‘A Certain Smile’ by Guest Author Glenn James

Author Glenn James

Guest Author Glenn James

I won’t cry for help. I know there’s only one soul out there who can hear me, and I’m too frightened as it is. They must be pretty close by now, I can hear the movements getting nearer, and it’s too horrible to think about; I need to save my strength. No-one else will hear me now, I’m too far off the beaten track, and the chances are pretty remote.

It’s like being lost in the Everglades. Tall weeds and bushes follow the path for miles, clinging to its fringes like an encroaching disease. Like a ghost suffering from a fever, it wanders crazily, winding in and out of odd little copses where you aren’t even sure how close to the river you are anymore. It’s really deceptive, because all of a sudden you see it’s only about a foot away through the brambles. One minute you are right next to the cocoa coloured waters, and the next you could be a hundred yards back inland. I don’t believe a bird could see that route clearly from above, so tangled and winding is the path.

Every now and then a clapped out a knackered boat will loom up through the leaves out of nowhere, its stained bow yoked to the bank with a filthy umbilical cord of slimy blue-nylon rope. There are quite a few along the way, their tiny walkways overflowing with rough firewood, and the hoods over their cabs permanently aloft, weathered grey-green and patched with gaffer tape. Ancient bikes and nervous dogs are stationed on the decks, and little disturbs their solitude, except from the ebb and flow of the tide, the silent swans, or the raucous cries of the rowing coaches bumping along the opposite bank at dawn and dusk, swearing at their crews.

This is a place where Grim-on-the-Water is all mystery and rejection to outsiders. Those corroded hulks are inhabited by shady individuals who are seldom met, unless you are one of their little community, a group which does not wish to be disturbed on the North Bank of the river. Its path follows along the broadening acres of countryside which yawn away from the dwindling outskirts of the city on that side, and stretch out into the heady wildness of mysterious private woods and pasture as you leave the city.   Here could well be dragons, so seldom frequented, hidden, and little known are the walks and pathways.

It could not be a more startling contrast to the South Bank, where the trees are old and beautiful, and they stride along either side of the broad path for miles, high and clear headed, a riot of colour in the autumn and a shady haven in the summer. You can see the scowling shape of the Saxon Cathedral for miles, and hear the deep throated toll of its bells, surrounded by a motley brood of later church domes and spires piercing the skyline. The wide path is busily frequented, with joggers, dog walkers, families out for a stroll, people going to work, and the fog-horned, foul-mouthed rowing coaches. The city creeps up to the edges of the parkland all the way along on that side, and you are never far from street lights or civilisation. That path is the sunny Jekyll to the North sides Hyde.

You are right on the flood plain here, and that old river has a nasty, sneaking temper, when the tide comes in from the port of Burleigh and the open sea.   Flooding is a way of life, and in places the tidemarks are 20 feet up the trunks of the trees after bad winters. The whole place is littered with half hidden rusty barbed wire fences, razor sharp broken tree boughs, timber, and strange and dangerous bits of debris left stuck precariously in the treetops. A man was almost killed six months ago when the gales caused a huge hidden gas cylinder to fall on him from the top of an old willow tree.

I would never normally walk through here. I have been through occasionally, and I know the route, but it’s not somewhere I would normally pass through by choice. You seldom see anyone, but one thing you never fail to notice if you do, is that they always have mobile phones to their ears. For some reason, the signal is usually absolutely excellent over here, and I have heard of people passing through hurriedly if they have to make an emergency call. Usually excellent, I say.

Its light, and I stupidly thought I would risk it. There are places on the Wolsey side where you just cannot get a signal and I was desperate to make a call, so I headed off down away from the bridges and civilisation, away from the clamour and roar of the charity marathon being held on the sunny side of the stream, and into quieter habitations.

Ordinarily it would have been a nice enough day, but something felt wrong. Its early spring, but there’s still a hint of chill in the air. Winter isn’t quite behind us yet, and it’s the sort of day when if walking along this path you could expect it to be literally waiting for you at any moment, with the impact of a mugging. One of those white skies stretches above with all the melancholy of a spilt bottle of milk, spreading miserably across hard stone.

I shouldn’t have headed away from town, but the noise was unbearable. Every Easter Bank Holiday they hold the same charity marathon, an 18 mile run around the city on both sides of the river, crossing the bridge above the town and coming back on the one below. Every year without fail they hold it, come rain, shine, or snow. The only thing to have stopped it since 1984 was the river flooding Laymesteppers Park, the centre of the event, and its start and finish line.

