The Great Escape

Crampton House was one of the finest examples of Elizabethan building in the country, it was originally built in 1602 for Sir Richard Crampton, on the site where Crampton Abby once stood, before King Henry VIII’s split from the Catholic Church. Well know for the ferocity of Henry VIII’s men in their pursuit of every last gold coin, candelabra and religious artefact, they spent two weeks torturing the monks for more information on their hidden treasures, and the atrocities performed with royal approval shocked the church to its very core. Locals believed that the ghosts of the monks still haunted the land. The house had been built for Sir Richard as a reward for Services to the English Crown, and topped off with his own money for the finishing touches, money made from some wise investments he had made in Hemp farms and the subsequent production of rope and sails for the English navy. It was kept maintained and used as the family home until the recession of 1956, when a few risky investments did not come to fruition, and the new Lord Crampton had to place it on the market to cover various debts. It finally sold when the swinging 60’s got underway, and a full refurbishment saw it marketed as a luxury Hotel. Since the closure of the hotel in the early 1990’s it has been a conference centre, a wedding venue and home to another tragic member of the 27 club, a musician with a taste for various class A narcotics.

After the rockstars death in 2002, the National Trust were outbid at auction for the country house by the Golden Years Consortium, a company making cash from old age pensioners in their final years. They had ten homes scattered around the English countryside, this would be number eleven. Like many new company’s in this sector, it was about volume before care, the management base that had been put in place to cover four homes, was not any larger now they had eleven homes. The CEO wanted to only think of expanding the business portfolio before considering expanding the management personnel at the head office. This in turn meant less and less face to face contact between the house managers and their bosses at head office, in turn fewer and fewer checks were being done on the homes, to make sure the standards were being maintained and the old folks could relax in their golden years and ‘just be’ as the company’s propaganda was happy to tell you over and over while flicking through the brochure.

Crampton Hall had never had a visit from a senior manager, the only time Eric Fellows had stepped foot in the house was to co-host the interviews for staff. He had found a clever way to over staff the homes without the wages budget taking the blow, he would over staff with inexperienced teenagers studying for an NVQ, he could pay them a pittance, well below minimum wage, then he could employ fewer experienced nurses and pay them a decent wage, yet still remaining well within the budget. Also, after the purchase of fifth home, the parent company bought out a failing mass production food preparation site from a foodservice franchise that never quite made it. This allowed them to in turn pay less for kitchen staff, as the meals had been preprepared, vacuum packed and just needed reheating on site. Also employing less of them, bringing the down the cost of feeding the geriatric residence, combined with the discount on buying foods in bulk they could feed them three times a day for a little over £1.50 per person, per day.

It was more of a gold mine, a licence to print money, than it was aimed toward the professional care for the elderly. The residents always came a poor second best to the company’s bottom line and owners bonuses. It was not a happy place, some residents whose bodily functions were no longer controlled, would be gaffer taped in to their incontinence pants in the morning and not be changed until bedtime. Letters to loved ones from the oldies, given to the staff to post, had the stamps removed, they were then burnt, once they had been checked for and cash gifts. Just like catfish they were feeding from the bottom on the crumbs neglected by the upper management. The contents of the of the residence bank accounts were now little more than a bonus payment for the staff, and the money from ‘cash my gold’, made from the stolen jewellery of the less compus mentus of patience, were tips to boost the Christmas party fund.

The more alert of the residence, many of whom served in the Second World War, and those who didn’t still lived through the blitz, rationing and day to day fear of death, would regularly meet in the grounds to discuss escape plans, led by the enigmatic Max Eastman. There had been many escapes over the years, and while the getting out took plenty of thought and planning, it was by far the easiest part, compared to ‘being on the run’. The staff were well aware that nobody could ever find out what went on behind closed doors, and went out rounding up the escapees, the staff took great pleasure in the hunt, a break from the boredom. There was even an award ceremony at the Christmas party for the most successful ‘hunter’ that year. Each patient was given a points score, the higher points for those who were more able bodied and harder to catch. The staff would build up points through the year and the winner would be announced at the christmas dinner and dance, they would get a cash prize, and the loser had to undergo tasks set out by the ‘King of the hunt’ for the following year.

