Oh. Just oh. Ohhhhhhhhhhh. Ummm, hello me. This seems ridiculous, talking to myself in a bloody diary of all things - how utterly...I don't know...teenage, for god's sake. But I swear on my life that this is the weirdest time I've ever had and also the most exciting and I daren't forget any of it because, seriously, this could be a film someday, with god I don't know, some little indie actress playing me, kind of cool but not stupid and blonde or anything, and they would need a SERIOUSLY gorgeous actor to play Finn, I can't think of anyone that would do him justice to be honest, and...whooooah. Right, I need to slow down. For one thing I can't write fast enough to keep up with my head. Maybe I should learn shorthand or summat.
Anyway. Start again, Lily. So. Second meeting with Finn And The Caravan Of Doom... Actually, it's not very doom-like at all, once you get used to the dust and the piles of crap and the fact that it doesn't have electricity. Actually, it doesn't seem to have plumbing either, I wonder how he goes to the bathroom? No, maybe I don't want to be thinking about that, give the bloke some dignity and stuff. Might have to have a nosey round, tho...
Urk, I'm getting carried away again. From the beginning. Went back up to the woods yesterday. Took the stupid mutt, mum must wonder how come I'm so fond of him all of a sudden. He certainly isn't complaining, this is the most attention he's had in years. I timed it so that I was up there around mid-morning - late enough for there to be people around, but not so late that it would be busy with families walking off their lunches. What is it with woods on a Sunday afternoon, is it kind of the law or something, to drag your entire family round whichever one is nearest to where you live? It's not like half of them take any notice of their surroundings - it's usually a couple of kids bickering whilst mum and dad walk together in a show of togetherness, only you can see that they never actually touch each other and one of them is usually looking a bit tight around the mouth and glaring when they think the other one's not looking.
I really ought to study body language or summat, I reckon I'd be good at it.
Ahem. God, I go off on a tangent sometimes, I bore myself with the sound of my inner monologues. So, the lovely Finn. I took Pooch off out and told mum I'd sort my own lunch out when I got in - god knows whether the whole time-space-continuum thing would happen again, so I figured I'd better give myself plenty of time.
It was bloody cold yesterday, so it was a nightmare figuring out what to wear - I mean, I'm walking in the woods, I can't suddenly put on a cutesy dress or anything, it would look weird. And I didn't want Finn to know I was even remotely thinking about making an effort. People, I have pride, you know?! So I figured that casual-yet-funky was the way to go - show off my individuality and quirkiness, all that crap. To cut a dull story short (well only this bit's dull, hang on, oh inner voice, it gets better!), I went for the 'tiiiiiiny skirt, thick tights and huge jumper' routine - great big clompy shoes are the bonus item. I'm growing out my hair and it's all over the place, so I shoved a knitted hat on and wrapped the most attractive (I have to say attractive cos mum made it, but it's more accidental buttonholes than anything else) matching scarf around my neck, covering the rest of the mane. Make up? Does one wear make up to walk the dog? I decided on mascara - anything else and the entire family would realise that something was up.
Off we trotted, Pooch and I, and by the time we got close to the turn in the path that would bring us round to the caravan, I felt sick. Not sure whether it was nerves or excitement, but retching is never a good look. I could feel myself slowing down as I got nearer to the bend, but Pooch was rattling on ahead - looking forward to a tickle and a snooze, no doubt.
So I took a deep breath and strode around the curve in the path. And saw - guess what? Go on, guess? You'll never get it, so I'll tell you. Nothing.
Yup, just trees. And shrubby things and probably dog crap and squirrels, but mainly trees. No caravan anywhere to be seen. And I couldn't be sure that I was at the right place, cos even when you've been walking past them for years you don't really take any notice of trees, do you? I mean, I know that we'd be up the creek without them and all that, but one girl's birch is the next girl's larch - I wouldn't know either of them from a field of haystacks, in all honesty. What an awful confession from someone brought up in the country, ha ha!
Ooh, I'm getting all jokey cos I know how the story works out and can relax, but you, dear Inner Voice, do not. So let me carry on.
