I’m beginning to wonder if we should’ve brought more kit. But I don’t know what’s worse – going back for more, or taking too much and being burdened down on the return. One thing’s for certain, though: if the patient can’t walk, we’re going to need specialist help to fetch him off this hill.
‘Not far now,’ says the man who found him, his dog leaping on ahead of us.
‘You said that a minute ago.’
Five hundred yards was what he said when he waved us over in the little car park. Five hundred yards. And he pointed straight up.
But this? This feels more like a mile.
His little Collie-cross runs back to see what’s keeping us. He’s so bright and enthusiastic, I wouldn’t be surprised if he put a paw to his mouth and whistled.
‘On you go, boy,’ says the man. ‘Micky’s pretty sharp. That poor fellow would’ve been there all night if he hadn’t sniffed him out.’
The man is wearing a donkey-jacket with fluorescent orange flashing across the shoulders. Even though he’s in his late fifties, he’s as lean and fit as his dog.
‘Sorry it’s a bit of a hike,’ he says, striding on. ‘It’s got to be the most remote part of the wood. He certainly picked his spot.’
It’s heavy going. The path has suffered after weeks of rain. The crude steps up from the car park were bad enough, but now even though the gradient isn’t quite so vertical, these thick, exposed roots make it feel like we’re climbing some crazy organic staircase. Sudden muddy hollows clutch at our boots, and a tangle of over-hanging brambles grab at our clothes and kit.
We’re both puffing and blowing when the man suddenly stops and holds his hand up.
‘Hello!’ he shouts, then listens, his breath misting as he turns his head this way and that to catch a reply.
The wood absorbs everything with an earthy kind of hush which the failing light only seems to thicken.
‘I hope it’s not a hoax,’ the man says, turning to us and sniffing. ‘But I’d be surprised if it was. He certainly looked like he was in pain.’
I have a thought and turn to Rae.
‘Did we lock the ambulance?’
She nods, and takes advantage of the respite to put her bag down and properly catch her breath.
‘So – did he say what he was doing up the tree?’
The man shrugs.
‘Messing about, I expect. There’s a lot of that goes on. Especially at night.’
‘How far do you reckon he fell?’
‘I don’t know. Fifteen feet? His leg looks pretty mashed.’
We pick up our bags and start forward again. The path gets tougher, rougher. We pass the ruins of foetid dens, desperate little hideouts, a collapsed walkway made of scavenged timber, wire and tarpaulin. A scrap of blue and white plastic hanging from a branch – Police line / Do not cross.
‘I’m afraid this is where we leave the path,’ says the man, pushing branches aside and following Micky further into the gloom.
‘Come on. Two hundred yards or so, tops.’
It’s the first time I’ve actually been up here. I’ve no idea what the history of the place is. I’ve been aware of it all these years, a great sprawling sine wave of wild land rising darkly overhead as I race past on the road that skirts the bottom. But if it featured at all on my internal map it was as one of those mysterious, unexplored areas. Here there be Dragons, burnt-out mopeds. It might have been a mature wood extensively cleared years ago. Or perhaps it was open pasture left to grow wild. Either way, I’m sure in a hundred years or so the wood will finally reassert itself and find its equilibrium again. Even now we pass the occasional oak and beech. But mostly it’s a chaotic sprawl of scrub and gorse, ragged clumps of hawthorn and blackthorn, elderberry and rowan, spindly thickets of sycamore saplings. And sneaking over everything, up the ribbed stands of elder and the hulks of dead branches mouldering amongst the detritus, a rich green carpet of moss.
We all listen. Micky puts a paw to his ear.
A long, low wail, some distance ahead.
‘Thank God,’ says the man. ‘Well – you know what I mean.’
Jeremy is lying where he fell. His femur is almost certainly smashed, and he’s been there some time. I want to ask him what he was doing, but it’s hardly necessary. Above him, a white nylon washing line has been thrown over a branch, a noose drunkenly fashioned at one end.
