It had been a fraught morning, but the committee was now decided.
The discussion hadn’t been an easy one. Two courses of action were put forward. 1: That we should write to Mr Carmichael for a third and final time, effectively giving him a ‘final warning’ to address the issue of his untended garden. Or 2: Take immediate action to address his failure to address the issue, or contact the committee, and report him directly to the council’s environmental health department.
The committee was split down the middle, and I found myself in the uncomfortable position of being the deciding vote.
Taking into account all perspectives, I decided on the more cautious route. I accepted that Mr Carmichael had expressed no intention to take action, and that we might only be delaying the inevitable. However, I felt that the village preservation committee should not appear to be an ‘aggressor’, that Mr Carmichael must be allowed ample time to decide on a course of action. I was also concerned that involving environmental health might be a wasted endeavour anyway; in the countryside, a preponderance of weeds could hardly be sited as unusual, and we had no evidence of rodent infestation. Even knowing that the senior inspector was the chairman’s wife’s cousin was no guarantee of success. Better to encourage Mr Carmichael to act on his own and avoid any unnecessary escalation.
I was already starting to worry that local politics was exactly the sort of thing I’d tried to get away from when I resigned from the University. To placate the dissatisfied members of the committee, I suggested we place a timeline for Mr Carmichael to take action. I proposed six weeks, which, after a vote, was cut down to four. As another form of penance, I agreed to draft the letter, and to present it to the committee for approval, via email, before sending via recorded delivery.
With the deadlock resolved, the meeting disbanded and I set off for home, hoping for a calm and peaceful evening. On arriving, however, I knew that this was not to be. Martinique’s car was parked askew. Not in the usual position at all; something must be wrong.
On entering our kitchen, I was surprised to see that she had been crying. She is not a sensitive creature at all. Throughout our years of marriage, I had seen her shed tears on perhaps only a handful of occasions.
I asked her what the matter was and she cried out: “I didn’t even see him; he ran right out into the road.”
She walked me out to her car and opened up the boot. One of our dog’s blankets had been wrapped around the deceased. She pulled the top back to reveal the unfortunate body of a small ginger tom.
Martinique has a very continental attitude towards animals; none of the ‘silly English’ timidity towards controversial cuisine like foie gras or horse meat. But this was a family pet, and we have two dogs ourselves. She was very upset and could barely bring herself to look at him. I didn’t think him a very attractive sight either. His body was crushed; his face contorted into a howling grimace.
The ways to travel to our country cottage are not numerous. There are just a few winding, isolated country roads that you can use. It was during her drive through what we call ‘the pass road’ that this ginger tom had inexplicably darted in front of her. She had no time to brake or swerve; the poor animal went straight under the driver-side wheel. He was most likely killed instantly, or at least that’s what we hoped.
Martinique wanted to bury the poor thing, but I spotted what she in her distress had missed – a small capsule hanging from his collar. I unscrewed the cap and retrieved a small slip of paper. It included a name and telephone number; the deceased had been called Toby.
I volunteered to make the call to the owners; my update on committee matters could wait. Martinique, still upset, was more likely to come off as cold and defensive. She does not like to exhibit vulnerability to strangers.
The owners were the Lewises. I phoned them immediately; better to nip these things in the bud. It turned out that Toby had already been missing for some time.
“Oh wow,” said Mrs Lewis. “We only just put the posters up this afternoon. Have you found him?”
That little ray of hope made the revelation to come even more difficult. “I regret to inform you Mrs Lewis that your cat Toby has sadly died. He ran out in front of my wife’s car. I am so terribly sorry.”
The line went quiet. I listened patiently to the commotion in the background. Mrs Lewis was very upset. It was understandable.
The next voice I assumed was Mr Lewis. “Are you sure? What happened?”
“We got your number from the capsule on Toby’s collar. We never even saw the posters.”
“But why would he run out into the road? He’s an eight-year-old tom, he knows better than that.”
“I can’t explain it. It was all so quick; we are so terribly sorry.”
“Where is he? You didn’t leave him out there did you?”
It seemed like he was looking for an opportunity to lash out. “No, no, we brought him back to our house. We thought we must contact the owners, and let them know. If you like, you can come and collect him, or we can bury him in the garden. It is really up to you.”
The line was quiet again for a minute or two. Mr Lewis came back on and said that they would come over. They wanted to be sure it was really Toby.
I gave them our address. It would be at least an hour before they arrived, guaranteeing a late supper. It just didn’t seem appropriate to be caught cooking when they came to claim the body. I poured myself a large glass of wine and applied some hummus to some staling pita bread. It was looking to be a very grim evening.
While I waited, I checked again with Martinique that it was the pass road she had taken to the house. I call it the pass road because it goes right through the hills, rather than taking you around them. It’s quite a pleasant drive, particularly this time of year with the colours of spring coming to the fore.
