Welcome to the start of a new story! Markedly different from The Darkhouse, this is a modern story with a folk horror flavour.
Updates every Tuesday and Thursday.
I don’t like camping. I think anyone who genuinely likes camping is broken in some fundamental way. Where were you over the last few millennia of human advancement while the rest of us discovered things like baths and central heating?
The point of it isn’t completely lost on me: Yeah, there’s something appealing about leaving the ‘real world’ behind and bonding with a few good mates over drinks away from “it” all. There are better ways to go about it, is all.
If camping in theme parks was an option, I’d be right there. ‘Going back to basics’ isn’t the problem, it’s the fact there’s fuck all to do there except complain about a lack of signal and be cold and/or wet. I’d be happy to sleep in a sweaty polyester sack and drink instant coffee if it meant I could bugger about on roller coasters and in arcades all day.
Out of all the obstacles camping can throw at a good holiday, hiking comes at the top of my shitlist.
It’s too stressful. Every step taken away from the camp is another step to take back. There might be a few moments along the hike when I can stop and appreciate the scenery, but that’s usually followed by the burning need to find the closest pub. This is Britain we’re talking about, anyway: The odds of climbing up anywhere and being able to see more than a couple of metres in front of you courtesy of ever-present pissing rain are pretty slim. Despite what you might know about the UK, there aren’t that many pubs at the top of mountains.
The double whammy of walking until my legs feel like they’re falling apart then returning to the comfort of a shitty tent is the icing on the dog turd.
I hadn’t been camping for about seven years when Paul called me up and invited me to his stag do. We’d gone camping a few times when we were at Uni, being the poor students in need of a break that we were. Those were the days when we could load up gear without any commitments or responsibilities we cared about, jump on the next bus, and keep going until the city gave way to fields. It was an escape from our failing degrees, slug-infested digs, and whatever coursework deadlines we’d decided to ignore that month.
We had the option of living like paupers in shitty accommodation, or like royalty in a field. With backpacks filled with cheap lager, enough cigarettes to last a couple of bums that were too young to believe in cancer, and our charity shop bought tent, the world was our oyster.
Or, at least, the green part in a fifty mile radius of the campus was.
The first couple of times it was a complete nightmare. I honestly thought we were going to die from hypothermia. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing. The times after that, we invested in whatever gear we could as one hurdle after the next made itself known, and it became a bit more bearable. By the end of it, we weren’t exactly comfortable but we had a good idea of what to expect and how much non-brand booze we’d need to stay warm.
Not much had happened for me in the seven years since our last camping trip. It had been an end of Uni blow-out: We’d invited a few more mates to join us for a taste of the high life and gotten so black-out drunk we stayed an extra night without realising. After we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, I’d more or less fallen out of contact with everyone. I’d fucked up my degree, realised I didn’t want to do it again, and went back to live with my mum. After dossing around for a few years, I blagged myself an entry level job with a company whose name starts with the letter B and rhymes with ‘shittish telecom’. I’d stagnated there ever since.
Paul and I had swapped emails sometimes, gave each other a call on our birthdays, but that was about it. When he called me up out of the blue to invite me along for his stag do in Cumbria, it sounded like the best thing I’d ever heard.
Someone inside the first line customer service drone I’d become thought it would be exciting. Probably because in the years I’d been doing the job, I’d died a little more each day. The idea of revisiting a time in my life when ‘commitments’ were optional felt like someone had thrown me a lifeline.
Some months later when I stepped off the bus into a village in the arse end of nowhere, I wanted someone to throw me another rope so I could hang myself with it.
The campsite wasn’t sign-posted, so I took a detour to give the place a once over. The locale was an archetypal Lakes village that looked like every picture you’ve ever seen from the Lake District. The local was an archetypal Lakes village pub called The Barking Buck. Nothing too mindblowing, although the selection of ales on tap was impressive. At the pub I mentioned I was in the area for camping and some helpful guy who looked like a punch wearing a flat cap pointed me off down a riverside track.
