1 April 2002
I can feel a tremor in my voice, the fifth or sixth time that I call her name, and heat rushes to my face: bothered more by this weakness than the situation itself. We're in open heathland so it shouldn't be hard to spot her, nowhere to hide but the dotted mounds of unkempt gorse that I last saw her weaving her way between, so I amble forwards, calling again, determined not to give in to this taunting absence.
Strayed from the lumpy path of bare, packed earth, my slow steps lurch across the uneven surface of the dry, yellowish grass, pocked with thick tufts and hoofprints. Suddenly a flash of black lollops across my vision, further off than I'd hoped and heading further; I shout again, this time more sharply, but she's head down, as if she has hold of a scent, and doesn't look up. Abandoning all pretence of control, I break into a run.
Part greyhound, they reckoned, as we brought her home that first time, wrestling to keep the tiny, nervous bundle still as she wriggled free of grasps in the back seat of the car and nuzzled her way behind our backs with that aquiline snout, and now I'm the only one that can keep up with her: I can do her for pace but she's got more staying power and with a lead like this there was no way I's gonna catch her before she made cover, pounding the baked earth in my stumbling sprint.
The sun is shining and I'm glad for the dappled shade the trees provide as I stagger to a halt beneath the prematurely withered canopies of the capaciously autumnal oaks and pull off my shapeless sweater, knotting it about my waist by the arms. I look both ways, then all other ways as well, knowing her preference for the stains and smells of the underbrush over the simplicity of the open path, but see no sign and hear nothing over my own asthmatic gasps.
I call again, hoarsely, and this time do nothing to check the panic causing me physical sensations in my stomach, casting my gaze about wildly for a few more seconds before collapsing into a powerless crouch as I wait for my breathing to stabilise. This close to the ground I discover an incongruous pair of sycamore seeds, the papery whirligig still in a prized state of completeness, the twin blades coming together at the centrifugally siamese seeds. Unthinking, I reach down and snap the halves apart, dropping them back down into the forest floor debris that reminds me of a hundred jam-jar experiments sitting back at home: the leaves and flowers offered up by our garden selected with apothecarial precision then mixed together with water into an unvarying brown sludge, the daisies picked from our lawn not to be threaded into chains but for the petals to be meticulously plucked, leaving behind the powdery heart to be smeared like a golden woad.
I need to act but still neither direction offers any hint so I take a gamble on the path leading further away and run down it, this time at something more like a trot. The foliage thickens and from the dazzle of the low-flying sun outside this copse's confines I have to adjust to a deepening gloom as I desperately scan around the earthen hollows and fallen logs. The crack of branches up ahead sends me scurrying forwards but rationally I know that the sound is too heavy and instead I see an elderly couple ambling amongst the trees. They gaze warily at the sweaty and flustered child rushing towards them and behind all of their apologetic denials of having seen any sign of her I can see lingering the unspoken question: "Where are your parents?"
I double back, trying to locate the point where I entered the woodland, shouting her name in sporadic and futile bursts. The dilemma looms in my mind, the longer I stay here, wandering aimlessly around the forest's trackless depths, the worse the situation could become: she has the energy, if she's been carrying on at her previous gallop and doesn't hit a road anytime soon (don't think that, don't think that) she could be well off the radar already. But the thought of the alternative holds me back, the prospect of trudging back empty-handed not to shouts or blows but to silent disapproval, to stifled upset and tight-lipped disappointment; the quietly inculcated fear of doing wrong spurs on my search and I plunge deeper in.
The drifts of leaves deepen and stubborn tangles of smothering shin-high vegetation grow more dense and I have to pick my way carefully now, my occasional shouts cracking with the precipitations of hysteria. Suddenly I come into a clearing; an empty area of ground, dusted with fallen leaves, is ringed by a drunken oval of gnarled oaks, their branches stretching out to brush and buffet one another far overhead. There are physical sensations inside me again, strange feelings I've not had before, a racing jumble of my thoughts and a molten energy that seems to be forcing its way up through my chest; I remember something similar to this but less so, a shadow of this feeling, perhaps, a dry-run, and unformulated convictions of having some kind of power of my own, a force within. Taking several reverential steps towards the centre of the clearing, I spread my arms away from my body, palms open, and close my eyes to concentrate on her, feeling the power course through me, lightning flowing from my fingertips.
It's darker, is the first thing I notice when I open my eyes again; the shadows cast by the network of interlocking branches seem deeper and to spread further in every direction, a duskiness has even infected the air all around me. The forest creaks with a murmur of whispering branches but there are few other sounds as I gaze around at the gloomy thickets of indistinguishable undergrowth. I gulp down a sob as the feeling of power tries to rush up out of me in a kind of muffled hiccup and focus my mind on keeping the energy inside. One, breathe. Two, breathe. Three.