Helsdale Wood

I took Zac, my youngest son, back in time. Thirty-odd years. We drove to Lymm, a small village in Cheshire where my grandparents lived until their deaths in the 1980s. They used to live on Sandy Lane. If you go to the bottom of that road and turn right, you’ll eventually find yourself at St Peter’s church on Oughtrington Lane. Over the road from the church is Lymm High School. To the left of the school is an old wooden stye that takes you into a field. The scent of decay, that mushroom rush, is everywhere. You can’t help but think of Halloween. Of pumpkins, terror and rot. This wasn’t the cosy kind of fright you can get with a warm sofa and a scary film, though. This was bright and real and pressing.

I lifted Zac over and we stood there for a moment. The field was full of severed corn stalks. Cool air. The first murmur of winter within it. Slow fire starting in the trees. Helsdale wood at the foot of the field, less than half a mile away. I remember it seemed much further than that when I trudged through the mud with my dad back in the late ’70s. As it must have done for Zac, who won’t be two until January. We’d gone barely a hundred yards before he was lifting his arms to be carried.

Back then. Dad in his sheepskin. Maybe his head was full of problems and stress. I don’t know. Mine wasn’t. But then I was what? Eight? Nine? I wore a blue snorkel jacket with transfers ironed on to it. My favourite toy was a Steve Austin action figure with skin you could roll back to reveal his bionic implants. I was too big to be carried. Feet heavy in a pair of Wellington boots. Pockets wadded with black polythene bags. What did we talk about? I can’t remember. I wish I could. Maybe Dad was telling me that the name of the thin wood to our left, which followed the line of the field, was Long Wood. Maybe he was telling me about shooting pigeons or playing cricket. Breath shortening, quickening. Mouth ghosts. Nobody around. A landscape of grey and black. To the north-east, low, leaden cloud over Manchester. Partington gasholders. The horizon whiting out, dissolving.

I hold Zac in the crook of my arm. Where’s a house, Zac? Thertiz. Where’s a birdy? Thertiz. Where’s a tree? Thertiz. Soft blond wisps of hair peek from under his Bob the Builder hat. Probably another month before the trees start losing their leaves. Everything poised. I’m feeling more nervous than I ought to. This is a small, well-to-do village. The people here are white, middle class, professional. The small two-up two-down my grandparents lived in for fifty years is now probably worth more than they earned in their lifetimes. People smile and say hello in the street here. But we are not in the street. We are on the edge of the wild.

Other figures mill about. Hello. How’s things? Good crop this year. No, we never roast them. We like them raw. A bugger to peel, though, eh? Stuffing chestnuts into the black bags in my pockets. Soon we’ve collected so many I can barely lift it. Dad slings it over his shoulder and I’m free to explore. The hunk of raised ground, the fallen bough. Lightning struck this, or it was blown over in a fierce gale. Figures glide through the limbs like untethered shadows. I keep Dad in sight until he motions that it’s time to go.

My head is full of Josie Russell, the little girl who, along with her mother, Lin and sister, Megan, was attacked by Michael Stone in 1995 on a bridle path in Chillenden, Kent. Somebody’s coming. Lin and Megan were killed. Josie was left for dead, Stone’s hammer all but crushing her skull. Somebody’s coming. Miraculously, according to the newspapers, she made a full recovery. Somebody’s here. A man with a dog. Sullen, eyes downcast, perhaps brooding on some argument or bruise to his ego. A stroke of ill-luck. A slur. The dog shrinks beneath him, perhaps already having borne the brunt of his mood. He raises his head and sees us. There’s the slightest pause in his stride. His hand moves in his deep coat pocket like snakes in a bag. The future stretches out horribly before me like a prison sentence. It might last another forty years, or forty seconds. In that moment, anything can happen. And sometimes it does. I have to steel myself, to do this. Steel myself to go off the beaten track.

I hug Zac on the way back to the car. He’s tired out from running up and down the hump in the woods, and playing hide and seek behind the fallen bough. I’ll try to not let the Michael Stones of this world stop me from taking my boys to the secret places, the hidden places, but I can’t help thinking that, one day, literally, they might.

*This was an unused Halloween commission. Possibly unused because it was darker than they were expecting…