The Black Hole
DAN'S on the bus with Valbon heading to the Derbyshire market town of Ashbourne. They've taken the bus because they are going to watch the annual Shrovetide football match and parking will be difficult.
The Shrovetide football is played every year on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday but it's not proper football, not like Man U or Chelsea.
There are two teams, the Up'Ards and Down'Ards, determined by which side side of the Henmore brook they were born on. Those born on the South are Down'ards and try to goal the cork-filled ball at the old Clifton Mill, those born on the North are Up'ards and try to goal the ball at the old Sturston Mill three miles away. A ball is goaled when it is tapped three times onto a stone plinths.
The town becomes a giant football pitch, with shops boarded up to protect them from the giant scrums (known as hugs).
As the packed single decker bus chugs its way up and down the hills through the picturesque villages of Brailsford and Kirk Langley, Dan stares out of the window, reflecting back on the night a couple of weeks ago when he flagged down Valbon's taxi.
It had been another heavy drinking session for Dan, a 35 year old middle ranking civil servant in the county council housing department, once described by his mother as well-turned out and handsome, with his neat brown hair, clear blue eyes and slightly swarthy complexion but now a dishevelled, crumpled individual.
The taxi driver was a bubbly, chatty character despite a limited grasp of English and Dan was in that buoyant frame of mind before the black dog took over.
“Hey mister, you know Ashbourne football?” Valbon asked as he steered the taxi into the nondescript estate where Dan lived.
“Sure do pal,” he replied and before he knew it, Dan had agreed to be Valbon's unofficial tour guide.
Valbon balances a flask of tea on his knee as the bus rolls pass the turn-off to the quaint village of Osmaston with its glorious thatched cottages and offers Dan a cup but he declines and instead takes a swig from a brandy bottle.
“You got wife, kiddies?” asks Valbon, an Albanian Kosovan in his early 50s, short and squat, a sort of Balkan Danny Devito with a large purple birthmark which covers half of his face.
“No, no wife, no kids. You?”
Valbon gazes down at his feet as he tells Dan that he fled the Kosovan War after his wife and three daughters were killed in a massacre whilst he was off fighting the Serbs.
Dan turns his head away, back out to the green, rolling hills of England and realises what a contrast this must be for his companion to the barbaric killing fields of his homeland.
“I come from a very bad place Mister Dan, a very bad place. No rules, no rules for anybody. UK much nicer, you Brits nice people.”
The sun beams across Valbon's face and he taps Dan on the knee.
“You very lucky chappie Mister Dan, live in nice place, nice life. But you need wife, kiddies, everybody needs wife, kiddies. Why no wife Mister Dan?”
Dan doesn't reply.
“Black cloud over your head, big black cloud, I can see that. What happened Mister Dan? You can tell me, I been to hell and back matey. I have seen many terrible things but you, you have seen bad things as well haven't you, I can tell. You have that look, many men in Kosovo have that look. You come close to the horror, see it face to face.”
Dan decides that his best bet is to lose Valbon in the crowd and head to a boozer.
The bus arrives shortly before midday in time for them to see the throng gather outside The Green Man and Black's Royal Hotel where the pre-game lunch is held. There is a huge cheer when a local dignitary emerges carrying the ball and is held aloft on the shoulders of the some of the players. There is a buzz of excitement as the ball is carried down Dig Street, red and white bunting fluttering above from rooftop to rooftop, towards a plinth in the Shaw Croft, near to the town's main car park from where the game will be started.
“Come Mister Dan, come.” Valbon tugs Dan's coat sleeve and they are swept along by the tide of people.
Before the ball is thrown to the crowd – the grey-suited, grey-haired VIP leads everyone into a rendition of Auld Lang Syne followed by the National Anthem. Dan is not particularly patriotic but is embarrassed into action by Valbon who sings 'God save our gracious Queen' as loudly as anyone there, proudly clutching his right fist to his left shoulder.
“This my country now. I am British citizen. Proud man,” he says. “No killing here, no nasties.”
The game gets underway and the ball is quickly lost in the scrum, burly men and shaven headed youths dressed in tracksuits, rugby jerseys and t-shirts showing their allegiance, battle it out.
A group breaks away with the ball and the action switches into the river, the crowd running in pursuit. Like spectators watching a gladiatorial contest in ancient Rome, their bloodlust has risen and they bay ferociously in appreciation of the combat going on before them. Occasionally the action borders on turning into a brawl but tempers remain under control.
The game edges east across Park Road towards the Sturston goal and Dan hopes that Valbon will follow so he can nip away.
Suddenly he hears a rumble. It has been an unusually warm day for the time of the year but there have been no forecast of rain or thunder.
