When the first big war of the 21st century eventually arrived, bombs fell on other countries; ours was a different struggle.
Friday 10th July
Maybe I should start at the very beginning then perhaps if someone finds this, it will all make more sense. That is, if what has just happened can make sense – to anyone.
I live (lived) in a beautiful village in the south-east of England. I don’t want to be any more exact than that, just in case they find this.
A week ago, we had the village fete, with all its usual sunshine, and games and I remember thinking to myself what a perfect place to live. Old misery-guts ran the whole show, moaning, as he usually did, about everything. Yet the fete always seemed to take place and, in the end, would always manage to be better than the year before.
The village has one great pub called The Winston Churchill, which supplies the drinks on the day of the fete. There’s a stall for strawberries, one selling flowers, another for support of the local drama society and one where Mrs Laud tells peoples’ fortunes for a small donation to the church. Oh, yes and there’s a church which you’ll see is very important – but I’ll get to that.
It’s a friendly little place where everyone knows everyone else, and where everyone knows secrets (or say they do) about the rest of the village. I think the village works on the premise that everyone has at least one secret they would rather keep to themselves. If people don’t know what it is, the kind folks of the village will make one up. Not much different, I would imagine, from anywhere else in this glorious land.
I think I am going to use this notebook to record two things. The first is to record what is happening right now to the place where I live and the second is to recall stories about the great, the good and the downright stupid who have lived in the place since I came to stay here – which must be about 20 years ago; time flies.
I discovered it by accident. I just happened to be driving along the high road when I saw a sign for the village and fell in love with the place immediately. It’s that type of place – the kind of village you only find once in a lifetime.
The first sign of anything unusual was the ‘phones going dead – any and every ‘phone, it seemed. Sometimes this happened in a small village. Sometimes it snowed and we’d be cut off for a day or two. I mean, it’s only 20 miles from London but you can still be isolated down here.
I had gone down to the Winston to see if anyone else had the same problem. The owner, Annie, told one of her staff to turn on the television to see if there was any news. And guess what? That was only showing a blank screen with the odd spark every so often.
“Maybe some transmitter’s down,” said Annie in her usual re-assuring way.
“What transmitter?” Asked old Jake, who questioned everyone and everything.
“How should I know, Jake, just sit there and sup your beer,” she scolded which was quickly followed by a smile.
“It’s them Russians,” scowled Jake. “Probably marched through Ukraine all the way to London, like as not. Or maybe it was them North Koreans. Never trusted them”.
The rest of us gave Jake a smile, the way we always gave Jake a smile.
It was just before seven that someone mentioned they hadn’t heard any trains that afternoon and I quickly realised they were correct, I couldn’t recall hearing the London train pass either.
“Maybe someone should ring the church bells, let the village folks know that it’s seven o’clock,” said Annie.
I mentioned that people could just look at their watches or clocks but as Jake pointed out they had all stopped, too.
So when the rest of them in the Winston looked at me, I knew I had been volunteered to go and ring the bells. I had messed about with bell-ringing once upon a time.
I walked into a beautiful summer’s evening. The village has no street lighting (although that’s common around these parts and won’t give a clue as to where we are) – and as I walked up the street I could see through windows families sitting down together, maybe for the first time without the television invading their evening meals.
As I crossed the street to go through the church gate, I noticed the last house suddenly go dark inside. At the time I didn’t think much about it, until I tried the switches in the church hall and every one of them failed to work.
I had climbed up to the church tower many a time to look at the bells (eight in all) – so accomplishing this in the dark wasn’t a hardship.
I pulled my way carefully up the iron-rung ladders and balanced my way across the narrow beam which took me to a small platform on the other side of the tower. There was only enough room for one man or woman up there. The bells were looking okay and standing up, so I thought I’d go down a start ringing down one of them.
That was when I heard the noise. I wasn’t sure who or what it was, but it sounded like a train on the rails was in trouble. Then I heard men shouting. Perhaps a train had crashed into a transmitter or something and knocked everything out.
I climbed the last ladder (which took a person up to the very top of the church tower) to have a better look. I don’t know what made me hesitate – most probably my fear of heights – but I decided not to stand but look through one of the holes in the brick which let rain water out.
I remember once, when I was making a parachute jump up in Scotland, my brain had decided to take a back seat – it’s the only way I can describe it – and it felt as I plummeted to the ground, that I was watching a movie and all this wasn’t happening to me.
This was the same feeling, as I looked through the hole in the church tower, I could see tanks – the military sort – followed by soldiers with guns. I could just make out their shouting and it wasn’t any language I had heard before.
The village was being invaded. I could see from the tower, the same uniformed men coming in from both sides of the High Street.
As the tanks turned the corner into the street below the church, several of the soldiers broke off and ran to the doors of the houses, kicking them in.
