Stag

Harry needed to clear his head. The wedding wasn’t till three o’clock, but he was still swallowing down a hangover from the night before. His mates hadn’t let him off lightly on his last night of bachelordom. So he’d pulled on his running kit and headed out the door, panting his way through the streets of Greenwich and into the park.

Knackered, he threw himself down on the grass at the top of the hill. It was a grand view. Harry could see down the swooping green lawns to the old Royal Naval College, over the rooftop of the Greenwich Power Station, across the river to where dizzying palaces of glass and steel rose on what Harry’s granny still called the Isle of Dogs.

Funny name. Harry remembered hearing a story that Henry VIII kept his hunting dogs on the island-that-wasn’t, across the river from the park that was one of his favourite hunting grounds. Now the royal kennels were home to national newspaper journalists and city money-men. Appropriate, somehow.

Harry could hear singing, and women’s laughter. Not unusual, although it was a bit early in the morning for a party. He sat up, leant back against the railings that surrounded a bit of turf, with a few insignificant bricks in the ground. He thought of how he brought Diana here for the first time, her excitement when he told her about the Roman temple in Greenwich Park fading into disappointment when she saw the bare remains.

For a moment, he closed his eyes and remembered how he’d kissed away the frown from her face, wrapped his arms around her and sat with her right here, pointing out the landmarks. ‘It’s a special place,’ he’d insisted. ‘It’s been special for thousands of years.’

Which rather begged the question why he’d just spent his last night in Greenwich. The bags were packed, and his furniture was already in the spacious semi they’d bought together in Bexley, bloody miles from the river, from all his mates, from proper London, really. Only a few clothes and his sleeping bag remained in his bachelor flat by the river. As of tomorrow, someone else’s flat.

He’d insisted on sleeping there one last time, even though Diana was already installed in Bexley. ‘It’s bad luck,’ he’d told her. ‘We can’t be together on the night before the wedding.’

‘I suppose you don’t want me to see the state of you after your stag do,’ she’d told him. There was that, but it was more about Greenwich, really. He’d needed to say goodbye properly, on his own.

Harry checked his watch. He’d promised Diana he would drop the keys off at the estate agents before heading over to his parents’ place in time for lunch. Not long now. Better get moving.

The singing was getting louder. Getting to his feet, Harry started a gentle jog down the cleft of the hill, towards a deeply wooded hollow. He knew the place well; it had an old stone fountain built into the bank, usually clogged with leaves and mud, and a fallen tree lay the length of the hollow. It felt cool and moist, even on the hottest days.

Wiping the sweat from his face, Harry slithered down the bank and stopped. Five women were gathered in a semi-circle around the fountain. The tallest was naked, except for a lot of leaves in her hair. Two of the women were scooping up water from the fountain, and pouring it over her feet.

Harry was baffled. Were they Australian? Was this some kind of pagan ritual? The naked woman was exceptionally beautiful, tall and slim with high, small breasts. He gulped.

They all turned towards him. Something in their eyes made him realise this had been a very bad idea.

‘Oh – gosh – sorry. Wrong turn,’ gasped Harry, turning to scramble up the bank. But the branches seemed less easy to get through this time, brambles scratching his bare legs, his hands suddenly clumsy when he tried to push the branches aside. He dropped to all fours. But now something was tangled up in his hair – the undergrowth was clinging to something on his head.

He put up his hands. His first thought was that somehow, he’d missed a trick from last night’s party, and had been wearing joke antlers all morning. But they seemed remarkably well-attached. God, he thought, Di wasn’t going to like this. How could he get them removed before the wedding? Mentally, he scanned the Yellow Pages – stain removal, furniture removal, antler removal?

Out of the undergrowth, he curled up on the warm grass for a moment, getting his breath back. He was hungry, and the turf looked nice and green. Before he realised what he was doing, he’d taken a nibble. It was quite nice. In fact, it was very nice. He cropped a little more grass, before realising that this was even odder, in its way, than the antlers.

He cast his mind back to what he could remember of the previous evening. There had been girls, certainly, even some quite bare ones. None as lovely as the ones he’d just seen. And definitely no antlers. Maybe it was the booze. He remembered how his dog, Arthur, ate grass when he wanted to make himself sick. Maybe that’s what it was – his system wanted to get rid of the booze. But he didn’t feel sick; in fact he felt quite good. He had another little nibble of grass. A fly landed on his nose, and he twitched it off. It was nice here in the sun.

Harry decided to have a little snooze. He knew there was something he was meant to be doing today, but it didn’t seem that important right now. He’d have another run later, then maybe go and find something to drink. There was a pond at the bottom of the hill. He drifted off again.

A sudden noise woke him. Whatever it was, it had penetrated his sleep and chilled him to the core. He leapt up and sniffed the air with apprehension. The noise came again. Ugh! It was a horn, high and clear on the air. Harry was filled with terror. He began to run down the hill, faster than he’d ever run before. On all fours, too, but somehow that seemed quicker.

The horn sounded again, and Harry faltered, turned his head and looked up the hill. A line of horsemen stood against the horizon. Even worse, at their feet bayed a pack of hounds. Whimpering, Harry saw them streak over the green turf, the pack spreading out across the hillside.

He turned and ran for his life.

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