Fuchsias, Hawthorn and the Gubbins

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
Draft of one of a series of stories loosely based on local legends and loosely based on events from my childhood.

If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise...

Submitted: August 26, 2008

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Submitted: August 26, 2008

A A A

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Fuchsias, Hawthorn and the Gubbins

The woods follow the river as it winds its way from the road, toward the waterfall. They’re still there, though not as thickly overgrown as I remember them. It’s all owned by the National Trust now, with picnic tables and a well-trodden footpath to the falls. The dusty, cracked road of my childhood is now part of the route across the moors, traversed by thousands of cars and host to the occasional sweaty traffic jam in the Summer months, when the car park is full or the boldly displayed entrance fee provokes tourists to move on to the next site of natural beauty.

It’s Autumn now, though, as it was when Ian went into the woods, and I’ve only seen three vehicles since I arrived. The driver of the last – a middle aged woman in a deerstalker - shot a suspicious glance from the window of her Japanese people carrier and slowed down to scrutinise me silently. I must look rather foolish, wearing a tight Columbo t-shirt and flares, grasping the handlebars of a bicycle that is clearly designed for someone much younger. It’s my bike, though, or was. The t-shirt I had to order online and the flares, of course, aren’t the originals. The National Trust car park is closed. The air is moist with drizzle.

The yellow fuchsias are there and I’ve been pondering how many generations of flower have passed since that September. They flash dimly from the undergrowth like the warning tape outside a crime scene, their brightness lost, their season almost at an end. I’m kidding myself that my standing by the road for so long is, like my outfit, out of respect or a sense of memorial. The truth is, I’m scared. Even to go as far as the fuchsias, I’m scared.

There was me, that is Alex, and my mates: Graham and Adam. They were brothers. I knew them from school; Graham with his constant jokes and Adam, a year younger than us, always dreaming behind those quick, green eyes, his overbite clamping down on a thumbnail as we strolled around together. Their youngest brother, Ian, was only six and sometimes cried when he had to stay at home, too young that Summer to join us on our adventures.

We’d walk or cycle all over in the Summer holidays, sometimes take sandwiches and be gone the whole day, crossing the moors, doing stunts on the rocks that poke out of the mossy grass, scaring sheep into ditches and drawing up plans to catch a pony, ride it into town, rob a bank or a sweetshop.

Our shorter rides took us here, to the roadside entrance to the woods. We were allowed here and into the woods a few steps, as far as the fuchsias but no further. We understood that the falls were dangerous, especially after the rainy weather had begun again, and we did as we were told. To jump around in the undergrowth or clamber up the trees in the entrance way kept us happy enough the first couple of years. The trees by the fuchsias. “Just as far as the fuchsias,” their parents would warn. “Yes, yes,” we’d reply as we pulled on our trainers. And we obeyed.

Before very long at all the word became synonymous with this area of woodland.

“Where’re you off lads?”

“Fuchsias.”

“Back by Six then. It’s meat pie tonight!”

We did as we were told until that last day of the Summer Holidays. Perhaps it was because of the thought of returning to school so soon, perhaps we were starting to develop that rebellious instinct that comes with the death of proper childhood. Whatever the reason, on that last day, me and Graham didn’t rush for the tree, with its bark polished smooth by long summers of climbing. As I recall, we didn’t even talk about it. We just threw our bikes into the undergrowth as usual then walked slowly into the woods, past the yellow flowers. Andy was cautious but he was only eight. He soon followed on behind.

It felt exciting, like a whole new kingdom. Perhaps we could have a summer’s worth of adventure in that one afternoon in this new, forbidden place, then come tumbling, like those children from Narnia, unscathed out of the wardrobe door. White flowers appeared as a clearing opened up. Millions of them and the smell was incredible. Like nothing I’d smelt before. The others didn’t like it; I did. They kidded with me a bit for liking the smell of flowers but I was older than both of them and these didn’t smell like flowers anyway. I rubbed the petals against my fingers and sniffed at this exotic scent.

