The flat seemed empty, like my life. Oh, physically it was the same; the same furniture, books, bedding, but there was an aching void left by the departure of the girl who had been sharing my life off and on for the previous six months. Not even a photo – for some reason she had refused to be photographed. The one attempt I'd made to sneak a snap when she wasn't looking had failed; so blurred (I assumed by camera shake) as to be unrecognisable.
It wasn't the first time I'd been without her – she'd been prone to take off for a day or two every week, mysteriously refusing to say where she'd been – but she'd always returned, fresh and bright. Until the day I'd pressed her to tell me where she went when she disappeared.
"I cannot tell, Steve."
"Why not? Is there someone else?"
"How can you ask that? I love you! There will never be anyone else. Please don't try to force me, Steve. I just can not say."
I'd turned away from her; she'd sighed and left the room. The next day, I'd returned from work and she'd gone. She'd never had much 'stuff', but what she had, had all gone. She'd never done that before.
I closed my eyes, trying to hold on to an image of her – tall, slim, hair a rich reddish brown, eyes grey/green; graceful, lithe and supple. A tear squeezed out from under my eyelid and I brushed it away angrily, found the whisky bottle and took it to sit in front of the boob-tube, watched Die Hard and drank. Watched Under Siege and drank, eventually succumbing to tiredness and the alcohol ... only to wake far too early with a splitting headache and a disgusting mouth.
Secrets. Can love exist alongside secrets?
I got through the rest of the week, knowing my work was way under par but unable to find the motivation to do better. I slept badly and Saturday morning woke before dawn, rose, showered, breakfasted on coffee and toast, packed a rucksack and set off.
My flat was the lower part of a large house overlooking Endcliffe Park in Sheffield. It is possible to walk through the park by the Porter Brook all the way out of the city into Derbyshire, though the name of the park changes as you walk: Bingham Park, Bluebell Wood, Whitely Wood ... At Forge Dam it was still far too early for the café to be open, so I kept going until I emerged onto Fulwood Lane, then along Ringinglow Road to Burbage Bridge, turning off the road onto a path by Burbage Brook.
I hadn't thought out where I was going; without conscious decision I was following a path I'd taken many times. If I had thought it through, I'd probably have headed in the opposite direction! As it was, I followed the path to cross, in due course, the Hathersage Road, continuing to follow the stream down the valley. It was six hours or so and maybe twelve miles from leaving home; I was footsore and hungry. The Station Café beckoned.
Stomach full and bladder emptied, I left the café and made my way back into the woods. Over my meal I'd decided what I was going to do, though unsure if it were a good idea. I picked my way between the trees, working uphill, until I found the place. The place ... where we'd met the first time. Calida! Where was she now?
I leaned against a birch tree, but jerked my hand back. It felt warm... surely not? I reached out again and laid my hand on the silvery bark. Yes ... definitely warm. And ... throbbing? Very faintly? Must be my imagination...
"Well ... do you like my tree?"
I jerked round and staggered a little. "Sorry?" I saw a slight woman with silvery hair. I couldn't have guessed her age; she looked young, but despite a youthful, smooth face, she had an air of age about her. I collected myself a little. "Your tree?"
"Oh, yes, Steve ... I'm very attached to my tree."
"You know my name?"
"Certainly. I've seen you here with Calida."
This was unreal. Had I switched dimensions or something?
"You know Calida? I don't recognise you..."
"No reason you should. Calida and I are old friends, though. You never answered my question."
"Oh, right. Yes, very much. Very pretty. Like yourself."
"Why, thank you sir!" She actually dropped an elegant curtsy.
"Betula! Are you making a nuisance of yourself?" An old man, small, whiskered and somehow gnarled, appeared from somewhere.
"Me, Grandfather? Make a nuisance of myself?"
"Yes, you, Betula."
"I have no objection to chatting to a pretty young woman," I put in, "and I certainly hadn't begun to think of her as a nuisance..."
He nodded. "None-the-less, she's rather flighty and can become irritating."
