Come October my father would get the urge for musty woodland. On Sun-
days he would shake us gently from sleep while it was still dark. Before
even the birds had woken his blue Cortina chugged outside our tidy council
house and under a big windy sky we left the council estate on the drive
towards the wide forest that runs all the way from Patching to Burpham.

Today I speak of one such break of day trip. It is a memory that glistens like
a stone under fast sluice water. See, I can reach in and fetch it now, weigh-
ing it in my hand for a while before it dries and dulls. Then I place it back
in the running leet of years, where straightaway it takes its shine again.

Warren, my brother, sits in the back of the car. I am sixteen years old and
he is nine. It is only a month since my grandfather died and I think of him
as we pass Blessed Martyrs Church that he helped to build. Warren is still
wearing his pyjama top. His dark eyes watch in the gloom. We leave the
dual carriageway. The tail scuts of just woken rabbits dash away from our
headlights. We park on the deep grass verge where the trees thicken on
Blakehurst Lane. We have entered the marches where the delved and built
on land falters, and the woodland leads up to the Downs.

My father walks ahead. His 1970’s hair has grown long around his collar in
tawny curls. In his mouth is a red-lit fag. He strides through a gap between two
pillars of bramble. It is the thriving time of the day. We walk into a net of thrush
and blackbird chatter. All is busy and creaking in the thorns and hedges.

We have come for the pale, night-grown flesh of the horse mushrooms
that rise in lonely paddocks when no one is looking; fairy rings, set like
little gravestones among the wet nettles. Taste them raw at six o’clock on a
Sunday morning and your mouth fills with the earthy sighs of old trees. In
October, before the frosts and after the blossoms, there is nothing white in
the woods, so the mushrooms are easy to spot.

Further in there is a bank my father knows only, where the penny buns nub
through the leaves and the oaks have fallen and then grown sideways long
over the bank. He leads us and we trail like one of those scenes painted on
a Russian lacquered box, where three hunters, each one smaller than the
other are spied on by silver badgers and foxes, who twist unseen around
every root. In our case the green and gold woods indeed appear deserted.
My brother looks upwards. His nut brown face is turned up to the flitter
gossip of starlings in the branches. My father blows smoke and is silent. I
huddle in my coat.

Now as I look back thirty-five years I pour myself into my younger vessel
and see with his eyes, think with his thoughts. I am surprised by how cool
and placid and empty my young mind is on this chilly morning. Our family
are early risers and even in the pulse of my surly teenage I have accepted
the waking and summons to walk the autumn glades without rancour.

We move through ash stump coppices. Cut down and sprung again, they are
among the oldest trees. Some of them have shivered through eight hundred
winters. Here each of us takes up a stick to swish and poke and tap. This
is a rule of the forage. A new green stick for each visit, to be cast away
again when we return to the car. Hazel, beech and laurel, the woods soon
fold around us. Our feet shush the leaves which are a faded rumour of the
green summer.

The bank my father only knows is in a place where the forest floor is all
folded and buckled, as if trenches were dug here long ago. And there are
stones, the relics of walls, and deep cratered charcoal pits all clutched
and torn with roots. It is odd to stand on this bank. We lean forward as if we
are riding the tilting deck of a galleon. The rising light fingers sideways
across our faces and the wind blusters like a breaking wave. All is sway and
buck around us. There is a pheasant feather among the oak litter. It scoots
over when it is caught by the breeze and its tiger bars flicker in the shafts
of morning. We look up along the bank, prodding here and there in the
earth. There do not appear to be any mushrooms here today. When we have
mooched the soil we straighten. Our hair flutters in our eyes.

The wind drops suddenly to a hush on my cheek as it switches tack, to
blow in now from the direction of the dawn. We turn to the sudden sound
of branches snapping in the distance and a pause comes in the trees as all
the birds hold their voices. We stand low on the bank, my father, me and my
brother, like three pegs of diminishing size hammered into the soil.

Then we see him come weaving through the trees, on the blade of a new
easterly wind, as white and cool as a funeral lily. The pale stag of the morn-
ing is ghost white and clean, his head thrown back with the weight of his
wide antlers. His mouth is open and his breath comes in white clouds. Then
he is above us on the top of the bank, and his flank is cleanly white like a
new altar cloth in the moments before the mass. The dazzle of his white-
ness is almost gone before he has come, so I am still seeing the flash of him
approaching us as he kicks away from us. It seems as if he holds the rising
sun in the thicket of his branched tines. He is strong and dark eyed and
white, and fixed in my eyes as if he is painted in a medieval bestiary which
has been snapped by a 1970’s polaroid camera. We three watch silently as
he passes down through the oaks towards the west.


