The front door slammed.
His mother’s shout was lost on the wind as Paul sprinted away. He had to catch the early bus, he had to.
At the corner of Priory Road he saw it coming down the hill, on the other side of the road. There was no way he could dash across to get it. Sure enough, the bus passed him as he waited for a gap in the traffic.
Stewie Fisher waved at him, his freckled face pressed close to a downstairs window. Upstairs, the back-seat gang gurned half-heartedly and gave him the finger.
His pocket trembled.
Paul texted. He’d join his friend asap. He decided not to wait for the next bus, but walk, cutting through Calley Wood. He’d never been in there on his own before. It was strictly forbidden and the wood’s deeper reaches were the subject of local lore and dark legend, but it was the only way to make up time.
He toiled up the hill towards the skeletons of the trees upon its brow. Over the stile, onto the muddy path, he headed into the wood proper.
Birds twittered in the dank cold and wild snowdrops gleamed. Paul pushed aside the stories he’d heard about the place and concentrated on the winding path, ducking beneath trailing branches. In a clearing made by a fallen oak, he wobbled along the giant trunk, arms raised for balance. Carvings etched deep into its bark proclaimed affection or constancy, but he paid them no heed and kept going. The path to school wasn’t far now.
He clambered down through the twisted tree roots.
‘What you doin’ ‘ere then?’
Paul leapt to the ground and scuttled backwards. In the up-turned base of the oak tree sat a figure, almost entangled in roots and ferns. Stocky and solid, he wore a greasy black overcoat tied at the waist with a piece of twine and a pair of baggy trousers and trainers. His hair, of no colour at all, poked out of a canvas hat and his skin looked grey.
Paul retreated behind a large tree-stump. Peering over it, he saw that the path to school ran close beside the man. He fingered his mobile for the emergency key, just in case the stump wasn’t protection enough.
He gave the man a serious answer.
‘I’m going to school,’ he said. ‘They’re expecting me there. What are you doing?’
‘Sittin.’ The man didn’t seem to find the question presumptuous or odd. ‘I always wait for the Spring here.’
‘How do you do that?’
‘Look around,’ the man encompassed the forest with a sweep of his arm.
So Paul did.
When he gave it his full attention, he found that he could see the intangible green haze about bushes and trees which indicated readiness to leaf. Glossy red buds of willow bulged, furry contents not yet revealed. On mossy mounds yellow winter aconites still clustered, spiked through with celandine. The wood felt full of patient life, waiting to burst into being.
‘There!’ The man’s hand snaked out. Suddenly he was holding a small, wriggling body.
Paul flinched, but he was curious to see what had been caught so expertly.
The man looked over, his red-rimmed eyes a jaundiced yellow. He beckoned the boy closer. Ready to bolt at the first sign of anything untoward, Paul approached with caution.
The man soothed the animal and gently stroked its long velvet ears. It nestled, quaking, in his large hands. It was a young hare, with huge dark eyes and a pounding heart, Paul could see it beating. He’d never seen a hare up close before, although last year he’d watched through his Dad’s binoculars as they boxed out in the fields. They were special, his father had told him, an old symbol of the new season. The creature made no attempt to escape.
‘You can stroke it if you want.’
‘Will you let it go?’ Paul was reluctant to get too near.
‘Mmmm…they’re good eating, hares are.’ Brown stained teeth showed as the man smiled. ‘But I’ll not be eating this one. She’s bearing.’ He ran his finger along the hare’s underside and she shivered, before he quietened her again.
The man nodded and carefully placed the hare on a hummock of earth. It hesitated, watching for a moment, before loping off into the undergrowth.
‘Your school, would it be along that path there?’ The man indicated the narrow track. Paul nodded. ‘Down past the brook?’
‘That’s its name, is it? D’you know where that comes from?’
‘The common gorse, or European Ulex, also called furze,’ Paul recited. This fact was part of every first year’s introduction to Furzedown Comprehensive, for the school was built on heath land covered in it. ‘It’s on our badge.’
He pointed to the breast of his pullover, which was just visible beneath his puffy jacket.
