“Wow! Al, you’re actually like a real life hero!”. Those words, uttered today, were spoken with honesty, gratitude, relief and, in no small measure, admiration. Admittedly they were uttered by me; but they were uttered nonetheless.
So why was someone (me) referring to me as “real life hero”? The reason is simple: Today I overcame adversity and possible capture by a terrorist organisation to rescue a small child from an uncertain future. Although that may sound far-fetched and somewhat ludicrous, I swear, hand on heart, every word of it is true.
Today started like most other days: I woke up. Having spoken to a very beautiful and positive woman yesterday, I decided that, as I had a fairly free day, I should go for a run. Actually, I decided to go for a run because the aforementioned beautiful and positive woman had told me that she couldn’t really understand people who didn’t exercise and let themselves become unhealthy. She claimed, in that sense, that she “was fattest”. I resisted the Jimmy Carr gag and decided, instead, to head to the local woods which I’d discovered only recently after moving down south. So that’s what I did. I went out for a light run for an hour or so before returning home to my ordinary day. Well, that’s what I thought I was doing. What would actually happen next would change the way I would be described (by me) forever.
The weather was lovely when I stepped out the door of the house. In fact, as if to back up my claim, I distinctly recall thinking to myself that it was “quite warm”. As I walked the brief journey to the woods’ opening, I passed a whistling workman who smiled and greeted me as I went by. This idea of spending time in the local forest (it’s become a forest now, I’ve decided) was becoming more appealing by the second. As I came around the corner, I could hear the birds tweeting in the lush, green foliage of the majestic trees high above: their branches aloft as if anticipating a giant hug that would welcome me into their ever joyous family. I smiled a smile of contentment and self-affirmation that I was about to spend the next hour embarking on carefree pastime. It felt good. It felt positive.
I began to run. Now, I feel that I must confess that I am not something who could be described as “sporty” or “athletic”; it’s just not a natural part of my personality. I don’t want you picturing someone who has been described as “a hero” (by himself) and imagining a Bruce Willis or Donny Wahlberg type. I’m just a normal guy who has ordinary days. As I ran down the muddied footpath into the belly of the wooded canyon(!), a broad smile embraced my face. “This is fun”, I thought as I gathered speed. “I feel totally free”, I elated as the wind whistled past my ears. “I’m going to hit a tree”, I exclaimed as I nearly hit a tree.
At the bottom of the path I came to a crossroads. Not a crossroads in life; an actual crossroads (although ironically the idea to be out in the open was to clear my mind and have time to think about what I was doing with my actual very life). I stood there in the clearing. It was so peaceful and so clean. It was a beautiful moment. “How could anything bad happen here?” I asked myself. Now, if you remember where the terrorist organisation I have previously mentioned, this is where it comes in. The peaceful glade wasn’t as peaceful as you may imagine.
At the beginning of the week I was explaining to my housemate and friend that I’d only just seen the nearby woods. “They’re beautiful,” she’d admitted, “we’re so lucky to have them”. I agreed and explained that I was planning to start walking there regularly so that I could free my mind and encourage my creativity. “What a lovely idea”. Her softly inspiring Bury lilt that had once graced the biggest selling UK debut single of all time was matched by her calm yet firm reassurance that I was making a positive change in my life. “But you know there’s been loads of murders in there, don’t you?” I’ll be honest: I didn’t. “Oh, and a load of terrorists got caught plotting in there and there was a massive police raid. So be careful”. Right then. That took me by surprise, in all honesty. I’d visited the neck of the woods just once before but I’d only ever seen a woman walking her dog; even then it was on a lead.
Stood there, surrounded by serenity and nature, it was hard to imagine anything untoward taking place. I put those words of advice to the back of my mind, I chose a hilly path and I ran. I ran onwards and upwards. I ran and I ran, higher and higher, stronger and… eventually found a tree and slumped against it.
I sent a text to the beautiful positive woman: “As I slump against a tree I have only just realised that women REALLY like chubby men who do silly jokes. You and your clever tricks.” I looked at the view. Stunning.
I received a text. “Running and exercise can only be good and make you feel good… Xx”
Yes, TWO kisses. The flirty little minxtress. I replied, “You’re right. Plus it gives me loads more time to think of ace jokes. Are you SURE you still want to meet on Sunday.. ;-)” I’ll admit, I’m not that great at text flirting…
I decided to run some more. I didn’t really have a route, just a feeling of freedom and a continuing bemusement that I was actually fitter than I had been believing. It was peaceful, it was carefree and it was fun. I stopped to take pictures. I went to a nearby tree. I jumped up to its branches and I did pull ups. I looked around and hoped that nobody was there to see that I could only manage three. It began to rain and I held my face to the skies. I didn’t have to be anywhere and I didn’t have to do anything: I was lost in my own little world.
That’s when I remembered: I DID have to be somewhere and I DID have something to do: I had to pick up my housefriend’s (that sounds so much lovelier) little boy from school. I checked the time: one hour. That was fine. I would just turn around and start jogging back. In fact, as my fitness wasn’t actually as amazing as I was beginning to believe, I could walk at first. So that’s what I did. I got to the path and I walked. I walked a few minutes before thinking it was time to jog. So I jogged. I jogged and jogged. Except, as I jogged, I began to realise that I didn’t recognise this path. Hmmmm… Could it possibly be that I was no longer lost in my own little world but lost deep within an almighty woodland with its dark, sinister trees pointing their unwelcoming branches down at me and mocking as the wind blew through them? Yes. Yes it could.
