The article about the pine martens feels sharp against my trouser pocket. I have all the details in my head; about the release programme, moving animals from an unspecified location north of the Great Glen to somewhere equally secret further south. I’ve been following it for months, when I can.
‘No harm in reading up on wildlife,’ Officer Cooper said when he gave me this. He approves of hobbies; ‘Ease you back into society. Have you decided what do you want to do?
‘I want to go home.’
‘Now, you know that’s not a good idea. You’ve no family there, anymore.’
‘I want to go home’.
‘People have long memories, Dan. You might feel you’ve paid your debt being in here but there are plenty who aren’t prepared to write it off. Why not go to the town instead? We’ll set you up with a room and help you find work.’
He thinks I lost that argument but I could not settle in the cramped room with the buzzing light and the rain dripping from the cracked guttering outside. Much better to stay outside and it was just as well I did because early next morning a woman left a heap of bags outside the door of a charity shop. Her crimson heels on the pavement made me look: short, urgent taps like she ought to be somewhere else. Later I went over and looked; toys and household stuff mainly but there was a sleeping bag, too, and that made me think. I could spare a pound, I had to keep the rest for bus fares and food; all I had to do was hang around until the shop opened and negotiate. Only two hours according to the church clock.
The driver had scratched his head and laughed, ‘where’ve you been mate? Only bus to West Kirk is on Tuesday. I can take you as far as the turn off.’ There was hardly anyone travelling so I spread out on the back seat, breathing in the warmth of my new purchase and looking out at the countryside. I thought we were going the wrong way when I saw that stretch of water because I was sure there was no lake there. I had fancied fishing when I was a kid but Dad could not see the point and it was too far to the coast. The road turned a corner and the lake was lost behind a line of trees. I caught up with it later as I climbed the hill into the village. But the pearl, mirror waters were only plastic – sheltering strawberries.
Our house had gone, too, replaced by a recycling centre. I circled the spot and reckoned the bottle bank was where the front room stood; wonder if they realised that. They had built a lot of smarter houses. I wandered about in their rows: Marigold Crescent, where I kissed Stacey Blake by the hawthorn hedge; Poppy Lane; the track down to the rotten plank bridge where we stood guard against rival gangs. Only the pub and petrol station seemed the same. The latter still had the creaking sign only with fewer letters. A burley man with narrowing eyes served me, hand hovering over his mobile phone. I fumbled coins across the counter and quickly crammed bread, jam and liver sausage into my bag.
Something moves, over to the left, a disturbance of light. Leaves crackle and a black wing flashes out from the thicket. I release my breath slowly, soundlessly. I could win prizes for waiting; it would be my specialist subject. The trophy goes to Dan for his ability to sit immobile in a damp sleeping bag. Trophies need mantelpieces though; the one at home was white and cluttered with bits of paper, photos, string and a big brass container of rubber bands. There were always hands stretching up to it, arms leaning on it, cigarettes stubbed out on it. Waiting is easy; it is freedom which is hard.
It was the badgers that I was interested in then, creeping off to watch them as it got dark, taking care not to knock over the bottles piling up outside the back door. Head full of anticipation; a firm grip on Grandad’s old binoculars. But one evening I saw a flash of colour like a freshly peeled conker darting through the open grass between the trees. It turned and, half hidden by a patch of bramble, I saw a curious, pointed face. It was in a hurry, creating a wave through the ferns in the undergrowth, heading for the stand of trees. I waited, I returned at every opportunity but I never saw it again. It kept me going all the years I was inside. I knew I would come back here once I was free – going to stay until I see the pine marten.
To be honest it was more difficult than I expected to find them again. They are shy creatures and there are so many places they could hide. The leaflet said three had been released; two females and a male about six months ago. They were not going to pinpoint their location but I had read up on the clues, on the field signs, and after a couple of days searching I struck lucky with a footprint in the soft mud by the stream. It was a corker; five toes as clear as day. It is an odd thing but once I get the first sign the others follow quite easily. Not long after I spotted a couple of trees, toppled together as if after a heavy night out, and in the space between them a dark, dry tunnel overhung with ivy. At the entrance was a coiled marker: pine marten scat. So obvious you could have put up bunting but the best bit is that it is my secret. People could walk past it every day and never see it. There was a small tree stump nearby with a flat platform and I placed my last slice of bread and jam there. I hope the sweetness will attract them. It is probably my best chance.
