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 The Green Man Tennis Club
a short story by Garry Kilworth

Pete Alwood was feeling mellow as he walked home with Cynthia Crowstone and Janet Williams to the collection of run-down clapboard cottages which constituted the village. Tonight he had been elected captain of the tennis club. In the great scheme of things this might not seem much to an outsider, someone not from the village, but within this small world on the edge of the Blackwater estuary, the tennis club was everything. It was the tennis club which kept everyone sane, gave them a reason to go on. Fish-packing was a foul job, which Pete hated, but it brought in the money. If he had not been invited to join the tennis club, Pete would have left the village months ago.

'Six months now,' he said, more to himself than his companions. 'Six months I've been here. Godforsaken stinking hole. If it wasn't for the tennis club...'

Janet - dark-haired and petite - looked up at him. There was no resentment at his words, even though Janet had lived here most of her life. This was her village. It did smell. It stank of methane from the marshes which separated it from the mainland. It ranked of the fish waiting to be packed in the factory beyond the point. It was lonely and desolate, especially in the winter, since the flat marshes led to a grey North Sea at the mouth of the Blackwater River, with no relief, not even a copse of trees or a grassy knoll. There was the ruin of an old church there - St. Saviour's - which had been built by some passing monk in 825 AD and then left to crumble over the centuries.

The village itself had once been a community of fishermen, but that was gone too now. The fish packed at the factory came from Norwegian ships and the peeling, tumbledown wooden houses of the fishermen were now inhabited by the packers. In front was the sea, to the side, the river, and to the other side and back, the dangerous marshes, where a man could slip to his death in quickmud, if he did not know the paths.

'What made you come here in the first place?' she asked him, in her soft country dialect. 'You must have known from the map how remote we are.'

'No choice, really. Lost my insurance job in Ipswich and couldn't get another. Tried everywhere. Then I saw that they wanted fish-packers at the factory. I looked on it as very temporary. Just to get me on my feet. But here I am, still. Six months on.'

'But Club Captain, Pete,' said Cynthia. 'That's quite an honour, you know.'

Pete looked across the estuary where the light was fading fast. A red-streaked sky meant a good day tomorrow. Perhaps they could get two sets in after work? He would like to go to the club tomorrow and couldn't wait for Saturday. The captain was the kingpin. There was a great deal of deference shown to the captain. Power. He had the power to issue orders and expect them to be carried out. Already he had been told that drinks at the bar were free for the Club Captain.

'Anything you want, Pete,' Jack Aitchen had told him, 'it's yours. Nothing's too good for our captain.'

Yes, he was going to enjoy his time in the post.

They had reached Cynthia's house now.

'Do you want to come inside, Pete? For a cup of coffee?'

Pete considered it, but would have been embarrassed if Cynthia's husband, Arthur, came home and found him there. Arthur was still at the club, finishing a set. It didn't seem right that Pete should be alone in their house with his wife. Arthur might think there was something going on between them, which there certainly wasn't.

'Thanks, but no - got to get up early, you know. I'm on first shift tomorrow at the factory.'

He continued on with Janet, after they'd said goodnight to Cynthia. When he'd first come to the village he'd tried to date Janet, but she had rejected him outright. Janet was single, though she had a boyfriend, Jack Aitchen. Pete had never been very successful with women. He was 35, sandy-haired and snub-nosed. He had those kind of boyish looks that women dismissed as uninteresting. They were never animated in his company. It seemed to him that they were always thinking of someone else, or dreaming of being somewhere else, never conscious of him and their attraction for him. Pete was not exactly a virgin. As an insurance salesman he had often comforted lonely housewives. But he had never had a real relationship with a woman.

'Funny, the club name, isn't it?' he said, by way of conversation, as he and Janet passed a storm ditch full of fish heads from the factory. There were gulls gorging on them in the fading evening light. 'It suggests pagan tennis.'

'What do you mean? The Green Man was our pub before the brewery closed it,' explained Janet. 'We're using the land the pub stood on as our club grounds.'

'Oh, so that's it.'

'In fact the brewery is causing a fuss. It wants the ground rent. 10,000. We've got away with it, for a few years, with promises, but they're under new management and the board has demanded we pay before this coming November.'

'Is that just for one year?' exclaimed Pete, surprised at the amount.

'No - for ten years. We owe back rent. But, we'll find it. They can't close our club, they just can't. We haven't got anything else. I'd die in this place without a social life of some kind. And there isn't anywhere else to go, is there?'

'But ten grand! That's a lot of money.'