I suppose that in summer this lonely little place might’ve been pretty, but early November in the UK wasn’t doing the place any favours. Everything was grey or a shade of grey. Even my moth-eaten, tasteful neon pink waterproofs looked dull. I didn’t see another person for as long as it took me to reach the site, not even on the sides of the steep valley that cut down to where I guessed I was heading. The landscape was the right mix of craggy and forested that any hill-walking tosspot would jizz at the prospect of breaking their ankles. That said a lot about how dead the place was. I could only assume that it was all private land.
The river was nice enough for as long as it stuck by the track. After a while, it petered off to one side and left me with nothing but mud, moss, and naked trees to look at. Maybe this was why no other bugger came here.
It took about 45 minutes to walk the route. I passed a very decent looking 4×4 and parked-up minibus on the way. Paul had said something about organising transport, but I only had a few minutes left on my break when he called so I’d waved him off. Got the address and told him I’d make my own way.
I’ll be honest with you: I’m not the healthiest person. I smoke too much, I drink too much, and there isn’t much incentive to be the best version of you when forty hours a week you’re paid fuck all to sit at a desk and have people scream at you. When I finished work, the last thing I wanted to do was go to a gym. My bad habits were little oases in the middle of all that.
By the time I made it to the camp I wanted to reach back and punch myself in the face.
At the end of the track was rickety gate, wide enough for some sort of farm vehicle. I let myself through and into the glorified field on the other side.
The site was a field ringed by a dense treeline. Judging by the way the grass was rucked up, I assumed it was still used for grazing. Sheep, probably. So now there were ticks to worry about too. I hoped the little bastards died off after summer. Can’t imagine they migrate.
There were a couple of big tents already set up. Now, when I say “tents” I mean the equivalent of palatial accommodation in camping speak. I’d seen these things before in wanky hipster articles, usually alongside pictures of glass jars with candles in them. Yoghurts, or something. A family could live in one of them; you could rent out the floor space to someone from London for £600 a week. I stopped to take them in. This was a far cry from what I’d been expecting.
I heard voices. The flaps of the closest tent shifted and sure enough someone stepped out. They looked around before spotting me, then walked over, clearing most of the field in the time it took me to take out a cigarette and light up.
Tall and lean with broad shoulders, clean skin and perfect teeth, there was no way to describe the guy without making him sound like a best of breed winner at a pet show. His nose was probably wet and his eyes bright, too. He looked like a catalogue model for Mountain Warehouse decked out in pristine, expensive kit. I did a double take when I looked up at his face.
“Jesus, Paul?” I gaped.
“Hi stranger – I can’t believe you came!” he said before grabbing me in a hug. That felt familiar enough. I clapped him on the back and we held each other at arm’s length. My dropped cigarette hissed on the damp grass by my feet.
“What the fuck happened to you?”
He held up his left hand showing the thin silver band on his ring finger. “My fiance.”
“Oh, fuck, yeah, right of course.” I attempted to laugh it off. “Shows how much I pay attention.”
“If you used social media, you’d know what’s happening.”
“Call me old fashioned, but I prefer talking to people.”
“That only works if you pick up your phone, you prat. We got engaged a year ago.”
“Yeah?” I felt my body returning to its normal, shitty state as my breathing levelled out. My face still burned beet red from the exercise. “Congratulations?”
Paul reached down and effortlessly picked up my sports bag. He started walking and I followed. “We met at work. I’m a project manager these days for a software company. He’s the lead developer and we worked a few late nights on a project I was heading up.”
“He makes me laugh. His favourite film is The Bourne Identity. He can’t cook, he can’t sing but that doesn’t stop him, even if he doesn’t know the words. He’s afraid of snakes, thinks Lady Gaga is overrated, and for our first date he took me to a Rammstein gig in Manchester and had to scrape me off the floor during Du Hast after I nearly got trampled. He hates camping as much as you do.”
I nodded in approval. “Sounds like a decent guy.”
Paul nodded towards the closest tent. “Right, that’s enough of an intro so you don’t make a dick of yourself and have something to talk about. He’s also in there.”
I must have looked surprised, stopping as I did with a punctuating squelch of mud.
