They looked like an army; the police in their helmets, armed with batons, crouching behind riot shields. They looked like Nazi storm troopers. Behind them loomed the diggers and bulldozers, their headlamps falling down like spotlights on the scene. They were an army and this was a battle in a very real war and we were ready to take the fight to them.
I was crouching low in one of the lookout posts on the edge of Elf land. That’s what we called it: Elf land, the rambling network of tree houses and rope bridges that had been my home for the last six months. I glanced around taking in some of the faces I knew from the crowds of Elf-landers now amassed to fight for their homes and for the survival of Drake’s Brier Woods. Kingsley Evans, the six-foot punk with a pink Mohawk and an absurd voice like a cartoon mouse; crazy Lil with her shaven head and extensive tattoos; Billy the Troll, a hairy little Scotsman so called for his ability to dig and live in tunnels. Oddest of all was Mrs. Parkhurst, Elf land’s oldest resident, a 70-year-old widow from the little town of Drake’s End. She had hated the proposed relief road and fought for the survival of the woods from the outset. She had been living in the ragged conglomeration of arboreal shanties longer than I had.
I clutched the cricket bat to my chest and tensed myself for the police charge. Beside me were several petrol bombs and canisters of home made napalm; a nasty mixture of Vaseline, polystyrene, and petrol. I always knew it would come down to this; the final battle. But the reality of being there, the thick pendulous atmosphere, made my stomach turn over. Then from behind our ranks came a voice:
“And when he’d eaten all he could
And when he’d had his fill
He crawled away and wound his tail
Nine times about the hill.”
He stepped out of the shadows and pushed his way towards the front line. Walking forwards into 'no man’s land' he stood before the police and work crew as bold as brass. It was Goatface.
Goatface had always been a part of Drake’s Brier as far as I was concerned; a semi-legendary character. I played in the woods as a boy. My friends and I would dare each other to go deeper in; into where the light didn’t shine. Into where the mad tramp lived. He would come scuttling out of the shadows, muttering under his breath or sometimes loom from behind an ancient oak or yew, silent as a ghost. I guess he must have looked pretty much like the average tramp. He wore a fading black trench coat, even in the middle of summer. About it was tied a piece of hairy string in lieu of a belt. He had shabby grey trousers and hobnail boots. He had a long unkempt beard that gave him his name, always flecked with spittle, filth and crumbs. It was almost as if he was cultivating something in it. His weather-beaten face had a Faginesque hooked nose and two mad pallid eyes that shone out through the grime. He looked like some ungodly cross between Old Father Time and Albert Steptoe.
And the woods themselves were equally as odd. According to the maps Drake’s Brier covered around 300 acres. Yet it seemed so much bigger. Perhaps it just looked that way through a child’s eyes but the odd effect still struck me when I returned as an adult. Even at the edges very little light penetrated. It was filtered through the dense canopy of herbage above. This gave the woods an odd sort of constant verdant twilight. Everything seemed tinted green. In Drake’s Brier you could think yourself in the middle of the Siberian Taiga. It seemed so distant, so far from civilisation. And at its centre stood Worm Hill.
Worm Hill rose several hundred feet about the middle of the woods. Visible for miles around it was a well known local landmark. No sheep ever grazed there. It was encircled by rings forming tiers up its sides. The local legend was that they were formed by the coils of a dragon that laired in the hollow hill and came out to wrap itself about the mound.
We climbed up it on a number of occasions. We were always out of puff by the time we reached the top but it was worth it for the view. Miles of the North Yorkshire Moors were visible. On a clear day you could just make out Whitby on the coast to the east. We would run down the spiral coils in the hill imagining the size of the beast needed to make them.
My dad told me Worm Hill was actually an Iron Age fort and the circles were its ramparts. Apparently in the early 1960s a team of archeologists from Leeds University dug there. The dig only lasted a week and then closed down abruptly. Apparently nothing of note was found. The team’s leader, a Professor Amos Hartley, retired afterwards. The hill was left undisturbed ever since.
