Chapter 8 – Long Odds
‘What in the world have you boys been up to?’ Virginia stood in the kitchen with her hands on her hips staring at the two damp figures in the doorway. Having completed the milking, with Neil stepping in to finish Amy so, as he put it, ‘the milk doesn’t turn into cheese before we get it home’, they ushered the goats back into their shed and Neil poured the contents of the two buckets into a metal churn and fastened on the lid. What they had failed to do was clean themselves up before returning to the house, and Sebastian was unsure what to say about the state they had turned up in, their clothes and bodies sticky from their milk fight.
‘Nothing,’ said Neil, dumping the chur on the kitchen table.
Virginia narrowed her eyes at him. ‘There’s milk in your moustache. Have you two been playing silly buggers down there?’
Neil gave Sebastian a guilty look, then clapped his hands together. ‘Right. Well, I can’t stand around chatting all day. Got to get back down and clean up the milking equipment.’
‘And I’ve got to get to the shop,’ said Sebastian quickly, wiping a sleeve across his face in case there were any incriminating milk stains. His sleeve was wet. ‘Emma said I could use her internet.’
Virginia glanced up at the clock as she swung the churn into the fridge and closed the door. ‘Shall we aim to start making the cheese at, say, six o’clock?’
‘Sure,’ said Sebastian, inching back towards the door.
‘Sounds good,’ added Neil, joining him in backing away from the suspicious glare of his wife. ‘Close one!’ he said, as the door clicked shut behind them. Swinging his leg over the quad bike, he gave Sebastian an exaggerated wink. ‘Let’s never speak of it again, eh?’
Sebastian smiled. ‘Quite.’
‘Except of course, to say that I clearly won!’ And with that, and a chuckle, he powered up the quad bike, drowning out any possible response.
Sebastian was relieved to see the butcher shop was dark and empty as he made his way up Holders Hill, and he paused to scratch off the dried egg yolk, still visible on the bottom of the large window.
The bell danced to announce his arrival at the village store, and Emma appeared in the doorway.
‘Hello, you,’ she said. Sebastian opened his mouth to say… something, but the words died before he even knew what they were as he noticed she had changed her clothes. Instead of the shapeless dresses she worn at church and the previous day, she was now wearing a light, white skirt, decorated with small blue flowers, and a well-fitting T-shirt to match. Her long red hair hung loose over her shoulders, reaching down past her…
‘Have you had a stroke or something?’ asked Emma. Sebastian shut his mouth quickly, shifting his eyes up to her face. She was giving him the ‘gotcha’ look, and he could feel his cheeks flushing. ‘I think you’re supposed to say, “Hello”. That’s how we do it in the country anyway.’
He cleared his throat, worried he might croak a response. ‘Er, sure,’ he said. ‘Hi.’ There was a pause as they stood staring at each other, long enough that Sebastian wondered if there was something he was supposed to do. Was she expecting him to make a ‘move’? It wasn’t something he’d ever been any good at, a failing he blamed on ten years at a boys boarding school and a lack of any sisters growing up. He hadn’t really known what girls were until he hit sixteen, and by then it was too late. That was eight years ago, and to date the sum total of his experience had been a furtive, drunken fumbling in the dark at a university party with a girl who had passed out mid-kiss. In short, he had no idea what to do and so it was almost a relief when Emma grabbed his arm.
‘Come through to the house,’ she said, pulling him towards the rear door. ‘The computer’s in the lounge.’ She let go and turned to look at him. ‘What have you got on your shirt? It’s all damp.’
‘It’s not just my shirt,’ said Sebastian, gesturing to his body in general. ‘My trousers got soaked too and it soaked through to… you know.’
Emma opened and closed her hand. ‘But what is it? It feels sticky.’
‘It’s milk. Neil took me to milk the goats this afternoon and I spilt a load in my lap.’
‘And your shirt?’
