The town I grew up in, Lay Marsh, was a pretty average place. Parents moved there because they wanted a quiet, safe environment for their kids to grow up. They were upper-lower class, hoping one day to be lower middle class, maybe middle-middle class but few imagined a life as upper-middle. But they happily accepted a life more suited to their station than that. So, Lay Marsh was a dead end for most people, socially speaking, as they arrived in the community of long roads, playing fields and corner shops.
There were a few schools dotted about, mostly around the periphery of the town. To the North, the town came to an end at the high fence of Layton Woods golf course, where the middle and upper middle class cemented their social status by spending a few hours chatting ‘business’ on the green before loading up on cigars and a double scotch or three at the club house before driving home. This was 1988 England after all.
To the South was Barrow Hill. A long, perfectly straight, sandstone hill with the remains of a couple of old buildings and a long-abandoned windmill atop. From my bedroom window I could see it dominating the view like a resting giant. The tree lined slope emerged so gradually from the terrain it was difficult to know where it really began. For me, I knew I was on the hill when my calf muscles burned and the hairs on the back of my neck began to stand on end.
During the ‘stranger danger’ phase of the 1980s, just after the great ‘Satanic Panic’ and before whatever societal calamity parents desperately tried to avoid their children being sucked into next, there was talk of a man up on the hill. A man, our parents would lecture, we should avoid at all costs! Of the few kids that claimed to have encountered him, though no one seemed to know which kids exactly, none, for the most part, could remember a consistent detail between them.
Some spoke of him wearing an old army jacket, all dirty and torn. Others said he wore a school coat (many grown-ups took this to mean a blazer or sports jacket), one even said he wore a yellow cravat. They were all sure about two things. He wore dirty, faded pink corduroy trousers and he frightened them in a way they couldn’t describe.
Most parents just dropped the hammer and banned their offspring from following their adventurous instincts to the top of the hill. Others, like mine, knew that I’d end up there anyway, so they gave me lengthy instructions on staying away from pretty much anyone who isn’t a police officer and to scream and run if someone so much as locked eyes with me.
Nonetheless, my best friend Paul and I would spend whole summers up on Barrow Hill as kids and the idea of there being a ‘stranger danger’ up there just made things a little more fun. The kind of fun that you get from hiding in the dark, ready for a friend to jump out on you. The kind of fun that took you to the cusp of peeing yourself before you burst into nervous laughter.
The kind of fun that, maybe, wasn’t so fun at all. Paul and I, along with Gordy, Robbie and Matt would dare each other to go up there alone or as the sun went down. When daylight faded and our town became a subdued series of blocks and shapes, visible only where streetlights pierced the dark and even then, only sparingly.
Honestly, the depressing dirty orange glow of street lighting only made the shadows seem darker and Barrow Hill seem more like a place you SHOULDN’T go but I guess that’s why it’s a dare. No one dares you to go somewhere you SHOULD go.
The warm summer of that year, I remember, never seemed to end. Each day we were met with tropical levels of heat. My attire most days was short shorts and a vest. My feet bounced around in my older brother’s hand-me-down plimsolls, but I didn’t mind.
We had all just left our primary school years behind us and this seemed to give our collective ego a boost that no-one wanted to have shattered by refusing the short climb through the trees up the side of Barrow Hill. Especially just before dusk. But in truth, whilst our bravado yelled yes, our young souls whispered; no.
Making our way up the slope of the hill, weaving through the woods to the strip of sandstone that crested the hill never seemed as arduous to me back then as it would now. On a bad day now, a climb up the stairs seems like an impossible task. But that year, we young explorers, took on the hill at a pace but the hair on the back of my neck prickled as if the trees were alive with energy. As uncomfortable as that feeling was, I didn’t show it.
We moved with as much nonchalance as we could, yet secretly each of us began facing our doubts.
“What did that kid say about what he was wearing again?” asked Matt. Matt was the most adventurous of us all and he wore shorts all year round, displaying his dirty knees like war medals. Today was no different and his eternally scuffed legs waded through the taller grass that sat either side of the trail rather than take the easy path of worn-down sandstone like the rest of us.
“Who? What kid? What?” responded Robbie, our de facto leader on account of his height and smartly parted hair. He seemed overly alert by this point.
