We had been hiking all day and the sun was starting its journey over the horizon. The sky was streaked with purples and oranges as the early summer evening turned to night. We’d been following the same single lane road for hours, hoping to come in contact with civilisation.
“I think we should set up camp here,” Dan said, pointing to a field on the left.
I spotted the white triangular sign with a red border containing the icon of a tank.
“I’m not sure, man, it looks like military land. Lets give it another another half an hour, and if we don’t find anything, we can come back here,” I said, jonesing for a drink.
We’d left the small village where the car was around five hours ago. I hoped we’d see a pub along the way, somewhere to drink and then pitch up in the beer garden. However, it hadn’t turned out that way. It had been fun, but something was missing.
The road declined, and I wondered if it was worth checking out, knowing I’d need to climb on the way back. That drink though, it would go down so well.
Trees lined both sides of the road. With the sound of the breeze fluttering the leaves and the dying light shining through them, the walk felt nice. And just like a gambler putting their remaining money on red, as the trees became more and more spare, civilisation was revealed.
“Wait and ye shall be rewarded,” I said, trying not to gloat too much.
A small village with iconic white walled English cottages came into view. It was out of a postcard. Me being a city lad, I’d never seen anything like this in person.
Overgrowth and nettles shrouded the turnstile. I did my best to jump up and over without getting stung. The gentle caress of the leaves soon turned to pain and I winced as I landed.
“Shit,” I said, instantly scratching my uncovered leg.
“If only we set up camp,” Dan said, hurdling the fence scot free.
We walked down the main street taking in the beautiful heritage.
“What is this place?” I asked.
Dan took out the ordinance survey map and checked.
“I’m not sure, North Huddlegate maybe?”
I looked myself.
“No, that’s clearly another few miles away. Where’s that field we saw?”
“Here… I think,” he said pointing.
“If that’s the case, then this should be more military land, look at the red lines.”
“I don’t know.”
“You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?” I said.
“Hey man, I’ve never read maps before. It can’t be that hard though, we’ve followed the same road all the way here.”
“Give me that,” I said, as unsure as Dan was.
He was right, this place didn’t seem to be on the map.
“We should find someone and ask.”
We reached what appeared to be the town square. The light of the evening was dying, and the street lights that were there didn’t come on.
“Are those gas lamps?” Dan asked, pointing up.
“I have no idea, they don’t look like normal street lights.”
There was a post office, it was shut, as you’d expect this time of night. A couple of houses, but no lights were on inside.
“Knock on one of the doors,” Dan suggested.
“There’s no lights on, if someone was home, then they are probably asleep.”
“We’re out in the country, they’re probably old and get to bed early.”
“Shall we turn back then?”
“Hang on,” I said, “over there.”
The King’s Arms. The sign written in broken gold serif, decorated the wall above the door.
“That looks like a pub!”
“An abandoned pub,” Dan replied.
“I’m going to try it.”
I ran up to the door and pulled on the wrought iron handle.
“What is it with country-folk!”
I banged on the door, there was no reply.
“Satisfied now? This is probably a military ghost town.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know, one of those places the military commandeered in the war, to use for target practise and training.”
It did make sense, according to the map, we were on military land.
“Fuck, I really wanted a beer.”
“If we leave now, we’ll be back before it’s pitch black. You won’t want to put the tent up when it’s dark?”
“Yeah,” I relented.
We started back for the hill and for our camping spot.
“Who goes there?” a man said in a very west country accent.
We turned around in unison.
The door to The King’s Arms was now wide open and a white haired old man stood out front.
“Hi,” I said.
“Get inside now,” he demanded.
“I’m sorry, we’re not from around here, we were looking for a place to stay.”
“Get in, before the light’s gone.”
“I don’t know about this,” Dan said nervously, “I think we are fine.”
“Don’t be stupid son, it’s dangerous out here this time of night.”
“I don’t think we should,” Dan continued.
“Is the military here?” I asked.
“Yes, of course it is. Now get inside, God damn you.”
Panicked we did what the man said. He ushered us in and locked the door behind us.
“What’s going on?”
“You need to be safe. We’ve been warned, tonight they are going to hit us.”
“What the fuck?” Dan let out.
“Mind your language lad,” the man said, disappearing behind the bar, “Do you want a drink?”
“I’d love one. What beer do you have?”
“We have whiskey, that’s all we have left.”
I wasn’t much of a spirit drinker, but anything would’ve done.
He poured from an unlabelled bottle, two shots.
I downed the glass. I winced.
“How much do we owe you?”
“Have you got money?”
“Of course we do. Thirty pounds or so.”
“Let me start a tab for you then,” the man said smiling.
“Say, I’ll just leave the bottle here. Take whatever you want.”
“I love the country,” I said to Dan, pouring another glass.
“That’s some getup you have on,” the man said.
“Gore-tex,” Dan replied.
“Never seen anything like it.”
I wondered how insular this community was.
That familiar feeling of the drink burned in my throat and numbed my face.
“Have you got a room we can sleep in?”
“Not a room as much as a floor. You can sleep in the pantry if you want?”
“Sounds great,” I said, sipping my second drink, “See Dan, much better than sleeping in a field isn’t it?”
He didn’t answer. He knew I was right but didn’t want to admit it.
I gazed around the room and saw a few more older gentlemen sit at tables, mostly on their own, just staring into the distance, as if waiting for something. In the corner four men sat playing cards. Profanity erupted every now and again as the men played.
I approached the men, feeling confident from the alcohol, “Can we join you?”
They looked up, then one man said, “Sure, you’re the rich kids aren’t you? I’ll be happy to take your money.”
I sat at the table, Dan stayed at the bar.
