Chapter 6 – Wine and Beer
Sunday was usually a day of rest for Sebastian, not for any religious reason, but simply because he enjoyed the opportunity to sit around his flat doing nothing. He suspected he would not get off so lightly today.
Having dragged himself out of bed, he was surprised to find he wasn’t aching from the rigours of the previous day. He felt quite limber, in fact, almost ready to face the day.
But only almost.
He tugged the curtains apart and the sunlight barged into the room, making him blink as his eyes adjusted. Having avoided the view yesterday morning, he was pleasantly surprised by what he saw. Directly beneath him was the patch of grass where he’d failed to erect the tent on Friday evening. Separating this from the narrow strip of tarmac that wound up Holders Hill, was a rock wall hanging with carpet of green and blue plants. Beyond the road and the far hedge, the upper fields of the smallholding dropped away towards the river and the green-hued trees that climbed the hill beyond, their leafy branches swaying gently on the backdrop of a crystal clear, blue sky. The sun was somewhere behind him, but its presence could be felt in the shadow cast by the house, the bright green of the fields and the dancing light on the troubled surface of the Bray.
Even Sebastian had to admit it wasn’t that repulsive! Okay, so it wasn’t a patch on the view from his bedroom back in London, but it was certainly a view.
After a few minutes he turned away. With his armoury of products and equipment, he headed to the bathroom. Finding it occupied, he returned to his room and sat on the bed, still clutching his grooming kit in his arms. After twenty minutes or so, he heard the bathroom door open.
‘All yours!’ shouted Neil, banging Sebastian’s door on his way past.
The atmosphere in the bathroom was about as offensive as he’d imagined it would be, but after working out how to open the sash window and spraying a few bursts of deodorant around, it no longer felt as though his eyes were burning out.
This was Sebastian’s third shower since arriving, not including yesterday morning’s debacle. He jammed the rubber ends of the attachment onto the taps and turned them on, placing a hang under the shower head to check the temperature. Satisfied that he wasn’t going to get scalded or chilled, he climbed into the tub and began to wash himself, laying down in the bath, so he didn’t spray the walls – something he’d learned yesterday lunchtime. The carpet still hadn’t dried out.
Once completed, he got dressed in dark grey chinos and a crisp, blue shirt, and headed downstairs.
‘Morning,’ said Neil and glanced up at the clock in the lounge, an ugly ceramic affair with too colourful flowers painted across it. ‘You’re up early.’
‘Early?’ Sebastian looked at his watch, a sleek handcrafted timepiece in silver and blue that probably cost more than everything in the room together. ‘It’s almost eight. I thought you country… people got up with the sun.’
Neil smiled. ‘Well, you’re up early for a city lad.’
‘Grab a chair,’ said Virginia, busying herself around the kitchen. ‘The toast’s on its way.’ Sebastian sat down and, as he did so, noticed that Neil wasn’t dressed in his usual scruffy clothes. Instead he was wearing a brown suit, in a style that might even have been in fashion once upon a time, complete with a shirt and a tie that no doubt hailed from the same epoch. He glanced at Virginia to see that she too, instead of wearing the dungarees that she’d had on the previous day, had on smarter clothes, specifically a dress that reminded him of the shapeless thing Emma had been wearing the day before.
Thinking of Emma he asked, ‘Should I collect the eggs and take them to the shop?’
‘Oh, that’s sweet of you,’ said Virginia, setting a plate and a knife in front of him, ‘but it’s not open on a Sunday. You can just bring them in here before church instead. There’s a couple of empty egg boxes by the shoe rack. Help yourself to tea, there’s plenty in the pot.’
As Sebastian did so, he considered Virginia’s words. Something in there had seemed odd, but in his disappointment about not returning to the village shop today, he’d not quite picked up on it the first time round…
‘Aye,’ said Virginia, seizing to the toast, which had just popped up from her massive toaster. ‘Don’t worry, there’s plenty of time. The service doesn’t start until eleven.’
‘But… church? You’re going to church?’
‘Course we are,’ said Neil. ‘It’s Sunday! Don’t you go to church?’
Sebastian wasn’t sure what to say. Unlike pagans and witches, this wasn’t something he’d expected. ‘Well,’ he said at last, as Virginia place a stack of assorted toast onto the table, ‘I’ve been to church, of course… but I can’t say it’s a regular thing.’
Neil looked surprised. ‘Oh. Everyone goes round here.’
‘Everyone?’ said Sebastian, just stopping himself from adding, ‘Even the girl from the village store?’
Sebastian turned to Virginia, who had finally stopped scurrying around the kitchen and joined them at the table. He cleared his throat and pointed to the toast. ‘Is this the bread we made last night?’
