Copyright 1987, Sarah Hartwell
Based on an odd dream. It doesn't claim to be historically accurate, but it caught the mood of the dream.
The Red Lion was busy that night, the ghosthunters and investigators of the paranormal had crowded into its two bars and the mingled odours of tobacco smoke and real ale pervaded the pub. Faces wreathed in lavender hued cigar smoke discussed apparitions between mouthfuls of Best Bitter and the local "Staggerer" Ale; now and again a voice rose above the general hubbub, hailing the busy bar staff or calling to a too long-unseen friend across the room's chatter. All talk was of the battle tomorrow evening; the echoes of Cromwell's army and the shadowy forms which appeared, a little more dimly each year, on the fields above the village.
This year it was said that the apparitions would be particularly clear, though whether due to some astral conjunction or anniversary of the battle itself I did not fully understand. The Public Bar of the Red Lion was reassuring cosy, as a village pub should be, with its worn and faded carpet which might once have been patterned in several colours but was now ash grey and the nicotine tinted wallpaper and paint. Horse-brasses gleamed brass-yellow on the ochre walls; the real thing, buffed into shininess by horse-sweat and age, not the fake brasses which had never seen a horse and which could be found decorating the "plastic pubs" of the south.
The other two pubs in the village would be equally full; the Rose and Crown, liveried in brewery chain red, serving those who drank weak pasteurised beers indiscriminately and the recently refurbished "Crofters" winebar with its video jukebox, fake antique farm implements and chilled lagers and American beers, appealing to the younger set. All rooms to let had been taken up by the spookhunters, many willing to sleep two or more to a single room and pay double the normal rates for the privilege. The tourist hotel was full, all four guest rooms taken - even one which was in the middle of being redecorated. Tents had sprouted like multicoloured mushrooms in willing farmers' fields and camper vans were parked in pub car parks and country lanes. Others slept in their cars, sustained by Thermos flasks of soup made and sold by canny housewives while one or two, the hippy element, roughed it in haylofts, barns or hedges. Every villager who could make a few quid out of their local ghost was doing a fine job separating the fools from their money.
Tomorrow was supposed to be the first night of that epic three day battle if the experts were to be believed. Each year through the centuries, the battle replayed itself before startled shepherds or bemused travellers; some years only misty shapes were perceived, in others only the noise of armour and the injured came through whatever ethereal channels the spectral echoes used. Each year a little less - the shapes grew mistier, the sounds seemed to come from farther off as though the earth plane and the spirit world were drifting apart (to quote one of the experts holding forth on the topic in the Public Bar of the Red Lion - I had never heard plate tectonics applied to the supernatural before.).
Now and again the gory carnage of that battle was seen and heard in its full glory like a three dimensional video which was replayed annually until worn out and then replaced by a fresh copy by some unseen astral hand (to misquote another expert). This year was supposed to be one of those good years when the old faded image was replaced by a fresh copy in glorious technicolor ectoplasm complete with auditory special effects. Interested parties had swarmed to the village to see it, record it and dissect the experience. Others would interview those who had seen it and doubt their tales. Us sceptics were just here to see others make fools of themselves or have our beliefs knocked for six.
As for me, I am a born sceptic and atheist; disbeliever of anything scientists could not quantify or analyze, so why was I here? To prove to myself that the world was full of deluded ghost hunters soon to be disappointed; to witness mass hysteria in action and people hallucinating their own spooks while others got in on the act just so they were not left out while their doubts racked them and they wondered why they were not worthy enough to see the spirits witnessed by their neighbour, or to have my own unshakeable beliefs shaken? I wanted to prove that their were no apparitions replaying age-old battles in the corner of some farmer's sheep field and that only the canny hoteliers kept the battle alive by word of mouth in order to boost profits.
"Time, Gentlemen!" called the ruddy-cheeked barman over the general conversation. Now there was someone making good profit out of other people's delusions.
Somebody murmured a muffled complaint about extended licences for special occasions, spreading discontent among those already drunk enough to see spirits other than those found in bottles.
"This isn't yer big city now," the barman called, his voice disproportionately laud for his small stature, "and yer landladies won't thank thee for keeping them up so late. Drinking up time please!"
