this is a very special place. Why and how it came to be so I can't explain; I only know that it is. Over the last few years - as you will in the years to come - I have researched and puzzled and pondered the history of this area and not come anywhere near to finding an answer. Some clever scientist might say it is something to do with a rift in the space/time continuum or some such, or the fact that several ley lines converge here, or that the place is soaked in ritual and ceremony - I don't know. Perhaps there are places like this all over the world, the Bermuda Triangle, for instance ... The fact is, we are standing in the middle of some sort of natural time machine, without all the fancy valves and wires and flashing lights of science fiction."
......"This is ridiculous, how can you expect me to swallow this rubbish?"
......"Yes I know, not easy is it?" But," he spread his arms wide, "How do you account for all this; not exactly natural, is it?" Outside the clearing the wind's ferocity had increased to such an extent that not just leaves and snow, but loose branches and even small stones were being picked up and blown through the air round and round the circle. Or was it that the clearing itself was spinning? It was difficult to be sure. He felt the need to hold on to something; he was suddenly nauseous and dizzy. It was as if he had been thrown into a super-fast fairground ride gone mad. He turned back to the other, the only solid thing around, desperate to regain his balance.
......However, there was no relief for his senses there. The man in front of him, the older version of himself, was even older. There was no doubt about it now; in the few moments he had looked away, dramatic changes had occurred. What was left of the other's hair, for a lot of it had disappeared, was definitely grey now; his skin, now sagging and more deeply etched with wrinkles, had become the sallow yellow of parchment. It was not just his face that bore the marks of advancing years; they had both been exactly the same height a short time before, now he looked down on the other. The man was thinner and smaller, shrinking in on himself.
......More alarming still, he could actually see the process happening; his eyes were witnessing the other getting older in front of him. He could see the man becoming more wizened and shrunken; see his flesh getting looser and cracked and liver-spotted; see his shoulders hunching and his back bowing.
......"Now do you begin to believe what I'm trying to tell you?" the other asked. Even his voice had aged and his words were muffled and slurred. His younger self - he was coming to accept himself as such in a frantic need to make some kind of sense of what he was seeing - nodded dumbly, realising that the old man's speech was impaired by the fact that behind the thin lips there were no longer any teeth. "Good, then please listen while I explain as much as I can in the short time left, for time is rushing by."
......The spinning effect of the clearing had become more pronounced, it was difficult to distinguish individual trees, they merged together like the spokes of a rapidly revolving wheel. The old man took a step closer, as if to make himself heard more clearly. There was no need; another of the weird phenomena was the complete absence of noise in the circle. All the indications were that there should be a loud, rushing, roaring sound; instead there was a complete hush; an utter, deathly silence.
......"Ten years ago," the old man said, "I was in exactly the same predicament as you. I became lost on the way to my ... your ... our parent's. I too found myself in this clearing confronted by my older self ... No, please don't interrupt, there isn't time - time is so important now. I know what you see, you see me disintegrating, growing older, before you. I know you'll find this hard to accept but I don't feel any different, nor am I any different. From my point of view time has slowed down and I am the same person you saw step out of my car - hardly a wrinkle in sight." He smiled, and to his younger self his expression was a grotesque parody on a face where the skin had now become tight-stretched over his skull. "For you, however," he continued, "Time has speeded up and is racing away in front of you. Don't worry, it is not affecting you personally, and everything will return to normal very soon. In the meantime, for a short period you are able to look into the future, indeed - I am your future."
......"Just a minute, are you saying that in ten year's time I will come to this exact same place and meet and talk to myself as I am today? Why, accepting that I will be able to do such a thing, should I want to?"
......"Now you have hit on it. I know what you are thinking - I thought the same things when I was in your place - you are thinking that if I am from ten years in your future I should be able to tell you about those ten years. Wouldn't that be great? I could tell you Lottery results, football scores, how the stock market will perform, what mistakes I've made so you wouldn't repeat them ... the list is endless. I could make your life perfect. Unfortunately, no. I can tell you none of these things."
......"But why?" his younger self interposed, seeing all sorts of possibilities lighting up before him.
