Chapter 25 – Home Again, Home Again
One thing Sebastian wouldn’t miss was the early morning sunlight cutting between the curtains to spear him awake through his eyelids. He couldn’t even recall which direction his window faced back in London, and it didn’t really matter considering the short gap between it and the wall opposite – the sun never found its way in. But, as he tugged the curtains open and looked out across the road and hedgerow to the fields and river beyond, he knew thisview was one thing he was going to miss. He paused for a while, leaning with his hands on the windowsill and his forehead against the glass, drinking in the blue of the sky and greens below, the scattered poultry and other animals nosing at the ground in search of something good to eat that might have cropped up during the night. Through the tree cover to the right he could just make out the occasional shapes of pigs up to much the same.
With a yawn so big that it made his jaw click, Sebastian turned away to find something to wear. He eyed the suitcase against the dresser, which contained the only clean clothes he had with him, then shifted his gaze to the jumbled mound of yesterday’s clothes that had half-tumbled off the chair. The need to solve two bodily demands made up his mind – the crumpled jeans and t-shirt would have to do.
Having visited the bathroom to deal with the first demand, he headed downstairs to sort out the other with a glass of water. Memories of the night before bubbled up in his mind: fireworks that would have rivalled the New Year celebrations in most capital cities, pints with Donald at the Green Man, the horseshoe throwing match against neighbouring villages of Filleigh and West Buckland, dancing – barn dancing! – and some local brandy drink made out of apples. His head ached at the memory, though the overriding memory of Embercombe Hill did much to raise his slightly hung over spirits.
‘Morning,’ said Virginia, bustling in through the backdoor and kicking off her wellies. Sebastian placed his glass in the sink and turned to look at her, pleased to see that, though she was back in her usual dungarees and checked shirt, her hair looked as good as it had last night. ‘You’re just in time. Neil will be up once he’s finished sorting out the pigs, and I’ll get the breakfast on. A nice big fry up for your last morning.’
Sebastian’s stomach grumbled with a mix of hunger and slight nausea at the thought of a fry up and he had to stifle a belch. He needed some fresh air. ‘I’ll go and collect the eggs,’ he said.
It was as uneventful an affair as usual since the poor Evil Chicken had been dispatched and the cluster of hens barely glanced at him as he loaded the thirteen eggs into boxes. As he pulled the door of the run closed behind him, he noticed two figures making their way up the road towards the village. It was Mac and Mrs Standfield, though why they would be walking in this direction so early in the morning, he couldn’t work out. Unless, of course, they’d had their own little visit to Embercombe Hill.
‘Good morning,’ he called, waving foolishly at them as they neared the farmhouse driveway.
Mac grinned at him through his beard. ‘Alright, boy. Ready for the off?’
Sebastian managed a half-hearted shrug. ‘Guess so,’ he said.
‘Those for me, are they?’ asked Mrs Standfield, nodding towards the eggs boxes. ‘Might as well take them as I’m heading up to open the shop.’ Sebastian, who was hoping to take them up himself and deliver them personally into Emma’s waiting arms, hesitated, his mouth open, but no words coming to fill it. ‘If you were hoping to see Emma,’ she continued, causing a slight blush to colour his cheeks, ‘I’m afraid you’re out of luck. She’s in town this morning on a grocery run. I was going to do it, but she told me she didn’t want to come and say goodbye. Said you’d know why.’
‘Oh.’ Sebastian, who had no idea why Emma didn’t want to say goodbye to him, felt an almost overwhelming stab of grief at the thought of not seeing her again. He must have looked as wretched as he felt, because Mac stepped forward and placed a huge hand, gently, on his shoulder.
‘Don’t fret, lad,’ he said. ‘I’m sure you’ll see her again soon enough.’
Sebastian, who felt that “immediately” would hardly be soon enough for him, shrugged again, then, remembering he was still clutching the egg boxes, handed them over to Mrs Standfield.
‘Well,’ she said, once she was all loaded up. ‘I can’t stand around chatting all day, I have a business to run.’
Mac beamed at her. ‘May I walk you to your door, Julia dear?’
‘I would expect nothing less, Victor,’ she said, but with that same mischievous look Sebastian had noticed her wearing before. It reminded of Emma. As she started off up the hill, Mac leaned in to whisper to Sebastian.
‘Thanks for last night, by the way,’ he said, nudging him with his elbow and possibly bruising a rib or two. ‘I owe you, lad.’ Sebastian opened his mouth to protest his innocence and claim he had had no idea what Mac was talking about, but the butcher was already hurrying away after Mrs Standfield.
