The Grey Path

“Stay on the path Debbie” called Tim. “There are rabbit holes hidden in the long grass and if you think I’m carrying you all the way to the car if you hurt yourself, you can think again!” He had promised to look after her and a broken ankle would be a terrible start to that.

“Fine!” sighed Debbie, slumping her shoulders and causing her backpack to slide down to her elbows. She hiked the bag back up as she skipped over to her father. “Dad? How come we never see any badgers? I mean, we live in Badgers Crossing but I’ve never seen a badger at all, never mind one, you know, crossing, whatever that means! Is it because they’re… what is it, octagonal, when they like the night-time?”

Tim smiled at her stubborn inquisitiveness. Just like her mother. “A badger is a nocturnal animal,” he said.

“An octurnal animal!” she mulled the misheard word over for two or three seconds. “Like bats and stuff, yeah?” She squinted up at him, her right eye almost completely closed to shut out the brightness of the setting sun glaring through the trees.

“That’s right. And if we stay out of their territory, that means home…”

“I do know what territory means dad!” she cried, swinging her hiking pole left and right as she strode ahead, cutting a swathe through the long grass and nettles which leaned in over the track.

“Sorry. If we don’t stray into their territory, if we stick to The Grey Path and be very quiet, then maybe, just maybe mind, Old Brock might finally treat us to a visit”.

In the hope of seeing a badger, Debbie stopped swiping at the grass and rested her pole on her shoulder. As she led the way, without turning back she asked “Why is it called a Grey Path dad, when it’s brown? And who’s Old Brock? Is he related to Mr Brock the caretaker from school? Does he live out here in the woods?”

Repressing a laugh, Tim replied “Old Brock is a nickname that was given to badgers a long time ago. It’s where Broccton-Under-Edge, where your nan lives,” he didn’t see Debbie roll her eyes as he told her another thing she already knew “gets its name from. Around here they call a badger The Grey Man of the Wood – because, I suppose, his back is covered in grey fur. So can you work out how the path gets its name?”

She stopped dead in the path and turned around to look her father in the eye, scrunching her mouth to one side in concentration and scratching her left cheek gently. This was another thing Debbie had picked up from her mother. It hurt Tim to be reminded of her but at the same time, Debbie, with all the quirks and habits she’d picked up in her few years with her mother, kept a part of her alive.

“Is it…” she scratched some more as her concentration intensified “Is it because Old Brock…” she winked at her father as she used the new phrase he had taught her “walked this way so many times that the grass won’t grow here anymore and the mud goes hard and it turns into a path?”

“You got it in one, squirt” Tim ruffled her hair. “So why do you think our town is called Badgers Crossing?”

“I s’pose it must be because two Grey Paths met and crossed over each other once. Wait…” she scratched again as something dawned on her. “Is that where the clock tower is in the middle of town? ‘Cause there are two paths that cross over each other there!” She gazed up intensely, her eyes demanding the truth.

“I guess so. I doubt anyone knows for sure because the town was founded hundreds of years ago, but that makes sense”. He hated not being able to provide an adequate answer.

“Mr Edwards said that where people make paths where there shouldn’t be paths, you know, like on grass and stuff, is called Desire Lines. And he said that there was this school once and they wanted to find the best places to build new paths,” she paused for breath and then continued “so they just put grass there instead and then waited for people to go where they needed, and then looked where the grass was all trodden on so they could then build the proper paths in those places”.

“He’s right Debs but Desire Lines is not the traditional phrase for them”. She opened her mouth to protest at her teacher’s indisputable knowledge being called into question but he raised a finger to shush her before she could utter a word. “I know it sounds old and romantic, but it really is a pretty new phrase”.

“So what are they called in other places then, smarty? There aren’t badgers everywhere”.

“Well, sometimes they’re made by animals, and sometimes by people. Normally it depends on what the predominant – which means the most – wildlife living in that area is. In Leicestershire, they call them Fox Roads but in Northamptonshire, they’re called Deer Runs. In Hookland they say Shuck Path, which is named after a kind of big dog,” there was no way he was going to tell her what sort of dog, nor tell her the other name used there was Corpse Lanes “and where I grew up we used to call them Fairy Lanes”.

Debbie gasped and her eyes opened wide with excitement “There are FAIRIES in Daxonshire?”

“Well they were probably made by rabbits or hedgehogs or some other small creature…” as soon as the words left his mouth he regretted saying them. Debbie’s shoulders dropped, as did her smile “… but I always liked to think so, and the name must have come from somewhere, right?”

This perked her up a little and they walked on in silence for a few more minutes as Debbie processed all her new found information.