‘Let me see.’ The man leaned out, peering and Paul automatically moved forwards. Seconds later he realised his mistake. He stepped back.
The man’s smile was cold as he looked Paul directly in the eye. ‘You ought to be more careful, you don’t know what I’m like.’
Paul felt the panic rising in his chest. He began to sidle away.
‘Well, you don’t. Do you?’ The man lurched forwards.
Paul took to his heels.
Creaking laughter followed him as he shot along the path, ignoring the whipping saplings. He didn’t stop until he was almost at the edge of the wood and could see the school buildings beyond the fields. His heart too was pounding, just like the captured hare’s, but there was no pursuit.
The cows at pasture in the field raised their heads as Paul crossed, then returned to their grazing.
The man was just a tramp, Paul realised, but there was something curious and special about the encounter. He decided to keep it to himself. Besides, it wouldn’t be wise to mention that he’d been in the wood alone.
Ahead the wide metal school gates stood open. He hurried towards them.
Paul dodged his way through the noisy mass of fellow pupils, milling around enjoying the freedom before the bell sounded. He was headed for the coat racks where Stewie would be waiting.
‘What took you so long?’ his friend demanded, pale blue eyes fierce beneath his shock of brown hair. He looked Paul up and down. Paul pulled his jacket down, his clothing was dishevelled and he could feel his hair was sweaty.
‘What’s happened?’ Stewie asked.
‘Nothing. Come on.’
They just had time to run to the science labs and check their biology project before assembly began. Through the glass wall of their soil box, green shoots could clearly be seen. Germination was taking place at different rates, which was what the experiment was designed to show. If the project got a good assessment today they would get the all-important credits needed to go on the school trip to Wembley.
By lunchtime Paul was bursting to tell Stewie about the hare. It was too extraordinary a thing not to share. So he also had to tell him about the tramp, it was unavoidable.
They were in the cafeteria swapping the contents of their lunch boxes when Paul broached the subject.
‘I saw a hare this morning.’
‘They’re always in the fields this time of year.’ Stewie scrutinised the contents of a sandwich, before taking a bite.
‘No. Up close. I could see it’s heart beating.’
‘Cool. How come?’
‘A man caught it. He moved as quick as lightning, but he didn’t hurt it.’ The more Paul thought about this, the more impressive it became. ‘He said it was pregnant.’
‘A tramp, in Calley Wood.’
‘Did he try anything?’
‘No, he just caught the hare, but…’
‘Like Paedo Phil?’
This was what everyone called the school’s janitor. Paul suspected this was only because the man had made the mistake of letting the kids know his name. Nevertheless, none of his schoolfellows felt comfortable alone with the man.
‘We should tell someone, a teacher, or at least a prefect.’
‘No, it wasn’t like that. It was different. And anyway, I’d only get into trouble for going through the wood. I might lose a credit.’
Stewie grunted and chewed his sandwich. ‘What was he doing there, then?’
‘Dunno, just being a tramp I expect.’
‘Do you think he’ll be there tomorrow?’ Tomorrow was Saturday.
‘He might be,’ Paul looked at his friend, fear forgotten. ‘D’you want to go and look?’
* * * *
There was a roaring in the wind all night and the day was blustery. The roads looked newly washed and water burbled in the gutters, as cotton wool clouds scudded across the sky.
Paul met Stewie at the stile. The plan was to follow the same path Paul had taken the day before.
Stewie peered at the lowering wood. ‘Isn’t it too wet?’
‘Look. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.’
‘Well…, it’s Calley Wood…’
‘It’s only trees!’
‘Yeah, but I’m not supposed…’
‘Oh well, if you’re not supposed… Come on, we said we’d find the tramp.’
Paul climbed over the stile and set off along the path. He heard Stewie scramble over behind him.
As they entered, Paul sensed a difference in the wood.
The trees snapped and rattled in the wind with gusting agitation. Fierce vortices of twigs and dead leaves formed, swirled and dissolved. He became jittery and nervous and could tell that Stewie was too.
