Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Legacy of St. John.

Claire had only joined because she had to. The school Judo club had wanted someone first aid trained, and she'd volunteered because, well, volunteering for things - showing willing - was about all she did well. From first aid training she'd been suckered into joining the organisation proper. The St. John Ambulance Service.

And now she spent her weekends sitting around in a draughty tent on the outskirts of
Parkinson's Field, kept company by an assorted group of middle aged, knitwear-loving bores, while the rest of her class enjoyed the amusements of the fairground parked on the grass. It would be doing the group that she spent these dull days with an enormous kindness to call them 'has-beens', which would at least imply that they, at some indefinable point in time, actually were.

It seemed to her, drinking heavily stewed tea out of a chipped teddy-bear mug, that the other first aiders sprang into being fully formed and greying. It was even quite possible that they were created already wearing those home-knitted jumpers with the dropped stitching and the lopsided snowmen.

So it came as a surprise to her when one day
Judy, the divisions leader declared Holy War against the Mussulman.

Claire wasn't sure about this. She had turned up, bright and early on Saturday morning, her fluorescent jacket on, and her first aid kit bag. And there, standing in the Parish Hall were the other members of the Service, getting changed.

Off came the lumpen knitted jumpers and on went finely woven chainmail.
Judy had somehow managed to procure a set of full plate armour, and was standing in a padded surcoat and greaves, staring warily at an over-sized codpiece.

“What...?” was all
Claire managed as she walked through the door.

“Oh, hello dear,” said
Mrs. Aintree, struggling into a leather jerkin. There was a small, handbag-sized spiky mace hanging from her belt. Clare stared.

“Well don't just stand there, come on in,”
Mrs Aintree continued, finally managing to get one arm into a sleeve. “Oh, you don't have armour? That's all right, I'm sure Gordon said he had a few spare pieces somewhere, something child-sized.”

“Armour, why would I want arm--,” her brain registered the rest of the sentence, “what do you mean 'child sized'?”

“Well dear, you're lucky,” said
Mrs Aintree kindly, “it's not like you're going to have bind anything down to fit.” She stared pointedly at Claire's chest.

“I...” she felt herself redden.

“Oh, don't take it like that dear. You have lovely hair. Men like nice hair.”

“What the hell is going on?” She shouted.

There was a general clearing of throats and adjusting of hair in the room.
Judy was the first to speak, “We're getting changed, Claire.”

“Like, for what? Are we doing a re-enactment or something?”

The other members of the service shared a look between them.

“Something like that dear.”
Judy fastidiously dropped the codpiece on the table next to her, clanged her way over the Claire and put a motherly arm around the girl's shoulders.

“Perhaps you and I should have a talk.”


“So,” she paused for a moment, her mind racing, “so you're going to...?”

“Retake the castle.”

“Retake the castle. Right.”

Sideton Castle has never fallen to enemy hands. Not since it was first built in 1103. It withstood the Anarchy, it didn't surrender to that frightful little oik Cromwell, and it has never flown an enemy flag.”

Claire prompted.

“But now, the Mussulman has taken it.”

“The Mussulman?”

“The Mohametans.”

“Moha--” her brain raced. “The Muslims?”

“Exactly, girl.”

“You aren't talking about
Mr. Sayeed, are you?”

“Yes, I am,”
Judy said sternly. She peered over the top of her half moon glasses in disapproval.

“But he just runs the gift shop! He works for English Heritage!”

“Oh, you may say that, girl, but you can't trust them. They'll be nice as you like, and next thing you know, he's a Saracen in disguise and he's chopped off the head of the Grand Master of the Order.”

“What Order?”

“Ah...” said
Judy, a smile twitching at her lips.


Ten minutes later and
Claire was running full speed towards the castle. A few arrows thudded half-heartedly into the cobbles beside her and shattered. She rounded the corner of Market Street, and charged up the approach to the castle, panting as she climbed the mote. She leapt the turnstiles without breaking stride and felt a hand grab her shoulder.

“Hey! You can't do that.”

She grabbed the wrist, jigged sideward’s slightly and bent forward, carrying the arm and whatever it was attached to over her hip and depositing it on the floor in front.

“Sorry, Les. Emergency.”

She tore through the courtyard and entered the gift shop.
Hassan Sayeed was standing behind the counter, carefully talking an American tourist through the different types of coats of arms displayed in the castle, and helpfully pointing them out on an embroidered dishcloth, very reasonably priced, only £5.99.

As always, the shop smelled strangely herbal. If she hadn't have known better, she'd have said it smelled like that time when Cindy stole an eighth of hash off her brother and burnt it over a Bunsen burner in science class and they'd all had to lie down.

Mr. Sayeed!” she panted.

He waved a hand at her to be quiet, and went back to trying to explain blazonry to the tourist.

“And this is a
bend sinister. People often think it means illegitimacy, or” he leaned in consiprationally, “that the holder was a bastard. This isn't actually true...”

Mr. Sayeed!”

Again the hand waving and the renewed concentration on the tea-cloth. She was about to get rude, to push the American out of the way, when the tourist himself decided that enough was enough and life was perfectly acceptable with an embroidered dishcloth.
Mr. Sayeed looked on forlornly as the man left.

