It was chaos in the prison as the lights went out for the third time in as many minutes. This time they stayed out, the only light coming from the lightning strikes which seemed to hit only seconds apart. There was plenty of noise. The thunder shook the ground. The guards shouted to each other in their attempts to lock doors and contain the inmates, while the inmates themselves made every effort to make this difficult including shouting contradictory instructions. For most of the inmates this was a game which they joined in with abandon. Anything to break the monotony and pass the time. But for Dave ‘the barber’ Cross, this was his chance. He slipped through an open door into the canteen, from there through the kitchens and out through an unguarded side gate. Three years, two months and fifty seven days into his twenty five year sentence he was outside prison and running fast.
He covered a lot of ground very quickly. He knew that his best chance of staying out was to use the cover of the late summer storm, and the chaos of people and traffic on the streets of a blacked out Manchester, to get out of the city and into the countryside. He also knew better than to head north towards home, so instead he stole a car from the first car park he came to and headed out over the moors towards Derbyshire. Taking back roads as far as possible, and avoiding major towns where he could, he drove until the petrol gauge showed red. He managed to get it off the road and on to a farm track before it actually spluttered to a final halt. The rain had eased somewhat but was still constant, and with the windows misted up he could not see where he was. Rather than continue his journey on foot, he wrapped himself in a coat that he found on the back seat and slept.
When he awoke the world was white with mist. Dave could see not more than he had been able to see the night before. He knew that he couldn’t stay in the car, however, so he set off on foot following the track the best he could.
It took him three hours to find a building, a tiny cottage. He tried the door and to his surprise it was open. Inside were two rooms, one a bedroom with little in it except for a bed and a makeshift wardrobe containing very few clothes. He thumped the wall when he realised none of them would even come close to fitting him, then realised how stupid a thing that was to do in a rough stone built cottage. In the other room there were two mismatched easy chairs, a table and two chairs, a cooker that looked like it belonged in a museum and a small wooden pantry. He raided the pantry for some bread, picked up a sharp and well used carving knife, and sat by the fire to dry out and warm up. Knowing that his prison clothes would immediately give him away when the occupants returned, yet knowing that it was probably suicidal to try to continue his journey in the fog, Dave tried hard to remain alert for signs of them coming back. But in the warm, damp atmosphere with food in his stomach he was soon asleep.
He woke he was confused. In his three years in prison he had become institutionalised, so the lack of noise and bustle was enough to throw him into a panic. He stood, turned, then crouched ready to fight. When he saw an old couple sat at the table watching him. Their expressions merely curious. The events of the previous night came back to him. He groped around on the chair for the knife. The old man spoke.
‘You looking for this?’ He held the knife up, ‘Sorry to take it off you, Alice needed it to prepare our dinner. You must be hungry. I’ve brought a barrel in from the outhouse that you can sit on. Join us, eat.’
Dave did as the old man asked, if only because he could think of no other way to react. He started to speak.
The old man stopped him.
‘Before you speak, let me say this. What we don’t know, we don’t care about. We don’t have a radio or electricity here. Some folk down in the village do, of course, but we’ve all got history that we’d rather forget. That’s how we end up here in the first place. The village finds us. So think carefully what you say next.’
Against his character, Dave did think.
‘I’m Dave.’ He stopped.
‘Welcome Dave. I’m Roy,’ they shook hands, ‘and this is Alice.’ She nodded. ‘As I said, sit. Eat.’
They ate in silence. After they’d finished and Roy helped Alice clear the table he said,
‘You’ll need some clothes. I suspect Eric’s probably got something used to belong to his son will fit Dave, don’t you think Alice?’ She nodded. ‘I’ll pop over there. Dave’ll help with the dishes, won’t you Dave?’
He looked at Alice. She stood no more than five feet tall, skinny as s rake and arthritic hands. A small part of his brain told him to kill them both, take what he could and move on quickly. But there was something about the place, and Roy’s voice, that pushed that voice well into the background.
‘Yes, of course I will.’
‘Good. And later we’ll discuss chores. I’m too old to run this place on my own now. I could use a strong pair of hands around. Can’t pay you, though. Bed and board. Three good meals a day and you can sleep in one of the barns. We’ll find you a chair so as you can sit with us for meals and by the fire of an evening. If you want it, of course?’ Dave suddenly realised that he had never wanted anything more out of life. Even before he had time to speak Roy added. ‘That’s settled.’ And held out his hand for Dave to shake it. ‘Just one thing. We’ll beat the boundary on Sundays. You’ll come along, everyone fit enough to walk does. Until then, don’t leave the farmyard. After that, don’t go beyond the parish boundary, especially in bad weather. You understand?’ Dave nodded. It made perfect sense. He was a runaway prisoner. For some reason the people in the village were happy to hide him. Why would he leave?
