In his dream, he was thirteen once more and back in his home town, back in a more innocent time. It was the Easter holiday, the sun was shining and the flowers were in bloom. He was cycling through the streets of quiet suburbia, away from the house in which he lived with his parents and little sister. Alongside him were his friends, Mickey and Tony, and his cousin, Ralph, each of them grinning from ear to ear. The half-term breaks and school holidays were the highlights of Arthur’s year, at least until he came to experience the giddy highs and liberties of university life, that transitional stage when he could enjoy the independence of manhood without the responsibility, frustration and loneliness that would characterise it during the years following graduation. At the age of thirty, armed with a hindsight that was worth a king’s ransom, he could review the events of his youth like a sports commentator at a post-match analysis. He would nod with satisfaction at the best moments and sigh wistfully when he recalled the other times, ruminating on what could have been, had he been that little bit wiser or stronger.
There were no regrets or bitter memories for the school holidays, however. His classroom enemies lived on the poor side of town, so he never saw their lugubrious, pinched, scowling faces or had to endure their taunts during those weeks of freedom. That was his time. While his parents worked and his sister played her silly games with her friends in the garden, Arthur would team up with his companions for a spot of ‘fresh air’. They had yet to discover the pleasures of alcohol, sex and drugs, but the suburban jungle and the wilderness that lay beyond was theirs for the taking. Back then, the town was so much larger, so much more exciting and mysterious. There were fields, woods, riverbanks, parks, abandoned buildings scarred by graffiti, other people’s gardens, which this small group of restless teenagers had marked as their territory. Most of the time, they kept themselves to themselves, but occasionally they would be overcome by an irresistible urge to play practical jokes on others. If those on the receiving end of their adolescent cruelty should retaliate, then so much the better, for there was an odd thrill about being pursued, a huge rush flavoured with a generous dose of fear. Many was the time some have-a-go hero would catch them doing something no decent human being ought to do; he would chase after them but they would always escape, the sound of his shouts and their own laughter ringing in their ears as they pedalled as fast as they could to safety. As the day grew darker, their appetite for mischief waned and their hunger grew, so they would part ways and head home for dinner, perhaps to meet up again later for a spot of video-gaming. This was how thirteen-year-old Arthur spent the school holidays and he would not have changed it for the world. He had his cousin, his best friends and a metric tonne of energy to expend. School was light years away. They were young and carefree, blissfully ignorant of the harsh realities that awaited them when they came of age. This was the cosy little world, bathed in mild Spring sunshine, in which he found himself once again, while his older, wiser, self slept.
The impish grins on their faces betrayed their intent, for today was a day for juvenile pranks. He knew, the way dreamers always seem to know and accept what is going on in these nocturnal screenplays, that they were cycling to a ramshackle old house at the edge of town, the one that belonged to Old Man Parr. Arthur did not know his forename – no one did – but he was not going to be on first-name terms with the old codger any time soon. Parr was the local recluse who lived with his dog, a nasty Alsatian with matted fur, and who was seldom seen beyond the confines of his run-down property. He did not seem to have any friends and did not take kindly to anyone who ventured too near to his house. Arthur first found himself on the receiving end of the man’s ire at the age of nine, when he was out exploring on his BMX bike. He would never forget the moment that fearsome old bastard thrust open his front door, almost ripping it off its rusty hinges. His flabby, pock-marked face was red with rage and he gnashed his crooked, yellow teeth as he thundered at young Arthur.
“Get off my property, you little sod!” he roared. The sound of his voice was accompanied by the incessant barking of his dog who stood by his side (and whose name, Arthur was amused to discover later, was Lucy).
“B-but I’m not on your property,” Arthur replied, disappointed that his own voice sounded like a mewling whine, rather than an ardent protest, as intended.
“Get out of it!” came the reply, heedless of the boy’s infallible logic. He charged down the garden path to his rickety gate, his mangy cur close beside him and eager to take a bite out of the newcomer. A jolt of fear coursing through his veins, Arthur pedalled as hard and as fast as he could all the way to Mickey’s house, not daring even to look back. He related the incident to Mickey who nodded sagely (nothing ever surprised him) and informed Arthur that other boys had run afoul of the town recluse and his canine companion in a similar fashion. Before long, everyone at school would share gossip about Old Man Parr on a regular basis and the legends surrounding him were a popular topic of discussion.
“I heard he used to be a rich man, but then he drank all his money away after his wife left him,” claimed a fat girl named Maxine.
“My dad’s best friend’s cousin served with him in the navy,” said Phil Ketterby, the class loud-mouth. “Said he got kicked out after he started a mutiny.”
“My brother told me he used to work for the IRA,” said Dave Grimbold, a lanky idiot who never lacked for female attention. “It’s true! Except that they fired him ‘cos he was too violent, see?”
