"I could absolutely piss to break my neck," groaned Dave, his bladder straining fit to burst like a ripe melon.
One of the girls on the back seat giggled, giving him a hopeful spasm down below, which he really didn't need right about then.
"Lightweight," murmured Barry, over in the driver's seat. Still bitter, Dave figured, from having to be the one whose turn it was to be on the shandy all night.
"Sorry, Baz. I really don't think I can make it. You'll have to stop".
The two girls giggled some more merry, drunken giggles.
Dave looked through the windscreen at the small wood along the right-hand side of the road, which was probably the reason why the pub had had the name, The Forest's Rest. Dave had thought it an odd name. But then he found it all very odd out here in the sticks. The quiet, for starters. It was too quiet. Too restful. He found the quiet a little unnatural, to be honest, and found himself pining for the hubbub of urban living. Still, it was nice to have a weekend break and get away sometimes. And tonight, it looked like his luck was in, too.
"I'll have to go in there," said Dave, nodding his head in the direction of the wood.
"Alright, but be quick," muttered Barry, sighing and stopping the four by four with annoyed grace at the side of the road.
Dave limbered out, peering his head around, checking that the coast was well and truly clear. "'Scuse me ladies, call of nature," he said with a sheepish apology. The women giggled again.
Slamming the car door behind him, he bolted along the road, his trainers scratching the tarmac, and dived amongst a dense patch of trees.
It was insanely dark inside the wood, but he could just about make out what was in front of him. The forest seemed alive with a fresh, musky scent of wood and leaf and green. Not that it mattered to Dave. He didn't go in for all that back-to-nature stuff. He preferred more practical things. That, and getting his end away, which is what most of his thoughts were usually consumed with, especially tonight.
The forest looked ethereal in the light from the moon overhead. Ghostly, eldritch, like Dave had stepped into another world. The branches swayed with a slight breeze, and the leaves rustled out a mellifluous harmony. But, again, this was lost on Dave. All he cared about was his aching bladder.
Letting out a lagery belch, he dashed to the first tree he found that was wide enough for his purposes but also far enough in so that people wouldn't twig what he was up to.
The tree was colossal. Like its branches could scratch the night sky. It looked ancient, too, with the bark resembling an old man's skin. Dave certainly wasn't a horticultural expert, but he would have recognised it as an oak if he had been. The heady, musky aroma was thicker here for some reason.
Dave unzipped his flies and pulled out little Dave. He let go of his bladder and sighed with ecstasy as a thick arc of yellow, beer-fuelled piss streamed out and struck the tree with a swaggering splash. It smeared and soaked its way all over the ancient bark and ran down its noble length in thick rivulets. Dave, continuing to sigh and in a cheeky mood, waggled his penis about a bit, letting the stream hit the bark by moving it around, this way and that, like playing some sort of game. He tittered to himself.
Eventually, the trickle dried up. Then, shaking himself off until the last stragglers of urine had dripped out onto the ground, he put himself away and zipped his flies back up. He looked at the large wet smear, soaking up the wood on the tree, good and proper, and felt a strange kind of masculine pride.
His bladder relieved, his thoughts could return to more interesting climes, and he clapped his hands together and rubbed them at the thought of what awaited him on the back seat of Baz's four by four. Then, turning to go, he hoped he hadn't gone too far in that he wouldn't be able to find his way out again. That would be embarrassing, he thought. His feet crunching old leaves underfoot, he had only gone a few steps when he heard it.
"Oi, what the bloody hell do you think you're playing at?" rang out a sharp, insistent cry from behind him.
It made him jump, and, for some reason, a cold shiver went down his back at the same time. His reaction making him feel a bit unmanned got his dander well and truly up.
He turned around and saw a young woman was stood by the tree he'd just decorated, her arms folded across her chest, her face a mask of anger.
It was dark, so he couldn't really make out what he was seeing that well. Plus, he'd had more than a few. But he did think that something weird had happened. He told himself it was just the light playing tricks and the booze, but, even so, for a split second, when he had turned around, and it made him feel silly for thinking it, he'd thought something else had been stood there instead.
Something...tree-like, something...something wooden...Had he really seen the flickering of finger-like twigs or the rustle of vine-like hair...?
He blinked and just saw the young woman fuming back at him. Had to be the booze. Had to be.
She was quite fit, actually, he thought. She had a small bob of dark hair and a white blouse top and dark jeans, and what he took to be long black boots. But it was the eyes. They were dark-looking those eyes, like inky pools, and they seemed to bore into him with such increasing fury that Dave, ever the romantic, found her aggression something of a turn on.
