Lily stumbles into the woods, eyes blurred by tears, brambles catching at her bare legs. Her friends are calling after her to come back, insisting that she’s mis-heard. Bloody liars. She speeds away, dodging through the trees, crushing bluebells as she runs and as their voices fade, she slows her pace and comes to a stop in a clearing. Sinking to her knees, she covers her face and groans. It all makes sense now. Matt’s late nights, his lame excuses and his sudden, delicious bursts of attention. She bangs her fists on the ground and the pain feels good. She’s been blind and stupid. So stupid, stupid, stupid. Her friends’ pitying looks confirmed that. She curls closer to the ground, raking over the last few weeks with Matt before her thoughts race on to what she’s going to say to him. Unthinkable now to spend the weekend here and unclenching her fists, she gets to her feet and takes a few purposeful steps back the way she came.
What the …? She stops dead. Where are the bluebells? She could have sworn she just ran through drifts of them. Or maybe the bluebells only grow at the edge of the woods? She nods to herself. That’ll be it. Obviously, she wasn’t paying attention when she was running. Retracing her steps, she looks out for any hint of blue but even when she reaches the edge of the woods, there’s still not a single bluebell to be seen. She pauses, considering the clusters of papery seed heads at the side of the path; grasps a handful and scrunches them to bits. Then she shrugs. A few missing bluebells are the least of her worries at the moment and squaring her shoulders, she steps out into the sunshine to face her friends.
The sudden brightness is dazzling and shading her eyes, she scans the field. Where the hell are they? She runs to the spot where they’d set up camp and as she shouts their names, a crow flies up, cawing angrily. She gropes in her bra for her phone. Damn. She can’t believe it. She must have put the bloody thing down on the picnic table. Her stomach lurches. But where’s the picnic table? And where’s the car, come to that?
She runs back into the woods and picking up a stick, bangs a tree, over and over again. The sound ricochets around the woods like gunshots and as the echoes fade into silence, she stands listening, her heart thudding in her ears. They’ve clearly gone and left her here, in the middle of nowhere – and taken her bloody phone on top of everything else. Now she’ll have to walk miles to find someone with a phone. She gives a vicious kick to a stone on the path, and it skitters away into the bushes. Bastards. She’ll have something to say when she sees them - if she ever speaks to them again.
She just can’t understand why they would leave so suddenly. Her thoughts whirl as she sets off through the trees and back to the farm track where they drove in that morning. Even if there’s been an emergency, she can’t understand it. Why take everything with them and not leave a message? She pauses under the shade of a tree to catch her breath and leaning back against the trunk, a few black feathers float down around her. She looks up. Tied to a branch above her head, a bunch of dead crows swings gently in the breeze. She leaps away and curses. What the hell is that all about?
She hurries on, a cloud of midges whining around her head and sweat snaking down her back. Bloody countryside. And no one’s going to be about in this heat. Even the sheep have enough sense to move into the shade - although she doesn’t remember the sheep – wasn’t it wheat in the fields? She gives a little shake of her head. Obviously can’t have been. At the top of the hill, she scans the landscape. The track where they drove in stretches across the fields. She knows there’s nothing that way for miles and the only other option is an animal track along the edge of a field. Then she spots a wooden fingerpost at a drunken angle, indicating a footpath. With any luck, it might lead to a house.
In half a mile, the footpath turns into a gravelled road with laurel hedges on each side and Lily glimpses people in a garden gathered round a table. Good. One of them will let her use their phone and then she’ll find out what’s happened to her friends. From the garden gate, she can see the table is covered with white linen and loaded with tiered silver cake-stands. A woman in a smart black uniform is carrying a tray back to the porticoed house. Lily groans. Just her luck to be crashing a wedding-party and wishing she were wearing more than skimpy shorts, she takes a deep breath and opens the gate.