‘Sure you’ve got everything?’ asked Neil as Sebastian heaved his suitcase into the rear of the Landrover. ‘I’m not going to find a pair of your old pants under my bed, am I?’
Sebastian shook his head. ‘Only if you put them there.’
‘Wouldn’t put it past him!’ said Virginia as she emerged from the back door, wiping her hands on her apron. She stopped a few paces in front of Sebastian and gave him a wistful look. ‘I’m really going to miss having you around,’ she said. ‘You’ve been such a wonderful guest, and a willing and very capable pupil. Not only that, but you’ve been an inspiration to me with your knowledge of hair products and all that.’ She patted her hair, which she’d tied back in a ponytail while washing up.
‘If you call smelling like a tart’s handbag and shedding forty quid for a manicure an “inspiration”!’ said Neil, climbing into the driver’s seat.
‘Shut up, you,’ said Virginia, and stepped forward to give Sebastian a hug.
‘Thank you,’ he said, hugging her back. ‘For everything. You’ve both been so kind.’
Neil chuckled through the open car window. ‘Come on then, you big pansy. Before you get me all choked up.’
‘Wait!’ Virginia broke away from Sebastian and hurried back into the farmhouse, reappearing a moment later with a brown paper bag swinging from her hand. ‘Almost forgot. I made you up some sandwiches and a few other bits for your journey home.’
Sebastian, who was stuffed from breakfast, took the bag, thanked her and walked round the Landrover to join Neil.
As they reversed out of the drive onto Holders Hill, Sebastian took one last look around, at the familiar hedgerow and the overhanging trees, at the vegetable patch, a thick patchwork of green with flashes of reds and whites, at the chickens pecking the dusty ground in the run beyond, and at the farmhouse, with Virginia still standing in front, her apron rippling in the morning breeze, one hand shielding the sun from the eyes, the other waving as the Landrover headed down the hill and away from Steepleford.
‘So how’s it been for you, then, lad?’ asked Neil, pulling the vehicle onto the main road. ‘Quite an adventure, I’d reckon.’
‘I guess you could call it that, yes. Certainly more of an adventure than the chore I had expected. To be honest, this time last week, I was dreading it.’
‘Really?’ said Neil with a smirk in his voice. ‘I’d never have guessed! But you seemed so suited to the country way of life.’ He laughed suddenly and flicked Sebastian’s thigh with the back of his hand. ‘Say, lad, do you remember scrabbling around in that pigsty, crawling on your elbows in all that sh-’
‘Yes, thank you,’ Sebastian interrupted. ‘I’m not likely to ever forget it, am I?’
‘Not if I get to remind you now and again!’
‘Those first days were pretty bad. I’d have given almost anything to get out of here and get back to the city. ’
‘So what changed your mind?’ Again he flicked at Sebastian’s leg. ‘Anything to do with young Miss Standfield, perchance?’
Sebastian flicked Neil back with a slow, deliberate action. ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘In part, at least. But it wasn’t just Emma.’ He looked out of the window for a moment, considering the source of his change of heart as he watched the hedgerow zipping past. It hurt his eyes to look at it, so he shifted his gaze to a patch of trees. ‘I think it had to do with being part of something… something real.’
‘Real? What do you mean, real? Isn’t life in the city real?’
‘Look at it like this,’ said Sebastian, turning to look at Neil. ‘My days are spent sitting in an office where I try to devise ways to make companies hire us to write software – computer programmes – for them. They don’t really want or need it, but I have to work out ways to convince them that they do. Mostly it’s nothing more than rather unsubtle manipulation, like suggesting it’ll make their business more efficient or better than their competitors, but actually we’re just after their money. That is not real. Nothing I do in the city is real. I live in a concrete box, I have a view through my bedroom window of a brick wall, I walk through streets where nothing grows and hang out with people that I will never really know. In fact, apart from my family and a couple of school friends I see once a year or so, I know you, Virginia, Emma – even Mac and Donald – better than I know anyone else. And I only just met you last week!’ Neil opened his mouth as if to comment, but instead he smoothed his moustache and said nothing. ‘The things I’ve been involved with this week,’ Sebastian continued, ‘felt a hundred times more real than anything I’ve done in the city. With the exception of milking the goats, of course.’
‘That’s only because you wasted so much milk!’ said Neil, tutting at him. ‘I don’t know what you were thinking, squirting it all over the place. Disgraceful.’
Sebastian grinned. ‘I apologise. Anyway, in answer to your original question, my week here has been an unforgettable experience. I wish I could do it all over again.’
