The hand over her face smelt of broken leaves.
Her chin lifted, Min could only lower her eyes. She saw long legs in dark jeans pushing against her own; heavy black boots against her bare heels.
“Don’t do anything stupid.”
He held his face close to her head after he’d spoken.
She could smell his sweat.
He was breathing in her scent.
For a few seconds, she stayed stock still, feeling the blood circulate freely again after the shock.
Then toes pushing into the soil, she tried to stand, pulling as hard as she could against the hand holding her face.
“No..No...” he spoke quietly and firmly.
He beat down her hands.
Again, he crushed her. She gasped.
“I fucking told you,” he whispered, as softly as a lover.
“Now you’re going to do as I say.”
Her only movements were her efforts to breathe.
She could feel every nerve in her thigh as his hand connected with her skin; the roughness of his palm; the heat. Her muscles were tense.
He liked the feeling of tautness.
He moved his hand gently, much more delicately than she’d expected.
“That’s it,” the whisper was more guttural.
His hand had reached the top of her legs. There was no cotton, no lace, just softness.
“Oh Christ...” he moaned.
“You little tramp.”
Jerking herself forward, she grabbed his forearm, trying to pull it away with both hands.
He could hear her protesting beneath his palm. His fingers pushed hard against her inside thigh.
“Aaah..” A tiny gasp of pain.
He held her face between his cheek and the palm of his hand as he lifted his fingers from her mouth, one by one.
“Don’t hurt me. I’ll do anything you want.
“Please,” she gasped, taking lungfuls of air.
She tried to turn around, to look into his eyes for reassurance that the promise would be kept, but he grabbed her hair at its crown and stopped her movement.
“I won’t hurt you. I know who you are.” he whispered, “And you won’t tell.”
“Oh God, oh God!”
The cry rang out through the wood.
“Somebody help – oh my God!”
Her voice was rising hysterically.
“No, no, no!”
A magpie cackled.
Breaking their bonds of skin and hair, they got to their feet and without looking at each other, began to run towards the screams.
Neither had stopped to put their shoes on.
Ford moved ahead through the tussocks of grass, buckling the belt on his jeans as he ran.
Min followed as quickly as she could. The wood was swaying as she struggled to focus, following her lover through the bracken. Her immersion in their fantasy play had been so deep, she’d pursued him automatically, as if she was still under his control.
A hundred yards beyond the path a figure appeared. A woman, leaning against a tree, her head in her hands.
At her feet were two brown and white spaniels. The dogs jumped up at the woman’s legs, then ran off a short distance, heads down, sniffing the ground. The woman was sobbing. Min could see her shoulders shaking.
Ford reached her first. He caught the woman by the shoulders just as she started falling. He held her gently let her crumple to the ground. His face was grim as he looked above her towards the dogs.
“I’m right here,” gasped Min, hopping and limping as she untangled a bramble spur from the flounce of her skirt.
She stopped dead.
In front of her was a black plastic bag. Caught under a fallen branch, its edges were ragged where the dogs had scratched and clawed to release the contents.
A human head.
Min shut her eyes tightly and turned away before she opened them again. She could feel bile rise in her throat as her stomach turned over.
The woman was still sobbing loudly. The dogs were whimpering.
“Here, hold her,” said Ford. His face was stern as he spoke to Min above the woman.
“Give me your car keys – I’m going to phone the police.
Min coughed and took a deep, deep breath before answering.
“They’re back where we were – in my bag” said Min gesturing with her hand while she stepped forward to cradle the woman.
It was an automatic instinct, but Min the reporter wanted to leave the woman too; race off with Ford and squeeze into a ’phone box with him as he made the breathless call to the police. She wanted him to hold the ’phone so she could hear what they said; wait back at the woods for the squeal of their brakes. She could see her paper’s front page already.
But he took off through the trees and Min was left alone with the woman, her dogs and the head.
For the briefest moment, Min lifted her eyes to stare at it - the matted brown hair and the very top corner of a forehead but the face was twisted away from her gaze. Min blinked hard and tried to concentrate on the terrified woman in her arms. She took another deep breath and shivered.
“It’s okay, it’s okay.
“He’s gone to get the police and tell them what’s happened.”
The woman continued crying, her face still covered by her hands. She wouldn’t pull them down to look at Min in case she saw the pale face again; the half-closed eyes, the mouth gaping, the chin streaked with dried blood.
“Oh my God, oh my God.”
It was all she seemed to be able to say.
The dogs ran back and forward from the undergrowth, crying to each other, sniffing and nuzzling the head.
It tilted back and forward at their touch.
Min didn’t want the face to turn towards her.
The dogs’ leads were lying on the ground where the woman had dropped them. Min lifted them and whistled.
“It’s okay. The police will be here soon. It’s okay.”
Min sat back and ran her fingers through her hair. She used her forearm to cool her temples.
A second wave of panic rose in her chest.
Is the rest of the body in the wood?
She shivered again, despite the heat of the afternoon and hugged herself.
Much later, Min sat on the window seat of her first floor flat and looked out to sea.
Her hair was wet and tousled from the shower. She had wrapped herself in a heavy bathrobe but the trembling wouldn’t stop even though the air in the room was warm and still.
Carefully Min swung her legs up in front of her. Scratched and bruised, they were starting to sting. She could see little lumps where the nettles had attacked without mercy.
“Dock leaves,” her mother had pronounced all those years ago,
“Dock leaves will stop the stings.”
For a moment, Min was back on the family farm, wrapped in her mother’s arms, soothed already by the sway of her hips as she carried her weeping four-year-old to the dull and dusty brown leaves at the edge of the brutal nettle patch that had inflicted the damage.
