Wildfowling: The voice in the darkness

Columba Palumbus, Going Postal

There is always much excitement in the yard on the first day of the season. It was Saturday the 1st of November, and a big day for the Hall Farm shoot on the edge of the small Norfolk village of Lower Tuckleburgh.  It was a very informal affair, and all the guns, beaters and assorted dogs mixed freely as the Head Gamekeeper checked his watch and waited patiently for everyone to arrive. It was always a tense time for any keeper, as a year of preparation and planning came to fruition, and the slightest hiccup could spell disaster. At least he knew he could rely on his experienced team of beaters, and was relieved to see them all present and correct. At least, nearly all, for there was a glaring omission from the ranks, and it was very unusual for him to be late. The keeper checked his watch again, tutting at the oversight. Where could he possibly be? No matter, they couldn’t wait much longer. He gave his beaters the signal to get ready and was gathering his own dogs together when the cheer went up from the other end of the yard as a dishevelled pickup lurched round the corner and skidded to a halt on the grassy verge. Finally, Ducky had arrived.

Ducky, more formally known as Paul Spinks, was an eccentric fellow both in terms of looks and personality. Always immaculately dressed in a full shooting suit, gaiters and lace up boots, he looked ready for a day on a grouse moor, not a poke around the hedges and cover crops of a modest Norfolk estate. With his shock of black hair poking out under his matching tweed flat cap, he looked every inch the genial country squire. But truth is often stranger than fiction, for Ducky was the most loud and arrogant man you could ever find. He spent his days bragging and boasting about all manner of things, but in particular he liked to pontificate on how he was considered one of the great shots of the county, and where he had been and what he had killed in the days since last he spoke to someone. Truth was, Ducky was an attention seeking charlatan, but he had such a forceful personality, that he got away with his stories almost scot free. But he was a good beater, he was more importantly a reliable beater (until today it seemed), so the gamekeeper tolerated him and the grumbles elicited from the rest of the beating line, as they only had to put up with him for a few days a year.

Today however, something was different. The normally well turned out Ducky looked dishevelled and pale. He stumbled his way across the yard mumbling apologies for his lateness whilst still hurriedly trying to tuck his shirt tails into his waistband. He boarded the beaters cart without further comment and took a seat in the back where he stared at the floor, avoiding eye contact and making no sound but that of his ragged breathing. The other beaters looked at each other in disbelief as the cart rumbled off to the first drive, and the mood was unusually sombre. The keeper, too busy with the business at hand, didn’t pay him much attention. As the morning wore on, and drives worked out and pheasants flew, things looked like they were going to plan. He finally started to relax and could begin to notice what was going on in the world around him. He considered Ducky for a moment. As much as he disliked the man, he couldn’t bear to see anyone out of sorts, and it was as clear as day that this was a man in distress. There and then he resolved to find out what had happened, and he would try to do it over lunch.

The tractor towing the cart pulled to a stop in the yard, and the beaters decanted to the barn for some well-earned food and rest. The driver waited for a few minutes before climbing down from the cab and lighting a cigarette, leaning up against the rear tyre and taking a long drag. Even he had noticed the change in Ducky’s persona, and as a longstanding target of barbs about his driving ability, couldn’t help but have a wry little smile to himself. He watched the object of his mirth walk stiffly across the concrete before disappearing into the barn. He flicked the dog end into a puddle, grabbed his bag and followed him in. The conversation was muted as people chomped on their sandwiches, but the wood burner in the corner was lit and the flames danced cheerfully within. Slowly, the volume in the barn began to rise, and some sense of normality crept in amongst the men and women, as people caught up on all the news from each other’s lives. Only one person sat there saying nothing, eating nothing, just staring at the flames with grim determination. After 20 minutes or so, the keeper walked in and gave out the days wages, pausing at the last man, and beckoning him outside. Ducky followed without comment, and the keeper invited him into his kitchen for a cup of tea.

A prolific wildfowler, it was his obsession with the marsh, and in particular his pursuit of mallard and teal which earned him his derogatory nickname of Ducky. He had hated it at first, but now he came to own it as a badge of honour, and even people that didn’t know him personally had heard of Ducky. For him, even notoriety was a good thing. He took a seat by the door in the keeper’s spacious kitchen and nursed his mug of steaming hot tea like it was the most precious thing in the world. Considering for a moment how to coax the man out of his shell, the keeper decided to strike straight at his weak spot, and dived in with his opening gambit.