‘That it is,’ said Virginia, smiling at him. ‘Shouldn’t really toast bread that’s less than a day old – too soft inside – but I thought you’d like a taste.’ Despite the fact Sebastian hadn’t enjoyed the endless kneading the evening before, he had been slightly disappointed he hadn’t been able to taste the fruits of his labour. But Virginia had insisted that eating bread when it was still warm would make him sick. It sounded like nonsense to him, but he couldn’t be certain.
He picked up a piece of toasted rye bread from the pile, dropping it quickly onto his plate and blowing on his fingers. ‘Hot!’ he explained. ‘I suppose it’s safe to eat though?’ He gave Virginia a pointed look. ‘It won’t make me sick?’
She ignored the question and pushed the butter dish towards him. ‘Just give it a try.’
Sebastian did so, knifing on a thin layer of butter before taking a bite. His face reflected a number of emotions as he chewed on the toast: surprise at how different the texture was to the cheap stuff he was used to, thoughtfulness as he tried to work out what unusual about the taste, insight when he realised it was an underlying sourness that accentuated its nutty flavour, and pleasure at simply enjoying a nice piece of toast.
‘What do you think?’ asked Virginia, clearly eager to hear his verdict. ‘How did it compare to that sliced polystyrene of yours?’
‘Compare?’ said Sebastian, speaking with his mouth full, but covering it with the back of his hand. He swallowed and, for what seemed like the first time since he got on the train at Clapham Junction, he smiled. ‘It’s a completely different creature altogether. It’s… I’ve…’ he struggled for the right words, finally settling on, ‘It was really nice.’
His mood was dampened somewhat by his egg-collecting duties. Apparently this was to be his daily task during his stay at the smallholding, and its sole redeeming feature was that it came with a visit to the village shop. Though not today, of course.
This morning he felt slightly better armed both with equipment, specifically his gloves and two empty egg boxes, and with experience after the previous day’s ignorance and psychotic chicken attack. He peered round as he entered the enclosure, but could see no sign of the ‘evil hen’. It must be lying in wait inside that little laddered doorway, so, keeping well away from that entrance, Sebastian crept up to the nesting area lid and raised it cautiously, checking the straw-filled compartments were clear. Once satisfied, he lifted it fully and, placing the open egg boxes on the edge he started filling them. Thirteen eggs again – one more than the boxes could take, but it would still be easier than carrying an armful up the hill! With the first box full, he closed the lid and placed it on the floor, then starting on the second. He’d only added one and was picking up a second, when something leapt at him from the dark recesses of the henhouse and, with a loud squawk, pecked him hard on the finger. Again, the gloves did little to protect him and the beak cut through the rubber and jabbed into his flesh.
He swore loudly and his fingers jerked involuntarily, crushing the egg in his hand. But the ‘evil hen’ hadn’t finished. Emboldened by its success, the bird flapped forwards again, but Sebastian wasn’t going to be pecked a second time. He lurched backwards, snatching his hands away, and managed not only to keep his balance but to avoid treading on the full box of eggs. Unfortunately the other box wasn’t so lucky and he watched powerlessly as the lid came crashing down, almost in slow motion, straight onto it, crushing both cardboard and egg.
‘Damn you, evil chicken!’ shouted Sebastian as the wildly squawking bird rocketed out of the henhouse door and scurried across the run. A few minutes later he returned to the house, carrying one box full of eggs, five loose eggs and a crumpled heap of egg-spattered cardboard to go with his equally egg-spattered glove. He was no longer smiling.
Neil was standing in just inside the backdoor, polishing a black shoe. He chuckled as he caught sight of Sebastian. ‘What happened to you?’ he said.
‘What happened to you?’ asked Emma, jabbing him in the ribs with an elbow as Sebastian sat down next to her on the hard wooden pew. St Bartholomew’s Church was situated on the imaginatively named Church Street, straight over the crossroads from Holders Hill. On the right hand side was the village green and on the left, hidden by the rambling branches of an ancient yew tree, was the smallest church Sebastian had ever encountered. The walls and even the roof were made of grey stone and, at one end, there was a squat steeple. It had no spire, but it clearly had a bell and someone was ringing it as though announcing an invasion. Beyond the huge wooden door was a handful of dark pews which were almost filled by the forty or so people sitting in them.
To Sebastian’s concealed delight, there was only space in one pew, which was occupied by Emma and one, older woman. And now here he was, sitting next to her.
He nudged her back. ‘What do you mean, what happened to me? When?’
‘Yesterday,’ Emma whispered, her voice only just audible above the erratic organ playing. ‘I was expecting you to come back and get your – what was it? – dental floss?’
