On our literary tour this week we’re going on a little time-travelling detour. Let me take you back to my school-days when I deftly managed to avoid a week’s work experience by wangling my way onto a historical workshop run by a local theatre group.
There were about 10 of us from our all girls grammar school, and we were about to be transported to the time of the English Civil War, accompanied by a handful of enthusiastic actors, who were keen to recreate the correct conditions for our plight under the iron fist of the Royalists who held the walled City of York.
The historical details were somewhat lost on me, but the story was that our fathers, fearful for our safety, were sending us out of the city to an unspecified rural location, were we would conceal our identities as daughters of prominent Parliamentarians and assume the roles of farmer’s daughters.
There were various preparations including the fitting of period costumes and, for the sake of historical accuracy, being urged not to wash or wear modern undergarments (which of course we ignored). Then the following day, with minimal baggage and concealed toothbrushes, we were whisked away to the past in the theatre minibus.
We were undoubtedly too compliant for young ladies of the time thrown into such a situation, but eager to get into our roles we got down to work. There was much peeling to be done. I chiefly remember the potatoes and onions. The onion skins were boiled up to make a dye for some rather malodorous sheep’s wool, which was marinated overnight, and came up a vibrant shade of yellow the following day. We learned to card and spin wool. My spinning was woeful and I was sent to the kitchen to busy myself about the potatoes again. I learned to milk a cow which was brilliant, unlike the subsequent butter-making. Churning is absolutely arm-aching.
We were also shown the hayloft where we would hide should anyone in authority from the ‘wrong side’ come calling. Little did we know that the following evening we wouldn’t have time to hide.
The sun was setting and we’d finished our supper. We were all sitting together in the large room at the front of the farmhouse which looked out onto the yard. I chanced to look through the window to see a group of soldiers, wearing high boots and feather-plumed hats, marching towards the farmhouse. They were undoubtedly the enemy. Almost before I’d had time to call out a warning, they were hammering on the door.
They took the farmer into the back room. His wife followed. One soldier stayed guarding the door. We heard punches, screams and cries; furniture was being overturned. If we hadn’t been in character before, we certainly were in those few moments.
Then they emerged. The make-up was very realistic.
The soldiers moved on.
I really don’t recall what happened after that, but what an experience! One on which I was to draw on for a little piece, written about 30 years later, in a response to a writing group prompt: ‘A Scary Moment’. Revised and updated it became the first piece in my tiny collection of short fiction, released in 2018.
The Day the Soldiers Came
I smile as I watch my mother play with my little brother Tommy on the hearth-rug. My father sits in his chair, still but alert. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I detect a movement in the yard. I turn to look. Soldiers, four of them! By the way they are dressed, I know them instantly as ‘the enemy’. My father has followed my gaze as I gasp in fright and immediately he’s on his feet, sweeping up Tommy in the same movement and shoving him in my direction.
‘You know what to do Annie,’ he says quietly. He nods urgently at me and I grab Tommy’s hand and propel him through the kitchen. I look through the window, checking our route to the barn. It’s clear, so I open the door and we slide through and dash into the slatted wooden building. Behind us, I hear the soldiers hammering on the front door, shouting.
Although Tommy’s only little he knows what to do. Just as we’ve practiced so many times in recent months, I help him up the ladder to the hayloft. He doesn’t make a sound as we creep across the creaky boards and hide ourselves in the straw behind the loosely baled hay. We lie there, waiting. We haven’t practised what happens next. Then I hear a scream; I know it’s my mother, although the sound is like none I’ve ever heard her make. Her pain and terror flood my head. I grip Tommy tightly; he’s trembling and sobbing silently. The minutes tick by; I wonder what’s happening in the house. My father is shouting, but I can’t make out what he’s saying. The shouting stops abruptly and I hear the back door slam against the outside wall of the kitchen.
Heavy boots march towards the barn; I bite down hard on my knuckles. A cold fist contorts my stomach as I realise I forgot to drag the ladder up behind us. I hear the soldier’s heavy breathing down below. He’s pulling things over, searching. He approaches the ladder and in my mind’s eye I see him grab the ladder and place his boot on the first rung. Sweat runs down my back. Tommy is rigid in my arms.
There is a loud call from the house: ‘Move on!’ I hear the sound of the ladder clattering to the floor. It settles and there is no sound apart from the blood pumping in my ears. Slowly I get up, my legs are shaking. I grab the rail at the edge of the loft and feel for the rope which we use as a swing when it’s too wet to play outside. Telling Tommy to stay where his is, I let myself down and run towards the back door which is gaping off its hinges.
Inside the house furniture has been overturned and one curtain has been ripped from the window. My mother cowers in a corner. Her blouse is torn and there is blood on her skirt. Father’s face is bruised and bloody. He reaches for her, but she turns her face to the wall.
Photo credits: naturalhomes.org, http://www.sheepcabana.com, pixels.com