IF YOU GO DOWN TO THE WOODS TODAY…
I would like to hold my hands up right now and say that if you are creeped out by my new book IN A COTTAGE IN A WOOD, then I couldn’t be more… not-sorry. I admit it; I totally set out to scare people. I spooked myself, so it seems only fair.
While I was writing it, I got to thinking about why woods play such a prominent role in our nightmares. Maybe it is because they feature in so many of the fairy tales we’re exposed to at a tender age? Here, tall trees mean places to hide for blood-thirsty wolves, or else they have cottages snuck away that seem to promise gingerbread and fun but really only mean horrible endings.
It was only after I’d finished writing the book, though, that I found myself remembering one of the strangest experiences of my childhood that took place in woods.
I was ten or eleven. A girl I didn’t know well at school – let’s call her Sally – invited me to stay with her during half-term. Sally was one of those girls who seemed to know adult stuff I didn’t and was therefore a bit dangerous and exciting. Naturally I said yes.
She lived in the wooded grounds of a country house, where her mother was currently the only employee. One afternoon as we rode lazy circles around a tennis court on our bikes, Sally told me, with a sly look in her eye, that the whole place was haunted. Her mother, she said, would hear ghostly footsteps close by each evening as she walked between the Big House and their cottage.
I did what any child on the receiving end of this kind of news does; ie, scoffed loudly to hide how scared I was. (It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I was an over-imaginative child and easy prey for anyone who could spin a scary yarn.)
That evening, an old friend of the family came to dinner. With his Captain Bird’s Eye beard and his ready smile, Uncle Jack (as they called him) seemed like an avuncular, jolly presence. It was only when the dinner things were cleared away and Sally’s mum and he exchanged meaningful looks that I started to wonder if something strange was going on.
Uncle Jack produced a strange wooden shield with carvings on it from a cloth bag and the two adults disappeared outside into the darkness, with a promise that they wouldn’t be long and warnings that we should stay indoors.
As we did the washing up together, I asked Sally what they were up to. She replied, casually, ‘Oh, Uncle Jack is performing an exorcism. So Mum doesn’t have any more trouble from the ghost…’
That night was filled with vivid nightmares and as dawn finally broke, I made a resolution. I wasn’t staying in this creepy place a moment longer. I would pretend I was ill and needed to go home. I managed to make a sneaky phone call and within hours my Dad came to pick me up. I’d never been more pleased to see him.
I forgot about this whole thing for so long.
But maybe it was there in the back of my mind, nudging my subconscious, and helping me to re-connect to old childhood terrors?
And maybe it played a role in me writing this book.
I’ll never know now, but I hope Sally’s mum got some peace on her nocturnal walks home after that night.
I didn’t want to hang around to find out.
IN A COTTAGE IN A WOOD is published on 21st September 2017.