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Steve was prancing about like his arse was on fire. For a happy second, I might’ve convinced myself his bowels had finally given way to whatever hell his precious pump water had in store.
“My bloody car! If I catch whoever did it, I’m going to throttle them.” He was ranting, pacing a shallow rut in the field.
“What’s happened?” asked Jo as we stopped close enough to feel the fire’s heat. We dropped the wood between the yurts. Ewan had thrown a bunch of burgers on another disposable barbecue and Paul was poking at them. They smelled amazing. I realised I hadn’t eaten all day.
“Some little bastard has slashed my tires,” Steve fumed.
“They’re definitely slashed?” Ewan ventured. “That track’s a minefield for slate. I was sure the minibus wheels were fucked when we stopped.”
“I know the difference between a puncture and a bloody slash!”
Steve certainly did seem like the sort of guy who was used to having his car fucked with. I was good and said nothing.
Ewan held up his palms.
Steve stopped, took a deep breath then ran his hands back through his one-tone hair. “I apologise,” he said, his cheeks flushed. “I didn’t mean to snap. This is just… very frustrating.”
“It’s fine,” said Mike, glancing around to make sure we all agreed. We didn’t – I didn’t – but no one wanted to upset the apple cart. Least of all me after Jo’s talking down.
“When Lucy gets back, she can drive you out to where there’s reception,” said Ewan. “I’d offer, but…” he shook his bottle.
“Yes. Yes, that’ll do.” Steve mumbled to himself and went into his tent to sulk.
I felt every pair of eyes look at me, daring me to react. A lot of things made sense now. Not everything, but boy did I feel like a prize cunt. Now mingled with a low-key confusion and embarrassment at confessing some – apparently – still lingering feelings for my once-girlfriend, I had the shame and embarrassment of everyone – apparently – being in on some big secret I’d been locked out of.
“What? I didn’t do it.” I glanced at Jo, and rolled my eyes. “If he gets a recovery truck out, I’ll help.”
She patted me on the back. I lit up and slumped down onto the nearest not-muddy seat to brood.
“They should be back by now,” she said, sitting down next to Mike. “I wonder what’s taking them so long.”
“Maybe the Post Office didn’t have what we wanted.”
There was a thoughtful pause.
We were in the middle of nowhere, so it made sense that if the village was a bust, they’d need to head to the closest town. Fuck knows how far away that was. I’d dozed on the bus to the village and missed the worst of it after making my connection. Even still, it seemed weird that the Post Office wouldn’t have what we needed. No one had asked for anything unusual – something to drink, some pain killers, chocolate, that sort of thing. Water wasn’t exactly a Waitrose exclusive. Little shops in places like the village tended to be well stocked for all sorts of crap. Given as the nearest supermarket was probably a decent car drive away, it would be a lifeline for the locals.
No one wanted to venture that there had been an accident. I was suddenly very glad that Jo had told me about Paul’s mum – spinning some sort of dumb, jokey story about the minibus taking a dive into the river is exactly the sort of stupid shit I’d do in normal circumstances. I’d expect people to laugh, talk me down, we’d escalate to increasingly implausible fates and laugh until we were sore, and then – as if by magic – they’d be back.
That’s pretty much who I was.
Something else came to mind.
I shifted, a little afraid of what wasp’s nest I might poke. “You, uh, don’t think they had anything to do with the tires do you?”
“Who? Lucy and Gerry?”
“Slashing Steve’s tires?”
There was a stunned silence.
Then the four of them looked at each other and burst out laughing. Now I wasn’t sure how to feel.
“If you didn’t remember Lucy,” said Paul between gasps. “You just had to say so!”
“Can you – can you imagine Gerry,” Ewan forced out. “With a pen knife? Just… going to fucking town on a car?”
I smiled awkwardly as they collapsed around me. Steve poked his head out of the tent.
I shrugged at him, finding brief comfort in another outcast. “Beats me, mate. Think they’ve had a bit too much wacky baccy.”
The laughter only got worse. It reached the point where I had no fucking clue what had tickled them, but the sight of Paul falling back off a backpack was enough to set me off. Even Steve had half a smile.
Everything felt fine again. I still felt disconnected, but this was better.
When they’d calmed down enough to speak, Paul hauled himself back onto his seat with mud up the back of his sweater and arse, tears running down his face. Jo disentangled herself from Mike and gave a series of whooping smoker’s coughs punctuated by more giggles.
