When I was a child my father took a new position in his firm. It was a promotion of sorts and brought him more money but the consequences were that my younger brother and I were moved hundreds of miles north of where we had both been born, where all our friends were, where everything we knew was. I think it was a little harder for me, I was eight, David, my younger brother was only 5 and had been in school for a lot less time than I had. I’d got my friendship groups and in the blink of an eye it was gone.
I think I was very angry about it, I can’t really remember but from what my mother has told me since my behaviour was pretty poor. There were no houses behind our street, just a big unused field which opened up onto a massive woodland which I would disappear into whenever I could. As an eight year old in the days when you weren’t connected by electronics it was very disconcerting for my poor parents but at the time I didn’t really understand it. I just did what made me happy. I had a den up there and I would take my comics with me and hide from everyone for a couple of hours. Nobody knew where my den was for some time, I say that but it’s not strictly true. There was one other person who knew but I was completely unaware of that.
Our new home was the end house on a row of miners cottages. Ours was the largest and was detached, it had clearly been owned by someone slightly more senior than the rest of the miners who lived in the long row of heavy stone cottages that stretched down the lane from it. Next to us lived two elderly brothers, both had worked in the pit right up until it was closed during the 1980s. As part of their redundancy they got the right to remain in the house free of charge until for any reason they left. Both had been close to retirement age at the time and so decided that was their lot and settled into a more overground existence. Their garden was incredible all year round and their allotment was the most productive in the village.
When they weren’t growing things they were killing them. The brothers had learned to supplement their diet by catching rabbits and pheasants in the woods. They knew the woods like it was an extension of their own garden so it was no surprise that one of the brothers found my den. It was on one of the days where I had stayed out to the point of both angering and worrying my mother. She had been outside looking for me and Donald on his way to a dusk light hunt had said he would keep an eye out. He did more than that, he knew fine well where I was and made his way straight to me on his way to an evening’s hunting.
“You’d better get yersel hyem bonny lad. Yer mam is frettin. I like yer den, you’ve chosen a cracking little spot. I’ll have a word with yer mam later and give you a proper tour of the woods sometime.”
I hadn’t really spoken to him up until this point but it was the start of a very surprising relationship. Donald clearly would have loved to have been a father and then a grandfather but sadly this wasn’t to be the case. Me moving in next door gave him the opportunity to share his years of wisdom and I lapped it up. He knew every tree, every creature every hiding place and every paddling spot in the stream. Donald taught me how to trap a rabbit, build a better den and how to identify everything in the woods.
He also took the time to introduce me to gardening, it was during the trips into the brothers’ garden that a got to see Edwin properly, he was the younger of the two and far more energetic. He was by no means as talented as Donald but he was a very willing assistant and between them that garden was a place of industry and wonder. I gradually spent more and more time with them and some of my happiest childhood memories are digging through the mud in their garden. What I didn’t know at the time was that my encounters with Edwin were him at his best. Most of the day he sat in his armchair barely moving. Donald had explained to my mother that he was suffering from a form of dementia which had started developing almost immediately after they retired. But initially I never saw that side of him, in fact we had been living there nearly a year before I did. Mum often baked or cooked for the brothers and I would take the food round. One day Donald invited me in, and there he was, Edwin, sat silently in his chair, silent, unflinching. In his hands was a book that he gazed at intently.
Donald explained to me that this was how he was most of the day, that he was unwell and that he would probably get worse rather than better. As I was a child I had the impertinence to ask about what he was reading. This made Donald laugh.
“I’ve no idea. It’s the only book he reads, he’s been reading it for years now. If I try to move it or take it off him he will close it and hug it. I’ve never been able to look at it so I have no idea what it’s about. But as far as I can see he only reads one page a day!”
I was shocked to see my friend in such a condition and it troubled me for a while, especially when I spent time with him as if nothing was wrong at all. Eventually I began to allow it to settle in my mind and life went back to the familiar happy patterns.