As we got older our fear of Goatface lessened. He never actually did anything to us. He was never aggressive or unkind; he was just there. You would see him in the woods; he might stare briefly, but then he would back away into the trees, like an animal. He lived deep in the centre of the woods. I only saw his home a couple of times. It was in a thick tangled stand of blackthorn. I stumbled on it quite by accident. He had woven the thorny branches together to form tunnels running to a central dome of woven thicket and corrugated iron with old bits of tarpaulin strung across it. A makeshift chimney rose from it, black and sooty.
It wasn’t us who gave him his name; it was an older boy, Keith “Beefy” Johnson. Beefy Johnson was the bully of Drake’s End middle school, though he was quite a coward on his own. Beefy usually had an entourage of henchmen, the Beefy Johnson Gang. They took to hanging around the woods. They gave the old man the name of Goatface. They would torment him screaming “Goatface, Goatface” over and over, throwing stones then running when he hobbled after, swinging the gnarled old walking stick he always carried. He wheezed horribly and dribbled phlegm down his beard. He mumbled and hissed but I could never make out the words; they sounded foreign.
Sometimes he would play strange music on a set of carved black pipes. The eerie, disturbing sound would float down through the woods sounding more like a piping language than music.
I was amazed when my Granddad said he knew him.
“Abner Skinner were his real name,” he said. “His family came from up Northumbria way. I knew him when I were at University down in Leeds.”
My Granddad had done three years at the university; rare for a working class bloke in those days. He studied farming and agriculture. It was not long after the war. He had been a bright lad and won a scholarship. He went on to farm rapeseed just outside Wakefield.
“Wouldn’t credit it would yer, lad? He were bloody clever once; best in the year. He wouldn’t have just been a farmer. He would have got a job down the Old Smoke with the agriculture department or something. I couldn’t believe it were t' same bloke, me.”
“What happened, Granddad; if he were so clever, like, what happened to him?” I asked.
“Went mad, son; mad as bag of spoons! He got a dose of religion. Don’t ask me which one. Some crackpot foreign rubbish I think. Anyways, he found this old book in one of them creaky old bookshops up Hebden Bridge way. Said it told him how to grow crops really fast and no matter how poor the soil was. Somethin’ to do with old gods and earth fertility. The more he read the loonier he got. He would wander up onto the moors and in the woods for days on end. Miss lectures, never wash, come back to his digs covered in dirt and blood. Some of the other students said he was sacrificin’ cats and chickens to somethin’ up in Drake’s Brier but I can’t say if it were true or not. He said he had a theory that would revolutionise farming. Said there would be no hunger ever again. Now this was just after the war. People was still being rationed. Happen as that’s why his tomfoolery was tolerated up at the University, to a point. He could have made it big. I think he could have really done somethin’ special; groundbreaking. But then one night he was caught wandering through campus covered in mud and blood, screamin’ his ruddy head off. He was thrown off the course and kicked out his lodgings. He just upped and left for the woods. Lived there ever since. Never been right in the head since. He’s a wrong 'un, that bloke.”
I often wondered what the old man lived off. I supposed he must pick berries and grow his own food. I thought he must have some livestock because on several occasions I heard him mention “feedin’ it.” It seemed to be the only words he said that were not gibberish.
The Beefy Johnson gang continued to torment Goatface for a couple of years. Then Beefy disappeared. No body was ever found despite a massive police search. No one was ever charged. I supposed they would have questioned old Abner Skinner but I never heard anything about it. The Johnsons moved away down south. Some of the people in the village suspected “that mad old bastard up the woods” had done Beefy in. They spoke darkly about him but no one ever did anything. My Mum wouldn’t let me play in those woods after that. My mate’s mums all did the same thing. That was in the summer of 1977. I didn’t see Goatface again for years.
