Thursday, 13 October 2016
“And, of course, today marks the funeral of Emmanuelle Carter. A mass attendance is expected for the former Minister of Defence and Home Secretary. Despite her recent years of leisure as a Baroness, Carter never forgot her humble Mancunian roots, always giving back to the community that raised her and supporting those with whom she shared a similar youth. Her meteoric rise to success from the various orphanages of Manchester made her an inspiration to the underprivileged children of the North and her fierce rejection of an all male Parliament made her a feminist icon. A documentary about her life will air on the BBC tonight at nine. Now to Daniel for the sport.”
I switched off the radio. “What does that even mean anyway?”
Katy looked at me from the passenger’s seat. “It means Daniel is about to tell us that Fleetwood Town has rose another league and Blackpool has dropped another two.”
“No, I mean ‘meteoric rise to success.’ It’s complete nonsense. Meteors aren’t inspirational.”
“They are to the dinosaurs.” Katy shrugged. “It inspires them to run for their lives. Since when were you an expert in astrophysics, anyway?”
“You don’t have to be an expert in astrophysics to know that burning and crashing is not a rise to success.”
“Meteorites don’t burn till they enter the atmosphere, silly. The phrase means she didn’t slow down, no matter what. She fought all the way to the end.” Katy looked out of the window for a moment and then back to me. “And there was me thinking you were an English student, hey? Take the highlighter out of your hand and what are you? Useless.”
“For the thousandth time! We don’t all use highlighters.” I said this knowing full well that my lecturer had a separate drawer in her desk specifically for highlighters, colour coded by plastic dividers so that she always had the suitable ink for a certain situation.
“Whatever you say, Chris.” She said. “Whatever you say.”
My father is a car enthusiast. I say this with a mixture of pride and embarrassment. I’m proud that I know every individual detail of Formula One racing from the point of my birth to the Sunday afternoon before I left home and that I could explain the Union Jack system of fastening a tire in such detail, I might as well be a master technician too. I’m embarrassed because it means that I can identify a Renault Twingo by its engine noise alone. My father is a Petrolhead to such an extent that, as he went through his midlife crisis, he decided to buy a original Ford Mustang. It’s not exactly the bonniest of cars but it's a got a look and classical feel to it that is greatly appreciated in a world of airbags and seat belts. When my flatmate and I decided to go camping, I asked him if I could borrow his Ford in an attempt to impress her. He agreed, so quickly that I was genuinely quite worried.
I understand now what I didn’t then. When I’d asked to borrow his Ford, he had sneakily decided I could have the keys for my mother’s Ford Sierra. And so that was how I found myself spluttering down a country road in the foreign land of Yorkshire, wondering how many times I’d have to call the AA before we arrived.
Despite all the odds, we managed it, pulling into the field where the campsite was located. Perhaps that was a slight exaggeration. Our campsite wasn’t so much a campsite as a field, separated from the only busy road in the entirety of the countryside by a dry stone wall that looked as sturdy as my grandmother sans zimmer frame. I climbed out of the car and set off up a brief hill to a farmhouse at the top. A woman, with hair the same consistency and colour as the straw in her hand, was feeding a sheep that eyed me with the same xenophobic suspicion as she did. “Hello.” I called. “Is this your campsite?”
She replied to me with an accent so thick, I barely understood a word. Miraculously, after having her repeat herself, I understood it as a more Northern equivalent of, “Hello there, good sir. I do hope you’re having the most splendid of days. This is indeed my humble abode, oh majestic as it may be. The honour and privilege of having such charming individuals as yourselves upon my landscape is, indeed, something I will remember until the day my mortal coil doth perish.” It came out more like, “‘Ey up, duck. That’ll be twenty quid please. Loos’re back there.”
I handed her a crumpled note from my wallet and then smiled, an action which was matched with a healthy dosage of bemusement, before trailing back down the hill to Katy.
Whereas I was sweaty, red faced and already stubbled from my shave the previous night, she looked like she’d just strolled out of a Matalan catalogue. She was wearing a summery dress and a sunhat, alongside a pair of sunglasses, and despite the fact that the field beneath her boots was more of a mud bath, she still looked glamourous. I doubt anyone would have placed us together.
“Everything alright?” She asked, reaching into the boot of the Sierra and hauling out the two tents.
