An updated and expanded version of The Grey Path will appear in Paul’s book Tales From Badgers Crossing (coming spring 2022 from Greenteeth Press), so for the time being this has been taken down. Details of how to buy and/or pre-order a copy will be posted soon.
For now, you can still read the notes on the inspiration behind this tale below.
And don’t forget, there are still plenty of other stories on this site for you to enjoy.
When I started this story I intended for it to only be a few hundred words – certainly no more than 1500. All I had was a vague notion that I would like it to be “something about desire lines”. However, there was very little on the history and etymology of desire lines online. So I asked the rather splendid David Southwell, author of Hookland Guide (one of my favourite Twitter feeds), for advice as he writes a lot about the relationship between landscape and folklore.
He told me, as Tim tells Debbie, that “Desire Lines” is actually a recent phrase, which I did not realise as it sounds so old-fashioned and romantic, and that there is not a great deal of lore about them. He also challenged me to think about the animals that may have created them and to consider creating some original folklore. Therefore the phrases Grey Path and Grey Man of the Wood are unique to Badgers Crossing and surrounding parts of Daxonshire. As a thank you I have acknowledged Hookland in the story.
The two primary characters get their names from a British educational TV programme called Look & Read. Debbie was the main protagonist of a serialised drama called Badger Girl, which was a ten-minute section of the show in 1984, and Tim was the hero of 1974’s Cloud Burst (about a scientist who had invented a machine to make it rain – not entirely unlike the music video for Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting).
I picked Bert as a placeholder until I could research a more suitable name. When I looked up popular names for boys born in the 1930s Robert was at the top – so the name stayed. Claire is named for a good friend of mine from school. I hope she doesn’t mind being kissed by Tim and having her watch stolen! The teacher Mr Edwards is a tip of the cap to my former primary school headmaster, Edward McGeown who, as I have mentioned on other pages here, originally stoked my interest in the ghost story and is still largely responsible for much of my output and reading material today! Thank you, Mr. McGeown!
The story Bert tells, which I have named The Badger’s Reward, is based on an old Japanese fairy tale called The Badger’s Money. Badgers feature heavily in Japanese folklore – generally, they are mischievous or vengeful spirits in animal form, but occasionally they are cast in a benevolent light, as here. It’s pretty much the same although the priest is a Buddhist monk in the original tale and wants the three gold coins to bargain at the temple for his entry into heaven. I felt this was at odds with his kindly ways so changed to an offering for the poor on St. Stephen’s Day. In Britain 26th December is known as Boxing Day and is traditionally the day when the church collection boxes, which have been amassing gifts and tithes all year, are opened and distributed to the poor and needy of the parish. I also added the ending with the priest’s funeral. I had become so attached to that unlikely pair that writing the last sentence actually made me well up a little at my desk.
I whipped up the image in the middle of the flashback section just to break the prose up a little. A friend read some of my stories to his 7-year-old nephew who gave generally good feedback but said that they needed more pictures. It’s created from a bunch of different royalty-free stock images (some trees, a hand, a decrepit old shed) but the BMX leaning against the tree is actually from the only existing photo of my old BMX – a red and yellow Raleigh Burner with mag wheels. What a mean machine that was! My middle brother and I both received one for Christmas in 1983 – the only Christmas Day I can recall as a kid where it snowed on the actual day (where I grew up January and February were generally the snowy months). Thus, we were not allowed out to play on them until the snow cleared up. We had to stay in and play with our Star Wars and Masters of the Universe figures instead!
The film Highlander did indeed come out at the end of the 1986 summer holidays in the UK. Originally the film was going to be Top Gun, but that didn’t come out until late autumn in Britain and the kids would probably not have been out on their bikes when that was released! If the ticket booth staff at the Badgers Crossing Regal Picturehouse are as lax as the ones at the cinema where I grew up, then the 12-year-old Tim, Claire, Matt and Tony will have had no problem getting in to see a 15 certificate film! I saw Predator 2, Total Recall, Robocop 2, Basic Instinct and many more films at Corby Forum long before I was 18!
Although the name was just plucked out of the air to complete the story, I have a feeling this is not the last we’ve heard of Patience Starling.
Debbie and Claire are the first female characters who I have written at length about, so to make sure they were authentic, believable girls, I looked for advice online. As luck would have it, one of the Shadows At The Door gang, Caitlin Marceau, had written up notes to a talk she gave called Bikinis, Brains, & Boogeymen – a guide to writing female characters in horror. It’s well worth checking out, as is her short story Run in the Shadows at the Door anthology book.
Oh, and the Swatch watches described in the story are real ones from the time. The one Tim has was called Sir Swatch, which was part of the 1986 Autumn/Winter range – my best friend at school, Robert, had that one – and the one Claire loses was called Velvet Underground from the 1985 Spring/Summer range. I had one – it was called Stormy Weather. I wish I still had it, but the strap snapped and, after about a year of holding it together with sticky tape, I threw it away.