The Waldingham woods were green and fresh at this time of the year. The vegetation was no longer huddling on the woodland floor like sleepy ducks, with everything tucked away under lowered wings. Instead, it was bursting out everywhere with a swagger and tendrils were jostling up into every pocket of available air. The bushes were now pressing in so closely that Mr Hatter and Lu had to walk single file along the path, while Jack ambled ahead, occasionally croaking back at them.
It was very early in the morning and Lu felt strangely mindless, as if sleep had washed all of the living emotion out of her brain. Nonetheless, she had originally intended, when scheming the night before, to use this walk to secure Mr Hatter’s help. If he became interested in the inadequacy of the dolls’ house, then he might agree to build some furniture for it or even some more likeable dolls.
Mr Hatter listened politely to what she was saying but evidently without perfect comprehension. He seemed to grasp the injustice of the dolls’ house, but he could not seem to wholly focus on the importance of this injustice. Then Lu perceived the figure of Reg Mabbutt, a neighbouring farmer, waddling towards them. He was going at a marvellously vigorous pace, as though he had been just that minute wound up and placed on the earth. Her heart sank. Mr Hatter and Mr Mabbutt would chatter away to each other like old women, whilst she stood at Mr Hatter’s side, now unperceived by them, with the burning face of a ghoul.
“I’m going to play in the woods,” she sang hastily to Mr Hatter.
He started with surprise but she was already away.
To break into the interior you scrabbled up a dusty bank. Suddenly you were unexpectedly upright and walking across a smooth plain of woodland, a kind of secret level of the woods. The trees became surprisingly thin here and there was surprisingly little growing between them. If the occasional stirring of the leaves in the wind at first sounded so intensely clear, this was because you were venturing so quietly and listening so keenly.
These woods were too small to get lost in. You might fall into drifting absent-mindedly for a while, but when you came to, you always had a general sense of your whereabouts. You could have taken up the thread of the familiar path again within a minute.
The most picturesque area to walk in was a point where a racing stream, which had previously glided down a humdrum trench, splattered on to rocks, and then welled up into a chain of solemn, dragging pools. There were no fish that Lu had ever seen but you might spot a small frog clambering stickily within the nearby grass. Lu liked to hover overhead and watch the whole world of this tiny naked body leaning with pathetic urgency towards cover. She had never seen any tadpoles in the water, but she had a desperate, somewhat wistful fantasy of scooping up a swill of tadpoles in a jam jar and then bearing them home to painstakingly rear her own personal circus of frogs in her bedroom. But life, she had learned, could never work out like this. The tadpoles would stop swimming; the water would thicken and smell. Everything was always too difficult.
Lu sat down cross-legged on the grass beside one of the pools and her eyes rested without any expectancy on its surface. The water hissed firmly back at the waterfall, but once it had slunk past the big rocks any motion became undetectable.
Lu’s mind was pulled towards the lucious, emerald-green grass behind her head, as lightly but unyieldingly as if it was snagged on a cat’s paw. With a sudden, fond feeling of sleepiness, she flopped back and a stretching wrist twisted luxuriantly within a throng of blades until her hand had located…
She froze in amazement. Next, she sat up, scandalised.
A sound had rippled up to her lips which resembled the cluck of a hen. She listened to her own hysterical giggle quite calmly. She reached again into the grass and her fingertips extracted a wondrous, weightless little armchair.
She stared at this object for a second and then rested it down by her side. Behind the fringe of hanging grass there was a long sleeve in the soil and from this she pulled out a coffee table, a piano, a four-poster bed, and a wardrobe. Each was exquisitely dainty, but they were too solid and perfectly formed to have been ever intended as toys.
Her hand slithered again inside the earth but there was nothing much left. A lampshade, a footstool, a tiny telephone which was smaller than an acorn cup.
Some shrill instinct instructed Lu to run. She lifted the front of her dress to make a sort of hammock and then tossed the furniture into it in rapid handfuls. Next she was jigging frantically through the woods, chased by roaring air, with the sound of her own gasps tolling above her head like church bells.
Mr Hatter and Mr Mabbutt were still talking in the lane. Mr Hatter looked up at Lu as she ran down the bank.
It was probably a suitable time to end the conversation. He supposed that they must be getting on to the village. Cordially, Reg recognised the fairness of this. They were each holding up a palm in farewell.
Mr Hatter wondered what Lu was concealing in her dress. But if she didn’t want to say, then he would let her be.
Before they reached the village Jack sat back on his hind legs and howled.
“Come on, keep going,” Mr Hatter told the dog quietly. There was a movement somewhere in the forest which Lu did not quite catch and Mr Hatter flinched, glancing about sharply.
Lu thought that Mr Hatter might connect the mystery of the hidden objects dancing in her dress with this inexplicable suspense. Yet the next moment the lane was flooded with sunlight and then, incredibly, it was raining gently, as if the sky was shaking away some spare drops leftover from another day.
The village was just around the bend. It was now a good opportunity to peel away from Mr Hatter and his doleful dog. Lu piped up that she had remembered that she had promised to read to Janet. Mr Hatter assumed that this was some small girls’ conspiracy and so he nodded his approval and went on without remark.
[Next instalment: “The Story of Mrs Man.”]