"Well," she snapped, with a lilting, sing-song voice. "What have you got to say for yourself?"
"Aye? What are you going on about? What's your problem?" Carrot crunchers, he thought. They're all nutters, the lot of them.
"I'm talking about this!" she said and pointed a finger at the wet bark of the tree. "This obscenity, you drunken yob!"
"What?" Was she being serious? Was this a wind-up? But he could tell by the enraged look on her face, it wasn't. They really were a load of nutters out here. "Are you on something? I was only having a piss! God, I was bursting! Are you bloody loopy or something?"
She just shook her head. "How dare you despoil this lovely, noble creature! He's thousands of years old and has been here long before this forest grew up around him and will be here long after you, you moronic lout!" She patted the trunk of the tree with a loving pat. "He has feelings too, you know. How would you like it if someone urinated over you?"
Ooh aye, Golden Showers, he thought, and smirked but shrugged his shoulders at her. He didn't have time to waste on this nonsense. I've got better things to do than hang about this dingy wood and argue with some crazy "Back to Nature" weirdo, he thought. "You know what? You want to go and see someone, love. You're bloody barmy!"
She wrinkled her nose, and her eyes seemed to darken even more. "You're just like all of them. Don't have any time for the nature around them. Just think it's all there for their convenience".
And now we've entered lecture mode. Sod that for a game of toy soldiers, he thought. Waving a dismissive hand at her, he turned back round. "Ah, just fuck off. Demented tree hugger."
"Tree hugger!" she cried. And, he couldn't be sure, but he thought he caught the word "racist" being whispered for some reason. "You need to be taught some respect."
He didn't know what the hell that was supposed to mean, but there was a definite threat in it. He could practically taste it. And he wasn't going to put up with any of that. Especially from a bird, he thought. He turned around again, but she'd gone. It was just the darkness and the tree, which seemed to look strangely forlorn and sad back at him. It was like she'd never been there.
Dave shivered. "Silly mare," he said out loud to make himself feel better. Then, shrugging, he turned back in the direction of Barry's car, turning his thoughts to more tender matters, such as the lady he'd had his eye on from the back seat. He just hoped Barry had remembered to pack the johnnies.
His left arm was bothering him. It was itchy. He attacked his plate of bacon, sausage, and eggs to take his mind off it, his arteries crying and his heart wincing in response.
"Great night last night, wasn't it?" said Dave, slithering a rasher of bacon almost whole into his mouth. "Did you score in the end?" He gave Barry a leering wink.
Barry narrowed his eyes at him across the breakfast table of the small hotel they were staying in. A sly smirk creased his lips, though. "A gentleman doesn't discuss such things," he said.
"Oh. Bad luck, mate," said Dave, followed by a brash laugh.
Barry narrowed his eyes further. "Actually, she wants to see me again. Gloria. She's an artist. Nice girl. What about yours? What was her name?"
Dave didn't know and hadn't bothered to ask. He was never one for conversation. "Jenny," he lied on the spur of the moment. "Er, yeah. She...um...wants to see me again, too" — another lie. Never mind. Plenty more where that came from, he figured.
Barry nodded and cut into his sausage.
Dave picked up another rasher, and a few flecks of grease dripped from it onto his plate. For some reason, it made him think of his nocturnal urination in the wood. And his encounter with the strange woman. He thought he'd dreamt of her last night but couldn't be sure nor remember what it was really about. It was just a strange feeling he had. He had woken up at one point in the night and heard a woman laughing but assumed it was probably just "What's Her Name," doing it in her sleep, and had drifted back off again.
His arm started to itch and bother him again. He hadn't really taken any notice until he'd got in the shower. As soon as the water had touched it, it had suddenly felt very sore, like he'd cut himself. When he'd inspected it, after towelling himself dry, it looked quite red and flaky, and it felt sort of tight. It bothered him, which bothered him even more. He held his bare arm out to Barry. "What do you make of this?"
Barry looked over. "Ooh, that looks sore. What are you using?"
"Nothing. Nothing different than I normally do".
Barry shrugged. "Perhaps you caught something off that Jenny. Perhaps she's got impetigo". Barry smirked.
Dave glowered at him. He found himself rubbing it, though.
"Does baby need some moisturiser?" said Barry, in a voice so sarcastic it could have done stand-up.
"Fuck off," said Dave, good-naturedly, and they continued to slaver over their breakfast.
It did bother him, though. It must have done for him to show it to Barry, which went against the usual bloke code. An hour later, in his room, getting ready to go out for the day, he found himself scratching at his other arm, too.
"What do you reckon it is then, doc?" asked Dave, in a voice he hoped was teeming with unconcerned nonchalance.