Sebastian was determined to be a bit more assertive than on their first encounter. ‘How thoughtful,’ he said. ‘Did you miss me?’
‘Hardly that. It’s just I spent about twenty minutes looking for this,’ she pulled a packet of floss from somewhere and passed it to him, all the time facing straight ahead, ‘and I was hoping it wasn’t a wasted effort.’
‘Oh…er, thanks,’ he said, taking the proffered item.
‘That’s three pounds. You can drop off the money tomorrow.’ Without warning, Emma placed a hand on his knee, tapping it with her index finger. Then she leaned close to him and whispered, ‘Do you realise you’ve got egg or something on your trousers?’
He swallowed, but tried to hide it by scratching his cheek. ‘Yes.’ He didn’t know what else to say, then, just as he thought of something, the vicar appeared from somewhere. This puzzled Sebastian for a moment as the church didn’t really have space for many hiding places.
‘Please rise,’ called the vicar, his voice echoing off the bare stone walls, and Emma’s hand slipped from his knee.
With the exception of a friend’s wedding the previous September, Sebastian hadn’t been to church since he was at school, and even then he’d not actually paid any attention, but used to scribble rude words in the pew bibles and play hangman with whoever happened to be sitting next to him. As a result, this morning’s service caught him off-guard. The congregation kept standing up and sitting down without warning, and suddenly speaking out in unison, repeating strange phrases that were unfamiliar to him. It was like they were trying to catch him out all the time.
And then there were the hymns. Sebastian had nothing against organ music and had enjoyed singing along when they played Jerusalem on the television a few months earlier, but the songs they dragged out for this service were clearly from the duller end of the hymnal. Bizarre words that would have had Shakespeare scratching his bald head were married to melodies that consisted either of fewer than five notes or of rambling, tuneless dirges that dropped off either end of his vocal range. And everyone else’s by the sound of it.
At some point the vicar clambered up into the pulpit to speak, but Emma’s knee was touching his own making it impossible for Sebastian to concentrate on the sermon. Not only that, but Sebastian had noticed that, across the aisle, there was a large man who kept turning round and glaring at him and he was fairly sure it was the butcher, whose window he had defiled the previous morning. Having noticed the man staring at him, Sebastian tried his hardest not to make eye contact or even glance in his direction, but it was like trying not to look at something horrible and his eyes kept moving across to find the butcher still glowering at him.
When the sermon finished, Sebastian ended up with the others at the altar rail for Communion, not out of any real desire to partake, but simply because that seemed to be the done thing and he’d already messed up enough of the standing and sitting. So he copied Neil, who was kneeling next to him, holding out cupped hands into which the vicar placed a piece of what looked like flattened packing material, but which turned out to be rice paper. Then, to Sebastian’s horror, he watched as the people along the row all sipped wine from a silver cup. The same silver cup. All of them. Drinking out of the same cup.
He felt paralysed as the cup progressed to Virginia and then Neil. What could he do? He couldn’t refuse. But nor could he drink something that was no doubt filled with the spittle of a load of strangers – country folk, who could be carrying who knew what germs and filth. As the cup bearer drew up in front of him, Sebastian lifted his hand to steady the goblet of disease and, taking care not to actually make any contact with the rim of the vessel, mimed taking a sip.
At last the service came to an end and, as the vicar marched down the tiny aisle and through the oversized door, the muted drone of conversations started up and people began filing out behind him. Not meaning to, Sebastian’s gaze flickered across the aisle and made eye contact with the large butcher – he was sure it was the same man, though it was hard to tell without the knife. And the blood smeared across his chest. To his relief, the butcher frowned and turned away.
Sebastian turned to Emma. ‘There’s a guy over there,’ he whispered, indicating with a flick of his head, ‘who doesn’t seem to like me for some reason.’
‘Well, he’s clearly a good judge of character,’ she said, picking up a small bag from under the seat. ‘What did you think of the service, then? I noticed you were struggling a bit to keep up.’
Uncertain how to respond, he opted for, ‘It was different.’
‘What? Churches in London do things differently, do they?’
He shrugged. ‘Um… I guess. Yeah.’
‘Weird,’ said Emma. ‘I thought services were the same all across the country – same words, same readings, same choice of hymns even.’ Having no idea if this was true or not, Sebastian chose to shrug again and say nothing. ‘So are you going to the pub for lunch?’ asked Emma.
‘The pub? I don’t know… I shouldn’t imagine so. Neil’s probably got some hideously messy job lined up to ruin more of my clothes – something involving mud or manure no doubt. You know, yesterday, I ended up electrocuting myself twice, once on my cheek, just under-’
‘Is this a long story?’ interrupted Emma. ‘Only it’s starting to sound like it could be and I was wondering if you were going to start moving any time soon.’