But it’s not a place one would wish to find oneself alone. There is no phone signal, and the road is quite narrow. While most drivers are sensible, some seem to get used to having the road to themselves. They pick up speed and slam on the brakes when they find someone else coming the other way. It’s a road that can go from being very tranquil to not very tranquil, very suddenly.
The reason I was dwelling on this road is that I recalled having had an accident there just a week or so earlier. I had been driving home and, before I could act, I found that I had driven over a badger. It had shot right out in front of me. At least I think it was a badger; I didn’t actually stop to check.
A badger seemed to be too sensible an animal to be carelessly throwing themselves in front of traffic, especially during the daytime; they’re mostly nocturnal of course. I have seen badgers dead by the roadside before, but it’s usually rabbits or hedgehogs or pheasants. What was it about this particular road that it made it so lethal to the local wildlife?
I explained to Martinique the strange coincidence, in the hope that it might lessen the sense of guilt she was feeling; this was clearly a section of road where collision with the wildlife was common. Alas, it seemed to offer her no comfort.
It is a pleasantly scenic route. The road curves around a high cliff face. It’s steep jagged rock all the way up; you rarely even see goats trying to scale it. You can’t even consider taking the road during high winds; just in case.
Opposite the cliff are some less forbidding hills, not so steep; a much softer ascent. The space that exists between the cliff and the hillside is an intriguing area, a sort of large hollow or small valley that’s filled with tall, densely-packed trees. With the leaves out again, it’s almost impossible to even see a few yards ahead into this little forest. I’ve never seen a soul walking through there. It’s a world exclusively owned by nature. Beautiful, if somewhat forbidding.
The Lewises made it over in a fairly brisk 50 minutes. They were a slightly younger couple than I expected, not too many years off middle age. Mrs Lewis – Tammy – was a small mousy creature. She kept chewing on the sleeve of her cardigan. Mr Lewis – Christopher – was not as hostile as he was on the phone; he was here to support his partner now.
Martinique had made herself scarce; perhaps she hadn’t heard the doorbell. It had not seemed appropriate to keep Toby in the car boot. I had taken him into the garage and placed him on my workbench. It seemed as good a place as any to reveal the body.
Husband and wife glanced at each other as I prepared to lift the blanket. Christopher held his wife close and gave me the nod. I unveiled the deceased. Tammy buried her head in his chest, sobbing uncontrollably. It was indeed their poor furry friend.
I asked how long they had had him. “Since he was a kitten; eight years, something like that,” he said. “His mother was with us before that.”
I went to fetch some water and tissues. I found Martinique with them when I got back, offering her explanation and apologies.
Tammy told her that Toby had grown up around roads. They, like us, had come only recently to the county. It made no sense to them that he would run out in front of a car. But perhaps they’d let him out too soon. That Toby had roamed so far away was odd; perhaps he had strayed too far and then panicked, saw the car lights and ran desperately towards them.
Martinique showed Tammy the way to the bathroom. Christopher picked up the body and we walked out of the garage into the driveway. After placing it in the boot of his estate car, he said to me something I thought quite extraordinary.
“In some ways it’s a relief to find him like this,” he said, in a nervous tone. “In my mind, I’d imagined something much worse happening to him.”
I asked what he meant. He told me that he feared the locals had kidnapped him and done something unpleasant out of retribution.
“Retribution, are you serious?”
“Sounds extreme, I know. But the way some of the folks look at you round here.”
“I haven’t experienced any problems.”
“Maybe it’s different out here, but there are some real nasty types in town.”
He explained that he was talking about a small faction of the populous – mostly elderly, mostly white and male. A group that did not like the changing dynamics of the area.
“You’d think they’d be happy. The amount of money we’re bringing into the economy.”
“But why would you think they’d harm your cat?” I asked.
“When we first came here we went to the wrong pub. You know the type, where they go quiet when you go in and stare at you while you order your drinks. One of them came over and asked us what we thought we were doing there. He asked if we felt like we owned the place that his ancestors had cared for, where they’d worked the land for generations. This guy was fat as a bus; he can’t have worked a solid day for 20 years.
“He said we didn’t belong here. We’d never belong here. I couldn’t believe it. He said one day there’d be a reckoning, like before. We had to leave; it was really uncomfortable, really nasty.”
He went on to tell of his horror to find that one of this crowd lived just a few doors down from him. He would park his car deliberately in front of their house, causing them to park further down the road. He refused to look at them or talk to them when they passed in the street, to the point where he would even try to force them off the pavement rather than move an inch out of his way.
“When the cat went missing, I had nightmares that they’d done something horrible out of malice. It’s probably paranoia, but I see these types everywhere now. Giving us the evil eye.”
“I must admit that we have a troublesome few over here in the village.” I proceeded to tell him of the problems with Mr Carmichael and his neglected garden.
“You see, isn’t that just the problem? Some people, they’d rather just sit on their backsides and do nothing, and then just complain when everything doesn’t go their way.”
