Seventy seven years ago, my mum is doing her best to make me look respectable, today is our schools Christmas party. She stands back to admire her handy work, but I can see by the look on her face, that all is not well.
Here I am, a twelve-year-old boy, nearly six-foot-tall and weighing 9 stone, I am wearing short trousers that are much too long, and my sisters Land Army jumper that is too big, nothing seems to hang properly.
“Alan, do you have to stand like that”?
“I don’t know any other way mum.”
“Pull your shoulders back and take your hands out of your pockets for goodness sake.’
I try to do as she asks but it’s no good, even if I had a ‘Fifty Shilling Suit’ from Kingston I would still look like a sack of potatoes, and now to make things worse, ‘Thunder’ Bolton is at the door and looking really smart. On top of everything, and right in front of him, she spits on a hanky and gives my face a final wipe.
I am so glad to get to school, This Christmas we are very lucky to have American soldiers stationed nearby, they have given us the best Christmas dinner ever. The chief cook at the American base, is very friendly with Mrs Edwards and has given the school turkey and ham and lots of sweets. He has also lent us a juke box with lots of jazz records.
This was the first time I had ever heard Dixieland music, but the older evacuees from London knew it already and were jigging about in the dinner queue to a song called ‘The Jersey Bounce’.
Although I am only twelve, I have begun to realise that some of these London girls were very nice to look at. One that caught my eye was a girl called June Hutchinson, but she was in the top class and so I had nothing to do with her.
Like a lot of the children from London she had a nickname: Jersey Bounce Hutchinson.
She was a very popular girl, but she had a very odd way of walking.
We are all boys on our table, and there is such a racket as we dive into our dinner,
then, suddenly it all goes’ quiet, I look up, to see what is going on.
And there she is, the lovely June Hutchinson, arriving late, and walking down the hall like a film star, as if she has springs in her shoes
She is wearing a fluffy woollen jumper, which seems to have something hidden inside, a small rabbit perhaps, or possibly two, for as she judders toward me, everything about her is moving so fast, I don’t know where to look first.
After all these years, I now realise her nickname; ‘Jersey Bounce, Hutchinson’ was nothing to do with her love of Dixie-land music.
Today I had a pleasant coffee morning with my new friends in The Community Café at Minehead Court. It reminded me of a similar day in Chertsey many years ago.
I was invited to a coffee morning at St Peters Church by my friends Alex and Sheila Lees. We were all a bit deaf from working in the local factories from the noise that you always have in those places.
On our table was Dennis Pacey, and Pat Gorley, they are both very deaf. Alex and I were listening to their conversation with increased anxiety, as they were talking about totally different subjects.
Neither of us wanted to embarrass them by pointing this out, so we just let them carry on, but the conversation was getting deeper and deeper out of control, and I know Alex would soon start giggling—the conversation went something like this.
“What do you and your missus get up to these days Pat”?
“Six normally, but we have a rest on Sunday”.
“That’s alright for you young ones, we stopped all that sort of stuff years ago”.
“On holiday though, she likes to rise early every day”.
“No wonder she always looks so happy Pat, don’t tell mine, otherwise she will get me down to the doctor’s tomorrow”.
They paused for a few minutes, drinking their coffee, I looked over at Alex, I couldn’t quite catch his eye though, then Dennis said.
“My old Rover keeps me busy as well, I’ve spent nearly a week fitting new brake pads”.
“I know Dennis, that can be very painful for them, but it has to be done, what sort of dog is it by the way”?
Alex suddenly stood up saying
”I need the loo”.
I quickly followed him.
I start the day as I always do, in the Community Café at Minehead Court. A full English breakfast (without any bacon), just two veggy sausages, scrambled egg, grilled tomatoes, and fried mushrooms, plus a cup of tea. All for about fiver and served to my table by a smiling young lady.
It seemed such a good start to my shopping, the 44-bus arrived on time with the smiling Mustapha at the wheel, he always has a kind word, as do all the Selwyn bus drivers, they must be chosen for their kind attitude to us oldies. He drops me off at the Co-op in Central Withington.
I do my shopping quickly and head for Costa Coffee for a pot of tea, once again served to my table by a smiling young lady—Withington is such a friendly place, I love it.
It’s a sunny October day, so I drink my tea outside so that I can see the 44-bus when it’s coming down the main road. Inside the Coffee shop I see a man who is vaguely familiar, he is looking at me and probably thinking the same. I nod and give a little wave; he does the same.