“We’re both stags, so we agreed to two stag dos. I wanted this, and next week we’re going to Edinburgh for his choice. He wants to do a bar crawl.”
I tutted. “You couldn’t have invited me to Edinburgh?”
“Sorry. Edinburgh was his choice and he doesn’t know you. Maybe if you get along this weekend he might find an extra space.”
“I thought you hated camping too?”
His smile widened. “Can’t stand it. But old times, you know? We weren’t exactly doing it in the best conditions seven years ago.” He gestured widely at the tents, taking in a small drystone shack on one side. “This way we can see what’s it’s like done properly. It wasn’t all bad. We had some laughs.”
“I suppose.” I eyed up the accommodation. “Christ, we could get a trapeze act going in there.”
“They’re yurts. Meant to be really warm and dry and comfortable. The farmer has them set up all year and he hires them out. They’re basically hotel rooms.” He pointed to the drystone building I’d mentally written off as some sort of sheep shelter. “Toilets and showers are in that outhouse there. Bins are next to them. The farmer’s away this weekend, but he’s set us up with soap, loo roll and running water. We’ve got the whole place to ourselves.”
“In the lap thereof.” He started to walk again and I followed.
I heard more voices as the yurts loomed. I suddenly felt very self-conscious, stumbling my way through the mud as Paul glided confidently next to me.
“Who else is here?”
“Not many. There are a couple of people from my work who you won’t know and will probably hate – Steve and Gerry, although Gerry’s my boss so play nice. There’s Lucy from my final year – I don’t know if you ever met her – and Mike and Jo.”
Everything else dropped from my brain. “Wait, Jo? Our Jo?”
“The one and only. I invited everyone from way back when, but most of them are busy with kids, work, finding themselves out in the world, or too lazy to respond to invites. You, Lucy, Mike and Jo were the only ones who could make it.”
I felt better already. Towards the end of Uni, Paul and I’s magical camping adventures turned into more of a communal affair. From its humble beginnings, our twosome turned into a tensome. I felt genuinely sad that not everyone could make it, although I was too busy reeling at the thought that any of them might’ve bred to say so. How terrifying.
The thought of seeing Joanne again just about made up for it. Mike I could give or take – he was a nice enough guy, a bit of a pothead – but another familiar face would be nice. Maybe he was more of a fuck up than me?
I hated myself for thinking it, but there you go. I never said I was a good person.
Then just like that I felt like an awkward piece of shit again. Had Jo and Mike gone through their ugly duck phases like Paul? Was I going to be the token piece of garbage in the middle of the party reminding everyone else of how well they’ve done?
A loud, brash laugh broke the air.
“Jo’s drunk already,” Paul sighed.
Excellent. I felt better already.
Paul steered me directly towards the other man of the hour, or, well, weekend. Ewan was nothing like I expected. Despite the insider information Paul had loaded me up with, I assumed that Ewan would look like another representation of human perfection. I was surprised to find a doughy little guy with slightly too-long hair, an AC/DC t-shirt, and thick round glasses. He was basically a hobbit.
He shook my hand enthusiastically.
“We didn’t think you were going to come!” he said, a craft beer in his off hand. “You missed the ice breaking exercises.”
“Thank fuck,” I grinned at him. He laughed as I was steered towards the next unfamiliar face, Steve.
Paul was right: As soon as I clapped eyes on the guy I couldn’t stand him. He had to be in sales. He took a few seconds too long to look me up and down when Paul introduced us. He didn’t say anything offensive, but the way his mouth puckered up like a dog’s arsehole when I told him what I did for a living said as much as I needed to know. I obviously wasn’t an opportunity, so I wasn’t worth his time. When I took his hand, it was like touching a recliner. He looked like an American car ad and smelled like air freshener – obviously he was engaged in that sort of try-hard fight against the natural aging process that makes a person look simultaneously ageless and somewhere in their sixties. I disliked him immediately.
Gerry seemed all right. A bit uptight, but I could deal with that. He looked about as prepared as I did wearing an old Liverpool shirt, trainers and a blazer. He visibly relaxed when we got talking and told him all I’d brought were a few pairs of socks and the contents of a small off-licence. He was definitely the oldest person there. His hair was greying around the ears and his face naturally creased (unlike Steve’s) when he emoted. He was a bit out of his depth, but a few beers and he’d probably be fine, I figured.
