|THE TOURISTS by Stephen Hernandez|
It was a good omen. They had both agreed on that. A lucky one for sure. But then that was only after the other thing had happened. The beginning of their holiday could have started off so differently, them being carted off to a hospital or even worse.
They had just rounded the corner of a long stretch of ‘A’ road, when out of the cloudless sky, a startlingly, immaculately, white barn owl swooped straight at the conversely grimy, insect splattered windscreen of their battered Mini. It was as brilliant and incongruous as a shooting star. The totally unexpected close-up of the magnificent bird of prey in full flight was so transcendental it momentarily sucked their breath away, so that the cramped interior of the diminutive car seemed like a vacuum caught in a timeless void. Movement took place in spaced-out, astronautical, slow motion. Their warning shouts at each other and the other worldly creature stretched out into infinity. Luckily, both Nicholas, who was doing the driving, and the bird, who was doing the flying, swerved in opposite directions at the same moment, avoiding what would have been a fatal collision for the bird.
As fate would have it, it also saved the lives of the occupants of the car. Nicholas managed to brake, and came to a standstill in a siding. Just as they were getting their breath back, a car full of teenagers turned the corner at tremendous speed, on the wrong side of the road, the driver barely keeping the vehicle on four wheels, the tyres screaming in disapproval leaving scorched rubber and smoke in their wake. The windows of the car had been down and the thumping bass of whatever music they were playing retreated in the distance like receding thunder. One of the teenager’s acne-sprouting face was pressed against the back window, mouth agape, whether in surprise, or if it was a permanent expression of bewilderment, they would never know. But the inescapable and irrefutable fact was that the car would have hit them head on if the Mini had not been in the siding because of the owl.
They emerged unsteadily from the car and shared a cigarette to calm their shattered nerves.
That was when they agreed that the sighting of the owl had been a lucky omen—it was going to be a great holiday, for sure. They had been blessed by an angel in disguise—that was Amy’s verdict. She was always looking for the more spiritual side of things.
Amy had the map spread out on the Mini’s dashboard. They had decided to drive from their home in Manchester down to Devon, stay wherever and whenever it caught their fancy, whilst journeying around the West Country. It was their first totally ‘unplanned’ holiday and it promised to be fun. This was day one of their adventure and they had already made several impromptu stops. The summer’s day was pulling the drapes on its seemingly endless drawn-out close in glowing cartoon colours. They agreed to visit one more picturesque village, then look for a place to spend the night before it got properly dark. After their ‘run in’ Nicholas did not fancy driving much more that day. He was a careful driver and the experience had unnerved him.
‘This place sounds nice,’ Amy said.
‘Tumbroll on the Wold.’
‘Is that a real place?’ Nicholas asked.
‘Okay, next stop, Tumbroll on the Wold, and if it’s got a bed and breakfast we’ll stay there the night,’ Nicholas said in an overly enthusiastic holiday voice.
The village of Tumbroll on the Wold was more difficult to get to than they had at first supposed. Mainly because Amy kept on giving Nicholas conflicting directions, swearing that the village was moving its location on the map. Nicholas wondered idly to himself if his wife had become a secret drinker. After pulling over and examining the map carefully, they plotted a route on a separate sheet of paper, and mutually agreed that for the time being the map would be safer kept in the glove compartment. Nicholas, however, did agree with Amy it was a difficult place to track as the village’s letters on the map were so minute that if you took your eye off them for a second it was nearly impossible to find again. It was even written in a font whose characters seemed to change shape as often as its location.
Even following their carefully plotted route nothing appeared to be in the right direction. Eventually, just as they were on the verge of giving up, they found an old wrought iron post with the long-sought sign for Tumbroll on the Wold pointing them down a winding country road. They passed a series of patchwork quilt fields, several haystacks and clumps of elms. It was an idyllic, timeless, background of many an attic dusted watercolour, its painter as long forgotten as that special summer captured on canvas.
The road seemed never-ending and Nicholas couldn’t help thinking that he had seen this same stretch of road repeated many times over like a repeated clip of film, but he dismissed the ridiculous thought. He had calmed down by now, the dreamy, timeless, countryside idyll had a soothing, pleasant, hypnotic effect like sinking into a warm bath. This was what motoring down forgotten byways was meant to be like.
The single gothic spire of a church came into view and before they knew it they were in the village’s high street. It was a pretty nondescript high street as high streets go, with no sign of a hotel or bed and breakfast anywhere, but they decided to stop anyway, even if merely to stretch their legs. They had somehow expected the place to be a lot older, but it seemed to be bland mixture of various architectural styles of the most boring British ‘Fifties’ kind. Amy said it was like being trapped in a row of suburban Bromley backstreets. The whole place seemed to be made up of washed-out colours like the sepia tones of a faded colour photograph.
They looked around the street for a pub sign, it would be a logical place to ask where to stay the night if there was any, but there didn’t seem anything remotely like a pub in the vicinity. They did manage to find a slightly old-worldly tea shop though. The place had real table linen and real bone china plates and tea cups, unfortunately neither the tea nor the cakes tasted as good as the tableware looked. The cakes looked and tasted like cardboard cut-outs. Neither, was the woman serving them much of a conversationalist. When they asked her about any local places of interest and if there was a bed and breakfast, she just shrugged her shoulders and looked out of the window.
‘What you see is what you get,’ she said, and cleared the things off the table in an end-of kind of way.
‘Charming,’ was Amy’s only comment. There was no-one else in the tea shop and it was not a place that inspired much in the way of carefree chatting. They found themselves starting a sentence then trailing off without finishing it.
‘I don’t think I like this place after all,’ Amy said. ‘Let’s get down to Devon and find a place to stay for the night. I think I’ve seen enough of Tumbroll on the Wold.’
