Chapter 20 – Preparations
The farmhouse was deserted by the time Sebastian surfaced on Friday morning, though he found another scribbled note on the kitchen table, informing him his hosts were ‘pimping for the fags’, which he eventually worked out actually said they were ‘preparing for the fayre’, and to join Neil for ‘pig fetching’ at ten-thirty. He really hoped that meant pig feeding – he didn’t relish the idea of chasing around after stray pigs all morning. He turned to look at the living room clock. It was almost ten o’clock already.
After an uneventful visit to the chicken run, he wandered up to the Village Store to deliver the eggs.
‘Good morning, Mrs Standfield,’ he said as he nudged the door closed behind him, slightly disappointed to find her there instead of Emma.
Mrs Standfield glanced up from the stack of paper bags she was arranging on the counter. ‘So you’re always telling me,’ she said. ‘Though there’s precious little of it left now.’
‘Only twelve eggs today,’ he said, as he placed the boxes on the counter. He glanced over her shoulder to peer into the corridor of the house beyond, but couldn’t make out anything moving.
Mrs Standfield caught his eye. ‘Emma’s out. Helping set up over on the green.’
‘Really?’ said Sebastian, going for nonchalant and breezy again.
‘I’m not in the habit of lying, young man!’
‘Sorry,’ said Sebastian, then noticed she was smiling. He shook his head. ‘So that’s where Emma gets it from.’
Over the road, the village green was alive with activity, not quite on the scale of Covent Garden or Hyde Park, but it was still an impressive change from previous days that week. As he crossed the road, he was met by Donald wandering across from the pub. Sebastian was not entirely surprised to see him still wearing his slippers.
‘Ah!’ said Donald, catching sight of him. ‘And how are we today, Sebastian? Looking forward to the village fayre? Just about the only things that drags people out of their homes around here, even from as far away as Chittlehamholt and Bratton Fleming. Couple of years back there was a whole family came all the way from Withypool. Ever been to Withypool?’ Sebastian opened his mouth, not to answer, since it had to be a rhetorical question, but to ask if Donald was just making these places up, but the landlord barely paused for breath. ‘Funny place, Withypool. A little mess of buildings clustered together out in the middle of nowhere. Not my sort of thing at all.’ Sebastian, who thought the description could well have applied to Steepleford, just nodded. ‘But I guess people have got to live somewhere, and I take my hat off to them for coming all the way here for our little fayre, since most of the people here,’ he frowned back at the village green, ‘can’t even be bothered to drag themselves as far as the Green Man, what’s right on their doorsteps, the lazy bast-’
‘So how’re things going at the pub?’ Sebastian broke in, mindful of the time. ‘I hear you’re making a few changes.’
‘You bet I am,’ said Donald, his frown dissolving as he puffed out his chest. ‘Trying out a new chef this evening, following your excellent suggestion. Got a table booked for an anonymous couple coming,’ he tapped his nose in a way Sebastian couldn’t quite interpret, ‘so I’m going to test his cooking on them. Not only that, my lad, but I’ve been to the decorating shop in town for a few ideas on sprucing the place up, Sid’s grandson does something to do with computers in Exeter and is going to help sort out a…’ he looked down at the ground, clearly trying to remember something, ‘a worldwide webpage, er… site. And the pair of them, Sid and Harry, have been advising me on what real ales I should get in.’
Sebastian smiled at the thought of Sid and Harry offering a rambling stream of confusing and no doubt conflicting advice to Donald. He almost felt sorry for him. ‘Sounds like they’re being helpful!’ he said.
Donald rolled his eyes. ‘To be honest with you, they’re being a bit too helpful. They keep following me around offering their suggestions and arguing with each other about what I should be doing. But I’d rather have them that way than whining away all the time about how the Green Man ain’t what it used to be when my father ran it. Anyways, don’t mean to keep you. Sure you’ve got better things to do that stand around listening to my ramblings and I’d better get back and change into my shoes before someone accuses me of being crazy for wandering around the streets in my slippers.’ And with that he turned on his slippered heel and stalked back towards the pub, leaving Sebastian in the middle of the road, watching the villagers busy with their preparations on the green.
