Mushrooms in the Dunes
by Emma Gillander
When he had first arrived Peter had been distinctly disappointed. There was just no real history. At his last house there was a danger you would step out of your front door and fall into a trench dug by archaeologists looking for Roman ruins, and before that he had been able to see a castle from his bedroom window, and before that he had been on the east coast where they had found a Viking settlement and a local group had formed and built a round house complete with grass roof. Up to now he seemed to have been surrounded by men wearing funny headphones swinging metal detectors in front of them. But not here.
Southport had been nothing but a couple of fishermans' cottages until Queen Victoria had made sea bathing popular and two hundred years just wasn't long enough to become legend. Still, in an attempt to learn something about this new town Peter had found a tour on a double decker bus, which had taken him all over.
He had seen the bridge on the lake, which he had learned was the largest man made sea water lake in the country, made all the more realistic by the shrub covered islands in the centre. There was a huge red brick building fronting it, with turrets and spires, very impressive indeed, and this had been a hospital, offering special sea water therapies to soldier returning from the First World War. Years ago a huge windmill stood in front of the hospital, used to draw water from the lake, but that had long since gone. Now instead of healing the sick it provide accommodation for the town's rich in the form of very expensive apartments.
Then they had gone onto the beach, where the guide had pointed out diggers, so far away they looked like tiny dots, almost impossible to see against the horizon. They were digging up sand, to sell to the building trade, and then the guide had laughed as he told them how a lot of it was sold to Arab countries, they couldn’t use their own plentiful supply as it was round, and you needed square sand for building. The pier was next, its' claim to fame was that it was the longest overland pier in the country, and it was long indeed, running on stilts over the lake and some sculpted gardens, over a sea front shopping plaza and then onto the beach itself. They were told about a one legged ex-service man who used to do fancy dives off the end of the pier for money, and who had to be dragged out using a hoist because once he was in he couldn’t get out on his own. This interested Peter a great deal, and the next weekend he made it a point to go to the pier, taking the tram down its mile long length to the pavilions at the end. Inside the modern glass building there was a small café, and, much to his delight, rows of old fashioned penny arcades, where you had to exchange your modern money for huge old pennies to play. Peter amused himself for half an hour and then wandered over to a small display about the piers history. It had been longer still before a fire had destroyed much of it, including the landing docks for several large ferries which used to bring people back and forth from North Wales. Ferries had also brought the wounded soldiers to convalesce at the red brick hospital. But the water wasn’t deep enough now, silt build up in the bay coupled with the sand being taken away for building works meant that the sea was never usually more than a foot deep for miles out on the beach. A couple of times a year, at exceptionally high tides, it was much deeper, but on those occasions the pier and the coast road were closed. Well that was no good, no good at all. But that wasn't the only thing on the tour which had interested Peter. Their route had also taken them along the long straight coast road which ran the length of the beach where the tide hardly ever came in but which had sea defences in the form of a huge concrete wall just in case. They passed the new splash centre of the local swimming baths, which had taken two years to complete and which had left numerous children unable to swim through lack of lessons as the entire leisure centre had closed. As they continued down the road the the huge stretches of beach with a tiny strip of sea miles away was suddenly replaced by mounds and mounds of sand dunes covered by scraggly grass on both sides of the road. They were taller than the double decker bus and very impressive indeed. Peter was incredibly interested in the sand dunes. The bus wound down through Ainsdale village before coming to a stop outside the aptly named ‘Round House.’ It was a white building in the shape of a cylinder facing the lush green of one of the towns many golf courses, Royal Birkdale. Once every ten years or so the town would suddenly before full to bursting with golfers and journalists gathered for the Open, and who would disappear as rapidly as they appeared. It was rumoured that during the last competition the owner had been approached by a certain soft drinks manufacturer about painting the whole thing like a can of drink, but it had never been verified. So impressed had Peter been with the miles and miles of dunes that he had found himself a little map with walks and followed a few of the routes. The trouble was they shifted with the winds, so while some of the larger, more established dunes covered with grasses more or less stayed put the smaller ones came and went. Peter was fascinated by how quiet they were. He had walked for hours on a couple of occasions and not come across a single person, especially if he went on weekday afternoons. The few people he saw were usually dog walkers and they would call out cheerily, but Peter didn’t reply. He wasn’t looking to make new friends. He began to spend a great deal of time in the dunes, wandering round, sometimes skirting the beach, sometimes sticking to the huge hills of sand, and when the summer turned into autumn he took to taking walks in the evening, not returning home until after it was dark. Peter was a night owl. He liked the quiet stillness of night time, much preferred it to the hustle and bustle of day. When spring came again Peter found himself a guided walk through the dunes, led by rangers. The dunes were one of the only places in the country where you could see natter-jack toads, an endangered species. So endangered that you needed a licence to even pick them up. But there wouldn’t be any on this tour. The toads only came out at night, much like Peter. He was trailing behind everyone else. There was a family with two small children amongst the group, who were running backwards and forwards as they moved along the narrow trails between the dunes. They were irritating Peter slightly, he just wanted to hear the commentary the guide