I was a bit stunned at the lack of caravan activity, so I tried to act nonchalent whilst legging it round the next bend to see if I'd made a mistake and it was perhaps a bit further on. Nope. And the next bend leads round to a pond and looks different from the first bit, so I knew I was in the right place.
There's a bench on the path, facing where the caravan should have been, so I plonked myself down on it and tried not to cry. Cos that would have looked pathetic, and can you imagine trying to explain why to anyone who saw me?
"There, there...was a caravan there...sniff...really old...ohhhhh this man, he was lovely, gulp, and he knew me but I didn't know him...snivel...no, I'm not making it up...it's ok, you don't have to phone my mum..."
You get the drift. So I sat there glaring determinedly at what I reckoned was the space in the trees where the caravan should have been. The trees glared determinedly back and stayed most un-caravan-like in their demeanour. Gits. Pooch had come wandering back by this point, so I bent down to scratch his head (and maybe cry a tiny bit into his ear, shhh, don't tell) and it was right then that the sound disappeared. Just like last time.
For a second, I didn't dare look up - I'm not sure what I was most scared of, the caravan being there or being disappointed if it wasn't there. But of course (of course! ha!) it was. And in the doorway stood Finn, looking mildly concerned.
"You ok, Lily? You look a bit pale." Understatement of the year. "Come in, do you want a cup of tea? It's cold out there."
Without thinking about it, I got up from the bench and walked steadily across the undergrowth, straight towards the open door. Pooch had beaten me to it and was already halfway in, Finn grinning down at him as he went.
But as I got closer, he frowned. "God Lily, you look rough" Gee, thanks. He obviously realised what he'd said and had the decency to look embarrassed. "I mean, you look like you've been crying - who's upset you, what's wrong?"
Do you know what I did? How thoroughly, totally pathetic I am? I flung myself at him. I did, really! I know, I know - Humiliation Central. I was hanging onto him before I realised what I'd done, and by that point it seemed easier to just stay there clinging to his jacket, rather than having to pull back and see him laughing at me.
Only he wasn't laughing, he was pulling off my stupid hat and stroking my hair. And it seemed, well, normal. Completely comfortable and ok and normal. So when he stepped back and pulled me by the hand into the caravan, I followed him inside without a murmur.
He let go of my hand and I automatically sat on the nearest sofa, which was the one by the window. The one with the suspicious dead fox on it. I tried to look as if hugging strangers and going into their houses (ok, caravans, but it sounds ridiculous) was something I did every day.
Finn had put the kettle on top of the wood burner and was dropping teabags into a pair of mismatched enamel mugs that he'd evidently taken from one of the shelves in the dark at the back of the room - I could see several others still there in the gloom, looking for all the world like the pictures I'd seen of my great granny's kitchen when my mum was young. We still had her sandwich tin - pale green with dark blue edging it is, with bits chipped off from people banging the lid on over the years. Mum keeps buttons in it now, I remember playing with them for hours when I was young.
Teabags, sugar..there was even a milk jug. I just hoped that the milk in it was ok. The one thing that really makes me retch is curdly milk in drinks, yeuch.
I noted for later pondering that as he evidently had basic provisions to hand, he must be real. Food = living human. Logical, right? Oh dear lord, even I can see how ridiculous this all seems, and I'm the one writing the bloody stuff! Anyway, on with the show.
He passed me a mug and to my surprise it looked like a perfectly acceptable, normal cup of tea. I mean, I don't know what I expected - creepy green vapours rising from a bottomless mug, maybe? I attempted to sip it but it was scalding hot and I ended up giving a mangled squeak instead. Still, it was something to hold - to make everything seem a bit more grounded in reality. Cos let's face it, not much of this has been realistic so far, has it???
I'd expected him to go sit on the other sofa, but he threw me by dropping down next to where I was sat. There was a gap of about a foot between us and I tell you something, it felt as if it were both no space at all and also a great big bloody chasm that noone would ever cross.
"So come on then, what's up? You know you can tell me, Lily."
But I couldn't, could I? Cos I'd sound all pathetic and girly and, just, urgggghhhhh.
