Stories From The Fenlands: The Gooseberry Bushes That Saved My Life

This story sees me in my early 20s, shortly after returning home to the Fenlands after graduating university. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life so decided to wait a year until I would make a career move. Still, I had to keep afloat somehow, so I placed an advertisement in the local shop offering my services as a maths tutor.

Within a month or so I had a full time job’s worth. I suppose after I secured my first couple of clients, word had got around and near on everybody in town wanted their children to have a tutor. Not only did it pay well but I loved seeing the children achieve so much more than they’d believed they could. Perhaps I would have made a comfortable career out of it, but after 8 months I experienced something so horrible that I had to walk away for good.

I was always fully booked and after a while I had a waiting list as long as your arm. I had to stop adding people to it but I felt guilty about turning them down. So instead I got in touch with a university friend of mine, Danny, who had gone into teaching. I asked if he wanted to do a bit of tutoring on the side which he jumped at, so I started passing his name onto people that I had to say no to.

Late one night, I was woken by a phone call at 1am. I stomped downstairs and answered it grumpily. The line was so crackly that I could only just hear the voice on the other end.

“Hello, kind sir! I wonder if you can help me?” A sickly sweet voice asked. She emphasised every word dramatically and sounded much more cheery than you would expect anyone to at 1am.

“Who is this, please?” I demanded, irritated but relieved that it clearly wasn’t an emergency.

“Ah, yes, I’m Mrs Green. I’d like to hire you as a tutor for my daughter, Elizabeth. She has decided she wants to learn piano and -”

“- I’m a maths tutor. I can’t even play the piano! And it’s 1 in the morning!”

“Oh. Maths. Yes, that’s what I meant. She wants to learn maths. So can you be here this morning? Shall we say 6.30am?”

“Is this a prank?” I laughed out loud.

“A what? Listen, kind sir, I am incredibly busy and you’re starting to waste my time. Can you be here or not? It’s very important to my daughter and I like to keep her happy. She’s an only child and gets bored out here alone, what with not being allowed to attend the local school.”

Back then, there had been a lot of issues with the local school that I’ll tell you about another time. So when she said her daughter wasn’t ‘allowed’ to attend I felt sympathetic. I also thought it made her sound a bit more credible.

“Well, actually I can’t help you I’m afraid. I’m fully booked and certainly not accepting any more students on my waiting list. I do have a friend in King’s Lynn who tutors, I could see if he has any availability?”

“Right-ho, send him along then. 6.30, yes?”

Of course I couldn’t arrange it for 6.30am. It was an absurd expectation. I pointedly mentioned that our ‘office’ hours were 9-5 before handing over Danny’s details then went back to bed. I forgot about the pair of them as soon as my head hit my pillow.

The following Sunday my phone rang again at 1am. I rubbed my eyes as I answered it, once again worried a family member had been in an accident. Then I heard that sickly sweet voice on the end of the line again.

I felt a stab of irritation, but I was way too polite in those days. Instead of confronting her, I listened quietly as an irate Mrs Green explained that Danny hadn’t turned up. Apparently her daughter was still incredibly eager to begin her archery lessons.

“What?! I’m a maths tutor, Mrs Green!”

“Oh yes. So you are. Apologies, kind sir, my memory is rather bad these days. I’m 78, you know. Forgive me. Now, do stop procrastinating and get back to business. Can you send a replacement mathematician?”

Though a 78-year-old having a young daughter struck me as very odd, I didn’t ask any questions. It wasn’t my business. Maybe she’d adopted, or maybe an older daughter had had a child that Mrs Green had taken on for some reason. So I simply told Mrs Green I would ring a contact of mine in the morning and put him in touch with her. That way I could be sure she would be dealt with and I’d get no further 1am phone calls!