The sun had almost completely vanished beneath the horizon and the cool breeze was beginning to raise goosebumps on Tim’s forearms. He picked up the pace a little. He really didn’t want to be out here when it got too dark to see the path.

Eventually, Debbie stopped again and planted her hiking pole, a large branch she had brought home from one of their previous unsuccessful badger hunts and which Tim had sanded down for her, firmly on the ground with a thud.

“Why do they go where they go?”

“What do you mean?” her father asked.

“Well, the badgers or the foxes OR THE FAIRIES could go wherever they want. So… why do they go where they go? It’s not like the school where people were just trying to get to the playground or the library or whatever as quickly as they could, is it? The Grey Path we’ve been following is well snakey. It goes all over the place. Why don’t they just go in a straight line from one place to another?”

“They go where the land wants them to go!” came a voice from over Tim’s shoulder.

Debbie yelped. With her free hand, she grasped her father’s tight and buried her head deep in his side. Tim jumped a little himself. He hadn’t realised someone had been coming up the path behind them.

“Oh. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten the bairn”. Said the man, who was, to Debbie’s eyes, very old but not at all frail. He was dressed in the traditional clothes of a gamekeeper. Over a beige canvas shirt, he wore a moss green tweed jacket with brown patches on the elbows. Braces, the old-fashioned kind with leather buttonholes, held up baggy trousers which matched the jacket and were tucked into long beige knitted socks just below the knee. His mud caked walking boots were so worn and wrinkled that they looked almost as old as he did. Under one arm he carried a walking stick which was topped by an ornately carved badger head. He had a well-groomed white beard which Debbie thought would have made him look like Santa if it hadn’t been for single, inch thick black stripe emanating from the corner of his mouth and disappearing beneath the right side of his well-hidden chin. His head was topped by a flat cap. He touched the cap’s peak with his left hand as he held out his right to the startled man. Tim shook it tentatively.

“Name’s Smallwood,” he said. Tim mumbled his name in return, avoiding eye contact and releasing his own hand at the earliest opportunity he could without wanting to appear impolite. “And who’s this lovely young lady?” Smallwood beamed a huge friendly smile at her. When Debbie saw it she loosened her grip on her father’s hand a little and smiled back.

“This is my daughter, Deborah…”

“DAD! Don’t call me that!” Tim winced as she pulled herself away from him and thrust her hand out to Smallwood who shook it. His fingers were wrinkled and rough and his grip was firm, but at the same time, gentle. “My name is Debbie and I’m very pleased to meet you Mister… er… what was your name again?”

“Smallwood. Robert. But my friends call me Bert”.

“Bert” echoed Debbie, staring up into his green eyes which were crinkled at the edge with laughter lines. “What did you mean when you said the land wants animals to go somewhere?”

“Well Miss, you hit on a very interesting question just there as I caught up with you. Why indeed do animals, and even people for that matter, not always take the shortest path?”

“Yeah! Why? You said the land wants them to go there? How can the land do that when it’s not alive?”

“Oh, you’re wrong their young miss. The land is very much alive and the roots go very deep in this wood”.

“What, like the trees?”

“Well yes, and no. It’s more than that. This land was here long before you, before your dad, even before me, if you can believe that! It’s seen so much. The stones, the leaves, the grass, they retain – that means they keep or remember – memories of what’s gone by”. Tim was annoyed to see Debbie, for once, not protesting at having things explained to her. “Mostly the land witnesses many everyday, normal, but no less good things

“And when lots of good things happen somewhere, it becomes a good place to be. Have you ever been out for a walk in the country and for no reason you just feel… happy?” Debbie nodded eagerly. “But now and again, where something terrible has happened, even just the once, the land is poisoned. It goes bad, and it can spread, slowly, like an illness. And then, when Mr Badger or Mrs Hare comes trotting along they can sense the good places from the bad”. He saw Debbie open her mouth to question him again but, anticipating what she was about to ask, he continued before she could butt in. “Because animals live out here all the time, they become more in tune with the land than you or I, and they know not to go into those bad places if they can avoid it. And if they do dare to venture there, driven by hunger perhaps, and stay for too long… let’s just say that those who ignore the pull of the stones, well…” he looked to Tim who gave him a silent shake of the head so decided to leave the sentence unfinished.

“That’s silly!” Debbie laughed, unperturbed by the tale which had shaken her father.

“Yes, that’s right,” Tim took her small hand, pulling her close to his side. He hated seeing his daughter becoming so friendly with a stranger. “We appreciate your history lesson Mr Smallwood, but I’d rather you didn’t fill my daughter’s head with ghost stories so close to her bedtime”.

