Since I’m reading at a fabulous monster-themed event this week in Cambrige, I thought I’d get into the right frame of mind (and hopefully get some readers into the right one, too 😉
So I’m posting a short story called Muckilly Gog. It’s a children’s story, but it isn’t just for children. Because monsters come in many guises.
Muckilly Gog first came into our lives the summer Dad came back to live with us. I didn’t pay a lot of attention or worry much at first. When you’ve got something to really worry about, your brother’s imaginary friends don’t seem to matter that much.
And I guess when I say “worry about” I mean “be so frightened, you have a hard time sleeping or concentrating.” That kind of worry. Which is the kind that blocks everything else out, so when people talk to you it’s like it there’s a big wall of thick plastic between you and them and their words aren’t making it through.
A lot of people later on tried to blame Mum for letting him move back in. I was sort-of angry with her too, but mostly I was angry with the government and the economy and all the people who wouldn’t give her a proper job. I was angry with the right people, because I understood what it was like to be poor all the time. It was my life, too. Never being able to have the clothes or the shoes everyone else had, or to have chocolate or takeaways after school.
I also know it was worse for Mum than it was for us. By the time I was fourteen, just before Dad came back, I understood the tight look on her face when a bill or a bank statement came through the door, and how she would put it aside for later because she was terrified. Sometimes, if she wasn’t working that day, it’d still be there when I got back from school, and she’d be rushing round the kitchen trying to ignore it, doing anything she could to distract herself. I could see the panic getting bigger and bigger and I wanted to tell her just to open it, but it was never going to be good news.
So even though Dad drank half of what he earned, and even though sometimes a monster seemed to borrow his face, and came at us wild-eyed and frothing and awful, I couldn’t blame her. She’d just given in, really, after all his begging and pleading, wanting to believe he’d changed so she could let him smile and pick up the bills and tell her not to worry.
So I understood. But that didn’t make me any less afraid of him. When I was little, it used to be all fear for myself. I used to actually want my mum to make him angry, because then at least he would only hurt her. That’s the horrible thing about being frightened all the time. It makes you selfish and hard.
But after he moved out, we had four years of peace and quiet. I was one of the bigger ones in my year and played a lot of football. When he came back, I wasn’t so frightened for me. I mean, I still shook when I realised something I’d done had annoyed him. There was this slow turn of the head he’d do which made me feel sick. But at least I knew I could outrun him if I really needed to. I was more frightened for Mum, and I frightened for Joshua most of all.
Being four and a half is not good when your Dad sometimes goes on benders which last days, not caring if he turns up to work drunk and in yesterday’s clothes. The manager at work didn’t seem to care either, and I think looking back that he was just as frightened of Dad as we were.
At four years old, Joshua was helpless, and worse, he wasn’t at school all day. Josh only had a childminder half-days when Mum worked cleaning. She wouldn’t have been able to afford that if it hadn’t been for a new childcare scheme which was the only thing she thought the government had done right.
But the rest of the time, when Mum wasn’t at work, Josh was at home with her. In the mornings, she tried to get him out of the house, out of Dad’s way. Dad worked as evening shift manager at one of the city-centre pubs and he’d usually have drunk six or seven pints in that time, then stayed out for a few more before rolling in at 3 or 4. That time was dangerous, but so was the morning after, when he’d have a fierce hangover and be simmering away with anger.
Mum couldn’t always take Josh out, though. Sometimes she was too exhausted, or the weather was too much for Josh, or she’d need to do laundry and mend clothes and clean the house.
Every day I would feel a squeeze in my stomach as I left the house. Josh would usually give me a hug, but he wouldn’t screech and ask for a tickle any more. He’d learned to keep quiet in the morning, even if later, when Dad had a few drinks in him and had eaten enough, he’d sometimes play in the garden with him like a proper Dad or set up his Scalextrix on the living room floor.
Dad moved back in at the beginning of May, and by June Josh had changed. He wasn’t the little monster he’d been. He was quieter, more watchful. It was then that he first mentioned Muckilly Gog.
It was an afternoon when Mum hadn’t worked, and I came back from school to find Dad all apologetic and Mum looking like she was trying not to cry. I could tell something had happened, but Dad just slung an arm round my shoulder and asked how school was, then promised to take me to a Premier League game over summer.
I tried to pretend I was keen, like I normally would have been. But I still asked him where Josh was.
