Like many writers, I have written a lot of stuff that, for a number of reasons, hasn’t been published. It might be absolute rubbish, or it’s unfinished, or I am, as always, too busy on other projects…
That’s the case with a book of 110,000 words that I wrote in 23 days flat back in about 2005 or 2006. The story is called The Refuge. I mention it from time to time on here, and have posted a couple of extracts (click to follow the link to chapter one, if you’re a bit bored). The premise is that Britain is at war: towns are under attack from air raids, soldiers have invaded the country, and are subduing and capturing etc, as tends to happen in wartime. (Sounds a bit ‘current’, doesn’t it? And that’s one of many reasons this book is still on a shelf and not ‘out there’. It’s a bit real. )
The main characters are Anna, a journalist, and Mark who was a government advisor. They knew what was about to happen and had a few days to prepare. They move to an area near some caves, planning to hide there with Anna’s family, until it’s safe to emerge. As Anna and Mark make their escape they find it impossible to turn their backs on survivors they meet so the group quickly grows in size.
I often talk about ‘closed communities’ and how useful these are in mysteries to stage the crime. But what if it’s an actual community, a village, hidden for decades, maybe even centuries from the outside world? My characters find themselves in just such a place. They and their new friends have to fit in, and adapt to a new way of life.
Research for this book really made me think. What if this really happened? If I had to leave my home, knowing I might never come back, what essential items would I take with me? I think if there are more people rather than fewer, that actually helps as between you, you can carry more.
My first thought was, obviously, food. And water. But…
Am I going somewhere where there is no food or water? If so, what am I going to do? I can’t possibly carry and keep fresh sufficient food to keep me alive for a year, let alone the rest of my life. Can I? And I’m not alone, so we need more.
So I had to ask myself, how long might we be gone for? Are we going for a few days in the hope ‘it’ will all be over by then? If we can learn anything from history, (and current affairs) it’s that these things tend to linger on much, much longer than we expect or hope.
If we’re going ‘forever’ then a couple of packets of noodles and a few bottles of water isn’t much good, is it?
So are we leaving just so we can died quietly somewhere on our own terms? Or are we going to make a new life, to support ourselves ‘forever’?
If the latter, we need:
a) more information about what ‘resources’ are at the place we plan to head to.
b) based on that, are we going to become a hunter/gatherers? Farmers? Or are we going to take refuge in a community broadly similar to our own, where there is an established supply of food and water and hopefully other amenities?
It really wasn’t as straight forward as I initially thought.
My refugees in The Refuge decided they would initially camp out until they had a chance to figure out what to do next. The important thing in the first instance was just to get away. So they planned to take tents, sleeping bags, water, water purification tablets, matches, candles, some food, a spade, a few basic tools, etc.
Being sentimental humans, they gave into the urge to rescue their pets: Anna turns up with two cats in a cat basket, and Mark arrives with his German Shepherd. No doubt the dog was a bit more useful than the two cats, but at least the cats can forage for themselves…
I’m assuming it’s a given that my family are coming with me, so I asked myself, what would I take – what were the things I couldn’t bear to be separated from?
FOOD and WATER.
Not sure the baby photos, my notebooks and pens, or my reading materials would be a good idea. They’d be heavy and not actually contribute to keeping us alive, though they would give us something to entertain ourselves with in moments of leisure, or in a pinch, something to fling onto the fire…
If we had a chance to plan ahead, we could have everything neatly packed in backpacks and possibly take a few extra items that fell into that ‘not quite sure’ grey area:
Knife for veg/any cutting tasks; forks, spoons, plastic bowls, water in large plastic bottles, antiseptic or disinfectant, aspirin, loo paper (or??? I can’t decide about this one…); mirror, tweezers, scissors, plasters/bandages, clothing – just a couple of changes for each person. Some sturdy boots (on our feet so no need to carry), waterproof jackets. Comb, toothbrushes, face flannels and maybe small towels, soap for clothes and people.
Candles? Matches, definitely. Firelighters or briquettes, washing line, pegs, string, folding chairs (a luxury? But I can’t stand up for the rest of my life, nor sit only on the ground…) rope. Waterproof sheeting. Binoculars.
A screwdriver? Probably not – again – I’m just not sure, this is where I need a bloke to advise me. (Sisters can’t always do it for themselves.) A saw, hammer, nails, cutters? Am I building a shelter for myself, or…?
Large plastic bowl, kettle, small bowls to eat from, a wooden spoon? Small pans? Dried milk, tea, sugar, porridge, oil, stock cubes, dried beans, rice, tinned meat.
Tent or tents according to the number of people, sleeping bags.
These are all for our own survival. But what if, like Anna and Mark, we find ourselves in an already-established community? ‘Stuff’ might be less important and maybe psychology would be more important? What about the moment of our arrival? How would we fit in?
I think I’d feel eager to please. Eager to like everything, to approve of everything, to be accepted, understood and grateful, to be liked. Excited, keen. Then, a few months later, when difficulties arose and the ‘honeymoon’ period was over, I might feel lonely, homesick, and wonder if I should have just stayed where I was.
What about clashes of ideology? We might agree in public but at home, in private, we can say what we really think, do what we believe is right. Or can we? How private or safe are we really?
In my book, the small village is isolated, self-sufficient. It doesn’t cope well with ideas and attitudes from outside. I had to think about how relationships remained intact through the stresses and strains of everyday life in a new place. What about fallings out and antagonisms – how much do they affect everyone else?
For my people, going to the village instead of trying to cope on their own, meant:
initial relief at being with others, as this meant more support, the village was better established, more resilient, had a more structured way of life than simply living in a few tents. There was a sense of having reached a goal that seemed almost normal.
But then came the struggle to fit in when they realised attitudes, beliefs and way of life were different. It was hard to find common frames of reference. And although the majority adopted/embraced/adapted to the new way of life, a small number won’t/can’t seem to fit in.
Not all the villagers would welcome the new arrivals. There might be tension which leads to a sense of ‘us and them’, which could boil over into aggressive behaviour and even violence.
This in turn could mean that for some of the newcomers, there was a tendency to stay in the same groups and not to blend in.
And then of course, because I am a mystery writer at heart, I couldn’t resist adding a bit of difficulty of my own: the new arrivals have a gradual realisation that this is not a perfect society but is it possible or are they even morally justified in attempting to bring about change? Is it even okay to suggest change when you are an outsider, and need them more than they need you?
I had to consider that some of my characters might, eventually, feel they were not able to stay in this new place, no matter how convenient or safe it seems.
But at this the point, they may well discover the truth: no one is allowed to leave.