So I am tucked into a convenient hollow between some rocks, not too far away, with a good view of the stump. The shelter is not brilliant, water drips down the back of my neck from the leaves overhead but I can pull the hood of the sleeping bag up tight. Early afternoon is usually a good time to catch up on some sleep but today my head is a sea of sticky redness. My stomach grumbles. All I can see and smell is jam. It shimmers in the sunlight, a string of rubies on pale skin. Stacey had a red necklace; pretty Stacey licking a lolly after school, beads of strawberry ice running down her chin. Saliva pools at the side of my mouth. Jam sandwiches for lunch; wrapped in foil, eaten in the playground before school started or the large Victoria Sandwich cake in the shop window, filling oozing down the sheer, sponge cliffs. Everything dissolves into sugar, my fingers tremble, resolve weakens and I am wrestling with the zip. I take back the bread and smear jam across the stump. First food of the day; I promise if I see a pine marten tonight I will buy more, replace the offering and give the village another try.
I must have dozed off as the day’s colour has faded and the tree stump is visible only in the slice of moonlight shifting through the trees. The air is tense with expectation. The sleeping bag twists underneath me forming a tight skin across my body and hot spikes of pain surge through my leg. Slowly, I shift my position sideways. A Tawney Owl hoots in the distance, its call rushing towards me as if I could reach out and catch it. A soft breeze stirs the leaves and wafts a faint foxy muskiness in my direction. Alert, I listen for sounds, look for shapes.
A scratching of claws announces its presence somewhere in the darkness. Pale light zigzags through the cloud. It illuminates a creamy throat patch and two half-moons above – the light fur on a pine marten’s face. It jumps on the stump and from its jerky movements I can tell that it has found the jam. ‘Enjoy your freedom’, the words mouthed without sound. ‘It’s odd that you should feel so at home somewhere you didn’t ask to be when I never did.’ After a while I hear a soft growl, a sound of reassurance, and my muscles tense with the hope that this is a female with kits in the den. The darkness deepens and it is only possible to make out vague shapes and when they too finally merge with the night, I sink back into my sleeping bag. My eyes are dry with staring but I feel happier than I can ever remember.
It is curled up by the roadside. At first I think it is asleep but the context is wrong. I rush over; a passing car beeps its horn and swerves, but it is too late. Its tail curled between its legs cannot hide the gash of opened flesh, its dull brown fur streaked with blood. A crow lands on a post. I roar towards it, arms flapping. I would have killed that bird even though it was innocent.
It takes time to work out what to do, sitting on the verge being hooted at by cars rushing past. There is an address on the leaflet about the re-release. It is not far so I gather up the pine marten and cradle it in my sleeping bag.
The woman in the wildlife centre stares as I lay the bundle in front of her.
‘I found it on the road.’ I had rehearsed a speech but could no longer find the words.
‘Oh,’ she says taking a quick look to the office behind, ‘can I see?’
I peel back a section of the sleeping bag to reveal a pale rimmed ear and sharp snout. The woman sucks in the air and lets out a small moan.
‘I knew you’d done the release and you’d want to know what happened,’ I take out the crumpled leaflet and place it on the counter.
‘Yes. Thank you. I was involved – took three of them into the forest six months ago. I thought they were doing alright.’ She runs a hand across her face and breathes deeply. ‘I’d better see which one this is.’ Her hands slide across the matted fur, a doctor examining a sick patient. She looks up at me. ‘It’s the male.’
I look away, guilt nudging me that I should feel a sense of relief.
‘You only found this one?’
‘Yes, on the bend outside the village before you get to the bridge.’
‘Can you show me on the map? I went back a few weeks ago to where we’d let them go but they’d moved on and I couldn’t find any more signs. I’ve been meaning to have another look.
‘I’ve been watching them. I’m pretty sure the female has kits.’
‘Really, you saw them. Her eyes widen, ‘they’re so difficult to spot. I’d love to see them.’
I chew my lip and stare at my shoes but it feels right and when I look up the words come: ‘I can show you, if you’d like.’
‘Yes, please,’ another glance to the office, ‘do you mind if I bring Mike? He helped out on the release programme, too.’
‘That would be fine.’ I smile, daring to hope that freedom might just get a little easier from now on.