Chapter 3 – First Contact
It was quarter past eight when Sebastian opened his eyes, and immediately closed them again. Sunlight was lancing through a gap in the curtains and it felt as though it was boring into his face. This confused him as he wasn’t used to sunlight invading his bedroom, but as he sat up and peered blearily at his surroundings, he remembered this wasn’t his room. It wasn’t even his flat. He wasn’t entirely sure if it counted as his country, since he was so far from home. He sighed.
‘I really hate this place!’ he said, then grimaced as he realized he’d spoken out loud and was worried his hosts might have heard. He strained to listen, but couldn’t hear any sounds from the house. Hopefully they were both out somewhere, and he recalled they had to be up super-early for some reason. ‘Ridiculous.’ he said – out loud again.
Opposite the bed was a dresser table, and Sebastian caught sight of himself in the ornately ugly mirror. He looked awful. His eyes were puffy and shadowed, his hair looked as though it’d been paused mid-explosion, and there was the clear mark of a bruise on his cheek, a token of his fight with the feral tent.
Dragging himself out of bed, he moved to open the curtain, but thought better of it. The view, whatever it happened to be, would only upset him. Instead he shuffled across to the sink, where, on a small shelf that was barely up to the job, he had arranged the various bottles, tubs and pots that were part of his essential, everyday ablutions. He selected some shower gel, shampoo, conditioner and body scrub, together with some hair wax, deodorant, his shaving bag, comb and body butter. He looked at himself in the mirror again, the various products clutched across his chest, a tower on his shoulder.
‘This’ll just have to do,’ he said, and, after fiddling awkwardly with the door handle, let himself out onto the landing.
There were still no signs that anyone else was in the house, but he called out to let anyone listening know he would be using the shower for a bit. There was no reply.
The bathroom was something of a surprise; specifically the bath itself. Although he had come across houses with baths before, neither the home he grew up in nor his own flat had one.
‘Disgusting thing,’ he muttered as he arranged the various items he was carrying on the basin. Then, as he looked at the room in the mirror, it struck him: there was no shower. Not even one of the rubbish ones that get built into the bath taps. Nothing. He span round and his eyes darted around the room as though, through his desperate searching, he might bring one into being. ‘Now what am I supposed to do?’
The answer turned out to be squat in the bath and ‘shower’ bits of himself at a time beneath the taps. It wasn’t the most effective way to wash, especially since Sebastian hated to miss a single inch of his body, but eventually, after only slipping over and hitting his head twice and scalding himself just once, he finished the job and emerged from the tub.
Wrapping the towel around himself, he opened up his shaving kit and found he had failed to pack his flannel. Next to the bath was a tall cupboard, which he presumed might be where such things were stored. Sure enough, hidden among a pile of threadbare towels was a flannel. It had a picture of a horse on it. There was also a shower attachment for the bath taps.
‘Typical!’ he said, snatching up the ugly flannel and shoving it in the basin.
Twenty minutes later, having completed his washing, styling, shaving, perfuming and dressing (short-sleeved shirt tucked into grey cargo trousers, the pockets loaded with necessities), Sebastian emerged from his room and headed downstairs to the living room. There was no sign of Neil or Virginia, except for a handwritten note left on the kitchen table. The writing was a messy scrawl of the kind he produced when trying to use his left hand, but his name was clearly legible at the top of the note. He picked it up and attempted to decipher the rest.
‘Help yourself to… Frankfurt? Breakfast!’ he read aloud. ‘Bacon and… sal.. sausages in the fudge… fridge. Please called… collect the eggs from the… hens and take… them to the village stove. Store. The village store. Right out of the drive. Right… at the crossword… road… crossroads. Thanks.’ Beneath this was a scribble that he assumed was either Virginia or Neil’s signature – he couldn’t work out which.
Glancing around the kitchen, Sebastian decided not to bother with the fridge; not because he didn’t fancy bacon or sausages, but because there were a couple of large dead birds of some description, hanging from thick, orange string tied to the handle. Instead, he made himself a mug of coffee – black – and some toast – dry – before pulling on his shiny, new wellies, making sure his trousers were safely tucked inside, and heading outside.
Sebastian’s experience of chickens, which was limited to picture in books or on egg boxes and brief appearances on television, was sufficient to help him find the henhouse. It was inside a large, scrub-covered run surrounded by a rusting wire fence. As he approached the gate to the enclosure, the dozen or so chickens turned to watch him, their heads moving with arrhythmic jerks, their bodies unmoving. He flicked the latch and inched the gate open, trying to keep an eye on all the birds at the same time, just in case. Satisfied that they weren’t about to attack him, he pulled the gate closed behind him and picked his way step-by-step towards the henhouse, taking care to avoid sullying his boots in anything unsavoury.
