All In Good Fun
By MARK NIXON
“So, you ready?”
Will stands proudly at the bedroom door. His backpack is strapped on securely, but he still holds on to the straps, a ready and willing adventurer. His hoodie is zipped up to his neck but he keeps the hood down. He knows better than to put it up indoors.
He’s been ready for hours.
His best friend Matt rummages under his bed with a grasping, outstretched arm, his own rucksack lolling open at his knees. His room is a disorganised jumble, and though he’d never admit it, it could do with some care. He prostrates himself further beneath the bed, gradually disappearing beneath the frame, inch by inch.
“Nearly,” he replies, his head now completely hidden. Will sighs.
The arduous car journey to Matt’s house, watching the trees pass by in a blur, has only compounded the sense of impatience he has wrestled with all morning. The secluded village he now finds himself in screams adventure; such potential at the end of a long, tiresome trip.
“A-ha!” Matt wriggles from under the bed and scrambles to his feet, flicking on and off his torch in triumph, before stashing it in his bag. He zips it closed and flings it over his shoulder haphazardly, all the while ignoring Will’s exaggerated eye rolling.
They race downstairs, leaping in tandem over the final steps, and landing with a combined, ungainly thud that shakes the hallway mirror. Matt skids into the kitchen, as Will slides on his trainers. Matt’s mother leans on the counter, watching idly over a boiling kettle. Startled by the thunderous sound of boys with a plan, she turns to her son and smiles.
“Where are you boys off to today then?”
“Just around the Farm,” Matt retorts quickly. Too quickly.
She scrutinizes his face for tells.
“Yes mum,” he moans.
“Okay. Well be back no later than four, you two. Oh, and don’t stay out if it pours down.” She raises her eyebrows expectantly, until satisfied that her message has been acknowledged. “Anyway, you’ll want supplies.” She flashes a cheeky smile, the kind mothers have when they know they are about to impress their children.
Matt’s face lights up as his mother takes out two sandwiches, bound in cling film and hands them to her son, followed by two cans of pop and a handful of brightly-packaged snacks. Will joins them in the kitchen, and catching the gleeful expression on his friend’s face, armfuls of food in tow, he allows a similar one to form on his own. As they pack their lunches into their bags, they share an unspoken moment of burgeoning excitement. A mutual secret, glistening between them. They could be out for hours now, all day even. They exchange excited glances as they leave the kitchen.
“Thanks Mrs Peart.”
Despite the countless occasions on which Will has been invited to address his friend’s mother by her first name, it still feels far too grown up, for a twelve year old. Matt slips on his battered trainers, his laces already loosely tied.
Just before the door slams shut behind them, a shout escapes through the crack: “Remember! No later than four!”
The boys cut across the grass of the front garden. Will lifts up his hood, yanking on the toggles to tighten it as he runs. Matt follows suit. The two have been friends for over a year now, but only recently has Will’s mum started bringing him up to stay over.
“The Farm?” Will laments. “She knows we went there last month, you know.”
“I know! There’s not much around here though.” Matt vaults himself over the small decorative fence. “Any way she believed me so it doesn’t matter. Right?”
“I suppose so.” Will follows him over, in a rather less grand step.
The squat stone houses of the village are huddled together, in groups of threes and fours, separated only by the natural contours of the land. Nestled in one of the quieter corners of Northumberland, the roads leading to the village are uncomfortably narrow, sided by slated brick walls with farmland stretching to the horizon.
To the west, a small forest circles the edges of the village. Stopped by firm iron railings, it none the less protects the buildings from the harsh winds typical of the north of England. So homogenous are the buildings in their antiquity, even the Post Office would be indistinguishable from the homes if it were not for a small red Post Office sign nailed to the thick wooden door. A lone phone box sits on the green outside, a decorative beacon of anachronism. Will is always baffled by how far removed the village seems from the nearest supermarket or town centre. He thinks of the long winters, and worries that the snow might prevent his monthly visits.
Despite the time of year, the boys feel the damp in the air as they walk up the hill. Grey skies suck dry the colours of summer, providing a looming warning of rain to come. The road surface is uneven under their feet, as the jagged edges of potholes meet to form a twisted pattern. Glancing over his shoulder, Matt watches his house disappear from view as they reach the top. They walk toward a larger set of houses, not bothering to stick to the path. Little sound travels through the village. Like a vacuum.
The distant sound of groaning cattle is interrupted only by the cheerful whistling of an older man coming down the path. He tips his flat cap at them with a friendly familiarity as he passes, and they smile politely in response.
Sensing the oncoming rain, most of the villagers remain inside, but Matt has lived here long enough to know that their wanderings won’t go unwatched. Matt instructs Will to follow him as they head right, as though they were headed to the farm. A low hedge hides them from peering eyes, until they reach a slate wall. With one last look around, they awkwardly climb over it, tumbling into the grassy field on the other side. The boys dust themselves off, and beam at each other with silent smirks. They have outwitted the adults.
“Undetected!” cries Matt.
Keeping low, the boys duck through the empty field. They slow down as they pass the fenced off gardens of the outer houses. Dropping to the floor, they crawl using their elbows like they have seen in their army games. They are in no danger of being seen, of course, but neither of them is going to ruin the illusion.
After a few minutes they reach the other side of the village, and they can see the forest beyond the road. They climb over the slated wall and cross, Will ducks and squeezes through the iron railings, while Matt watches for witnesses. They remain unseen. Matt climbs through the railing himself and they quickly slide in amongst the trees. A lone wooden sign stands in a clearing.
“Ah,” mutters Will.
Matt grows agitated. “What?”
“It just more real when you see the sign.”
“We’re kids, Will,” he scoffs. “That’s for grown-ups, like poachers or something.”
“Right.” Will acknowledges the reassurance.
“So, any idea how big it is?”
“Not really, but let’s find out!”
They take their first few tentative steps further into the woodland, the occasional snap of a twig under their shoes shattering the unnerving quiet of the forest.
Soon, their confidence grows, and their pace increases.
Nature truly rules this woodland; creeping ivy has invaded and dominated every inch of ground, challenged only by weeds and the toughest of plants. The green of the forest surprises the boys as they delve deeper; it had seemed so dull through the grey mist of the village. The air is thick with moisture, and through the chunky canopy above them a few raindrops fight through. Their assault increases and soon, despite their cover, the boys notice their clothes get slowly damp and heavy.
Rainclouds darken the sky, bringing with them a premature night; before long the wood is alive with the fluttering song of confused birds. Matt recalls the sound from outside his bedroom window, but he keeps this sensitive notion to himself. Tipping his head back, he opens his mouth, catching raindrops on his outstretched tongue.
“I’d laugh if a bird pooped in your mouth right now,” sniggers Will.
Matt snaps his mouth closed, shooting a sidelong glare at his friend.
“Let’s keep moving.”
“What are we looking for anyway?”
Matt senses that Will isn’t enjoying getting wet; it will take some convincing to make him to stay out in this downpour.
“It was going to be a surprise, but apparently, there’s a castle somewhere in here.”
The soft slurp of Will’s steps in the thickening mud stop dead.
“It’s true!” Matt cries, whirling around to face his accuser. “If you keep on walking in the other direction from my house, there’s an old road leading through the forest. That’s how the people who live there get in!”
“Well why didn’t we just go up there?” Will despairs, his voice loudening.
“Because we’d be seen straight away! Look, let’s just keep going.”
Matt stretches a searching arm into his bag, plucking out a bar of chocolate. Tearing it open with his teeth, he takes an oversized bite.
“C’mon, I’ll prove it,” he mumbles with a full mouth.
As the boys walk in silence, Will realises they are heading in the rough direction of Matt’s house. At least this backs up his friend’s story, he thinks.
“But why would there be a castle here?” Will wonders aloud.
“From when we were at war with the Scottish,” Matt replies, secretly excited; he’d been waiting for this question. “This one was where they kept them prisoner, and tortured them for info.”
Will falls silent. Suddenly he isn’t so sure this is a good place to explore. Reluctant to look afraid in front of his friend, he soldiers on.
The ground beneath them gradually begins to climb, and soon extends into a sharp bank. With sludge sliding under their in feet, the boys cling to tangled arms of ivy, hauling themselves up on cautiously rigid legs.
At the top, muddied and with aching limbs, they stop to catch their breath, glancing around for any signs of their final destination. In the distance, a path forms through the undergrowth, hewn into the earth by just barely enough use.
“Told you!” Matt cries, smugly.
The trees are different here. The branches grow out in twisted, coiling shapes, as if some unnatural weight has dragged them down over many years. Their arms appear to reach toward the path, cloying at something unseen. Will shrinks away from them as they venture on, and begins to wish they’d taken the less secretive route.
The thicket of twisted tree limbs overhead block out what little sunlight ekes its way through the blanket of blackening cloud. The songbirds’ chorus continues, a swathe of comforting white noise in this disquieting copse.
Their path rolls on ahead of them, though they feel no closer to the light of other side. Will could swear the trees seem to be closing in on them, slowly swallowing up the light.
