During the winter months, the lane took upon a whole new atmosphere; one that wouldn’t have been out of place in a spooky movie. Popular with dog-walkers and local residents who wanted to talk a leisurely walk through woodland, once the light faded and the darkness began creeping through the trees that lined the pathway, it became something quite different.
Johnny wrapped his arms around himself, pulling his thick coat in tighter to his body and feeling incredibly grateful for the warm-lined leather gloves he had put on before he had left his studio flat that morning. His layers of clothing and sturdy lace-up boots kept him pretty warm; so warm in fact he could feel moisture gathering under his arms and he knew he would definitely need that shower when he got home. Walking amongst the trees and bushes, he could see his breath leaving his mouth in cloudy patterns, tracing frozen italics in the cold morning air.
It was December and the sun refused to appear much before seven-thirty. The snow was yet to put in an appearance as the winter had been pretty mild so far but Johnny knew the weather was due a change. The mornings were particularly cold now and ice was a regular occurrence on the pavements and car windows. Lying in his single bed every morning, Johnny had gotten used to the sound of car engines running longer than usual and the scraping noise of many people desperately trying to rid their windscreens of thick ice.
Today he would miss that noise that was so synonymous with the harsh winter months. The lane was somewhere that Johnny loved to go and he had decided that today he would get up extra early and head out to breathe in the freezing, but beautifully fresh morning air. Walking through the woodland, he felt the carpet of frozen vegetation crunching under his boots. He felt every twig snap and every leaf crumble. He focused on the sounds of the woods, which were much quieter at this time of the year with many of the birds having already taken flight to warmer climes and the animals hiding in hibernation mode, but still Johnny could hear noises echoing through the trees of the creatures who liked to brave the cold and that were already up and ready to start their day; just like Johnny.
As a child he had loved this place. The lane, its entrance almost hidden from the main road, meandered through the woodland that bordered the housing estate where Johnny used to live and it ended maybe a mile away at a very sturdy gate that marked the entrance to a field belonging to the local farmer. It’s true to say that the lane was a child’s dream; or at least it had been when Johnny had been young. Local children had flocked here but then again that was a time when children used to play outside and video games were nothing but the work of a futuristic fantasy mind. Forget Zelda. Forget Harry Potter. Adventures were yours to create. You were your own hero, battling an army of monsters and great hoards of demons that lived in your own imagination and out here in the woodlands, with their playground of trees and cubby holes in which to hide, you could fight great battles with your friends.
Well, at least that’s what Johnny would have done if he had had any friends. Robert, the one friend he had in middle school, soon got tired of being a target because of his friendship with Johnny and by high school, he too had drifted away; avoiding his gaze whenever their paths crossed in the school corridors or lunch hall.
Screw him, Johnny had thought at the time, screw ALL of them!
And so, he had kept himself to himself, playing out his adventures down at the lane with only the woodland creatures to keep him company. He tried not to let it bother him. None of them knew the woods like him anyway. None of them knew all the great places to hide. None of them knew the best trees to climb. Sometimes, in his favourite high spot in his favourite tree, Johnny had watched some of them as they played hide and seek amongst the trees. He was always tempted to shout out and alert the seeker to someone’s hiding place but he didn’t want to attract their attention; couldn’t bear the thought of their strange looks and even more, couldn’t bear the idea of sitting there in his favourite place, watching them all as they ran away, leaving him again to the empty companionship of the birds and other woodland critters.
You need to make more of an effort!, his father had urged him, Join the scouts or a sports team! You will make friends in no time.
His very brief foray into the school football team has been a disaster, of course and the scars created were still visible to this very day but at least Johnny could prove to his father that he had tried; he had done what his father had asked; he had tried to make him happy. Not that his father had seen it that way. Johnny had never forgotten the way his dad had looked at him that evening, having been escorted home by Mr Williams, the P.E teacher. He had sat perched on the edge of the sofa and his father and Mr Williams had stood by the doorway, as if they didn’t want to get too near him and every now and then they shot him odd looks as if his very presence made them feel uncomfortable. Eventually Mr Williams had gone and his father had left him sitting in the living room, until the evening light had faded into nothing and there Johnny remained, staring out the window watching the faulty street light flickering in the darkness.
There were no lights in the lane; just the dim glow of the oncoming dawn desperately trying to break through the trees. It never seemed to put off the dog walkers though. Johnny thought that many local residents, having grown up and still living here, still clung onto the notion of the lane as a good place; one filled with children’s laughter, dogs barking and foraging through the undergrowth; birds singing and the distant sound of the farmer’s tractor as it trundled through the field. It was a place they played in when they were children. It was a place where they let their children play, albeit these days under their supervision.
Can’t be too careful these days, thought Johnny.
Just as the thought popped into his head, a Golden Retriever appeared from around the bend in the lane, excitedly bounding through the bushes and looking behind to make sure it’s owner was following. She appeared not far behind, swinging the lead back and forth. An older lady, maybe in her late sixties, walking briskly up the lane in Johnny’s direction; she was dressed to combat the chilly morning air with a pink angora beret pulled down over her ears, matching scarf wrapped tightly around her neck and green wellington boots protecting her feet. The dog padded towards her, tail wagging and she bent down to pick up a saliva-slick ball that the dog had dropped at her feet. Throwing the ball ahead of them, she smiled a she watched the dog chase manically after the ball, barking in joy as it ran.
Watching them pass, from his position in his favourite spot in his favourite tree, Johnny couldn’t help but smile also.
No. Definitely can’t be too careful, he thought climbing down and un-sheathing the knife that he had been hiding in his coat pocket.
Johnny loved the lane.