Punishment for escaping was a little light torture, maybe strapping them to a bed and tickle the sole of their feet with a feather until they lost bladder control, then leaving them laying in it for twenty four hours with no food or water, a stint in solitary confinement and restricted diet, the food while poor at best, was borderline medieval while spending a month in the cellar cells, believed to be the only part of the original Abby left intact. No sunlight, fed once a day and the absolute silence broke some of those who underwent the process, and there were those, Minnie Geller for instance, who did many a stint in solitary, and still came out smiling at the end of it, she often could be heard to say in the days after release,
“If I can survive the Nazi Camps, everything else is like a holiday” and she would laugh like a school girl when the ‘guards’ were not looking. During the Second World War she had lost every member of her family during the holocaust, and only her tenacious spirit and determination kept her alive, she always felt that she cheated death regularly in those years. After the war she studied photography, and then traveled the worlds hotspots, photographing the voiceless and down trodden in war zones, giving them a voice in the worlds press. She never joined in with the escape committee and their plans, she didn’t believe that mass escapes was the way forward, a large crowd of shuffling oldies in carpet slippers was very conspicuous.

She would always make a lone escape, and one of only two residence to carry the large score of 100 points for the ‘hunter’ who brings her back. The other was the leader of the escape committee, he knew that a large break out would give him cover to break away on his own, and the extra hands to help execute the plan made things easier. Max Eastman had been a resident of the German Army also, he had taken in a number of different camps, as he escaped from one, he was re-captured and sent to a different one, finally becoming a member of ‘The March’ in 1945, as the German Army marched 80,000 POW’s across Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany between January and April. He was no stranger to harsh environments, he had been a great adventurer in the years after the war. He only felt comfortable in the emptiness of various frozen wildernesses and mountain tops.

These two veterans of life were quite happy to rebel, both had a penchant for cannabis, and would daily meet under the branches of a great oak tree, believed to have been planted as a sapling soon after the house was completed, and smoke a couple of joints while reminiscing on past glories, who now just refer to themselves as ‘Rebels without a clue’, or, ‘legends in their own lunch breaks’. In a different life they may have had wild adventures, and even wilder sex together, but here and now they were just happy to get baked together under the canopy of a marvellous oak tree. They each knew of the others latest plan to escape, and one of them would be on hand with a massive doobie, and umbrella in inclement weather, for the the other after a stint in the cells. They both believed, or though never spoke of it, but they did believe the other to be their soul mate.

The month of July had seen Minnie doing a stint of solitary as punishment for escaping the grounds using a knitted ladder she had crafted during the, short, dark nights of June, she had been on the run for over a week and had finally been caught by the head nurse, who had tracked her through the New Forrest, armed with a tranquilliser gun, he had shot her as she squatted behind a bush having her morning wee. She was more pissed off than usual at being caught, she felt he could have waited until she had finished before taking her out. She awoke to find herself hog tied and slung over his shoulder like a hunter with a freshly killed muntjac. Her solitary confinement was one of increasingly pungent smell of stale urine as she had not been allowed a fresh change of clothes before being locked up, and the ‘click, click, clickity, click’ of her knitting needles as the slow hours hung on the stifling air of a hot summer, in a small cell, were the only sound to keep her sane. When she was finally set free on the first of August, there was her friend waiting with a couple of freshly rolled slices of heaven poking out the pocket on his shirt. She held her hand up to him just as he was about to welcome her back, when she said,
“Shower!” In a more aggressive tone than he was used to hearing from her, and off she marched to her room, as he scampered along behind her.

She stepped from her en-suite bathroom dressed, hair wet and tied back in a pony tail, you could still tell she was a beautiful woman in her day, ravaged by years of eastern sun, and living in war zones, but still in better shape than many, and her dark brown eye were hypnotic. Max too carried the scars of war and adventure, bullet wounds on his right leg and torso, a two inch scar on his left cheek, missing a few digits and toes, lost to frost bite and a nose that had been broken more than once, he had lost some of his muscle mass with age, but what was left still hung well on his tall broad frame. They were what they jokingly referred to as ‘friends with benefits’ and could always clear a room of members of staff with a little heavy petting, as it was know as in their youth. They made their way to their spot, Minnie was first to spark up her smoke, then passing the lighter to her friend, she took a long drag, tipped her head back and in a long slow exhale she said,
“God I have missed you” and then like a forgotten thank you of an acceptance speech she added,
“You too Max” and giving a girlish giggle, meanwhile Max was on his long exhale followed by a little stiff cough,
“Would you still love me if I didn’t know a dealer? Hahaha” he retorted with a snort and another stiff cough, she casually pushes him away,
“Don’t be daft” she said reassuringly
“I would be with Donald, they prescribe him Tramadol, hahaha” and with this the both fell about giggling until the tears streamed from their eyes.