Still muttering, the crowd nevertheless complied and I supped my Guinness, enjoying the thick, rich flavour as it slipped down. In ones and twos people left the bar, allowing fresh air to percolate through the smokey fug every time the door swung closed after them. Two gentlemen in tweed caps finished their game of dominoes, packing away the bones almost reverently into the battered wooden box. A game of darts ended amid a flurry of chalk dust as the board was wiped clean ready for the following lunchtime. Four stereotypical card players glared over their hands of cards as though daring their opponents to win.
The clink of glasses being washed and buffed dry became audible and a peroxide blonde middle-aged barmaid hummed a popular TV theme as she polished a dimpled beer-mug into glistening, diamond clear perfection. The few locals in the pub -the card players and the silent tweed clothed farmers who sat unobtrusively in quiet corners - finished their drinks and were let through the bar to a back room to finish the evening in peace at a 'private party'. I drained my glass until only the cream foam lined it, slung my Barbour over one arm and returned the glass on my way past the bar to the door. The barmaid said goodnight, her voice hoarse from shouting to customers over the din which had earlier filled the dingy room.
I had a room above "Crofters" a few yards along the main street which, in the absence of any other thoroughfare worthy of the title was simply known as The Street. The evening was too warm for a jacket, the air scented with cropped grass and cow dung, and I walked slowly, savouring the richness of the summer night.
I passed shops that were no more than houses whose front rooms had been set aside as sales areas; past the supplies shop full of wellies, wax coats (which earned their keep as sturdy workwear unlike my designer-labelled, keep-up-with-the-divisional-assistant-under-manager Barbour), tarpaulins and gas-bottles. A small Co-op, its dimpled-glass bow window full of baked bean can pyramids and milk bottles, was next door to the suppliers, next was a small post-office-cum-newsagents-cum-stationers named "Broadman's Bazaar".
On the opposite side of The Street was the local butchers full of New Zealand Lamb and French Beef, the greengrocers and the villages only boutique/chemist/babywear shop/hairdressing salon with a rail of cellophane shrouded clothes to indicate that it was also a dry -cleaning agency. "Crofters" was up the hill, past the Rose and Crown and the tiny Police Station ('After 5 p.m. and at Weekends the Police Station is closed - your nearest main Police Station is ...').
Coloured lights twinkled like earthbound stars; strings of fairy-lights adorned the plastic thatch effect of Crofters' porch and fake beams. The place was incongruous among the stone and slate-tiled houses of The Street. Coach lanterns, concealing electric light bulbs, swung from porch beams, hinting at fake brasses within. The electronic jingle of a games machine sang out amid peals of laughter - the window of the cottage opposite swung shut in clattering protest at this disturbance of the summer evening. Lager louts in trendy clothes spilled laughing from the fake Elizabethan doorway, the landlord having resorted to ejecting his customers in order to close the nightclub for the night. The village constable, helmet under his shirtsleeved arm, drained a glass of lemonade and tried to look stern as the rowdy youths moved past him. His jacket was draped over his bicycle saddle and he wore a look of perpetual disappointment as if he had hoped to make a one-man drugs raid on Crofters and failed. Now he was merely moral support for the harassed landlord and his fleet of teenage barmaids in miniskirts and skimpy backless, and pretty-damn-nearly frontless, tops.
I had seen it all before, sometimes in London where the police were not disappointed, sometimes on these silly ghost hunts - the same drinking factions of real ale buffs, lager louts and pasteurised beer aficionados and me; an observer on the sidelines of life, each trip proving only that the ghosts were not and science was. Sometimes I even wished I would see something to shake me out of this science-ruled, science-defined, Technology-is-God existence - some thing to convince me there was more to life than the 9 to 5 in a news office.
The young constable halted me at the door to Crofters "'s closed," he breathed, his breath adding a faint aroma of alcohol into the night air.
I showed him my room-ticket and he let me past, his slightly glazed stare following me, his aura of disappointment palpable. Under the dim orange light a waitress, her arms full of chip baskets and crisp wrappers, looked up at me. Cotton wool peeped out of her lint-augmented cleavage and she looked tired and ill.
She was about to point me back in the direction of the door when an effeminate looking bouncer shrieked "It's all right Maeve - he's got rooms!".
Maeve tucked a stray swag of brown hair behind her ear and smiled wanly. Not only was her false frontage escaping but her nylons were snagged and laddered and their seams were far from straight. She wobbled away on too-high heels, her miniskirt creeping up her ample rump, her farm-girl hands full of litter and cold food. She paused at the bar long enough to dump the detritus of a night's business and kick off her uncomfortable footwear before directing me to the guest rooms.
