The Empty Road

By Margaret Jennings

Madie dressed in slouchy trousers and an old tee shirt. No work today. No work for an unknown amount of her future and she was determined to stay healthy. A walk with the dog was in order.

She stepped into the empty road, giving a wide berth to the old man on the pavement. He was a thing to fear. She felt as if he were velcro and all the coronavirus spheres with all their sharp sticky out spiteful spikes, were stuck to him all over. If she went close to him she would die. There was not a single doubt in her head. She would die.

In ordinary life she might have smiled at him as she walked past. He looked innocuous enough, as if he was made of brown tweed, or the clay that makes soup bowls. He was limping slightly and stooped a little. She felt guilty about her harsh verdict but forgave herself quickly for she did not want to die. And he was a vessel of contagion. Evil things come heavily disguised. They do not say, ‘here I am. I am an evil thing. I will kill you’. No, they lie and lurk and connive.

She watched him closely as she lead the dog into the woods. He had seated himself on a bench and put his head in his hands. She dismissed the thought that the movement in his shoulders might mean he was crying. She argued with herself all through her half hour circuit of the ancient woodland. He was going to kill her. He was full of germs. He was an old man. She had left him crying on a bench. She had not even shouted hello. She rationalised her response to the man, if she had shouted hello he might have responded and germs would have been propelled in her direction. And tears – surely they must be a hotbed of contagion; they are part of the excretory system. Yes, but, said her heart but it was quickly overruled. Safety first, she did not want to die.

But then her thoughts turned to fires and winters and seasons. While surrounded by the loud bird song of these Covid days, she thought of Christmas day and New Years Eve and the hopes and expectations of a new year, the travelling, the learning, the sharing of time with loved ones. Covid had taken this all away from her. Randomly the smell of apple wood burning came to her. That was invisible just like the Covid virus but it was not harmful. The world was not full of danger it just felt as if it was. She kicked a piece of wood and marvelled at the squirm and profusion of the wood lice underneath. The dog snuffled at her feet and licked her hand.

Then Madie looked up to the canopy of the trees and the light filtering through. It had an uplifting, cathedral like effect; as if religion had preceded humanity by many eons. She listened to the slow, soft susurration of the leaves, and felt the cool touch of a gentle breeze on her cheek. Madie thought of an article she had read about the way trees communicate via chemical, hormonal and slow-pulsing electrical signals; the way trees are thought to make sounds that are inaudible to people; the way beech trees keep older beech trees alive by feeding them sugars through an invisible network. She looked at her feet, embedded in the loam of the forest floor, where a myriad of insects and moulds and fungi were busy following the cycle of life and felt herself to be part of that continuity.

She did not want to die. Life was all. Living was for now, while she was still alive. But she also needed to play her part in the mutuality of nature. The shadows of the leaves played on the woodland floor, she could hear the trill of a woodpecker’s beak against the bark of a tree and in a moment of clarity she knew she should have spoken to that man. She didn’t have to touch him. She just had to talk to him. Connect.

Madie and the dog walked out of the penumbra of the woods. The man was still sitting on the bench. He was no longer crying, in fact there was no movement to him at all. He was a bit slumped, very still. She wondered whether a person who had died would fall off a bench or whether some magical musculature could keep him upright. But she stood a safe distance from him and just talked. And soon he looked up and started talking too. The world had become a warmer place.


Inspiration: This story was inspired by walks with my dog where we could walk down the middle of a major road it was so empty. In the woods I would exchange socially distanced hellos with other dog walkers and started to worry about those people who had no-one to talk to or share their troubles with.


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