She sat in her study coughing and spluttering like some tobacco worn out addict. Yet she had never tasted tobacco in her entire life and she was not addicted to anything except love. She wanted to get on with the novel she was writing. Aged 25 and her whole life ahead of her. They always told her that, at school, college. It was good to be young because there was so much opportunity ahead. Yet it was not like that for her. She was stuck at home, battling with her parents because she had no job or money to allow her the independent life she craved.

It had been so long since she had taken a breath of fresh air, wandered amongst the tulips in the flower gardens, smelt roses or watched the ducks and swans on the park pond. Instead she saw the novel as a way out, a source of adventure in itself when none offered itself to her. If she could get it published it would be a breakthrough for her, a place in the country, a rich life, being an author full time. It was all she had ever dreamed of. Living at home, missing the sunshine in favour of working on the book and eating little meant that her dream of success and freedom could come sooner.

Yet her cough raged on and on. This was now the third week. She sought rest and peace, somewhere else, not here, the dark office that was really her bedroom, not here with her parents shouting at each other downstairs. She would go to the flower garden, smell the roses, sift her hand through the cool water of the river and swim. People did that on hot summer days, though now it was winter. She craved so much yet it all appeared to elude her. She was trapped in a never ending spiral of dark treacle and she was trying to write a novel of love and adventure.

By the river she began noticing all the things she had been avoiding for months: fresh air, sky as blue as thunder, yellow daffodils in December and tulips dormant under the Earth. She loved to feel the icy fresh air on her cheeks and run her fingers through the fountains and mini waterfalls. This was winter heaven and it had not even reached her book yet. How could she finish a novel when her experience was not experiential?

She put her lips to a fountain, drinking in the fresh water, probably not completely fresh, yet it felt so freeing to do that rather than be in her parents’ kitchen trying to drink a glass of water while her younger brother fought with younger sister or whilst being told off about something.

She was wearing her white dress. It was almost as if she has half living in summer time; a thin cotton long dress with jeans underneath and furry boots. She felt the part, maybe that of her protagonist, the adventurer, the one who did everything, who could ride a horse bareback and fall into her lovers arms at the same time. She would eat a feast every day because she lived in a castle high up on the tallest mountain of the world.

Maybe she was hallucinating in some way, imagining a life she wanted yet would never have. Maybe it was all an escape from boring life with her family where no-one really cared who she was. She was the resident dishwasher, gardener and car cleaner when she wasn’t writing. She kept telling herself that if she finished writing by the summer solstice, she could elope with herself and run away from them all. She would tuck her manuscript under her arm, post it to a willing publisher and earn thousands. Then she would live in a castle and eat feasts. It was hard being vegan in a meat eating household so she didn’t eat much.

Two white doves flew past her, just over her head. She smiled, knowing it was a good omen, maybe of a happier life ahead. By impulse she grabbed her bag and ran and ran up the river path wanting to fly off with the birds. They had given her a message. She would find peace, she would fly free. She realised she was barely coughing out here. She craved company, someone to talk to, to listen to her, not a lover but a companion. Her friends had all left for Uni. Not that she wanted to go. She wasn’t bright enough. Bright yes, but not for academia. She was left in boring home town and saw all her best friends when they returned at holiday time. Most had good jobs now, some still worked as waitresses or bar men and women.

She picked a flower, actually a red berry. To her it symbolised love, passion, warmth and fire energy. She didn’t want to participate in Christmas this year. She wanted to run off, find some recluse where she could write peacefully alone.

There was a long queue by the monument, tourists wanting to fill their minds with history; not her, history was boring. The future was of more interest to her. She wanted to have her palm read but was too scared in case her life line was too short or that her novel would never be published.

The sky line was darkening. The derelict boat remained tied up on the bank. She had walked quite far now, further from town. She wanted to keep walking and walking and walking. She wanted to lose herself in the magic of the landscape and never look backwards.

She was entering another world, a new dimension. All was still and peaceful. Tourists gone and the only sound was of the wind wafting over the water, ripples of river flow and birds flapping in the trees. This was wonderland and she had not visited it for a long time. She sniffed a little with the cold but she was barely coughing now.

Air was cold and fresh yet impulsively she took off her boots and socks and felt the soft ground with her bare feet. Connected to Earth once more, connected to heaven through the earth. She loved the feeling though her feet were turning white. She walked further, trying to bare the coldness for just a little longer.

There was a kind of shelter, she wasn’t sure. Luckily she had her torch on her, always a habit in winter for reading bus timetables. She walked cautiously, coming off the path now and into the woodland. The shelter was making itself known to her. It was like one of those benders she had seen at festivals, tarp on the top and all made of tree branches. She wondered if someone was living there. Stealthily she walked up to the door. ‘Hello!’ There was no answer. She called again a bit louder. No answer.

