Variations on a Haunting Theme, page 7
‘Bed is all I want,’ Barbara snapped slipping out of her clothes into her nightie and wriggling inside her sleeping bag where she instantly fell asleep.
Wanting to stretch his legs after driving for hours and not feeling ready for bed, Gary blew out the candle. He crawled from the tent and wandered towards the brook. Mesmerised by the sound of the fast-flowing water he stood for a moment staring into the darkness wondering where they were and how it would look in daylight. Deep down in a valley surrounded by moorland and miles away from civilisation was just the sort of place he wanted though it wouldn’t suit Barbara who would rather be at a proper camp site with shower blocks, toilets and a laundry room. But they were here for now where he’d soon be falling asleep to the soothing babble of the brook.
When at last he settled down for the night it wasn’t as restful as he’d hoped. The ground beneath him was squelchy and lumpy. After tossing and turning he settled for the least uncomfortable spot. Unable to sleep he became aware of the sounds all around. They were far from soothing. Drops dripped intermittently from trees. Branches creaked or suddenly snapped like the crack of a whip. The brook roared rather than babbled. From somewhere nearby the demented moan of a corn drier droned away and just as he thought he was drifting off the ghostly churring of a bird pierced the dark only feet above the tent. He then heard a sound that frightened him more than any of the others. At first it seemed little more than a rustle a few feet away from where he was lying. Something was creeping towards the tent, clawing its way through the grass and slowly moving closer. Gary was paralysed with fear. He listened intently as it crept ever nearer. And then in a moment of terror he felt something pressing against the canvas and pushing against him as if it were trying to force its way into the tent. In a blind panic he shot bolt upright and yelled at the top of his voice instantly waking Barbara.
‘What on earth is the matter?’ she shrieked springing up beside him.
‘Quick, light the candle! There’s something outside.’
‘What’s outside?’ Still half asleep she fumbled around in the dark for the candle and matches and lit the wick.
‘How should I know? Maybe a rat or a weasel or something. I’ve no idea. I didn’t see it but it was trying to get into the tent.’
‘Well if it existed it can’t have gone far! Is it still there?’
Gary ran his hands along the bottom of the tent. ‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?’
‘How could I be dreaming? I wasn’t asleep.’
Barbara was irritated but let Gary tell her in detail what had happened. ‘Do you want to go out and look for it?’ she asked.
‘I wouldn’t see much in the dark would I?’
‘Then what do you want to do?’
Gary had no idea. He wondered if he should sleep in the car but after a few words of consolation from Barbara who desperately wanted to get back to sleep he convinced himself he must have imagined it after all or else had been dreaming. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘I’ll be all right.’
‘I’m sure you will,’ she answered, blowing out the candle and snuggling back into her sleeping bag. How Gary wished he could drop off as quickly as Barbara. He expected to be awake all night but overcome with exhaustion he settled back and fell sleep.
Barbara was already dressed and rummaging around in the food box looking for something to eat when Gary stirred. ‘I wondered when you’d come to,’ she said, ‘I’ve been up for hours. It’s a beautiful day.’
‘What time is it?’ Gary asked, wondering where he was.
‘Time you were up and about. It’s a gorgeous place. We should go for a walk.’
Surprised by her unexpected enthusiasm he was quickly up and dressed. He washed his face in the brook and looked around at the breathtaking scenery bathed in sunlight. Whatever had happened during the night seemed unimportant. It wasn’t unusual in the countryside for wild creatures to be creeping about in the dark and blindly bumping into whatever was in their way. He and Barbara were the intruders here. This was their home and what a magnificent home it was. They were in a broad river valley surrounded by stunning moorland. At intervals all along the valley tracks led up to faraway homesteads scattered along the lower reaches of the moor. It seemed fortuitous that the unpromising side road which had brought them down through the dusk in the rain and mist could have led to such a magnificent place. Wanting to know their exact location Gary went to the car to consult the map.
‘I think I might know where they are,’ I said.
‘Do you?’ said Howard, surprised at my intervention and probably wondering how I could have guessed.
‘I imagine they’re on the road to Oare.’
Howard was impressed. ‘They are,’ he admitted. ‘How did you know?’
‘I remembered Simon and Matthew’s story. Wasn’t it from the top of Porlock that Simon mentioned Oare church?’
‘It was. What a keen memory you have.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed, ‘and I think I can guess where Gary will meet his end.’
‘And where do you think that will be?’
‘At the church where Lorna Doone was shot.’
‘You might be right. We shall have to see won’t we?’
Knowing they’d camped on the road to Oare they decided to drive to the village. Having read R.D. Blackmore’s classic and seen the 1951 film Gary wanted to visit the church and discover the Doone Valley. Barbara was equally keen to get to the village but only because she wanted to find a shop. Before setting off Gary circled the tent looking for any signs of the previous night’s visitation. Pretending to check the guy ropes he looked at the ground and saw what he dreaded seeing - a trail of bent grasses spattered with blood leading to and from the tent.
