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This Land is Your Land

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It's a lovely day. You stand at the back door with a fresh cup of strong coffee and slowly gaze over your garden. You love living here. Your house used to belong to your grandparents and holds many happy memories. The garden is quite substantial and is full of random brightly coloured plastic toys that your kids adore. But your favourite part is the particularly pretty apple tree you yourself planted with your grandad when you were five. You still remember doing it and love to bore your kids with the story.

 

A movement to your left catches your eye. It's your neighbour, all eighty-eight years of him, having one last look over his own garden before he moves on. His wife died a few months back and he's moving into one of the pensioner's homes at the other end of the village. 'Death Row' it's known as locally in the most macabre of humour.

 

You wave and descend down the back steps to greet him one last time. He remembers you being born and always takes delight in reminding you, which he does for one last time. You wish him well and promise to visit, more out of politeness than anything else. He wonders how you'll get on with the new neighbours. You do, too.

 

It's time for work. You kiss your family goodbye and off you go.

 

 

When you pull into your drive after the journey home from work, it's all-go next door. As you step out the car, you notice a woman struggling with a heavy box that's almost spilling over with personal belongings. You offer to help, which she gladly accepts. You notice she looks weary and is happy for the break. Introductions and pleasantries are exchanged. Her husband appears at the door, taking the box from you. He places it down amongst the multitude of others and warmly shakes your hand. Inwardly, you fizz with excitement. The couple are about your age, and judging by the racket coming from the garden, have children of similar age. You wish them well and ask if they need any more help. They politely decline and off you skip, away into your house to tell your family about your new friends.

 

The next day is Saturday. It is bright and sunny. Not quite out of Spring yet, but warm enough to tease you, as if Summer has spotted you across the bar and is flirting seductively with you. The whole family is outside. The new neighbours spill out of their back door and glance around, unfamiliar with their new surroundings. You greet them, sitting up from your weeding. Both sets of kids clock each other and tentatively creep toward the old fence that divides you. They stare and share awkward smiles but dart back to the comfort of their parents. It's an ice-breaker. Two sets of parents laugh then exchange introductions.

 

As the conversation flows, you drop in that your house has been owned by the family for decades. But this is bettered by the neighbours. A long time ago, back when their wasn't much of a village to speak of, his family owned land here. In fact, it's the very land everyone is standing on now. You make a light-hearted joke about how much time has passed since then and mumble pleasant excuses about getting on with the weeding. You jab your trowel into the flower bed while the kids still exchange coy glances.

 

The following weeks become increasingly odd. First of all, you noticed the new neighbours at the old rickety fence, looking into your garden and gesturing wildly with their hands, furiously animated in the morning sun. The next day is even more bizarre. Your neighbours are involved in deep debate with three men in hard hats and hi-viz vests. They must be getting an extension. So soon? But you swear they keep looking towards your house.


 

A month or so later and it's the height of summer. You've been away for a fortnight on holiday. What you see when you pull into the driveway astonishes you. The ramshackle fence, decades-old but still sturdy, has been decimated. It lies in pieces, strewn like bodies after a bomb-blast. The neighbours are in your garden, heavy in conversation with a man in a sharp suit and expensive sunglasses. You fly into a rage and demand an demand an explanation. What happens next knocks you sideways.

 

You are told that your garden no longer belongs to you. You see, it used to be in their family. They have a right to return to that land. You protest that this is preposterous, utterly ridiculous and demand that they remove themselves from your property. Within an instant, you are surrounded by more sharp-suited men in sunglasses. They physically lift you and you family along your garden, up the steps and into your house.

 

The kids are terrified. So are you but you try to remain calm. You try the door but as you open it a firm fist to the face sends you sprawling. Your family screams and you huddle together in the kitchen, a mix of confusion and fear coarsing through your veins. You taste the metallic sourness of blood in your mouth and wonder just what the hell is happening.

 

You gather your senses and walk through the living room and towards the front door. Two shadowy figures lurk through the pretty frosted glass design. You feel your swollen lip and decide against opening the door.

 

 

A few days have gone by. You've tried to make the kids feel as normal as possible. However, they can feel the the tension. It doesn't matter what you suggest or how much you try to manipulate them, they want to know why they can't go outside. The man on the telly keeps saying it's summer. It's hot inside. You open windows. The men in sharp suits allow this but make sure they watch to ensure there is no escape.

 

No matter how many times you think about or discuss the situation, it still remains baffling and inexplicable.