Doctor McNamara looked up from his desk, over his glasses, with surly condescension. He was the sort of doctor who liked being a doctor; just the patients bothered him.
Dave gave the doctor a hopeful look. His arms hurt even now with the patches of redness and flaky skin that spread up both his arms, itching like a bastard. He scratched at one of them. Flecks of dead, desiccated skin wisped up into the air.
"Not sure. Probably some form of eczema, I'd imagine. Are you allergic to anything?" Before Dave could even answer, McNamara flicked his eyes over to the white screen and scanned Dave's medical record. "Ah, I see you're not," he said, with a dismissive tone. McNamara shrugged. "I don't think it's anything to worry about. Haven't been in contact with anyone that might be contagious or have a skin complaint to your knowledge?" He raised his eyebrows with gratuitous archness.
Dave rubbed at his arm. "Um...Well, I did, um, meet a woman, on holiday, type thing". He felt his face go hot.
McNamara seemed to enjoy Dave's discomfort. "Do you know if she suffered from anything like this?"
It was a bit of a drunken blur, but Dave shook his head.
McNamara gave a dismissive sniff. "Well, I'll send you for blood tests, just to be on the safe side. But I'm sure it's nothing to worry about. A reaction to some product you're using, probably. Try and vary things, see if it makes a difference. In the meantime, I'll prescribe you some ointment we use for things like this". He typed on the computer. His fingertips hammering the keyboard set Dave's teeth on edge for some reason. So did the printer as it started to jerk out the prescription. McNamara tore it off with a perfunctory rip and handed it over. "And try not to worry. Worrying will make it feel worse".
Dave nodded as he scratched one of his arms.
He sat back on his settee with his stereo blaring away like a four-minute warning.
He sighed and tried his best to get comfortable, but it just wasn't possible. The skin on his arms was bad today. In fact, they were as sore as buggery. He looked with mournful wistfulness through the patio doors of his living room at the garden outside and the glorious summer sunshine, which, always a rarity in Britain, should be devoured if the opportunity ever came along. He'd have loved to have been out in it with a few cold beers and a chance to get a tan (and ogle the woman next door sunbathing). But, no. He was shut up indoors because of his bastard skin irritation.
He looked at his arms and wondered if they were actually his. They didn't look like it. All the way from shoulder to fingertip was a blistering mass of red soreness. It would have stung like hell if he'd put anything on it, like suntan lotion or sunblock. The soreness looked odd as well. The skin had swollen and bunched up in several places so that it looked raised like his skin was now a mass of ridges that had crenelated their way across his flesh like scales. He hated looking at himself, to be honest. When bricklaying, which was getting more and more difficult because his arms felt so heavy and stiff all the time, he wore a jumper, which made him sweat like a pig, just to cover it up. He didn't want people looking. He used to like people looking, too. He'd always thought he was something to look at and always liked his muscled and tanned arms and legs on show, especially to catch the eyes of the ladies, but not anymore.
He sighed and swigged from a bottle of beer — what a way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
He tried to focus on the noise radiating out from the radio to take his mind off things. Dave was one of those people who felt they couldn't really appreciate music unless they had it blasting away at the noisiest decibel.
Try as he might, though, he found his thoughts still focusing on his arms. He found himself looking at the scaly ridges again. They reminded him of something, but he couldn't think what. He told himself to stop being a twat.
He sighed and swigged back the beer again, and tried to focus on the music. Only then, the old man next door irritated Dave by banging on the wall.
THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! came the insistent knocking.
"Oh fuck off, you prick," said Dave aloud. He never understood the guy's problem. What was wrong if he wanted to play a little music? Didn't he know he was suffering and needed to take the edge off? The bloke was the same with the TV being played late at night, too. Okay, so the guy was elderly and had had cancer but, crikey, live a little. Dave stuck a finger up at the wall and swigged from the bottle again.
THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!
"Oh, alright, you old cunt" he said. He went to get up, but this proved to be a big mistake because he suddenly found it very difficult to raise his arms. They felt heavy, cumbersome, like they'd been laid down with lead weights.
"Arrr" he croaked and attempted to move one of the arms, which just quivered with an arthritic movement.
"Fuck" he moaned.
His hand continued to quiver. He couldn't even wriggle his fingers.
THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!
He cried out a grunting groan of agony and felt a fire go up both of his arms as he yanked himself to his feet.
He was sweating buckets, and his breathing was laboured. He moved his arms, and they did seem to move more freely now. They still felt sore, though. He just looked at them, and the ridges stared back at him.