“I’m nearly seven and I’m old enough to know that ghosts are just made up, Dad!” protested Debbie, yanking her hand away and returning to Bert’s side. “So what happens if they go to the bad places? Mr Badger, I mean. My dad says he’s also called The Grey Man of the Wood”.

“That he is. He’s a wise one, the Grey Man. He knows not to go into those places unless he absolutely has to.” Bert paused for a couple of seconds “But your father is right young miss. You don’t want to be thinking about that kind of thing. Tell me, what brings you out here?” He exhaled with a gasp as he lowered himself onto a fallen log, knees creaking. Debbie clambered up onto the stump of the felled tree beside it. Tim, resigned to the fact that they were not going to get home anytime soon, sat beside her sliding his arm around her waist to keep her close.

“My daddy and me are badger spotting! I’ve even got my camera in case we see one, although dad says I can’t use the flash or I might scare him away!”

“Is that a fact? No wonder you have badgers on the brain! Have you seen one yet?” Bert asked, stroking his striped beard with his thumb.

“Not a single one. They’re all still in their holes because they’re octurnal!” Debbie crossed her arms in exasperation.

“Well, the night is drawing in. They’ll be on the move soon enough. But Grey Man is a timid beast. The thing you have to understand about him is that he needs to see that you’re friendly and not a threat. We used to say ‘If you reward The Grey Man, he’ll reward you’” said Bert nodding as he recalled the old phrase. “Have you anything by way of an offering? Something he might like to eat perhaps?”

Debbie pulled her rucksack off her back and after rummaging around in it for a moment she produced a half-finished bag of potato crisps. “I’ve got these. Do badgers like Smoky Bacon? Is that a good reward?”

Bert let out a huge belly laugh. It was the most joyful sound she had ever heard. “If your father will indulge an old man for a few minutes more, I have a story for you”. He locked eyes with Tim, who waved his hand saying “Why not?”

“Super! Listen closely then young Debbie, for this is a fairy tale my daddy told me a long, long time ago and it’s called The Badger’s Reward:

Once upon a time, in a cottage not far from here, there lived an old priest. He was known not for fiery sermons of hellfire and damnation, but rather his love for the Lord and his compassion for all God’s creatures, not to mention his fellow man. If he was not in the village helping folk with their various concerns he was on his knees praying for their souls on his rug in front of the fireplace. Each day he would ask:

“Grant wisdom to my mind
And skill to guide my hand,
And a heart to be kind,
To serve both You and my fellow man”.

Although the fame of his good deeds did not spread far, he was greatly respected and loved by all of the villagers. They would often bake bread for him when he was hungry, knit him garments when his old robes became threadbare or assist in repairs to his humble cottage when the rain came trickling through the roof. He had no children, nor a wife to provide for, so as far as he was concerned, he had everything he needed, and wanted for nothing.

One snow-laden winter’s night, when everyone ought to have been at home warming their fingers and toes on the fire, he heard a voice at his door, calling “Reverend! Reverend!” The priest thought it odd that anyone would be out in such a blizzard so arose from his chair and opened the door. But he could see nobody there. At first, he thought it some urchin playing a good-natured prank until he looked down and saw, sat upon the threshold, nothing but a badger, who bowed and said: “A good evening to you, Reverend”. Anyone else would have been startled to behold such a sight; but the priest, such was his love for all God’s creatures, showed no fear and asked the beast its business. The badger bowed his grey-flecked head and said:

“Good sir, prior to this day my home has been under the forest atop Graveling Hill, and the cold and frost have been no concern of mine; but now my years are advancing and my fur thinning and I am no longer able to withstand this cold weather. I have heard of your great compassion and humbly request that you allow me entry into your cottage, to warm my tail and paws at your fireside, that I may see another day”.

When the priest heard what a state the poor thing was in, he was filled with pity and said: “Make haste, good sir, and warm yourself forthwith!” Delighted, the wretched creature thanked the priest as he shuffled inside and snuggled down onto the priest’s prayer rug in front of the blazing hearth. Once the badger had settled to sleep the priest resumed his prayers on the bare stone floor, remembering to include all those who may be unfortunate enough to find themselves out in this raging storm. After some hours, the badger awoke and took his leave, expressing his thanks as he scurried away through the snow drifts in the bright morning sun.

The next night, there once more came a cry of “Reverend! Reverend!” at the door. The badger had returned, but this time had brought with him kindling of dried leaves and firewood which he had gathered from his forest home. This happened most nights through that bitter season and the priest and the badger became very good friends, so much so that, on warmer nights when the badger did not cry at the door, the priest wondered where his friend was and worried for him.