Janet stopped by her own ramshackle cottage. 'Well, here we are.' She drew a deep breath. 'Are you coming in?'

'If you like.'

'No - do you want to.'

'Yes, I wouldn't mind. Despite what I said to Cynthia, I'd quite like a cup of something.'

Pete followed her down the weed-riven path to her front door. She opened it and he went inside with her. It smelled damp inside. Mist from the marshes penetrated every home on the estuary peninsula. Janet threw her racket onto the overstuffed sofa.

'Do sit down,' she said.

He put his own racket next to hers and then sat on a chair.

The furniture in her living-room was much the same as the chairs and tables in his own house: old and worn, the mats on the floor threadbare and the odour of wet rot over all. Everyone in the village was poor or they wouldn't be there.

Janet came back into the room with some steaming mugs of cocoa about ten minutes later. He took his and sipped it.

'What now?' he asked, lightly, wondering if she was going to put some music on the radio.

'I suppose you want to stay the night?' she came back, unexpectedly. Her voice was not exactly full of encouragement, but there was no mistaking the offer. Pete's heart began to beat a little faster.

'Do you want me to?'

'Do you want to?'

'Yes - yes, I do, very much.' He placed the steaming cup of beverage on a plywood table. 'I've - I've always fancied you, Janet, you know that. But what about Jack? Are you expecting him?'

'Not tonight,' she said, in a lacklustre voice.

'I - I have to be up early. As I said to Cynthia, I'm on first shift tomorrow.'

'Jack will cover for you. He said he would.'

Pete was stunned by this remark. What was she saying? That Jack approved of him sleeping with his girlfriend? Pete didn't believe it. It didn't seem possible. Jack had always struck him as the jealous type. And not just that he didn't mind, but was willing to stand Pete's shift for him at the factory while he did so! Crazy. Something strange was going on here. Pete suspected he was being set up. It was some kind of joke. Perhaps an initiation rite for the new captain. That was it. Once he was in his socks and underwear the club members were going to come flooding out of the kitchen yelling, 'Got you! You randy old sod!'

'I think I'd better go home,' he said.

'Suit yourself,' she replied, lighting a cigarette. 'You know the offer's there.'

This didn't sound right either. If it was a joke, she should be encouraging him to stay. Otherwise the whole thing became a bit too elaborate and chancy. Perhaps she really meant it? Perhaps the pair of them - Janet and Jack - were into things like this? Free love? A loose arrangement? Who knew what went on behind bedroom doors. That must be it. They didn't care who their partner slept with, so long as they stayed together, formed an anchor relationship. There were plenty of couples like that in the world. You only had to read the Sunday papers.

'But why would Jack want to cover my shift?'

Janet smiled for the first time that evening. 'You are the Club Captain, after all.'

Yes. Yes, he was. It was a position of honour in most tennis clubs, but here in this dark, godforsaken estuary village it practically made you a king. The tennis club. Only the club kept people alive here, gave them any vibrancy whatsoever. There were only one or two in the whole place who actually didn't belong to the club. Even those who didn't play used it as a social centre. It was the place to go. The only place. And he had, for some unfathomable reason, been elected its captain. Probably internal politics. Petty jealousies. The newcomer was always preferable to Jim or Joan, with whom one has had a rivalry for twenty years.

Jack was acknowledging the position, not the man. He was prepared to give the captain what he wanted on his inauguration night. Perhaps it was some kind of tradition? They were a very traditional bunch, these backlanders at the end of nowhere. Many of them had lived all their lives with the smell of bladderwrack and poa grass in their nostrils. They had been weaned on shellfish and seaweed soup. The Dark Ages still infested areas like this, draped as they were in old superstitions and customs. Marsh lore ruled here. Perhaps there was a practice of allowing the new captain to sleep with whom he pleased?

'Is this usual?' he asked, Janet. 'This arrangement?'

Janet looked somehow relieved that he had said this.

'It hasn't been, but it will be in the future.'

This would account for her lack of enthusiasm. She had been told she had to sleep with him. Well, that was all right, so far as Pete was concerned. He had been without a woman for so long it didn't matter to him that she was going to lay back and think of England. She could read a book or smoke a cigarette while he did it, for all he cared at the moment. Perhaps he could awaken an interest in her, once he had her between the sheets? These things had been known to happen. He was going for it, definitely, and Jack could do his bloody shift too, if that's what had been agreed amongst them all. Good luck and good night.

'Let's go,' he said. 'Which is the bedroom?'

