Chapter 24 – Elevation
They sidled across to the Green Man, creeping up to the window that faced the green. Emma was about to peep through when Sebastian caught her shoulder, holding her back.
‘Your face is going to be all lit up if you’re that close to the window,’ he said, demonstrating by reaching out a hand towards the window until it was bathed in the light from inside the pub. ‘The secret is to stand back a bit, so you keep in the shadows.’
‘Oh, really?’ said Emma, in a voice that was only slightly accusing. ‘Do a lot of peering in through people’s windows, do you?’
Sebastian was glad of the shadows, as he felt his face flush at the memory of his night time peep at Emma. He cleared his throat. ‘Do you not?’
Emma thumped him on the arm, before circling around to look in through the windows from the shadow of a holly bush. ‘They’re still in there,’ she said and pulled him over by his sleeve. He peered into the room beyond and the first thing he noticed was how clean it looked. Instead of the gloomy forty-watt glow of earlier in the week, the light was crisp and bright, drawing his eye to what appeared to freshly painted walls in light, neutral colours that emphasised the dark wood of the panelled bar, now free of the garish lager posters. Even the threadbare carpet had been whisked away to reveal an ancient-looking stone-flagonned floor.
The second thing that caught his attention was the clientele. The few times Sebastian had been in the pub, he could have counted up the number of customers on one hand, with fingers left over. Now, however, he was hard pushed to count them at all. At least thirty, he reckoned, mostly hanging around the bar, including the slightly bemused-looking Sid and Harry, and others sitting at tables. The furniture hadn’t been updated yet, though that would evidently be quite an expensive, but even the odd assortment of chairs and tables didn’t look that bad once there were people around them. And there, nestling in the back corner at a table for two, complete with a candle in a wine bottle and a posy in a half-pint glass, were Mrs Standfield and Mac.
‘Are they..?’ Sebastian began. ‘Are they holding hands?’
‘Yes,’ said Emma, in such a quiet tone that he turned to look at her. Her eyes were sparkling in the light reflected from the pub.
He frowned at her. ‘Are you..? Are you crying?’
She glared back. ‘I am female, you know!’
Sebastian, who was all too well aware of this thanks to being pressed up against her in the dark, cleared his throat. ‘So, if they’ve liked each other for ages-’
‘Which they obviously have!’ added Emma.
‘-then why have they never done anything about it before?’
‘You mean apart from Mac being a coward and my mum being old-fashioned?’
Sebastian turned back to the window, where the couple were still holding hands in a way that looked neither cowardly nor old-fashioned. ‘Yeah, apart from that. Surely they were aware they liked each other.’
In the shadows, he felt rather that saw Emma shrug. ‘I reckon there’s hundreds, even thousands of people, around the world who like each other, but take years to realise it.’ She was silent for while, watching Mac and her mum chat across the table, holding hands, their desserts forgotten. ‘Must be fun finding out though!’ she said at last, and slipped a hand into Sebastian’s. ‘Let’s leave them to it. I fancy going for a stroll.’
‘Thought it was you two peering through the window!’ Sebastian and Emma span round with the speed, and facial expressions, of the guilty, to see Donald emerging from the side door of the pub.
‘We weren’t peering,’ said Emma, trying her best to sound indignant. ‘We were…’
‘Peeping?’ suggested Sebastian, realising too late that this was not an improvement. He hurried on. ‘I mean, we were just admiring your new décor. It looks great. Very apropos.’
Donald nodded at him for a bit, then replaced it with a frown. ‘No idea what you mean, but the general consensus seems to be favourable. Not that that rowdy rabble in there know anything about style, but they do know what they like, I’ll give them that, and it turns out they quite like the new menu and the real ale and even the décor, as you call it, so I can’t be going too far wrong, I reckon. But I thought as how you might have been looking in on Mac and your mum,’ he nodded to Emma, ‘to see how their date was getting on, and between you and me the doorpost,’ he kicked out at the pub door and Sebastian was surprised to see the landlord’s feet were no longer slipped, but instead sported what looked like a pair of black and red bowling shoes, ‘I’d say it was going pretty well. No only that, but Mac’s offered to meet up with my new chef and talk through the new menu with him, so good news all round, eh? Worth a celebratory drink.’ Donald fixed Sebastian is an expectant, slightly pleading look. ‘How about a pint on the house?’
‘I…’ Sebastian began, then turned to Emma. A drink in the pub was certainly tempting,. But even more tempting was the thought of some time with Emma. Alone time. ‘Could we maybe take you up on that a little later, Donald?’
It was as if someone had flicked a switch on the Landlord’s face. He went from a disappointed frown to a look of open enlightenment. ‘Ah!’ he said, looking pointedly from Sebastian to Emma and back again. ‘Yes, of course. It’s your last night here, isn’t it!’ He stepped backwards towards the door and Sebastian could feel the embarrassment spreading to his cheeks. ‘Well, yes. Run along them. Don’t let me keep you. And I might see you later for a beer.’ And with that, he pushed the door open behind him and slipped inside.
