Latest News > A Model Citizen – a short story by Jonathan Carter
A MODEL CITIZEN
Walter sat beside the window in his room and looked out at all the houses. It was very early and the day was still frail. Soon the sunlight would start inching its way across the pebbledash and crazy paving, feeling up the pointed rooves and inscrutable windows, and Barrowbone Model Village would be up and running for another day.
He was feeling tired. He’d been up for most of the night listening to the noises coming from the village. They’d been even louder than usual. And they weren’t the usual rodents’ scratchings and scrapings either, but strange little thuds and crashes at the far end of the High Street. He’d woken in the early hours, frowning into the darkness and dreading the inspection he’d have to make later that morning. Reluctantly, he’d gone to the window where he’d hissed and clapped and shone his torch into the void, but nothing seemed to flee and the noises continued unabated. So he’d pulled up a chair and nodded off, dreaming that he was standing in the village square being greeted by the residents. They were all lining up to shake his hand, as if he was some sort of dignitary. Which in a way he was. He’d been involved with the village all his life, and he’d been Sole Keeper and Mayor of Barrowbone for almost four decades.
Over the years he’d been responsible for some crucial developments. It was the details that gave the place life, that’s what everyone said: the tiny pieces of litter on the pavement and the odd abandoned shopping trolley, which he’d painstakingly crafted out of old coat hangers. He’d even given everyone names and staged miniature exhibitions of the model aircraft he’d made with his father when he was a boy. Everyone seemed to appreciate the effort – paying visitors included – and one of the planes, a Hawker Hurricane Mk 1, was now a permanent fixture in the village square.
Walter’s attention to model minutiae knew no bounds. He’d even placed tiny satellite dishes on selected rooves (not all of them of course; he got the feeling that the older residents wouldn’t approve), and there was now an internet café on the High Street, along with a mobile phone shop and a coffee bar which he’d named Costa Bucks. Indeed, the famously fussy website, modelplaces.com, had praised Barrowbone as “a meticulous village for real fanatics”. A village that Mayor Walter was now duty bound to save from an unseen but noisy menace.
It had all started a couple of months ago when Walter was convinced that he could see subtle changes in some of the residents’ faces. Up to then, he’d always thought that they looked happy. Theirs was a simple world after all: no shocks, no sudden illnesses, no one burdening them with unreasonable demands. It was a world he envied, given his family history, and one that he wanted to be part of, but only when the gates had closed at the end of the day. That’s when he would sit like a colossus with a bottle of beer on his foldaway stool, in the square beside The Walter Arms. From there he’d watch the sun slowly sink beneath the rooves, and feel a sense of calm as the evening crept across the village.
Now, though, a strange tension had begun to settle on the place, and he was convinced that he was seeing worried faces on the streets. Unable to find anything obviously wrong, he’d spent hours on his knees with a magnifying glass, peering awkwardly through the tiny windows. He always felt as if he was being watched as he stepped carefully between the houses. The village made him feel like King Kong. A monster. A benevolent one of course, but a monster nonetheless, lumbering along the streets. He’d always been embarrassed by his bulk. He could still hear the bullies yelling “Bunter” as he walked home from school, and he could only imagine the shock of his huge moon face suddenly appearing at one of the residents’ bedroom windows.
It was in Hector Close, a cul de sac on the west side of the village, that he’d first noticed something strange. He’d approached Number 42 with trepidation, although he wasn’t quite sure why. For some reason that little neighbourhood had recently started to feel cold and unfriendly, and the family that lived there, Mr & Mrs Minton and their two daughters, were starting to look anxious. Florence, their oldest, had definitely developed a frown.
Walter had strained to look into their kitchen. It was hard to make out the details, but it didn’t look right. He could see the family pressed into a corner. Mrs Minton was standing in front of her two huddled children, while Mr Minton stared fixedly at the table where the little dining chairs had been piled up one on top of the other. Walter was shocked. He’d never seen anything like this in the village before.
That’s when the night-time noises started. At first he’d thought it was foxes, or that the rats were back. There’d been a problem with vermin in some of the houses before the traps had been put down. Ever since then, Walter could think of nothing but the troubles in Barrowbone. He’d sit there by the window every evening, listening to the cracks and thuds until he fell asleep. Then, every morning, he’d go out and inspect the streets and houses. Some days were better than others. Usually he’d find dustbins upended or a car that had been shoved into the middle of the road. Nothing too serious. Although, on one occasion, he did discover that all the street signs had been reversed and all the clocks had stopped at midnight, and that local butcher Cuthbert McGrue had laid out his knives in his tiny shop window, spelling the word “HELP”.
For a while, he was convinced that the local kids were playing tricks again, like they did before the fences went up. He’d never forget the time they broke in and stole the figures of Mr and Mrs Postgate from the village newsagent. The next day, Walter put a missing persons ad in the local paper. It was picked up by the national press and, for a while, Barrowbone Model Village had more visitors than it could cope with. Especially when the Postgates were returned and the little High Street was festooned with Welcome Home banners. A photograph of the celebrations appeared in one of the tabloids, alongside a portrait of Walter grinning in the old flatcap that his father had given him. He’d felt embarrassed. He’d always been conscious of his “haughty grin”, as his mother used to call it.