The next day I tried ringing Danny to find out what had gone wrong. There was no answer, but I didn’t think much of it. I suspected Mrs Green had probably forgotten to ring him in the first place. After, I spoke to Jerry – a retired maths teacher from Cambridge. He was happy to take on Mrs Green’s daughter as he was finding his empty days quite dull. I gave him her number and that was that. Or so I thought.

The following Saturday, the phone rang again at 1am. This time I marched down the stairs, knowing full well who would be on the other end. “Hello!” I snapped down the line.

“Ah, yes, hello again, kind sir.” I rolled my eyes at her sickly tone and waited for her to continue. “… I’m sorry to call again, but there was a problem with the man you sent. I’m going to need a replacement tutor as soon as possible.”

“Mrs Green, what exactly was the problem this time?” I asked haughtily.

“He was rather rude. Quite unflexible. He thoroughly upset my poor girl, actually. She’s… Well, she’s special, you see. She needs someone who can be very sensitive with her.”

I softened up immediately. I remembered when I was in school, in they years before I had received my autism diagnosis. So many teachers got frustrated with me for taking so long to get the hang of new topics. I was treated like I was stupid, but it wasn’t that at all. I just had to be taught in a very specific way. Luckily for me, my mum picked up where the teachers failed and I managed to get through it ok. It was one of the reasons I had enjoyed tutoring so much… Being able to unlock the individual learning style of a child and help them thrive.

“… I don’t usually work Sundays, Mrs Green, but I can make an exception, I suppose. I’ll come over at -”

“- 6.30am!”

“No! No. I can be there for 9.30. What’s your address?”

So the next day I found myself driving right out into the middle of the Fens, quite far from the town centre and past the hamlets that surrounded it. Eventually I took a winding road and saw a small, run down cottage near the river Great Ouse. It was the only house in sight. The garden was wildly overgrown, and I had to fight my way past several gigantic gooseberry bushes in order to get to the front door.

I knocked, and a moment later a tall, slim elderly woman opened it. Her eyes seemed to stare right through me and there wasn’t even the hint of a smile on her face. She didn’t look miserable, as such… she just looked as though she was away with the fairies.

I cleared my throat awkwardly, waiting for her to great me. As if triggered by the noise, a huge smile came over her face and her eyes went wide. “Kind sir,” She oozed. “Amelia will be so pleased to see you. Do come in.”

I was confused because I was sure she had told me her daughter’s name was Elizabeth, but before I had time to mention it she’d turned and gone into the dark cottage behind her. And, rather stupidly, I followed.

The ground floor was only one large room, with an old fashioned stove and a heavy wooden table and chairs, then a grotty looking sofa in front of a huge, unused fireplace. There was stacks and stacks of old, grubby books. Of those I got a glance at, I didn’t recognise any of the titles. Mrs Green led me to the kitchen table and we both sat down. I was pleased that she didn’t offer me a drink, because the whole place seemed to have a layer of grime on it and there was a sickly sweet smell that was not unlike her voice!

We sat in silence for a moment as Mrs Green stared at me with that expressionless face again, then suddenly she boomed, “COME ON THEN! GET DOWN HERE! IT’S TIME!”

I jumped out of my skin! She was staring right at me as she shouted it! Was she having a breakdown? Was there really a child here? Is this why my colleagues left? I was confused and shocked, but then I heard heavy thuds coming from the floor above.

A moment later, one of the strangest sights I have ever seen appeared at the top of the stairs. It was a cat – bear with me – that must have surely been an illegal wild cat, because it was at least 2 foot tall and must have weighed 30lbs. But that wasn’t even the weirdest thing. Riding on its shoulders was a chubby little 6 or 7 year old!

She clutched its ears like they were reins and rode it all the way down the wooden stairs, over to the table, then slipped off its back onto the seat next to her mother, opposite me. The cat sat down next to her and started purring as she stroked its back.

I was gobsmacked. “W…What is that?!” I stammered, shying away in case it went for me.

Mrs Green looked at me, her confusion apparent. “… It’s my daughter, of course! You’re here to tutor her. Reading the classics together, isn’t that right child?”