Mr. Sayeed

“What is it,” he screwed up his eyes in concentration, “
Claire? You're Claire, right, you go to school with Asad, don't you?”

“Yes,” she said, and steadied herself for what was coming next. Ridicule. Disbelief. “
Mr Sayeed, there's an army, an army that think they're the Knights Hospitaller’s reborn coming to kill you.” She braced herself for laughter. None came.
Mr Sayeed stood staring. Not at her, she realised, but over her shoulder. She turned round and saw the St. Johns Ambulance Service arrayed across the courtyard of the Castle, swords drawn, hammers at the ready.
Mr Sayeed nodded absently, and came out around the counter, pausing conscientiously to shut down the cash register. He waddled over to one wall where a display case of medieval swords stood, carefully unlocked it and drew out two long curved swords. He stepped through the doorway with them held at his side.

“There is no place for you in this castle, heathen,” came a call from the ranks of armoured soldiers.

“Leave this place.”

“Not on your life. We withstood your lot during the Siege of Rhodes. Now it's payback.”

“So be it.”
Mr Sayeed cycled the two swords, which, now she came to think of it looked a lot like scimitars. They twinkled and spun through arcane and blurred arcs around his body like liquid death They left after images in the air like ice patterns on a window.

Then the fight commenced.
Claire stood aghast as Mr Sayeed and the Hospitaller’s closed on one another, hacking and punching, slicing and dodging. She covered her eyes and stood to one side.

A minute or two later the clangs died away.

“A truce. For the wounded.”

She opened her eyes on to a scene of carnage. Several of the older Ambulance Service were down, groaning on the floor.

“You girl, see to the wounded!”
Judy's imperious voice commanded.

She ran to the nearest one, a dull old chap named
Harry and stared in horror.

“I can't deal with this, I know first aid. This man needs...he needs a miracle worker.”

“Do what you're trained for, girl.”

“I know how to calm someone down who's hyperventilating. You put their head between their knees and tell them to breathe deeply. I can't do that here. I mean,” she said, her voice getting hysterical, “his head's here, yes, but his legs are...” she gestured vaguely to the other side of the courtyard. “I mean, if someone wants to fetch his legs for me, maybe I could...” she began to babble.

No one was paying attention to her. The Knights were regrouping, and
Mr Sayeed was squatting down, wheezing over his somewhat portly stomach. He was prodding reluctantly at a gash in his arm.

“Now, heathen, now we have you.”

“No, Crusader. You don't.”

Shouts came from behind, near to the main gate. A group were running up the mote towards the castle. From this distance,
Claire could just about make out Mr. Abbas and Mr. Mahmood, who were the local solicitor and the greengrocer respectively. They were armed.

“Quick, bar the gates. Shut the portcullis. Something!”

“Can't ma'am, there aren't any gates. They took them out after the fire in '76, and the portcullis is just for show.”

The other group had reached the courtyard by now, and sidled up next to a wheezing
Mr. Sayeed.

“Leave,” Sayeed suggested.

“Never. If this has to be the Siege of Rhodes again, then so be it.”

“Oh, for the love of...”
Claire shouted, and stopped, when she realised all eyes were on her. No choice now. She ploughed on. “What the hell are you fighting about? I know for a fact you, Mrs. Aintree aren't even Christian. You're a Buddhist since you converted for your latest husband.” Mrs. Aintree bridled. “You, Judy haven't been to church in six years, and haven't set foot in the castle in ten. I know, my dad's the bloody vicar.”

“Now, just wait a minute.”

Mr Sayeed, I know for a fact, were born in Sideton General Hospital. I don't think they breed Saracens there. And you, Mr Abbas, were given the keys to the city last year, and an ornamental cabbage, to show appreciation for your pro bono work for the community. What the hell are you fighting over?”

There was a mumbled response from her left, muffled slightly further by a steel visor.


mumble...mumble...Hospitaller’s Knights of St. John.

From her right came a similar mumble.

mumble...mumble...Hashshashin.Mr Sayeed reluctantly took a hand out of his pocket and proffered a pipe that had a sticky brown resin in the bowl.

“...give me strength,” she muttered. “Look, you're not Knights Hospitaller’s, and you're not Hashshashin.” She paused, seeing mouths open all around the courtyard, aching to disagree. “All right, even if you are, there are more important things to worry about than each other. Look, twenty miles west of here,
Ashton Castle is staging a renaissance fair. They're recreating the battle of siege of Sideton? You remember, the civil war, where we were on opposite sides? They're doing that now.”

There was an angry murmur from the assembled crowd. Crusaders or Saracens, no one liked Ashtoners.

Ashton Castle!” Someone shouted. There was a ragged cheer and a general raising of weapons.

“No,” said
Claire. “I don't mean... No! I just mean that there are a lot of battles in history, and you can't go recreating them, or continuing them down the generations, because if you do...”

Ashton!” Shouted Mr Arif, the hairdresser, waving a breadknife over his head.

Ashton! Those bastards will pay!”

As the assembled group scurried out of the courtyard in search of a minibus,
Claire wondered if there wasn't something about the town that sent people a little mad.

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