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95

“Pete! Pete!” The farmers tumbled riotously around Mr Hatter, as if they had captured a leprechaun. He was always fussing about up at the house and he seldom had time to come down and have a drink with them. Now, he was finally theirs.

Lu was given a glass of milk, which she had no particular use for. She sat and looked at it.

Mr Hatter was soon clucking away garrulously, divulging his own subtle variation upon the gossip from all around the neighbourhood. The pub judged it to be more finely considered than the next man’s and its telling also made depleted scandals seem fresh again. Almost as a rule, the war never intruded into this gossip. It was instead viewed as just a lot of nonsense that was going on down in London and on the BBC. They had run out of men for the factories but, rather than admitting that they had made a mistake, they were now sending in women to work there. It would make a cat laugh – these people were shameless!

Suddenly, the farmers became conscious that they were all listening to a low mechanical throbbing which was issuing from outside in the street. All talk immediately swooped and vanished, like it had been wiped from the air.

It sounded like some vastly proportioned vehicle had descended upon the village. Tom Gunnett had emerged from behind the bar, in a rare foray of inspection. That same greasy napkin, which had been used to dry successive generations of dimpled beer glasses, was draped across his arm. It was amazing to see him actually walking. He was blinking nervously now that there was no longer a bar between himself and the big wide world. As his patrons looked up at him in concern, he smiled with reassurance, in a kind of plastic way, and blinked convulsively.

Mr Hatter rose to accompany Tom out into the street. Several of the farmers rose as well and then all of them were up on their legs. Lu was an unobserved little face at Mr Hatter’s side.

They stepped out into the street and almost stepped back again at a bolt of piercing white light. The throbbing of the engine was now a strangled roar. A gleaming black vehicle, which was coming up to the size of the pub itself, was perched on the side of the road like a fleeting new house. It was parked but still throbbing. In response, the pub’s windows were quacking clamorously in their frames.

The vehicle appeared to have been driven there on caterpillar tracks, in the manner of a tank, for there were massively corrugated marks discernible across the road’s surface. The body of this vehicle was horribly familiar and then Lu had grasped that it had been somehow modelled on the coiled structure of a pointed snail’s shell. Glossily pristine, the black coils flowed as effortlessly as ink.

An apologetic-looking man had hopped down from where the farmers had guessed that the cabin of his vehicle was located. They watched him jogging across the road towards them. He was a tall, trim figure, dressed in a bottle green boiler suit. Lu could read nothing in his face, though his eyes looked deeply attentive.

“Good evening,” he saluted the villagers. “Please be alarmed.” He must have meant please do not be alarmed. His accent was foreign, but Lu could not tie it to any particular country. It did not sound German, though its lightness and precision might have been French.

The farmers stared at him in incredulity. “Are you a Nazi mate?”

The man in bottle green looked surprised and then amused. He then smiled and the fuchsia dots of a blush appeared on his face, making it look disconcertingly pretty.

Picking out Tom Gunnett as the ringleader, the man in bottle green eyed him politely but with a faint look of innocent mischief. “We have secured this village and the surrounding neighbourhood. Naturally, you will cooperate?”

So the Nazis were here. The farmers were dismayed and indignant, but not to the point that any of them were going to say anything. Mr Hatter gazed around in bewilderment. “England has been invaded?” Reg Mabbutt asked wonderingly.

In his own blushing, perfectly mannered way, the man in bottle green grew solemn. “I am eager to secure the house. My orders are to seize it.”

“The big house?” Mr Gunnett demanded gruffly. It sounded like an opportunity to divert attention away from his pub. As if all of these farmers could remain drinking in the pub as normal whilst the countryside around them was overrun!

“The big house is up the road, mate!” one of the farmers volunteered encouragingly.

But the man in bottle green was at once apologetic again. “No, it’s a very little house. About this high.” The man laid a hand flat and bobbed down to raise it three feet above the ground.

This was clearly sheer nonsense but, at a loss, the party from the pub continued to agree that his words could be interpreted sensibly. “Nah, you’ll be wanting the big house, mate,” the farmer laughed. “It’s three miles up the road, through the forest. It’s so big that the whole Luftwaffe could land in the garden.”

“They should have turned it into an orphanage or a hospital,” Reg Mabbutt muttered, with a flicker of spite. Mr Hatter glanced at him quickly.

Her sister! Lu had to rescue her sister! She was ready to slip away, into the darkness, but she found that she was incapable of turning her back on this tank and its driver in bottle green. Even though he had ostensibly not noticed her, Lu was certain that he was aware of her presence. It was not carelessness that he had never looked at her; it was a refusal to fraternise with a designated enemy.

