Chapter 19 – Man With A Plan
Despite the warmth of the day and the glaring sunshine, the water was cold. Icy cold.
‘What did you expect?’ asked Emma, already knee-deep, her dress gathered up in one hand. ‘It’s no colder than the Thames, is it?’
Sebastian, hovering barefoot on the bank after a long struggle to roll the tight legs of his jeans up above his knees, shrugged. ‘I wouldn’t know. Only people who want to catch some hideous disease go paddling in the Thames. Anyway, I thought we were going to be talking about Mac. And your mum.’
‘We are. I’ve got it all planned out, how we’re going to get them together.’
‘A plan?’ said Sebastian
‘A plan!’ She smiled at him, beckoning him with an upwards nod. ‘Come on, I’ll tell you.’
‘Are we even supposed to be here?’ he asked, peering back up the hill towards the grassy track that led back to the High Street to see if anyone was around. Through a nearby hedge and the low hanging branches of a weeping willow, he could see the end field of the smallholding, the pigs with their faces buried in the ground, industriously churning up the earth in their desperate search for who knew what. Turning back to the river, he dipped a cautious toe into the fast-flowing water, withdrawing it again almost immediately. It was already numb. ‘Aren’t your legs freezing?’
‘Don’t be such a wimp,’ said Emma, splashing him with her free hand. ‘Come on. Prove you’re a real man.’
Sebastian stopped in mid-retreat from the watery attack, stunned. That was how this whole thing had started, back on his birthday last Friday, with his friends accusing of not being a real man. None of them had believed he would make it through the week, they thought he’d be home by Tuesday. And dead by today! Hadn’t he already proved himself? What did he have to do to show everyone he was a real man?
‘Fine!’ he said, and strode out into the river. He strode, rather than copy the dainty tiptoeing action Emma had use to pick her way across, partly because he thought it might counter the chill of the water, but mostly out of bravado. Unfortunately he had misjudged both the speed of the Bray and fact that the bed consisted mostly of large stones and rocks, many of which were coated with a slimy layer of algae. He wasn’t entirely certain, later, if he had stubbed his toe first or slipped, nor did it seem that important. The main event was the elegant pirouette he performed that landed him on his back in the water. The ice-cold, fast-flowing water, full of rocks. At least it wasn’t deep, and as he disappeared, thrashing, under the surface, he felt strong hands gripping his shirt, helping him back to his feet.
‘Bloody hell, it’s cold!’ he said, trying to shout between gritted teeth, and was surprised to see that it was Emma who had pulled him out. ‘You’re strong!’
‘And don’t you forget it,’ she said, grinning at him through a curtain of red hair. She flicked it away with a toss of her head. ‘Well, I know I say#id we should go for a dip in the river, but I didn’t necessarily mean your whole body.’
‘Just proving I’m a real man,’ said Sebastian, who had started to shiver.
‘Huh. A real idiot, more like.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘A real idiot! You need to get yourself dry. Get off!’ This last was in response to Sebastian lunging forwards and wrapping his arms around her, his wet shirt pressed against her dress, his hair dripping into her eyes.
‘Not so strong now, are you?’ he said, though he could tell she wasn’t struggling all that hard. ‘I can feel myself drying off nicely. You’re like a human towel.’
‘Nice weather for it,’ said a voice behind him and Sebastian almost lost his footing a second time as he broke away from Emma to look, guiltily, towards the bank. Through his sodden fringe, which had flopped over his eyes, he made out the figure of Jeph, leaning against the weeping willow that stood between his land and the Symeses and eating an apple. ‘Whatever it might be.’
‘We, er… we were just going for a dip,’ said Sebastian, gesturing to the water flowing around his knees.
Jeph nodded, chewing on a mouthful of apple. ‘I can see that, alright.’
‘You don’t mind, do you, Jeph?’ said Emma, in a tone that suggested she was sure he didn’t.
‘No. You’re more ‘n welcome. Surprised the water’s not too cold for you.’
‘It is a bit,’ said Sebastian, who had started shivering again. ‘I think I’ll probably come out now and try to dry off.’
Jeph tossed his apple core over the hedge, where it was set upon by a couple of young pigs, and pushed himself away from the tree. ‘Right you are,’ he said. ‘I’ll leave you two lovebirds to it.’
‘We’re not lovebirds,’ said Sebastian to Jeph’s retreating back, and turned to Emma for support. ‘We’re not are we? Tell him.’
‘Oh, and keep an eye out for Old Geronimo,’ Jeph called over his shoulder as he headed up the hill into the village.
