Adrian Plass

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    The Hill

    By Adrian Plass

    My dream is always the same. I’m standing at the bottom of a hill with my friend, Tom Crane. The air is clear and still, but there’s no moon and the sky is starless. It’s one of those very dark nights when the child in you fears that the old nightmare has really come true. The sun has abandoned human beings, not just for twelve or thirteen hours, but for ever. 

    The top of this hill that stretches up and away from us is far, far too distant for Tom and I to be able to see what might be up there. But it would make no difference if it was only fifty yards away. We are barely able to see our hands in front of our faces. Far too dark. I have an inkling that there might be one of those old, turreted houses at the summit. Possibly an ancient, crumbling castle. A Hammer Horror classic. Something predictable like that. Clearly it is terribly important for some reason that we two should succeed in climbing all the way up to the top of the hill. I get the impression that neither of us actually knows what this very good reason might be, but our ignorance doesn’t seem to matter in the least. We are, incidentally, both wearing a small rucksack, although, on each occasion, the content of these two bags remains a mystery to me until much later on.

    We set off upwards in the blackness. I’m nervous of the effort that will be involved, but reassured to find that there’s nothing but coarse turf under my feet, a little slippery in places but not difficult to walk on. My mood lifts as we become engaged in a sort of playful race, laughing and shouting to each other as we climb. Those who know me well will be aware of how much I hate the thought of physical exercise and how much I enjoy it when it actually happens. I’m the same in this dream. At first the whole thing is fun. Even a little exciting. 

    Then, gradually, the terrain gets tougher. More problematic for one of my build and fitness. Instead of that nice easy grass I’m encountering a confusion of bushes and roots and old tree-trunks apparently covering the hillside. It becomes worse at every step. I try to keep up with my friend, but before very long Tom has pushed on so far ahead of me that I can’t see or hear him at all. I start to panic. I feel lonely and frightened. It seems even darker than before. A heavy wind has arisen and rain has begun to gust down and across the face of the hillside, stinging my eyes uncomfortably and causing even more problems in my attempts to make progress. 
    Clumps of turf, bits of fallen timber and lengths of branches seem to rise up unexpectedly again and again under my hands and feet. They’re awkward and wet, greasy and unpredictable. I reach out with my hands towards a length of solid looking wood in order to steady myself, but it cracks and gives way, collapsing forward and depositing me into a dripping nightmare of brambles and closely tangled undergrowth. After a struggle I get my footing back at last, but now the ground that I tread is treacherously uneven and slick with mud. My feet seem to slide away from any spot on which I place my weight. On at least two occasions I’m convinced that my ankle is too badly twisted or sprained for me to continue. But I have to go on. What else can I do? There’s no other choice for me. I have no idea where I am. I have no idea where Tom is. The only vague sense of direction I have is an upward one. If I keep on climbing towards the top of the hill I’m surely bound to find Tom somewhere up there. 

    By now my rucksack and my sodden clothes are like weights dragging me towards the ground. They’re more of a hindrance than a help. I’m soaked right through to the skin. My body is bruised and covered with scratches and grazes. Excruciating pain shoots through my injured ankle every time I lean my weight on it. I whimper with misery as I miss my footing yet again and find myself plunging headlong and sideways into another invisible bush. This one seems to be made of a mass of thin, tapering branches. They express their annoyance at my violent intrusion by whipping viciously at my already sore face and hands. I seriously fear I’m approaching the point of giving up. The wind has got much worse. It’s a howling gale now. The sheeting, driving rain is doing its best to beat me back down the hill. I suspect it’s more likely to beat me into the ground. I’ve lost my friend. My will has all but gone. I’m sobbing and nauseous with pain. I really don’t think I can move any more, neither up nor down. Best for me to find a space in the midst of this unholy mess of natural booby-traps if there is one, and simply lie down. I’m wearily confident that if I do that and close my eyes all the cold and wet and pain will quite quickly go away. No point in trying any more. 

    Then, quite suddenly, over the howling rattle of the wind and rain, I hear a sound coming out of the darkness from somewhere quite close but a little farther up the hill, and it puts new life and spirit into me. 

    ‘Lance! Lance! Come on mate! Up here! Not far to go now…’

    Hearing Tom’s voice is like a heavy injection of some stimulating drug. My friend is just up there ahead of me! Good old Tom! If I make just one more effort I might be able to catch up with him. Once we are together again - well, when you have a friend next to you anything is possible, isn’t it? Even now - even now, everything might be all right. Doing my best to ignore the pain in my injured ankle I somehow find fresh energy to set off up the hill again, trying to take more care where I place my hands and feet, not tackling obstacles in the blind, hopeless way that brought me to the edge of despair only moments earlier. Fuelled by my new optimism, I cover a distance of about twenty yards, and then I stop, straining my ears and hoping against hope to hear that reassuring voice floating down the hillside once more through the weather’s clamour. 

