Hawthorn Lane (from Sweet Little Chittering)
The bus wound its way along the country lanes. It was crowded with too many people who, Veronica thought to herself, paid too little attention to their personal hygiene. She’d been unable to get a seat and was now awkwardly wedged between a fat woman and her awful children and an older man who seemed to lean into her a little more than was necessary as the bus rounded the corners of the narrow lanes. They’d had to stop multiple times for tractors crossing between the fields or sheep being herded from one place to another.
During one of these stops Veronica had spied the henge in the distance. The standing stones jutted out of the land like nails haphazardly hammered into a piece of wood by a child. As she peered at the henge, she thought she could see movement around the stones. Probably day trippers lured there by the gaudy advertising she’d seen online for the ‘Hartbridge Henge’, that the nearby town of Hartbridge splashed across the ad space of any website mentioning the area. However, Veronica, like any good journalist, had dug deeper and found that the henge had an older name, ancient even: The Chittering.
The bus pulled away and continued its journey. As The Chittering passed out of sight, Veronica slipped her hand into her bag and felt the leather cover of the journal. She ran her fingers over its worn surface, an act she found oddly comforting. A tablet or a laptop was, she knew, a far better way to keep notes, but there was something about the writing and drawing by hand and pasting clippings into the journal that allowed her to engage with her research, and the story that research revealed, on a far deeper level than she’d ever been able to before.
The heat in the bus had grown stifling and the passengers, Veronica included, breathed a collective sigh of relief as the bus finally pulled into the village of Sweet Little Chittering. As the passengers piled off the bus, Veronica paused to speak with the driver.
“What time is the last bus back to Hartbridge?” she asked.
The driver seemed to ponder his answer in the way that country folk sometimes do despite knowing the answer off the top of their head.
“We lay on extra services the day of the fete,” the driver said, somewhat unhelpfully.
“Okay, but what actual time is the last bus leaving?” Veronica politely pressed.
“Oh, nine, half nine, something like that.” The driver was clearly clueless.
“Thanks,” Veronica replied with a slight air of exasperation. She took her phone out of her bag and checked the time – 17:45. She’d have plenty of time to track down who she was looking for and still get the last bus back.
The rest of the passengers hurried towards the village green, from where Veronica could already hear the village fete in full swing. Veronica had no interest in the fete, so walked at a slower, but deliberate, pace.
As she walked, she took in her surrounds. Sweet Little Chittering was like the twee drawings on the lids of a biscuit tins brought to life. Quaint, neatly kept little houses packed along the sides of narrow streets, well-trimmed hedges and a row of small shops, including a family butcher’s and even a candle maker. Surely these people had electricity? A hint of a smile crossed Veronica’s face as she amused herself with the sarcastic observation.
As Veronica approached the village green, the crowd began to get a little denser and she had to weave amongst the people. Many clutched raffle tickets and Veronica wondered what prize could be so great, as to make people buy quite so many tickets.
An old lady stepped out and blocked Veronica’s path. “You’ve still time to buy a ticket, deary. The draw isn’t for another ten minutes!” The old lady held up a book of raffle tickets and stared at Veronica with a toothless grin.
“No, thank you,” Veronica replied politely and old the lady looked almost shocked. “Could you tell me the best way to get to Hawthorn Lane?” Veronica went on.
“Hawthorn Lane?” the old lady replied, a look of complete confusion spreading across her face.
“Yes. Hawthorn Lane.” Veronica pulled the journal from her bag and thumbed through it. “I believe it should be not far from here.” She held up the journal, open at the page of her hand drawn map of the village.
“Well, deary, I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never heard of no Hawthorn Lane. You must have the wrong village.” The old lady turned and shuffled back into the crowd, waving her book of tickets at anyone who wasn’t quick enough to dodge out of her way.
Veronica stood and looked at her map. The crowd swirled around her, as she tried to orient herself to the map and her surroundings. As she was doing so, she noticed an information board on the wall between the ‘Crusty Von Buns Bakers’ shop and ‘J.M. Cockcroft & Son Family Butchers’. She made a beeline for the board.
