The Black Devon

Corinne's short story reflects the experience of a missed miscarriage.

Everyone in history had a child. She watched her breath warming the gathering chill. Soon, surely, there would be space for something else. Once she was healthy again. There would be time for thinking about other things.

They’d be watching and waiting for her back home. Zoe would be twisting her hair, trying to work out what time she’d left. Her mother would have The Archers on without listening to it. Rachel could picture her father too, chopping peppers into even slices, marinating the beef. Leaving the room to refill his glass with Speckled Hen. And Tom. He’d be reassuring them that she was just taking a walk, that it was fine to leave her alone. And he’d have hidden all the baby clothes at the back of the airing cupboard, lifted the cot into the attic.

Rachel wandered, strands of hair clinging to her neck. When she reached the stone bridge, she paused to stare into the Black Devon. After a while she moved over to the far side and hesitated. Both paths were sunk in mud. But at least she’d had the presence of mind to wear her walking boots. She set out towards Clackmannan Tower. Clack, clog, stone. The path lurched up the hill towards the barbed wire fence. At first she skidded around the edges, her fingernails scraping out tufts of wool from the pockets of her sweater. Soon she needed her hands to stop herself slithering down the hill, red bark rasping her palms. Then she saw the tower piercing the ridge ahead.

Rachel looked back. The Scots pines were steaming like cattle in the open fields. The ground oozed mud. She stood flicking the bark and dirt from her fingers. There was a flutter of pigeons. She turned back to face the tower. The rain had picked up. It was pelting onto her scalp, sliding down her cheeks, dripping from her nose. She put her hands back into the woollen pockets, but they were damp. She took them out again and stared at her fingers. They were raw, a flush of pink. She breathed across the skin, stretched out her knuckles.

She strode uphill towards the tower. But there was a cold, dead weight inside her. The mud lapped at her boots as she jabbed them into the belly of the hill. The entire slope was liquefying. Marooning her. As she climbed, the view peeped beyond the horizon.

At the tower Rachel clung to the sandstone blocks while the snow-crested hills heaved and fell about her. She craned her neck. Clouds were spilling over the turrets. Her hands dropped to her sides, but she had to keep moving. She started walking. Slowly, at first, then the grass gathered pace under her boots. Soon she was running along the bony spine of the ridge, laughing and laughing until it tugged at the wires of her throat. Then she was chasing herself round and round the tower, her feet skating over the mud.

Coming to an unsteady halt, she blinked at her spattered clothes and flopped onto her back. The tower was spinning out of control, the gargoyles leaning and leering, the giant blocks about to tumble. She rolled onto her stomach. She tasted grit in her mouth, but didn’t spit it out, laid her head against the shuddering ground. The landscape was smeared, the rain-flattened grass seeping into the curve of the hill, the green blades plastered against the horizon the way hair clings to the head of a newborn baby. And while she buried her face in the black soil, the down-turned mouth of a rainbow appeared above the wood.

She picked herself up and stumbled over to the engraved plaque beneath the gargoyles. ‘Clackmannan Tower,’ she read, ‘was built in the fourteenth-century by the son of Robert the Bruce.’ His son. Everyone in history had a child. She watched her breath warming the gathering chill. Soon, surely, there would be space for something else. Once she was healthy again. There would be time for thinking about other things.

Thomas tiptoed up the stairs. Zoe was already waiting on the landing. She had the knack of anticipating him.

“We should call the police soon,” she said, giving her hair another twist.

“They won’t come out till someone’s been missing twenty-four hours,” he said, concentrating on his hushed tone. “We have to look for her again ourselves. We’ll say we’re going to Tescos.” Zoe nodded, and reached for her coat.

Rachel wouldn’t get lost on the way back. She rarely lost her way. But Zoe would have started worrying the second they’d arrived back at the empty house. Rachel knew she was bound to look a sight too; pallid, dirty, hunted. She could clean up in the river, or, better still, sneak past them all into the bathroom and shout cheerfully through the locked door while she showered. She turned towards the fading bars of colour arching above the trees. The woods were darkening like a bruise.

The barbed wire caught her thigh as she swung over the fence. She didn’t stop to examine it. She started slithering down the path. Then spotted a light flashing through the trees. There were two people on the far side of the wood. She wiped her hand across her face and hair, hoping she’d avoid them, hoping they wouldn’t make her stop and talk. She clambered over a damp log and squelched through rotting leaves to get a better look. They were talking, gesticulating, but she couldn’t make out any words. She needed to find the path that curved around the wood rather than cutting right through it. Just so she didn’t have to meet them. But her legs were shaking and the cut from the barbed wire was stinging. The hospital had told her to rest. She leant against a tree for a moment. Droplets of rain came rolling down the back of her neck. She pulled the heavy wool sweater around her, and groped her way through the tangled branches. She retraced her steps to the river.

The Black Devon trickles right through the wood. Someone told her once that it got its name from the coal dust that seeped from the minefields. Black pus weeping from so many scars. All that digging could take you to Wales and back. Or get you drowned at the bedrock where they say all the Scottish lochs meet. Miles and miles down, deeper than Rachel had the power to imagine. She lingered on the bank, the river holding her gaze. She wanted to slide down the bank. She wanted to drown in it. Then there was a quick crash and snap of twigs, some muffled thuds against fallen branches. She whipped round. Four red deer flashed through the wood. She stared after them till they faded to specks in the blackness.

There was a snatch of conversation at the edge of the wood. They were walking along the lower path. Their route could join hers at any moment. She couldn’t hide in these woods any longer. Rachel hoped that it wasn’t them, out with a torch in this downpour. Ahead, pebbles were glistening in the dark. Half way across the bridge she heard the soft hoot of an owl. She paused to hear the answering call before she left the wood. She pulled her wet hair back into a ponytail and headed for home, back to the hidden cot and the unworn baby clothes.

So this was what it was like to walk in the dark. She’d feared and dreaded it for so long. Nearly everyone dreads it. Once night falls, every tree stump becomes a crouching figure. But now she’d left the wood the estuary came into view. She could see right across the rain-puckered surface to the oil refinery at Grangemouth. Its lights were flickering like fireflies in the dark. And, just ahead, torchlight came bumping over the stones towards her.

Corinne