“What's that?” asked Valbon, stopping in his tracks.
The rumble becomes louder, much louder and the sky begins to fill with birds in flight. The next moment the ground beneath them shakes as if a giant Peak District troll has decided to march into Ashbourne. This is followed by a enormous grating sound and about a hundred yards ahead of them, the road splits open with spectacular speed as if it was a can of sardines, sending scores of people tumbling into its cavity.
They rush back in the direction of the town centre as the awful stench of what smells like rotten eggs begins to invade their nostrils. Buildings all around are starting to shake and huge dust clouds mushroom skywards to obliterate the sun.
They run down St John Street into the cobbled market place to witness the fine array of Georgian buildings in Church Street ahead of them collapsing like a pack of cards as a great big ditch splits the street in two.
“Where police, ambulance? Nobody here Mister Dan, nobody here. Why?” cries Valbon, sweat cascading down his face.
Dan hears Valbon scream just before a large chuck of masonry strikes him on the side of the head.
Many years ago when Dan was a child, his mother used to take him to a picturesque copper-topped bandstand with a wooden balustrade in the the local part to hear a brass band perform. It was where she could re-live her favourite film, The Music Man, with Robert Preston and his 76 trombones.
It was here, 15 years ago that he took Sylvia to propose to her. It was a spur of the moment thing, not the proposal, but the place. Dan had intended to do it in the Italian restaurant where they were dining but it was crowded and he was too embarrassed.
So on their way back to their car they passed the park and on a sudden impulse he steered Sylvia through the giant iron gates.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Don't worry, it's a bit of a surprise.”
“But Dan, it's night-time and it's dark,” she replied.
“It's okay, I just want to take you to the bandstand, there are lights there.”
But when they got there, the lights weren't working and the bandstand was shrouded in darkness.
Undeterred, Dan took out his cigarette lighter, lit it and bent down on his knees before her.
He didn't get the chance to utter 'will you' before a blow came crashing down into the small of his back, flinging him to the ground.
There were three of them, Dan could hardly work out their features in the gloom but they were swigging from bottles and leering at Sylvia.
“What do you reckon guys? Was he going to do the business?” said the taller of the three, who must have been no more than 18 or 19. He had the demeanour of a scavenger, thin and tall with weasel eyes, pointed nose and acne-riddled skin. The other two were younger, smaller and less menacing, in awe of the ring-leader.
Dan remained where he was, cowering on the ground as he caught a glimpse of flashing steel.
One of them roughly searched through Dan's jacket pockets and pulled out the box containing the ring.
“He was you know,” the scavenger said as he peered into Dan's face, his breath stinking of stale beer.
The other two giggled nervously and Sylvia screamed before a hand came roughly across her mouth and she was dragged into the bandstand.
She clutched the bandstand rail screaming: “Dan, don't leave me!”
“Dan, don't leave me!”
His senses kick-start back into action and he is conscious of a large bump on the side of his head.
Valbon is stuck on a tiny ledge about four or five feet down inside a giant hole which has completely swallowed up the town's information centre. Dan can't see how deep the hole is but there is an icy chill gushing up from its depths and he hear the rat-ta-tat tat chatter of Valbon's teeth.
Every nerve-end in his body is telling him to run, to flee from this madness, to save himself, as he had done all those years ago when he had fled the park. But he doesn't.
Back then he had run into the street trying to flag down passing cars but to no avail. The first phone box he went to was wrecked and the next. He banged on a couple of doors but made such a commotion that, looking back, he was not surprised he was ignored.
It wasn't until he reached the high street and ran into a pub did anybody listen to him.
The look of contempt was clearly evident on the policeman's face when about two hours later he took Dan into a small, shabby interview room at the police station to inform him that Sylvia's body had been found less than a mile from the bandstand.
“Mister Dan! Please help me!”
Dan's head is pulsating with pain but he bends down and manages to grasp Valbon's hand and haul him up.
“Thank you!” sobs the Kosovan. “What's happening, what is all this? What...”
“I don't know, I haven't got a clue, an earthquake, some sort of disaster but we don't have earthquakes on this scale. There's something not right about all this. Let's get out of here,” says Dan.
They head up Buxton Hill, the main road north out of Ashbourne, leading towards Dove Dale, the beginning of the Peak District and much higher ground.
As they reached the top just before The Bowling Green Inn, the noise behind them builds up into a deafening crescendo.
They turn and look back down the hill. The road is being ripped up straight down the middle at an alarming rate, an enormous black hole moving towards them with deadly precision.
Valbon drops to his knees, whispering frantically in Albanian, bruised and battered body limp in submission as the horror approaches.
Dan stands firm, head held high. He is control, there is no fear.
© Patrick O’Connor 2013