My memory is not what it used to be, and try as I may, I can’t think who he is, I catch his eye again and give another smile.
After a few minutes of synchronised smiling and nodding, I realise I am looking at my own reflection in the window. I quickly look around to see if anyone has seen my silly mistake. I try to look casual and cross my legs like young men do, as my foot is half way up my shin the cramp sets in. I jump to my feet—in a manner of speaking and try to stamp some life into my dead leg, then I try that thing that footballers do when they have the cramp.
I take long strides lifting my legs high and wide, at last I gain control.
I see my reflection in the window again and step forward for a closer look. It’s not a thing I should have done. The sun is shining on my bald head like a beacon, my once nicely arched eyebrows are now just a few very long hairs hanging over my eyes, looking not unlike a couple of prawns.
My mouth is turned down, unsmiling, I force a smile only to show my receding gums and the glint of my stainless-steel dentures, I step back to have a good look at what I have become.
My legs are bent at the knees, I straighten them, but my jeans remain bent, and what about my jeans, I read somewhere that men over the age of forty should never wear jeans. I am nearly ninety, and my jeans are Levi 501’s, and slim line too—big mistake.
I see the 44-bus coming down the road, no need to run though, in any case when old people run, they don’t actually go any faster, they just move their legs up and down more quickly, it’s a bit like running on the spot.
As I pass the door of the Coffee shop, I see an old lady coming out, she has a stick and I help on to the bus and into her seat.
“Thank you very much” she says. “I just popped in there for a cup of tea, it is such a friendly place, we were all enjoying your clever act, did you hear us all laughing, are you on the stage, and did you hear us all clapping when you finished?
It could have been such a nice day; life can be so cruel.
I started this over a year ago, now that I am in my new flat I will finish it—possibly.
Tonight, we have been taken to the pictures, the newsreel is all about the blitz in London. How anyone can sleep at night with all that bombing, I will never be able to understand. We are lucky, in our kitchen we have our own air raid shelter, it’s a steel table called a Morrison Shelter, most of the family would sleep under this. I have made a bed under the pine dresser because our new baby cry’s all night.
It is strange to think that a little baby is able keep me awake, but tonight, I didn’t hear a high explosive bomb falling on the other side of our road. The explosion woke me and deafened me in the same instant, so I have no memory of the enormous noise it must have made, all I can hear is a loud ringing like that of a big bell in my head.
I open my eyes thinking I am in the middle of a nightmare, but this is real, it’s really happening. All I can see, from my bed under the dresser, is our kitchen lit up by a bright light coming from the front window. Something heavy falls on the old Army coat that I use as a blanket, it is hard and really hurts my legs. I see the ceiling of our kitchen sagging and then it comes crashing down on the shelter where the others are sleeping.
A whirlwind is blowing through the room, the blackout curtains are flapping in shreds with bits of glass hanging by the white tape that we children had stuck on the windowpanes last year. Part of the front wall has fallen in with house bricks lying everywhere—some are heaped on my legs, I can hardly move, I feel my face being peppered with the swirling dust, I am choking, my mouth and nose are full of grit, and now the dust is so thick I can’t see anything.
As suddenly as it started, everything stops, just the swirling dust. I feel someone tugging at my coat, I am being pulled out roughly from my makeshift bed, my ears are ringing like a bell, I can’t hear anything they are saying. I am bundled out into the fresh air, I can feel sharp bits of glass in my hair. I see all my family in the back garden, their faces are lit up by the burning buildings. I can taste the blood and dust as it runs into my mouth.
Someone is carefully picking bits of glass out of my hair, and the tiny bits stuck in my face. My legs are really hurting, I feel as if I am falling into a hole, I can’t see very well and everything is swirling and going black, all I can see is Mrs Salmon standing at her gate, she is being slowly swallowed by dark clouds around her.
It’s six weeks since we went to grans after we were bombed out, and now I am back, the dream I had in those few minutes while I was knocked out, came back to me where it had left off. It was good to see my mates, and I told them about my dream, they thought it was so funny, except for Nutsun, he looked quite shaken. He went home and brought back a bag, inside was an old book. The book looked like it had been in a fire, the cover had been burnt away, Nutsun looked at me seriously.