was making. They came to a stop and the guide, dressed in a very rangerish dark green shirt and beige trousers, was pointing to a crop of mushrooms amongst the grasses on one of the larger dunes. He went on to explain that mushrooms would not normally grow in the sand of the dunes but the phenomena was becoming more common. Loving dog owners, recalling all the good times they had spent out on the dunes with their pets, brought them back and buried them there when they had died. That was how the mushrooms grew. They couldn't grow in the sand but they could grow in the decaying bodies of dead animals. The two children squealed with delight at the thought of dead bodies, and a middle aged lady groaned with disgust. Peter felt the colour leaving his face. He had never read anything about that before, and he had read a great deal of literature on the dunes. He became agitated. He was shifting from foot to foot, his hands clenched into fists as he rammed them into his pockets. He wanted to leave the tour and go and solve his problem but he couldn't without looking suspicious, so he trailed along behind, not listening to anything the guide said and becoming increasingly more irritated with the two young children. When the tour was finally finished he hurried back to the car and went home, pacing around the living room and stopping occasionally to look something up on the internet. It didn't say anywhere about mushrooms in the sand dunes. He felt like he had been purposely misled. He kicked out angrily at a footstool, sending it flying across the room. This was very inconvenient indeed. He had to wait until it was dark before putting on the disposable white painting suit and new wellingtons and getting his spade from the shed. There was a plastic bag around the blade of the spade, held on with an elastic band. A very necessary precaution. By the time Peter got to the spot he used to park when he went to the dunes it was well and truly dark. He got out and retrieved his spade and a plastic sack from the boot and locked the car up, putting the keys on the wheel arch of the drivers side. It wasn't as though he had pockets in his white coverall. Then he put a torch round his head. He had come across it in a Sunday supplement, a kind of lamp like miners used to use, on two thick bits of elastic, one which went round his head and the other over it to hold it in place. It had come in so useful for his tasks where he needed both hands free. Wherever Peter looked, the light looked. He didn’t turn it on yet, he would be able to manage with the weak light from the moon for now.
Then he crossed the road and went into the dunes, dragging his spade behind him to mask the print from the soles of his green wellingtons. It didn’t take him long to get to where he was going, walking on the narrow paths twisting through the high sided dunes. Peter stood still for a good five minutes, listening in the darkness. There was the faintest hint of the sea, but that was far out tonight and the odd natterjack toad which had burrowed into the warm sand. When he was satisfied that there was no one nearby Peter picked up his spade and began to dig, cursing himself at his initial caution. Now it would take so much longer to reverse. When he came across something much less unyielding than the soft sand he stopped digging and began scraping, the light from his head torch illuminating the grizzly sight of a naked, decomposing body. Since he was a small child Peter had enjoyed killing for fun. It had begun with insects and then moved from smaller household pets to larger ones and finally people. He couldn’t describe why he did it, it didn’t sexually excite him, he didn’t even like looking at the bodies once they were dead, they were more of an inconvenience as he tried to get rid of them, but he just couldn’t resist the look in their eyes when the last breath was squeezed out of them. It made him feel so in control, so powerful. He pulled out the plastic sack, shaking it to open it up and began to slide in the unwieldy body. Head first, that was how he always did it. It was a young woman, probably in her mid twenties, non descript with brown hair, she had been walking along the road at the side of the dunes and Peter had been unable to stop himself, dragging her through the sand and choking the life out of her within minutes. He never planned his murders, or his victims, that was probably why he managed to get away with them for so long. There was no pattern to them, places, victims and times were all totally random. He moved a lot too, he never allowed himself more than four deaths in anyone place, and scouting the area, working out how to dispose of the bodies, was part of the fun. Until now, with the damn mushrooms in the dunes. He would have to keep the body at home somewhere until he found a new hiding place, one which didn’t sprout fungi. The body was being difficult, flopping about all over the place, and it smelt awful. Peter was breathing heavily and didn’t hear the tour group coming from the back of the dunes. He didn’t know they gave moonlight tours to see natterjack toads breeding either, he had been more interested in getting home than hearning the rest of the tour. His head torch was shining on the corpse which looked eerily white. He stood helplessly, wearing a white disposable suit with his hands under the arms of a dead body, half in half out of a plastic sack. He was staring at the tour guide at the head of the party and the half dozen tourists were staring at him, all of them with open mouths. Then one of the females in the party began to scream and scream and scream. That night at the dunes wasn’t quiet and isolated as it usually was. There were police cars and coroners vans and floodlights. There was blue and white tape stretched between the dunes and people everywhere. Peter had his spade confiscated and put into an evidence bag as he was led away from the bustle in handcuffs, the hood of his suit pulled over his head to try and hide him from the flashing bulbs of the reporters hanging round outside the police cordon. In the local paper two days later there was a photo of the back of what looked like a very tall, thin snowman wearing green wellingtons on the front with 'Dastardly Dunes Digger Detained', emblazoned over the top, to be followed in coming weeks by 'Felons’ Fungi Fear' and 'Toad Tour Trap Transgressor'.
Peter refused to give details on any other his other murders although substantial excavation went on in the dunes. His only comment when he was sentenced to life imprisonment was, ‘The information given out by those rangers is wholly inadequate, and the advertisement of the dunes tours is appalling.’