15. The Chase
Ten days had elapsed since he'd collected his first envelope from the post office. He'd slept twice, eaten all the food and drunk all the water. He needed to restock but his mind was fixated on collecting one of the other two envelopes.
Checking his appearance in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door, Neil decided that he would look OK if he wore his baseball cap to hide his dirty hair. Giving himself a liberal spray of deodorant and donning his clean clothes, he set off for town.
In a convenience store, he bought a few snacks and some bottles of drink. The post office handed over his letter with minimal fuss and Neil started his journey home. He had planned to stop at a village shop on the way home, in order to buy more supplies, but he was in too much of a rush to get back to the caravan.
While he had been staying in the caravan, he had felt exposed with the gaps in the curtains and the lack of window coverings anywhere else. He wanted privacy when he left the bedroom. He started to make a mental list of things he needed from a hardware store in order to better obscure him from prying eyes.
He hesitated for a moment before opening the second envelope. Was he already too sleep deprived and hungry? Had he been careless in not drawing attention to himself on his visit to the other town? He felt perfectly awake and alert. He didn't feel hungry. He'd made a reasonably rational appraisal of his appearance and ability to drive, to interact with people. However, he knew that the small worries would soon mushroom as he got more tired and hungry. He knew that he should have taken the time to buy more food and drink, as well as making the caravan feel more private.
Feeling slightly nauseous and nervous, he tore open the envelope and pulled out a leaflet advertising soldiers made of pottery. With absolutely no interest in or ability to read the Chinese text, only the vacuum sealed foil packet sellotaped into the back of the leaflet was of interest to him. Tearing the foil, there was a resealable plastic bag inside. He grabbed a bottle of drink from the kitchenette worktop, went into the bedroom and closed the door.
Minutes later, he was flooded with worries that he might have been followed back to the caravan. He started to worry that there was no way to lock any of the doors and an intruder could walk right in. He picked up a pair of tracksuit bottoms and tied one of the legs to the bedroom door handle. Now where would he tie the other end? He was afraid to release the tension that he was applying on the door handle with the tracksuit bottoms, as if somebody was about to attempt to try and open the door at any moment. He fumbled in the darkness, trying to find something at the right angle to secure the door closed.
There was a small amount of hanging space in an open wardrobe on one side of the bedroom and Neil tried to make the untied leg of the tracksuit bottoms stretch to the flimsy metal rail, but it was just too far away. He could tie the leg onto the curtain rail, but it was only made of plastic. Neil wanted the handle to be pulled upwards, so it couldn't be depressed, as well as pulling away from the door so it couldn't be opened.
After a considerable amount of time battling with the different angles and options, the knot on the handle came undone and Neil tumbled back onto the bed. The caravan rocked slightly and made a loud creaking noise.
"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" he whispered to himself.
"Stupid. Stupid. Stupid."
Then, he reattached the tracksuit bottoms with a double knot - making them even shorter - and reapplied pressure to keep the handle pulled upwards. His heart raced and he was sweating profusely. Spying the tracksuit top, he tried to reach it while awkwardly trying to maintain tension on the handle. With his left hand held aloft while his right hand reached down to pick up the other garment, his muscles were tense and his body contorted as he struggled comically with a task that he had needlessly overcomplexified.
At the limit of his strength and endurance, his arm weakened and buckled and he accidentally pulled the handle down with the tracksuit bottoms. The handle sprung back up with a loud clunk. He picked up the tracksuit top. His muscles ached and he was breathing noisily.
"Stupid fucking idiot" he whispered very loudly.
"Shut up! Shut up!" he whispered more softly but with a very angry tone.
Now he knotted the leg to one arm of the tracksuit. The other arm he looped around the rail in the wardrobe and started to pull. The rail sprang from its mounting and there was a a metallic crash as a pile of coat-hangers tumbled onto the bed. Neil was suddenly unbalanced and stumbled backwards, having to steady himself on the opposite wall and disturbing the curtains. The caravan rocked, creaked and groaned.
"STOP IT. STOP IT. STOP IT" he breathlessly whispered, fussing over the curtains to make sure they were still closed. He returned to the bedroom door and held the handle, as if somebody was about to burst in at any moment,
Neil's heart was thumping in his chest with his pulse throbbing at his temples and in his throat. He was breathing rapidly and wheezily. Sweat was running down his forehead and into his eyes, stinging them. He tried to calm himself down while still holding the door handle with a vice-like grip. His legs and back ached from standing awkwardly. He was shaking.
He lay down on the bed and held the door handle up with his foot. He was more relaxed and comfortable than he had been and the change of position gave his aching muscles some respite. He started to relax and calm down a little bit, even though he maintained pressure with his foot to make sure that nobody could press the bedroom door handle down.
