“You’re not having a bike so don’t keep on about it!”
“Did you hear what I said?”
She didn’t want her last-born son to have a bike, oh no. She was aware that aged 9 in 1954 the boy knew how to mount on two wheels and steer, but she was afraid to let him out of her sight on account of cousin Albie.
“Our Albie” had been a last-born, too. He had entered the world forty years before and had left it not ten years later, head smashed against the chrome-domed snout of a Bullnose Morris while out riding his bike.
Witnesses to the event feared it was the work of the Devil. When they had found him, Albie’s feet were firmly trapped in the spokes of the back wheel of his bicycle and rivulets of blood hissed and steamed as they met the car’s scalding hot radiator.
The driver of the vehicle was never found and when a police tow-vehicle came to collect the Bullnose it was no longer there.
So, no bike for her son. Thus it was that one day, out of sight, the rusty Raleigh of a friend’s big brother was wheeled out from a garden shed. Surreptitiously past a bed of red-hot pokers, warily past a purple-tongued chow-chow at the limit of its chain, then silently down the path between two houses and out beyond a thick hedge into the world outside.
Furtively the bike was walked to the top of the lane where, impregnated with the smell of creosote and rotting apples from its former abode, it was stood up and momentarily admired. Once turned the corner by the scout hut into the Ongar road, the fear of discovery by maternal eyes receded. The thrill of misdemeanour gripped the fresh-fleshed boys and bore them forward.
Something, somewhere, stirred, as if alerted.
In a crumbling mansion not five furlongs from there, the shadow of a shadow flickered momentarily behind a blank window, an empty eye-socket betwixt Doric columns, two storeys up and cold. The shadow emitted a half-heard hiss then shifted with graceless pace through shards of shattered glass. A pair of rotten wood shutters hanging crooked on arthritic hinges flew open in startled pain to let it through, then spat and scowled at the receding darkness.
The shapeless form slid over nettle-beds and across a gravel path, sucking the light from all it passed, and thence down to a clump of purple-headed rhododendrons, inside which it hid and festered.
The boys’ elation turned to apprehension as the rusty Raleigh reminded them that it was too tall for legs in short trousers. The last-born stumbled. As he did so a breath of mildewed air passed overhead and stole away towards South Weald, bent on betrayal.
The world felt different here. It was too late to back out of the adventure now, so onward to cross the main road they went. They had to wait for an out-of-breath single-decker bus in faded brown livery to labour by, building up momentum for the straight mile ahead. Soon it would be passing within praying distance of Bentley Church where, on this fine day, the wispy hair atop the tiny heads of white-ribboned babies was being wetted with baptismal water, watched over by smiling parents all a-drool.
St. Paul’s was a flowery hat type of church, made out of flint and never locked. A cocoon of safety nestled over it and extended to the grassy alleyways, planted with forget-me-nots, along which the congregation dispersed, a-billing and a-cooing over their babies and their pocket bibles. All, it seemed, was well.
In those days the entrance to Sandpit Lane was guarded by a whitewashed five-bar gate although the boys had never seen it closed. Once through, they mounted their bikes and pedalled on, the rusty Raleigh finally on an even keel after a wobbly start. Through a thicket of trees astride the road, then past a brass-knockered cottage to their left and on through fields of wheat and cows.
The woods of Weald Park brooded ahead and thickened to their right. A mother’s words rang in their ears, “don’t dally there, run away as fast as you can if you meet a strange old man!” What, they wondered, did she mean by ‘strange’? Or was ‘dirty’ the word she had used? “Don’t let him touch you!” she had warned.
Turning off to the right from Sandpit Lane the boys entered the park by the east gate, along a muddy track through chestnut trees and bramble banks. Here the friends dismounted and approached a wooden stile over which they boy-handled their bikes then set off south. Soon they came to the wreck of a wartime tank. Half buried in the ground, one set of tracks missing, the machine lay rusting, engine gone. Temptingly though, turret and cannon were still intact, promising ten minutes of fun.
Had they bothered to look across the parkland, beyond the lakes where kingfishers lived, they would have seen a low hilltop coppice of darkish green and between the trees the crumbling masonry of a country house, Weald Hall, now in ruins. And out of sight, down the slope which fell away steeply from the foot of the house, a brooding bank of purple heads. And lurking amidst those anaemic blooms, the shadow of a presence, crouched waiting. Unseeing eyes would have seen, inside the dark, the black ghosts of unwilling spiders spinning the shadow of a gossamer rope.
Once again the fetid wind was out gathering news. It stirred the charred leaves of an ancient oak, not long dead. Nothing survives the mighty incandescent blow of the thunderbolt. Moving on, the wind circled the chestnut trees and espied the pink knees of the boys, not far off. On it flew, no need to dally. Their fate was sealed.
Across the fields sped the wind, high over the Rose and Crown and then along the Ongar Road. Two breaths from there it swooped down in front of the Black Horse, where it raised an eddy of dust then rose again. It passed at fifty feet over Patrick’s Shop, unconcerned that here were sold sweets from jars, and blackjacks four a penny, as well as the best home-made ice cream in all of Essex. It stole across back gardens, making dogs howl and chickens run. Down it swooped in Orchard Lane, drawn by a woman’s worried words, “have you seen my son?”
