Mike had heard all the tales. Hell, he’d even made up some of his own over the years to try and scare the out of towners and holiday makers as he and his pals drank away the evening hours down the Fox and Hounds. He’d heard this one too, or at least he thought he had. Most of the lads round there heard the stories growing up, usually after their grandfathers had one too many pints on a Sunday afternoon. But somehow this would be different. Afterwards, he couldn’t put his finger on it, but something about the strange old mans voice and demeanour sent a shiver down his spine, and his story, while familiar was at the same time chilling him in a way he’d never experienced before. From his perch on a stool at the end of the saloon bar, as he overlooked the grand old fireplace that was probably the oldest remaining piece of masonry in the entire county, he would listen on in fascinated and creeping horror as the dry raspy voice weaved a spell over a rapt audience…
Sat in one of the old armchairs by the roaring fire that night, was a curious old fellow who according to the agitated barmaid had been in the pub since it opened that morning, wandering in off the street and ordering a half of Best before settling down and staring out of the window. As the popular pub had started to get busier, the old man hadn’t moved once, and had continued his watch through the grubby panes. Seemingly unwavering and unblinking, his vista was a small piece of the North Norfolk coastline, just visible over the tops of the parked cars outside. Still nursing the remnants of his original half, he occasionally reached out and slowly rotated the glass a little, as if trying to line it up perfectly with some invisible mark. As the afternoon gave way to evening the pub had become packed with locals and the odd smattering of late season tourists, with all the usual hustle and bustle of a busy country pub. Inevitably the old man had been asked if he didn’t mind sharing his table, a common occurrence where seats were at a premium. Mike watched through the crowd as the old man silently nodded his approval, never once taking his eye from the now darkened window, his hands gripping the arms of the chair with an unnatural intensity.
By way of a greeting, the old mans table guest offered to buy him a drink. This seemed to roust him from his reverie for a moment, and he motioned to the near empty glass in front of him, a crooked smile breaking the monotony of his wrinkled face. With his glass now fully charged, he seemed to come alive, and turning to his new friend, he raised his half in approval of the act, and took a small sip, savouring the taste as if it were nectar from the gods. Mike watched the unfolding tableaux in half bored indifference. The barmaid was not playing ball, and as yet none of his mates had come in from work, so he contented himself with staring at the old fireplace, and (he pondered) the even older man in front of it. But he couldn’t escape the fact that something was playing at the back of his mind. The old man being there on this particular evening unsettled him and some long dormant primal sense within him was beginning to awaken. He could see the pair engaged in stilted conversation, each back and forth being punctuated with periods of silence as the old man summoned up the strength or the wits to reply, all the while slowly rotating that half pint glass as it sat on the small table with a bony, weathered hand. Then, a curious thing happened. Sometimes in crowded and noisy places, you will experience an unnatural lull in the background noise, almost as if everyone collectively becomes hyper aware of themselves, and their conversations trail off into embarrassed silence. The pub went from cacophony to mausoleum in an instant, and for a short moment the only sound was the light raspy voice emanating from the old man, just loud enough for everyone to hear as he began to spin a yarn.
“…The Devil Dog…” he said, “…but round ‘ere he goes by another name”. The whole room heard it, as clear as a bell. They’d heard the tales a dozen times before, but this caught their attention all the same. The volume levels didn’t return to anywhere near what they had been a few moments before, and many glances were now being cast in the direction of the fireplace. The look on the face of the old man’s guest was one of tense uneasiness, a visible manifestation of the same feeling everyone in earshot was now beginning to experience. Mike leaned forward on his stool, as if to extract as much volume as possible, but he needn’t have bothered. It was as if the old man had started broadcasting straight into the minds of all the pub goers, and like a snake charmer and his tame cobra, he now had them all dancing to his tune.
“Black Shuck (1) is ‘ow he’s known. Been tales of ‘im round these parts for a thousand years or more, ever since the Vikings came and bought their curses with them”. He paused for a moment to take another small sip of his beer, placing it back down carefully before slowly rotating it again, the small movement mesmerising the onlookers. “As dark as the pits of hell, with two red hot coals for eyes and the most fearsome set of razor sharp teeth you could possibly behold”. He looked up at the window momentarily, as if checking his reflection, or seeing something outside which caught his attention. “Bigger than a Wolf, with a howl that can shatter glass and make the church bells ring, he stalks the coast all over the county, waitin’ to claim the unwary or the lost for his master”. With that last word, he turned his head slightly and without breaking eye contact, spat into the fire. It sizzled audibly, and Mike would swear later that the flames died back for a second. He turned back and chuckled softly, a strange little sound that made Mike think of fallen leaves being blown by the wind.
“I’ll tell yer of the time I saw him, yes i’ve seen him alright. It were a long time ago, back afore the flood (2). I were a ‘fowler then, out on the marshes a way back along the coast, a lonely marsh it is too. Made me living with me ole’ punt and gun, paddling out ‘tween the banks and the sandbars, out to the flats where the wild geese roost. It were fearful dark that night, no moon in the cloudless sky, just the stars and me ole’ dog for company. I put-to in a narrow creek to wait for the dawn, afore the geese got up and flew away in land. It was early, so I dozed a while, me ole’ dog keeping watch and listenin’ out for the cries of the creatures that call the marsh ‘ome. It weren’t cold, but the air was damp and heavy and all the normal sounds out there were muffled like something had lain a blanket over the whole place”. He broke off suddenly, and took another sip of his beer, still fondling and turning the glass slowly as he placed it carefully back down. The pub vas almost totally silent now and everyone had moved as close to the fireplace as possible, surrounding the old man and noiselessly willing him to carry on with his tale. Mike’s inner voice was screaming out how ridiculous this was, that he’d heard this story before in another time and place and knew exactly how it ended, but he couldn’t resist, and he just leaned even closer like the rest of them, just barely remaining atop his stool, a blank look upon his face.
“It can’t ‘ave been more than five minutes since I closed me eyes, but who knows ‘ow long it was? I came-to with this prickling feeling in my ‘ands, and lay there a while ‘til the feelin’ came back. Me ole’ dog was whimpering all quiet like at me feet and though I couldn’t see ‘im, I could feel the punt shakin’ from the poor ole’ boy as he trembled an’ tried to ‘ide away. I ruffled his fur which were all stood on end, and he jus’ crawled away from me touch and buried hisself at the far end of the punt. I could see a bit now, just patches of different shades of darkness, except one bit back out toward the sea wall which seemed like it were glowing a pale green. First I thought maybe it were another fowler coming out for morning flight with a lantern to guide the way, but it were a strange glow and it give me the shivers I can tell yer”. You could hear a pin drop in that pub now, even the fruit machine had stopped beeping. The only sound was the old mans raspy voice, and just on the cusp of hearing, the faintest whistling of wind in the chimney… or was it distant howling of some lost dog out on the marsh?
“I didn’t like the way I felt, so I pushed the ole’ punt out of the creek and into open water. I wanted to put some distance ‘tween misself and the eerie glow, and for the moment any thoughts of ducks and geese ‘ad long vanished. Paddlin’ a punt isn’t the most comfy thing to do, lain on your belly with your feet hangin’ out the back, but I had to keep lookin’ back at that glow and I could feel the glow lookin’ at me ‘an I never seemed to be able to put any distance ‘tween us. I were nearly to the mouth of the drain and stretched out afore me was the open expanse of the Wash. In my haste I weren’t thinkin’ and forgot about the sandbanks, and sure enough I slammed straight into one and beached the punt”. Everyone in the pub gasped in unison, threatening to draw in all of the air in the room. He continued “Now I were stuck until the tide came in, and that wouldn’t be ‘til after sunrise. I craned my neck round to get a better view behind me and i’ll never to my dyin’ day forget what I saw. Outlined agin’ the pitch black horizon was this enormous dog, bathed in a pale green light. The only thing I could make out were its two glowing eyes, which were staring straight back at me. It chilled me to the marrow and I nearly died of fright right there”.
