AULD DUNNIE by Robbie Porter
Looking back now I can scarcely believe that these events took place nearly forty years ago, during the long, balmy summer of 1978.
We were just eleven then, and in those days, you’d be out messing with your pals as soon as dinner was eaten (on a good day a meat pie from the Co-op dished out between the four of us, eaten in the back lobby under the pulley with drips from the washing all the while falling on your head).
There were no mobile phones, of course. Your pals either turned up on your doorstep, or you turned up on theirs. Maybe you arranged to meet on the Green, or by the shops. Arrangements were made, and somehow, we always stuck to them. All in all, it was a pretty carefree existence.
But the summer of 1978 changed everything.
That was when wee Kenny Halliday—all three foot of him and dressed in his trademark ill-fitting parka and NHS glasses—disappeared on the way to his granny’s, and despite the most extensive police search that anyone could remember, together with the ‘active assistance of the local community’ no trace of him was ever found. All that was known with any certainty was that wee Kenny was last seen heading down the road towards Appletreehall where his granny lived. And after that: nothing.
Well, that’s not quite the full story.
It was said (but the police never confirmed anything; this is what the locals were saying, you understand, and there’s no way of telling where the rumour started or how much truth there was to it) that something was left behind. They say that a trainer was found in the hedgerow, and that it had the initials ‘KH’ written in it, and that wee Kenny’s mum had said that it was his.
They also said that there was still a foot inside, ripped off at the ankle and then tossed away. They found it by following the blood trail. And there was an awful lot of blood. Anyway, that’s what they said.
Back in those days there were no helplines or PTSD counselling. They did do a special Mass for wee Kenny (his poor mum sat dabbing her eyes with a hankie, and they buried the ‘foot’ in a specially made coffin the size of a shoe box, and there was speculation that they put the trainer in there as well) and then we all traipsed off to the chippy, standing round in small groups, talking in whispers about what had happened while munching on battered sausages.
As the summer wore on—we were into the long holiday now—we got back into the swing of things. We spent ages collecting old pop bottles; you got threepence back on each one down at George’s (“A 20p mixture please, George”) and building dens and generally still just messing around. We popped home at dinner time for a bite, but apart from that we were out from dawn to dusk.
But no matter how happy-go-lucky we thought we were, or pretended to be, that image of wee Kenny walking the road to Appletreehall all alone, and his discarded foot still wearing its trainer, kept gnawing away at us like a swarm of irascible midges, of which there seemed to be an epidemic that summer. Over time the rumours gained in detail: wee Kenny was found, only ripped open from his neck to his crotch, a sight so horrific that it was hushed up to spare his mother; that his head was found atop a drystone dyke, still wearing those NHS glasses; that his foot never stopped twitching, from the minute it was found until they put it into that pint sized coffin. These were the stories that were doing the rounds, and before long these ‘particulars’ were indistinguishable from the proven truth, at least as far as we were concerned.
Soon after Mrs. Halliday left the town for good and went to stay with her sister up in Clackmannanshire. No one blamed her. In the absence of any hard facts, let alone a breakthrough in the case, the most fantastic of explanations were suggested. The general consensus amongst the older folk was that Auld Dunnie had taken wee Kenny, and that if younger folk had any sense (which God alone knows they’re pretty short of at the best of times) then they’d be steering well clear of the Appletreehall road, at any rate after dark.
Auld Dunnie—so the older folk said (and it did make for a good story even if it was all a load of old cobblers)—is the most malevolent of all demons, with no redeeming characteristics whatever. He is born of the darkness, and his preferred MO is to waylay the unwary before devouring them. His breath can wilt crops, and the mere sight of him will cause livestock to miscarry. All in all, Auld Dunnie was as badass a SOB as you could wish never to cross paths with, and for some unfathomable reason he just happened to keep a lair somewhere on the Appletreehall road. At least that’s what the older folk said. They also said—and I made a special note here, because you never know when gen like this might turn out to be worth its weight in gold—that the only way to escape Auld Dunnie, should you ever be unfortunate enough to meet him, is to make a beeline for a crossroads. Dunnie for all his cunning and ferociousness is by all accounts easily confused, and that’s the simplest way to mislay him.
This was how things stood as summer gave way to autumn, and the shadows began to lengthen.
Soon the clocks were going back. Before we knew it, we left for school in the dark, and walked back as dusk was falling.
No one was ever in a rush to get home. We dawdled at best, sought out mischief at worst. One such night me and my pals Andy and Stevie found an old tyre and rolled it all the way up the hill to the playground, where the three of us somehow managed to manoeuvre it to the top of the chute before letting go and launching it off. The tyre shot off down the chute, bounced over the fence and rolled back down the hill, all the time gaining momentum until it landed on the road, rolling around a bit before finally coming to a standstill. It was quite a sight.
“Whoa,” said Andy.
“Whoa,” replied Stevie.
“Bloody hell,” I muttered. “We’d better get down there and get it off the road before someone gets killed.”
We clambered down, mostly on our haunches due to the steepness and the light covering of frost, and rolled the tyre back onto the verge. Then we stood around wondering what to do next.
“I dare you to walk the Appletreehall road,” said Andy. “Just as far as Phaup’s farm. I dare you.”
