Ed Dearnley’s character returns to Tyneham in England for the first time in sixty years, and remembers his childhood, the war, and the witch’s curse.
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I was taking a break from U-boat hunting when I spotted him, huddled in the bushes on the ridgeline. He was small for his age, almost like he could hide behind a blade of grass.
“What you want?” I shouted.
“Nuffin,” came the reply.
He wasn’t much of a talker. He’d started school earlier that year and, with his family’s reputation, it hadn’t taken him long to become a target for our usual crew of bullies. Earlier that week, I’d dragged him out of a circle of jeering boys, all making little devil horns with their fingers as they kicked at their wailing victim.
“Come down here,” I said. “I’ve got my dad’s field glasses. I saw two Spitfires strafing an E-boat last week.”
The boy inched down towards me on thin, bandy legs. His clothes were well-worn and heavily patched, even by wartime standards. I passed him the field glasses and showed him how to adjust the focus. He’d only uttered that single word since I first saw him.
I left him to scan the waves for what felt like hours before curiosity got the better of me. “Is it true what they say?” I asked. The field glasses twitched in his hand. “Is it true that your mum’s a witch?”
He didn’t reply, his attention locked on the sea below, dirty fingers turning the focus wheel as he searched for those elusive periscopes.
I stayed there for the rest of the afternoon, growing bored with the lack of military action and my mute new friend. As the shadows grew, I announced my mum wanted me back for tea and set out for our village.
Halfway home, I looked behind me and there he was, about thirty yards up the hill. He turned away, pretending he was watching a gull glide through the pink sky on a warm sea breeze.
It was retirement that drew me back. I had no fond memories of the old country – moving to Australia was the best thing Mum and Dad ever did. My overriding memories of England were shivering in a cold, damp house for months on end, followed by brief summers spent chasing friends around the Dorset hills. And the war, of course, I remembered the war.
But retirement does something to your mind. With old age and death looming, your thoughts go back to where you first began. Sixty years after we set out from Portsmouth on the SS Strathmore, I boarded a Boeing 747 to make the considerably quicker return journey.
England was much as I remembered it: dreary, cold and downtrodden. I wondered what my life would have been like if we’d stayed. A job on the estate most likely, along with a tiny, damp house, and the unspoken duty to doff my cap at the upper-class fools charging through on the hunt every Sunday.
I hired a car and toured Southern England: London, Essex, Milton Keynes, the Cotswolds. I called on barely remembered relatives and toothless old friends, making polite small talk about life in Australia over milky cups of tea. Do you think you’ll keep the Queen? they all seemed to ask. Who gives a shit about the Queen, I thought.
To be honest, I couldn’t wait to climb aboard the plane home but, before I did, I had one last stop to make. Tyneham, the village where I was born. A place I’d last seen in 1943 through the misty windows of a bus, looking back at the church as the old vehicle wheezed up the hill and onto our new home in Swanage.
I said farewell to one last ancient uncle, fired up the car and set out south towards the Dorset coast.
Mum and Dad were at the kitchen table, waiting for me to come home. They were staring at a letter, black type on crisp white paper, a formal red crest at the top. I thought it must be Uncle Toby, fighting Rommel in North Africa. He’d probably bought it or, worse still, struggled out of a flaming tank, alive but horribly burnt.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Mum walked across the kitchen and put her arm around my shoulders. “We’re moving, Ted,” she said. “To Swanage.”
“Why?” I asked, tears starting to flow. “I like it here. My friends are here.”
“The army wants the village,” said Dad. “They need somewhere to practise with artillery, and we’re in the way. The letter says we have to make a sacrifice for the war effort.”
“Well, someone else can make a sacrifice,” I shouted, the tears flowing hard now. “We’re not going, are we? You’ll tell them to shove it, Dad, won’t you?”
Dad didn’t say anything, he just bit his lip and stared at the letter. I wriggled free of Mum’s embrace, ran upstairs to my bedroom and slammed the door.
Getting to Tyneham wasn’t straightforward; in fact, a few years earlier I wouldn’t have been able to visit at all. But the Ministry of Defence had finally buckled under pressure from the Ramblers Association, the County Council, the local MP and God knows who else, and allowed access to the ranges when they weren’t busy shelling the green hills to kingdom come. On days when the red flags fell, Tyneham now became an attraction for coach loads of ice-cream-licking tourists – England’s very own ghost village.