On Sunday Dave joined the villagers at church. Church in prison meant a chance to get out of his cell and talk to other prisoners. Church in the village meant hellfire and damnation sermons from the vicar, who Dave thought looked like he could be the prison chaplain’s older brother, followed by a walk around the parish boundary. At various points on the walk, for which Dave could see no pattern, they stopped while the vicar prayed and Alice shook some dried herbs while the other women chanted something that Dave did not understand. Afterwards there was beer and mutton was roasted over an open fire then served on thick slices of bread. The men all talking about sheep, crops and the unseasonably warm weather while the women mostly seemed to be talking about him based on the sideways glances and the way they giggled behind hands when he caught their eyes.
Life fell into a pattern for Dave. Hard work on the farm, helping out on other farms when he could, Sundays in church followed by a village meal. On the Sunday after full moon the whole village walked the boundary, otherwise they just got on with life. Dave even started visiting the pub once in a while when he’d been given a share of the meagre cash income, but he soon found no-one wanted his money. He could have a few beers each week in exchange for some task on one of the farms which he was happy to do anyway. It never crossed his mind to work out what the exchange rate was for his labour, he found he wanted for nothing as long as what he wanted was not excessive. No one asked about his past, no one asked his plans for the future.
One day Roy died. Dave had lost track of how long he’d been with Roy and Alice by the time it happened. Many years, he knew by the passing of the seasons. Alice woke Dave and together they took care of Roy’s body. They took it by hand cart to the church where the whole village had congregated. A grave had already been dug. After a short service the body was lowered into the grave, covered over, and people left. Dave and Alice walked out of the village up to the farm. When they got there Alice started to prepare a meal. Dave tried to stop her, and failing that to help, but she quietly pushed him away, indicated that he should sit down, and finished the job. After they’d eaten Alice went outside. Dave never saw her again. The next morning, after he’d seen to the animals and his chores around the farm he walked into the village again. He found the vicar.
‘Alice has gone. I’m worried.’ He said.
‘No need. She’s probably just gone home.’
‘I don’t know where that is. She arrived here with Roy and has been here for years. But sometimes when a man dies in the village his wife leaves the farm to a younger man. Sometimes she moves in with neighbours, sometimes she goes home. It’s not unusual and not something to worry about. Just take over the farm. You know how we work well enough. Do what you need to do.’
Not for the first time since he’d arrived Dave found himself taking something that should have sounded strange at face value. He nodded, shook the old priest’s hand and went back to his farm. He stayed in the barn for a few months, only visiting the house to cook and eat, but when it was clear that Alice wasn’t coming back he moved in.
Years past. Dave did what was needed on his farm, helped out neighbours and spent Sunday’s with his friends. He got into the habit of going for a beer in the pub on a Friday and it soon became perfectly normal to drink for free, but leave with a list of favours he’d promised to neighbours. People came and people went. Some died. But village life barely changed. It was hard, but not unbearable, and generally Dave was a happy man. He mostly forgot about his old life.
The lightning lit up the sky and the thunder shook the floor. Dave woke, looked out of the farmhouse window and cursed. He could see his sheep pen had broken down and the sheep were running on to the moors in fright. He set off in chase.
The rain made it difficult to see where he was going, and the lightning only served to take away his night vision. He walked his land, lovingly collecting his sheep and one by one carrying them back to the barn where he locked them in. The storm was still raging as he set off for the final one, an old ewe with more than the usual amount of intelligence for a sheep. And oddly, the one he’d earmarked to slaughter for a Sunday roast when it was next his turn. He walked his land, then the neighbouring farm, then right to the village boundary. Years of walking the bounds had imprinted on his mind exactly where it was. So when a lightning strike gave him sight of the old ewe trapped in a gorse bush a hundred yards outside the boundary line he stopped for a second. But his concern for his beast overcame his programming. He ran to her, caught her up and turned to walk back…only to see his route suddenly blocked by a fallen tree. He swore, and took off to find another route. But he was soon lost. While he knew where the village should be, and kept heading towards it, every path was blocked. Try as he might, he could not find his way back. Eventually he came to a farm track. Following it he came to a car, blocking the route. He felt a sense of déjà vu. Turning, he walked the other way on the track. He was surprised to come across a similar looking car in the track. He took off across a field, only to come alongside the same car again. He dropped the ewe, watched her wander off, opened the car door and sat inside. It was still warm. Despite his best efforts Dave was soon asleep.
The knock on the window was no real surprise. Neither was the drawn truncheon. The constable almost didn’t recognise the white haired old man in front of him compared to the dark haired young escapee he’d been told to look out for. But the car was the one that had been stolen in Manchester hours earlier and this man was asleep in it, so the constable was not taking any chances. Dave got out slowly and held his hands out for the inevitable cuffs.
‘I’m the man you’re looking for. Take me in please.’
It had taken some time to persuade the authorities that Dave was who he said he was. He looked twenty years older than he had when he’d escaped, less than a day before. But his fingerprints and other identification matched, and in the absence of any logical explanation he was returned to his cell. In the prison chapel that Sunday Dave looked very carefully at the chaplain. Who returned his gaze and mouthed the words, the village finds us. Don’t go beyond the village boundary. Especially in bad weather.
Back in his cell, alone but for the noise of a thousand other inmates, a tear rolled down the old man’s cheek.
(c) Chris Johnson 2019