The smell of roast pork tantalised his nostrils and made his mouth water. It was a long time since he had eaten his sandwiches and his circular route through the New Forest should have brought him back to Hinton Admiral Station by now. But there had been no sign of a railway line, let alone a station; no sign of a road, let alone the comforting sight of a gravel car park with notice boards.
He followed the scent trail, picturing a cosy pub, a hidden gem he could boast about to friends at work. Day One of training for Hampshire Tough Man had not gone well, but perhaps something of the day could be salvaged. Tough Man hopeful had left his smart phone and wallet at home as part of the exercise; he was carrying only a small amount of cash so he would not be tempted into a pub or restaurant. He regretted that decision, but hoped his coins would stretch to a cup of coffee, a packet of crisps and a helpful barman to give him directions.
The trail led him down a sandy slope into the trees, muddy hoof prints by a tiny stream made it an unlikely path to a pub and deterred him from his survival plan of drinking natural water. But hope was revived suddenly with the scent of wood smoke mingling with the roasting meat. The sun emerged from the clouds, sending rays piercing through the new green leaves and revealing coils of white smoke. Two more steps and he was in a small clearing, yards away from a squat building receding into the trees on the other side of the glade. Strangely coloured stones jumbled into walls were propped up by a wooden door and overhung by brightly coloured straw thatch. Tough Man was surprised there was no sign, then realised with a jolt that in such an isolated spot it must be someone’s home. They would be unlikely to welcome visitors, but a line of washing, above a small stretch of grass at the side of the cottage, reassured him that this was a family dwelling and he would not have to contend with some suspicious old man.
As he approached, a sweet smell, a blend of pick-a-mix and Lush, overpowered the scent of wood smoke. Stooping to the crooked door he spotted something metallic in the overgrown grass and picked up a mobile phone. He now had a good excuse to knock. The rapper, blackened metal in a shape that reminded him of a hand or claw, produced a muffled tap. As he waited, a flutter of white at the edge of his vision made him look down again. A piece of paper lay on the damp grass, he looked up to see a small square latticed window ajar. He picked up the paper and looked at two scrawled words Help Me.
He knocked at the door urgently now, picturing a young mother taken ill, her children helpless. He almost fell in the door when it was wrenched open and was surprised to come face to face with a smiling old lady, dressed strangely, not in denim like his Gran.
‘Sorry to bother you, only I found your phone and then this note; is someone ill?’
The phone and paper were in the old lady’s hands before he could blink.
‘So kind of you to bother, I must have dropped my phone.’
‘…and the note?’
She ignored his question and beckoned him into a little parlour with a roaring fire, welcome in the chilly spring afternoon.
‘You’ll have a drink of something warm?’
‘Oh yes, a cup of coffee if it’s no trouble, then if you can point me in the right direction I’ll be on my way… uhm, is that your family calling, grandchild?’
He thought he heard the ceiling creak, though it was hardly credible that there could be an upstairs in such a low house. When the old lady suddenly picked up a red hot poker from the fire, he started back in fright, but she merely plunged it into a pewter tankard.
‘Mulled mead, just what you need’ she smiled.
He sipped tentatively; it was a comforting warmth and did not burn his lips.
‘Delicious thank you; I know it sounds ridiculous, but I have no idea where I am. Are we near Hinton Admiral?’
‘Who’s he?’ the woman looked genuinely puzzled.
He shivered as he felt the first panic rising. How could he have got so lost?
‘Perhaps your husband could give me directions.’
‘My late husband never gave nobody nothing.’
‘How far are we from the A35?’
‘Why don’t you just enjoy your drink and stop gabbing.’
‘I should go now, smells as if your dinner is nearly ready’ he stood up shakily, his only desire now was to get out of the cottage and follow the setting sun till he reached civilisation.
‘You’ll stay for dinner.’
‘No…’ he stumbled against the wall, which felt alarmingly soft, but when he pushed at the door it wouldn’t budge. The old woman had her back turned, stoking the fire as if he had accepted the invitation to stay.
Now the air felt sweet and cloying, his head muzzy. He saw another door ajar and slipped through into a kitchen long and low. Heavy copper pans hung on racks and the heat was overwhelming from an old blackened range. The smell of roast pork was strong, the range with its heavy doors was big enough to roast a whole pig, but he had lost his appetite. The door closed behind him with a muffled thud and he looked around in vain for a window or outer door. He tried to think rationally, but he knew something was not right, everything was wrong. For a moment he thought the whimpering was coming from his own lips, then he saw a small cage beyond the heavy oak table. He crept round towards the dark corner, cautious in case it was an aggressive dog. Suddenly a hand thrust out between the bars.