It wasn’t until a few years afterwards that I learned what the flowers were. International cuisine was to arrive in British kitchens in the early 1980’s and when Mum cut up those little white bulbs for a Spaghetti Bolognaise, the smell flooded the kitchen. My mouth began to water. It was a while before I could place the sweetly bitter odour and remember where I’d known it before. The woods. Past the fuchsias. Garlic. Strange how memories come crashing back when triggered off by smell and taste more than anything else. I spat the first mouthful of red mince back onto my plate and refused, through hot-faced tears, to eat any. Had to go to bed early. I never could stand the smell, taste, even the thought of garlic since. I have to cross the road if I pass an Italian restaurant.

We walked a little way and the sound of the falls joined the flow of the river. I suppose we were all intending to see the falls for ourselves and then go, that Summer. Then we would have done it. Then we could deal with the formality and obligation, with the routine of being back at school. Hawthorn bushes grew from the sides and the path grew very thin in places. “We can’t get this way!” Adam grumbled, a film of tears threatening to drip from the green of his eyes. He made a show of rubbing a bare arm that had scraped against a thorn. The waterfall couldn’t be far. The noise almost drowned out Andy’s complaints. It sounded like a stereo or a big American lorry.

“Have you heard of the Gubbins?” asked Graham. Neither I nor Adam had.

“What’s them?”

“Something Dad told me about once. A family…”

At that point a bird – a crow, I suppose – flew from the trees above with a sudden scream that echoed from the steep cliffs of the bank, silencing the noise of the river for a moment. We all stood, frozen, staring at one another for a split second before turning tail and running back, ignoring the clawing hawthorns. My head buzzed as I watched Graham’s legs push him forward, keeping sight of his beaten trainers. As long as I could keep them in my vision I wouldn’t have to think about what we were running from, past the white and then yellow flowers to the entrance and our bikes.

Graham had grabbed the handlebars of his and was all set to tear off down the road but Adam, who had been running faster to keep up with us, made a point of sauntering once he’d got to the fuchsias. It seemed so bright here, with the sun flooding into the familiar clearing of the entrance, and Graham rested his bike back down. Adam began whistling tunelessly through his goofy teeth as he approached us, raised his eyebrows and smiled. “I think it was a bird,” he said. And we all began to laugh till our stomachs hurt.

I was driven past the Fuchsias a few times that winter, on the way to Gran’s house at Christmas and, once, for a dinner with some friends of Mum’s. The flowers had gone; they were dead by then but the place was still The Fuchsias. Each time, I’d gazed from the car window and silently wondered how often Graham and Adam and Ian drove by this way.

That time, that dinner at Mum’s friends, I was allowed to stay up and talked to a man there who was called Alan. He was old and had a strange purple, veiny mark on his nose. He talked a lot about local legends: the Hairy Hand and Hunter’s Cross and the Piskies. After a while - I suppose he was quite drunk - he began to brag that he knew a tale or two about any place nearby we cared to mention. I liked him. I got the feeling he was talking to me like a grown up. I asked him about the Fuchsias.

He shrugged, not condescendingly though. “It’s a flower, isn’t it?”

Mum stepped in. “It’s a long way past your bed time, young man.”

I resented being called this and wanted to hear Alan’s tales more than Mum’s familiar reprimands. “The Woods,” I said, “The Gorge. The Falls.”

“The Gorge!” exclaimed Alan, raising a finger, which caused Mum to step back cautiously. I got the impression that she never did like Alan and, in hindsight, she may have disapproved of his drinking. To me at the time, though, she was obviously worried that whatever tale he was about to tell would join Gollum and the Daleks in my nightmares and lead to another series of broken sleep. This was exactly why I wanted to stay up, though, and it’s why we went past the fuchsias in the first place.

