Chapter 1 – Not a Real Man
The bedroom window looked out on an unbroken canvas of brickwork, and it was the most wonderful sight in the world. At least, it was to Sebastian. Every morning, before breaking into the day’s routine, he spent a few minutes gazing at the expanse of bright red with its lattice of creamy mortar, marvelling at the patchwork of oranges, greys and browns. There were no curtains or blinds to obscure this glorious view – there were no windows in the wall through which people might peer in at him – and at night Sebastian would often lie in bed looking out at the brickwork, lit up by a nearby security light, and feel safe. The stability of this unchanging vista reminded him that he was safe here in the city, where concrete, steel and brick had tamed, even conquered, the wild terrors of nature.
It wasn’t that Sebastian was opposed to nature – he understood that the food he ate had some kind of connection to the world beyond London, but it was as distant a connection as between the treacherous waters of the oceans and a cool pint of beer, and he was happy to keep it at that distance – but life in the city was all he had ever known. It was all he wanted to know. The city kept him safe, and the wall outside his window was a constant reminder of this.
Today, however, he had no time for the view. He had fifteen minutes to pack and get out of his apartment or he would be late for the train. Not that he’d mind being late. In fact, he’d like nothing more than to avoid the journey altogether, but he knew he wouldn’t get let off that easily. His friends would make sure of that.
‘Friends!’ he muttered, as he folded a blue shirt into his suitcase with practised ease. And he muttered the words with a fair amount of venom as he thought back to the previous night, when all this nonsense kicked off. It had been Thursday evening. And it was his birthday.
‘How does it feel to be twenty-four, you old git?’ shouted Mops, thumping Sebastian on the arm in what he clearly assumed was a playful manner.
‘Not much different from when I was twenty-three,’ said Sebastian, rubbing his sore arm. ‘Where is everyone?’
By way of response, Mops flicked his head towards the rear of the bar, covering his face with the mass of hair that had earned him his nickname – his real name was Martin Dinsdale – and Sebastian turned to see a number of people all facing him from a nearby table. One of them waved.
‘Look at ‘em,’ said Mops, shaking his head as much to get the unruly mess out of his face as in disappointment. ‘It’s like we never even left the office.’ Sure enough, as Sebastian made his way to the table and pulled up a stool, carefully wiping off the dregs of beer from the top, he noticed the assembled colleagues were all wearing exactly the same clothes they had had on at work. DeVere, who worked in the finances department, still had a biro wedged behind his ear.
By contrast, Sebastian had made good use of the ninety minutes between leaving the office and arriving at the Latchmere pub, and had not only changed into a clean shirt and trousers, but had showered and restyled his hair.
‘Glad to see you all made an effort,’ said Sebastian. ‘You do know you have a pen behind your ear, DeVere?’
The accountant raised a hand and felt the biro, but didn’t remove it. ‘Thanks, Metro,’ he said – ‘Metro’ being the nickname assigned to Sebastian.
‘Presents!’ yelled a voice behind Sebastian and he turned to see Brillig – whose real name was Alison Jabber – striding towards him with a large, well wrapped package clutched to her chest.
Sebastian set down his untouched pint of lager. ‘But I’ve only just got here!’
‘So?’ said Brillig, perching on the bench next to him as the others shuffled up to make room. ‘I’ve been dying to see how you react all day – I can’t possibly wait any longer.’
‘Yeah, come on!’ said Mops, peering over Sebastian’s shoulder. ‘I’ve got a good money riding on this.’
Sebastian frowned, confused by these comments, and as he glanced round at the eager, almost hungry looks, in his other friends’ faces, his concern deepened.
‘What’s going on?’ he asked, failing to sound breezy and nonchalant. ‘Why are you all staring at me like that.’
In answer, Brillig dumped the gift-wrapped package on the table in front of him. It looked like it contained a pair of wellies.
‘It looks like a pair of wellies,’ said Sebastian with a nervous laugh. No one said anything, though the eager faces seemed to drop slightly. With a slowness born of unenthusiastic resignation, he tore off the wrapping paper to reveal, as expected, a pair of green, rubber wellies. ‘Um,’ he began, ‘I… er. Yes, well, thank you.’ He paused, but no one filled the silence. ‘I was right. It is a pair of wellies.’ Another pause, longer this time, but still nobody came to his rescue. He sighed. ‘Okay. Why have you given me a pair of wellies?’
‘Aha!’ said Little Pete – whose name really was Pete – grinning in a not entirely pleasant or encouraging way. ‘You’ll have to open your card to find that out.’ On cue, Brillig thrust out an envelope towards him. As Sebastian open it and drew out the card, something small slipped out and fluttered down to the floor. He picked it up. It was a train ticket, with the customary orange bands at the top and bottom, for travel from Clapham Junction, a station with which Sebastian was familiar, and Barnstaple, somewhere with which he was not.
