The young woman walked through the woods, unsure how she had come to be there. Her mind was fuzzy and she felt as if she had just awoken from a drugged sleep. An image of a large house with immaculate gardens flickered in her mind like an old film but when she tried to grasp the memory, it slipped away from her. She found it difficult to move quickly without tripping over exposed roots and tree stumps so she made her slow, stumbling way through the autumnal forest.
With relief, she suddenly remembered why she was there. She was visiting her friend, Jemima, for a weekend house party and someone had suggested playing hide and seek. This childish game had appealed to them and many clapped their hands with glee. Jemima’s brother, Robert, was down from London where he was something in the City had looked indulgently upon his sister and her friends, whilst reading The Times. Robert was blond and tanned with an athlete’s physique so caused quite a stir amongst the female guests, whose eyes shone more brightly and hair needed touching far more than was necessary whenever he was around. She had hung back, mesmerised by his good looks but feeling far too gauche to approach to him.
Several of the more forward girls declared Robert “it” so he gamely turned his back and started counting steadily to one hundred. She and the others had squealed with excitement and scattered like hens across the lawn. Most had kept close to the house, or disappeared inside to find neglected rooms in which to hide, but she remembered Jemima had mentioned a secret glade, where statues glowed in the half-light. She thought it the perfect hiding place so ran away from the house, leaving behind echoed giggles and an abandoned croquet game, and plunged into the trees’ silent depths.
She followed the path, her shoes kicking through crisp, brown leaves, heading towards the river where Jemima had said the glade could be found. A small path intersected the main ride so she turned onto it, thinking it looked exactly like it should lead to a secret glade. After several minutes she realised she was hopelessly lost and had no idea in which direction either the river or the house lay.
The shadows had started to lengthen when she heard someone calling her name, “Sylvia!” She froze like a startled doe for a moment then quickened her pace, moving away from the sound. She thought she recognised the man’s voice, although it sounded different somehow, and it scared her.
“Sylvia, where are you?” the man called, a trace of panic in his voice. He sounded closer so she tried to speed up but her legs wouldn’t move quickly enough. “Sylvia! There you are!” the man cried out with relief. She turned to see an old man walking towards her, arms extended. She screamed and lashed out at him as he approached, his hands covered his head to protect it from the volley of blows she had rained down on him.
“Calm down, Sylvia, it’s me!” he entreated as she continued to pummel him. “Go away!” she yelled, “Leave me alone! Mama told me never to speak to strangers!” He grabbed Sylvia’s wrists and drew her to him, enfolding her in an inescapable embrace. She continued to struggle and let out a piercing scream in the hope that Jemima or one of the other guests would hear and come to her rescue.
Robert held Sylvia until her hysteria had subsided. The unseasonable warmth of the day had fled and the air had turned chilly so Robert removed his jacket and rested it across his wife’s shoulders. Her pale cream shoes were streaked with green smears and threads on the hem of her skirt had been pulled by brambles. This touched him deeply so he cupped Sylvia’s face in his hands and kissed her gently on the lips. They were cold and dry and she neither responded nor drew away from him. Her face was etched with lines caused by all the emotions she had ever experienced but was now as expressionless as a mask. This was the first time she had failed to recognise him and sadness overwhelmed him like a tidal wave. When had his beautiful, vibrant wife turned into a confused, scared, old woman? Sylvia had become quiet and biddable so he put an arm around her waist and, gently guiding her, they made their cautious, shuffling way home.