‘I’m glad to hear it,’ said Neil, glancing at him. ‘And between you and me, it’s been a delight having you with us for the week – though if you tell anyone I said that, I’ll deny it and then set fire to you. You’ve made quite an impact on our sleepy little village, you know, what with giving Donald the good kick in the arse he needed, turning my Virg into a woman… and a little bird told me you had a hand in a certain dinner date, last night.’
‘I don’t know what-’ Sebastian began, but Neil cut off the denial.
‘You should’ve seen Mac grinning away this morning,’ he said. ‘He looked like a dog what’d got all the sausages.’
Sebastian laughed at the image, remembering how sprightly Mac had appeared. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I saw him. That’s exactly how he looked.’
‘And when all’s said and done, I have to admit, I’ve enjoyed your company and it’s been a pleasure to see the change in you as the week’s gone on. I’m proud of you, lad.’ Neil glanced at him again and Sebastian turned to look out of the window again, to hide the embarrassed, choked up look, he was sure was visible on his face. ‘You’re welcome here anytime,’ Neil continued. ‘On one condition, though.’
Sebastian frowned. ‘What’s is it?’
‘I want a shooting rematch,’ said Neil, ‘after your outrageous cheating!’
Twenty minutes later, the train lurched away from the station and Sebastian, who was still trying to stuff his suitcase it the overhead luggage rack, nearly lost his footing.
‘Sorry,’ he said, letting go of the sleeping man’s shoulder he’d used grabbed hold of. The man peered at him through one, tired-looking eye then lapsed back into his doze without a word. Sebastian sat down in the seat in front, gazing out of the widow as the fields slid into view.
In his pocket his phone had clearly found a signal at last and started buzzing away as the texts, emails and voice messages of the last week queued up for his attention. There was an urgency to its vibration that made him, almost involuntarily, drag it out of his pocket, but he couldn’t be bothered to go through the stack of message. Instead he held down the power button until the screen went blank and, for good measure, he walked over to where his suitcase had been stowed, unzipped it and shoved the phone inside.
As he did so, he noticed a piece of paper sticking out from between the legs of a pair of trousers. Frowning at the presence of something he was sure he hadn’t packed, he tried to tease it out by a corner and, when it proved to be caught on something, he tugged at it. It came free, ripping open as it did so, revealing itself to be an envelope. He was pleased to see the letter inside was undamaged.
He sat back down in his seat and unfolded the sheet of paper, his eyes sliding down to the signature. It was from Emma.
‘Dearest Sebastian,’ it began. ‘I’m sorry I won’t be around to see you off, but the thought of saying goodbye makes me sad. I know you have to go, I’ve known it since I first saw you, but I’ve been trying to pretend it won’t happen. Anyway, I know this isn’t really goodbye. Who knows, if things work out with mum and Mac, I might be able to escape this place! For now, I want to thank you for a great week, and for bringing much needed and welcome excitement into this girl’s boring country life. I’ll miss you. Love, Emma. PS, I might try and steal a kiss at the fayre tonight, but I guess you know that already.’
Sebastian read the letter through a few more times, a smile easing its way across his face as he did so. Then, as though handling some ancient, fragile document, he folded it and slipped it into his pocket, before leaning back into his seat and, with the smile still locked in place, closed his eyes and dreamed of wonderful things.
Sometime after four o’clock, Sebastian was jolted awake as the train announced its arrival at Clapham Junction. Around him, passengers bustled around getting themselves and their bags to the doors in time for them to open, evidently desperate not to waste a second of onward journey time. Moving like a sleepwalker trapped in a dream of mundane reality, he unfolded from his seat and reached up for his suitcase, hardly registering the weight as it dropped in him arms, and shuffled along the aisle behind the other passengers, staring at the floor. He registered brief surprise to find the carriage was carpeted instead of coated in lino like the Underground trains, but the thought slipped away like a bright fish darting into the depths of the ocean. Mostly he thought nothing.
‘Would you look at the state of that!’ shouted a voice, and a flicker of recognition caused Sebastian to look up. There, lined up against the black railings that surrounded platform stairs, stood the very people who had sent him on his week away in the country, his so-called friends.
Mops walked out and clasped Sebastian by the shoulders, keeping him at arm’s length for inspection. ‘You scruffy git!’ he said. ‘It’s good to have you back.’
‘Yeah,’ said Little Pete, sidling up and thumping him on the arm. ‘When we didn’t hear nothing, we were worried them country types had done away with you. Sacrificed you to the spirit of the forest or something.’
DeVere popped out from behind her, a slightly worrying grin on his face. ‘Pity,’ he said. ‘I had twenty quid riding on you getting eaten. Looks like they did a job on you, all the same. Did they steal all your fancy clothes and your makeup?’