When they had pulled themselves together, Max took her hand, and looked in to her eyes,
“I’m going over the top tomorrow my darling” he said in a rather serious tone,
“Well I say over, I mean under. We have been having a few band practices on the bandstand during this gloriously hot summer, a while they have been playing, me and a few of the boys have been digging a tunnel from under the bandstand too about a hundred yards passed the outer wall” he finished looking down to their entwined hands.
“You can always come with me, we can split from the main group and be in Southampton in a couple of weeks, sail to Europe and be free” he said trying to convince his companion. She looked at him and said,
“I’m going to need a few weeks to recover, it gets harder to do solitary every time we get caught, I need to build myself back up to full strength, maybe if you get caught this time we could try together in October, if you get away send me a postcard, just to let me know where you are, and I will try to join you, but for now I need to eat, sleep and get stoned” she saw his smile drop a little, so she took a chance,
“I love you Max” quickly averting her gaze in case of disappointment, she felt his gentle touch on her cheek and he pulled her gaze back to his,
“I love you too, and I will let you know where I am if it works, and count the seconds until we are stoned together again” they sat for the rest of their smoke cuddled up together, in silence, a perfectly comfortable silence, there were no words to make this moment any better than it already was. As they walked the parkland of the old country estate he told her how they had removed the soil for the tunnel with the plastic measuring spoons you get with liquid medications, using the cardboard boxes from the medications were filled with soil, to discreetly dump the soil removed in to the bins, nobody would go through the bins checking the boxes, and no one would bat an eyelid at them in the rubbish, if there was one thing you are never short of in a home like this, it is empty medication packaging. It had taken them six weeks, but last night they broke through just before day break, and the escape date was set for later that day.

The twenty four hours before an escape were always the most nerve racking for Max. His preferred method of mass escape was tricky, so many people needing to acting normally, one slip of the tongue, a shred of excitement misplaced, and the staff would be alert. Escape day always relied heavily on the laziness of the carers. One whiff of something out of line and they would be rumbled. Too many moving parts is always tricky to control, and in the early hours waiting for the crew to assemble by the bandstand, Max began to wish that he and Millie had come to the idea of the both of them escaping together sooner, methods of escape were getting harder to come up with, and as each attempt is discovered, the staff are more aware of weaknesses in their security. As Max pushed the last escapee in to the tunnel, he took one look back at the bottom left window of the old house, and could swear he could see Millie watching him go, he gave her a little salute just in case, and disappeared down the rabbit hole. Minnie had indeed been watching and in the cold moonlight she saw her love, that cheeky salute and then a return to the stillness of an early August morning.

In the hours after sunrise Minnie was woken by the sound of a diesel van engine, as she looked out of her window she could see the first round up of escapees were being marched in to the house, she could not see Max amongst them. She walked out to the van while it was left unattended,
“Willie, Willie, where is Max?” She asked in a whisper through the van door,
“Who the fuck knows, he pulled his usual stunt by fucking off and leaving us to the wolves, he promised, he fucking promised me he would stick with us, once he popped out the hole he run off like the mad March hare, wanker” Willie spat in anger, then Minnie trotted off for a morning smoke. She had to be honest with herself, she wished Max had been caught, just like Max had the day before, she wished they could have come to a plan to escape together, forget this idea of a mass escape, just the two of them running off in to the setting sun. She opened her note book and started to jot down some ideas on future escape plans.

It took a week for the head nurse to track down Max, Max was hog tied, but far to big to have been thrown over Gavins shoulder, he was dragged back unceremoniously on a dirty piece of tarpaulin. Gavin was way ahead on points this year, and certain to win the big prize. In anticipation he had already taken out finance on a custom Harley Davidson, a frame that dated back to the early 1940’s, blinding in the sunlight due to the chrome which adorned the bike, a paint job in pearlescent burnt orange, and when not riding it, it was covered in an expensive protective cover at work and in the garage at home. Twice a week he could be found cleaning and polishing his pride and joy, while being paid to show the same level attention to pensioners under his care. As Max and Millie watched him cleaning and polishing his bike, both thought before they go next time for freedom dash, it would be nice to smash the bike beyond repair, or just torch it. Both had been roughly treated by him, both wanted revenge, both would love to see this grown man cry.

