If you go down to the woods today...
PUBLISHED: 17:04 30 September 2014 | UPDATED: 17:37 30 September 2014
In the run-up to Halloween, we’ve asked our audience to submit spooky stories and poems with a local connection. Paul Dummett of Gloucester sent us this tale about a drinking buddy’s particularly terrifying experience, deep in the Forest of Dean under the dark of night.
A Darker Forest by Paul Dummett
It must have been thirty years ago, when it happened; when Dale saw ‘IT’. Even now with the passing of three decades he still refuses to walk along that particular Forest of Dean lane at night. Despite the fact that he is six foot five, nineteen stone, and a Warrant Officer in the Army. He is also the bravest man I have ever met; Dale has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bosnia and Sierra Leone. As fearless as a cidered-up mongoose; he is as unlikely to take a step backwards as the Sphinx, and sports a similarly flattened nose because of it.
Thirty years ago, we were two sixteen-year-old Gloucestershire boys. We spent a lot of time tinkering with our mopeds, trying to get them to go two, or three miles-an-hour faster. Dale (D’Ale) as I knew him was my best friend.
One autumn evening he knocked on my door, and asked rather prophetically if I was coming for what we somewhat exaggeratedly called a ‘Burn-Up’. We rode along a succession of ever narrowing lanes, weaving between potholes at the edges, and grass growing in the centre.
We ended up at a certain pub, deep in the forest. This particularly isolated pub was some distance from the nearest village. The landlord at the time seldom asked the age of his customers, especially when the summer was over, the evenings darker, and little tourist business to be had. He was not averse to switching off the main lights to hold a lock-in. No neighbours lived nearby to complain about noisy drinkers leaving in the early hours from this pub.
Around midnight, Dale finished his pint, and picked up his helmet. I still had over half a pint left, and so, I said that I would see him tomorrow. A few minutes later there was a loud boom outside. It was a tremendous noise, accompanied by a flash lighting up the car park. I rushed outside, to see Dale’s moped on fire and Dale on his backside some ten feet away from it. He had a blackened face, and singed eyebrows.
It turned out that his moped had refused to start, so he had decided to inspect the Garelli’s notoriously leaky carburettor using his Zippo lighter to see what he was doing. As luck would have it, the bike had hardly any fuel in it, or the explosion would have been much worse. It was also fortunate for me that when Dale could not get his bike going using the kick-start, he had tried to bump-start it. As a consequence, it was not next to mine when it caught fire, but some distance further down the car park. His moped was rapidly consumed in flames; which leaped so high, they seemed to lick the telephone wires above. The landlord, who was standing next to me, took the almost ever-present pipe out of his mouth, and in his usual understated way said, “Goes well”. The only time those two words had ever been used to describe Dale’s Garelli.
Dale turned to me and sighed, “Give us a backy home?”
I was reluctant to give him a lift. Not because even back then he was a big lump of a lad, and I was worried about the suspension of my little Fizzy being able to take the extra weight. It was because as a learner I was not allowed to carry any passengers, if a policeman saw my L plates he would pull me over for sure – and I had been drinking.
“I can’t,” I protested feebly, “What if a copper sees us?”
“What copper!” he countered incredulously, “There are never any police around here, especially now with the strike on, they are all at the pits bashing miners.”
I gave in, and let him on the back. I felt the seat sink down until it almost touched the rear tyre. The Fizzy struggled to pull away as we wobbled up the hill from the pub. I had relented partly because although I knew Dale would have no problem in walking the four or so miles home. There are, of course, no street lights to guide you through the darkness on forest lanes. In some places the crowding trees almost block out the moonlight. You can hardly see the pot-holed ground beneath your uncertain feet. I knew that, if things were the other way around, Dale would help me. Dale was not one to leave a friend behind. I remembered a time when we were at school, I was thirteen, and three fifteen-year-olds had cornered me; intent on relieving me of either my dinner money - or some teeth. Dale piled into them, knocking one down before taking a beating for his trouble. Dale was not afraid of anyone, or anything – or so I thought.