Emma turned to Sebastian. ‘At least that wasn’t awkward,’ she said, and squeezed his hand. ‘Come on!’
The sounds of the evening’s entertainment were muffled as they headed along School Road, towards the western edge of the village. Away from the lights of the pub and the green, Sebastian surprised to see that it had grown dark, the last of the evening sunlight painting a fiery glow across the rooftops nearby and the fields and trees in the countryside beyond.
‘So?’ said Emma, shifting slightly to tuck her elbow behind his without letting go of his hand. ‘What’s it like in the big city, then?’
Sebastian, slightly distracted by the soft warmth that now brushed against this arm, cleared his throat. He didn’t really want to think about home that would so soon be tearing him away from here, drawing him back across the miles to swallow him again. ‘There’s not much to tell, really. It’s kind of the opposite of here.’ He paused to gesture towards the buildings around them, the quaint stone cottages, the former school and post office. ‘Look at it! So calm and peaceful.’ The door of the Old Forge chose that moment to burst open, and three children spilled out, laughing and shouting to each other as they scampered across the road, passing the couple as the raced each other towards the green.
‘You were saying?’ asked Emma, as their voices and running footsteps echoed away.
Sebastian took her hand again and they continued their walk towards the edge of Steepleford. ‘It is calm and peaceful, though,’ he said. ‘The whole way of life here is slower and more… I don’t, gentle, I guess.’
‘Gentle? London is the opposite of “gentle”?’
‘Exactly! The city’s a brutal, aggressive place that wants to swallow you, all of you – body and soul. It chews you up and spits you out, and every day it’s a fight for survival.’
Emma squeezed his hand, turning him right towards a narrow opening in the hedge and the strip of woodland beyond. ‘You make that sound like a bad thing! Shouldn’t life be about survival? Isn’t it that struggle that grows and shapes you?’
‘But what good is that if the struggle destroys you in the end? Or destroys your soul.’ He sighed. ‘Imagine what it’s like to walk along streets where the buildings tower above you like cliffs, where the crowds pack the streets so that you every moment you are forced to touch and brush up against other people. The background drone of traffic is endless, as the cars, buses, taxis, lorries and any other vehicle you can mention-’
‘Horse and cart?’ suggested Emma, but Sebastian ignored this.
‘-push between the hoards of pedestrians like a slow-flowing river of metal and exhaust fumes. Below London, there are tunnels filled with people rushing this way and that, cramming themselves into the squat trains as they head off to feed the city’s insatiable appetite for human flesh. No one dares to look at or speaks to anyone else – it’s heads down, keep on moving. And dropped into this vast machine, an insignificant speck in the whirring, shoving, violent, filthy works, is me. Or you. That’s what London is like. The streets are never still, the noise never fades, the lights are never switched off and the city never sleeps.’
‘While Steepleford never really wakes up!’ said Emma. ‘It’s over this stile here.’ In the twilight, Sebastian could just make out a break in the trees to their ahead that opened out onto a hedge. Instead of a gate, however, there was what looked like a short bench stuck sideways through a gap the hedge with a wooden plank above it, bridging the gap. Emma went ahead of him, using the bench to step up and over the plank and into the field beyond. The action caused her skirt to tightened across the back of her legs and, even in the half-light, Sebastian couldn’t help noticing.
‘Not staring at my bottom are you?’ said Emma, not even looking round at him.
Sebastian swallowed. ‘Just get a move on!’ he said, glad the darkness was there to cover his embarrassment. ‘Where are we going anyway?’
She dropped into the field and turned to face him. ‘Embercombe Hill,’ she said, pointing. Sebastian stepped onto the stile and peered up ahead. The field they were entering swept steeply uphill, north of the village, and though the woodland they had come to ceased, the top of the hill was fringed with trees.
He looked back at her. ‘Why?’
‘Why not?’ she asked, and started walking up the hill. ‘Just fancied a walk is all.’
Sebastian clambered over and hurried after her. The field was even steeper than he had realised and, here and there, he could just make out the shadowy figures of cows, which probably explained why there were dark, suspiciously soft patches on the ground.
‘I have to say, you’re not really selling the city very well,’ said Emma as he drew alongside her. ‘Earlier this week it was all, “country people are medieval weirdoes” and “London’s so full of life and wonderfulness”.’
‘I don’t sound like that!’ said Sebastian, indignant at the whiny, high pitch voice she put on.
‘Of course you do! And now, here you are, going on like you hate the city.’
‘It’s not that,’ he said. ‘It’s just… I don’t know, I guess I quite like it here in the country.’