“Word on the street is, he’s a convicted child molester,” whispered Tony during a tedious biology lesson one afternoon. Arthur was prepared to believe that one, especially since Tony always had his finger on the pulse and was well-connected. This particular claim germinated in the rumour-mill and in time became accepted as gospel truth.
“Remember that kid who went missing? Old Man Parr got him.”
“The old perv almost caught Hazel Marcott, the other day. Tried to lock her in his shed.”
“They say he feeds their remains to that dog of his.”
“Have you heard about Old Man Parr?”
By the time Arthur and his friends had reached the age of thirteen, the lethal combination of boredom and a thirst for adventure overcame their natural sense of self-preservation, so they took it upon themselves to have a little fun at the crazy hermit’s expense. Every now and then, weather permitting, they would pay a visit to the ramshackle dwelling at the edge of town, armed with eggs and bangers. The dog, Lucy, was usually prowling around in the front garden, ever vigilant for unwanted visitors (which was every visitor), while Parr was lurking somewhere inside. With almost military precision, the boys charged in, daubed the hapless animal (and the gate that kept it in) with egg and hurled their fireworks over the fence. The old fool was never fast enough to catch them; by the time he was at the gate, they were already back on their bikes and pedalling all the way back to civilisation and safety, tears of laughter running down their cheeks. That dog of his was much quicker than its corpulent owner – alarmingly quick – but never quite managed to bring its tormentors down. Much as the boys enjoyed playing such pranks for the sheer thrill of it, their visits to Old Man Parr were particularly enjoyable as they considered themselves, in their acts of wanton vandalism, to be agents of justice, of a sort. After all, he was a child-molester, serial killer and Satanist, if the rumours were to be believed. And the rule of the playground was that rumours should always be believed.
In his dream, Arthur was once again back in his salad days, before everything and everyone around him changed. He looked at his cycling companions. Mickey, who in later years would become fat and lazy through poor diet and lack of exercise, was still thin and in good health. His foghorn voice could wake the dead several parishes away, but he was a loyal friend and understood Arthur the way so few others did. Next to him was Tony, a wide-boy even then. Diminutive and even thinner than Arthur, Tony should by rights have been a bully’s favourite quarry, but his fast-talking and wisecracks spared him a great deal of trouble. A lot of people in school liked him, but they were not his true friends. After all, it was always with Mickey and Arthur that Tony spent the bulk of his free time, whether it was playing practical jokes on others or aiming for a high score at the amusement arcade. Tony always had a trick or two up his sleeve and in later years had the honour of being their go-to man whenever they wanted to get high. Finally, there was Cousin Ralph. The wackiest of the bunch, he could make the others ache with laughter with merely a well-placed word or a facial expression. His clownish antics made him the perfect foil for Arthur, whose humour was on the deadpan end of the comedy spectrum. Here they all were once again, the Four Musketeers, off on another grand caper. They cycled, joked, laughed and sang their way to the overgrown lane where their nemesis lay, cartons of eggs and bangers in their backpacks, their faces glowing with the promise of another fine Spring day, far from the strictures of blackboard and hearth.
They had done it enough times before and they knew how it would all go down. Ralph, a keen sportsman, would move in first with an egg in each hand, never failing in accuracy. Once he had pelted the dog, Tony would do the same thing to the front door, while Mickey and Arthur peppered the front lawn with the fireworks. Old Man Parr, by now alerted to his dog’s crazed yelps and growls, would come to the front door and maybe – if he timed it correctly – Ralph could land an egg on the old hermit’s face. It was an aspiration, but they had not yet succeeded, their desire to get far away from man and dog too strong to allow for a good aim. Today, however, the boys told themselves that they would succeed, that one of them (most likely Ralph or Tony, who were better aims) would crack an egg on that ugly old head. Today, they said with the almighty arrogance of youth, would be the day of their best adventure yet. They cycled at a good pace, but not so as to wear themselves out, for they had to conserve their strength for the escape. As they came closer to their destination, rows of houses gradually gave way to fields and woods, while above their heads leafy canopies filtered out the Spring sunlight. The tarmac beneath them was now riddled with cracks and potholes; wiry bushes and branches spilled onto the narrow pavements to the left and right. The road that led to their destination was nothing more than a dirt track and the house at the end of that lane looked like nobody had lived there in half an age, so dilapidated it was. It was about to look a whole lot worse, the boys noted with a malicious twinkle in their eyes and devilish grins on their young faces. They skidded to a halt some five metres from the property. The excitement which had been building up to a crescendo during their journey suddenly came crashing down as they looked ahead and saw that their plan had come undone.
Old Man Parr was waiting for them.
He stood in the lane with his dog by his side, facing them, his eyes glowing like hot coals with malevolence and hate. In his meaty right hand he wielded what looked like a pipe, while his left hand was clenched tight, the knuckles a stark white against those liver spots. He wore a stained boiler suit and his grey hair, which had probably not felt the lick of a comb in decades, formed a wild, wispy halo around his head. The filthy Alsatian next to him growled softly, her upper lip curled back to reveal a vicious row of teeth, her hackles raised. The boys were momentarily stunned, having never imagined that the tide would turn. But turn it had.