‘Eh?’ Sebastian looked round to find Neil and Virginia were already on their way out of the church. ‘Oh, right. Of course. Sorry.’ He turned back to find her smiling. It was the sort of smile Sebastian associated with people who feel they’ve got one up on you. She clearly enjoyed making him feel uncomfortable and he’d fallen for it. Again. Cross with himself, he marched off up the short aisle without saying ‘good bye’.
The Green Man public house was only a short walk across the village green and, despite Sebastian’s gloomy prediction of how his day would be spent, it turned out the Symeses were taking him there for lunch.
‘My treat,’ said Neil, tugging off his tie and undoing his top button as he walked. ‘A kind of “Welcome to Steepleford” meal.’
The idea of a ‘welcome’ at this point in his stay, reminded him of just how long he still had before he could return to the city. It already felt like he’d been stuck in this village for weeks, and a wave of homesickness swept over him at the eternity stretching away between now and the following Saturday. He pushed out an unconvincing smile.
‘Thank you,’ he muttered, aware of how ungrateful he sounded.
The interior of the Green Man was almost exactly what Sebastian had expected, though the sawdust in his mind was replaced with an ancient rug full of age old cigarette burns and worn paths that wove between the tables, through which terracotta tiles could be glimpsed. The fifteen or so tables, like the chairs around them, were of assorted styles and designs, no two of which were the same, and their once-varnished surfaces had been eroded to smooth, bare wood. Various ancient items, once used either for farming or torture, black and white pictures of long dead men on the unchanged backdrop of Steepleford, and many layers of gloss, nicotine-yellow paint conspired to hide the wood panelling that lined the walls, and the few windows had obviously not been cleaned during the reign of the current monarch, letting in a strangled light as though the sun were shining through a pint of beer. The black oak beams that spanned the ceiling were hung with pewter tankards, naked, unlit bulbs and what even Sebastian recognised as hop plants, while at the far end of the room a fire smouldered in its cast iron surround, despite the fact it was a glorious summer’s day outside.
It was like something from the eighteenth century, the kind of place one might expect to find fletchers, wheelwrights and coopers all supping mead together after a hard day doing whatever it was such people did. The effect was spoiled somewhat by the bar, which was hung with glossy adverts for alcopops and housed an impressive collection of space-age lager dispensers instead of the expected brass beer handles. That and the fact that it was empty.
Sebastian looked at his watch. It was ten past twelve.
‘Where is everyone?’ he asked Neil.
‘Where they always are,’ said a voice from the empty bar. Sebastian turned to see the landlord’s head rising up from below the polished oak surface, followed by a red bow tie, a checked shirt and a brown cardigan. It was like a parade of Sebastian’s most hated clothing, and somehow he knew that, hidden by the bar’s wood panelling, was a pair of corduroy trousers. Probably yellow ones. The face above this fashion travesty continued, ‘Anywhere that ain’t here supporting the only pub for miles around. I’ve told them, if they don’t use it they’re going to lose it, but do they care?’ Sebastian opened his mouth to attempt a response, but the flow continued unabated. ‘No. That’s the answer. No. No one cares that the pub’s struggling, that we can barely afford to heat it,’ the landlord gestured to the fireplace, ‘or that we haven’t been able to refurb the place since our father ran it. Oh, they come in when it suits them, of course. Wandering in at half ten at night, looking for a swift couple of pints, complaining about the price. They’ll be sorry when it’s gone and no mistake. Table for three is it, Virg?’
‘Please, Donald love,’ said Virginia, unfazed by the abrupt change in flow. ‘We’re here for lunch to welcome Sebastian to the village.’ She indicated Sebastian, as though there could be any question she was referring to him.
Sebastian forced out another smile. ‘Hi.’
‘Ah,’ said Donald, nodding to himself, ‘you must be the lad from up London way. What on earth brings you down to this God forsaken backwater?’
‘I was wondering that myself,’ Sebastian replied, the words spilling out before he could run them past his internal filters.
Donald laughed, a curious sound made up of rasping intakes of breath. ‘Welcome to Steepleford, anyway,’ he said, ‘and welcome to the Green Man. You only just made it. A few more weeks and it’d no doubt be turned into apartments like the old school. Not that anyone’d mind, of course. No one cares about the place anymore. No one ever comes here for lunch these days.’
Sebastian span round as the pub door slammed open behind him. Silhouetted in the doorway was the figure of Emma, another woman standing close behind her.
‘Thought you weren’t coming here,’ she said, at an embarrassing volume. ‘I hope you’re not stalking me, Sebastian!’