1. The Dream
1. The Dream
The air felt different that evening. Not bad, bad was something else. It just felt different. As though the air was pregnant with possibility and the birth would be painful. Probably an inadequate analogy – something definitely felt unnatural.
The woman sat in her rocking chair on the porch and looked out over her campsite. It made her feel old. She was not old, though her overly fussy daughter probably wouldn’t agree. Ever since she and her fiancé had come to live with her, she’d taken every single opportunity to make her feel every one of her seventy-two years. Right down to the tatty blanket now draped over her knees, tucking her in like a little old lady. All she’d done was put a hand to her back as she’d stood from weeding the gravel drive. Now she was sat there like an invalid.
Bloody young people.
The campsite, the one she’d run for more years than she cared to admit, was nestled in the Woodhead Valley, a cleft in the expansive moorland at the nexus between Derbyshire, South Yorkshire, and Greater Manchester. Everywhere in reach yet close to nowhere. She had run it with her wife and her own mum both of whom had gone before her, leaving her to the running of the place on her own. It had taken five years for her daughter to decide she should no longer run this place that way – a realisation which probably stemmed more out of her daughter’s dead-end city-based career rather than any genuine concern for her mum’s health.
She shivered and although she’d never say it was quite glad of the blanket. It had been a warmish day but as the far-off sun dipped too low to be seen over the ridges of the moors she was plunged into absolute shadow. The sky high above remained bright, clear, but where their campsite was there was now only shade. It brought a chill quickly, even if the true darkness were a little way away. An apt thought, even if she didn’t know it yet.
She heard the crunch of boots on gravel and wondered for a moment if her daughter or not-yet-son-in-law were coming back. She also considered, though she wouldn’t admit it, curling the towel up and giving them a whack for their over-concern. But that would start another argument about childish behaviour, and frankly, to use a term one of the kids of the summer families had taught her, she was ‘CBA’.
Instead, she was glad to discover, the steps belonged to the nice young couple who were one of the campsite’s only two visiting groups that September night. Fresh young things, though that was another thought to make her feel old. Like most of her guests, she knew little about them other than they were polite and from somewhere nearby. Not out for anything big or grand just a few nights away in the moors while the weather was still reasonably warm; before the October chill began to set in properly. Far enough away to feel isolated, near enough to still come home if a September downpour began (as they often did). She’d shown them to the campsite and saw they’d moved their tent to the furthest end of the area, closest to the treeline. She didn’t mind, they had space and as long as it wasn’t an attempt to hide anything illegal it didn’t bother her one bit. So far that weekend she’d not caught a whiff of anything illegal drifting over day or night, so she left them be.
Besides, her daughter would do all the complaining if anything did happen. It was her superpower.
She cackled again a little bit at the thought. Save that stuff for the city boys.
She’d judged them to be in their early twenties and every bit the epitome of a young couple in love. He was the same height as her when she was in heels, a bit portly and with more scruff than was stubble but less than a beard. He wore some kind of metal band t-shirt under his North Face coat, a different one each day from a time before even her daughter went to discos. She was fresh-faced, a small nose stud her only non-earring decoration with minimal makeup bordering on the gothic. They walked in that evening light, hand in hand back towards the field – him casually tossing her a wave and her tossing him a casual grin in response. Yes, they were a lovely couple; the kind that makes old(er) individuals like herself smile a little. She thought she knew what was across the horizon for a young couple like that – marriage, kids, and a future wearing flip flops in all-inclusive resorts before slipping casually and comfortably into middle age. And God forbid into their own young’un’s coming back to pester them and remind them that they too had grown much too old for their liking. The circle of bloody life, as Elton John would say.
Yes, she thought she knew what the future held for such a nice young couple.
She was wrong.
She’d lived on the edges of the moors for much of her adult life and despite everything didn’t pay any mind to the things that she heard from time to time. She’d lived there since well before the Moors Murders of the seventies which sparked horrified imaginations around the nation and perhaps the world. She’d heard the tales of forgotten ghosts, spirits of lost children and nameless victims wandering in full-body or glowing lights across the misty peat bogs. She’d heard weirder tales of lights in the sky above the Emley Moor television mast – aliens or just pranksters, who knew? She’d even heard tales of mysterious beasts, big cats and even one hound with glowing red eyes. Yes, in her time, she’d heard it all and chucked the lot up to fantastical nonsense and more than a few unknown substances.