“Been down the marsh recently?” He asked with an involuntary hint of sarcasm. There was a long and uncomfortable pause and the keeper actually started to feel sorry for the man. Finally he spoke; his voice creaked into life like it hadn’t been used for a hundred years.

“Yes, I was out last night. I…” He trailed off and took a sip of his tea, placing the mug carefully on the table. His eyes shifted around the room, like he was searching for inspiration. “…Nothing much going on. Weather was all wrong”.

This piqued the keeper’s interest, for he knew full well that last night had been the most perfect conditions for coastal wildfowling so far this season. He wasn’t a subtle or patient man, and decided on a different angle of attack. “Are you feeling alright Ducky, you’ve been acting like you’ve had a shock or something…?” He trailed off this time as the man turned his head and fixed him with a wild stare.

“I… I… think I have, I’m not sure… I…” And with that, he slumped forward in the chair, his tousled head in his hands, sobbing like a little child.

Stunned for a few moments, the keeper just sat there whilst this normally brash and confident man fell apart in front of his eyes. He was not suited to dealing with emotional people in his kitchen, and didn’t have a clue how to help him. Besides, time was getting on now and they would soon have to get going again to start the last couple of drives of the day. Eventually, Ducky seemed to summon some inner strength, and wiping his tear stained face, he made a profuse apology for his outburst and begged the keeper not to say anything about this to the rest of the beaters. Still taken aback, he nodded his agreement, but stipulated one condition- that Ducky would return when the day was over, and they would sit down and he would explain what had really happened out there on the marsh. Oddly, Ducky was only too happy with the arrangement, and a strange mixture of relief and anxiousness played across his features for a moment. They said no more about it and the rest of the day passed without further incident. Ducky even seemed to be coming out of his shell a bit as the cart rumbled back into the yard. The guns went home happy, the beaters took their share of the bag and one by one they got in their cars and drove off. All except one, for in the twilight, the keeper could still make out the shape of Ducky’s battered pickup truck where he had left it earlier that morning. He crossed the yard from where he had been locking up the barn and noticed the forlorn figure standing in the dingy light of the porch. Whistling his dogs in, he motioned his troubled guest into the house, and once the last dog had crossed the threshold, he closed the door firmly behind him and took a deep breath.

They went through to the sitting room, and the keeper lit the fire whilst Ducky sat rigidly in an armchair, his back to the rooms one large window. His eyes darted all around, and the keeper could sense the tension ramping up. It was dimly lit in there now as the last vestiges of daylight were overcome by the advancing dusk. He put two table lamps on which took the edge off the gloom, but when he went to try the main overhead light, the bulb merely flickered, then went out with a metallic pop. No matter he thought, moving to the window and drawing the curtains, it was light enough in there. Going to the kitchen, he poured a couple of glasses of scotch, filling his up with ice, and calling the dogs to him, returned to the sitting room with the bottle, where the fire was starting to blaze, and Ducky had relaxed enough to remove his jacket. He took the offered scotch with noiseless thanks, and watched as the keepers three dogs took up prime position in front of the fire.

“So what was this all about?” asked the keeper after they had both sat in silence for a while, entranced by the dancing flames in the grate. There was a short pause while the machinery of Ducky’s brain ponderously devised a way to begin his story.

“I’m not sure what happened really. But I can tell you one thing, I’ve never been so scared in all my life”.

The keeper’s face remained neutral as he nodded for Ducky to continue.

“Well, I went out to my usual spot near the big creek. I was running a bit late because my truck needed looking at and the garage took ages. It was only 20 minutes or so before dusk when I got there and as I was hurrying out into the marsh I got this weird feeling like someone was following me. There was a bright moon, and not a lot of cloud, so I thought the flight might start a bit later and go on well past sundown”.

He paused here and took a swig from his scotch. He was still furtively glancing around the shadowy corners of the room, like he was expecting someone to emerge at any minute. But the only other life in that room was the gently snoring dogs.

“Anyway”, he went on, “as I got closer to my spot, I heard a shot coming from behind me. I turned round to look but couldn’t see anyone, and as far as I knew, I was the only person there. I couldn’t even see any birds in the sky”.

This got the keepers interest, and he involuntarily leaned forward in his chair.

“It was quiet out there, not normal. I couldn’t even hear the sea. I took up position where I normally wait, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t hear a shot again, but this time out in front of me somewhere. Well this got me really annoyed. Stupid buggers out there playing silly games, it would spoil my flight. So I stood up and shouted out for them to identify themselves, but there was no answer”.

