I wake with a picture in my mind. It takes a moment to realise it’s the old dismantled Brockenhurst to Ringwood railway line at Longslade Bottom. This is the first morning after the implant operation that I’ve felt fit enough to take a decent walk and I’m filled with the urge to go there. So we take the car and head down to the Longslade Bottom car park. It has to be 10 years since we last walked here. Matt doesn’t remember. He’s not bothered. He leaps out of the car like the three year old he still thinks he is and dashes off to chase rabbits he will never catch into the rising sun. I follow in subservient compliance.
All life, it seems, will now be divided into the periods of BI and AI, before the implant and after the implant, my personal parody of the Gregorian calendar. I can already tell that it’s different out here since the last time we walked the Forest, BI. The sun is lower in the sky, and the shadows are a little longer. Even I can feel the silence here. Nevertheless, it is later in the morning than we usually walk and we do not have the Forest to ourselves as we normally consider ourselves entitled to.
Nature is becoming lazier. She has started her inexorable countdown to Autumn. Though the leaves are still copious on the trees, the heather is beginning to carpet the floor in purple. It will intensify these next two weeks or so until it screams for your attention from every hillside. Today it whispers quietly. It is asking me asking me if I am using the summer well.
That question seems a little unfair. ‘I’ve been convalescing,’ I want to tell her. I’m not expected to do much. But she is insistent. So quietly I enumerate the various tasks I have been undertaking; promoting this book, preparing that one for publication, revising another ready for release next year. Yes, I think I have used the summer well. But then I realise I’m not sure she’s talking about writing
We pass a small group of Longhorn Highland cattle. They look strangely green in the waning summer sunlight. I am relieved they show no inclination to chase Matt. He is old now, and despite his self-delusion. I doubt he could outrun them for long.
We have been walking parallel to the railway line but I see he is beginning to slow with the rest of nature around me. it’s up onto the line at the first opportunity, though of course, the track has long since been removed. Then we pause for a few shots of the road ahead and our own shadow, which we are far too wise to chase, before heading back in the direction of the car, the Rowan and the Scots Pine providing our honour guard above ripening blackberries that foretell better than average September foraging. again I grow excited and marvel at the privilege of living in God’s own country, the New Forest, where, to my reckoning, you could walk every day of your life and never repeat your route precisely.
Then quite suddenly, as we steer a straight path on a straight railway, the Shadow Man is walking beside us. The three of us proceed in silence for some time. I dare neither to speak nor look directly at him, for fear he will disappear once again. But somehow at the same time I feel a sense of reassurance knowing he has returned for a reason. Once we were old sparring partners, the Shadow Man and I, circling each other cautiously, always keeping our sword hands free. But that time has long since passed. As I grew familiar with him all those years ago, I named him Cogitatis, for he made me think as no other ever did. But that, of course, was before I learned his real name. We will revisit that time when ‘Forest Rain’ is released, around the turn of the year, I hope.
So in the continuing silence I focus once more on my work. My springtime work, my summer work and my coming autumn work. And I know now there will be work right up to and throughout the winter. There is such relief in that knowledge, such congruence in the work. I’m at my happiest by far when I’m addressing my appointed tasks in fulfilment of my contract.
We pass the spot where we should turn off the line for the car park, but walk on. Ahead is a low bridge. It carries the road over the railway line and in so doing serves to provide shade to the ponies. They stand in the shadows, seeking respite from the sun that does not seem so hot to me. As we approach they move a little, uneasy in our presence, and I see that they are a mother with a young foal. I have missed the new foals this year, so cumbered about I have been with matters of hearing. We stop, so as not to scare them and turn to reverse our steps back towards the car.
“You’re back,” I finally pluck up the courage to say to him. The Shadow Man smiles, looking towards the ground, his hands in his pockets. There is no sword at his side. It is years since we were combatants. Now, old brothers in arms, we have beaten those swords into ploughshares and know the joy of co-workmanship.
“Does this mean that we’re going to be writing together again?” I ask
He smiles. “And you thought this was about the seasons of the year?” he answers.