Retribution

(20 minute read)
by Roland Gray

(U.K)

Catrin Carlyle was waiting to be counted through the opening credits of the evening’s main news bulletin – her sour scowl and snappish attitude unfamiliar to the millions of regular viewers enchanted by her sunny on-screen persona. But as far as work was concerned, she was a perfectionist, and the sight of a tiny ladybird impudently crawling across the words and pictures on her monitor screen was an unwelcome distraction. A flick of an immaculately lacquered nail resolved the issue.

The director started counting down from five. Catrin unleashed her award winning smile a nanosecond before the headlines; war in the middle east, the threat of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction being deployed, the Beckhams’ latest activities, all the world shattering events in a run of the mill evening news bulletin. Oh, and a few more curious items to pad out the time.

“In the Peak District, the search for the missing ramblers has been called off after the discovery of a number of bodies at the foot of Deep Scar Cliff.” Catrin flicked her hair to dislodge what appeared to be that pesky ladybird again and carried on, her dulcet tone modulated to show respect for the tragedy. “The Peak Mountain Rescue team and Derbyshire police stated that an investigation will be held without delay. Foul play has not been ruled out.”

Despite the rain, the hardcore moorland walkers of RAM, the Ramblers Association of Middleton, set off from their village home in the Peak on their regular Sunday morning hike. They were used to walking in all weathers, they needed to be where they lived, but the rain had put most other hikers off or diverted them to other places. They appeared to have the moors to themselves.

They planned to walk across the top of Deep Scar Cliff, then down into the dale and up along the stream into Middleton. That would be a good ten-mile thrash, nothing to seasoned walkers like themselves. The ‘Magnificent Seven’ had turned out again according to Joe Thornton, club secretary and treasurer. 

“They might have been magnificent once but they’re well past it now,” Shirley Bradwell retorted. The good-natured banter died down as they set off along the familiar route, partly because they needed to spread out and partly because the rain was such a conversation killer. 

An hour or so of steady trudging brought them to the cliff top path. They were disappointed that the rain was fully cloaking the view, but it did seem to be slowing. Sure enough, as they made their way along the difficult trail, the mist lifted and the sun shone through the clouds, angels’ beams spotlighting distant hills glistening with newly fallen rain. They stood for a while, taking a breather and admiring the vista. They had seen it a hundred times or more, but no-one took it for granted.

Shirley turned around for a second, pulled by some instinct and jumped back with a loud squeal. The others looked to her, then behind to be confronted by a bizarre sight. A large flock of sheep had gathered close to them. What was peculiar was that they had gathered in total, almost supernatural, silence. Not a ‘baa’ between them.  What was frightening was that they were all facing the ramblers, every one of them staring.

“What on earth?” started Colin Cartwright. “Where did that lot come from?”

“I don’t know, but they were bloody quiet about it,” answered Joe, “and I don’t like the look of it. I think we’d better move along ladies and gents?”

They edged along the path, but the sheep moved that way too, threatening to intercept.

“I’ve got a feeling they don’t want us to carry on. I think a tactical retreat is called for. Back the way we came!” Joe was a natural leader. 

But the sheep seemed to have an invisible natural leader, and they moved steadily to block the path in that direction too. Now the sheep were in a crescent, the classic battle formation used by Spartan, Zulu and WWI armies alike, trapping the walkers against the edge of the cliff. 

A mixture of fear, bewilderment and outrage filled the ramblers. With Alan anything like that led to belligerence. 

“Bugger this, they’re only bloody sheep!” he cried and charged towards the nearest waving his hiking-pole and screaming.

Normally, sheep would turn tail and run, faced with something like that, but these stood their ground, unflinching. Alan’s charge ran out of steam just in front of the first rank and he stood there for a moment in disbelief. 

“Bloody animals!” he cried and struck the nearest one on the head with the pole. This one did stagger slightly, but quickly regained its position in line. 

“I give up!” he said and turned around to walk back to the others.

As he walked, the sheep he had attacked launched itself forward and butted him, shooting him forward. He yelled out in pain, but scrambled back to the others as quickly as he could scamper. Meanwhile the rest of the sheep moved up to join their comrade.

“I really don’t like the look of this!” reiterated Joe. By now, the group were cowering together for mutual comfort, but not finding much of it.

The sheep started to move ominously towards them. Joe picked up a rock and threw it with all his might. This brought a bleat of pain from the sheep it hit, the first sound they’d heard them make, encouraging them all to start throwing whatever they could lay their hands on. 

The sheep endured this barrage for a couple of minutes then started moving again, shrinking the ramblers’ little island further and further.

“What are we going to do?” wailed Eileen Chapman.

“I don’t know,” replied Joe, “but it’s the last time I have lamb chops.”

They were backing away from the sheep, but closer and closer to the edge of the cliff. It was a long, long drop.

“I think they’re determined we leave that way,” said Colin, pointing at the cliff edge. “But there’s no way down!”

“Oh there is,” replied Joe solemnly. “A very quick way with a very sudden stop at the end.”

The sheep closed in remorselessly and, as one, started bleating.