“Seems so.” I nodded. “Have you ever put up a tent before?”
“I did Duke of Edinburgh at High School. Rained for three days straight, both the sky and my eyes. Still, at least the frozen Chilli Con Carne didn’t give me food poisoning.”
“I thought you were allergic to kidney beans?”
She nodded. “That’s why it didn’t give me food poisoning; I didn’t eat it. While the others got to go to hospital because they’d contracted E.coli, I was suffering from starvation because I hadn’t eaten for three days.”
“That is really depressing.”
She shrugged. “Anyway, how come you’re asking me? I thought you went camping every holiday when you were little?”
“Ah, we went camping in a caravan. No tenting in a caravan.”
“Ooh.” She said, padding across the field to a dry spot. “Get you, you glamper.”
“Says the girl in a sunhat.” I grinned.
“Shut up and do your tent.” She replied.
I happily complied.
By the time that the tents were up- who knew that poles could be quite so confusing?- the sun was beginning to dip behind the huge grassy valley opposite us. Katy and I decided that we’d do what any self respecting human beings would do whilst they had the night to themselves. Visit the pub.
The village had two pubs, which was ironic seeing that there was a sign outside declaring that it only had a population of one hundred. One was a fancy gastropub full of tourists and good times. The barmaid, who didn’t look old enough herself, said that she couldn’t confidently serve Katy and so we left, marching up the road and to the next pub.
The Sun Inn could be describe in three easy characteristics. Firstly, the health certificate in the dirty window had been signed in ’96 and even then it’d had only two stars. Secondly, there was a dogs welcome sticker above the bowl of water outside. Thirdly, there were six people in the room and three of them were uniformed staff.
They all turned and looked at Katy and I with the same xenophobic suspicion as the sheep from earlier. In this type of situation, any sane person would look at their watch, mutter something about being in the wrong place and then spin around before racing away in the direction of the nearest dark corner to hide in, preferably outside the Sun Inn.
I should probably take this opportunity to clarify that the description ‘any sane person’ does not include Katy McDonald. Oh no, it certainly doesn’t. Katy McDonald was the type of person who saw your obvious discomfort and revelled in it, grabbing your arm and dragging you forwards to sit with those way out of your league Sixth Form girls- not that I’m still bitter or anything.
As a result of this somewhat suicidal attitude, Katy marched towards the bar and announced in a voice that sounded normal in Blackpool but almost Southern in Yorkshire that we would be ordering a pint of lemonade and a pint of coke.
The woman behind the bar, who looked like she could go one on one with a rhinoceros and leave the creature with little hope of victory, gave Katy a look that said, “Do you mind, my darling? We’re having a chat here.” This thought was articulated as, “Aye, y’will, will y’?”
“Yes.” Katy smiled. “We will.”
The four men in the room, three of whom were customers, began laughing as if to say that nobody’s drunk lemonade in the Sun Inn since that yuppy festival in ’76.
Begrudgingly, the woman poured the drinks and pushed them, almost worried she’d catch something, across the bar. Katy took the coke and passed me the lemonade. We then backed away to the musty seats in the far corner of the room and sat down. I took a tentative sip on my lemonade but, in the process of looking up, I saw that the entire clientele were staring at us. It would be wise to point out that in this type of situation, any sane person would apologise profusely, leave the drinks where they were and run for your life. Katy, instead, decided to smile at them.
I gulped. It’d been a nice life.
The next fifteen minutes were arguably the scariest of my life. Even Katy didn’t dare make conversation. We just sat there, drank our drinks, tried not to make any sudden movements and hoped against all hope that the patrons of this wonderful tavern didn’t feel hungry and, if they did, that they weren’t out of pork scratchings.
Eventually, I finished my lemonade. I didn’t crunch the ice cubes beneath my teeth, not because I was worried that the patrons of the Inn would find this annoying and thus kill me for it but because they didn’t give me any ice cubes. That was how far from civilisation we were.
We both stood, began to walk away from the bar, but not before Katy had time to spin, sprinkle a wave towards the customers and say, “Next time you can buy us a round.”
That was the last straw. I grabbed her and pulled her out of the pub. We both stumbled slightly on the street but managed to regain our feet.
“What the hell was that?” I cried. “You nearly got us killed! Like twice!”
