This is the first story of any consequence that I ever finished. It betrays a lack of experience in both structure and execution, but I’m reluctant to do more than a little polishing. The episodes with the shaking tree, the dog, and the growl in the lane actually happened. They’re what set me going.
It was first published in an anthology called Candlelight in 2008.
Reading time: approximately 15 minutes.
I’m one of those people to whom others like to tell their stories. I suppose it helps being broadminded and having a deeply held belief that nothing – literally - is impossible. If someone tells me they’ve witnessed something that’s “impossible” I don’t write them off. I don’t try to explain away their experiences with that mixture of condescension and arrogance so common among the modern, rational mass of a population focussed unerringly on the heavily blinkered certainties of street level science.
So people can trust their private experiences with me, and I’ve heard plenty of them. This is one of the stranger ones.
I was at a party recently. The talk turned, as it often does when the drinking has reached that intermediate stage between reticence and oblivion, to the meaning of life and the nature of reality. I offered my liberal views as usual and the reaction was typically mixed, ranging from effusive agreement to snorting cynicism. When I drew apart from the crowd I was approached by a young man in his mid twenties whom I knew only casually. He said he wanted to tell me how right I was to keep an open mind. He was quietly spoken, calm, articulate - a little downbeat. He had a troubled air about him that suggested he had a story to tell, and that he wanted to tell it to me.
It was obvious that he hadn’t drunk a lot; his speech was clear and his eyes were sharp. There was no trace of that dewy-eyed look characteristic of the medium stage of inebriation that usually loosens people’s tongues. The best way to pass his story on would be to repeat it more or less verbatim, with neither embellishment nor censorship. This is what he told me.
“Ten years ago,” he began, “I was living with my parents in a village in a rural part of Derbyshire. It wasn’t a picturesque village, pretty ordinary really - a few big houses, some smaller, nothing very old. Our house was part of a barn conversion, one of a group of eight arranged close together round a courtyard on a lane that led out of the village.
“About fifty yards down the lane the road passed over a stream and my dad said it formed a boundary. Beyond it was an energy centre, he said. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that at the time; I do now. Another hundred yards further on, the village church stood on a small patch of ground to the left of the lane and dad was fascinated by it. He read up on its history and found that the oldest part was Saxon. It had been extended by the Normans and then further added to by later generations. But the Saxon stonework was still visible in parts and Dad said it was probably built on an ancient sacred site, as early churches usually were.
“To the right of the lane, opposite the churchyard, was a field with a raised mound that had been the site of a Norman manor house. I remember dad saying that he didn’t think the Normans built manor houses as such, only castles to stop the Saxons and rival barons getting to them. He also said that the medieval gentry were thought to have been associated with esoteric knowledge – members of orders like the Knights Templar and the early Masons - and he suspected that the first Norman who had chosen to set up home there probably did so because he recognized it as a powerful site.
“The stream curved around the far side of the field, forming its natural boundary, and beyond that was a pool about two hundred feet long by thirty or forty feet wide. That excited dad, too. He said that the ancient Celts had held pools in great reverence, regarding them as sacred places and gateways to other worlds. At the far end of the pool was the top corner of a wood through which the stream ran, and which you could also get into from the lane about a hundred yards beyond the church.
“This whole area impressed dad so much. He said that the stream, pool, wood and church formed a powerful energy centre that you could feel as you walked among it - and that you could sense the lack of when you came back out.
“Mum felt it too. She told me that on one occasion they’d gone for a walk across the field and sat on a bank overhanging the brook close to the spot where it entered the wood. She said she was startled to hear what she described as a ‘snorting’ sound which seemed to come from inside the wood. Dad went and looked and said that he couldn’t see anything. Mum joked that it was probably some half-human creature, some genetic misfit like the ones you read about in horror stories. She said it probably lived in the old mill nearby and was let out for walks now and then.
“I used to walk the lane myself sometimes, with the dog, and even I used to feel something. I used to think that it was just a sense of – what can I call it – historical richness, I suppose; a feeling that a lot had happened there over the centuries. I used to get the same feeling when we visited old abbeys and castles on holiday.