“Can you remember when I showed you this book Wegsy? I found it laying on the road after the bomb fell. I didn’t know who they belonged to, but because it looked very old and valuable, I took it to the library. The lady said it wasn’t worth anything and I could keep it”.
“There’s a lot about St Anne’s hill that fits your story, especially the bit about the Monk who killed himself, look at this, it’s about the top field, where we were the other day”.
Then he read the story of the Mulberry Tree. I must say that I always had a nice feeling about the top field. We would sometimes go up there and lay in the long grass just watching the clouds float by. But I always thought that it was a very funny place to have such a big fruit tree, right in the middle of a field, and why did no one ever eat the Mulberries. The bright red fruit would just fall and be eaten by animals, we were told as kids never to even touch them. Nutsun carries on.
“The Mulberry tree is mentioned in the book, so that means it must be hundreds of years old. It says that the fruit never ripened and just stayed green so couldn’t be eaten, but one day a Monk killed himself underneath the tree”.
“The Monk had fallen in love with a Nun, and they would meet under the Mulberry tree, but it was forbidden by the Church, and rather than commit a deadly sin the Nun threw herself down a shallow well that is next to the tree. When he found her lifeless body in the well, he carried her away to the top of the hill and buried her properly next to a crystal-clear spring. Then returning to the Mulberry tree, he sat down, and full of remorse he stabbed himself in the heart. Since then, Mulberry tree has never aged, and the fruit have always been red—blood red”
The next morning, we are all round Nutsan’s house, he has the manuscript—as he calls it—laid out on the kitchen table. Next to it is the old book, the cover and the title have been burnt away but this has protected the loose manuscript that is inside. This is very fragile, and the edges have crumbled away. He has carefully laid it under a sheet of glass to stop it breaking up any further, it could almost blow away to dust if it was caught in a draught.
Next to it on the table were all his notes, there are so many, he must have spent hours poring over the fragile paper. How on earth he made head or tail of it, I will never understand. He has managed to work out most of the manuscript, and a little bit of the book. He says it was partly in pictures, very much like the ancient Egyptians used.
“See these big birds drawn here at the top, I never noticed them at first, they look like Ravens to me, and I realise now, that the noise we heard the other day was just like a Ravens warning call. I’ve started looking at the old book that the map was hidden in, and there is a bit about Ravens, it says they are the best guards because they are very clever”.
Up the top of the big oak tree that stands just outside Nutsuns house, Bran and Bronwen, are listening, Bran’s eye sparkles with pride as hears this.
“Do you hear that Bronwen, something like that makes it all worthwhile. The people who wrote that book all those years ago, knew what they were talking about. It makes us proud to be Ravens, why else are Ravens chosen for all the top jobs”.
Back in the kitchen, Thunder says.
“See, just as Kingy told us, it’s all falling into place”.
This made Wadie laugh.
“You’re not going to tell us the treasure is guarded by blooming birds, are you Thunny”
Wadie is always the one who asks the questions that have no answers, as for me, all I can say is my goose pimples are back again.
Nutsan was one of those boys who may look a bit slow, but he has a far better brain than the rest of us, he has a different way of thinking, it’s quite spooky how he knows the answer in crosswords, when we don’t even understand the questions. He’s reading these old pictures just like reading a book. He looks up, as if he has another surprise for us. Sure enough it certainly is a surprise.
“The book mentions the stones, but nothing about the Abbey, or Stangarthe, it goes back much further than that. There is a lot in the book about this manuscript that I am still unravelling, but unbelievably, what I think is coming out of it all, is that St Anne’s Hill was a giant burial ground going back thousands of years, even before the Egyptians were building the pyramids “.
Wadie laughs again and shakes his head, he thinks this is just too much to believe, but keeps quiet this time.
Goldilocks, who is the quiet one of the gang, says.
“There is a big stone down the bottom of our garden, and it’s got one of those pictures on it, but you can only see the top of it sticking out in Dummies stream”. Wadie sighs.
“I live next door to you Goldie, and I never knew anything about that stone, I bet the picture is just some kids drawing, we all do it don’t we. I think we should have a look at it, just to stop this silly story”.
Wadie is not the only one who knows nothing about this other stone, Bran and Bronwen are very surprised, they follow the boys and if it truly is one of the special stones, they will have to report it to the Conspiracy.
Goldies garden is much longer than Wadies, the stream is dead straight—which is very odd, it usually wanders all over the place, and at the end, where it turns, we see the top of the stone. It is very big, and there, just above the water line is part of a bird’s head carved deeply in the stone. Wadie, for once is speechless.