It was in the middle of October when things changed. I was woken in the very early hours of the morning by a commotion outside the house. I got up and looked out of my window to see Edwin being wheeled into the house by a paramedic and accompanied by a couple of police officers. He was clearly in his catatonic state and Donald looked very concerned. My parents had gone out to check if they could help and other than making tea for everyone it seemed that there wasn’t much that was needed to be done. I didn’t find out until breakfast when Mum explained that Edwin had witnessed a young girl being knocked over by a lorry on the main road that passed the village. The shock had sent him into his incoherent state and he hadn’t been able to either help or offer any kind of witness statement.
I saw Edwin in the garden the next day and he was as cheerful as ever. Nothing seemed to have changed, I helped him rake the leaves and we put them into a big metal bin ready for burning.
Life went on as ever for the next few weeks, until a few days before Christmas. We had gone out as a family to see the lights in the city. It was something of a local tradition and the shops had all decorated their windows. It was a lovely evening and we were all in high spirits as we drove home. As we pulled towards the village we crossed the viaduct that joined the mining villages to the big city, at the far end I could see blue flashing lights and a number of emergency vehicles. When we got closer a policeman came to the window and explained to my father that a young man had fallen from the viaduct, while they spoke I spotted Edwin standing by the edge of the viaduct looking across the gorge. I pointed him out to my mother who got out of the car and spoke to the policeman who nodded, thanked her and went across to a group of officers who hurriedly moved across to Edwin and began the process of getting him into an ambulance to take him home.
“It seems Edwin saw it all happen. Poor Edwin he’s been so unlucky recently.” Said my Mother as we drove around the blockage and onwards towards home.
The next time I saw Edwin was Christmas Day, we visited to take presents to the brothers and sat for a while talking to Donald. Edwin was sat in his chair still and silent, the only thing that was different to normal was a single tear was running down his cheek. Donald noticed I had spotted it.
“He’s only been doing that since the accidents. I’m not sure why to do about it.”
As a child my instinct was to try and cheer him up and so I immediately turned to Edwin and told him the jokes I had received in my Christmas Crackers, Edwin conspicuously smirked and the tears seemed to stem slightly.
“You’ve got a magic touch lad.”
From then, I popped round every day and spent time chatting to Edwin, he never seemed to remember it when he was his normal self, but we never discussed it, it was just something we did. Again we settled into our new routine and nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary until Edwin turned up at the scene of another tragic accident, this time it was a small boy, a year below me in my school, he slipped into the river that flowed under the viaduct. There is a point as the river turns into a large meander where the currents become quite impossible to predict and it is very dangerous. The boy was playing in the shallows and he lost his footing. Edwin had been walking past, saw it and fell back into his comatose state. Again he was returned home by the police but this time their questions became much more forceful. Though nobody said it to me, I am sure they started to suspect him at this point, maybe even Donald himself. I don’t think it occurred to me, I was far too young. But it was around about this time I started to wonder about him myself.
My bedroom overlooked our back gardens and I often sat watching Donald finishing up after a day’s gardening before I went to bed. I got used to the peace of the countryside and I became a very light sleeper. It was for this reason I was woken by the sound of digging in the garden in the early hours of the morning. I looked out and saw Edwin digging furiously at the far end of the garden. I watched him for a while trying to work out what he was doing, he dug as I sat peeking through my curtains but then he stopped, very suddenly and turned and looked up at the window straight at me. But he was back to his vacant self, his empty haunted eyes gazing up and through me.
I saw him digging five nights in succession, all in the same spot digging a deeper and deeper hole. The fifth morning I was woken by a knocking on our front door, it was the police. They spoke to my Father and left, after a brief conversation with my mother I was called down and told that there had been an accident, this time it was next door. Donald had stumbled trying to tidy up the garden and fallen on a pair of shears. He was spotted by the neighbours on the other side. Edwin was found sat in the living room with his book in his hands.
Once the police and the ambulances had left my Mother and I went round to check on Edwin. I remember his face, I’m not sure I’ll ever forget it. He was expressionless but tears were rolling down his cheeks. I pulled a stool up next to him and touched his elbow. He didn’t move and the tears kept rolling. I had nothing to say but I sat with my hand on his elbow when until the social worker arrived to check up on him.
I went to bed early that night and had terrible nightmares. I dreamed I saw Edwin standing over my bed watching me sleep, I woke up tired and confused to find my mum making some toast and a flask of tea to take them round to Edwin, I quickly got changed so I could go with her.