Drawing near to the oak tree clearing he heard voices and laughter. A knot of older youths sat on the huge fallen trunk, smoking. Only one was familiar to him, a sixth former at Furzedown named Matt. His bright red biking leathers were easily recognised, out of place in the woodland setting.
‘Look,’ one jeered. ‘It’s the Babes in the Wood.’
Stewie quickly pulled back the hood of his over-sized anorak, his face flushing with embarrassment.
‘Let them be,’ said Matt. ‘Didn’t you play here when you were a kid? I used to get up to all sorts.’
The first sniggered. ‘And more recently too, I’ll bet.’
‘Not like what you’ve been doing, mate.’
Paul and Stewie circled the clearing, for tangled brambles choked the direct way across and the trunk was occupied. Paul set out along the path at the far side, when Stewie spoke.
‘Have you guys seen a tramp around here?’ He asked.
‘What d’you mean a tramp?’ An acne-speckled youth jumped down from his perch, throwing his cigarette butt into a puddle. ‘Are you being funny?’
‘N-no.’ Stewie edged away. The youth feinted after him.
‘Leave it,’ his shaven-headed companion commanded. ‘He didn’t mean anything and we’re in enough trouble as it is.’
‘All right, Ian, only playing,’ the first answered. ‘Shoo!’
He ran at the boys, who hurtled away.
After a few minutes, they halted, bent double and panting. No-one was following.
‘Sorry…’ Stewie spluttered, between deep breaths. ‘Silly thing to do.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Paul said, gasping.
‘What were they doing there anyway?’ Stewie straightened up. ‘Hey, my mobile’s out. I can’t get a signal.’
‘What if something happens…?’
‘Nothing’s going to happen.’ Paul turned to go on, chin jutting upwards. Stewie stayed where he was.
‘Go home if you want to,’ said Paul. ‘I’m going on.’
‘I don’t want to go home! Why makes you think I do?’ Stewie countered, face reddening. ‘Where do we go next?’
‘What about down by the ruins?’
Paul was already walking along the path.
They moved in single file, heading towards the heart of the wood, a place of shadows. The wind quietened and birdsong sounded. Somewhere a dog-fox barked, as they trekked along the ridge. Here the terrain sloped away from the path into shallow dells and shaded hollows.
In the deepest of these stood an oblong green metal box, about five foot high. Beside it was a concrete blockhouse and a tangle of tumbled transformer wires, all enclosed by iron railings. A rusted metal Danger sign could just be seen beneath the brambles. Long out of use, the old electricity sub-station retained its sense of the forbidden.
Paul led the way, stepping and sliding down the incline. The wood was wilder in the glade, the vegetation denser, despite the evidence of former use. The previous night’s rain had hardly penetrated through the tree canopy and it smelled of dry, loamy earth. Inside the railings the ground was completely undisturbed, aside from a well-trodden animal trail, disappearing into a thicket of brambles.
Paul hurried over.
’Come on, give me a bunk up,’ he called to his friend.
Stewie drew back. ‘What? Over the railings? No-one goes over the railings, it isn’t safe.’
‘This thing closed down years ago, it’s fine.’ Paul said. ‘I want to follow that trail, look, to see if I can find the hare. That’s what we’re here for.’
‘Is it? What about the tramp…I thought….? Oh, all right, but don’t blame me if it all goes wrong.’
Stewie made a stirrup with his hands and Paul put his foot into it.
‘Nothing’ll go wrong. I promise.’
Paul was boosted upwards and teetered on the cross-rail before vaulting over and half-falling into a patch of nettles.
‘Want some dock weed?’ Stewie had spotted some on the way down into the dell.
‘I’m okay,’ Paul stood up, then crumpled forwards, awkwardly. That hurt.
He held on to the railings, gingerly touching his foot to the ground and wincing.
‘I’ve hurt my foot. I can’t stand on it.’
‘Told you it was stupid, duh! Now what are we going to do?’
Paul sat down on one side of the railings, with Stewie on the other, handing dock leaves through to soothe Paul’s nettle stings.
‘How are we going to get you out?’ Stewie said.
‘We need a ladder, or something.’
