The trees straggle back from the dual carriageway, separated from the layby by a low fence. The ground is strewn with crisp packets and condoms, lager cans and hamburger boxes, the detritus left by the people who park there. It’s difficult pulling back out into the road when the traffic is heavy; one of the tree trunks bears ribbons and flowers as a shrine to the latest accident. The top rails of the fence beside the exit have been broken, leaving a barrier only a few inches high. Beyond it, a track of trodden mud leads off into the wood.
The clearing is not far down the track, but from inside the traffic is inaudible, the only sound the constant murmur of rustling leaves. In the centre of the clearing is a trunk of a dead tree. In life the tree would have been massive; in death all that remains is the wide trunk, broken off about ten feet up into a jagged finger pointing at the sky. The bark has been scoured white by hundreds of winters. No ivy grows on it, but here and there ribbons and pieces of paper have been pinned on the trunk like flowering creeper. Apples are piled on the grass around the base, gently rotting into the soil.
There’s no one there. There is never anyone there. But sometimes, on still days, the trees lean together like they’re talking, or bowing, and the bushes shiver applause. Sometimes, when you look into the leaves, for a moment there are yellow eyes, looking back.
‘I hear them all the time, laughing. I vigil in the church, I scourge myself before the altar till my blood dyes the floor but I still hear them. They should fear to come there, but they do not. When they hear me say the prayer of our Lord in my cell at night it is nothing, just words; thin, slight words with no meaning. I saw them in the window above the altar; at mass the glass moved like faces and said, ‘soon’. They blow out the candles when I light them, and they laugh.’
Brother Geoffrey licked his cracked lips and dipped his pen again into the inkwell. Outside the circle of his one candle the scriptorium lay in darkness, but the light was just sufficient to show the bars he had dragged across the door still held. Beyond the empty corridors on the other side all the brothers lay in their cells, ears tight shut against anything but the sound of their prayers. The wind had been high when he barricaded himself into the scriptorium, but the storm had dropped towards midnight and now there was nothing but a thick, waiting stillness.
On the edge of hearing he caught the hint of a giggle, like a bad child hiding. Was it just the candle guttering, or did the bar move? He had struggled just to lift it and now it was chained in place. It could not move. It could not. A moan like wind flittered past his ear, ruffled the pages on his desk. He whipped round. ‘Who’s there? In the name of Our Lord, show yourself!’ There was no reply. He turned back and watched, unable to stop it, as his pen scratched alone across the parchment, in writing like his own:
‘They are outside the door. Jesus Christ protect me, our Lord receive my soul in Heaven, they are outside the door.’
‘So that’s really how it ends? ‘They’re outside the door’? That’s brilliant!’ Claire’s eyes sparkled as she grinned at her friend. ‘You must be so excited.’
Fenella shrugged, trying to seem offhand. ‘New manuscripts are always exciting. We don’t find them very often, after all.’ She couldn’t quite keep the pleased tone out of her voice. It wasn’t often that she managed to impress Claire.
Claire and Fenella had been friends since university, but while Claire had gone to London and got into TV, Fenella had stayed behind and worked as a junior archivist in the cathedral library. Once or twice a year, Claire would invite Fenella to a party with her media friends, and whenever she came back to their university town they’d have dinner in the most fashionable restaurant, Claire holding her elbows in as if the place was too small for her. Fenella didn’t usually talk to Claire about her work, but then, it was rare she had anything to tell.
The manuscript had been found by one of the PhD students working in the cathedral archives, hidden in the binding of a volume of fifteenth-century rent rolls. Very unlike the elegant, decorated works that made up most of the library, it had taken the student, Damien, more than two weeks to transcribe the crabbed, spiky Latin on the parchment. Filing while Damien struggled with it, Fenella had felt herself pushing through a thick, brooding silence, hanging over the stacks like mist. For the first time she’d taken to rushing through her work in the afternoon so as not to be the last out.
‘I don’t know really what we’ll do with it’ she told Claire, over the remains of their dinner. ‘Poor Damien spent all that time on it, but it’s hardly relevant to his thesis topic. Mark – you know, the head of the library – says we’ll need to get someone to authenticate it, and then maybe someone will do an edition, but it’s just a bit odd, really. I mean, a medieval ghost story. It doesn’t exactly fit into anyone’s research. Probably it’ll never get published and no one else will ever read it.’