Around the edges of the field, wooden trestle tables were being loaded up with cakes, books, bottles and other items, and in between these stood various games, most of which Sebastian didn’t recognise, though he could make out the clear shapes of coconuts perched on metal poles. There was no obvious sign of Emma, but Virginia was there, stacking jars of preserves, Mac was standing next to a smouldering fire over which a pig was turning slowly on a spit, the vicar was tapping at a microphone a half-erected stage, and Mrs Farley was running around with a clipboard and a worried expression on her face. In the middle of the green there was a roped off area around which people were positioning bales of straw and a small man was leaning against a Punch and Judy tent, smoking on a pipe. In the morning sunlight the scene looked to Sebastian like something out of a period drama or one of those murder mysteries shows that are set in idyllic villages.
He glanced at his watched and sighed. He was going to be late.
‘You’re late,’ said Neil as Sebastian hurried along the path towards the pig runs. ‘Think you’re ready to face these little lovelies again?’
Sebastian shrugged nonchalantly, though he eyed the seething mass of piglets with suspicion. He hadn’t entered this enclosure since his first morning in Steepleford, and he remembered only too clearly the desperate scrambling through their toilet area and the shock of his cheek touching the electric wire. ‘Possibly,’ he said.
‘Good. Here’s the food.’ Neil tossed a sack to him, but Sebastian fumbled the catch, spilling a few pig nuts into his boots. He carefully tipped them out before venturing into the enclosure, just in case. ‘Remember,’ said Neil as he marched up through the trees to fill the water trough, ‘chuck a handful of food to keep them occupied, then dump the rest.’
Sebastian, who didn’t really need the reminder, scooped up some of the pig nuts in a hand that hadn’t felt the soft inside of a washing up glove for days and tossed it into the far corner of the run. Immediately the piglets scurried over to the food so he seized the opportunity and upended the sack. The food had barely struck the muddy ground, before the sea of piglets swarmed over, leaving two of the more stubborn ones behind. By this time, Sebastian had retreated uphill, leaning against a large pig house as he watched the piglets jostling and squealing in their frenzied search for food.
‘Er, I wouldn’t block the entrance,’ called Neil, and something about the tone of his voice made the little hairs bristle on the back of Sebastian’s neck.
‘What is it?’ he asked, glancing round. ‘And where’s Lucy?’ Even as he spoke the words, he knew what the answer was. And a nudge in the back of his thigh confirmed it. Lucy, the monster mother of these sixteen piglets, was in the house. And she wanted to get out.
Sebastian, who had been fairly cool up to this point, shoved himself away from the pig house, where Lucy’s enormous wrinkled face was pushing its way out, and scurried down the hill in a curious series of hops, slides and skitters, like a protracted tumble, though somehow he managed to stay on his feet this time.
‘Back in their toilet area, then?’ said Neil, picking his way down the muddy slope. ‘It’s like a magnet to you, isn’t it? Here you go,’ he added, handing Sebastian his empty bucket. ‘You can do the water from now on. You never know, you might survive the week yet.’
Together they fed and watered the remaining pigs, before turning their attention to the poultry, goats and horses, and heading up the steep path that took them to the sheep field, all without incident, except for Amy having a nibble on the back of Sebastian’s jacket and the horses terrifying him in the usual way.
It was just after midday when they entered the farmhouse to get lunch. It was strange to find the kitchen lacking Virginia’s presence, but she had left two sandwiches for them in the fridge, together with a plate of ham, a few small tomatoes, half an apple pie, and a bottle of beer each.
‘She’s a good lass, my Virg,’ said Neil, settling himself down at the table and gripping his sandwich is one, massive hand and snatching up a tomato with the other, which he held up to Sebastian. ‘See this little beauty? Surprising to see one so ripe this early in the season, isn’t it?’ Sebastian, who had assumed you could get any vegetable at any time of the year, opted for a brief nod. ‘We grow them in the greenhouse, out by the chickens. Amazing what a bit of glass can do – even on a winter’s day it’s warm in there if the sun’s out.’
Sebastian picked up one of the small, red fruits. ‘So you grew these here?’
‘Yes indeed. Nothing like picking something you’ve grown and eating it while it’s fresh – straight from ground to gob.’
‘Once, when I was a kid,’ said Sebastian, smiling at the memory, ‘my mum took me to a farm shop south of London, and we did that with strawberries. Pick your own, they called it.’
Neil frowned. ‘“Pick your own”? Sounds more like “pick someone else’s” to me.’ He popped the tomato in his mouth, sighing with pleasure. ‘Beautiful! Once we’ve finished this, I’m going to head over to the village green and give her a hand. Want to join me?’
