The village hall was as cold as a mountain lair when the local folk edged in to fill its cavernous space. The spring was burdening a distinct easterly chill despite the sunshine. The assorted herd of shufflers were mostly the retired and elderly, wrapped up in puffy coats and long woolen scarves, limping in on walking sticks and avoiding other villagers like they were sidestepping quicksand. Their eyes darted at their surroundings, as if wasps were circling and they chittered and chattered in rhythmic bird-like interchanges.
As a sewage management operator, I had made sure I was clean and tidy, not in my usual overalls and rubber boots, not stinking of the villagers’ effluent that I daily oversaw, in the big silos in the old quarry. The sewage plant was an odd and frequently moaned about blemish, despite being tactfully hidden from the village with a buffer of thick woodland. The council had been up in arms about it for years. It was true that my job was a source of embarrassment to many who knew me but in truth I was just pushing buttons on machines – like most people in most jobs. I was a single dad, and my nineteen-year-old, Jake, was hardly about and didn’t think too hard about what I did, as long as I came home, fed him and gave him a little money. He was unemployed like most of the young today. I felt compelled to come to the hall, against my better judgement, because of the little home-printed A5 note that was so mysteriously pushed through my letterbox.
‘Little Feathering is under threat! Come to the village hall today at noon, to stand up and be counted. It’s time to take action, IT’S TIME TO TAKE BACK OUR VILLAGE!’ it declared, signed Mitch Denton, Councilman.
Now, I knew Mitch. Not as a friend but as a local character. In fact, his notoriety had travelled beyond the village to the towns nearby. He was what you might call, very conservative. He grumbled at immigrants, he stared at young people, he had a very neat and precise garden.
I wanted to witness whatever he was cooking up, and to understand why his feathers were ruffled so badly. Most of all, I wanted to see what flavour of stupid was rising up from the horizon. It was easy to ignore the ridiculous, until the ridiculous came knocking down your door.
He was the first in the hall and was standing in a way to fill up the spot he was on, like a prison guard or a bouncer, guarding himself, projecting a presence of aggressive distrust.
When the last of the stragglers were inside, he nodded to someone to shut and bolt the doors, so he possessed a captive audience.
“Alright, thank you for coming, everybody.” His voice was loud and imposing, like a town crier warming up.
I tried not to be noticed, which was not difficult because I did not really know anyone in the hall, and the ones I did recognise were people I would simply smile at on a walk. I had seen them ambling along the main street, popping in the local shop for bread and milk, sitting cross legged outside the pub, but I had never been drawn to them for their company or their conversation. I was happy to remain in the shadows, to keep myself to myself. Besides, they were in the wealthier part of village, the grand, ancient properties bought with old money, with expensive SUVs permanently parked on driveways and tall but in-keeping fences and hedgerows. In contrast I resided in one of the small terrace houses in the backend of the village, reserved for renting tenants. That little plot of land was like a satellite moon, a thing physically segregated from the masses. Someone in this room was probably the homeowner of my little two bed house, enjoying the regular top ups from the agency I had found it through.
“A lot of you in the room already know me and it’s good to see you all here today. Thank you for coming. I called this meeting because the time is here for us to act, the stop talking about the problem we have here and to do something about it. You all by now, know what I am talking about.”
I, for one, did not have a clue but I felt itchy, a crawling discomfort was infecting my skin as if an allergic reaction was triggered by his voice.
“This village has always been and should always be reserved for bracket one residents.”
Bracket one. The recent government chart labelled ‘bracket one’ as the affluent members of society, those with substantial savings or investments and assets galore. I was bracket five, in comparison. On the same chart, shown regularly on TV and the net, they were represented by a beautiful teal colour and as the largest box, where bracket five was a dirty brown and a small box. It all kind of washed into you when you saw the chart. In my bracket – the same chart spelled out the money I cost other taxpayers in the brackets above. It was a way to shame us into apology, to force us to want to be higher in the food chain, to make us small and ugly.
“Who here has noticed the gang of youths around the pub – they are villagers I heard, villagers, here! They wear hooded tops and are causing many of our folk to be scared to walk in the pub, our own pub! They are bracket five. Did you know that?!”
The crowd were silently attentive to his booming authority. I looked around to spy their faces and there was no sign of disagreement or shock, they were still and listening and aligned.
“This village has been reserved for good folk for three hundred years. It’s a way of life, living here, and we do not want that way of life to change.”
