I caught sight of Tom’s face, smeared with juice, and burst out laughing. Ostensibly, we were out blackberrying, but we’d also planned to have a look at the fracking site up on Lord Martens’ estate. This was one of several sites around the Weald licensed for testing, despite local opposition. There had already been complaints about earth tremors and loud noises, but Martens had so far managed to ignore the protests. However, there was a meeting scheduled in the village hall in a week or so’s time, which he was expected to attend.
Although the location of the site was meant to be hush-hush, all us locals were aware of it, and loads of us had gone up to have a look. It was the talk of the school. So, when Gran had promised a blackberry-and-apple pie if she could find some willing fruit pickers, Tom and I had leapt at the opportunity.
We’d filled our margarine tubs even before we’d got past Farmer Boland’s land. It was then we realised what a state we were in, the sweat and juice glistening off us. Now, at fourteen, with Tom just turned twelve, we felt rather self-conscious and paused to clean ourselves up before moving on to the summit of Gibbet Woods – as it was known – from where the fracking site was visible.
When we finally reached it, we were amazed. It was as though a giant had snipped a neat rectangle out of the landscape. All the trees and bushes had been removed over an area about the size of two tennis courts, leaving a barren patch of grey soil. A wire fence, topped with barbed wire, enclosed it. There were also floodlights and, inside the enclosure, a Portakabin and some other containers. In the middle stood what looked like an oil derrick.
“Wait till Dad clocks this,” I said, taking pictures.
“Should make Martens enough dosh to buy a few more classic motors.”
“How many does he need?”
“You’re such a spoilsport—just like Dad,” said Tom, running back into the woods. I chased him down, playfully thumping him on the back.
As the large trees enveloped us, our cries were muffled, as though we’d entered a church, the green canopy diffusing the light and the spongy earth absorbing every sound. It was like walking on the gym mats in school.
We were now approaching the Gibbet Tree itself, an old oak with swollen, arthritic-looking limbs. When the wind blew, its boughs creaked as though in pain.
Dad had many stories about this tree. In his day, corpses of animals used to dangle from it, hence its name. The victims were meant to send a message to other vermin, warning them not to go near the lord’s precious game. His partridge and deer, that is. And, of course, as Dad always said, amongst the “vermin” his lordship included us villagers. There were always skirmishes over rights of way, poaching, foraging and the like, which still go on, with Martens forever trying to keep us off his land by removing stiles, blocking pathways, letting his animals roam freely and suchlike.
Suddenly, I halted, horrified. “Look!”
“There, in the tree,” I pointed. “It’s a fox, isn’t it?”
“Foxes don’t climb trees!” said Tom.
“No, stupid! Hanging there!” I was staring at an orange-red body with a white-tipped tail, swaying in the breeze, its back legs unnaturally twisted.
I thought Tom had also clocked it, but then he shouted, “And there’s a crow!” The bird in question, just about to settle on the fox’s body, flew off at the sound of Tom’s voice. “Oh no,” he lamented, giving me a hearty shove. “It’s alive after all!”
“Gerroff,” I said, returning his shove with interest. But I was suddenly spooked. “Let’s get out of here!”
Perhaps my shove was more forceful than I’d realised, for Tom overbalanced, dropping his tub. The lid sprang off and his blackberries trampolined away.
“Idiot!” I said, bending to retrieve the fruit.
But Tom was no longer playful. “Me?” he shouted, leaping to his feet. He was raging, his teeth bared, eyes flaring. “If you hadn’t attacked me in the first place!”
The next instant, he was on my back, wrestling me to the ground, pushing my face into the soil. Just as suddenly, he released me and ran off. I lay there for several minutes until I heard him return.
“What’s got into you …?” I began, before realising it wasn’t Tom. Involuntarily I shrank from the figure whose arm I’d taken. Scarcely taller than me, he looked ancient. His skin was the colour and texture of oak bark. For some reason, I thought of the “diddicoy” that Dad used to talk about, who used to live in these woods.
After my alarmed reaction, I tried to be civil. The man had joined me in picking up Tom’s berries. “My disgusting little brother’s somewhere around,” I said, keen that he should know I wasn’t alone. I began calling Tom’s name as I wandered round the clearing.