“The quiet man. I don’t know which kid though”.
“Who said he was quiet?” I asked.
“Same kid” Matt shrugged.
“I was told he spoke to the other kids” added Gordy, our copper topped asthmatic. His freckles were softened with beads of sweat from the summer heat, even at this late hour.
“What did he say?” said Robbie.
“And what other kids?” added Matt.
“I don’t know. Kids from the estate I suppose. But I heard he asked them to come closer. He wanted to tell them something”.
“Tell them what?” I asked, not entirely sure I really wanted to know.
“Like what though” I persisted, annoying Gordy slightly.
He didn’t answer. He just threw his hands up despondently and swung a stick across the head of a dandelion, instantly decapitating it. The dread Gordy was suddenly feeling began to creep through us all as one by one we fell silent.
Paul had been quiet throughout, just taking in what we were saying so it surprised us all a little when he was the next to speak.
“We’re here” he chirped. His blonde, bowl headed haircut and glasses meant we all compared him to the kid on TV that advertised white chocolate.
We all looked up. I hadn’t even realised I was looking down this whole time despite the ache in my neck. I wasn’t even sure when I last looked up but now as I glanced back toward the parting in the woods through which we had just passed, we stood on the bare sandstone with the old, abandoned windmill creaking gently in the warm breeze before us.
“Here?” questioned Robbie. He, like the rest of us, hadn’t even thought about where we were going, let alone that there would be a ‘here’ at the end of our ramble. I, just like him, thought this was an aimless wander but now Paul had defined our location as our intended destination, it did feel like this was where we were headed.
“The windmill is where they all saw him” explained Paul, who had now taken his place at the front and turned toward us. “The Quiet Man”.
We all looked at one another.
“Really? Here?” Robbie asked. His side parted hair shone a little, reflecting the last embers of daylight.
Paul nodded. “Supposedly he stood right here and asked kids to come over like this” he beckoned with one finger, curled into a crook, which he aimed at each of us in turn.
“So, he didn’t talk then?” I called out from the back of our group. Paul shook his head. None of us asked him how he got this information, but we all assumed it was from his mum. She knew everyone’s business and she relayed it with relish, like it was the latest news flash on TV.
“So, who is he then?” Gordy wondered with a doubting squint tucked into his left eye.
Paul paused for a moment and allowed his gaze to lower slowly. Then, almost with a click as his mind kicked back in, he raised his head and announced;
“That’s disappointing” sighed Robbie. He kicked the ground in frustration. “I thought it would be scary like Freddy or Jason”, unaware that a decade before such names were also pretty mundane until the movies turned them into the names of monsters.
“How do you know his name?” asked Matt, voicing the question we all should have been thinking.
Paul pointed at the ground.
On the floor, etched into the sandstone, amongst dozens of other less interesting signatures and exclamations of love that had been ground into the soft rock, were the words;
STANLEY SAYS SECRETS
STANLEY SAYS SHUSH.
The words were larger, fresh and worn deep into the sandstone. Even in the near dark we could see them clearly and instantly we all wanted to go home.
Not a word was spoken. No instructions or debate about what we would do next. We just turned and began walking back toward the narrow gap in the trees that led to the path home. Ego-be-damned, we were hustling like frightened penguins. My footsteps in flat soled plimsolls softly but quickly plopped on the stone until suddenly
I spun around. We all span around, some yelled in chorus before we even knew what was happening. Gordy stood with his hands to his head, his fingers laced through his deep copper hair, screaming at the apparent appearance of a man who stood close to where Paul had been stood moments ago. At his feet was the inscription on the floor and we all knew, with a shared sense of dread, that this was him.
This was ‘Quiet Stanley’.
He didn’t say a word and, each of us frozen with fear, neither did we. We watched him, unable to look away. My ears whooshed and pulsed with the sound of my heartbeat. My ears almost ached at the sound my blood produced as it raced around inside.
His dirty, worn pink corduroy trousers disappeared beneath an olive coloured, dishevelled blazer with a deep maroon jumper underneath, around the neck of which was wrapped a faded neckerchief. His face was gaunt, impossibly narrow around the jaw as if he were sucking on a mint like my grandmother would do when she removed her teeth.
