Thursday 31 October 2013

The Green Lady: A Story for Hallowe'en

To mark the 31st of October, I'd like to share a short story I wrote almost six years ago, before my first book was published, before I had an agent, even. I never quite finished it at the time, but last night I decided to dig it out and polish it off.

The story is inspired by a river and surrounding woods close by where I grew up in Armagh, Northern Ireland, a stretch of land called Dobbin's Folly, known locally as just The Folly. There was a legend when I was a kid about the Green Lady who lived in the ruins of the Old Mill, who would snatch children away if they played alone by the river. Let me introduce her to you...


by Stuart Neville

Billy dipped his bucket in the water as the bright dart of a stickleback flashed against silt and pebbles. Too quick, it zipped past, lost amid the blinding patterns on the stream’s surface. The sun warmed Billy’s shoulders through his Starsky & Hutch T-shirt.

‘You near had him, then.’

Billy fell back at the sound of the voice. The bucket slipped from his fingers and the stream’s plucky current snatched it away.

The old lady resting on the opposite bank clucked. ‘Ah, now you’ve lost your bucket too.’

The orange plastic vanished around a bend in the stream. He’d only got it a couple of weeks ago when he went on a Sunday School trip to Portrush.

‘That’s a pity,’ the old lady said, drawing her green shawl around her shoulders.

Billy wondered how she didn’t melt. The telly said it would be the hottest day of the summer, and here she sat with a shawl and big layered skirts. Her shoes looked funny too; more like the kind of boots the soldiers wore when they patrolled the streets.

The old lady smiled. ‘Have you no one to play with today?’

Billy shielded his eyes from the sun and shook his head.

‘Speak up, wee man. Don’t be shy.’

Swiping dust from his jeans, Billy got to his feet. ‘I called for my friend, but he wasn’t in. His Daddy took him to Belfast.’

‘Have you no other friends?’ She tilted her head as she studied him, her grey-green eyes picking over every bit of him.

Billy sucked on his lower lip and looked at the baked earth beneath his feet. His Mum had taken him out of the Drelincourt School where all the other kids on the estate went and made him go to the big school in town. Because he was smarter than the others, she said. Now he had no one on the estate left to play with.

The old lady clucked and smiled, showing her stained teeth. Midges swarmed around her head, mingling with the loose silver strands of her hair to make a shifting halo in the sunlight. Somewhere in the trees a bird called. Billy looked around him. Down here at the water’s edge he couldn’t see the playground up above, or the houses beyond.

‘I remember when this was a real river,’ the old lady said. ‘It stretched from yon houses up there, all the way back to the houses on the other side. It cut this big bowl through the earth. But there were no houses then. Except mine.’

Billy looked downstream, wondering if the bucket might have snagged on some rocks. He should go after it.

‘I'm going to get—’

‘It’s gone, wee darling. Sure, it’ll be halfway to the sea by now.’

Billy knew that was nonsense. He wasn’t sure how far away the sea was from the Folly River, but he remembered it took the bus ages and ages to get to the seaside. His Mum had always told him to be polite to old people, so he didn’t want to argue. Instead he chewed on his lip and picked dirt from under his fingernails.

‘Where’s your house?’ he asked.

‘Oh, just down the river a wee bit,’ she said. ‘The Old Mill.’

Billy stopped picking at his fingernails. ‘No one lives there. It's got no roof or doors or anything.’

‘Is that right?’ She laughed and slapped her thigh, the sound muted by the layers of skirt. ‘And how do you know that?’

Billy went back to picking at his nails.

‘Have you been there?’ she asked.

He scuffed at the light brown earth with his worn plimsolls.

‘Does your Mummy let you play there?’

Billy raised his eyes to meet hers and shook his head.

‘I bet she doesn’t.’ Her smile dripped away. ‘Did you go on a dare?’

‘Yeah,’ Billy said.

‘And did you get scared?’

Billy shrugged.

Her smile returned. ‘Did you cry?’

Billy's cheeks grew hot. Sweat licked at his forehead and made the thin cotton of his T-shirt stick to his back. He sniffed and wiped his nose on his forearm.

‘No need to be ashamed, love. Sure, everyone gets scared.’ She pointed over Billy’s shoulder. ‘Even Michael there, and he’s a big boy.’

Billy spun on his heels to see a boy, about twelve, sitting cross-legged in the dirt. ‘Hello,’ Michael said.

He wore strange clothes, like the olden days photos Billy’s Grandad kept in a big book. A plain jacket and short trousers, with a collarless shirt. ‘What are you staring at?’ he asked.

‘Be civil, Michael,’ the old lady called from across the stream. ‘This wee man needs someone to play with.’

‘He’s too young to play with me,’ Michael said, scowling.

‘Michael’s a bold boy,’ the old lady said. Billy turned back to her, and his tummy fluttered up to his throat. Another boy sat next to her, and a girl just behind, peeking over her shoulder. ‘Never did learn his manners,’ she said. ‘Not like wee Kevin here.’

Kevin looked about Billy’s age, but his clothes were different. Not like Michael’s, but still strange. Still somehow … wrong. Billy couldn’t think why.

‘Hello,’ Kevin said. He lifted his small hand and waved.

Billy waved back.

‘You can play with me,’ Kevin said. He smiled.

Billy smiled back.

The little girl peered over the old lady’s shoulder, her blonde hair catching the sunlight. ‘What games do you know?’ she asked.

