It had probably appeared in a film. That is, if films were even known about here. I’d like to think that if anyone showed up with a camcorder, they’d probably have to explain the whole concept of “moving pictures” to the people who gathered in awe around the new-fangled “horseless carriage” that had just ground to a halt on the side of the street.
But, of course, this was just wishful thinking. As Tom brought the car to a halt next to a thatched cottage, he turned to me and said: ‘That hovel probably costs more than we make in a decade, Sally. Rustic chic or whatever. You’ve probably read about it in one of your magazines.‘
I laughed: ‘Nah. It reminds me of more of a bootleg Sisters Of Mercy record I got from this guy at a concert last year. The cover is this really bad photocopy of a group of uptight Victorians lining up outside a church that looks just like….‘ I pointed through the windscreen at the stone church at the end of the deserted road: ‘Anyway, if this was a posh village, there would be Land Rovers on the street and people with shotguns and tweed jackets.‘
Tom shrugged: ‘The Land Rovers are probably all in garages and they’re probably rich enough to hire farmhands to shoot their pheasants or whatever. Have you got the map?’
I fumbled through the mess of empty cigarette packets and mint boxes in the glove compartment before pulling out a well-worn OS map. We stretched it out and pored over it for a minute. After finding the nearest large town, we’d tried to trace our route but, no matter how many variations we tried, we still ended up at the same unmarked crossroads. Finally, Tom said: ‘We’re in the rustic village of Lost, population two.‘
‘They’ve gotta have a shop around here somewhere. We can ask for directions. That is, if it doesn’t offend your deep sense of tradition.‘
‘You’ve been watching too many sitcoms, dear.‘ Tom smirked, before opening the door. I opened mine and stepped out of the car. As I spotted a familiar red phone box standing tall beside what looked like a Victorian school, the faint smell of a bonfire reached my nose. It was one of those old smells that didn’t exactly reassure me. Above us, the sky was pencil grey.
I sighed: ‘On the downside, it’s probably going to rain soon. On the plus side, it won’t take us long to find a shop or something.‘
Tom smiled: ‘Don’t worry, I think that the pac-a-macs are still in the boot. I mean, I left them in there after that…‘ He wisely let the sentence trail off. A few weeks ago, we’d spent a “romantic” camping weekend in some rainy field in the New Forest that, by the end, had resembled something from a World War One battlefield. How the tent didn’t sink, I’ll never know.
Shrugging, we set off down the street. I was right. It didn’t take us long to find the village shop. It was locked.
Flashing me a lopsided smile, Tom said: ‘It’s probably one of those places that opens at three in the afternoon every other St. Swithin’s Day. We’re better off driving around at random until we find somewhere populated‘.
I couldn’t argue with that. As we walked back to the car, Tom spotted the graveyard next to the church. Spiky iron cages stood in front of the lopsided stones. A spindly, mutant tree towered in the back corner of the field. Tom raised his arms like a zombie and put on an American accent ‘They’re coming to get you…‘
His eye-rollingly predictable horror movie reference was cut off by the rain. There wasn’t even a rumble of thunder or anything. One second, everything looked normal and then it was like we were standing in the middle of one of those trendy power showers.
Without even thinking, we rushed into the little alcove in front of the church doors. Our way out was blocked off by a solid wall of water. I couldn’t even see the car through it.
Behind me, I heard Tom knock on the door. It was followed by a slow creeeak. For someone who watches almost as many horror movies as I do, Tom really hadn’t learnt anything. He stood next to the dark doorway and smiled: ‘Hey, maybe the vicar can give us directions? Don’t worry. If they didn’t want us going inside, they’d have locked it. Anyway, churches are meant to be open to anyone.‘
With a nervous sigh, I nodded. We stepped into the gloom. What faint light filtered through the windows showed rows of dark wooden pews, worn memorial plaques and stone pillars. Tom thought about calling out, but the words stopped in his throat. This place made a library seem as loud as a motorway. It was the kind of deep, heavy silence that doesn’t even need sternly-worded signs to tell you to keep it.
Then, I saw him. Against the shadows, something moved. Tom spotted it too. A robed man glided past the bare altar, his face hidden by a hood. We ducked behind a pillar and watched. Another hooded man followed. On some rational level, I knew that they had to be harmless monks. But, in a village like this? This was the kind of place where King Henry VIII’s decree to dissolve the monasteries probably still hung on the local notice-board.
When the third robed man appeared, Tom and I decided to make a break for it. We didn’t say anything to each other. We just nodded and tiptoed. Once Tom creaked the door shut behind us, we ran into the rain. Luckily, the car was directly ahead – but we almost ran straight into it.
Once we’d locked the doors and Tom had revved the engine, I caught my breath. We coasted off into the rain. Finally, I told Tom my thoughts about the monks. He just shook his head: ‘I visited a monastery museum in France when I was a lad. Real monks wear brown or grey robes. Their robes were red.‘