The boys grew bored with the tank. Back on their bikes, they made a beeline for the lake. Not least of the multitude of things they did not know, was that it was Capability Brown himself who had placed the trees they saw and planted the copses that sculpt the undulating landscape of this 700-year old estate.
The last-born had explored it all. He had traced the stream that fed the lakes and located the boggy spot at which it rose, pockmarked with the hoof-prints of Friesian cows and festooned with clouds of midges, dancing in the damp. He knew a secret entrance to the park, accessible only from Coxtie Green Road. You got to it along a muddy lane across the way from the blood-red-brick house with towering chimneys, where lived a club-footed man who rode a chestnut stallion proudly around those parts.
Broad paths criss-crossed the sparkling grass of the mini-downs of Weald Park. Heifers were grazed here and fat, cowpat-hatched greenbottles thrived and dashed noisily back and forth in the sun. Had you stood here in September 1940 you would have seen the night sky alight, with a clear view of the sunset of death as London was blitzed. Oblivious to this, the boys propped their bikes against a tree, the roots of which served as a homestead to a colony of red ants. Stick-stirred and angry, soldier ants emerged from their mound and went on the attack. Anything crawling within six feet of the tree stood no chance.
Elsewhere, the black spiders had finished their work and lay shriveled in the dust. The shadow hissed and pulled taut the gossamer rope to test its strength. “It will do” it whispered in a voice like burning paper.
The fetid wind wound itself round and around the spire of Bentley Church, trying to break the spell. Eventually a jackdaw showed it a weak spot and once in, it whispered along a path and entered a neglected tomb which bore no name. From there it followed a hidden burrow, took murky turns through dripping chambers and emerged in front of a disused wood-framed Essex barn, overgrown with deadly nightshade and intertwined with white-belled creeper, somewhere off Mores Lane.
Once by the lake, the boys took the bulrush side and stopped to see what lived amongst them. Leggy striders dimpled the water’s surface here and there, then zipped away. Three-spined sticklebacks snapped at them before themselves falling prey to redfin perch with lidless eyes. If a leathery-featured man in the Black Horse was to be believed, a giant pike lay unseen in the reeds and preyed on water fowl. A muddy causeway at the head of the lake took the boys across to the other bank. Then up a hillside meadow alive with sound of insects they pushed their bikes.
The sun hung hot and stilled the air as the boys approached the dark green copse. Penetrating within, the friends found the sound of the insects muffled but put it down to the trees. They approached a clump of rhododendrons, twice as tall as them. Sadly, no amount of innocence can protect against the kind of malice that festered therein.
“Let’s leave our bikes here and explore inside”, said one of the boys.
The wind in Mores Lane slipped through the rotted weatherboarding of the ramshackle barn and worried the work of generations of spiders that had filled the dark. The soughing stirred a whiff of ancient grease and raised motes of dust and rust. Through a parting in the flimsy drapery of dirt-laden cobwebs, decades thick, could just be made out the sulking shape of a long-forgotten thing.
A sleeping snout. Chrome-domed, caked in dried blood.
The shadow shrivelled rhododendron leaves and lengthened as it crept forward. In its black fingers it held a gossamer thread that sought a tender neck to curl about.
“I don’t like it in here!” cried the last-born’s friend, “let’s get out!”
The shadow cursed and withdrew, it had been too good to be true. No matter, it would slay the child in the manner in which it had first intended.
“There was something evil in there, didn’t you feel it? It was trying to get you.”
The last-born shivered. “I should not have come.”
They found themselves at the foot of a steep incline. Their eyes followed a snaking path up and up, until they alighted upon the half-intact facade of a ruined house. Grey stone columns supported a massive pediment and a flat roof bore heavy finials like the knobs on the posts of a brass bedstead.
One wing of the building had collapsed, rubble strewn all about. Two rows of windows were either broken or missing. The rooms inside were bleak and sent forth a stench of stale urine and malevolence. A group of squabbling sparrows swirled and chased each other to perch and flick their tails on a window ledge and got sucked in. Their cheerful chirrups were never heard again in this world.
The boys pushed their bikes up to the balustrade in front of the building and looked back down the hill. Set out before them was a tempting ride for tired legs; the thrill of speed beckoned them.
“First one down!” cried the friend. With that he pushed off on his bike and careered down the slope.
The last-born son did likewise and imagined he was skiing the slopes of mighty Mont Blanc, the highest spot in Europe his teacher had said. Blond hair flying in the wind, his friend ahead was soon down at the foot of the hill but the last-born child hardly noticed, because time had suddenly frozen still. A shadow was crossing his path, a silver thread uncoiling in its wake.
The boy’s eyes followed the thread back to its source and saw it bound to a silver birch. He was fast-approaching it now, but to him it felt he was floating on a film of inevitability. He knew what was going to happen. He was about to lose his head.
The shadow hissed and stood full erect, snapped taut the silver thread at the height of the boy’s neck. Spider silk is stronger than steel. Another hiss.
