Genre: gruesome short story (adult themes and language)
Coffee time chills. Sit back, relax and enjoy this gruesome story I wrote back in October 2016, which was inspired by a dead tree I still see every day outside Stokenchurch in Buckinghamshire.
Gary turned off Junction 5 and headed towards Stokenchurch, as he always did on a Friday evening. The traffic going into London had been heavy from Thame, due to an accident. He couldn’t wait to be out of his Ford Mondeo and having a pint of Rebellion Red at the Queens Hotel. Then he’d spend the evening with his hands all over Sally, one of the obliging barmaids, before sending her home at midnight. He didn’t want to be waking up next to her in the morning.
He drew into the car park and parked at the back, out of view of the road. It was a precaution, even though the chances of anyone recognising his car was remote, but he couldn’t take that risk. His wife came from round here, although she hadn’t been back for many years.
He took out his phone and rang Mary to say he’d be home late on Friday. The poor cow believed him as she always did. She would be waiting with a hot meal, pathetically grateful that he had gone back to her. She had forgiven him after one affair and suspected he still played away from home, but had never said anything. Probably because she would lose the comfortable lifestyle he provided for her. As he saw it, it was a fair trade.
When he walked into the bar, the atmosphere was warm and convivial. A young barman greeted him and asked what he would like to drink. Gary didn’t recognise him and felt a stab of annoyance. Sally was usually there, pulling his pint of Rebellion with a suggestive smile as soon as he walked through the door. He didn’t want to ask where she was though. He didn’t want to see the knowing looks shared between the other staff.
Sighing, he settled on a vacant bar stool to wait for her.Next to him were two old geezers sipping carefully at their beer. They looked over at him.
‘She’s not ‘ere tonight.’
‘Who?’ Gary affected not to know what they were talking about.
‘Our Sally. She stays indoors every Halloween. Hates it.’
Until then, he had forgotten it was Halloween. Mary hated it as well, though he wasn’t sure why. Maybe he should call her later, if he remembered. See if she was alright. She’d only start going on though. Blah blah blah.
‘Whatever. I wanted a drink, that’s all.’
‘And the rest,’ the old man muttered.
‘Excuse me? What the hell does that mean?’
‘Maybe you should be asking why she’s not here,’ the other man said. ‘Full moon tonight, ain’t it?’
‘So she’s a witch or something?’ Gary was ready to finish his pint and leave. His mood had soured with news that Sally wouldn’t be there. He had no intention of spending the evening with these two jokers.
Just then, the door opened, letting in a cool breeze. Five women walked in, well-dressed, laughing. One of them smiled at him as she went past. She reminded him of his wife twenty years earlier, before the lines of disappointment had been etched in her face. He felt a renewed surge of hope. Perhaps he would stick around after all.
‘Everyone stays home on Halloween. You don’t want to be out after midnight. Not round here,’ the bloke next to him said.
‘Oh?’ Gary wasn’t that interested but it helped pass the time. The women were looking at the menus, which meant they would be there a while. Maybe later he could separate the blonde from the others. She kept looking over at him. Yes, he could sense a conquest, an opportunity for a quick tumble.
‘Why’s that, then?’ He asked his companion, whose name was Bert.
‘Buy me another and I’ll tell you.’ Bert pushed his empty pint glass over the counter.
Gary sighed. Fine. He could cope with an old coot’s local stories if it meant getting laid later. He ordered three more pints.
‘Over on the B482 is the Hanging Tree. Big old oak tree, dead as a coffin nail. You can’t miss it. It’s right on the corner over the M40 bridge. It looks dead, but it ain’t. Every Halloween, it comes back to life.’
‘Is that right?’ Gary wondered how many beers Bert had sunk already that evening.
‘It’s true. Two hundred years back, the law used to hang villains from it. Robbers, murderers, highwaymen, all got strung up on that tree and left ‘til they rotted away. People were reminded every day of what would happen to ‘em if they broke the law. Not many locals did. Focuses the mind, having a corpse stinking out the place, don’t it? It was out-of-towners, mostly. People staying at the Inn, thinking the locals were stupid, trying to take advantage. We weren’t having none of that.’ He slurped at his beer.
‘One of them got one of the local girls pregnant. Promised he’d look after her and give her a better life. She waited and waited but that bastard never did come back for her. They say the shame of it made her lose her baby. She went wild with grief, ended up killing a man she thought was him. He wasn’t, but all men were the enemy then. The law had no choice. She was a murderer. They had to hang her.’
His voice dropped, as if afraid to be caught gossiping. ‘They say she asked to be left to rot, so if he ever came again, he’d see what he drove her to do. The hangman was humane. He tied that knot so it broke her neck straight off. Like this.’ He demonstrated, making a horrible choking sound.
Gary gulped at his beer. It tasted sour. ‘Nice.’
‘Yeah. After that, the tree began to die. People say it was killed by all the evil poisoning the ground around it from all those corpses. All that decomposing flesh dripping….’
‘I get it.’ Gary felt queasy. ‘But you said it comes back to life on Halloween? That’s a load of bollocks!’
Bert shook his head. ‘Honest to God. You see, that poor girl is still looking for her lover. She wants him to join her in hell. That’s the story, anyway.’
‘And it’s fascinating,’ Gary said politely. He looked over at the women, eating their meal. The blonde caught his eye and smiled. She left the table and walked up to the bar, probably on the pretext of getting another drink, but Gary wasn’t fooled.
