Then the girl fell into a deep, deep sleep; and when she awoke there was no prince or castle, only a little patch of green on which she lay and the great dark wood all around. By her side was the same bundle of rags that she had brought with her from her own home.
Why should these words have affected me so deeply? Perhaps it was seeing my own home vanish, like that of the girl in the story. Perhaps it was knowing that I was heading North of Nowhere, too. Or perhaps it was the drawing beside it, occupying almost the whole page, and executed in black ink. There was an ornate frame just inside the margin of white, made of intertwined thorns, and then the illustration itself.
What I saw was a girl, waking up in a tiny clearing almost completely overgrown by black brambles and branches. There was no visible way out, just a shaft of sunlight coming down on her like a spotlight in a theatre. Her face was a white wedge of misery. The darkness pressed in upon her, wave on wave of chaotic, seething undergrowth: yet was repulsed. You could tell, I don't know how or why, that this wasn't going to be the end of the story, that she was going to get up and put on those iron shoes and find the happiness she had lost. She looked the way I felt, or wanted to feel.
High on an empty bookcase, a telephone rang. It would not be cut off until noon. I closed the book with an effort and thrust it into the pocket of my jacket.
"Oh, hi, hi, it's me. I was just wondering how you are." This was Diana, one of several single women who had decided that my emotional, psychological, and gastronomic well-being was of particular concern to her. Diana was the most persistent.
"I just wanted to know if there's anything I can do. I could get a couple of hours off work, to help you pack, you know? It must be so difficult for you."
"It's done. Thank you."
I forced myself to sound a little less churlish, and immediately a tin of syrupy concern oozed towards me.
"Are you sleeping OK? Eating? You know, any time you want something cooked, let me know. You need to look after yourself, Dick."
As I lied that I was not drowning but microwaving my Meals for One, the line began an insistent chirping. This was my excuse for ringing off, in case it was my agent.
"Hallo? It's Sarah? I suddenly realized you're about to have a new number. I'm having a drinks party next week. Would you like to come?"
They were all so hesitant, these Cinderellas of the mating game, it was difficult to see them as predatory. Something had gone wrong in their lives--they had worked too hard, or played too fast, or been too soft or stayed too long--and now they were desperate, strung out, seeking salvation at the eleventh hour before the biological clock struck midnight. It was not myself they wanted so much as any half-decent heterosexual husband. They had hearts overflowing with love, yet they woke up every morning and saw the gradual withering, the shriveling, the advance of age that only marriage and childbearing could make tolerable. I felt sorry for them, but fed up. I wasn't the solution to anybody's problem, any more than they were to mine.
Upstairs, the packers grunted. The tape they carried in large reels thrummed and shrieked; they would cut the right length with keys--keys, presumably, to their own homes. The dismantling of my own would not take much longer, I knew. Boxes were stacked like battlements on either side of me; I envisaged Georgina and myself crouched down behind our respective barricades like two feuding medieval barons, sniping at each other.
As if in response, the telephone rang again. My wife's voice. I imagined it being bounced down from space, as heartless and cheerful as a goddess speaking from her oracle. "How's it all going?"
I gritted my teeth, and tried to keep my voice even and light. Years of training, and in a situation like this I still start to hyperventilate. "Like a nervous breakdown in slow motion."
Excerpted from In a Dark Wood by Amanda Craig Copyright 2002 by Amanda Craig. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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