I could barely see his eyes. They seemed to sit at the back of terrifyingly abyssal recesses, and they were completely colourless. They appeared sightless but I knew he could see us. I knew he was watching and assessing us all, one at a time as his head slightly turned, the bones crisply crackling beneath his dry, grey skin. His long, matted grey hair seemed undisturbed by his subtle movement.
Finally, his turning head came to a stop and his gaze lowered, almost like a subtle nod. The corner of his sour, wrinkled mouth cracked into a disturbing, thin smile.
He had sighted his prey.
Those of us not caught in his stare, followed the focus of Quiet Stanley to see who he had chosen.
It was… my eyes filled with tears and my mouth dried instantly. I couldn’t swallow. I tried but my saliva had gone, and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.
It was… Gordy.
Gordy took a short step forward, his face frozen in fear, his mouth wide emitting a silent scream.
To his credit, Robbie was the first to find his voice, albeit a hoarse, quiet voice.
“Gordy,” Robbie rasped. “Gordy! Gordy! No, Gordy. No!”
Neil took another step, his hand still stuck to the sides of his head in that panicked pose which now made him look tortured as well as afraid as he took a third, fourth and fifth step.
“Gordy!!”. This time Matt added to Robbie’s protest. “Gordy, what are you…” Matt caught sight of Quiet Stanley’s crooked head and annoyed face now looking at him. Matt quietened down, understanding the signal the horror was giving him. Matt went silent only for Robbie and Paul to start calling out. Eventually, I joined in too.
Quiet Stanley returned his concentration to Gordy who, by now, had covered half the distance between were we stood and where the disturbing figure stood, beneath the chained, still sails of the old windmill.
I noticed Quiet Stanley’s arm was outstretched and the distinct crook finger beckoning Gordy who had begun to whimper loudly. He fought every step but, under the impossible influence of the bending man he was no more able to stop than we were able to move.
Like a mouse being slowly lowered to the cat, Gordy grew closer. The ground beneath his feet left a trail of urine as he lost control of any bodily functions that were still his.
“Heuuurrrhhhh” he cried. “Heeeeuuurrrhhhh huuuh huuuh huuuuh”.
My eyes streamed with tears and my throat ached. I wanted to move so badly but, honestly, I don’t know what I would have done if I could.
Would I rush to my friend, or would I run away? I would love to say I’d help or that I just don’t know, but truthfully, I know now, as I knew then. I would run away as fast as I could, and I wouldn’t stop until I was breathlessly throwing myself through the front door of my home.
Quiet Stanley, with each step that Gordy took, hunched over a little more as his face twisted with devilish glee. His arms now reached out, his wrists and hands extending beyond the sleeves of his jacket and looking like the crooked branches of a dead, decaying tree.
Suddenly, his fingertips touched Gordy’s shoulders, his skinny fingers scrabbling at his clothing like the front legs of a spider tackling its prey.
Finally, his fingers seized Gordy’s shoulders. My friend squealed with fear through his gaping mouth. His throat, like mine, was bone dry and contracted allowing nothing more than guttural squeaks and wordless exhortations.
Quiet Stanley pulled his victim in close, awfully close to the point at which his narrow, sharply pointed nose pressed against his ear. This was the moment that Gordy would hear the secret.
My mind raced. I felt sick and I could hear Gordy’s own words from our walk up through the trees just a few minutes going on a lifetime before.
In a moment, the hunched figure went from pursing his lips to whisper to parting its lips and suddenly sinking his broken, yellow, jagged teeth into Gordy’s neck with a deep, wet squelch.
He let out a bubbling cry before, nothing.
They were gone. In an instant, they were there and then, simply, they weren’t. Just swept out of reality in a snap.
The power over us vanished too and we fell to the floor, each of us sniffing and our faces laced with tears. Except for Paul who quietly, slowly kneeled. His eyes fixed on the space where Quiet Stanley and our friend Gordy had been a split second before.
Robbie looked around at me and my eyes began to focus on him. His eyes were as wide as spotlights and the fear inside them was just as bright.
Matt gulped and sobbed loudly waking us all up from our dreamlike trance. He lurched upward, initially forward toward the spot before his buckling, dirty knees straightened. In a sudden movement he turned and began running.
Each of us followed behind. Even Paul ran and he hated running.