In her mind’s eye she saw a slim, glossy volume, a moody shot of the cathedral on the cover, and ‘Brother Geoffrey’ embossed in gold. Piled on the bestselling shelves in the town bookshop, crowds of people leaving with them clutched in their hands. It seemed suddenly such a horrific idea that she couldn’t help shivering. She glanced anxiously across at Claire, in case she’d noticed, but Claire was not interested in the problems of academic publishing.
‘Do you really think it’s just a ghost story?’ she asked.
‘Of course. What else could it be?’
‘Well…’ Claire’s face took on a sharp, cunning look that her colleagues would have recognised. ‘It could be true.’
‘Oh, no, I don’t think…’
‘It could be. It’s a first person account. Why couldn’t this Brother Geoffrey be telling the truth? And if he was, it would be dynamite. It would make fantastic television.’
Fenella stared at her. ‘You mean, you’d be interested in it? You’d want to do a programme about it?’
‘You said that PhD student did a translation, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, he finished it today. He left it with Mark.’
Claire put on her most winning expression.
‘Could you get a copy for me?’
‘I don’t know. I…’
‘Please? For me?’
Every thought in her head was screaming at her to say no. Put it away again, let it be forgotten, don’t let it out!
‘Come on, Fennie. It’s me.’
Claire’s blue eyes were sharp, brighter even than the shadows. Fenella sighed. ‘I suppose I could try’ she said.
Fenella checked her bag for the third time. The plastic wallet with the photocopied translation was cool and reassuring on her fingers, hidden between her book and her umbrella. She’d had to wait until everyone else had gone for the day before she could do the copying, the first time she’d locked up since they’d found the manuscript. She told herself she was foolish to feel uneasy. Leaking manuscripts to the media wasn’t exactly protocol, but it didn’t hurt anyone. It wasn’t as if she was really doing anything wrong.
She opened the office door. The corridor was dim, with only the streetlights outside in the Close saving it from total darkness, but it always was. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know the way. She turned off the office lights. It was immediately absolutely black. She concentrated on locking the door, trying not to let her hand shake. There was nothing to be afraid of, nothing. She would just walk, briskly, down the corridor, then she would cross the nave to the outer door. She did it every night. Nothing to be afraid of.
The door at the end of the corridor swung outwards on its hinges, allowing her a brief glimpse of cathedral, then slammed back, hard. She heard the bolt rattle as it did when it was windy. It wasn’t windy. Her hands started shaking and she thrust them into her coat pockets to still them. The door banged shut again and again there was the rattle of the bolt, as if something was trying to draw it across. Something that she would have to walk past. Something that knew. Blindly she turned back, fumbling for the key. If she could put it back, tear up the copy as if it had never happened…She was six feet away when the office door opened like a jaw and slammed. Stifling a sob she swung round again, forcing herself down the corridor like walking into a gale. When she reached the end, the wood of the door was rough, unforgiving, quivering like a tree in a storm.
‘I’m sorry!’ she cried. ‘I’m sorry!’
The door trembled under her hands. She wrenched it open and fled across the flagstones and out into the Close. She did not look behind her.
When Claire saw her storming through the office, her first thought was that someone had died. Her hair hung over her shoulders in matted clumps, her coat, half off, trailed its belt behind her along the floor. The receptionist was hurrying after her, ‘Wait! You can’t…’
Claire stood up.
‘Fen? What are you doing here? What’s happened?’
Fenella stopped, breathing hard.
‘What am I doing here? What am I doing here?’ She gave a short laugh. ‘I’m doing what you asked, what else? Here.’ She reached into her bag and flung an envelope down onto Claire’s desk. ‘There it is. The translation, photo of the manuscript, everything you wanted. I hope it makes you very happy.’
‘Fen, wait! What’s the matter? You can’t just come barging in here like this and then sod off again without telling me what’s up. What’s the deal?’
‘The deal?’ Fenella took a breath, composing herself with an effort. ‘The deal is I’ve resigned my job.’
