At eleven o'clock that night, just as the night shifted up a gear and it went really dark, we felt like the bravest souls alive—just the three of us: me, Tommy, and Simon—but by four-thirty we were gibbering wrecks, crying for our parents.
We were each of us eleven years old and camping out. We had the three-berth tent that Tommy Elkins got the previous Christmas and we were pitching in the middle of the woods, besides the river. Although we were only a little more than a mile away from home, we felt like great explorers. In reality we were camping out in an area we knew like the back of our hands, somewhere we'd played around for years, but in our imagination we were deep in the uncharted wilderness, a million miles from civilisation. There were two ways to camp out—you could either go in a tent or you could go rough. But camping rough and just finding somewhere to sleep beneath a hedgerow or inside an old barn like certain other kids did and would brag about it, that just wasn't something that interested us.
I'd nagged my parents for weeks to allow me to sleep out with my mates and they had eventually relented to my constant appeals. It makes me realise how things have changed. Nowadays no parent in their right mind would allow their kid to sleep out with a bunch of his friends, not without adult supervision. Back then though it was quite normal; all the kids did it.
It was a different world, safer I think because you didn't have to worry about sexual perverts who preyed on children. They must have been about, just as they are now, but you seldom heard of them. Back then our monsters were real, and by that I mean we worried about werewolves, vampires, ghosts and that old chestnut, the escaped lunatic. More often than not with some supernatural origin. The fact that they were figments of an overactive imagination made them all the more powerful. All the more real.
We'd taken the usual gear with us; half a dozen tins of baked beans, some potatoes, several bottles of lemonade and a selection of chocolate bars. And after pitching the tent and arranging our sleeping bags on the groundsheet, we'd gotten a fire going and Tommy opened a few tins of the beans using the Swiss Army knife he always carried. We poured the beans into a battered saucepan that I'd contributed to our kit. It was the one my father used to wash his paintbrushes though you'd never know since I'd spent a good hour scrubbing it clean, removing the sticky residue of paint thinners from its tarnished sides.
And so we sat there, besides the fire, watching the moon rise above Moggs-Woods and doing what kids have done when camping out since time began—we told each other scary stories. There was a repertoire of stories that went around back then and most stories were variations on a theme, and I can't really remember many of them but one that does stick in the mind, maybe because I've heard it so many times. It wasn't told as if it were a story, at least not a made up story. It was told as if it were fact, something that had happened in the next town over, and had been told to the teller by a friend of a friend. It was the kind of story that these days we'd call an urban myth.
I'd heard that particular story told in many different ways but the way Tommy told it that night is still clear in my mind.
The way it goes is there's this young couple. I'm not sure how old they were since the age was never specified in all the versions of the story I'd ever heard, but you kind of place them as around eighteen, old enough to drive in any case because in the story these two are out driving one night. And the car breaks down, runs out of petrol or something and so the guy decides to walk over to a nearby farmhouse to seek help. It's dark and so he tells his girlfriend to wait in the car. Now she's not happy about this, not wanting to be left alone out on that country road, but the guy just laughs, tells her she'll be fine and with that he gets the petrol can from the boot of the car and sets out across the moonlit fields. Time goes by, maybe an hour and this girl is getting real nervous now. Outside all she can see is shadowy fields and monstrous shapes created by the moon as it dances across the hedgerows.
Suddenly she hears a sound, like footsteps outside the car and she is filled with hope because she thinks her boyfriend's returned, but then there's nothing but silence.
'Hello?' she says. 'Who is it?'
She hears a noise again, definite movement outside and she peers over her shoulder, trying to see out of the back window but it's too dark. Much too dark.
'Johnny is that you?' she asks.
In our story we'll call the boy Johnny, not that it really matters. And once again there is silence but then there is a violent series of thuds as someone, or something, climbs up over the front of the car and onto the roof.
'Johnny,' she says. Then shouts, 'This isn't funny.'
But all that follows is silence and more silence until moments later there is a tap on the roof of the car and then another and another and …
'Johnny,' the girl says again and this time there is real fear in her voice.
The tapping continues, becoming a rhythmic thud—bang, bang, bang.
The girl screams and then the next thing she knows there are flashing blue lights outside as a police car pulls up. An officer gets out and runs to her car, all the while the banging continues. The policeman pulls open the car door and reaches in, telling the girl to get out slowly and not make any sudden moves. She complies and the policeman puts an arm around her and starts to lead her over to the police car, telling her not to look back. Just don't look back.
She, of course, does look back and what she sees fills her with dread. For there on top of the car is a mad man, wayward hair, bulging eyes and a leering grin. In one hand he is holding an axe and in the other Johnny's head, which he continues to bring down onto the roof of the car in a rhythmic thud.
That's how the story ends, and I tell you it gives you the shits when you're a young boy with a young imagination—that story can surely send shivers up and down your spine. Of course they say the maniac of the story escaped and the fact that it always happened close to your own town, made you think that he was out there somewhere, maybe hiding in the woods waiting for a chance to pounce.
Strange but out of all the scary stories we used to tell it is that one that remains clearest in memory, maybe because I've heard it so many times, told it so many times.
After that none of us wanted to climb into the tent and go to sleep, but we were young and eventually we started to find it difficult to keep our eyes open. Earlier we'd feasted on baked beans and roast potatoes. The potatoes charcoal black because they'd been tossed into the fire and then tapped out with a stick. They turned your lips black and you had to pick ash out from between your teeth, but they tasted wonderful. I don't think anything ever tasted quite as good as those potatoes.
Anyway eventually the three of us climbed into our sleeping bags and lay there side by side. We could hear the crackling of the fire outside and for a moment Tommy was concerned that if the wind changed and blew the flames towards the tent we could be burned to death as we slept, but Simon pointed out that the fire was now little more than embers and would burn out in no time, and so that put our minds at rest.
I don't know how long it was before we fell asleep, but I remember we lay there talking and giggling for some time. Simon was going on and on about this girl Diane from school and how she was starting to develop a fine pair of titties. And Tommy just found that so funny—he kept calling them, 'juicy boobs' and laughing and pretty soon we were all laughing. Juicy boobs indeed and you know, even today, when I see Diane, she's divorced with three children and all the worries of a mortgage and a low paid job, I still think of her as juicy boobs.
Juicy boobs, juicy boobs, juicy boobs.
And so that was the way the conversation went until one by one we each fell silent and then drifted away into sleep. Maybe we all dreamt of juicy boobs, I know I did.
I think I woke first, least that's the way I remember it. Something had woken me, a sound outside and I lay there in the darkness, eyes wide open while my two friends slept soundly besides me. I heard a sound again, like footsteps, like someone or something walking about outside the tent.
'There's someone outside,' I said nudging both Tommy and Simon in the ribs.
'What time is it?' Tommy asked.
Simon who had one of those neat digital watches with a backlight pressed the button and peered at the LCD digits.
'Nearly four,' he said.
'There's someone outside,' I repeated. 'Listen.'
We all lay there, holding our breaths so as not to make a sound and just when I started to feel foolish, thinking that I'd imagined it all, we heard movement outside. There was definitely someone moving about outside.
'Who the fuck?' Simon said, or at least words to that effect.
'Go an' take a look,' Tommy suggested but none of us wanted to go look. Maybe, we seemed to reason, if we lay there silent then whoever it was, whatever it was, outside would go away. It couldn't be too long before daylight. All we had to do was wait.
We lay there then, each of us terrified, imagining all sorts when suddenly someone seemed to punch or kick the tent. The canvas made a whooping sound as it shook violently and Tommy screamed. He actually screamed, like a woman in a cheap horror movie, and that made it worse. Simon started to cry and I mumbled some prayer that I'd half remembered from school assembly.
The tent was hit again and again and …
Whoever it was outside was moving around the tent and kicking and punching it simultaneously so that the canvas bulged in and then rippled back out. The walls of the tent seemed to be alive.
This went on for several minutes and soon it wasn't only Tommy screaming.
We all screamed as one single voice.
And then silence.
But we didn't dare move and we lay there until the day broke and became strong enough to filter its light through the canvas of the tent. There hadn't been a sound for some time, but still none of us wanted to be the first to look outside.
In the end I went out first, but not because of any courage on my part but more out of fear. By staying in the tent we didn't know what we would face if we went outside, and not knowing had become scarier than the prospect of going outside and facing whatever it was. I remember pulling the tent's opening apart with trembling hands and then I slid my head through the opening and was greeted by …
A wonderful summer's morning.
And when I climbed out of the tent and stood besides the ashes of the fire, it wasn't long before Tommy and Simon joined me. There was no-one else around, no mad slavering monster and we each started to feel the tension leave us. A flock of sheep were grazing nearby and I wondered if they had been banging into our tent during the night. Had they been grazing next to the tent, their heads striking the canvas? Had it just been the sheep?
After a while we figured it must have been the bloody sheep. We laughed, and denied that we had been truly scared. Each of us said that we were putting it on, teasing each other, but inwardly we all knew we'd been scared, positively shitting ourselves. We packed the tent away and left the woods in high spirits, yet deep down we were glad to be heading home to a warm breakfast and our own beds.
The one thing that still plays on my mind, still has the power to get me springing awake in the middle of the night, is that just as we started up the steep banking that led to the old railway track and the village beyond, I happened to look back over my shoulder and for a moment I thought I caught a fleeting glimpse of a figure standing besides the river where our tent had been. A tall, powerful figure and dangling from one of his hands was what appeared to be an axe.
Copyright © 2016 Gary Dobbs.
Gary Dobbs (Gary Martin Dobbs) is a British writer and actor. As a writer using the pen name Jack Martin he is responsible for a string of popular westerns for Robert Hale's Black Horse Western imprint. These include 'Arkansas Smith', 'The Ballad of Delta Rose', and 'The Afterlife of Slim McCord'.
As Gary M. Dobbs he has written the popular series of mysteries featuring the character of Granny Smith - described as Miss Marple on steroids. As an actor Dobbs has appeared (often unaccredited) in many British TV shows, as well as in the films The Reverend and Risen. In 2014 Gary wrote the non-fiction historical book, Cardiff and the Valleys in the Great War which was published in 2015 by Pen and Sword Books.
GRANNY SMITH: The Welsh Connection
(Red Valley Publishing)
RIDING THE VENGEANCE TRAIL