    ‘Come on, Lance, old mate! Just up here! Catch up and we’ll get to the top together!’

    Yes! It is him! He really does sound very, very close now. In fact, just a few more yards up the hill. I sniff hard and try to wipe some of the rain from my face with the chilled skin on the back of my hand. I call back as loudly as I can. ‘Coming, Tom!’ But I don’t want to waste any more breath on shouting. I shall need all the precious air in my lungs if I’m to catch my friend up. I struggle on for a few more yards and then, wonder of wonders, the ground seems to clear around my stumbling feet. Hallelujah! Just grass. Nothing to be fended off with smarting palms and lacerated fingers. Just friendly grass under my feet that will make it possible for me to be back in contact with my friend in no time. My legs are sacks of concrete but I force them to move forward. Just a few more yards. Amazingly, I even manage to break into a staggering run. 

    Sudden disaster! I trip against something that’s lying on the grass in front of me and crash to the ground. All the air is knocked from my lungs by the fall. Even as I lie gasping for breath I find myself wondering what the thing I fell over can be. At the point when I collided with it, it seemed to be heavy, yet curiously soft and yielding. Certainly not a tree or a bush. 

    Still struggling to regain my breath, I scramble to my feet again. I peer at the ground. All I can see in the blackness, through eyes streaming with rain, is a darker mass on the dark hillside, perhaps about the size of a human being. It’s borne in upon me that my rucksack contains a tiny pencil-torch. Why didn’t I know this before? 

    Swinging the bag from my shoulders I grip the little metal tag on the end of the zip with numbed fingers and pull it across the top of the rucksack. I grope inside the dampened interior. Somewhere in here. Here it is. I have it. But will it work after all this rain? I push the switch on the side of the torch to what I hope is the ‘on’ position and a thin, rain-dotted beam of white light shoots out into the darkness. I kneel and focus the torch beam on the cause of my fall. At first I simply cannot identify the thing I am looking at. A pile of clothes? No. A dummy dressed up in trousers, jumper and weatherproof coat? A dummy left on the side of a hill? Why on earth would..? I move the beam towards the top end of the figure and start back in horror. Tom! Tom’s face! Tom’s face, but horribly bloated and dark blue in colour. Tom’s eyes wide and staring and lifeless. Something badly, horribly wrong with Tom’s neck. Someone has taken hold of his head, then pulled and twisted it with incredible strength. It was Tom that I stumbled over. Tom’s corpse. Tom is dead. 

    I have no idea what to do. 

    I turn the torch around until its beam is pointing straight into my own face. Suddenly I’m in a startlingly bright world. I don’t even blink. Something about the torch? Something I should do. Something I should do about the torch? Of course! Turn it off, you fool! Turn the stupid thing off! Turn it off quickly before the hideously strong thing that did this to Tom sees the light and comes roaring out of the darkness to do the same to you. 

    So I do it. I switch the light off. I’m still kneeling on the ground beside poor Tom. I really don’t want to leave Tom but I must. I feel so weak. I have to go. I have to get up and run back down this slope through that nightmare of bushes and fallen trees and undergrowth, back to the bottom of the hill where there might be a possibility of finding safety. I stand and listen to the storm for a moment. I’ve never known such terror. My heart thumps and pumps in my chest as though it will burst. Then, even above the wailing threnody of the wind, I hear it. I hear Tom’s voice calling me from only a little farther up the hill.

    ‘Lance! Come on, mate! What’s the matter with you? We’re nearly there! Come on - I’ll wait for you!’

    Fighting to control the trembling in my hand, I switch my little torch on once more. I direct the beam onto the dreadful bloated face of my friend for a fraction of a second, then, tossing the torch out into the blackness, I turn and fling my body down the way I have come at a ludicrous, leaping run. Of course I know that trying to negotiate the hazards of the hillside at such speed is bound to end in disaster, but I fear whatever is just up there above me on the hill far more than the obstacles that lie in front of me. As I jar and jolt my wild way down the hillside, I hear, terror of terrors, someone or something plunging heavily - far, far too heavily and with impossibly huge strides - through the undergrowth in the darkness behind my back, calling out loudly in Tom’s friendly voice as it begins to gain on me. 

    ‘Lance! Stop! Slow down! What on earth’s the matter with you? It’s Tom! Wait for me!’

    I hear my own voice screaming as I blunder on blindly through the wind and rain. Seconds later the inevitable happens. It was only ever going to be a matter of time. In my headlong flight I trip on a root or branch. So fast have I been moving that for an instant I feel as if I really am flying through the air. There is an abrupt explosion of light behind my eyes as the side of my head strikes a hard object. In a final, fugitive moment of consciousness I seem to become aware of a rancid, sickening smell. I hear a deep, rasping grunt of satisfaction issuing from a point just above and behind my shoulder. It’s a sound that I’ve never heard before, and it bears no resemblance whatever to Tom’s voice. After that, everything is black.