Catrin took the opportunity of the outside broadcast to remove three more of the tiny red and black spotted beetles from her desk. 

“Where are they coming from?” she asked the director. “Wherever it is, get them stopped. They’re too much of a distraction.”

“Back in 3, 2,” mouthed the director’s assistant through the glass.

“There has been a further development on yesterday’s holiday disaster in the Canary Islands. It was thought that a whale watching tour boat had been capsized by a freak wave, with the loss of all on board. But this morning, tourists and residents of Puerto Cristo were stunned when a school of dolphins carried a 5-year-old boy into the marina. The boy was barely alive and suffering from exposure and shock, but the intelligence and compassion of these mammals was demonstrated clearly, yet again.”

The passengers unloading from the Sundowner coach were the usual ragbag of package tourists; families, couples, old and young. The Sundowner reps were very good at selling this particular excursion, the “Whale Watching” special, complete with paella lunch and lots of free booze. Of course, their commission was pretty good, and they expected a couple of freebies too.

The boat had been renamed with typical lack of imagination; Moby Dick. It was an old but seaworthy former fishing boat, registered for up to 40 passengers. In fact, in the quiet days of the low season, it was used for deep-sea fishing to provide an extra source of income. Sundowner liked it because it was cheap, but reliable. They almost always spotted something, and that was all the tourists wanted. Word of mouth then sold more tickets.

The Reps gathered their charges together for a head count. They’d had one before the coach left the resort, but they had long ceased to be surprised at the vanishing tricks of the average British holidaymaker. It was as if they’d left their brains at home along with their common sense, decency and courtesy. But they were all present and correct, so the Reps signalled ‘Cap’n Ahab’ to start his welcome spiel. 

Eric Greening, all the way from that nautical hotbed of Hartington in the Peak District, was Cap’n Ahab for this trip. He’d drawn the short straw just before the coach arrived. That was the third time this week; he was sure Carlos was cheating. No-one liked the play acting involved, and it didn’t get any more enjoyable with practice. Half the time he was sure the trippers were embarrassed about it too. But the show must go on.

He gave them the legal necessities first, life jackets, lifeboat locations and so on. He gave them a warning about exposure to the sun, though it was too late for some judging by the red faces. All that took about 30 seconds and he went on to tell them about the food and, more importantly, the drink. When he was through, the trippers were herded up the gangplank on to the deck. Half the deck was roofed after a fashion with a gaudily coloured tarpaulin; the rest was open to the sun. Deck chairs and sun-loungers were scattered around, and there were some unseemly scenes as women fought over those deemed to be in prime locations. The serious whale watchers, real and poseur, went straight up to the viewing platforms on the bridge deck and the bows of the vessel.

They set sail with a brave display of bunting and blasts on the ship’s hooter, the noise from the latter only just managing to be heard over the dance music belting out over the ship’s PA. Once out of the harbour, the blunt bow butted its way through the Atlantic breakers, drenching those forward in a cold salty spray. The boat was not built for speed and its diesel engines throbbed away for two hours before they reached ‘whale alley’ where they hoped to see  leviathans or dolphins at least. In the meantime, the music was switched off, to groans from some of the younger women already well on the way to a drunken oblivion. Most of the trippers were scattered around the guard-rail, binoculars, cameras and camcorders at the ready.

The rapt attention didn’t last long; these trippers were not the patient type. They started to drift back to their seats, or head towards the bar muttering about what they could be doing back at the resort. But then from the crow’s nest Carlos screamed out “Delfine! Delfine!” switching back to Spanish in his excitement. But the word is close enough to the English and there was a rush to the starboard side where he was pointing. Sure enough, about 100 yards away several dolphins were cavorting, chasing each other, leaping out of the water, seemingly having great fun. 

A young boy cried in excitement and pointed down to the water close to the boat. There were more dolphins enjoying their hobby of racing the ships. The other school came closer too, and soon there was a better show going on than could be seen in any dolphinarium. 

Still better followed. Carlos again bellowed from the crow’s nest. Out there where the original dolphins had been, they saw the massive fluke of a whale sliding into the water. Gasps of disappointment at its disappearance turned to yells of excitement as another whale breached and exhaled. “Thar she blows!” shouted Cap’n Ahab. They were the last words he ever spoke.

All eyes were on the starboard side, watching the show. No-one noticed another school of dolphins stealthily approaching from port. One of these dived deep then launched itself into a magnificent leap over the boat. It was a trick sea-world would have paid a fortune for. But the dolphin had ulterior motives, up to 40 of them. It didn’t actually aim for Eric, but that didn’t matter. Dolphins look small and cuddly, but even the smallest are large and heavy. Cap’n Ahab was knocked clear over the side of the boat before anyone realised what was happening. It was a good few minutes, in fact, before someone realised what Carlos was screaming about as he slid down the mast.

In the meantime, the starboard dolphins had started a game of water rugby using Eric as the ball. Women started screaming. Parents were dragging their reluctant children away; this was so much better than the silly kids club. Then all hell let loose as a cavalry charge of dolphins came hurtling over from the port side, bowling more trippers over the rail, and smashing through the rail itself making the job easier. Over half the passengers and crew were swept away in that opening salvo, the rest cowered in the bridge and below decks. They watched through portholes and windows in horror as their companions were battered and broken mercilessly by the charming, entertaining creatures they had come to see.