‘What are you doing?’ Barbara was ready to leave and waiting for him to unlock the car.
‘Just coming,’ he said adopting a false smile to conceal his shock and unaware of a second surprise he was just about to receive. They were rounding a bend only yards from the tent when Gary stamped on the brakes. ‘It can’t be!’ he gasped. ‘Look at that!’ To the right of the road a combine harvester was standing in the middle of a cornfield next to a farm with its various outbuildings - barns stacked to the rafters with bales of hay, an unattached harrow and a tall cylindrical tower.
‘What should I be looking for?’ said Barbara scouring around in the footwell for the handbag which had fallen from her lap.
‘It’s exactly the same. It’s identical.’
‘The cornfield, the one in my dream.’
‘Oh not that again!’ sighed Barbara. ‘Yes it’s a cornfield and a farm but what would you expect to see in the countryside? There must be thousands of places like it all over Britain.’
‘Yes though not...’ He was about to enumerate all of the details corresponding to the dream but decided against it. Barbara wouldn’t be interested. She’d taken a liking to the surroundings and was in a good mood. She was eager to see Oare and go for a walk. And she was right. There would be thousands of places like this in the countryside although he knew in his heart that this was exactly the same the place as in his dream. ‘It’s just a coincidence,’ he said, ‘let’s move on.’
Barbara was initially annoyed to discover there was no shop in Oare but wanting to make the best of things she accepted the situation and suggested a tour of the church. Although she’d never read the book she knew enough about the story to whet her interest in seeing the altar where Lorna had stood and the window through which Carver had fired his bullet. After parking the car they walked up the path between the gravestones and opening the creaking door stepped into the silence of the empty church. In spite of being small and compact it was pleasingly bright and cheerful with its walls a
Barbara’s interest in the story was growing. ‘Let’s go outside,’ she said, ‘and see where Carver stood.’ Not wanting to thwart her enthusiasm Gary led her around the outside of the church to the spot where the act was committed. They peered through the window and pictured the shooting and subsequent chaos at the altar. Seizing on her fascination and recalling scenes of the mighty waterfall tumbling over the cliffs in the fifties film, Garry suggested they should go to the Doone Valley and find the spectacular falls. With no objection from Barbara and vague directions from one of the locals they set about the search and after a while found themselves in what they supposed to be right place. The gentle slopes on the valley sides were not as Gary remembered from the film. Still hoping to find the waterfall they carried on. More than halfway along the valley there was no sign of the falls or the Doone’s domain. All they could see ahead was a gentle climb to open moorland. Feeling tired they decided to turn back. When they reached the car Gary was hoping to drive to the tent and spend the rest of the day relaxing beside the brook but Barbara had different ideas. ‘Where’s the nearest town?’ she asked. ‘If we’re staying here we’ll need to stock up on a few things.’
‘I thought you wanted to find a proper campsite.’
‘No, it’s a lovely place and I’m beginning to enjoy it.’
After the previous night’s experience it was Gary who wanted to find a more civilised site. ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t rather move on?’
‘Quite sure. So where is the nearest town with a decent supermarket?’
After consulting the road atlas they decided Minehead would offer the best choice of shops. With the decision made they returned along the route that had brought them to Oare. Not wanting to revive his fears Gary kept his eyes fixed on the road as they passed the cornfield and tent. Soon after the steep climb through the trees they met the main road and before long arrived at Minehead. They found a supermarket and bought enough of everything to last for several days. On their way back to the car Barbara popped into a Tourist Office and picked up a range of leaflets on places to visit.
‘What are they for?’ Gary asked.
‘What do you think? Ideas for places to see tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow?’ The word hung in the air like a dead weight. Before tomorrow he’d have to get through another night.
They drove back to the camp site and as they rounded a bend on the hill leading down to the tent they screeched to a halt just managing to avoid a collision with a massive combine harvester travelling towards them. Reversing into a passing place they held their breath as the monstrous machine trundled by. Gary’s face turned white as a ghost as he looked up at the driver’s menacing eyes leering down from the cab.
Back at the tent the sun was beginning to set. The sultry heat was as stifling as it had been at midday and the air was as still as a millpond. High over the moors cumulous cloud was beginning to build. Still shaken by their encounter with the harvester they unloaded the shopping, stretched out on the grass beside the brook and tried to relax. After a while the warmth gave way to a slight chill brought about by a gentle breeze. Barbara got up. ‘I’m chilly,’ she said, ‘shall we have some tea?’
‘If you like,’ Gary said leaving Barbara to get it. Tea time for him heralded evening and evening brought the night ever nearer. Dreading the dark he wanted to enjoy what daylight was left. After they’d eaten he opened his first can of beer. ‘Shall we go for a stroll?’ he said eager for anything to prolong the day and delay the time before bed. Barbara was tired but agreed. It was getting dark as they climbed the now deserted road beneath trees and between the banks where they’d nearly crashed. With only a slight breeze the air felt stiflingly close. It was even darker under the trees. Before they’d gone far Barbara suddenly stopped. ‘What was that?’ she shouted. Something darting under the trees had all but skimmed the top of her head. The lane was teeming with bats.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Gary pretending not to be bothered by them. ‘They won’t touch us. We’ll get straight back to the tent.’