“He’s in the garden,” Mum said quickly, tightly. “Your Dad bought him a new model plane and he’s been whizzing it around.”
I nodded, looking at Dad’s smiling face, and then went out to go and find my little brother.
I caught him just sneaking back into the garden through the gate, and the sight of his face was enough to stop me having a go at him for having run off. His lip was strawberry red and and there was dried blood all up his nose. My heart started pounding when I saw that, and it wasn’t just fear. I wanted to go back in there and smack Dad one. But I knew he was stronger than me, and would take it out on Mum and Josh after he pounded me for it.
I picked Josh up for a hug. “All right, mate?”
“Luke Luke Luke!” he shouted, and tried to blow a raspberry on my neck.
He was happier than I thought he’d be. I guessed the violence had happened that morning and he’d almost forgotten. Sometimes being four can have its good points.
“Where’ve you been?” I asked him.
“In the woods with Muckilly Gog,” he told me. “We played soldiers, but then he said I’d better go home.”
“Who’s Muckilly Gog?” I asked him. I wondered if it was a nickname. Or maybe a cartoon character he’d seen.
“You know,” he said.
“Ummm… Off TV?”
He wriggled until I let him down, and went to pick up his plane.
“Josh? Is he off TV?”
“No,” he said, and started zooming around. “The one who lives in the woods.”
I felt a bit sick then. Someone who lived in the woods? Was Josh playing with a homeless stranger?
We were lucky with our house, Mum said, and I always agreed. It was just a council house, provided for us because Mum couldn’t earn enough for anywhere else. But it was at the edge of the town and had a long stretch of narrow garden with a small stream. The stream separated the house from Waddersham Woods, and the woods had been my favourite playground until I’d started hanging around with the kids from school instead. I’ve never found anywhere as good for hiding and den-building as Waddersham Woods. They’re old, and overgrown, and on chalk, so there are hollows and pits and bushes to hide in. When Dad first started to get bad, back when I was seven, they were the place I went to hide until he calmed down.
Josh wasn’t supposed to go in the woods, and Mum had put a fence up next to the stream to stop him falling in. But there was still a gate, which wasn’t too difficult to unbolt, and sometimes Josh would sneak through. Mum once spent half an hour looking for him, getting more and more frightened, and then it turned out he was crouched just inside the woods in a hole, giggling to himself. She gave him a rocket when she caught him.
“Is Muckilly a man?” I asked Josh.
Josh stopped to give me a look. He had those looks sorted. He could make you feel like you were just the most clueless person on the planet.
“He’s a Gog.”
Josh gave a look towards the house windows. I could see Dad inside, looking out, checking that Josh was playing like he should be, and Josh saw him too. He suddenly started running again, with a big, pretend smile on his face.
I felt really sick then, but I still wasn’t sure about this Gog thing.
“I can’t remember what a Gog is,” I said. “Is it like a dog?”
“No,” Josh answered, and rolled his eyes. “You know. It’s tall like a tree. And black and soft. Big loud whispers. A Gog.”
All that made me feel a bit better. I was pretty sure this thing wasn’t real, which meant Josh had just been playing by himself.
“Oh, one of them,” I said. “Well, make sure you’re polite to it. And Josh – you aren’t supposed to go into the woods. Do you think Mucky Gog could play with you here?”
“Muckilly,” he corrected. “Yeah, he said he’d come and play this evening. He can come inside if I ask him. But he can’t leave the woods until it’s dark.”
That all sounded ok to me. Playing inside after dark was safe enough, and I reckoned Mum would have a pretty good eye on Josh the rest of the time.
“OK. Just be careful of strangers, all right?”
Josh went on playing until Dad stopped watching, and then he very quietly went inside, where Mum folded him up in a hug. She caught my eye, and looked guilty, like I should be angry with her. I gave her a small smile and an awkward pat on the arm. It wasn’t her I was angry with.
We heard more about Muckilly Gog over the next few weeks. On Saturday afternoon, I heard Mum’s voice raised, and went into Josh’s room. His walk-in wardrobe looked like a bomb-site, with all the clothes on the floor and most of the hangers broken and a big mark on the inside of the door where it looked like he’d kicked it.
“It wasn’t me!” Josh was saying, red-faced and with tears in his eyes. “It was Muckilly Gog!”
“Josh, I don’t want to hear that again. What am I going to do with all this? Oh, look!” and she was holding out his favourite t-shirt (which was really Mum’s favourite of all the clothes she’d found second-hand for him, because it was a blue which made his eyes look huge). It had a great big muddy mark and a tear across the front. Mum looked like she was about to cry.