I was about to say that I actually knew very little about Mr Carmichael when Martinique reappeared with Tammy. As they stepped through the front door, Christopher put his finger to his lips, and we said nothing more of the great clash of cultures.
Tammy looked much better from her chance to freshen up and apologised for the crying, which was unnecessary. Christopher said they had offered a reward for information on the lost posters. They wanted us to have it, but I absolutely refused it. I suggested that if he wanted to give money he should do so to a local charity. A pet rescue would be appropriate.
After they had gone, me and Martinique returned to the kitchen and shared some more wine. I started to tell her about Christopher’s paranoia. Thinking about it, I actually started to find the whole idea rather amusing; a band of old ruffians at war against the modern. Sad, bedraggled, but righteous in their own way; it was rather like an Ealing comedy.
Martinique was not particularly amused. She said it was not unusual for people long established to dislike newcomers, especially older generations who would obviously feel threatened by change. She had had some funny looks in town herself, but that was probably because of her accent. Some confused her for being Polish; many of whom had arrived in the area for building jobs and other manual positions.
She finally asked about events at the committee meeting. I explained my dilemma regarding Mr Carmichael and how I’d finally made my decision. She suddenly rediscovered her sense of humour and started laughing.
“So you have done nothing?”
“No, we are going to write to him and encourage—”
“Nothing has changed,” she said. “It is the same always with you. Your committees and your resolutions and nothing gets done.”
“We need to have a process. We can’t just march over there with pitchforks.”
“And yet you find reasons to do nothing instead.”
“We’re not doing nothing. We are taking principled, methodical action.”
“You are avoiding action. You always do.”
“I have started drafting the letter already – look,” I showed her the notes I had scribbled during the wait for the Lewises.
“Words, always words. It will mean nothing in the end.”
“Well we shall see about that won’t we.”
“No, I expect that we won’t.”
I spent the rest of the evening in the conservatory. I found her attitude most frustrating; it’s as if she believes belligerence and bad temper will solve everything. But you can’t solve problems by being a blunt instrument. That isn’t how the world works. It’s all a bureaucracy, with processes, whether she likes it or not.
She thought competing for Britain’s Best Kept Village was petty English folly anyway, rather than a noble cause to promote community and pride. Not to mention local culture; heritage is very important.
Though I ruminated on it a little, I will admit that I didn’t take Christopher’s story of malign local forces very seriously. I saw his fraught encounter with difficult neighbours just as I saw the issue with Mr Carmichael; a few bad apples that exist at the edges of every society. A nuisance, yes, but hardly a serious problem.
I was to discover, however, that these malign forces were more common than I supposed, although my first exposure to them was rather slight.
I drove into town a few days later to collect my post – a delivery of papers I had requested. Besides village preservation, I had chosen a research project to keep myself busy in retirement. I was revisiting the world of the great post-war architects, their strengths and weaknesses; their legacy, both good and bad.
I wasn’t sure what form the project would take at this stage; it had the potential to be a strong, engaging piece of non-fiction. But I had also begun to develop a related fiction which also had interesting possibilities. I was yet to make a firm decision on the matter.
I settled myself down at a local coffee shop to review the documents, allowing myself two hours to review, and then a further hour on top of that to complete my third draft of the letter to Mr Carmichael. After checking I’d crossed all the Ts and dotted all the Is, I emailed it to the committee for final review.
With this task complete, I drove over to the local Waitrose to complete the weekly shop. While parking, I spotted our young gardener Max. He’s a good chap Max; he’s very hard working and has his own business at the tender age of 25. Surprisingly enterprising for his generation.
I shouted hello and waved to him. But rather than respond, he turned his head away and pretended not to see me.
I found myself a little offended. His rejection was quite explicit. He had seen me and almost certainly heard me, but deliberately he had not acknowledged me. He wasn’t in his teens; he had no reason to protect his image from being seen with an ‘oldie’ like me. He did appear to be with someone, but they seemed to be even older than I.
It’s hard to excuse deliberate rudeness; Martinique is bad enough. I knew I would have to bring it up with him. He came to our house two days later, to continue the work on our rockery.
He was visibly annoyed when he arrived. He had apparently hit a fox on the way and it had cracked one of his headlights. I relayed the story of Martinique’s accident as conversation, musing briefly about the bizarre fatality rate on this particular stretch of road.
He brought up the incident in the carpark unprompted: “Yeah I’m sorry I blanked you. I was with my uncle and he gets a bit funny about me working for yuppies.”
“You know how it is. He doesn’t like out-of-towners much. Gets on his goat.”
I wasn’t sure that was the phrase, but I let it pass.
“But what have we done?”
“Oh they’re all the same that generation. They don’t like immigrants and townies.”
“I’m as English as brown ale.”
“Yeah, but you’re from somewhere else. First it was the Polish, now it’s the Londoners. I mean, we never had anything like Waitrose here before.”