I eventually found him, crouched in a little dip. “Sorry, sis,” he said. “Don’t know what came over me.”
“It’s this place.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Creepy.”
“But I’ve just met someone really helpful. He’s collecting your berries.”
Back in the clearing, though, the man was nowhere in sight. All we could see was Tom’s margarine tub sitting neatly on the ground. Without another backward glance, we made for home.
When we came to the B312 at the bottom of the hill, Tom ran ahead, having heard the whine of a vehicle approaching at speed. He fancied himself a connoisseur of performance cars.
“Aston Martin DB5 Convertible!” he shouted after the car had creamed past. “Top speed 140 mph. James Bond drives one in Goldfinger.”
“How interesting!” I replied. “I presume it was Lord Alfred at the wheel?”
“MARTY 1, yeah,” said Tom. “Who else
could afford that?”
From the side-lines, I was quite enjoying their head-to-head until I mentioned the Gibbet Tree, at which point I was appalled to hear Tom deny what we’d seen.
“It was just some old kite blowing in the branches,” he claimed.
I couldn’t believe it. “Why are you being such an a-hole?” I demanded, storming off to my room.
Dad came up later, carrying a slice of Gran’s pie as a peace offering. Under Dad’s spell, I was soon my old self again. He was in one of his nostalgic moods and began telling stories about village life when he was a boy. I always loved listening to his tales, even if, as Gran was quick to point out, half of them were actually about his dad’s childhood.
I asked him about the diddicoy. They were brought in, he said, by Alfred’s father, Percy, who’d managed to alienate most of the local workforce. The diddicoy were tinkers and travellers who were just passing through, but Lord Percy invited them to stay, offering them the run of his woods “and all the hedgehog pie they could eat,” if they’d help with the running of the estate. “He thought he was getting cheap labour—and a private army, no doubt. But the diddicoy weren’t as biddable as he’d hoped.”
Over time, many drifted away, but a core had remained into the 1960s, when Dad was a boy. Then there had been an accident involving one of the diddicoy lads – a contemporary of Dad’s – who was found hanging in the Gibbet tree.
I knew the story well. It was the source of many a tall tale at school. Of how the lad’s ghost haunted the tree. Of how people who went up there at night disappeared, only to be found weeks later, off their heads. Dad was always dismissive of such urban myths. He wanted people to pay more attention to the facts and injustices of the case, especially, as he once again reiterated, the verdict of the inquest: “death by misadventure.”
“Somehow, this boy manages to wind a rope round his neck while swinging through a tree, and hangs himself!” proclaimed Dad for the umpteenth time. “No one thought to question young Lord Alfred, though. Although all his teachers were well aware who the lad’s tormentor was.”
I found it hard to imagine Dad and Alfred as classmates, but it had once been so, before his future lordship was whisked off to his exclusive preparatory school, “to avoid contamination from us plebs,” as Dad liked to put it. Of course, nowadays Alfred didn’t acknowledge any of his childhood pals.
Though I’d heard this story many times before, I now felt more invested in it. “Didn’t the whole diddicoy clan turn up for the hearing?” I asked.
“They did indeed, Suze. And after the verdict, they upped and left. A long convoy of them there was, many with horse-drawn wagons back then. We lined the streets to show our respect. Never seen the like.” Dad shook his head at the memory. “Many curses were mouthed that day.”
I thought again of the strange figure I’d encountered.
Though I wasn’t exactly sure what a diddicoy looked like, I thought
my stranger fitted the bill. I almost told Dad about him but, for some
reason, decided against it.
“Sure the beasts weren’t just kites?”
I asked him, as I left for school.
The tests certainly divided village opinion. A sizeable minority was in favour, hoping to benefit in terms of jobs, but the majority resented the intrusion of outsiders with their destructive machinery, especially knowing that Lord Alfred was behind it all.
Disputes raged in the local press and on social media. At the weekend, Dad witnessed “a pitched battle” outside the Red Lion between pro and anti-fracking groups. We all hoped that the village meeting might cool heads, although the intended presence of Lord Alfred (no doubt accompanied by his legal team) didn’t fill anyone with confidence.
