As Easter approaches, I thought I’d share a seasonal weird tale over the holiday. I’ll be uploading the other two parts over the holiday period, so to be sure you get them all, just enter your email address into the form at the bottom of the page. You’ll receive an email when each post arrives.
Of all the holidays in the year, the one that Abi looked forward to the least was Easter. She just didn’t get what the fuss was about. Of course, she enjoyed the chocolate and Hot Cross Buns and settling down in front of the television to enjoy a film with Romans and Jesus and Charlton Heston but she was a vegetarian, so the traditional Easter roast had no joy for her, and the rest… well, she could get all of that any time she wanted to; a quick visit to her local Tesco would provide the food and she could easily access any movie she liked on one of the many streaming services Gavin subscribed to.
As a practising Catholic, she observed the minor torture of Lent and underwent the hour of agony that was the Easter Sunday service. But she only did that for her mother. Since her father had died, her mother had become unbearable. If anything, her expectations had increased, so that Abi felt the need to have her over for lunch every Sunday now. Gavin hated it. He made no effort to hide his impatience whenever her mother tottered through the front door. He didn’t even get out of his chair in front of the TV to greet the old woman, so the entire burden fell on her. It was a simmering resentment which had begun to boil over into heated arguments.
These days, the only peace she could find was in her car. The 2017 Mini Cooper was, she would tell everyone, her one indulgence in a life of sacrifice and giving without taking. She enjoyed being inside its womb-like interior so much that she had looked forward to the 100 mile journey from her home in Ealing to the small rural village of… wherever it was. Somewhere in Somerset anyway. She had bought a funky little tote bag from ebay, one that would sit nicely amongst her collection and perhaps temporarily dampen the constant niggling frustration that she felt at home.
It couldn’t be far now. She had been on the road since the early afternoon, deciding to get out of the way before Gavin came back from his mate’s. Those two were such idiots together, and he always came back even more annoying than he left. No thanks, she thought, picturing Gavin slumped in his armchair, one white socked foot on the coffee table, the TV remote in one hand, beer in the other. She didn’t think that she would be missing too much. Besides, she had started to come on that morning. The usual irritation with him would be heightened; she’d have to fight to keep the feral red beast inside under control. Better to be away from him for now.
It had been a beautiful day, the sort of day only April can bring. The sun had been warm and golden and now she was away from the urban sprawl, it bathed the hills, fields and trees around her in a sharp, technicolour brilliance. The daffodils in the verges shone bright in large clumps although Abi had noticed that much of the vegetation had been recently cleared from the roadside so that large sections were bare earth or dirt on either side. It looked tidy, which she appreciated. Obviously, the council round here took their responsibilities seriously, unlike the totally incompetent lot residents of South London had to cope with. Abi had lost count of the times the binmen had arrived late, and then refused to take half of the stuff she left out for them. It vexed her momentarily, but she remembered that she had taken this trip to get away from that sort of thing and so she let the thought drift out of the open car window and sped away from it. She pictured it, a little black cloud of urban angst hanging grey above the road, and she hoped it wouldn’t spoil someone else’s day.
She had been driving for over two hours. Her eyes, hidden behind expensive looking sunglasses she had bought from a market trader whilst on holiday in Greece, were prickling with tiredness and hay fever. It seemed too early for that, but there was no mistaking the closing of the sinuses and scratchiness in her eyes. She wished she’d taken a Piriton before leaving but then how was she to have known? It was normally May at the earliest before she needed it. But then, everything had been weird for so long now. The world just seemed to be out of sorts with itself. Despite what she told her mother, Abi had long since given up faith in any divine being. It seemed to her that there was way too much suffering in the world for there to be any great plan behind it. And her mother, who prayed every day and had never missed a Sunday service in her life, was still wreathed in misery. Her father had died painfully, the cancer eating away at him from the inside. He had faded so quickly. She had not been able to reconcile the man who had flung her about so easily, so joyfully, when she was a child to the paper-thin, fragile old man he had been at his death. Why did that have to happen? Why all this fucking pain and punishment and guilt? Fuck that. She kept up the premise of faith for her mother, made all the necessary church appearances but there was nothing, no substance to any of what she did. That said, these thoughts still made her feel a creeping guilt. Did that mean she still had some belief, buried beneath years of cynicism and resentment? Abi didn’t know. She chose not to think about it too much.