That night, however, in the fading September light, she heard something which made her blood run cold. A sound from somewhere out in that wood. The woods weren’t that deep but they were thick. Thick enough to not see more than a few feet in even from the edge. Somewhere out there in that wood beyond the edges of her property, she heard it. A sound unlike any other.
Was it a scream? No, it wasn’t human enough for that. Some animal cry? Possibly, but not one she’d ever encountered before. Whatever it was sounded in pain, a kind of deep cry of pain and relief in equal measure. In fact, some deep sense memory seemed to evoke fragments of her daughter’s birth. The final expulsion of long labour over at last. That was not the cry of a person, however, the rage sounded far deeper within the timbre.
She shuddered. Clearly, the young couple heard it as well, though whether through the naiveté of their normal city existence or the resilience of youth they seemed to shrug it off, the young lad putting his arm around her a little tighter as they laughed it off together. Perhaps it was their calm which allowed her to forget it so quickly. She who should have known better but who from that night on would only ever heard the sound again in her dreams. Or nightmares.
By the time her daughter’s fiancé came to check on her she’d all but forgotten the sound. Her body hadn’t, her goosebumps still evident on her skin. He offered her another blanket.
She told him where to put it.
* * *
She awoke suddenly and in darkness, alone and confused. The dark shrouded her, covered her like a shield, like a living and breathing thing. She could hear the breaths, could feel the movement of lungs inflating, deflating, inflating, deflating. The dark was alive.
Only it wasn’t. The breaths she heard were the sound of the wind, inconsistently blowing around in sudden but constant swirls. The movement was the flap of the fabric of the tent, drawing in and being drawn back out by the same sudden swift gusts. It wasn’t very strong wind but with the size of their two-man tent, it was enough. Enough to make the dome around her shrink and grow in rhythmic breaths.
Charlotte Dixon, Charlie to her close friends, took a moment to come back to reality. Her mind wandered in the nowhere of awakening until things began to solidify. She was Charlie Dixon, a twenty-one-year-old student. She was on a brief camping weekend with her soon-to-be-fiancé Dale Blake before university started again and they had to go their separate ways – her back to Liverpool Hope doing ophthalmology, him continuing his Masters in Engineering at John Moore’s. Back to their city centre student flat which while functional was far from a home. Back to life, back to reality.
What she also knew without having to be told was that she was alone in their tent. They’d spend their long day together walking the moors in the September sun, returning only as it was setting. They’d waved their hellos to the woman running the campsite, sat in a rocking chair on her porch covered in a tartan blanket if you could believe the stereotype; and continued on back to their tent. There they’d split two different pot noodles, drunk half the bottle of cheap whiskey they’d brought with them as they talked about everything and nothing in particular, smoked a little bit and made sweet, brief love before retiring to separate sleeping bags.
It had been a nice, sweet evening. The kind that while you’re experiencing it you think of as the epitome of the kind of relationship you always want, a defining moment; but the kind of evening so easily forgotten in the haze of time. As they’d drifted off into sleep at whoever knew what darkened hour they were holding one another, face to face, cheek to cheek, sleeping bags tucked up to their pits like they were overstuffed human burritos.
When she awoke she was on her back, the darkness had settled fully and she was alone. No errant slightly hairy arm flung over her – no warmth of another human being snoring in his own sleeping bag. Not even an errant protrusion, half masked by the padding, poking her in the hip. Nothing but a void. An absence of the known and unknown.
She rolled, reaching out an arm and hoping to hit a handful of her soon-to-be fiancé who’d probably just rolled further away from her. A fully conscious mind would have known it was only a small tent and rolling far enough away to not be sensed was not really an option. But one could hope. Her hand, expectedly, hit nothing but an empty sleeping bag.
Of course the other part of her mind – the one which was waking up far quicker than the rest of her – knew that was hardly unsurprising. Dale had had several pints of IPA during dinner at the rural pub half an hour’s walk down the road, and upon returning to the tent they’d shared quite a bit of whiskey. So naturally, he was, as all men seemed to relish doing in the outdoors, taking a massive piss.
But, she found herself thinking after a few more minutes had passed, most guys didn’t need to take that long. In fact, since they were right at the edge of the woods it would be a simple case of walking the five or six feet to the nearest massive oak, going behind and letting loose. Even with everything they’d collectively drunk, it shouldn’t take that long, right? Of course, if he’d gone for anything more he’d have had to go up to the facilities on the north side of the field. Yes, that was it, it would take a little longer. He’d be back in a few minutes, it was fine. He might have only just left.