“He won’t do it,” goaded Stevie. “Auld Dunnie would have him for sure. He’s got more meat on him than wee Kenny did.”
“Why don’t you two walk to Phaup’s farm?” I shot back. I knew they’d never do it, and that made me decide there and then that I would. After all, what was there to be afraid of?
Without another word I started walking, making sure that I acted confident for my pals who stood there watching. I walked briskly, with my hands in my pockets against the cold. I knew I could act the big man as long as the street lights lasted; they stopped at the road end where the buses turned to go back into town. But the glare of those lights illuminated maybe a quarter of a mile into the countryside, giving way to near total darkness at the dip in the road just before the driveway down to Phaup’s farm, and then picking up again for a little way beyond it after the road rose up again. After that, unless approaching cars illuminated the scene, the road ahead was in near total darkness.
I only intended to walk as far as that dip in the road, then turn around and walk back. I passed the driveway down to Phaup’s farm, but instead of stopping I kept walking, up out of the dip and into the night. The Appletreehall road is a narrow one, and I walked quickly, keeping to the right which had drystone dykes running its full length. To the left I could make out the roadside ditch and beyond that, the hedgerow.
Even today I have no idea what compelled me to do it. Maybe it was the sort of bravado kids have when they just don’t know any better, or maybe I was proving something to myself, or maybe I was making the point to Andy and Stevie that I had the sheer nerve to do it…
Andy and Stevie. I looked back, but they were already gone. I didn’t blame them, and for the first time I felt a slight apprehension. What the hell was I doing out here? Even then I could have—should have—turned back. Only I didn’t. Damn fool that I was, I went on.
I must have walked for about twenty minutes when the thought struck me: how far did wee Kenny get? Have I already passed the spot where he disappeared, or am I still heading towards it?
Just then a crow—at least I reckoned that’s what it was—croaked. Suddenly startled I glanced to my right, at the line of the drystone dyke (is that the spot where they found wee Kenny’s head, atop the wall, dead eyes staring out through those NHS specs?)
Then I looked to the left, at the ditch and the hedgerow beyond (maybe that’s where they found wee Kenny’s disarticulated foot, still wearing its trainer and all the while twitching away like a Mexican jumping bean?)
I became acutely aware of my surroundings: the sound of my footsteps on the road, the gentle swaying of the trees in the breeze, every breath I took (each one shallower than the last) and the beating of my heart (an incessant pounding in my ears). I glanced back, looked to the sides, and then looked back again. Nothing but the darkness, which enveloped everything. I realised that it must have been enveloping me.
Suddenly I heard a shuffling behind me, like the sound of one of mum’s black bin bags might make when it skitters away over the back garden in a slight breeze. I turned to look, and at first couldn’t make out anything. I stood and stared transfixed (maybe this is how it was for wee Kenny) as out of the darkness a shape emerged, indistinct at first, but swirling around and finally coming together to take a truly terrible form.
Auld Dunnie (what else could this have been?) stood at least twelve feet, with arms as long as an average man is tall, and piercing yellow eyes that regarded me with an awful malevolence.
In that instant I knew one thing for sure: at the end wee Kenny didn’t scream. Screaming wouldn’t have changed anything.
Auld Dunnie took one shuffled step toward me, and I ran.
I ran as fast as anyone could with the devil himself behind them. I pounded down the Appletreehall road and every step I took I knew Auld Dunnie had to be closing the gap between us. I dared not look back; I didn’t need to. I could see Dunnie’s gangly shadow on the road ahead of me, and all the time I could hear that dreadful shuffling.
I could feel Dunnie’s breath on the back of my neck, and (could I have imagined it?) the icy touch of his finger on my shoulder. Did wee Kenny feel that breath? Did he think of his mother just before Dunnie ripped his living guts out?
At that precise moment I reached the turn-off for Appletreehall village, being in itself the left-hand fork of a crossroads.
I turned and looked back. The Appletreehall road was empty, with no disturbance at all.
I never told anyone the full story about that night on the Appletreehall road. Like I said at the outset, it’s a small town, and once you get a reputation it’s hard to shake it off. Why, then, did I stay quiet for forty years only to tell what happened now? Well, you might recall a short article in The Express recently. I have it here:
‘LOCAL BOY MISSING: EXTENSIVE SEARCH IN PROGRESS
Dougie Smyth, aged 12, has been reported missing from his home near-. He was last seen early on Wednesday evening after he left to visit friends at Appletreehall. Dougie, who is slightly built, was wearing a blue tracksuit with matching trainers. Police are keen to hear from anyone that might have seen Dougie, or have any information about his current whereabouts.’
That was three weeks ago, and there’s been a development of sorts, though not one that’s going to be of any help to Dougie Smyth. I’ve heard on the grapevine—and I’ve learned not to dismiss rumours out of hand—that during the search a pair of old, tortoiseshell NHS glasses was found, with one arm broken off.
They once belonged to a kid and are about forty years old, experts agreed.
About the Author:
Robbie Porter is a lecturer and charity worker from Worcester, England. He was born in Hawick, Scotland and studied English and History at the University of Sunderland. His fiction has recently been published in The Sirens Call eZine, Schlock! Webzine and Ghosts and Scholars.