“I wouldn’t say rich,” I replied.
“We’re playing Scabby Queen, you know how to play that?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“The person left with the Queen of spades loses and has to pay everyone else the charge. You in?”
It sounded like Old Maid, I was familiar with that.
“Sure,” I said, sitting down with the men.
“Anybody want a drink?” I asked holding the bottle in my hand.
“Dude, we haven’t got that much money,” Dan whispered, but I was already on my way to drunk.
The men’s eyes lit up and I poured.
A man dealt and I checked my hand, no queen of spades. I glanced everyone else to see if I could recognise a tell.
Over the next few minutes cards were taken, pairs were put on the table and I was left with two cards. A pair of tens. I placed it down and the men cheered.
“Beginner’s luck,” one of them said.
I swept up my winnings, glancing at the shiny coin before placing it in my pocket.
A new round was dealt and I stared at my cards with purpose.
A loud noise caused me to drop my cards and hold my hands to my ears.
“Everyone to the bunker,” the man behind the bar said.
“What’s going on?” I asked in fear.
The men got up and followed the bar man out the back.
“What the hell?!” I shouted to Dan over what sounded like an air raid siren.
“It must be a military drill,” he said, “told you we should have camped.”
“Everyone out back,” the barman said.
It must have been twelve of us that gathered in the kitchen as the barman peered out the back door.
“Wait,” he said.
Distant gunfire could be heard from outside.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Please, everyone stay where you are.”
I began to panic.
“We’re in the middle of a military exercise,” Dan shouted.
“Quiet! The shelter is just past that wall,” the barman said pointing to a corrugated iron structure.
“Go!” he said, waving the older gentlemen out.
The gunfire was nearer now, and one by one the men fell to the floor. Blood puffing out of their shoulders, stomaches and legs. They screamed in agony. The barman slammed the door shut.
“It’s too late, they’re too close. Come with me.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
We followed the man out of the kitchen and down a hallway. He pushed a bookcase to reveal a small opening only two feet high.
“Get in there,” he said.
“What the hell is going on?”
“GET IN!” he demanded.
We crawled through the small space, the barman pushing the bookcase back.
“Fuck,” Dan shouted crawling through the hole, “FUCK!”
“I bet this place is supposed to be unoccupied. I bet these guys are squatters.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, falling to the floor.
The room was dark, except for the light that came from an open window high up on the wall which let the cool night air in.
“Can you see anything?” Dan asked.
“It’s too high,” I said.
“Let me help you up.”
Dan cupped his hands together and I stepped on. He thrusted me up, I could barely see out.
I ducked as banging rained down on the front door.
“RAUS!” a man demanded from outside.
“ÖFFNE DIE TÜR,” he continued.
“What the fuck is that, is it German?” I asked Dan.
“I have no idea.”
“BRECHEN SIE ES,” the man shouted.
We heard the loud sound of wood breaking, then the heavy footsteps of many people.
“Whoever they are, they’re in here,” Dan said, his eyes welling up.
“We’re going to be okay,” I said, “just be quiet.”
The footsteps echoed around the place, covering every inch. Above us they thumped, looking for people who weren’t there.
Through the door I heard, “Where is everyone?” someone in a German accent demanded?
“Outside, they’re dead.”
“Prüfen,” the man said in a muffled tone.
Footsteps rang out into the distance before returning.
“Where are the two boys?”
“They ran off,” the barman said.
“Don’t lie to me old man.”
And then a gunshot.
I hugged Dan. We stayed huddled in the corner of the dark room, now pitch black as the sun had set.
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” he said.
“Shhhh,” I responded, as scared as him.
We waited for the men to find us.
The footsteps became less and less frequent until they were gone.
We didn’t leave the room. I don’t know what time it was when we fell asleep.
“Are you awake?” Dan asked, and I opened my eyes.
“I wasn’t,” I said.
“What happened last night?” he asked.
I squinted as the early morning light shone through the open window. Slowly but surely the events of the night before flooded back.
“Fuck!” I said standing up.
I crawled through the small opening and pushed on the bookcase.
“It won’t move,” I was getting anxious.
“Let me try,” Dan said, sliding in feet first.
He slammed his feet against the bookcase, but it didn’t move.
“I don’t think it’ll work,” I said, leaning over.
“Let me try,” he responded.
Thunk after thunk blared out as he tried to move the obstruction. Then a creak.
“I got it!” he said.
I followed after, pushing myself over the bookcase that now leaned against the opposite wall.
We hurried down the hallway and into the bar.
“Holy shit,” Dan said shocked.
The front door was nowhere to be seen. The tables that sat upright the night before were now broken and strewn asunder.
“What the hell did they do to this place?”
It was a mess. It appeared as though it had been that way for some time. The early morning light shone through the doorway.
We climbed over the damaged furniture and out into the summer’s day.
“Fuck, what have they done?” I looked around at the white walled cottages that now sat cracked and crippled. The pristine white render now missing. It looked like a bomb site.
“We’re lucky to have survived this,” I said.
“Shit!” Dan said looking to his right.
A large tank rotated its gun and pointed it directly to us.
We put our hands up in unison.
The tank lid opened.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” the man in the tank said with a west country accent.
“Please don’t shoot.”
The army escorted us off their firing range and drove us back to our car. I told them what happened the night before. They laughed at me. They said they never perform military manoeuvres at night, the locals would complain. Dan asked where we were, they told us it was classified.
I fingered the coin in my pocket and took it out. It no longer shone back at me like it did in the pub, its surface now dull. One Shilling, 1931. I stared at it.
“Are you ready to go home?” Dan asked.
“Sure,” I said, placing the coin back in my pocket.