Chapter 4 – Manicure and Manure
‘I wasn’t, you know,’ said Sebastian, glancing over his shoulder to check the shop door was closed.
Neil didn’t pause as he crossed the road. ‘What weren’t you?’
‘I wasn’t chatting her up.’
‘Course you weren’t!’ said Neil, in the voice that suggests you believe the opposite. ‘Right. You jump in the back and we’ll head on down.’
They had stopped next to the strangest, and filthiest, looking vehicle Sebastian had ever seen. It looked as though a Landrover had a tryst with a motorbike, punching well above its weight, and, after an appropriate gestation period, this mutant had burst from its trunk. Straight into a manure heap. Attached to the back of it was a trailer, filled with five dirty sacks, containing who knew what, a mess of straw and a dog.
‘In the back?’ said Sebastian. ‘What is this thing?’ He flapped a hand at the contraption, then, remembering Emma grasping them after touching those eggs, he ferreted in his pocket and pulled out a bottle of alcohol gel.
‘It’s my quad bik,.’ said Neil, sounding, to Sebastian’s ears, far too proud of the filthy thing.
‘And you want me to get in the there?’ he pointed at the trailer while rubbing the gel over his hands. ‘Does this… “quad bike” even work?’
Neil pulled a bundle of keys from his wax jacket and jangled them. ‘Oh, you bet it does. And yes, in you get.’ Sebastian made no move towards the trailer – just stood in the road, staring at the jumbled contents. Neil followed his gaze. ‘Ah, don’t worry about old Tank. He won’t bite you. Probably.’
‘I wasn’t worried about it biting me,’ said Sebastian. ‘Has it be treated for fleas and that?’
‘It?’ Neil gave him a look of disbelief. ‘He’s a he. And yes, he has. Come on.’ And with that, he swung a booted leg over the seat of the quad bike and started it up. Sebastian gave up, resigned to perching in amongst the dirty clutter and the messy dog, and clambered aboard. Without warning the quad bike shot forwards, nearly pitching him back out into the road, but instead landing him squarely on his backside in the straw. He swore. ‘Say what?’ shouted Neil over his shoulder.
‘Nothing,’ Sebastian shouted back as he pulled out the alcohol gel again. ‘Just getting comfy.’
Neil signalled with his left arm, though there was no one else in the road, and turned back down the hill. Sebastian turned his back so the butcher wouldn’t see his face, and spotted the street name on a sign attached to the building opposite. It was called Holders Hill. He wondered who the ‘Holders’ were and what exactly they were holding.
‘So you’re not a dog person then?’ shouted Neil, interrupting his daydreaming.
‘What? No. Not really.’ He looked at Tank, who was facing into the breeze as they sped down the hill, tongue lolling out to one side. ‘Not at all, in fact.’
‘Do you like cats?’
Sebastian thought back to his great aunt Joan’s house, which he used to get dragged along to occasionally as a child. She’d had a cat, a fat, old tabby called Tiddles. Tiddles, for goodness’ sake! Thankfully the wretched thing was long dead, but even now Sebastian could almost taste the smell of stale cat urine that pervaded every inch of the house. It was a horrible beast, which would sidle up to Sebastian and start rubbing itself up against him, leaving clumps of hair on his clothes. Eventually, he would give in and stroke the brute, and Tiddles would immediately lay on the floor, legs stretched out to expose its large belly. Sebastian would rub it, tentatively, knowing that any second the cat would turn from purring adoration to claw-thrashing hatred at having its tummy stroked.
Sebastian touched his forearm, absentmindedly, thinking about the many scratches that had criss-crossed his skin over the years. Damn cat!
‘Definitely not!’ he replied. They carried on down the hill, past the farmhouse on the left and the next two houses, after which, they had hedges on both side with tall trees forming a canopy above them, throwing the surrounding into a dappled shade. Sebastian didn’t like it – too green.
Neil shouted again, turning to look at Sebastian over his shoulder, which was most disconcerting. ‘So, what do you like? You got any pets back in London.’