“Lucy’s about as tame as it gets,” said Paul, still chuckling.
“Used to be a Mormon, didn’t she?” said Mike, producing a joint from his tin. He lit up, not leaving the circle to take his place behind the outhouse. I didn’t blame him. I didn’t much fancy being on my own this late in the day with aching feet.
“She was. Before she got out into the real world, she was a real armchair activist. Had a whole wall in her dorm with replies to letters she’d written to papers and political people about all sorts of bollocks.” Jo counted off on her fingers. “There was the letter about the Scottish Referendum, the rejection of alternative voting, the London riots… she had one from when she was 12. She’d written to her MP about the war in Iraq.”
Ewan looked at me, offering an apologetic grin. “Sorry – we’re not laughing at you. I hadn’t even met Lucy before yesterday. Paul gave me a description when he said he was inviting her. Gerry’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet in your life. He’s the sort of person that signs away his life to any charity that knocks on his door. His wife left him after hooking up with some tosspot in corporate finance. Said he was – and I quote – ‘too much of a doormat’.”
I cracked open a can. “Maybe if they’re both so great, they decided to fuck it and elope to Gretna Green.”
“True love in the middle of Cumbria,” Jo snorted.
We all laughed then and it continued even as Ewan served up burgers and the stars started to make an appearance.
We stopped laughing when Lucy actually showed up.
It was dark enough by that time that we’d stopped looking towards the track and instead waited for the tell-tale drone of an approaching engine or bob of approaching headlights to indicate the minibus’s return. Ewan had suggested walking to the village. After I pointed out that it was a good 45 minute stretch away in daylight, he opted out.
We instead settled in for the night – it felt like it was going to be a cold one. Drinks in hands and stomachs full of hot food, we wrapped sleeping bags around our shoulders and talked as our breath misted. It was less boisterous than the Friday night; we were all exhausted and content to pick at our blistered feet.
Although none of us said as much, I suspect we were all creeped out by the blood, Especially as it got darker. Sure, it had probably been a fox or something, but none of us were rural types. City slickers to a fault, we prefer our wildlife in cages, or eating out of bins. One headline in a newspaper about some fox mauling an unattended kid was enough to send the suburbs into a frenzy.
Out in the deep, deep darkness of a proper countryside night with only the makeshift firepit giving out any sort of light, everything beyond the threshold becomes a mystery. No wonder ghost stories are so popular during camping trips. It doesn’t take much to get the goosebumps going when there’s nothing between you and the rest of the universe except a few sticks on fire.
So you can probably imagine how fucked up we were when the first sign of life in the darkness was a human voice screeching. I don’t think there was a clean pair of underwear around the fire.
“What the fuck was that?” Ewan shrieked, throwing himself at Paul.
Jo and Mike clutched at each other.
If this were a comedy, Steve and I might’ve stopped to take a look at each other before deciding against a Scooby-Doo style embrace. As it was, we jumped to our feet and looked towards the gate where the sound had come from.
“I’ve got a torch,” said Steve, diving back into a tent and digging around.
“Anyone there?” Mike called.
A throat-ripping scream echoed back.
“Fucking Christ, stop!” Jo grabbed his sweater and jerked him back.
“Was that human?” Paul gaped, his eyes darting blindly between us and the dark. “It sounded human.”
“It can’t be.”
By the time Steve reemerged with a flashlight, Lucy had staggered into the circle of light.
She looked – and I don’t say this lightly – like absolute shit. Her clothes were shredded, she was covered in deep grazes and bruises. She couldn’t have looked more unlike the person I’d spoken to earlier that day. Her mousey hair was matted with dirt and dried blood; twigs and leaves had been dragged through it. She moved with lurching steps, each leg moving forward just in time to stop her from straight up falling over. Desperation had overcome her restraint.
She let out a series of unintelligible words out in a hysterical babble before collapsing face down onto the mud.
Everyone launched themselves forward.
“Luce – what’s going on?”
She jabbered wildly, her eyes rolling this way and that.
“Does anyone know first aid?” Paul looked around. No one had an answer.
“What do we do? Was there an accident? Lucy – did you have an accident?”
“Is Gerry alright?”
“Where’s the minibus?”
“Can you understand us?”