“Oh stop being such a girl!” Katy replied. “We’re fine. Not everyone out here is a savage. This isn’t Silence of the Lambs.”
“You said not everyone. That implies some of them might be.”
“Hark at you with your implications! What an English student.” Katy grinned. “Look, stop panicking will you? We're having a nice little holiday. Nothing is going to happen."
A bright flash struck across the sky and then disappeared behind the hill our tents were pitched on. We heard a very loud explosion. It rang out at the same time as the church clock, that ancient tolling as loud as it was close, oblivious to the calamity of the world around it. I frowned at Katy. She frowned at me. “You had to go and bloody say that, didn’t you?”
The doors of the Sun Inn and the fancy gastropub, declared the Green Dragon by a swinging sign above the door, swung open and inebriated patrons began to stumble out. I happened to glance towards the Dragon and saw a television screen above the bar. It was playing one of those continuity idents, you know the type. A green lawn, perfect and pristine, shaved by a selection of lawnmowers pushed by identical women in pink. The screen flickered for a second, the screen wavering, changing, and then it returned to normal. I probably would have commented on it, if there hadn’t been another explosion followed by a stream of luminous smoke.
Those who weren’t using their phones to film the proceedings called the Emergency Services. I heard the gruff Yorkshire tones of the Sun Inn’s patrons muttering how it must have come down on Condor. I knew where that was- we’d ended up there by accident on our way to our campsite- and was glad to know it was on the other side of the valley to us. Still, a little close for comfort.
“Chris,” Katy said, pulling on my jacket, “let’s get out of here. It’s a little close for comfort with all these people.”
I nodded. “You got your torch? It’s awfully dark beyond the street lights.”
There were sirens deceptively close, probably in the village of Dent a few miles away. With them would come the flashing lights and the impossibility of us getting to sleep.
“I think, soon enough, we won’t be needing torches.” Katy replied.
I awoke with sunrise which, according to Siri the night before, came at about five in the morning. I knew Katy wouldn’t wake up for a while- we’d agreed that we’d get up about eight- so I tried to go back to sleep. I don’t know if you’ve ever been camping before or if you’ve got any intention to go but allow me to give you some advice. Don’t pitch your tent on a gradient. You will only end up sliding down to the bottom. It’s not so bad doing this when you’re asleep but when you’re in that horrible place between dreams and waking, it’s particularly irritating. I gave up trying to sleep after about half an hour of constantly sliding down the tent and instead scrambled for my bag and began reading. Call me a failure to geekdom but I was reading Stephen King’s ‘The Gunslinger’ for the first time. King had never really interested me- not after I watched the Shining age twelve and refused to ever visit a Premier Inn again- but I had to admit, this book was good. I was just sinking back into the bloody chaos when I heard the bells.
Dorothy L Sayers once wrote a story in which a man was crushed by bells literally. I felt like I was undergoing the metaphorical version of this. Chris Marten’s Top Tip of Camping No. 2: Don’t go anywhere near bells. Ever. It will drive you insane.
Eventually, I figured out the bells rang every fifteen minutes. I’d brought my phone and my charger but there were no plug sockets in a field so I wasn’t quite sure what time it was. I let the bells ring ten times before I estimated it was eight in the morning. I got changed tentatively- the lack of insulation and double glazing made taking off my pyjama top the equivalent of jumping into Antarctic Waters.
Once I was dressed, I went through the complex process of unzipping my tent and wrestling on my boots, before climbing out and wandering over towards Katy’s tent. I whispered her name as loud as I dared but there was no reply. I knew she could be completely monstrous when she was tired yet part of me decided to ruin the rest of my life and shake her tent.
I was expecting a dragon to tear through the canvas and roast me alive in a furious scream of lava. Instead, there was no reply whatsoever. The Coca Cola the night before must really have got to her. Sighing, I wandered back over to my tent and wrote a brief note explaining I was going to the village. I poked it under the porch of her tent and then wandered towards the stile in the dry brick wall.
The sirens had stopped the night before at about midnight and I’d been able to fall asleep quite easily after that. My dad had warned me, around the same time as he was handing over the keys for the Sierra, that sometimes sleeping in a tent was worse than going for a six hour walk. I wouldn’t agree. It was the best night sleep I'd had in ages. It was a shame to leave for the fresh air of the morning.