‘What’s wrong with my leg?’ he wails. ‘Christ! It hurts so much. Can you help me, please? I need something for the pain. I’m going to die.’
‘Do you need me anymore?’ says the man. ‘Only I was supposed to be back an hour ago.’
‘He’s a big lad,’ says Rae, standing up and freeing the radio from her belt. ‘We’re going to need the Fire Brigade. I’ll get them running, then go back to the truck and rendezvous with them there. Will you be okay here, Spence? You’ve got my number.’
‘We’d better get a move on. The light’s going fast.’
‘See you later.’
I turn to help Jeremy. I give him pain relief, wrap him in a thermal blanket, take some obs. The light around us slides down a notch, and the trees huddle up.
‘Who are you?’ says Jeremy, a little more settled now, peering up at me as I check him over again. ‘Why don’t you get me some help?’
‘There’s a rescue team on its way, Jeremy, but this is a very difficult place to get to and it might take them a while.’
‘Half an hour, I should think.’
‘Half an hour!’
‘I’m just being straight with you. But you’ve chosen a pretty remote place.’
It’s almost too dark to write. I use my little torch for a bit, but it seems the batteries are wearing out, so I switch it off again to conserve what little power I have left.
I wonder how Rae will find her way back.
‘So what were you doing up the tree, Jeremy?’
‘This tree. Here. The one you fell out of.’
He closes his eyes and rests his head back.
After a while he says: ‘I wanted to get a better view.’
‘Jeremy? Listen, mate – I know it’s a difficult question but I have to ask. Did you tie that rope up there? Were you trying to hang yourself?’
‘Hang myself? Why?’
‘I just need to know.’
‘Why would I hang myself? My life is – beautiful.’
He narrows his eyes.
Who are you? he says.
I ring Rae for an update. She tells me the fire brigade are about ten minutes away now. She’ll call me when they’re all heading up the hill.
‘How on earth will you find us?’
‘I left a trail.’
‘What do you mean? Biscuit crumbs?’
‘Nah – the birds would’ve eaten them. Every so often I made an arrow out of sticks.’
The light has almost completely gone now, leaving just a residue of shapes and sounds, a soupy kind of blue-black where things lose their substance and you can almost see the weave of the air. Jeremy moans softly. His silver thermal blanket rustles as I tuck it more firmly around him – and then, the unmistakable snapping of a twig a little way off on the very margins of what I can make out.
I stand up and strain to see who’s there.
There’s a long pause, and then a low voice answers: ‘Hello yourself.’
I keep silent and try to see who it is creeping around like this, but the light’s so bad I’d probably do better closing my eyes and sniffing the air. I wait, but the figure doesn’t say anything else. There are a couple more twig snaps, lighter and more distant, until we’re alone again and the visitor has gone.
I crouch back down next to Jeremy.
‘Why aren’t you doing anything?’ he whispers. ‘Why aren’t you getting me help?’
‘I am, Jeremy. There’s a rescue team on their way. Shouldn’t be long.’
Suddenly he reaches out and claws at my leg.
‘Give me your phone!’
‘No. Why? Who do you want to call?’
‘The doctor. I want the doctor to come and fix my leg.’
I guide his hand back into the blanket and tuck him up again.
‘Hang in there, Jeremy. Not long now. You’re doing well.’
I hear a faint whistle. Standing up again I can just make out the infinitesimal twinkling of flashlights away in the distance.
‘Over here!’I point my own torch in that direction and switch its feeble yellow light on and off. The flashlights cast around for a moment, then convene in this direction. They grow larger, sounds of heavy footsteps stumbling through. And after a few minutes our little tableau is fully fixed in the light – me, standing with a hand to shield my eyes; Jeremy, huddled in his thermal blanket next to me on the ground, and above us, trailing down from the black canopy of the tree, a white nylon washing line with a noose at the end.