‘Second that,’ Nicholas said, swinging the car’s key ring around his index finger.
They didn’t look back as they drove out of the village. The high street and its shops were as colourless and nondescript as the people walking the streets. The road out of the village seemed much the same as the one going towards it.
‘Have we just been in the most boring village in Britain?’ Amy commented.
‘I think, probably the world,’ Nicholas said.
‘What time is it?’ Amy asked. ‘My watch seems to have stopped.’
Nicholas glanced down at his.
‘That’s funny, so has mine. Come to think of it that tea shop was open late.’ Both watches, they discovered, had stopped at the same time. Six o’clock. The sunset was still a delight, Amy remarked. It was true, the perfect orange and pink sunset still lingered over the hills.
‘I’m sure this is the road we came in on,’ Nicholas said.
‘That’s impossible,’ Amy replied. ‘It’s just the scenery around here’s so similar.’
Bu there was no disputing the same gothic tower of the village church when it came into sight. Somehow, they had contrived to drive around in circles and had arrived back in Tumbroll on the Wold. They drove along the same bland stretch of high street and parked in the same spot as before. The tea shop was still open but they decided to ignore it.
‘We have to find somewhere to stay the night,’ Nicholas said emphatically. ‘I feel like I’ve been driving forever.’
‘I could take over,’ Amy volunteered.
‘You know you hate driving at night. The last thing we need is to get lost in the dark as well. There’s got to be somewhere in this god forsaken place that will put us up.’
He took out their small overnight bag from the boot of the car and they marched down the high street. The shops were shut and there didn’t seem to be a live soul in the place.
‘This is spooky,’ Amy said. ‘It’s like the village of the Damned or something.’
‘More like the village of ‘Damn what,’ Nicholas grumbled.
Then his eyes lit up. Nestled between a shop selling knitting items and a book shop there appeared to be every indication of a pub.
‘We’re saved!’ he said, pointing out the small sign which proclaimed: ‘The King’s Head.’ ‘Civilisation at last!’ They joined hand and strode purposefully to the door. Their newly found enthusiasm was short lived though. The public house, seemingly, had less convivial spirit than the tea shop, if that were possible. To say they were ignored by the denizens of the forlorn place would have been a gross understatement. There were three people in the establishment, including the landlord, they were all male and all seemed to be dressed identically—corduroys, checked shirts and cardigans.
They stood at the bar until the landlord appeared to notice their presence and then stood looking at Nicholas as if he were at a loss as to why Nicholas was there.
‘Could I have half a bitter and a glass of white wine please’
‘Don’t do wine,’ the landlord said. ‘Got Baby Cham if that’s what you mean.’
‘Baby Cham!’ Nicholas and Amy cried in unison.
‘Yes, Baby Cham,’ the landlord replied evenly. ‘I believe it’s popular with some of our lady guests.’ He did not bat an eyelid.
Nicholas and Amy stared at each other.
‘I think I’ll have half a lager,’ Amy said.
‘And what’s that when it’s at home?’ the landlord asked.
‘It’s a light beer from Germany, hence the word ‘lager’’ she said. Enunciating the words slowly as if she were talking to a small child or a foreigner.
‘We have bitter or mild on tap. We do have a bottled light ale—you must mean that luv.’
Amy looked aghast. ‘I think I’ll have half a bitter as well,’ she said finally.
The landlord grudgingly made a point of hunting out a straight glass. Whilst he was pouring the drinks Nicholas asked about any local hotels or bed and breakfasts. The landlord gave him the same blank look that the lady in the tea shop had bestowed on them. ‘Never been call for one,’ he said perfunctorily.
There were only two tables in the whole establishment. They took their drinks to one of them.
‘We could always sleep on the floor,’ Amy said. ‘I don’t think they would even notice.’
They tried to overhear what the locals were talking about but it was a low monotonous mumble, no words were distinguishable, it was like quiet background music from a worn-out record.
The beer was warm, not even room temperature.
‘This had got to be the worst beer I’ve ever had,’ Amy said.
‘Lucky for you they didn’t have lager then,’ Nicholas commented sourly as he sipped the lukewarm brew.
It wasn’t until they had left the pub that they remembered they hadn’t asked what the time was. Nicholas also seemed to recall that there hadn’t been a clock behind the bar, which was kind of unusual, but perhaps there had been and he had not noticed.
They looked up at the church spire.
‘That’s strange,’ he said.
‘What’s strange?’ Amy asked.
‘It’s stopped at the same time as our watches.’
Amy looked down at the useless watch on her wrist. ‘Yeah, you’re right. Must be some kind of magnetic thing.’
‘Time’s certainly stopped in this place alright. Let’s try and get back to the twenty first century.’ He pointed up the high street towards the church. ‘We definitely did not pass the church on the way in, so logically that’s the way out.’
They went back to the car. Nicholas was still puzzling over the never-ending sunset. ‘It should have been dark ages ago, surely?’
‘Don’t worry about it. Perhaps the lights better down here or something. I think it’s romantic.’ Amy cuddled up to him.
They set off in better spirits than they had arrived. The church spire receded into the distance and as it did so their mood lightened.
‘Got to say this whole thing has been a pretty strange experience.’ He settled back comfortably into the seat immune now to the endless passing of the fields and clumps of elms. They seemed to have driven for hours without speaking, each caught up in personal thoughts.
‘Do you know I’ve just worked out that our watches must have stopped when we saw the owl.’
‘That’s funny, that was exactly what I was thinking,’ Amy replied.
It was then, in the setting sun that the now all too familiar church spire of Tumbroll on the Wold came into view.
Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted.