Between the thumps of the drum and whoops of joy, I could hear the church tower ring out something o'clock. Half of the count lost to the good natured revelling near me. Whatever time it was, the village party was well under way. The beer had been flowing, people had eaten well and the band - Micky's Dozen - although there seemed to be well over that on stage - were giving it there all. Feet and boots stamped on the make-shift wooden floor as people danced away under the stars. They were thankful for good weather and the harvest it had given us.
Me? Oh, I wasn't dancing. Not really my thing. I sat in the the fringe between dark and light, old solar lamps completing with polished paraffin burners. Micky lead the riotous musicians into one song after another and each time I wondered how the crowd could keep up, but keep up they did. Cardys, shawls and jumpers were cast aside in the frantic movements. Hair was let down and hats tossed towards the straw bales that ringed the stage and wooden floor. There were whoops of delight as a pair of work trousers were thrown towards the band. Whoever had lost them, it was impossible to see.
Village life was good. We were well out of the way of the ruins. Rolling hills with trimmed crops or lush meadows were cattle roamed. Keen eyes and good dogs kept the strays away. I saw Mr Plumber walk by, a cider jug in his hand and a massive grin on his face. His rifle was open and it draped over his arm like a wicked metal walking stick. His ammunition belt was missing, perhaps Mrs Plumber had seen to that. His collie, Mags, trailed near him, an eye on Old Plumber's pockets. No doubt for a heavy slice of Jill's famous meat pie.
Chewing on a strand of herb - chive I think - I caught the look of Daisy; a girl about my age. She was lost back into the crowd as her Dad hoisted her by the arms and once more into the dancing. Opposite me, Mr Capshaw sat resting his arms on his walking stick, his good leg tapping to the beat.
I looked up from our merry gathering, seeing shadows play against the red sand stone walls of the village. Ancient and dead street lights hung like sad metal trees in the lanes between the houses. Jolly shouts bounced from walls and rattled windows. Over the hedge, I saw a group of horses canter by; flanks shiny with sweat and lit by lamplight.
A flurry of arms caught my eye and the band cranked out another old tune; something about Miss Mary, but I missed the rest of the title in the yelling that followed Pete Dimiz's violin playing. Who'd have though a great lunk like that could get a tune so fine out of an instrument that looked as old as Mr Capshaw. Except.... Capshaw was gone. My eyes scanned the darkness for a sign of him. It wasn't like him to miss a party. He lived for this time of thing. Mum said that Mr Capshaw has music in his veins. What she meant by that, I don't know.
I slid from the hay bale and circled the edges of the party. There, there he was; pushing the hawthorn by the church wall apart with his trusty stick. My voice came out in a breathy whisper: "Where are you going?" With my back to the music, I slipped into the warm embrace of the night.
The thorny hedge seemed to knit together. Whatever trick Cappy - what we kids called Mr Capshaw - had used, was lost on me. I clambered on to the dry stone wall of the church boundary and took the high route, dropping with a shallow thump as I hit the grass. I stayed low but looked around. Maybe he'd gone for to spend a penny. How bad would that be, dropping in on a gent doing the necessary? A flush rose to my cheeks. No. There he was: up the hill towards the top of the field. I saw a tiny blue light bobbing in the distance. I frowned. We didn't have white-blue torches. Intrigued, I snook after him.
Our slow cat and mouse gap continued for what felt like ages. The thump and sweet hum of the band was far away now. Carried close by a gentle breeze, but lost in the rattle of trees as Cappy - and me some way behind - made our way down one of the fallow fields and into a steep dip with trees either side.
The moon had come out and its wan light cast enough for me to see roots or falls in the slope. Away from me, the slow bobbing blue light - like some tiny will-o'wisp - weaved through the copse. The ground got steeper and I made my way down steps that had been cut into the sides of the bank. To my right, moss covered brickwork worked its way out of the hillside.
Cappy's blue light had stopped. I could see a wide circle of light - like a giant's eye - shine against bleak wooden planks. There was the rattle of keys and then a clunk. Was he working on a lock? The light disappeared and Cappy steep through whatever door he'd opened.
I counted to twenty and then made my way down to the floor of the small valley. In front of me another slope rose into the night and to my left, a long weed infested stone packed path ran into the darkness. I put my head around the door and I could hear crunching. Cappy was treading on stones. I heard the drag of his bad leg on the pebbles. Stealing myself, I squeezed through the door and into the gloom.
The place smelt of... of... was it tar? It smelt like the stuff Mr Walton had sealed the chicken shed with. Cappy's wizard's light hung from a nail on the wall. I crept closer, wincing each time I felt the rough gravel move and threaten to crunch beneath my boots.
The light winked off and I froze. Behind me, the dim moon threw weak light but it was not enough to see by. I stood stock still, fear that my own breathing would give me away. I took shallow breaths and tried to move towards where I thought there was a wall. My outstretched hand touched cold stone - no, brickwork.
I heard a gasp. Had I been found out?
I held my breath. Again. That was it. It was... The choking gasp of sorrow sounded in whatever chamber I was in. It was Cappy. Why was he crying? There was a sniffing noise and then the whole place lit up as if the sun itself had risen. I squinted in the blinding attack, caught like a mole from one of Digby's traps.