Veronica stopped in front of the board and saw, to her delight, there was a map of the village. It was badly faded and curled at the edges. The rusty drawing pins holding it in place testified to how long it had been there. She studied the map and compared it to the one she had drawn in her journal as she’d researched the village and the area.
“Looking for something? Or somewhere?” a man’s voice said from behind her.
Veronica turned to see an older man with a vacant smile staring at her.
“I’m looking for Hawthorn Lane,” Veronica said matter of factly and turned back to the board.
“Well, I hate to say it Miss. But I think you might have the wrong village. I’ve lived here most of my life and I’ve never heard of a Hawthor…”
“Here!” Veronica cut him off. “It’s here, on the map, look.”
The man peered at the map and then leant in closer. He wiped at the glass door of the notice board, as if this would change the map within.
“But…that doesn’t make any sense. I mean, that shouldn’t be there,” the old man turned and looked Veronica directly in the eye. “I mean, I’ve lived here for years and…and… that’s not been there.”
Yet, on the map, very faded, but definitely there, was written Hawthorn Lane. Indicting that it could be found in what looked like a relatively short walk from the village green.
Veronica left the man still staring at the map in disbelief. Perhaps he has dementia, she thought to herself. Why else would he have claimed to have lived in the village most of his life and then not know of a lane that was perhaps a few minutes’ walk from the heart of the village? She headed past the village school and away from the green and the festivities.
As Veronica walked, the noise of the fete faded away and the only sound was her footsteps on the pavement. As the houses began to thin out, the pavement did as well, until Veronica was walking on the edge of the road. As she walked, she looked at her hand drawn map and wrote in the location of Hawthorn Lane as it had been indicated on the map in the village. Yet still she walked and there was no sign of the lane.
Veronica checked the time on her phone; 18:20. She’d walked for twenty minutes! This could not be right. Certainly, there was no scale on the map in the village, but this was ridiculous. She tapped the screen of her phone to open the maps app. A blank screen opened with white text: No Signal. She held up the phone and saw that she had no data. Useless.
She decided to walk on but to turn back and head into the village if she’d still not found Hawthorn Lane after another ten minutes.
As Veronica walked, the landscape began to change. Overgrown hedgerows rose along the sides of the winding road, giving the feeling of walking through a maze. The sky turned from the bright spring day to a featureless milky grey. The air grew cold, there was a damp smell, and a bitter taste began to linger at the back of Veronica’s throat. She shivered.
Just as she was about to turn back, she noticed a street sign partially obscured by the hedgerows. Gingerly she pulled aside the foliage. Most of the paint had flaked off the sign leaving the bare metal, but the name was unmistakable: Hawthorn Lane.
Veronica took a step back and realised that the entrance to the lane was set slightly back so had been obscured by the hedgerows until now. She glanced back in the direction of the village. She stopped dead.
Looking back the way she’d come, things looked completely different. She could see the village green, but it looked much closer. How could she have walked for so long and yet looking back the route looked like it should have taken no more than a few minutes to walk. Also, the road had been narrow and winding, but she was now looking back in a straight line towards the village. The village that was bathed in spring sunshine, yet she stood shivering in the gloom, beneath a milky and overcast sky.
An optical illusion, perhaps? Like not being able to see the entrance to Hawthorn Lane until she was right on top of it. Veronica dismissed the whole thing. She was now wasting time and needed to press on with the reason for her visit to Sweet Little Chittering and the resident who she had come to speak with: Diana Drake. Veronica stepped through the hedgerow and into Hawthorn Lane.
She stopped abruptly as her eyes adjusted to the light, looking about Hawthorn Lane. The sky above was still the flat milky grey, but things were somehow brighter here, like a light shining through frosted glass. Hawthorn Lane resembled the other streets of the village Veronica had walked down but here things were fundamentally different.
The houses looked ramshackle. Roofs were missing slates. Paint work peeled and wooden frames rotted. The windows were grey from what looked like years of not being cleaned. Some had broken panes with filthy curtains barely visible behind. Gardens were choked with weeds that stippled out onto the lane itself. The dilapidation continued onto the surface of the lane that was pockmarked with holes and the asphalt was cracked like a dry lakebed. There was no sign of life. The lane was silent.
