Chapter 12 – Peeping Tom
The old railway clock in the Green Man saloon bar struck eight-thirty as Neil and Sebastian walked through the door. The place seemed oddly quiet, reminding Sebastian of old Western films, where the noise of would drop away as the villain or the tough-looking stranger entered, the saloon doors swinging behind him as he swaggered to the bar, all eyes watching. But this wasn’t the situation in the Green Man. This wasn’t a lull. It was just quiet because there was hardly anyone there.
The two old guys, Sid and Harry – though Sebastian couldn’t recall which was which – were sitting on the same stools as the previous day, clutching their pints as though afraid they might be stolen if left on the bar top, and a middle-aged couple occupied at a table by the fire. Donald was leaning against the inside of the bar, peering at a newspaper, a pen poised over it in one hand. He looked up as the pub door clicked shut, and stirred himself into action, lifting a handled pint glass from a hook above his head. Without a word, he began to fill it.
‘Well, if it ain’t the London gourmet, himself,’ said one of the old men, smiling toothlessly at Sebastian. ‘Come for a second helping of rabbit stew, is it?’
‘Course he ain’t, Harry!’ said the other, who must be Sid, before Sebastian could respond. ‘Why would he come here to eat, when he’s already tasted the food? ‘Less, of course, he’s a crazy. You ain’t a crazy are you, lad?’
‘Time was when you could get decent vittles in ‘ere,’ continued Harry, ‘back in old man Scadden’s day. And at the right price. Ah, it was a proper pub back then. With real food.’ He held up his glass, his face twisted to show his distaste. ‘And real beer.’
‘Had a blacksmith, an all,’ added Sid.
‘In the pub? Don’t talk rot, man.’ Their conversation continued as Donald clattered the full pint glass on the beermat, spilling it down his hand in the process.
‘Neil,’ he said, with a curt nod.
‘Donald,’ came the response, accompanied by another nod in matching curtness.
‘And for yourself?’ said Donald, switching his not-overly-warm attention to Sebastian.
Sebastian eyed the three beer engines. Three commercial lagers, similar in strength and blandness. It wasn’t much of a choice, so he just shrugged. ‘I’ll have the same, please.’
Neil paid, and, as Donald took up his pen again and bent back over the paper, he and Sebastian carried their beers to the same table as the previous day.
‘Cheers,’ said Neil, raising his glass and clinking it dully against Sebastian’s. ‘You did well today, lad.’
Sebastian frowned slightly. He had always been uncomfortable with praise, never quite knowing how to accept it, out of fear of either coming across arrogant – “Yes, I know. Of course I’m good at it. Why are you even telling me?” – or that it was a prelude to being knocked down – “Yes, you are good at it, no one’s denying that. It’s just a pity you’re so useless at everything else. And unattractive.” He went for a cautious, ‘How do you mean?’
‘With the chicken and that. I wasn’t sure you had it in you. Thought I’d have to get the job done myself.’
Sebastian’s frown matured and he sipped at his pint. ‘Wait a minute,’ he said, setting the glass back on the table with a thump. ‘Are you saying that you’d have been prepared to kill it instead of me?’
‘Instead of you?’ said Neil, a smile stretching across his moustached face. ‘Why on earth you I want to kill you?’
‘You know exactly what I mean.’
‘Oh, I’d have done it alright. Course I would. But I didn’t have to, did I? Coz you stepped up.’ His smile faded and he fixed Sebastian with his dark, brown eyes. ‘I’m proud of you lad.’
Sebastian coughed, trying to mask his discomfort. ‘I did puke on your dog, though.’
‘Yeah, there was that,’ said Neil, picking up his beer and taking a sip. ‘Let’s pretend it didn’t happen. That, and your little fluke with the rifle.’
‘You mean when I hit that tiny, little two pence piece.’
‘It was normal sized.’
Sebastian leaned back in his chair, his voice raised. ‘And then I hit it again, after you missed. And then… remind me, did you hit it? That normal sized coin?’ Whatever Neil mumbled in response was lost somewhere in his moustache. ‘Sorry what was that?’