I double-checked the range opening times with the pub landlord in Lulworth as I booked in. The plan for the next day was simple: I’d get up early, head to the sea, and walk in along the cliff tops where I used to spend hours searching for U-boats and Messerschmitts. I’d take an hour to explore the village, before the dead-eyed tourists arrived with their cameras and bad t-shirts, then drive to a hotel at Heathrow and return to Sydney on the morning flight.
The sun was streaming through the cheap, unlined curtains when my alarm went off. It was 5am, too early for a fry-up, so I showered, dressed, and threw a few items in my bag. A map, a bottle of water and a big bag of potato chips that would have to serve as breakfast.
I walked out through deserted streets and picked up a footpath on the edge of the village, following the yellow arrows over a stile and out across the fields. The path headed south through rows of golden corn, tiny copses of broad-leafed trees, and verges flecked with blood-red poppies. Before long, I arrived at the cliff tops.
For the first time since I landed in London, a brief pang of nostalgia grew in my heart. From the top of the brown cliffs, I could see for miles over the sparkling waters of the English Channel, where container ships chugged along the horizon, heading for the Atlantic Ocean. Below me lay the sheltered coves and tiny sandy beaches where I’d once fished for crabs and bullheads. And above shone the sun: not the harsh, unyielding Australian sun, but the gentle sun of an English summer’s morning.
I could have stood there for hours, watching the sun play on the waves and listening to the skylarks. But I was there for a reason, so I turned east and followed the coast path towards Tyneham. And then, before I’d even gone half a mile, I saw something unexpected on the hilltop in front of me.
A red flag.
My heart dropped – it couldn’t be – but the next stile confirmed the bad news. Warning do not enter. Live firing ahead, said the sign, adding, Extreme danger of death, in case I hadn’t got the message.
I put my bag down, pulled out the water bottle, and took a long swig. How could this have happened? Tourist information had given me the opening times, and the landlord had confirmed them. My flight left the next day and, if I couldn’t get to Tyneham, I’d either have to pay a fortune to move the flight back, or abandon the whole idea of visiting the village.
Could it be that the army had forgotten to take down the flag and sign? There must be hundreds of paths across the ranges, a hell of a job to manage all the signs. Sometimes, they might miss a few.
That had to be it.
I made a decision, one I’ll regret for the rest of my life. I threw my bag on my back, vaulted the stile and strode straight past the red flag, following the well-trodden path down the gently sloping hillside.
The boy was waiting in the bus shelter opposite our house when I left for school the next day. He followed, eight paces behind me, as I walked towards the schoolhouse.
I turned around and beckoned him towards me. There was a livid bruise on his face, one that hadn’t been there the day before. His mum’s reputation for black magic might have only been village tittle-tattle, but his dad certainly was an angry old drunk. I’d heard the vicar whispering that their family tree didn’t have many branches, a comment that made my dad spit out his tea when I asked what it meant.
“Did you get the letter?” I asked, “Where are you moving to?”
“Ain’t going,” said the boy.
“But the army says we have to. There’s no choice.”
The boy shrugged and stared at his shoes. “Dad says we ain’t going,” he said. And that was it for the day’s conversation.
The bullies were waiting on the street corner. There were three of them: two little scroats from the younger children’s table, and Nelson, a mouthy sod from my half of the room.
“Friends with the witch’s boy are you, Ted?” said Nelson, moving into the street to block our path. “She offer you a roll in the hay-barn if you walk him to school?”
I looked up into his dark, piggy eyes. I was a year older than him, but somehow he was a head taller. “Why don’t you piss off and pick on someone your own size, Nelson,” I said. I looked down at his feet and slowly raised my head until I was staring at his scruffy brown hair. “If that’s possible, you lanky freak.”
He snarled and tried to knee me in the balls, but like most mouthy bullies, he was too slow, too obvious. I took a quick step back and smashed a hard right hook into his ugly mouth. A gob of blood flew out across the street, his head rocked sideways, and he crumpled to the ground. I kicked dust in his face, just to be sure. He tore at his eyes and burst into tears.
“What the hell are you looking at?” I yelled at his terrified sidekicks. They took one look at each other and ran.
I left Nelson sobbing on the ground and continued on to school, the boy whimpering with relief beside me. After that, he followed me to school every day.
The hills around Tyneham had changed since I was a boy, sixty years of target practice taking their toll. The rusty hulks of burnt-out tanks littered the fields, along with grassed-over shell holes, ivy-covered pillboxes and thousands of pieces of corroded metal. And everywhere I looked were signs. Do not leave the path, danger of death, said one. Do not pick up any objects, they may explode and kill you, said another.