"It's through this way," she said in a thin, tired voice and directed me to a door marked "Private" which opened into a corridor, dazzlingly bright after the dimly lit nightclub interior. "It's up the stairs at the end, first door on the left - you can't miss it, it's labelled 'Guest' There's a bolt on the door for privacy and the bathroom's almost opposite. Breakfast is at eight ..." she indicated the open kitchen door " ... in the kitchen."
Leaving me blinking owlishly in the sudden light she scuttled away like a sleepy mouse returning to its dark burrow. The cracked linoleum creaked slightly underfoot, a reassuringly homely sound, as I made my way to bed.
The noise of clearing up filtered through the worn grey carpet of my room, the twin of that in the Red Lion. The sound was blurred by the intervening ceiling and its muffled drone lulled me into drowsiness. The room was small, filled by a single bed with its worn by comfortable mattress, an overlarge oak wardrobe and matching chest of drawers and a small pink enamel washbasin. A fluffy pink towel scented faintly with lavender had been slung over an ancient vinyl ex-nightclub seat in the corner of the room and a new piece of soap, a glass and flannel were arranged by the basin. Small, cramped, but comfortable among comfortable uncomplicated people.
A noise came from outside the window as a twig scratched against the glass or a bird settled on the sill. It came again and I raised the sash window. Meowing mournfully, a grey cat pattered in from the top of the porch (tiled where plastic thatch was not needed for show) and onto the chair in the corner. Tucking its paws under it, it settled down into a purring ball of contentment. I left the window ajar and a arranged a gap in the curtains for it to go out as it pleased and I made ready for bed. So I had the cat's room! As long as he/she did not see fit to present me with a half-dead mouse at some ungodly time of morning. The duvet was heavy and warm so I slept half-in, half-out of it.. Some time during the night puss settled herself at the foot of the bed.
I woke at seven when a chink of light shone in my eyes through the gap in the curtain. Puss regarded me with her huge quizzical feline eyes which followed me as I dressed and shaved. At ten to eight, after several minutes spent tickling puss under her ash-grey chin, I made my way to the kitchen with a four-footed shadow at my heels. When I arrived for breakfast with puss in tow the lady of the house beamed a huge smile at me.
"Just put her out if she's a nuisance. It's nice enough for her to be out hunting a bit more and she can always sleep in the bottle store."
Puss contrived to look hurt until she was fed and I sat down at the pine kitchen table opposite the effeminate looking bouncer whom I guessed was the son.
The kitchen, like all good kitchens, was warm and welcoming like its people. A coffee filter burbled gently to itself, a microwave ting-ed and a toaster snapped to attention. The son rubbed absently at his stubbled jowl and spread a thick layer of farm-fresh butter onto his toast. His mother scooped a quivering yellow heap of scrambled egg onto his plate and pushed a second huge portion in front of me. The barman, the patriarch of the family, was cooking himself a breakfast of black pudding while various guests or family members came and went with trays of food or empty plates. The householder filled his plate and sat down opposite me.
"What are you doing today then?" he asked, his voice conveying genuine interest.
I laughed nervously feeling out of place among these straightforward people, "I don't really know yet. Go for a walk this morning perhaps. Take some photos, have a drink."
"There's some nice sights around here," he rumbled, "Picturesque you might say. Even after a lifetime of living here I can still stand to look at the sights."
"At three we're supposed to be meeting up for the ghost hunt. Silly isn't it? Grown men hunting spooks."
"Don't knock, there's funny things happen. More things to life than meets they eye you might say. Why, when I was but a lad ... "
"Oh, John, you just stop it!" his wife said, spilling coffee as she placed a mugful in front of him, "I doubt Mr Brown will want to hear your tall tales."
"Oh I don't mind," I said, half-shrugging, "if it's not taking up your time that is."
Delighted to have an audience who had not already heard his stories, he told a long and rambling tale of chilly rooms, eerie noises, half-seen sights and not stopping till her was three miles away from a haunted farm cottage. Puss blinked suspiciously throughout his story, but stayed when I surreptitiously passed pieces of gammon down to her. I suspect the storyteller was feeding her, equally surreptitiously, on black pudding. When breakfast, with its three generous courses, ended I returned to my room for my camera while Dilys, the lady of the house, filled a Thermos with coffee for my morning amble around the countryside.
