WARNING - NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART
An excerpt from The Ritual - read if you dare!
As he ran past the access gate near the Haven Road, he heard something in a bush skirting the entrance. The bush itself was only halfway as tall as the three bar gate next to it, one of those gates showjumpers vault over at Hickstead.
Against his better judgement, he stopped running. There was something in the bush. The rustling of the leaves and the branches was too frenetic for the occupant to be a vole or a rat. His best guess was that a dog had found himself enclosed, or snagged. A medium-sized dog. A Collie, or an Airedale. The plant shuddered incessantly .
Clement took a step closer. Then heard it. A growl. A harsh snarl. Coming from inside the plant. There was an entrance underneath the bush, at ground level, a two foot arch, which could have been man made. That was how the thing inside got caught.
Clement crouched. The whole was dark though, as black as coal, and Clement couldn't see clearly. He pondered, and then, he felt a shiver up his spine that was nothing to do with the falling temperature or the depressurised chill of the perspiration between his lycra top and his skin. He knew, as a runner, that this was fatal. You keep running, keep the internal temperature high. But it didn't bother him. Because Clement St Anger did not like the way that guttural snarl sounded at all.
A keen naturalist – near famous, certainly in the area, a published expert on the wildlife of Wheatley Fields. A passionate environmentalist who contributed to the Woodlands Trust, and a keen animal lover, if a dog was trapped in there, an injured dog or a young pup, he would automatically help. It was in him. Clement aided. He assisted. He could never walk away from someone (or something) in pain.
Half of him wanted to bend down and look underneath the trembling shrub. He could crouch down into the maw, get his head inside, and scan about. Whatever was buried underneath, to free it, he realised that he would probably have to crawl about inside. The ground was dry - the legacy of an everlasting English drought - and he was wearing thin black running leggings: He’d be okay as long as it wasn't necessary to ease his whole body in, in the face of those harsh and penetrating thorns. It was something that half of him would be prepared to do.
The other half of him, simply wanted to run away. Get as far away from that bush as possible. And this side was winning. The growling continued and it seemed to him as if it was about to emerge. It was getting louder.
Clement St Anger, if you asked him, could tell you what genus the bush was, and he could identify the type of trees that surrounded it but he couldn’t tell you which local animal growled like that.
As far as he knew, it didn't exist round here. He couldn’t even make a guess. One thing was for sure. It wasn’t a dog.
He stood there fixed to the spot, in the developing gloom, the darkening fog, the teeth of the chill wind, which seemed to have got worse since the incident at the half way house.
Watching the bush. Deciding.
When he saw the bush begin to shake even more, the thing within it, frantic and maddened, the scaredy-cat half of him won hands down.
As he ran down the trail, as fast as he ever had done, he could sense something following him.
He turned round, but couldn’t see anything and he ran and turned, ran and turned, but still, the evidence of his eyes was contrary to the evidence of his senses. He visualised the animal from inside the bush, bounding behind him, panting. He could feel its hunger. He could sense its urgency. He could feel it. He turned one more time. He thought he could see the bushes all along the right hand side begin to bend, as if in a storm, a cyclone. The branches bent and the evergreen leaves shook frenetically, madly. That sight made him run faster, as fast as he’d run for a decade or so, and he had to suppress the urge to scream for help…