Walking down the path, I couldn’t help but admire the quaintness of rural England. It didn’t matter how many bankers and computer engineers stretched their fibre optic cables through muddy fields to seep under the stone walls of ivy clad cottages, it didn’t matter how many times the church council met to discuss the rejection of a fantasist’s application for their architectural haven, it didn’t matter whether you allowed Patel’s Newsagents to be bought and turned into a Subway, a British country village would always look like a backdrop to an episode of Pertwee Era Doctor Who. As I walked over a humble bridge protruding across the river Katy and I were planning to trace to its source that afternoon, I couldn’t help but wonder if any Sea Devils would stalk about from beneath.
When you live in a city or town, the most shocking difference when it comes to visiting the country is, unequivocally, the silence. It’s almost eerie, the way that you can’t hear children playing or adults arguing or the buzz of notifications blasting through the wifi. I say it was almost eerie.
There was something a little more sinister in the air right now.
My first inkling of suspicion was the door of the Green Dragon. It was open, which meant I couldn’t see the sign I’d spotted the previous night that read, “Opens All Days At Lunch.”
It was half eight. I frowned and wandered on. There was an artistic monument in memory of the founding father of the village and on the right of it a small passageway leading down to the church. The clock ticked to the next quarter and a bell rang out. I frowned. It was a Sunday yet there seemed to be nobody about.
Deciding that there must have been a recent incursion of an atheist movement, I turned and began to trail down towards the Newsagents. I’d buy some milk and something to make the porridge bag things we’d packed a little more exciting. There were four houses between me and the newsagents, opposite a small, rusty park. A single child swung back on forth, her pigtails and legs swinging in unison. Opposite, in the gardens of the houses, were occupants of villages. They all looked spaced out, their eyes staring to a distance so far away, I doubted they even knew I was there. They were walking in almost perfect union, back and forth, mowing the lawns. One of them hadn’t turned their lawnmower on.
I didn’t think anything of it. Things like that didn’t seem so odd in a village like this. It was probably practise for the Yorkshire in Bloom competition or something. I continued walking, passing down the pavement, vaguely aware of the fact that, as I passed each lawn mower, they slowly twisted their head to watch me. The girl on the swing kept swinging back and forth. The rusted hinge creaked, the loudest noise beyond the whomping chop of the mower’s blades.
I reached the newsagents. The door's glass had a smashed fracture in it. The owner’s probably going to fix it in the next few days, I decided. In the back of my mind, there was an unsettling disquiet.
I wandered down the brief aisle, towering on either side of me were roof high shelves full of Budget Priced toilet rolls, feather dusters and unbranded cans of beans, fruits and pineapples. There was a counter about halfway down, buried into a natural alcove in the wall. The shop gave off the assurance that, if you asked for four candles, you would get just that.
There was a goldfish bowl on the counter. Flakes of fish food, its pungent odour long since disappeared, floated on the water. The fish was missing. On the other side of the counter, next to a display advertising Cadbury Dairy Milk ‘For 4 Too’ on a spiked piece of cardboard, was a television set. The light protruding from it when static wasn’t crackling glowed across the newspapers in front. Yesterday’s newspapers.
I thought I heard a swish behind me. Call it paranoia, I swung around like a gunslinger in a duel and stared. There was a flash of pink but nothing more. Probably my imagination. I turned back to the counter, just as the television began to play the BBC ident with the lawn mowing ladies, and pressed the rusted bell a few times. There was a paper notice next to it, stuck down by peeling cello tape, announcing tourists would require identification to buy, ‘Fags, Alcohol or Exotic Mags.’
I pressed the bell a few more times but, besides the shrill ding, there was no reply. Except, I should mention, from a wounded yeowl.
I frowned and set off in the direction of the sound. It was behind a few aisles, past the racks of exotic mags and plastic bottled apple cider. The large floor to ceiling freezers with the glass fronts, displaying frosted packets of Birdseye Breaded Chicken inside. I was glad I hadn’t had breakfast. I had no interest in becoming reacquainted with it.
Lying on the floor in front of one of these fridges was a dog. The glass door behind it was frosted by shattered forks, blood and fur stuck between cracked shards where the dog had impacted it. Now, the hound lay on the white tiled floor, bleeding out, howling in agony. Its fur was matted with blood and sweat. Its eyes were downcast. Three of its legs scrambled in terror.