When springtime was blossoming and the snows were receding, the badger’s visits stopped altogether, until the next winter when the arrival of the cold weather brought him crying to the door once more. Ten years passed and the pattern repeated. One night the old badger said to the priest “Thanks to your kindness over these many years I have survived the winter in great comfort. For the rest of my life, indeed even after I have left this earth and been welcomed into the Great Sett, I am indebted to you and will remember your deeds for all time. I must repay you in some way. What is it that you most desire? Do tell me, that I may give it to you, as a sign of my gratitude”.

The priest smiled at his friend’s offer and replied “Being such as I am, I have no need for material wealth. What I desire most in this world is to serve my God and all his creation. I am heartened to hear your words, my old friend, but believe me, I have everything I need, and, without fear of repayment, know that whenever a cold night befalls us or not, you are welcome here”. The badger, upon these words, admired the priest all the more but was pained at not being able to return the kindness. This subject often came up during their night-time discussions and the priest’s answer was always the same, until one night, touched by the badger’s loyalty and persistence, he finally gave an answer:

“Since I took on this office and was granted the Cure of Souls by the bishop, to help those in need in my parish, I have forsaken all earthly pleasures and have no need to gratify myself. However, there is something that I should dearly love. Three gold coins. Sustenance and clothing I have been provided with by the favour of the villagers, so I need no material goods. Were I to die tomorrow, and finally meet my Lord in paradise, I am assured that the same kind folk would bury my earth-bound body and my belongings, such as they are would be distributed to the needy. But… If I were to own three gold coins, I might offer them up at the church’s annual St. Stephen’s Day collection for the poor and destitute. But how would I ever attain such a thing? I am neither a violent nor dishonest man, so stealing them is out of the question. I can only dream of what might be – the good works such a treasure could be used for”.

The badger thought on this for a moment, tipping his head to one side with a puzzled look. The priest, distraught at causing concern to his friend, tried to take his words back, saying “I am a priest and ought not to entertain such earthly thoughts, so pay this old fool no heed”. At these words, the badger appeared to assent to the priest’s wish, and the next morning returned to his hilltop home as usual.

From that day on the badger came no more. This greatly concerned the priest as he imagined that the badger perhaps felt a burden of guilt at the thought of arriving without any money, or worse, that he had been trapped or killed trying to steal it. He blamed himself and prayed night upon night that the badger should come to no harm.

After three years, the old man heard a familiar cry of “Reverend! Reverend!” He leapt to his feet with joy and ran to the door. There on the threshold, sure enough, was his old friend. In great delight, the priest cried “My friend! You are safe and sound! I have been waiting for you this whole time! Why have you been gone so long without paying me a visit? Tell me, where have you been?”

So the badger, now much more grey in colour, once again shuffled into the hut and settled down on the rug by the fire like he had on that first night, such a long time ago, and told his tale:

“Had you asked for the money to be used for dishonest purposes, I could have easily obtained as much as you desired, and more, in a likewise manner, for I am a master of stealth and disguise; but when I heard that your intent was to help your fellow man, such is your way, I thought that if I were to steal it from some other man, then the money would be tainted or cursed and you could not apply it to the purpose for which you so intended. So I travelled to the coast and the islands where people speak of gold under the earth. I spent my days digging, digging, digging, and finding any precious scrap I could deep in the soil. Once I had obtained enough gold, I took it to a smithy and asked for it to be forged it into these”.

To the priest’s astonishment, the badger took, from a pouch tied around his neck, three gold coins and dropped them at his feet. “You have gone through all this toil on nothing but the foolish wish of an old man? Now, with just a week until St. Stephen’s Day, I have my heart’s desire!”

The priest profusely and politely thanked the beast, who said “In doing this we have both attained our greatest desire. You have your coins for the poor and I have repaid you for that first, and many subsequent night’s kindnesses. Now I would ask of you that you tell nobody the story of where this money came from for I fear that if the story spreads I may be ambushed by robbers in search of gold as I follow the well-worn path from my hill to your cottage”.

The priest thought on this and said “I desire to obey your wishes, but how can I not tell of your marvellous deed? If I keep this money in my hut, surely it will be stolen by a thief. I must ask the banker in the village to keep it safe until Sunday but she will ask how someone of my station, a poor old priest with no worldly wealth, came by such a treasure. So as to arouse no suspicion, I will have to tell the tale. I think I shall indulge in a small dishonesty, with your permission, and tell her that the kindly badger who gifted me this gold no longer visits my cottage. That way you can travel back and forth to my abode without fear”. To this, the badger nodded his agreement and as long as the old priest lived, the badger spent the winter nights as his companion.

