I think I may copyright that title -Terror On The Steps. I can see it headlining a black & white film, with perhaps Boris Karloff and some lithesome blonde, heel of hand pressed against her forehead as she faints uselessly. Which is a far cry from the real Terror On The Steps (cue suspenseful music), which is what happened to me not two hours hence.
It all started when I woke this morning and lazily decided not to do my usual Sunday 1000 steps walk. After which guilt nibbled at me throughout the day, especially when I devoured the better part of a packet of chocolate biscuits at lunchtime. So finally, just after 4.00pm, I gave in, got changed and headed off. By the time I arrived at the picnic grounds, the day was just beginning to slip genially towards dusk, and there was a magical golden glow bathing the foliage. Simply lovely.
There were still quite a few people around, but they were in the main a different breed than those I usually struck (not literally of course), early in the morning. This lot were a little more touristy, a little less fit, a lot more family. And with some really strange dudes thrown in the mix. Like the guy I passed early on, who had a handbag crooked delicately over one arm and a receding hairline behind which flowed a wonderfully fluffy mop of waist-length grey hair. Or the pair of ladies speaking rapid French with the small, poodle-like dog on a lead. Even apart from the fact dogs are strictly forbidden up there, I can't quite work out how that thing negotiated the steps. They must have carried it, which sort of defeats the purpose. Aah, the French.
So there I was, meandering along happily and thinking 'why don't I come here at this time more often', when there came a loud, distinctive birdsong echoing down the mountain. Aa-ruuuk, aa-raaah. It was an elongated, single-note sound. Hollow, with an evocative cylindrical echo that didn't so much splinter the ambience as enhance it. And I could visualise the bird who would be making it - something large and colourful and proud, with chest vibrating as the warbling notes issued through the bush.
The sound now came at regular intervals, getting louder and louder as I climbed ever upward. And a strange thing happened, because as the sound became louder, and closer, it sort of lost some of its echoing beauty and became just a little spooky. A tad Blair Witch, if you know what I mean. I started walking a bit faster.
Maybe even Alfred Hitchcock. I mean, have you seen that film The Birds?
Really loud now, so I knew it must be close. Which made me especially pleased to come around the corner and see a guy, around my own age, leaning against the railings and staring intently down into the valley below. It suddenly occured to me that he was most likely gazing at the bird itself so I paused nearby, ostensibly to have a drink of water but really to have a peek at what type of bird it was. After having listened to it for the past twenty minutes, I felt it owed me a least that much. So I craned my neck forward and then, quite suddenly, right next to me and ridiculously loud:
You know how people say 'oh, you made me jump' when in actual fact they barely blinked (stationery liars, the lot of them). Well, I actually jumped. Literally. Off the ground. Because the noise came from the guy himself. There was no bird. I tell you I aged ten years in ten seconds. And as I stared, stunned - he did it again. Without turning, without even changing position. Aa-ruuuk, aa-raaah! Calling down into the valley below. Over and bloody over. A veritable chorus of rollicking whatevers.
As soon as I recovered my equilibrium, I started walking. Fast. Trying to think of all the different reasons that a relatively well-dressed middle-aged man would position himself halfway up a very steep trail and then screech bird noises down a mountain. There's not a lot. Apart from the obvious mating ritual thing and I have to tell you that if that was his intention, I can't really see it working. People usually prefer their foreplay more... well, sane. Anyway, so this is where a vivid imagination can be harmful to the health, because once I gave up on plausible explanations, I started on the implausible. And immediately came up with the incredibly bizarre scenario that this was some sort of ritualistic chant, where he called down thanks to the gods of the valley a certain number of times, and then whipped out a handy knife and found someone to sacrifice. To keep the gods happy. As you do.
As you can imagine by now I'm walking pretty damn fast. I pass a young couple who have stopped to catch their breath and we exchange pleasantries (i.e. what's with that fruit loop down there?) and I continue on feeling a little more relieved. Because now I have bodies between me and him, and sacrificially-speaking, the young woman looked distinctly more virginal. And in my admittedly limited experience, mostly from watching TV, that's usually a pre-requisite.
This keeps up every minute or so for the entire climb. At one stage the sound/call is answered by several others and it sounds like a pack of them in joyful unison. Even though I suspect it's just some young people having fun it's still really creepy. And I'm reminded of a Buffy the Vampire episode about a wolf pack who looked human and had this extra-sensory connection with each other that they used to attack and then devour a small pig, a homeless guy and the headmaster (one at a time of course. Otherwise it'd be greedy). I know my sacrifice scenario is patently ridiculous but I've never, ever, climbed those steps so fast. And now each time I hear the guy do his weird bird-thing, I'm almost relieved because it's coming from the same place and that means he hasn't moved.
Accompanying me all the way to the top, and then continuing as I trot briskly down the lyrebird track. Bouncing off the mountains and echoing hollowly along the valley. And the closer dusk comes, the more bizarre and strange the whole thing is. He's still going when I reach my car and as I lock the doors, I decide it'll be a long time before I come for a walk up here at the same time. That is, not unless I'm accompained by a handy virgin and one thing's for sure, none of my friends qualify.