At least, said many locals, Lord Percy had some commitment to the village, “even if he was an aristocratic nob-head” (these were Dad’s words). Alfred, by contrast, was “just a waster, an absentee landlord who enjoyed the playboy lifestyle”.
He only came back to the village, it was said, to play golf on his exclusive course, which he’d created after having some tied cottages demolished, making homeless a number of local people. The wildlife, which also lost much of its habitat, also suffered, as the amount of roadkill on the B312 showed. Alfred had even tried to appropriate some of Gibbet Woods when he’d had his course laid out, to give it a challenging bit of rough. But this time local opposition had been resolute, and his lordship had had to revise his plans.
Many suspected that this fracking venture was his revenge. If so, he might have got more than he bargained for, as news of the row had spread beyond the village. Aside from the golfing community, national environmental groups and media crews had become involved, sensing a good story.
The atmosphere was febrile, even in our own home. Tom and I were continually at loggerheads and Mum and Dad were little better. Had Tom really not seen that fox in the Gibbet Tree? I wanted to go back and check. And I was also keen to see if that strange man was still up there. Was he really a diddicoy?
Tom, though, wouldn’t consider another trip. His nightmares had put him right off. I was set to go on my own, but Dad was also keen to see the fracking site, so we went together, walking along the bridleway that ran parallel to the B312. Along the way, we met up with a couple of Dad’s old schoolmates, Jim and Mac, who were also keen to see what was going on. The three of them were soon reminiscing about their schooldays with Alfred, and Jim told us about how he’d once been invited to Martens Hall, to celebrate Little Lord Alfred’s sixth birthday.
“Quite a do!” Jim said. He’d been particularly impressed by the animal remains everywhere: “mounted heads covering the walls and skins all over the floor—tiger skins, bear skins and that.” In his bedroom, said Jim, Alfred had his own collection of taxidermy, with animals and birds dramatically posed in glass cases and domes. “There were hawks, hedgehogs, weasels, sparrows, rabbits, mice, foxes – anything, in short, they’d killed. Of course, the diddicoy had done the stuffing. Talented lot!”
The three old boys had become so absorbed in their reminiscing
that they’d bypassed the Gibbet Tree, walking straight to the
fracking site. I peeled off, agreeing to meet Dad later.
“You alright?” I touched his shoulder. He was upset, I could see.
He stood up and stretched out a hand, revealing a fluffy ball of feathers. With his other hand, he parted the plumage to indicate an airgun pellet. Though he spoke with a guttural twang that made him hard to understand, his gestures more than compensated.
We made our way across to the Gibbet tree. Even from this distance, I could see that, not only was there definitely a fox hanging there, but several other corpses had now joined it. In fact, one of them was the crow I’d seen mangled on the B312, its intact wing a giveaway. Like the other bodies, it had been artfully positioned. While some of these corpses, like the crow, were recognisably roadkill, there were other casualties, too, like a shrew still trapped in its drinks-bottle coffin.
As we reached the tree, the diddicoy, ancient though he looked, nimbly scaled the trunk. He was soon above my head, spreading the wings of the small bird he’d been clutching, angling its neck upwards and holding it in place with some wire.
I suddenly realised that this had been the fate of all these creatures. They weren’t vermin at all, but victims. The diddicoy was commemorating them. It wasn’t a Gibbet Tree but a memorial one: a Commemorative Tree!
Noticing that it was now dusk, I began looking around for Dad. He was nowhere to be seen. I waved goodbye to the diddicoy, still aloft, and started for home. But it wasn’t long before I saw Dad, heading my way.
“Find anything else in the old tree?” he asked.
“Not really,” I said, not sure why I was being
so evasive, sounding more like Tom.
I could discern that faraway look in Dad’s eyes. “You’ve been tattling too many tales,” I replied, borrowing one of his phrases. “Let’s hope Gran’s saved us some pie.”
After that, we talked of nothing but the fracking eyesore.
At school, there was a continual sense of menace, perhaps brought on by the tremors. In the playground, I watched as a gang of boys careered round, arms joined, knocking down anyone in their path. “The frackers’ll ’ave ya!” they were yelling.
