Stories from The Fenlands: The Hocketers of Marsh Park

I live in a very strange town in Norfolk that is a bit like a mixture of Summersile and Sandford. We don’t burn people alive in wooden effigies and we’ve never been awarded ‘Town of the Year’ so haven’t had to kill for it (yet). However, we do have curious rituals and mysterious town legends that are pretty creepy. I’m going to tell you about some of them, starting with an experience I had when I was 14 years old that I still feel the effects of today.

We’re quite closed off here as we’re in the heart of the Fenlands. The Fens were drained centuries ago but the feeling of being disconnected from the rest of the country remains. Public transport out of our town is limited and regularly cancelled or disrupted, and the council run a scheme where households that don’t run a car get deductions from their council tax. People strive to ensure the town is reliable and sustainable, and as a result we are very isolated.

Perhaps that’s why many of us have never questioned the unusual rules we need to follow, or the legends we are told. Most of the people who live here were born here so there are a lot of stories handed down from our grandparents. We do get outsiders that move here, but they rarely last over a year. Some people just can’t handle the seclusion. I don’t think I realised just how odd the way our town functions actually is until I moved away for a few years while I did my degree.

First off, I’m going to tell you about one of our parks that has a curfew. There are lots of small play areas dotted across the town, but we have one main park – Marsh Park – that sits on a small hill surrounded by green space. When I was very young, my mum took me there once or twice a week and would sit chatting with other parents while I played. We always left before it got dark, which never struck me as strange because parents don’t tend to hang out in the park with the kids at night. As I got older, though, I was always warned that I could never be in the park after sunset. My parents warned me this, my grandparents, my teachers… and it wasn’t just me that had to obey this rule. Everybody did. And, thankfully, they still do.

In primary school we would have to recite the town rules once a week, and one of these was that we must always leave Marsh Park as soon as the sun began to descend.

“Children, what do you do when the sun starts to go in at Marsh Park?” Our headteacher would ask us during friday morning’s assembly.

Then 80 children would chant simultaneously, “Stop what we are doing and leave straight away, Mr Steward.”

It was a form of indoctrination, I suppose. We just accepted it as something we had to do. It was as normal as getting up in the morning and getting ready for school. It was drilled into us and so we accepted it. I don’t think any of us really questioned why.

When I was 14, I broke the rule. I wasn’t rebelling, as teenagers do (although even the most rebellious around town wouldn’t be found at Marsh Park after nightfall). My experience was a total accident. I’ve always been happier than most to toe the line and follow the rules; in fact, they have always made me feel more comfortable. This particular evening was different, though.

It was a late summer’s evening and I was being chased by the local gang of bullies. They’d been hanging around outside the library when I left with my weekly collection of graphic novels and they started throwing small rocks at me. I tried ignoring them, hoping they’d leave me alone, but as I walked away they started shouting stuff after me. I picked up speed which almost seemed to egg them on, and I suddenly found myself racing through town trying to escape my four tormentors, who seemed to have an endless collection of stones to throw at me throughout our run.

I found myself running past the church and through the graveyard that was one of three entrances into Marsh Park. As soon as I stepped onto Marsh Park land, the rocks stopped bouncing off my backpack. I turned around triumphantly, thinking I had outrun the bullies. Instead, I saw they were all still there, frozen on the path.

I watched as they all backed away slowly, stepping back down the path we had run up. “You’ve done it now, Mikey!” The only girl of the group, Bea Hart, cried out. “The Hocketers are going to get you!”

I had no idea what she was talking about so I turned back towards Marsh Park. To my shock, I saw that the sun was setting in the distance. Stress rushed over me as I realised that I only had a few minutes to get out of there. Darkness already covered the far entrance, so I knew I couldn’t make it out that way. I could have ran to the small passageway on the opposite side to where I stood, but it led onto a local farmer’s field and legend told that he shot kids with his shotgun if they went on his land without permission. I frantically turned back the way I had come, hoping I could head back with the gang.

“Quickly, Mikey!” Bea called urgently. “Come back with us!” I could hear the fear in her voice and it exasperated my own.

I started to walk towards them, nervous and unsure, but I stopped dead when the ring leader shoved Bea so hard that she fell onto the ground with a thud. Tears filled her eyes as dread filled my stomach.