Alan poured another drink for himself (he had his own bottle by his glass) and leaned towards me. Those Grown Up guests seated by us in the room leaned in towards him. But he looked at me as he said, “The woods, the gorge, the falls… the Gubbins!”

I could say that ice crept up my spine at the sound of that word but that isn’t what it felt like. I felt that sensation down the spine that feels more like a thorny plant is there. That is what fear is like, like hawthorn in your back.

The Gubbins were a family, the legend has it, or a tribe, of cave dwellers who lived by the Gorge. Very like the Sawney Beans of the Scottish borders, they had preyed upon passing travellers who made their way across the moors in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Generations of inbreeding had lead to grotesque deformities and they were known to send their children out, cloaked and hooded, to flag down coaches on the road by the woods or trick them into slowing their horses by some other means. Few who stopped to help what appeared to be a poor rag-clad child, injured in the road, ever reached their destination.

They were cannibals. Existing for more than a century among the trees by the Gorge, fishing and hunting were the Gubbins’ only source of food. The hunters being barely human themselves, those unfortunate enough to encounter them became their meat: perhaps more novel sport to the monsters’ twisted minds than a deer, more substantial than a rabbit. It is said that, for a time, “Don’t stop for the Gubbins” was uttered as a chilling warning to anyone making their way north or south past this area of woodland.

Sometime in the early 1800’s, the King’s Men were sent in, trampling the undergrowth and flooding into the caves with rifles and swords. The route had become increasingly important for the transport of supplies to the naval bases on the south coast and the decision had been made to clean the woods of the Gubbins once and for all. Some of the hideous bandits were killed, some captured and swiftly hanged. A few escaped. These few seemingly went on to marry into the local population and this is a key reason that the legend is seldom talked about today, influential country families being understandably keen to keep hushed their connections with cannibalistic savages.

Alan topped up his glass as the Grown Ups exchanged horrified looks. Of the soldiers sent in to bring the Gubbins to justice, he said, more than a dozen lost their lives in the woods that day. Those red-coated infantrymen fell, not to Napoleon’s cannons but to the clubs and jaws of the Gubbins and their young. The savages, it is said, would sharpen the teeth of their children to make them more efficient hunters and, driven mad by such a narrow gene pool and a diet of wild plants and human flesh, the tribe was given over to all kinds of self-mutilation.

Mum cut the conversation short and we left soon after that. I don’t know if I dreamt about the Gubbins that night but I thought about them a lot as the following Summer approached. I imagined the rifles echoing around the cliffs of the Gorge like the crow’s squawk had, imagined the screams of the deformed, scarred, naked creatures as they met with bayonets, pictured the sharpened teeth sinking into a soldier’s exposed neck.

That next summer, we turned it into a game. The parents’ rule remained the same: “only as far as the fuchsias” and we were reminded of this whenever I took my bike to call on Graham and Adam. We had changed, though. A summer older, we had glimpsed the world past the fuchsias and scratched ourselves on the hawthorns. I’d related Alan’s tales of the Gubbins – more elaborate than the snippets of folklore that Graham had heard from his Dad - and felt like a wise magician as I went into gory detail and watched Graham recoil and Adam’s big green eyes widen with every word.

Climbing trees held less interest for us now than pushing our way in further, maybe one day to at least glimpse the waterfalls, the sound of which was so tantalising whenever we crept past the clearing of white plants with their extraordinary smell and stood among the spiky bushes.

Fuchsias, Hawthorn and the Gubbins: a silly childhood game that chills me as I stand here now in my retro clothes and my stubble, still gazing into the woods, smoking one last cigarette before I do what has to be done. The drizzle has cleared and a breeze has begun to blow the tops of the trees. Cold for September. My bike is by the ditch on the far side of the road. I’ll not be needing it any more.

You had to walk slowly: that was the point. The more you dragged it out, the more exciting it was. If you rushed into the woods and raced to the hawthorn, that was a sign you were scared and wanted to get it over and done with. And if you shouted “Gubbins!” too soon, the others could tell you were still in the clearing and too frightened to go into the bushes at all.

“Fuchsias!” you’d say, in a voice tinged with mock bravado, then you’d tip-toe oh-so-slowly into the woods, through the trees and out of sight. The others would wait eagerly for you to shout from the edge of the overgrown pathway the other side of the clearing: “Hawthorn!”

And then you went into the bushes alone. The longer you kept them listening out for the next line, the more thrilling it was for them. Standing by your bike waiting would give you butterflies in your stomach: that sense of anticipation as you strained your ears for that final shout. But being among the bushes, all alone where the Gubbins used to hunt, the roar of the falls so close, caves dotting the distant riverbank: that orgasmic fear filled every part of you, made you tingle all over.

Then you’d yell “Gubbins!” at the top of your voice and run run run back. Christ, would you run, imagining the hideous being on your tail, picturing it slobbering and clawing as it clambers after you, its sleep disturbed. That garlic smell would briefly fill your lungs and then the rush of adrenaline, the sweet, sweet relief as you joined your friends by the fuchsias. You’d fall on the soft grass and join in their laughter as they guffawed and yelled at the blue sky.

By early September of that year, Ian had begun to join us on our bike rides to the woods, as long as all of us went in only as far as the fuchsias. I think the prank was my idea but the others went along with it. I didn’t mean to scare Ian much, really just wanted him to join in the thrill of our game. He’d been keen to hear my stories of the Gubbins (I was always the one called upon to relate them, though Graham and Adam had heard them a hundred times by now). Ian had seemed less scared, more excited – happy, I suppose, to finally be a part of his brothers’ gang.

The mask was one of Adam’s. He’d had a Wolfman one and a green Boris Karloff mask that went all the way over your head and stank of rubber and sweat. But the one we chose was a plastic Six Million Dollar Man mask from the newsagents. It was probably the most frightening because it was meant to look like a normal man but the lines around the mouth, the orangey brown hair and the shape of the nose were caricatured. The little holes punched below the nose made the wearer’s breath heavy and sinister and the eyes were scarier than any of the other masks put together. The wearer stared out of those cut-out sockets and the dead face came to life. When Adam wore it, his familiar green eyes shone from the shadows behind the cheap plastic imitation and the whole face became something far from TV fantasy and nothing like the friend I’d grown up with.

When he took the mask off and flashed a smile from his jutting white teeth, I got a feeling of bursting out of the dark woods once again. Seeing Adam’s green eyes, suddenly in his own face, above his smile, made me feel the same relief as you’d feel by the bikes and the fuchsias when you’d escaped the Gubbins once again

Ian was to go into the woods, his initiation into our game. Graham and I would wait by the fuchsias and listen out for the familiar passwords as he went past the white plants and then the hawthorn. Adam would lie in wait, in the bushes, in his dead Lee Majors mask, ready to jump out at the word “Gubbins”, to grab Ian and go “boo”. Someone had even said that he could catch his little brother if it looked like he was going to jump or run into the thorns. He could take off his mask, show that it was all a joke. I’d pictured Ian laughing, sharing the relief in safety that we’d become familiar with, part of his brothers’ gang at last.

Or maybe we were just cruel. I’m kidding myself, again, to think otherwise. We just wanted to scare Ian because he was smaller.

I’m going back into the forest now. It’s cloudy and dark and, as I move among the climbing trees, I see the dying fuchsias glow brighter and remember Graham’s smile as Ian walked this path. The last smile I ever saw Graham wear. The air is damp and the soil wet beneath my feet. Before I see the flowers, I smell garlic. My head swims and I continue my last walk into the forest.

We’d waited and shrugged a silent giggle of anticipation as Ian boldly called from out of sight: “Hawthorn”. And we’d waited.