At the beginning of October, there was a buzz about the carers, something was going on, as they scampered about tidying the communal area’s and painting on caring faces. At 9am the gates opened and in drove two vans of scaffolding, the pensioners were confined to the house, ‘for their own safety’, and the erecting of the frame began. At 5pm, the workmen drove back out of the gate, at the end of their first day. Max and Millie made their way out for a late smoke together, and looked at the piles of scaffolding ephemera that were neatly stacked against the house. Max said he could make a frame out of the pipe and brackets, until he lifted one of them, this would be a job for a gang of men, and he had no interest in another mass run. Then an idea hit Millie so hard that Max had to catch her as her legs buckled beneath her. Once she had composed herself, she told Max her idea, he laughed in a depth of hilarity she had never seen from him before, and giving her a glimpse of the man he once was, before being dumped here. They hurried about their preparations. With out giving away a single clue to their plan, they walked past the main living room where all the staff now sat, their patients in bed and doped up, they were free to drink, smoke, watch TV and sleep until the end of their shift in the morning.

By 3am the living room was silent, apart from the mixed snores and occasional grunts, Millie went down to double check, not a soul stirred in this once great house. She ventured through the kitchen, to the staff cloak room, found what she needed and made her way back to her room. She double checked her ruck sack, double checking she had packed everything important that she would need on this trip, then she climbed out of her window and waited in the last of the dark before dawn for her co-conspirator. Bang on 3.30am he arrived and they hugged like long lost friends, then Max spoke,
“I guess I should tell you, I don’t know how to ride a motorbike, shall we just come up with a better idea?” He said apologetically to his love,
“Stick with me kid and you’ll go far in life” she said in a fairly convincing Humphrey Bogart voice and she jangled a set of keys with, unsurprisingly, a photograph of a naked woman on the fob.
“Like I would give up the chance to thrash the backside out of this monster, and let you drive” she said mockingly,
“I used to buzz about on one of these when I was out in Israel during their troubles, its like riding a bike, hahaha” she now showed Max the woman she was before this place, with the depth of her joyous laughter. She swung a leg over, kicked it over twice until the motor roared in to life. As he would recount later, it scared the bejesus out of him, he could hear the bikes heart beating in the center of his brain, felt it humming through every fibre of his being,
“Get on then” Millie barked at him in jest, he clamoured on and wrapped his arms around her, she tapped his hand in reassurance, leaned back and kissed his cheek, and whispered just above the bike,
“Hold on lover, here we go” the final part lost on a louder throaty roar from the beast, she opened up the taps and the bike disappeared in to the fading night. The front head lamp lit the way as Millie looked for her mark, out of the darkness it approached her at speed, Millie found another half inch of power, and she hit the middle of the three scaffolding boards they had earlier leaned against the wall to the right of the gate, and before Max had a chance for a sharp intake of breath they were air born, and as they both glanced in to the bikes mirrors they saw the silhouette of the bikes owner screaming and shaking his fist, back lit by the halogen security lights, and before they knew anything, the bike thumped the ground as gravity regained control, and screaming down the road they went, laughing as they pictured Gavin crying over his lost love. By 5am they were having breakfast in Southampton, killing time before their sailing to France. They arrived in France later that day, and by 1pm they were enjoying a nice lunch and bottle of wine in a small village about an hour from the coast, as they enjoyed the last of the cheese and wine they tried to decided their next destination. While Millie was having a wander, Max bought the first of the many postcard the pair would send on their travels, to Gavin, telling him how wonderful the bike was, and how they missed him. Millie arrived back a the bike half an hour later with french number plates, which she replaced the English ones with.

They traveled all over, the last time they were caught on camera was passing through a port in Singapore, prior to disappearing in to the South China Sea, the novelty of the postcards had worn off by the time they reached Russia, and now their time at Crampton house was just a suppressed memory, there was no thought of Gavin popping up with his tranquilliser gun, he had recently been sent to prison with the rest of the staff, and upper management of Golden Years consortium after the two year enquiry found the miss management of the all their homes, the company soon went in to liquidation.

Suspicions had be raised after Gavin reported his bike missing, and the forensic accountants set about his finances to see where the money for such luxury’s came from, and so it all began to unravel from there, undercover OAP’s, hidden cameras and microphones. The breaking news on the company shocked the nation to the core, the story played out slowly over a number of news cycles, never dropping from the top story, and then forgotten when an even more shocking news story hit, and a new cycle began. In all the investigations in to Crampton house and the hubbub surrounding it, the police completely forgot to register the theft of the bike. No one was looking for Millie or Max, no one was missing them, they were no longer on anyone’s radar. They lost themselves in to each other, and the magnificent beauty this world has to offer, when you spend a little time hunting them out.

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