‘No,’ said Sebastian, nodding with exaggerated condescension. ‘No, you didn’t. You missed it, and I hit it. Twice.’
‘How far away was it?’ came a voice from the bar, and Sebastian turned to see Sid and Harry eying him from across the room.
‘Thirty yards,’ said Neil, ‘give or take. And don’t you know it’s rude to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations.’
‘Shouldn’t talk so loud, should you,’ said Harry. ‘Thirty yards, eh? Did you hear that, Sid? Ain’t much of a distance, is it? Not for something what ain’t moving.’
‘Remember Rupert?’ said Sid, turning to face his companion. ‘Rupert Shaftesbury? Lived over Buckland way?’
Harry thumped his empty beer glass on the bar top, earning a disapproving look from Donald. ‘Old Ropey Shafter? Course I remember him. Got run over by a dray cart, didn’t he?’
‘That’s the one. Now there was a guy who could aim, a real artist. You know, he could hit a rabbit on run across the field with nothing more than his old catty-polt, what he’d made himself. Remember?’
‘I do indeed,’ said Harry. ‘I do indeed. And I remember something else an all, Sid.’
‘What’s that, then?’
‘It’s your round.’ He slid the glass towards Donald. ‘Get them in!’
‘Anyways,’ said Neil, the distraction over for now, ‘I reckon you did pretty well, all told. With the shooting as well as the slaughter and everything that went with it. Not bad for a…’ He looked up, as though trying to recall something, then looked back to Sebastian. ‘I’ve just realised I have no idea what you actually do in London.’
Sebastian, who had forgotten all about the city for a moment, blinked in surprise. ‘Oh, er, yes. I work for an IT firm. Not as a programmer or anything – no way! Leave that to the geeks. I work in marketing.’
‘What’s IT, exactly?’
‘Computing stuff. The company produces bespoke software. We’ve got some fairly major clients, too. Even a couple of the large banks use us for some of their in-house IT.’
‘Right,’ said Neil, the word drawn out in an “I didn’t get the half of that” kind of way. ‘And this “IT” stuff is Greek, you say?’
‘Greek?’ Sebastian drained the last of his pint as he tried to work out where this had come from. ‘Oh,’ he said, suddenly getting it, ‘you mean geek. The geeks. Yes, that’s what we call the guys who actually write the software. I have as little involvement with that bunch as possible. My job is to raise awareness of the company and what we do – get the name out there! It’s just marketing.’
‘Well,’ said Neil, easing himself out of his seat, ‘you did pretty well for a marketing guy. Deserves another drink!’ He reached from the empties, but Sebastian beat him to it.
‘No, no,’ he said, snatching them from away from Neil. ‘I’ll get these.’
‘Same again, is it?’ said Donald, dropping the pen onto his paper and shuffling across to the beer engines.
‘Please.’ As the landlord did the business, Sebastian peered at his newspaper and the crossword he’d been doing. There were a few scribbled answers, some of which he recognised. It was the same one he and Neil had been struggling with. ‘It’s not “Suzuki”,’ he said, pointing at the offering word. ‘Forty-six down,’ he added, in response to Donald’s confused frown. ‘It’s not “Suzuki”.’
‘Of course it’s “Suzuki”,’ said the landlord, placing the first full pint on the bar and lifting down another glass, ‘because forty-six down, “given shoes” has to be “shod”.’
‘Yes, but thirty-nine down, “Concretion of nacre”, is “mother of pearl”, which means that’s an “R”,’ he pointed at the puzzle again, ‘making this “Subaru”.’
Donald peered at him from beneath his frown. ‘Concretion of nacre, eh? And how does a young lad from the city, like yourself, know what that means? They always do that, you know,’ he continued, before Sebastian could respond. ‘They always slip in a clue that no one can get – well, no one except city folk, I guess. They must get some sort of perverse pleasure out of it. Concretion of nacre! I thought it had something to do with the Crusades, some secret weapon from the middle-Eastern middle Ages. Mother of pearl!’ He shook his head, spilling lager as he placed the second, now almost full, pint on the bar. ‘So you’re in marketing, I hear.’
