To me and to many others the most important building in Goodfleet is the Library. Don says he wished the town council shared that view because one day the place will fall down around his ears if it doesn’t get more regular maintenance. Peeling paint and a leaking roof are only the grossest signs of the current neglect, according to Don. Anyway, it’s certainly the most imposing building in the town, bigger even than the Town Hall. It’s where we go to school and where I like to spend time if I’m not working and want to get out of the house. I do more teaching than lessons these days, but I always look forward to Don’s occasional tutorials. Every term he sets the seniors going with a project and expects us to put in our own study time. I’m doing one at the moment called ‘A hundred years ago’, which is about life in Goodfleet in the first half of the last century.
Rob hasn’t been to classes for months – I think he’s more or less given up. Rob is like my best friend. We have grown up together. I am kind of his big sis, I suppose, although there’s actually less than a year’s difference in our ages. But I’ve always looked out for him. I suppose I am more worldly wise. We can read each other’s thoughts, more or less. But he’s changed lately. He doesn’t talk to me the way he used to. We never used to keep anything from one other but these days he can be quite moody, guarded even. He even tries to avoid me sometimes, either that or he’s all over me, wanting to wrestle and sit on me. He’s taken to commenting on what I wear and how I’d better watch out or some boy will be after me. Well, I don’t have any shortage of boy interest but I’m not in any hurry. I’m not like Ronnie, knocked up already. Still, her mum’s pleased enough and will support her and the baby when it comes. When Rob starts that talk I give him the brush off, then send Terry in to cheer him up and tickle him. It never fails. She tries to make him laugh and says “I love you, Rob, marry me!” then they start fighting and Rob always wins, of course – he’s a strong boy – but even when Rob has her pinned to the floor Terry still says she wants to marry him, and I think she means it in her ten-year-old way. I used to join in to defend her, but these days I don’t bother. It’s not the same now.
“You never let me do that anymore,” Rob said resentfully as he scraped a plate of chopped leeks into a saucepan of boiling water. “You used to like me brushing your hair.”
Alice was already late for school. She felt like saying something cutting and unkind. Instead, she smiled at him in the mirror. “Well, times change, I guess. We’re growing up, aren’t we? You know.” She brushed her hair even more vigorously until it shone, then tied it back into a ponytail. She regarded herself in the mirror. The spring sunshine had darkened her freckles and made her eyes seem larger, rounder somehow. Not at all bad looking, young lady, she thought to herself. “You know, you’re the best brother a girl could have,” she enthused. That sounded false, she said to herself regretfully, even though she meant it. In a fluster she made a grab for her jacket and bag and headed for the door.
But Rob wasn’t satisfied. “But we’re not actually related, are we?” he returned, pausing from his soup making, eager to prolong the challenge. “Not blood related, anyway. That makes a difference, don’t you think?” He folded his arms and watched the soup bubble gently. He regarded Alice from beneath his eyebrows.
“Does it?” she said, not really wanting the exchange to continue. She could sense where this was heading. It had been building for a while, but now most definitely wasn’t the right time to resolve it, she thought. If only Father was here. “Right, well I’m going. See you later. Help Terry unload the cart when she gets back, will you, and don’t forget to give her a ‘well done’.”
Rob scowled and scraped his chopping-boardful of carrots into the proto soup. “I don’t deserve this!” he yelled after her as she closed the kitchen door.
When Alice arrived at the Library it was almost mid-morning. She had needed to help Terry set up the market stall. It was definitely a two-girl job fitting the frame together and attaching the canvas sides. Hard, heavy work but at least it hadn’t been raining. A soaking from rain made the canvas twice as heavy and much more awkward to handle. Nevertheless, Alice felt weary as she walked up the front steps of the old town Library. It was a massive, columned structure, built in a time when buildings were expected to last. The brick façade and tall, blinded windows conveyed a sense of significance, of gravity and seriousness of purpose. The Library owed its survival of all the many traumas and upheavals of the past ten years in part because of the building’s personality, if mere bricks and mortar can be spoken of in such terms. But just by walking up to its tall, darkly-polished hardwood front doors one felt a natural urge to show respect, to lower one’s voice, to mind one’s Ps and Qs. Making sure the windows were always clean and the floors always polished and the toilets always hygienic was the most important task one could be given, Don always told anyone tasked with a job on the cleaning rota. And now she understood his reasoning.