You can’t move over there for crowds, it’s always the same. It’s not an environment where you can conduct a private, delicate phone call, not one where you’re really going to get it in the neck for fooling around. I could just imagine it at the time, the screeching down the phone, the acrimonious, justified bitterness, loud enough for anyone nearby to hear; “Just where the hell were you last night? Who was it this time, who was it? Was it her again? Her sister? Or was it her brother….” Lonny doesn’t trust me now, not since we had to go in for a test when I caught a dose after working away. I can’t help it, I know I stray; I just can’t fight the urges. If someone has the right kind of smile and I fall over myself to cheat, even when someone I love is in the same bloody room.

Damage limitation. I had to sort it out, had to have the privacy away from all the loud music, the barkers and the fair, away from all the excitement and any possible accusations of “What the hell are you up to now, where the hell are you!” I had to think, to come up with something believable, to get away from all the sweaty runners in ludicrous costumes. You can’t sort out your love life surrounded by 10 fat blokes from a darts team; all dressed as Shrek, and coughing their lungs out because they’ve ran a hundred yards.

bunnySo I walked away from all that row. I crossed the river, and walked out along the opposite path, heading out along the twisted route on the Wolsey side, and tried not to dwell with anything but guilt on how I’d strayed off the path in more than one way last night. I couldn’t go round there or risk a meeting, I still smell of their cologne. It was instant confirmation of every bad suspicion.

If only I’d been able to get a signal, just been able to make a call. I don’t care if my mobile had caught fire with abuse, accusations, and totally justified four letter words; I just wish I could have spoken to Lonny, just once, just one last time.

I could not get through. Whatever the reason, whatever the interference was, or the problem with the network, it was pointless. I just couldn’t get a proper signal. I tried and tried, and I walked further down that winding deceptive path, twisted out of all sense between the trees. I kept trying, and I just didn’t realise how far I had walked.

How I hate mobile phones, I could have thrown it into the river. It wouldn’t have been the first time I’ve done that, either.

It was only when I stopped for a smoke that I realised just how far down stream I’d walked, quite some way out past the outskirts of the city. If I could change things now that’s when I would have turned the hell around and headed straight back in the way I’d come, in fact I would turn around and run all the way back, all the way to Lonny’s house to beg forgiveness, and I would never stray again.   Never, never, never again, dear god, never.

It was when I stopped for a smoke when I saw there was someone in dressed in a costume standing by the edge of a bush, watching me.

What a strange sight. It made me jump at first, and I dropped my cigarette; their appearance was so ridiculous for a moment. I almost laughed, and I smiled and nodded, feeling embarrassed, being amused and startled at the same time. They grinned back. Oh, how they grinned.

After that initial shock I was totally composed. You see, you get used to seeing so many people in costumes when this damn event is being held that you develop a sort of blindness to them when you’ve live here a couple of years, and you hardly even notice any more. On the way into town today I passed three versions of Superman, at least seven Spidermen, a really old Elvis, a couple of Mr. Tumbles, and a whole family dressed as Toy Story Characters.

It didn’t seem strange to see someone dressed in a pink bunny suit, especially at Easter. The ears hung down ridiculously over their face, and they had gone to the trouble of making up their face with white face paint. There was livid red lip gloss on their lips, and they were watching me. And they grinned.

I nodded, and half smiled back. That was quite a smile. The back of my throat went tight at the sight of that smile; I have never seen anything quite so come hither. Then, they held up a mobile phone, as if offering to let me use it. They must have seen me struggling with mine, and god knows how long they must have been watching me. They obviously realised that I had been having problems with my own mobile. Then there was that grin again….

When the rabbit went off down a side path, god forgive me, I followed.

I could always call Lonny later, I thought at the time, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind afterwards.

They were some way ahead and I couldn’t quite keep up with them, following with a beating heart. They never looked back, but they always seemed to vanish around a bend in the path before I could catch up, and they never paused to allow me to gain any ground. I should have stopped and thought about it, this really is the lost and overgrown hinterland of the floodplains, but I couldn’t help myself any more. Kidding myself I needed to use that phone, I caught myself speeding up.

Finally, they vanished from sight altogether. Rounding a weird little curve which went into a kind of natural opening between some shrouded trees, I saw only the path disappearing on the other side…. and the mobile phone.

It was leant against a stick jammed into the ground in the middle of the hollow, and there was no sign of my friend. I wondered if a dramatic appearance was on the cards when I picked up the mobile.

If only I had known the half of it.

As casually as possible, and convinced I was being observed, I picked it up… and that’s when things got really strange.

I noticed straight away that the glass on the front was smashed to hell.

That’s not so strange in itself; I know plenty of people with broken glass on the front of their mobiles who carry on using them, although it always makes me wince. The slightly scary thing was that the phone was completely dead. No charge, no, power, and it was pretty banged about. It looked like something you might have found in the street, having been smashed when someone was having an argument and left in the gutter.

Why would you show someone a broken phone like that, I thought to myself, and the first feelings of unease started to came over me.

The uncomfortable word “Bait” came to mind.