“But the only inexplicable experience I had was one night during the school holidays. I remember it was a warm, still night at the end of July. I was up late watching some film on the television. It finished at about two thirty and I went to let the cat out. I opened the front door and followed him outside, just to enjoy the balmy atmosphere for a few minutes.
“There were no lights on anywhere. Everybody else had obviously gone to bed. It was really still and peaceful; you could almost feel the silence. The only light came from our hall and there was just the slightest hint of air movement - nothing strong enough to be called even a light breeze. In the middle of the courtyard was a big lime tree which was much taller than the houses. Suddenly it shook violently and the quiet was shattered by an almighty rustling of leaves. If there’d been a gust of wind it wouldn’t have been remarkable, but it really startled me because there was no wind. It was as though there was something sitting among the branches, shaking it wildly for a few seconds.
“I looked at the tree and it seemed suddenly massive, powerful and intimidating. I assumed there must have been a gust at rooftop level maybe, something that I couldn’t feel down on the ground, and forgot about it. But it was only a week later that Dad had his late night experience and that was a bit more spooky.
“He was up late one night doing some work ready for the next day, when he heard the dog whining downstairs. The previous day she’d had an upset stomach and Dad had paid the price for ignoring her pleas to be taken out. He’d got the job of cleaning up the diarrhoea! So he decided he’d better not make the same mistake again and took her out.
“She was happy enough, apparently, as they walked through the courtyard and past the garages, but became reluctant to go on as they approached the entrance to the lane which ran to the church. Dad said he got a bit irritated with her as she’d obviously been asking to go out. He tried to cajole her into going further. As they reached the junction with the lane she stopped and looked even more frightened. That put the wind up Dad a bit. He believed that animals can sense things that we can’t. A lot of people do, don’t they? I think they’re probably right.
“Anyway, he’d never been afraid of dark lanes at night and managed to get her a bit further until they were twenty or thirty yards down the lane. At that point the dog refused to move another step. She stood rigid, with a terrified look in her eyes. Suddenly – and bear in mind that this was an unlit country lane with no moon to speak of, the village behind him in darkness and no sound apart from the slightest rustling of the odd tree – he heard a low growl. It was unmistakeable, he said, and came from the direction of the church.
“He had a torch with him and immediately shone it in the direction of the noise, but said that was even more disturbing because all he could see was a pool of weak light illuminating a bend in the lane a few yards further down. He had the feeling, as you would I suppose, that something was going to appear around it any second. Now he was frightened; he openly admitted it, and needed no further encouragement to walk quickly back to the house, turning around every few seconds and shining the light behind him.
“I was still up when he came in and he looked disturbed in a way I’d never seen before. He told me the story and said that he kept hearing that verse from The Ancient Mariner, the one that runs
Like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned round, walks on, and turns no more his head,
Because he knows some frightful fiend doth close behind him tread.
“That seemed to bring him out of his fear and he laughed the whole thing off, though it’s interesting that he didn’t put any of it down to imagination. I know that too many strange things had happened to him to do that. He had developed the ability to put them in a bag of experiences and not let them trouble him - that was the way he described it. He said it was the best way of dealing with them – put them away, close the lid and don’t dwell on them. Otherwise you end up being too frightened to go to sleep at night.
“What did bother him, though, was that the experience put him off going down the lane after dark and he didn’t like being ‘imprisoned,’ as he put it. He tried to rationalise the experience by coming up with possible explanations for the noise. But he was adamant that it was a growl like that of a large animal. The only large animals around at the time were the cows in the field, and cows don’t growl – so what does?
“The only physical explanation we could think of was that there might have been a big cat at large. Heaven knows there are enough stories about them, and they can’t all be put down to imagination or mistaken identity. But surely there would have been incidents of farm animals being attacked and Dad said that, on the night in question, the cows he could see at the edge of the field seemed relaxed - which they wouldn’t have been if there’d been a puma or panther on the prowl.