Sebastian hesitated, slightly embarrassed to admit what he’d been up to. ‘Neil and I had a… a milk fight.’
‘A milk fight?’ Emma frowned, her mouth creasing into a lopsided smile. ‘What exactly is a milk fight?’
‘We were squirting each other. With milk,’ said Sebastian, his shoulders slumping, his eyes sliding to her feet.
‘From their udders?’
Sebastian nodded, distracted by Emma’s shapely, bare feet.
‘You know that’s disgusting, right?’
He sighed. ‘So, where’s this computer?’
‘Through here,’ said Emma airily, turning back and heading into the living area of the shop. She ducked through a door on the right and Sebastian followed, finding himself in what he guessed was the lounge. ‘This is the lounge.’
It was a small room, it’s walls covered on three sides with the kind of wallpaper that had graced, or possibly disgraced, his gran’s living room, the other bare brickwork surrounding an open fireplace. The floorboards were mostly hidden by a large rug that had seen better days, probably when Henry VIII was on the throne, and the furniture consisted of an old-fashioned keyboard instrument standing against the wall and three ancient armchairs gathered around a coffee table laden with books and knitting equipment. In one of the armchairs sat the middle-aged lady who had been with Emma at church and in the Green Man.
‘Oh,’ said Sebastian, surprised at finding her here. ‘Hi.’
‘Afternoon,’ she replied, nodding her head stiffly.
Emma gestured towards her. ‘This is my mother.’
He stepped towards her, holding out a hand. ‘I’m Sebastian. I’m staying with the Symeses.’
‘So I hear,’ she replied, touching his hand for the briefest of moments with three fingers, before folding her hands back in her lap. ‘You may call me Mrs Standfield.’ Sebastian was slightly taken aback by this pronouncement. It sounded like something from a Jane Austen novel; not that he’d ever read one, but it was the kind of thing he imagined people in them saying. Having been somewhat blinkered by Emma’s presence to properly notice Mrs Standfield in either the church or the pub, Sebastian took a moment to do so now. He wondered if her hair had once been red like Emma’s, but it was now a light grey and gathered up in a tight bun. With the exception of her hands, a dark-purple dress covered everything from the neck down, and she sat upright in the chair as though held up by an invisible board.
As though conscious of this scrutiny, Mrs Standfield looked up at him. ‘Well? I’m sure you both have better things to do than to stand around making the place untidy. Don’t mind me.’ And with that, she swept up a bundle of wool and sticks and began knitting.
Sebastian turned to look at the computer, which was perched on a small desk in the corner. It looked old, the once-white plastic around the screen and keyboard now faded to a dirty-cream.
‘Does that really have access to the internet?’ asked Sebastian, staring at the machine. ‘It’s even got a CRT monitor. I didn’t realise any of those still existed. Thought they’d all been replaced with flat screens.’
Emma frowned at him. ‘What’s a monitor? And yes, of course it has the internet. It’s got a modem.’ She pointed to a mess of leads under the desk. ‘I put it in myself,’ she added, with more than a note of pride.
‘Well done, you,’ he said, and pointed to the screen. ‘That’s a monitor. So… are you going to boot it up?’
Emma gave him a look of bewildered concern. ‘Boot it up?’
‘Yeah. You know, switch it on.’
‘Ah.’ Emma bent down to do so and Sebastian tried not to let his eyes wander as she did so. Tried, and failed. ‘It takes forever to… boot,’ she said, her voice muffled slightly as she backed out from beneath the desk. ‘Why don’t you use the shower while you’re waiting and I’ll fix us all a cup of tea?’
Sebastian stared at her, amazed. ‘You have a shower?’