At the end of the lane stood a house that was larger than the rest and must have been somewhat grand in its day. However, in the same way that it was larger than the rest of the houses, its level of disrepair was also more pronounced. The structure seemed to be sagging and twisted. Held together by the climbing plants that spread from the ground up across the outer walls, obscuring many of the building’s features. Windows, of a similarly filthy state, were visible here and there.
Veronica flipped open the journal and pulled out an old photograph that was tucked between the pages. She held the photograph up, so it was in line with the house. The faded black and white image of a grand house bore the same outline as the building ahead of her. Veronica turned the photograph over – written on the back in pencil was: The Hawthorns. She tucked the photograph back into the journal and began to head towards the house.
As she walked, the crunching of her footsteps on the broken road surface was the only sound. Veronica wondered if the houses, perhaps the whole lane, was abandoned? Maybe her journey had been in vain?
Then she saw it. As she passed the second house, barely visible through the filthy window, a curtain twitched. Veronica saw the faint outline of a figure looking out through the gap. Looking out through the filthy glass, but unmistakably looking at her.
Veronica pressed on. Same at the third and fourth houses. Looming shapes at the windows.
As Vernonia drew level with the fifth house, she started at the sight in the window. The glass had been wiped from the inside and an old man’s face leered out at her. His heavily lined sallow skin, sunken eyes, and almost grey lips gave him a ghoulish appearance. Veronica made a small motion, not quite a wave, to acknowledge the man. A thin smile, more a grimace, spread across his face to revealing yellowed tombstone-like teeth. Veronica walked on.
As she drew level with the last but one house, the front door swung open. A man and woman stared at her. They were old, no, ancient in appearance. Bent backs, white wisps of hair and skin like rice paper. They stared at Veronica as they stood wavering and gripping the doorframe for support.
“Hello,” Veronica said awkwardly.
The woman made a hoarse noise, somewhere between a gasp and a groan, by way of acknowledgement. The man remained silent.
As Veronica walked past, their heads moved as they kept their eyes locked on her. As Veronica reached the gate of The Hawthorns she turned to look back. The woman peered around the doorway of the house, still looking at her. Then Veronica saw them. At every house along the lane, faces peered out from windows and doors that were barely ajar. The whole lane was looking at her.
Veronica paused. A feeling of unease swept over her. She wanted to flee. To run out of the lane, out of this strange, decayed place, and back towards the village.
No. She had come too far to be put off by some backward locals. She lifted the gate and pushed, the rusted hinges groaning in protest. Pushing past overgrown plants, Veronica reached the front door and knocked. She looked back up the lane. Still, they stared.
The front door jerked open causing Veronica to jump. Another ancient face moved into the light. The man was similarly stooped and frail, like the man and woman Veronica had seen in the other house.
“Yes?” a rasp of a voice escaped the man’s lips.
“I…erm…I’m looking for a Diana Drake? I believe she lives, or lived here?” Veronica smiled, more to try to put herself at ease than anything else.
Without taking his eyes off Veronica, the old man let out what was almost a cry, “Diana! Visitor!”
Veronica heard movement from within the house. An old woman lurched into view behind the man. She limped heavily but stood erect and held her head up to look Veronica in the face. Long grey hair framed her lined face and piercing blue eyes met Veronica’s gaze. There was clearly quite an age gap between her and the man.
The woman pushed past the man who shrank back into the house.
“Hello?” the old woman’s voice was clear and firm.
“Diana Drake?” Veronica enquired.
“Yes. I’m Diana, what can I do for you?”
“My name is Veronica Jones. I’m a journalist. I was wondering if I might be able to ask you some questions? About something I’ve been researching?” Veronica held out her press card.
Diana’s eyes flicked from Veronica’s face to the card, and then fell upon the journal Veronica still held in her other hand.
“You’d better come in then,” Diana smiled, then her gaze moved past Veronica and her brow furrowed.
Veronica looked back over her shoulder, and she just caught sight of the other residents of the lane darting back behind their doors and curtains. She turned back to Diana, who still smiled.
“Don’t mind them,” Diana reassured her. “We don’t get many visitors down here. Come in.”
Diana turned back into the house and Veronica stepped after her. The old man was now nowhere to be seen. Veronica paused for one last look down the now deserted lane and closed the front door behind her. She followed Diana into a large sitting room.