‘I have a spider plant,’ shouted Sebastian, gripping onto the sides of trailer and making a mental note to put the washing-up gloves back on to avoid running out of alcohol gel. As they approached the bottom of the hill and the main road, the wind that rushed past him, tugging at his clothes and pulling at his hair, was filled with Neil’s laughter.
A hundred metres or so from the T-junction, the quad bike slow almost to a stop, before turning right through a gap in the hedge and doubling-back on themselves along a dirt track. The ground was uneven and, though Tank seemed to be unshakeable, as though he was nailed to the trailer floor, Sebastian was tossed around with the sacks and straw no matter how hard he gripped onto the sides. To his relief, the path ahead was blocked by a Landrover, which, even though his vision was blurred by the constant juddering motion of the quad bike, he recognised as the one which had brought him to the farmhouse last night. Just before they reached it, the path widened out on both sides and Neil pulled over on the right as he jammed on the brakes. He cut the engine and turned round to Sebastian.
‘Well, that was fun!’ he began, then paused as he took in the sight of Sebastian, whose face was set in a terrified grimace, his hands still gripping onto the sides of the trailer. A smile slowly spread across Neil’s face. ‘You look like you’ve just seen a ghost,’ he said with a chuckle.
‘If I did,’ said Sebastian, ‘it was probably my own. I think you dislodged it when we were bouncing along the track back there. Is it an actual, proper track? Or did we just take some short cut across a building site?’
Neil’s face looked suddenly serious. ‘So you believe in them, then?’
‘In what? Building sites?’
‘In ghosts!’ Neil spoke the word in a loud whisper, accentuating it with a flick of his fingers. Sebastian stared at him, uncertain whether he was just winding him up. After all, this was a genuine, real-life countryside person – they believed all kinds of things, didn’t they? He was pretty sure they were all pagans or Druids or something.
‘Um…’ he said, trying to find the right words that would cause the least offence. ‘I’m not entirely closed-minded about that sort of thing… but I, er, I can’t say I’ve ever really given it much thought.’ Neil’s eyes narrowed, his moustache drooping solemnly, but he made no response. ‘So, er…’ said Sebastian, filling the awkward void. ‘Do you believe in… um, you know, ghosts and that?’
‘Load of old nonsense, if you ask me!’ said Neil, chuckling again as he climbed off the quad bike. ‘Right then, these pigs won’t feed themselves. Grab that green plastic bag for us, and we’ll head on up.’
Shaking his head, Sebastian half climbed, half fell out of the trailer. ‘One moment,’ he said, flipping open the lid of the alcohol gel and squeezing some on his hands. ‘Oh no!’ It was such a desperate sounding cry, that Neil, who was busy sorting through a pile of what looked like ice cream tubs, dropped them and span round.
‘Everything okay?’ he said, his voice etched with concern. ‘What’s happened, lad?’
Sebastian lifted up a hand, its palm facing Neil, its finger spread. ‘I broke a nail! It must have happened when I was gripping the trailer as we jolted over all that rubble. I can’t believe it!’
‘A nail?’ It was now Neil’s turn to look incredulous, uncertain whether Sebastian was being serious. ‘You broke a nail? You know they grow back, right?’
‘But I only had them done last week. Up in Soho… cost me forty quid.’
If anything Neil’s face looked even more stunned. ‘Done?’
Sebastian, having tucked his alcohol gel away, pulled out his trust washing-up gloves and starting tugging them on. ‘Yeah. You know – a manicure. Buffing, polishing… cuticles and all that.’
Neil clearly didn’t know, but, with a jerk of his eyebrows, turned back to the containers. As Sebastian walked over, carrying the green plastic bag, which turned out to be empty, Neil rattled the lid off a metal bin and starting scooping out piles of large, grey pellets into the bag with one of the containers. It definitely was an ice cream tub.