So, that brings me to today. I am 44 years old, and I work for a local newspaper. It is a low-quality rag that’s more adverts, announcements and coupons than actual news, but I get paid enough to continue my Layton Woods membership and my rent if I’ve enough left over.
It was the Saturday just gone and I was covering what we laughingly refer to as ‘the hot news hub.’ Every few Saturdays the so-called senior journalists take a turn manning a desk on the ground floor in the admin room, waiting for the next ‘big’ story to break, from 9-5 as the rest of us go home for the weekend. As always, a lowly intern or rookie employee is also dragged in to sit and update our blog, a job they could easily do at home or from a tablet, but our parent company likes to do things the old-fashioned way, hence our paper is dying on its outdated arse.
I sat flicking through emails, deleting most, hoping the new girl wouldn’t notice the boring stories I was deliberately ignoring. She didn’t. The small talk between us dried up an hour ago and she had fallen asleep face down on her desk almost straight away. I sipped a bitter, cold coffee that had been there for some time now. It was horrible and probably made from stale grounds, but my attention was suddenly fixed upon an email from a name I had not seen for some time. At least, not outside the tenuous half-truth posts on social media that we are all guilty of.
We hadn’t spoken in such a long time. We had stayed close through school, but our respective universities couldn’t have been further away. After that, even after returning to Lay Marsh, we didn’t really catch up.
I could see he had cc’d Robbie, Matt and two other names I did not recognise into the email. He had also included an attachment.
I opened the email and read the first few lines. His words were concise. His sentences short. His tone direct, and the effect it had upon me was deeply disturbing.
“I’ve been back up there. I’ve been a few times. He came back today. Quiet Stanley left Gordy in a tree”.
I held my breath, trying to comprehend those words. I didn’t even see the next line before I scrolled down. If I had I may have been more prepared for what I was about to see as it read “He left them all in a tree”.
My finger noisily wound the scroll wheel on the mouse as quickly as possible. Quicker than the scroll rate of my ancient PC could keep up with.
The image slowly came into shot. I hadn’t been there for over thirty years but instantly I knew the scene. The windmill. The sandstone ground. The trees which seemed bare all year round. And in the trees, my god, in the trees.
Bodies. Small, young bodies. Five of them, six of them. Oh no, eight of them! Hanging from branches like rag dolls cast into the limbs of the trees.
One face, wide eyed, pale, freckled, with copper coloured hair, stood out from the others. A face I hadn’t seen in over three decades. A face that, whilst clearly deceased, showed no signs of decomposition nor aging.
It was as if Gordy had died that day. I felt sick, my head rushed with the whoosh of blood and the pound of my heart. My throat dried thoroughly.
I looked again. His neck was open, a horrifying wound that was dry but fresh enough. The sound of my own body in my ears was so loud and my focus on the image so intense I hadn’t noticed the new girl wake up and wander to the window where the coffee machine bubbled away.
Gordy! How? How?!
“Ew!” said the intern, or whatever she was, startling me. I had initially tried to hide the screen expecting her to be looking over my shoulder. Instead, she stood by the coffee machines staring out the window. I said nothing.
I stared at her, still lost in thought, not really taking in what she was saying, even when she turned to face me, until she said something that caught my attention.
“What?” I snapped. “I’m sorry, I mean, pardon? What did you say?”
She rolled her eyes. Her young face easily conveyed her annoyance at having to repeat herself. She assumed I was half of hearing in my ripe old age of 44 and so she raised her voice and spoke a little too slowly.
“There’s a guy out there,” she looked back to see if I was listening and could hear her. “He is really weird looking, like something out of the really olden days”.
I listened, hoping she would repeat the words that had caught my attention. I hadn’t noticed the words on my screen either as I stared at the rookie reporter.
They appeared slowly across the screen as she continued.
“He looks creepy too. Like an old pervert. I think he might be blind but,”
STANLEY SAYS SECRETS
“He still just keeps staring over here though,” she paused “oh and,” she broke off for a giggle.
STANLEY SAYS SHUSH
“Those horrible pants!” That’s what she said before, the phrase that had caught my attention! As I now noticed the words on my screen and my body grew cold with fear she said:
“Pink pants! Ew”.
Credit: Dave Cash
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