"Why? For one thing, there is no time. Look at me." The older one was little more than a skeleton now, clothed in almost transparent, yellow skin. He was bent almost double and looked like a good breeze would blow him over. There was something else, though, something even stranger. The old man was fading. The young one thought it a trick of the light at first, but closer scrutiny confirmed it, he could actually see through the other. He was slowly disappearing.
......"It is as I said, we cannot both exist in the same time and place. You see me fading? That is how you appear to me; you too are beginning to vanish. Soon, very soon, neither of us will exist for the other and we will go our separate ways. Another reason I can tell you nothing of your future is that it would be too dangerous. If you acted on something I told you, who knows what contradiction or paradox might result, what chain of events might occur? Please believe me, just as the past cannot be changed, neither can the future. Anyway, you can tell by the way I'm dressed and by my car that you will do well."
......The older one was becoming increasingly indistinct, the outline of his body was fuzzy and the younger one could see the background through him. The expensive suit was little more than rotten rags hanging from his bony frame. The spinning of the clearing had intensified to such an extent it was clear some climax; some crescendo was imminent.
......The old one stepped forward, placed a cold, bony hand on the other's arm, his voice seemed to come from a great distance, "There is one thing I have to tell you, however, it is the reason I am here and the reason why you too must return to this place in exactly ten year's time - it is to save your life ... our life."
......"What ..?"
......"Listen carefully. I will tell you something of the past. So far changing it does not seem to have unduly affected the fabric of things, so I feel it is safe to tell you. Tonight at precisely eleven o'clock in that lane," he indicated the lane by which they had both entered the clearing, "There will be a car crash. Two cars, travelling in opposite directions, will hit each other head-on. Both occupants will be killed. Unless you do exactly as I say, you will be one of those occupants. Look at your watch."
......The younger one did as he was bid and was amazed to see the hands of his watch racing madly forward. They were spinning so rapidly he could barely follow them. "When I am gone," the old one continued, "Very soon now, you must get into your car. You will find it starts with no problem now, just another of the strange effects of this place. You must then drive fast, at no less than forty miles an hour, back down the lane. When you came up the lane because of the way it bends, you failed to see a second lane branching off about five miles back. When you go back, you will have no difficulty in seeing the turning on your left. You must get to it before eleven o'clock and before you meet the other car. Once on the other lane keep going, do not stop or turn back. Follow that lane and it will bring you to the main road which will take you to my ... your parent's house."
......The younger one could barely discern these last few words; they seemed to come to him from the end of a long tunnel. He also could hardly see the other; the old man flickered in and out of visibility like a dying candle flame. "But how will I know the time," he shouted now, trying to bring the old man back and indicating the fleeting hands of his watch, "And why eleven, why must I reach the turning before eleven o'clock ... and what about you, what will happen to you?"
......"Oh, you will know the time," replied the old man in a voice that was little more than a whisper, though the other knew it was shouted, "And as for me, there is no need for you to worry. I am still here exactly as I was. We are just going further apart from each other in time. When you leave I shall wait a short time, then get in my car and follow you and be on my own way."
......The older one suddenly faded away almost to nothingness, the other could only just make out his outline, a thin mist against the swirling background scenery. Then, just as suddenly, he came back into sharp focus and was as clearly visible and solid as the young one felt himself to be. Withered and shrunken, little more than a crouching skeleton, the old one raised his arm in a gesture of goodbye and said, "Don't forget, you must come back here in exactly ten year's time to the moment."
......Then he flickered again, sharply, like a lamp being turned on and off. All around the clearing the trees spun silently faster and faster, so fast they merged into one solid mass. The young one reeled on his feet, thrown off balance, his head felt squashed and squeezed by an intense pressure. He fell to his knees, hands clutching his head. It felt like he was being pressed into the ground by an enormous hand. The pressure increased, a vast weight flattening him.
......"No," he screamed, "No, no, no."
......Abruptly, the ground beneath seemed to lift and rise and the sky above came down to meet it. There was a shaking like a violent earthquake. Then everything - the whole world - seemed to pause. There was a massive bang and he was thrown flat on his face.