The priest died on a cold December’s day. Once the vast crowd of mourning villagers had left the graveside and the sun had started to set behind the trees, the badger, now very old and frail indeed, crept from the woods, crying “Reverend! Reverend!” He snuggled himself down into the soft earth in the shadow of the tombstone, into which was engraved the image of three coins, and as the snow settled on his shivering body he closed his eyes and fell asleep beside his old friend one last time.”

Bert raised his bowed head and looked at Debbie. Tears were streaming down her face. Tim, his arm around her waist holding her much tighter than it was at the start of the story, was mopping the corner of his eyes with a handkerchief.

“My mummy used to tell me that story. Before she went to heaven!” sniffled Debbie.

“Oh, my gosh!” exclaimed Bert, mortified at having caused such upset. “I’m so sorry! I never meant to make you sad!”

“You didn’t. Well… a little bit because of the ending… but it made me think of her and all the nice times we had together and it made me happy, for the first time in, like, ages! But being happy made me cry and I don’t know why!”

Tim rubbed her arm and pulled her close to his chest. “Sometimes, that just happens, especially when you’re growing up”. He released Debbie from his grip, stood up and walked over to Bert, who groaned as he used his cane to raise himself up from the log. Tim held out his hand, much more assertively than before. He helped Bert up and continued to hold onto his hand once he was up from the log and steady on his two feet. “Bert. Thank you” he said shaking the old man’s hand vigorously. “We both needed that. I was rude to you before. I have been suspicious of strangers since… Anyway, I’m sorry. We…” he glanced back at Debbie who leapt from her tree stump and stood at his side “We’re both very grateful for your company and your story. Anytime you want to meet up for a walk and another tale…”

“It would be my pleasure” replied Bert, returning the handshake. “But my, look at the sun. It’s down now! We should be getting on our way! Where are you parked?”

“On the grass by the entrance on Penlock Road,” Tim pointed off into the trees, away from the path.

A look of concern crossed Bert’s face as he stared into the gathering gloom. After a few seconds mulling this information over he said “This path goes a bit out of your way but it circles back to that part of the wood eventually. I’ll accompany you if you like. It’s getting dark fast now but I’ve got this”. He pulled a metal torch from one of his deep pockets and flicked it on, pointing it at the ground. Debbie thought the shape it cast on the path looked like an enormous staring eye.

“Thanks, Bert,” said Tim “but I really need to get back as soon as possible. It’ll be way past Debs’ bedtime when we get home as it is and she needs to have her bath” she harrumphed and pressed two tightly clenched fists into her hips at this. “Honestly, I’ve walked this way plenty of times before. We’ll be fine”.

“Can’t you come with us, Bert? It’s only a little way through the trees.” Debbie looked up at him, hands still on hips. Her annoyance at the terrible news of the bath was waning and her eyes pleaded with her new friend to come with them.

“I’m sorry, miss. I can’t go that way. All those roots and weeds make it too hard for an old man who can hardly walk in a straight line on a pavement” he brandished the badger-headed cane, at them both. “But take this, I insist”. He flipped the torch over in his hand, caught it by the lamp-end and handed it to Debbie, handle first. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again. You can give it back to me then. I won’t need it tonight – I’ve trod these paths many-a-time and I’m closer to home than you are. Make haste now”. Debbie took the torch, turned it over in her hands a few times and pointed it into the darkness between trees.

“Good luck finding The Grey Man. Just remember what I told you: If you reward him, he’ll reward you. Now go. Until next time”. Bert tipped his cap at them both, just as he had greeted them before, and Tim nodded to him as he turned his back an ambled off along the path.

“Bye! It was nice to meet you!” called Debbie, waving furiously as Bert stepped behind a gnarled old oak tree and disappeared from sight. “Right dad! Let’s go!” and she was off, jogging into the long grass. Tim was about to remind her to watch where she was stepping when the beam from her flashlight began to flicker as she ducked between the trees. He suddenly felt vulnerable there on the path on his own. “Wait up, Debs!” he called and briskly followed the light into the undergrowth, catching her up within a few seconds.

They had been walking for a good ten minutes when Tim started to worry that they had got lost. We should have been back at the car by now he thought to himself. I’m sure it was this way. I thought I could see the street lights through the trees. No street lights were visible now, however. It was fully dark and aside from the beam of the torch, the stars flickering through the silhouetted canopy of the trees afforded them the only light against the blackening sky.