‘Yeah. I’ll just go and get one from behind that tree then, shall I?’
‘All right, sarky.’ Paul snapped.
‘What we need is some help.’
‘Who from?’ said Paul. ‘Who did you tell about us coming here?’
‘Nobody.’ Stewie was silent for a moment. ‘No way did I tell anyone. If my Dad finds out I’ve been in here I’ll be kept in for weeks.’
‘We can’t phone our parents anyway,’ said Paul. He took out his phone and looked at the display. ‘No signal.’
They settled into studied gloom.
Paul’s leg throbbed and he felt guilty. It was he who had insisted they come to the ruins, he who had climbed over the railings, but Stewie would be punished too. As much, more, even.
‘Maybe those others are still by the fallen tree?’ Stewie suggested. ‘I’ll bet they’re up to something there anyway.’
‘Maybe. Will you try and get Matt to help or… the others?’
Stewie stood. He licked his lips and swallowed hard.
‘Their bark’s probably worse than their bite.’ Paul tried to reassure.
‘Yeah.’ Stewie looked unconvinced. ‘Will you be all right on your own?’
‘I’m okay, I’m inside the railings.’
Paul watched Stewie stride up the hill and go over the ridge. He was alone in the dell.
There was no wind in the hollow. Although clouds were racing across the sky, the air around Paul was still. He reached for his mobile, but then pushed it back into his pocket. Somehow, games weren’t right here. He shuffled from damp grass onto dry earth, taking care not to jar his foot and ankle.
Paul became aware of the sounds of the wood around him and sensed the re-emergence of the wild creatures, ignorant of his presence.
He manoeuvred so that he could see the mottled grey shell of the blockhouse. The roof was three inches thick and intact, though the single window was a gaping hole. Rusty streaks ran from roof to ground. It didn’t look welcoming, but it would provide shelter, if he needed it. The door stood ajar.
Wasn’t that closed before? Could the wind have blown it open? But the air in the dell was still.
Paul’s skin prickled. He recalled tales about the malevolent inhabitants of Calley Wood, the gypsy child-stealers, the wild hunter. He scanned the undergrowth for hidden watchers. Was that a dark figure, skulking within the trees? A cloud crossed the sun and Paul shivered.
He looked back up to the ridge, to where his friend had disappeared. Stories from early childhood re-surfaced, of evil things – trolls and vampires – hiding deep in the forest. The bad children were always the ones who were punished. His heartbeat sounded in his ears.
Swallowing hard, he forced such thoughts away.
‘There’s no-one here but me.’
He spoke out loud, setting the wood rustling and scuttling. The blockhouse was just an empty blockhouse. A wild thing, a fox or a badger, opened the door. Nothing else could get inside the railings.
But the only way to be sure was to go and look.
Holding on to the bars Paul pulled himself upright and made his way, gritting his teeth against the pain in his ankle, towards the blockhouse. The door hung sideways on one hinge. He took a deep breath and, bracing himself against the doorjamb, he made himself look inside.
At first it was difficult to distinguish anything in the dim light and disorder. There was a pungent smell, of scat or urine. The floor was covered with wire, metal boxes and wood, piling higher up against the far wall.
Paul heard a scratching sound from deep within. Something was moving through the debris. Heart thumping, he squatted down low. The sun shone into the building and he gasped as light reflected from two eyes within the mound.
He lowered himself further. The reflected lights blinked out.
Slowly, very slowly, the eyes came closer. First whiskers, then the long twitching nose came into view, into the patch of sunlight. Amber ringed pupils gazed at him as the velvet creature emerged.
The hare sat up, sniffing at the air, smelling his presence. It was wary, but not frightened.
The soft fur was flecked and dun-coloured and the long, silky ears lay back against its body. A twig snapped. The ears flicked upright, translucent in the sunlight.
This was his hare, one he’d found for himself.
A dull growl sounded in the distance. The hare leapt out through the door, vanishing into the weeds. The stuttering rumble grew louder. Paul recognised it as a motor bike engine, coming closer. Soon he caught sight of a red and white blur through the bare tree trunks.
