Up here on the moors in the summer, skylarks play and the sun beats a tattoo on the old ack-ack shelter. The conversion from shelter to shelter took minutes only. Herbie came here so many years ago he can’t recall exactly when, but after the war. Certainly, after the war.
He brought with him a primus stove, a kettle and a pan and a small mix of other important things.
He walks nine miles into town to source a bit of food and books. There is silence here; few come by, it suits him.
He cherishes a gold chain; a hunting knife; a lighter and a blackened tin mug. The knife skins and guts rabbits, Herbie found it under a tree, stumbled across it when walking into town, fell over the corner of a box sticking out of the ground. Curious, he dug it up. Inside, the knife covered by a stained, decomposing mouldy cloth put him in mind of the knife he’d plucked from the body of Ian Crossley years back – Ian had fallen onto it – but with their history, no-one would have believed it.
Herbie wears his father’s gold chain around his neck; he took it as a talisman when Dad died. It worked, Herbie knew it had, he hadn’t been charged. Herbie wore the mug on his belt, much used, it reminded him of better days.
Better days – hah! The guilt shrouds him and keeps him away from others.
Who is this coming over the moors towards the shelter? Herbie feels the blood drain from his face – it’s Ian – but it can’t be Ian.
The familiar stranger barks, ‘Are you Herbie, Herbert Tolley?’ Herbie just looks at him. ‘They said you were there. That you could tell me what happened to Ian Crossley.’ Herbie says nothing. ‘You were there. He slipped and a knife went into him. How did it happen?’
Herbie starts to tremble. He tries not to let it show but the stranger notices. ‘You know, don’t you? C’mon, tell me.’ The man grips Herbie by his coat and begins to shake him, slowly at first then faster and faster until Herbie’s brain feels fuzzy, addled. Herbie offers no resistance – he deserves this – he might have stopped it, saved Ian, and didn’t.
Herbie’s lack of response infuriates the already furious man further and his efforts to shake something out of him are renewed with even more vigour. Herbie feels his teeth loosen as if they will drop from his mouth like the knife fell from his hands that black night so long ago.
When Herbie recovers consciousness, he sees the stranger on the ground outside the ack-ack shelter unconscious. He walks the nine miles into town to get someone to call an ambulance. He can’t have another death on his conscience.
Polly Robinson © 2012
Some of you may have seen Herbie before as a poem that’s been published in various places. I’m doing a Flash Fiction course with Calum Kerr just now and decided to develop the character’s story a little further as a flash ~ Calum gave me a couple of editing tips which I’ve used ~ does the story work for you?