‘You’ve left the cathedral? Because of this? I’m sorry, really I am. I didn’t want you to get into trouble. But, you know, you didn’t have to do this. I didn’t force you. It was your choice.’
‘Yes.’ Her lip curled. ‘It was my choice, all my choice. I knew what I was doing. I tried to take it back, but I couldn’t. There’s some things you can’t undo, you know? Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it. That’s all there is to it.’
She sounded on the verge of tears and Claire regarded her with concern. She didn’t want her to make any more of a scene. She glanced at the receptionist, hovering behind Fenella’s shoulder with one of the security guards in tow.
‘Look’ she said, ‘I can’t promise anything, but we’re going to need a historical adviser for this film. I haven’t gone through any names, but if I told everyone that you’re the one who found the manuscript, I’m sure we could find you something. It wouldn’t pay much, but…’
‘It’s not about the money! I wouldn’t have anything to do with it if you paid me a million pounds! I never want to read it again, and you shouldn’t either.’
She leaned forward, her hands on the desk. Her face under the wild hair was ravaged; Claire had to stop herself from swaying backwards. She caught the receptionist’s eye.
‘Seriously’ said Fenella. The security guard took hold of her arm. ‘This is the only warning you’re ever going to get.’ He started to lead her away. ‘I’m giving it even though I know full well you won’t listen to me. Leave it alone.’ The guard had got her to the office door now, nearly out into the lobby. ‘It doesn’t want to be found, Claire. For your own good, leave it alone.’
They decided on silver on black for the credits, for the spooky yet restrained effect. They would start with a short historical introduction, explaining that there were medieval English folk tales about wild men, creatures that looked like furry humans, lived in woods and had magical powers. They were sometimes connected with holy men, hermits who also lived outside society and were regarded by the peasants as superhuman. One of the historians they’d dug up to be a talking head had a nice story about a hermit meeting a wild man and giving him an apple. They would put that in, with an out-of-focus reconstruction and a scene of the hermit telling it to a group of suitably awed and grubby peasants, afterwards.
The historian had wanted to go on about how the hermits, and possibly the wild men too, were shown in the stories as defenders of the peasants against their lords, but that was far too complicated to put in. ‘This is TV, not sociology’ Claire had said. She wrote the teaser to lead them into the first ad break: ‘Historians have always thought these stories were just that, stories. But what if they were true? What if the wild man really existed? What if there was an English Yeti?’ From the break they would go straight to the beginning of the manuscript, which Claire insisted on reading herself.
Every time she rehearsed it, it made her shiver. She tried to shut out everything around her, concentrate only on her voice, reading the words of a monk dead for 800 years.
‘Yesterday, I heard a story about a wild man in the forest. I was supervising the peasants unloading the autumn tithes in the garth and I heard them talking of it. They didn’t want to tell me at first whence they had it, but I pressed them and in the end they cried out for mercy and admitted that it was the holy man’s. They were lucky not to have worse. I said to them, ‘so you believe this tale of a wild man, a creature not mentioned in the Bible, not created by our Lord nor saved on the Ark?’ They looked at their feet and mumbled as peasants will and in the end, finding no thought in them, I let them go. I should have dismissed it, I know that now. The walls of the City are kept only by ignorance. But I was strong then in belief in my righteousness, and proud. This morning I told the Abbot I had an errand abroad and I went out in search. The peasants watched me from the fields as I passed them by. It seems to me now they laughed.
I walked all day and as the light was fading I came to the place where the holy man has his hut. He was not there. I called for him, but there was no reply. I was tired and angered, for it seemed to me I had quested far for nothing. I sat down on the ground to wait for him and I felt I had only rested for a moment when I saw it. It came out of the forest with a loping gait, swift, but not straight as a man. It was as tall as I or taller, dressed only in a rough kilt, and all down its back was a brown fuzz that seemed at first like hair, but when I looked again was fur. I stood up and faced it, as my father and my brothers face their enemies on the field of war. ‘Are you a true Christian?’ I cried. ‘Do you accept the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and His Church?’ Awful I felt in my majesty, I was sure it must bow before me, as dumb animals before the saints of old. The creature looked at me in silence. ‘Well, do you?’ I asked. It raked me with its eyes, right through. It was as if I brought it the world, the City of God and all the great lords therein. It held it all in the balance for a moment, weighing it, it seemed, against its whole chaotic kingdom that none of our wisdom can touch, that is beyond our laws, when I thought the world had been given over into our keeping. It considered for a brief time, then as if dismissing me it laughed: ‘Hach! Hach! Hach!’. Then it disappeared.’