It was Matt, with Stewie clinging on behind, head bent sideways and eyes tightly shut. The bike leapt a fallen trunk with ease and careered to a halt in the hollow. Stewie fell off into the leaves.
‘So this is it?’ Matt removed his helmet and dismounted, as Paul got to his feet and hobbled over. ‘And you’re the idiot who’s hurt himself.’
‘It happens,’ Paul’s voice squeaked. Why did he sound so young and weak? He grimaced.
Matt strode around the hollow.
‘I’ll use my bike to climb over,’ he said. ‘But I’ll need something to walk up when I bring you out. Can you find something on that side?’
Paul struggled to push one of the larger metal boxes towards the railings.
‘You didn’t take long,’ he said to his friend.
Stewie paled. ‘No, we took the direct route.’
‘Yes, I think that’ll do,’ Matt inspected the box. ‘Can you prop it up securely?’
Carefully, Paul set to work as Matt wheeled his bike over and stripped off his jacket. Within minutes Paul was safely on the ground outside the railings.
‘Are you sure you’re all right?’ Matt asked. ‘I think you need to get that ankle looked at. I’ll take you to A & E, it isn’t far.’
‘No, there’s no need, really.’ Stewie echoed.
‘Yeah, I’ve just ricked my ankle, that’s all.’
Matt was uneasy. ‘Look, I think…’
‘We’ll be done for if our parents find out we’ve been in here. In the wood.’ Paul said. He and Stewie looked at Matt at the same moment, eyes beseeching.
Matt sighed. ‘Okay. I suppose. Can you find your own way back, or do you want a lift?’
‘I’ll manage,’ Paul replied, quickly. ‘But thanks very much for getting me out.’
‘No problem,’ Matt grinned. Once more in full regalia, he mounted his bike. ‘It’ll make a good story. No, don’t worry,’ he added, catching sight of the boys’ horrified look. ‘I won’t tell anyone.’ He pulled on helmet and gauntlets, kicked the stand away and, with a brief salute, roared out of the dell.
‘Phew.’ Stewie gulped as he watched Matt’s exit. ‘That was cool. Will you really be able to walk home?’
‘Yeah. See if you can find me a strong stick for a crutch. A bit of branch maybe.’
Stewie rootled in the heaps of dead leaves.
‘Here.’ He handed a piece of broken bough to Paul, who wedged it under his armpit.
‘I’ll be fine.’ Paul assured his friend. ‘I gotta be. Anyway, my Mum’d go mental if I arrived home on a motor bike.’
They set off up the path, Paul managing a lurching walk. Stewie slowed his pace so that Paul could keep up.
‘So what happened after I went, then? Did anyone come by? Did you see the tramp?’
Stewie looked at Paul, expectant and mystified.
‘I just waited.’
‘Something must’ve happened.’ Stewie exclaimed. ‘You…you seem… different, like. So.. is there a curse of Calley Wood?’
Paul shook his head, observing his friend’s confusion. He couldn’t precisely explain, even to himself, what had occurred. He didn’t have the words. He had just waited in the wood and yet…. something was different. There was no way Stewie would understand.
The pair stomped away, silent. At the top of the ridge, Paul looked back into the hollow. Shafts of light slanted through the trees. The blockhouse and the green box were both in sunlight now.
‘It is the wood,’ Paul said. ‘It makes you feel bigger than you are and smaller at the same time.’
‘Bigger and smaller at the same time? Yeah, right…’ Stewie rolled his eyes.
This was the only explanation Paul could give. Yet Calley Wood had lost its power to terrify. Now charged with possibilities, it could never be so frightening again.
The boys turned and disappeared over the ridge.
Behind the concrete blockhouse and beyond the railings, the man in the fraying black overcoat observed their departure. Beside him sat the hare, ears raised and watchful.
‘You drew ‘im back.’ The man commented to the animal. ‘A hare’s a powerful creature, ‘specially this time of year. Mebbe he’ll come and visit us again soon?’ He nodded. ‘Yes, I think he might.’
Silently and with an ease of movement unlikely in one so old and ragged, the man rose and disappeared into the trees.