‘Hi,’ she said to him.
‘Hi.’ They exchanged a smile, and just like that, his evening improved immeasurably.
‘You’ll have to drop me off home,’ she said as she zipped up her jeans. ‘My friends went ages ago.’
‘Right.’ Great. Gary wasn’t delighted at the prospect but telling her to call a cab seemed churlish after what she’d just done for him. Which was just about everything. She beat Sally into a distant third with her bedroom skills. Those strong thighs were enough to make a grown man beg for mercy.
‘I need to go,’ she persisted. ‘I don’t want to be out after midnight.’
‘Why? You gonna turn into a pumpkin or something?’ Gary dragged himself out of bed and got dressed, cursing under his breath.
The night was cold as they went outside, the full moon hanging in the air like a bright new penny. He thought of what Bert had told him and shivered. Load of old cobblers, stories of trees coming back to life, but all the same, he could think of better things to do than drive his latest shag back to her brats.
She lived a mile down the B482 towards Lane End. As they crossed the deserted motorway bridge, Gary could see the Hanging Tree, its dead limbs gleaming like bleached bones in the bright moonlight. Dead as anything. What else had he expected?
‘Drop me off here,’ the blonde said a couple of minutes later. ‘My house is just up there.’ She motioned to a quiet lane. Gary didn’t argue. He pulled in and she gave him a quick peck on the cheek before walking away without a backward glance.
Hard-nosed cow, Gary thought, watching her disappear into the blackness. She had looked so much like Mary, it was almost worrying. And he was used to women pleading to see him again, not jauntily skipping away like frisky lambs. The fact that she could do that without a care in the world annoyed him. Perhaps he was losing his touch.
He turned the car around and drove back down along the road towards Stokenchurch. He took care on the twisting road, and put his foot down on the long straight stretch. His warm duvet beckoned.
Three quarters the way along the straight, the Mondeo began to lose power. He pumped the accelerator, but it was no use. The car slowed to a stop. The engine coughed like an old man and simply died.
‘FUCK!’ Gary hit the steering wheel. He turned the key but nothing happened. The car was dead.
He sat there, wondering what to do. It wasn’t far to walk to the hotel, and it was better to do that than sit waiting for the vehicle rescue guys to come out. In all probability it was the battery.
Sighing, he got out of the car. He had no choice but to leave it where it was. He looked up and down the deserted road. Nothing. Visibility was good so it wouldn’t get clipped by a careless motorist. Not that it mattered. It was a company car. Next time they could get him a BMW. He retrieved his wallet, phone and laptop bag before locking up the car. Then he began to walk.
He had not gone far when the road began to curve to the left. It was all good though. He remembered the chicane before the straight stretch from when he had driven along it not fifteen minutes before. His footsteps sounded unnervingly loud, but with no-one around to hear, he kept his pace brisk. He knew he would soon see the old tree, and then it was only a ten-minute walk to the village centre.
As he rounded the corner, the moon disappeared behind a small, dense cloud, plunging him in darkness for a moment. He stumbled forward, expecting to graze his hands on the tarmac surface but instead, encountered soft grass.
Strange. He was sure he had been walking on the road. As he went to pick up his laptop case, the moon again flooded the surrounding fields with silver light. He looked around him. The laptop case wasn’t there. Yet he had it in his hands not a minute earlier! He cast around, thinking it might have fallen in a ditch, but there was nothing.
He grubbed around with increasing desperation. There was no laptop case. No road. Just a dirt track marked with deep ruts and hoof prints.He was imagining it. He had to be. That damned local yokel had put the wind up him with his stupid tales.
He blinked and shook his head. Still no road. He took a step forward and squelched ankle deep into cold, muddy water. Cursing, he looked down and saw his Paul Smith suit had been replaced with coarse dark breeches and a long frock coat.
He whimpered with fear. What was happening? What had he taken to be hallucinating in such a way? He tried to think about what had happened earlier. The blonde had spiked his drink, perhaps? He couldn’t think. Couldn’t recall anything other than …
He shouldn’t be here. Yet as he was thinking it, he was staggering forward. The village. The village was safety. A large tree stood ahead. It was a mature oak with wide spreading branches, its dying leaves rustling in a keen easterly breeze. He could smell bonfires, the smell of roast pork, and something else.
Something that shouldn’t be. Of sweetness and decay…As he neared the tree, something moved, making him jump. An owl in the branches perhaps?
No. Not an owl. He heard the slow creaking of rope on wood. The thing hanging from it swinging slowly, skirts fluttering.
Dance with me.
Blonde hair gleaming in the moonlight. The apparition turning in the breeze.
You’ve returned, my love.
A skull half covered in hanging flesh, features ever frozen in a rictus grin.
I’ve been waiting for you.
It was the woman he had slept with at the hotel. He hadn’t even bothered to ask her name.
He backed away, his mouth open as he tried to scream. He was caught by strong arms grasping his.
‘She’s been waiting for you. Now it’s time for you to join her, lad,’ a rough voice said.
‘No! You don’t understand. I’m not who you think I am!’ Gary struggled to free himself even as the thick rope wrapped around his neck. He kicked and fought, his legs meeting empty air as he was hoisted up into the tree. In the seconds before his neck broke, he thought of his wife, and the story she had told once about her ancestors.
If only he has listened more carefully to her….