When she first read the translation, Claire had hoped that there would be another encounter, more details about the wild man Brother Geoffrey had met in the wood, but to her disappointment, the rest of the manuscript was devoted to the monk’s deteriorating mental state. They argued in the production meetings about how much of the later parts they should use. Will, the co-producer, had a favourite passage that he read out, as if oblivious to the shadows gathering like cobwebs in the corners.
‘At first, I heard them only when I was alone. I thought they would leave me alone if I prayed, and I did pray! But they did not stop, whispering words of mockery in a language older than speech, older than death. We think we are proof against them, that our reason and our laws are doors to keep them out, and we are wrong, wrong. I sat at dinner with the brethren in the refectory, and they came to me. They came in the guise of devils riding goats, like the little people of the islands that the great St Cuthbert drove into the sea. They came riding in to the refectory at the cloister door, two by two on their black, slot-eyed mounts. They had little spears in their hands, all in a line, upright, with black pennants on them. They leapt onto the table and picked their way towards me, stepping over the plates and dishes as the brothers ate as if they were not there. They rode up the table to me, two by two, and the leader looked down with his yellow eyes from his black goat horse, and laughed.’
‘Wouldn’t that be fantastic dramatised?’ Will said, laughing himself. ‘Little goats on the tables! It would be great.’
Claire couldn’t explain why she couldn’t bear the thought of it, why the very idea of seeing it on film made her retch.
‘Yeah’ she said, reaching defensively for sarcasm, ‘because if our only Yeti witness was on medieval LSD, that’ll really help our credibility. Nice one, Will.’
She usually got her way in the end. They agreed that unless the search for the Yeti failed to give enough footage, they would leave the end of the manuscript out.
‘You never know what might happen on location’ said Will. ‘It could be anything.’ He caught Claire’s glare as she swept past him on her way back to her desk. ‘What? What did I say?’
The historical team admitted that they couldn’t identify either Brother Geoffrey or his monastery, but judging from the location of the manuscript, they thought he had probably been a monk in the abbey that had been attached to the cathedral itself until the Reformation. In the twelfth century, a famous hermit had lived nearby, in woods about five miles outside the town. It seemed a good place as any to start. As Claire wrote for the voiceover: ‘If we wanted to find the English Yeti, we realised there was only one thing for it. We would have to retrace Brother Geoffrey’s footsteps, and go in search of the wild man.’ They scheduled a two-week trip to the hermitage.
Fenella tried not to go near the cathedral any more. Most of the time it was possible to ignore it, to flit from brightly-lit shop to shop in the town and never lift her eyes to the stone bulk looming above. But today was different. If she wanted her P45 she had to go to the Dean’s office; however much she dreaded it, fear wouldn’t sort out her taxes. Her car park pass had gone with her job; she had to leave her car in the multi-storey behind the shopping centre. She walked slowly up the hill, trying not to puff at the incline.
The Close seemed its usual placid self at first, the Georgian houses surrounding the cathedral with their customary incurious stares. Grey scarves of rain drifted lightly across her vision. She reached the corner and started across the face of the cathedral to the Dean’s office at the far end. She was tired. The walk had been a longer one than she was used to and she had not been sleeping well. The need for sleep drummed in her ears as she stepped off the pavement, throbbing like a pressure in the air, like an aircraft going over low. Students on their way to class pushed past her, unnoticing, as if she weren’t there.
The cathedral loomed in her peripheral vision. She had to keep her head down. She couldn’t stop, couldn’t stop…Out of her control, she felt her pace slowing, her feet clinging to the tarmac. She stopped and looked at the cathedral. It seemed for a moment as if it looked back at her, as if it were telling her something. Then every door and window on the building, every shutter and latch on the Close began to bang. Forward and backward in rhythm, hitting the frames and the brickwork, splintering, breaking, banging without wind, without sound, because she was held there watching, and all the barriers she’d ever believed in were gone.
