A Campfire Tale
So, why wouldn’t Peter come camping with us? They had asked me as we sat around the fire watching evening subside and give up its beauty to the dark mystery of night. Why had he reacted so strongly, so strangely, Roz and Jenna had asked with the flames glow reflecting in their quizzical faces. Yes, he seemed dead against the idea Matt added, his arm around Jenna’s waist. I just smiled at his choice of words and told them the story he had told me; if story is the right word.
About eight years ago he had been touring the Shires, up from the west country and along the borders of Wales. A keen and strong cyclist he had made his way through Dorset, Somerset and through into Shropshire. Now parts of Shropshire are hilly, solitary and unpredictable places, especially on the borders and that is where he now found himself. Having, at one point, suffered three days of solid, heavy rain descending off the hills in a fine, persistant mist that soaks through to the skin, Peter realised he was on the verge of coming down with a bad chill and had taken strong medication to nip it in the bud.
As he was cycling he, naturally, travelled light and was in the habit of stopping at inns and pubs for his meals. It was in such an inn, quiet, remote amongst the hills that he partook of an early supper. He had drifted into the company of a few of the locals who engaged him in friendly conversation ranging from the fickle weather to local customs and folklore. They had bought him drinks, more than he had intended to consume, he was not drunk, but what with the tablets, the chill and the hard day he had experienced he just wished he had not been so carefree. They bade him farewell with directions to a good campsite just beyond the range of hills known as the Stiperstones. As he left he glanced back at the name of the inn so as to call back if he found himself in the area again.
About an hour into his ride the chill began to break and he felt quite ill. He had given up all hope of finding the campsite, the directions seemed very misinformed and it was always an easy task to get mislaid in country such as this. He decided the best thing would be to pitch the tent and sleep out the night. He calculated that he must have been somewhere on the Stiperstones.
Tent up and rolled in the warmth of his sleeping bag his mind turned to the folk tales the locals had regailed him with, particularly, the ones involving these hills. Dismissing them from his mind he settled down, hoping to feel better by the morning.
It must have been just after midnight that he heard the noise that had disturbed his sleep. Sounding like high pitch laughter, fast like an old tape played on a higher speed then fading to nothing. He listened, straining his ears…nothing. He settled back down. Peace for a few minutes then….the sound of a bicycle being moved. He sat up and looked out of the tent, there was his bicycle where he had left it. As he settled back into the tent another bubbling of strange laughter, followed by silence. He laid down. The laughter returned, increasing in volume, whirling all around him, then ripping, nylon tearing as blades shreded his tent. Peter’s reaction was to grab for his boots and torch and escape. The child like giggling increased as the torch snapped on and the beam fell upon one of the attackers.
Two hikers had found him unconscious the next morning. He had fled quite a distance before the fall that had knocked him out. He had blurted out the terror he had witnessed, to the two hikers, to the doctors and nurses and, finally, to the psychiatrist that had treated him over the following weeks.
His torch had shone on a child, well a body of a child, but the head, the face, told a different story. The faces were adult, the size, the features, every grotesque and grizzled detail. There had been a number of them, grizzled old heads on child size bodies. As he ran they had tried to cling to him, grab, him, pull him down. One had been riding Peter’s bike around and around, ringing the bell, and all the time that laughter and those faces, horrible and familiar, yes, familiar. The faces on those bodies of children matched every local man and woman who had been in the inn. He told the psychiatrist the name of the inn. It was checked out but no inn of that name existed in the area, at least, not for seventy years or more.
The doctors concluded extreme exhaustion, the effects of mixing medicine and alcohol, as well as mild concussion as a result of his fall. All contributing to hallucinations and confusion of memory and imagination.
Later on, the two hitch hikers, having continued their journey, located Peter’s tent, it was ripped to shreds. The wind was one of the explanations offered, but the two hikers remained unconvinced, it looked like knife slashes to them. They found his bike too, dented, the bell gone, and about half a mile further into the hills. They returned it to Peter. Had they ridden it back down the hill he asked. No, the wheel was too buckled, they had replied, Why? The seat has been lowered right down, someone small had ridden it. The lights were missing as well. No one believed the crazy story except the two hikers. They had seen lights on that night, at about one in the morning and what had sounded like distant laughter.
The campfire cracked and the story over. "I can see why he turned down our offer", Matt said.
"A good story but I think he imagined it", added Jenna, "the hikers were just trying to scare him".
"No", I replied, "you're looking at one of them now. That’s how I first met Peter, I saw what I saw and heard what we heard the next time we had set up camp.
bicycle bell, being rung right outside our tent".