Why had he brought her to this place? She lay on the bed reading, listening to the insistent beat of rain on the roof of the flimsy holiday cottage. The damp seemed to cling to the bed sheets, to seep into her limbs. Outside the greeny glow of daylight filtered down through the trees. She shivered, imagining the forest just beyond the clapboard walls, a bear prowling through the bushes, sniffing at the cottage door.
It had started on the ferry – that should have been a warning. After five days in Vancouver, they’d driven along the coast to the small ferry port. Sitting on the boat, she’d noticed a solitary figure, a weather-beaten old hippy, thin as a rope. He had something in his hands, and was tipping it from one palm to the other. Whatever it was seemed to be alive. Then it crawled onto his arm and she saw a huge spider: there was something horribly intentional about the way it moved. Soon the spider was on his neck and she could see that it was covered in thick, black fur. By now, everyone around her was watching. The man grinned as he bent forward; the spider gripped his hair and pulled itself up on to the top of his head. A group of children had gathered around him, and she felt the urge to shout at them to move away. Then the man had the spider on the back of one of his hands and was inviting the children to touch it. She couldn’t bear it anymore and had to flee up on to the deck.
She could hear Matt in the small kitchen. He’d have already been for his run, along the highway down to the small fishing town. She got up and went into the living room. Outside, she could see their clean white hire car. It seemed out of place, an oddity, as if it had been dropped from space onto the small clearing, the gravel between its wheels thick with weeds.
‘How are you feeling now?’ Matt was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, holding a glass of orange juice. His grey t-shirt was dark with sweat and rain.
‘Better. I was just tired. I didn’t sleep much. Probably still the jet lag. How was your run?’
‘Great.’ Matt turned back into the kitchen. ‘What do you want to do today?’ She heard him rinse out his glass under the tap as he spoke. ‘I thought we might go out to Meares Island later. It’s supposed to clear up. I want to get some shots.’
She looked out at the rain again. It seemed to have got worse. Puddles were jumping in the gravel outside. The sky was bruise-blue. But she knew he wouldn’t be able to stay indoors all day. Not after they’d paid all that money, come all this way. Not after the outdoors magazine had given Matt a whiff of hope that they might use his photos.
‘We need to do some washing. Can we go to the laundrette first?’ she asked, stalling for time.
It was after three by the time they sorted out a canoe. Now they were on the water, paddling away from the safety of roads, houses, the warm cafe where they’d had lunch a few days earlier. Lucy looked back to see the old potato-headed man who had hired them the canoe turn and walk back up the dock to his prefab office. The water was flat, a grey sheen disturbed only by the ripples their paddles made, but at least it had stopped raining. The canoe felt tiny on the water. She was afraid to move in case it tipped over. Matt had given her a paddle and showed her how to use it, but it felt like a clumsy plank in her hand. Lucy wondered if he’d come here with Janice too. He’d told her once that the two of them had kayaked with killer whales when they were on Vancouver Island before. She imagined Janice in her waterproofs crouching over a stove, ever capable, cooking up some culinary wonder in the middle of nowhere. This would have been nothing for Janice, a picnic. Up ahead, the bulk of Meares Island loomed, although where the island finished and the other side of the bay began she couldn’t tell. The forest seemed endless, covering every hillside. On the drive over the mountains when they’d first arrived, Matt had pointed to the bare areas of clearcut, lamenting the destruction brought about by the timber companies. But to Lucy those little patches of lighter ground had seemed tiny compared to the dark mass of forest that covered everything else. ‘People have to live,’ was all she could think to say when Matt had finished reeling off a list of statistics about old growth forest loss, biodiversity and how most of the wood ended up in paper.
As they approached the island, there seemed to be nowhere to land a boat. The trees came right down to the water. Matt steered the canoe along the shore until they rounded a point and she saw a small beach with a rickety wooden jetty. A few yellow canoes were pulled up on the beach. Reaching the shore, their boat grated on the stones, its metal hull vibrating beneath her. Matt hopped into the shallow water and held the front while she stepped out. Lucy noticed how quiet it was: she could hear small seeping noises coming from the stones at the waterline, otherwise there was nothing else, not even a breath of wind. There were no birds singing, like there would be in an English wood. She turned towards the trees. Matt was already clambering up the bank. At the top he stopped and held out a hand.
‘We’d better get a move on if we’re going to see everything.’
The path through the trees was slippery and damp, making her trainers skid. A yellow warning sign next to the path shouted Caution. Bears in Area in big black letters: underneath was the silhouette of a bear, just in case you somehow didn’t understand the chill of the words. They’d first seen a sign the day they arrived, on a footpath along the coast near the beach. Lucy had wanted to turn back, but Matt had insisted there was nothing to worry about. ‘It’s Canada,’ he’d told her. ‘They’re health and safety mad. Anyway, there are no grizzly bears in the island. They’re the ones you’ve got to worry about.’ She knew he wouldn’t listen to her now, even if she told him how scared she was. For him a bear was a reason for going into the forest, not for avoiding it.