“What happened, Josh?” I asked him gently, crouching down.
“Muckilly had to hide,” he told me, his chin out and his lip wobbling. “Dad came in.”
He didn’t change from his story, despite gentle prodding, and I ended up almost as frustrated as Mum.
“Wait till Dad hears about this,” I said, which was just annoyance talking and a really unfair thing to say. I looked at Josh and he looked positively white with fear, which was enough to make me feel awful.
“We’re not telling Daddy,” Mum immediately said, scooping him up into a hug.
“OK Joshy? Nobody’s going to tell him, are they, Luke?”
I shook my head, and could feel my cheeks on fire. It made me feel a whole lot more angry realising I shouldn’t have said it, but I took it out on the broken coat-hangers. Between us Mum and I managed to sort out the mess and I told Mum I’d find Josh a new t-shirt.
“I’ve got a fiver to pick up from the Post Office for the paper-round,” I told her.
“You said you were saving up for a jacket,” she argued.
“Don’t be silly. Josh needs clothes. And I don’t blame him if he’s a bit frustrated at the moment.”
Mum said nothing. She kept her eyes down as she carried all the dirty clothes downstairs.
I thought that might be the end of “Muckilly Gog” doing silly things, but it wasn’t. I started to realise that Josh had a lot of anger stored up. At least, that’s what Mum told me was going on and I believed her. Things started breaking around the place, most of them Dad’s, and Mum and I were beside ourselves trying to cover up.
After Dad’s leather jacket got dumped in the river, I knew Josh was really for it. He knew he was too, and despite Mum shushing and cooing to him, it took until eleven to finally get him to go to sleep. He was too frightened to sleep well even then, and woke up three times with a nightmare about a monster coming to get him. He didn’t say if the monster was really his Dad, but I thought it might be.
Downstairs, while Mum and I waited up in fear for Dad to come back, I made a decision. Josh wasn’t going to be in trouble for this, even if it meant lying.
Mum looked even more frightened when I told her what I planned on saying, but as she went on making dinner, I could see her deciding I was right. So actually it was Mum who worked herself up into a pretend outrage and immediately spoke up once Dad got back.
“Stevie, baby,” she said, “I’m so glad you’re back. Some pikey kid snuck in earlier and tried to nick a load of stuff. Luke caught him halfway up the road with your jacket and iPod and chased him, so nothing’s gone, but what if he comes back with his mates?”
I saw my Dad’s hard blue eyes, which were dazed but not any softer with the drink, focus on the jacket on the back of the chair.
“Little git threw it in the river when he realised I was going to catch him,” I told him. “I had to leave it while I got the iPod back.”
It was a good thing the iPod had been lying on the counter. It was a good distraction.
I was still terrified, though, when he snatched up the jacket and swore. Just because it wasn’t apparently my fault or Mum’s didn’t mean he wouldn’t take it out on us. But when he swung on me, it was to ask, “What kid?”
“Skinny, dark-haired one with an earring and a big mole on his face,” I told him, sure I’d never seen anyone from the travellers’ site who looked anything like that. “Probably fifteen. Don’t think he goes to school.”
But Dad nodded. “I know the one,” and my heart sank as he grabbed his car-keys off the hall table.
“I’ll teach him a lesson he won’t forget,” he said.
“Stevie -“ Mum said, her face almost as frightened as it had been when he got home.
“Stay here, Jools,” he told her, angrily. “This needs sorting out.”
We looked at each other once he’d gone, and neither of us was able to go to bed. We took it in turns to comfort Josh when he woke up, but we were waiting again for a return that was worse than last time, probably. I wanted to be sick. What if some poor innocent kid got hurt because I’d lied? I should have just taken the blame. But I knew really that my Dad still frightened me too much for that.
He didn’t get back until five fifteen, and I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw him. He was tired, but calm and a little bit smug. As he told it, he’d gone down there and woken up half the site until he found the kid’s dad, when he told him what for. And then he’d gone to the police and reported them.
“Gave a full statement and they promised to sort it out. We won’t have any more trouble from them,” he told us, and put an arm round Mum as if he was her big protector.
