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Authors: David Harris Wilson

Woodhill Wood

BOOK: Woodhill Wood
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David Harris Wilson


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Matt didn't want to do it but Gurde was determined. It was Gurde that had picked the moth out from the crack in the bark. He slid open the delicate wings to reveal the two golden circles. Matt could do nothing as the frightened insect struggled between his fingers, its legs a blur of movement beneath a fat brown body.

Sometimes Gurde listened. Sometimes Gurde had let him have control for a while. But there on the Woodhill Gurde tightened his grip and moved Matt's hands in opposite directions. The right wing tore like tissue and yellow juices ran on his skin. When the split was complete, he allowed the moth to dangle from its remaining wing. Gurde brought the insect close to his face so that he could read its expression. Its eyes were dull beneath quivering antennae. He showed the moth the wing that it had lost.

"Do you know what this is?" he whispered. "Recognise it?"

The moth replied by kicking and twisting; a sudden movement that tore the remaining wing away from its body. It flapped its stumps as it fell. It bounced on the mud. Matt wanted to crush the insect, to put an end to it, but Gurde let it crawl away through the leaves, its stumps burring with intended flight.

Gurde glanced at the golden circles that he still pinched between his fingers. The moth had not had permission to be on the Woodhill. He tucked the wings into the crack in the bark and hurried on up towards the cliff.

At the top of the slope, he sprinted through the patch of sunlight, leapt a narrow burn and ran on into the shadows.

In the trees he relaxed once more and looked down. His eyes followed the tumbling water down towards the fields. Over the preceding weeks the fields had been stripped of their golden harvest. All that remained was blackened stubble. The school bus was heading along the road that divided the fields and he felt any remaining guilt lift. Gurde scanned the ground for a suitable rock, picked it up and sent it spinning. It bounced once, twice, three times, and then disappeared into the bracken. Packed into that blue and cream box was an army of children dressed in black. Matt had worn that uniform to his Papa's cremation and only there had it felt right. Ever since, the laughter from those bus-riding mourners had seemed blasphemous.

Gurde pictured their faces. Downstairs the younger ones sat fiddling with their badges, wondering what it would be like to finally take their place up the winding stairs from where so much excitement poured. Upstairs, at the back, cigarettes were being shared. The leaders coughed back their esteem, laughing and bickering about the possible sex of the night before, taking turns to be ridiculed. The developing bodies on that slashed back seat were the icons before which all others had to kneel. Even Gurde had to kneel there. Only they had the confidence to their slide hands over skin to places that were forbidden and then speak casually of what they felt.

Gurde looked down from the hillside with contempt. He was permitted up those winding stairs. There he sat invisibly against the wide front windscreen. There he strained to hear the subject of the ridicule from the slashed back seats, waiting for his name to be uttered and the laughter to heighten.

The two mile journey to the grey buildings was a daily ordeal. Gurde always sat deep in his seat, waiting to hear his name, dreading the response it would bring, but longing for it all the same as evidence that Matt Duff had some momentary existence in their lives.

Now, on the edge of the trees, he was higher than the highest seat. Yet, as he watched the bus crawl across the valley, he listened for a name on the wind, carried over the fields, through the fences, around the walls, along the paths, over the burns, through the branches and into his waiting ears. Gurde wondered if the mourners had noticed his absence that morning. The teachers would but that didn't matter. They would assume he was sick again. Matt Duff had a good excuse. He was a good boy, poor thing.

Gurde turned and looked up into the trees rising away towards the Wizard's cliff. The trunks struggled to keep their grip on the slope, each silver column forced to bend at its base before rising straight towards the light. In the summer it looked like the kind of glade that Merry Men would enjoy but it was autumn and the light barely reached the ground.


The loose ground slipped under his feet as Gurde climbed up towards the cliff. He moved slowly, avoiding places where he knew the hill steepened so much that he would have to use his hands. He was determined to keep them warm in his pockets until he reached the top.

There was absolute stillness. The October wind had been shut out. Gurde paused to tug at a trunk where a deer had gnawed through to the sap. He peeled off a long strip of bark, twisting the end so that it would part from its parent. It left a thin white scar up the tree that began to seep at the bottom. Gurde sat wrapping the strip of bark backwards and forwards around the fingers of his left hand. He split the bark down the middle between each wrapping, halving its strength. Each time the bond was complete he tried to open his fingers and snap the fibers. And each time the muscles in his hand strained but the bond did not give. So Gurde unwrapped it and halved it again, wondering at its strength and imagined how long human skin would last if tested in that way. The pile of discarded strips grew at his feet. Only when the bark was as thin as a piece of string did it snap and allow his fingers to fly apart.

Now his mind was clear. The bark had been a good one. All the omens were right and Gurde could approach the cliff with confidence. Today the Wizard's Skull would fall. He could feel the excitement in the air. The Wizard's death would be the sign. Then things would have to change.


Gurde brushed the remaining strands of bark from his clothes, plunged his clenched fists back into his pockets, and resumed the climb. Heading north through the trees he could feel the guilt subsiding. He was leaving it all beneath him. Beyond the Woodhill there was another hill, and then another, for ten long glorious miles. And around him there was nothing but trees. Higher than the trees, above the sacred line, lay only heather and grass and sheep and the wind and the quiet pools. Every step made the people in the bus look smaller. Every step made them less important.


He heard a dog bark. A trespasser on the path above; probably the old man in the tweed cap on his morning walk. Gurde dropped back a few yards and hurried along the face of the hill. He reached one of the oaks in that world of ash trees, ducked in amongst the roots and waited. He could just make out the occasional movement of bright colour higher up the slope. The colour seemed to be weaving, passing in front of one trunk, behind the next, then in front for a few. He watched until the stranger had passed, then headed further along the side of the hill in the opposite direction, making a gradual arc upwards, so that by the time he reached the path the stranger would be out of sight.