The muddy path had become a boardwalk. On either side the ground seemed unstable, covered in ferns. Dead trees were lying everywhere, smaller bushes rooting in the dead wood, sucking up the nutrients, feeding off them. Huge branches loomed overhead, festooned with lichen and moss. Some trees were dying, sticking up like mad cathedral spires, three or four prongs protruding from the top.
Rounding a corner, they came upon a broad trunk, the wood red and hairy. Matt took off his rucksack and pulled out his camera. ‘Stand by the tree,’ he said, ‘I want to get a picture.’ He’d bought the camera especially for their trip, with the payout from his voluntary severance. As he focused the camera, Matt was telling her something about the island and how the aboriginal people and the environmentalists had made a stand here back in the eighties and it had turned the tide against logging. All she could think was, the sooner they got back to the jetty, the better. At least there she would have a good view on three sides. Here, she had no idea what might be around the next corner. But Matt would want to keep stopping for photos.
Soon they came to a series of steps which plunged down a steep hill. Matt paused to look back at her.
‘It’s okay, it’s just a bit slippery,’ he said, holding out his hand.
When they were about halfway down, three people appeared at the bottom and waited for them. Lucy was acutely aware of how gingerly she was moving. The others were all kitted out in walking boots and waterproofs. As she and Matt reached the bottom, Matt nodded to the group.
‘It’s a bit late to be going along to the trailhead,’ a large man with a beard and thick glasses barked.
She could see Matt bristling.
When the others were out of earshot, she grasped Matt’s hand. ‘Perhaps we should turn back. It is getting late.’
‘No, it’ll be fine. The Big Tree is something you’ve got to see.’
About ten minutes later they reached a small beach. Across the sound were more mountains, all covered in the endless trees. She wished she could see some signs of human settlement, but there were none. While Matt stood taking pictures, she kicked impatiently at a rock, until it shifted. A crab scuttled from underneath and sidled away across the mud, making her jump.
The trees became thicker as the path wound through ever bigger trunks. Eventually, the path seemed to peter out in a glade.
‘Here it is,’ said Matt. ‘I knew I could find it again.’
Lucy looked up. Matt had been right. The tree was enormous. A vast trunk reared up, then fractured into muscly branches, some leafless and dead, others still alive. It had no real shape, just growth gone mad. Matt scrambled up the fraying orange bark, across bare patches where so many feet had been before. He seemed like a boy, excited to be climbing a tree.
‘Be careful Matt.’ She was annoyed with herself the moment she uttered the words. She couldn’t imagine Janice ever saying anything like that. She would have probably followed Matt up the tree. For a moment Lucy had a flash of what had first attracted her to him, the way he thought anything was possible, all he had to do was want it bad enough, the way he seemed completely at home in his body. When they’d first got together, Matt had talked about his life beginning again, about Lucy being everything Janice never was. Matt had been so full of plans and Lucy had got caught up in them too. She knew he still had a wardrobe full of Janice’s clothes in his flat, yet she’d managed to convince herself it was part of the normal mourning process, that Matt was letting go. But when she gave up her flat and moved in, the wardrobe was still there, the photo albums neatly arranged on the bookshelf. There was even a semi-nude shot of Janice on the sitting room wall. But what could she say? How could a dead woman be a threat?
It was semi-dark under the trees, the cedars stopping much light from penetrating their foliage. All around the tree, the ground was thick with dead needles, but nothing else grew.
Matt was balancing on a wide branch about twenty feet up. ‘Get a picture. I think there’s still enough light.’
Lucy put her hand into the rucksack and pulled out Matt’s camera. ‘How do I switch it on?’
Matt looked down at her. ‘Just hold down the red button on top. It’s on auto anyway.’
She focused on Matt’s face, his look of triumph. The camera flashed, lighting the whole scene in a weird white glare.
Then Matt was falling, spinning in the air, smashing through branches as he came down. With a thump, he landed in front of her, his leg twisted at what seemed like an impossible angle. For a moment she thought he was dead. Then he groaned. She knelt down beside him, the blood beating in her temples.
‘Matt. Can you hear me?’
‘Fuck, fuck,’ he was muttering, over and over.
Panic coursed through her. ‘Matt, wake up, come on.’ She looked around her. There was no one in sight, no one for miles probably. ‘Help,’ she shouted. ‘Help!’ But the words were quickly swallowed up in the dense trees. She imagined the dark setting in, nowhere to shelter, nothing else human on the whole island.
She dug into the rucksack, spilling energy bars, her coat, waterproof trousers in her hurry. ‘Where is it? I can’t find it.’ She turned the rucksack upside down and emptied the contents. There, on the ground, was her phone. She picked it up and looked for the row of bars at the top of the screen. There was nothing, just a flat line. Standing up, she waved the phone in the air, as if she could catch a signal as you would a butterfly. ‘Someone will come looking for us when we don’t take the canoe back won’t they?’ she said to Matt, but he just whimpered, lost in his pain.