“Mathematics, Old Woman!” The girl sighed, her voice as grossly sweet as her mother’s but even higher in pitch.

I looked between the mother and daughter in disbelief. “For God’s sake, Mrs Green! I clearly meant the cat! What breed is it? Is it wild?!”

Mrs Green looked at the cat out of the corner of her eye, then waved a hand lazily in its direction. “It’s a Savannah. Soft as a feather. Don’t get too close, of course. It will bite your fingers off if it thinks you are invading her personal space. Anyway, I have things to do upstairs. I shall leave you both to your lesson.” She got up from the table and disappeared up the stairs.

I was still in shock, and I eyed the cat warily. It stared right at me but continued purring as the girl stroked it. I tried to ignore it, instead looking at the girl.

She had chubby rosy cheeks and curly hair that was held in piggy-tails by white ribbons. She wore a white frilly dress that made her look even rounder than she was. Her ears and nose were very angular, a pointed feature that did not suit her round face.

I smiled at her,reminding myself that despite this very strange environment she was still only a child. “I’m Mikey,” I said brightly.

She ignored that, instead firing a demand at me. “You are to tell mother that I passed maths.” When she spoke her double chin wobbled.

I stayed quiet for a moment. Most tutors have encountered small, spoilt brats who treat them like they are a slave, make unreasonable requests and try and shirk out of doing any work. I knew that it was usually a defense mechanism and I was fast learning how to gently break down the walls they put up around them. This was different though. The girl in front of me had an evil glint in her eyes, almost as though she was daring me to disagree. The cold way she ordered me to do as she said chilled me.

“Ok,” I agreed. I decided I could just talk to her mother on the phone, let her know this wasn’t going to work. Whatever it was that they needed, I couldn’t provide it. “Is there anything you would like to do instead?”

Suddenly, the girl shouted. “MOTHER! IT’S TIME TO PICK GOOSEBERRIES! QUICKLY!”

Mrs Green came sprinting down the stairs less than a second later. I wondered if she had been waiting right at the top? “How did my daughter do? With the maths?” She asked me.

I looked at Mrs Green, who was staring back at me expectantly. I looked at the girl – Elizabeth or Amelia, who knew? She nodded at me, as though giving me permission to speak. “She… passed maths?” I submitted, meekly.

“Horah!” cried Mrs Green enthusiastically. Then the cat rose to its feet, its head brushing on the bottom of the kitchen, and the child climbed back on it. Together they made their way to the front door with Mrs Green following closely behind.

I stood, looking forward to getting out of there. Mrs Green turned back to me and shook her head. “No, no, kind sir. We’ll be back shortly. Sit there and sit still. Whatever you do, don’t go near the chimney.” They left the house shutting the door behind them, the clicking noise of a lock revealing that I was trapped inside.

The situation had been bizarre before, yes, but now I felt scared. Who were these people, and why had they locked me in their house? What the hell was going on with that huge cat? I started to panic.

I got up and hurried over to the only exit I could see. I tried the door frantically but it only confirmed what I already knew… I was trapped. I looked around frantically, spotting two small grubby windows, but they were stuck fast and I couldn’t find anything around to break them. I ran over to the chimney and realised that there was a draft coming down from it. Maybe I could climb out?

I glanced up and I screamed out loud when I saw what was inside. I fought the urge to throw up as the source of that sickly sweet smell suddenly hit me. Up the chimney, stuck on metal spikes that were drilled into the wall, were two decapitated human heads. Their skin was grey and some sort of thick, gooey liquid dripped down from them onto the hearth beneath me. My entire body went cold. What the hell had happened here? I was so utterly horrified by my discovery that it took me a moment to realise that I actually recognised the heads above me! I almost fainted when I saw that it was Danny and Jerry, my colleagues. My friends.