Lucy was someone I’d met only a couple of times but she seemed nice enough. I might’ve been able to pick her out in a line up, but not unless someone gave me a few hints. Dull and mousey, the sort of bookish girl you could see every day for a year and not notice. Turns out that after Paul and I screwed up our degrees, while I went out into the wider world to couch surf, Paul had repeated his final year. He’d scraped himself a 2:2. When I left him to academia, Paul had fallen in with a more studious lot and, thanks to them, he got his priorities sorted. Lucy looked like every stereotype of a study group and it wasn’t hard to imagine her patiently coaching the archetypal dropout out of Paul. While we were introduced, I couldn’t help but wonder if she had a binder set up somewhere with an itinerary of activities for the weekend.
I’m not going to lie, I felt jealous. Not of her – Paul and I had both had the same opportunities and I’d bollocksed it up for the privilege of a three-year piss up, followed by four years of soul-destroying customer service. I was happy that he was happy, but his existence showed everything that I could’ve been if I hadn’t wasted it all. Maybe I could’ve been a sculpted athlete with a high-paying job in IT and a fiance?
Mike was sat off to one side looking like he’d stepped out of a photograph of seven years ago. He’d lost the shitty dreads and gained a few pounds and lines on his face, but I would’ve recognised him anywhere. If it wasn’t the surplus army jacket held together by a patchwork of badges or the ancient pair of Doc Martins, then the miasma of pot stank would’ve done it.
I gave him a nod.
“Alright?” he answered, immediately turning back to rolling a cigarette. I don’t know if he even recognised me, but that was fine. That was more like it. I felt my muscles unclench at the ever-constant Mike, a fixed point in a changing universe.
Then suddenly there was Joanne. My fucking goddess. Wild purple hair piled up on her head and outfitted like someone had catapulted her through an Oxfam reject room. She had a bottle of JD in one hand.
“Darling, I haven’t seen you for ages!” she cried, dragging out the last word long enough to stumble over a mess of plastic bags and half-unpacked backpacks to throw her arms around my neck. She smelled good, like the best sort of memories.
“Come out and smoke with me. You still smoke, don’t you?”
I remembered the sorry fag I’d dropped when Paul met me. “Like a chimney.”
“Come on then, sexy. Step out and tell me everything you’ve been up to.”
She palmed a couple of cigs off me and let them burn out as she hit me with a torrent of questions.
“Where do you live now?”
“Just south of Manchester. You won’t know the place.”
“Oh wow, Manchester. Very nice!”
“Not really. I’ve got a shitty flat but it’s an easy commute into the city so I can’t complain.”
“Are you working?”
“If you can call it that.”
“What’s your job?”
“I sit on my arse all day while people blame me about their broadband not working.”
“God, that sounds horrific.”
“Are you seeing anyone?”
“There’ve been a few, but no one’s worked out.”
Jo filled me in on her life. Seems she and Mike hooked up which was good for them, I guess. Opposites attract and while Mike was always content to sit back and stare into space, Jo was his star. They spent a lot of time travelling together, mostly across Europe; they’d spent a few months over in India and China the year before.
I put on my best impression of someone who wasn’t being nibbled by jealousy and nodded at all the right prompts. It sounded incredible. Lucky bastards.
“It was amazing,” she gushed. “Literally amazing. The world feels so small now, you know? We were going to head to Japan after, but we ran out of money.”
I forced a smile.
“You can’t buy that sort of life experience. We’re going to head out again next year. You should come!”
I snorted, stubbing out my cigarette. “Nah. Not a fan of foreign food.”
“Pizza isn’t foreign food,” she tutted. “You need to try it for real. The street food in Delhi was something else.”
I cocked an eyebrow.
She took a long drag of her cigarette and frowned at the mud. “I sound like a right wanker, don’t I?”
“Little bit. I’ll forgive you.”
She elbowed me in the ribs. “I’ve missed you, dickhead.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
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