By mark p
Once off the bus, the feeling of excited anticipation that had been welling up inside John for days dissipated, to be replaced by a creeping dread.
This week at scout camp was to be his first time away from home alone.
He was quiet, fat and bookish- everything that the likes of Dave Harvey homed in on when sizing up potential victims. He would cope with Dave if the need arose. Dave had almost drowned him at a scout meeting by ducking him in the toilet, whilst holding his head over the bowl. John had kept that one quiet as telling anyone would only add fuel to Dave’s fire, Dave was that kind of guy.
He still had the horrible image in his head of his panic-stricken face shimmering in the toilet water, as Dave flushed the cistern repeatedly, and the swishing sound of gushing water all around his head, all in his ears and in his mouth, the taste of the foul water making him gag. In the depths of night, he would wake up sweating in a maelstrom of sheets from nightmares which replayed the event.
He had not said a word to his folks about it and hoped they wouldn’t find out. They always seemed to know if something was up with him, maybe that was what being parents was all about! They had been good enough to let him go to this year’s Scout Summer Camp; he would try and make the best of it, even though he would rather have been at home reading Robert Louis Stevenson, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King books from the library. His Dad had convinced him to go after many of his stories of Scouting 30 years before. Hopefully nowadays it would be as good as he had said, despite the passage of time.
The campsite was by a loch which was located near Cauld Village. There wasn’t much to the village; a post office/general store which seemed to sell everything, a small church and a cluster of about ten cottages.
The scouts lugged the rucksacks and tents from the boot of the bus, and struggled towards the campsite, panting in the sticky heat.
A few of them, including John, stopped off at the shop and stocked up on cans of Coke, lemonade, sweets and crisps. The shop was tended by an old woman with a green tartan headscarf covering most of her long grey hair, she looked about 80, an ancient looking wifie who spoke in a thick accent, which he did not recognize. She reminded John of pictures of witches from childhood books.
She stared at John as he paid for his sweets. Maybe she had been thinking he was about to steal from her shop, and that had caused her concern. He looked back in a vain attempt to stare her out.
“Now be mindful that ye hae The Gift, laddie”, she said gazing at him with an expression that seemed fit for a deity rather than a fat twelve-year-old. “Dinna let it tak ye ower”.
John looked at her as if she were off her head and walked out of the shop munching a Mars Bar.
What did the old wifie mean, had she seen some aura coming off him, did he have psychic powers that were hitherto untapped? She had clearly sensed something about him, something unusual, something weird.
The huge canvas tents, the ’fourteen footers’, would be home for a week. They were complicated to pitch if you were a novice camper, so this onerous task fell to the older scouts, the ones who were not averse to sneaking off into the woods for a smoke, out of the sight of the leaders, sometimes with the leaders.
That summer, the weather was hot and humid and the news on TV was full of stories of hosepipe bans, parched, cracked earth and dry rivers in England. It wasn’t quite like that up here yet, it was hot, too hot, especially when you were fetching and carrying for patrol leaders, and even more so if you were fat and prone to break a sweat at the slightest hint of exercise.
Once the tents were up, one of the “Plebs” would be sent to gather wood, as food was cooked over the fire. Mince and something by the smell of it, everything impregnated with the smell of woodsmoke, all the food, the clothes and worst of all, it got in your eyes.
John evidently being a pleb was the ‘nominated’ wood collector for today, he was told in no uncertain terms by Nigel, the patrol leader, who chucked a tent bag at John, and motioned to him to get on with it.
John disliked Nigel intensely, he was a supercilious public-school type (as John’s Dad might have said) who always seemed to be right, even when he was wrong, and he brought his public-school attitude here also, the snobbery and general nastiness. Nigel looked down on most people and was brimming with his own perceived self-importance. He was the person who had started naming the new scouts as ‘plebs’, which added to his obnoxiousness. Him and Dave were not on John ’s list of favourite people and were not going to win any popularity prizes within the troop.
John dragged the canvas tent bag from the site to the forest and trudged, shuffling his feet sluggishly through the long dry grass. He ventured farther in where the sounds of his fellow scouts were soon replaced by the sounds of the occasional bird and the rustle of the trees in the cool summer breeze. Sweating, he sat down to rest and lost himself in fantasy as he watched the shafts of sunlight flicker through the branches high above him, his imagination took flight: The wood was haunted, this much he knew, the vengeful ghost of someone who died here years before would haunt the camp. He got up and his progress was hindered by what appeared to be a standing stone. There were illegible inscriptions on it, which once deciphered and declaimed would undoubtedly unleash an unspeakable evil upon the world.
Then, he stepped on something, something which cracked under his weight…branches, bones?
John’s flights of imagination were cruelly brought back down to earth as Dave Harvey, boorish and ginger- headed, a couple of years older, taller and stronger than John , pushed him from behind saying “Oi, you fat bastard, you’ve got no bloody wood, what the hell have you been doing, greeting’ for your Ma or something?”.
He wasn’t taking this. He protested that he had been sitting down for a rest, unaware of where kindling and fallen branches could be found.