‘Er… yeah,’ said Sebastian, caught off-guard by the sudden change of topic. ‘That’s right.’
‘Don’t you know it’s rude to eavesdrop?’ said Sid, wagging a mock-stern finger at the landlord.
Donald ignored him. ‘Answer me this then: how would you go about marketing this place.’ He spread out his arms to indicate the Green Man, banging his elbow on a plastic, dog-shaped collection box, knocking it off the bar. It was saved by a length of chain securing it to the wooden surface.
Sebastian looked around, taking in the worn carpet and the mismatched furniture, the filthy windows and the stained ceiling. He even peered through the archway into the public bar, which was much the same, though lacking a carpet, a single bulb casting a dim light across the empty space.
He turned back to Donald. ‘It’s not really my area of expertise, to be honest. My work’s based around computer software promotion.’
‘Humour me,’ said the landlord. ‘Just tell me what you think?’
‘Bloody awful, isn’t it!’ said Sid. ‘The old place’s gone down the pan in the last twenty years. That’s why no bugger comes here no more.’
‘Excepting us,’ added Harry. ‘Couple of old fools that we are. Best thing Donald could do for this pub is to give to someone as knows what they’re doing!’
Donald gripped the edge of the bar, but managed to ignore the jibes, his eyes fixed on Sebastian.
‘I wouldn’t say that!’
‘I would,’ said Sid.
‘But they do have something of a point.’ He paused, bracing himself for the landlord’s ire.
‘Go on,’ said Donald.
‘Well, the pub itself is charming. From the outside, it’s a lovely old building, full of character. But when you come in, it looks like it hasn’t been decorated in years. It’s all nicotine yellows and worn out fittings. If you could spruce things up a bit in here – get a new carpet, re-paint the walls, smarten up the furniture… even clean the windows – it’d make a world of difference.’
Donald looked unconvinced. ‘You reckon a bit of tarting up’s gonna drag people in here?’ He sounded unconvinced, too. ‘The people in this village would hardly notice if I painted the whole place bright pink and filled up with bean bags. They don’t care about a little grime and gristle. What they care about is their own pockets. They’d rather travel up Barnstaple for bottles of cheap beer to drink on their own, than come in here and spend a few more pennies and drink together.’
‘Sounds like good sense to me,’ said Harry, with a shrug.
‘You’ve got to spread your net a little wider, then,’ Sebastian continued, ignoring the interruption. ‘People in Steepleford already know you’re here. What you need to do it promote the Green Man to the other villages and towns nearby. But before you do, you have to put some money into this place. Speculate to accumulate, as they say.’
‘Dunno what that means,’ said Donald, raising derisive laughter from the two old men.
‘It means you need to spend money if you’re going to turn this place into somewhere people want to come.’
‘On everything.’ Sebastian paused, gathering his thoughts. ‘First thing you need to do is recruit a chef.’
‘A chef?’ Donald looked stunned by the suggestion.
‘Don’t know what that means, either?’ asked Sid. ‘It’s a cook. Someone what can actually make stuff people want to eat, rather than that muck you shovel out to poison your non-existent customers.’
‘But I’m the chef.’
‘And the beer,’ said Sebastian, soldiering on, despite feeling sorry for Donald. ‘All you have is three lagers. In a pub like this people expect proper, hand-drawn real ale.’
‘But it doesn’t keep,’ said Donald, releasing his grip on the bar to hold up his hand in despair. ‘No one drinks the damned stuff!’
‘Not here, they don’t,’ said Harry. ‘On account of there being none on offer. Haven’t had any decent beer in years, have they Sid? Not in years!’
Sebastian picked up the two pints of lager, hoping it would help him escape. ‘Decorate, recruit, update the menu, get in some real ale. Then, and only then, do you start promoting the pub. Get out posters, put ads in the local paper, set up a website and a Facebook page. Then, have a grand reopening, with discounted beer and a selection of free tasters from the new menu. Before you know it, the place will be teaming with customers again, from all over.’ He hurried over the table, dumping down the beers.
‘Thanks,’ said Neil, clearly amused by the conversation.