Sebastian took a moment to glance around the place. There wasn’t much to see to the right of the track, just a load of trees on a hill that climbed up to the road they’d come down. On the other side, the ground levelled off into a couple of fields that stretched away to what looked like a small river, about a billionth of the size of the Thames – the only river Sebastian had to compare it with. He couldn’t quite make out what was in the first field, as a long, low building blocked most of his view, but in the second, he saw a couple of large, brown horses chewing at the grass and wearing what looked like facemasks. Another larger building and a row of trees obscured the rest of the smallholding, but Sebastian got the impression it went on a long way, and although he was used the massive structures and spaces of London, the size of this place made him feel small and vulnerable. To him, it was a vast, alien terrain, full of unpredictable creatures and dangerous obstacles. And the quad bike, of course.
After eight or nine loads, Neil clanked the lid back on and tossed the container back with the others, then grabbed the sack in one large hand and strode off up the track beyond the Landrover.
‘So, these pigs?’ said Sebastian, hurrying along behind him. ‘Are they, like, dangerous at all? Only I’ve seen films where gangsters use pigs as a way to dispose of bodies. And a friend of mine, Little Pete, told me a story the other night about a farmer who fell into his pigsty and there was nothing left of him but a pair of wellies.’
‘Glad to hear you’ve done your research,’ said Neil over his shoulder. ‘I’d not heard about the farmer’s boots, but they sure do eat pretty much anything. I wouldn’t go lying down in their run, if I was you.’
‘So they are dangerous then?’
Neil just chuckled, a sound that was beginning to irritate Sebastian, and followed the path as it curved uphill to the right. Sebastian was about to repeat his question, when he caught a glimpse of something moving up ahead between the trees. And it wasn’t just the sight that gave him pause, but, as he passed the broad trunk of a nearby tree, his sense of smell and sound came under assault.
The pigs had obviously heard them approaching and come out to look, but when Neil shook the bag of pellets, which Sebastian presumed must be pig food, they went into some kind of squabbling, squealing frenzy. As he approached them, he realised that they were much smaller than he expected – about the length of one of his arms, though with a much bigger girth. But it wasn’t their size that surprised him so much as the colour.
‘Aren’t pigs pink?’ he said, as they came to a halt a few feet away from where the creature jostled and snorted.
Neil turned to face him. ‘Some are, yes. Yorkshire and Landrace, that sort of thing, even Tamworth, I guess.’ Sebastian nodded, though he had no idea what he what talking about. ‘But these here,’ Neil reached out and patted one of the pigs on the head, ‘are Berkshire. Beautiful, black piggies.’ For a moment Sebastian was on the verge of offering him the alcohol gel, but thought better of it.
‘And are they all this small?’ he said. ‘I was expecting something a bit… bigger.’
‘Something more like Lucy?’ asked Neil. He pointed further up the hill and for the first time, Sebastian noticed the presence of a monster. It looked about the same size and weight as the quad bike, and he was sure it would be strong enough to pull the trailer with hardly any effort, though Sebastian certainly wouldn’t be hopping in for the ride. Its muddy, black hide was covered in a thick mat of bristles, from its bat-like ears to its chewed-up-rope-like tail. Its face was shaped like a ski jump, its snout pushed up and sniffing at the air, and what Sebastian reckoned to be a dozen teats dragged along in the muck beneath its vast belly.
He opened his mouth and closed it, struggling for words, and eventually settled for, ‘Lucy? You named that Lucy?’
Neil beamed at the beast. ‘That’s her. Beautiful girl, ain’t she, our Lucy? And these,’ he brandished a hand at the still squabbling hoards of pigs, ‘are her babies. Shall we give them their breakfast?’
‘Er, I’d rather not.’ said Sebastian, taking a step back.
Neil chuckled again. ‘It wasn’t a question. Come on, and mind out for this wire.’ He bent and pointed to a run of wire about six inches from the ground. ‘It’s electric.’
Sebastian looked at the thin strand by Neil’s finger. It didn’t look like much. ‘Is that all that’s stopping them getting out?’