The day passed pleasantly, talking with other visitors and lunching at the Rose and Crown who did surprising good bar food. The village was larger than I had at first thought, in addition to The Street with its quaint cottagey homes there were numerous winding lanes which turned back on themselves before petering out into a farm track. The church stood beside a small triangular green with its duckpond and antique pump while a small row of almshouses lined another side of the green. There were two small estates of red-brick homes occupied by those who did not want to live in the larger town some ten miles away and an old-people's home at the opposite end of the village from the church. Estate agents describe places like this as "pleasantly rural but with good links to Market Town X where the discerning commuter is only X minutes from London".
At three o'clock the ghost hunters convened in a nearby field, spreading coats and groundsheets over the sheep droppings and downing Thermos flasks of coffee laced with whisky to ward off evil spirits. The first day of battle began.
Dusk crawled in amid more tall tales and cries of "Hush, what's that?" and a brief history of the battle, the politics behind it and the locality given by a farmer who fancied himself as a local historian. Apart from exaggerating the village's importance he made a good job of the impromptu lecture - he had had several years in which to practice. Wind soughed in the trees and a cow lowed. Twin headlights briefly illuminated the expectant faces as a car headed into the village. The shouts of a party in one of the new estates drifted across the field causing a momentary stir and false alarm. At 3 a.m. I went back to my room, curled up with Oddbod the cat and slept an untroubled sleep.
Breakfast was a congenial affair; John offered condolences at our lack of luck the previous night and Dilys fussed over me, making sure I had enough to eat and washing the empty Thermos flask. Oddbod merely yawned and washed her whiskers. Other transient breakfasters talked of atmospheres, chilly patches and half-heard noises. Personally I believed the half-heard clatter of armour was nothing more than the breakfast chorus in the village below. I smiled inwardly thinking of the sudden night breezes which chilled, the still atmosphere of a summer night and of slamming doors, squeaking windows and music from radios which could so easily be mistaken for warlike sound-effects. I recalled that the party-goers had insisted on repeatedly playing some heavy metal track about Knights and Crusaders, which Dilys said was done to annoy the spook brigade on the hillside above them.
Armed with a Thermos freshly filled with milky coffee and thoughtfully laced with something from "behind the bar" I returned to the field to rejoin the faithful who had never left and who talked endlessly of seen or imagined misty swirling shapes (the lifting dew? Cigarette smoke from a nearby huddle of people?) and odd sounds. It was the second day of that epic battle and so far nobody had seen anything conclusive. A few sensible souls had brought Primus stoves, or even barbecues, with them and were cooking sausages and bacon for breakfast. Other well-organised watchers munched on sandwiches which they produced from huge coolboxes while they sat up in water proof sleeping bags. The only swirling shapes that were visible for a while came from the smoking barbecues until they finally burnt out. I wondered whether to return to the village and buy a newspaper to read.
Suddenly a dark warhorse crashed over my shoulder and I looked up to see a face distorted with killing rage leaning across the beast's vast neck. The eyes glared through me and a stained sword swung out. A man cried out and died in the churned mud beneath the stamping hooves, Cries filled the air and battle standard wavered under a hail of crossbow bolts and arrows. A sword whistled past my ear and a spear or lance or something stabbed downwards. Horses and men milled among the sitting watchers, fading into insubstantiality and returning with a disturbing clarity. Sometimes the watchers themselves seemed less substantial, less solid than the warriors. A musket ball whistled by and the musket itself exploded in the hands of an artilleryman.
I sat entranced in the mud and the gore as the battle unfolded around me. Throughout the day the opposing armies fought unhindered by the watchers. Lines broke and reformed, acts of astounding courage and of understandable cowardice were performed as the sides gained or lost ground to their enemy. Night closed in and under cover of darkness the wounded crept away from the battleground, unable to see their opponents.
"Come on lad," said a voice thick with an obscure regional accent, "Let's be out before they return. Can ye walk?"
He was small, a weasel-faced man in leather and steel and my first thought was of a carefully contrived stage act. The mud was real enough and I was plastered with it. I did not recall rain having fallen; the field had been parched after over a fortnight of glorious sunshine. The spilled intestines looked real enough and squelched realistically when I inadvertently walked through them. The leather clad weasel-faced man was very real as he helped me from the carnage, real or imagined.