The room was dated and dusty, a musty smell hung heavy in the air. Diana moved to an armchair and lowered herself, stiffly, into the seat. A slight grimace of pain crossed her face. She must have been very beautiful in her youth, Veronica thought as she sat down in the chair opposite.
“I’d like to ask about…” Veronica began but was cut off.
“A drink?” Diana asked.
“Oh, erm, no I’m fine. Thank you,” replied Veronica.
“Tea?” There was an odd edge to Diana’s voice.
“Well, yes, thank you. If it’s not too much trouble?” Veronica didn’t want to waste time but equally needed to engage with Diana.
“No trouble, dear,” Diana’s gaze was fixed on Veronica. “Terry? Tea for two!” Diana called out.
“Yes dear,” came the muffled reply from another room.
Diana settled back in her chair. “What did you say your name was again?” she asked.
“Veronica Jones. I’m a freelance journalist,” Veronica replied, “I’ve been researching this area and wanted to ask you some questions, if that’s okay?”
“Well, I’m not sure what I could tell you that would be very interesting, dear?” She couldn’t put her finger on exactly why, but Diana’s words didn’t ring true to Veronica.
Diana motioned towards the journal. “I thought all you young people used your technical gadgets now? No more writing things down?”
“Oh, this?” Veronica held up the journal.
“Yes. That,” said Diana.
“Well, this is part of the reason I’m here.” Veronica opened the journal to its front page and held it up for Diana to see. “I found this journal in an old bookshop. A journalist named Murray seems to have started writing this in the 1950s but the dates get progressively muddled.” Veronica turned the first few pages revealing handwritten notes in fountain pen ink.
“Murray’s mother was originally from Sweet Little Chittering,” Veronica continued, “and as a child he would come back with her to visit. Over the years it seems he got to know a lot of the children in the village. Later, when he was older and working as a teacher, he came back to visit again. What he found was very odd.”
Veronica looked at Diana for some sign of a reaction, but the old woman sat attentively yet without giving away a hint of emotion. Veronica continued.
“He found that some of the children he knew from growing up, who would at the time have been young adults, were missing…”
“Missing…” Diana seemed to be affirming the statement rather than asking a question.
“Yes, missing. They’d disappeared and seemingly without a trace,” Veronica explained.
Diana showed no sign of a reaction and silence filled the room.
“Ah, Terry.” Diana looked towards the doorway.
The old man, Terry, was shuffling in with a tray. Precariously balanced on the tray was a tea pot along with two cups and saucers. Terry was so frail that it looked as if he could barely hold up the tray and walk.
“Let me help you…” Veronica began to rise from her chair.
“He can manage.” Diana’s words cut through the air like a knife.
Veronica looked at Diana and then back to Terry who continued to shuffle through the room. All the time the tray looked like it would fall from his grasp at any moment. Finally, and seemingly with great relief, Terry set the tray down on a side table. He turned to Diana and motioned towards the tray.
“Leave it. I’ll serve.” Diana’s tone sounded like it would be better suited for a command to a dog, than to a human companion.
Terry shuffled out of the room. Diana watched him go and began to rise from her chair. Again, a grimace of pain crossed her face.
“Would you like me to…” Veronica began but Diana silenced her with a raised finger.
“I can still manage,” Diana said bitterly. “It’s not old age itself that will do you in. It’s giving into old age that seals your fate.”
Diana crossed to the tray and began to pour with her back to Veronica.
“Murray, you say, that was his name?” Diana asked, not turning.
“Yes. Murray. I think he’d have been about my age, mid-twenties, when he began the journal,” Veronica replied.
“I don’t remember anyone called Murray. Why have you come to talk to me?” Diana turned to Veronica and held out the cup and saucer. Steam curled into the air from the freshly poured tea.
“Because he mentions you, by name, in the journal.” Veronica let the words hang in the air and noticed, just for a moment, Diana’s jaw tighten and her outstretched hand twitch, causing the cup to shift slightly on the saucer.
Veronica took the cup and saucer, resetting the cup as she took it. Diana seemed lost in thought and then headed back to her chair.
Settling herself back into the chair Diana asked, “And what did this… Murray, have to say about me?”
