September 2017: Olivia Dunnett - Whistling Monster
August 2017: John McNorvell - Christmas Present
July 2017: Annalisa Crawford - The Fear of Ghosts
Read Olivia's winning story below. Think you can do better? Then subscribe monthly - or pay a one-off entry fee - and send us YOUR story:
Winner : Valentine Williams - Get Away From The Window!
Also shortlisted :
Jerry Ibbotson - 97 Seconds
Caleb Stephens - Gone Fishing
C.R. Berry - Ery Mai's Dream
You can read previous winners in our very first issue of Dark Tales right up to Volume 16:
by Olivia Dunnett
A month before the death of my father a friend invited me on a walk in Epping Forest. I was busy, but I told her to have fun, and then, without thinking, I told her to watch out for the Whistling Monster. She laughed and asked me what I meant, and I said it came from a book of South American stories I’d read as a child. That was the first I’d thought of my father in a long time, and the last I thought of him until his death, of a heart attack at the bottom of our garden.
The house where I grew up backed onto a small patch of woodland, not even an acre. We lived in the centre of London, and though there were plenty of private squares and woodchip playgrounds, it was the only real wilderness in the area other than the nature reserve at King's Cross. The wood was almost wholly enclosed by a coil of Georgian terraced houses, of which ours was one.
The street entrance to the wood was like the mouth of a bottle, the cork drawn and blooms of gigantic greenery bubbling up to the rim. The plants were restrained by fiddly black railings strung between the white stucco of the houses on either side. A path led between them to a sturdier gate, almost always kept locked. Banbury Wood was only open to the public on Tuesdays from two till four. But our garden walls were easy to scale and the occupants of the houses came and went as they wished.
After my father died my mother asked me to clear the house in preparation to sell. She was staying with my aunt, and since she’d found the body it upset her spending time at home. I returned a week or two after she’d gone. When I let myself in, the house stank; she hadn’t taken out the bins before she’d left.
In the dining room I looked out at the garden, peering at the spot where she had found him, lying on his back, one foot on the paving stones. He would have stretched almost from one side to the other. He was a big man. I’d half-expected a policeman and a chalk outline on the grass.
I was hoping it would only take me a week or so to pack everything up, but it would be hard to tell without first having a thorough look round the house. I’d bring pen and paper and make a note of the contents of each room. I thought I’d start at the top, with my father’s study.
All of the doors off the staircases were shut, and somehow I felt almost squeamish about running my hands along the bannisters. The familiar paintings on the walls looked solemn and imposing, as though I were in a museum.
From the second floor up the house has a great view of Banbury Wood. It was summer, the swathes of avid, shuffling leaves assembled on the branches, and though it was already almost nine, it was not yet dark. Night had fallen in the rifts between the trees, but the tops of their leaves shone like pennies. Had the wood been cleared the plot would probably have seemed only half the size, a shaved animal.
I turned from the window of my father’s study and surveyed the room. The rows of music books on his shelves would need to be boxed and sold and the drawers were probably full of documents our solicitor would need to see. I had been terrified of this room as a child. Even when my father had invited me in, I hovered at the door, waiting to see if he would change his mind.
I cleared my throat, and leant on the desk to start compiling a list of queries in my notepad. A bird flapped past outside and I looked up. A window from somewhere across the wood flashed in the sunlight and I jumped, dropping my pen. I bent to pick it up.
As my hand closed around it, the blood rushing to my head, the light dancing on the carpet, there came from outside a long, low whistle. I frowned and straightened up, looking out at the woods. The trees were shifting. Someone calling for their cat, maybe.
My bedroom was on the floor below, and though I hadn’t seen it in years I didn’t feel very much. Even the lock on the door didn’t mean what it had. I would sleep on the sofa while I stayed here. My shelves were still stocked with my old children’s books, and I scanned the titles, remembering only a few. That’s when I thought again of the Whistling Monster. I bent down close to the books, but I couldn’t find the one I was looking for.
The Whistling Monster was kind of a game, kind of a story. I’d seen it first in this picture book, a collection of legends from the Amazon. The story had been only two pages long, and the second page had been almost entirely taken up with an illustration of the Whistling Monster itself. It was a colossal animal, the height of the rainforest trees around it, and covered in a thick, bright coat of reddish hair.
More than anything else it looked like a prehistoric giant sloth, the same hunched, shambling proportions, two hooked claws on the end of each lank arm. And on top of its head was a yawning, puckered hole. From there, came its whistle. My father would make the whistle, long and low, when he read me the story.
He told me that the Whistling Monster lived in Epping Forest, in Black Park, on Hampstead Heath. And it lived in the wood behind our house. I had imagined it, burrowed somewhere underground, or in one of the other houses, the walls and floors hollowed out to give it space. I don’t think my father realized how much it frightened me.
I went through my parents’ room, looking at my mother’s woollen jumpers and crisp shirts, my father’s beige suits. I sat on the bed to continue my itinerary, and almost fell asleep in the evening sun.
In the living room the big wooden chest was locked, and I had to phone my mother to ask about the key. When I heard her voice I felt an unexpected rush of annoyance and almost hung up. I should never have agreed to clear the house out by myself. She told me that the key was in the kitchen drawer, and then, sounding a little awkward she asked me how everything was. I was sitting on our knobbly grey sofa, and I had a sudden image of her curled, crying at the other end, after my father had been shouting at her.
“Mum,” I said, before she could hang up. “Do you remember the Whistling Monster?”
She was silent for a moment. “That was always your father’s game,” she said. “I’m glad that you’ve been thinking of him.”
“Of course I have. Do we still have the book do you think?”
“Tales of the World, or whatever it was called? I don’t know sweetie, probably not.”