Sebastian returned to the bar, drawing out his wallet. The expression on the landlord’s face was of a man in deep thought, the kind of glazed over look a person makes when trying to catch the word of a distant conversation.
‘You really reckon that’ll work?’ he asked, blinking his eyes into focus again.
‘Well, as I said, it’s not really my field… But I don’t see why it wouldn’t. How much do I owe you for the beers?’
Donald reached out to push the wallet away. ‘Them two’s on the house,’ he said.
‘Well,’ said Neil, when Sebastian had returned to table and Donald to his crossword, ‘that’s something I’ve never seen before. Free beer in this place. You reckon he’ll do it?’
Sebastian shrugged, yawning hugely as he did so. ‘Tired!’ he said.
‘I’m not surprised,’ said Neil. ‘You’ve been through the wringer today, sure enough. Come on. Let’s drink up and head on back. Hopefully we’ll have got out of doing any chores by the time we get home.’
When they had finished, Sebastian took their empty glasses back to the back to thank Donald.
‘Ah, just the man,’ said the landlord, hurrying over. ‘Mind if I pick your brains for a moment?’
Sebastian turned to look at Neil, already framed in the open doorway. ‘You go on ahead. I can find my own way back. How can I help?’ he asked Donald, as the door clicked shut behind Neil.
The landlord smiled. ‘Can you tell me a bit more about getting one of these webbed sites?’
Twenty minutes later, Sebastian emerged from the Green Man and headed towards the crossroads. There was no street lights in Steepleford, which wasn’t much of a surprise. It was more of a shock to find they had electricity and running water. He stopped in the middle of the road and pulled out his mobile. Even if there was no reception here, it could at least come in handy as a flashlight. As he switched it on, though, the road ahead was bathed in light. For a moment he thought, impressed, that it was the mobile, but the glow was far too bright. Someone had switched on the light in the village shop and, looking up, he made out the figure of Emma, swathed in a light blue dressing gown, fiddling around with something on the counter, while her mother stood in the doorway to the living area.
Suddenly feeling exposed in the light, Sebastian ducked to the left, hiding in the shadow of the building next door. He peered round the edge, drawn back to the brightly lit room and the red-haired girl he hadn’t seen all day. Evidently unaware of his surveillance, she strode across the shelves on the far side of the store, climbing the small ladder to tease down a couple of brown cardboard boxes. As he watched her, reaching up on tip toes, the hem of her dressing gown rising up to reveal slender calves, he felt as though he shouldn’t be looking, as though he was some sort of pervert, peeping in at her from the shadows. But still he stared, unable to draw himself away. She really was beautiful, and he had a suspicion that she liked him, though he had no real evidence to back this feeling up – he wasn’t aware of any signs or even how to spot them if there were.
Emma skipped off the ladder and carried the boxes across to the till. As she set them down, she paused as though struck by a sudden thought or sensation. Then her head snapped round towards Sebastian.
He was sure she couldn’t see him, but the shock was enough to send him ducking back around the edge of the building, breathing heavily, his heart thumping like he’d been in a race. After a few moments, and with infinite caution, he eased his eye around the corner. Emma was no longer looking in his direction, but was scribbling something on a piece of paper. She laid the pen on the counter and, without glancing back, walked past her mother into the house.
Mrs Standfield peered around the shop, staring for a moment at the window, though Sebastian was thankful it wasn’t the end he was standing at. Then she raised a hand to the wall and the light blinked out. And Sebastian could breathe again.
‘What’re you doing?’
He stopped breathing again. The voice was deep and dark, heavy with accusation, and appeared to come from the darkness itself. He swallowed and took a step backwards
‘Who’s that?’ he said, his voice sounding thin and frightened.
The shadow on the other side of the shop stirred and gathered together in the shape of a man. A large man. A man Sebastian knew.
‘I asked what you’re doing,’ said the butcher, stepping forwards to tower over Sebastian. ‘Why’re you skulking around in the dark?’