The man stood about 6 feet away emerging from behind a large oak tree. ‘Are you looking for someone?’ his voice was clear and strong yet humorous. She jumped back suddenly. ‘Oh, is this your hut?’ The man approached. He was wearing a long black trilby coat, probably mid thirties and unshaven. ‘I do happen to live here for now. What are you doing?’

‘Oh nothing, I was just curious, sorry I’ll be on my way…’ He looked and smiled at her. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ Her feeling was to stay though she thought she should leave. He read her energy and smiled. ‘I have nettles I collected in Autumn, rosehips and elderflower. Take your pick!’

Curiosity was over riding her awareness of the looming darkness. He opened the bender door and beckoned her in. She thought if he collected herbs he must be safe. ‘I don’t do weed or alcohol, just herbs. I’m here on retreat. Take a humble seat and let’s have a brew.’

He lit a small woodburner and immediately the hut was filled with a warm and inviting glow. A large old black kettle sat on the top of the burner and she watched as it gently let out its hot steam. She felt immediately at home here. There were 2 wooden chairs, a makeshift bed in the corner and a little kitchen area where herbs were hung up drying.

The nettle tea was warming and delicious. ‘So what’s your name?’ 

‘I’m Clara. Pleased to meet you!’

‘I’m Tom, short for Thomas, my origins being in Holland. I come here to first study, then find a retreat for myself. In the spring I will re-emerge and do the festival circuit. I teach wood carving, that’s my thing.’

They talked and talked over several cups of nettle and elderflower tea. Tom cooked chapatis and dhal and even offered a few squares of raw chocolate to follow. Clara had lost all sense of time and space, until her mobile went off quite abruptly. Her mother. Tom gently took the phone. ‘Leave it!’ Clara frowned, slightly alarmed,

‘You can’t do that. That’s my mother, probably wondering where I am, wanting help with something.’

‘I know but you have told me many times this evening how trapped you feel and how you are not living your own life. I am going to offer you something now with a completely honourable intention. Would you like to stay in this bender tonight? I believe it could be good for your spirit and good for your writing.’

Clara’s mind and emotions were having a fight inside her and she clasped her hands to her head in despair. ‘What are you worried about, that I am not a safe man and may harm you, is that it?’

‘It’s true, I don’t know you and its night time and I can’t just run off without telling my parents where I am.’

‘it’s your life Clara and you must do as you feel in your heart to do in each given moment. I will walk you to the town if you want to go back or I will make a bed for you by the fire. It keeps warm in here over night. I keep the burner going. Sleep gets a bit disturbed but it’s worth it. You’ll get more real warmth here than in a brick building.

A warmth was starting to envelop Clara in every part of her. There was nothing she would rather do than stay here with her new friend. The warmth was beckoning her like a fire dragon and she was a fire dragon in Chinese astrology. ‘I’ll stay but I won’t tell my parents where I am. I will have to call mum and tell her I’m at a friend’s.’

‘Well that’s true, you are at a friend’s!’ Tom heard the harsh telling off Clara got when she talked to her mother. She was complaining about the children needing help with bathing and washing up to be done. There was no concern about whether Clara was safe and well. ‘Hey, you’ve done the right thing Clara.’

‘Can you tell me a story?’ Clara asked without knowing why she made such a request. Tom laughed. ‘I’ll tell you a story about the wild animals in the woods, the ones most people don’t see, the deer, badgers and foxes, herons by the river and insects that hide in the undergrowth. I’ll tell you all about what happens in the wood at night time.

As Clara lay on the makeshift bed, wrapped up in a warm blanket by a roaring fire she listened to these stories of wild animals and a whole life she had not experienced until now. Tom was in his element describing everything he saw in his daily life, until he heard snoring and Clara had left the living world for the day.

They were woken by bird song, beautiful robins sitting outside the door, squirrels and a mouse. ‘This is beautiful. Why have I left the natural world for so long, thinking my novel more important?’

‘Because your novel is important, but you need to live a bit first. I will make a proposition to you now. I will build you a hut and you can stay here in the wood next to me. I will show you everything and you may come and go as much as you please. Maybe it can be your retreat centre?’

Clara laughed out loud. ‘Those peace doves were right. I have flown free. Thank-you Tom. I would love that. I will pack some bags tonight and find a way of blagging to my parents.’

‘You don’t need to do that. You need to be honest to some degree and don’t let them persuade you into staying. You are not a child. You have your own life to lead.’

Clara packed her bags in her bedroom and didn’t say goodbye. The response would have been too difficult to deal with. She had found her retreat and this would be her Christmas paradise. She had so much more to write in her novel now. A new light had ignited in her heart that told her so much of love and adventure and it wasn’t what she had thought it was. It was far bigger, greater and more appealing. She was a nature dweller and she would always be one… she had found her true home. She had found love in all its great forms.