Looking around caused some sober and hard realisations. There were high sandy banks on either side of the hollow where I was standing, and with a sudden urgent feeling of alarm, I realised that it would be a brilliant place to mug someone.

There was no sign of the rabbit, and I was just contemplating turning back, there and then, when I noticed a sort of scuffling sound, with a really strange echo. The mist can amplify sound oddly out in the woods, but this was something very different. As I listened, I realised almost at once that it wasn’t coming from anywhere around me, either on the path or amongst the trees. It seemed to be coming from underground.

And that’s when I noticed it.

Under a bank of tangled, overhanging broom bushes there was a great gash in the ground. Once I spotted it I could see it clearly, cut into the heavy rust coloured soil, and it looked like it was formed by natural subsidence, and enlarged or dug out by a fox. It looked pretty deep, with a sharp drop over the lip of the hole.

The sounds of movement were coming from inside.

I froze, wondering if a fox was climbing out, the creature unaware that that there might be someone standing near the entrance to his den. I stood very quietly, and as still as possible, waiting to see if I could see him. I’m very fond of foxes, and hardly dared breathe in case I scared him away.

But it was no wild animal, or not at least a wild animal in the sense of a fox or a badger.

I wish I had just walked away, or better yet ran away. I wish I had not stood there like a fool waiting to see what it was, in those shadowed and tangled weeds; the last thing in the world I might have expected emerged from the darkness of that jagged hole in the earth. As it came into view, I nearly swallowed the breath I was holding.

As I watched, a pair of twisted and comically bent pink bunny ears, made of imitation fur, emerged into the light. For a mad second I thought that my friend had tossed them into the hole when they went by, and that a badger was pushing them back out again, as they hate rubbish cluttering their dens and shove it all back outside…. But then I saw the back of someone’s head emerge beneath the ears, the hood covering their head and the stitches up the back through the material. Their face was to the ground, and their hands emerged, clutching at the earth on the lip of the hole hard enough for it to crumble under their fingers. Never for a second could I believe that someone had squeezed themselves into that hole, certainly not the tall athletic figure I was following in that ludicrous bunny suit. I couldn’t believe my own eyes.

It was such a ludicrous sight, frightening, and so totally surreal and unexpected at the same time that I just didn’t know how to react, and I wondered if someone was playing a joke on me. Soil fell down the side of the bank from beneath its pink gloved hands in tiny avalanches. Okay Lonny, I thought, if this is some prank set up for revenge you’ve made your point.

But as I stood watching, the foul thing happened. I could have coped if it had just stayed there and I had not been able to see its face again, or even if it had turned around, or shouted “Surprise!” But as I watched, in a movement totally impossible for a human being, it turned its head around until it was facing up at me, as easily as an owl, or as if it had been made of rubber.

It looked right up at me, the white face paint dull in the cool pale light, and grinned. I could see the lurid red of its lips, and the laugh lines at the sides of its eyes creasing merrily. The red split of its smile parted and I saw teeth like cracked shards of glass.

THEN it waggled its head from side to side, making the bunny ears jiggle, and it laughed.

Just once, a short barking sound, filled with mockery, and it hit me with all the force of a physical blow.

The spell broke, that nearly knocked me off my feet.

I don’t know what I said, or did, or whether I screamed or not, because I turned wildly, and was smashing my way out through the bushes. Wildly lashing at them and leaping into the mad and tangled weeds.

But only briefly, because then I was falling, out of control, into darkness and empty space…..

I don’t remember hitting the ground, but when I woke up I was lying at the bottom of a deep circular shaft in the ground. I thought it was a well for a moment, but then I saw that the sides were bare earth. And tree roots stuck out here and there. Whatever this is, it’s manmade, dug by someone. God knows how deep it is, but there’s no way to climb back up, and the circle of the sky looks very far above. All around me and under me there are broken tree branches and bits of scrub, and the only thing I can think is that this was made by someone as a deliberate trap, with the branches covering the open entrance at ground level. And I have fallen into it.

I can’t move my legs, and the irony is not lost on me that I defiantly cannot get a signal on my mobile phone. It’s as shattered as the thing I found waiting for me against that stick in the clearing.   There is little point in shouting, I realised that almost at once, I’m way too far off the beaten track on the wild side of the river, and there’s far too much noise from the marathon anyway. I can hear the fair and the raucous incoherence of the PA. I could lie here for a year and never be heard by anyone.

But I am not on my own.

The sounds from behind the soil are frightening beyond words, from inside the walls just above me.

I can hear something digging, digging down, and its getting closer all the time. It’s digging far too fast to be a human being, scrabbling its way through, and it sounds far too big to be a genuine rabbit or a mole. I can tell it’s getting closer all the time, pawing its way through the soil.

What drenches me with a cold, chilling sweat is that every now and again it pauses to rest, and when it does, I can hear it laughing.

FIN