Claire put the tape in and sat down. She’d always liked to watch the final version of her shows at home, on her own. She’d always said she could get the atmosphere that way, feel what Mr and Mrs Joe Public would think. This wasn’t the finished programme; there never would be a finished programme now. But she wanted to watch the footage once before she destroyed it, see it once through the dispassionate eye of the camera as well as in her memory every time she closed her eyes. She curled herself into the corner of her sofa, sitting sideways so that the window was on her left and not behind her. She didn’t like having anything behind her, not anymore.
The entryphone buzzed as she turned the TV on. She didn’t get up to answer it. All the flat doors in the block had double locks, complementing the massive steel door at the main entrance and the electric gates by the porter’s lodge outside. When she’d bought the flat it had been a selling point, how secure it was, and that was before a spate of burglaries had led the residents to put the CCTV in and add the spikes to the walls round the courtyard. She could put yet more locks on the door, but she knew that wouldn’t make a difference. There were some things not even gates could shut out.
The footage started with the crew in the restaurant. It had taken them much longer to get out of London than they had expected, accidents and road works delaying them one after the other until Will joked that God was trying to tell them something. It had been almost dark and raining by the time they reached the town, and they’d decided that they would wait until the next morning to find the hermitage site. They’d checked in to the best hotel and gone out to what they’d decided was the only decent restaurant.
She couldn’t remember why they’d done so much shooting at dinner. Something about engaging the viewer with the filming, she thought. She watched the flushed faces of the crew, ensconced in the lights of the restaurant as if it was the very expense of it that separated them from the dark streets outside. After a while they’d put the camera down on the windowsill, but it had kept on filming. Opposite the windows a group of youths was hanging around, their hoods over their faces against the rain. On the film they looked not aimless but organised, as if they might have stormed in to the restaurant, might have seized the plates and the half-empty bottles of expensive wine and handed them out to the town. She hadn’t seen them at the time. She hadn’t ever noticed people like that, then.
The sunlight slanted onto the corner of the screen; in half an hour it would be right across it. If she sat up they would see her. She could feel their eyes even now, when the back of the sofa was hiding her. She reached up quickly and twitched the new, heavy curtain across the window, ducking back down as soon as it was done. It made the screen more visible, but she could still feel their eyes on her, looking through her. She knew they were watching her.
She and the crew had set out the next morning for the hermitage. It didn’t take very long to get there, nothing like the full day’s journey poor Brother Geoffrey had had. A few miles up the dual carriageway, then a bouncing ten minutes down a single-track road, following a wooden sign so worn it could hardly be read. There was no house left, of course, whatever hut the holy man had lived in was long gone, but at some point after his death, the locals had built a stone chapel on the site. The camera scanned the one remaining chapel wall, the moss-covered stones and ivy waving in the small arched window. There was nothing else left of the building, but a stone cross set into the grass marked where the tomb of the holy man had been. All around, the wood stretched off into the distance.
They’d set up the tents against the chapel wall; three of them, an individual one each for Claire and Will and a larger one for the camera crew. They could have stayed in the van, but they’d decided that camping would be more dramatic. There was nothing that audiences liked more than the idea of presenters in the wilderness, in jeopardy. They’d taken lots of footage of them all in camp; sleeping, chatting, cooking rudimentary meals over a camp fire, which off-camera would usually be thrown away in preference for takeaway fetched from the town. On the tape they all looked so small, so temporary against the stones and the grass, the bright cloth of the tents clinging to the wall like fragile, alien blossoms. Claire hadn’t let herself notice then how the trees had loomed over them, how they circled the light around the cameras like actors waiting for their cue. As the tape played on she was surprised the camera hadn’t caught the eyes.