Sebastian turned to Emma. ‘Why does everything keep calling us lovebirds? It’s so embarrassing.’
‘Embarrassed of me, are you?’
‘I didn’t mean…’ he began, but her lopsided smile stopped him. She was teasing him again. ‘Shut your face,’ he said, and waded back to the shore, his jeans heavy with water.
As they sat by the willow tree, drying slowly in the warm sunlight, Sebastian was surprised at just how wet Emma’s clothes and hair were. After all, he’d only embraced her for a few seconds. He was also surprised at how see-through her dress had become; he’d heard that such things happened when women’s clothes got wet, and DeVere had told him about a college party he went to where the girls had lined up to have buckets of water poured over them, but he’d never witnessed it himself. Until now.
‘Do you want to hear my plan,’ said Emma, ‘or are you going to spend the afternoon staring at my breasts?’
Sebastian’s eye snapped, with a little regret, to her face, where he was met with a meaningful look, eyebrows raised, lips in a slight pout. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I was just thinking about something…’
‘About Mac and my mother?’
‘Good grief, no!’ he said, and couldn’t help his eyes dropping again for the briefest of moments. Part of him wished her dress would hurry up and dry so it didn’t present such a distraction. ‘Let’s hear it then, this plan of yours.’
‘It’s actually quite simple,’ said Emma, in the business-like tone she had used on the brewing evening. ‘I’ve booked them a table at the Green Man tomorrow night and have arranged with Donald to get some proper food in for them, instead of his usual rubbish.’ Sebastian nodded, remembering the somewhat disheartening menu. And the tagine. ‘I thought he’d be a bit put out by the suggestion, but it seems someone’s got him thinking seriously about improving the place at last.’ Emma nudged him with an elbow and Sebastian tried not look at her dress. ‘Donald even mentioned hiring a part-time chef.’
‘Good for him!’ said Sebastian. ‘But how exactly is this going to work with your mum and Mac? It’s all very well booking them a table, but there’s no chance of Mac actually asking your mum to dinner. And you said your mum’s too old-fashioned to do the asking.’
‘That’s easy,’ said Emma. ‘We do the asking for them.’
‘Us? You mean, we ask them out on a date?’ Sebastian pushed his mostly dry, but still floppy fringe out of his face so she could she his confused look. ‘How exactly do imagine that’s going to work?’
‘Beautifully! I’ll tell my mum that I saw Mac and he invited her to Green Man tomorrow night, and you can do the same for Mac. Tell him she gave you the message when you came to see me at the shop, or something.’
Sebastian lay back on the grass, staring at the cloudless sky and the willow branches as he considered Emma’s proposal. He sensed her copying him, stretching out beside him in the sun, her shoulder brushing against his. ‘You really think they’ll buy it?’ he said at last, after a long pause. ‘You think they’ll believe they asked each other out?’
‘Doesn’t matter if they believe it. It just needs to be enough to get them there. They can sort out the rest themselves.’
There was another pause, as he stared upwards, listening to the familiar birdsong, the river as it murmured across the rocks and the gentle sound of Emma’s breathing. After the sliver of sleep the previous night, the warm, still air began to lull him into a stupor. The sound of what he assumed was Old Geronimo bellowing from the other side of the field roused him for a moment.
‘Worth a shot,’ he said, half-turning his head to look at Emma. ‘When should we deliver our messages? Now?’
She turned to look at him, and Sebastian was surprised to see how the sunlight accentuated her freckles. ‘Mac’s seeing Mrs Farley about the fayre,’ she said. ‘Besides,’ she added, hooking her little finger around Sebastian’s, ‘there’s no rush, is there?’
Sebastian was almost dry as he pushed open the door of the butcher’s, and joined the queue of elderly ladies, all of whom took forever ordering tiny quantities of far more products than seemed necessary. He caught Mac’s eye, but didn’t say anything; he wanted to wait until they were alone.
‘And the same to you, Miss Standfield,’ said Mac, as the last of the other customers headed to the door, her purchases tucked into her bag.
This threw Sebastian for a moment. ‘Miss Standfield?’ he said. ‘Any relation to…?’ He nodded in the general direction the Village Shop.
‘Cousin or something, I believe,’ said Mac and started sharpening one of his lethal-looking, long knives. ‘And what can I do for you, lad? Come to help with some more butchering?’
‘Hardly. Not that I was much of a “help” the other day. Funnily enough, I’m here on behalf of Mrs Standfield.’ Again, he nodded towards the shop. ‘I’ve got a message for you.’
