I’ve wondered sometimes how different things might have been if only I’d taken another decision that day. Once made, though, it couldn’t be unmade and there’s really no use wondering what might have been. It offers no comfort; just tantalising glimpses of an alternative future that will never come to pass.
It had all started out so innocently. I’d set out early that morning for my usual run. Dawn was just breaking and the ice-grey sky was tinged with the first flickers of a gaudy red that hinted at the storm to come. The wind chilled me to the bone as I hit the gravel track that meandered towards the wooded copse a mile or two ahead of me. My breath was short and sharp; my running jagged.
I entered the relative calm of the trees and my breathing eased slightly. I fell into a slow but steady rhythm, feeling the crunch of dry, brittle, leaves underfoot. That aside, there was silence. Neither a whisper of bird song nor any other sign of life. I was utterly alone. Yet my skin began to prickle and I felt an uncomfortable sensation that something – or someone – was tracking me. No one knew my route or was waiting for me at home. I hadn’t made many friends in the neighbourhood so would hardly be missed – at least not for some days. I glanced behind me but saw nothing. I picked up my pace and felt my chest tighten as I fought to take in more air. My muscles felt strained and slow to respond.
Then I heard the crack of wood breaking underfoot. Panic gripped me. I lunged off the track into the undergrowth, though the bare branches gave me precious little cover. Several times, my feet became entangled in roots and I found myself face down in the winter mulch. I pushed myself up and onwards. My face and hands were reddened by the cold and the whiplash of branches as I pressed blindly onwards. I’d lost my woollen hat somewhere along the way but I didn’t care, just as long as I could make it back to the safety of my home. I promised myself a hot shower, a strong coffee and time with my favourite book. Everything would be ok.
Fear told me otherwise. As I burst into a small clearing, I saw them. Two figures dressed in olive green oilskins, each holding some sort of long-barrelled gun. They were about twenty yards away, staring directly at me. I heard one of them whistle and then the sound of someone behind me. I felt cold metal jab me in the back and push me forward. I tried to speak but the words wouldn’t come. The three encircled me. Unshaven, rough hands, clothes caked in dirt, they gave the impression of living rough in the woods. They didn’t speak but seemed, nonetheless, to know what each was thinking. I found myself gagged and bound, staked upright to a rough wooden post. Kindling was piled around my feet and I realised that they planned to set it alight. Whether it was some sort of perverse sacrificial ritual that they intended to perform, I did not know. All I knew was that I had to break free. I struggled, twisting to and fro. I grunted incoherently, panic obvious in my voice and in my eyes. My legs trembled. Despite the cold, I was drenched in sweat. Yet I couldn’t loosen my bonds and the effort was taking its toll. My eyes filled with tears, my breath came in spasms and I felt dizziness overwhelm me.
I came to and found myself slumped on the floor of my sitting room, entangled in the large blanket I had wrapped myself in, and with my feet dangerously close to the wood-burning fire that crackled in the hearth. My heart was pounding in my ears and pins and needles cramped my arms and legs. I had fallen asleep in my chair and slipped onto the floor, presumably knocking myself unconscious for a moment or two. The relief was palpable. I would learn my lessons: don’t sit too close to a warm fire in future and don’t get carried away by dreams.
The next morning, I set off for my usual run. Dawn was just breaking and the icegrey sky was tinged with the first flickers of a gaudy red that hinted at the storm to come. The wind chilled me to the bone as I hit the gravel track that meandered towards the wooded copse a mile or two ahead of me. My breath was short and sharp; my running jagged. I entered the relative calm of the trees and my breathing eased slightly. Then I heard the crack of wood breaking underfoot…