"I'm ok, just tired. This is all a bit weird, you know?" Cos he must know, right? He must know that it's not normal for 15 yr old girls to be sitting in a dark and strange room with a man she's only met once and even then he appeared out of nowhere and the sound goes all funny every time and seriously, WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON???
And maybe even Finn didn't know really, cos he was looking confused. No, correct that, he looked kind of, well, wistful.
"I guess I'm going to have to explain myself" he said, looking down into his mug of tea. Well yes, that would be good, Mr Understatement Of The Year. Only I didn't say that out loud, obviously. Instead I just scratched at the rim of the mug, picking away at a tiny chip in the enamel.
"You see, I know you Lily. I've always known you."
My neck practically snapped with the speed that my head shot up, I'm telling you - it was all I could do to not tip steaming tea down myself. Finn chuckled. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised at that look - you really didn't know anything about me, did you?"
Erm... "No. No, I didn't. Was I supposed to?"
What had I missed, was I adopted, did mum find me floating down the river a la Moses, was I a foundling, a weird woodland chimera or something? Oh no, I forgot - we're in the real world, aren't we. Well, sort of...
"No, I guess there was noone left to tell you the stories. Your great aunt Maggie would have been the last of them when I think about it, and you were a tiny wee thing when she passed over."
"Haaa-hang on, how did you know Maggie? She died when I was still little - she was ninety something when she went, you couldn't have known her!" I realised that I was sounding scared now and tried to pull myself together - Finn appeared to be on my side, and was certainly the only person likely to explain all this weirdness to me.
He put his hand over mine and spoke more softly. "I did know her, Lily. I realise that it sounds impossible but really, it's not. And I knew her mother before her. I've known a lot of your family, in the time that I've been here."
Shock made me sound sharper than I intended. "Rightio. So you're about five hundred years old or something, but you look eighteen and you knew my great great aunt even though she's been dead for years and was ninety odd when she went? Right. Cos that sounds just peachy, y'know? Properly normal. Not." I was angry now, and a bit scared. My original conclusion that Finn wasn't a Top Drawer Crazy appeared to be way off the mark. I started to get up, but he held onto my hand.
"Please Lily, let me explain properly. Since when have you been so narrow minded? Maggie used to tell you the stories about the Woodland, do you not remember?"
Of course I did. Maggie often told me bedtime stories when she babysat for my mum and dad - I could just about remember some of them. Fairy stories. And Finn didn't look much like your average fairy. But by the same token, he did know an awful lot about me for someone I'd never (consciously) met in my life. I decided to give him the chance to explain - if nothing else, it would give me the opportunity to get closer to the door to make my escape.
He pulled me back down next to him, closer this time, and shifted himself around so that he was looking directly at me. I noticed that his eyes were a very dark green, sort of emerald in colour. up until now they'd just looked black. He certainly didn't look like the undead, if that's what he was.
"Lily, please hear me out. I know that an awful lot of what I'm going to tell you will sound unbelievable, and it is - in the normal world. But this" - he gestured around the caravan - "isn't the normal world. It isn't your world. Or at least it wasn't, up until now. I knew you'd see me sooner or later - it was just a matter of time. I've known Pooch here for years" He smiled and scratched the snoozing dog fondly behind the ear. No bloody wonder the stupid mutt seemed so comfortable here, how long had he been sneaking in for a warm by the fire whilst I paced the woods shouting for him? I glared balefully at the dog, who I could have sworn was now looking faintly embarrassed. So he bloody should be, I muttered to myself darkly as Finn continued.
"And yes, I am ridiculously old." He grinned at me, looking not very old at all. "Or rather, I've been around for a long time. There's a big difference. I really am alive, you know - feel." He stuck out his hand, wrist side up, and gently placed my fingers over his veins. Sure enough, there was a steady pulse beating time with my thumping heart.
"It's just that when I'm on this side, time doesn't pass. Not even a second. And as I very rarely go to the other side, I don't age. Well, I'm maybe six months older than I was, just from visiting people. Maggie, for instance. But that's not bad for over - let me think, I used to keep count but I've lost track recently - I don't know, maybe two hundred years?" I let out an audible gasp. "I know, it's a long time" the wistful look was back now "and it gets lonely. That last time I saw Maggie and knew she was going to die...well, I thought maybe that I should, too. That I should come through the divide and jump off a bridge or something, end it for good. But I couldn't bring myself to do it - Maggie knew that you would need me at some point, and so I promised her that I would wait. And I did - I waited for you, Lily."