“Is that teddy?”
Min closed her eyes to hear her mother’s calm, sweet voice again.
Min had nodded as she was set down on the hump of the track to the farmyard.
“Did Con put teddy there?”
Min had nodded again, knowing that her brother would be far away in a field – he’d have forgotten already the anguish he’d caused when he snatched her toy and threw it into the nettles in frustration at having to keep company with his little sister.
Min wrinkled her nose as she remembered the green smell of the broken and crushed leaves her mother rubbed over the stings on her hands and feet.
She shook her head.
“I forgot the dock leaves, mum.”
Then she shivered, opened her eyes, turned her hands palms up and peered at her fingers.
At least I got most of the splinters out.
The tiny slivers of wood had throbbed all afternoon, every time she touched something.
She caught a glimpse of herself in the darkness of the night window and raised an eyebrow at the face reflected.
Ford’s brown eyes were serious, his eyebrows pinched together. He’d been watching her silently.
Tightening the towel around his waist he sat beside her on the window seat, slipping his arm around her shoulder. He pulled her in close to his chest. Min could smell her soap and shampoo from his skin.
“Wonder how that woman is,” she whispered.
“Mmmm,” said Ford. “She’ll be okay. I’m more concerned about you.”
“Well don’t be!” was what she opened her mouth to say.
I can look after myself!
She took a deep breath and pulled herself away from the crook of his arm.
That kind of outburst would be unkind – especially after what we’ve both been through. Ford’s remark wasn’t a challenge to my competency or sex. It was simple humanity.
Ford’s voice was unsure. She’d looked so vulnerable.
“Oh, I’m fine. It was a bit of a shock, it’s not something you see every day…”
Her voice trailed off. She cleared her throat and forced herself to focus on the conversation.
“How are you?”
“I’m just turning and turning it over in my mind,” admitted Ford.
He pulled his arm away from her shoulder and turned to face her.
“For fuck’s sake, who would do something like that? Kill someone and then decapitate him?” His voice was rising as the questions continued.
“And then just leave the head in a wood? I know the police are still searching that place, but it doesn’t look like the rest of him is in there. So, where is he? Who was he? Did you get a lo…”
Ford saw the expression on Min’s face.
No of course she didn’t look.
“I know, I know,” said Min, hurrying on.
“The police weren’t giving much away at the station, were they? Even the constable who gave us a lift back to the car was saying nothing. Although…. although I did get the feeling that the detectives knew him….
She cleared her throat again.
“When you were talking to them….” Min looked down at her hands. “What did you say we were doing? I mean I don’t mind if you told them the truth but…
“Don’t worry, I just told them we were out for a walk.”
He kissed her on the forehead. Her skin was cool.
“Yeah, me too,” said Min, remembering the grey, dismal room where she’d been interviewed by the detective.
She had also skipped some of the narrative.
To have seen it written down in a clumsy hand with a cheap blue biro....
Two little spots of colour formed on her cheeks.
It was a game. A scene.
As a journalist, she knew how writing a news story for a paper or making a police statement stripped out all emotions, all senses.
There was so much more to our afternoon than anything I could have described in a statement.
She was glad Ford had kept the secret. He could have chosen to be brutally honest, in the way that some men were; in that back-slapping form of words used to hide any embarrassment, dismiss any feelings – but he hadn’t. She felt herself soften towards him, glad of his kindness.
Min stole a glance at Ford and suddenly wished he’d kept her in the crook of his arm – just as her mother had that afternoon after the nettles.
A moment of stillness, then Min shivered. It was dawning on her that sometime before she and Ford had wandered along the path, others had carried the head in the black bag and flung it into the bushes – hoping that it was never discovered.
She thought of the victim - his last desperate moments - and shivered again.
It was nine in the evening and beginning to get dark. Ford and Min had been sitting side by side, without touching, in their own silences when Min’s attention was drawn to the television flickering in the corner.
“The news!” She jumped up from the window seat and increased the volume.
The story lead the local bulletin.
The pictures showed grim-faced policemen walking through the sunny woods.
As he watched, Ford divided his gaze between the screen and Min’s face –her brow was wrinkled and her mouth set in a straight line as she concentrated.
So different from this afternoon. Except for her eyes. Those blue, blue eyes.
The hairs on the back of his neck were prickling.
The news item had just finished when the telephone rang. Ford looked at Min and put his finger to his lips. She nodded and picked up the receiver.
“Min? Min? It’s Pete! You okay? What happened? Who was this bugger you found in the woods?”
It was her editor. His husky voice unmistakable.
“Oh, I’m fine Pete,” she answered.
Ford’s eyes widened.
“I didn’t find the em… anything. The dog walker did.
“I don’t know who the guy was – but I think the police did. I really don’t think they’ll find anything else in the wood either.”
She was silent for a moment and looked Ford straight in the face.
“Pete...how did you know I was there?”
Pete’s voice softened a little. She could hear the little smile.
“Right, well, you take care tonight,” he turned brisk again, “Have a few glasses of wine and relax. I’ll see you first thing in the morning. We’ve got to get on to this – I mean do you think….no, no, we’ll leave it ’til the morning. Night.”
And he was gone.
“How did he know you were there?”
“He didn’t say – probably some cop.”
Min retied the dressing gown around her waist and made her way to the kitchen. Opening the fridge, she lifted out a bottle of white wine and grabbed two tumblers from the draining board.
All discussions can wait.
She nodded in the direction of her bedroom.