‘Sure,’ said Sebastian. ‘Though I need to get some packing done before the fayre. Might not be much time later.’
Neil nodded, chewing his mouthful. ‘No worries,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t kick off til two, anyways.’
When two o’clock arrived, however, Sebastian’s case was far from packed. He was caught in a dilemma between wanting to get it done, yet also needing to leave out anything he might need tonight or tomorrow morning. Also, he couldn’t find a bag to put in his dirty laundry so as to keep it separate from the few clean clothes that remained.
In truth, though, he had failed to get packed because he didn’t really want to do it, as if the act of preparing to leave somehow hastened his departure, and he wanted to delay it as long as possible. He didn’t want to leave this new world he had found, this old world, where the days seemed to move more slowly, where life was, if not more relaxed, at least more experienced. Here there was time – time to stop, time to think, time to learn, time to listen, time to look and not feel rushed at every moment, shifting from one inconsequential activity to the next without real thought, without real purpose and ultimately without real meaning. That was the difference. Here life really mattered – the things people did and said, even thought, were of worth. Back in London there was the semblance of life in that it was always busy, always moving, always active, but in truth it was not life, not real life. It was more about using up life, about forcing yourself from day to day, month to month, year to year until, at last, that meaningless, empty existence would come to an end and we could simply vanish and be forgotten, your life used up and discarded like a spent match that never really strikes. In London there was no time to stand and stare, because the system wouldn’t let you, not in the city that never slept and was never still.
‘I don’t want to go back,’ he muttered, folding a shirt that he had already folded three times in the last hour. ‘Not yet.’
A tap at his door made him look up and he was surprised to hear Emma’s voice from the landing. ‘You decent?’
‘Depends what you mean exactly,’ he said, jumping to his feet as the door swung open.
‘I meant, are you naked, of course, but I can see you’re not. So, you coming to the fayre or what? It’s started already.’ She peered round him at the half-packed case lying open on the bed. ‘Oh,’ she said, and a cloud passed briefly across her face. ‘Getting ready to leave?’
Sebastian nodded and edged back to the bed. ‘Afraid so,’ he said, snatching up the clothes that lay in various stages of folded-ness on the sheets, and chucking them into the case. ‘My train leaves at ten tomorrow morning, so I thought I’d get it ready. Won’t take me a second.’
‘Is this all yours?’ asked Emma, picking up one of the containers from the shelf above the sink. ‘What’s body butter, exactly?’
‘It’s for super-moisturising your body,’ said Sebastian, lurching over to prise it from her grip and toss it into the case. She gave him an uncomprehending look. ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s just some boring product. I hardly use any of these things,’ he added as he swept the rest of the jars and bottles in with the rest of his luggage.
‘Why do you have them then?’
‘Well…’ he began. ‘I… What about you? There must be things you have that you rarely use. What about… what about a pizza slicer? Do you have one of those?’
‘And I bet you almost never use it, do you? Even when you have to slice an actual pizza, I bet you forget about it and use a knife. And yet you keep that pizza slice, just in case.’
Emma shrugged. ‘I guess so, but I don’t take it away with me when I go on holiday!’
‘Funny,’ said Sebastian, pausing in his case stuffing as he sought to change the subject, ‘I can’t really imagine you on holiday.’ This was in fact completely untrue, and he had to quickly continue with his packing in an effort to distract himself from the mental image of Emma stretched out on a tropical beach, the sun drawing out her freckles, the warm sea air caressing her smooth… He cleared his throat. ‘What sort of places do you go?’ he asked, his voice more of a croak.
‘Can’t really remember the last time I went on holiday.’
‘Why’s that? Too drunk?’
‘Haven’t had the chance to go away,’ she said, ignoring him, ‘what with helping mum look after the shop. I’d love to, though, and I keep meaning to, but it never quite seems to happen.’ She bent down and picked up a pair of boxer short that had been half hiding under the bed. ‘These yours?’
‘No,’ said Sebastian, but they both knew he was lying, so he snatched them and shoved them deep into the contents of his case. ‘Right. I reckon I’m about done with this. Shall we go?’
She nodded and he followed her downstairs to the backdoor and began pulling on his shoes.
‘Silly me!’ said Emma. ‘I’ve left my purse upstairs. Won’t be a minute.’ And she headed back into the houses, returning a short while later waving a small, red purse at him. ‘Found it. Let’s go and have some fun!’
And together they set out for the village green and the Standfield fayre.