The Year A Village Burned.
It was as if they simply became blind to it, those that remained. All that before had been solid, the very matter of their lives, now lay consumed and rotting beneath them, clouds of ash circulating their wearied faces, mocking them. For some on either side a shadow would occasionally flit over their thoughts like a damning hand, and they feared they might somehow be to blame. Guilt though was quickly dismissed for sifting. There must be money or something somewhere, materials, anything, something to continue with. Guilt could wait. It tended to do that for them.
That year in Littlehempston there had been six murders, three rapes, domestics and a spate of untallied hate crimes, creating seemingly more bad feeling than usual. The first sign was Margaret’s pies. For years, eons perhaps, Margaret in the big house on Heather Arch lane had made Betty from The Windmill succulent blueberry pies of an almost unfathomable azure shade. Now though, the pies which had always been rewarded with kindness and gallons of tea were left to grow fur the colour of abandonment in the cold of the porch corner. Little Harry with his squeaky trike hadn’t been allowed to see his best friend in weeks. He’d heard Karen with the bright coloured mouth say that their mums had been fighting in her salon. Even at five years old, Harry knew that in a village like this, that was the end of things.
Ever since the mention of the council election — that innocuous seat of no real power at all — all that previously lay hidden beneath gardening gloves, novelty aprons and the occasional toupee had gasped to the surface, like bubbles through so much toxic waste. The bickering over flower-displays, the May Day parade and the selection of google-to-know-them celebrity for the lighting of the Christmas tree had never held much appeal for the quiet folks of Littlehempston (except of course folks like Jeremy, who, at a loose end when his mother passed now chaired every committee, including the W.I.). This year though, budget cuts and downsizing meant that a new topic was on the cards, and idle tongues had begun to wag as if worms spewing from carrion. Just less than a mile down Narrow Lane lay the almost equally sized, equally underwhelming village of Moretonhempston. The issue at stake was that half of those running for council in each settlement sat firmly in favour of merging the two ‘hempstons. After all, it wasn’t even a mile different; The Vicar’s front garden from koi pond to gate was larger than that. All might have been well had every prospective councillor, every current wielder of the sword of power concurred on this one matter. They didn’t.
Within weeks of the announcement — which, misspelled and miniscule as it was at the end of the village newsletter, many hoped would be overlooked — few Littlehempstonians spoke of anything else. Yoga classes and psychic-shows, the usual fodder of the hallowed, flaking parish hall were shunned in favour of debates and impromptu rallies. One evening, the space found itself teeming with a trembling riot of divided colour. On one side sat those in proud, furious crimson, what those calling for an independent Littlehempton saw as a valiant shade, English and free (it seemed that their being a mere mile from Moretonhempston had been overlooked in favour of blind patriotism. They didn’t realise that their counterparts a mile away appeared equally bloodthirsty). Matching them scowl for twitching scowl sat those smothered in blue-rosettes. During a planning meeting of what was the weekly book club (certain “separatists” had been told that their discussion of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ was cancelled due to nits), metaphors had been considered and after pondering inclusivity, progress and above all, hopeful tranquillity, blue it was decided “was the warmest colour”. That was their slogan now. It seemed no one had watched the whole film yet, nor had they really thought their battle plan through.
With sanguine red set opposite faux-tranquil blue, the parish hall began to smoulder and catch. Not, as was hoped by many at that time, with enlightened debate, but with the fear and hostility hanging like a dense smoke above the crowd. Poor Jeremy, determined to maintain peace in his dear village attempted the role of mediator from the front, dressed all in white and giving the strong impression of a bride being led to the sacrificial altar.
“So then, you all have the agenda for today I believe,” the concern in his voice was as tangible as his worrying of the hole in his sleeve. “It’s coded in terms of priority so-“
“Jeremy, hang on a minute. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but no.” Margaret, her lilac tinged curls quivering with the effort of avoiding Betty’s gaze, stood staunch amid her blue-hued compatriots. “There’s only one point to made here: what exactly do you all think will happen to our budget if we don’t do this, hmm?” The crowd remained silent. “I’ve read the reports, there’ll be no subsidies, the football team will have to close as no one will be able to pay Barry to fix the ground up anymore –“
“What?!” A shriek from the far side of the hall interrupted and hung in the air as Edith, red ribbons trailing from her hair like a haggard schoolgirl, gathered her indignation as a cloak before holding forth at her husband. “Hang on Margaret — Barry did you know about this?! You blithering idiot, you bloody fool, since when are we losing money because of this?!” Barry, a balding man, stooped slightly under the blazing glare of his wife and sat silent. “Jesus CHRIST Barry, I could despair -”
With all the bluster that she could muster she threw her shapeless mass of maroon knitting on the floor (she swore it would at some point morph into a jumper), and became the first of many that afternoon to awkwardly trip their way over handbags from the hall. Barry blushed but remained seated. He would focus on the matter at hand, self-preservation be damned.