After a minute more they came into a wide open clearing. At one end was a small shack. The roof had collapsed leaving the skeleton of the building protruding from the stonework like bones from the corpse of a half-rotted whale on a beach. The windows, all broken, stared back at him like a pair of black, dead eyes. Tim felt sure he’d been here before. But that couldn’t be possible. This was Penlock Forest, not Weaver’s Wood across town. And it had been years ago, the day that he’d seen… well, he still wasn’t sure exactly what he had seen.

September 1986. The school holidays were drawing to a close. That was the summer after Tim had received a BMX for Christmas, a little later than all his friends. Being so far behind that craze had bothered him so much that when everyone started wearing Swatch watches, he relentlessly pestered his parents to get him one for his birthday – while they were still in fashion. It had annoyed Matt and Tony that they’d both ended up with the same design so Tim had been careful to choose a different one. One half of the strap was red and the other was green. The face was made up of two semi-circles of black and blue with a yellow coat of arms on the right hand side.

He still had it locked away in a box of childhood keepsakes and could just about remember the details of it but after what had happened it was the Claire’s watch that he would never forget. Hers had lilac coloured straps with a green face but what really stood out was that it contained a circle of black lace between the hands and the face.

One afternoon he had been out with Tony, Matt and Claire. They had cycled to the cinema and locked their bikes to the fence outside. They were astounded to find that the girl on the ticket desk had actually admitted them to the matinee showing of a new film for which they very well knew they were a couple of years too young. The film was Highlander and, partly buoyed on by the exhilaration of getting into a 15 certificate, but mostly because it had been an exciting film, they cycled home in high spirits, laughing and joking and quoting the film as they rode along the path.

They crossed the ring road, bunny-hopped up onto the path on the other side and headed onto the muddy trail through Weaver’s Wood – a shortcut they often took. This particular afternoon was a very hot one. Tim’s exertions across the uneven woodland track were tiring him out and he soon fell behind.

“Wait up!” he called as the trio of friends vanished behind an overgrown shrub. When he reached the same spot he found himself on the edge of a clearing with a decrepit old hut, not much more than a shed, at the other end. His friends were nowhere to be seen and Tim had no idea which of the many paths they had used to exit the area. He slowed to a halt, climbed off his bike, carefully leaning it against a tree. Taking a cooling swig from his bike’s water bottle, he started to wander around the clearing to see if he could work out where they had gone. He’d cycled through these woods plenty of times but he didn’t recall ever being in this place before.

He couldn’t believe they’d ditched him, especially Claire. She must surely have known that he had a huge crush on her – half the school did – but she never let on, and, much to his dismay, she never showed any romantic interest in him. One of these days, he told himself, I’ll actually pluck up the courage to ask her out. But he never had done for fear of… what? Rejection? Maybe. More likely that they’d no longer be friends. It was like torture to him, but he’d rather be her friend and never date her than risk losing everything.

As he was surveying the glade, he caught a glimpse of movement amid the darkness of the hut’s open door. Aha, he thought, they’ve gone in there to hide from me. He snuck around the back so they wouldn’t see where he’d gone until he could leap into the doorway and surprise them. As he crept further round the clearing a hand came out of the gloom, gesturing to him to come closer – a hand he would recognise anywhere, knowing every inch of its smooth, freckled skin, and baby pink painted nails. On the wrist was a lilac, green and black lace Swatch watch.

“Ti-im,” came the sing-song voice that always made him feel a little weak at the knees. “Ti-im. Come to me. I’ve got something for you that I know you want”. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Was this really happening?

“What about Tony and Matt?” he enquired, wishing very hard for this not to be a practical joke.

“The others have gone” the voice replied, “It’s just me and you now. I know what you want, and I feel the same. There can be only one!” Tim laughed as she quoted the film they had not long finished watching together.

“Come on Tim” she continued, a little more impatiently, making a ‘come hither’ gesture with her index finger. He started to walk around the hut towards the beckoning hand. Soon he’d be with her. As he started to turn the corner he saw something that sent a chill down his back and made him freeze in his place.

At the far end of the clearing there was a person. He didn’t realise who it was at first because Tony and Matt had scarpered and Claire was… Claire was stood between the trees astride her BMX, waving to him.

“There you are slow coach! Come on!” She began to turn her bike around and raised up one pedal, ready to push off.

Tim looked back to the door. The hand gesturing him was no longer smooth and it was mottled with misshapen liver-spots, not perfectly formed, cute little freckles. The baby pink nails were long and jagged with dirt under them and the watch was actually a bangle made from a weathered old leather strap and… was that animal bones?