As she walks across the lawn, snatches of conversation drift towards her. 'Do try the custard tarts … Cook has such a light hand with pastry.’ By the time she reaches the table, all conversation has stopped. A woman in a cream hat is staring at her open-mouthed, a loaded scone dripping jam onto her lacy dress. The man next to her - a vicar, for god’s sake - is holding his teacup, poised to take a sip. All of the guests are staring at her, so transfixed, she runs a hand down the buttons of her shirt to reassure herself.
‘So sorry to disturb you,’ she says, putting on her most winning smile, but I was wondering if I could use one of your phones?’
For a moment, no one speaks or moves. Then cups clink down, men stand up and the woman in the cream hat tilts back her head and surveys Lily.
‘Good afternoon, Miss. Lost your way, have you?’
‘No,’ says Lily, ‘but I have lost my friends.’
Murmurs circle round the table and she hears a quiet, ‘how careless,’ from a man in a blazer, tapping ash from his cigarette. A woman in a glorious yellow dress frowns and nudges him before turning to Lily with a sympathetic smile.
‘What a frightful nuisance. What on earth happened?’
Lily shrugs. ‘I’m not sure. We’re camping at the bottom of the hill and when I came back from a walk in the woods, my friends had gone.’
‘Ah, you’re a camper,’ says the woman in the cream hat as she dabs with a napkin at the jam stains on her lace. ‘Harriet, get our visitor some lemonade, will you dear?’
‘Yes, mother.’ The woman in the yellow dress picks up a cut-glass jug, pours Lily a glass and brings it over. ‘You must be feeling like a limp rag, trekking up here in this heat.’
‘Too right.’ Lily knocks back the lemonade in one gulp. ‘Mmm. That’s delicious. I love homemade.’
Harriet smiles and pours her some more before turning to the man in the blazer. ‘Charles, bring a chair for Miss …?’
‘Lily Travers.’ She expects the usual flash of recognition but gets only polite smiles. No one here seems to have heard of her.
Charles drops his cigarette on the lawn and twists it out. ‘Allow me,’ he says, positioning a chair so Lily is facing the guests like a candidate at an interview. With overdone politeness, he holds the chair steady until she’s seated, his gaze lingering on her bare legs. She feels his breath on her neck as he murmurs, ‘What a curious story you tell, Lily Travers.’
‘Perhaps you wandered for longer than you thought, my dear?’ suggests the vicar. ‘Sometimes, on a lovely summer’s day, time runs away with one.’
‘I’m with you on that,’ says Lily, wishing Charles would move further away, ‘but on this occasion, I was away for fifteen minutes at most. It’s only twelve-ish now, isn’t it?
‘No.’ The vicar checks his pocket watch. ‘It’s quarter-past three.’
‘Three?’ Lily checks her watch, the numbers flashing twelve-fifteen. The vicar’s watch is obviously wrong, poor love, as she certainly wasn’t wandering in the woods for three hours.
‘We have our answer,’ says the vicar with a happy smile. ‘You were gone for longer than you thought, my dear. I realised at once.’
‘No,’ says Lily, ‘That wasn’t …’
‘Thank you, vicar,’ says the woman in the cream hat. ‘Mystery solved. Now, Miss Travers, you mentioned wanting to telephone?’
‘Harriet, show this lady the way and don’t be long, there’s a good girl.’ She waves her hand in dismissal and turns back to her guests. ‘Now Vicar, do tell me what you thought about my suggestions for the church bazaar. The home produce stall did very well last year and the White Elephant is popular.’
Harriet gestures towards the house. ‘This way, Miss Travers.’
‘Lily, please. And look, if you have your mobile on you, I could phone from here.’ Although as Lily glances down at the sheer lines of Harriet’s dress, it doesn’t seem likely.
‘The telephone is this way.’
‘Okay then. I just didn’t want to take you away from the party for any longer than necessary. Is it a special occasion?’
‘Lord no. Just one of my mother’s many tea parties.’ Harriet lowers her voice. ‘They’re a hideous bore, so I should be thanking you for providing a means of escape.’