There was a feeling of urgency about the climb now. Gurde had to check that the walker was indeed the old man and that he was leaving the territory before he could risk stepping back into the open. As he reached the narrow path, he stopped and looked in the direction of the stranger before hurrying across into the safety of the trunks on the far side. There he paused to listen to the stillness and heard the fading, distinctive yap of the terrier that accompanied the old man.

Satisfied that he was alone, Gurde clambered up to where the cliffs rose through the trees. Now he had to break cover. The trees did not extend to the foot of the rock face. For the final ten yards the ground was open and grassy, littered with the debris of rock fragments that had fallen over the years.

The cliffs were not dramatic. They would not have drawn climbers. The black walls rose sixty feet to stand amongst the highest branches. The winter frosts maintained their rugged looks. Above the cliffs the trees continued for a while until the line where they allowed the heather to take hold.

Gurde listened to the wind before stepping out on to the scree at the base of that cathedral. The loose fragments slipped under him as he used hands and feet to scramble upwards towards the crack in the rock that formed the start of the route. From there it was easy. He could repeat every move of the climb in his dreams. He knew every handhold, every slit that a foot could push from: the perfect order of each movement.

From the crack at the base, a narrow leaf-filled gulley ran across the face of the cliff at a shallow angle. The groove was not wide enough for two feet, so with his face pressed to the damp rock, and with his hands clasped left and right, Gurde began to edge along it. There had been no rain, so the passage was not as slippery as it could be, but he did not feel comfortable, exposed to the view of trespassers who might be passing along the path below.

It took only few minutes to reach the point where the gulley ended. He looked straight up at the vertical part of the climb. It was like a staircase now. Gurde remembered the fear of the early attempts: the trembling in the legs as he hung out into space and grappled for a grip that would hold his weight. He remembered the pounding heart high in his throat and the momentary steps collapsing and spattered away below him. No longer. Now he climbed with the confidence of a master, picking out the safe holds, preparing for each movement in advance. He rammed his left foot into a crack at waist height and drove upward to grab at a small outcrop with the tips of his fingers. The moss that had once covered the hold had long since been rubbed away by his movements, making the grip more secure. Gurde knew where his right foot should go next, slipping it sideways into a gap between him and the face. He pushed up again. Knowledge and speed. Left hand, right foot, right hand, left foot, the rhythm as unbroken as a spider's.

His thoughts were elsewhere, imagining the Skull's fall. Then the rhythm stopped and he knew he had reached the top.

He sat panting on the grassy ledge and swung his legs out over the trees. Now he could really breathe. He could see right across the valley to the Oil Refinery in the distance. Its Olympic flame glowed through the miles of dull light. On either side he could see the sweep of the hills plunging into the valley floor like spades into the earth. All the other hills stood naked to the wind. Only his hill had the trees; the Woodhill. He had been taught that they had all been planted by one man. A life's work. It explained why they were all the same type, the same height, the same distance apart. Through his dedication the planter had created a separate world.

Gurde sat watching the ripples of wind weaving through the tree tops until the time was right to make the Wizard pay.


The moment came and he walked along the edge of the cliff, inside the line where the grass had no foundations and hung out into space. The tools lay where he had left them, hidden in a clump of ferns a few feet away. Gurde gathered the hammer and chisel and returned to begin work.

The Wizard's Skull was the last remnant of the overhang that had run along the top of the cliff. Three months before, the Wizard had been untouched, the upper part of his body protruding from the rock: its bald head bowed between narrow shoulders, its arms outstretched on either side, its beard merging with the cracks. The battered face had stared down on Gurde on a bright summer morning, laying down the challenge through empty eyes.

Of all the sections that had been there, the Skull was the biggest and now it stood alone. The other blocks, the fingers and arms and shoulders, lay in shattered pieces amongst the trees below. Some had parted with only a little persuasion but others had required more work. They were chipped at until the crack was wide enough for the lever to be inserted.

When Gurde climbed to the top on that first summer morning he saw that the whole of the cliff top was waiting to fall. Perhaps the next winter would have been the one, or the winter after that. It didn't matter. The process had already begun. The crack was there, running along the length of the overhang, waiting for the ice. Gurde was only putting the Wizard out of his misery.

He had dragged the lever from the skip in the town dump. It was a long scaffolding pole that had been left to rust in the rain. Over the period of a month he had dragged it the two miles from the town to the Woodhill and hauled it up through the trees. The cliff itself had been an impossible obstacle, so he had dragged it, day by day, into the glen between the Woodhill and its neighbour, and then up through the heather until he was higher than the cliff. The other tools were more conventional: the heavy hammer and chisel had not yet been missed from the shed.

So he set to work on the Wizard once more, chipping at the edges of the crack, sending shards of rock flying out and down into the trees.


Gurde knew the Wizard's Skull was special so he left it until last. He knew that when that massive rock fell it would do real damage below.

He loved the work. He could pull on the long metal tube and feel the mountain tear and separate, then breathe the ecstatic silence as the block fell before feeling the dull thump as it hit the bottom and began to split and roll and roar. He always rushed to the edge to see the pieces careering down the slope, spinning and jumping and leaping. Then came the magical moment when the spinning chunks began to hit the trees. The roaring and cracking crescendoed as pieces of mountain were thrown skyward. They exploded into great clouds of shattered fragments, some falling quickly, others rising up to arc over the trees, curling away like rockets with long trails of dust. The gunfire would echo on for minutes as the falling remnants struck their targets far below.

BOOK: Woodhill Wood
12.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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