Their sanctuary was to prove illusory. The ship was constantly moving up and down with the waves, but suddenly it lurched; then lurched again. Then it started to lift and list. The engines pulsed on as the propellers were lifted clear of water. Through a porthole someone saw what was happening. The whales, the big ones, were underneath the ship working in unison to topple it. The screaming reached a new level as the whales succeeded; the Moby Dick turned turtle. 

Catrin was getting more and more annoyed as the bulletin went on. “Can’t someone do something about these blasted bugs!” she screamed, just before switching her smile back on.

“And now, from Derbyshire, we have another very strange, but sad story. A gravedigger has been found dead in a grave he was digging. It is believed he slipped into the grave on a clump of worms, knocked himself unconscious and drowned after torrential rain, which also brought out enough worms to completely cover the body. The tragedy was only discovered by the local vicar after the torrential downpour had stopped.”

Mick McCarthy was a peripatetic gravedigger, as he had been for the last 35 years. The graveyard in Ponsford was one of his favourite sites, but he didn’t get there very often; it was a small village after all. But his services were required this week, ready for an interment on Wednesday.

Mick used his own tools, and looked after them as a craftsman should. He did the work using manpower only; not for him the quick, but lazy and messy backhoe. He arrived at St. Mark’s church bright and breezy Monday morning, planning to finish the hole by evening that day, and to return on Wednesday before the event to make sure all was right, then wait for the mourners to depart so he could back-fill. He made good, steady progress in the rich loamy soil and was soon at the prescribed 6 feet deep. A good time for a tea break, he decided.

He perched himself on a mound of earth next to the hole and settled down with his flask of tea and today’s racing guide. Mike liked a flutter, but only a flutter, on the gee-gees. It was more of a hobby than anything else, the sort of pastime he could carry on during his mainly solitary work or in the pub of an evening, or the bookies on the occasional Saturday afternoon. 

While he was studying the form, he noticed a big fat earthworm appearing from the heap in front of him. There was nothing unusual about that of course. Nor was there anything unusual about the blackbird which swooped down on it. What was unusual was that the blackbird didn’t eat the worm. It didn’t even taste it, just sort of cocked its head this way and that, as if listening to it, and then flew away.

Mike shrugged and carried on studying the 3:45 at Doncaster. A few minutes later he looked up again and was surprised by the number of worms that had appeared in front of him. They were all types and sizes wriggling about in a growing mass. He looked around and saw the phenomena had spread to the entire graveyard. The place was alive with worms. 

Along the wall that marked the perimeter of the graveyard, Mike could see blackbirds and thrushes too by the looks of them. There were a lot of them, but when Mike stood and saw the thousands of birds in the field beyond, he was amazed. The birds were acting very strangely, or rather, not acting. They just stood there in total silence looking in his direction. 

Now Mike wasn’t exactly scared yet, but he was definitely rattled by these bizarre goings-on. He decided to call it a day and went to collect his tools from the side of the grave-to-be. He walked with great care. It was impossible not to tread on the worms by this stage, and squashed worms are slippery. Just as he reached the edge of the hole he felt a thump on his back; then another, rapidly followed by another. He turned round to see the terrifying sight of thousands of blackbirds heading towards him. They hit him like a salvo from a machine gun. He staggered back lifting his arm to protect his already battered head. The worms were still there, and his feet slipped from under him. He fell headfirst into the grave knocking himself out cold in the process.

The worms started wriggling their way towards to grave, over the edge and down.

Catrin was panicking now. There were ladybirds everywhere; in the equipment, in her hair, all over the monitors and the auto-prompt. Worst of all, she couldn’t open her mouth to speak without some flying in. They were literally getting up her nose. The crew were frantically trying to get rid of them but it seemed the more they tried the more they were. Catrin had run out of patience and professionalism.

“Sorry we’re having a bit of trouble as you can probably see, so we’re going to have to get the hell out of here; goodnight!”

At which point the first of the circuit breakers blew. The sheer number of ladybirds must have short-circuited the equipment. Then the rest of the breakers blew leaving them in total darkness.

Then the screaming started.

Copyright © 2021 – Roland Gray. All rights reserved.

About the Author 

Roland Gray

Roland is father, grandfather, carer, dog’s servant, chauffeur, answering to “canyoujust”, “wouldyoumind”, “Grandaaad” and pleading looks with only the occasional grumble.

His introverted mind is cursed with hyperactive imagination forming so many alternative worlds that coming back to reality is chastening.

Hence lots of cynical short stories, but no novel. 

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2 thoughts on “Retribution

  1. What a haunting, through-provoking story, Roland. I really loved it.
    The first episode of retribution, by the sheep, had me hooked. And then came the dolphins and the worms.
    I saw the ladybird conquest coming…but it was a terrific thread which I enjoyed.
    Great work!

    Liked by 1 person

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