"Is he all right?" hissed another voice.
"He's taken a knock on the pate," my companion replied to the darkness, "sitting silly and grinning in the middle of the battlefield."
"C'mon, come with us," the second voice said as another man materialised from the near darkness to help us into the cover of bushes.
Torches, real fire torches, bobbed over the battleground as I stared out, shocked. All around me men groaned and died of their injuries or of the treatment the surgeon gave. Horses snorted at a picket line and armour chinked as someone moved - the small amount of metal armour in evidence had been deliberately dulled with soot to camouflage them in the night. No cars interrupted the perfect theatrical setting, no twinkling lights shone from the village which, from where I squatted, looked to be no more than three or four homesteads huddled around a spring and a gallows. Above the ramshackle roofs the sky deepened from ash grey to charcoal. The smell of scorched lamb assailed my nostrils -some farmer would find himself short of a sheep or two. A greasy faced man was scraping fat from the sheep's pelt as the butchered sheep roasted on makeshift spits. Behind both lines, on both sides, men would be doing the same mundane tasks as they waited for the light to grow strong enough for battle to recommence. Bearers dragged the wounded from the field of combat to be attended by the surgeons who were feared more than death itself.
Somebody handed me a hot, fat-dripping hunk of half-cooked mutton fresh from one of the cooking fires. I accepted it gratefully and found it tasted real enough. Everything about me seemed so authentic that I momentarily wondered if some Cromwellian soldier was sitting in the middle of a sun-parched sheep field waiting for day 3 of the haunting. If he had any sense he would not be waiting, he would have legged it far away from here, but where would he go in a world of science and electricity? And where would I go in his world of brute force and cunning?
Around me, rough, accented voices comforted the surviving wounded and the dying. Many of the survivors bore horrific injuries, injuries that would test a twentieth century surgeon's skill. I saw one man in tears as he cradled his friends head in one callused hand and swiftly drew a knife across the man's throat to end the injured man's misery. Occasionally a person would crawl through the bushes on his belly with spoils looted from corpses of the enemy; a piece of decent armour, a pair of boots or a sharp new dagger.
Others came to our campfire with whispered news. Weasel listened gravely to whatever they had to say, his cunning eyes pinpoints of flame in the darkness. Later he began to stow coin and food into a series of small leather pouches which he wore on his belt and as I glanced warily about I could see his companions doing likewise. One of the men, a large auburn-haired ox of a man with a bovine expression, mixed a paste of mutton-fat and ash using the fatty side of the sheepskin as a rough-and-ready palette. In grim silence this mixture was handed around and each man smeared his face with the rank smelling mixture. When I made no move to daub my own face, weasel did it for me. In the flamelit darkness all that was visible were eyes and teeth. We must have looked like a troupe of black-and-white minstrels.
The secrecy of their actions was suggestive of desertion and my suspicions were soon vindicated. Weasel was obviously still under the impression that I was suffering the effects of a heavy blow to the head as he hauled me off my backside and into a crouch. I wondered who he was - was he a neighbour of the man I resembled? A brother? A lover even - although he had made no untoward moves? Whoever he was he had assumed responsibility for me. The man he had mistaken me for must already have laid plans for desertion.
"We go now," hissed the latest scout or spy or looter who had wormed his way up to our fire, "men on each line are sleepin' - or dyin'." He pointed uphill, away from the camp and the next day's battle. As if to reinforce his words a hoarse scream broke the nocturnal rustling as another wounded soldier called for succour - or release.
My earlier thoughts that these men were deserters were confirmed. How many of the soldiers were farmers, foresters, merchants or villagers pressed unwillingly into the army? Though many were cowards (although I saw nothing wrong in fearing for your life - a strong self-preservation instinct I call it) many were ordinary men sick with longing for their homes and their wives or their guilds and true professions. I wondered what proportion of this army was made of "volunteers" and what proportion made up of trained professionals.
Half-crouching in the firelight, I looked around; the orange flicker played shadow games upon the faces of the injured as they lay nursing their pain. Those were men who would never have the chance to desert, men whose wives and families would wait in vain for their return.
"What about the others?" I whispered, indicating the sleeping forms who blocked our way, "the injured?"