At that instant, one of the dogs sat bolt upright and growled.

He was startled by the unexpected intrusion into the story. “Whats the matter Trig?” asked the keeper in an irritated tone. The dog was looking directly behind the chair where Ducky sat, and the growl had subsided into low whine. “Must have had a bad dream or something, he’s always been a bit highly strung”.

The comment did little to reassure Ducky, who had gone very pale. He was clutching his glass of scotch so tightly, his knuckles had turned white.

“There, see. He’s calmed down now”. Indeed, the dog had lain down and closed his eyes again, but was now as close to the fire as he could comfortably get. The keeper took the opportunity to throw another couple of logs on and refilled the glasses. Ducky seemed to have relaxed again, and took a big sip.

“So you were saying?” said the keeper.

“Yeah, where was I?” croaked Ducky, “oh that was it. I couldn’t see or hear anyone out there, and it was quiet like I’d never heard it. Cold too, colder than the forecast said, but the moon was so bright I could see everything around me. It dawned on me then that I should have been seeing or at least hearing some fowl, but there was nothing out there. It was so still. Then there it was again, a single bang, but closer and behind me again. A really funny bang, much louder and deeper than normal, like one of them old muzzleloaders or something”.

The keeper had begun to notice a strange sensation creeping over him, a slight tingling in his fingers and toes. He shook it off at first, putting it down to a long stressful day and the effects of this supermarket scotch. But it persisted, and he tried his best to ignore it as he urged the man sitting opposite him to continue with his tale.

“Well this had me spooked now, and as there were no birds out there and someone trying to wind me up, I decided to pack it in and went to make my way back to the truck. Only I must have got disoriented somehow because I walked for half an hour or more, and I never once saw the harbour lights like you should do as you come down back towards the sea wall. I must admit I was starting to panic, when all of a sudden I heard a man’s voice call out from the darkness. I couldn’t make out the words. Then I saw a faint light a way along this gutter I didn’t recognise, but I made towards it, because at that point I thought I was starting to lose it”.

“What happened then?” asked the keeper, feeling more and more uncomfortable as the tingling in his extremities continued.

“Well, no matter how fast I moved, I never seemed to get any closer to the light. It was so dim, but every so often it flashed for a moment, almost like it was being covered. I started to think that maybe I was being drawn out into the dangerous part of the marshes, and this was all some prank by whoever had been firing those shots and messing around out there. I stopped for a minute and tried to regain control. I took a good look around. The moon was as bright as ever, but I couldn’t see any stars. It was deathly quiet out there, not a single sound. Or so I thought, because at that instant I heard that same voice again, louder and more distinct. It was unfamiliar to me, but the words chilled me to the bone”.

The keeper was on the edge of his seat. He had momentarily forgotten the tingling and was now sensitive to the atmosphere in the room. Despite the fire raging in the grate and the two lamps blazing away, the periphery of the room had taken on a creeping darkness, and he swore he could see the vapour of his breath as he exhaled.

“Well, what did it say?” His voice was cracked, pleading and the words hung in the air as if taking on some physical form of their own.

Ducky cut an indistinct shape in the chair opposite, only his wide staring eyes were distinguishable from the greying gloom of the room beyond. Was there a darker shape behind the chair? An almost tangible human shape, just at the very edge of his perception? An age passed while Ducky seemingly summoned the courage to carry on. When he eventually spoke, his words were hissed and low, like he was speaking through clenched teeth. He uttered just two syllables, “join me”.

Unremarkable on their own, but then came the moment that the keeper would remember for the rest of his life, because after he spoke, Ducky appeared to elicit an involuntary laugh. It wasn’t a jolly guffaw, or sarcastic snigger, or even nervous titter. No, this was a black and soulless cackle, totally unexpected and out of place that robbed the last vestiges of warmth from the room.

“Christ man!” the keeper exclaimed, “You scared the life out of me!”

On his loud expletive, the light had returned to the room, and he no longer felt cold or tingly. The fire still burned brightly, and the dogs were peacefully slumbering in front of it. He fixed Ducky with a baleful look, but the man’s face was totally expressionless, frozen and pale.

“Are you okay? What happened after that?” The enquiry went unanswered. “Paul, what’s going on, why did you laugh like that?”

The use of his real name seemed to snap Ducky out of the grim reverie that had overtaken him, and his eyes refocused on the empty whisky glass still clutched in his hands, which he proffered towards his host.