Emma let out a strange, almost fierce, laugh and picked up the pace. ‘Well, I don’t!’
Sebastian stopped and stared after her, stunned by this sudden revelation. ‘You what?’ he said, and jogged after her. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, I don’t like it here. Living in this village – it’s so… dull!’
Sebastian pulled an incredulous face, but it was lost in the gathering dark. ‘I thought you loved it here, working in the shop and brewing beer and all that stuff.’
‘It’s like you said. Steepleford is just a sleepy little backwater, stuck out in the middle of nowhere.’
‘I’m pretty sure I never said that! Sleepy, yes, but not the rest of it. Any chance we can slow down a bit?’ He added, struggling to speak and breathe, while hammering up the hill at this pace.
‘Sure,’ said Emma, stopping suddenly and turning to face him. ‘We’re here. Have a seat.’ A few paces ahead, obscured slightly by some scrub, was the trunk of a fallen tree, and once they were perched on it, side by side, it provided them with a perfect view of the village spread out below them. The lights and activity on the green were clearly visible, the crowd gathered in front of the stage while others milled about, visiting the stalls or the pub. Sebastian leant forwards slightly to see if he could recognise any of them, and thought he could just make out Virginia, in her new dress, heading towards the stage with Neil. He must have been staring for a while as, when she spoke, Emma’s voice almost made him jump.
‘It’s not that I hate it here,’ she said, resting her hands behind her and leaning back. ‘It’s just that I’ve been waiting to leave for so long. I’d planned to leave at eighteen, but things didn’t work out.’
Sebastian recalled her mentioning before. ‘Because your mum was ill?’
She nodded. ‘And now I’m twenty-four! Six years of working in the shop, of waiting for an opportunity to get out, but it never comes.’
‘But where do you want to go?’ he asked. ‘Not the city?’
‘Why not? Why shouldn’t I go to the city? You think I’m too… medieval? Too provincial to survive?’ Emma sounded cross and, when Sebastian looked at her, he could see she frowning.
He held up his hands as if trying to stop a runaway conversation. ‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘I just can’t imagine why you would want to go.’
‘I have been to a city, you know,’ she said, only slightly mollified. ‘Not London, of course. Exeter. But it’s a big city all the same, especially when you’ve spent all your life in Steepleford, with occasional outings to Barnstaple or South Molton.’
‘I don’t know where that is,’ said Sebastian.
‘It doesn’t matter. I was talking about Exeter. I presume you know where that is?’ When he didn’t respond, she continued, ‘It was back when my dad was alive. He took me and mum to the city one afternoon, to watch the carnival. I couldn’t have been older than six or seven, but I remember it as clearly as yesterday. Bright lights and beautiful people,’ she said, gazing into the distance, as though she could see it all again. ‘The press of the crowd, the laughter and excitement. It was all so… so alive. Like you said, it’s the opposite of here.’
Sebastian tried his incredulous face again, hoping it would have more impact now that he was out of the shadows below. ‘But it’s alive here!’ he said, and pointed to the village green. ‘Look down there and tell me there isn’t laughter and excitement and all those other things. If anything it’s more alive here than in the city. Here, the grass is growing beneath your feet, there’s life all around, both wild and,’ he glanced at a small cluster of cows a short distance away, ‘slightly less wild. There are birds and trees and cows and pigs and goats and hedges and… everything else that I can’t think of immediately, everywhere you look. This,’ he held up his hands to present Emma with the panorama before them. ‘This is alive! The city is nothing more than a concrete coffin, a prison of bricks and mortar and machines that’s designed to keep real life out. And if I had the choice, I wouldn’t go back.’ He paused, noticing Emma staring at him strangely. ‘Not yet anyway. I don’t want to leave tomorrow.’
She slid a hand onto his knee. ‘Why ever not?’
He shrugged. ‘Coz I’ll miss it,’ he said. ‘I’ll miss collecting the eggs and bringing them to the shop. I’ll miss hanging out at the Green Man with crazy Donald and his slippers. I’ll miss Mac being all huge and intimidating, while at the same time being a soft git. I’ll miss Virginia’s amazing cooking, and Neil’s constant chuckling every time I end up falling over in the pigsties or getting goat’s milk squirted in my eye. I’ll even miss all those damned, crazy animals that love nothing more than trying to peck me, crush me, kick me or eat me.’ He turned to Emma and, though she was already so close that her shoulder was pressed up against his, she craned her neck towards him, and he was amazed at how huge her eyes looked.
‘What about me?’ she asked, and her breath brushing his cheek caused an involuntary shiver down his spine.
He cleared his throat, not trusting himself to speak without croaking. ‘You?’ he said at last, moving closer towards her and trying to ignore the excited quiver in his chest. ‘I’m going to miss you this most.’
The last few millimetres between them disappeared as Emma leaned in and kissed him.
A short while later the fireworks began.