I grew up, left school, attended college, and finally moved away to study ecology at Cardiff University. I joined Greenpeace there and went on several protest marches and rallies. It was just after my graduation that I heard of the government plans to run a road straight through my childhood playground.
There were bee orchids in Drake’s Brier; there were red squirrels. Some said there were even mouse-eared bats; stuff that you rarely find elsewhere. The woods were like a little national park. The plan was to run a relief road through the woods and skirt around Worm Hill. It would destroy many acres and bisect the forest. The danger the heavy traffic would pose to wildlife was obvious.
I left immediately to join the direct action protest. The thought of another piece of green stripped away forever made my blood boil. The fact that it was ‘my’ piece of green made me all the more angry.
The group grew over the weeks and months, as did Elf land. I was surprised to find Goatface was still alive and well. We didn’t see him that often. Usually we would hear his unsettling music rising through the woods when the moon was fat. A wet, reedy, piping, pregnant with strangeness. When we did bump into him on some deep woodland path he would never speak but gave us a nod as if he knew what we were doing and was grateful. I almost got to like him. Almost.
We had cost the government hundreds of thousands of pounds and had put their nasty little project back months. Roadblocks, iron spikes in tires and caterpillar tracks, sand in engines; we tried all the tricks. Now it looked like it was all over. We were well entrenched but vastly outnumbered. All that stood between the police and the diggers and us was Abner Skinner; old Goatface.
The sun was crawling behind the horizon, throwing the whole scene into the ethereal cloak of twilight. The old man cast off the huge trench coat and stood bare-chested. His scrawny body was a network of scars. Strange symbols were carved into his flesh. I had an unpleasant feeling that they were self-inflicted.
He threw back his head and bellowed; an animalistic primal scream that I found hard to equate with such a frail-looking old man. Then he began his jabbering. If they were words then they were not in any language known to me. They sounded more like guttural snorts, high-pitched whines, and horrid chitterings. Perhaps they were vestiges of the original, primal, uber language rising up from the old man’s subconscious. Who knows? The police must have been slightly taken aback as they didn’t do anything. At the height of his maniacal ravings he threw back his head and whipped a black-bladed knife out of his malodorous pocket. Quick as a flash he was cutting signs in his own flesh, opening up swirls and curves of flesh that wept tears of blood. His hands moved fast across his pigeon chest whilst his face seemed lost in a ghastly expression of almost orgasmic ecstasy. As the rills of gore fell into the dust he shrieked something that I think must have been an invocation, a calling, the name of… something.
There was a dry rustling from the woods behind us. Something stirred the treetops and made the dead leaves dance tiny waltzes. The ground began to tremble as if something were stirring beneath our feet. A murmur broke out among the ranks then someone noticed that the police were staring not at us but behind us.
As one, the crowd turned and looked up at Worm Hill. There seemed to be an odd kind of nimbus about it, like a heat haze. It seemed to trace a path down the ruts that encircled the hill. The effect seemed to move with an ophidian grace. It ran like water down the tracks forming coils about the hill. As I watched, trying to work out what was causing the strange sight, I noticed that it seemed to be solidifying. The haze was becoming more like a greenish light.
The front end of the phenomenon reached the foot of the hill and seemed to slide into the trees. There was a rustling in the woods that began to grow as coil after coil of the green light slithered down from the hill and entered the woods.
None of us knew what it was. I think we were all imagining it to be some kind of trick Skinner had engineered. I recall being impressed at that point and wondering how the old bugger had pulled it off. None of us were ready for what came next.
Out of the woods came a sound. It was like nothing I’d ever heard. I could try to explain it as being bird-like; a sort of thundering screech. But that would not do it justice. It had more bass. It was almost as if the sound was inside my head rather than external, but I know that can’t be right as I saw the others react to it. The noise seemed to stir something deep in my memory. Something bad.