“We never found out what it was. There were no reports of animal mutilations or sightings of any sort, and gradually the incident drifted into the background. There were no other strange incidents to speak of and the mystery faded into the background.
“But then, about three months later when we were getting deep into autumn, dad had what he referred to as his ‘rum do.’ I remember him saying on a couple of occasions that he felt the earth energies decaying, as though the vitality of summer was going to sleep along with mother nature. He also had a strong belief in the existence of beings which occupy the same space as us but in other dimensions. He openly admitted a belief in fairies, although he always liked to qualify the term because he said it carried unfortunate connotations! He said that he felt they were going into hibernation as well.
“Anyway, one night – I think it was in October – he was in the kitchen making a cup of coffee when (and I have to emphasise here, all I know is what he reported and it was pretty bizarre) his eye was drawn to a movement beyond the window. It was dark outside and therefore difficult to see much, even with the streetlight a few yards down the road. The reflection of the lighted kitchen was pretty much all you could see when you looked at the window.
“As he strained his eyes to see what the movement was, he saw a white face turn towards him and stare back. He said that the face was ‘human, yet not human.’ He had the impression that it was the size of a human face and had all the normal features, and yet it was different somehow. There was something about the shape that gave it an animal-like quality and the eyes looked harsh and fierce – ‘predatory’ was the word he used. And the other strange thing was that the face was low to the road, as though its body was walking on all fours. He said he’d never felt so frightened in his life.
“That face, in that position, was so bizarre and menacing. He said he couldn’t tell how long he stared at it and it stared back at him. It could have been three seconds or three minutes – he was rooted to the spot and engulfed with a sense of horror he’d never felt before. Suddenly, the thing leapt straight at the window with lightning speed and crashed against it, cracking the outside pane of the double glazing with an almighty noise.
“Dad said he was panic stricken. He turned and ran out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind him. He had the presence of mind to run to the cupboard under the stairs where he knew he had a ball of nylon string. He intended to tie one end to the kitchen door and secure the other to something solid just in case the ‘creature’ smashed the window and came in. He said he was becoming increasingly desperate and uncoordinated as he fumbled among the bag trying to find the string”
I interrupted my storyteller at that point to ask where he was at the time all this was happening. Had he heard or seen anything?
“No,” he said “I’m coming to that.
“While dad was rummaging in the hall cupboard, mum came out of the living room to see what was going on. Dad mumbled something about ‘something bloody evil trying to smash the kitchen window and get in.’ Mum looked at him and the kitchen door a couple of times, and then said that she hadn’t heard anything, just dad slamming the door and rushing about like a mad thing. There couldn’t be anything there, she said, because she’d just heard a couple of their neighbours walk down the lane outside the house, talking perfectly normally. Dad stopped and listened. He admitted that he couldn’t hear anything now but was adamant that he had seen something fly at the kitchen window and crack it.
“Mum didn’t know what to make of it, but she wasn’t the sort to be messed about. Funny isn’t it how, when the chips are down, women often turn out to be braver than men? She grabbed a hammer that was lying on top of a tool bag in the cupboard and made for the kitchen door. Not surprisingly, Dad got a bit anxious, but mum insisted on opening the door slowly and looking in. She opened it bit by bit, looking carefully at each stage with the hammer at the ready, until it was fully open. There was nothing in there and the window was unmarked. Dad sat on the floor breathing heavily, feeling embarrassed and confused but still pretty frightened.
“I was out when all this was happening, but I remember knowing that something was wrong when I came home. They were both in strangely quiet moods. I asked what was going on but they wouldn’t say; just said it was nothing important and that it would blow over.
“I got to hear the whole story a couple of weeks later. During those two weeks I’d noticed that there was a strange atmosphere in the house. It didn’t trouble me much as, like most fifteen-year-olds, I spent most of my time sitting in my own room with my computer and stereo and so on. But I’d also noticed that dad had taken to closing the curtains and blinds before it went dark every evening. It was unlike him and I took him up on it once, saying that he was shutting out the daylight. He made some remark about curtains adding to the insulation in the winter - even though it was only autumn.