“It’s just a supermarket.”
“Used to be the meat market, a long time ago. Lots of these guys used to be farmers or workers in the mines or factories out of town. Now they can’t make a living. They see a bunch of rich people come in and start buying up the place. They don’t like it, feels like the town’s being taken away from them.”
“I rather thought hikers and campers were the people who were bringing in the money now.”
“I don’t think they’re getting anything out of it. My uncle’s pissed most of the day anyway. Keeps going on about there being a new reckoning. I don’t pay much attention; he hasn’t gotten into a fight in weeks. But I didn’t want to tell him I was working for you. I’d never hear the end of it.”
I didn’t much like being called a ‘yuppie’. I had marched for the miners back in my day. Voted against Thatcher and the establishment my whole life. I only voted for Blair the once. Or was it twice?
I hadn’t taken the story of the old rebels very seriously, but suddenly I had the uncomfortable feeling of being on the wrong side of a political conundrum.
To be called a yuppie… I felt like I’d crossed party lines without realising it. Was I a gentrifier? Was I now the arrogant rich, telling salt-of-the-earth working class folk to get out of my way? To do my bidding? Disrespecting their ancestry, the craftsmanship they once practised? Was I profiting from their downfall?
Did it matter what side you were on politically if you still ultimately profited from the same capitalist cultural thuggery? Had I now become part of a movement that claimed the hills and the lakes for the chattering classes? And left those who once worked the land with nothing except our indifference, perhaps contempt?
It was an uncomfortable thought.
Later that same afternoon the phone rang. It was Christopher – in place of the reward, he wanted to know if he and Tammy could take me and Martinique out for dinner one evening.
Unable to come up with an excuse to back out, I found myself accepting the invitation. A few nights later I joined them for an early dinner at a restaurant of their recommendation. This was The Royal Oak, a town centre gastropub that was recently refurbished and well-reviewed online.
I regretted accepting the invitation almost immediately. Having become politically self-conscious, I had the unnerving sense of sitting down with the enemy. With his polo shirt, boat shoes and chinos, Christopher looked every bit the Cameron Conservative. I sensed it was going to be a long evening.
Martinique had decided not to join us at the last minute, as she had a migraine. It has long been my suspicion that she has these attacks when it absolutely suits her. Perhaps she was one step ahead of me again.
Tammy was much more animated on this occasion, having recovered from the shock of before. Unfortunately, she did not get to speak a great deal. Christopher did practically all the talking for her.
He started to tell me how they had been city dwellers, but they wanted to start a family and find a better work-life balance. He had managed to find a job running marketing at a local brewery and they had decided to bite the bullet and leave their city life behind. Tammy was in childcare but had yet to find work locally. I got the impression she was not entirely happy with how things were working out.
After we placed our order, Christopher was still going on about country versus city living, when, mercifully, something stopped him in his tracks.
He ceased talking mid-sentence and looked at someone across the room. Following his eyeline, I saw a large old gentleman marching unsteadily towards us. He was overweight and also dishevelled. He wore a ratty cable-knit jumper and dirty supermarket denim. His hair couldn’t decide if it was curly or straight. And he had a spectacularly bushy beard, the type that could be home to all kinds of as yet unknown species.
The old drunk approached Christopher with pointing-finger outstretched.
“Oi you. Your car’s in my space.”
Christopher rose to meet the threat, claiming: “It’s not your space. It’s our space, it’s right outside our house.”
The pointing finger became a prodding finger. “20 years I lived there. More than that. Decades!”
Christopher swatted it away. “It’s not even close to your house.”
“It’s my space, you sod.” He tried to grab Christopher, causing some gasps in the restaurant area. A few people got to their feet, as if to rush to defend him (I alas, was much slower in my reactions; I hadn’t assessed the situation as rising to potential violence).
It was, however, all over rather quickly. Christopher simply stepped back, causing the old codger to lose balance and fall between our table and the one next to it. He just about managed to grab hold of one to prevent a fall to the floor.
“You people,” he howled to the carpet. “You think you can come over here and take over everything, don’t you?”
“What’s going on over here?” The landlord had been alerted. “Sorry about this,” he said to us.
“Don’t you apologise for me,” said the bearded man, trying to right himself.
“It’s all right Frank,” said a tall, slender man, arriving on the scene and addressing the drunk.
“No,” cried Frank. “S’not all right. What’s left for us? What’s left?”
“I’m not moving that car. That space is right outside my house.”
“Oh your house! Your house!” Frank turned back to Christopher and looked to be making another attempt to grab him. His friend put his hand on his shoulders, holding him back and saying: “Easy now Frank.”
“Take him somewhere else,” said the landlord.
“You bloody traitor. One of them aren’t you?”
“Come on now Frank,” said his friend. “We’re not wanted here.”