“Fuckin’ Hell, man, are ye useless or what?”
Whatever John had been meaning to say died in his throat as Dave pushed him to the ground, and started stuffing grass and earth into John’s mouth, “That ‘ll fuckin teach ye “, he said as John retched a mixture of grass, puke and earth. John sat on the ground, his breath coming in short bursts as he expelled the mess from his mouth.
Scowling, Dave gestured towards the branches and sticks below the trees in front of them; this was the place where all the wood could be found.
Dave ran off in the direction of the campsite, leaving John alone with the sounds of the forest, the noises of nature, “getting away from it all” as his folks often said.
He felt a little sad and stifled back a sob as he gathered up wood, wending his way to a clearing where he could see the loch. He had been dreading the canoeing and water sports for some time and decided to have a look around at the loch and the boathouse to see if that would help ease his troubled mind.
He left the tent bag and ran down to the boathouse, stood on the jetty and admired the scenery. The loch seemed to go on for miles; the water was totally still, like a gigantic mirror placed on the ground with hills all around it. John was amazed at how peaceful it was here - A hot summer day, standing by a picturesque loch in the middle of the scenic landscape, this was the life!
But what the wifie in the shop said earlier had freaked him out a bit, “Now be mindful that ye hae The Gift, laddie”, what the hell did she mean. Who the hell was she to say this, a witch or a gypsy or something?
He would worry about that later, meantime, he had to collect wood and watch out for bullies. He returned to campsite about half an hour later, sweating and dirty, canvas tent bag now brimming with branches and kindling.
In silence they set the fire and it gradually came to life, thanks to fanning the flames with plastic plates and gratuitous use of Zip firelighters. John assumed that he was out of favour with the rest of the patrol, all four of them, as nobody spoke.
Dave and Nigel appeared to be in cahoots which was no surprise and whispered to one another conspiratorially, Dave scowling at John and gesturing towards him to the effect that he was a wanker. Two of the other guys in the patrol, Neil and Brian looked around and made small talk about school, football and who was Number 1 in the Radio 1 Top 20. They were both on their first camp and neither knew what to expect. John knew them both vaguely from school and they seemed ok. Once the food, mince and tatties, was cooked, they ate in silence. Nobody really knew what to say. Mike, one of the assistant leaders came over and handed Nigel a cigarette, they walked a short distance from the fire and spoke in hushed tones, presumably planning activities for the week or worse.
It was easy to become paranoid given all the whispering that John had been witness to so far.
Once the washing up was done, all scouts were summoned to ‘fall in’ by Jim, the leader. He welcomed everyone to Cauldforest, which evidently promised to be the best summer camp in years.
John wondered if he would tell anyone about his ‘gift’, and decided that it was best not to, for now anyway.
They played a few games of football, there were enough of them for proper sized teams, and scout football was never played by the rules, there was a lot of pushing and shoving on the pitch. John ended up on the grass several times, thanks to Dave’s shouldering and sliding tackles.
After a few songs around the campfire, most of the scouts were ready for bed, John was getting sick of the camp already, ok tomorrow was another day, but Dave Harvey really had it in for him. He was usually bad enough at normal scout meetings, but out here he was a whole lot worse.
John lay in his sleeping bag, wondering what gift the old wifie had been havering on about.
Maybe he was psychic or something.
He wondered what it would be like if he could will something bad to happen to someone, say Dave Harvey or maybe Nigel.
John chuckled under his breath, out of earshot of the other boys in the tent.
Yeah, if Dave were to disappear, my life here would be a whole lot easier, a whole fucking lot easier, he thought as he drifted off to sleep, willing Dave Harvey to disappear as if he had never existed.
Morning light came over Cauldforest, the sun’s rays shining through the trees in a fire of blazing colour.
A veritable rural idyll in Scotland in summertime.
Something was wrong in the camp though.
The Falcon patrol, John’s patrol had noticed that one of their number had gone missing, and the whole place was in uproar. Before they had a chance to have any breakfast, the leaders came to every tent, asking if anyone had seen David Harvey, evidently, he had gone missing during the night.
His sleeping bag had not been slept in and his kit lay in the tent seemingly untouched.
When Jim came around to John’s tent, nobody remembered seeing him after the football, John lied that he saw Dave going towards the loch, not fully comprehending what had happened, but remembering the old crone’s words to him yesterday,
“Now be mindful that ye hae The Gift, laddie, but dinnae let it tak ye ower”.
Oh My God, John thought, from deep inside his psyche I’ve willed Dave to disappear and now he has!
The police were called in that day, and after extensive searching around the area, and dragging the loch, they contacted Dave’s parents to say that he had gone missing.
The Scouts were confined to the campsite that day and the atmosphere was somewhat fraught.
John was now fully aware of what his gift was, and woe betide anyone who crossed him.
At the edge of the forest at dusk, a shadowy figure stood. She had been assailed by dreams of the boy willing one of his colleagues to disappear into thin air, now she feared this to have come true, she had been right about the boy at her first sight of him.
He had the Gift, sure enough, as she had once had.