Dave Johnson had been given his annual ultimatum by his boss; use it or lose it. The way his company functioned meant that he was rewarded for working dawn ‘til dusk, Monday through Friday but whenever the annual holiday request slip was put through his boss’s office, invariably, his boss would come storming out shouting, “You really want a holiday during that week?” the emphasis being on the words ‘really’ and ‘that’.
And now, as the carry-over time for his leave was ebbing towards a close, his boss uttered the quintessentially paradoxical statement: “Use it or lose it Johnson, your choice.”
Dave felt he’d always worked hard and never gave up his entitlement to a little R ‘n’ R and, though still only February, he’d been keeping his eye on the weather reports, just in case his boss would make his annual clarion call.
It seemed to Dave that the following week would be just the right time to take the winter dust covers off his classic British Racing Green Triumph Spitfire mark IV, to take it for a run down to Bournemouth on England’s south coast and pay his favourite great aunt a surprise visit; an aunt who would later bemoan the fact, in her utter grief, that she hadn’t seen her nephew since December last.
If he took the scenic route through Hampshire’s New Forest then the two hundred mile trip would take about three and a half hours – so no need for an early start, just get up, make a snack for the journey and go.
Monday morning arrived and for a change the weathermen had been right; the sky was a spotless blue veneer and the sun was brightly crisp and low over the horizon following its winter path.
By the time Dave was ready to leave his bachelor pad he’d lost most of the morning, and the time was fast approaching one thirty in the afternoon. If he didn’t leave soon there’d be no point in taking the scenic route – it would be too dark to see anything of the New Forest.
Dave packed his rucksack but, before going to his car, he quickly popped into his bathroom for a final brush up. He looked at his features in the mirror, his black haired goatee and thin moustache were pristine, but his eyes said it all – he really needed this break. Adjusting his moss green cotton drill jacket as he faced the mirror he decided he was ready to go and left the flat, looking forward to the time he could spend in one of England’s unspoilt forests before arriving at his great aunt’s house.
After almost three solid hours of driving he was ready to take a break, pull up somewhere, take his sandwiches out and pour himself a coffee from the stainless steel flask he’d brought with him.
He had just entered the beginnings of the road through the New Forest and kept his eyes peeled for a small sign that would indicate a track-way to one of the forest’s many picnic areas. He was not disappointed; five minutes after looking, he had spotted one and indicated right to turn into the small woodland clearing; not that he’d needed to indicate, this part of the road had been almost devoid of any type of traffic since he’d been on it.
His car crunched up the small gravel entrance into the picnic area and he stopped the Triumph alongside one of the ten or so picnic benches. Turning his car’s engine off, he got out and stretched, raising his arms above his head, fingers interlocked.
Although he loved his car it was a bit of a squeeze for his 6’2” stature and about three hours was all he could manage before having to find somewhere for a pit stop.
Dave walked slowly around the perimeter of the forest enclosed clearing, hoping for little glimpses of the wildlife he knew to inhabit these parts. But the forest was dense and he guessed he could only see about twenty feet into it, perhaps thirty in places, if he was lucky.
The forest was a mixture of pine trees, irregularly interspersed by the odd silver birch here and there, its white bark seemingly glinting out of the darkness as errant light from the sun caught the trees when the wind blew the forest’s pine canopy to one side or another.
His stomach grumbled and Dave walked across the clearing to the rear of his car and opened up the boot removing his lunch box and flask. Sitting down on the bench he’d parked next to, he unpacked his sandwiches and filled a cup with coffee from his flask.
As he ate and drank, he started to truly unwind, glad that there’d be another six full days before he would have to return to the manically busy office, continuing his work as the logistics manager for International Global Holdings – one of the only companies left, still supposedly able to ship logged trees from the Brazilian Amazon, legally, something that was in his remit to organise.
Biting into his hastily made Cheddar cheese sandwich his gaze continually flicked across the tree line circling the picnic area, ever hopeful of at least spotting one of the Roe deer the forest was famous for.
As he wondered about the lack of deer he began to realise he could not hear any of the other wildlife that should be bringing the pristine woodland to life; there were no birds chattering and he hadn’t seen any squirrels darting from tree to tree either.
Dave shivered. The sun had dipped further towards the horizon and the air had taken on the early evening chill of an oncoming winter’s night. He looked at his watch, it was four forty five, and dusk had settled.
Time to get going, he thought to himself as the breeze stepped up a notch or two, making the occasional shushing in the trees a constant refrain upon the general background of silence. Dave paused for a moment marvelling at how similar the breeze in the tree tops was to the sound of waves breaking upon a pebble strewn beach.
Standing up from the bench, he put the lid back on his lunch box and screwed his cup back on to the top of his flask. It was very dark now, the trees surrounding the picnic area blocking out what remained of the vestigial sunlight. Just as he was about to slam the car’s boot shut a loud clacking started up somewhere deep within the forest.
Rut-tah-tuh-tuh-tuh. It continued; a staccato sound, not quite branch upon branch as if the wind had blown bough against bough, the sound had a lower resonance than that, more-like stick against a hollow wooden bole; not as melodic as a glockenspiel but a duller, flatter tone – one without rhythm or timbre.
Dave felt the backs of his forearms prickle as the hairs stood on end. He shivered again, but not against the cold this time, it was a much deeper type of chill, one touching sensations humanity had not felt for thousands of years.
He quickly returned the remnants of his snack to the boot and closed it, then got into his car shaking his head, berating himself for the foolish reaction to the alien-but-not sound. Before starting his car he wound down his window to see if he could hear the noise again, attempting to justify his reaction. But all he could hear was the sound of the wind rustling the treetops that overshadowed the picnic area.
He breathed out slowly, suddenly aware he had been holding his breath. Dave tutted at himself.
As he reached for the handle to wind the window back up, the sound was there again; a succession of mournful clacks.
Rut-tah-tuh-tuh-tuh. His neck prickled as a sensation of icy air played upon it; the skin on his cheeks and across his forehead tightened as the unknowable sound continued its thousand year old threat.
Dave made a grab for the handle to close the window, but his hand slipped straight off – his grip unable to do anything, as his whole hand was now covered by the clammy sweat of fear.
Wiping his hand on his jeans, he reached for the handle again, this time managing to turn it. The window shut as fast as he could make it.
“Jesus Christ, you stupid shit,” he said to himself as he turned his key in the ignition. “How old are you? Ten?” He continued his self-admonishment.
The engine turned over under the power of the starter motor but failed to fire.
“Oh. For God’s sake,” he shouted aloud, hitting the car’s steering wheel, frustrated by the situation and panicked by the noise in the forest.
He looked out of the Spitfire’s small side window and saw the dimly lit reflection of his panic-stricken face staring back at him, eyes wide and mouth turned down.
The sun had almost finished its journey below the horizon rendering the spaces between the pine and silver birch an impenetrable black void.
“Come on you bugger,” he said to his car, twisting the key once again. This time, the engine revved into life and he flicked on his headlights as dusk was no more and the early February night had arrived.
Turning the wheel in the direction of the picnic area’s exit, he nudged his car to the junction with the main road. Seeing no illumination from car headlights in either direction Dave pulled out and continued on his journey.
He glanced at the clock in his car, it was still only five thirty and it would only be another half hour or so before he would be pulling up outside his aunt’s house.
Dave carried on down the road that skirted the great forest and the further away from his pit stop he got, the calmer he felt. As he drove the road steepened, following a line up one of the undulating hills that defined the area of England his aunt lived in.