Did you hear? Big landslip over by Ercol. Last night.
The road into Gully’s closed off. They found a body. Got police tape.
All that stuff. They only do that for murder, don’t they? Murder!A body has been uncovered in a mudslide just outside the village of Andwiston. In the pub they talk of murder, but Dan – sometime mechanic, constant drunk – is finding it hard to sift through his jumbled memories.
Watching him from the dark is Lorna, a lost soul living in the woods, haunted by ghosts and a vision from her childhood: a cold boy standing alone in Gallinger’s field.
I’m thrilled to be bringing you an extract of Cold Boy’s Wood by Carol Birch, published by Head of Zeus on April 1st. It’s a contemporary horror literary novel with sprinklings of a ghost story and thrill mixed through the plotline. You can buy your copy here. Thanks Head of Zeus for the invite to be a part of the tour.
Take a look at this extract, taken from chapter one of Cold Boy’s Wood.
We’d been driving across England, west to east, somewhere in the middle, hours it seemed in our old red and white Ford Anglia. Everything had gone on for so long and so boringly that it felt as if we’d been driving for a million miles, and I’d fallen asleep and woken up feeling sick over and over again in the back seat. I was fourteen with greasy hair and slouchy shoulders. It was a lip-chewing, knicker-wetting time of crying secretly in closed rooms, and it seemed, like the journey, to have been going on forever. There were vans along the sides of the road selling stewed tea and oily hotdogs and hamburgers.
I woke: hedges, fields and such, the car tootling along, my dad saying, ‘This is no good, we’ll have to stop somewhere.’
I can’t remember what it was for. Maybe they needed a chemist. It doesn’t matter. ‘Over there,’ my mum said.
There was a spire a long way off, across fields. Woods running over hills. A turning and a signpost. Andwiston 2, Copcollar 4, Beggar’s Ercol 9.
The lane was long and twisty. There were cornfields with rolls of corn in neat symmetry. The windows were wound down for air, but the car still smelt strongly of petrol and heat, and more faintly of cleaned-up sick from me and my brother. And in spite of the heat there was rain on the heavy air and the clouds were bruising, and in the village there was a haywain in an open shed and all the shops were closed. Not a soul was in sight.
It was a strung-up Adlestrop kind of a moment. Andwiston.
It was not like seeing it for the first time. Thunder murmured far away. My brother Tommy said he wanted a wee.
‘There in that grid over there,’ said my mum. ‘Go with him, Lor.’
‘So where is everyone?’ shouted my dad, at us, as if everything was all our fault.
‘Maybe it’s early closing,’ said my mum in a tight strained voice.
‘He can’t wee in a grid,’ I said. ‘What if someone comes?’
‘He’s only five!’ My mother pulled off her glasses and started polishing them furiously.
‘Let him go in the woods,’ I said.
‘What woods? The woods all around.’
‘I know what you mean, Lorna,’ my mum said. ‘But in case you haven’t noticed, we’re not in the woods, are we, we’re in the village.’
So drive out a bit. There’s nothing here.’
‘Bloody ridiculous,’ my dad rumbled, ‘village of the dead.’ My mother started putting her glasses back on, but just at that moment my father yanked his jumper up over his sweating face and tossed it into the back. His hand knocked her glasses.
She went ‘Uh!’ and grabbed at them as they fell. The jumper, warm nylon, sweat-smelling, landed on my knee and I flicked it away as if it was a snake. It started to rain. My mother caught the glasses and put them back on her face. Through the open window I saw across the rough triangle of the village green a small row of shops: a butcher’s, a co-op, a ladies’ hairdressers with a window full of faded blue-tinged images of smiling girls with meticulously regimented flick-ups and ruler-straight fringes. The rain sloped across it all, bright and clean and steely. I felt funny. Why don’t people like rain, I thought. And the feeling grew that I’d seen it all before.
‘You’ve just knocked my glasses off, Ray,’ my mum said in a martyred voice.
He ignored her, turning his beet-red face to the back seat. ‘Well, are you getting out or what?’
I felt as if I’d been much older a long time ago, not just old but ancient, and we’d just dropped out of somewhere else into here.
‘I said, are you—’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Go to the woods, I’ll take him there. We can keep dry under the trees.’
So we did. Just outside Andwiston I took my little brother Tommy for a wee in the woods. If I looked one way I could see our car through the leaves, if I looked the other I saw the back of Tommy’s head, his fragile neck and jug ears, and I could hear him singing to himself, ‘a pig is an animal with dirt on its face,’ and all around us was the whisper of rain on leaves and the smell of wet forest. I sent him back to the car when he’d finished.