He took so long to reach the small shed-like building that the chickens, deciding he was neither food nor threat, returned to scratching at the dirt and pecking at the invisible scraps they unearthed.
‘Right,’ said Sebastian, causing the chickens to fix him with their one-eyed stares again. ‘Whereabouts do you lot lay your eggs, then?’ As far as he could see there was only one entrance to the henhouse; a small door at the top of a miniature ladder. He crouched down, bending his head to peer inside, but it was too dark to see anything. Holding his breath, he eased his head through the entrance.
Something exploded from the darkness; a crazed mound of feathers, squawking as though it had been kicked, which launched itself at Sebastian’s head in a flapping frenzy. Sebastian swore loudly, tumbling backwards onto the ground, his arms desperately trying to protect his face from the crazed chicken.
‘Get off!’ he screamed in the voice of howling child. ‘Not my eyes!’ But the chicken had gone, scurrying across the enclosure still squawking away. Sebastian didn’t move, but stayed curled up in a protective ball until his breathing slowed and his panic subsided. He reached up and gripped hold of part of the henhouse that jutted out from the main body, pulling himself up off the ground. As he did so, the panel he was holding moved and he noticed it was attached to the side of the building with a series of hinges. Carefully, in case it revealed further feathered furies, he raised the lid and found himself staring in at a series of sectioned areas, filled with golden straw, amongst which were a number of speckled, brown eggs.
‘Who’d have guessed?’ he muttered, wishing he had, before he’d landed on his back in goodness knows what filth. He drew a pair of bright, yellow washing-up gloves from his back pocket. ‘I may not know much about the countryside,’ he informed the chickens as he snapped them onto his hands, ‘but I do know where eggs come from!’
One by one, with as much care as possible, he lifted the eggs from the nesting boxes until he had all thirteen nestling in his arms. He looked around, but couldn’t see anything to carry them in – all the containers were taken up with water and what he presumed was some kind of chicken food, though it looked like piles of gravel – so, taking care not to drop any of the eggs, he tiptoed back across the enclosure.
Half way across, he spotted the chicken that had attacked him watching him with what he interpreted as a hostile expression (though, to be fair, they all looked pretty unfriendly), so he gave it a wide berth. With some difficult he fiddled the gate open with a combination of fingertips and boots, and escaped from their lair. As he was prodding the latch back into place the ‘evil chicken’, as he now thought of it, squawked again and scurried back towards the henhouse to lay in wait for the next unsuspecting trespasser.
‘Turn right out of the drive,’ he repeated to himself, and left the property, heading up the hill towards the centre of the village. He had only glimpsed the road yesterday, in the four-by-four’s headlights, but it was much as he expected it; a narrow strip of tarmac bordered on the left by a high hedge in which he recognised clusters of nettles lurking amongst the other plants, which could well be just as unpleasant. You didn’t get roads like this in the city, not even in the backstreets.
Thinking of London pulled a veil of homesickness over Sebastian, lowering his already damaged mood. He sighed and shook his head, trying to clear it, while keeping the eggs steady.
As the hill reached its brow and the crossroads appeared ahead, he noticed the hedge had given way to a building. It had the look of an old house, but its front was almost entirely filled by a large window, the space behind it shrouded in shadow. At the top of the glass the word ‘butcher’ had been written in large, ornate capitals of flaking paint. Sebastian caught sight of his reflection and approached the window to take a closer look. His shirt had come untucked and was all skewed across his shoulders.
‘What a mess!’ he told his reflected self. ‘And you don’t smell so good either. I think you might have-’ Distracted by a movement beyond the glass, he stopped and, narrowing his eyes, leaned in closer to see what it was.
At first all he could make out was a few indistinct shapes. A till on a counter. Something large hanging from the ceiling. A glass display cabinet. Then, with a shock, he saw the man. He was huge; broad shouldered, thick necked, his head bald and gleaming, his beard like something from a Bible film. In one hand he held something large and shiny, and with a start Sebastian realized it was a cleaver. The man was wiping his other hand slowly across his apron, leaving a dark red smear in its awake. And he was staring straight at Sebastian in a way that looked even more hostile than the ‘evil chicken’. Sebastian jumped back in shock, causing one of the eggs to bounce off his forearm and tumble towards the paving slabs. Instinctively he tried to slow its fall with his foot. The egg burst apart, coating his boot its contents and spattering the window with globules of yolk.