At that moment there was the unmistakable sound of a large dog baying in the distance. It was such a deep and unnerving sound set against the unnatural quiet of the pub that Mike nearly fell off his stool. As he regained his balance he looked around, able to move under his own power again for what seemed like ages. Plenty of other punters were visibly shaken, so it wasn’t in his imagination after all. He had started to regain his wits, but the others were still firmly under whatever spell had fallen on that place. All eyes were still firmly fixed on the old storyteller, who was once more toying with his half empty glass, patiently trying to find the perfect orientation, but never quite achieving it. As Mike looked slowly around, his eye caught the large front window, and through it out towards the shore he thought he could detect a faint greenish tint to the last knockings of daylight.
“Well, I lay there lookin’ at ‘im and he stood there lookin’ at me for a long time. Them piercing red eyes never left me gaze for a second, and I’d swear he were grinnin’ at me. It made me angry all of a sudden, to have my fowlin’ trip ruined by this ghostly hound, so I reached for me 12 bore which I always ‘ad in the punt wi’ me, a sort of back up if me ‘ole long gun failed from the damp and I fired it straight at ‘im. Of course, that bang goin’ off spooked up all the birds and in seconds the sky was filled wi’ geese and waders and I lay back and shut me eyes until they had flown off. When I thought to look back at where that ‘ole devil dog had been, he were gone, and so was my chance at a goose or two”. The old man sat back a little in his chair and considered the remaining inch or so of beer in his half pint glass. As if coming to a decision, he reached out and drained it in one go, before wiping his mouth with the back of his pale wizened hand before eliciting a satisfied sigh.
“So, I waited until the punt were afloat again, and I paddled back to me hut below the sea wall. It was light by that time and I could see no trace of the dog or anythin’ else out there, and If I hadn’t got the empty cartridge case from firin’ me gun I could just as well ‘ave dreamt the whole thing. Me ‘ole dog was his normal self by then so it wasn’t long afore I did start to question whether I’d imagined the lot of it. I never had a fright like that again out on the marsh, although it’s a strange place and no mistake. But mark this, I saw Black Shuck that night, and he saw me right enough. God musta been smilin’ down on me then, or else I doubt I’d be here now”. And with that, he rose out of his chair, and the crowd around him parted like the red sea for Moses. He made his way to the heavy oak door, and with a little effort, pulled it open and stepped out into the gloom. By the time the door closed behind him, the pub returned to its normal hustle and bustle, in fact by closing time, no one even remembered seeing the old man at all, no one that was except for Mike.
He couldn’t understand what compelled him to do it, but Mike had the strongest urge to follow the stranger that night. So just as the front door closed, he slipped out of the back door and round the side to where he could wait in the shadows and pursue the old man to wherever he went. He expected to see him in the dim light afforded by the gateposts of the pub car park, but there was no sign of him there. Mike slowly made his way around to the front of the pub and loitered on the corner, but from his new vantage point, he couldn’t see a living soul amongst the parked cars. Puzzled by the old mans disappearance and feeling more than a little disturbed he decided to head back in to the pub. Before he got to the door, he took one last look around, and out on the horizon he saw a sight that turned his blood cold. Silhouetted against the dark of the night sky was the unmistakable figure of a large dog. Glowing faintly against the blackness of the distant sea and sky, the only discernible feature he could see were two glowing red eyes. As he turned to flee into the relative safety of the pub, a low and mournful sound cut through the night air. A howl so deep, and so clear that it filled the sky and vibrated through his feet. He managed to grab feebly on to the door handle and half fell through as his weight pushed it open. Just as the door was closed behind him, he heard an unmistakable chuckle, just like the rustling of dry leaves in the wind.
(1) If you would like to know more about the legend of Black Shuck, please follow the link here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Shuck
(2) If you would like to no more about the historical events of the 1953 North Sea Flood, please follow the link here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Sea_flood_of_1953
© Columba Palumbus 2022