The questions poured out in a torrent. I leaned into it, only half aware of what I was saying. I could hardly pick out one voice from another, let alone make sense of what we were asking. I couldn’t exactly empathise with the state she was in, but I knew that if I was finding the barrage overwhelming, then the poor woman’s brain would be melting. Even still, I wanted answers. We all wanted answers.
Ewan sucked in his lips and slapped Lucy across the face. We were treated to a new chorus of wails, this time with added sobs.
“I-I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I thought that would help!”
“Everyone, calm down!” called out Jo, not sounding too calm herself. She tugged Ewan away. “Give her some space and a drink or something.”
One by one, we stepped away. When the way was clear, Mike knelt down beside Lucy and tried to prop her up.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” asked Steve.
“Nope,” Mike replied, his voice soft. “But I’ve dealt with people on bad trips before. She doesn’t need people crowding around her. We need to keep her calm. She’s in shock.”
We stood there like lemons, our attention shifting between one-another’s pale faces and Lucy. Her sobs eased off into a wordless mumbling that faded in and out of earshot.
“Paul, you sit with Lucy. Ewan, get something cooking. Jo, get everyone drinks. Steve, get some water.” Mike looked up at me. “Go grab a blanket and a ground sheet or something. She’s fucking freezing. ”
With direction, everyone scrambled, desperate to feel less useless. If I’d been thinking straight, I would’ve grabbed Lucy’s own stuff – maybe Gerry’s too – but I wasn’t.
For a few minutes, I was back in kindergarten. The teacher had told the class to tidy up, and whoever picked up the most toys would get first choice on whatever book we read. Those well-meant lessons at teaching us to clean up when we were ready to move onto the next phase of the day were a frenzy. They could’ve filmed it and made bank on betting circuits.
There were best friends elbowing one another out of the way to get at a cache cars or blocks; a kid taking an arm to the nose in a fight for crayons. It was madness.
With that same energy, I ducked into both tents, pulling together whatever I could find and not much caring who it belonged to. I didn’t stop until I had just about every sleeping bag and waterproof heaped up, with things falling around me.
With both arms full, I staggered back out to Paul in a flurry of fabric. My heart was still racing.
“Will this be okay?”
He took it all in. “I don’t know. She’s shivering. It probably won’t hurt.”
I laid out the tarp near the fire and hefted the rest of my findings onto it. Between the two of us we eased Lucy’s catatonic body down. He piled blankets across her as I stepped back.
Something was under my foot.
I turned around and looked in the trampled grass. Lucy’s pockets had haemorrhaged loose change, half a packet of gum, and a bundle of postcards now stuck together with mud. I didn’t think she’d care about pennies or the packet of gum, but I did pick up the postcards. So she’d made it to the Post Office at least. They were from the village, alright. Bog standard Lakes tourist crap. She’d probably got them for friends and family.
Here was one with a collage of photos on it showing the village as it might’ve looked in the 60s. Here was another one that was basically a cartoony map of the area. Here was another of the local pub specifically – The Barking Buck – with its sign artwork and some sort of blurb underneath.
Almost on cue, there was a distant howling.
We all froze. Lucy whimpered.
“Just a dog,” said Steve. There was a slight tremble in his voice. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Maybe we should move inside the tents?” suggested Ewan as he edged his way around the fire towards Paul.
I looked to Mike who was stood with an arm around Jo’s shoulders.
“I mean, we could.” He shrugged. He and Jo were halfway through a joint. He’d held it together for long enough to stop Lucy’s head from exploding, but his ownership of the situation stopped there. Like the rest of us, he’d slipped back into a default holding pattern made of vices. At some point I’d scooped a bottle into my hand and cracked it open without realising.
“I’d rather keep the fire going,” said Paul. “If it’s all the same to everyone else. I want to stay with Lucy.” His voice sounded small. He was by far and away the biggest of us in terms of height and width. If I didn’t know he was such a consummate worrier, I might’ve been more spooked. He sat down on the tarp, making his claim.
“What time is it?” asked Jo.
Steve looked at his watch. He pressed a button on the side. It underlit his too-smooth face in lime green like a B-movie monster. “Quarter past eleven. It’s late. We should sleep.”
Nice idea, but there wasn’t a hope in hell of that happening. I needed a drink, and maybe one of Mike’s spliffs if I was going to stop myself from having a heart attack. I didn’t care what the rest of them did.
I squatted down near Paul.
“Go on,” I said, waving everyone else off. “I’m stopping up for a while.”
