by Martin Bolton
Joseph wandered through the woods, feeling the soft ground give slightly underfoot and breathing in the dank, earthy scent of decay rising from the leaf litter. He squinted as he felt the dappled sunlight flash cross his face. On he strode, past patches of bluebells and pungent honeysuckle. Occasionally he would hear some small creature stirring in the undergrowth as he passed. He would turn to catch a glimpse and, if he was lucky, spot a squirrel scampering up a tree trunk or a jay taking flight from a branch and disappearing into the foliage.
Joseph loved the woods. The place had been a source of fascination for him since his birth. He was the only son of Dr. Thomas Edgar Williams and loving wife Rose Carpenter. His father was an avid bird watcher and would take him on long walks in the woods and across the cliffs on their north side. His father’s love of nature extended to art too, and Joseph’s home was filled with watercolours of those picturesque north cliffs. Such was Dr. Williams’ love for art that he named his son after his favourite painter, JMW Turner, and christened him Joseph Mallord Williams.
When Joseph was seven, he was allowed to explore those woods alone. While nowadays many might consider it an unacceptable risk to allow a small child to roam a vast woodland and sheer cliffs alone, those were different times. So Joseph spent years as a child exploring the narrow paths through the undergrowth, the bright meadows with myriad wild flowers, marvelling at the variety of colours and smells. He spent hours each day seeking out the ancient twisted oaks, the dark hidden ponds and streams, the marshy clearings and strange moss-covered carvings on rotten stumps in dank forgotten corners of the wood. He found for himself secret places where he would hide away from the world and wonder what spirits must reside in the murky, concealed corners of Bellevue Woods.
When he was eighteen, Joseph went away to university to study medicine. In the years he was away, he saw Bellevue Woods in his dreams, and he would wander through them and onto the cliffs on the far side each night, and he often longed to be back there.
It was when Joseph returned home from university that he met Lilly. Lilly. That name seemed to give him a stifling sense of sorrow, but he couldn’t quite remember why. There was something there, just beyond the reach of his memory, something briefly unsettling.
He continued along the path. Great oak, beech, sycamore and birch rose either side of him. He forced a smile as he caught the scent of wild garlic in his nostrils, and steered his mind away from the malignant darkness that seemed to stir in the depths of his soul.
As he walked, the light seemed to retreat and the humid atmosphere began to cool. He knew that dusk was approaching and decided it was to find the south gate; the gate he had wandered through so many times to be embraced by the dimness beyond. Joseph’s stroll turned into a brisk march as the darkness closed in around him, and he felt relieved when he spotted the heavy iron gates in the gloom ahead.
His heart sank when he found the ancient gates chained shut. He stared through the bars, too close together to squeeze through, at the darkening fields beyond.
The quickest way out was the North Cliffs. It would mean a long walk along the coast road but he knew he had to leave the woods before darkness fell completely. As he ran, the shadows seemed to watch him, the air seemed to thicken and he felt as though he was running though treacle.
Finally he saw the dark grey sky resting on the hard line of the sea. As he emerged from beneath the trees into the dim light of evening, he stopped and caught his breath. A shape loomed to his right. A church.
The sight of that ancient, overgrown churchyard seemed to cause some memory to flash before his eyes. Too fleeting to glimpse, it left a nagging melancholy which gnawed at his nerves, and he was drawn towards its black, broken gate. Something pulled Joseph towards the graveyard.
Feeling the silent torment inside him intensify, Joseph began reading each and every gravestone. It was hard to make out the weather-beaten letters in the wan light, and many he could not read at all. On he went, drawn to the far end of the graveyard, where the oldest headstones sat in darkness beneath the trees of Bellevue Woods.
As he approached those aged graves, the torment in his mind began to slowly form, and his eyes settled on one particular grave. Kneeling down, he pulled away the brambles that embraced the crumbling headstone and read the letters he knew were there.
LILLY MAY WILLIAMS
1880 – 1905
DIED IN CHILDBIRTH
RESTS FOREVER WITH HER DAUGHTER,
ROSE, WHO DIED BEFORE SHE LIVED
Joseph’s tears came in floods as the memory showed itself. He turned to the darkness in Bellevue Woods. He knew what the battered letters on the next headstone said.
JOSEPH MALLORD WILLIAMS
1878 – 1905
TOOK HIS OWN LIFE IN GRIEF
FOR HIS LOVING WIFE, LILLY,
AND UNBORN DAUGHTER, ROSE
Joseph was the darkness, and he knew he would never leave the woods.