Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.
Midnight, made almost as bright as day by a full moon.
An armed man is looking down into a narrow, wooded valley. He watches another, some sixty feet below, guarding a bridge over a river.
The bridge is old, built of local limestone. Beyond it the road climbs away to Bakewell while on this side it turns north alongside the river and through a small village of stone cottages clustered around a medieval cross.
There is silence except for the murmur of the river and leaves rustling in the wind.
The guard is bored. The moon reflects dully from his helmet as he walks aimlessly back and forth. After a while he stops. He fumbles in his uniform and pulls out a cigarette. A flaring match is briefly lights his face.
At that moment the man above him fires.
The guard drops like a sack of flour. His rifle falls away and his legs fold under his body. He lies still and quiet on the tarmac.
His killer smiles. The Resistance is now operational in the Peak District.
Iris stepped back and looked doubtfully at her work. She had spent most of the morning painting the outside window frames - a fiddly job that she hated. But she had heard in her imagination Ken’s voice that morning.
“Do it now,” he’d said. “Before the weather breaks. We’ve probably enough paint, and soon it won’t be there to buy any more.”
So she’d got on with it, her Sunday task, describing to him what she was doing step by step in the warm mid-September sunshine.
She could hear, high above, the howl of aircraft and she could see vapour trails weaving great whorls of condensation in the powder blue sky.
Germans playing, she thought.
She desperately missed Ken. He was never really out of her thoughts. She was now certain that he had been killed in the disastrous battle of Sevenoaks that had finally ended the war. In the chaos afterwards so many people disappeared but after six weeks things were settling down. Bill was officially dead - Ivy had received a letter from the Army. Lady
Elizabeth’s husband was a prisoner of war. But for Iris, nothing. Any news, even of Ken’s death, would be better than this limbo.
Lady Elizabeth was reassuring. Living at the Manor and having important friends gave her an air of authority which automatically made her head of village affairs. She was sure that Ken was still alive and that Iris would soon have news.
Hard news, however, was like hen’s teeth these days. There’d been terrible rumours of massacres, torturing, starving people roaming the countryside being rounded up and shot. But that was all they were: rumours. Everyone knew that Churchill had fled to Canada, taking the Royal family with him. The ghastly Edward VIII was back and Halifax headed a government of sorts. Mosley’s blackshirts were everywhere, doing the Nazis’ dirty work. They were running the BBC so that was worthless for news.
But blackshirts couldn’t have shot that poor man on the bridge on Friday night. They were on the same side. It must have been an accident.
In their corner of Derbyshire the new order of things seemed so far away. Yes, food was becoming scarce. There was a curfew. All public gatherings were banned, so no WI, no Pub, no cricket. But the Nazi Commissioner in Bakewell was amiable enough. Freidrich - Fred, everyone called him, since he had lived in Lancashire and spoke good English with a northern accent - seemed to be “on their side”, doing what he could to make life easier. Not that Iris trusted him. He reminded her of a slick bingo caller, such as you heard at Blackpool. And was he was always visiting their little village, on the road to nowhere. Why?
Her thoughts were shattered as three - no, four planes screamed low over the village. She could see their pilots clearly. They banked and climbed in formation and then peeled off by one to dive at them, pulling up at the last minute, seemingly brushing the treetops. Iris was deafened. Where were the kids? She called out but her voice was swamped by the noise
Here they were, rushing into her arms. Little Tommy was sobbing and his sister Joan, pigtails flying, was speechless with terror. Iris held them tight as the noise went on and on.
Suddenly the planes vanished but the silence was immediately destroyed by the noise of lorries grinding up the hill from the bridge. They stopped by the Cross and spewed out armed soldiers, dozens of them, fanning out to surround them and their village. Some started banging on front doors and ordering her neighbours out. One, with an insignia on his collar like two flattened S’s, approached her, grabbed her by the arm and gestured towards the cricket pitch.
Iris made to resist but a rifle flourished in her face changed her mind. The villagers, men, women and children, hurried down the familiar cinder path onto the field.
There Iris could see an excavator digging a deep trench across the square - the holy of holies. One of the men tried to argue with the driver and a soldier struck him to the ground
More soldiers rounded them up like sheep to stand in front of the pavilion where there was a roll-call. Missing names were noted.
Iris could feel tension crackling in the air. The hostility of the soldiers was palpable. No, she thought, it was more than that. It was hatred mixed with contempt, as if they were inferior beings. Something awful was going to happen. Would she have the courage not to show fear in front of the children?
She looked up to see an enormous car, red and black Nazi flag at the radiator, pull up. A German officer, of high rank, judging by the behaviour of the soldiers, got out and stalked up the pavilion steps. Behind came Fred and, to her amazement, Lady Elizabeth.
The world had gone mad.
“Help me, Ken,” she cried out, and Ivy put a loving arm round her sister’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
“We’re all in this together, love,” she said.
Iris looked down at faint whitewash markings from the last game on the field - in June, just after Dunkirk. Ken managed one game before being called back to prepare for invasion. That match, seemingly so long ago, was only ten weeks past. In that time her whole world, with all its certainties, had been destroyed.
A bowler had left footmarks. They must be Ken’s she thought and placed her foot in the hole he had left. Suddenly he was there with her, giving her strength.
She tried to concentrate on what the officer was saying. He was clearly very angry, and Fred was interpreting. It was to do with the guard’s shooting. He was demanding that the murderer give himself up or the whole village would be punished. He was heard in shocked silence.
George the policeman called out.
“Under what law can you do such a thing?”
“Under the law of occupation,” Fred translated. “You have no rights now. We are the masters.”
Iris suddenly felt sick and utterly without hope. All her illusions about being able to carry on as normal, rubbing along with the occupiers until a peace treaty was signed, vanished.
She was overwhelmed with shame for her naivety, and hatred for these bullying murderers. She broke down on Ivy’s shoulder and sobbed bitterly.
After a while Ivy said in her ear, “Come on love. We have to take the kids up to the Memorial Hall while they talk to the men.”
A silent procession of women and children was escorted across the field, through the gate and under the magnificent horse chestnut where that morning Tommy had picked up his first conkers of the year. He had been so proud and had spent ages polishing them till they shone.
The guards were now hurrying them along. Passing her cottage Iris noticed she had left the lid off the paint tin. Without thinking she went to replace it. A blow from a rifle butt knocked her to the ground. Dazed and bleeding she was helped up the wooden steps into their dear, familiar hall - but something was wrong. It stank of petrol, like Danny Tompkin’s garage.
The main room had been unused since the invasion, so Daphne Taylor found a folding chair for Iris to sit on.
She had half opened it when she froze in horror. They all heard the noise, knew what it meant. The tearing, ripping sound of a machine gun.
Daisy Conway screamed. “My Bert. My Bert.” She ran to the door and shook it. But it was locked.
Iris realised exactly what was going to happen. She knelt down and gathered her children into her arms.
“Don’t be frightened,” she said. “I think we are going to see Daddy in a minute.”