‘Oh yeah. They don’t like to get too close. It won’t kill you, but it’ll give you a nasty shock!’ As if to emphasize the point, one of the piglets edged forward to sniff at Neil’s finger and its snout brushed against the wire. There was a sound like someone snapping a piece of bamboo and a definite spark, followed by a sound somewhere between a high-pitched bark and gunshot.
Neil laughed and stomped over the wire, nudging the piglets out of the way with his boots. They reminded Sebastian of pig-munched farmer’s boots, so he decided to climb over away from the seething mass of bodies. However, as he edged along the boundary, the pigs followed him, leaving him no safe gap to cross.
‘They’re not letting me in, Neil!’ he said. In answer, Neil reached into the plastic sack and brought out a handful of pellets, which he tossed further up the hill. Even as they hit the stony earth, the piglets threw themselves on them in a snorting, bustling turmoil, which only made Sebastian think even more about the farmer.
‘Hurry up, then,’ said Neil. ‘That won’t keep them away for long.’
Cautiously, as though stepping onto a minefield, he lifted his left foot and placed it on the far side of the wire. The ground here was mostly thick mud where the pigs had churned it up and done goodness’ knew what to it, but it felt firm enough, so Sebastian step in with the other foot as well.
Neil held out the sack. ‘Good lad. Give us a hand scattering this lot around would you. I’m going to check the water situation.’
‘Where do you want me to scatter it?’ asked Sebastian, eyeing Lucy nervously as she ambled down the hill.
Neil waved his hand towards the area furthest from the piglets as he marched away. ‘Oh, over that side will do. Just scatter it around as if you’re sowing grass seed.’
Sebastian, who had never sowed any seed in his life, nodded and headed to the indicated side, pleased to get away from the man-eating swine. In his relief, however, he failed to notice the tree root sticking up from a patch of mud and tripped. He managed to keep himself from falling over, which would have been nothing short of a disaster similar to the apocalypse, but in doing so, he trod on the sack, tearing it open. He yanked it up, trying to stem the eruption of pellets with a gloved hand, but it was too late. The piglets were already aware.
En masse, the writhing herd charged towards Sebastian, snorting and squealing, their snouts twitching and their mouths dripping with saliva and half-chewed pellets.
He swore. Loudly. An spontaneous outburst, born of sudden terror. Then the creatures were all around him, snuffling at the ground around his boots, biting at the sack which slipped through his lifeless fingers onto the ground. One of them nudged at his ankle, while another, bullied by one of its siblings, forced its way between his legs. Sebastian tried to back away, but there was a pig right behind him.
‘Don’t try and move!’ shouted Neil, hurrying back down the hill towards him, but Sebastian had already picked up one foot and suddenly there was nowhere to set it back down again, except one of the bristle-covered back snaking around him. And then he felt it – the nudge in the back of his knee – and he knew that it was all over. He was going down and no one could save him.
There was a loud squeal at Sebastian fell, one foot caught under a piglet, another behind his legs. Thankfully, most of the pellets had landed the other side, so he didn’t squash any of the beasts as he landed, hard on the ground. He hardly felt the impact. His one thought was to get away from the feeding frenzy and the razor sharp teeth, and find his way back to the safety of the path. He scuttled backwards, pulling off a remarkable speed for someone propelled by only their heels and elbows.
‘Stop!’ shouted Neil, ‘You don’t want to go that way!’ But Sebastian wasn’t interested. This was the away from the piglets, so it was the only way he was interested it. ‘That’s their toilet!’
For a split second, Sebastian paused, his eyes flicking to the ground on either side. It was certainly more sludgy here. And some of those lumps of earth looked much more like…
‘Crap!’ he shouted and, catching sight of the path only a couple of metres away to his right, launched himself over it sideway. He almost made it. It would have been a perfect landing had he not twisted slightly and ended up with his cheek pressed onto the electric wire.
He knew then why the pig had made such a racket!