It was her neighbour, Jonno Toms, who told Stella Archer that the cottage at the edge of the forest had been rented out to a Londoner.
‘A bit of a recluse, so I’m told. Been ill.’ He tapped his head. ‘Know what I mean? She won’t stay long. The blow-ins never do.’
It was from Pat who worked at Silverdene’s shop, she learnt that the new tenant’s name was May Courcy.
That was the way the village worked.
End of spring term was Stella’s busiest period in the school year and it wasn’t until the summer holidays began that she was able to draw breath and reinstate her daily walk in the forest.
Ambling between the trees, she was taken aback by the sight of a woman standing motionless on the path. Something about the way she held herself sparked alarm. It reminded Stella of her pupils when emotions were approaching danger point.
She remembered what Jonno had said and approached cautiously. ‘Hallo. Are you by any chance May Courcy?’
Close to, the stranger was deathly pale and very thin. Her hair was unbrushed and there was a button missing on her shirt. Stella’s concern deepened.
‘I am,’ the woman replied.
‘Welcome to the village. I’m Stella, the headmistress at the local school. It’s lovely to meet you.’
An unreadable expression crossed May’s face.
‘It’s a fabulous sight, isn’t it?’ Stella indicated the venerable beeches flanking the path.
‘Our freshwater spring over there is famous.’
‘How nice,’ said May.
Stella tried for one last time. She pointed up to the watery-looking light filtering through the tree canopy. ‘Being in a forest is supposed to be healing. Some doctors recommend it.’
‘You know that’s rubbish.’ The vehemence of May’s reply caught Stella off-guard. ‘New-age stuff that’s cobbled together because other religions are dead.’ She registered Stella’s startled look. ‘Sorry.’
She must have tried a therapy that was unsuccessful, thought Stella. Hoping to defuse the encounter, she smiled. ‘I like to keep an open mind.’
The gaze directed at Stella was hostile – but also despairing.
‘It’s no good believing problems can be solved by gazing at our navels. They aren’t...’ May Courcy rubbed a skeletal wrist. ‘They just aren’t.’ Her hands dropped to her sides. ‘It was nice to meet you.’ She moved off and made to cut across the undergrowth.
‘If you don’t know the forest well, it’s best to stick to the path,’ Stella called out. ‘Watch out for hidden tree roots.’
She continued onwards but the walk had been spoiled and very soon she turned for home.
The path snaked through the trees and she was almost at the edge of the forest when she became aware of a disturbance in the distance partly masked by the undergrowth. On investigation, she discovered May sitting on the ground with blood streaming down her legs.
She looked up at Stella. ‘I fell over one of those damn roots and I can’t seem to get myself going.’
Stella hunkered down beside her. ‘Are you hurt?’
May’s mouth moved but no words emerged. Instead, she began to sob uncontrollably.
‘Here. Lean on me.’ Stella managed to prop her up against the trunk of the nearest tree and gave her a tissue. ‘Any point in asking if you want to talk about it?’
May looked at Stella – and a wordless exchange took place between the women.
Can I trust you?
Yes, you can.
‘It’s an old story of the mighty fallen.’ May dabbed a knee and flinched. ‘I was the CEO of a listed company. I was proud… of being the first woman to achieve that. I made a mistake, refused to acknowledge it and I was fired.’ She held up the bloodstained tissue. ‘It was very public.’ There was a pause. ‘Very.’
‘So you came here to recover?’
‘Except I haven’t,’ May said. ‘I’m a wreck. No confidence. Nightmares. Terror. I hate everyone.’
Stella took the tissue away from May. ‘Those knees need antiseptic.’
‘Sorry about the crying,’ said May. ‘It was the shock of falling over.’
There was second, longer pause.
‘What shall I do?’
The request came from the left field. Stella thought of the years of teaching and of dispensing pastoral care at the school. They hadn’t left her with absolute certainties, but what she did know was being in the forest always helped when times were tough.
‘I’m not sure until I know you better,’ she said, ‘but I can recommend being among trees.’
‘Look around,’ said Stella.
Yes, look hard and well, she thought. At the green, shimmery light filtering through the trees. At the patterns made by the branches and foliage. At the colours. Blues. Greens. Browns.
‘I do simple exercises. For example, I focus on a tree and breathe very slowly.’
May sent her a sceptical look. ‘I’ll give it a go.’ She leant back against the tree trunk.
‘The Japanese call this shinrin-yoku. Forest bathing,’ Stella continued. ‘They argue that being in a forest reduces blood pressure and has all sorts of other benefits.’
‘I used to do a lot of business with the Japanese,’ murmured May.
It was very quiet under the leaf canopy. It was as if the forest had taken them into its embrace and wrapped them in peace.
‘How’s the breathing?’
May was focussed on a magisterial beech tree. The wild, angry, anguished expression had faded.
‘It’s a start,’ said Stella. ‘Only a start. But that’s the art isn’t it? Starting.’
May touched her arm. ‘Thank you.’
Unexpectedly, a lump came into Stella’s throat. ‘It was nothing.’
On the way back to Stella’s house for a cup of tea, they met Jonno Toms. At the sight of the two women together, his eyebrows almost shot into his hairline.
‘Meet May,’ said Stella. ‘We’ve been walking in the forest.’
‘The first of many walks, I hope,’ said May.
‘Right,’ said Jonno. ‘I’ll spread the word.’
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