After a while, holding his leg in that position started to hurt. He moved his foot so that his heel was on the door and the underside of his foot was supporting the handle underneath. Then, his heel slipped and his toes pulled the handle down. The bedroom door banged open with considerable force.
Neil leapt up, slammed the door closed and lay on the bed with fear coursing through his veins. He tried to calm himself down again. It was dark now but shadows danced on the ceiling above him, where the curtains didn't completely block out all the light. He was hyper-alert now, hearing every tiny noise of the forest and studying the shapes that he could see moving in the darkness.
As time wore on, he was convinced that there was a bluish tinge to the light he could see and it was flashing. He felt rising terror. The police had either followed him back from town or his noisy exploits in the caravan had alerted somebody to his presence.
There was nothing in the caravan to connect him with his real identity. He needed to hide.
Quietly he unknotted the tracksuit and put it on. Then he opened the bedroom door and slipped on his trainers. There was no sign of blue lights but he was now intent on escape. He was convinced that police officers were now fanning out in the forest, trying to find him. They had probably switched off their blue lights so that he didn't see them and try to run away.
Opening the caravan door there was an awful creak which panicked him. His pulse started to race again and he was breathing heavily as he pushed through the branches of the trees out of the clearing. He wasn't being quiet at all, because he was so terrified.
Sprinting through the trees, he realised that he had been heading towards the edge of the forest where it thinned out. He could see open fields lit up by moonlight. Hiding behind a tree trunk, he surveyed the landscape and tried to calm himself. Dark shapes seemed to be hugging the hedgerows and making their way towards the forest from that side of the hill.
Now with more self-control and purpose, Neil moved soft-footed between large trees and paused to put his back to the thick trunks while he caught his breath and decided which tree he would move to next. Making his way back deeper into the forest, it became darker and darker as the trees were more densely planted. He found a tree that had branches that almost reached the ground and made his way to the trunk, hidden in the gloom.
At first, he held his breath and tried to move noiselessly around the tree, checking all angles to see if he could see anybody. He couldn't see anything moving in the forest, but he decided to try and be as still and quiet as he could, and silently observe.
He intently watched the trees around him for any movement and listened for any sounds. He saw torches flashing and saw men wearing black uniforms, sweeping the forest several hundred metres away. Then, behind him, he heard twigs breaking as a man walked right past his tree. He tried to keep his breathing as shallow as possible and stood as still as a statue. He knew that it would be very unlikely that somebody would see him unless they approached from precisely the right angle. He turned his head away from the man so that his pale face would not light up in torchlight and closed his eyes so they didn't shine in the darkness.
Standing so still and tense became extremely uncomfortable and his muscles started to cramp, but he was calm and patient. The sounds and movement seemed to subside, but Neil was still very afraid. He decided to climb the tree.
The tree that he was stood by had a thick trunk and lots of branches that would support his weight. Climbing was easy and relatively quiet because most of the foliage was at the end of the branches. Provided he kept his weight close to the trunk, he didn't cause the branches to sway too much. The sound of his clothes brushing the rough bark was the loudest noise, so he would climb and then pause for a few minutes before resuming.
In the darkness he had little way of gauging how far up the tree he was, but he climbed until the branches felt dangerously thin. He imagined that the canopy would give him excellent cover and anybody searching for him would be likely to be looking at ground level anyway.
He was worried about falling to his death if he fell asleep, but he was wide awake and it started to get light sooner than he thought it would. As dawn broke, it became apparent that he was not particularly well hidden in the treetops and he was much higher than he had imagined. The climb down was going to be terrifying and he could barely bring himself to begin. Reaching the ground became a much bigger concern than evading police capture.
Neil's descent was noisy and destructive. He was exhausted and had little strength to lower himself down from each branch. His choice of where to put his feet was much harder going down and he snapped several dead branches, sending them crashing to the ground. If there was anybody within earshot, they would be in little doubt where he was, but he was concerned that he might lose his grip completely.
Dropping to the forest floor at last, he was covered with bark, moss and tree sap. His body was bruised and grazed; his hands were scratched and sore.
There was a thick mist of low-lying cloud making everything damp and cold. Not a single animal or bird stirred throughout the forest. Neil stumbled through the undergrowth and soon he saw the trees that surrounded the clearing. He was surprised at how little distance he had covered in the night. Everything looked very different in daylight and he wasn't sure if there had been any police at all.
In the caravan, he collapsed in bed and managed to fitfully doze, relieved to have made it back in one piece. He resolved to buy the things he needed to make things secure and private, when he went to the third town for his remaining envelope. For now, he had everything he needed. He just needed to be more careful so that his own mind didn't get the better of him.