The man in bottle green bobbed in farewell, with another boyish smile, and turned on his heel. After the tank had swallowed up his nimble body, the throbbing of the engine rose to a stunning, apocalyptic breeze of sound. They all stood frozen as the tank glided back on to the road, as smoothly as a snooker ball, and darted with an airless clunk around the corner of the pub. At last the farmers broke into a run. Mr Hatter and Lu were running after the tank, in the direction of the house. Yet they were arrested by an unbelievable cry.

It was barely human. It was a cry with no remnant of control or calculation within it.

Mr Hatter and Lu had come to a stop beside the dainty little gate which opened on to the churchyard. Somebody, perhaps Reg Mabbutt, was at their heels. In that instant, a cloud had unveiled a portion of the moon’s lanthorn and the buildings of the village had stepped shining into its silver light. But when they looked at the church, they looked upon the impossible.

Lu’s mind rang uselessly, a scorched, empty pulsation of fright. Beside her Mr Hatter yelped smartly as though something had bitten him.

The church had been turned upside down.

How had they pulled it off? Even with her limited knowledge of how things went in the world, Lu knew that it would have taken engineers years to achieve this. The upside down spire had not been stabbed into the earth like the blade of a knife and its point instead appeared to rest on the ground as plainly as a foot. Lu’s gaze climbed and climbed to where the unimaginable weight of the church was floating above, all with the same strange weightlessness. It was fixed as motionless as any other building, as if some part of an otherwise errant gravity had stayed behind to hold it in place.

The ground upon which the church had previously stood was now as smooth as a dust track. On this surface, in a pool of silver light, the vicar’s wife knelt and bowed her head, for once enormously quiet. Her husband was staggering about somewhere amongst the graves.

Mr Hatter stumbled forward in search of the vicar’s arm, and at some point in their circuits the two men eventually encountered each other. “Matthew?” Mr Hatter beseeched, his voice thin and breathless. “It must be the Nazis. They’ve invaded the village. They must be using some new technology.” Mr Hatter’s voice was falling in pitch, in odd little steps, as he forced it to become more normal. He was now laughing in relief. “It’s amazing – it must be the technology.”

The vicar tottered before him, a gaunt figure with his face streaming. He looked as if he had been just that minute torn from a messy bed. It then struck Mr Hatter that he was naked from the waist down.

“It’s technology,” Mr Hatter gibbered. “The BBC never tells you about this on the wireless – they suppress it.”

“Pete,” the vicar squealed. “Do you think this is the technology?”

Mr Hatter peered at him uncertainly. “What is it man? What’s wrong?”

A fresh tear zipped down the vicar’s face as he laughed, and shook his head, and gestured with a kind of hopeless modesty towards his genitals. Mr Hatter attempted to retreat but the vicar continued to look at him and point matter-of-factly.

Suddenly, the significance of whatever the vicar was pointing at had broken through the awfulness of this intimate exposure and Mr Hatter was ducking down for a better view. Within an instant, like when he had discovered some problem in the bonnet of a car, he was totally absorbed. In amongst the vicar’s pubic hairs there were a dozen or so microscopic figures crawling aimlessly about, in the preoccupied manner of insects. Strangely, for their size, Mr Hatter could make them out quite distinctly. Each resembled nothing more than the bloated unclothed body of Gerald Man, apparently writhing with delight amongst the curly hairs. Mr Hatter later maintained that he could clearly perceive expressions of smirking triumph on the insect faces of these tiny men.

“Technology,” Mr Hatter repeated. He sat down quickly in the grass and reached out to clench handfuls of grass and soil, as if his hands could squeeze reality back into being.

The vicar floundered back through the graves, his bony knees swinging in the moonlight.

“I need to have a cigarette,” Zbigniew Tycienski said tersely.

Janet paused in her story, with her mouth hanging open. For a moment, she did not appear to know where she was.

Tori looked up at Tycienski in annoyance. She was worried that Janet would be unable to return to the story if she was interrupted. Janet might nod off and then Andrew would doubtlessly insist that she be carried away to bed.

“I must have a cigarette,” Tycienski reiterated.

Curse him, Tori thought. What a pig! She could imagine his impatience at being made to listen to what he evidently viewed as a senile old lady’s daydream. He did not know that this was so far a largely restrained telling of “The Waldingham Fairies.” At childhood Halloweens, in teenaged sleepovers, far more extravagant versions had been aired.

Andrew grunted, in such a way as to confirm that they could not smoke inside. “It’s the Polish… I mean the staff. This is supposed to be their workplace, of all things, and so we have to follow the smoking ban. Inside my own house!” Tori cursed again as Andrew turned away from the whole of “The Waldingham Fairies” as easily as if from a random television channel. “Let’s take a stretch. The way in which Janet was describing the moonlight made me start thinking about going outside myself. The garden is magnificent on evenings like this.”

[Next instalment: “The Figure on the Lawn.”]

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