“It’s funny you’ve remembered that,” she said, “I think you were really quite frightened by it, poor girl. You’ve got to be careful what you tell children.” She paused, her voice thickening. “I remember your dad teasing you at the British Museum once, pretending a statue of a lion was biting him. He went to bed with a headache later and you were worried about him. You asked me if it was because of the lion. It was very sweet.”
I didn’t remember but I smiled. I wondered if she was crying. “I used to think he lived in Black Park,” I said.
“The Whistling Monster.”
She laughed, “You thought he lived in our wood too. That always seemed to frighten you more, I suppose because it was so close by.”
“I think it was because our wood’s so small,” I said. “I didn’t think something that big could fit.”
After I’d put down the phone I wandered over to the back window and looked out over the trees. It was dark now, and the reflection of the lighted room behind me seemed to span out into the night through the glass, a table lamp hanging 20 feet up in the air. I could just see the wood beyond. The scaffolding attached to the house opposite looked like a lofty, multiplex tree house emerging from the canopy.
Most of the paths were obscured but I could make out one thin line snaking into the dim blanket of leaves. The trees shuffled elaborately, dark jostling plates. Just as I was turning away, something caught my eye. I had an impression of a denser, blacker outline. A grotesque sloping bulk stooped behind the foliage. It seemed to shift, and then the next moment was indistinguishable.
I went downstairs, my heart beating a little quicker, to the kitchen. I unlocked the door to the back garden and walked slowly towards to the end, to where my father’s body must have lain. It was warm out here, the hot air trapped in between the houses. The forest smelt earthy and fertile. The trees swayed.
My own shadow stretched out in front of me, cast by the light of the kitchen behind. I thought of my imagined chalk outline again and stepped back, feeling suddenly uncomfortable that my shadow should lie where his body had been. A daffodil stem had snapped to one side, had that been where his falling hand had struck it? I thought of that apparent mass I had seen from the living room window, and raised my eyes to look up into the woods. And from the darkness, there came a long, low whistle.
I started and stepped back, searching the trees, my eyes distracted by the leaves rustling in the wind. An image came to me of my father, standing at the end of the garden, his heart seizing, the slow crumple of his body before the bulging forest. And, very quietly, a voice said to me: He saw it. He saw it and it stopped his heart. Some mammoth shifting in the wood, something big enough to appal even him. My ears were still ringing from the whistle.
I shook my head, rubbed my arms vigorously. This was stupid. I stepped forward onto the flower bed, foot sinking a little into the dirt. There was no reason to be scared of that story anymore. Not quite sure of what I was doing, I lifted myself up and over the wall, my feet plummeting deep into the squashy covering of leaves on the far side, the light from our basement suddenly muted. I was in the wood.
None of the windows of the other houses were lit. Right then the wood must have been one of the darkest places in London. I didn’t have my phone or a torch with me, but I thought I probably wouldn’t need one. I would just make a swift circuit of the wood to reassure myself. My clothes readjusted on my body as I moved. I bent beneath a branch, the crunch of my shoes on the leaves louder, the smell of the earth stronger as my head ducked towards the ground.
I’d expected to arrive at the central clearing, but somehow I’d gone round the other way, emerging at the far side of the wood. I looked around for something familiar and spotted a leaning birch tree I used to climb. Though it was too dark to see properly, it looked as though a thick strip of the bark had been ripped away. I peered at it, took a few steps forward, reaching out to touch.
From somewhere in the wood I heard a snapping noise, an accompanying rush and patter of leaves. I listened. There was a slight shiver in the ground. I looked up and the tops of the trees seemed to be bending, creaking, stretching apart. I stepped back, half-tripping on a log lying over the path.
I turned and started walking quickly back to my garden, my breath short. There was nothing behind me, I knew, but still the desire to be back inside was overwhelming. I couldn’t shake my memories of running through these woods as a child. Out of breath, my feet scuffing the leaves, my father chasing me, bellowing my name, until I collapsed exhausted. And then he would grab my shoulders and roar into my face as I knelt on the ground. Until my ears hurt, and I was rooted from the fear. And he would leave me there.
There were more sounds from the wood behind me now, loud enough that they were impossible to confuse with the clamor of my own progress. I started to jog, and then it was as if I could hear footsteps behind me, heavier than mine, lumbering and regular. I looked back over my shoulder, my hip knocking into a branch, and there amongst the tree tops I saw it. Two swinging, groping arms prying the black trunks apart, a hulking shape shoving itself through. Its movement revealed its true size.
I moaned, and then I ran. As fast as I could, twigs scratching at my hands and face. In the dark I was having trouble recognizing where I was, I wasn’t sure how far it was to my garden. My feet were slipping on the ground. I sobbed, and then, I heard someone call my name. It took me a moment to place the voice, but I was already staggering towards it. I opened my mouth and felt myself call out to him.
There, in front of me on the path, was a figure. Big, but not so big. Just the size of a man, a dark inscrutable shape. I held out my hands to him, and I thought of one afternoon in Epping Forest, my father whistling, hiding behind the trees, dodging away from me.
I reached the figure and as I tried to close my hands on him, he was gone. But just beyond where he had been I could see the lighted windows of my house, the garden wall, the strip of grass where he had died. And I remembered my mother saying, “Enough now Henry,” and he had stepped out from somewhere and I had reached him, and he took me up into his arms. He was smiling, and laughing and holding me close.
I reached the wall and heaved myself over it. I was sweating, and now tears were trickling down my face. I thought, Oh Christ, he’s saved me, he’s saved me from it. And I remembered my father as he held me and told me he was sorry. As he told me he was sorry to have frightened me.
Copyright (c) Olivia Dunnett 2017