The shower in question turned out to be a frosted glass cubicle in the corner of a bedroom; with its antique-looking bedspread and Victorian-style décor, Sebastian reckoned it must belong to Mrs Standfield. Despite having neither clean clothes to get dressed in nor his usual array of washing products, Sebastian was delighted with the shower, which was a luxury after the struggle of trying to spray himself clean in a bathtub, and the water was hot, the jets strong. Emma had given him a towel, which he hung over the top of the cubicle and, after lingering in the steamy spray for over ten minutes, he dragged it on and stepped out of the shower. As he stood there, dripping onto the cork mat, he noticed two things had changed about the room. Firstly, there was a cup of tea sitting on the bedside table. And secondly, his clothes had gone.
‘Hello?’ he called, sticking his head out into the empty hallway. ‘Hello-o?’
Emma appeared from the lounge doorway. ‘Yes? What’s up?’
‘“What’s up?” My clothes have gone!’
‘Of course,’ she said, as though it would have been foolish to expect anything else. ‘I’ve put them in the tumble drier for a bit. Won’t be long.’
He emerged further into the hallway, before remembering how skimpy his towel was and retreated again. ‘But… but I was in the shower. I was undressed.’
Emma shrugged. ‘Well, obviously. Would you rather I took your clothes when you were still wearing them? Finish up your tea and I’ll check to see if they’re dry. The computer’s nearly done, too.’
Back in the room, Sebastian towelled himself dry then perched on the edge of the bed to sip at his tea. As he picked up the cup, he noticed a small picture frame standing behind it and he bent closer to have a look. It contained a portrait photograph of a young man in a suit that surely dated from the Seventies. He sported a pencil-thin moustache and a side-parting, both of hair so red it looked as though it had been digitally altered.
‘That’s my dad,’ said a voice from the doorway. Startled, Sebastian breathed in some of the tea and started choking.
‘Don’t you knock?’ he said, between coughs. ‘I could have been naked!’
‘I’ll take that as a “thank you”,’ said Emma, dumping the clothes on the bed. ‘They’re not completely dry, but they’ll do. He died, in case you’re wondering where he is.’
‘Sorry?’ Sebastian frowned, still coughing. ‘Who?’
‘My dad. He died when I was eight. Lived here all his life. Born in this room, actually, same as me. Probably in that very bed.’ Sebastian pulled a face that suggested he wasn’t entirely taken with the idea of people being born in the bed he was sitting on. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Emma, raising a single eyebrow. ‘The sheets have been washed since then.’
He cleared his throat, his coughing having abated at last. ‘So, you’ve lived in this house all your life? Did you go away to university or anything?’
She perched on the other end of the bed. ‘I was going to. All my school friends did… but then my mum fell ill and I had to stay and look after the shop. I’ve been helping run it ever since.’
‘Your mother’s still ill?’
‘No, I just… I don’t know.’ She shrugged and fiddled with the corner of the bedspread. ‘I just got so into the habit of being here, I guess I forgot about leaving. Steepleford’s all I’ve ever known.’
Sebastian nodded. ‘Sounds like me and London.’
‘Talking of which,’ said Emma, dropping the bedspread and looking him in the face, business-like again, ‘you’ll be wanting to find out what’s going on back in the big city. You get those clothes on and I’ll make sure the computer’s ready.’
Five minutes later, wearing his warm, milky-smelling clothes, Sebastian joined her in the lounge, where the clicking sound of Mrs Standfield’s knitting mingled with the demented springs and scrunches of a modem trying to connect to the internet.
‘Old school,’ he said. ‘No fibre broadband here, then, I take it.’
Emma narrowed her eyes at him. ‘I guess that’s something to do with computers. We’ve got what you see and that’s it. Sounds like it’s connected. Only three attempts – must be your lucky day.’
‘We’ll see,’ said Sebastian. ‘About the computer, I mean,’ he added, realising he might have sounded a bit pervy. Emma just smiled and skipped over to the armchair opposite her mum, snatching up an ancient-looking book.