The fourth was lying in front of it, shredded to mere remnants.
There was a loud crashing sound from behind. I turned, to see if I could see what was happening, when I felt fur brushing against my leg. I looked down to see the dog hobbling on three legs, sliding past me, growing from a stumble to a hop to a pad to a walk to a stride and then a run. I frowned, beginning to follow the bloody trail it left on the floor, out of the door, into the glaring sunlight of the outside.
When my eyes adjusted, I saw the men still lawn mowing. From this angle, I could see into the nearest front room. Nobody was inside yet the TV was still on. Crackling, breaking up and occasionally cutting to a pink high heeled shoe striding through a thick green lawn.
Pink flashed in front of me but when I looked it was gone. Instead I saw the rusty park. The girl was gone. The swing had collapsed.
I raced across the road, pushing open the swinging gate. The swing had snapped straight in half, as if the rusty metal had just given up. The girl was lying on the floor, blood oozing from the back of her head where it had cracked on a concrete block left below. More importantly, however, the cross bar of the swing protruded from her chest.
The dog clambered onto her and began to lick the blood covering the rusting metal, unaware of his own blood dripping from the stubby remains of his fourth leg.
I turned and saw all four lawn mowing men staring at me. To say I felt vaguely uncomfortable would be somewhat of an understatement.
There was a gate opening onto a selection of steps that led up to the path entering the graveyard. I raced up it, trying to get as far away from the lawn mowers and the dead girl as possible. If I’d been paying attention, I would have noticed the girl sitting up and petting the dog but I didn’t. My heart was pumping, my adrenaline circulating. My blood coursed through my veins as it coursed from the gaping wounds in the girl and the dog.
I leapt over a small row of privets, striding between the gravestones, heading straight for the church. As I got closer, I became aware of a screaming inside. For some reason, I ran straight towards it.
The doors were open now but it was dark inside. Light gleamed through the stained glass windows, adding the type of mood and atmosphere you normally can’t find outside of the first of two Young Adult finale movies.
My grandfather was a bellringer. He used to take me with him and, I must admit, the experience traumatised me. I didn’t like having that kind of power, nor the feeling of a rope chaotically sliding through my hands, connected to a one thousand kilogram weight that could easily come crashing down and killing me. Compared to what I saw in the church, those weekly excursions after school on a Monday to see a group of pensioners pull rope to worship a God all of them had long since realised was just a clever plot device to bring communities together were nothing more than a bad dream.
There was a woman in pink, curled blonde hair pulling away from her head, a lawn mower in front of her, a trail of blood soaked into the chewed up carpet behind her. At the rear of the room was an open bell chamber, located on the ground floor as was the case in some fancy churches. The vicar held his cross in front of him, almost like a shield, chanting something I couldn’t understand. Not because it was in a powerfully mystic language but because he was screaming it in such terror he was incomprehensible. I took a few further steps and saw that there were the remains of a dead body in front of the lawn mower, or at least there were for a few seconds before the mower came forwards and a red spray exploded through the air.
“Forgive me lord.” The vicar said, then slipped his head through the tail of the rope. It was rung up, ready for service no doubt. For those of you who aren’t aware of what this means, I should clarify. Once the vicar’s crucifix had bounced against the floor and fallen, upside down, onto the carpet, once the vicar’s hands had tugged hard on the rope, Treble was going, she was gone, the bell swung fully and he was rose up. The initial force broke his neck.
As he moved up and down, his jiggling body carried by the momentum of the rocking bell, I let out a scream. The woman with the lawnmower twisted her head and smiled at me, the most hateful smile I’ve ever seen.
“Who the hell are you?” I demanded. Sweat was pouring down my forehead, I felt like I was bleeding, I wanted to cry. I was so tired and so lost and I wanted to be anywhere but there.
Those lipsticked lips widened. “My name,” spoke a male, computerised American accent from the British woman’s mouth, “is Samantha. Samantha. Sa-Sa-Sa-Mantha.”
There was a pink flash and I was falling, my entire body exploding with pain. A northern accent chimed in my head. Not everyone out here is a savage. Where’s Katy? I asked myself, then I hit the floor and blacked out.