He didn’t appear to be moving but was standing perfectly still just in front of the hedgerow, growing larger as she drove closer; she realised with a start that he was staring directly at her, his head turned almost 90 degrees to his left…
She was lost in her thoughts and so she nearly didn’t notice the old man stood by the hedge up ahead. When she did, it was a sudden, sharp shock, and she had to push her fingers under her sunglasses to rub her eyes to be sure. He didn’t appear to be moving but was standing perfectly still just in front of the hedgerow, growing larger as she drove closer; she realised with a start that he was staring directly at her, his head turned almost 90 degrees to his left so that he could watch her approach without turning his body. He held this strange attitude, eyes fixed not on the car, Abi felt, but on her, without moving or, she would later recall, without blinking. As the car drew close she was able to ascertain that the man was elderly and dressed in a shabby suit and tie, a woollen V-neck pullover visible beneath the suit jacket. He wore nothing on his feet which were filthy with dirt.
Not wishing to be easily intimidated, Abi held his stare for as long as she dared until she passed the man, moving closer to the middle of the road to avoid him. He held her gaze even as she drove by, his head turning to watch her pass. He was emotionless. ‘Fuck you looking at?’ she shouted, although she did not wind down her window, and sped up a little as she went by. ‘Dick!’
Once past, Abi cast a nervous glance into her rear-view mirror and watched the figure recede into the distance until the road curved and she lost sight of him. He had never once taken his eyes from her.
‘Fucking weirdo,’ Abi muttered to herself, and she turned up the radio.
The road wound onwards for some time through the same twisting country lanes bordered by large stretches of hedgerow, broken only occasionally for an entrance to a field or where hikers had pushed their way through. Abi enjoyed the freedom she felt in the thrumming of the car’s engine and the twisting of the small country lanes, where the hedges grew higher than her line of vision, so that it seemed to her that there was nothing else, just her, her car and the road. The tune playing on the radio was one of her favourite hits from the 90s, one that she’d bought as a teenager and that she and her friends had created a dance routine for. She was about the launch into the chorus when abruptly, and totally, the music stopped. She was left singing the highest note without accompaniment, and her voice cracked into a giggle of embarrassment, despite her being alone.
‘What a twat,’ she admonished herself. It seemed that the signal for her favourite radio station had been lost. She sighed. It was the only one she listened to. The presenters were all familiar to her and the music they played just what she liked, except for the odd loud one which she presumed they played to keep the men happy. Gavin always moaned about it, but it was the station that they compromised on when together in the car, which wasn’t very often these days.
It was then she realised that she was also relying on her phone for navigation to the village and it was highly likely that, if the radio signal had gone, then so had her phone’s. She could see a junction approaching, a crossroads. Without her phone, she would, literally, be lost. Muttering to herself, she pulled the car over to the small verge, cleared of foliage in front of the hedgerow like many she had passed, and reached for her phone.
There was, as she had suspected, no signal. In fact, it was quite dead.
And so, she sat. The car idled, on the verge, a few yards from the crossroads. The sun was getting low in the sky, and the hedges were high, casting long, cool shadows across the road and the Mini Cooper.
‘Fuck.’ Abi was annoyed with herself. She had thought the phone was fully charged. She had been charging it as she drove and only unplugged it to check to see whether there were any messages from Gavin about 15 minutes earlier. How could it have gone dead so quickly? She reached for the charging cable, plugged it in and waited. Nothing happened.