Once inside the Library, Alice made for the largest of the side rooms where she knew she would find Don teaching. It was noisy as usual. Maisie, a cheerful twenty-year-old who was the nearest thing there was to a nursery nurse, sat on the floor of the room’s centrepiece – a sunken rectangle of space that acted as a central gathering point for assemblies and singing sessions, surrounded on three sides by broad steps that could seat thirty children or more. She was reading with six youngsters while encouraging them to act out the story. A bear hunt was in progress, Alice guessed. She remembered doing the very same thing many years before. Maisie lived in Alice’s street. She was an only child and lived with her mum and gran. There were no men in the house, not permanent ones anyway, and Vic had done his best over the years to help them out, which might have meant giving them a box of fruit and veg from the Seamarsh garden or perhaps mending something broken, if he could. A few years ago Adam had developed a bit of a thing for Maisie and for a whole summer they were rarely seen apart: the tall, muscular Adam and the slight, dark-haired Maisie, who dressed like a boy. With her flat chest and cropped hair she could have passed for a male, except that her sculpted face was far too handsome and her hips far too curved for anyone but the most myopic observer to make that mistake. And then Maisie decided she preferred the company of girls to that of boys and so that was the end of that, although the two had remained good friends. Alice liked seeing them together because Maisie made Adam laugh so much, and there wasn’t much that made Adam laugh, and certainly not his current girlfriend.
Don sat at the head of a long table sandwiched between two tall racks of books. He had his back to her, busy with a group of children doing some kind of arithmetic lesson. They were learning to work with money, an essential skill in a society that relied so heavily on trade. In front of each child was a small stack of plastic coins of different denominations – paper money had disappeared years ago – from £2 coins down to pennies. This was Don’s group of slow children; no ordinary child would need to be taught something they used every day, picked up by watching the grown-ups buying and selling, haggling and bartering in the shops and the market. Everyone was acutely aware of the value and the price of everything, everyone counted out their money carefully, and woe betide any child who gave the wrong change or who was careless enough to tender the wrong amount when shopping for their mother. A curse followed by a whack round the ear was the usual punishment, even for small children. Where money was concerned you quickly learned to get it right.
Don glanced up and acknowledged Alice’s arrival with puffed-out cheeks and pop eyes. His smile was one of relief and welcome. He waved her over. “Be a sweetie and take over here, would you? I need to see a man about a dog.”
“Sure. Is Maisie OK getting the food ready?”
“All done. Back shortly.” He rose and straightened up with a grimace. “Been sitting too long. We’re adding and subtracting in tens, or trying to. We’ll get there.”
Alice slipped into the warm seat and surveyed the young faces. She knew them all, and their families, and they knew her. Two girls and four boys, aged between six and ten. A long-faced boy sitting on her left was trying to make one big tower with his coins. By the look of him he hadn’t had a decent wash in weeks and he stank of fish and wood smoke. He was Michael, the fish curer’s boy; ten years old but without the intelligence to match his age. He’d been coming to the Library ever since Alice could remember, but in all that time had made next to no progress. A four-year-old could outwit him. But “one day, one day Alice, the penny will drop.” That was one of Don’s favourite sayings. Ironic in their current situation. On Alice’s right, next to a shaven-headed girl, sat eight-year-old Jade. She wore just a t-shirt and had been sat on a folded towel. Her pants and smock had been pegged to a window opener where they hung limply in the May sunshine.
Alice got on with the lesson. It was easy to tell that the boy at the far end of the table had been helping Don make up the powdered ink because his face was spattered with dark blue dots. The boy’s heavy-lidded eyes flicked randomly around the room, as if he was following the flight of a dawdling bug. His mouth sagged far enough open to provide it with a neat hidey hole, should it ever wish to land. Not for the first time, Alice wondered if there was much point to all this, given the time and personal energy being invested in these young people. It might actually be easier, not to say more useful, to try and teach a horse to count. Some people said that was at least possible.
