When the lights flickered as the train entered rough country all the boys in the carriage howled raucously. The regulars on the local service either sunk into their seats or glanced at them sourly. It was only a journey of four stops, but their unwarranted expedition made it seem as if they were entering an unreal dimension, or at least an entirely alien zone. They were rich boys let off the leash, almost for the first time, and they were determined to make the most of it. Outside in the growing dark, substantial houses became affluent bungalows, then sparse and skeletal cottages showed up occasionally and finally there was just impenetrable woodland that seemed to be watching them, if they paid notice. Harry winced even as he joined in their cacophony, but he noticed two things. With a twinge of shame he saw their carriage being evacuated by the three stragglers who did not appreciate their elevated spirits: the refugees fled into the second carriage, which made up the whole complement of the mid evening train. Harry’s second vision was a fanciful disembodied perspective of the sad transport rattling through the duchy, helter skelter through forest and fields and resentful sleepy towns between Penzance, Truro and beyond.
There were six of them, in the same year at college, but not all friends. It was only in the isolation of a provincial college that made them resist integration and reluctantly bond together. And it was lucky they were only going a handful of stops, for that was all they could bear of each other. They were drunk before they started and sadly happy to be daring to leave their own upmarket cocoon to venture into no man’s land, as they thought. The group was heading to a party in a small town up country and the fact that it was a run down, backward place added to their daring. They were entering enemy territory and could have some backhanded entertainment at the expense of the downtrodden locals in the pubs over a few shots.
Harry had the feeling that the flooding past countryside was staring coldly back at them as interlopers. He realised that he certainly did not belong here in any meaningful sense. Those who were several notches down the social scale, even those who belonged in that category and had entered the modern world to the extent of throwing off their comedic west country accent would look at him askance when he opened his mouth. Even though he and beyond him his people had done nothing wrong here, he felt like an intrusive coloniser, an Englander in a stubbornly Celtic outcrop.
It became true dark and he was glad not to see that the unseen countryside had turned alien. This was the Clay Country, true ghost of the recent industrial past, where the skeletal chalk bones of contorted hills jutted proudly out of the earth, where elsewhere the signs of industrial disease was hidden beneath a pretty sheen of verdant undergrowth designed to lull the unwary tourist.
He looked at his friend Freddy, who seemed to be fading fast, becoming like the rest of the wolf pack. Henry only really saw the transformation today. As the train gasped to a stop they piled off and collapsed in a hysterical heap on the platform, with Henry unhappily crushed at the bottom of the scrum. He was still prostrate on the concrete while Charlie, Fitch, Mathers and Clive drifted away, laughing. Freddy lounged against the timetable affixed to the station wall, smoking a cigarette and looking at him in a curiously cold, judgemental way. His ribs ached and in the act of rising, he realised he was being stared at also by a very old man sitting on a bench. When Charlie followed his glance, they both burst into hysterics, for the man seemed to be following something invisible and undeniably frightening just behind the two of them. Every time they moved his eyes and head darted to one side or the other, either hoping to catch sight of something or avoid seeing it.
Freddy patted him on the head condescendingly as they walked towards the exit and the man muttered something incomprehensible behind them.
‘I shouldn’t worry about him,’ Freddy said lightly. ‘They’re all seriously inbred around here.’
A keen wind barrelled up the curved narrow road which led to Fore Street. Its acid touch made Henry reel. Freddy shoved him off roughly when he swayed into him. There was a foreign atmosphere here which you could almost sip off the brink of the wind.
‘Where’s the others gone?’ he asked uncertainly.
Freddy laughed harshly. ‘Who cares, bunch of arseholes,’ he said, walking on. ‘We’ll get to where we’re going without them.’
Now Freddy felt ice cold drunk and wanted the warmth of the others, despite their idiocy. Even the ice cold air he expelled from his longs formed into foreign swirling shapes that ghouled around his head in a halo, disorientating. Two local girls, arm in arm approached and Freddy threw a half playful and crude insult out to greet them. One of them responded with a stare of genuine pity, while the other girl honked an obscene rejection.
‘I think you’re in there,’ Freddy slurred.
‘You’ll end up in there.’
He motioned across to an old dark cemetery over the road, its bulging walls touching the contours of the street.
‘That’s a challenge accepted.’
Before he could understand what was happening, Freddy had bolted across the street and scaled the cemetery walls. He could be heard landing and laughing on the far side. Henry followed the curve of the perimeter until he four a pair of antediluvian gates which gave in to his gentle shove. In the half light, Freddy at least had the grace to look momentarily shamefaced before his normal character reasserted itself. There was little of the interior to be seen, streaked ochre by the overspill of streetlight from outside. Wind though the elms reminded Harry of something: a shudder of recognition.
‘I know this place,’ he muttered.
Henry sniggered. ‘Don’t tell me,’ he mocked. ‘You’ve been buggered by a townie here.’ Then he cursed as he stumbled over a broken toothed tombstone.
Henry tried to remember, but it was confusing. He seemed to have been in this place a long time ago, when he was a little kid. But how he got here, and who with, was unknown. He felt tears from the same remembered mystery source making his vision even more obscure as he stumbled up the path. A series of willows seemed to un-bow to let him pass, but they did the opposite to his associate, who could be heard swearing as he tried to disentangle himself from their foliage. Then a false memory of sorts came back to him. He saw himself standing here fifteen years ago staring at a policeman and policewoman walking away from him here on a bright blustery day. He called after them, but they did not respond. Instead, the scraggy stuffed toy which they held between them at arms length turned at its own volition.
‘It must be a nice safe place if the police take care of teddy bears,’ he thought.
But then, nightmare slow, the creature turned and he saw it was not a bear, but something far worse, leering disgustingly at him.
He woke to the present with a shudder. Freddy was nudging him forwards, then he grabbed him as they seemed to teeter on the cusp of a large crater like depression in the earth, whose outline and contents could hardly be seen in the almost perfect darkness. There had been a wooden fence here, now rotten, and bits of its crumbled away in his hand as he fumbled tightly onto it. There were some huge remains in the earthen pit, jagged and toppled building works from long ago. He moved from broken fence to thin air as he tried to restrain Freddy who had given a whoop of triumph as he descended into the pit.
Henry followed, fell, got winded and had the indignity of tasting a mouthful of damp black soil.
‘Who have we got here then?’ Freddy was saying a few yards away.
‘Don’t,’ Henry said, approaching. But he did not get too close, out of fear, and because he did not want to stop it really. There was a figure, bent and crouching in the ruins, and his friend was approaching it in a gloating manner. The person was wearing a hoodie and for a moment he thought that Freddy was going to actually kick him. Instead of that, Freddy started a verbal tirade, full of hate and nonsense, speaking about low lives and the underclass and how the people of this town were sub-normal creatures who didn’t even belong in Cornwall.
Henry was mesmerised and powerless to halt him. He merely, softly shook him head. Freddy was ranting about Asbos and Chavs as the figure rose.
‘Hug a hoodie, isn’t that what David Cameron said? Well, I’m not going to embrace you or any of your crappy king, you foul, reeking bastard.’
Now he did try to kick out, but the foot did not connect.
It’s like the bear all over again, Henry thought.
The figure rose tall and stared. It was not not wearing a modern hooded top at all, but the grim and threadbare cowl of a monk from many buried centuries ago. And, as if in eternal mockery, the thin branch like arms beneath reached out in an embrace and enveloped Freddy into a deeper foul brotherhood forever .