“Then, late one afternoon, dad and I came home together. We’d both been out and he’d given me a lift. As we walked into the living room he made for the windows to close the curtains. Mum was in there reading and he snapped at her for not closing them herself, even though it wasn’t fully dark yet. He stopped suddenly and a look of fear spread over his face like I’d never seen before. Have you ever noticed how a look of real terror in somebody’s eyes is contagious? It cuts straight into you and makes you terrified as well. He was staring at the window that looked out onto the courtyard. Mum and I both looked in the same direction, and then she looked at dad and said ‘You’ve seen it again, haven’t you?’
“Dad nodded and looked away from the window. Mum and I spoke together. ‘Seen what?’ I said, while mum said ‘Where?’
“Dad went and sat down. He leant forward with his arms folded across his chest in that way that people do when they’re trying to explain to themselves something that defies explanation. ‘In the shrubs outside the window,’ he said, and nodded his head in that direction. ‘Was it the same as before?’ asked mum. ‘Mm,’ said dad. ‘It was dark and hazy, but it was him alright.’ ‘Who?’ I asked, feeling a bit spooked myself.
“And then the whole story came out. I was all for dad seeing a doctor, but I knew him well enough to take what he said seriously. He was highly intelligent and I’d always been brought up to accept his views on other dimensions and the like. His opinion was that this ‘creature’ was real enough, but only he could see it. He said that the episode with the kitchen window was an example of the power that some things have to put realities into a person’s mind that are exclusive to them. Apparently, he’d seen this thing looking at him on several occasions, always when it was dark or nearly dark, and always through windows. On one occasion he’d seen it through the skylight over his head in the office. That must have been really scary.
“But the worst one happened about a week later. He was outside one mild, bright autumn day, cleaning the downstairs windows. He suddenly spotted the face of this thing in the glass – in broad daylight! His first thought was that it was a reflection and turned around in horror. There was nothing there and his instinct went into self-protective mode; he told himself that this one was just imagination. Then an awful thought occurred to him. It was bright outside but the interior of the room was relatively dark. He had only seen the face. If it had been a reflection from a bright exterior he would have seen the whole body. What if it wasn’t a reflection at all, and the ‘thing’ was inside the house? He had trouble putting that one into a bag of experiences and closing the lid!
“He was pretty edgy that night and we talked about the idea of getting some sort of exorcist in, but that’s not as easy as it sounds; they’re not listed in Yellow Pages - we looked, believe it or not - and dad had long since moved away from the established church. So where do you look for an exorcist, if you can’t go to the local vicar?
“The fact that he’d seen it in daylight clearly worried him. He felt that it might mean that the creature was getting closer and becoming bolder. Up to that point he’d felt an understandable sense of horror at seeing it. Now he was beginning to feel threatened. What if it should be working up to an attack of some sort? The nature of such an attack was impossible to predict – and certainly didn’t bear thinking about. But how do you avoid thinking about it in that situation?
“He did take to reading a lot – anything he could find on the subject of parallel worlds and alternate dimensions. He found a lot of interesting stuff too. He told me one night that there was a widespread belief in ancient philosophies that matter is simply energy vibrating on a wavelength that prevents other matter, vibrating on the same or similar wavelengths, from co-existing in the same space and time. That’s why things are what we call ‘solid.’ But matter vibrating on a widely different wavelength could co-exist, and this was the explanation for ghosts, fairies, demons and so on.
“Apparently this isn’t just ancient philosophy, either. It seems that quantum physics is starting to come to the same conclusion. He believed that this ‘creature’ was some inhabitant of just such a world. But what he couldn’t understand was why it was making its presence felt to him? Why him and nobody else?”
At this point my storyteller paused. He lowered his head for a few minutes, then raised it again and looked beyond me and into the distance. He looked back at me and said
“Two weeks later, dad disappeared.”
He paused again but I was impatient.
“How do you mean, ‘disappeared’ – into thin air?”
“Not exactly – though it came to look that way eventually. It was a Wednesday night. I came home from a friend’s house at about eleven thirty. Mum was looking anxious and I asked where dad was.
