Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Tent

No one knew how long the tent had been there. Must have been a while, I guess, its flashy red flysheet was filmed with green, but no one had noticed. And it might never have been found had Jack, the crotchety old bugger, not disrupted the monthly Parish Council meeting with his cussing and swearing.

“Never mind all this agenda bullshit, your poncy cups of tea and missus vicar’s dainty home-bakes.” He thumped the table making the cups startle in their saucers, his booze-reddened face set to pop with indignation. “What are you going to do about this bloody Knotweed what’s growing along the edge of your bloody millennium footpath? Told you it was a pest, didn’t I, but does anyone listen?”

“But it’ll cost too much to clear it,” I said, breaking into a cold sweat at the thought of the delicate state of our finances. “You need specialist contractors. There was a programme about it on the telly the other night.”

“Specialist contractors, my arse,” he spat, pinning me to my seat with an ugly glare. I gulped. It doesn’t do to cross Jack Henderson. He’ll have made an everlasting note that at eight-forty-five on the twenty-ninth of June, I dared to disagree with him.

“If that stuff spreads any more and starts growing in amongst my crops, I’ll sue the bloody lot of you. I told you your millennium nature walk was a bloody stupid idea right from the start.”

He has a point. We planted the Knotweed, mistaking it for something else, and in the eleven years that have followed, whole plantations of it are springing up everywhere. But we can’t afford to have it cleared.

After much deliberation, and to placate Jack, the vicar suggested we have a go at clearing the stuff ourselves. So the following Saturday, we were busy cutting and hacking. It was a beautiful summer’s day: bright and warm with little white clouds puffing across a perfect blue sky, the air alive with birdsong and bees from the village apiary. That’s when we found the tent.

“Look!” One of Celia’s twins was the first to spot it in the thicket. Our assortment of children, the Green’s two, the twins, the MacFarlane girl, and my own dear Robbie, surged forward.

“Wait a minute,” I shuddered as a sudden chill breeze slipped through the long, skeletal twigs of last years’ growth. “Come away. You don’t know what’s in there.”

“Aw, Mum,” my boy protested, but they paused, quivering like half-sprung springs.

“Nora’s right,” Dave Turnbull said. “One of us should check it out first. Come on Paul,” he said, turning to the builder, who was stood beside him.

No one spoke as the men crashed through the undergrowth. We were all tuned into the nervousness rippling through the air, making hairs on the backs of our necks stand up. Even the birds had stopped singing. We stretched deer-like necks, craning to see, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger.

Paul bent down. He tugged the zip. The tent yawned open. They peered in.

“It’s all right. There’s no one here.”

We pushed forward to see, each jabbering opinions as to how it came to be here. And in the tent lay a mishmash of belongings; a rumpled sleeping-bag covered in cobwebs, lying half-open as though waiting to receive its owner, a rusting kettle, and a khaki kitbag. There was a pair of tatty, weathered brown boots by the entrance, being swallowed back down into the earth as grass grew across their surface. Nothing here had been touched since being left; everything lay waiting for a return, a homecoming which never came. As we wondered what might have happened, I shuddered anew.

“Best not touch anything,” the vicar said, flapping his hands and shooing us like chickens. “We’d better leave everything until Shaun takes a look. Has anyone got a mobile phone? Can you give him a ring?”

Monica did, so she rang the police station. We started to move away, knowing the vicar was right. I was eager to leave the chill of the thicket and step back out into the sunlight. I pictured myself saying to Jack “stuff you and your bloody Knotweed. You’ll have to sort it out yourself.”

I smiled at the thought, and turned round to look for Robbie. But as my foot went down, it landed on something which gave way with a crack. I looked down, and leapt backwards, screaming.

I had trod on, and smashed, a human skull.

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