The weasel-faced man, begrimed and bloodstained, held up a short knife, "They'll not talk," he said curtly, "better off now besides."
I thought of the tearstained face of a friend mercifully dispatching his comrade and I thought too of the ruthless men who dispatched the sleeping merely to allow us a chance at escape and I shuddered at the complexity of human nature. Singly and in pairs the men crept away into the darkness between the low burning fires. Weasel plucked at my grimy sleeve and silently I followed him into the night. We passed between the knots and huddles of weary soldiers uneventfully, some nodded in our direction seeing only dark shapes and supposing us to be going to relieve ourselves behind the picket lines. Horses champed the grass and nickered softly as we passed. A groom was running practised hands down their legs and applying poultice to the cuts he found. Some distance away another man cut the throat of a beast which lay trembling and twitching on the cold grass. Before the steaming breath had even stopped issuing from its gaping jaws he had begun to disembowel it.
A little way to the left were supply wains which had trundled up to the battlefield during the day. Luckily for the army no enemies had cut the supply lines. A soldier-turned-wainwright was replacing a spoke which had snapped on the rough terrain. The draught horses were tethered close by and their liquid eyes watched our passage into the gently undulating countryside. By midnight we were the best part of a mile away in fields I did not recognise. The open space seemed deserted and men had just begun to relax when pale faces rose wraithlike before us. Armed figures sprouted from the tussocky hillside where they had lain hidden in wait for men such as we.
"Ho there, where d'ye think ye go at this time o'night?" the voice called, "not thinking of deserting now?" but it was not a question.
Another voice called from the obscurity of the darkness, "Come join our fire until the morrow when the fun begins anew." They knew we dared not refuse. As the sky began to lighten before true dawn we would be directed back to the battle lines ready to die for our country.
Swearing softly, weasel-face and his men moved into the pale circle of firelight and crouched upon the grass. He wove a deception about moving to higher, drier ground where we would not be plagued by the groans of the dying. The men that had stopped us nodded gravely in the flickering firelight but evidently did not believe him. Trickles of mutton fat reflected from the stubbled chin of a seated man and he scrubbed at it with the back of a coarse, hairy hand. Seeing no choice I sat down close to the fire and tried to dispel the chill that had taken up residence in the marrow of my bones. The man who had spoken to us stirred up the fire with a crooked branch.
"You," he said, pointing at me with the glowing firebrand, "You know the penalty for desertion, what have you to say?"
I shrugged, trying to look forlorn and dejected, while weasel interjected "He put us up to this, said he wanted to go home to his woman." The treacherous man grinned ferally in the flamelight, his teeth reflecting the orange flickers from the fire.
The man looked long and hard at my treacherous companion as though weighing up whether to gut him there and then or send him into battle to die on the morrow. "Have you no voice?" the figure demanded of me.
I sensed a rough kind of justice in the man, he was harsh but not unfair and maybe he had already marked weasel as a troublemaker likely to draw simple-minded men into his daring schemes, but still I did not answer - I did not know what to say.
"No voice at all," weasel babbled, "Sitting there staring silly in the middle of the field, not so much as an attempt to pull back for the night. If you ask I, he's gawn stark staring mad."
"I didn't ask you, little man, I asked him. Where are from soldier?" He fingered the edge of my Barbour, mistaking it for a stout but overlong jerkin.
I toyed with the idea of answering him truthfully. Hackney in his time was marsh country in Middlesex (or was it Essex?) in his day. Were men enlisted in London fighting here or had they all been enlisted locally? I could not even describe historical Hackney. Weasel had described me as stark staring mad so I cocked my head to one side and looked uncomprehendingly at him, hoping he would give it a rest.
"He's just a village simpleton," one of my interrogator's companions said, "Battle fodder."
"Look at him, not the brains of a chicken if you ask me," another man added and they squawked with laughter at the simpleton.
"His friend said he wanted to go home to his woman," the first companion giggled, pointing at weasel.
"His mam more like," the laughing companion retorted.
"How are you going to go home soldier, if you can't remember where home is!" taunted our interrogator.
"Fetched himself a nasty wallop. Didn't rightly remember who I was, an' me his best friend," weasel ventured.
I doubted that anyone would want weasel for a friend, but the soldier told weasel to watch that I did not burn myself on the fire or wander off and then left us in peace. Under the watchful eyes of a succession of night watches we tried to sleep, rolled into blankets for the night.