And finally, there it was, laid out in the valley below me. Tyneham, my childhood home. It seemed much the same as I remembered it but, like me, showing its age. The church and the schoolhouse were in one piece, but even at a distance, I could see missing roofs and crumbling walls amongst the scattered rows of houses.
A loud crack echoed around the valley. There was a pause, then three more cracks in quick succession. My stomach sank. The sound was unmistakable. The red flag hadn’t been left up by mistake – I was in the middle of a live firing exercise.
I squatted down, trying to keep my head low whilst searching for the source of the gunfire. Crack, crack, crack, sounded the gun, and I saw him: a soldier dressed in green camouflage with leaves stuck to his helmet. He was about sixty yards away, standing in the waist-high grass with a rifle raised to his shoulder.
His gun was trained on a figure advancing slowly across the hillside towards him. Its clothes and skin were a uniform shade of brown, broken only by shiny white glints of stone.
Crack, crack, crack. The figure stumbled and slowed. I almost laughed. A friend had told me about these games. They were playing zombies, the soldiers firing blanks at opponents dressed as the undead. The zombie would soak up a few hits, then keel over, ready for a final killer shot to the head.
But something didn’t fit with the game. Every time the gun fired, a brown puff erupted from the back of the advancing figure, almost as if the bullets were travelling straight through. The staccato crackle of the gun mutated into the ripping, tearing sound of an assault rifle firing on full automatic. Fine powder sprayed out from the zombie’s back, filling the air with brown mist. It bent double, arms flailing, but stayed on its feet.
The gun clicked empty and the soldier’s hand moved down to his waist, fingers fumbling for a fresh magazine. But before he could reload the smoking gun, the figure rushed at him, its lightning pace starkly at odds with its previous shambling approach. It slammed into the soldier, the two bodies tumbling into the long grass with a startled scream.
Then the inevitable happened. I was an old man with a bad knee, not built for squatting in place. My knee gave way, and with a stifled yelp, I rolled to the ground. I was back on my feet in seconds, but it was too late. The figure was on its feet too, looking straight at me. I could see its mouth, two lines of white teeth unmistakable against its dark head. Something was hanging from its teeth, something pink and wet.
I turned and ran down the path, ignoring the stabbing pain in my knee. Soft, muffled footsteps followed me, accompanied by the whipping sound of someone – something – pushing through the long grass. I ran as fast as my old bones would let me, but the noise of pursuit was getting closer. But before it could reach me, an immense wave of concussion slammed into my back, sending me tumbling to the ground.
For a few moments, I stared up at the thin white clouds. When I sat up, a plume of oily black smoke was rising into the sky, and I understood what must have happened. Someone was looking out for me: the creature had run into an unexploded shell.
I found its remains at the bottom of a fresh crater in the hillside. There wasn’t much left: a head, one arm and the top of its torso. It seemed to be made of the earth itself, its only discernible feature two rows of teeth that slowly chewed as I stood there watching. Then a second mouth opened on its forehead, and another on its cheek. More mouths erupted all over the remnants of its body, full of sharp white incisors, flat yellow molars and pointed grey canines. And tiny teeth – baby teeth.
I backed away, turned, and fled towards Tyneham, keening like a child in search of the safe embrace of its mother’s arms.
“What’s going on?” I said to Mum, pushing my way through the crowd to her side. I’d been on a fishing trip, hunting for starfish in the rock pools, spotting the gathering outside of the church on the way home.
“The Ministry wants us to leave a note,” said Mum, “Something inspiring to help the war effort.”
I looked across the cemetery, at the church door, where my teacher was making some final corrections to a sheet of paper busy with red pen. “This is what we’ve got then,” he said, clearing his throat before reading it out. “Please treat the church and houses with care. We have given up our homes, where many of us have lived for generations, to help win the war and keep men free. We shall return one day, and thank you for treating the village kindly.”
A few mutters of appreciation came from the assembled crowd. The teacher spoke again. “Alright, anything else?”
“How about you write we’re staying,” shouted a shrill voice. “Then tell them to stick it up their arses.”
I turned with the crowd. It was the witch, bony hands gripping a gravestone and wild eyes boring holes in the teacher. Her long, matted black hair flowed down over the top of a dress made of a hessian sack. Behind her stood the boy, tugging at the hem of his mother’s dress, desperately trying to drag her away.
“How long has your family lived here, Matthew Baker?” she said. “How many of your ancestor’s bones will you leave?”
“It’s the army,” said a voice from the crowd. “What are you going to do – curse them?”
“Maybe I will, Thomas Green,” spat the witch. “And maybe I’ll curse this ground too.”
The men at the back shoved her towards the church gates. She struggled and shouted before toppling backwards as the men pushed harder, her head cracking against a tomb. She rose to her feet with tears in her eyes and fresh blood oozing from a gash on her forehead, the boy still pulling her dress.
“At least in Swanage we won’t have to mix with her type,” muttered Mum as she led me away.
I don’t know why I ran for the church. Perhaps it was because all the houses seemed wrecked, with missing doors and fallen walls. Or could it be that appealing to God is a reasonable thing to do when devils stalk the land.
But the front door of the church was locked. I ran past the gravestones to the rear entrance, but the small metal door was just as firmly locked as the wooden set at the front. As I rattled the handle, I saw a flicker behind a stained-glass window of Jesus on the cross – there was someone inside.
“Help,” I shouted, “Help, let me in. Please, I’m begging you.”
The door cracked open, revealing the dull barrel of a pistol and a bloodshot eye. A soldier, his face covered with mottled camouflage cream, blending in with the dark space behind him. The gun disappeared, and the door opened wider.
“Good thing you shouted, otherwise I’d have shot you,” said the man, a major judging by his shoulder flashes. “Did you miss the signs? Don’t they teach you to read in the colonies?” He stood aside to let me in, then quickly shut and bolted the door behind me.
“I… I thought they’d been left up by mistake,” I said, slumping into a pew.
“Well, the British Army doesn’t make mistakes,” said the major, “And, judging by that look on your face, something tried to eat you.”
“It killed a soldier,” I said, nodding. “Then ran over a shell and blew itself up.”
“That’s one bit of good news. There’s three of them – two to go.”
“I’m T…” I started, but he interrupted me.
“Don’t want your name, Sport. I’m not going to be the sorry sod who tells your children you got eaten by a compost heap.”
“What… they’re made of compost?”
“Soil and bone fragments, mainly. And teeth. Amazing things, teeth. They can survive for thousands of years. The ground around here is full of them.”
He sat down in the pew opposite, wincing as he eased himself onto the wooden seat. For the first time, I noticed his blood-soaked trouser leg.
“Don’t worry, Bruce,” he said, catching my gaze. “I won’t turn – they’re not like that. They appear every year like clockwork. Every summer we put them down, and twelve months later they pop straight back up again.”
“Then why are you hiding in here? Why didn’t you blow them up again?”
“Well, the buggers keep learning new tricks,” he said, scratching his chin. He looked old and tired, deep lines on his forehead visible beneath the dark camouflage. “Back in the day, it all sounded rather fun – they just shambled towards the machine guns. But then they learnt to run. And, this year, they’ve learnt ambush tactics. They took down two-thirds of my company, and the rest of the cowardly buggers legged it.”
He fell silent for a moment, allowing a half-century-old memory to resurface in my brain. “The witch,” I said, “Has this been happening since the war?”
“What the bloody hell are you babbling about, Skippy?”
“I grew up here. When the army moved us out, she said she’d curse them. There were thr…”
A hissing sound from the front door interrupted me. With a grunt of pain, the major sprang to his feet. Brown, loamy soil and little white teeth were pouring in through the half-inch gap at the bottom of the door, forming into a neat pile on the entrance mat.
“Well, blow me,” he said, walking over to examine the growing pile, now nearly a foot high. “That’s new. I believe we should get out of here.”
He started towards me, but before he could move even a pace, the earth lurched forward, engulfing his right ankle. He looked down with an almost fatalistic expression, watching it take form. A head, chest and arms. And hands, the fingers gripping his leg.
The major pulled out his pistol, and for a moment I thought he was going to fire into the creature emerging behind him. But he knew better than that – he put the barrel to his temple and blew his brains out onto the stone floor.
I ran to the back door and fled into the churchyard, sprinting through the shadows of gravestones. As I raced round the corner of the nave, my foot snagged against a stone, and I fell face-first into a moss-covered Celtic cross.
Nelson appeared at my side as we queued for the buses. He’d acted like I was his best friend ever since I’d punched his lights out. He could have learnt to respect me, but more likely, it was just fear. Usually, I ignored him, but we’d been waiting for hours on a chilly morning, and the officer in charge – a teenage lieutenant with a little moustache grown to make him look older – seemed in no hurry to load up. I was cold and bored.
“Did you hear?” said Nelson, sweating despite the temperature.
“Hear what?” I replied.
“About the witch and the drunk. They’ve barricaded themselves in their house. Said they’re not leaving.”
My heart dropped. “What about their son?” I asked.