Ian never shouted “Gubbins”. There wasn’t even a long pause, not time for Graham and I to change our gleeful expressions to reveal any concern. Ian’s scream filled the gaps between the trees, penetrated our ears and froze our hearts in an instant. Birds took off from the treetops. The single, prolonged screech echoed in the distant gorge and before I knew what was happening, I was on my bike, on the dirt road, pedalling furiously with my heartbeat shaking my body.

I’d cycled perhaps a quarter of a mile before I stopped. Graham wasn’t with me. He’d gone to help his brother while I’d bolted in sheer panic. Away from the shadows of the trees, I felt immediately ashamed at my terror. But I didn’t turn back for the fuchsias immediately. I stopped long enough to notice the pain of my breath in my heaving chest; I realised that I’d bitten down hard as I pedalled away and tasted blood in my mouth from my stinging lower lip. Then I rushed back and threw my bike down at the entrance to the forest, running into the garlic clearing and shouting their names as I stumbled toward the hawthorn: Graham… Adam… Ian.

I don’t pause now, though the bushes have almost grown over the path in places and the thorns pick at this ridiculous t-shirt. My trainers are squelching deeper into the muddy ground and I hear the falls roaring up ahead. Nothing comes out of the bushes at me. No birds fly from the trees.

What we saw in the woods changed us forever. What I saw was Graham’s glare, his anger at me stronger than his concern for his brothers or his fear at what had happened. Because I’d left them, I’d panicked and run and I was the eldest. I’d never really felt guilt before that day. I’ve never stopped feeling it since.

Graham killed himself in July after prolonged periods of depression. He’d never spoken to me again – not a word since I’d biked away from the forest - and I heard from another primary school friend on Facebook how he’d stopped talking to his parents in the last years and breathed his last in a top floor bedsit, hanging by a length of rope from the rafters of his lonely attic room.

What Graham had seen was his little brother, barely seven years old, staring into the hawthorn bushes and kneeling on the dry earth floor of the forest. Ian was still screaming, over and over again but there was no voice behind his cries. His mouth opened wide, giving vent to desperate dry gasps as his round eyes stared beyond the thorns and shadows, fixed deep into the depths of the forest, away from the path.

Ian has lived his life in a mental institution since that Summer, sampling various well-meaning experimental therapies and medicines but remaining in a mostly catatonic state. I’ve never tried to visit.

Nobody knows what happened to Adam. Whether Ian saw any more than us: that tattered plastic face mask, the elastic snapped, the nose crushed in and the shining white reverse side caked thick with blood – whether Ian had seen his brother or what had become of him, who knows? He’s gone now. Graham’s gone. Now it’s my turn to go.

The gorge is actually bigger than I imagined it to be and the falls are deafening. The drop below leads not onto jagged rocks, jutting out from white water squalls (as I’d vaguely hoped; such a fall would be certain to kill and seems cleaner somehow). There is a plateau directly below me: orangey-brown rocks, worn smooth by the river but hard enough and far enough below to suffice. This really is a magnificent spot. I turn my head to look at the falls as they cascade to my left and my mud-caked trainers slip on the overhanging stone beneath me. I topple, my arms waving uselessly. Instinctively, I try to fall backward and clear of the gorge but it’s futile. Not as gracious as I’d intended, but I obey Newton effectively enough.

The fall will kill me but not immediately. The pain in my head is intense and I keep blacking out. I feel the rocky ground under my cheek and can sense my teeth and jaw are shattered but there’s no other sensation from arms, legs, torso. I hear and then see people around me. Bare feet. Material of some sort, rough cloth, brushing my face.

Then there’s an intense burst of pain as my shoulder is grabbed and I’m turned over. The light burns my eyes and I just want it to be dark again, just want to sleep now. The faces looking over me are a blur, some hooded, I think. Then I see one more closely and I think I feel my heart pop in my chest as I recognise something in the eyes. There are jagged, sharpened teeth stabbing down from a familiar goofy overbite but no recognition in the dead of its green eyes at all. Then, at last, darkness.


© Copyright 2018 Richard Elliott. All rights reserved.

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