Shivering, he went over to the stereo and turned it right down.
Which was when he heard something else. It was like a trill of laughter that suddenly rang out. A soft, lilting feminine laugh that was less a laugh and more the rustling of leaves or the creaking of branches in the breeze.
He jerked his eyes about him, but there was nobody there. He felt a shiver again down his spine and swallowed hard. He shook his head. "It's just the bird next door, outside," he said. "Has to be." He shook his head again. "I need to get out of this place. Take my mind off things".
But as he walked off, he noticed that his legs had started to itch now, and there was a definite soreness to them as they moved...
"I've never seen anything like it before," said Dr. Swan, as she caressed the ridges on Dave's arm with one hand while holding it up with the other, her face half curiosity, half concern.
"It hurts. A lot," said Dave. Normally when confronted with an attractive woman, as Dr. Swan was, Dave would have gone instantly into flirt mode. But not today. Today he wasn't in the mood. He hadn't even bothered to look down her blouse. He was in so much pain and worry.
"And I see its spread to your legs," she said and looked down at them.
Dave looked down at the blistering red ridges, which covered the flesh of his legs like a swarm of ants.
"It hurts when I move my arms and legs. I've had to be signed off work. Sometimes, I...I get these weird moments where I having trouble lifting my arms or moving my legs, like they, sort of, lock and go stiff".
Dr. Swan shook her head and looked back, through her glasses, at the ridges on Dave's arms again. "These seem more advanced..." She ran her hands over them. Normally Dave liked being touched by an attractive woman, and her fingers felt warm and soft, but not today. Each prod was like a needle stabbing into him.
"Do you think you can stop doing that now?" he said. He realised he had started to sweat.
She quickly removed her hands. "Sorry. It's just, well, I've never seen anything like it. They remind me of something, but I can't think what. And they feel, well, very rough and coarse...Probably where the skin is so dry..."
Maybe it was her compassionate tone of voice or the concern on her face, but Dave found he wanted to blurt something else out.
"And I keep..." But he stopped himself. No. They'd section me, he thought.
"Keep what?" she said, giving him a friendly, encouraging smile.
"Nothing. Doesn't matter. It just hurts a lot, that's all. Keeps me awake at night". But that wasn't what was really keeping him up at night. What he'd wanted to say was that he kept hearing a woman laughing at him, especially in bed at night. There was never anyone there, and he had no explanation for it. It was normally when the pain bothered him the most, funnily enough. He wondered if the pain was making him hallucinate. There was something eerie about the laughter. Like the rustle of leaves...
He swallowed hard.
"I can imagine," said Dr. Swan. She breathed in and nodded to herself, having reached a decision. "Don't worry. Doctor McNamara referred you to me because I'm a specialist in things like this. I suspect it to be some sort of extreme allergic reaction. I'll send you for a scan and more blood tests. See what's going on beneath the surface. Don't worry. We'll get to the bottom of it".
She gave him a hopeful smile. Dave wished he believed it.
When he left her office, his skin sounded like it was creaking.
That morning was the worst it had ever been.
When he'd first come round from sleep, his mind had been full of the usual fog. Then he'd moved himself in bed beneath the covers.
And his entire body felt like it had been chucked into a blender.
A paroxysm of agony, like a raging fire, blazed all through his body from head to foot, through every nerve ending. Worst of all was that he couldn't move a muscle. His limbs were like dumbbells. He enjoyed pumping iron, but this...it was like trying to lift Everest.
He grunted and groaned, straining to move for all he was worth, sweat coursing throughout his body, but nothing seemed to want to work. It was like it was inert, lifeless.
He strained and strained, and eventually like something had popped loose, he managed to stagger upwards in bed.
His breathing was heavy now, and his body felt wringing wet, which didn't do the soreness any good. Mind you, his mind quickly forgot about pain because he had just seen something that made him sick to his stomach.
The scaly ridges were all over his naked chest, completely covering them and looking red raw. He touched them with a scaly hand, and fire burned his skin.
He wanted to speak, but nothing would come out. Instead, his throat felt dry, and his chest felt tight.
Acting on instinct, he touched his back, and he felt more of the scaly ridges. The bloody thing had spread, spread all over his...
He touched his face. He screamed.
Flinging off his covers, he leapt out of bed and scrambled to his bathroom. He couldn't run fast, his skin felt too tight and sore, and his limbs still felt sluggish, but his fear managed to keep him moving.
Arriving in the bathroom, he stared at himself in the mirror. The beginnings of tears prickled at his eyes.
His face was covered in the ridges. All over. His nose looked bent out of shape, and his lips were covered with strange whorls.