“Look at this menu. What kind of food is this? Vegan, gluten bollocks.”
“Goodbye Frank,” said the landlord.
Frank’s friend tried to guide him along, but he shook himself free. He shouted something unintelligible and marched out on his own steam, screaming into the street as he exited.
“I’m so sorry about that,” said the landlord. “I didn’t see him come in.”
“Hardly your fault,” I said.
“What an utter arsehole,” said Christopher.
“Can I get you all a drink? Round on me to make up for it?”
I was extremely tempted to order something strong, but as I was driving, I had to decline. There really was nothing I could do to make the evening go faster.
It’s a sad unfortunate rule of men that any small altercation, no matter how trifling or insignificant, must become epic in the retelling. A retelling that must take place in the instant afterward, and then continue for multiple retellings as if it were some great conflict of the ages.
Naturally, Christopher was just this close to giving him a real seeing too. But of course he wouldn’t want to hit an old man, because he’d probably knock him out. And so on…
I let Christopher rant and complain uninhibited. Although I drew the line when he said what was going in town was like a kind of racism, as it was clearly nothing of the kind.
“They ought to be grateful to us,” he said. “Think where this place would be if it wasn’t for people like us.”
“But not everyone perhaps gets something out of it.”
“Why not? Plenty of jobs around, if you want to do them. I could sit around drinking all day if I wanted to. But I get up and I go to work.”
I wanted to explain that it wasn’t always easy for people to move from one skillset to another, especially when a particular occupation was tied into a long-rooted culture and community lifestyle. There may well be other jobs available, but there were few equivalent jobs. Today’s common vocations were without tradition or heritage; these were largely lost, and new opportunities failed to offer the same quality of living or level of opportunity. And of course age is a barrier to learning new skills and a detracting factor for employers.
Sadly, I didn’t get to say any of that. Christopher suddenly decided he had to run back home and make sure that the ‘old bastard’ hadn’t decided to do something to their car in revenge for parking in ‘his’ space.
Tammy warned that he wouldn’t be back in time for the food, but he went anyway. We were forced to wait once it arrived for his return. Tammy said I could start, but as she was going to wait, I did so too in solidarity.
With no one to talk over her, Tammy told me she’d tried to talk him out of parking there. Their alternative was only really a few spaces down. But Christopher was determined; they had every right to their space. He said there was principle at stake. I always thought principles should be something a bit loftier and more ambitious.
He did finally return – false alarm – and we were eventually able to eat. I then quickly discovered that the online reviews had been rather too generous.
I declined the offer of dessert and left as soon as the bill was paid. If it seemed a bit rude, I didn’t mind; I had no inclination toward ever having dinner with them again.
As I exited the pub, I saw, across the road, a small group of men, middle-age up to old-age. They were stood huddled together, and I just happened to catch the eye of one of the group. Upon seeing me, he turned to his colleagues, spoke something to them, and the whole group proceeded to walk away together, a few stealing glances at me as they went. It was as if I’d caught them in some kind of conspiracy.
It was extremely odd and deeply stirred a sense of paranoia in me, even though I recognised that it was probably nothing to do with me. What had happened in the pub had struck me as petty and ridiculous. But still, I was starting to get the feeling that it was just the tip of the iceberg. Like Christopher had said, he was seeing these types everywhere now.
This was not what I was expecting from my retirement. As I drove back home, I started to ask myself what I really had been expecting? Local discontent was no stranger to any town or village, whether it was between families, neighbours or the generations, or simply within local politics.
But I had taken early retirement to take myself out of conflict. I was tired of the court politics of university. I was tired of the commodification of education, the squeezing of budgets and the self-serving administrators, who protected their own salaries while the rest of us had to make do.
When I handed in my resignation, there was no pretence that I would be replaced. That’s how vital my contribution was. My great legacy: a salary saved and a deficit reduced.
I had started to wonder what the teachers were even there for. The students can get all the information they need from their phones now, and they’d rather listen to a podcaster or a YouTuber than a lecturer. I’ve over 30 years in the field, I’ve done research, published in academic journals. But if you’ve seen a 50-second video in your tweeting feed, you’re the expert now I suppose?
The students were paying more but paying attention less. Only the young could so cheerfully waste a fortune without caring about the mounting consequences. No wonder I wanted to retreat to the wilderness. And yet here I was, stumbling into a hotbed of local disenchantment, where getting a man to cut his lawn and trim his hedges required political action.
The letter to Mr Carmichael was still on the seat beside me. I’d forgotten to head into the post office before dinner to post it. I would have to see if the local branch was open in the morning.
It was almost dark and I had forgotten to put my headlights on. A passing car beeped its horn at me, waking me up from my melancholy. I was driving on the pass road. It was a shame to put my lights on; the fading glow of dusk was rather beautifully filtering through the bright green of the leaves.