When we arrived the front door was ajar and the house was completely dark. I think I knew at that moment what we would find. I don’t really know why my mother let me go in, but I did and I found him there, in the seat, he looked asleep, but I knew he was dead. Once she had checked his pulse my mother sent me home and began making all of the necessary calls. I went home and told my father who disappeared for a while and returned to get my brother and I ready for school. While he was gone I went back into my bedroom, the curtains were still drawn so I pulled them open to let in some light. That was when I saw it, the muddy footprint by my bed. It was exactly where I had seen Edwin in my dream. Shocked I turned to the window, as I did something unusual caught my eye on the desk that sat underneath it. It was an envelope with my name on it. Tentatively I opened it and began to read.
“My dear boy, my wonderful friend, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kindness through these difficult months. However I must burden you with a task too great for one of your age, but too fantastic for any adult to undertake. I will start at the beginning, when I finished in the pit I was very bored, Don had his model ships, but it wasn’t for me, so I took up local history. I picked up books wherever I could. Then one day I found this one book, in a little shop in town. It was a curious book, it didn’t seem to have much relevance but I felt compelled to buy it. From that point on, the sickness began, I would pick up the book and I was gone. I became focused on one page and what I thought was a matter of minutes would be hours. The book was not anything I could explain or describe, but it would tell me things, visions, at first I couldn’t understand them but gradually they became clearer. They were visions of the future, but a strange future, one that involved a being, a demon. It showed me where it would act and what it would do. In my moments of clarity I tried to work them out, to stop them, but the demon was just taunting me, it knew that even if I did try to change the future it would snatch me away from myself just at the moment I could have done anything. It was the demon who pushed the girl into the lorry, the man off the viaduct and that poor child into the river. When it showed me Donald’s death I tried everything to stop it but I failed. It is in the book, I dug a hole to bury it deep. It wouldn’t burn, it won’t tear, I can’t destroy it so I intended to bury it. I dug the hole but I couldn’t put it in, it’s hole was too great. So when I failed to save Donald I realised I only had one hope and that is you. Only a child would do this correctly, not try to change the instructions, and you must.
I have placed the book in a sack and hidden it in the den you and Donald talked about. You must get it and not open the bag, hold it by the top not the bottom, never touch the bottom. Then drop it in the hole at the bottom of the garden and fill it, fill it quickly and never tell anyone about it.
Thank you for everything.
I hid the letter and went to school, it was a long and dull day and I couldn’t think of much else. We had a very quiet evening meal and after we had eaten I excused myself and headed up to the woods. As promised there was an old coal sack sat inside, it was filthy and tied with a rope. Until that point I had not really felt any concern, but as soon as I touched the sack it felt as if the atmosphere changed, that the air turned cold, that the sky became darker and I became scared.
I hated holding that bag, I held it as far ahead of myself as I could and hurried back to the garden. Every step filled me with even greater fear, but I was resolved to complete the task I had been set. When I reached the houses I was frozen. My hands ached, my ears were ringing and I had an overwhelming feeling of being followed.
I dropped the bag to the bottom of the hole and filled the hole as quickly as I could. With each shovelful I began to feel better, more at ease, and when I finally piled the last of the earth onto the pile I felt the warmth returned to my body. It was as if a weight lifted from the world.
Life went back to normal for a while, a new family moved into the brothers’ old house and the energy of having more children around was infectious. I spent a lot of time with our new neighbours, the three children were all around my age and I was able to introduce them to the woods and my den. We lived in and out of each other’s houses and shared birthdays, Christmases and my favourite, summer Barbecues. We had one in their garden, not long after my 14th birthday. It had been a glorious summer and we had been planning it for weeks. Irritatingly on the morning of the Barbecue the weather changed, it stayed dry but it was overcast and dull. We decided to go ahead with the party and we turned up to a very full table covered in food. My friend’s mother was unusually sad looking and while she was as wonderful a host as ever she did look tired and worn.
I overheard her talking to my mother expressing her concerns at her husband’s well being and that he was overworked and tired. The conversation came to an abrupt halt when he walked into the room. He looked drawn and grey. Tucked under his arm was an old, leather bound book.