Alice’s brief daydream melted abruptly when a cold hand gripped her ankle. Badly startled, she watched as a boy’s grubby face appeared from the shadows beneath the table and proceeded to rest its chin on her lap. The lad’s expression could only be described as idiotic, imbecilic even; a mouth full of broken and blackened teeth fixed in an expression superficially resembling pleasure, but on closer inspection more like that of someone enduring a vicious pinch. Alice pushed at his greasy forehead. “Danny Green,” she said wearily, “get out of there now, and sit down. You want to eat, don’t you?”
“I love you, Alice,” came the thoughtless reply. A string of drool left a dark trail across Alice’s smock. The head disappeared and then re-emerged, next to the empty space beside Jade. Danny nodded in Jade’s direction. “She wet herself again.” Alice fought the urge to give up and admit defeat even though the chances of these children ever becoming numerate seemed about as likely as finding a mermaid’s slippers.
The Library provided a dinner of sorts for all the children who attended school. It was one way to encourage their families to send them, because many saw no point in teaching their children things they would never have a use for in their daily lives. “Who cares what happened with Churchill and Hitler in 1940?” “My boy could be down on the dock making up fish boxes or mending nets. He doesn’t need to know about poetry or the capital of Turkey.” “So long as she can write her name and read a list, and sew and cook, the rest don’t matter.”
The world will recover one day, Don was fond of saying. People will want to recreate the world as it once was. They will want to make the world a better place for their children, because people always have. It’s the human story. The world still had a memory of itself from the time before the Great Death. Everyone over the age of thirty was a neuron in the collective brain of that time, but the memory was weak and patchy, especially in the warmer parts of the world where almost everyone had perished. Meanwhile, it was everyone’s sacred duty to pass on the old knowledge.
Alice helped Don and Maisie as they handed out the packed lunches. Each box contained a hunk of brown bread, a matchbox-sized cube of yellow cheese, a carrot, a hard-boiled egg (unusual and a treat) and a small, badly-scabbed green apple. The children sat in a silent circle on the Library floor and ate with vigorous, unswerving dedication. Despite the fact that David had stuck the long handled spoon deep into his mouth, most children had still helped themselves to a generous dollop of Maisie’s pickle.
Around twenty children were in attendance that day. Some would have been called infants in the old days, but most were between eight and eleven. Some were young teens, like Alice. Most of the girls and even a few of the boys were dressed in a t-shirt and shift dress, which had begun life as plain navy blue but in most cases had been personalised with embroidery, tie-dying and beads. Just a little bit ironic, Don had said more than once when sitting with Alice and observing his motley class. At long last, the hippies were about to inherit the world.
The room was silent apart from the low background murmur of mastication and suppressed belching. From outside the distant shouts of men giving and receiving commands drifted in through the open window. Closer now, under the window, the grunting and cursing of a fish trader could be heard as he pushed his loaded barrow up the street to the market square. Then a new sound, one that Alice had never heard until yesterday; the clatter and slap of a lorry engine. The vehicle was descending the hill, slowing as it approached the esplanade, with squealing brakes and an inexperienced crunch of cogs as its driver attempted to change down through the gears. The olive green canvas top edged past the windows, watched in silent fascination by the children. Many of the boys left their food to stand on the benches and peer out at the passing spectacle. Then the lorry was gone and the boys returned to their places. Not a word was said, and in the distance the truck could be heard accelerating away along the sea front.
“Sorry about your mother,” Don began. “If you...”
Alice shook her head vigorously, her eyes fixed on her plate. “No, I’m fine. It’s OK. We’re OK. Adam’s been great, so’s Rob. Thanks for taking Terry out of the way.”
“Will there be a funeral?”
“Doubt it. We were just talking about how we were going to get her downstairs, you know, after we found her. It was horrible. Until yesterday I’d never seen anyone dead before. Then four soldiers turned up, just walked in. They didn’t say anything to us, just pushed Adam out of the way so they could make up a cardboard coffin on the floor beside the bed. Even with four of them they were having trouble lifting her, so in the end they just rolled her off the bed and into the box. We just stood there, watching them clamp the lid on with straps and then lift it down the stairs. She’d always said the only way they’d get her out of that room was in a box, and she was right. I nearly laughed out loud at that point but I managed to stop myself. If I’d started I wouldn’t have been able to stop, I knew that. Those boys really had to work hard getting her out to the lorry – you know how fat she was. I almost felt sorry for them.”
