The Off-Comers

The Off-Comers

A Chapter by Medeas Wray
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Beginning of The Off-Comers a work in progress. The year is 1978, setting England as two British government investigators go to see an 'Unexplained' incident in North Yorkshire, leading onto further..

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Copyright: Medeas Wray 2014

 

The Off-Comers

By

Medeas Wray

 

 

‘Sometimes I think we’re alone.

Sometimes I think we’re not.

In either case the thought is

quite staggering.’

R. Buckminster Fuller

 

Chapter One:


Dalby Forest, North Yorkshire: June 5th, 1978


They weren’t here when it happened: nobody was, at least nobody who had come forward. So they didn’t have a clue about how it had happened. That’s what they were trying to find out.

Midday and the sun was high in the sky, though here, deep in the thick of the forest, hemmed in by the rows of pine, you’d hardly guess. Here it was mainly shadows, the sun, in the sandy lanes between the crowded rows, dappling the earth at best, doing its best to pierce the dark-green fronds hanging from the branches of the trees, planted so closely together there was little light between them. Trying, but not trying hard enough, as far as Joe was concerned.

It was cold in the shadows and he was trying to keep to the sunny spots in the lane, side-stepping the grey, cold puddles of darkness as he walked along, stooping down from time to time to pick up one of the specimens from the sand, strewn with scores of something like a cabbage: some very poor cousin of a cabbage, in Joe’s book, but a cabbage all the same. He wondered what they were doing here, him and Eldrich Collins, why they’d been brought in at all. So far in, they’d just found themselves helping the forest-rangers clear the path, listening in on the running commentary.

 ‘More of this...’ One of the foresters muttered.

‘Farmers would be feeding it to the pigs if they thought there was any good in it. And if they don’t trust it, who can?’ A second.

 ‘Where the hell did it come from...?’ Another.

Collins and Vine carried on, stooping every so often to pick up the vegetation and pile it up on the road-side keeping their silence. There was probably a simple explanation for the fact that third-rate brassicas were now strewing the lanes. There had to be. Probably some farm-labourers out joy-riding in a borrowed truck one evening, Joe thought: bevvied up, lost in the heat of the moment, forgetting they had a load on the back and zooming around the quiet of the lanes for the thrill of it. Then, a spill and they’d just left it here. The spring-greens were probably rejects in any case, from the look of them, probably just on their way to some dumping-ground.

He could imagine the scene, lads from the round-about farms careering around in a borrowed vehicle, out for the night with the lure of the empty sandy track just too much, driver stepping down hard on the accelerator, egged on by his mates, cans of lager in hands, whooping around him as he manoeuvred the lane, tyres scraping sand, creating clouds of dust.

There had been a full moon recently which made it all the more likely. A balmy night and the great orb of moon to light the way through the dark avenues of trees. What could be more perfect than a mad-cap drive-through on a night like that? He’d done similar in his younger days, he remembered, looking back on those times with a certain guillty pleasure.

Yes, that was all it was. Though there had been that other report...

Still, judging from the evidence, it didn’t look as if they needed to be here for very long and he was cheered by the thought they would soon be leaving. He wasn’t alone: Collins, his partner, a man bristling with northern attitude from the tips of his cropped brown hair down to the soles of his heavy Doc Martens - ex-army though most of him seemed to have forgotten the ex of that fact  - had nearly refused the detail. 

Joe hadn’t minded the trip out, earlier, after the news had trickled down to them from the forestry rangers and local farmers. Investigating incidents like these: it was just one of the many hats they wore and it made a change, being out and about, away from the confines of the office, away from the constantly humming technology around them, the ringing phones - out in the fresh air scented so thickly with pine, it clung to their clothes, hung in their nostrils as they walked. Now though, he’d had enough of the dark shadows, the lack of direct sunlight, the relentless ranks of trees.

‘Just some pranksters out for a thrill, driving down the lanes, lurching around and spilling this stuff. Nothing more.’ Joe said to his partner.

‘Looks like that.’ Eldrich nodded towards him as he spoke.

‘No...more to it than that.’ One of the Forest Rangers closed in to tell them, his voice like the whisper of steel on steel. ‘This area’s closed to the public, access is limited to just us lot. Nothing’s got through the barriers. Security have inspected the perimeter-fences over and over, skirted the whole area. Everything’s intact, fences all good, no sign of a break-in.’

Joe shrugged. So the security guards must just have been looking the other way when the drive-through went on. One of them probably had some pals who felt like taking a spin through the forest, he could imagine it. It was all clear in his mind, the picture.That would be it, in all probability.

The speaker shook his head. ‘We’ve found this stuff all over, not just on the ground but high up too, decorating the trees like some kind of weird Christmas decoration. Not just here on the main routes in and out but deep in. Follow me.’ He said, leading them off the lane they were walking and further into the grid-work of trees.

They were reluctant to do so, felt they’d seen enough, heard enough already but they followed him anyway, struggling through the dark ranks of pine, branches coming up to lash their faces as they moved through, heady scent of the fronds growing stronger as they pushed further into the forest with the lines of trees thickening before them. They walked on for several minutes with the ranger pointing out the pines ahead of them where specimens of the same cabbages they’d seen in the lane were suspended, caught high in the branches, towards the tops of the trees, some twenty or thirty feet up. Rangers on the ground were busy, rattling at the trees, banging away at them with long steel poles, trying to disengage the cabbage-like stuff and bring it down from its lofty perches with some determination.

‘Some prank.’ Eldrich said. ‘They went to town, whoever did this. Spent some time and a whole lot of energy. Some people...’ He added.

Joe nodded back at him. Most times, when they got a call-out on something like this, when an item came into the station labelled ‘Unexplained’ and they had a chance to look at it, they found some rational explanation. Like now. It was par for the course. And all that was amazing was what people could do, would do, if they put their minds to it.

‘That’s what you think?’ Their guide said, scowling towards them like he couldn't believe their words. ‘All you think?’

The didn't answer. Just scanned the trees ahead noticing now that even the tallest  had brassicas hanging from their upper branches with more strewn about around their slender trunks in the sandy ginnels that separated the rows from each other.

They took some shots of the trees, the ground beneath them and stooped down to grab hold of a few more examples of the stuff, throwing them into plastic bags, saying nothing. Taking the time to think it through.

 There’d been no meteorological reports of sudden high winds, gales or tornados. Nothing. The weather had been mild and warm, usual for the time of year. There’d been hardly any wind for some days, maybe at least a week.

‘Like we said, just some prank, an elaborate one but a prank all the same.’ Joe said.

 The forester looked at them with silent resignation and shook his head.

‘Unless it was airborne, a drop, either accidental or deliberate from some plane. Maybe flown in from some radar dead-zone.’ Eldrich said.

‘Would have to be flying low for it not to show up on the radar.' Joe answered him. ‘But it’s possible, I suppose.’

‘So some rogue pilot dropped his load?’ Eldrich scratched at his neck as he asked the question. There’d been no reports of any planes reported missing, no sightings in the area.

They were talking together, Collins and Vine and had all but forgotten the forest-ranger. They’d had a similar incident report from twenty miles away up on the coast, which made the airborne explanation plausible, more than plausible. Though they decided to keep that to themselves.

‘Just have to report what we find. Coming up with explanations...’Joe shook his head and looked towards the sky as if searching for clouds.

‘Means it’s down as unexplained. Just another for the files.’ Eldrich said.

‘So basically your guess is as good as ours?’The forester asked them, after listening in on the conversation between the two men with an air of impatience for a minute or so. ‘Right. Let’s head back. There’s something I want to show you.’

They followed him through the dark fronds of the forest-pine, pushing through, brushing into the branches as they walked with the scent of pine-essence heady in the air. 

‘The wife’ll wonder where I’ve been.’ Joe said in a jovial kind of way.

 ‘Yep. It’s like walking through industrial-strength air-freshener, this stuff. Bound to get her thinking.’ Collins replied.

‘It’s good for you.’ The forester said. ‘Breathe it in, get a lungful. Pure pine essence, can’t beat it.’ He added as they carried on through the darkness of the engulfing trees. Sounded like he loved this place, Joe thought. But for him, it was dark and eerie and brought back memories he’d rather forget and he was glad when they eventually emerged from the shadows, back into the relative warmth and sunlight of the sandy main road.

 

 ‘We just take a look at what we find, submit reports, try and fathom it out.’ Collins was telling the forester. ‘That’s about it: can’t come up with explanations if we can’t find any. Can’t just make it up. If I told you different I’d be lying.’

‘We’ve been gathering these things up going on days now, probably found hundreds all told.’ The forester said. ‘Local farmers along the borders are doing the same. Shovelling ‘em up, piling them onto the pallets. We have ‘em too.’ He pointed a stubby finger towards a raised platform, five feet or so above ground. ‘Come winter, we need ‘em.’

Vine and Collins followed his gaze, towards a pile of grubby-looking whitish sand on top of a steel platform sited at the edge of the lane. Joe scowled, not sure what he was looking at. 

‘Salt.’ The ranger said. ‘Might look like crap but it’s salt all the same. Recycled, that’s why it’s so grubby-looking. We lay it down, when it’s bad on the roads round here, then rake it up when it’s done its work. Might be good weather now but come January, February, it can get difficult. Snow on the ground, temperature down to zero. Lower than that, much lower, sometimes. Salt breaks down the ice come winter. It's handy to have around, like a good friend.’ He added.