The day was a nightmare. As soon as the final bell sounded, I escaped and ran for home. Everyone I passed looked either distracted or angry. Car drivers were particularly unpredictable, locking horns as they encountered each other. I was extra careful crossing roads.
After a hasty evening meal, during which no one spoke much, I made my excuses and went for a walk. Normally I’d ask permission, but not tonight. I just needed to escape. The air was heavy and oppressive, as though a storm was on its way. It was only when I approached the spot where the bridleway crossed the B312 that I began to relax. Despite the tug of vehicles on the other side of the trees and bushes, the bridleway remained peaceful.
Ahead, I could see a male pheasant about to make his ungainly way across the road. Stupid bird! I knew what was going to happen but could do nothing to prevent it. Behind, I could hear a car looming. Surely the driver must have seen the bird on the verge? Surely the driver would … slow down?
I broke into a run which, I realised in retrospect, might have made things worse. The bird, perhaps spooked by my movement, vainly tried to take off, launching itself straight into the path of a flashy Mercedes.
I recoiled as the bird, now a lifeless lump, bounced back onto the verge. The car sped on. No attempt at braking, no attempt to discover what had happened. MARTY 4, proclaimed the numberplate. I might have known!
I ran to the bird and picked it up. There didn’t seem to be any blood and, though dead, the body was still warm. Though I hadn’t intended to go up to the Gibbet Tree that evening, I now felt I had a reason. I was sure the diddicoy would be there.
Sure enough, there he was, standing by the tree, hands raised. The clearing was electric with energy, which he seemed to be conducting. Seeing me, he ran over, gently taking charge of the pheasant. I tried to explain its fate.
Reverently, he cradled the bird and, muttering, carried it to the tree. I did a double take. The tree’s branches were now festooned with bodies, displayed like strange fruit. Apart from those I’d seen earlier, I could identify weasels, rabbits, hedgehogs, blackbirds, thrushes, sparrows and more. But they no longer appeared dead. Though their eyes must have been pecked out long since, each socket looked alive.
There were also older remains adorning the branches, which the breeze was spookily animating. Skeins of translucent skin rose – like miniature kites, in fact – against frames of bone and sinew. Tatters of feather, tufts of fur and hair fluttered like ragged bunting. And there was the sound of bones, too, clacking and smacking.
Were these remains all returning to life? I wasn’t sure, for the clearing was also humming with flies, bloated things that were starting to register my presence. There was a rotting smell, too: a thick, sweet odour that settled in my throat, making me gag.
I watched in fascination as the diddicoy gently pinned the pheasant to a branch, spreading its beautiful brown wings as though the bird were still in flight, as though it had soared clear of the Mercedes’ bonnet.
A minute later the diddicoy was back down the tree and, with his knife clutched between his teeth, he approached me. Straight at me he came, and, seizing my wrist, pushed me towards the tree. I was suddenly terrified. Was I the next exhibit?
Before I could protest, though, I felt a stinging in my palm. Looking down in disbelief, I watched as my lifeline welled. I was as helpless as the pheasant. Tears sprang to my eyes. Perhaps I’d end up alongside it!
The diddicoy, though, was nothing but gentle, his hand a supportive tourniquet about my wrist. In his other hand, he held a bowl into which he was channelling my pulsing blood. Some sort of voodoo? I thought of home, of poor Tom, of my warm bed. What was I doing here?
Then the air stiffened and the wind rose. The bones weren’t simply clacking now. The wind had turned the marrowless tubes into whistles which squealed and hummed with sound. The ligaments of the older bodies were starting to vibrate, too, adding a bass thrum. Was the fracking causing this, possibly?
No, I thought, looking at the diddicoy. This was the man in charge. He stood at the base of the tree armed with a switch of twigs, using them like a brush to flick drops of blood – my blood – over the ragged assembly of creatures.
It was this action that was making their bodies shake and twitch, as though galvanised. The more he bloodied them, the more animated they became. Now they were twisting and gyrating, tugging at their bonds. I looked on, horrified, as the beady eye sockets started glowing inquisitively.
