Sebastian’s bedroom window looked out on an unbroken canvas of brickwork, and it was the most wonderful sight in the world. At least, it was to him. And every morning, before breaking into the day’s routine, Sebastian would spend just a few minutes gazing at the expanse of patchwork orange. There were no curtains or blinds to obscure this glorious view, since there were no overlooking windows through which people might peer in at him and, at night, he would often lie in bed looking out at the brickwork, illuminated by a nearby security light, and feel safe. There was no other word for it; that was how the stability of this unchanging vista made him feel: safe. Safe in the city, that triumph of human dominion, where concrete, steel and brick had tamed, if not conquered, the wild terrors of nature.
It wasn’t that Sebastian was opposed to nature; he understood that the food he ate had some kind of connection to the world beyond London, but it was as distant a connection as between the treacherous waters of the ocean and a cool pint of beer, and he was happy to keep it at that distance. But life in the city was all he had ever known. And it was all he wanted to know. The city kept him safe, and the view from his window, this wall, this solid sheet of bricks and mortar was a constant reminder of this.
Today, however, there was no time to stand and stare at the view, not if he was to avoid being late for his train. Not that he’d mind being late. In fact, he’d like nothing more than to avoid the journey, and its destination, altogether, but he knew he wouldn’t get let off that easily. His friends would make sure of that.
‘Bloody friends!’ he muttered, as he folded a crisp, white shirt into his suitcase with practised care. And he muttered the words with no small amount of venom as he thought back to the previous night, when this nonsense, this nightmare, had kicked off.
It had been Thursday evening, his twenty-fourth birthday, and they’d bought him presents.
‘Presents!’ The voice had cut through the hum of the bar and Sebastian jerked round to see the blonde-dreaded Alison Jabber, aka Brillig, surging towards him with a large, well-wrapped package clutched to her chest.
Sebastian set down his London Pride, still feeling somewhat put out at having paid for this first birthday pint himself, and leaned away from the approaching gift. ‘I’ve only just got here!’
‘So?’ said Brillig, her Leeds accent making it sound more like ‘sore’. She perched on the bench next to him as the others shuffled up to make room. ‘I’ve been dying to see how you’d react all day. It’d be proper unfair to make me wait any longer.’
‘Yeah, come on!’ said DeVere – Justin to his parents, DeVere to his mates – leaning forwards and almost knocking his lager over. ‘I’ve got good money riding on this.’
‘Money?’ Sebastian frowned round at the eager, almost hungry looks in his friends’ faces. His concern deepened. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked, failing to sound breezy and nonchalant. ‘Why are you all staring at me like that?’
In answer, Brillig nudged his drink out of the way and dumped the package on the table in front of him. It looked like a pair of wellies.
‘It looks like a pair of wellies,’ said Sebastian with a strained laugh. No one else laughed. Nor did they say anything, though their eager faces seemed to wilt slightly. With a slowness born of unenthusiastic resignation, he teased off the wrapping paper to reveal, as expected, a pair of rubber wellies. They were an uninspiring shade of green. ‘Um,’ he began. ‘I… er. Yes, well, thank you.’ He paused, but no one else volunteered to fill the silence. ‘I was right. It, it is a pair of wellies.’ He smiled. Another pause, longer this time, and still nobody came to his rescue. He sighed. ‘So… why have you given me a pair of wellies?’
‘You’ll have to, like, open your card to find that out,’ said Diesel, whose full and much despised name was Denise Selborne. She was in her late-twenties and bore the panda-like makeup of a lifelong Goth.
On cue, Brillig thrust out an envelope towards him. As Sebastian opened it and drew out the card, something small slipped out and fluttered to the floor. He picked it up. It was a train ticket, with the customary orange bands at the top and bottom, for travel from Clapham Junction, a station with which Sebastian was familiar, and Barnstaple, somewhere with which he was not.
‘Barnstaple?’ he said. ‘Isn’t that north of the river somewhere? Up near Edgware?’
‘You’re thinking of Barnet,’ said Little Pete, whose name really was Pete. ‘Barnstaple’s in Devon. Why don’t you just read the card?’
Sebastian stroked his chin, clean-shaven just forty-five minutes before. ‘Devon? That’s flipping miles away, isn’t it?’
DeVere shrugged. ‘Couple of hundred or so. Just read the card, it’ll explain everything.’
‘It says it’s only valid for tomorrow…’ said Sebastian, peering down at the ticket again. ‘Did someone put it in the envelope by mistake?’
‘Just read the card!’ shouted Little Pete from across the table, jabbing an aggressive finger at the item in question before slumping, arms folded, back into his seat, looking mildly embarrassed at his outburst.
Sebastian picked up the envelope and, pulling out the card, began to read it in silence.