We laugh, and start splashing water over him, and it soon becomes a water fight, we are all soaked through in seconds.
I hear a ladies voice, it’s very familiar.
“He’s coming round Effie, sprinkle a little more water on his face, it always works when someone goes under for a few minutes. it’s just the shock of it all“.
“Alan, can you hear me love, yeah there he is, he’s still a bit woozy, don’t you worry Effie my dear, he’ll be alright now”.
I am sitting on the ground in Mrs Salmons garden, mum is looking down at me, she’s smiling and gives me a hug.
I hear a man say.
“You see, he’s just making out he’s hurt, just up to old tricks again”.
He may be right, that was the sort of dream that I have quite often, and it is in some of the fairy tales I tell to everyone, I hope I can go back to dreamland and hear the end so that I can write it down as full story one day.
It is not important to know who started it first, but now, our gang who are known for their bravery, are running helter-skelter through the brambles and bracken of St Anne’s Hill, down Chestnut wood and into the haunted Old Coach Road, then through the darkened ‘Monk’s Walk’ and finally into the open top field. We throw ourselves into the long grass gasping for breath, Siki is the first to speak.
“What about that horrible noise, what did you think it was”?
Wadie, who was still breathless and hardly able to get his words out, said.
“Do you mean that croaking sound Siki, yeah, that was bad enough, but what about those birds. I have never heard such a row; they must have been Eagles or something as big as that to make such a racket. What did you hear Trevor”?
“You couldn’t miss it could you, the birds were the worst, they sounded more like some ancient dinosaur sort of bird to me, you know, like the ones we saw in Flash Gordon the other day. I felt that I was being pushed along by something. I just couldn’t stop myself, I nearly fell over, what about you Nutsy”?
“Nutsy, what did you hear”.
Nutsun had simply vanished, one minute he was with us and then he wasn’t. Siki said without thinking.
“He isn’t the fittest of boys, and a predator or whatever was in the woods will always take the weakest”
. At this, Thunder started to panic.
“We’ve got to find him, he’s very afraid of the dark, he would say he can see monsters moving in the shadows and would never go out at night. We will have to go back to look for him, he’ll be terrified”.
I’m not known to be the bravest member of our gang, and I looked at the darkening woods with a tight feeling in my bum, and then, I felt my blood run cold.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see something moving in the bushes. There was a faint glow coming and going, like the blinking eyes of some sort of—thing. It is near the big pile of stones they call ‘The Monks Grave’, it is getting nearer.
Up till that moment I had never believed the stories of the Monk who is buried in the woods. There was a Monastery on the hill for many years, and a monk had fallen in love with a nun. It could never be allowed, he was heartbroken, and he stabbed himself in the heart, he is buried in the woods. That part of the woods is called Monks Walk; I was now willing to believe anything.
Before any of us could move, out of the woods walked Nutsun—as cool as a cucumber. He was waving a little torch which was just a glimmer, the batteries were nearly dead.
Pointing over his shoulder he said.
“This lady showed me the way here after I fell over near the Beacon lookout. When I got up, I couldn’t see which way you had all gone. Then this kind lady all dressed in black like a nun, beckoned me to follow her. She had this lovely big black bird which guided us along a tunnel in the bushes. It was amazing, I wish I had a bird like that”.
I just knew from the way my flesh was creeping and how my hair was standing on end—my body was in overdrive— that I must not look over to where Nutsy was pointing.
I knew there would be no lady there, and then there was a noise like rustling silk, followed by flapping wings, and what sounded very much like a laugh.
Once again, our gang is being tested for fearlessness, will we always stand and face whatever is before us. We are known for our bravery, but this needs something beyond bravery, and at this moment we seem to be at a loss to know what is required of us. So, rather than do something that could upset whatever it is in those darkened woods, we decide it would better all-round if we retired gracefully.
Bronwen was trying so hard not to laugh, she said.
“That’s what you ccccall the English wwway, graceful in defeat”.
It is almost a mile back home; we flew, it was as if we had the wings of those big birds we had heard in the woods. As soon as I walked into the kitchen, my mum gives me a clip around the ear. This happens all the time, she uses it like a greeting—I suppose you could call it affectionate.
“What was that for” I ask.
“Just in case” she says.