“It’s not just about you,” Veronica set the cup and saucer to one side and leafed through the journal. “Your family, the Drakes, have been in this area since medieval times. Correct?”
“Some say maybe even before that,” Diana replied with a slight smile.
“Murray had researched back and found fragmented records of the Drake family holding a sort of ‘spring festival’ here. Over time I believe that’s evolved into the village fete that’s being held today.” Veronica continued, “Murray was starting to draw a link between some of the elements of the old ‘spring festival’ and the disappearances in the 1950s.”
Veronica looked at Diana, who stared back.
“What has this to do with me? You said I was mentioned by name,” Diana asked firmly.
“Yes, but this is where Murray’s dates seem to get muddled. Murray writes,” Veronica thumbed on a few pages in the journal and continued, “that he spoke with Diana Drake, and she told him that as part of the spring festival families in the area would be obliged to send young family members to work on the Drake’s estate. However, not all the family members would return. This bit is still unclear to me, but he writes that the families forgot their loved ones had even existed.”
“Forgot?” Diana questioned.
“It doesn’t really make sense and oddly this is where Murray’s part of the journal ends,” said Veronica.
“Murray’s part?” Diana asked.
“Yes, you see, I was so interested in this story that I carried on his research and his journal.” Veronica turned a page and held the journal out to Diana. The flowing handwriting in fountain pen ink gave way to a modern handwriting in ballpoint pen. “It’s been difficult to piece together as there are very few records, but I’ve been able to map out what look like regular disappearances in and around Sweet Little Chittering, going back hundreds of years. Mentions of the Drake family persist throughout but drop off in the early twentieth century. In fact, almost all references to your family seem to stop around then. Do you know why that is?” Veronica looked at Diana.
“Times change. The importance of landowning families dwindled as people moved to the towns,” Diana mused. “In a way, we’re a relic of a forgotten age.”
“Do you know anything about the spring festival or the history of the village that you think might be relevant? Do you remember any disappearances?” Veronica started to press.
“Wouldn’t there be police records of disappearances that you could check?” asked Diana.
“I’ve checked, there’s no record of disappearances, but there are a few scattered reports of the police following up on claims made by people outside the village. Murray included,” replied Veronica.
“And what do those reports say?” Diana asked.
“That when the police followed up, there was no record of the people who’d been reported missing. Nothing at all. Murray pushed for them to do house to house enquires and no one in the village remembered them. But Murray did,” Veronica said.
“Sounds like your Mr Murray was a bit of a crackpot, dear,” Diana replied with a smile.
“No. I don’t think so. There are records before Murray that have the same pattern. Not many, but enough. Someone from outside the village reports a disappearance but no one from the village recalls the person even existed! Murray claims he spoke to you, Mrs Drake…” Veronica was cut short
“Ms Drake,” Diana corrected with a steely gaze.
“Sorry, Ms Drake.” Veronica held Diana’s gaze. “Murray claims he spoke to you, and you gave him information about the spring festival. Do you know anything that might help me?”
“Why do you say Murray’s dates were muddled?” Diana asked
“It’s less his dates and more his timeline because he describes you as being in your fifties when he spoke to you, and I can’t find a record of another Diana Drake. Here or anywhere else.”
“I’m old, but not that old,” Diana chuckled. “I’m sorry I don’t remember any Murray. As for the spring festival, you seem to know more than me. Yes, the Drakes have been in this area for a long time, but as for disappearances, I really don’t know.” Diana started to get up. “If you’ll excuse me, I must go and powder my nose.”
As Diana limped from the room she called back, “Drink your tea, it will get cold.”
Veronica picked up the teacup and drank. Perhaps this was a wasted journey. Diana didn’t seem to know anything. But Veronica still had a nagging feeling that there was more to this. She stood up and stretched, the armchair was more uncomfortable than she’d realised.
Veronica looked around the room, a layer of dust covered everything. She walked over to some framed photos on the wall. One caught her eye because it had a handwritten note across the top. She looked closer.
The photograph was black and white, it showed the village green looking pretty much exactly the same as when Veronica had walked through it earlier, but the clothes of the people showed that it was taken in the 1940s or 50s. Clearly the day of the village fete. A woman stood in the middle of the photo but, oddly, she was out of focus, or rather, her face was. Veronica read the handwritten note and froze:
Ms Drake, thank you for all your help, Terry Murray.