Of course, he was wrong. Making a group of people who live on the edges of everything angry wasn’t a good idea. Two nights later, someone slashed his tyres, and a week after that someone threw what was trying to be a petrol bomb through the window. It was a good thing they had no idea what they were doing, and it went out and just made the room stink of diesel, but Mum was more terrified than ever. We had to endure the rages brought on by all of it, including some of the kids spitting at Dad in the street, and the lie came back to us three times over with when he came at us. Josh had a black eye twice that week and I was counting down the days to the end of term when at least I could be there to get in the way sometimes.
On the twelfth of July, which was only ten days before the end of term, Josh went down with an ear infection on the morning of one of Dad’s most vicious hangovers, and I almost pretended I was sick too, except that Dad bawled at me to get out of the house and quit moving around before he thumped me. I knew Josh’d cry a lot, and wail and whinge, like he had last time. Mum had booked him in to the doctor’s first thing, but I knew from experience that they didn’t always give out antibiotics and if they did, they’d take a couple of days to sort it out. In the meantime, Dad would be there, getting more and more angry, and Josh wasn’t really well enough to leave the house.
I texted Mum at lunchtime, to see if things were ok, and I could tell by her reply
“All right. Just hope Joshy gets better quickly,” that Dad had stayed in the house with his hangover.
I was shaking by the time it got to hometime, and I ran all the way back. I found Dad on the sofa, smoking and watching motorsports, a black look on his face and an empty can of beer next to him. That made me uneasy, because one beer didn’t usually do enough to sort the hangover. Three or four was best. And then seven or eight got dangerous again.
“Is Mum out?” I asked quietly.
“Taken that brat out to get some more beer in,” he told me. “How did a child of mine end up such a snivelling, selfish idiot?”
My heart started drumming in my chest. If Mum had gone for beer with Josh when he should have been in bed, it meant she was worried, and Dad’s mood was dangerous. I knew what comments like that meant. He was back to his paranoia again, when he was sure Mum had been cheating on him with one of five men he’d been angry about her even meeting up with. That started a bit before Mum had Josh, and I knew that when he was at his worst he thought my brother was somebody else’s.
It was crazy when you looked at the two of them. Same curly hair, same blue eyes. Just really, really different people. I hoped. The thought of Josh ending up like Dad made me want to scream.
Mum didn’t come back for a while, and when she did, I could see that Joshy was really ill. He was red and feverish and crotchety, his eyes too bright, and everything upset him.
“Didn’t they give him antibiotics?” I asked Mum quietly as I let her in.
She shook her head, looking a bit desperate. “I got Dr Smartass and one of his lectures on how antibiotics don’t really help kids.”
“But look at him,” I told her. “He’s not well at all.”
And probably exhausted from being dragged out to the shops, I thought, but didn’t say so.
We made it through dinner, which Dad had on the sofa with a few beers as he wasn’t working, without anything going wrong. But Josh hardly ate, and sat looking dazed most of the time. When bedtime came he started crying pitifully, and when I touched his forehead it was like a kettle.
“Shouldn’t we take him to that out of hours place, Mum?” I asked, but Dad heard.
“He doesn’t need a doctor, he needs a good walloping. Stop being such a little whimp, you spoiled brat.”
“He’s not being a wimp,” Mum said, cradling Josh to her. “He’s being very brave.”
“Don’t argue with me, Jools,” Dad said, sitting forward slowly. There was something dangerous in his voice. “He’s being a whiny little brat and he needs to grow up. Put him down.”
Mum hesitated, which I knew was just going to make things worse.
“Put him down!” Dad yelled, and Mum gently stood Josh on the floor.
His face immediately crumpled and he started to cry, mouth open and dribble coming down his mouth.
Dad surged to his feet, not gracefully but scarily anyway.
“Shut your face!” he shouted, which only made Josh cry harder.
“The neighbours’ll hear, Stevie,” Mum said, looking at the open French window behind him, but Dad was beyond caring now, and it wasn’t like they hadn’t heard him yelling before.
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about the neighbours! I’m going to teach this little turd of yours to toughen up and stop annoying everyone with his whining!”
He went to grab him, but I moved in his way, and was faced with my three-inches-taller, much heavier Dad looming over me. I knew he was going to hurt me, but it was worth it to keep him off Josh. But instead of getting mad at me, he just lunged past me and grabbed Josh’s arm and dragged him towards him.
“Get off me!” Josh shouted, and I tried to pull him out of Dad’s grip.
But he’s a strong man, my Dad, and he whacked me across the head so I was dizzy and reeling, and whilst I stumbled, he backhanded Josh across the face.