The biggest bully looked at me and grinned maniacally. “You come back here and I’m going to make your life hell,” He sneered. “Starting with a beating right now.” He smacked his fist into his hand.

He turned and jogged back towards the church, his minions following closely behind him.“We’ll be waiting at the church!” One called back to me.

Bea picked herself up and shrugged at me apologetically. “You’d better hide, Mikey.” I saw shame burning in her eyes before she turned and followed the rest, leaving me alone in Marsh Park while the darkness descended behind me.

I still had about a minute to go until the park would be shrouded in gloom. I thought quickly about what my options were. It’s hard being autistic in a town full of so many cliques, rules and interpretations. I could race for the crazy farmer’s field, but I took things so literally that I was sure he would actually shoot me if he caught me. I could face my bullies, but the fear of 4 to 1 held me back. I knew full well what would happen if I took either of the two available exits, but I didn’t know what would happen if I stayed put. I’d never heard of ‘the hocketers’ before – I had no idea what Bea had been on about. Although I desperately didn’t want to break the rule of being in Marsh Park after sunset, I was terrified of the potential outcomes if I left. So I decided to hide in the tunnel on the play equipment until I could think of a way out of here.

The darkness of the tunnel put me at ease, because it meant I didn’t have to watch the sun disappearing over the park. I crouched inside, breathing heavily and trying to calm myself. I could feel a meltdown coming on and I’d been working hard with the town therapist to control them. I tried to separate myself from my environment, drifting off into my imagination. I must have been daydreaming for 5 minutes or so, the technique doing its job of keeping me from totally losing it, when I first heard them.

Have you ever heard ‘hocketing’, before? It’s a medieval multi-part music technique. I’d never come across it so I didn’t know what I was hearing at first. There were a great number of voices coming from beyond the tunnel, out on the field, and they were approaching me slowly. Each voice sang a single note, then another voice picked up the next note straight after, then another voice with another note… and so on. It doesn’t seem unnerving when I write it down, and I was never able to explain the terror I felt as I crouched in the tunnel listening to an unseen succession approaching me, singing rapid exchanges together.

Their song had a Hitchcock like effect, choppy and ritualistic and full of tension. Terrifying tension, that gained traction the closer they got. There was loads of voices, too… It wasn’t just a few. As someone who is particularly sensitive to noise, I could hear voices stretching across the entire length of the field next to the park. It’s not a huge field, sure, but what I heard told me there had to be 30 or 40 people out there.

I couldn’t bear the dreaded wait for whoever ‘they’ were to reach me. I wanted to know what I was going to have to face. So I poked my head out of the tunnel.

At first I couldn’t see anything. I could just hear that peculiar choppy song. But as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw lots of small, dark figures advancing up the hill. Towards the play area. Towards me.

Though they were the height of children, they were definitely not kids from around town. In fact, when I look back I don’t think they were children at all, but at the time I thought they must be due to their height. Maybe it was a trick of the darkness, but from what I could see they had no features. They looked more like mannequins than people, except they had black, charred skin. They did have mouths, I suppose… if you could call them that. They were more like gaping holes. I couldn’t make out any more detail and I didn’t want to, either. I retreated back into the tunnel.

The children’s song grew louder and more frantic as they got closer to me. I could tell they knew I was here; whether I had revealed myself when I’d poked my head out or if they just sensed me didn’t matter. The chant seemed to zone in towards me, and I knew they weren’t edging towards the play equipment – No, they were edging towards me.

I had to cover my ears before long. They began to shriek, one at a time, in an unworldly, jumbled tune that made my ears scream with pain. I felt fluid oozing out of my ears and ignored it, not wanting to see the blood coming from me that I was sure would be there. I rocked back and forth, desperate for someone to help me, crying loudly. I didn’t care if they heard me over their musical cries because they were coming for me anyway! I squeezed my eyes shut. I wished I was at home, safe with my mum. I don’t know how but I was sure that once they reached me I would be seconds away from death.