‘I’m going to have one now,’ I said, ‘won’t be a min,’ and sent him scooting off while I went in deeper, further and further from the track. I stood still in a tiny space among dark green holly and ivy. The trees stretched far away above my head, and I was almost completely shielded by wet leaves. If I could write music, it deserves music, it deserves music, I thought, something sharp and ripe and rich. But I couldn’t write music so I just stood there getting softly wet from the filtered rain, and thinking, if only I could not go back.
Then things tilted again, and I went back to the car.
That was my first time in these woods. A strange thing happened as we drove away. A sudden wind whipped itself up and the rain got heavier. I was rolling up the window and for – oh I don’t know – maybe three seconds, I saw a boy in one of those big fields that come after the woods. Two fields over. Naked in the pouring rain, thin and white, arms round himself. His face looked towards me but he was too far away to make out any features. The hedge hid him, and then I saw him again for maybe another second or two, from a different angle. There he was, just standing still for no reason in the middle of a field in the middle of the day.
‘Stop the car!’ I said.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘I can’t stop here,’ said my dad. ‘Stop the car!’
I was opening the door.
My father shouted, ‘You bloody fool!’
The car stopped and I jumped out and ran back.
He was still there.
Don’t misunderstand. I haven’t got a clue about anything but I’m not a fool. I’m not talking about fakes and frauds, videos on YouTube, screamers, all that. I’m talking about things that happen in a breath in the middle of an ordinary day. I know the explanations. A hallucination is something physical in your ridiculous clown of a brain, not uncommon, all quite normal, but when it comes, the creature is as real as anything ever was. Not the same real, a different real. Still, it can touch you and stop your breath and look you in the eye, shake your mind out of your head. A hallucination can sometimes swing upon the air as it comes into focus, a shimmering appearance. And sometimes, like the cold boy, it’s solid, sharp as a fox or a hare. Until it isn’t.
Gone while you blinked.
Which is what happened.
My father was furious. My heart beat twice as fast all the way to Hothemby by the Long Wights where they’d booked a holiday cottage. I never said another word, but when we got home a week later my mum took me to the doctor’s because she thought I was depressed and he suggested I start reading the Guardian. ‘That’s a very lively paper!’ he said kindly. ‘It’ll give you a lot to think about. What newspaper do you get?’ He addressed this to my mother, who had insisted on accompanying me into the consulting room and had been sitting looking at me with a mild worried smile while I didn’t know what to say or do.
‘The Daily Express,’ she said.
‘Oh, well, that’s very good too,’ said the doctor.
‘She sometimes says she’s seen something,’ my mother said nervously.
And I had to tell him about the boy in the field.
‘Mm,’ he said, ‘has anything like this ever happened before, Lorna?’
It had, but not so startlingly, and I’d learned to keep my mouth shut about such things. I shook my head. Then I told him I’d read in a book how there was a poor boy killed and thrown out naked in those woods, and the doctor asked where I’d heard about that.
‘It was in a book,’ I said, ‘in the cottage where we were staying.’
‘Ah!’ he said, looking relieved. ‘You know what’s happened.’
He gave my mum a big smile. ‘You know what’s happened,’ he repeated, ‘her memory’s playing tricks.’ And explained that what had really happened was that I’d actually read the story in the book before I saw the boy, and that because I had such an impressionable mind and such a highly developed imagination I had manufactured a kind of – he paused, looking up and sideways to his left as if a small helper was holding a prompt board over his head – a kind of projected thought-picture. It was actually not all that unusual. He gave me some pills anyway. He was the first of all my doctors, and I’ve forgotten his name. I forget most of their names and some of their faces but a few stand out: old Dr Walse with the bottle-top glasses and elaborate jowls (he used to pull them out to a distance with his fingers and let them slap back, he didn’t know he was doing it) and the one called Muriel whose eyelids rippled. This one was a nice young man, enthusiastic and kind. He talked about the tricks the mind could play, the illusions, the reasons for déjà vu, crackling synapses, short circuits, nothing to worry about unless of course it becomes a problem. It’s just a dream, he said. Only it happens when you’re awake.
‘But we didn’t go back to Andwiston,’ I said.
‘You probably did but you don’t remember.’ He smiled, drawing his prescription pad across the blotter. ‘I’m always getting mixed up myself. I get the days wrong all the time.’
‘Oh, so do I!’ said my mum reassuringly. ‘It’s awful, isn’t it? I forget people’s names, it’s terrible.’
I can’t remember what the pills were called. They worked. I didn’t see anything else for years and I no longer had those disturbing frissons, as if someone came and stood in my space, invisible.