I flipped the lever and the lights came on. As soon as the road ahead was lit up, I saw a deer leap the crash barrier and land right in my path. It didn’t notice me until it was already square in my headlights; it was startled and couldn’t decide which way to run.
I swerved right, which was my only choice. But the stupid animal went in the same direction. I caught it hard against my bonnet as I tried to slow down. Veering out of control, I crashed up against the curb of earth that hugged the cliffside. I swung my steering wheel back to straighten my course; I could already feel soil and stones grinding under the axle. I managed to bring the car down flat on the road. Finally I came to a stop.
I got out and assessed the situation. I was on the wrong side of the road, but it was a straight stretch, so the risk of collision was small; no one was going to turn a corner suddenly and collide with me.
The car was a mess: as a result of both the deer’s impact and the collision with the verge, I had managed to damage both sides of the bonnet, and completely wrecked the bumper and grille. The impact against the side of the cliff had caused the most harm. I could try to clear the soil and stone out from around the wheel, but I had felt it struggle when I’d tried to straighten course. It was almost certainly bent out of shape. It was close to dark; it was very difficult to make an accurate inspection of the damage.
A few yards up the road, the deer was trying to make its getaway. She had survived the attack, but was in a bad way now. She was limping along, with one of her legs tucked up against her body and the other three trying to keep her upright. She was making this awful squealing sound, like a high-pitched cough.
Had she been more crippled, I could perhaps have done more for her, perhaps put her out of her misery. As she was still moving, and I lacked the tools to put her down, not to mention the will or courage to chase her down the road, I could do little but watch her try and make it on her own. Knowing full well she was unlikely to get far or survive alone in the forest. There was little I could do for her.
What on earth was wrong with this road? Why were animals throwing themselves in front of traffic? If the deer had not seen me, because of my lights being off, she most certainly should have been able to hear me. And where did the creature imagine she was going?
I had a small light on my keyring, but that was hardly going to help me see the damage in more detail. The light on my phone screen was little help. And there was of course no phone signal. I really had little choice but to wait and hope that a passer-by would give me a lift home. Perhaps even tow me back to the village.
I could still hear the anguished sound of the deer; she was trying to jump the crash barrier but was too unsteady on her feet. It was hard to watch and I looked away.
I started to feel the chill of nightfall and I buttoned up my jacket. The road was never busy, but I would normally pass at least someone when I was driving home. I just had to be patient; a car would come by eventually, all there was for it was to wait.
I thought about sitting back inside. It would be warmer and I could have the radio on. But then there was a risk that I wouldn’t be able to flag a car down in time if one passed quickly.
So I leant against the car and waited. I started to whistle, but remembering how much Martinique hates my whistling, I instinctively stopped myself.
But as I stopped, my ears twitched – was that a voice I could hear?
The deer was gone now and it was all quiet around me. I walked across the road to the crash barrier and looked out into the forest. I wasn’t imagining it. There was definitely something there; the sound of men’s voices, shouting to one another, although it was hard to discern how far away they were.
I wondered who would be out here this late? Hikers probably. Walking tourism was certainly popular, although I was not aware of any particular interest in this narrow sort-of valley. The larger hill climbs were more in demand.
I considered whether to go and find them to ask for their help. It would mean leaving my car, which meant I would miss any passers-by. I wasn’t sure how long I would have to loiter by the road; probably not too long, but I couldn’t be sure. These people I could hear were real and here now. They might themselves be heading towards a car parked somewhere, and if there were several of them, which seemed to be the case, then they might be able to help me push my car on to the right side of the road. They could also be blessed with a signal on their phones.
I decided to take the risk; if I missed a vehicle driving my way, I would only have to wait for another one. This chance existed now.
I locked my car and then carefully I stepped over the crash barrier. There was a small but steep slope to the ground below. The grass was slippier than I expected, some rain and dew had clung to it; I almost lost my footing.
When the ground levelled out, it was not too difficult to walk on. I was treading on a mix of thin grass and dead foliage; the tall trees were taking most of the sunlight. Ferns and other weeds were trying to grow, but they were losing the war for resources and looked discoloured and fragile.
I listened carefully for the voices. I had not walked very far when I heard the sound of something moving through the grass. It was a grey squirrel, running very quickly. It darted past me and raced off into the distance.
I heard the shouts again, a little louder this time. I couldn’t see very far ahead because of the thickness of the trees. And with each passing minute, it was getting darker. But if the voices were getting louder, I must be getting closer.
A rabbit leapt through a bush of ferns to my right. Like the squirrel, it was moving at speed and seemed not to notice me at all as it ran close by. Barely a second passed before it was followed by two others, each only concerned with running, not about coming too close to a human intruder.
I could hear the sounds of other things moving around me. I spotted another squirrel dash by to my left. To my right I saw another deer, this one in full health, leaping through the trees. All these animals were going in the same direction – exactly the opposite direction I was travelling in.