A sound escaped from Sebastian’s mouth as though he was being strangled and, not waiting for the massive and heavily-armed butcher to burst onto the scene, he hurried up to the crossroads, leaning backwards to make sure no further breakages occurred. Turning right, he passed a hairdresser, tediously named ‘The Head Mistress’, and was relieved to find the next building was the village store. Nudging the door open with his boot, he dashed in and jammed the door shut with his back, the bell above it dancing and ringing out his arrival.
Without moving his head, Sebastian ran his eyes across the interior of the shop. On the three sides facing him, shelves filled the walls from floor to ceiling, laden with everything from bags of sugar and tea to bottles of bleach and sink plungers. Against one a wooden ladder had been left, waiting for a customer to request something high up. Leaving a space for the shopkeeper – who Sebastian suspected would be a middle-aged, busty woman, brimming over with gossip and suspicion, her stocky body tightly clad in a conservative dress, that left her large, short arms bare – there were an oak-topped counter, forming a U-shape in front of the shelves. These also were stacked high with goods, except for a gap in the middle where Sebastian saw the top could be lifted up to allow easy access to the till and the door beyond. In the space made by the U, there were a few large baskets with things like mops, brushes and other items that were not ideally shaped for the counter-top or shelves. The floor beneath them was a checkerboard of worn lino. It looked like something out of the Fifties and Sebastian wondered if some of the goods sold here, butter maybe or chocolate, were still rationed.
‘Those for me, are they?’ came a voice, but Sebastian couldn’t see who it belonged to. Leaving the security of the door, he ventured into the U.
‘Hello?’ he said, his voice sounding uncertain. ‘Who’s there?’
Without warning a head popped up from behind a stack of loaves on the counter, making Sebastian jump and almost drop more eggs. ‘Me, of course!’
His first thought was how different she was from his imagined shopkeeper. Far from the gossipy, old bulldog, this was… well, a girl! He hadn’t even considered someone so close to his own age, maybe a few years his junior, would be living so far from city life. And she was pretty. Definitely pretty. Sebastian had come across girls with red hair and freckles and, for most of them, it did not work in their favour. But for this girl, who, he noticed as stared at her open-mouthed, had the green eyes to match, it did work. The hair was of a darker shade of red, an odd wavy which lay somewhere between curly and straight, and the freckles were concentrated around the area below her eyes and across the bridge of her nose, highlighting the soft lines of her face. Her clothes, however, were dreadful, consisting mostly of the sort of boring dress he’d imagined on the stocky version of the shopkeeper, which entirely failed to accentuate the body which lay beneath.
Sebastian shook his head in an attempt to dispel the thought, and coughed to cover his embarrassment.
‘Something up?’ asked the girl, with a lopsided smile that Sebastian couldn’t interpret.
He croaked something unintelligible and cleared his throat. ‘Sorry. You’re just… not what I expected.’
‘Why? What did you expect.’
He tried not to think about the imagined shopkeeper. ‘Nothing,’ he said, his voice higher than normal.
‘Well, I’m glad you think I’m not nothing!’ The girl looked at him a moment, her head tilted slightly to one side, before lifting up the hinged counter top and striding towards him. She stopped uncomfortably close. ‘You going to answer my question then?’
Sebastian swallowed, wondering what she meant. ‘What question?’
‘Are those for me?’ She indicted downwards with her eyes. When there was no response, she added, ‘The eggs?’
‘Eggs?’ said Sebastian, sounding confused. He looked down at the objects nestling in his arms as if he’d never seen them before. ‘Oh! The eggs! Yes, of course. They’re for you. For the shop. I’m supposed to bring them here. And here they are! Twelve eggs.’
‘What happened to unlucky number thirteen?’ she asked, pointing to the globules of yolk and albumen still clinging to his boot. He followed her finger and noticed a blob slide off onto the lino.
The girl raised her eyebrows. ‘You didn’t think to put them in an egg box or anything? They are made for them, you know – the clue’s in the name.’
Sebastian shrugged. ‘I couldn’t find one.’
The girl, ducked back behind the counter and emerged with a couple of boxes. ‘Let’s get them in these before you drop any more.’ One at a time, she plucked the eggs from Sebastian’s arms and tucked them into the boxes. ‘So, you must be the guy from London, yes? Staying with the Symeses?’