‘For God’s sake Matt, why did you bring me here?’ She found Matt’s phone in the top pocket of the rucksack, but it had no signal either. She felt like crying. Bloody Janice would have known what to do. She looked up at the dense canopy above, the sky still light up there somewhere. Lucy tried to remember her First Aid from Guides. Matt’s breathing was fast, but he didn’t seem to be bleeding anywhere. She remembered something about the recovery position, but when she tried to turn him onto his side, he cried out in pain. Picking up Matt’s fleece, she wrapped it around his shoulders, then pushed a coat under his head as a pillow. The other coat and sweater she piled on top of him.
Her shoes slipped and slithered as she hurried along the path. The failing light made it difficult to see exactly where the boardwalk was wet. Twice, she nearly slid off into the bog below. After a while she came to the steps, empty now. It was hard to make out the top in the gloom. She started climbing, using her hands to steady herself on the steps above, pushing her body to keep moving fast.
At the top, she paused for a moment to get her breath back and check her phone. Nothing. The woods were almost dark now as she stumbled along the boardwalk. Every so often she stopped. She was sure there was something moving in the trees, just beyond the limit of her vision, but there was no sound. The back of her neck felt as if it had been brushed with ice. When she began walking again, she was sure it began moving too. How quietly could a bear move? She had no idea. They seemed so big and lumbering in the pictures she’d seen, but that didn’t mean a thing. For a moment the image of a bear shaking Matt’s lifeless body came into her mind, but she pushed it away.
The trees arched overhead, plunging their roots deep into the soil. They’d been here far longer than she’d been alive, they had nothing to do with her. Why had people ever come to this place? People were stupid about nature. People thought that because they loved nature, it would love them back. Or that they could placate it. But they were stupid and wrong. Its beauty was a mask, a façade. All those silly ideas Matt had about ecological balance and harmony: those were human ideas, they just bounced off nature like hail off a windscreen. It was implacable.
The boardwalk gave out and she was slipping along the muddy path. She could hardly see her feet anymore. The trees were starting to thin out, and she caught sight of low sunlight flashing on water. At last, she stumbled down the steep path onto the beach. She pulled out her phone. The screen lit up at her touch. Still nothing.
The beach was empty except for their canoe. Getting hold of the front, she pushed. At first, the canoe wouldn’t move; then, with a grating sound, it began to slide across the wet, slippery stones until it suddenly shot forwards. She waded into the ice cold water and climbed in. Vaguely, she remembered coming around the headland she could see. She picked up a paddle and dipped it into the water. The canoe swung to the left, so she moved the paddle to the other side, but the canoe only swung the other way. Matt had said something about how to steer the canoe, but she couldn’t remember what it was now. Unsteadily, she moved to the back of the boat and sat on the seat Matt had occupied. She tried again with the paddle. This time the canoe moved forward, veering to the right. She switched the paddle to the other side, pushing the canoe forward again, but veering to the left. But at least she was moving. Beyond the headland, the water shone with the last rays of the setting sun. Apart from the splash of her paddle and the boat moving through the water, there were no sounds. Gradually, the distinction between the island and the water was fading, and it was hard to see where the water ended and the shore began.
In open water, the canoe began to bob up and down as small waves came out of the darkness, lifting the canoe for a second, then running on into the blackness behind her. She could feel a breeze on her face as she paddled, her palms sore. For a moment she caught a glimpse of a blue light. It seemed to float in the water, then disappear. But, no, there it was again. She steered the canoe towards it. Slowly it brightened, then it was joined by another, red light. As she pushed on, the blue and red lights seemed to get further apart, and other lights joined them. She paddled harder, digging into the water, the cold piercing her thin fleece. Beyond the lights, the sky seemed brighter. Somewhere in the distance, a white light swept across the dark and was gone. Her hands were numb now, just a gritty sensation on the paddle.
After what could have been half an hour – she had little sense of time – she made out the harbour entrance. The lights of the town hovered above the dock and she could hear the swish of car tyres. She stopped paddling to get her breath and drifted on the black water. Meares Island had disappeared, as if it had ceased to exist. There was nothing but darkness and silence, a silence that seemed to reach right to the edge of the town, that was only held back by the small sounds of human activity, the occasional car, the slamming of a screen door. She thought about the cottage, its lights off, her half-finished book, the plane ticket waiting in her suitcase. Her phone vibrated in her pocket, a text coming through now she was in range. She took the phone out and looked at the bars climbing the top corner of the screen. For a moment she hesitated, fingering the spare car key Matt had insisted she wear on a string around her neck. How easy it would be to leave now, to get into the car and just drive away; to not have to face what she knew was coming – the break-up, the pleading, the recriminations – the whole bloody mess. Then, dialling 911, she put the phone to her ear, heard the long, drawn out ring tone.
‘Tofino RCMP,’ came the deep Canadian voice.
Hugh Dunkerley grew up in Edinburgh and Bath and now lives in Brighton with his wife and young son. His first full length poetry collection, Hare (Cinnamon Press), came out in 2010. A new collection entitled Kin is due out in 2018. His lecture ‘Some Thoughts on Poetry and Fracking’, was winner of the 2016 Hay Festival Inspire Lecture on Literature and Sustainability. He currently runs the MA in Creative Writing at The University of Chichester.