“She’ll be missed by everyone; don’t you think? I bet she embroidered half the smocks in this room. Everyone knew her, everyone visited her. She didn’t need to go outside; instead the world came to her. What did your neighbours do? You know, when they were putting her in the lorry?”
Alice took Don’s arm and rested her head on his shoulder. “The neighbours? Well, they started to come out for a gawp, needless to say. They’d come out and stare at two cats having a scrap. It was getting on for dark by then. The truck was surrounded by about twenty of them, all craning their necks to try and get a good look. Then the soldier with stripes pulled out his pistol and cocked it above his head. You’ve never seen folk move so fast. Within twenty seconds they’d all scuttled back inside. We stood watching until the lorry had gone. But before they left the sergeant came over and told us we would be putting a soldier up. He’s going to have Marsha’s room.”
Don sat straight up and looked at Alice. “What? You mean he’s been billeted on you?”
Alice nodded. “If that’s what you call it, then yes. He’ll be staying until the job is complete, the sergeant said. We have to feed him and do as we’re told, pretty much. Marsha wasn’t my real mother, you know.”
“Yes, I know. You came from Northwick, didn’t you? I remember you telling me this a long time ago. Alice in the bulrushes,” he chuckled.
Alice didn’t return the smile. “What’s going to happen, Don? Is this the end?”
If Don was at all scared, he didn’t show it. He gave Alice’s hand a squeeze and she leaned her head back on his shoulder.
“Best case? I suppose they will take what they want and leave. Why would they want a single village when they can have the whole coast? Once they have repaired the Endeavour they can do whatever the hell they like. Their first job will be to secure their electricity feed from the wind farm. Then they will neutralise Northwick. In the meantime, they spread terror until they are completely sure that nobody will dare to resist. I don’t think there’s enough of them to do it any other way. But it does make their control just that little bit more precarious.”
“And when they leave? If we’re of no more use to them what’s to stop them killing us all and moving their own people up here? Nothing. Is there?”
Don gave a snort. “I think that’s about as likely as finding a left-handed python. No, I just can’t see it myself. Can you imagine a thousand Wendonites dumped in an empty fishing town? How would they feed themselves? What would they do? They wouldn’t survive even one North Sea winter. And we are survivors, Alice. Never forget that.”
The conversation ended naturally and both turned to complete tasks begun earlier, Don to repairing a book trolley whose castor had fallen off, Alice to finishing her piece of writing, entitled ‘The rise of Hitler’. When the trolley was once again functioning properly Don set it on its wheels and begun to fill it with books from a pile on the floor. “Did I see Terry come in just now?” he called across to Alice.
“Think so, yes. She must have left the stall with the Johnsons. We have an arrangement – we keep an eye on theirs and they keep an eye on ours, in case one of us has to run an errand and leave the stall unattended. Either that or the boys packed it up early. Trade’s pretty dead at the moment.”
“Well, you know where she’ll be,” he said, standing and holding his sides as he arched his back straight.
Alice watched as he stretched. He was still lean and muscular, and despite the occasional mild complaint about aches and pains, remained as agile as a man twenty years younger. His dark hair was greying now at the temples and although the hairline had receded over the years it would still pass for a full head of hair. Normally he kept it brushed back but any leaning over would cause it to flop in his eyes, and now he swept it back with his free hand as he searched around on the desk top with the other. His spectacles were in his top pocket, as Alice indicated with her eyes. They smiled at one another and Don gave a wink of thanks.
“How old are you, Don, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I don’t mind at all,” he replied cheerfully. “I’m old enough not to remember my first serious kiss, put it that way. I’m sixty this year, but I guess age is just a number, isn’t it? It doesn’t actually tell you very much about someone other than the year they were born, which in my case was 1965. It’s your outlook that’s the important thing. Physically, I’m in better shape that some thirty-year-olds I could name, though obviously my skin tells a different story.” He looked thoughtfully at the backs of his hands, then turned them palm upwards. He stiffened his fingers until the lines on his palm darkened and stood out. “I’ve carried this set of lines since birth,” he said, and slowly traced the letter M on his palm with an index finger. “These are still my baby hands, larger and older now but they are the hands I was born with. It’s odd how the skin on your palms and the soles of your feet doesn’t seem to age like the rest of your body covering. These hands will die when I do and their job will be done.”