Sebastian sat down in the creaky wooden chair at the desk and peered at the computer. Dragging the mouse across the screen, he clicked on the icon for the internet browser. It took over a minute to run, and a further two minutes to load up his personal webmail. He had eight messages. Two of them were from banks he had never used, alerting him to suspicious activity on accounts he didn’t have with links to sites where he could sign in and check. He deleted these and looked at the others. The first was from his father, reminding him that it was his gran’s 88th birthday in two weeks and that he was expected to join them for a celebratory meal. Boring.
There were two message from Mops, one sent on Saturday morning asking how the journey had gone and how he was finding it on the smallholding, and the second from two hours ago, which simply said, ‘Are you dead already?’
He hit the reply button and typed, ‘Mot dead yet, but I waf almoft eatem by a fwarm of pigf yefterday amd attacked by am evil chickem. It’f mot evem fummy. Everythimg if old amd dirty – it’f like livimg im Medieval timef. Amd there’f mo mobile metwork amywhere. Cam’t wait to come home. Febaftiam.’
The ‘S’ and ‘N’ keys didn’t work, so he replaced them with other letters and hit the send button. Mops would just have to decipher the message himself.
There was a email from Little Pete and DeVere, copied to everyone who had been at his birthday party and a number of others from his office, in which they had opened a book on what day Sebastian would return and whether he would survive the ordeal of his week in the country. He frowned as he read it, though he was slightly mollified by the long odds they’d placed on him already being dead. Not that long though; it was still 80 to 1. The odds suggested they thought it most likely he would be home by Tuesday afternoon. Or dead by Thursday morning. He didn’t grace their message with a response.
The last email was from Brillig entitled ‘Photos from Friday’, which had nine attachments totalling twenty megabytes. He clicked on the first image and sat watching the progress bar for several minutes before deciding it wasn’t actually moving.
He rolled his eyes at the screen. ‘Lack of progress bar, more like!’ he muttered.
‘Speak up, young man,’ said Mrs Standfield. ‘If you’ve got something to say, say it properly. Can’t be doing with mumbling.’
Sebastian swivelled to look at her. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I was just talking to myself. I’m just waiting for an image to download. A picture. It’s quite big.’
Mrs Standfield paused in her knitting and shook her head. ‘Well, if it’s anything above one meg, you’ll have a wait on your hands. That old dial-up barely hits 4K a second.’
Surprised, Sebastian opened his mouth, but couldn’t think of a suitable response. He looked to Emma who was smiling down at her book, before closing his mouth and turning back to the computer to watch the glacial movement of the progress bar. Behind him the rattling of the knitting needles resumed, seeming to grow to an almost deafening volume as he stared at the screen. Hours seemed to pass and he felt sure Mrs Standfield must have knitted not only the world’s longest scarf, but a hat, gloves and a full set of evening wear to go with it. A small laugh escaped at the thought of someone wearing an entirely knitted wardrobe.
‘Something funny?’ asked Emma, tossing her book onto the coffee table and jumping to her feet. At the same moment a group photograph of Friday evening at the Latchmere pub burst onto the screen. In the middle of the image, clutching a pair of green wellies on his lap, sat Sebastian, a slightly drunk, but unmistakably miserable expression on his face. As he looked at himself and his friends, a wave of homesickness swept over him. He wished he was there right now, sitting in the pub with a pint in his hand, looking forward to a week in the city and the comforts of his apartment and his own bed and the view from his window. Back home he would be assured of a decent night’s sleep. Back home he could wash properly and put on clean, freshly ironed clothes. Back home he could feel safe and secure, knowing he was surrounded by people and places, by busyness and familiarity. He wanted to go home.
The desire in that moment was like a physical force, and if he’d had transport he would have left right then, got on a train and not looked back.
Emma laughed and pointed at the photo. ‘You look like you’re about to be taken away to be shot!’
‘They’d just told me I had to spend a week in this village.’
‘Oh.’ She looked taken aback. ‘Really? It’s not that bad here, is it?’
Sebastian shrugged. ‘Isn’t it?’ He wondered what odds Little Pete and DeVere had put on him coming home tonight.