Tim wasted no time in running back to his bike, never taking his eyes off that ragged claw. He kicked up the stand and pedalled towards Claire as fast as he could. He didn’t dare look back at that ghastly place for fear of what he would see but a voice, now older, deeper and a lot less alluring than Claire’s gorgeous tones, cackled after him “Make haste back, Tim! I’ll be waiting!”

Claire seemed oblivious to the thing in the hut and smiled at him as he approached calling “Hey! Slow down cheeky!” after him as he zoomed past her off into the woods without looking back. She only managed to catch up with him when she reached the main road at the other side of the woods where he stood, bike lying on the pavement, doubled over, breathing deeply.

“You could have waited!” she complained. Tim was staring at her wrist. “What?”

“Where’s your watch?” he asked.

“What do you…” she held up her wrist “Oh. No! We have to go back!”

Tim panicked at the suggestion of entering the trees again. His heart started racing again. “What’s the point? We must have biked half a mile or more!”

“The point” she put her clenched fists on her hips “is that my dad will kill me if I come home without it!” She chained her bike to the fence that bordered the wood and strode to the gate. “Come on!” she called, turning to Tim, holding a hand out to him. He didn’t want to go back in there, but Claire’s presence soothed his fears somewhat, so reluctantly he leaned his bike against hers and took her hand.

They searched for over an hour, keeping a close eye to the mud track they had cycled along. Tim dreaded the inevitable moment when the trees thinned out and that hut with its unseen occupant came into view. But after an hour of searching, they found themselves on the far side of the wood where they had entered. That seemed so long ago now.

Downheartedly Claire suggested taking the pavement and walking around the edge of the woods to get back to their bikes quickly, as it was starting to get dark. All the way back he held on tightly to her hand, partly to comfort her over the loss of her watch, but mostly because her grip was diminishing his anxiety over what he was now beginning to wonder if he had imagined.

He didn’t let go until they got back to the bikes and set off towards home. Tim saw Claire home before heading back to his own house. At the entrance to her front garden he took his own watch off and held it out to her.

“What’s this?” she said, cocking her head to the left and squinting at the sun setting between the houses across the street.

“I know it’s not the same, but please, take it”.

“I can’t…”

“Please. It’s probably my fault you lost yours. You came back for me and you don’t realise how much that means to me”. He thrust the watch at her again. This time Claire reached out tentatively, taking the watch and turning it over in her hands, examining the colours and shapes. Without a word she hugged him and as they parted she kissed him on the cheek. She turned to open her gate and walked up the short path to her front door, dropping her BMX on the grass as she went. As she entered the door she turned around again to give Tim one last smile and a wave. He grinned back and raised his hand to her.

And then she was gone. The warm glow which had filled Tim was rapidly retreating as he realised he was now on his own again. He cycled home faster than he could ever remember. That night he slept with his back to the cupboard and his curtains shut – for the first time since the time his dad had let him watch that film where a vampire child came scratching at the window. He had the strangest combination of wonderful and terrible dreams that night. Claire’s missing watch featured in both.

Tim told Matt and Tony about it the next day when they met up to play football on the field by his house. Tony said that he’d been lucky to escape with his life as it was obviously a close shave with the ghost of Patience Starling, one of the local women who had famously been executed for their supposed dabbling in witchcraft in the late 17th century. He then proceeded to recall a grisly story about the witch trials that his sister’s boyfriend’s older brother had heard from a friend of a friend. Matt just dismissed the story with a wave of his hand and confirmed Tim’s growing theory that he had imagined it.

The holidays ended a few days later and Tim pushed the traumatic memory further back into his mind. He had enough to worry about with learning his new timetable and getting back into the daily routine that a new school year demanded.

He eventually did pluck up the courage to ask Claire out. It was during the Christmas dance at the end of that school term. First, she smiled, saying “Yes”, and then she thumped him on the arm before asking what had taken him so long. She’d hit him so hard that the bruise took over a week to go away but he didn’t mind because every time he saw it he was reminded of her. They danced to the final song of the night, A Different Corner by George Michael, and kissed in the centre of the school hall until long after the music had stopped, the lights had come back on and everyone else had started to filter out of the exits. They dated through university and married soon after graduation. In almost thirty years Tim had never told her what he’d seen that day. And he certainly never went back into those woods again. He hadn’t thought about it in a long time.

Until today.

Just as he had all that time ago Tim thought he saw movement in the murky darkness of the window.

“Patience,” he whispered to himself. A thin mist had begun to settle in the clearing. Even though he was not cold the hairs on his arm stood up. He stared intently at the door, waiting for that beautiful, dreadful hand to emerge and beckon him once more.

He had stopped still at the edge of the grass so Debbie pulled at his hand to enter the clearing in the direction of the hut. “Come on dad, no time for patience!”