There was another sound accompanying the screech. It was like the sails of an old-fashioned ship unfurling or huge carpets being beaten. I realised with shock that I was listening to the beating of huge wings.
We didn’t scream, not a first. We couldn’t even move. What came crashing out of those woods; half slithering, half flapping; burnt itself onto the mind of everyone that saw it together with one word: ‘dragon.’
It was huge: hundreds of feet long. It rose from the shadows of Drake’s Wood, its titan bat wings half open. Armoured scales glistened an iridescent green, the sheen making rainbow patterns like oil on water. Four tree-trunk-thick legs terminated in clutching scythe-talons. The tail seemed to trail on endlessly into the woods with an unceasing writhing and coiling. At the end of the long neck was a horned head, a reptilian nightmare. I saw row upon row of curved white teeth, strong as steel and sharp as razors. A great forked tongue flickered in and out of the scimitar-lined jaws, tasting the air. Caustic saliva dripped from the maw, hissing like water on a hot plate.
It wasn’t the teeth that scared me the most. It was the eyes. Vast orbs of golden fire with black slits. They looked so old; so very, very old and as it turned to glance down at the Elf-Landers it regarded them with a vile understanding.
The wings opened and beat once. It was up and over the crowd, landing with uncanny agility in ‘no man’s land.’ The jaws opened and it spat forth a white fire. Bulldozers exploded, cartwheeling high in the air and crashing down in charred ruin. The police caught in the blinding, white-hot blast were dead before they hit the floor. The heat boiled their innards, sending them vomiting from their own mouths as flaming liquid flesh. They danced briefly like ghastly marionettes before becoming whips of carbon.
Those who escaped the blast ran, bowels emptying. The dragon fell upon them and the jaws flashed down and seized a victim. It hoisted him aloft and shook him in the manner a bull terrier might shake a rat. Again and again the jaws flashed as it snapped up human prey with a lurid wet crunching.
A handful of the men had escaped, running madly into the night. The beast could have easily caught them or struck them down with a jet of flame. I think it wanted them to escape. It wanted them to tell their masters what they had seen at Drake’s Brier. I was doubled up, retching, as were most of the other protesters around me. Some had fouled themselves. I saw Billy the Troll scoop up a prone Mrs Parkhurst and run for cover.
It screeched again and some dark memory rose inside me. I was a frightened ape running across a plane under a hot sun, running for my life. A puny mammal that shat and pissed as it scampered for cover with other mewling members of its kind. A massive black shadow fell across the land as an airborne predator whirled above us. The screech came again, echoing through the ages, through the countless generations, across species and into the present day. The race memory faded leaving me in spasms. I heard a human voice and my mind clutched at it like a drowning man grabbing a branch.
“I knew he’d come, the old Wyrm. He’d come all right if he thought his home was getting messed with.” I heard Abner hiss. “Him’s like an adder, hibernates but as an adder sleeps months he can sleep aeons. There’s loads of 'em all over the world. Just not time for 'em to wake up yet.”
He began to laugh, almost doubling up as much as me in my sickness. The monstrous creature folded its titan wings and slithered back into the woods. As it went it seem to be losing form again, becoming more ethereal. I turned my head up towards the hill and saw the shimmering coils slipping ghost-like into the side of the hill itself. Goatface, his wounds now quite healed, calmly picked up his coat and followed it. I wondered about his words, about just when would be the right time for them to wake up.
I never went back to Drake’s Brier. The government abandoned its plans for the relief road. An enquiry into what happened stated that one of the bulldozers had exploded due to a serious electrical fault. The flames had engulfed several more machines and ignited their petrol tanks. The men were killed in the ensuing explosion. I have not seen any of my old friends from Elf land. I think that like me they have given up direct action. I now live in central London, as far as I can from any wood. Still, when the wind whips up the trees in the park, making the branches sway, or clouds send big shadows sweeping across the land, I shake. And the ancient screech of the dragon still reaches down through time to haunt what little sleep I have.