First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him! said Ray Bradbury… When I read this I couldn’t help but think this is what happens when I write. Some of my heroes are actually heroines, and I prefer to think of them as main characters – calling them heroes or heroines subliminally suggests they are heroic, whereas actually, they are just ordinary.
One of my characters was described as a hero – but it was not the way she wanted to be described and it became an intolerable burden to her – her story appeared in the local and national news, and headlines screamed
MAN SHOT IN BANK GRAB
POLICE SHOOT ARMED ROBBER
WOMAN HELD HOSTAGE BY GUNMAN
WOMAN SAVES MOTHER FROM HOSTAGE ORDEAL
This character is Rosa Czekov, and a local journalist interviews her about her ordeal:
I WASN’T BRAVE, ROSA CZEKOV TELLS MAISIE BAKER
I expect most of us wonder how we would react when we see news of extraordinary acts of bravery and courage by ordinary people. Certainly I did when the news broke about the woman who had offered herself as a hostage in place of a young mother during a bungled bank raid. Rosa Czekov is the same age as I am; she’s the sort of person I went to school with, from a happy middle-class back ground, one sister, and happily married to Luka. At the time that Enoch and Ira Chambers were planning to hold up a small branch of their local bank, Rosa was running her own art gallery in Easthope.
I asked Rosa about that time, before her name became synonymous with random acts of courage. She looked slightly perplexed; she raised her eye-brows, rubbed her hand through her close cropped dark hair and gazed at me with solemn grey eyes.
“Were you different then?” I asked her.
“I suppose I must have been,” she answered with a rueful grin, but I detected a certain sadness hidden in her throw-away admission. “My life was very ordinary, as it is again now.”
“Although you no longer have the gallery.”
“Well, no,” she looked thoughtful. “But things change anyway.”
Things… Things changed for Rosa Czekov one cold November day. She was standing patiently in a queue at the small branch of Strand Penny Bank, waiting with half a dozen others while the clerk coped single-handed as his manager wrestled with a tap which wouldn’t turn off in the ladies toilet. Behind Rosa stood Charlotte Hyam and her small grizzling daughter Poppy.
Suddenly two brothers, Enoch and Ira Chambers burst into the bank, scarves round their faces, baseball caps pulled low.
I asked Rosa what happened next. She gave an imperceptible sigh, as if weary of the repetition.
Ira went to the counter while Enoch stood behind them, shouting at them to keep still, shut up, not move.
“He kept yelling he had a gun,” Rosa told me and momentarily something flickered in her expression.
Suddenly, 78-year-old Mervin Holt lashed out at Ira with his walking stick, felling him with one blow. There was a terrific explosion as Enoch fired into the ceiling and everyone screamed and crouched on the floor. Enoch grabbed Charlotte Hyam and stood with the gun poked up under her chin.
“She was leaning back against him, trying to get her face away from the gun,” Rosa said calmly. “Her coat opened and I could see she was pregnant. All the time her child was clinging to her legs, squealing with fear.”
But what happened next is where I begin to wonder what I would have done. Would I have stayed crouched on the floor with the half-dozen others? Would I have been weeping and wetting myself with fear? Probably.
Rosa stood up slowly and calmly and explained to Enoch that she would be a better hostage than Charlotte. She was a woman but she had no child, the baby clinging to its mother’s legs would be a hindrance rather than an advantage.
“Take me,” she said.
The clerk had hit the panic button as soon as the guns had appeared. The manager, in the back had phoned the police and even as the gunshot rang out, people were being cleared away from outside the bank. As Rosa was talking quietly and calmly to Enoch Chambers, armed police were racing into the centre of Strand.
“But what you did must have taken enormous courage?” I asked.
Rosa shrugged slightly, as if it was a mystery to herself.
“I didn’t think,” she said after a moment. “I didn’t have some internal debate as to whether I should or shouldn’t. The child was screaming; the man was almost hysterical. I just stood up and – well, you know.”
Her eyes became slightly unfocused as she lived those moments again. Her husband Luka, tall, darkening blond and with film star good looks put a tray of coffee between us.
“Bloody daft,” he said with a grin. But there was a grimness in his eye which told of a different emotion.
“What happened next must have been…” and then I didn’t know what to say. How could I put into words what Rosa had experienced after that?
Enoch Chambers had dragged her out of the door of the bank, one arm round her waist, the other hand holding the gun jammed against her throat. She could feel his arm trembling; she could feel his heart pounding against her as he held her tightly to him. He shouted a dozen incoherent demands alleging he had already shot someone inside the bank. His brother Ira, still unconscious, was being tied up with garden twine by the ever resourceful Mervin Holt.
A negotiator began a dialogue.
I probed gently; how did she feel, what was going through her mind, what was she thinking of – or whom? She parried my questions with shrugs and non-committal half-comments.
And then something happened.
“I’m going to kill her!” Enoch Chambers had yelled and his elbow lifted and then Rosa was covered in blood as Enoch was killed with a single shot from a marksman.
“I don’t understand it,” said Luka suddenly. “You could have been killed,” he said almost angrily.
“But I wasn’t, my darling,” Rosa answered gently, and took his hand. I sensed that what had happened to Rosa had as deeply affected her husband. I asked them if this was so.
“Of course it affected us,” said Luka, putting his arms round her, grinning at me flirtatiously. “It affected us then; we’re alright now.”
Later as we walked round their garden I couldn’t shake off the memory of the photos in the papers from that time. Rosa standing painted with a man’s blood, her arms held out in a gesture of entreaty to the marksman standing in front of her, the gun still held to his shoulder.
I asked Rosa again why she had done it, what had given her the strength? Was she religious? No, not at all. Was she always brave, did she like risk-taking?
“I wasn’t taking a risk,” she said as if puzzled. “It wasn’t like that, it wasn’t like that at all. I don’t know what prompted me. Sense, I suppose, common sense and perhaps a lack of imagination.”
Was that what her modesty really was, a lack of imagination? I don’t think so. I think if each of us tried to emulate Rosa Czekov in some small way, some small act of bravery, then the world would indeed be a happier and safer place.
If you want to read what happened to Rosa later, and find out who began to stalk her, then here’s a link to ‘The Stalking of Rosa Czekov’: