Halloween Storytime: The Intruder
Enter if you will, gentle reader, pull up a stuffed armchair by the fireside and join me in a true tale of small-town terror.
As young teenagers, one of the biggest and most important obstacles my friends and I faced was convincing all our parents to allow us to stage spontaneous sugar-fuelled sleepovers and backyard 'campouts'. We would listen to cheese-rock ballads on a temperamental Walkman, play pass-the-buck-style dramatic storytelling games, conjecture wildly about our dream futures and generally achieve little to no sleep.
My best friends, Danni and Sian, and I lived in a tiny rural market town (population: 1,137) surrounded by the North Pennines in England. It was the early noughties, and Busted, the Rasmus and Bon Jovi (respectively) were the height of musical sophistication to us.
One summer's night, after having wheedled my dad into pitching his tent for us in the back garden, my friends and I were taking it in turns to tell a laughably overblown and uneven spooky story. We passed a torch to the active speaker so that their face was spotlit as they spoke in a hushed, melodramatic voice. We kept track of time only by the growing impression of darkness through the tent canvas and, at midnight, the faint chiming of the town clock tower.
Whenever Danni's turn came around, as the youngest, and most 'imaginative', member of the group, she would invariably derail the story with an outlandish plot twist.
'Aw, come on, Danni,' Sian and I groaned, suppressing laughter.
'How am I supposed to work with this?' Sian lamented, then straightened up as a thought occurred to her. 'OK, OK, I've got this.' She dropped her voice to just above a whisper. 'He awoke to find it had just been a dream.' She paused and shot an apologetic look at Danni. 'Sorry, Danni.'
I laughed guiltily as Danni pouted.
Every now and then we would hear the ominous sound of my mum's slippers slapping against the concrete footpath that spanned the length of the garden so that she could chastise us for still being awake. We quickly wised up to this, and at the first intimation of approaching footsteps, we would abruptly fall silent, kill the torchlight and drop to the ground in a fluid motion, as if an air raid siren had just blared across the small, sleeping town.
This had already happened a couple of times that night, so we thought nothing of it the third time. In the still night air, the echo of the rapidly nearing footsteps was unmistakable, enabling us to react quickly, having finessed our technique with each interruption. Only this time, they seemed wrong, somehow.
The footsteps sounded more solid, as if ringing from a harder, heavier shoe. The pace was faster, more insistent. And, instead of stopping somewhere along the footpath, as my mum normally did (she would call across to us rather than cut across the dew-damp grass to the tent), they continued, growing louder and closer.
At some point earlier in the night I had smuggled the family dog, a small, rust-brown border terrier called Bracken, into the tent. She began growling and barking with a ferocity I had never seen in her before. Occasional whining yelps of excitement (and an accompanying butt jiggle) when greeting me after I came home from school, certainly. But unmistakable, hair-standing-on-end aggression? Never.
A palpable thrill of fear filled the tent. The small, enclosed space that had, moments ago, felt safe and inviting now felt terrifyingly exposed. None of us spoke. None of us moved. We simply lay there in mute understanding that to do either would be very, very bad and attempted to subdue quick, trembling breaths as whoever was outside shuffled around to the back of the tent, brushing noisily against the canvas as they went. Here, they would have been invisible to anyone glancing outside the windows of the house, just metres away. I don't think this was a coincidence. They leaned oppressively against the tent, their heavy breathing audible between the brief lapses in Bracken's persistent barking.
I'm not sure how long they stayed there. It might have been mere seconds or a handful of minutes. It felt immeasurably longer. Eventually, the pressure of their body against the tent was removed and Bracken's barks gradually subsided. I'm convinced that the only reason they didn't act further is because Bracken was there to protect us. While only diminutive, her savage barks were suggestive of a dog twice her size.
Oddly, except the footsteps, we never heard the intruder enter or leave, despite the fact that our garden is enclosed on all sides (by the house, two hedge-lined fences and a wall around a metre and a half high). While it wouldn't be impossible to scale one of the fences or the wall, it would be difficult to do so without making a noise. Even more unnervingly, our back garden was only visible to our neighbours, whose own back gardens encompassed ours.
After waiting a while longer, ears pricked for the slightest of sounds, I turned to my friends' quivering forms in the darkness.
'We need to get back to the house,' I whispered.
'I don't want to go outside,' Danni whimpered.
'We have to,' I insisted. 'It's OK, I'll go first. Just stay close behind me.' The responsibility I felt for my friends gave me a rush of adrenaline that emboldened me as I unzipped the tent flap to the entrance. I took in the garden hurriedly. All was apparently as it had been; undisturbed and peaceful, even, in the soft moonlight. Clutching Bracken to my chest, I burst out of the tent and sprinted across the garden to the garage that adjoined the back of the house, closely followed by Sian and Danni.
We collapsed in the living room, breathless but grateful for the home comforts of central heating, electric lighting and, most importantly, impenetrable brick walls. We constructed makeshift beds out of sofa pillows and what blankets we'd had the foresight to bring. Now that the edge of our nervous energy had softened somewhat, we began discussing the events of the night in raised, urgent whispers.
Who could it have been? How had they gotten in? Was one of my brothers pranking us? (This seemed unlikely given Bracken's uncharacteristically aggressive reaction, and I had already checked on everyone upstairs – they had been fast asleep.) Could it have been a supernatural entity, thus explaining their apparent sudden materialisation in our garden?
We could resolve none of these questions to our satisfaction, however. All we could be certain of was that someone had entered the garden and approached our tent; knowing they had been so close to us, perhaps seconds away from attempting something sinister, and we would never be able to conclusively determine who they were or why they had been there was deeply unsettling. Most disconcertingly, it might have been someone I, or my family, knew. I might have walked past and greeted them every day. After exhausting wild speculative possibilities, we drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
The next morning, we explained to my confused parents why we had spent the night in the living room. Alarmed, they scoured the garden for clues and found a single incongruous detail behind the tent: a charred cigarette butt. While my dad smoked, he was partial only to St. Bruno tobacco filtered through a stout, worn pipe, and he attested that the butt hadn't been there when he had pitched the tent. We lived in a picturesque, tranquil neighbourhood where everyone knew everyone, and our neighbours were not given to tossing their litter over the wall into our garden, either. While this indicated that someone had indeed been in our garden, with only the remains of a cigarette and our lingering unease, the case didn't seem concrete enough, and my parents decided against alerting the police.
After that, to our dismay, we were never allowed to camp out in my back garden again. We didn't find out any more about the incident, and the memory faded with time as my friends and I took separate, yet in some ways parallel, paths in life. Part of the reason why I believe we now struggle to recall it is because it didn't quite fit with our constructed ideas and experiences of the world, so we tucked it away, like an old, discordant item of clothing. Even now it has an unreal quality.
However, occasionally, when I'm walking my dog in the woods just before the tide of day changes to dusk, I am reminded of that night, of how little I know about people and places that seem so familiar, and hasten my steps.
For my other Halloween Storytime posts, click here. Had any spine-tingling experiences of your own? Let us know in the comments!