Veronica held up the first page of the journal. It was the same handwriting, perhaps even written with the same pen! She stared at the woman in the photo, out of focus, but slowly the image became sharper. It was Diana Drake. Younger than today, but still maybe in her late forties.
Veronica stepped back and stumbled. The room began to spin as if she were drunk. She dropped the journal and steadied herself on the arm of the chair. Her legs gave way, and she shrank to her knees. She put her hand on the side table to stop herself falling further and noticed that Diana’s teacup was empty.
“I was worried you hadn’t drunk enough,” Diana stood in the doorway looking down at Veronica.
“What…?” Veronica tried to get the words out, but her speech slurred into nothing.
Diana walked across the room and picked up the journal, fanning the pages with her fingers. She sighed.
“What a palaver! Was a time when a tribute was just offered up. Now we have to lure you in,” Diana said, as if to herself.
“I didn’t think Terry’s idea would work, but here you are.” Diana drummed her fingers on the cover of the journal. “An enquiring mind will come, he said, and come you did.” Diana turned to look at Veronica.
“People will…” Veronica slurred.
“People will come? People know you’re here?” Diana laughed. “Oh, I’ve heard it all before, dear. From many tongues, in many tongues, over many, many years.” Diana allowed herself a moment for her mind to wander.
“If I can keep those weak-minded villagers from even knowing we’re here, I can certainly make them forget about you,” Diana snarled.
Veronica rolled onto the floor and lay on her back, unable to move.
Diana knelt next to her and took her hand. Raising it to her lips, she bit down hard, breaking the skin. The pain was excruciating but Veronica couldn’t even make a noise. Diana let Veronica’s bloody hand drop from her mouth. Diana was panting.
“It renews the body, as it will renew the land,” Diana exclaimed with a note of ecstasy in her voice.
Veronica’s vison grew dark.
Terry Murray busied himself arranging the glasses on the table in the garden, careful not to spill a drop of the precious liquid. He looked about him. He was sure he was alone in the darkness. He lifted a glass to his lips, letting the iron rich smell fill his nostrils. He drank hungrily.
“Greedy!” Diana’s voice cut through the night air. Murray turned to face his mistress, terrified.
Diana stalked from the shadows of the house like a panther. Her jet-black hair making her blend into the night. She stopped and ran her hands down her tight, lithe body.
“Still, I can’t blame you.” Diana looked out into the night.
“Thank you, Mistress. Sorry, Mistress,” Murray hissed.
Terry’s hair darkened and his skin tightened on his face as the blood was absorbed into his system.
“Have the others done as they were commanded? Spread this upon the land,” Diana asked.
“Yes. Mistress! It has begun!” Murray motioned to the house and the garden.
The structure of the house sagged no more, and the overgrown foliage had shrunk back.
“It renews the body, as it will renew the land,” Diana said to herself and turned to Murray.
“You did well, the journal worked. It lured a good tribute. Drink your fill and then fetch the others.” Diana walked away as Murray gulped down the rest of his glass and then grabbed another.
Diana Drake looked out into the night sky. She heard Murry scurry away to fetch the other. It had been a long time since they’d fed. She walked towards the pyre in the middle of the garden. The reporter’s remains laid upon the top.
A firework rose into the night sky and illuminated the macabre scene. The villagers were celebrating the end of their fete. Diana smiled – if only they knew its true meaning. Diana turned back towards the house. More fireworks rose and burst; the flashes highlighted the shambling mass of the ghoulish inhabitants of Hawthorn Lane entering the garden. They shuffled to a halt and bowed their heads as they saw Diana.
“A tribute has come and been taken. It renews the body, as it will renew the land,” intoned Diana.
“It renews the body, as it will renew the land,” wailed the assembled mob.
“DRINK! Drink and be renewed!” commanded Diana.
Aged, claw-like hands grabbed at the glasses as the feeding frenzy began.
The now youthful Murray stood beside Diana and surveyed the scene.
“What now, Mistress?” Murray asked.
Sweet Little Chittering is coming October 29th and can be ordered now for Kindle