Sebastian looked up at the butcher’s face, noticing for the first time a large scar on his cheek. The man was evidently a murderer, he could see that now. He took another step backwards, flashing a glance over his shoulder towards the Green Man. It wasn’t that far away, he could make it. He was sure he could outrun this lumbering man-ogre. In fact, it sounded as though he’d already been running – his breathing was as laboured as Sebastian’s had been when…
‘Hey, wait a minute,’ said Sebastian, looking up at the butcher again. ‘What were you doing skulking around in the dark?’
The change was almost immediate. Where before there had been a hulking monster, towering over Sebastian with wrath in his eyes and judgement in his fists, there was simply a man. Still a big man, admittedly, but just a man. And an awkward-looking one at that.
‘Well…’ the butcher began, pulling at his shirt collar as though it had suddenly become too tight. ‘It… I was just, you know.’ He jabbed a finger the size of a child’s shoe in the direction of the crossroads. ‘That is to say… It was dark and I was just passing.’ He fixed Sebastian with a look that was somewhere between challenging and pleading, leaning slightly towards the latter.
Sebastian nodded as if in understand. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘me too. Um…’ He also pointed at towards the crossroads. ‘I should probably… you know.’
‘Course,’ said the butcher. ‘I’m just… heading yonder.’ He pointed in the opposite direction and started off, giving Sebastian a wide berth. ‘Night then.’
‘Yeah,’ said Sebastian, heading back to the farmhouse. ‘Good night.’ He felt shaken as he hurried down Holders Hill, his head filled with wondering about the butcher’s sudden awkwardness. He, Sebastian, had felt guilty, because he’d been spying on Emma. Is that why the butcher was there? Is that why he had been hiding in the shadows, so he could leer at her as well? The thought made him feel a sense of protective jealousy for Emma – one that was entirely unreasonable, considering he was a mere visitor to this strange place, and he had no claim to the girl. Still, he didn’t like the idea that someone else liked her as well, especially someone much tougher than him, someone who had access to her everyday.
He shook his head in an attempt to clear it as he headed up towards the lights of the farmhouse. Just a few more days and he’d be out of here, that’s what he really needed to focus on, not this village girl from the dark side of the country.
‘I’ll just keep my distance,’ he said to himself, as he opened the door. ‘I’ll avoid her as much as possible, then go home and forget all about her. Easy!’
‘Morning, stranger,’ said Emma, as the bell danced above his head. ‘Thought you were avoiding me. Brought my eggs, have you?’
Sebastian looked down at the two egg boxes as though surprised to find them clutched in his hands. There had been only twelve eggs to collect this morning, which had tinged the experience with a shadow of melancholy. That, and the lack of interest shown by the remaining chickens, none of which demonstrated a discernible personality. Not like the poor evil chicken.
He cleared his throat. ‘Yeah,’ he said, walking forward to place the boxes on the counter.
‘What the hell happened to your face?’ asked Emma, snatching hold of his chin and tilting his head to face her. ‘Someone take a dislike to you, or something?’
Sebastian meant to pull away, to free himself from her grasp, but her touch seemed to have hypnotised him and he was powerless to resist. ‘It was a gun,’ he said
‘A gun?’ She looked shocked. ‘Who shot you?’
‘I did. Or rather, I shot the gun and it kicked back into my face.’
Emma run a finger along the line of the bruise, sending a shiver down Sebastian’s spine. He hoped she didn’t notice. ‘It’s almost a perfect circle,’ she said. ‘What was it, the scope?’
‘Yeah. Stupid, huh?’
‘A bit,’ she said, releasing his chin and taking a step backwards. ‘But it does look quite manly, though. So, you looking forward to today’s adventures?’
He shrugged in response, silently wondering why she’d taken her hand away – he could still feel the ghost of her fingers on his face. ‘Not sure what I’m going to be doing,’ he said. ‘Something awful, no doubt.’
Emma laughed at his pessimism. ‘A day with Mac shouldn’t be so bad.’
‘What?’ Sebastian looked put out by this revelation. ‘How come you know what I’m doing, when I don’t? And who’s Mac, anyway?’
‘Mac?’ said Emma, in an “Isn’t it obvious?” voice. ‘Mac’s the butcher.’
Sebastian sagged. ‘Of course he is.’