The knife didn’t even pause as it swept across the steel. ‘Oh yes?’
Sebastian cleared his throat, wishing he’d spent more of the last hour working out what to say and less time daydreaming, holding Emma’s hand. Now that he was actually here, alone in the shop with this huge man and his knives, it suddenly seemed like a really rubbish plan! ‘Yeah,’ he said, trying to sound nonchalant and failing miserably. He cleared his throat again, making a sound not entirely dissimilar to that of the knife sharpening. Surely the wretched weapon should be done by now! ‘So, yeah. Um… I just happened to, you know, pop into the shop just now-’
‘Buying anything nice?’ asked Mac, laying down the knife before taking up another to sharpen.
‘Oh, nothing special. Just browsing.’ Breezy, that was the effect Sebastian was going for. Breezy. But he wasn’t sure it was working. ‘Anyway, while I was in there-’
‘That’s right, browsing. While I was in there, browsing, Mrs Standfield asked if I’d pop in here on my way, you know, back to the farmhouse,’ he nodded again, this time in the other direction, ‘and ask you, Mac, if you’d… go to the Green Man with her tomorrow night.’ This last phrase was blurted out as though it was formed of a single, eleven-syllable word. It was followed by a silence, broken only by the rhythmic scrape of the knife as it slid across the steel.
‘What time?’ said Mac at last, fixing Sebastian with a narrow-eyed stare.
‘What time did she ask to meet me at the Green Man?’
‘Seven-thirty?’ said Sebastian, wishing it didn’t sound so much like a question.
‘Right.’ Again the silence and the swishing knife, though it was a different knife this time, a short one with a wicked-looking thin blade.
Sebastian cleared his throat again. ‘Well?’
Mac laid down the knife and the steel and started untying his apron. ‘Guess I’d better go and deliver my answer.’
‘You can’t!’ said Sebastian, panicking. ‘I mean, you don’t need to. You’ve got your shop to look after, customers to serve.’ He gestured to the empty room, knocking one of the dangling birds with the back of his hand. ‘I’ve got to nip back to the shop, anyway… I forget to get more gloves. I’ll pass on any message to Mrs Standfield.’
‘Alright,’ said Mac, tying his apron up again. ‘Could you ask her if we could make it eight o’clock? Only, I’ve got to supervise the hog roast at the fayre tomorrow and I’ll need time to get ready.’
‘Sure!’ Sebastian turned to leave.
‘One other thing…’
Sebastian stopped, his hand on the door handle. ‘Yes?’
This time it was Mac’s turn to clear his throat and Sebastian turned to see him looking sheepish again, as he had when trying to explain why he was skulking in the dark on Monday night. ‘Well, you’re clearly a man who knows how to present himself for this sort of thing, what to wear and that.’ He flapped a hand to indicate Sebastian’s clothes, despite the fact they were hardly looking that presentable at the moment. ‘So I was just wondering if you’d be free maybe to give me a hand getting ready… if it’s not too much trouble, of course?’
‘Mac,’ said Sebastian, smiling with relief, ‘I’d be delighted.’
He almost skipped up the road the Village Store, though he held himself back for the sake of his “real man” image. Catching sight of him through the window, Emma came out to meet him, shutting the door and the sound of the bell behind her.
‘Well?’ she asked, and Sebastian was mildly disappointed to see her dress was completely dry. Unlike his underwear.
‘He’s totally in!’ he said. ‘But he can’t make it until eight o’clock, because he’s doing the hog roast at the fayre.’
Emma frowned. ‘What do you mean “until” eight o’clock? That’s the time we agreed on them meeting anyway.’
Sebastian, who had clearly drifted off when that was being explained, shrugged. ‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘So that’s all sorted. And your mum’s on board?’
‘She’ll be there.’
‘Good.’ He flicked his fringe out of his face and smiled at her. She was looking slightly cross again and he decided he liked her best that way. ‘I feel good about this. I guess it wasn’t such a bad plan after all. And now, I need to get changed into some dry clothes before Neil drags me off to feed the animals, or whatever delights he’s got in store this evening.’
‘You mean you don’t know?’ asked Emma, smiling in a way that caused Sebastian’s mood to deflate somewhat.
‘Of course I don’t know. No one tells me anything. Care to enlighten me?’
The smile grew larger. ‘Not afraid of needles are you?’