“Laugh? Sorry, I don’t know what you mean. I just switched off for a moment there, I’ve completely lost my train of thought”.

The keeper regarded the bottle of scotch on the table beside his chair for a moment. “If you have another one of these, you’ll be well over the limit, I couldn’t let you drive home like that”.

It was more a plea for an end to the drinking rather than a casual invitation to stay the night. The keeper was now so ill at ease in the company of this man, he feared that he was beginning to lose it. First the sobbing at lunchtime, now the weird atmosphere and inhuman laugh, there was something very wrong here. But his curiosity burned brightly, and he was a man of fortitude, a practical man and simply had to see this story through to the bitter end. Getting up and pouring another dram, as he sat back down again, Ducky muttered in a cryptic fashion, “It probably won’t matter either way. Now where did I get to?”

“The voice in the darkness?” The keeper prompted him to continue with an uncertain lilt.

“Yes, now I remember. It was horrible, that disembodied voice seemingly coming out of nowhere. I was frantic at this point, convinced there was someone or something out there with me, and it was close by. All the time this faint light was flickering away out in front of me, but it seemed to be getting closer, more distinct. I felt this tingling sensation in my fingers and toes. The air felt charged, and my vision was dulled at the edges. It was perishingly cold, even though I had all my gear on. All of a sudden, this shape loomed into view, partially lit by the moon. I yelled out because it startled me”.

The keeper ran his dry tongue over his dry lips, took a big sip from his scotch and shifted uncomfortably on his seat.

“I knew right there and then that whatever or whoever it was, it wasn’t friendly, so I dropped my stuff except for my gun and ran for it. I didn’t know if I was going in the right direction or not, but I knew that anywhere away from that light was the only safe way. I guess I eventually stumbled upon the right path because I came in sight of the harbour lights after a few minutes, although it seemed like longer. I was about half a mile further on from the path I normally take, so I guess I had become disoriented at some stage and lost my way. I climbed up the sea wall and looked back for a moment. I’ll swear that there was someone down at the foot of the wall, maybe 50 feet below me, lit with a faint glow”. He paused here, as if reaching down within himself and grasping for a few last shreds of courage.

“I could see a man. He looked like one of those old boys you used to go out punting on the marsh before the war. You know, great big oilskin coat, gum boots, Except for his face. It was white and drawn, no real features at all, except for that toothless grin, and two bottomless holes where his eyes should have been”. Again he paused, but then a strange thing happened. A change came over his face, like a weight had lifted from him, as if the telling of the story had unburdened his soul and released him from his torment.

“I was scared witless, no doubt about it. Looking back now I feel a bit silly, and as I’ve remembered all my gear, lying out there I’ll have to go back tomorrow during the day and look for it. I must have imagined it all, maybe it was some marsh gas or something eh?”

At that point the story petered out. Ducky seemed to have regained some of his usual swagger, no doubt helped by the three large scotches working their way through his system. The keeper didn’t really know what to think, only that it was late and he was suddenly very tired. Ducky wouldn’t accept the offer of the spare bed, and the keeper was secretly glad that his guest resolved to drive home, despite his half-hearted attempts to persuade him. The last words they exchanged before he left the house were a plea to keep this between the two of them, and a promise to that effect. As he stood at the door watching the battered pickup cross the yard, he thought he saw two figures in the front instead of one. It was hard to tell in the darkness, and he was so tired, but he was nevertheless relieved when the tail lights disappeared round the corner. He locked everything and double checked the front door before putting the dogs to bed and finally making his way sleepily up the stairs. He slept with the light on that night, and when he finally drifted off, he dreamed of an odd landscape, a desolate windswept marsh under a dark sky with a cruel pale moon high above. It was totally silent and still, except for a single point of light out in the distance. He shivered and gathered the duvet tightly around him.

A few days later, the keeper had just returned from his feeding duties and was confronted by a police car sat in the yard. This was not uncommon, as the local wildlife crime officer liked to do the rounds of all the local gamekeepers to catch up on any gossip. But the constable standing there wasn’t someone he recognised, and with a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach, he parked up his quad bike and made his way over.

“Afternoon sir” Said the officer, “I hope you don’t mind the intrusion. I’m here because you may have information regarding a missing person case I’ve been assigned”.