We had only travelled a half mile from the pub, when a police car passed us going in the opposite direction. My heart sank as I looked in the mirror and saw the bright red of its brake lights come on. As soon as I rounded the next bend I stopped, and signalled for Dale to get off, and hide in the forest. I pointed the headlight into the trees for him to see.
Sure enough; the police car appeared behind me, and pulled in. The officer got out, and walked over.
“You can tell your mate to come out.”
“The one who has just ran into the woods.”
“I don’t know what you mean officer, I haven’t got a mate in the woods, there is only me.”
It was then, that we heard the scream; although it was not so much a scream, as a muffled cry.
“What was that?” the officer demanded.
“Are you trying to be funny?”
“No officer, maybe it was a fox.”
“Have you been drinking?” His face was close to mine now - he smelt my breath. My hesitation in answering his question confirmed what he suspected.
He didn’t test me straight away; he was looking at my bike, inspecting the tyres, the tax disc, the number plate, looking for any non-standard parts.
“Is that exhaust legal?” he asked; tapping it with his foot rather harder than I liked. He went back to his car, and returned with a breathalyser. He began explaining the procedure to me when we heard the second scream. This time it was a real scream, an unmistakable human scream breaking the silence of the forest. Our heads turned simultaneously towards the awful sound the way that grimacing faces turn towards the scratch of fingernails down a blackboard. The policeman retrieved a flashlight from his car, and shone it into the trees. Dale stumbled out of the darkness; his face was white, his eyes bulged like those of a mad man. Blood trickled from a wound to his face. He ran with a limp, straight into the policeman’s arms, and then hid behind him, the way that a young, shy child hides behind his mother’s legs. He then got into the police car, and locked the door.
Dale was so terrified he could not speak - apart from hysterically repeating “Go!” until the officer agreed to drive away. When Dale eventually calmed down, it transpired that the first scream was him falling down either an air vent, or a sink hole recently collapsed into the labyrinth of old mines honeycombing the ground in this part of the forest. His desperate fingers scraped grooves in the earth, as he tried to arrest his descent into the pit. He grabbed a rock, only for it to give way, and fall onto the bridge of his nose. He was not sure how far he fell. He landed awkwardly on something soft; he guessed what it was by the foul smell. The pit that swallowed him was as black and foreboding as an adder’s eye.
He reached into his pocket for his lighter; the Zippo flipped open with its familiar ‘Clink’. The shaft lit up, and there, just a few feet in front of him, was an old man. Dales scream echoed through the mine. The old man’s face was horrible; it was incredibly thin, one side of his skull looked as if it had been crushed; giving it a distorted appearance. His clothes would have shamed a scarecrow. His skin was so unnaturally pale; it reminded Dale of the flesh of mistletoe berries. The old man’s eyes held no light, the flame from the lighter did not reflect in them, they were sunk so deep into their sockets that there did not seem to be eyes at all – just shadows above hollow cheeks. In one emaciated hand he held a pipe, an old fashioned clay pipe, as white as bone. His other hand uncurled its long, thin fingers, sinewy, tendril like fingers beckoning for Dale’s lighter.
Dale could not have exited the pit any quicker if the Ferryman himself had held out his hand for a coin. He dropped the lighter in fright, and was so eager to climb out of the pit, that he left a finger nail embedded in its wall. He even managed to drag himself out of the darkness with a twisted ankle; such were the reserves of strength he was able to find in the floods of brown adrenaline released by his absolute terror.
Dale swore that he had not made the story up, even when the police threatened to prosecute him for wasting their time. Dale’s insistence that there was someone else in the disused mine meant they were obliged to search the pit before sealing the hole. Apart from an unfortunate sheep decomposing at the bottom of the pit, they never found anything, not even Dale’s lighter, and suspected Dale had taken mushrooms. I knew Dale had not taken anything - except some strong scrumpy of questionable quality.
“It can keep the lighter,” Dale said. That was thirty years ago, and he still won’t walk along that particular lane at night. He won’t even drive along it, always taking a detour in case his car breaks down in that part of the forest, which seems darker than the rest.
This story was submitted by Paul Dummett.
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