Twice a day, like a clock strike, she drives through the jaws of Devils Gallop. She doesn’t look within the bustle of tree trunks, the tumble of bramble. Not anymore. She stares straight ahead with dry, wide eyes, the road running underneath her tyres. The fine hair on her forearms stand to attention and she drives like the devil is on her tail. Maybe he is.
‘Have you said you’d do it yet?’ he asked.
‘Not yet,’ she replied.
‘You have to say yes. Why wouldn’t you?’
The forest they call ‘Devils Gallop’ grew unchecked between her home and the hotel where she works, balancing large plates of hearty food. For this is the north. They come here to drink the thick bitter taste of ale, relish the slow cooked food and delight in the tales of the woods. Fairy tales.
She knows all about the Northern Fairytales. Please beware, you young impressionable girls. Devils Gallop looms over of the road. The trees shadow the tarmac. She drives fast, pre-empting the bends, the curves, the dips of the road and she turns the radio up, drowning out the silence of the wood. A rally driver, in a black skirt and white blouse. This was the darkest stretch of road, the coldest. She shivers at the memory of what she saw. What she thought she saw. There, in the bulging trunks of the trees, a rush of walnut, fur, wood, skin or simply a blast of air, she couldn’t tell.
‘You’re not scared, are you?’ he asked, stretching his seat belt out of shape.
‘Course not,’ she replied, ‘just don’t want to be late for work.’
‘That’s why they want you take over,’ he drummed his fingers on the dashboard.
‘What else are you going to do in life?’
As fast as she could through the wood each day. The branches thickening, lengthening, every year. She can’t help but remember the skin tingling feeling the night she stopped for a cigarette. Leaning on the car door, the cool forest air chasing away the smell of hotel rooms from her skin. Then, a slow strange scent of thick animal fur. Of burning hair.
‘A headless horseman,’ he scoffed. ‘Not very original.’
She shrugged. ‘It was a farm girl. His lover. She stole her father’s rifle. And shot him.’
Most evenings she is alone in the car. The wheels cling to the road as she curves round each corner. The tall sweet chestnut trees, nourished by the black soil block any northern sunshine. The road looks slick with a dearth of sunlight and gathered rain drops. She fears being alone here more than anywhere. In the hotel you are never alone. If you were to stand on the road and look within the bar, you will see how she moves with the small crowd like a wave, how she calculates and considers her role around the customers.
The hotel interior glows brightly from the road. All fear of the Galloping Devil vanishes. The glasses fill and then empty, the heart of the room flurries. The open fire burns the stacked pile of wood.
‘We’ll have to use horses,’ a man as broad as he was tall towers in the doorway. ‘It’s impossible to put a road through Devils Gallop.’
She looks at him.
‘Are you felling Devils Gallop?’
‘We’re coppicing it, love.’
Her eyes drift to the small window and the road outside.
‘Means the wood can grow again,’ he says. She nods. She knows what it means. The trees will be cut down, dragged out by flare footed shy horses. Devils Gallop laid bare.
‘You have to do it,’ he insisted.
‘I’m not sure I want to. I think…’ she hesitated, ‘I want to go away. I want to travel.’
‘You’re not the travelling type, love. You’re better off sticking here. It’s what you know’
On the way home, the car splutters to a slow crawl just before Devils Gallop. The petrol gauge droops comically. Two miles to walk home. She is out of the car and striding into the skirts of the wood before she can stop her silly, young self. Nothing here, she maintains. What has she got to fear but a headless man on a horse. A ribbon of mist swirls in the bowl of the field opposite the wood. A sliver of moon throws cursory light on the edges of everything, growing, breathing.
She walks in the middle of the road, picturing every curve, every corner on the path home. She senses something watching her. She breathes in the scent of wet earth and fresh growth. Fairytale, that’s all. She can’t say it enough.
The wood rises and amongst the mesh of beech, willow and oak , a shape darkens. A shadow. She stands stock still, ready for the rush of fur, the scent of sulphur. She smells leather. Her white blouse shines bright in the darkness. Every muscle twists, tuned tightly, ready to snap.
‘I’m leaving,’ she told him.
‘Because. What else are you going to do.’
A strong black silence gathers round her and the small breaths caught in her throat rasp.
‘You don’t have long left,’ she says, ever so bravely, to the spaces between the trees. ‘They’re coppicing Devils Gallop.’
Then she laughs. ‘They’ll see you clearly.’
She laughs again and twirls around on the road, scanning the heart of the wood, searching. The moon seems brighter, and, in seconds, warmth returns. She looks like a story book, lightly skipping up the road. A tale to read to children. A shadow follows her step, keeping its distance. If she were to look behind, she’d see it cower behind the trees. Never far away.
Rebecca Smith is a writer who grew up in the middle of nowhere in Cumbria. After a degree in English, Film and Media, she produced live radio for 10 years, almost purely living off adrenaline. She now works in Radio drama. She has stories published in a number of magazines and is currently being mentored by Kirsty Logan. She has one son, a silver-grey cat and penchant for biscuits. At present, the tower of books on her bedside table consists of novels and short stories by Jenni Fagan, Helen Simpson, Danielle McLaughlin, Lorrie Moore, Carys Bray, Kirsty Logan and John Green.