When a rough hand grabbed me by the shoulder, I screamed hysterically. But instead of claws digging into my skin, or charred, bony hands wrapped around my throat, I was shaken urgently. I stopped screaming and to my relief, I noticed that I could no longer hear the chant of the children. Instead I could hear the fuzzy sound of white noise – like when the tv goes onto the wrong channel, you know? Electrical noise. So I opened my eyes quickly and saw Bea’s grandfather staring at me, holding a boombox that was blasting the white noise all around us.

“Mr H..H..Hart!” I stuttered, absolutely traumatised. But he didn’t say anything. I remembered then that he was deaf! Of course, he couldn’t hear me. He urgently gestured me to follow him, holding out a hand for me to grab. I did as he wanted and let him lead me out of the tunnel, my small hands shaking into his.

He tugged me towards the churchyard and just as we were about to leave Marsh Park land I couldn’t resist looking back. I saw the chanting children stood still at the top of the hill, just a dozen steps away from where I had hid. They no longer approached, not the tunnel or Mr Hart and I, and they no longer sang. They were frozen like statues.

As we left Marsh Park they all turned towards us. I don’t know if they carried on making that monstrous noise, but I imagine they did. I couldn’t hear anything over Bea’s grandfather’s boombox, thankfully.

Once we were out of the churchyard and onto the main road, Mr Hart bundled me into his car. I shook with fear in his passenger seat while he shoved the boombox onto the back seat with some force. It must have landed on the power button, because it turned itself off. To my distress, as soon as the white noise stopped all I could hear was a rapid ringing noise that pierced my ears. It was similar to the chant of the children, but more like tinnitus than their music. Because even though it was awful, it had been musical. Talented, I suppose.

The ringing caused me so much pain that I thrashed around on the passenger seat. Mr Hart noticed something was wrong even if he didn’t hear my agonised shrieks, and quickly fumbled with the power button, turning back on the white noise. Then he took me to our town’s tiny hospital.

He didn’t stay in the room with me, instead waiting outside it for my parents. Thankfully, he left his boombox in there with me, so I was spared of the pain that silence now caused me.

It took months of having white noise on at all times before I could finally turn it off without being in agony. To this day, I still have tinnitus. It’s bearable now. Well, as bearable as constant ringing can be.

The doctors, my parents, my teachers – they never gave me any explanation for what I experienced that day. They just told me I should never have been in Marsh Park after sunset.

During my three long months of having to listen to constant white noise, I got a book out of the library that taught me sign language. Everyday I studied it relentlessly. It became something of an obsession, actually. The doctor’s weren’t sure if I’d regain my hearing once the whole process was over, but I decided that even if I did then I would need to talk to Bea’s grandfather. Partly to thank Mr Hart for saving me, but also because he obviously knew more about the children of Marsh Park. Bea knew what hocketing was, too – she had warned me about ‘The Hocketers’.

When I researched it at the library, I knew that the noise those creatures had made was, indeed, hocketing. Nowadays you can hear it easily online, but none of it is like the horrifying version I had to endure.

When I could finally turn off the white noise I went to see Mr Hart. Through sign language, we spoke about what had gone on that night. I told him how terrified I had been and explained that if he hadn’t found me then I was sure I would have died. He said I had Bea to thank for that, though I wasn’t sure ‘thank’ was exactly the correct term. Sure, she told her grandad I was in trouble, but she left me there, too.

Of course, I asked him how he knew the white noise would work. He told me that it had taken a great time of trial and tribulation to figure it out, and that it didn’t always work. That time, though, it had. He didn’t know why and I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I am eternally grateful for Mr Hart rescuing me.

I never asked how he came to be deaf. I think I knew already, in all honesty. Somebody must have rescued him, like he did me. We became friends after… playing chess together once a week and signing to each other about this and that. Right up until he died. Bea and I became friends at a later date too, but that’s another story for another time.

The children in our town know never to be in Marsh Park after sunset. It’s indoctrinated into us from birth. But accidents happen. I’m evidence of that. A few steps more and I would have been deaf like Mr Hart, I’m sure of it. Any more steps? Well, I feel very lucky that my old friend stepped in when he did.

Shortly after what happened to me, the local police started doing checks on Marsh Park at sunset. They don’t go in once its dark but they do shine a flood light over it.The idea is to check for kids who might be in trouble. We haven’t had any incidents since… not that I’m aware of, at least.

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