By Alex Freeman
If something strange and mysterious were to happen, I would never be so arrogant as to think such a thing could happen in my presence. My life is one of unbroken monotony, where remarkable and memorable events form part of a different world which never intersects with my own. I am no tragic hero. But I was naïve: for, horror loves to creep up on the unassuming — on the man who thinks he is just a regular guy.
You do not need ghosts or monsters for horror. True horror is anything that blinds you of your senses, makes you doubt your sanity, and poses a thousand questions while answering none. There is nothing romantic in it.
My job is scarcely glamorous. I work for an event services managers’ in England. The clients are people looking to host large events, often agricultural, and they pay our company to take care of the difficult bits: car-parking, ticketing, stewarding, logistics and other details which ensure that the event runs smoothly. Normal car-parks are generally not available so nearby fields are opened up and the countless flow of cars are herded into them like cattle. I often landed this marshalling duty, and though it was hardly complex, you were expected to work all day.
Horror crept up on me on one occasion while I was going through the motions of this usually comforting and simple task. It was in Devon during the winter, and the rain was coming down in torrents. I cannot emphasise the volume of cars we had coming in that day, and a lack of staff meant very little respite. They simply came on in endless hordes. We will frequently have spare fields at these kinds of events, but I remember that on that day we were struggling to get everyone in.
It was hectic, but apart from that, nothing out of the ordinary occurred in the morning. It was the afternoon when things began to get unsettling.
By this time, mercifully, the flow of incoming cars had dwindled and I was left to walk around and generally be of as much use and help as I could be bothered on that chilly, rainy afternoon. Now that I reflect on it, I suppose horror loves to creep up on the idle as well.
Suddenly — I remember this well because of the start it gave me — hands gripped my high-visibility jacket from behind. I spun round with some difficulty, as the hands clung on as much as possible, and saw what I could only describe at first as a small bundle of waterproof layers and a hood. Eventually I discerned the damp elderly face of a woman. She looked up at me with cold, blue eyes. In them I saw a panicked pleading, but I fancy that I also saw hatred simmering behind it. I was so stunned and unnerved that I could not even ask what I could do for her. Such a long time seemed to pass before she spoke that it was almost a relief when she did. But when I heard her voice I wished she had not.
‘You! My car!’ She spoke in a croaky whine, neither loudly nor quietly and while it came out with a sense of panicked urgency, I could not help hearing a disdainful tone behind it.
‘My car! Where is my car? Help me! How on earth am I going to find it in this mess?’ She grabbed me by the shoulders this time. ‘I tied a red ribbon on the aerial so I could find the damned thing! Where is it?’ I closed my eyes and wished she would stop talking in her awful voice. She finally released my shoulders and began to walk away from me muttering ‘Red ribbon . . . red ribbon . . .’. Again and again, red ribbon. And though she looked frail, she moved quickly and without impediment.
She stopped and turned back to me menacingly: ‘I’ve been coming here for over twenty years and I’ve never had to walk so far and pay so much god-damned money. You people are useless!’ That same whine drifted back and stung my ears. She turned again and continued off, always muttering that alliteration. As she walked away, a hazy mist, which had been coming over the hills, descended on our location and reduced visibility to almost zero. I could no longer make out the hills and, worse, the time of year meant that darkness was beginning to set in quickly. The rain continued to pelt down and showed no sign of ceasing.
Deeply disturbed, but anxious to be useful and to redeem myself, I set off along the row of cars, squinting for the elusive one with the red ribbon attached to the aerial. I had lost sight of the woman but I could still hear her dreadful chant with varying ranges of clarity, sometimes distant, sometimes uncannily close by.
‘Red ribbon . . . red ribbon. . . .’
‘Red ribbon . . . red ribbon. . . .’
I was nearly desperate to remove my high-visibility jacket in case she saw me through the gloom and accosted me again. But I kept calm and official, inspecting the cars as I went by: Ford, Audi, Skoda, Nissan, Volvo. Nothing with a ribbon though.
‘Red ribbon . . . red ribbon . . . .’
‘Red ribbon . . . red ribbon . . . .’
When I came to the end of one row I saw her again further up the column, gazing straight at me. It was almost as if she had been waiting for me, almost as if her eyes could pierce through the bodies of the cars themselves let alone the mist which was almost right above my head now. I turned swiftly away from her and scuttled down another row, looking intently at the cars: Seat, Citroen, Volkswagen, Peugeot, Fiat. Nothing with a ribbon though.