‘I trust this stuff.  So take a look at what happens...’

He picked up a couple of the vegetables from out of the lane and threw them onto the platform of salt. They heard a phut and then another before they even had a chance to look.  Phut-phut. Like the sounds of air escaping quickly from a tyre, like the sounds of a gun being fired through thick gauze. What had been spring greens looked to have shrunk into mis-shapen balls made of something resembling wood, more like charcoal than vegetable matter. Shrunken and aged in a matter of seconds, shrivelled and fizzled down to a ball of blackened wood big enough to hold in the palm of a hand.

Joe shook his head at the sight.

‘Can’t be right, can it? What just happened. And it happens every time, over and over.’ The ranger said. ‘Unnatural, isn’t it? Vegetables reacting to salt like that? It just doesn’t happen, not normally anyhow. Local farmers think the same. Don’t like these cabbage-things, whatever they are, don’t like ‘em one bit. And they should know about what’s natural and what’s not. Farmers round here, they’ve been growing crops for years, they’re not new to it. Vegetables. It’s what they know. And these, whatever they are, they’re not right. Not from round here. Not from this planet. From somewhere else, we reckon. That’s why we got you guys in.’

Collins had looked alarmed, Joe noticed, as soon as he’d looked towards the platform, heard the phut-phut go on and saw the cabbages shrinking in seconds into something like wood-shavings suddenly turned to charcoal, lifeless like something very old, like some kind of fossil. It was the first time his face had registered anything but impassive boredom all day, Joe noticed. And Collins face barely registered anything, most of the time. His days in the army must have hammered all emotion out of him, Joe thought. He was always good at giving Collins excuses, he realised.

Now Collins looked worried, biting his lip, frowning as he spoke.

‘No, can’t be right. It’s not. So now, what do you do?’  He asked the ranger and Joe felt a sigh of relief work its way through him. Perhaps, he thought, he came over to Eldrich the same way Eldrich came over to him. Like some unfeeling, stone-hard b*****d scarred by a mass of bad experiences somewhere in the past. Perhaps that was it. Collins had opened up just a little and Joe was starting to like the guy. He couldn’t believe what they’d just witnessed either.

The ranger directed them over towards a cast-iron brazier standing three foot high and a foot round at a corner between the pines, where the lanes intersected, positioned away from the trees with sand surrounding it on all sides,  a cluster of coals inside it, showing red and black, burning already.  

‘We just pop ‘em in here.’ The ranger said, with a grin on his face, throwing the two balls onto the singing coals, as if despatching a couple of old enemies. They watched on as the balls flamed.

‘Burn well, don’t they? Waste not, want not, as they say. Least they’re good for something.’ He smiled, his eyes glinting from the flames of the fire, his jaw set firm.

‘Think we should take more than a couple back.’ Joe said in a quiet voice heavy with thought. ‘Something like ten should do it.’

 

 Later that day, they went up the coast and talked to the farmer whose fields edged onto it, the area on the shore where the cabbages had landed. They’d seen the other farmers, the ones whose lands bordered the forest and had stopped to talk to them in passing, but briefly, farmers being what they were, not given to long conversations. They were busy shovelling up the brassicas from the narrow roads around their fields, piling them onto the salt-covered platforms at the ends of the lanes and the B-roads leading to the farms, mumbling sounds of disapproval through clenched teeth as they did so, watching the cabbages fizzle into woody balls with something like disgust on their lined, weathered faces. Like it was just extra work for them with little reward. Work they could do without. Collins and Vine nodded back, shaking their heads in agreement and drove away to the next site on the list and their pre-arranged meeting with Lomax Eastby.

 

‘Got ourselves down here one day and found ‘em though we don’t come down here much. Wheat grows itself most of the time and there’s not much to do ‘til harvest-time, that’s the way of it. We just let it get on with it by itself. Farming’s all about patience, letting nature do what it wants, unless there’s a problem. We grow our own vegetables up near the house, that’s what keeps us busy, rest of the time. Don’t know why we came down here at all.  Think it was one o’ them visitors told us about it, now I think.’ He said, scratching his head with a bony finger as if trying to stimulate some memory.

‘Tourists...come to stay with their families in the smaller houses up at the farm. Have the run of the place, well, nearly, and they like it here when the weather’s good, close to the coast. They can walk on the beach, have a picnic, get some air, do what they want. Within reason, of course.’ The old man said, his eyes shining as if caught by a sliver of sunlight.