I stopped for a moment. I got the feeling that the whole forest was moving, perhaps even running away from something. I felt the night’s chill stronger than ever.
The voices were even louder now. Sensing I was close, and feeling a growing sense of unease, I shouted “Hello” to them.
I got no immediate answer. But then I heard screaming. That was followed by a roar of other voices, shouting together in synchronisation. Something was very wrong.
There was an explosion; I felt the ground shake. A cloud of smoke broke into the sky. A rain of soil and foliage fell on me.
Through the trees, I saw a man coming towards me. He ran like he was running for his life. His teeth were gritted, his fists clenched; his feet were pounding furiously. He wore the clothes of a soldier, but not one from this century. He was a red coat, with white trousers and leather boots and a sabre held against his side.
He was coming right at me. I was so startled I could barely think to move. I realised we might collide, but I was transfixed. He was about to run right into me when there was a loud bang.
The man cried out. He collapsed, face slamming into the ground just feet from me. There was a hole in his back, a little smoke drifted from it. He’d been shot.
My body finally stirred; I panicked. My blood racing, I started to flee. But in which direction? In panic I lost all my bearings. Where was I going? Should I find cover, or just run? I could hear more gunfire.
Another explosion hit the ground. More soil flew through the air. I saw two more soldiers emerge from bushes nearby. One could run well, but the other was already injured and struggling to keep pace.
Then, forcing the bushes aside, appeared the most enormous man I have ever seen. He must’ve been over seven feet tall, with a wrestler’s build. He was bare-chested, with camouflage painted across his face and body.
He carried a medieval mace. He pounced towards the limping man, swinging the mace underarm. He struck the soldier on the back of his head. His scalp came clean off. The soldier shrieked and fell to the ground.
The other soldier made the terrible mistake of looking to see what had happened. In doing so, he distracted himself, and tripped over some obstruction. He too fell to the earth, giving the giant his chance. The man kicked the soldier over onto his back. The soldier helplessly waved his arms in front of his face. The giant brought the mace down and smashed in his skull.
The giant moved to finish off his other wounded prey. I ran madly into the forest.
I was unsure which direction I was going. I could hear more shots, another explosion of earth. I tripped over something lurking under the dead grass; I plummeted to the ground. The impact winded me. I got up on all fours, gasping for air. I grabbed hold of a tree to pull myself up.
Christ, it was almost completely dark. I had absolutely lost my bearings. This was no re-enactment. This was too bloody. My life was in danger.
Everything seemed now to have gone quiet. I walked on a little further; I reached for my phone, trying to shine its weak light ahead of me, but it showed me very little. I carried on for a few yards. The only thing I could hear was the sound of my own desperate breathing.
I heard a sound. I shone my phone around in front of me. “Who’s there?” I cried. I could see nothing.
I was startled by the sudden appearance of light. A torch had been lit, a torch of red and yellow fire.
There were men shouting and laughing and rejoicing. In front of them were a pile of bodies; young red coat soldiers stacked up. There were dozens of them, blood-stained, beaten and crippled.
I watched in horror. The man with the torch plunged it into the pile of bodies. There were rapturous cheers from his band of thugs. I could not tell how many there were in this group; more than ten I think. They all wore dark, tatty clothing, daubed in makeshift camouflage. Their faces covered in war-paint.
He held the torch against the pile until it started to catch the flame. As the fire took hold, one of the bodies started to move. One was still alive!
He shook himself free from the pile. He slipped on to the floor, sending other bodies down on top of him. He tried to wriggle across the ground from under them, but it was all in vain. The mob, seeing this disruption, ran at him, howling, with sabres ready. The man with the torch held it high for them as they hacked and stabbed the soldier ruthlessly to death.
He was so young. They were all so young.
I could take no more. I wanted to scream. I turned and ran again. My only plan was to put great distance between myself and those cheers; I cared not about the direction, just the distance.
I charged forward, trying my best not to stumble. But I could see hardly anything now I was away from the fire.
I was lost. All around me looked the same. I had to think. I heard another gunshot followed by more cruel jeering. I had to think faster.
I remembered that the forest continued up the hillside. If I moved in one direction, there was a slight incline. If I moved in the opposite direction, that must take me back to the road. As it got even darker, I was sure I must be on the right path, because of the growing shadow of the cliffside.
I could see the steep ground leading up to the road. There was more gunfire in the distance. Ecstatic to know safety was in reach, I dashed up the bank. I resorted to climbing on all fours as the steepness of the climb became too hard to manage.
I threw myself over the crash barrier without looking. I landed on the tarmac, experiencing only a bare moment of sheer relief.
A car horn shrieked. A vehicle appeared from around a bend in the road. I was caught in its headlights. I screamed. Collapsing to my knees, I cowered pitifully, crossing my arms over my face. As if that would save me!
The car brakes screeched. For an incredible second, I did not know whether I would escape, or be forced under its wheels.
But for a few inches, I was spared.