Just as dawn began to turn the velvet blackness to ash grey, a breakfast of oatmeal was cooked in tin mugs on the hot embers of the fire. It was a far cry from the sweet porridge made with cream and flavoured with heather honey that I had enjoyed as a child. For a start, its greyness was visible even in the poor light and it did not stick to an inverted spoon. When breakfast had been gulped down - and the only way to eat it was to gulp it down so that you did not notice its gritty tastelessness, our intercepters made ready to march back to the main encampment where men were readying themselves and their weapons.
We marched with them, there being no way to evade their scrutinising stares. A teenaged boy was snivelling that he didn't want to die while an older man showed him how to repair a rent in his protective leather armour. The campfires had either burnt out or were smothered by their own ashes or by stamping boots; the sleeping blankets were returned to the pack animals and the lines reformed. Muskets were dissected, oiled and reassembled then men knelt by loaded weapons ready for the word to fire. Freshly cleaned lances, spears and sabres glinted in the first light of the early dawn, bristling from our army like porcupine spines.
A bugle cry (at least it sounded like a bugle, no doubt it was some sort of brass horn) silenced the men, signalling us to form our lines and weasel pulled me next to him. We seemed to be formed into units, swordsmen, archers, men wielding pikestaffs made up the footsoldiers while the remnants of our cavalry stood in prancing lines ready to engage the enemy. I was already overwhelmed by this assault on my senses when we began to charge. I could see nothing but the back of the soldier in front of me; hear nothing but the drumroll of hoofbeats and booted human feet on the shuddering ground. The musketmen had gone down on one knee to take aim. The big guns were hauled by main force into position and sudden cannon fire filled my ears. Smoke and clots of mud flew in the air; men's shouts, hoarse from raw throats, and the clink of swordplay joined it. The battlefield sounded like a busy industrial site as metal rang against metal and sweating men grunted with exertion.
Soldiers cried out in raw fury and ever rawer terror as the enemy cut into our ranks, scattering swordsmen and raking us with musket fire. Cannons boomed and horses screamed, their screams more terrible than the shrieks of the dying because they had no comprehension of what was happening about them. I could do no more than strike out at random hoping to hit the enemy and not our own troops, first with the sword I had been given then with a pike which I appropriated from a dying man. I offered a brief prayer to several of the gods in whom I did not believe, hoping that I would somehow survive the shrieking melee - or would wake up.
The flat of a sword struck me a ringing blow on the temple and I slipped in the gory mud underfoot. Mercifully my assailant was engaged by another pikeman and left me for dead. I lay in weasel's intestines, spilt out of a ghastly wound around which leather armour gaped like a retching mouth.
Horses plunged snorting through the furore, their riders engaged in furious sword battles, oblivious to the dead and dying under their mounts' plunging hooves. Sharp hooves danced upon me, pikes grazed me, swords rent limbs from trunks and spilled slippery loops of gut from wounds too terrible to contemplate. Men stared aghast at the stump of an arm before falling. The teenager who did not want to die tried desperately to push his spilling guts back into himself before his uncomprehending eyes rolled upwards and he joined the piled dead. The older warrior who had helped him with his armour fought like a berserker until he was taken through the eye by a pike and died yelling "That was for my son!". Cannon balls screamed overhead and muskets spat death and smoke into the opposing infantry.
Men died unnamed and unknown in the foul red slime underfoot. They grunted as their bones shattered beneath stave-blows or muscles tore; as flesh parted like butter beneath the blade of a sharpened sword. Now and again a ragged cheer arose or cries of encouragement could be heard above the general clamour. They fought amid bestial roars, died among the terrible animal squealing and abattoir reek of the field. They wallowed in filth evacuated from the bowels of shit-scared soldiers. Staves rebounded from heavy headgear while ornamental plumes were trodden underfoot to join the mingled mud, blood and bowels which covered the battleground in slithery, stinking slush.
My eyes, on a level with ankles and fetlocks saw mud spattered boots as men tried to keep their footing on the treacherous surface. Men fell headlong into the slime with musket ball-holes in their brains, the grey pink cranial contents oozing between bone shards to join the debris on the ground. I closed my eyes as a wave of nausea rose in my gut and my breakfast of sour milk and cold mutton joined the dead. The scene wavered, distorted by tears of pain and grief and futility as I tried to shut out the vision of that awful slaughterhouse battlefield. However hard I tried to blot out the sights I found them etched indelibly in my thoughts.