She lay back thinking she would listen to the sounds of the woods and wait. Only there were no sounds. There was only the wind. And waiting didn’t produce any different results. There was still the same stillness, the same silence. There was no sudden unzipping of the flap to the tent. No sudden grin, no sudden smile. Just a quiet nothing which stretched on for longer than she would ever admit.
It stretched on for so long because she wouldn’t admit to herself that something was wrong. Admitting that would be the first step to madness and whatever lay beyond.
It took so long but eventually, she couldn’t deny it to herself. So she sat up in the tent – that was the first step. No shadows were projected on the fabric, the moon must have been behind a cloud. There was only darkness surrounding her, so she turned on her iPhone torch. It lit everything up inside the tent beautifully in its cold white light.
Everything was as it should be. Their boots were outside the flap but everything else was inside. To combat the cold she’d retained her t-shirt and covered her bottom half in short-pyjamas. Her day clothes were strewn about her bag in a very un-ladylike fashion. His were likewise dumped. Yes, everything still seemed there – except his sleeping bag was flat and lifeless. That wasn’t right.
She crawled to the flap of the tent, the zip still firmly up and closed. Of course, he’d close it up after himself, he was a thoughtful soon-to-be-fiancé. When she unzipped there was a sudden rush of much cooler air, a decompression of any heat that had been built up. It made her even more worried – how long had Dale been out of the tent?
She crawled into the little entrance that she’d earlier jokingly referred to as the foyer and slipped on her still slightly moist boots. She felt silly finally standing in the field, clunky boots attached to pale white legs and little night-shorts, shivering and clutching onto her iPhone torch like it was everything.
A witching hour fog hung around her calves; she could see the growing hulk of the only other family’s tent a hundred metres or so away at the entrance to the field. No lights, they were asleep. Even the faintest glimpse they’d caught of their hosts’ cottage lights were gone at that time of the night. She checked the screen of her phone which proudly told her it was 3:03 a.m. So naturally, no lights. Sane people were sound asleep – so what the hell was Dale doing up?
Far off in the sky, the clouds parted and the moon came out. It lit the field up in the colour of old bone, bright and brittle. It did nothing for her concern; it in fact perhaps accentuated it even further. Worse she could see no sign of Dale. Either behind the nearest tree or else in the field. She turned and faced the edge of the woods.
The still-leafed canopy of the mid-September trees above created an impenetrable wall of darkness in front of her. Even her powerful iPhone torch app only penetrated so far into the inky blackness. But then her eyes caught something, a movement. A shadow of black which seemed even darker than everything surrounding it. Moving, coming towards her in a vaguely human gait. Her heart began to slacken once more back to a normal beat.
“Dale,” she sighed, “Why couldn’t you piss quickly like a normal human being?”
But ‘Dale’ didn’t answer. He didn’t slow his progression towards her and he didn’t answer. He just continued to move through the darkness until he was on the edge of the shadow.
“Seriously, if you’re being a dick…”
She didn’t get to finish that threat, didn’t even finish the thought. The dark, humanoid shadow rushed forward with an inhuman swiftness. The shape, the shape was not that of a man, not really but the grip on her arm felt real. In the sudden moonlight, all she could see was the grin. The cold grin of the colour of bone. Everything else was blackness.
There was not enough sentience left in her mind to know if she screamed. She turned and half-ran, half-dived into her tent, closing the zip behind her. As her mind attempted to recover from what she’d seen she heard the first solitary sound across the constant soft howl of the wind. She heard the slow and deliberate sound of a zip.
* * *
The morning came quickly as it always seemed to in her line of work. As she was ageing; and the creaks in her bones seemed to agree with her daughter, she was indeed ageing; sleep seemed to come less easily and depart in the morning faster than the scant lovers she’d taken across the few unmarried years of her life. When it did come it was filled with dreams, not all of them good and not all of them bad but most of them sad in some way.
The dreams that night had been dark; as though the sound she’d heard in the woods followed her down into her dreams. Unnatural shadows lurked, a lark screamed in the branches of the moonlit trees. Something the colour of old bone shone bright, the only light in the darkness. But somehow the light itself was also dark, in meaning if not in colour. She awoke with only the vaguest memories of what she had seen, though the shiver which ran through her was clear enough.