Barrowbone’s owners, ModelEnt, had thought it all a timely stroke of PR genius. The company had several other villages up and down the country, as well as a replica town in Belgium, and Barrowbone was not their top priority. However, the subsequent rise in takings, following the Postgate affair, had renewed their optimism. Since then, though, the takings had dropped.
But it wasn’t the drop in revenue that worried Walter, it was the noises. He knew it wasn’t the local kids playing tricks this time, and every morning he dreaded what he would find in the village streets.
Graffiti had now started appearing. Badly spelt insults scrawled in a jagged hand onto windows and walls, just big enough to read. Walter now took the magnifying glass with him on his daily inspection. “rot in hell” was one message, “HATE” was another. This shook him to his core. It felt like an invasion. A cancer. Some unseen force that pushed things over was bad enough, but one that could write words was something else entirely. Surely a priest was the only thing that could help him now. But he daren’t call one in. The papers would love it, and ModelEnt would cash in on the publicity. He could see it now: “Come to Barrowbone, the haunted model village… if you dare.” People would be queuing round the block. He knew the village needed visitors to survive, but recently he’d started to resent their intrusion. After all, he’d only ever put the missing persons ad in the paper because he genuinely wanted Mr and Mrs Postgate back.
It was morning now, and the sun was glinting on the tiny rooves. Walter sighed and adjusted his flatcap as he entered the village. It was going to be a hot day. It was only 08.53 and he was already beginning to sweat.
He looked down at the guttering, which was at knee-height, as he walked carefully along the narrow back road towards the village square. The gardens looked radiant. This was his world, and it had been for as long as he could remember.
As he stood there in the square beside The Walter Arms, he began to feel a sense of calm settling inside him. The noises were nothing he couldn’t cope with. He was there to solve the problem, that was his job: Mayor and Sole Keeper of Barrowbone. He’d been born to help the village, and that’s what he’d do.
Suddenly there was a loud crashing sound a couple of streets away. Walter jumped. It was like a shout in his head. It came from the same direction as the thuds and cracks in the early hours. He could feel his heart thumping as he loped along the street at full pelt. Two of the houses had been ransacked. All the windows had been smashed and there were tiny fragments of glass everywhere. All the flowers in the front gardens had been trampled, and there were strange little phrases scrawled all over the walls. He could make out “home sweet home” and “you are here”.
Worst of all, though, were the two little figures at the top windows. They were peering down at a body on the path. It was of Peter Benn, their only son. Walter bent down and picked him up. His eyes began to blur as he stared at the broken figure of the boy in his hand. As he closed his fingers slowly around it, he felt his throat suddenly constricting. For a moment he didn’t know where he was. He felt dizzy. He tried to put his hand up to his face but his arm wouldn’t move.
Now his eyes were beginning to close. He couldn’t help himself staggering back onto a row of terraced houses, destroying them like a wrecking ball. In desperation, he tried to compensate mid-fall, but ended up lurching onto an enclave of cottages. As they collapsed beneath his weight he felt something stabbing him in the leg. He lay there for a moment amongst the debris, horrified but still clutching little Peter, with his heart pounding in his ears.
There would be an awful lot to fix. Lives ruined. Couldn’t think about it now.
He felt the panic rising. The village was about to open its doors to the public. There was already a queue outside.
He could feel something sticking in his thigh. He tried to reach down and pluck out whatever it was, but his arm still wouldn’t move. Hauling himself back onto his feet, he fell again, stumbling on the remains of one of cottages and plunging full-length along the High Street.
He lay there listening to the birds, unable to move. He knew he’d crushed some of the residents as he fell. He could feel them digging into him. But at least young Peter was still safe in his hand. He was barely conscious now as he looked into the windows of the little shops, remembering when he was boy, staring in at all the toys with his father. He was getting weaker now as he looked. Weaker. Weaker…
Walter had been right about ModelEnt. They shamelessly milked the publicity surrounding the “sad death of the devoted caretaker” of Barrowbone Model Village. They even turned his cottage into a souvenir shop, Postgate’s Newsagents, with the people at the tills dressed like Mr and Mrs Postgate.
Modelplaces.com ran a tribute to the “dedicated warden” of what had now become “the most memorable model village in the UK”. Flowers arrived from all over the country, as a result of the sentimental coverage in the tabloids, and a small monument was placed in the village square. “For Mayor Walter,” it read. “He Made Us What We Are”.
ModelEnt rebuilt the damaged houses, installed CCTV and re-opened the village with the help of a reality TV star. They even repaired young Peter Benn and made a special little model of Walter, which they placed on a bench on the village green.
All the residents seemed to be smiling now, and the noises and the strange goings on had all stopped. Well, almost… No one quite knew how the little model of Walter made it to The Walter Arms each day, no matter how many times he was placed back on the green. The CCTV cameras showed nothing, and it became quite a talking point on modelplaces.com/chat.
And yet there he’d be, every morning, sitting on the bench beside the Hawker Hurricane Mk 1 in his old flatcap, clutching a bottle of beer. With the haughtiest grin you’ve ever seen.
© JONATHAN CARTER