"Grandfather!" She'd tried to sound angry, but I could hear the humour in her voice. She turned back to me. "He isn't really my Grandfather. We're very distant relatives. But he does care for us all." She paused, then, "I think what he was going to say was, what you're looking for is over there..." she pointed at a graceful, smooth barked, beech-tree.
I followed her gesture then looked back at her with a question in my eyes.
"Have you never hugged a tree?" The old man's voice came from behind him.
"I'm sorry?" I looked round at the old chap.
"Go and hug that tree and tell her how you feel."
"You'll understand when you do," the girl said.
Feeling rather silly, I walked across the leaf-mould and beech-mast, and wrapped my arms round the tree. I didn't see the man and the girl go. The tree felt warm and alive – my arms didn't quite reach round the trunk. Well, of course it was alive. But ... something more than that ... I pressed my body against it, resting my cheek against the smooth bark. For the first time in days I felt at peace; I closed my eyes and drifted.
It was quite a long time later I seemed to hear a voice; "Talk to me."
A fragment of song drifted through my mind; 'I talk to the trees, but they don't listen to me... '
But did that matter? Did it matter if the tree didn't listen? Did it matter if the tree couldn't hear?
"I miss her." I stopped, then continued, short phrases with long breaks between.
"Why did she leave?"
"I thought we fitted together so well."
"I didn't mind that she needed to be away..."
"She was so beautiful..."
"Why could she not tell me where she went?"
There was no reply, but there was a sense of being listened to. I told myself it was imagination. I was so comfortable, though, so conscious of calm, or peace, that I changed my position from a standing hug to sitting with my back leaning against the tree. My eyelids drooped as almost a week of poor sleep caught up on me.
"Are you okay?" A hand shaking my shoulder, the voice penetrating my sleep-befuddled brain.
I shook my head, trying to clear the sleep out of it and looked at my watch. The sun had moved considerably since my arrival. No wonder, it was well past six o'clock.
"What? Oh, okay? Yes, thanks. I was very tired and sat leant against this tree. It was so comfortable I dropped off." He looked up at the older couple who had stopped to check on me. I smiled. "Thanks for your concern."
They smiled back. "As long as you're okay?"
"I'm fine. I'll just let myself wake up a bit more, then I'll be getting off, I expect."
They left and I leaned back against the tree. It was odd how comfortable I felt. I felt for my pack, rummaged for a bottle of water and drank from it deeply. I found a cereal bar in there too and chewed on it, more for something to do than because I really felt hungry.
I was puzzled how reluctant I was to move at all, knowing I needed to get up to catch a bus or train back to the city. I shifted.
"What?" I spoke before realising I hadn't heard anything out loud.
I leaned back against the tree again.
"I'm going mad. Hearing voices, now."
'You are not mad. Tell me about Calida.'
"Okay. The voice in my head is telling me I'm not mad. That does not help. But why would I ask myself about Calida? Calida ... is tall, and slim. Graceful and very lovely. I didn't realise until she left, but ... I love her." I do. I really do. No wonder I feel so lost without her.
'You love Calida?' The voice was wistful.
"I really do."
'Relax and sleep.'
Oblivion took me ... to a place where I was resting in Calida's arms. I stirred briefly, much later, half aware of the sound of rain on leaves and wind in the trees, but I was dry and warm, and didn't try to stay awake.
I woke with the dawn, still leaning against the tree. I could smell wet ground, wet leaves. The stream was loud in its bed but the ground I was lying on was dry. I was dry, warm, rested and at peace.
What a dream. 'I'm warm and dry and I know it rained last night. I should be stiff and sore; I always am when I sleep on the ground. I wasn't even laid flat, but I feel better than when I sleep on my bed at home. Was it a dream?' I got to my feet and turned to the tree. 'I'm going to make a fool of myself, I know it. But at least there's no-one to watch.' I reached out and laid my hands on the smooth bark. "Calida, if you love me, come out and tell me."
I could never tell if she materialised, stepped out from behind the tree, or emerged from the tree, but she was there, smiling, her eyes dark with emotion. "I thought..."
"You thought I wouldn't believe you were a dryad?"
"Hamadryad, but yes. Would you have, if I'd just said it?"
"It would have been easy enough to prove..."
.... There is more of this story ...