‘Read it out loud, then,’ said Diesel. ‘We all wants to hear.’
Despite the fact it was clear to Sebastian that they were all well aware of the contents, he cleared his throat and read. ‘Dear Sebastian – being me – we all hope you have a great birthday – thanks for that…’ He paused, his eyes scanning the next sentence.
‘Keep going then!’ said Brillig, nudging his shoulder, causing a second train ticket to slip out of the envelope onto the floor.
‘However,’ he continued, making no move to pick it up, ‘the days that follow may not be so enjoyable. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it… Someone’s scribbled, “You don’t have a choice!” above it in red pen?’ Sebastian glanced at DeVere, who was grinning at the ceiling, the red core of the biro behind his ear clearly showing. ‘Your challenge is to spend one week living and working on a smallholding in Devon to prove you’re a real man.’ Sebastian flashed a look of indignation at his assembled colleagues. ‘To prove I’m a real man? What are you saying?’
‘I’d’ve thought that was obvious,’ said Little Pete. ‘We’re saying you ain’t a real man.’
Sebastian gave the group another round of his offended glare, waving the card at them. ‘This is a joke, right? You’re just messing with me?’ For a moment the burst of laughter from his friends gave him a glimpse of hope. But it was just a glimpse. And just for a moment. But he could see the truth in their eyes. They weren’t joking! ‘What do you mean, I’m not a real man?’
‘Well, you’re not are you?’ said Brillig, ruffling Sebastian’s hair. Instinctively, he pull a comb from his jacket pocket and starting putting it back in order, leaning slightly to check his reflection in the window over Diesel’s shoulder.
Little Pete grinned at him. ‘You’re a bit, you know, metrosexual.’ DeVere snorted into his pint, spattering the table with beer.
‘What?’ said Sebastian, pausing with the comb halfway through his fringe. ‘I am not metrosexual!’
‘Come on,’ said Brillig. ‘You’re like the ultimate metrosexual. If you Google “metrosexual” you’d find a ton of photos of you. And in most of them, you’d be combing your hair.’
Sebastian paused, comb poised above his head, a few stray strands of hair still caught in it. He dropped his arm, slipping the comb back into a pocket. ‘You’re talking rubbish,’ he said. ‘In what way am I…’ he could hardly bring himself to say the word, ‘“metrosexual”?’
‘Apart from combing your hair every five seconds?’ said Little Pete.
‘Well, there’s your clothes,’ said DeVere, reaching past Brillig to give the fabric of Sebastian’s shirt a tug between forefinger and thumb. ‘I don’t know anyone who buys the sort of stuff you wear, except those androgynous freaks you see on the front of magazines.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with buying a few decent threads.’
‘True,’ said Brillig, glancing down at her own work clothes. Sebastian’s eyes followed hers, noting the mark on her top where she had spilled mayonnaise at lunchtime and the long ladder down the right calf of her tights. He looked up to see her staring back, her eyes narrowed. ‘But I bet you ironed that shirt before you came out, didn’t you?’
‘Of course. Everyone-’
‘Despite the fact you ironed them before you put them in your wardrobe?’
‘Yeah, but… hang on,’ said Sebastian. ‘How do you know that? Have you been spying on me?’
‘And then there’s all that stuff on your desk,’ said Diesel, pointing a black-polished finger nail in his direction. ‘I’ve never seen that many bottles of, like, creams, lotions, moisturisers and perfumes and that outside a chemist. I don’t even know what half of them are for.’
Sebastian pulled a face at this outrageous display of ignorance. ‘They’re just products, Diesel. They’re necessary, especially if-’
‘I bet you pluck your eyebrows,’ interrupted Little Pete.
‘And shave your chest,’ added Brillig, trying to peer down his shirt at the area in question. Sebastian leant back in his chair, a hand clamped across his collar.
‘Do you go to a professional to get your nails done?’ That was DeVere.
Little Pete leaned in for a closer look. ‘Are you actually wearing eye makeup?’
‘So many bottles on your desk,’ said Diesel, her eyes focused somewhere above Sebastian’s head. ‘I think one of them was, like, shampoo or something. Why would you ever need shampoo in the office? It’s not like there’s a shower in-’
Sebastian held up his hands to stem the eruption of comments. ‘Yes, alright! I get the picture. So I like to look after myself a bit, and take a little pride in my appearance. So what? It doesn’t mean I’m not a real man.’
Little Pete smacked a hand on the table, clearly enjoying himself. ‘Come on, Sebastian! You’re a Victorian duchess trapped in a man’s body.’
‘I’m not going.’
‘You what?’ said Little Pete, thrown by this sudden change of topic.
‘To this… smallholding, or whatever it is. I’m not going.’
