A Deep Intake of Breath

Long listed for the WALKING HOME writing competition run in January & February 2022

Jan Howcroft reads A Deep Intake of Breath

“I’m going to do the circular,” he says, late afternoon. “You want to come?” It’s the most he’s spoken to you in a week. 

He waits outside for you to put on boots and pull an olive jacket over jeans. You lock the door. 

The forest breathes earth and decomposition. At first the track is narrow, lined with brambles, but soon widens to a gravel path between the trees: hornbeams, coppiced beech, all leafless now. 

Last night, he smelled of soap; a soap you never buy. 

You need to ask him why, but can’t. Instead, you stop to prod at fungi on a fallen trunk; behind him you can breathe more easily. 

A spaniel runs towards you, nose to ground, and slows to sniff your hand. He wags his tail then zigzags off. 

What if you’re wrong? 

A family passes on bikes; the tiny girl behind is travelling in a cart. 

He’ll deny it, you know he will. 

Almost home. You can see his two-tone jacket where the path winds round the woodpiles. He’s waiting for you, by a patch of downy feathers. 

“What happened here?” you ask, rhetorically.

He points.

A wood pigeon. One of its wings is splayed out and in the place its head should be there’s nothing, just a pool of blood. The only colour in the dying light. “My God,” you say. 

It’s cold now but neither of you moves. He looks at you. Before he speaks, you hear a deep intake of breath. 


Read more from the Long List of poems and stories submitted to the WALKING HOME writing competition. Watch winning authors reading their work on the video of the Write About Walking Home showcase event that took place on Sunday 25 September 2022.

Itching to write something yourself? Submit a piece to our Shorelines project, and invite your friends to read it aloud. Join one of our creative writing workshops or keep up to date with all our competitions by signing up to our curated newsletter here.

Jan H

Jan H

Jan Howcroft lives in Essex. With a background in geography, the natural world is often an inspiration to her writing. Walking has always been an important part of her life, whether on the Inca trail, the Cumbrian Mountains or in Epping Forest. She started...

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