It began to dawn on Abi that she had no idea where she was. She had been entirely reliant on the sat-nav on her phone and now that was gone, she was utterly and completely lost. Her memory would not supply her with the name of the village she was looking for. It had been quite short and typically Devonian; her mind grasped for it but it would not come. While she was trying to evoke some thought that might bring the place back to her something darted from the hedge on her right and bolted across the road, directly in front of where her car sat idling. She caught it in the corner of her eye and gasped, her already anxious state meaning that the sudden flash of movement caused her a further sharp shock. Before her eyes could catch up with the object, it disappeared into the hedge alongside her, rustling through the thorny branches and twisted brambles. Had it been brown? Or grey? Perhaps it was a rabbit, she thought as she once again breathed hard to regain her composure. She supposed it must have been, and logic would tell her so, but… it had been so large, much larger than any rabbit she had seen before. The way it had moved also suggested to her by now quite fraught mind that this was not a suitable explanation. Fast, yes, but loping…
A hare? She had never seen one before. Perhaps it was a hare? Larger than a rabbit; loping, lurching movements. It certainly seemed to be more likely than a mere rabbit. She glanced over at the hedgerow where it had disappeared and tried squinting through the mass of greenery and twigs into what she imagined must be a field on the other side. The only break in the foliage was the small gap through which the creature had disappeared. However, she did see a break in the hedge for a small dirt track about 20 yards ahead. Two large clumps of daffodils marked the entrance to a field which the hedge completely obscured from her vision.
And so, thinking that she needed to stretch her legs and clear her head a little before pushing on, and yearning for the warmth of the sun on her skin, Abi decided to get out of the car. She switched off the car engine and climbed out of the seat, feeling the blood start to pump again in her weary legs. The sun, now lower still, caught her face as she climbed out, immediately warming her; she stretched expansively, arching her back and pushing her head back. Her skin puckered at the touch of the sun. This was better. It was good to be away from it all for a bit, and amongst nature. She had read that it was good for the soul to open oneself to nature every so often and, right now, she believed it. She reached for her cigarettes from the well in the driver’s side door. Her secret stash, saved for emergencies. Well, if ever there was an emergency, she thought as she lit one and inhaled. The moment was perfect. She thought of posting on Facebook, perhaps a photograph and a comment about the beauty of England’s countryside before she remembered the lack of signal and power. She was disappointed; this would have been great on her timeline.
A bustle in the hedgerow startled her. The creature, whatever it was, must still be there. She pushed her sunglasses back onto her head, pulling her hair away from her face, and crouched down with her hands on her thighs to squint into the hedge again.
Something was there. Through the leaves she could make out an eye, like a polished obsidian stone, glinting in the shadows.
‘Hey, you,’ said Abi as gently as she knew how to. ‘Hello…’
Before she could move towards it, there was more scrabbling and the creature vanished again, this time back, away from her, into the field beyond. The branches seemed to close behind it so that there was no longer any sign of a gap at all.
‘Bollocks,’ said Abi, and she broke into a run, up towards the break in the hedge she had spotted from the car. It seemed further away to her now; it was some time since she had last run anywhere, and she was quite breathless by the time she found it. As she rounded the bend to enter the field her body moved out of the shadow of the hedge and into the full sunlight and, for a moment, she was dazzled. Her vision was a bright glare of white heat and it took some time for her to regain her normal vision. In that brief moment, whilst her eyes were still adjusting and the sun’s rays filled her body with a golden warmth, she thought she saw someone flying above her, a woman in white robes, and she heard laughter, playful giggling and chirruping, like a bird’s song. But only for a moment. Colour began to return to her world, and with it, a proper view of the vista before her.
In the middle of the field two large hares danced and spun. At times, they stood on their hind legs facing each other, as though engaged in a very formal stately dance. Then, they dropped to the earth and ran in elaborate patterns across the field, skipping around one another, moving first one way and then the other…
She could not speak. It was, in her mind, too beautiful. The field was brown, freshly ploughed and the earth was dry; she could feel the clumps pop into dust under her feet. At the edges of the field, oak trees stood, tall and ancient, laden with acorns, and apple trees, festooned with garlands of white blossom. Their heavy perfume made Abi giddy. She had never been so aware of the natural scent, nor of the delicate intoxication it could bring. Beyond the trees, the land stretched pure and open, fields of rapeseed and barley and corn, carefully bordered with low stone walls, or hedgerow punctuated by more trees: chestnut, ash, sycamore and wych elm, and on to distant hills, dark against the sky which, though still an azure-blue, darkened with the onset of late afternoon to a turquoise strip on the far horizon. Wildflowers bloomed around the fields too, despite the season, their vibrant reds and yellows and blues calling out to the insects which hummed in the air excitedly. Birdsong suddenly erupted from the trees around Abi and grew so loud that she thought it quite impossible. It was unlike any she had heard before. In the middle of the field two large hares danced and spun. At times, they stood on their hind legs facing each other, as though engaged in a very formal stately dance. Then, they dropped to the earth and ran in elaborate patterns across the field, skipping around one another, moving first one way and then the other, faster than Abi could really take in, before returning to the upright stance once more. Abi stood and watched as though hypnotised, her eyes wide and her feet rooted to the earth, quite still, so she thought.