A horrible thought seared across his brain, and, taking a deep breath, he opened up the front of his boxers. What he saw there made him retch and rush to the toilet, where he chucked his guts up until nothing more could come out.
Then, he heard the laughter behind him like the soughing of branches. And he could smell something really heady and potent now. A foresty, earthy, herbally smell. He knew, he knew what he would see before he'd even turned around.
He could make out now, in the daylight, that her eyes were a very dark brown, as was the small bob of hair she had. Her arms were across her chest again. Her mouth was set in a rigid, triumphant sneer.
"Letting Nature take its course, Dave?" she said, in that lilting voice of hers. Except it sounded funny today — sort of creaky.
Dave didn't know what to do or say at first. He felt something, though. It was an anger of Biblical proportions.
"What...what have you done...to me?" He pointed an accusatory finger at her, then reeled in shock when he saw it. It looked very...bony and twisty. He also saw that the colour of his skin seemed to be changing. It was turning a kind of browny-grey.
She just laughed in that dry, creaky voice of hers and gave him a cheeky, impudent wink before legging it from the room.
Roaring with rage, Dave got to his feet. He ignored the pain in his limbs, ignored the creaking sound he was making, ignored the sudden thirst that had come on him for water, he just ran after her, his thoughts consumed with a barbaric wrath.
He shambled down the stairs and heard the patio door slide open in the living room.
"You ain't...getting away...you...cow," he muttered. Why was his throat so dry? Oh God, I'm so thirsty...From my fingers to my toes...
His feet made it to the patio door, and he threw himself out into the garden. There she was stood, on the lawn, with her arms crossed and another triumphant smile on her face. She winked at him again.
"Yaaaaaah," he managed and started to run across the lawn towards her.
Except he didn't get far.
As soon as it touched the grass, his right leg no longer wanted to move. He looked down. For some reason, it looked like his foot had sort of bled into the ground and become attached to it. He couldn't budge it one inch. He looked down at his other foot and saw exactly the same frightening development had happened there as well. In fact, now he thought about it, he could feel his toes sinking into the earth of the ground and imbedding themselves in there, wet mud slavering over his feet. Then his arms jerked upwards with a rush of burning pain as if of their own accord. He wanted to scream, but it lodged in his throat while his arms just stayed raised to the sky, like antennae. And his fingers...They weren't fingers anymore. Fingers don't have green things sprouting out of them. The scream still wouldn't come. Not that it mattered because his body then started to twist and contort and straighten all at the same time, and as it did, there was this horrible creaking and cracking and snapping sound, and his head felt like his neck was swallowing it up. He tried once more to scream but suddenly realised he didn't have lips. Soon, he didn't have to worry about making any noise anyway because his face had melted away entirely and all about him was darkness. And he couldn't move at all.
The woman came over to him. She patted what would have been his shoulder once. "It's lovely, isn't it? To be at one with Nature". She pecked a kiss on what was once his neck, and he could feel the soft moistness of it, but that was all he could do. He heard her footsteps pattering away. They sounded like branches snapping.
"What happened to the original owner, again?" asked Mrs. Cleverly.
The estate agent gave her a suave, patented grin. "Oh, don't worry about that. Nobody knows what happened to him, just up and vanished one day. It means, of course, that it already comes fully furnished". The estate agent beamed and moved his hand over the living room furniture like a seduction.
Mrs. Cleverly wrinkled her nose. It was all a bit laddish for her taste. She looked out of the patio and at the tree on the lawn.
"Nice garden. Has possibilities. What a nice tree. Be good for shade in summer. Oak, isn't it?"
The estate agent shrugged. "I wouldn't know, but yes, it is a nice garden, isn't it?"
Suddenly Mrs. Cleverly felt a tugging at her hand, and before she knew it, her cocker spaniel rushed out of her grip, through the patio door, and on to the grass, its lead trailing behind it.
"Buddy!" yelled Mrs. Cleverly. She gave an embarrassed look at the estate agent. "Sorry about that. We haven't had him long; otherwise, I'd have left him at home".
The estate agent gave a genial shrug. "Dogs," he said as if that was explanation enough. "But you could see how the garden would be good for Buddy, wouldn't you?"
Buddy, meanwhile, padded over to the tree and sniffed it. Then, letting out a little yelp, he cocked up his leg and emptied the contents of his little bladder all over its lower trunk.
"Buddy!" yelled Mrs. Cleverly.
The estate agent let out a customer service laugh.
And if they heard what they thought sounded like a moaning noise, they just assumed it was the wind blowing through the branches and the leaves rustling. It was only a tree, after all.