I start to tell her my story, but I can see by the way she is standing she doesn’t believe a word of it; she never does. Probably with good reason, as I have said before, I am known as a bit of a storyteller. My sister Chrissy, who has been listening, says.
“Did you see the headless horseman or the man with the staring eyes”?
They all start laughing, she is always teasing me, but this time, for a change I’m telling the truth. I see my brother Don is listening very carefully, I think I may have given away the secret of the treasure. I’ll be in trouble with the others now.
The two Giant Redwoods in The Dingle are favourite trees for Ravens, they regard them as their own property. Bran has a perfect view; he watches the boys messing about on the bridge over the little pond, and there’s a thing he has never seen before, a group of grown men playing soldiers,
“I’ve seen it all now, Bronwen, Chertsey is full of surprises”.
The Home Guard are doing their drill, we shouldn’t laugh, but it’s very hard not to. I think they can see the funny side as well, they haven’t enough rifles and have to use broom sticks to do their drill.
The two girls must have seen us go by, and are calling us all sorts of names from the look-out, they’ll spoil our games for sure like they always do. We’ll have to think of a way to dodge them.
Nutsan, has good idea, He spends a lot of his time in the Town Hall Library, and tells us about an old map he had found.
“The library lady thought I would like this old book, before it was thrown out, and when I took it home, I found this old map inside, it’s all about St Anne’s hill”.
Before he could say anymore, his brother quickly puts his hand over Nutsans mouth. This of course made the rest of us want to know what was so secret. He said it wasn’t important, but then after lots of pushing and shoving, and the risk of him falling off the little bridge and into the black water of the pond, he let Nutsan carry on.
If Bran had proper ears, they would have pricked up at hearing this, even so he was taking it all in, this sounded very important indeed.
“The map is so old it’s almost falling apart, the writing is very faded and in Latin, or some such old language. Some of the pages of the book are badly burnt and the map is singed around the edge. When I had a better look, I worked out what it was all about and that’s when I realised that it was a sort of prayer to someone called Stangarthe. It asked for a sacrifice of something of value at a well near the top of a hill. I worked out that the place we are standing in now, was originally called Stangarthes Hill, after the infamous Saxon tribal chief. The name was later shortened to Stan’s Hill and then to St Anne’s Hill, as we know it today”.
Bran had heard enough, he gave Bronwen the wink—something a one-eyed Raven should never do. They fly back to the Conspiracy to tell them about the boy’s discovery, it causes quite a panic, everyone is flapping about not knowing what to do, a meeting is held, and a plan is hatched.
After hearing about the map, we just looked on opened mouthed, we had never heard of anything like this before. How could such a story of St Anne’s Hill, the most popular place in Chertsey, a place brimming with all sorts of fancy tales, stay hidden for so long, and right in the middle of the town.
“We knew that the only well up the top of the hill was the Nun’s Well, and we looked around for signs of a burial site of some sort. We found a deep hollow next to the well where nothing was growing, and we poked around, never really expecting to find anything, but soon we came across some large tree trunks laid down in a row as if it was bridge or the roof of something. One of the trunks was very rotten from the spring water, and it was easy to chip it away. We could hear the bits falling into water below, it sounded quite deep. The trunk was so big it is taking for ever, so we covered the hole with branches after each day to hide it from people making a wish”.
Now that we all knew about it, we were eager to have a look, but those girls were still up on the lookout. We decided to wait until they had gone home for their tea. It was getting late by the time we went up to the Nun’s Well, and a bit creepy. Like everywhere in Chertsey, this part of the woods is supposed to be haunted. Nutsun was very nervous.
“I can feel someone watching us, does anyone else feel anything”?
“Are you are trying to wind us up again with all this ghostly stuff, Nutsy”?
His laughter soon began to sound hollow; something was moving in the bushes. The branches high up in the trees started shaking. There was a low humming sound, we stopped and tried to work out where the hum was coming from, first it was in front of us and then it came from behind. It gradually became louder and then was coming from all around us like a fog of sound. A funny noise was coming from the well, a sort of croaking sound, like some sort of big bird that we had seen in Tarzan films. In the bushes and trees all around us, I could feel dozens of eyes looking at us.
Bran and Bronwen and the rest of the Ravens were guarding the Nun’s well. They watch the boys as they flee through the woods. They can’t stop laughing out loud—one Ravens laugh is bad enough—but a chorus of Ravens is the sound of the devil.