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Alexander McNabb

Written in the late 1980s, the result of a particularly vivid dream, this is the text of the original short story I took from those dream memories. Warts and all, by the way...



Ashridge was a welcome contrast from the grey oppression of the city. After only a week living by the forest I had recovered my interest in life and work. The only source of worry in my delight with these freshened circumstances was that Mariam hadn't been able to get away from the city to come up and see me yet.

The city! A memorable misery; three years of making do and being alone amongst millions. Spending my working days in an antiseptic environment, preferable to the dirt, smoke and rush of the morning and evening commute. Even the small bedsit I had managed to find was little comfort as a haven, depressing every sensibility with its Victorian plumbing and Edwardian wallpaper. The ageing shabbiness came with a very modern price tag. London evenings were just a gap to fill between work, food and bed. Even then, late at night, the city intruded. I had grown used to traffic rumbling through my short time of clear reflection before sleep, too used to faces that had no time, no concern for anything other than their own secret miseries.

Now, here, I found light, laughter, sharp air and the heady scents of wet leaves and fresh grass. At night I sat by my own handiwork, a wood fire that filled the living room of the little house with warmth and the hint of pine in its smoke. Before I went to work at the Institute each day, the cold morning light would find me padding with a little thrill across the rough flagstones of the hall with the makings of the fire to prepare for my homecoming.

Scrunched paper, criss-crossed twigs, then a couple of larger cuts laid down ready to take to flame on my return in the chill night. A lifetime away from igniting the Bakelite gas fire that brought warmth to that dingy London flat.

Of course the dog took to his new life immediately, not a moment’s hesitation there as he pounded down the woodland path each day. Even buying a dog had been a trial in London, the pet shop filled with animal screeches and the sight of puppies scrabbling for space in tiny cages forming a background to the spectacle of the owner in her shabby pink dress and painted face.

Her voice rasped with fags and an awful confiding leer in every vowel. ‘You can't keep a big dog like this in a flat, you know.’ She coughed at me. ‘They grow up hellish fast.’

But I wasn’t buying year-old Bill for a flat. I was buying him to move into the great outdoors and now the patter of his claws on the flagstones peppered the silences, barking as he rushed to meet me every evening, Bill The Happy Labrador.

I delighted in the contrast: cold screens and air conditioned clean rooms by day, a red glow and glass of scotch at night. After five days in the country, the hammering in my head receded and my new employer had commented on the brilliance of his find.

This was my first weekend at Ashridge, and I wasted no time in pulling the collar off the coat hook (with the usual attendant barking and skittering) and sallying forth on a long Saturday walk. Bill pulled and my feet scrunched on the wet gravel path, clouds of breath in the bright morning air. Soon we were away from the road, and I let Bill off and stooped as he bounded away chasing ghosts in the undergrowth. The woods took us both in, the dog and I, and we meandered for over an hour together through the pathways, Bill racing in great, curving arcs through the heather, returning to tease me with his big, brown laughing eyes.

I heard the children laughing a long time before I saw the green light of open field through the woodland. Bill was off nosing through the undergrowth again, muddling through the heather and snuffling excitedly at the day-old scent of pheasant. Labradors, I have found, are the world's greatest optimists, becoming so ecstatic at the prospect of game that they rush off making the most awful racket, never seeming to mind that every animal for a mile around has instantly gone to ground.

Making enough noise for six humans, poor old Bill would never catch even the most stupid pheasant. And believe me, pheasants are off the dial stupid. Nevertheless, he was delighted to be pushing through the bracken, and I was happy enough walking the dark leaf mould and listening to the far-off tinkle of children’s laughter.

It must have come a good ten minutes after I had first heard them, the red flash of a tiny figure running past the opening into a field. Bill re-joined me on the path, soil on his muzzle, and leaves on his back. I dropped my cigarette, careful to heel a hole and bury the smoking mottled orange stub in a shallow grave of wet leaves.

I will never know why I didn't just walk straight onto the common. It was the first time I had walked that path, although I had strolled in the vast woodland several times during my short stay in the area. I’d normally have carried on through onto the common, and into the next patch of trees visible past the gentle rise of the otherwise flat grassland. But I stood just inside the shaded boundary of the wood and watched the source of the laughter, six children playing by the other edge of the common, some two hundred yards distant.

Four were boys, about eleven years of age. The two girls were distinguishable only because they had longer hair, all six dressed in jumpers and jeans. They were capering around one of the boys, the smallest, who was standing stock still, and looking towards the top of the trees bordering the third side of the grassland. The girl in the red jumper seemed to be leading the whooping dance around the small, expectant figure in the centre. The boy in the centre, still fixing his gaze on the treetops, reached down, and touched the tip of a small brown pile with his index figure. As he straightened, Bill pushed against my leg and, in my annoyance at the dog for breaking the spell of my voyeurism, I almost missed the boy reach out his arm to the sky. Red jumper faltered, and fell to the grass, screaming. As the dancers stopped, and the girl on the ground kicked, a bird flew to the small boy, perching on his beckoning index finger. Quick as lighting, he grasped the bird with his other hand, and twisted its neck. I heard the faint, high pitched crack. Again he reached upwards, and again a sparrow alighted, only to drop to the pile of dead birds. Red jumper screamed again as a third bird came to its caller and fell to the pile. A fourth. A fifth. The dancers had come close now, and were holding hands as a sixth bird died. Red jumper was silent as the pile grew, she staggered to her feet and joined the dancers but I could see her pallor, even from that distance.

My senses returned and I blundered through the undergrowth towards the group of children to stop this wrongness. Something clamped onto my mind and I slammed against the trunk of a tree, grasping it like a long lost friend. The boy had turned, and stood with his hand stretched out to me.

Doubt and foreboding filled me as his beckoning filled my vision, I looked down to avoid that intense stare. Bile rose in my throat and green stains slashed across my chest from the tree-trunk. My impelled legs were heavy, not mine to command. I fought, my arms clutching at the tree, my body compulsively jerking forward. An age of battling the urge to run to him and be consumed before a girl's scream breaks it all. ‘Martin!’

It sheds like the lifting of stone weights pressing the life from me and the urge to dash to my death, I was certain at that point I was being invited to be another sparrow, evaporated as the boy turned and fled with the others into the far woodland. I slid down the trunk, spent, its roughness scraping my back. I sat in the wet leaves, tears running down my cheeks and bewildered Bill licking at my face.