A stooping old lady to my right pushed up her boney hand so it emerged from the tunnel of her thick sleeve.
“Excuse me,” she said, her voice crackling.
Mitch squinted at her in suspicion and then acknowledged her by pointing her way.
“Excuse me, I am so glad I came. You are right… It’s not just the youths though. There was a foreign family in Becks Road two days ago, viewing the outside of No 13, which is for sale. I didn’t like the look of it, you know. They could not be bracket one, they’re car was second hand and old.”
Mitch nodded furiously, “You see! Thank you my love, you’ve noticed what’s going on as well then.”
She smiled, pleased to contribute an observation.
“Well, did any of you read about the new village legislation just brought in?”
A few heads bobbed in unison.
“It says,” he continued. “That if a councillor is present and the majority of the village agrees, the village watchmen and the villagers standing for the motion can use reasonable force to evict and banish bracket five residents…”
There was an eruption of noise, the voices of bubbling emotions bursting from the eager crowd.
“…Yes, yes. It’s now legal! We have the law to act and we can act today!”
It was then that I noticed the cattle prods that had been lined up next to the stage, long ugly things, no doubt borrowed with consent from the farmer. A surge of energy zinged through my veins. I had to warn Jake, he was out today, probably mooching in the village that very moment, maybe in the pub car park. I had to warn him of the storm that was coming his way, and my poor unsuspecting neighbours, they would not have a clue about this.
“Here, Mitch, it’s not that I don’t agree with you but what about those who have rent coming in from the fives?”
A voice of dissent at last I thought, but short lived.
“Don’t worry, government subsidies will cover rents. They will even buy the properties from you. I hear they want the land. The fivers will soon all be unable to pay anyways. All those jobs that they do, the fives I mean, they want to phase them out completely, automate them. My guess is that they are rounding up fives to put in reservations – keep em’ out of the way, like vermin! It’s what the papers say is next.”
There was a show of hands, which Mitch carefully recorded on his smartphone for evidence. I decided it prudent to put mine up too, in fear of being exposed. The more able bodied queued up patiently to snatch up a cattle prod and I made my way out of the now open doors, with the first to exit. I could see the pub on the hill, a large old brick building, surrounded by towering oak trees, proud and gnarled, like lords of everything beneath them. I fumbled for my phone and began to type a frantic text message.
“Hello friend. I haven’t seen you before, have I?”
Mitch had somehow appeared next to me and I nearly jumped out of my skin. He was a bear of a man, with hairy overgrown eyebrows, no neck, a shining, bolding head and a broad bottom feeder mouth.
He slapped a meaty hand on my shoulder as if making a citizen’s arrest.
“Anyway, glad you could make it to the hall. It’s good to have you here. We’ll flush these rats out.”
I managed to grin and even salute, in a sort of panic move but it did not alert suspicion. It was then I noticed another man cleave away from the gatherings. He purposefully peeled off to begin dialing quickly, like I had. He caught my eye. Because I was staring, he paused and looked directly at me, in a way that connected. It occurred to me that Mitch would not have posted the leaflet through my door – it must have been someone trying to warn me, perhaps this stranger who was also trying desperately to contact a friend or family member.
The text was sent but I did not know if it would be read. Jake had a love-hate relationship around his phone – he loved messages, but hated them from me, because I was a nag like most parents are. There was a chance it would be ignored. I’d have to risk a call, to find a more private space and whisper. I skulked into the canary-yellow village bus shelter. It had a new slate roof and there were proudly standing potted bay trees either side of it, it was so pretty it almost resembled a summer house. I had to hide, become invisible, I had to be away from these people.
The residents were moving as a single organism, a large jostling, snorting beast, cattle prods held high above heads, the air alive with jeering and laughing. The older folk were trailing behind with assistance, keen to be involved in the ‘do’ but not directly in the path of the action.
“Pick up, you fool,” I hissed at the phone, which just bleeped at me blankly until ringing off.
The crowd suddenly surged, a killer whale turning sharply into a kill zone, and the noise and chants rose higher in pitch and volume, with Mitch spouting something loudly as a rallying cry. The street was narrow, with traditional stone walls as garden borders, topped with reaching red hydrangeas, tall pampas grasses and full apple trees. It was like a picture postcard from another time, where life was perfect, where people left their front doors open and little funny dogs yapped haplessly from gates at passing cyclists. But as I peered out from the bus shelter upon the road, all I could see was a class of roaming demons, a blue rinse and flat capped street gang hunting, armed and with hate in their hearts. It was always about territory at the end of the day, about what belonged to who.