Then I realised I was doing it. ‘Red ribbon . . . red ribbon . . . ,’ I murmured slowly, my heart thumping in tandem, and a haunting duet arose as her whining moans timed with mine. Meanwhile I was playing the strangest game of cat and mouse, keeping an eye out for the old woman so I could avoid her at all costs but simultaneously trying to help her out. I flinched at the sight of anyone emerging from behind a car, and sweat pooled under my shirt despite the cold weather.
It was an agonising and unsuccessful search. I do not know how long I walked up and down rows of cars but all I know is thankfully the repeated moans stopped and I caught no more glimpses of the old woman. She must have found her car at last and I tried to put the incident behind me. But the mist and the rain and the advancing darkness would not allow me relief from uneasiness. The hours passed smoothly, however, and I saw more and more people come back to their cars and drive home. I showed them the best way to the exit and helped remind them of where they parked their cars. My confidence was gratefully restored. Slowly but surely the fields emptied and the rain finally stopped. Dusk became full dark. The mist remained, giving the dark night a wispy white tinge.
Tiredness came over me and I became lost in empty but pleasant thoughts, wandering aimlessly around. I do not know for how long I had been doing this but I had not seen anyone for a good while.
Gradually I realised I was not alone. I saw nothing, but I felt it. I was sure. The thought of being watched sent shivers up my spine (I believe it a natural reaction of paranoia to assume that someone is watching you after you have been isolated for a while) and I couldn’t shake it off. But before I could pursue this thought further, a dark shape darted out from the corner of my eye and grabbed onto my arm.
‘My car! It has a red ribbon on it!’ it groaned.
I stared in horrified disbelief at the shape on my arm. It was the same woman as before, with the same tortured eyes. But hours must have elapsed since I last heard anything of her. I was terrified. I could not understand how she could still be there, how she had not left hours ago. I wrestled her grip off me and ran without any sense of direction. I do not know how long I ran for but I did not stop. I could still hear the chilling cry from behind me.
‘Red ribbon . . . red ribbon.’
I do not know whether I was imagining it or she really was pursuing me. But what was the difference? When imagination and reality have blurred into one, they are both as horrifying as each other. All I remember is that eventually I must have stopped hearing the terrible wail or otherwise I would never have slowed to a walk. I was alone in the misty darkness with no idea where I was and with no idea what might be lurking around.
I stared around, shivering in agonised silence, straining my eyes into the blackness for some kind of comfort. The only sound was the thumping of my own beating heart and the gasps of my breath which formed clouds of steam. I was lost and needed light badly. I grabbed my mobile phone with my stiff fingers hoping that even if there was no signal I could at least use it as a light. I sobbed with frustration as I realised the battery must have been dead for at least an hour, and the thing lay lifeless in my hand. I wanted to try and call out but was too scared it might attract attention. Who knew where she would pop up next? I had no choice but to attempt to retrace my steps as best I could and somehow dare to hope I might make it back. I set off gingerly, feeling like Theseus in the labyrinth.
It was the most disorientating experience, walking with no positive sense of direction in the gloom. I had strayed far off the show-ground site and was in empty fields that seemed to stretch on for miles. I entertained serious thoughts of finding shelter and waiting for morning to bring rationality and calm back into my world. The thought that my colleagues, my family, perhaps even the police would be looking for me did not deter me as much as the certainty that she would be watching as I slept, and watching very close by. The possibility that it would not only be in my dreams that I would see her was too much for me.
I staggered my way back, half in tears, half trying to stay strong. I do not know how long I walked. It felt like hours. My sense of time was muddled. What I am sure of is that eventually I saw headlights. Headlights meant cars. Cars meant people. People meant that I was no longer alone. I hurried towards the lights, my salvation. I was almost hysterical with joy.
I do not know at what point I realised the headlights were coming straight at me, but it was almost too late. I assumed it would see my jacket and veer off quickly. But it just kept on coming. The recent terror had sapped me of energy and my brain was not able to process what was going on coherently. Somehow I moved out of the way in time but the bonnet grazed my hip as I sidestepped and my momentum sent me hurling to the ground.
I saw the car speed away into the night and the rear lights illuminated something trailing behind it. Something red.