THE VILLAGE IN THE WOODS is my fifth novel, and has also been the monkey on my back for the past 18 months; the deceiver of hope, the denier of sleep, the jester of false fortune, the tester of patience. You get the idea. It’s been a difficult novel to write.
This novel has seen me move away from the paranormal aspects of my writing, found in my previous four novels, and into more mainstream literature, something intended for the masses, whilst all the time retaining the darkness that drives my pen and my inspiration.
Any way, here’s the opening chapter for you.
“I’ve made a most terrible mistake.”
That was the last thing my mother said to me before her head burst.
She groaned and went down onto her knees, bloodying them through her tights on the scaled grey tarmac of the road, toppling over onto her side, away from my grasp, as I tried in vain to catch her from falling. She rolled over onto her back, staring up into the unblemished blue sky, her pupils wide like black pennies, the sound coming out of her as if she was mechanised.
I drew her into my arms, my cries growing more distraught with every departing moment. The touch of her and close embrace of perfume was foreign and strange, a discomforting fug in that enfolding horror. And yet hold her was all I could do.
We had never been close, my mother and I, but here in death I clutched onto her as if she was my everything. Her head lolled to one side and I drew her tighter into me, weeping, looking around for help from anywhere, anyone, feeling warm wetness on my chest. It was then that I realised that she was haemorrhaging from her nose and mouth, the rose petal red of her blood stark against the white of my t-shirt.
Just beyond the low wall of faded brick and moss, separating the village pub from the village road where my mother and I lay, a crowd had appeared, drawn from their pints and gossip by my cries. They pushed out into the narrow shadow cast by the eaves above, throbbing and jostling to see. How pathetically helpless I must have looked, weeping and pleading as I grappled with the dying woman in my arms, impotent in her death. If I called for help from them I wasn’t aware that I had, but someone ran forward, drawing others in their wake, and I was prised away without protest or struggle.
The crowd surged in, and my mother was lost from me amongst the bodies. And, instantly, in the middle of all those people, I was horribly alone.
It was a mystery why my mother had felt compelled to say what she had to me. Ours was a relationship that was private from each other, closed, like a book. So her revelation, when it came, came like a stunning a blow, an effort unparalleled on her part. And I knew that the admission was more than simply my mother wishing to reveal her deepest feelings to me. It was a testament. That in some way she was reaching out to me, a confession in hope of excusing some act or thought she had entertained. I had no idea why she’d admitted her secret to me, but like almost all things planted, eventually something is revealed.
“Since your father died -” she had begun to explain, earlier into our walk, but letting her words trail to silence, a lingering suggestion, a verbal hook cast for me to swallow and be drawn to enquire, so she would not have to pursue me to get us to talk. But those four words told me all I needed to know about what it was she was intimating. And that this was a bait I was not willing to take.
Instead I cleared my throat and thrust my eyes into the verge, feeling a sickly weight of embarrassment rise in my throat. The dog parsley was out along the low hedgerows lining the field and I pointed them out to her, a means of drawing the conversation away from what had just been said. The silence swallowed us up again and she bit her lower lip, so tight that I feared she might draw blood.
“It’s warm,” I offered instead, feeling both cowardice and fleeting escape by doing so. “The village is looking as lovely as ever, mum.” The words were sullen and ill formed in my mouth, just noise to fill the awkwardness.
We walked on, with the gap between us as obvious as the silence we shared, conquering the incline where the road ran between a line of six horse chestnut trees that covered the road in September with their conkers and cases. It was here that, as a child, I would be found in Autumn, gathering my stash to do battle with my peers in the playground of the village school. The school was now gone, a private home, but the trees looked as magnificent as ever.
“I have needs, Alan,” she said, her hands balled up in exasperation, as if it was imperative that I knew. Her voice had hardened, any rumour of joy that always danced between her words whenever she spoke gone, snuffed out, the urgency of what she was telling me all that seemed to matter. I did what any normal child would do when confronted by such news and ignored the admission too, instead glancing across the fields of golden sheaves of corn, wavering slow in the close August heat.
“Did you hear me, Alan?”
I winced to hear her press me, wishing that I had never returned back home for this all too rare visit. But what choice did I have? Where else did I have to go after what I had done? She caught the look I was making, clicking with her tongue. “Didn’t you hear what I said?” And then she sobbed, catching hold of her emotion before every drop of it poured out of her. “I’ve made a most terrible mistake.”
The man trying to save her was now on his hands and knees, calling into my mother’s ear, as if she had climbed into herself and gotten lost, the man trying to coax her out. He wore a dog collar and his bald head reflected the sun like polished pink marble “Viv! Can you hear me? Has someone called an ambulance?” he pleaded to the crowd.
“It’s on its way, David,” someone replied.
David Felter. His name came to me then, a vague recollection of the vicar and his fat wife and shaggy haired son Geoffrey moving to the village not long before I left it.
“Viv!” His voice had become wild and unhinged. I heard someone cry, “She’s dead, David!” and with it felt eyes turn in my direction.
I closed my own, turning away, not to avoid witnessing the horror of it all, but at recalling again those words my mother had revealed to me. I knew what she had meant by them; the suggestion that passion still beat within her, a desire to touch and be touched by another human being. To think of it and to look at her now, the soiled broken thing on the road surrounded by so many trying to save her made her announcement all the more lamentable and absurd.
“She would have been pleased you were there with her at the end,” someone I never even saw said, pressing their fingers into my shoulder.
Of course, people say peculiar things in times of awkwardness and shock, caught between saying nothing and saying something, their words almost always clumsy and inept. After all, how could it have been pleasing to have witnessed my mother die like she had, mumbling and writhing in her final moments as I held her, the blood flooding from her ears and nose, messing herself down one side of her leg, the guttural groan that came out of her? That was all the assurance I required to know that my mother would have wanted to endure this torment alone and unwitnessed.
“Lord sweet God, give us some bloody room!” someone cried, as the crowd surged eager to see her cooling on the black of the road.
Then someone away at the rear of the crowd screamed and a voice told them to “Shut the bloody hell down!” as another scream caught the tail of the first and the screams became a growing chorus of disbelief and horror. And I remembered then how melodramatic the village had always been, how sentimental and foolish and kind its inhabitants were, grief-stricken at the death of my mother. At least until I saw the dog on the bank with the human hand it held in its mouth. A woman’s hand, snatched tight in filthy jaws, dried crimson and mottled with dirt, severed at the wrist, the flesh stripped roughly from one finger, the nails all pulled out at the roots.