Keir watched Phoebe retreating from him long after she had passed out of sight, her long blond plait thrown behind her and catching on her tripod, long legs striding across the rough ground. Like she couldn’t get away from him fast enough.
He supposed he had always expected her to say no. The timing was wrong for a start, given she had only just managed to get rid of Simon and give him his ring back a week ago. Okay so Simon had been making her unhappy for months, but Keir would have waited if he could instead of being rejected on the rebound. And she had only actually known Keir for half a year. More time than it had taken for Simon to have got the ring on her finger it was true, but not long enough for Keir to have courted her properly. Told her about his own hopes and dreams. Taken her out to dinner, showed her he could be a gentleman, instead of just a grubby New Forest Keeper who worked all hours of the day and night and thought sitting in silence to watch badger cubs playing together was a romantic evening out.
Yet even allowing for that, he still felt he had failed. Failed to tell her how he really felt, because he had told her every possible reason why she should move in with him, or even marry him if she wanted to, except the most important one. That he loved her.
He had loved her since the first time he saw her, twelve, no thirteen years ago now, his first summer working in the Forest. An innocent teenager with her life in front of her, on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition like so many others, complaining that her mother wouldn’t let her study ecology or biology because they were not considered suitable for a young woman of her upbringing. She had been taking photographs then too, falling and breaking her wrist whilst chasing a butterfly and he had had to rescue her. That was why they had met. She had learned to have a little more awareness of the environment she was in since then, and he was sure loved the Forest the way he did.
But now, with all that had happened, she had become too scared of men. All men, even his gentle father who lived next door to her and whom she was now avoiding. And much as Keir wanted to proclaim his love for her from the rooftops, he hadn’t dared. Coward.
He probably wasn’t going to get a second chance, and now he had lost her. She would return to her parents home in Surrey, where her mother’s rule was law, and that would be the end of a promising start to a nature photography career. The end to her freedom, her choice. Surely his offer had to be better than that?
Suddenly he realised there was something else. Phoebe had been standing and moving differently, and it was only by replaying her motion in his mind that he had the sudden realisation that she was pregnant.
He felt the blood draining from his face as the full horror of the situation hit. His legs turned to jelly and he crumpled into a heap on the grass, right where he had been standing. No! he wanted to shout to the universe in general. That just wasn’t fair! What had Phoebe done to deserve that?
He wanted to deny it was possible, that he must be mistaken. But the seed, once planted in his mind, grew limbs. Her unexpectedly going along with her parents wishes and agreeing to sell her house made sense under those circumstances; how could she support herself and a baby without help? Was that the reason she was avoiding his father? Spending less time riding her horse? The only trouble was that it was extremely unlikely Phoebe could stand up for herself, do what she wanted and live her own life if she moved back home. Keir was convinced it would be like it was before for her. Her mother would quickly discover she was pregnant, the wedding to Simon would be back on with pressure from all sides, and it would be an utter disaster.
And meanwhile his heart was breaking.
Realising he was struggling to breathe, he shifted his position to be more comfortable. Then watched some ponies grazing a little away from him. Phoebe had been photographing the insects bothering them when he had seen her; he hoped she had got the pictures she wanted before she saw him and stopped working.
He still felt uptight and tense inside, so after a few minutes got up and started walking, pacing off his agitation. He had various things he needed to survey in the area following up reports received: rubbish tipping, grass clippings dumped on the forest, fly-posting, the usual minor summer offenses, so his walk became more directional, and his attention focused on something outside of himself. For a while at least.
It was only delaying him dealing with the problem. As he headed back home, he started to listen to the voices trying to speak to him. His mother’s gentle Irish lilt, nothing happens that isn’t meant to happen, so deal with it. He could remember her saying that to him when something really bad happened as a child, like a friend letting him down, or finding an animal trapped and hurt, both of which had changed his outlook. One good, one bad, he mused as he walked, as he had lost his trust in people but spent his life with animals in one way or another.
There was a pause, before she continued: you can’t know what is right for anyone except yourself. And you might even be wrong about that.
He stopped walking and took a deep breath to take the thought in. He had heard her say that before as well, but never really understood it until now. But he realised there was a truth there. Who was he to say if Phoebe’s pregnancy was right or wrong? Maybe she and Simon were meant to be together just long enough for her to get pregnant, and then the child would have a different father. After all, Keir had always considered Simon dangerous precisely because he was so intelligent; different nurturing might have turned him into someone maybe not likeable but at least human. But to pass on his manipulative attitudes to another generation? Keir could see a benefit in a change of parent. Did that mean himself? Whoa that was a scary thought!
He screwed his eyes up tight. That really wasn’t what he wanted.
Wasn’t how he wanted his life to go.
To play a part in bringing up Simon’s child? No way!
But … what if that was what was meant to happen?
Could he do that?
He let out the breath he had been holding, opened his eyes again and resumed his walk. Slowly at first, while searching deep inside himself to see if he could take on Simon’s child. He was an only child; he didn’t know why his mother never had any more after him, and for all he knew he might not be capable of having children himself.