Billy hesitated for a moment before counting on his fingers. ‘Ring-a-Ring-a-Rosies, Hide and Seek, Tig—’

‘I like Tig.’ She stepped out from behind the old lady. Her clothes looked normal, not olden days clothes, and Billy knew her face.

He thought hard about it for a few seconds before he remembered where from. The image formed in his mind. Mum at the kitchen table reading the newspaper, crying. Was it last summer or the one before? Billy had climbed up into her lap and looked at the newspaper while Mum wrapped her arms around him. Her cheek was warm and damp against his neck. She smelled of apples.

There was a picture of a little girl in the newspaper. Billy traced the headline with his finger, saying the words out loud. He didn’t get very far before he had to ask his Mum what some of them said.

‘Community,’ she said.

‘Shocked,’ she said.

‘Disappearance,’ she said.

The girl walked to the water’s edge and put her hands on her hips. ‘Who’ll be It?’

Michael sprung to his feet. ‘Me!’

The old lady laughed. ‘So, you’re not too big to play after all?’

Michael grinned.

Billy’s heart drummed in his chest. He looked back up the bank to where the trees heaved and whispered. The houses of Ballinahone stood just beyond them, and Orangefield, where he lived, just beyond that. Mum would have lunch ready soon. Jam sandwiches. Playschool would be on TV, and cartoons a bit later. Scooby-Doo. He never missed Scooby-Doo.

But he could play Tig for a little while. Mum might be cross if he was late for lunch, but he’d say sorry, and she’d give him his jam sandwiches anyway.

Michael crouched, his hands forming claws, bearing his teeth. ‘Ready or not,’ he said.

A dizzy giggle escaped from Billy’s stomach. ‘Wait,’ he said, and hopped across the river, using the stepping stones. When he got to the other side, another boy and girl were waiting. They looked like brother and sister, and wore clothes like Michael’s. But Billy had stopped caring about clothes, and tingled with the excitement of the coming chase.

The old lady hunkered down so Billy could see the red lines around her green irises, criss-crossed and snaking through the yellow. She brought her hand to his cheek and her skin felt like paper.

‘Better run,’ she said.

An animal howl came from the other side of the stream, and the children squealed as Michael took it in one leap. They scattered into the trees and Billy bolted after them. He heard Michael’s ragged laughter behind him and churned his arms and legs, ignoring the whipping of branches.

‘I’m going to get you!’

Billy chanced one look over his shoulder and saw Michael’s teeth bared, his tongue lolling. Spit slopped from the corners of his mouth. Billy laughed and ducked to the left between two trees whose branches intertwined to form a low tunnel. He had to keep his head down, his knees bent, to fight his way through. Branches crunched behind him and Billy heard Michael swear as he got tangled up in leaves and twigs.

Billy burst out onto an open path, one he didn’t recognise, and broke into a sprint through the clear air. Laughter bubbling in his chest, the breeze on his cheeks.

He didn’t know how far he’d run before he had to stop. His chest heaved, making him bend over, his hands on his knees, breathing deep until the dizziness passed. His thighs quivered with spent energy, his nerves jangling in the same way they did when he went on the Cyclone ride at Barry’s amusements in Portrush.

Billy listened.

Quiet all around, not even the chirp of a bird. He turned in a circle. There, off in the distance, he could see the rooftops of Ballinahone and Orangefield. Miles away, it seemed. How could it be so far? The Folly wasn’t that big.

‘You’re a fast runner for such a wee boy.’

Billy gasped and spun around.

The old lady stood there, a few feet along the path, her shawl still wrapped around her.

‘How fast can you run?’ she asked.

‘Dunno,’ Billy said.

‘Bet you can run faster, anyway.’

The voices of the other children rang through the trees, echoing along the path. The old lady’s eyes sparkled.

First Kevin, then the girl erupted from the dense growth on either side. They charged past the old lady, looking back over their shoulders at Billy, smiling, laughing. Then the other children, all shouting, telling him to come on, come on, run, run, run!

From behind, Michael’s hand slammed into Billy’s shoulder, almost knocking him off his feet.

Michael shouted, ‘You’re it!’ as he tore past.

His laughter receded along the path.

The old lady reached out her hand to Billy.

‘You heard him,’ she said. ‘You’re it. Come on. You can catch them. A fast runner like you. Run as fast as you can.’

Billy stood quite still, watching her.

‘Come on,’ she said, rippling her outstretched fingers.

Billy looked back towards the distant rooftops, barely visible above the trees. So far away.

‘You’ve no one to play with back there,’ the old lady said. ‘Come on with us. You’ll have so much fun.’

Billy took small steps closer to her. He let her take his fingers in hers.

‘Come on,’ she said again. ‘Let’s catch them. Let’s run.’

She took off, dragging Billy after her. So quick, her strange olden days boots barely touching the ground. Billy ran too, faster, until he kept pace with her, them faster, pulling her along behind him.

Up ahead, the other children, laughing and laughing.

And more, dozens now, all calling his name, all shouting can't catch me, can't catch me.

Deeper into the trees until he didn’t know where he was, until it he could no longer see the sky above, until he couldn’t have found the path home if he looked for a hundred years, or a thousand years, or a million years. Still he giggled, the old lady’s hand in his.

So far away now, so far he would never hear his Mum's voice, no matter how loud and how long she called. Even if she searched all day and all night, she would never find him, not out here, not so deep and lost among the trees.

Billy felt like he could run for ever and ever and ever.