They mumbled guilty ‘good night’s – Steve giving Paul the torch – until the only one left was Ewan with a sorry looking burger on a paper plate.
“Do you think she’ll eat it?” he asked.
I snorted. “Fucked if I know. I’ll have it if she doesn’t.” I passed him the postcards. “Take these and drop them off with her stuff, could you? They must’ve fallen out of her pockets.”
He and Paul embraced, then Ewan slipped off.
“You can go sleep too, you know.”
“I’ll stay up with you” I said.
I pushed the plate towards Lucy’s head. I figured if she smelled it, it might snap her out of it.
“What do you think happened to her?” Paul asked after a while.
I almost suggested there might’ve been a crash. I stopped myself just in time. “No idea. Let’s hope she’s able to talk soon.”
“I’m worried about Gerry.”
“I’m sure he can take care of himself.”
“She’s covered in blood. Whatever happened to her, it can’t be good.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
In hindsight, it was pretty fucking surreal that everyone was resigned to sleep. I can only assume they lay there in their sleeping bags, tossing and turning and wondering what the fuck was happening. Panic does weird stuff to people. So does powerlessness. When you feel powerless, you just sort of resign yourself to whatever happens next. If someone offers to take something off your hands, you go with it. What else can you do?
There wasn’t much point all five of us hovering around and looking after a catatonic lump.
We had no idea what had happened to Lucy. We had no idea where the minibus was, because she sure as hell hadn’t driven it back. We didn’t know where Gerry was.
What we did know what that it was dark as fuck, we didn’t know the area well enough to explore, and there was something making noises out there. The best we could hope for was daylight, or that Lucy would get enough rest that she could talk.
There was another howl. Lucy spasmed and mumbled. Her mouth was trying to make shapes now.
“I wish that dog would fuck off,” I muttered, lighting a joint I’d nicked from Mike and hoping my hands weren’t shaking enough that Paul would notice. That howl had definitely been closer than the previous one. “I fucking hate dogs.”
He hugged his knees to his chest and stared out into the darkness. “I should’ve booked a spa weekend or something,” he said with a deep, soul-searching sigh
“Nothing wrong with the idea,” I said, exhaling a line of smoke. “It’s not your fault this place is a shithole.”
I could tell he wanted to laugh, but it stuck somewhere in his throat. Just below the Adam’s Apple if his swallowing was anything to go by.
It was quiet for a bit.
If I knew more about staying in the arse end of nowhere, I might’ve thought that was weird. I might’ve thought about why I couldn’t hear things shuffling around in the trees, or owls doing whatever owls do.
Instead, I enjoyed the peace. It was better than someone screaming, that’s for sure.
“Tomorrow morning, me and Ewan will walk to the village. We’ll keep going until we get reception or find a phonebox, or we can ask someone to use their landline. Whatever happens first,” said Paul. I could almost see him mentally plotting it out. “We’ll call an ambulance for Lucy. We’ll try to call Gerry, and we’ll call the recovery service for Steve’s car. I’ll ask around and see if anyone knows about the minibus.”
Lucy groaned. We looked down at her, it had almost sounded like a word. Her eyelids were fluttering.
“They definitely went through the village,” I said when she stopped. “She got some postcards.”
“So someone must have seen them. We’ll call the police if we don’t get anywhere. She looks like she’s been assaulted.” He paused, his shoulders sinking. “Or in an accident.”
I took another drag, long and thoughtful, then passed the joint to him.
“I heard about your mum. I’m really sorry.”
He said nothing, just eased back and took a drag.
“Gerry…” Lucy croaked, breaking the uncomfortable silence that had settled in.
Paul spluttered on the exhale in surprise, chucking the joint back at me. Lucy was treated to a faceful of smoke as he leaned in.
“Luce? Can you hear us, Luce? It’s me. It’s Paul. You’re safe!”
She mumbled, coughing.
“Luce – can you try to speak? We can’t hear you.”
“Yeah, Gerry,” Paul prompted impatiently, anxiously. “Do you know where he is? Is he alright?”
She drew a shuddering breath. “Left him…”
There was a long pause.
Paul straightened and looked at me. What little colour had returned to his face left it quickly. He looked like a corpse.
“He’s not here, Lucy,” I said. “We thought he went with you.”
She shook her head, her eyelids still fighting to open.
“He’s not here,” Paul echoed back at me. “Gerry’s not here. Do you think…. Did he…” He didn’t finish the thought. There wasn’t any reason to.