Silly question, he would do anything for Phoebe, no matter what. And if a child was born, well it would be at least half Phoebe’s. For his mother’s sake he would love it as his own.
He let the thought sink in, see how it felt in different parts of his body, and accept it as being one possible future. He walked on, moving from open heath into woodland. The light changed from harsh sunlight reflecting off the flint path with heather and gorse and the occasional tree, to dappled green shade. It felt welcoming, cooling.
So what should he do next? Confront Phoebe with the truth and ask her to move in with him again? Probably get the same result with even less good feeling between them. Do nothing and accept it isn’t meant to be? Having now considered the idea of being a father, he was surprised to realise his heart already refused to let it go. So all he could really do was to keep supporting Phoebe in any way he could. She was the one who would need to be strong, to avoid sinking back into the depression that had plagued her so much in the past, to stand up for what she wanted in life. To go through with the pregnancy, if that was what she wanted. He could and would be there for her, but she had to do the rest.
The not knowing was going to be hard though.
Realising from the trees around him he was somehow nearly home, he stopped and sat by an old oak tree. He let the ground support him as he tried to loose the fear and worry, and the remaining pain of heartache. He wanted it to be his child, made with love, not Simon’s made in circumstances he didn’t wish to consider, but he had to let that thought go. Let the earth take it. It didn’t serve him any more.
Then he filled himself with renewed trust and hope that this would work out for the best. To accept whatever happened. To move in tune with the Earth, the sky, the trees, and fill himself with their love and support. To glow so brightly that he could pass that love on.
Trees, he asked, who offers to help Phoebe?
The answer was almost instantaneous. Blackthorn.
Of course. It should have been obvious.
Ironic when last autumn he had the idea he should make some sloe syrup instead of just sloe gin, and dismissed it. Well that would teach him! He couldn’t give Phoebe sloe gin if she was pregnant, so he needed to come up with another way. The thought that she might heal herself but not return to him crossed his mind, but he had to ignore it. He wanted what was best for Phoebe, and if that didn’t include him, then … actually he was no longer worried by the thought. What was meant to happen would happen, and happen easier if he didn’t interfere.
As he started walking again, leaving the woodland and finding a more open, grassy area to look for a suitable tree, he let his mind be occupied by the practical problem of getting some form of blackthorn to Phoebe, given that the flowers were long gone and the fruits would still be green.
Carving her an amulet to wear was the first solution that came into his mind, but then he realised she might take it off in the situations where it was most needed, like with her mother. Similarly something in her pocket might not be to hand. No, it needed to be an elixir of some kind that would work from within. He thought back to the various ways his mother worked with plants, if she had a method he might be able to adapt for trees in leaf?
Coming to a small copse he could see several blackthorn bushes, then to one side a single blackthorn tree. Always easier to communicate with a single tree rather than a whole group. He slowed himself down, asked permission to enter its space, then sat under the canopy.
It seemed to welcome him, enjoying his attention. He asked if it would assist him and, getting a positive response, asked if it had any improvements to make to what he wanted to do.
It was a few days before he had everything he needed to make the elixir he had agreed with the tree. He had hoped to collect his own bottle of spring water, but being the height of summer, any springs he was familiar with were either too dry or reduced to muddy puddles. So admitting defeat, he had reluctantly bought a bottle of spring water. At least it was local, and packaged in a glass bottle not plastic. He also had a clean jar for making the elixir in, and some clear weather was forecast. Packing them carefully in his rucksack, he made his way back to the blackthorn tree, to arrive before sunrise.
He enjoyed the walk, deer grazing undisturbed, an owl out hunting. The trees becoming silhouettes against the brightening sky. The moon was almost full and lighting his way; would be full tonight. Perfect.
Reaching the tree, he sat in silence with it for a few minutes, feeling his way into harmony with it again. Then as a light patch appeared on the horizon found his knife and asked the tree for a suitable growing tip. He cut at the moment the sun peeped over the horizon.
Placing the shoot in the jar, he filled it with the spring water, sealed it up, and held it up to the sun, asking for its blessings and to aid him in making the elixir as potent as possible. He then proceeded to carry it home keeping the sun’s light on it, before placing it on a stone in the back yard. There it could sit for twenty four hours, and possibly a bit longer until moonset, fully exposed to the light of the sun and the full moon in turn. Balanced energies.
Finally he brought it into the house, removed the blackthorn, stirred the water into a series of vortices with a silver spoon, sunwise to energise it and widdershins to seal the energy within, and then decanted as much as possible into a large dropper bottle. The remainder he put into another bottle in case more was needed later. Then he wrote out a label:
For strength and perseverance in times of adversity.
Take a few drops in a glass of water, or on your tongue if glass not available.
Suggest three or four times a day to start with, or as needed.
More available if this runs out.
(It only has water in it, so don’t try to keep it more than a few months.)
Before starting work, he set off on another walk, to Phoebe’s house, the bottle safely packaged up and in his rucksack again.
Although it was still early, her car was gone, meaning she was up too. With her camera most likely. He left the package on her step where she would be sure to see it on her return. It was up to Blackthorn now; he had done all he could until something changed.
Trust and wait; but he knew she would be okay now.