"C'mon," said a hoarse voice, "are ye all right?"
I opened my eyes, gritty with dust and pollen. My chest felt constricted, my throat raw and a dull throb pounded in my temple where the flat of a Royalist sword had knocked me silly.
"Course he's all right, the heat, phew, make anyone faint," another voice, well meaning, said.
I braced my arms against the earth, expecting to sink elbow deep in red slime. My hands met hard dry soil and coarse, well-trodden grass. The taste of sour milk vomit and greasy mutton echoed on my tongue and the shrieks of dying men throbbed in my mind, echoing, re-echoing, ever more faintly as they fled through the corridors of the mind.
"Did you see anything?" the first man asked with barely restrained excitement, "anything?"
Gathering my sundered wits about me I nodded dumbly.
"What? What did you see?" he urged.
Behind me someone was repeating, "He's awestruck, awestruck, struck dumb ..."
"Battle, horses, men dying," I whispered, stunned.
A tractor roared by, heaving its way uphill as the engine groaned under a heavy load of lifted turves.
"Did you?" I asked the man and his companion.
"Nothing," he shook his head to emphasise the point. His eyes looked forlorn. "Some, like you, heard horses galloping, some say they saw shadowy shapes. What was it like?" His voice was eager and a multitude of questions burned in his eyes. I could almost hear his thoughts 'I saw someone who saw the whole thing!'.
"Just that," I whispered, overcome by the mixture of horror, turmoil and despair I had witnessed, "Just that."
Like a packed up picnic, ghost hunters rose from their long vigil and rubbed life into cramped limbs. They spoke of their disappointment that the echoes were not more than that; that the promised super-materialisations and illusions had not lived up to the hype. Disillusioned, their beliefs shaken asunder by the non-event, they melted away into the village to drown their disappointment in spirits of another kind. Believers turned sceptic while others, those who had not expected a glorious technicolor action-replay, spoke of atmosphere and half-heard shouts echoing through the ages until even the echoes died away like the last ripples from a stone thrown into the pond of life.
Shakily I stood and knuckled circulation back into my tortured knees. Blood welled from a small cut in my thigh and the fabric of my trousers were torn. The summer air was hot and sultry, hanging over us like the threat of a thunderstorm. Several people had succumbed to heat exhaustion and the St. John's Ambulance had been conjured up out of nowhere to dispense cold compresses and 'electrolyte solution to replace body fluids lost through excessive perspiration' (quote). The best cure for heat stroke was reputed to be a drink of Best in the Red Lion.
Below us the village spread out like a multicoloured patchwork of reds, browns and greys among the bleached greens of the country side. Four old houses leaned upon each other for support as they watched their reflections in the duck pond. Porcelain pale ducks paddled after bread thrown by young mothers whose children sat in pushchairs in the shade of a gnarled and spreading oak which grew where once a tree of a different kind had stood. The four houses had spread into forty and augmented again by the vivid red-brick boxes of the two housing estates.
A small Town Hall (if it could be considered that) administered to a still-growing village which had once relied upon a travelling Assizes judge to try its witches and settle disputes. Shops and taverns, tiled rooves and slate rooves and the flat roof of the junior school, grey stone walls and brick bunny-hutches, all these had sprouted in the intervening centuries. The church still stood tall but the dirt paths had been replaced by wide tarmac roads and flagstoned pavements. Sheep still nibbled unmolested right up to somebody's back gate and the cows still lowed but from a milking parlour and not a hovel. Around me stood the disillusioned seeking solace from the bottle.
Someone shook me by the shoulder, it was the effeminate looking son of my host.
"C'mon, you didn't actually believe all that crap did you?" he asked, grinning lopsidedly, "I'll stand you a Guinness at the Red Lion - can't abide the cocktails dad sells."
I slung my coat over my arm and walked back to the village with him while my mind reeled with remembered noise and confusion and battle sounds. We talked, I recall, of inconsequential things: the sheep, the village, his A levels (whether they'd get him to Loughborough), his motorbike (whether he'd be able to put it back together again) and the exponential growth of his home village . Always in the back of my mind the sound of grim battle raged and the incommunicability of my visions twisted my heart with a bayonet of grief.