I had a fair idea of the direction I’d come from and, with the rain falling into the earth, I jogged towards the opening from which I had arrived. I jogged, sliding as the ground below me gave way to the water from above. I jogged and jogged until I reached the opening. Well, I say “the opening” but I actually mean, “an opening”. I hadn’t actually arrived back where I’d set off from. I thought I’d check my iPhone’s map. I expected a walk around the corner but I received a shock. I was 5 miles away and directly on the opposite side of the forest. I checked the time. It hadn’t ceased. Why would it?
I reckon everyone has Apps on their iPhone that they don’t use and, for me, it’s the compass. Well, it WAS the compass; until today. I was at the westside of the forest and I needed to be at the eastside. It suddenly occurred to me that this probably played a large part in the murder stories that the locals had mentioned. I had believed them to be one of those folklore things before but now it seemed that there could be some credibility to the tales. After all, US rap had its turf wars and we all know what happened there with Biggy and Tupac. For West Coast and East Coast read West King’s Wood and East King’s Wood. I steadied my mind. My safety wasn’t important here; getting back to my friend’s child was. Anyway, if a would-be attacker came upon me then I could handle myself; as long as they could only manage two pull ups.
I pointed the compass in the direction of east but the pathways didn’t go that way. They went either side; they didn’t go east. I had to make a choice: do I follow the pathways and work my way back or… do I just follow the compass and go whichever way it takes me? I checked the clock. I only had 45 minutes to get to the school gates. There was no time for questioning or being anything less than a man: I was going into the forest.
Wiping the rain from my eyes, I looked up and I set off. I ran. I ran with purpose and with the heart of a man who knew nothing of himself but the simple fact that he had to arrive at his destination so that a child would feel safe and warm. My feet pounded the ground; occasionally sinking into the muddy forest earth below that had once been my encouraging friend but was now a treacherous demon hell-bent on stealing my energy. The rain poured: faster and faster, heavier and heavier. I looked at the clock. Minutes were flying by; my heart raced. I leapt over fallen trees, ducked under reaching branches, exploded through barricades of holly bushes, slid down growing rivers of mud and…
… I waved hello to a passing elderly gentleman who was walking his dog. He doffed his cap. People don’t do that enough these days. Lovely chap, he seemed.
Time was against me. Conspiring with the ever darkening trees that cowered over me; drooling their droplets of rain upon my increasingly heavy clothes. I wasn’t going to give in. I ran. I ran, leapt, focused and breathed. There was a battle between the living forest and I but we were evenly matched. I felt safe. This forest wasn’t going to stop me getting to where I wanted to be; where I needed to be. The leaves flew by, the branches smacked my body as I dashed past them and the twigs below my feet crackled and snapped with my gathering pace. I was winning this battle. Human versus nature. Desire versus defeat. Nothing could beat me… until something leapt out from behind a tree.
It’s ok, it was just a little squirrel. Quite cute, really.
I checked the time. The slow realisation crept upon me; I wasn’t going to make it. I had let my friend down, I had let a child down and, so I felt, I had let myself down. From the midst of the ever darkening wood I would have to make a phone call and explain my situation. I was trying to make it but, if I couldn’t, a close family friend may have to pick up the child. That wasn’t good enough. I had been given this responsibility. As the rain fell down, dampening my spirit far more than my now sodden clothes, I felt defeated. It was at this moment, staring upwards at the surrounding trees – now nature’s bullies – that I received a text. It was from the beautiful and positive woman.
“Just found out my friend died of an indigestion medicine overdose.” The shock jolted my body like a shot of adrenalin to my heart. “Can’t believe Gav is gone…”.
That poor woman. That beautiful, positive, devastated woman. I replied immediately, “Oh beautiful and positive woman (I did use her real name), I am so sorry xx If you need anything – someone to talk to or at – just call me xxx”.
I looked at the clock. There were mere minutes until I had to be at the school gates. I looked at my map. I had come a long way. I could do this. No; I would do this. If beautiful and positive woman had received that news then what I had to achieve was nothing. “I will be there for that child”, I said to myself.
Just then, three chocolate labradors ran up to me and surrounded me. That was weird.
I set off. I recognised the path. That tree stump had been there. I knew because it was the one I had almost ran into earlier. I ran upwards, onwards. Nature’s rain may have been beating down on me but, by love, I was beating nature. The energy that had been stored from my breakfast of Nutella on toast kicked in. My legs were getting heavier but my heart was getting lighter. I was going to do it. I knew where I was. I could actually see the light at the end of the, erm, woods.
I got to the top. I rang along the footpath, onto the road, along the pavement and to the house. I showered, I changed and I got to those school gates bang on the dot, my friend’s son’s smiling face unaware of the drama that had so recently unfolded. “Wow,” I thought, “Al, you’re actually like a real life hero.”
So, Here’s What I Have Learnt Today: when you’re deep in a forest, you really should take time to read your texts before replying. It may just turn out to be a silly joke…