“Get ’em, Lucy!” ordered Parr, his steady voice now that of a man that was in control.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the dog charged forward, her fearsome barks chasing away the songbirds who had sat in the branches of the trees nearby. Lucy moved with such speed and purpose that there was no time to manoeuvre their bikes around and pedal away fast enough. Arthur knew, with mounting horror, that the devil-dog was going to catch one of them. She leapt at Tony, who was in front with Mickey. Normally quick on his feet and always one to get himself out of trouble, now he had barely moved before Parr’s dog was upon him, knocking him off his bike and into the dust. The others looked on, appalled, as they saw their companion collapse, screaming, into a pile of limbs, spokes and fur. Lucy shook his right arm in her powerful jaws as if it were a rubber toy. Growls mingled with Tony’s screams as he struggled in vain to fend the creature off. With a tremendous force of will, Arthur broke free of his shock and attempted to turn his bike around, but his limbs felt like they were made of lead. Mickey, directly in front of him, was trying to do the same thing, but Parr was already upon him. With inhuman speed, the old man ran forward, raised the pipe and brought it crashing down upon Mickey’s head. There was a horrible cracking sound as Arthur’s friend collapsed, taking his bike with him. The pipe came down again, as swiftly and as brutally as before, but this time on Mickey’s upturned face. Arthur saw his nose cave in and a fountain of blood gush from the wound, spraying Parr’s boiler suit and the dirt road beneath. He turned to his left and saw Ralph screaming something at him – what he was trying to say, Arthur did not know, so great was his shock. He guessed, however, that his cousin was urging him to forget the bikes and run, for that was what he did. Arthur followed, energy flowing into his legs at last. The two of them ran as fast as they possibly could, not daring to look back, too fearful for their own safety to care about their friends. Were Tony and Mickey dead? Would they make it out of here? They reached the end of the lane, Arthur’s left arm raked by overhanging branches but his mind focused solely on survival. As they rounded the corner, he almost believed that they had evaded their pursuers, when to his right, the dog leapt onto Ralph’s back, knocking Arthur sidewards. He tumbled to the dusty lane. Next to him, Lucy was tearing into Ralph’s throat the way he had seen those wolves do in the wildlife documentaries. This blur of fur and teeth, mere centimetres from him, was tearing his poor cousin apart. Ralph, who had been his best friend since they were in nappies, was now reduced to screaming, dying prey as the mad dog tore into him, drawing more blood with every attack. He did not know how long he sat watching this horrifying vision unfold before him, but soon Old Man Parr lumbered into sight, bloody pipe in hand, his bloated, hateful form almost blocking out the daylight altogether. Seeing the man raise his arm for a killer blow, Arthur channelled whatever strength was left in him and rolled sidewards. The pipe narrowly missed his head and thudded into the dirt where he had lain but a second ago. Arthur scrambled to his feet and ran for dear life. He did not know where he was running to, nor did he care. All he wanted was to get away from the madman and his killer dog, away from the cries of his dying friends. He dared to glance back for a moment. There, at the edge of the lane, Old Man Parr stood watching him, his wicked grin revealing a row of shark’s teeth, his eyes black, inky pools of raw hatred. The maniac turned, pipe in hand, to finish what he had begun. Tears of pain and anguish in his eyes, Arthur kept running.
Somehow, he had veered away from the road and into a dense wood. The afternoon was rapidly becoming twilight and he stumbled in the semi-dark many times. The roots beneath him seemed to move and writhe about him as he ran, conspiring to trip him up. Though he knew the madman and his dog were no longer in pursuit, Arthur kept on running, despite the exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm him. He ran because he could still hear the cries of pain from Tony and Ralph. He ran because he knew he had to get help. He ran because there was nothing else he could do. Most of all, however, he ran because he wanted to be free of this wood, for there were things in here that wanted to drag him down. On either side, in the darkness between the tree trunks, glowing red eyes peered at him, while at his back he felt spectral hands trying to grasp at him. Running, stumbling and staggering ever forward, at length he broke free of the wood, finding himself standing in a graveyard before an old church. Was this St. Morcar’s or some other place of worship he had visited during his lifetime? In the gloom, the church did not offer any sanctuary for him, for there were no lights on. Sensing the wood close in around him, however, he felt he had no option but to enter the ancient edifice. The door ahead, as if in reply, creaked slowly open. The knowledge that he could shut out the oppressive wood and dangers of the land outside was no comfort to him, for Arthur knew that there was someone – something – in there, waiting for him. His heart thumping in his chest, he walked forward as the door continued to creak on its hinges. Soon, very soon, it would be wide open and the presence within would reveal itself. He could go only forward now, though terror enveloped him from head to toe. He reached the stone steps just as the old wooden door opened fully. He passed through the arch and –
A loud knock woke him.