Once the fickle mistress of sleep had gone she realised it would not return. The small alarm clock beside her bed read not long after five. The sky though not yet near ready to rebirth the sun, had begun to lighten in a pre-dawn way shifting from navy to a lighter blue the colour of a backlit sapphire. It would be enough to see by, at least in the wide-open spaces.
Being careful to remain quiet, she didn’t want to have conversations with her daughter or almost-son-in-law, she dressed in the gloom of her room with the practised ease of someone used to night-time disturbances. It was true, her own mother slept little and her dear wife even less; but in the end neither of them had been the one to take the midnight calls – the complaints about the loud couple having sex the tent over; the complaint about the toilet not flushing while their friends’ drunken heads were still inside vomiting forth the goods; or her personal favourite, about the temperature of the tent at night. And gosh darn it the fact that there was just no place to plug in your hair straighteners was not acceptable.
If it sounded like she hated human beings, she didn’t. A small part of her did sometimes but for the most part, she was simply bemused by them.
The pre-morning air outside the cottage was chilly, a low-laying fog hung over the ground like she were in a Conan Doyle novel. The Hound of the Woodhead. It brought an involuntary memory of the sound the night before and she quickly suppressed the thought. She shrugged on her coat, pulled on her wellies and prepared to check the washing facilities. No doubt if she did not find any fault first she’d get a three-star review on TripAdvisor no matter how quickly she fixed it.
The washing cabin lay at the top end of the field closest to her. So she set off quickly across the gravel drive until she reached it, discovering quite soon that everything was as it had been – and with only two separate visitors in residence, she was not surprised. Something made her hesitate as she began to step away; one of the showers had been used throughout the night – it was cold enough to see slight dampness to the tile, yet it was too cold to dry away it through simple atmospheric heat. And in the rivulets of the tile, in the grouting, there was a slightly reddish-orange tinge. The beginnings of rust, she wondered, before a stray dark thought had her wondering if it weren’t something else. Something like washed off blood.
She shook off the thought, something she was becoming quite adept at recently. Still, call it instinct or old age paranoia she still turned to the field after exiting the washing cabin. Nearest to her was parked a family’s Ford Estate; a large and well-worn tent nearby the source of the mum, dad and two kids who’d arrived on Friday. She heard the rhythmic snoring of the parents, staggered to rise in waves and falls in a sound that was a bit like elephant seals making love. How the kids slept, she didn’t know. But the sounds were normal, they were fine.
She turned her attention and her thoughts to the tent on the far side of the field. The one the nice young couple retired to each night they were there. A first glance everything seemed fine until she noticed something flapping the slight breeze. The tent flap was open. Unusual but one of them could have gone to the bathroom. Bit inconsiderate to leave the tent open but not all youth were known for their thoughtfulness and attention to detail.
Still, it would be worth a closer look. Couldn’t harm, could it? She set off quickly across the field, something gnawing at the pit of her stomach, a growing sickness she couldn’t explain. As she neared she could see indeed the flap was open and wide. She thought of calling out but something stopped her; the same instinct which told her to only give a fleeting glimpse into the tent. There was a hulking shape, shallowly breathing. She would admit feeling a small amount of relief, clearly, the young man had gone to the woods to relieve himself. Yes, that was right.
But it didn’t explain the thick, gurgled sob she heard from the tent as she stood back up. It didn’t explain the soft and slow drip-drip-drip she heard from just inside the tree line. It didn’t explain the rapid sea of goosebumps that waved across her flesh even through her layers. It didn’t explain the rising sick feeling that came from thinking she’d seen it all and yet somehow simultaneously realising how little she knew.
It didn’t explain why she slowly inexplicably was drawn to go just beyond the tree line into the woods where the few early bare branches allowed some pale pre-dawn skylight to just about filter through. It didn’t explain why her gaze rose from the dark thick puddle growing in a single spot on the floor of the woods; up to the recognisable shape suspended from the tree – the pale colour ethereal against the shadowy backdrop of the woods.
While her daughter argued with a police officer on the phone about how quickly they were to get there, she sat mute and her gaze unfocused realising there was one thing she could explain, could understand. Why, when her almost-son-in-law put a blanket around her shoulders and offered her a cup of tea, she drew it tighter around her and nodded mutely.
She had not seen it all, it seemed.