I saw the Smith family, who lived in the first cottage, being dragged out and made to kneel in the middle of the road.
That was when I felt my world changed on its axis. The Smith’s eldest son got up to challenge one of the soldiers and another of them shot the boy dead.
I fell back on to the floor of the tower and started to shake. Maybe they were making a television programme? Something I hadn’t heard about. When I had pulled myself together a little I had another look. The rest of the Smiths were being marched at gun point down the street, Mrs Smith was being forcibly removed from the body of her dead son.
My next thought was that maybe the Smiths were terrorists but that too was cut short when I saw more families being forced onto their knees in the street.
What the hell was happening to my world? This group of people, whoever they were, were rounding up the whole village. I heard some of them kick in the church door below me. There was more shouting in this strange language as they knocked over furniture in the church.
I could hear someone try to climb the iron ladders – they were coming up for me. I made myself as small as possible and pushed my body into the corner of the tower.
It sounded as if one of the soldiers was helping the other up the ladder. I waited on them finding me.
Suddenly the soldier fell from the ladder and must have landed on the other because I could hear them argue – whatever the language was.
This must have deterred them because I saw them run out of the church and back on to the street. I stayed hidden until the sky was pitch black and only the stars above me.
I was desperate for some water and decided as I hadn’t heard anything for a long time that I might try to find something to drink.
I held my breath and lowered myself down to the middle platform – I put my ear to the floor but I could hear nothing. I descended into the church and it was totally black, although I could feel chairs and tables lying upside down.
I knew the bell ringers kept some bottled water at the back of the church and guessing where I was, I crawled towards the rear wall.
I located the cabinet and found three bottles of the stuff. I drank that first bottle in one go and it was just as I wiped the corner of my mouth that I heard the church door open.
Saturday 11th July
I had slept badly in the church tower resting my head against one of the larger bells. The young girl, who couldn’t have been more than nine or ten, lay hidden in a little cove at the western end of the attic.
Her name was Elise and she had managed to hide herself in an outhouse at her home. She had heard her family being dragged out the door by some people she couldn’t see.
“I heard my mother call my name and then my mother shouted ‘coming Elise’,” this is what she shouts when we play hide and seek and she wants me to hide.
“So I didn’t make a sound, or move.”
Elise had waited for several hours before she made a move. Her home, she said, had been left with furniture and books scattered all over the house. Her father had always told her that if she couldn’t find her family she was to go to the church as she would be safe there. So that is what she had indeed done.
Elise was as mystified as me. We live in what is known as one of the most beautiful spots in the country, and possibly the quietest, and safest, and yet within a matter of hours all of that has changed.
She was a brave little soul, perhaps braver than me and here we were, the two of us lost.
Just after dawn I heard the sound of a gun being fired in the hills above the village. Normally, I would associate it with a farmer killing some vermin or other – but then the strange thought crossed my mind that it might be the vermin shooting the farmer – whoever the vermin were; I was still unclear who was actually carrying all this out.
When it became light enough to make out certain landmarks, I managed to get to a position in the church tower which let me see much of the surrounding area – without giving away my presence (I hoped). Once or twice, I heard small vehicles coming and going on the High Road. I had the thought that perhaps those responsible had considered this part of the village cleared of all people and that maybe they were no longer showing any interest in the church.
I saw a dark figure making their way along Church Street towards me, keeping mostly to the shadows. I also noticed that there was a large gap between the shadows in front of the Old Post Office and those in the car-park of the Winston Churchill. It meant whoever this was would be exposed for some amount of time.
When they ran from the safety of the first building, I saw it was that of a man – known to us as the president of the Parish Council, Thom Drey, whose family had lived in the village for generations.
As he came out into the light, a small armoured vehicle appeared from nowhere and shot him first in the legs and then in the chest. Some man in a khaki uniform jumped from the vehicle and dragged Thom by one leg – finishing off with two of them eventually throwing his body like an old dog in the back. I assumed from his motionless body that Thom was dead but as the jeep turned the corner in front of the church, Thom had one last go at upsetting the enemy and he appeared to try to hit the driver with a wrench. It was the last thing he did – I don’t want to go into too much detail here except to say, it wasn’t a pretty death.
I must have made quite a noise because it brought Elise up to the roof, and she could see I was upset. I tried to stop her looking over tower but it was in vain, and when she saw what had happened to Mr Drey, she let out a piercing scream. He had been her godfather.
As I pulled her down from view, I saw enough to know that the two soldiers had stopped what they were doing and were indeed heading towards the church.
What the hell was I going to do? Not only was I trying to look after myself but I had a young girl to protect as well. Leastways, that was how I had read the situation – but how wrong can one desperate person be?
To be continued……
painting: Edward Bawden 1949
bobby stevenson 2017