‘Barnstaple?’ he said. ‘Isn’t that north of the river somewhere? Up near Edgware?’
‘That would be Barnet.’ said Mops. ‘Barnstaple’s in Devon. Why don’t you read the card?’
Sebastian stroked his chin, clean shaven just forty-five minutes before. ‘Devon? That’s bloody miles away, isn’t it?’
Mops shrugged. ‘Couple of hundred or so. The card will explain.’
‘It says it’s only valid for tomorrow…’ said Sebastian, looking down at the ticket again. ‘Did someone put it in the envelope by mistake?’
‘Just read the card!’ shouted Little Pete from across the table, jabbing an aggressive finger at the item in question before slumping back into his seat, his arms folded, looking a little sheepish after his outburst.
Sebastian picked up the envelope and, pulling out the card and holding it on top of the envelope, began to read it in silence.
‘Read it aloud, then,’ said Brillig. ‘We all want to hear.’
Despite the fact it was clear to Sebastian that they were all well aware of the contents, he cleared his throat and read it out: ‘Dear Metro – being me – we all hope you have a great birthday – thanks for that…’ He frowned as his eyes scanned over the next sentence.
‘Keep going then!’ said Mops, nudging his shoulder, causing a second train ticket to slip out of the envelope onto the floor.
‘However,’he continued, ignoring it, ‘the days that follow may not be so enjoyable. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it… Someone’s scribbled, “You don’t have a choice!” above it in red pen.’ Sebastian glanced at DeVere, who was grinning at the ceiling, the red core of the biro behind his ear clearly showing. ‘Your challenge is to spend one week living and working on a smallholding in Devon. Why? To prove you’re a real man.’ Sebastian flashed a look of indignation at his assembled colleagues. ‘To prove I’m a real man? What are you saying?’
‘I’d’ve thought that was obvious.’ said Little Pete. ‘We’re saying you’re not a real man.’
Sebastian gave the group another round of his offended glare, waving the card at them. ‘This is a joke, yes? You’re just messing with me.’ For a moment the burst of laughter from his friends gave him a glimpse of hope. But it was just a glimpse. And just for moment. But he could see the truth in their eyes. They weren’t joking! ‘What do you mean, I’m not a real man?’
‘Well, you’re not are you?’ said Mops, ruffling Sebastian’s hair, causing him to pull a comb from his jacket pocket to put it back in order
Little Pete gestured to the table at large. ‘Why do you think we call you “Metro”?’
‘Because I’m streetwise,’ said Sebastian, leaning to his left to look over the shoulder of Diesel – a quiet girl from marketing – to check is reflection in the window while running the comb through his fringe, ‘and I love the city.’
The silence that met his words was of the awkward persuasion, but it was short lived. Sebastian preferred it, however, to the laughter that followed, which was definitely of the derisive persuasion. DeVere snorted into his pint, spattering the table with beer.
‘That’s not it, is it?’ said Sebastian.
Brillig placed a hand on his shoulder and shook her head. ‘Obviously.’
‘That is proper funny,’ said Little Pete. ‘We call you Metro, because… well, because you do the sort of thing you’re doing right now.’
Sebastian paused, comb hovering above his head, a few stray strands of hair caught in it. Then he dropped his arm, slipping the comb back into a pocket. ‘What do you mean?’
‘But you must know?’ said DeVere, as though Sebastian had suggested he was ignorant of the way the planets revolve around the sun. ‘Metro’s short for “Metrosexual”. Metrosexual, yeah? That’s what guys like you are. Metrosexual. You’re Metrosexual.’
Throughout this short speech, Sebastian had been staring at DeVere as though trying to work out long division in his head, then subjected the rest of the gathering to the same expression. The looks that met him were tinged with a slight air of apology, which failed to mask the clear fact that they all agreed with DeVere’s pronouncement.
Sebastian frowned. ‘In what way am I…’ he could hardly bring himself to say the word, ‘“Metrosexual”?’
‘Apart from combing your hair every five seconds?’ said Little Pete.
‘Well, there’s your clothes,’ said Mops, giving the fabric of his shirt a brief tug between forefinger and thumb. ‘I don’t know anyone who buys the sort of stuff you wear, except the kind of crisp, slick-looking guys you see on the front of magazines.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with buying a bit of decent gear.’
‘True,’ said Brillig, glancing down at her work clothes. Sebastian’s eyes followed hers, darting to the mark on her top where she had spilled mayonnaise at lunchtime and to the long ladder down the right calf of her tights. He looked up to see her staring back, her eyes narrowed. ‘But I bet you ironed all those before you came out, yeah?’
‘Despite the fact you ironed them before you put them in your wardrobe?’
‘Yeah, but… hang on,’ said Sebastian. ‘How do you know that?’