Phew. I mean, phheeeeeeeeeewwww! There's a gorgeous man, noone but me can see him, he's older than, like, my grandad, and yet he's waiting for ME??? Whoah! Take the tablets Lily, pinch yourself, this is a dream, right?
But it wasn't. I was sitting there in that caravan as sure as I'm sitting here writing this down. And I know that I'm sitting here now, because I have writer's cramp and a crick in my neck. Anyhow, back to the (bizarre) story -
Finn was looking expectantly at me, as if waiting for a response. "Errrr...thanks?" I squeaked. The corners of his eyes crinkled with amusement. "I mean..." I was stumbling now, unsure of what I was thinking, let alone what I was going to say to this man who appeared to be giving himself to me (ME!), practically gift-wrapped, "Maggie knew this would happen, then? Did my dad know?" Cos I'm pretty sure that dad wouldn't take kindly to this, he wasn't known for his tolerance for 'spooky crap', as he put it.
"No, only Maggie. And everyone here, of course." Of course. Of-bloody-course. Strange people everywhere, hiding in some alternate dimension until Lily-Saviour-of-the-Spooky-World-O'Reilly turns up to save them from their doom, whatever doom it was. Wasn't that how it happened in comic books? I should watch those bizarre satellite channels more often, with their round the clock transmissions of ghost chases and a lot of sitting around in the dark scaring each other with stupid noises. Maybe then I'd have a bit more of a sodding clue as to what was going on here.
Mute now, I just nodded in what I hoped was an encouraging manner. Come on man, may as well fill me in on the rest of the creepshow now that I'm (literally) a captive audience.
"Ok, I'll give you the shortened version for now, or else you'll be confused for weeks. No, I'm not saying you're stupid," he'd obviously seen my eyes narrowing at the assumption that I wouldn't understand, "it's just that it's understandably complicated. Especially the bit about where you fit in.
"The woods are a living thing. The animals, insects, plants and trees, they sort of form a higher being, if that makes any sense? Kind of like when thousands of bees swarm and become a flying ball of bees, seemingly with one mind. So all of us here, we're part of that higher mind. We keep an eye on each other, make sure that no harm comes to the forest or its inhabitants.
"Only as people encroached on the land more and more, it was harder to keep it safe. Eventually it was decided that the only way to be sure that humans didn't do more damage than was necessary, was to actually involve them - let them know what was as stake, how the forest is the heartbeat of the land that surrounds it.
"Of course, you can't just go announcing that sort of stuff - for one thing there were no newspapers or televisions way back then, and for another, people who admitted to talking to squirrels were likely to be burnt as witches." Finn laughed, but it didn't sound as if he found the thought amusing.
"So the forest encouraged the local 'wise women' - those who the villagers both feared and relied upon in equal measure. She would find that the patch of hedgerow containing the juiciest blackberries would be miraculously cleared so that she could pick a basketful without having to climb through brambles. Maybe a patch of tasty mushrooms would pop up near to her back door, ready to pop in a pan.
"These sort of women, they always paid back in kind. They left food out for the animals in winter, helped any injured birds or foxes they might come across, that sort of thing. And so a two-way relationship started. Because of this relationship, the women could be relied upon to protect the forest, to keep it safe from those who might abuse it and use up its resources without providing replacements.
"My mother was one of those women. There was just the two of us - my father had gone off one day, supposedly to market, but had never been seen again. She always said that he must have come to harm, but I suspected that he'd had a taste of the life -and women- available in the nearby towns that were rapidly developing across the countryside. Anyway, we made do. We were happy, certainly. She taught me everything she knew - I learnt to cook, to mend clothes, to catch a rabbit when the warrens were overflowing and skin it for the pot."
Finn's face grew darker. I had a horrible feeling that his human life may not have been as happy as he was painting it.