“Yeah, him too. The drunk has a gun. Said he’ll shoot anyone who tries to come in.”
“Surely, they’re not stupid enough to shoot at the army?”
The booming rapport of a distant shotgun provided an answer. The lieutenant discovered a sense of urgency, waving us towards the nearest green bus. “Come on, come on,” he shouted, the wispy moustache twitching. “We haven’t got all day.”
I heard the shotgun fire again as I climbed onto the bus, followed by the rapid bark of rifles. The guns crackled for a few seconds, then an explosion echoed through the valley. The air fell quiet.
I tried not to think about the boy as I took my seat at the window. Instead, we attempted to guess the source of the explosion. Nelson thought it sounded like a bazooka, but I thought it was more likely a hand grenade.
I must have blacked out, because the next thing I remember is lying on the stone path in the churchyard, staring at five cracked teeth lying in a small pool of blood. When I put my fingers to my lips, they came away smeared in red.
The teeth began to vibrate. At first, it was so gentle that I blamed it on my recovering vision. Then they began to rattle against the flagstones, like dice on a board. As the vibrations reached a crescendo, the teeth skittered down the path and disappeared into a pile of earth by my feet.
I looked up. It was the creature, its earthy body devoid of any features. A mouth opened in the middle of its head, two lines of greying canines with an empty void beyond. The edges turned up, almost like a smile.
It rushed towards me. Instinctively, I threw up my right arm to fend it off. My hand disappeared into the dark loam of its chest.
It wasn’t dead and cold inside. It felt like plunging a hand into the soil on a warm summer’s day, fingers hunting for worms to hook on a fishing line. The earth around my hand stirred as the teeth arrived. First, the incisors, biting into the flesh of my fingertips. Then the molars, squeezing down against small, fragile bones. Lines of teeth appeared in the earth around my wrist, chomping, grinding. The air filled with the muffled cracks and pops of my disintegrating fingers.
When I was twenty, I shut two fingers in the passenger door of my girlfriend’s car and stood there screaming in agony as she rushed around the bonnet to release me. That day, the pain was almost unbearable, but it was nothing compared to what the creature inflicted on me in that graveyard, the torment all the greater knowing that things would only get worse.
The creature took a step towards me, pushing my forearm deep into its chest. Every fibre of my being screamed to push it away with my free hand, but I knew what would happen if I did. Expectant mouths appeared all over the creature’s stomach and legs, teeth grinding in anticipation of the feast to come.
The pain had gone, my body falling into shock. I dimly remember hearing the bones in my forearm splinter, before the creature stepped forward again and engulfed my elbow. I turned away, waiting for it to fall on me and start on the main course. But it stumbled back, releasing the bloody stump of my arm.
Two tendrils of brown earth had wrapped themselves around the creature’s waist, dragging it backwards. Somehow, I staggered to my feet. I fell, then rose again, putting ten paces between me and the creature before I collapsed onto the grassy hump of an old grave.
The tendrils were a smaller creature, the two brown bodies almost indistinguishable as they pulled and struggled against each other. Hundreds of mouths opened all over the larger creature’s body, thousands of teeth gnashing in anger. It strained forward, starting to break the smaller creature’s embrace. Surely it would win the mismatched contest and fall on me again. I put my remaining hand on a gravestone and tried to pull myself to my feet. But I’d lost too much blood – I was done for.
Dreamlike footsteps pounded behind me like a heartbeat, followed by voices shouting orders. Something hissed past my head, and the air filled with earth and flame.
We didn’t take to Swanage. The house was new, with a gas stove and a proper bathroom, but it never felt like home. Not long after the war finished, Mum read about the Assisted Passage scheme in the Daily Mail. Within a couple of months, we were sailing off to a new life in Australia.
I spent three weeks in an NHS hospital, pumped full of antibiotics and painkillers. A woman from the Ministry of Defence visited, but she didn’t seem interested in my stories of monsters, witches and curses.
My children met me off the plane when I was finally medevaced home. They were beside themselves with worry, scolding me for being a silly old fool who went off into the bush by himself. I didn’t tell them much, just that I’d had a hiking accident. To this day I refuse to talk to them about it – they’ve assumed a boulder crushed my arm.
A few months ago, my daughter asked me whether I wanted to make a trip to England before I die, one last visit to my birthplace. I told her the truth – there’s nothing for me there now. I left any happy childhood memories in Tyneham on that warm summer’s day, along with the ground-up remains of my right arm. And my front teeth, buried with my ancestors in the brown Dorset earth.