The poor little boy was a mess now. He fell onto his bum, snot dribbling out of his nose and a big red mark already coming up on his cheek.
“Stop crying!” Dad yelled.
Josh scrambled up to his feet and backed away down the room.
“You’re – not – my – Daddy!”
Josh shouted, and I felt like my stomach was falling out through my feet. It was the worst thing Josh could have said. The worst thing. And Dad was already in a towering rage.
He lunged for Josh, but I grabbed at his feet and tripped him. I felt his foot come down on my arm, and it hurt more than anything I can remember, until that got wiped out as he kicked me in the face.
“Don’t you protect that little turd!” he said.
Through tear-filled eyes, I saw see Josh’s little form vanishing down the garden, and Dad staggering up to get him.
“Stop, Stevie!” Mum shouted, hysterical. “Come back!”
“I’ll teach him! I’ll teach him!” Dad was shouting.
I got dizzily to my feet, and realised that my nose was pouring blood, but I had to go after him. I was faster, even with a head which felt like it was exploding.
I nearly fell three or four times going down the garden, and didn’t catch him as quickly as I should have, but I could see Josh already through the gate and heading over the little footbridge while Dad was still running down the garden. My little brother was running for all he was worth, and I prayed he could stay ahead long enough for me to do something.
I caught up with Dad on the bridge, and grabbed at his shirt. He half turned and swung a fist at me, but missed. I realised I was going to have to fight him as much as he was fighting me if Joshy was going to make it away, and so I kicked him in the leg. It slipped out from under him and he started to topple into the stream. But he grabbed at me, and instead took us both in.
I fell half on the bank, winded, and then felt myself rolling as Dad pushed me down into the water. The stream was freezing, even in summer, and I gasped half a lungful of it in as I hit out of shock. For a horrible, frightening moment, he leaned his weight on me and I thought he was going to drown me, but there was a scream from near the trees, and the weight let up.
I pushed myself out of the water, coughing what felt like most of the stream up from my lungs, and looked through blurry eyes at where Josh was standing just under the trees. There was a defiant kind of look on his face, and I knew he’d stopped to help me.
Dad was closing on him, not running now, just slow and threatening and terrifying.
“Run!” I croaked through the coughs, and tried to stagger up after him.
Mum was coming down the garden by then, too, begging and pleading him to leave Josh alone. She could see what I could, that he was going to really hurt him this time. There was too much rage for him to do anything else and it had found its target.
But as he stepped up towards the forest, something seemed to go wrong with my vision. The shadow of the trees looked like it was moving out into the moonlight, and then Dad had stopped in his tracks.
I heard him say, “What?” and then there was a noise like a whispering rumble made into words.
“They call me monster,” it said, “but I would never harm a child.”
I could see Dad trying to back away, but what looked like a huge hand and arm made out of darkness came and grabbed him. It lifted him up clean into the air, and I couldn’t do anything except watch it.
“There is only one place for something like you,” the whispering rumble said, and the huge form turned, with Dad caught up in its hand like he was a child.
“Get off me!” he yelled. “I’ll tear your head off!”
But the great big shadowy thing didn’t stop, and Dad’s flailing fists did nothing. I watched the shadow thing carry Dad away into the woods, where his white shirt was quickly swallowed in shadows. For a few seconds, I could still hear him, shouting and threatening, until a rush of wind came, and then there was absolute silence.
Josh looked at me then, a funny little smile on his face, which quickly turned into a frown.
“He didn’t say goodbye,” he said, his eyes still all fever-bright and that big red mark still visible in the moonlight.
“I don’t think – I think he was scared,” I said, trying to explain to a four-year-old something I hadn’t understood myself.
“Not him,” Josh said, with such hatred in his voice it made me shiver. “Muckilly Gog. I’ll miss him now he’s gone.”
Mum caught up to us both then, and I saw from her face that she’d seen, and couldn’t quite believe, just like me. But she pulled us both towards her and hugged us and cried and told us it was ok. It was all ok.
In the days afterwards, whilst the police and social services tried to make sense of what had happened and raised sceptical eyebrows (I think they thought Mum had finally done him in, but couldn’t prove it) I was asked quite a lot about whether I was afraid. The counsellor I saw next asked the same. But the truth is I wasn’t scared any more. I knew deep down that Dad wasn’t coming back, and the world has become a better place now I’ve started to believe in creatures like Muckilly Gog.