"There was a man in the village who took a shine to my mother. He was already married to a shrewish woman and she'd given him three children - each as arrogant and sly as their parents. He believed that everything he wanted should be his by right, and he wanted my mother. I was a teenager by then, and when he came calling on her one day in winter, I blocked the door and refused him entry.
"Of course, he just shoved me aside and came in anyway - what else did I expect? Mother was standing in the scullery at the back of the house, proud and upright with a determined expression on her face. I knew that she was going to give him short shrift, and indeed she did. She told him coldly that he had a wife and children to look after and that she as a widow had made me her priority. She needed no other man, she told him."
Finn was gripping my hand by now - I could feel his nails digging into my palm, but I couldn't breathe to say anything.
"He attacked her, Lily. Right in front of me. Left her bleeding across the old couch in the corner, like some cheap whore that he'd paid for and cast aside. She lay there for days - I pulled blankets over her and tried to give her water, but she refused. The only thing she said to me in all that time was that I was to 'take over'. I had no idea what she meant.
"Three days, it took her to die. Of course we had no money for a funeral - she would have only been in her thirties, why would she have planned for that? She ended up in a pauper's grave on the edge of the village, not even a marker stone to say that there lay the bones of my beloved mother - the only living thing that ever loved me, gone forever."
I could feel tears trickling down my face, but I didn't care what I looked like. I squeezed Finn's hand in encouragement, but he was staring unseeingly at the floor.
"I couldn't stay there, not in the house where it had happened. I took clothes and provisions, left all the remaining food out for any animals that wanted it, then torched the place. I had no idea where to go, but I started by forcing myself to walk through the woods that my mother had loved so dearly.
"That's when I saw it. Saw this - the caravan. It was in the same place as it always is, the same place that you saw it. There was a woman in the doorway." Finn's voice trailed off, but now he was smiling. He seemed to give himself a shake, then he turned back to me.
"And you know what happens from there, because it happened to you. As I had nowhere better to go it soon became apparent that it would be far easier for me to simply stay on this side of the line, as it were.
"Over the years the human guardians reappeared, and eventually it settled into a pattern of being the female line of one particular local family. Your family, Lily." He smiled, seemingly confident that his explanation was done. I wasn't so sure.
"Errrrm...are you trying to tell me that I am a WITCH???" I was high-pitched now, not knowing whether to be excited or terrified. Finn laughed. "No, you're not a witch. You're a Guardian tho, and as such you will eventually be responsible for the wellbeing of all the forest and its occupants. Think you can shoulder the burden, Lily O'Reilly?" His eyes twinkled.
"Can I be sick now? I'm not kidding, that's a lot to take in. What do I do, how do I know what care things need, when should I be here, how..." Finn interrupted me. "Calm down, Lily! All you have to do for the time being is visit. Be aware of the forest and what's going on. And come see me often." He smiled as he said the last bit. Gulp.
"Ooooookay. I'll think about it, alright? And I'll definitely visit. You could do with some help cleaning this place up." Finn laughed at the disdainful expression on my face as I poked at a nearby cushion - a cloud of dust came up from it and made me cough.
"Seriously, I'll come see you in a couple of days. I need some normal time to get my head round everything. And maybe I'll ask mum and dad about Aunt Maggie - some of those bedtime stories were scary, I'm not sure that I want to know whether they're actually true or not. No," Finn had opened his mouth to say something, "I really don't want to know. For the time being I am going to pretend that this forest is full of nothing more creepy than the odd bad tempered bunny. And ageless young men, of course." I think I may have blushed at this point, but luckily it was dark in the caravan and I doubt (hope!) that he didn't see.
I got up and walked to the door, prodding Pooch with my foot as I went. He lumbered up from the floor and followed me, cheerfully nudging against Finn's leg as he went. I turned to look at Finn, who had followed us and was stood just behind me as I stepped out into the cold. Now that I was looking more closely I could see gold flecks in his green eyes - he is seriously handsome, that boy. Man? Old man? REALLY old man??? I'm trying not to think about it.
Without thinking, I leant over and hugged Finn tightly. But this time it was me in the role of comforter. "I'm so sorry about your mum," I said. "Me too," he replied.
And I stepped outside.