After some time (she had no idea how much time had passed but the sun had begun to sink below the line of hills on the horizon and there was now a distinct chill in the air) Abi realised that she was staring at an empty field. She scanned the earth, presuming that the colour of their fur was so well matched to the soil that she had merely lost sight of them. But it seemed that the creatures had melted into the air. The birdsong, too, did not seem so loud. The flowers were less bright, and there were fewer of them clustered beneath the hedgerow. She could no longer smell the blossom, the apple trees being much further from where she stood than she had thought. And it began to dawn on her that her new white plimsolls, which she’d bought only last week, were grimy with soil. She was short of breath. Her hair, so carefully straightened and hair-sprayed that morning, was a little dishevelled. Had she been dancing? Unnerved by the whole experience, she turned and jogged back towards the exit to the field, and back to her car which waited as she had left it, parked on the verge to her left.
She had made up her mind to return home. The package could wait. She was running much later than she had wanted to, and without proper directions, there was no chance of ever finding the place anyway. She was about to open the car door when something small and black caught her eye. A stone, roughly the size of her palm, lay in the grass directly below her feet. She hadn’t noticed it before. It was unlike any stone she had seen before, in fact it looked more like a mineral or gemstone. She bent down to pick it up and noticed a pattern had been carefully painted onto the surface of the stone, in white. It looked like a very crude interpretation of a leaf, with one central stem branching off into three loops on either side. And it did seem to fit almost perfectly into her palm, so much so that, as much as Abi was unsettled by it, she wanted to keep it in her hand. It crossed her mind that it had been placed there deliberately, and she looked up and down the road for any signs of a potential culprit. To her right, the crossroads, empty and silent. To her left, the road she had travelled down, similarly quiet. There had been no sign of anyone. Surely, she would have heard, or seen, standing as she had been, only yards away from the car the whole time?
‘That’s enough of this shit,’ she mumbled to herself. She clambered back into the car, placed the stone on the seat beside her and started the engine. Perhaps, she thought, she would drive up to the crossroads, just to look, just to see whether there was anyone walking away down either of the side roads there. Anyway, she convinced herself, it would be much easier to turn the car around there. The low rumble of the engine was reassuring, even if the radio and charger still refused to work. It was getting dark. In the gloaming, she felt she needed the headlights. What made things worse was that whatever was affecting the radio seemed to have affected her entire media system; the clock now read 25:57 which made no sense at all.
Just before the junction, Abi saw a sign she had not noticed before emerging from the gloom and, as soon as she saw it, she remembered. It read: ‘Evercreech: 2 miles’. It pointed to the right.
‘Evercreech! Fucking Evercreech! That’s it!’ This was meant to be. She had found the bloody place, all on her own, no SatNav required. And with that memory, the entire address came back to her: Spring Cottage, The Lane, Evercreech. She would be there in 5 minutes, pick up the bag, find the main road out of here and be back home before midnight. She indicated right and turned onto the road, glancing as she did so, into her rear-view mirror. The light was certainly strange, that weird moment when a bright sunlight becomes slightly more night than day. Reds and browns seem more prevalent. Brighter colours fade. So, it may be that she didn’t see the bare-footed old man in the crumpled suit standing in the exact spot she had been parked only moments before, once more facing the road, once more screwing his head around to stare directly at her. She only caught a glimpse as the car turned and obscured the road behind her. And, she realised, she was still wearing her sunglasses. It crossed her mind to reverse and look, to be certain, but that, she thought as she threw her sunglasses down into the footwell of the passenger seat, would be insane. Better just to keep going. Better not to know.
Part Two will follow…
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