 

There's commotion in the back garden. Men are yelling and you hear the mechanical growl of heavy machinery. A bulldozer ploughs its way from next door, flattening more of the fence and smashing your kid's playhouse to pieces. Through the exhaust fumes and dust, you make out the bold coloured shards of plastic leaping and spinning in a strangely elegant and poetic way. Then you let out an odd, low wail as it heads for your apple tree and knocks it clean down like a devastating blow from a heavyweight boxer. The family hear this and rush to join you. Everyone watches in silence as the garden you so proudly tendered is no more. The bulldozer pushes everything neatly to one corner, ready to be picked up and taken away. So many years, so many memories, flattened in the blink of an eye. Your kids are crying. You notice that you are, too.


 

The next day, while you are eating what's left in your cupboards for breakfast, the men in suits burst into the kitchen and demand your attention. They are brandishing weapons. You don't know much about guns but you know that they kill. You and the family are ushered upstairs and are told to stay put. You swap wild-eyed stares at each other as you all try to anticipate what happens next. Your heart thumps like crazy in your chest as you hear slow, measured footsteps coming up the stairs. You grab the kids tightly, trying to protect them as much as you can. The door opens and you close your eyes, not wanting to see what terror awaits.

 

As you open your eyes, you see your neighbour. His face is soft and kindly, and his lips part in a warm and welcoming smile. He ushers you all to sit on the bed. He perches sideways on the end to address everyone. You are told that he is sorry but this land, and therefore this house, belongs to his family. They will be building more accommodation in the garden. As an act of kindness, your family will be allowed to live in the attic space. You try to stand to speak but a swift blow to the side of your head with the butt of a gun quickly sets you back down. There is no other option. You will only be permitted to leave the loft on their say. Supplies will be provided but only on their terms. You will be provided with buckets for sanitation. Every two days, you'll be allowed down to empty them. There is already a tap up there for running water for washing and cleaning. There are to be no questions. Men in suits fill the room, guns pointed at you. They order you to go to the loft hatch, open it and drop down the ladder. You wearily oblige. One by one, your family enters what you now call home.

 

There are already others here. Your house is an end terrace, one of four-in-a-row with your oppressors in a detached house on its own to the other side. The houses were built some time ago, and the shared attic space hasn't got round to being separated and bricked-off yet. The three other families are cowered in a corner, and you imagine their expression of pain and sadness is also mirrored on your face. You join them and nobody speaks for hours.

 

The silence is broken by one of the loft hatches bursting open. Everyone screams. The suits laugh at the reaction. They're enjoying this. A hessian bag is tossed up. Some basic provisions tumble out. You think to yourself how scarce they look and wonder how long they are meant to last.

 

You find out three days later. By this time, each family has built a 'home' in each of their loft spaces. Luckily there are enough airbeds, blankets, crockery and cutlery sets and other unwanted items to make it as habitable as possible. There is an old cassette/radio player. It picks up several stations and it provides some entertainment, however scant.  You wonder how long the batteries will last, so you ration the use.

 

The last few days, as well as being the longest of your lives, have been downright bizarre. Underneath you, there has been a great deal of activity. You pictured in your mind people moving in, keeping some of your belongings and discarding others. You've heard the washing machine. Your washing machine. You've heard people laughing while watching television. Your television. You've even heard people having sex in the room below. Your room. Your bed. All the good times you had in there fill your head. You weep and your family cuddles you.

 

Between the four families (as well as you there are two older couples and another family with a young child on the opposite end), there has been a decision made to engage in negotiations. The father at the other end nominated himself, leading you to swiftly volunteer yourself. The man is a bit of a hot-head and has a history of confrontation in the street. You feel he would make things worse. The others agree in a majority vote. The next time the hatch is opened, you will try to talk.

                     

 

You trudge back up the ladders, a crowd of expectant faces greet you. They are holding their breath, waiting for any scrap of good news. You slowly shake your head and stare at your feet.


 

 

The day had started with more hope. As you went down to empty the buckets, you politely asked to speak with your neighbour. To your delight, an audience was granted. You asked if there was any way out of this, to have your homes back and end the cramp, squalid and quite frankly disgusting attic in which you were currently living. To your dismay, the man cackled. You were asked to look around. His cousins had moved in, how could he ask them to leave now? You protested that the house belonged to you. He cut you off and gave you a backhand slap to your cheek. As you felt the hot sting, he once again reiterated how this was his land and you had no right to be here. In fact, he was being generous in his terms and was hurt by your demands. You were told you were lucky.

 

The man with the temper was not happy. He yelled in your face and explained in no uncertain terms that you were weak and you were a failure. A while ago, this may have intimidated you. Not any more. Inside you find this amusing and wonder if you're starting to lose your mind.