‘Told you!’ said DeVere, sounding smug and thrusting out a hand to Brillig. ‘Cough up, then. You owe me twenty quid.’
Brillig slapped his hand away and leaned closer to Sebastian. ‘Why don’t you want to go?’
‘Why would I?’ said Sebastian, looking at her as though she’d asked him why he might not fancy swimming in the Thames. ‘It sounds awful. I literally couldn’t think of anything worse. Countryside. Animals. Mud. Weird village people… and I bet there’s no internet or mobile reception.’
‘No doubt,’ said DeVere. ‘I bet it’s like the Dark Ages out in those parts. I’m fairly sure the people are all hairy like apes. Some of them probably have tails.’
‘Shut up, DeVere!’ Brillig flashed a glare at him before turning back to Sebastian. ‘We were all aware, when we chose your present, that you wouldn’t want to go. But we all agreed that you need to go. Wait!’ She held up a hand to forestall Sebastian’s interruption. ‘Yes, it’s going to be dirty and smelly. Yes, it’s going to be way out in the countryside in some small, probably fairly backward, village. Yes, it’s going to be hard, unpleasant and generally grim. But this is what you need to do to prove, once and for all, beyond doubt, that you are a real man. And while we’d love you to prove it to us, ultimately, you need to prove it to yourself.’
‘But…’ Sebastian began, trying to think up an excuse. ‘But I’ve got work. The boss’d never give me a week off at such short notice. You wouldn’t, would you, Sheila?’ He turned to his left where a middle-aged woman was slumped, drinking something blue through a straw. Her silence was not unusual – Sheila was woman of less than few words – and it remained unbroken as a grin spread across her face that failed to raise Sebastian’s hopes.
‘Of course she would!’ said Little Pete. ‘Sheila’s chipped into the pot, same as the rest of us. It’s all sorted.’
‘Surely not?’ said Sebastian, directing the question to the boss, as she wiggled her eyebrows in confirmation. ‘But I’ve not packed!’ He picked up the second train ticket and waved them at the staring faces. ‘There’ll be no time tomorrow.’
‘I’ll come and help,’ said DeVere. Sebastian glanced across to find him picking his nose. ‘Won’t take long to stuff some old clothes into a rucksack.’
Sebastian shifted his chair out of range of these nasal activities. ‘No thanks,’ he said. ‘I can do it myself. And anyway, I don’t have any “old clothes”. Or a rucksack.’
Brillig patted him on the knee, like a well-behaved child. ‘That’s that sorted then.’
Sebastian tried one last attempt to wriggle out of the unwanted gift. ‘But who’d feed my cat?’
‘You don’t have a cat,’ said Diesel. ‘You don’t have any pets. You’re scared of them, remember? You told us, like, a thousand times.’
DeVere jabbed a finger at Sebastian. ‘Yet another reason to prove yourself, mate. There’s all kind of animals on the smallholding. Apparently.’ Sebastian looked around the group and sighed. Every face was focused on him, eyebrows raised in silent anticipation.
‘Okay, fine!’ he said, in the voice that suggested it wasn’t that fine. ‘I’ll go. But if I die-’
‘Boom!’ Brillig beamed at him, holding out a hand to DeVere. ‘That’s twenty pounds, I believe.’
DeVere fished a crumpled bank note from his pocket and tossed it at her. ‘Tough luck, mate,’ he said, slapping Sebastian on the back with his nose-picking hand. ‘Looks like you’re off to Devon. Pete!’ he shouted, making Sheila jump and start coughing into her blue drink. ‘It’s your round. Get a move on!’
‘Get a move on!’ Sebastian peered through the rain across the deserted platform to see Brillig waving to him. Catching his eye, she shouted again, ‘Come on. It’s leaving any second.’
Sure enough, as he struggled towards her with his umbrella in one hand, shielding his sculpted hair from the wet, and a bulging suitcase in the other, the guard appeared from the rear doors of the train. He glanced up and down the platform before blowing on his whistle.
‘Hold up!’ called Sebastian.
The guard turned to peer at him, eyebrows clenched in a frown. ‘Quickly then!’
‘See you, Brillig,’ shouted Sebastian over his shoulder. ‘Thanks for coming to see me off. At least one person cares.’
‘Oh, it’s not that,’ she said, already turning away. ‘One of us had to check you actually got on the train. I just happened to draw the short straw. Laters.’ And then she was gone, hurrying towards the stairs and the cover of the underpass.
Feeling a wrench of loneliness, tinged with a stab of apprehension, Sebastian stepped onto the train and the door hissed shut behind him. And as the train pulled away from the station, he sat looking out of the window at the streaks of rain and the solid, safe bulk of the city slipping away behind him.