Pete had a good time that night. One of the best he had had in a long while. Celibacy was all right if you thought it inevitable and unavoidable, but once you'd tasted the delights of sex it seemed like purgatory. Life became very, very sweet, for Pete. He not only slept with Janet when he wanted, but other women in the village too. They welcomed him to their beds. Somehow or other they got rid of husbands and boyfriends and left the way clear for him. He could only think that the captain of the club was a position which made women go wild for him.

Not only that, he was being treated like a god elsewhere. Mrs Padfelt at the village shop gave him extended credit. He paid for nothing - not his groceries, beer or cigarettes. The club bar was his to own. He merely had to point to a drink and it was in his hand within a few moments. He was given priority on the courts, could partner who he wished in any club championship, male and female, and took to calling into the houses of members for free meals while on his way home from work. Pete had never had it so good, even when he was an insurance salesman.

At first he hadn't wanted any women other than Janet, though they threw themselves at him in droves. But she had demurred.

'I want you to sow your wild oats,' she said, 'before we think of anything like going steady. Go on, have a good time. Ask me again in a year and I'll think it over.'

He could not object to this, since it had been put very forcefully.

On becoming captain he had looked at the club premises with fresh eyes. He realised it was becoming rather shabby. The courts needed resurfacing, the club house itself was getting a little rickety on its stilts, and they could do with new fencing. Such things were mightily expensive - someone had quoted forty thousand when he had spoken of it before - and the club did not have that kind of money. Members paid very little for their fees and the odd jumble sale raised about 30 to 40.

'I would like us to consider trying to raise more money,' he said at a committee meeting. 'We need to refurbish the whole club. And I hear we owe a lot of back ground rent. Where are we going to get it?'

Jack glanced at the other members of the committee before leaning forward and saying, 'That's taken care of, Peter.'

Jack always called him 'Peter'. Jack came from gentry. He had fallen from grace for some reason, but his family lineage was solid gold.

'What do you mean, taken care of?'

'What I say. There's some money coming in at the end of the season. Enough to cover all our expenses. I've even sent out for tenders from firms.' He gave a little laugh. 'I'm the treasurer, it's my job to worry about these things. The Club Captain should be more concerned with discipline, on and off the courts. I noticed the other day young Paul was not wearing whites. Not the done thing, you know. That's your job, to chase people like that up. Get them to toe the line.'

'Yes, I know, Jack - but...'

'No buts. I'll look after the finances. Now, who's for a few at the bar before we stagger home?'

Pete shrugged and let it go. If they wanted to be secretive about where they were going to get their funds from, let them. He couldn't care less. He had a date with young Janice later on in the evening. She was just nineteen. No doubt next year he would not still be captain, so he wanted to make the most of it. Janice had promised to meet him down by the Blackwater. He hadn't tasted Janice yet. He was looking forward to it. One or two whiskies would set him up. Perhaps a cigar? It was all free - all of it - so why not make the most of a good thing?

The summer season was a good one, plenty of fine weather for playing. Factory hours sapped Pete's energy and were depressing in themselves, but for the rest of it, it was all a holiday. If he really didn't feel like going in and jamming stinking fish into boxes, why, he just asked someone to cover for him. Even the women didn't mind doing this. In fact they offered, as soon as they saw him coming to their house, to stand his shift while he had a good time with one of the other girls. Life was one giddy merry-go-round. In fact it was all beginning to pall a little. When you can have anything you want, at any time, they lose their lustre.

The captaincy had done something else for him. His confidence had come back. So much so that he had applied for a job in July, in Colchester, and had been put on the short list. On August the 2nd he heard he had the job. It was in insurance of course, but that was all right. Once upon a time he had thought insurance work dull, but now he needed a rest from partying. He knew he would miss the tennis club and some of the members, but he would not miss the fish-packing factory. That place was a hell on earth. Even the few times he did go in now took all his strength of character. He dragged himself to work. Pete had never really got used to the smell of fish guts. They still made him wretch sometimes.

After hearing about his successful application, Pete went for a walk in the marshes. He wanted to try to sort out his head, which was in a muddle. He felt like leaving the village now, without telling anyone, and putting it all behind him. What at first had seemed to him to be wonderful now seemed rather sordid. He could have anything he wanted here, any woman he desired, but the whole thing was beginning to pall. You could have too much of a good thing. It was cloying. It was becoming boring. What Pete wanted now was Janet and Janet alone. He was in love with her and was thinking of asking her to marry him.

He suddenly stopped walking, realising he had lost the path. Night was falling on the marshes and they were dangerous in the dark. There were mud slicks out here in which a man could drown within a few minutes. Pete shivered, straining his eyes against the dusk. It wasn't just the physical hazards. There was something else in the marshes, something dormant but intrinsically malevolent in this secret and cryptic landscape of mud hollows and reed islands. Night enhanced the feeling that the ancient evil lurking in the swamps needed but a trigger to raise it from its hole.

He shuddered again, violently, and made his way back to his cottage beyond the pale of such archaic horrors.

'I'm leaving,' he told Janet the next evening after they had made love. 'September. They want me to start on the 14th of the month.'

'Leaving?' she said, a look of panic in her eyes. Would she really miss him that much? She never gave much during their love-making. He often felt she was just going through the motions. 'Why?'

'I told you. Well, maybe I didn't. I've got this job, in insurance. It's my chance to get out of here. You - you don't have any fondness for me anyway, do you?'

He said this rather hopefully, thinking if she said she did he might ask her to come with him. Pete could get her a job in the office, perhaps as a secretary or receptionist or something. They could live with each other like a normal couple. That was appealing to him.

'No, not really,' she replied, rather coldly. 'I just didn't know you were planning to leave. You know there's a club committee meeting on the 3rd of September. You'll be here for that, won't you?'

He was bitterly disappointed with her reply, but tried not to show it.

'Yes, yes. I told you. The 14th. I have to find a flat of course, but that won't take long. I'll be here on the 3rd.'

On the evening of the committee meeting Pete, accompanied by Jack, walked to the club house. As they skirted the marshlands a heron flew up out of the reeds. Further along the path they passed the Blackwater Stone, a lump of carved granite which stood right on the point between river and sea. It was probably there for some ancient navigational purposes. Jack stopped to tamp his pipe - an affectation Pete despised - and leaned for a moment on this piece of antiquity.

There was a face carved in the stone. It was the face of a puff-cheeked man with foliage coming out of his nostrils and the corners of his mouth. Pete had not bothered to look at this carving before now, but since he had decided to leave he was noticing all those things about the region which would have struck the visitor as interesting. He had slipped into the role of visitor now. He had visited the ruins of the church, looked at some of the gravestones (and had seen names he recognised amongst the villagers) and now stared at the face in the rock.

'Strange old fellah, isn't he?' said Jack, pointing with his pipe at the sculpture and blowing smoke into the estuary air. 'Green Man. You know the old pub was named after him - and hence the club?'

Pete studied the stone countenance. He found himself marvelling at the artistry, the craftmanship which had gone into these now weathered features. And the leaves, acorns, seedlings and ivy stalks which decorated the face, grew from it, were part of it. Some old stone-carver or mason had put every ounce of his skill into producing this representation. Strong, calloused hands had cut and chipped, until this wonderful narrow-eyed, heavy-browed face had appeared from within the granite.

There was something else here though. Something of the spirit of the stone and the mystical nature of the work which had gone into it. The Green Man was more than just a carving. He was a symbol of nature, a creature in his own right, a mythical being whose presence was real as well as imagined. His extraordinary foliaged head, with its leaves and vines sweeping in waves around the human features, allowed only a small section of the face to be visible. Just the cheeks, nose, eyes, part of the brow, and the chin. The whole back of the head, the upper brow, the hair, the neck, the ears: these were all hidden under a profundity of nature's growth. He was in fact a pagan figure - half-man, half-plant - who had been an important part of the lives of Dark Age villagers.

'You know what he was for - what he did,' Jack said, still poking with his pipe. 'This chap was essential for the harvest.'

'Oh, yes, I knew it was something of the sort,' replied Pete, wondering why he was getting a lecture. 'Harvest rituals.'

They walked on, towards the club house, now emerging from the mists which crept across the quags in the early evening.

'There was a real Green Man too, you know? Chosen by the villagers every Autumn. During the year he would have the run of the place, be allowed to do what he liked, when he liked. That's why you often see the Green Man naked, mud-streaked, bits of hay and straw hanging from him. He'd be out his clothes most of the time, having his way with the wenches of the district. They couldn't refuse him. Had to let him do what he wanted with them. He was the Green Man, after all.'

Somehow, this all had a familiar ring to it. Jack took his pipe out of his mouth and held open the club house door for Pete to enter. Pete stepped into the room and saw twelve faces at the table. Janet was there, ready to take notes. She was the club secretary. Cynthia was at the far end of the table, another member of the committee. Her husband sat next to her. They were all there, waiting, waiting. By their expressions, by their demeanour, they looked as if they had been waiting since dawn that day.