‘And your perfume?’ added Little Pete, who had sidled up next to Sebastian and was within sniffing range. ‘You smell like a pig’s arse.’
‘And you look like one, too,’ said Mops. ‘Your hairs all over the place, your clothes look like you borrowed them off a scarecrow, and you’ve got the remains of a blackeye. You almost make me look smart.’
Brillig jabbed Mops with her elbow. ‘Shut it,’ she said. ‘Let the guy talk.’ And turning to Sebastian, she also peered at his slightly bruised eye. ‘So, how was it then? Was it as life-changingly awful as you thought it was going to be?’
Sebastian sighed as he thought about his stay in Steepleford, about the tent wrestling and bread baking, about milking goats and birthing lambs, about the evil chicken and its harrowing demise, and about the other animals and experiences on the smallholding. He thought about the brewing session at the vicarage. He thought about the day of butchering pigs and lambs and struggling with the sausage machine. He thought about music and fireworks and dancing. About Neil, Virginia, Mac and Donald. About Emma. He blinked and looked at the expectant faces of his friends. ‘Life changing?’ he said, at last. ‘You could certainly call it that.’
When it seemed evident there was no further information forthcoming, Little Pete stepped forward and slapped him on the arm. ‘That it then?’ he asked. ‘Did nothing of any actual interest happen?’
‘Yeah,’ said Diesel from the back of the group. ‘I want to hear about all those animals you had to work with.’
‘Did you get to kill anything?’ asked DeVere. ‘Like with an axe or a shotgun or-?’
Mops cut across him. ‘What about sticking you hand inside a cow? They love all that stuff out in the country, don’t they?’
‘Meet any nice girls?’ asked Little Pete, which seemed to amuse the others and earned him a thump on the arm from DeVere.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ he said. ‘They don’t have girls out in the country. It’s all like hags and witches and stuff.’
Little Pete gave him a withering look and pushed at his shoulder. ‘Like you’d know anything about the country, DeVere. Closest you’ve ever been is the fruit and veg aisle at Sainsburys.’
DeVere shoved him back, straight into the path of someone hurrying across the platform. ‘Watch where you’re going, Peter!’ he said loudly.
‘Packed it in, you two,’ said Brillig and turned back to Sebastian. ‘We’re all going down the Latchmere this evening, about eight-thirty, if you want to join us. You can come and regale us with tales of your adventures.’
‘How Metro Became A Real Man!’ said Mops, with a grand sweep of his hands as presenting the words on an imaginary banner.
Sebastian felt like a balloon that had lost half its puff and the last thing he felt like doing was going to the pub and talking about his week on the smallholding, but he nodded anyway. ‘I’ll see,’ he said. ‘If I’ve not passed out, I’ll meet you there.’ The first flecks of rain had started to fall so he excused himself and, without a backward glance, dragged his suitcase away towards the stairs.
Sebastian fumbled the key into his apartment’s front door, almost toppling inside as it swung opened at last. Kicking it closed behind him, he shrugged his shoulder bag off onto the kitchen sideboard and dragged his suitcase into the bedroom. When he got there, however, his noble idea of unpacking his clothes and putting them away nice and neatly evaporated and instead he dumped it on his bed and perched next to it, staring blankly as the wall.
A sudden brightness caught his eye and he turned to peer out of the window, surprised to see the light on the wall opposite had switched on. No doubt the black clouds he had seen gathering from the train window had arrived, casting their shadow across the city and adding to the gloom that hung over him.
He sighed and walked across to the window, leaning on the sill and stared, unseeing, at the brick wall opposite that had, only a week ago, brought such comfort and security to him. Now it felt less like protection than like a prison, hemming him in, trapping him in this brick and mortar and concrete tomb. There were no animals grazing in the distance, no trees swaying in the sunlight, no sunlight even, nor any life whatsoever. Just the bare, harsh wall gazing back at him, unseeing, uncaring, unblinking.
Another sigh cast a haze of condensation across the window for a moment, and Sebastian’s eyes focussed not on the wall, but on his own reflection. He was struck by how different he looked, with his hair sticking out in all directions, his chin unshaven and his t-shirt skewed to one side. No wonder his friends had commented, he looked like he’d slept for days in his clothes, like some kind of apprentice tramp.
Outside the window, the rain fell harder, gathering to form a network of large drops that ran, one-by-one, down the glass. As he watched them, trickling down the pane, it looked so like his reflected face was crying that he raised a hand to his cheek, and as the rain and the glassy tears continued to fall, Sebastian stood and stared, and dreamed of life in the country.