‘Who?’ he asked, the skin on his arms prickling with awareness as the girl slid her fingers under an egg.
‘Neil and Virg.’ She gestured with the egg in the direction of the crossroads. ‘Just round the corner.’
Sebastian nodded. ‘My name’s Sebastian.’
The girl stepped back and placed the first full box on the counter. Turning back, she locked eyes with him, her stare intense and confident. ‘I’m Emma,’ she said. Sebastian blinked and looked away. Why couldn’t she be called Deidre or Pauline or something plain like that? Not Emma! Emma was up there with Ami and Lucy at one of his favourite girl’s names. ‘So what brings you all the way here from the city?’ asked Emma, opening the egg box and filling it from Sebastian’s arms. He tried to ignore the contact with his bare arms.
‘Huh. I was more “forced” here than “brought”. This really isn’t my sort of thing.’
‘What isn’t? Collecting eggs?’
‘All of it! Collecting eggs, doing other farm stuff, being miles from the city, surrounded by trees and fields and all the weirdoes who live in the country.’
‘I live in the country,’ said Emma, placing the last egg in the box and closing the lid. ‘Does that make me a weirdo?’
Sebastian felt his cheeks flush and he raised a hand to his brow. ‘What? No, of course not. I just meant-’
‘Are you going to take those off?’
‘Sorry?’ said Sebastian, confused.
She pointed to his hand, still pressed against his forehead. ‘Those gloves. Why are you wearing them, anyway?
Sebastian’s eyes focussed on the yellow of the glove. Remembering what it had been touching, he jerked it away from his head with a strangled yelp. ‘Eurgh!’ He tried to wipe his brow on his shoulder, but failed. ‘I put them on so I wouldn’t have to touch those dirty eggs. They come out of chickens’ backsides, you know!’
She raised her eyebrows and frowned at the same time, which only managed to make her look more attractive. ‘Really?’
‘Yeah,’ said Sebastian, pulling off the gloves and folding them into his back pocket. ‘I try not to think about it when I’m actually eating them, and I reckon the ones from the supermarket are washed, but these…’ he gestured to the egg boxes, ‘these are straight from the source! Grim! You’ll want to wash your hands.’ he added.
‘I could.’ she said, and, before he could react, she sprang forward, seizing his now uncovered hands in her own and pulled him forward so her mouth was next to his ear. She was tall. He couldn’t breathe. Though the dress concealed her form in its dowdy folds, he was all to aware of the shape on her body at it pressed against him. He was worried he was shaking, ever so slightly, as she whispered in his ear. ‘But I’m a country weirdo, remember?’ Emma paused a moment, then drew back a few inches to look at him, her hands still gripping his. She frowned a little, staring intensely at Sebastian, who noticed that the green of her eyes was edged with a ring of dark brown. She was so close, and he felt himself melting in the warmth of her breath on his face.
‘Are you wearing perfume?’ she asked in a loud voice, breaking the spell as she stepped back and let go of his hands.
‘I’m sorry?’ said Sebastian, desperately gathering his thoughts. ‘Perfume?’
‘Yes, perfume. You are, aren’t you? You’re wearing perfume! Is that what men do in London?’
Sebastian held up his hands as if defending himself from the accusation. ‘I am not wearing perfume.’ Emma raised cynical eyebrows, but said nothing. ‘I’m not! It’s just normal products. Men’s products.’
He bristled. ‘Scents! Deodorant, eau de toilette, aftershave… that sort of thing. Women don’t wear aftershave.’
‘Don’t you believe it!’ said Emma, her smile revealing straight, white teeth. ‘Some of the women round here probably do.’
‘That reminds me,’ said Sebastian, tearing his gaze from Emma and glancing around the room. ‘Do you have any dental floss?’
Behind him the bell burst into its chirpy, fitful ringing and he span round, half expecting to find the gigantic butcher with his blood-spattered knife.
‘Alright, you two,’ said Neil. ‘Thought I might find you here.’
Emma shrugged. ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘This is my home.’
‘I was talking to young Sebastian here. Everything alright with the eggs?’
Without meaning to, Sebastian glanced down at his boot and the evidence of his egg delivery mishap. ‘Er, just about.’
‘Good.’ Neil clapped his large hands together. ‘Right then. You can’t hide in here all day, chatting up Miss Standfield, though.’ He yanked the door open, a broad smile lighting up his face as a blush shadowed Sebastian’s. ‘Come on. We’ve got pigs to feed!’