“We’ve got one!” yelled someone. There was a fizz of a prod connecting with skin, and a scream of a young man.
I held my breath but quickly realised it was not my son, but one of his friends. They were stripping him of his clothes and burning his arms with the electric poles.
“Get out!… Get out!… Get out!” they chanted loudly. Fists were pumping the air in jubilation and triumph.
I tried the phone again and this time he picked up.
“Jake! The villagers are literally hunting all bracket fives. Get to silo one’s office at the plant. I’ll meet you there. Do not go home first. They’re coming and they will hurt you!”
He sounded terrified and out of breath, like he already knew. I was sure he had been running and his tone was shaky and nervous. I slid the phone away in my jacket pocket and decided to take a shortcut down a lane nearby, which led all the way to woods and beyond where the silos were nestled. The crowd were now hauling naked victims into the air. Blood was dripping and screams of anguish and agony were muffled out from the stadium-like roars and fury of the mob.
By the time I made it to silo one, something seemed off. All the doors were open. All of them, forced open, some of them smashed. Jake knew where I hid the spare key for when he needed to see me at work, it would not have been him. Maybe, I considered, it was his friends or other fivers, seeking refuge desperately.
I gingerly stepped up the small metal staircase to the outer platform rim of the huge white silo and navigated the broken, splintered door remains on the ground. When I peered inside the cylindrical structure, I scanned the circular walkways, the outcrops of storage platforms and the control boxes around the central collection hole in the ground. The plant was quiet bar the murmur of machines. Silo one had recently been drained and cleaned for maintenance, but the ragged, sour stench was engrained. I had become immune to the disgusting odour but as I looked around, I froze and saw that the villagers that had broken in were holding their jumpers up to cover their noses and mouths. They turned toward me in one movement as I appeared. Thankfully, they were the opposite side of the silo’s empty sewage pit.
“You!” shouted one of them, “Who are you!?”
I was caught in a moment of surprise, stumped for an answer.
“You’re a fiver!” accused one of the party, the off duty detective inspector I realised, a tall man called Bob Henry who lived in a cottage near the school. He had been involved in dealing with some petty crime at the plant, so he recognised me as the operative.
At that moment, a lanky figure sprang from behind some barrels of disinfectant midway around the ring. Jake was sprinting toward me like a deer, his arms and legs flailing in a panicked swinging motion.
“Dad!” he squealed, and I beaconed him toward me, as if frantically trying to pull the air between us with my hands.
“Run, Jake!” I screeched.
The gaggle of villager thugs decided to break into the pit to run directly toward me in a crude bypass to the longer arc of the walkway. It was a misjudged move. One of them tumbled as he landed on the slippery floor that was soaked with industrial cleaning fluid. The calamity held them all up for a second as Jake made it to my side. They regained their postures and continued to lope across the centre of the silo’s bowl innards. I turned to the control panel behind me and slammed a big red button. A claxon alarm rang out and with it, the floor of the pit sank, literally fell away, deep into the ground. They were trapped in there, no one could scale that curved sheer wall of the inner silo pit. Red lights flooded the tall building around us, and we caught our breath, watching the group below skid and roll with the sudden decent of the floor under them.
“You’ll burn for this, you filthy parasite!” shouted up the detective. His predatory eyes glinted as the red lights caught the liquid sheen on his corneas.
I held my son tight as he shook with fear in my arms. Something almost broke inside me.
“You OK?” I asked and he managed a vague smile to placate me. A rage welled up inside, something I had not felt for several years, a terrible blunt anger that had no avenue or valve to diminish its growing strength.
I turned back to the square panel on the wall, and recalled the poor boy in the village, no doubt injured and abandoned at Little Feathering’s boundary, his flesh singed and ragged, his shivering body exposed and smothered in dirt.
There was a button on the panel that read ‘open pipe’. Jake knew what it meant.
“Dad? No…” he said. Even now he had mercy. I had none. They had threatened my kin.
I slowly pushed the button in and it stuck in a locked position. We listened without speaking, not willing to observe, as the mob’s anger turned to terror and the sound of rushing liquid gathered volume around us.
‘Let them drown in their own shit,’ I thought, and I grabbed my son and we fled, oblivious to the horror I had crafted in a single moment, in a single decision. The woods would give us cover as we ran.
Where we could go, I had no idea. Home was never a place, it was a people. We just had to go. Little Feathering could never be home.