“She told me she’d arrived home as usual at seven o’clock and dad’s car was in the garage, but there was no sign of him in the house. She assumed he’d gone out for a walk, but she was a bit surprised as it was late November and it was cold and dark outside. Dad didn’t go for walks down the lane on cold, dark nights.
“All evening she’d been expecting him to turn up with a simple explanation, but he hadn’t. His car was in the garage, his bag was in the hall, his keys were where he always left them, his coat was on the hook and his credit cards were in the pocket of his briefcase where they always were. Every bit of evidence said that he’d arrived home as usual. So where was he? She’d checked with neighbours but nobody had seen him. She’d called his mobile phone which he always kept in his trouser pocket, but it had gone straight to voice mail, suggesting it was switched off.
“Eventually, at about midnight, she called the police thinking that he must have had a heart attack or something and be lying in the lane or the field or somewhere. They didn’t take it too seriously. They said that sort of thing happened often, and they were sure dad would turn up within twenty four hours. Mum wasn’t impressed and we decided to take a torch and search the lane and fields ourselves.
“It was a bitterly cold night. The mud at the side of the lane was frozen hard and there was a clear sky but no moon. The combination of the biting cold, the fear that was never far from us since dad had started seeing his creature, and the worry over his whereabouts made it easily the worst night of my life.
“We spent a miserable couple of hours searching the area as best we could in the dark. We walked the length of the lane as far as the wood; we followed the brook from the road to the wood; we even stumbled through the wood itself, but eventually accepted that it was hopeless searching at night. We walked around the perimeter of the pool shining the torch on the dark water. And we jumped every time we heard a noise. We found nothing and eventually went home. Neither of us went to bed. Dad might come back, or phone. The next day we searched the wood methodically in daylight but still found nothing.
“A few days later the police took dad’s disappearance seriously and started a missing persons enquiry. They did searches and checks and even put a diver into the pool. Still nothing.
“For the next few weeks mum was beside herself with grief, worry and speculation. She had time off work, but that didn’t help and she went back before the doctor’s note expired.
“Eventually the frantic feelings of worry and endless imaginings gave way to helplessness and, as time went by, we just got used to the situation and life returned to a sort of routine. The mystery was never far from our minds though, and mum was never quite the same again.”
The young man went quiet for a while, as though building himself for a final chapter in his drama. I said nothing this time, but waited for him to continue.
“And then, about three years ago, I got married. My girlfriend was already pregnant and our daughter was born five months later. That seemed to help mum a lot. It gave her something to live for again and we spent a lot of time at the old house in Derbyshire. I’d told my wife the story of dad’s disappearance but Jessica, our daughter, was still too young to understand and we’d obviously never said anything to her.”
I detected a shudder ripple through the young man as he went quiet again.
“It wasn’t over,” I suggested, reading the obvious message from his body language.
“No. Last Sunday we went to see mum - we always go over one day at the weekend. She and I were in the kitchen and my wife had gone to the loo. Jessica was in the living room. Suddenly there was a shriek and she came rushing into the hall, clearly distressed. She kept saying ‘seen a goblin, seen a goblin.’ My blood turned to ice. All the old stuff with dad came back. ‘Where?’ I asked her. ‘In the trees,’ she said, pointing in the direction of the living room windows. She obviously meant the shrubs outside. This was too much, but I had to go and look, didn’t I?”
He paused again, breathing slightly more heavily.
“I saw it for a brief second or so. The face ‘human, but not human’, the figure crouched on all fours, the look of something in its eyes that could have been malice, and yet somehow looked pitiful. Then it disappeared.”
I felt genuinely fearful for the young man. It seemed that he was going to have to suffer the same ordeal as his father. My first reaction was merely to state the obvious:
“I suppose it was the same thing your dad saw?”
“No,” said the young man, shaking his head, “it couldn’t have been.”
“Why not?” I asked.
He looked directly at me and smiled a strange, empty smile. And now his eyes were damp, but it had nothing to do with drink.
“Because it was my dad.”