So it continued. With the weeks until polling day waning in the ruddiness of the fanatically lit campaign centres (one the Book Club, the other the shop on the Village Green; union supporters had been forced to commute for milk for weeks now), Barry slept stubborn next to the dog on a couch more pooch’s than his. He left after three weeks of this, choosing to kip in Headquarters rather than be humiliated further by a wife, and her dog, who insisted on supporting the opposition. Danny from the council flats had adapted too. He’d learned to get his kicks through swapping the colours on the prim bungalows around the green, and watching from the hedgerow as their equally prim owners seethed, desperately picking at his Poundland super glue before a furore ensued. Karen’s business suffered after someone saw a blue wig in the salon window and spread word of her “liberal” allegiances. No one believed her when she told them again and again that she’d seen the shade in Vogue, that she didn’t care which way the vote went, so long as she kept her custom up. Now it was down and all she could think was that, after having her ex, the kids-football coach investigated and spreading that that bitch Janine from down the road was cheating (unaware that it was true and with her own boyfriend. She now said that she’d known all along), “How is this the first time someone’s thought I was lying?” The whole thing became mad, maddening and distorted, bending the bonds of family and friendship until deep down no-one, not one person in Littlehempston really cared for the result, only victory over what were now former friends. With such infernal, unfounded rage abounding, it’s almost no wonder that the first fires went near unnoticed.
Danny — given his track record — was brought in for questioning first, but proven innocent. The playhouse in the vicar’s garden was now a smouldering pile and everyone knew his penchant for the pyro, but his alibi was solid; nothing was to be done. With no one hurt or even lightly singed and the police busy keeping the peace in the dodgy part of the village — even in a village of less than two hundred, they couldn’t help but wonder, how was there always a dodgy part? — a fire in a kennel was overlooked, and a hob singeing a luckily soup-damp tea-towel was quickly quenched and forgotten. By the time the abandoned thatch of Heather Cottage caught, the unrest had spread to the police as fervently as the rest of the parish. Commands were ignored, disloyalty bred disservice, and the fire crew were barred from half the village for the colour of their trucks. They watched, helpless behind a barrier erected mid-green and manned by the overzealous. Within a day, the cottage was a glowering wreck. Barry watched the ruins smouldering next to the house which used to be his for just a moment, mourning the wreckage of his trampled begonias, before turning to join the red rally striding past. In the lingering smoke behind the picket fence, ribbons of discordant colour trembled into the rubble.
In places, the violent tendencies so long buried beneath moral restraint were finally surfacing in the name of political passion. Now, the tools of the disenfranchised police were being turned to what would before have been deemed criminal, but who was there to stop them? One side would find a picketer tasered in the village flowerbeds, between the tulips so kindly sponsored by the choir the previous summer. The next day an oppositional kneecap was shattered by a nightstick. A particularly diligent pro-Union supporter was found naked from the waist down, weeping and bleeding in a bush behind the church, lying on a bed of soiled union flyers. Her husband and friends, Danny amongst them, went seeking justice, and death on both sides followed. The fallen were taken to an abandoned house. That place, still harbouring its silent soldiers, still in their coloured tokens, burned that night while no one was near. The fighting was all over the streets now, a seething mass come twilight; the plotting festered in barred rooms where sisters lay bare plans for their brothers’ destruction. With action a round-the-clock matter, the church bells had fallen on deaf or distracted ears for too long. Perhaps that was why no one reported the distortion of the evensong chimes as they warped and deformed, the flames licking their notes into wavering submission. The spire crumbled, and debris mutilated headstones lamenting the loss of fine folk who “lived in duty and charity to their community”.
By the time election day came, the village hall was a charred skeleton steaming from the battle-green, the remains of some mythical creature now so common a sight that no one batted an eyelid as its carcass rotted amongst its smaller tortured brethren. All that mattered now was that the barricades remained intact, and the emergency tents erected at the towns edges still teemed with what was left of life. Karen’s salon had long gone, the plastic extensions adding fuel where none was needed; Barry’s couch too; Danny’s flat; even the village school. All were ashes now. All was cleansed in the fire until nothing but blackened dust remained in heaps, holding every colour and yet none at all.
For some on either side a shadow would occasionally flit over their thoughts like a damning hand, and they feared they might somehow be to blame. Guilt though was quickly dismissed for sifting. There must be money or something somewhere, materials, anything, something to continue with. Guilt could wait. It tended to do that for them.