As soon as it had begun, the light dimmed. "You better come in." It was Cappy's voice. Rough and croaky as if he'd spent a lifetime chewing grit. "Come on." The light shone from twin globes that hovered about a metre or so from the floor. "That you Aflie? It is isn't it, c'mon."
Cappy stood with his arm resting on a box with a glass window on it. It came up to his chest and leaned on the top with his arm. I couldn't see his legs, there were hidden behind the shape. I took a pace forward and more of it came into view. Shielding my eyes from the glare I could see more. The thing, it wasn't a box, but a long - and I guess metal shape. Curved in places, long smooth curves like a pebble worn down in the stream. I could see a dark black wheel by my foot. But it wasn't like the wheels on the carts. This was wide, dark and thick. A wide circle of silver material stood proud in the middle of the black wheel. It looked like a coin dropped on a disc of treacle toffee from the bakers.
There was a wide window on the front and smaller ones ran down the side of the vehicle. It must be a vehicle, why else would it have wheels. I looked up at Cappy. Tears had traced there way down the lines in his old face. He wiped at his nose with an old hanky. "Seen my secret," he said with a dry chuckle. "I'm not supposed to have this. Beautiful isn't she?"
"She?" I asked.
"Ships, planes or cars. They're always female. It's the way things are.... where, sorry."
I reached out and touched the cold metal body of the vehicle. "This is a.. c-car?" I repeated. I had never seen one. They were from the Old Times. The time before the plague. The older folk, people older than Granny, not even they talked about cars. They were rumour, like talk of dragons or wizards. Maybe the web: the magical lines where all of mankind's wisdom lay.
"You can get in." Cappy pulled at the something on his side of the car and got inside it. I ran my hand along the side and found something to pull. I gave it a tug and the door opened with a soft hiss. I pulled it wide and looked inside. The seats were like nothing I'd seen. They were leather, but shaped to an exact shape. Like the bumps of a stack of toy bricks. I got in. The seat gave way under me, moulding to my body and I brought my feet in. There was a rough rubbery mat under my feet. Dials and panels of glass lay under the main window.
Grunting, Cappy got his bad leg inside the car but he left the door open. He reached into his jacket and took out a flat metal box. He slotted it into a thin gap like a tiny letter box. It was just beneath the big wheel that rested over his knees. "The vicar'll have our guts for garters if he hears us." He winked at me as if I knew what he was doing. He tapped a button on the wheel and music started. I screamed in shock and Cappy laughed. "S'right lad. It's just a track. A recording."
"W-what's in that? Is there a b-band in there?" My heart fluttered. What other magic did he have on him?
"It's just a recording. Here - press that button. No. The one with the arrow pointing up." I did as he asked and the music got louder. I looked at him and pressed the one beneath it, the music got quieter once again.
"Is this Micky's band?" I asked.
Cappy chuckled. "No, lad. These guys are long gone. Only this recording lives on. Hell, they were old when I was your age. This is the Stones." The name meant nothing to me. The music played out. Initially metal twangs of a guitar and the beating of a badly tightened drum. The old man looked at me. My shock was etched on my face just as age and sorrow where on his.
"Why did you keep her?" It was the only thing I could think of. Well, that's not true. I had hundreds of questions, but somehow, that's the one that made it out.
The old man's face screwed up like Mum squeezing water from Dad's jumper. "I dunno. We turned our backs on a lot of the stuff from the towns. It broke down. You couldn't fix it. Well, we couldn't fix it. The other bits: thing's like your Ma's mangle or the ploughs we kept. Books on medicines. At least medicines and basic chemistry would could repeat. The other stuff.... cars. trucks, plasma screens, computers, mobiles, iPods. There are all dead. Dead as the people left in the cities. Great piles of rotting stone and bent steel." Words flowed out of Cappy like a babbling brook. Some of them - like iPod - I'd never heard of.
He touched the panel by the wheel and the music stopped. There was a soft whine as the little metal box ejected itself from the car. "You know that all of this stuff, it's forbidden?"
I nodded. This was something special. Something that he - and probably me - could get into trouble for. We'd been told by Mr Roberts, the headmaster, not to go messing with "Auld Teck". He said it could be unpredictable and that it might have plague on it. Yet, here me and Cappy were. Sat inside a car. A thing from the last age. I nodded. "Sure. I understand. Keep my trap shut, right?"
Cappy grinned and slapped me on the shoulder. "They'd only wreck her." He looked at me. Something showing in his eyes I couldn't quite read. "Now, be a star and hand me that polish from the boot. Best take the dust and fingerprints off before we go." He pulled a pocket watch out of his jacket. "Just 5 more minutes and then we best be off. Otherwise there'll be a search party out for us."
The boot turned out not to be a shoe, but an opening in the rear of the car like a big trunk. There was all sorts of stuff in there I didn't understand. Maybe questions for another day. Cappy and I finished cleaning his car and we packed the rags away. He shut the boot with a heavy clunk and picked up his tiny lamp. Flicking it on we made our way through the gloom and back into the night.
"Actually, there is one reason why I kept her." Cappy's eyes shone in the darkness and he gave me a big smile. "I kept her so I could listen to real music. I can't bloody stand that folk crap Micky plays."