Well, I knew then for certain that I needed to get out of there immediately. I wrapped a dirty rag around my fist and punched through one of windows, scrambling through and falling into the garden beneath me. I looked up and could see Mrs Green and the child, riding on the terrifying cat, up at the end of the garden path. To my surprise they weren’t facing the house – they either hadn’t heard the window break or they had ignored it. Instead of looking for me, the child was picking gooseberries by the fistful and ramming them into her mouth. Mrs Green stood next to her, clutching a huge, blood stained axe.

I suppose I could have overpowered the old woman and took her weapon, but I wasn’t taking any chances with the huge beast her daughter sat upon. So I walked quietly through the bush closest to me and crouched on the other side. I thought I would wait until they went back towards the house then make a run for it for my car. But suddenly flood of whispers erupted all around me, and my plan had to be put on hold.

It was as though a hundred tiny voices whispered together at once. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but I heard the child speak from further up the path. “The gooseberries are all excited. Calm down, little beasts! What is it you’re trying to say, gooseberries? Be clearer.”

The whispers stopped and the girl looked towards the house. She must have spotted the broken window, because suddenly she roared to Mrs Green. “He’s GONE! Gooseberries, tell me where he is RIGHT NOW!”

The whispering did not return, though. Instead, a loud thwacking noise began. I carried on peeking from my hiding place and watched Mrs Green hacking into the bushes with her axe, gooseberries flying everywhere. She didn’t stop until the whispers started again. This time they were much clearer. “He is in the riverrrrrrr…” They – the gooseberries?! – whispered. “In the riverrrrrrr, he is…”

I watched as the cat slowly carried the girl towards the fast flowing river with Mrs Green following them closely behind. As her daughter was led into the water, the depth quickly covering the cat, Mrs Green hovered nervously on the river bank.

“Old woman,” The child called back. “The cat can’t seem to swim. Come and get me out immediately. My hair will get wet.” There was no panic in her tone, she spoke the same way she had to me at the table. Even though the water was rising around her faster and faster, she didn’t seem to care! I knew that at any moment she would be entirely underneath.

I watched Mrs Green clamber into the river, swimming alongside the girl who now clung onto Mrs Green’s neck. But she was too heavy! There was no way a frail old woman like Mrs Green could hold up that chubby thing. I watched them struggle for a minute, then as soon as they were fully submerged, I ran to my car and left.

Could I have helped them? Perhaps. Well, I mean, for a start… I can’t swim. I hate water so I’ve never had an interest in learning. They went under in the space of 3 minutes. Maybe I could have done more… looked for a plank of wood or something? I don’t know. But I was confused and terrified! Something very, very strange had happened, and plus… they’d murdered two of my friends! They were probably going to do the same thing to me!

I called the police as soon as I got home (this was before the days of mobile phones being owned by all) and they ‘sped’ to the cottage in the middle of the fens. I told them to look out for whoever had been whispering to those murderous hags – the voices that had saved me, by sending them off into the river while I hid. I hadn’t caught a glimpse of anyone out there, but maybe they were well hidden. Because it couldn’t have actually been the gooseberries speaking… could it?

They never found anyone, though. They didn’t even retrieve the bodies of Mrs Green, her daughter or the cat. They did find poor Danny and Jerry, and they told me some time after that they’d been tortured quite horrifically before their death. The evidence that the mortuary had gathered suggested it was committed by a child. When I heard that I was glad I hadn’t tried to help them as they drowned.

The police investigated the murders for quite a while. Nobody knew anything about the two strange women I met at the cottage that day. Not the school, the doctor, the hospital… not even anyone from the town. The cottage itself had been owned by a recluse who had died 10 years before, so there weren’t even any details of Mrs Green and her daughter on the deeds. The case was closed eventually. It just faded off as another mystery of the Fens.

I stopped tutoring straight after that horrible day. I did teach at the local school later in life, but private students were not a risk I was prepared to take again. To this day, whenever I walk past a gooseberry bush I stop and whisper a quick thanks. Just in case.

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