He continued to regard his hands thoughtfully, turning them over several times and flexing his fingers, as if to remind himself of their miraculous existence. Then he reached over and took one of Alice’s hands by the fingers and held it gently. Alice watched, fascinated by his absorption in the meticulous examination of her palm, as if he was seeing a hand for the first time. “Hands are beautiful aren’t they?” he said, letting go of her fingers, and then he glanced up and regarded Alice, his head cocked slightly to one side. “Does my age matter to you?” he said.
“No, not at all,” Alice replied quickly. “It makes no difference. You are the youngest old person I know.”
Don looked pleased. “Thanks, and if that’s in any measure true then I have you and the other children to thank, because it’s you who keep me feeling young.” Then his face became serious. And now I think you have a date with Terry. Let me know how it goes.”
Alice found Terry in the Local History room. She was leaning on the sloping glass front of a cabinet of jewellery items – necklaces, bracelets, rings, pins and medallions. Her precious sketch book, one of a boxful rescued from a village book shop on a scavvy run last year, was open in front of her. Alice watched as she alternately peered in through the glass and then drew on her pad. She was so completely absorbed in her task that it was only when Alice came and stood at her elbow that she become aware of her presence.
“That’s beautiful, Terry,” Alice said appreciatively. “I love the way you have organised the page, and the detail in that ring is just amazing. You have a real talent.”
Terry glanced up at Alice. She studied her face briefly before deciding her praise was honestly intended, then she leaned across and kissed Alice’s cheek. “Do you want to be going?” she asked. “I know we have to pack up the stall and the Johnsons go at four. I sold the road bike you and Rob built last week and got eighty quid for it!”
“Oh, well done Terry! No, no big rush. The boys are going to pack up today, remember? Ten minutes?” Alice leaned back on the cabinet and surveyed the room. Although she had spent many hours in this museum room it never failed to capture her imagination. The room itself was as much a museum piece as the majority of the displays. It had remained frozen in time for half a century or more. The original glass and hardwood cabinets, fitted at the time of the Library’s opening in the late nineteenth century, still admirably served their original function and looked so solid and fit-for-purpose that they might yet do so for another hundred years. Alice had swept the room and dusted and polished these display cases hundreds of times over the years. With her hands clasped behind her she paced slowly along, looking from time to time into this cabinet or that, until she reached her favourite exhibit – a life-sized tableau that occupied the entire end wall of the room. It depicted one of the few events in history that had any significance beyond the local area, ‘The Siege of Goodfleet Manor’.
The tale of the ‘siege’ and its consequences was undeniably a simple one but its intrinsic fairy-tale qualities had, over the centuries, allowed it to assume the mantle of a legend. The story tells how, one dreary December afternoon, Sir Thomas de Brock, while returning on horseback after a drinking session in the town had, while riding at a reckless pace, allowed his steed to run over and crush beneath its hooves, a child. The horse had then reared and thrown off its rider. Within an hour the mount had returned riderless to the manor house. Lady de Brock had immediately sent some of the men out to look for their master. Some hours later they had found him lying in a ditch, snoring and still drunk. It did not take long for the sequence of events that had led to the child’s injuries to emerge. Despite this only being the daughter of a commoner, it was clear, given Sir Thomas's previous history of shameful behaviour unbefitting a nobleman, that it was bound in the end to lead to trouble. The men left the dying child still lying in the road and carried their master home. But as it happened, this was no ordinary peasant girl. She was the town’s Queen of the May, the Golden Child, a girl of such radiant beauty and innocence that everyone who met her instantly loved her, so the legend goes.
True to his cowardly nature, the next day Sir Thomas fled to Wendon, pleading urgent court business and hoping thus to lie low until the furore had passed, as it had done on so many previous occasions. But this time it was different. It did not take long for the circumstances of the tragedy to become generally known. So incensed were the townspeople at the wrongness of the girl’s death that they formed a gathering in the market square where they resolved to march on the manor house and demand justice for the parents of Elizabeth Semmes, for that was the girl’s name. Thirty men, some armed with farm tools and some with more formidable weapons of war: long-handled billhooks, pikes, flails and maces, set off for Goodfleet Manor. In the modern age of firearms, the blood-curdling terror that could be induced by the sight of a band of muscular peasants armed with bludgeons and weapons of sharpened steel has been lost to the popular imagination. Alice eyed the pole-mounted blades of sharp iron, the choppers and spiked hammers whose sole reason to exist was to cause injury and death, and shuddered.
