3. The Forest
Matthew's dad owned and ran a bike shop. The 1980's had seen a craze for BMX bikes, which made the shop very commercially successful. The 1990's had been the era of the mountain bike, which was another boon for the profitable bike shop. Matthew had grown up riding and racing BMXs and in his teens he had transitioned to cross-country and downhill mountain biking.
18 years old and completing the final year of his A-level qualifications, Matthew was in the 6th form at the local comprehensive school. He had passed his driving test and now drove a battered pickup truck to school each day, which was a well known vehicle to pupils and staff alike. A rusted hole in the exhaust meant that it was particularly noisy, as well as being driven dangerously fast by the highly competitive Matthew.
Built around a deep river gorge, the city had some extremely steep roads and Matthew's school sat atop a high hill outside the city centre. There was only one main road that led out in the direction of the school, before the turn onto the approach road. It was a particularly grueling climb out of the valley to reach the school from anywhere but the surrounding towns and villages outside the city.
On Matthew's drive to school, he had noticed one of the younger boys cycling the same route as him each day, up from the city centre. This boy's mountain bike was a cheap model, but still a well respected bike for the money. Splattered with mud, the bike was clearly used off-road as well as the mode of transport that carried this boy to school each day.
As the September start of the new school term turned into October, and then November, Matthew was impressed to see this younger boy out in all weather, climbing the hill each morning on his bike, with relentless grit and determination. The fitness required to tackle such a climb was impressive.
One particularly frosty morning, Matthew passed the boy in his pickup truck and then decided to stop at the side of the road. He jumped out.
"Hey! Do you want a lift to school?"
The boy had eagerly thrown his bike in the back of Matthew's truck and they sped off up the hill. Matthew introduced himself, and the boy in turn introduced himself too. He wasn't even out of breath. That was how Matthew met Neil.
Matthew and Neil's friendship grew because Matthew's competitiveness was perfectly matched by Neil's fitness. Neil wasn't particularly interested in competing in any races and had never found a group of casual mountain bikers who could match his fitness. Matthew would never race to make friends; he raced to beat the competition. It was nice for Matthew to have a friend who wasn't a potential race competitor.
Neil had explored the mountain biking trails that could be reached by bike from the city, but had not been able to travel further afield. Paired up with Matthew, they were able to spend whole weekends driving throughout their home county and the surrounding counties, even crossing the Severn Bridge into Wales, in order to ride the very best mountain bike trails.
As mountain biking exploded in popularity, a lot of trails started to become crowded with bikers, many of whom were talentless and unfit. "All the gear and no idea" was the commonly heard criticism of these debutante riders, whose shiny and expensive steeds had barely seen a muddy puddle since being purchased.
Matthew and Neil pushed deeper and deeper into the Westcountry, trying to find new areas to ride, far away from main roads and packed car parks full of middle-aged men clad in lycra cycling clothing.
By chance, on a country lane the pair happened upon a forestry track that was not gated off, because it also led to an isolated cottage that could only be reached by this gravel track. The Forestry Commission who managed the woodland had left a maze of tracks and firebreaks open to be explored in Matthew's pickup truck. From autumn through to early spring the forest was empty and silent, with no logging, no horse riders, no dog walkers, in fact no sign of human activity at all. It was eerily quiet in those woods, where the soft leaf mulch of the forest floor and the tightly packed trees would deaden any sound.
The forest grew on the South-facing side of a hill. At the top, there was a steep ridge to the South, and to the North there was a plateau where the forest thinned and eventually turned into rolling farmland as the hill gently sloped away. The trees were coniferous, which meant that little light penetrated the evergreen canopy in the cold months of the year. Logging had thinned the forest on the lower flanks of the hill, where large piles of logs were stacked up. Higher up in the forest the trees were younger, but it was much darker, thickly wooded and dense in foliage.
This area was virgin territory for mountain bikers. There were no hikers or dog walkers to have to avoid crashing into. There were no horse riders whose animals might be startled by muddy mountain bikers suddenly emerging from the undergrowth at high speed. Matthew and Neil pretty much had it to themselves for the first winter that they spent, visiting that same spot almost every weekend, in order to build a number of their very own mountain bike trails through the forest.