Lily laughs. ‘I see. At first, I thought it must be a wedding with all the wonderful hats and I absolutely love your dress. It looks as though it was made for you.’
‘Of course, it was made for me,’ says Harriet, smoothing the single silk pleat at her hip. ‘You think you can get a dress like this off the peg?’
‘No, of course not,’ says Lily, smiling. ‘Silly me.’ She should have guessed. People in a house like this with voices like royalty, are bound to have ridiculously expensive clothes. Criminal waste of money, although as she follows Harriet across the lawn, she can’t take her eyes off the dress as it flows and shimmers in the sunlight.
As they enter the dark hall, Lily glances up and takes a step back. ‘Oh my god.’ The stuffed heads of a dozen tigers are snarling down at her and a family of elephant heads, tusks gleaming, appear suspended in a dark corner of the hall.
‘What is it?’ Harriet follows Lily’s gaze. ‘Oh, those. I’m awfully sorry. I should have warned you. They’re a terrific shock to visitors.’
‘You’re telling me,’ says Lily. ‘I’ve never seen stuffed animals look so … fresh.’
‘Well, of course, they are. My father shot them last year before we left India.’
‘Last year?’ Lily scrutinises. ‘But killing tigers is banned.’
‘Banned?’ Harriet gives her an odd look. ‘Since when?’
‘I don’t know exactly. Years ago.’
‘If there is such a ban, nobody in India pays any attention. In any case, nothing would have stopped my father. He liked shooting things, the bigger, the better. Now, the telephone’s over there, Miss Travers.’ Harriet points to a large black phone gleaming on the hall table.
‘Wow, I love retro.’ Lily goes over and slides her fingers down the smooth Bakelite. ‘Does it actually work?’
‘Yes, of course, it works. What a strange question.’
Lily picks up the receiver. ‘Goodness. Heavy, isn’t it? And in such good condition.’ She lifts the receiver to her ear and hears a dial tone. ‘I’ve only ever done this in antique shops. Amazingly slow, isn’t it? How did people have the patience?’ The dial circles back after each number. All she gets is a dead tone. ‘Are you sure it works?’
‘It was working when I used it this morning.’
‘Couldn’t I just use your mobile?’
Harriet gives her a blank look. ‘My mobile what?’
‘You know. Those phones you carry around with you?’
Harriet frowns at Lily’s sarcasm.
‘Seriously?’ says Lily. ‘You don’t have one? What about the other guests?’
‘They all live more than a mile away,’ says Harriet.
‘Yes … but don’t they have their phones with them?’
‘What a peculiar thing to say. Of course not.’
Lily opens her mouth to argue then thinks better of it. She doesn’t want to trek to another house if she can help it. She dials again. Again she gets a dead tone.
‘No luck?’ asks Harriet. ‘Could you have the wrong number?’
‘Absolutely not. I know the number off by heart. Do you have the number for Uber or a local taxi company?’
‘I’m not sure what you mean by an oober, or whatever you said. Anyway, we don’t have them around here. Nor taxis. Only a bus on Tuesdays that goes from the crossroads.’
‘No taxis? You’re joking.’
‘Afraid not. It’s a frightful nuisance. The blacksmith used to oblige, but he’s retired and moved to his daughter’s in Eastbourne. My car’s in town or I’d offer to drive you.’
‘The blacksmith?’ Lily smiles. ‘Oh, I get it. You’re all here making a film. That’s it, isn’t it?’
‘A film?’ Harriet bursts out laughing. 'Oh, would that we were. That would be rather jolly - although my mother would probably have a fit if it were even suggested.’
‘Your mother?’ asks Lily. ‘Oh come on. She’s got to be an actor. As soon as I saw her, I couldn’t believe she was for real with that posh accent and looking down her nose at me as though I’d walked out of a swamp.’
Harriet is staring at her, a look of disbelief on her face. ‘What an extraordinary thing to say.’