Outside the gates of Goodfleet Manor, Sir Thomas’s servants met with the mob. They were without doubt sympathetic to the townsmen’s cause and did not attempt to stop them from entering the precincts of the house since, indeed, they had already made sure that the whole town knew of the outrageous circumstances of the child’s death. On finding out that Sir Thomas had fled to Wendon the mob was initially at a loss for a way to proceed. Then someone suggested that Lady de Brock should be made to pay a visit to the parents of Elizabeth Semmes, to arrange for compensation and to offer them an apology. There was no question of harming her – justice was the issue here, not revenge.
The museum tableau illustrated the moment in the story when the distressed lady, accompanied by her own daughter, is dragged in front of Elizabeth’s grieving parents who stand at their cottage door, inviting her to enter. Five of the townsmen, life-size mannequins armed with weapons of war, dominate the scene. They flank the figures of Lady de Brock and her daughter as they make their way towards the cottage door. Alice had stared into these hard, peasant faces countless times over the years, and to her they had become real people with names and histories. She had even made up back stories for each of them and written for every one of them a biography that told of their life in war and peace.
The only record of what Lady de Brock saw within the cottage comes from a letter written to her husband and found among her possessions after she died. She describes the dead girl as indeed the Golden Child: beautiful, with long chestnut brown hair and a delicate face of intelligence and sweetness. She had been laid out in her Queen of the May dress, the simple coffin garlanded with aconites, mistletoe and ivy. But the legend does not end with a simple apology from Lady de Brock. Still angry at the disappearance of Sir Thomas, the crowd determined that Lady de Brock would dig the child’s grave, and her own daughter must help her. And so the digging began, and went on for hour after hour until the grisly task was completed and the child’s parents were able to lay their daughter to rest. The story concludes with the death of Lady de Brock a week later from a chill she caught that day, and her daughter being given into the care of the Semmes family who raised her as their own.
Sir Thomas never returned to Goodfleet. He was reported to have been killed in a duel at a tavern in Whitechapel. The manor house was pulled down by the townspeople and the de Brock lands were seized by the crown and remained in the king’s ownership until sold to a local man by a hard-up Richard III.
Terry stopped drawing and put down her pencil. She went and stood in front of Alice and picked up her hand. “Look at her sad eyes,” she said, pointing at the figure of Lady de Brock. “What do you imagine she sees when she goes inside the cottage? Just a dead child? I wonder how beautiful she really was?”
Alice shrugged. “The Golden Child? Who knows? Every child is a golden child to somebody, or should be. Her Ladyship, on the other hand, well she had everything, didn’t she?”
“Do you think so? Made a pretty poor choice of husband, don’t you think? Didn’t get that one right, did she? What a bastard.”
“True. But I wonder how much choice women had in those days? I don’t imagine they hooked up because he was cute and she was a babe. I’ve never forgotten something I overheard Dad saying to Don once, when they were drinking upstairs in the Library. ‘All men are bastards, Don, and I include myself in that definition.’ Dad said that.”
“Do you think it’s true?” Terry's face displayed a mixture of shock and glee. She had just been given a peek through the curtains into the murky world of adults, to be both thrilled and repelled in equal measure. Thomas de Brock was a bastard, no doubt about it. But Don? Alice’s dad?
Alice pulled Terry down to the floor and the girls sat cross legged in front of one another. “There’s no way to say this gently, so I’ll just say it,” Alice said, trying to keep her voice even. “Some soldiers came to the house on Tuesday, when we were at the Town Hall. They killed Marsha. Sorry just to say it, but best you know.”
She let Terry wail and howl until she was finished, but knew that this would be the last time the child would shed tears over Marsha’s death. That was part of history now; another rock added to the heavy sack that every mortal soul seemed destined to carry around on their back. Perhaps Vic was right. Perhaps all men were bastards.