As their eyes started to adjust to the darkness of the forest, the pair started working their way further and further up the side of the hill, where there were fewer tree stumps that could easily cause a wheel-buckling and bone-breaking crash if they strayed off the trails they had made.
One gravel track led high up into the forest, near the ridge at the top where there was a cliff-like soily bank. On top of this bank was a line of conifers that had not had their lower branches cut off, such that there was a wall of trees that particularly intrigued Neil. He decided to explore further, but had to walk a fair way along the ridge to find a part where it wasn't too steep to climb. He followed the ridge back until he was near the end of the track. He could see that some conifers were surrounding something, much like a hedgerow. Neil called down to Matthew, and got him to climb up and join him.
Neither of the pair particularly wanted to penetrate the dense row of trees, which they now walked around the perimeter of. The forest was still thickly wooded at this point, but these trees was clearly concealing something. Eventually, Neil's curiosity overcame his initial hesitation and he started to push through the branches. Emerging into a clearing within, Neil called out to Matthew.
"You have got to see this!"
With some difficulty, Matthew entered the clearing too, and the pair stood looking at a particularly grimy caravan that sat atop some tree stumps. The caravan's wheels were missing, but otherwise it was in one piece. On the caravan's roof were a considerable amount of fallen branches, the sides had a lot of moss growing on them and the windows were grey with dirt, sprayed by wind and rain.
"Do you think it's locked?" Matthew asked.
Without hesitation, Matthew reached out and tried the door handle. Some corrosion of the hinges and door seal meant the door did not open easily, but the caravan was clearly not locked.
Neither of them had the nerve to actually try and enter the caravan. What would they find inside? It felt like breaking and entering somebody's home. It felt wrong. It felt like they were intruding, trespassing.
Neil had an idea. He rubbed off some of the dirt at the top of the door, about halfway along. He now affixed a small square of duct tape that he carried in his backpack - useful for makeshift repairs in the wilderness - stuck across both the door and the door frame. The small square of duct tape above the door was hardly noticeable.
"Now we'll know if anybody else has opened that door, if we come back in future" Neil said.
Over the rest of the winter, the pair continued to ride in the forest, but they never went back to the caravan. It seemed like it was almost a taboo subject. They never discussed it again that year.
At the end of the school year Matthew started working for his dad at the bike shop. The pair continued to mountain bike together, although during the summer they hadn't been out very much. The warmer drier weather meant that the popular nearby trails were over-run with other people. Their favourite private spot was off limits because the Forestry Commission would be logging.
Early in October, Matthew and Neil drove to the forest they had been eager to ride in again since they had to leave in the spring. They hardly spoke on the long drive deep into the Westcountry. No plan had been made, but they were both thinking the same thing.
Without any direction from Neil, Matthew drove the truck as high up the forestry tracks as the truck would carry them. The pair walked up to the ridge of the hill, leaving their bikes in the back of the truck. Making their way into the clearing where the caravan lay, it was clear that they had one thing on their mind: had anybody else been using the caravan?
The duct tape lay intact, still glued to both the door and the frame, although it had been covered over with a layer of grime such that it was virtually invisible. Neil peeled it off to reveal a clean square underneath.
The pair used the caravan as a base at weekends and for longer trips during Neil's school holidays, sleeping in there during the long cold nights, but being careful to preserve the caravan's concealment and look of abandonment. They kept warm with extra thick sleeping bags and they avoided using torchlight when outside. There was a chemical toilet in the caravan, but with no way to empty it, they buried their bowel movements out in the forest instead.
When Neil left school and started at technical college, he and his friend started to drift apart. Matthew got a girlfriend and they spent less and less time together. By the time Neil completed college and got his job, their priorities had changed from mountain biking to other things. Neil was focussed on making a good first impression at work and Matthew was deeply romantically involved with the girl he had met, as well as taking on an increasing amount of responsibility at the bike shop.
When Neil visited the caravan again, he hadn't spoken to Matthew for 8 years. Lara had never met Matthew, although she had heard Neil occasionally reminisce about his mountain biking days. Neither Neil nor Matthew had told a single soul about 'their' forest and the caravan.