......He did not know how long he lay there; it could have been seconds or hours. When he looked up the first thing he saw was his car parked exactly as he had left it, reassuringly familiar. Looking beyond the car, it took him several moments to realise that the trees were behaving exactly like trees should, standing there gently waving their branches in the breeze. The ground beneath him was cold and wet with snow but to his immense relief it was completely stationary. The sky too, was still and peaceful.
......Suddenly then, an uncontrollable sense of urgency came over him. He had to get out of the clearing. Must do. He looked at his watch. The hands were still whirling. He held his wrist up for several seconds before he realised the difference. The hands were still rushing round, yes, but now they were going the other way. They were going backwards.
......He knew then. Knew he had to get into his car. Knew he had to drive like crazy. Knew he had to get to the turning before the hands of his watch reached eleven. Time was going backwards now; he had travelled into the future, now he was returning. Most of all, he understood now the significance of eleven o'clock.
......He rushed to the car, opened the door and got in. It started first time, it never did that; it always took a couple of tries. He swung round in a wide circle until the car pointed to the lane, pressed down on the accelerator and raced forward.
......Faster, faster. Such a narrow lane, no room to pass. Careful, don't want to smash into the trees. Faster. The faster he drove, the faster the hands of his watch raced back. Must go faster. Nearly eleven. Ten o'clock ... five past ... quarter past. Where's the turning? Must be near it now. Half past ... twenty to. I'm not going to make it. Where is that turning?
......The hands of his watch sped back ever faster. Fourteen minutes to eleven. Where is that bend in the lane? He remembered it so clearly now. He had looked at his watch so many times as he drove up the lane to the clearing, worrying because his parents would be worrying. He had been looking at his watch, only one hand on the wheel, when he had suddenly hit the bend. The bend had been so sudden and so sharp he had only just managed to keep control. He had almost gone off the road and smashed into a tree. He remembered it so well - it had been at exactly eleven o'clock.
......Eight minutes to eleven. The lane wound on, narrow and tree-crowded. Where was the bend, surely it must be near? Faster, faster. Six, five, four minutes to eleven. There! No wonder he hadn't seen the other lane before. It lay just ahead on the crown of an acute angle where he had almost lost the car. It would have been invisible coming from the other direction unless he had turned his head fully round.
......Three minutes to eleven. He spun the car into the turning ... two minutes ... the car hit a deep rut and nearly overturned. He fought the wheel ... one minute ... nearly lost the car again. Thirty seconds, twenty, ten ...
......Five seconds ... made it. But only just. He was on the other lane. Eleven o'clock precisely.
......He turned his head and the night lit up behind him. A car struggled round the bend in the other lane, fighting the angle and nearly losing the struggle. Another moment and both cars would have collided without doubt. At the speed he had been doing the collision would have been hard.
......The second lane was even narrower than the first. He drove on, slowly and steadily now, resisting the desire to stop and rest, get his breath and recover his senses. He felt rattled and bemused. A picture of the other car was emblazoned on his mind's eye.
......What was another car doing out here in the middle of nowhere at this time of night? What were the chances of two cars being in such an isolated place at such a time - especially when ..? But no, he must be wrong.
......He had only seen the other car very briefly before it disappeared around the bend - he must be mistaken. No, the picture in his mind was crystal clear. He was sure of it. The other car had been exactly like his own. The same make and, as far as he could tell in the dark, the same colour and the same state of disrepair. Besides, how many other cars were there with the self-same replacement boot cover, like the one he had never got round to painting the same colour as the rest of the car, like the one he had dented the day after he'd fitted it - exactly like the dent on the car he had just narrowly avoided crashing into?
......But it was the image of the last thing he had seen of the other car that was branded the most deeply on his inner vision. Just before it had disappeared into the trees the moon had lit up its registration plate. He had got a very clear view of it. There was no doubt. The other car's number and his were the same.
......He drove on, so preoccupied and shaken by the memory of the other car that he gave little thought to another memory insidiously creeping on the edges of his recollection. Half forgotten, the last words the old man in the clearing had said echoed in his head.
......"When you leave I shall wait a short time, then get in my car and follow you and be on my way."

Copyright Scorpio Tales 1998. All rights reserved.


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