It was even more stifling under the canvas. Barbara had recovered from the near crash and panic over the bats and was tucked into her sleeping bag straining to read a magazine by candlelight. Gary was still dressed. Reluctant to settle he was now on his fourth can of beer. ‘Are you coming to bed?’ Barbara asked. ‘It’s impossible to read in this light and I’m ready for sleep.’
She was always ready for sleep. Her ability to drop off instantly anywhere and under any circumstances once again annoyed Gary. Even when there was nothing in particular for him to worry about he always took hours to drop off. ‘You put the candle out,’ he said. ‘I’m just going for a breath of fresh air and then I’ll be in.’ Leaving Barbara to her dreams he slipped out of the tent and went across to the brook where he stood listening to its burble as it danced over the stones heading for wherever it was going. He was thinking about the saying that you could never step into the same river twice and pondering on its truth when he saw a distant flash of lighting followed by a faint rumble of thunder. He stayed watching as the flashes increased in frequency and the rumbles grew louder and lasted for longer. Moments later he felt the first heavy drop of rain and before he could get back to the tent the heavens opened. Barbara was still asleep as he undressed and wriggled into his sleeping bag. The sound of the rain drumming down on the canvas was almost deafening. As the storm approached bright lighting flashes lit up the inside of the tent. The thunder boomed rolling across the sky from one end to the other. The intensity of sound was music to Gary’s ears. The noises he’d dreaded having to listen to later would be drowned out by the tumult. There was no chance of hearing the snapping branches, intermittent drips, eerie birdcalls and the corn blower’s whine. The creature that crept through the grass would hardly be venturing out on a night like this. Barbara showed no signs of stirring in spite of the noise of the thunderstorm trapped in the valley where Gary hoped it would stay. But before he could slip into sleep the lightning flashes and thunderclaps receded into the distance until he could hear only the softest rumblings from somewhere afar. Slowly the silence returned disturbed by drips, snapping branches and, finally, the barely perceptible rustle of something moving towards the tent.
Gary lay rigid willing himself to stay calm as the rustling grew closer until after brushing against the tent it retreated slowly back from where it had come. For the rest of the night Gary stayed wide awake and soon after dawn he was outside inspecting the ground where a fresh track of bent grasses spattered with spots of blood confirmed his worst fears.
The sun had risen above the moors when Barbara woke up. Still in her sleeping bag she thumbed through the leaflets for places visit. ‘This looks exciting,’ she said, ‘Culbone church is supposedly the smallest church in the whole of England and according to the diagram isn’t far from here. There’s a footpath that starts from the road halfway to Oare at somewhere called Robbers Bridge. We probably crossed it yesterday.’
She handed the leaflet to Gary. Rather than spending another day where they were he was hoping to move to another site. He read the blurb. ‘It looks like a long way to me, longer than yesterday’s walk.’
‘It doesn’t matter. We can take our time. Do you have any better ideas?’
‘Haven’t you seen enough of the place already? We were shattered after yesterday and this looks far more strenuous.’
‘Who wants easy? Don’t you feel up to it?’
Gary let out a weary sigh. ‘All right, as long as we leave this evening. There are plenty of other places to see on Exmoor.’
Again Gary avoided looking at the cornfield as they drove towards Oare. Halfway there he parked by what they assumed to be Robbers Bridge. They found the footpath and began to climb. On reaching the main Porlock road they crossed to the far side and found a bridle path which promised to lead in the right direction.
After a long tramp they reached Culbone Church. The plain interior was similar to Oare although considerably smaller with room for barely a dozen people. After a brief look around they ate their sandwiches outside and made tracks for home. It was getting dark when they reached the tent. Knowing it was too late to pack up and leave Gary resigned himself to staying one more night.
Barbara was already asleep as Gary listened again to the sounds of the night which by now were all too familiar. As the minutes and hours dragged by disconnected images filled his mind: the harvester driver’s face leering down from the cab, bats appearing from nowhere above his head and Lorna standing in her blood-drenched wedding dress at the altar. And always his thoughts came back to the coincidence of the cornfield being exactly as it was in his recurring dream. Could it be that something awful which never materialised in the dream would happen here?
It was past midnight when the rustling returned louder and clearer than before. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. Not daring to breathe or move a muscle he felt the creature pressing and pushing against him. But this time it didn’t retreat. Without moving any other part of his body he turned his head and looked down to the edge of the tent where he saw some kind of claw lifting the canvas and reaching inside. He stared down in horror. They weren’t claws. They were human fingers sliding towards him, first one then two and then a whole hand, palm uppermost, covered in blood. They were reaching under the canvas seemingly feeling for him. Once more he shot up from his sleeping bag screaming aloud.