“Just wait,” he whispered, pulling his daughter back to his side, hoping she hadn’t seen the shape in the window.

“Why can’t we just go across the middle?”

“Let’s just walk along the trees here until we find the path again. There could be…” Choose your words wisely Tim he thought to himself “…er, broken glass from the windows in that direction”. Good enough.

“Turn the torch off, Debs. Quickly” he implored, not wanting to draw any more attention to their presence, and hoping that the panic he could hear in his own voice wouldn’t bother her.

She complied immediately, which worried Tim even more as it was uncharacteristic of her to obey him without asking why. In the dark, lit only by the rising moon, they crept in a clockwise direction around the outer rim of the clearing, searching the dark for the familiar worn grass and smooth soil of a Grey Path. But there were none to be found and, as Tim had feared, their navigation of the treeline was bringing them closer to the shack. As they neared it, he thought he heard a shuffling sound within. He tried not to look but at the same time kept one eye on the place, in case an unspeakable thing came out of the gaping, black door.

As he looked into the gloom of the open window the shuffling stopped and a pair of white eyes reflecting the moonlight peered back at him. Tim froze in place, staring directly into the thing’s gaze and afraid to move any further in case whatever was watching him from the dark sensed weakness and made its move.

He felt Debbie’s hand slip from his and saw her strolling cheerfully up to the hut. She stood, framed in the black rectangle of the door (mouth, Tim thought).

“What are you doing?” he whispered. Holding his hand out to her, yet keeping his gaze locked on the presence in the hut. “Come back!”

But she ignored him, setting down the torch and her hiking cane and loosening her rucksack from her shoulders. The backpack slipped to the ground, she crouched down beside it and very quietly rummaged around in it for a few seconds. She then placed something on the floor in front of the hut. She carefully picked up her things and stepped back towards her father without ever turning her back on the door. She took his hand again and, sensing he was about to admonish her, put her fingers to her lips to quiet him, and pointed back to the door.

The shuffling noise began again and the eyes disappeared from the window. After a few seconds, and a great deal more noise from inside the hut, the eyes appeared in the door. Tim increased his grip on Debbie’s hand and risked looking at her for a second. She was grinning from ear to ear.

From the darkness emerged an elongated white snout, tipped with a glistening black nose. The creature had one black stripe running along the right side of his face. The left was completely white. It shuffled a shaggy, grey-flecked body out of the door frame and stopped when it sensed the two humans on the edge of the clearing. Tim, standing as still as he could, also found he was grinning as the unusual badger locked eyes with him again. It then turned its attention to the pile Debbie had left. The familiar noise of potato crisps being crunched filled the clearing and completely dispersed Tim’s fear. He loosened his grip on Debbie’s hand a little as he relaxed.

“He looks like Bert” Debbie giggled, pointing at the single black stripe.

“Yes. He does a little!” Tim agreed. “Next time you see him you can tell him badgers do like Smoky Bacon!”

After the crunching had stopped, the badger slowly shuffled out into the mist-filled clearing. When it reached a slightly raised area near the middle it stopped suddenly, turned its head to look back at the humans for a second and then returned its gaze to the clearing. The badger closed its eyes, raised its nose into the air for a second or two, opened its eyes again and ran away from the centre of the clearing.

Neither Tim nor Debbie had ever seen a badger run before, even on wildlife shows. It was a lot quicker than either of them had expected. Debbie gasped at its agility and speed. It reached the treeline, further round than they had yet crept, and stopped. It turned to face them once more and let out a high pitched bark, before disappearing into the dark of the woods. Where it had stood was a gap in the weeds and grass. A Grey Path!

Tim tightened his grip on Debbie’s hand again, looked her in the eye and shouted: “Come on!” They ran for the gap in the trees as fast as they could, bursting through the foliage onto the Grey Path, laughing as they sprinted after the black-and-white creature. The badger was getting further and further away. When it was almost out of site it darted from the path and vanished down a hole in the ground.

“Bye Bert! Again!” shouted Debbie waving as her father slowed to a halt, putting his hands on his knees and sucking in great gasps of air. Once he had regained his breath, she turned on the torch and shone it at the path. Tim looked ahead through the woods and saw street lights just a minute or so’s walk away. They were safe and soon they would be in the car on their way home. He was grateful to be out of that clearing and even more so that he had been able to keep his promise to Claire to protect their daughter, thanks in no small part to the two Berts.

It took five minutes longer than expected to walk it, because, of course, the path snaked here and there but Tim was happy to follow where the land wanted him to go.

 

Notes On This Story

 

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.