What would my phlegmatic grandfather, who had so recently gone his way,
have thought to have seen the white stag in the morning? He would know
him certainly for a messenger sent to the world. And despite his lack of
education would be able to tell us something of the sacred nature of the
pure white beast. Never to be slain. Never to be hunted. It could never be
captured. A holy breeze of an animal like a white sheet whicked away from
your body. As white as a wish on a Sunday. Did not St Patrick turn himself
into a white deer to pass unnoticed before the soldiers of the wicked king
O’Leary. And wasn’t the great Oisin named the ‘young fawn’ because his
mother had been transformed into a deer by the druid Fir Diorich. King
Arthur and his knights followed the white stag who beckoned them through
secret ways and left them horseless and confused one miserable sunrise.

So what would my grandfather have said of this downwind stag? A working
man, who had left school at seven years old, he would tell us such hints of
these things that he knew. But my grandfather was not there…

… And neither was I.

For many years I had carried a triptych in my mind of that encounter,
portable and ready to be placed on whatever sill, wherever I found myself
to be resting. This three panelled memory, opened with my brother and I
on one side, and my father on the other. On the centre panel the miraculous
white stag came slantwise down towards us, about his own business, with
scarcely a look in our direction. In far off Galicia and in Ireland, in ratty
London digs I had intoned the memory, as a precious personal relic.

However, in the weeks after my mother died, there were many nights when
we three consoled ourselves in drink and such reminiscences that might
make us smile. Mostly, for our father, we gleaned our shared past for tales
of humour or wonder that would perhaps give him pleasure for a passing
moment in the numb-sundered darkness of his loss.

One such evening, when our heads were bent together over a table of many
empty glasses, I laid before my brother and my father the flash of the white
stag coursing through the trees as we stood like rustic peasants on the bank
deep in the autumn woods. I was astonished at their laughter. I was never
there, they said. It was just the two of them. I protested. I argued, for the
opened triptych blazed with certainty in my eyes. Until at last my brother
slammed the panels shut with the sudden confounding proof that I had been
away in France that sharp morning of the white stag. And Warren had not
been wearing his pyjamas.

So how then am I to proceed with this? I can see the vision of the white
stag still. It is my memory and I cannot wiped it away. I turn my head from
this page and the tableaux is framed on the blank wall. There is my brother,
small and brown in his pyjama top and my father, younger than I am now,
with his dull golden curls, and all three of us are standing in a dumbfounded
row before the white Forest Lord. I know that it is impossible, this keepsake
of mine. Impossible that it should live in my head. Yet, this borrowed and
never-was-for-me vision is clear and alive and mine, and it will go with me
until my last day.


Now my father lies clawed in his bed and all his memories have been torn
into scraps that flitter up untethered and out of sequence to his grey eyes.
Yet the dementia has gentled him. He dwells contentedly in the continuous
present of his past. My sister has been in her grave for eleven years but she
still drops by to see him in the morning, he says. All the dead talk to him.
Now he is working on the building sites in London. He is a boy again. He
is a young father, making a doll’s house one Christmas eve fifty years ago.
His mother sits with him sometimes although no one can see the pale shade
of her, nor the comfort she gives. He is given to gnomic and wry utterances.
Clear sentences that trail away into fathoms where we cannot go.

Perhaps many of our original myths were learned from old people whose
castaway minds wandered the borders between two dimensions.

Occasionally when I stand over my father and look into his eyes I know
that he is not seeing me. At these times I often wonder if the white stag
is in there. Does he watch it come cresting through the trees on a bright
morning. Lying in his care home bed, does he still catch sight of the broad
antlers in the trees, framed perhaps between pictures of my brother and I at
school, as babies or as the men we are now in middle age.

One day soon I am sure the stag will come to him, as white as a banner
of truce between this and the other world. My father will rise from his
rumpled bed and follow the white stag that can never be caught. It will
lead him ever inwards and westwards, on and on, to the greenest heart of the forest.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.