They watched her all the time, just looking for a way in. She’d thought she was so safe, with her locks and bars, her degree and fancy job. She’d thought she didn’t have to think about them, that it didn’t matter how much she had or how much she flaunted it because they were powerless. They weren’t powerless. She’d lived as if they would never come for her, but even though she hadn’t seen them they had always been there. The journey to the office to get the tape had taken all the willpower she had, she knew she couldn’t go out among them again. The stillborn film was the last programme she would ever make, and they were just biding their time.
Fenella’s parents paid for her stay at the centre. ‘It’s not a mental home’ her mother said. Fenella could hear the echoes of all the times her mother had told herself this, imagining the comments of the neighbours. ‘It’s very nice, really. It’s just a place where people can go and have…a rest. When they’ve been overdoing things. Lots of famous people go, apparently.’ She tried, manfully, to smile. ‘You don’t know who you might meet!’ The staff said ‘anyone can have a breakdown. It was all in your mind. You can recognise that. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.’ Fenella fixed her eyes on the windows, watching the trees beyond the gate bending in the wind. She didn’t have any more episodes, as everyone insisted on calling it. After a month her mother brought her back to her childhood home, just outside the town.
Her mother thought she might be able to get her old job back. ‘That nice Mark from the library called while you were…away. He said he’d heard you weren’t well, that he quite understood. They haven’t found anyone for your post, he said. I think he was missing you.’ She shot a pointed look at her daughter, maternally watchful for any glimmerings of romance. Fenella imagined returning to the cathedral, kneeling before the altar in penance, resting her head on the cool stone. It didn’t feel impossible, just pointless, like cowering behind a broken wall when she could be outside and free. The cathedral was built as much for defence against the locals as for worship, she was enough of a historian to know that.
She remembered some of the stories her friends used to tell, before she got the scholarship to the private school, where all they talked about were exams and skiing holidays, and forgotten them. She borrowed her mother’s car for an afternoon and headed for the dual carriageway. She pulled over into the first layby after the services, stepped over the broken fence and followed the path into the wood. At the foot of the broken trunk she laid the apples she’d brought onto the grass. There was no sound, no sign of recognition or rejection, only a gust of wind in the trees around that made them lean briefly over her, then away again. That was all.
Halfway back to the car, she met a youth in a hooded top, hurrying the other way. She stepped off the narrow path to let him by, and as he came past she found herself catching his eye and smiling ‘hello’. He half-smiled back at her, muttering ‘Awrigh’’. As soon as he was out of sight, it began to rain. She had an umbrella in her bag, but she didn’t use it. Fenella walked on to the road through the wet wood and let the rain fall on her, like forgiveness.
It had come on the fifth day. Claire had been sure at the time that the camera had been on, but it wasn’t on the film; there was no footage from the last day at all. She had been the only one to see it, and after they’d checked the film she didn’t know if the others believed her. Will said he did, but he’d had a careful, concerned tone to his voice that was worse than scorn. ‘Are you alright, Claire?’ he kept asking, all the way back in the van. Watching her, his ‘Are you alright, Claire?’ running through her head like pain.
She didn’t need the film to remember. It had been cold all day, raining in spurts as the wind drove the clouds along. In the late afternoon, Will and one of the crew had taken the van into the town for pizza. The other two had walked down to the road so that they could swig whiskey and smoke: although the chapel was ruined, none of them felt comfortable drinking in it, as if the hermit could still disapprove of their vices. She’d sat on a ground sheet outside her tent and the sun, coming out from behind a cloud, had slanted suddenly into her face. She’d closed her eyes for a moment, dazzled, and when she’d opened them it was there.
The wild man stood slouched at the edge of the clearing. It was about six feet tall, with a dull brown skirt round its hips and fur all over its chest. Its eyes under the tangle of black hair were yellow and angular like a goat’s. It strolled across the grass to where a ridge marked the missing chapel wall and stopped and looked at her. She had planned so many things she was going to say to it, but none of them would come. It looked at her and it seemed that it saw everything, saw right through her to the world. The mobile phones and fancy restaurants, the money and power and gates and locks and bars. The city and everything in it. It blinked, once, then the yellow gaze returned to hers. It looked scornful and maybe a little disappointed.
‘Hach! Hach! Hach!’ said the wild man and, turning, faded back into the trees.
Published online at The Harrow.