Jack closed the door quietly behind him and turned the key in the lock.

'Anyway, Peter,' Jack continued, before Pete could query this extraordinary behaviour and warn Jack that by locking the door he was breaching the fire regulations, 'the Green Man had a price to pay of course.'

'And what was that, Jack?' asked Pete, getting a little tired of the lecture, especially since he now guessed it pertained to him and his behaviour over the past year. Pete didn't bother to keep the contemptuous tone out of his voice. What did he care now if he upset anyone? He no longer needed the club. He was leaving. 'Do tell me.'

'He was, well, the harvest sacrifice. When Spring came around the villagers would take him to some old tree with mystical properties - some oak or other that had been around a thousand years before any of them were born - and they would hang him from its stoutest bough, poor beggar. He'd had his fun and now the harvest gods needed to be appeased. The Green Man was the villagers' human sacrifice to those gods.'

Pete frowned. Despite his determination to remain uncaring, he felt uncomfortable. They were all staring at him. Some of them had scared looks on their faces, especially the women. What the hell was going on? He began to get angry.

'Look, if there's some hidden meaning behind all that claptrap, perhaps you'd better tell me what it is?'

'Certainly,' murmured Jack. 'You see, well, you know the club desperately needs funds. We have to pay the brewery its ground rent or they'll take the club away from us. Then there's resurfacing the courts, club house repairs, that sort of thing - you yourself raised it at a meeting? Well, we haven't got any money. This peninsula is as poor as any orphan cast out to fend for itself. So we had to get some from somewhere. The club is all we have. Without it, we're doomed to a life of misery at the bloody factory.'

'Tell me something I don't know.'

Arthur spoke up now, in the deep, dragging tones of a man who has lived in a remote corner of Britain all his life.

'Ah, see here, Pete, we've gone an' got you insured, is what we've done. Fifty thousand pound.'

'Me? You've got me insured?' Pete was quietly furious. 'Who gave you permission to do that?'

'Well, I say us,' Arthur continued, not at all put out by Pete's apparent anger, 'but I really means Janet. She's got you all wrapped up for that sum as her 'life partner'. That's what they calls it, anyhow. She's the benefactor, so to speak, who'll inherit after you're dead.'

A chill went through Pete. Was this a game? What was happening here?

'After I'm dead?' he whispered.

'After tonight,' Jack chimed in briskly. 'If you haven't guessed it now, you're not very bright, Peter. You're our Green Man. You're our sacrifice, the man who'll ensure that the tennis club will survive. I'm sure you've packed a lifetime into the last year - a king couldn't have had it better. Now comes the time to pay for it.'

Pete began to edge towards the door. 'This is ridiculous,' he said. 'It's a cruel joke, isn't it? You're trying to frighten me. Well, you've succeeded. Now, look...'

Before he could say any more some of the men jumped up and secured him. He struggled of course, but they were strong. They'd been packing and lifting heavy crates of fish most of their lives.

'You can't hang me,' cried Pete, terrified now, 'it'd be murder.'

Jack said, 'Oh, we've decided on an accident. As you point out it's a pity we can't hang you in the traditional manner - we're all very fond of tradition here - but as you say, the police, the law and all that. So we're going to have to make do with an accident. There are sink holes out in the marshes, filled with mud kept soft by the high water table. As a stranger you naturally don't know where they are. It seems fairly appropriate, given that the Green Man should die a natural death - that is, a death in which nature has the biggest hand.'

Pete screamed high and loud. Jack calmly unlocked the door and had Pete dragged outside, sobbing in fear and anger, out into the night. Others were waiting in the darkness, ready to assist. Though he called for help, no one came. They were all there. The whole village.

Then with torches in their hands they slipped along paths over the salt marshland - paths their ancestors had marked. They passed old wrecks of boats which had been cast there by abnormal tides, their timbers left to rot. There were whisperings in the poa grasses as adders slipped away from the drumming feet. Rats too, made passage for them.

When they reached a sink hole, they stripped him naked. Someone had brought along some blue dye and they painted him with circles, swirls and centripetals. While he cried in fear and humiliation they smeared clay on his body, worked it into his hair, under his arms, in his crotch. They stuck leaves and twigs on the clay, pushed sprigs of yew hedge into the corners of his mouth, forced bryony vines up his nostrils. They fitted his head with antlers made from driftwood and tied large smooth stones to the soles of his feet and in the palms of his hands. They gave him a tail made from a bog arum plant and placed on his brow a wreath of freshly-gathered sweet-flag and old, dried friars-cowl.