They looked around. They could see why visitors would like it here. Why anyone would. Unspoilt, timeless, a private world part sea-shore and beach, part-arable land, rocks on one side grazing the shore, green fields of wheat nodding into the far distance on the other. The estate was large, one of the largest around, farmed by the Eastby family generation after generation, fields rolling down the coast as far as the eye could see. Though no-one would guess from meeting Lomax, a modest, shrewd man, with small, piercing eyes that had known too much sun, old, balding and with a slight stoop gained from working the ground too long, wearing an open-necked shirt that had seen better days, a thread-bare pair of corduroy trousers and battered brown boots. That was farmers for you, Joe thought. They never looked rich no matter how much land they owned.

 ‘So these cabbage-like things just appeared here, is that it?’ He asked Mr Eastby.

‘Far as I can tell, I’d say so, lad. Can’t say how else they got here. There were no tyre tracks. Wheat-fields hadn’t been radged, not messed around with, they still looked the same, ‘part from a few bent stalks in places but we can cope with that. They'll spring back.' He said brightly. 'We walked the fields, picked up the green stuff, you can see how the wheat looks ruffled where we went...’

They followed his gaze down the rolling fields, seeing narrow pathways forged between the growing fronds.

‘...then piled it all up on the beach and left it. Next day, all we found was a pile of raggedy wooden things. Figured the waves had come over and done their work.’ Lomax laughed for a second. ‘Seem to have a bad reaction to salt, those particular cabbages, I’d say. Just turned into these little wooden balls, stuff I’ve never seen the like of. Knew there was something wrong with ‘em, right from the start. Just had a feeling. Cabbages just arriving from nowhere, littering the land without a good explanation, no vehicles, no planes spotted or heard. Then changing like that when the tide came in. And we’d heard the rumours from further on in. Farmers talk to each other, you’d be surprised.’ He said, his old eyes gleaming.

 Joe Vine and Eldrich Collins nodded back towards him. They realised the farmers would form something of a club. They could even be related somewhere along the line. They’d been here for centuries, they reckoned, judging from the intel that had come up when they’d done their home-work.

Mr Eastby continued, smiling now, enjoying the story he was telling them. ‘We raked ‘em up into a pile further up the beach, let the sun get to work drying them out. Next day, we built a bonfire and threw ‘em onto it, the woody things. They burn down well.’ He said, with a glint in his eyes. ‘At least they’re good for that. At least they’re good for summat.’

‘So you think you managed to get all of them?’ Joe asked the farmer.

‘That, I couldn’t say. As I told you, lad, there were these visitors trawling the land, them and their families, tourists, people we have from time to time. Have to make the farm pay and a little trade helps balance the books.’ He said. ‘Can’t say what those folk might have done, what they might have thought about those brassicas. Me, I’d leave ‘em alone, stuff just arriving out of the skies without an explanation but I can’t say what those people are like. Who knows? They live in cities. Some of ‘em don’t have the sense they were born with.’ He added.

‘Don’t suppose you have the names of these visitors of yours?’ Joe asked him.

‘Aye, lad, it’s all written down. All by the book.’ The old farmer said, winking towards them.

Joe nodded back at him. It wasn't much to go on but maybe there was something there that needed to be looked at, he thought. Collins smiled towards his partner raising his eyebrows, knowing that Joe would follow up any lead he got. He never let a stone go unturned, not Joe Vine. That was the man’s main attribute. That was a trait that put him ahead of his peers, something he was famous for and sometimes it could be tiresome, Collins thought. Dogged, that was the word for him. 

Joe had that one nailed, Collins reckoned. He never let anything go, that much he was learning. So now what new investigations would the man dream up and where would it lead? He, himself, would have just left the matter there. Explanation: unknown. Follow-up: unnecessary. Down as UP1: Unexplained Phenomenon. Another one. There were ranks of files like that, whole stacks of them, corridors of the stuff, Eldrich knew. 

But Joe, would take this further, that he could lay bets on. Take it as far as it would go. And maybe Joe was right to work the way he did, Eldrich thought. Maybe he had lost something along the way, like Joe Vine’s sense of curiosity, his drive. And maybe he could do with getting something of that back, Collins thought to himself as they left the rocky sun-swept coastline, the fresh-green wheat waving in the breeze and followed the old farmer on up to the house.

 











 












© 2014 Medeas Wray


Author's Note

Medeas Wray
Is it at all understandable? Does it make you want to read more? Does it seem too funny, somehow? What do you think about the writing?

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Added on May 28, 2014
Last Updated on June 21, 2014
Tags: science fiction, investigation, investigators, unexplained phenomenon, mystery, unknown, sci-fi, fiction, fantasy


Author

Medeas Wray
Medeas Wray

Leeds, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom



About
I'm a writer of speculative fiction - urban noir, crime-thriller-meets-paranormal with a little sci-fi thrown in - and humour of course. I hope that readers find my writing entertaining. I now have th.. more..

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