I know what Paul wanted to say. He wanted to suggest that Gerry had maybe gone for a walk – hiked to the village to clear his head, or taken a stroll to the river to wash off after lying about in hangover fud all morning.
But we both knew that wasn’t true. As nice as the thought was – that Gerry was out galavanting, had maybe gotten lost and stumbled into some friendly little B&B somewhere – the first thing that came to both of us was the blood and the watch left lying near the trees.
“Shit,” I breathed.
“The village,” Lucy continued in her paper-thin voice. “Crazy.”
“Crazy? Did they do this? Did they hurt Gerry? Did they hurt you?”
I reached out and put a hand on Paul’s arm. I was just about keeping it together, but Paul was already giving way to the panic that had taken us when she showed up. It was infectious. I didn’t want to risk getting taken over by it again. I’d only just gotten my wits back. I wanted to keep hold of them.
He ran a hand down his mouth, stretching out his face in a ghoulish mask.
“This is fucked up,” he mumbled. “This is completely fucked.”
“Lucy – Luce – can you hear me?” I asked, pulling in closer.
“Village,” she replied.
“Yeah, yeah, the village,” I repeated back at her. “The village is crazy?”
Her head trembled in an attempt at a nod.
“What happened? Did someone in the village hurt you?”
Then the howl came again.
It was loud. And it was close.
Paul and I reached out to each other in desperate, clumsy grabs. I had just about sense left in me to fumble with the torch. The light bounced through and beyond the fire and shakily took in the field beyond.
I’ll be honest here. If you haven’t picked it up already, I’m not a poetic person. My Uni major was in computing, not in any sort of English – literature, language, or creative. I don’t read, I don’t create. I work, I go home, I drink and smoke and watch whatever Netflix wants to throw my way, then I sleep. Rinse, repeat, again and again. When I have days off, I can be found at a bar with the people I work with that I hate the least. We pass the time with crap jokes, bitching about work, and discussing what shifts we’re on. Then it all starts again.
The closest I ever came to romance was when I fell into my longest relationship with a guy I met at said bar. He was a soft-hearted bloke who cried at animal films and charity ads. To this day I’ve still got a sick donkey somewhere in Africa with my name on it.
I tried writing poetry for him, but it never worked out. In the end he left me because I wasn’t spontaneous enough. I couldn’t write for shit either.
So when I describe what we saw in the light of that torch beam, you have to understand how fucking terrified I was.
Everywhere the beam hit across the treeline, there were eyes: Little pin pricks of reflected light showing up as green or red or orange. There were some at ankle height, some at head height, and the rest somewhere in between. My guts tensed up, I might’ve pissed myself. I didn’t know or care.
The only thing that stopped me from completely losing my shit – literally and metaphorically – was that they were all far away.
I figured that fucking animal in the valley had come to stare at us. It was like something from those early scenes in Snow White when she’s running through the dark forest and even the trees have eyes that follow her as she trips, tears herself up, and falls again and again.
It was only when the beam shifted and landed on it that my survival instinct kicked in.
They say that when you’re put in a stressful situation, your brain can be categorised into one of three or four categories: fight, flight, or freeze.
You’re lucky if you never get to find out which one you are.
It started forward, towards us.
Paul froze. I fled.
I had enough sense to grab him hard by the arm and yank him with me as I hurtled into the closest tent. Steve was sent tumbling back as we landed on him, the torch flailing about like a disco light in the chaos. In the riotous war of my pot buzz and the sobering thud of adrenaline, I think I might’ve been screaming. Or maybe it was Lucy screaming. Or maybe it was all of us.
I didn’t know and I still don’t.
Steve was thrashing about trying to unpin himself from me and Paul; we were fighting against backpack straps, waterproofs, and discarded bottles and cans; then Ewan was there. In a well meaning attempt to calm us down, he was over us, trying to put his hands over our mouths. That didn’t help; one of us hauled him down on top and there we were, a writhing bundle of panting, gasping mouths, limbs, and fear.
I don’t know how long we wrestled about like that. The world was elbows, hands, knees, and hard heads bashing against one another. Someone planted a hard body part – maybe a shoulder – in my stomach and I felt the air forced out of my lungs with such a painful crush that I didn’t think I’d ever taste oxygen again.
Now panicking to just fucking breathe, I found enough strength in me to shove everyone aside and crawl on all fours to where there was space.
Then everything was quiet.
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