‘Not extraordinary at all,’ says Lily picking up a newspaper from the hall table. The Daily Mail, not in its tabloid form, but a crisp, thin broadsheet dated June 1936 with the headlines ‘German Jews Pouring into this Country, Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’ She holds it out to Harriet. ‘If you’re not making a film, why do you have this old newspaper here? And with such an awful anti-Semitic headline. It’s got to be one of the props.’
‘Props?’ Harriet shakes her head. ‘I told you. This isn’t a film set and that isn’t an old newspaper. Look at the date.’
‘Yes, I can see the date, for god’s sake. Just stop acting for a minute, will you?’
A door on the other side of the hall swings open and the young woman in the waitress uniform comes out carrying a tray piled high with scones. ‘Sorry to disturb you, Madam,’ she says, with an anxious look.
‘That’s all right, Gladys. Carry on through.’
‘Alright then,’ says Lily. ‘If you’re not making a film, it must be a re-enactment for reality TV. Is the backroom support through here?’ She pushes open the door from where Gladys had emerged, expecting to see rails of clothes and a film crew with people checking logistics on their iPads. Instead, she’s in a large kitchen where a woman in an apron, hands dusty with flour, is taking a tray of scones out of the oven.
When the woman sees Lily, she jumps and a scone rolls off the tray. ‘Good afternoon, Miss,’ she says. ‘Can I help?’
‘It’s all right, Mrs Bates,’ says Harriet. ‘This lady has lost her way.’ Harriet takes Lily by the arm. ‘Miss Travers. I think you’d better come with me.’
Lily lets Harriet steer her back through the hall and into a large living room with French windows onto the garden. Right. Now she’s going to hear what this is all about.
Harriet gestures to a chesterfield and Lily sits.
‘Miss Travers. Losing your friends must have been quite a shock and then you’ve been rushing around on such a hot afternoon. And after all the strange things you’ve been saying, I think you must be unwell.’
‘No. I just want to know what’s going on.’
Harriet sighs. ‘Nothing is going on apart from my mother’s dull tea party.’
‘Then why are you behaving so strangely? Pretending it’s nineteen thirty-something and that you’ve never seen a mobile phone?’
‘I beg to differ on who’s behaving strangely, Miss Travers.’
‘And that’s another thing. Why are you being so formal? Calling me Miss Travers …’
‘Lily, then. Now listen.’ Harriet leans forward and Lily catches a whiff of jasmine and cigarettes. ‘For reasons, I don’t understand, you say the telephone isn’t working and ask if our guests have their telephones with them. You proceed to tell me we’re all on a film set - a clearly preposterous idea - and then barge into the kitchen, making Mrs Bates jump out of her skin. If that’s not strange behaviour, what is? I strongly suspect you have a touch of sunstroke and I want you to sit here quietly while I get you a drink of water.’
‘You’re right,’ says Lily, getting up. ‘It was rude of me to barge into the kitchen. After all, it’s none of my business if you want to pretend it’s the 1930s. You carry on while I get back to the twenty-first century.’
‘The twenty-first century? What on earth do you mean?’ Harriet follows Lily out to the hall and puts a hand on her arm. ‘Miss Travers … Lily … please. Do come and sit down. You should stay indoors until you feel better. Going back out into the hot sun will only make things worse.’
‘Everything all right?’ Charles is leaning against the doorway, hands in blazer pockets. ‘Your mother’s asked if you could re-join the party, Harriet.’ His eyes narrow as he notices Harriet’s hand on Lily’s arm. ‘And it looks like this lady wants to leave.’
‘Dead right, I do,’ says Lily, pulling her arm away from Harriet’s grasp. She pushes past Charles and strides across the lawn past the curious eyes of the guests.
I love this concept. I myself have this exact fear of getting lost in the woods. However, the thought of turning up in a different time period is strangely appealing. Well done and good luck with this project!!!
Maria C. Palmer :)
Would love to read more.