‘There’s no way I’m doing that!’ said Sebastian, shaking his head at the syringe in Neil’s hand. ‘No flipping way.’ He was hanging onto the side of a livestock trailer which was almost filled with the vast bulk of Major Tom. It had taken them roughly twenty minutes – an amount of time Sebastian didn’t want to think of in association with this particular pig – to coax him into the trailer, and now they had him all boxed up, Neil had produced a hypodermic and a bottle of worming medication from his pocket and presented them to Sebastian.
‘What’s up, lad?’ asked Neil, turning the syringe point upwards and flicking it in much the way they do on television. He pushed gently on the plunger and a brief jet of liquid spurted out of the end. ‘Anyone’d think I was asking you to inject yourself. This is for the Major’s benefit. You wouldn’t want all those nasty tapeworms eating him up from the inside now, would you?’
‘Well, no…’ said Sebastian, not tearing his eyes away from the syringe. ‘I’m just not great with needles, that’s all.’
‘Ah, there’s nothing to it. You just grip it in your fist and punch it down into the Major’s backside. Once it’s in, just push down the plunger and pull it out. Job done.’
Sebastian frowned at Neil, unsurprised to see him grinning from behind his moustache. ‘If it’s so simple, why don’t you do it yourself?’
‘You didn’t come all this way just to watch me do everything, did you?’
‘I wouldn’t have come all this way at all, if I knew I’d have to inject a huge pig in the arse! That said, most of the stuff I’ve done this week has been pretty grim – killing chickens, butchering pigs, putting elastic bands round lambs’ testicles. I’ve done quite well, really, wouldn’t you say?’
Neil reached across the trailer and patted Sebastian on the shoulder with his non-syringe-holding hand. ‘I think you’ve done amazing, lad,’ he said. ‘I barely recognize you as the primped up dandy I collected from the station last week.’
Sebastian allowed himself a smile. ‘More rugged, would you say? More manly?’
‘More bloody messy,’ said Neil. ‘But I reckoned you’ve proved yourself, right enough.’
‘So there’s no need for me to do this injecting thing, is there?’
In response, Neil held out the needle. ‘Nice try,’ he said as the pleased expression slipped from Sebastian’s face. ‘Won’t take half a mo. And then you can add it to your list of accomplishments.’
Sebastian sighed, knowing he wasn’t going to get away without doing it. ‘Fine!’ he said and snatched the syringe out of Neil’s hand, being careful not to jab himself.
‘That it, lad. Grip it in your fist and ram it into him. Got to do it hard and fast, mind, otherwise…’ He stopped, looking down at Major Tom’s backside. ‘Otherwise that’ll happen.’
Sebastian, who had squeezed his eyes shut as he attempted to perform the injection looked down to see the needle bending outwards, its point stuck on pig’s thick, hairy skin. He withdrew it enough to allow the needle to straighten and tried a second time. Again, the metal bowed as the point failed to pierce the skin. ‘This is ridiculous,’ he said, pulling back his hand. ‘It’s like trying thread cotton through a brick. I can’t do it.’ He held out the syringe to Neil, but he pushed his hand away.
‘Try like I said. Grip it.’ He balled up one massive fist. ‘Ram it into him.’ He brought the side of his fist down hard on the side of the trailer. ‘And push down the plunger with your thumb.’ He mimed the action, then opened his hand to Sebastian. ‘Your go.’
Taking a deep breath and trying not to imagine the needle snapping off in Major Tom’s rump, Sebastian gripped the syringe as tight as he could in high not quite so massive fist and slammed it down onto pig. There was a muffled squeal as the creature registered the blow, but it made no attempt to pull away.
‘Plunger!’ said Neil, miming again, and Sebastian forced his thumb down.
‘It’s not moving,’ he said. ‘It’s stuck or something.’
‘No, no. That’s perfectly normal. Takes a fair bit of pressure to force the worming solution into the muscle. It’ll go, though. Just keep pushing.
Slowly, so slowly that it defied observation, the plunger sank into the body of the syringe until, just as Sebastian felt as though his thumb was going to give up, it touched the bottom. He yanked out the needle as staggered back from the trailer, his knees shaking from the effort and the discomfort operation. By the fence behind him was a large log, slowly being consumed by brambles, and he sat on it, wiping the thin sheen of sweat from his forehead.
‘See?’ said Neil, thumping him on the shoulder. ‘Nothing to it, lad. You’ll soon get into your stride.’
Sebastian smiled weakly up at him, then frowned. ‘“Get into my stride”?’ he said. ‘What do you mean?’
Neil gestured towards the other enclosures. ‘There’s all the girls to do yet!’