Slowly, the boys become aware of a new, slow whistle. Nestled among the cacophony of chirps and shrieks, it comes together, note by note. Even to their young, disinterested ears, it soon becomes unmistakably incongruous, fully-formed and unnatural.
Protracted and clear now, it takes shape in their minds. There is no ignoring it. Not sweeping it away with self-denial. A nursery rhyme.
They glance at each other, looking for reassurance that the sound is only in their imagination, but their similarly colourless faces are more than enough evidence to the contrary.
The sound resumes, as slow and as sinister as before. Fear battles with pride, as they both struggle not to look afraid, but they cannot help feel the intrusion is far from good-natured.
“Do you –“
“It’s just the birds,” snaps Matt.
“No, it’s a song! I know that song!”
Their pace quickens as the whistling continues. As they stride along, Will mumbles under his breath along with the tune.
“… all around the mulberry bush…”
“Shut up Will,” Matt barks in a strained whisper.
“…stopped to pull up his sock…”
The whistle grows louder, and clearer.
“Pop goes the Weasel.”
A twig breaks behind them.
They erupt into a sprint, racing down the path. Neither one dares look behind. With the way reeling endlessly ahead of them, Matt veers to the side of the road, diving beneath a low, gnarled tree branch. He yanks his friend down by his rucksack. Will lands heavily beside Matt, who looks up at him slowly, a single finger to his lips. Over their own ragged breathing, the same haunting tune rings out. Distant at first, it grows slowly closer as it repeats, drifting toward their hiding place.
The birds have stopped singing.
They see no one amongst the trees, no rustle of movement breaks the silence. Will tugs on Matt’s sleeve, motioning toward a fallen tree some way behind them. Draped low across on the wet ground, they shuffle backwards as quietly as they can under the canopy of the vast oak tree, and listen.
The whistling amplifies, as it closes in.
A drip falls onto Matt’s head from the canopy of distorted arms. Then another. And another, running down toward his eyes. Still listening intently, he absently wipes at his face with the back of his hand.
The smell gets him first; the familiar copper tinge. And then colour.
His hand is smeared with a sticky crimson liquid. Panicked, he searches his forehead for the source, a scratch he hadn’t noticed.
It is not his blood.
Stirred by Matt’s desperately confused moans, Will turns to his friend, face speckled with blood. His questions are answered before they even leave his open mouth, as the tree begins to glisten in the low light.
Dark, viscous blood oozes through the cracks in the bark. Bubbling up from the wood, it rolls hypnotically down the trunk. The gnarled skin of the tree creaks and spreads, as is something is swelling inside it.
Suddenly, the seeping becomes a surge. The blood gushes from the tree like a burst pipe, flowing over the boys’ feet. The ground is sodden, their frantic backwards stumbling spatters a mixture of blood and dirt and rain over their clothes.
The wet crunch of footsteps echoes behind them. With their only exit through the dense brush of Hawthorn trees, they dart forward. Fuelled by blind, unthinking horror, they force their way through, tiny cuts lashing their faces.
Throwing themselves against the resistance of the undergrowth, they break through to a clearing. Ahead, they see a lopsided stone archway, built into a short wall nestled into the sloping ground.
They sprint in tandem toward it, the cuts on their faces stinging with tears and sweat. On the other side, a neat, freshly-cut lawn stretches out in front of a small castle.
Its clean, stone walls stand out against the wild, enveloping darkness of the surrounding woods; a bastion of civilisation. A reasonably modern car sits in front of the grand timbre door. It is a welcome sight.
The archway is now far behind, and under the watchful safety of the castle, Will chances a look back.
The silhouette of a figure stands beneath the archway, hands in its pockets. Black and featureless, nevertheless Will senses its rage. A pure, white-hot fury radiates from it. He can feel it in his stomach. Unable to stand anymore, he turns to the castle, where Matt is hammering at the high-arched door with his filthy fists.
The door heaves open, revealing an elderly man in a tweed jacket hunched in the doorway. Confronted with two hysterical, blood- stained boys, he yanks his pipe from his mouth ready to give them hell. Until his eyes fall on the archway at the foot of his yard.
His pipe falls from his hand, clattering on the stone floor. He hauls the boys inside, clutching the shoulders of their soaking jackets in his startled grip. The door groans shut with a nudge of his wizened elbow.
They sat in silence as they waited for Matt’s mother to arrive and collect them. Huddled under blankets, dabbing scrunched-up tissues at their wounds, the boys sweat over the grilling they will unquestionably receive.
But gazing out of his long, mullioned windows, the old man asks no questions.
He already knows the answer.