The diddicoy put down his switch and turned to me. I feared the worst, but his movements were reassuring. He took my hand and rubbed some sort of paste into the cut, which immediately staunched the bleeding. He folded my fingers into a fist and bound it with cloth. It throbbed. Did I need stitches? Would I have a scar?
I had little time to consider, though, for the noise in the clearing was building to a crescendo. As I watched, the entire assembly of beasts began to climb into the night air. No matter that some of these creatures—like the hedgehog, the weasel, or the rabbit—had never flown. They rose regardless, flapping and clattering, whistling and shrieking.
I suddenly recalled that afternoon’s English lesson. Collective nouns, we’d been studying— “murmurations”, “exaltations” and the like—and I found myself struggling to think of an appropriate term for this swarm: an “orchestration”? a “reincarnation”? Such terms were still churning through my head as, above me, the swirling mass of fur, feather, skin and bone seemed to orient itself and, with a shrieking, clattering sound, sped off into the night.
As this sound died away, I became aware of other noises, rising from the village. The diddicoy gave my injured fist a final squeeze, then gestured for me to leave. I didn’t need any encouragement. It had been quite a night. I ran all the way home, albeit with a feeling of exhilaration rather than of fear, as though I too had been uplifted by this “reincarnation”.
Several times on my journey I had to avoid groups of locals who also seemed infected by the madness of the night. Armed with sticks, knives, and bottles, they roamed the village, not quite sure what to do, but keen to dissipate their pent-up rage.
As soon as I was home, I announced my return and went straight to my room, my head swirling, my palm throbbing.
The cut, now I examined it, was only superficial and seemed
to be healing almost magically, thanks to the salve the diddicoy had
applied. Protecting it with a rubber glove, I took a shower –
I was filthy – after briefly popping my head round the lounge
door, said good night.
Downstairs in the kitchen, I could hear a commotion. I
dressed and went to join the family. The local radio was on, as usual,
with everyone glued to it.
“What have you done to your hand, Suzie?”
Only later did more information emerge and, even then, many suspected that much of the story was still being suppressed. Officially, his lordship was said to have suffocated, though it was admitted that there was also extensive laceration to the body, mainly from broken glass – glass that had come from the splintered cases containing his lordship’s extensive collection of stuffed fauna and flora.
The police initially suspected that those responsible for vandalising the fracking site had paid his lordship a visit, but there was no evidence to support this. It was hard, though, to discern what had really happened, for the village was incandescent with rumour.
Staff working at the hall had reputedly found stuffed beasts from the cases splattered all over Lord Martens’ bedroom. Some of the birds’ beaks were said to have been embedded in the walls, with other creatures blocking the chimney and some, it was claimed, had even been found in his lordship’s bed. As for Alfred himself, his oesophagus was said to be choked with feathers – causing his suffocation – while his skin had been flayed with claw and bite marks.
The way the glass cases and domes had been broken, claimed Dad (information he got from some of his mates), it looked as though the stuffed beasts had burst out of their containers – which, as Dad added, was quite impossible.
“A reincarnation,” I said to him.
A few days later, I went back up to the wood with Tom.
We were now talking again – as was everyone else. The whole village
seemed more at peace with itself, as though a storm had cleared the
air. Even the Gibbet Tree looked healthier, with new shoots sprouting.
As for the fracking site, it had been mothballed. With Lord Alfred gone,
no one knew its future.
I kept a lookout for my mysterious friend. I wanted Dad to meet him. I’d almost given up when, at the end, as people were departing, I saw the man’s diminutive figure. He was dressed in his regular garb, except for a bright neckerchief that he now wore around his neck.
He proffered his hand. After my ordeal at the Gibbet Tree, I was nervous of responding. But all he did was turn my palm up and run his finger along my scar, now barely distinguishable from my lifeline. If anything, the line itself looked more robust.
“Nais tuke,” the man said, a smile lighting up his face; and then, more haltingly, “Thank you,” and he walked off.
As he retreated, Dad turned to me. “You’ll never guess who he reminded me of.”
But I already had. “A reincarnation,” I said
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