 

He's doing things his way now. There was a vote and he has been elected leader. He suggests a violent approach. You think and know this a bad idea. He proposes to attack the next person to open the hatch. The supplies are due later and the time is now. He looks around for a weapon and finds a large iron mallet. It belonged to your grandad. You remember him using it in the garden. Now it was to be used as a weapon. The man sits to the rear of where one of the suits pops up their head. Your gut wrenches and you hold your family tight.

 

You've never seen someone being attacked like that before. Up swung the hatch, down came the hammer and the suit almost folded in two before tumbling back down the ladders. The man held the hammer above his head and screamed something undecipherable down the hatch before slamming it shut. He leaped about manically, as much as you can while stooped over, and fixed his gaze to yours. You were told that that was how you dealt with them and that they would listen now. You looked into the man's eyes and realised that although he was functioning, there was nobody piloting him. He was gone. Part of you sympathised, another was angry at him, but mainly you were now simply paralysed with fear. You wondered what the response would be.

 

Another loft hatch opened, not the usual one, which took you all by surprise. Before anyone had a chance to scream, an envelope was tossed up and the door slammed shut. You were closest, so you read it out loud.

 

You were to be punished. They were taking some more of your living area. You were to live in only one loft space. All of you. The men in suits were coming to get the person who commited the attack. They couldn't live with the fear that someone might hit them with a hammer. They had a right to defend themselves. You wondered what their response would be. When it came you never in your wildest dreams thought such evil could exist in the world.

 

The hatch at your house flies open. Hot-head is at the other side, poised with the hammer over his hatch. He guessed wrong this time. Several suits seem to float into the loft. Everyone screams and runs over to the other side. The hammer is thrown at the suits. They dodge it. The one on the left picks it up and throws it back. It cracks one of the old men on the forehead with a sickening thud and he collapses. His wife moans and tries to hold him. He is lifeless as blood begins to trickle down his face. The suit in the middle glances down and spots a pile of crockery. He picks up a plate and sends it in your direction. You duck and it smashes on the wall behind you. Before you have a chance to glance back, another whistles inches past you. You instinctively huddle down to protect the kids. Something hard hits you on the shoulder. You cry out in pain. Now something sharp jabs you deep in your back. Are they throwing cutlery? You wonder what the hell is happening. And it keeps getting worse.

 

They are throwing and tossing and hurling anything they can get their hands on, anything than can be picked up is scooped and thrown with ferocity and amazing accuracy. And still it continues. They are coming at you, coming for you, using anything that isn't bolted down to harm you, to hurt you, to injure you, maim you. You try a glance back at them. They are like a machine with massive whirling arms, sweeping things up and firing them towards you. Big things, small things, hard things, even harder things, sharp things, blunt things. As you look, another dinner plate is sent spinning your way and smashes on top of your head. A huge, sharp pain registers inside your shaking brain and you feel the hot stickiness of blood pouring down the side of your head. You try to shield the kids as much as you can.


 

Still they come nearer, behind them an empty space, in front of them more ammunition. Your body no longer registers pain, with every nerve screaming you have simply become numb. And now another sensation takes over.

 

Things are no longer hitting you. Instead you sense a crushing weight on top you. And it is becoming increasingly heavier, just as it is becoming increasingly darker. You are being buried under your possesions. You feel them land and each one is like a tonne weight. The life is being slowly squeezed out of you. It is at this moment you decide you are going to die. This is the end. You close you eyes for what you consider to be the final time.

 

Then it stops. You pause to be sure then try with all your might to dig your way out.

 

You succeed. All of your family have survived. The kids are white and shaking. They stare off into the distance. You try to help the others dig their way out. You soon realise that it isn't a rescue mission. Both of the old couples are dead. Their frail bodies couldn't cope and the life was battered out of them. You keep digging, eventually finding the other family. The parents both have massive head wounds. It is very obvious that they are dead. You realise you have tears running down your face to add to the blood and sweat. You don't find the cliché funny. Instead, you find the toddler. He still has his dummy in his mouth. He looks like he's taking a nap in this oddest of locations as his hands are tucked under his head, as if to form a pillow. But he isn't sleeping. He has no pulse.

 

Something inside of you breaks. You almost hear it, like a piece of elastic that holds your sanity and rationale together has frayed and snapped. In a rage you pick up a suitcase and throw it back. Then another one, then an old steel toe-capped boot, followed by a smashed and crooked picture frame, then finally the old iron mallet. Why him? Why the child? What had he done? He wasn't even two years old, his whole life ahead of him. He was murdered, collateral damage in a cold-blooded and disproportionate act of revenge. You yell and scream and cry and collapse, close to your family who huddle in towards you.

 

Behind you, the hatch opens.

 

What would you do?

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