“If I can help in any way, what would you like to know?” asked the startled keeper

“Well sir, yesterday morning, a vehicle was reported as abandoned out on Tuckleburgh Mere, a pickup truck belonging to a Mr Paul Spinks, someone you know I understand? Mr Spinks has also been reported as missing by his mother after he failed to return home on the night of the 1st of November” The policeman trailed off as he saw the colour drain from the keepers face.

“Are you okay sir? Perhaps you should sit down? Maybe go inside the house eh?”

“Yes” Said the keeper. They both went into the house and took a seat in the kitchen.

“I understand you may have been one of the last people to see him on the 1st” continued the officer, “He was here on a shoot day, yes?”

“He was, yes. He’s one of my regulars” said the keeper. The constable noted this in his pocket book and considered his next line of enquiry.

“Did he leave as normal on the day sir?” This was a loaded question, and one to which the policeman already knew the answer.

“No, he stayed behind for a drink, I wanted to talk to him about something…” the keeper trailed off not really knowing how to continue with his story without breaking his promise to Ducky.

“What did you talk about?” asked the policeman.

And so reluctantly the keeper related the events of that night to the officer who dutifully took notes and asked a few more questions as the tale progressed. He was most interested in the three large measures of whisky that had been imbibed, and the part about Ducky dropping his gear in fright but resolving to go back for it later. The keeper was relieved to hear that he wasn’t considered a suspect at the time, but that one curious piece of evidence had the officers investigating the disappearance and gathering information suspecting foul play. For there were muddy boot prints in the passenger side of his pickup truck, and traces of oil on the seat, suggesting he had driven to the Mere with another as yet unknown person.

“Thank you for your time sir, this was most informative for us” said the policeman. “I trust we will be able to find you here should we have any further enquiries?” This last sentence was said with the merest hint of suspicion, but it wasn’t noticed by the keeper as he showed the policeman to the door and watched his patrol car disappear from the yard.

If he was being honest to himself, he didn’t know what to think. It wasn’t like Ducky to disappear off like that, and no one knew that marsh better than he, so it was unlikely he could have got into trouble out there. The keeper was left with so many questions he had no ability to answer. He pondered them late into the night, and when he finally fell asleep in front of the fire, he dreamed the same dream of a few nights previously. The same desolate, silent, moonlit marsh, except this time there were two faint points of light out in the distance. Unbeknownst to his slumbering form, the flames momentarily flared in the grate, sending a shower of embers crackling up the chimney, and just on the edge of hearing, a low unnatural sound, like something shifting in the vacant armchair which made his dogs prick up their ears and open an eye before settling back down to sleep again.

The following day was another shoot day, and although the keeper had his job to do, he really just went through the motions, and a few of his regulars decided to stay behind and keep him company once the day was over. As they stood around talking in the warmth of the shoot barn, and as the keeper silently attended to his remaining chores, the chat soon turned to Ducky and his mysterious disappearance. One of the older chaps looked thoughtful for a moment, before relating to the others in hushed tones a tale that he remembered his father telling him many years before. As the story went, there used to be a warden who lived in a floating hut out on the marshes in the period between the wars, a sort of caretaker and lookout if you will. He was a veteran of the Great War, and had returned to his home a man with a broken mind. He had always loved to shoot and the sound of his old fowling piece being fired was often heard at dawn or dusk. He would sometimes be seen cycling into the village, dressed in his oilskins, cackling with laughter as he went, his bag laden with fowl to sell to the butcher, before returning to his shack. Well one night, the weather had been particularly bad, and the tide was unusually high. The old boys floating hut had broken loose of its mooring and been washed out to sea, taking the poor unfortunate soul with it. Legend had it that on clear moonlit nights, you might still see the light from his old paraffin lamp, and hear the roar from his old gun, as he continued his eternal vigil, out there on the saltmarsh. They never noticed the look of horror on the keepers face, and as the remnants of a hip flask was passed around, the chatter turned to other things.

About a month later, a publican and one of his customers came forward with information following a local appeal by Norfolk Police. In their statement, he claimed that he had seen the man in question, Paul Spinks on the night of the 1st of November. At around 10:30, he had called into his pub and had a couple of large brandies, before leaving again a few minutes later. The customer who was also leaving at the time had watched the man get into his pickup truck, and drive off. But in the car park lights, he had observed another man in the passenger seat of the truck, unremarkable except for the fact that he seemed to be wearing what looked like some sort of dark coloured Halloween costume, complete with scary mask and although he couldn’t be sure, he would swear that he heard some strange sound, like a rasping laugh as they drove off.

Text & image © Columba Palumbus 2021

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