I was kneeling in the road. The groan of the car engine in front of me was the only thing I could hear. I slowly uncovered my eyes. It was hard to see with the headlights shining in my eyes. I could tell this was larger than a normal car. It was painted black, making it even harder to make out.
I heard the car door open and feet land on the tarmac.
“What the hell has gotten into you?” said a figure approaching me.
On my knees, trembling, I rose to look the man in the face. He was barely visible in the light.
“I had an accident,” I cried. “I saw something. In the forest.”
Above the lights, I could make out the man’s face, and it was familiar to me, though I couldn’t place it. He stared back coldly, then he walked back to the cabin and got inside.
It was an old Land Rover. He seemed to be waiting for me. I hobbled over to the passenger door and joined him inside. Without a word, he lifted the handbrake and started to drive.
No words passed between us as we went. I was in a state of extreme shock; completing full sentences wasn’t something I thought I could manage.
He drove a little fast. As I looked at him in the low light, I realised he’d been the man at the pub who had persuaded the old man, Frank, to leave. I felt like I should say something to him, but he seemed so determined not to glance in my direction. I remained silent.
It was a noisy vehicle; unlikely to be environmentally friendly. I never thought to ask where he was taking me. He was travelling in my direction, that was enough.
He drove me not just back to my village, but without a word from me, he stopped the car right at the end of my drive.
We sat in silence with the engine running. I was trembling.
“It was the early 1800s,” he began. “As if folk weren’t already being paid pittance, the factory and mill owners were bringing in the machines and laying off the workers.”
He finally turned to look at me. “The government was cracking down on saboteurs, Luddites, anyone who was organising demonstrations, strikes, and attacks on the owners’ expensive new toys. Soldiers were sent in to restore order. After the arrests started, many of the ringleaders fled into the hills and to the country, hoping for the protection of their friends and relations. And sympathetic folk who knew the same fate was coming for them, if not now, but soon, in the future.
“Someone got wind that a small division of troops was being sent to flush the rebels out of town. They were going to raid and search each home one by one. The plan was to do it at first light, before anyone knew what was going on. They were to march here overnight, avoiding the roads so they’d not be seen. But we knew. We had a few friends with the right connections.
“A bunch of us waited for them in the forest. There were less than 20 of them. They had old guns and old weapons. They even had an old cannon.
“They waited days for them in those hills. Knowing they were coming, but not when. When they came, there were 60 of them. 60! They didn’t know what hit them. They were nearly wiped out. Only eight got out alive, and they all went back!”
His face was uncomfortably close to mine. There was fire in his eyes. He looked proud. He looked satisfied.
“The government, they had to hush it up. They couldn’t let word get out that they’d been fought off by a bunch of village folk. When those soldiers came back, there were over a 100 of them. But by then the rebels had gone. They didn’t catch even one of them.”
He glared at me. I just wanted to get out of there.
“Thank you for… rescuing me,” I muttered.
I opened the door and got out of the cabin.
“You haven’t lived here long have you?” he asked, and I answered in the affirmative. “I live just up the road from here.” he continued. “Old cottage. First one you see when you come into town. I think you know it.”
My face dropped. It was Mr Carmichael. I’d never put eyes on him before.
“Mustn’t dawdle though” he said. “Got to be fresh in the morning. I got shelves to stack. We wouldn’t want you lot to go without your fresh hummus and kale would we?
“See you neighbour.” He leaned across and pulled the passenger door shut.
The engine growled and he drove off. I dashed to my front door; I couldn’t stop myself from running.
All was dark and silent at home. Martinique must’ve gone to bed early. Bertie, our Dalmatian, raised his head from his basket when he heard the door open. On seeing it was me, he snorted and settled himself back down to sleep.
I found my way to the kitchen. I knew I had to call for assistance to retrieve the car, but I was in too much of a state. I went to pour myself a whisky. My hands were shaking; I couldn’t pour straight. The bottle clinked against the glass and an expensive vintage started spilling on the floor. I stopped and drank all that I’d managed to catch.
I dropped into a chair by the table, thinking I might pass out. Uncontrollably my mind was replaying the whole thing, a horrifying montage of violent images and blood spilling.
My heart was thumping. Tears were in my eyes. I looked around, at my fitted kitchen, my marble worktops and copper-bottom pans and vintage whisky. I knew then, in my heart, that if the revolution were to come tonight, they’d come for me too. They’d drag me away and put my head on the block along with the rest of them. Where had I gone so wrong?
The next day, I loaned a car, packed my gardening tools inside, and drove to Mr Carmichael’s house to start work on his hedges.
Community. That’s where it’s got to start. We’ve got to support each other. Understand each other. Help each other. And start caring about each other. It’s the only way.
New Ghost Stories Volume 3 is out in 2021. Books 1 and 2 are available now. For more free stories, you can download An Introduction to New Ghost Stories.