When the victim was ready, Jack in his role as shaman, produced a greasy cord with knots along its length. He stood behind the Green Man and put the cord over his head and round his throat. Then he proceeded to throttle him, very carefully, so that he lost consciousness, but remained on the quick side of life and death. Once the victim had slipped to the ground in a dead faint they picked him up and held him aloft.

Finally, with a high-pitched cheer and hysterical laughter ringing loud, they threw him into the mire.

The Green Man came to when he was waist deep in the sludge. There was a desperate struggle, but his panic was to no avail. The victim sank slowly into the dark alluvium. The more he kicked and waved his arms, the swifter it sucked him down. Soon he was just head and shoulders above the surface. The members of the tennis club watched the Green Man sinking. There was pity in one or two faces, but for the most part they looked resigned and resolute. A decision had been made many months ago and now it was being executed.

Terror choked the victim before the mud did. He spoke once more before he slipped under the slick surface. Just a few words.

'You won't be able to prove it. There'll be no body.'

'Oh,' said Janet, quietly, in that soft burr she had, 'after a week or two your bloated corpse will be forced to come up. It does that, you know, when the ocean currents filter through channels below. We'll find you when we send out a search party, after the next big tide. And the alluvial salts will get rid of any bruises on your neck.'

In the light of their torches they began singing some song he had never heard before.

He stared at them dumbly, the fear having numbed his brain now, as first his mouth went under, then his nose. He tried to draw breath but sucked in swamp ooze. In his terrible panic he breathed again, quickly, and filled his lungs with suffocating mud. Agony burned within his chest and brain, seizing every nerve within him. A sudden rush of unbelievable pain, and then it was all over. Resignation. Death.

Just before his wide terrified eyes vanished below the mud the members tossed wild flowers - hairy buttercups and meadow daisies - observing the proper rites of passage for the Green Man.

The members of the tennis club stood staring at the mud, as it smoothed itself over, naturally, once the object had slid below its surface. There was a way with these things. It was as if the mud had not swallowed a man whole at all, was innocent of any crime.

'Well,' said Jack, 'that's that. It's over.'

There was guilt and relief mixed in his tone.

Janet said in a flat voice, 'We've murdered him.'

'It was a ritual killing,' said Arthur, firmly, 'that's not murder.'

'No - no, I suppose not. Wasn't there something in the writings about it being a sacrifice? To a pre-Christian god of some kind? An "old god of luste, a satyre of sorts, unkinde and swollen full with unslaked carnal heat" I think those were the words. Lust. That's apt for Peter. You could say Peter sacrificed himself. He took all that was on offer,' she shuddered once, remembering how she had allowed him to use her body, 'and so, really, he has to pay the price, doesn't he?'

'His life. A bit harsh, I suppose, but you're right. Even if he didn't know the terms he must have guessed the price was high. There's always a price to pay for gratification. These remote villages.' He chuckled. 'They sort of raise the appetite, don't they? Lust. From what you say, Peter turned into some kind of sexual athlete. Must be something in the marsh gas that does it...'

They turned to go. Some were already treading the path back to the village. Then out of the bog there rose an immense shape. It seemed at first to be made of mist, but gradually, under the torchlight and before the fearful eyes of the mob, it began to solidify. Squamous and with a powerful body, it grew from the sludge. Above the waist it had the figure of a man and below were the loins and legs of some hellion beast. Their eyes widened, seeing its thick and ugly genitals, the beast having risen rampant, aroused, ready to satisfy an ancient appetite.

There was the stink of evil about it and the watchers gagged on the foul odour. Short, ugly horns protruded from its temples and its eyes were unfathomable pits that glinted dully in he marsh night. There were living things scuttling under the scales that covered its body. It breathed its first breath of marsh gas for more than a thousand years. Its nostrils dilated in satisfaction. It opened its wide mouth to reveal tiny, even teeth.

A kind of murmured rumble came from its throat. Its eyes roamed the terrified group of people, now frozen to the marsh path. Finally its gaze settled on Janet and Arthur, and its mouth curved in a red-crescent leer, revealing a tongue as thick as an adder. Its breath suddenly became sweet and cloying, filling the area with its sickening fumes.

'The man first,' it said, in a thick, gutteral voice, 'and then the woman.'

© Garry Kilworth 2002
This story appears here for the first time.

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