“Decapitate him and then…”
A frantic mother yelled “my boy, my boy!” and ran from door to door.
Elsewhere, the fetid wind blew the disused barn door wide open. It swept away the cobwebs and flattened the stinging nettles. Once satisfied, it hastened to awaken the Bullnose from its slumbers.
Out the car rolled into Mores Lane and then silently it drove away, egged on by the fetid wind. By the White Horse it turned left into Coxtie Green Road, scrunching the stone-chip road surface under its tyres, then ghosted on towards the blood-red brick house in which the club-footed man lived. There the wind parted company with the car. It sped off to Orchard Lane to torment the mother while the Bullnose left the road and glided through the secret entrance into Weald Park.
Soon it sat motionless at the foot of the hill up to the grey mansion and towards it hurtled a last-born child.
The boy put up his arms to fend off the slicing thrust of the shadow’s thread and was sent spinning atop the rusting Raleigh, his arms lacerated and one elbow shattered. Jagged bone protruded from the joint and punctured the skin while his forearm flapped at a gruesome angle such that it might no longer have belonged to him.
The last-born fainted but still he hurtled down the slope, his juicy, blood-filled skull heading directly for the chrome-domed snout of the waiting Bullnose.
Thud! As the boy’s eyelids closed and he slipped deeper into unconsciousness, his last thought was to wonder why the Bullnose felt so warm and soft, he had expected it to hurt. Then he heard no more.
Not more than a few turns of the minute hand before, the fell wind had completed its haste over the Ongar Road crossing. It sped past the corrugated iron scout hut that backed onto Powell’s yard, where stacks of fresh timber and building materials lay, and on up the lane. It spied the weeping mother in the midst of a gaggle of neighbours. Down in silence it swooped like a mischievous waif and tore at her hair.
All around the mother the wind waif danced and raised her skirts.
“My boy,” she wept, “my beautiful boy!”
The wind waif blew dust in her eyes and shrieked as she wailed “my last-born, what has become of him?”
The wind waif paused an instant for breath.
“My last-born child!” continued the mother.
“Last-born?” mused the wind waif. as the woman went on: “I don’t want him to suffer the same fate as poor Albie. Dear cousin Albie, how we all loved him”.
“Albie?” wailed the wind waif, “Albie?”
“Dear little Albie, how I wish he were here,” sobbed the mother.
The wind waif dropped at her feet. “Albie?” he repeated, “cousin Albie?”
Then suddenly he knew. Up to her cheek he wafted and caressed her ears, “I’m here,” he whispered in a strangled voice, “do not fear.”
“Albie, is that you?”
The neighbours saw her delirium and shrank away from her like a shoal of sardines from a shark.
“How can this be true? I love you Albie as I love my own son”.
“Thank you, thank you” cried the waif, “you have broken the spell! Now I know who I am I can go!” He danced a pirouette and puffed an eddy of dust that spun on its heels before petering out.
“But first I must help you. Quick, come climb on my back!”
The mother did as she was bid and all the neighbours in Orchard Lane assumed she had gone stark raving mad.
“Let’s go,” yelled the waif, “there may still be time!”
Up and away they sped, past the purple-tongued chow-chow and the garden shed, low over Patrick’s Shop with blackjacks four a penny, rising quickly above the Black Horse and over the Rose and Crown, leaping over the white gate, past the brass-knockered cottage along Sandpit Lane. Soaring high above the rusty tank, the sour cowpats and the lake then, with one final gust, up the meadow and over the dark green coppice, three times round the finials on top of Weald Hall. Then headlong down the slope, not pausing for breath, hot behind the last-born child on his bike. Alas too late to harry the shadow, but just in time to lower the gossamer thread and parry the blow and now speeding on ahead of the boy!
The wind waif chuckled as he set down the mother, right in front of the chrome dome of the Bullnose. She stood firmly on the fender. As the last-born flew headlong towards her, she opened her arms and he crashed into her bosom, soft and warm.
“Close your eyes now, she said, stroking his face, “all will be well”. And then she carried him away to hospital.
The shadow emitted a thin scream. Where it had darkened the ground now stood an old man, haggard and grey, looking haunted and ill. Seeing himself shadowless he bellowed and bayed.
With imperceptible enmity, the Bullnose set off in silence, creeping slowly towards the object of its ire. The old man shrieked and backed away. Up the slope he hobbled, making for Weald Hall. But it was to no avail. The Bullnose, in no particular hurry, as if savouring the kill, was closing in on him.
At the top of the slope, between the columns of Weald Hall, a pair of rotting wooden shutters on arthritic hinges flew open, sensing revenge. They beckoned to the flagging old man. It was as he reached the eye-socket opening that the Bullnose got him. It shattered his skull and knocked him inside then followed him in. The rotting shutters slammed shut behind them, muffling a wail that trailed into ice.
Weald Hall shuddered on its foundations. A great stone finial toppled and fell to the ground in a cloud of mortar dust and rubble. It rolled across the gravel path and down the hill and into a clump of purple-headed rhododendrons, inside which to this day it lies buried and hidden.
[The events related in this tale happened in 1954. However, according to official records, Weald Hall was demolished in 1951.]