‘And then there’s all that stuff on your desk,’ said a voice across the table and Sebastian was surprised to find it was Diesel. ‘I’ve never seen that many bottles of hand creams, body lotions, moisturisers, deodorants, perfumes, alcohol gels and suchlike outside a chemist. I don’t even know what half of them are for.’
‘They’re just products. They’re necessary, especially if-’
‘I bet you pluck your eyebrows,’ interrupted DeVere.
‘And shave your chest,’ added Mops, trying to down his shirt at the area in question.
‘Do you go to a professional to get your nails done?’ That was Little Pete.
Brillig leaned in for a closer look. ‘Are you actually wearing eye makeup?’
‘So many bottle on your desk,’ said Diesel, clearly lost in her own thoughts. ‘I think one of them was shampoo. Why would you ever need shampoo in the office?’
Sebastian held up his to stem the eruption of comments. ‘Yes alright! I get the picture. So I like to look after myself a bit, and take a little pride in my appearance. So what? I’m still a man.’
Little Pete smacked a hand on the table, clearly enjoying himself. ‘Come on, Metro! You’re a Victorian duchess trapped in a man’s body.’
‘I’m not going.’
‘Eh?’ said Little Pete, thrown by this response.
‘To this… smallholding, or whatever it is. I’m not going.’
‘Told you!’ said Mops, sounding smug and holding out a hand to Brillig. ‘Cough up, then. You owe me twenty quid.’
Brillig slapped his hand away and leaned closer to Sebastian. ‘Why don’t you want to go?’
‘Why would I?’ said Sebastian, looking at her as though she’d asked him why he wasn’t going to swim in the Thames. ‘It sounds awful. I literally couldn’t think of anything worse. Countryside. Animals. Mud. Weird village people. And I bet there’s no internet or mobile reception.’
‘No doubt,’ said DeVere. ‘I bet it’s like the Dark Ages out there. I’m fairly sure the people are all hairy like apes and some of them have tails.’
‘Shut up, DeVere!’ Brillig glared at him for a moment before turning to face Sebastian again. ‘We were all aware, when we chose your present, that you wouldn’t want to go. But we all agreed that you need to go. Wait!’ He held up a hand to forestall Sebastian’s interruption. ‘Yes, it’s going to be dirty and smelly. Yes, it’s way out in the countryside in some small, probably fairly backward, village. Yes, it’s going to be hard, unpleasant and distasteful. But this is what you need to do to prove, once and for all, that you’re a real man. And while we’d love you all to prove it to us, ultimately, you need to prove it to yourself.’
‘But…’ Sebastian began, trying to think up an excuse. ‘But I’ve got work. The boss’d never give me a week off at such short notice. Would you, Sheila?’
He turned to his left where a middle-aged lady was perched, drinking something blue through a straw. Her silence was not unusual – Sheila was woman of less than few words – and it remained unbroken as a smile spread across her face that Sebastian did not like the look of.
‘Course she would!’ said Little Pete. ‘It’s all sorted, Metro!’
‘Surely not?’ said Sebastian, directing the question to the boss, an she raised her eyebrows in confirmation. ‘I’ve not packed!’ he added, holding up the tickets. ‘There’s be no time tomorrow.’
‘I’ll come and help,’ said Mops. Sebastian glanced up at him to find him picking his nose. ‘Won’t take long to stuff some old clothes into a rucksack.’
Sebastian shifted his chair out of range of his nasal assault. ‘No thanks.’ he said. ‘I can do it myself. And anyway, I don’t have any “old clothes”. Or a rucksack.’
Brillig patted him on the knee, like a well-behaved child. ‘That’s that sorted then.’
Sebastian tried one last attempt to wriggle out of it. ‘But who’ll feed my cat?’
‘You don’t have a cat,’ said Diesel. ‘You don’t have any pets. You’re scared of them, remember? You told us.’
DeVere jabbed a finger at Sebastian. ‘Yet another reason to prove yourself, Metro. There’s all kind of animals on the smallholding. Apparently.’
‘Don’t call me “Metro”!’ said Sebastian. ‘Now that I know what it means, I think I’d prefer Sebastian.’ He looked around the group and sighed. Every face was pointed at him, eyebrows raised in silent anticipation. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘I’ll go. But if I die-’
‘Boom!’ said Brillig, holding out a hand to Mops. ‘Twenty, please.’ Mops fished a crumped bank note from his pocket and tossed it at her.
‘Tough luck, mate.’ he said, slapping Sebastian on the back with his nose-picking hand. ‘Looks like you’re off to Devon! DeVere,’ he shouted, making Sheila jump and start choking on her blue drink, ‘it’s your round. Get a move on!’
‘Get a move on!’ Sebastian peered through the rain across the deserted platform to see Brillig waving to him. She shouted again as she caught his eye, ‘Come on. It’s leaving any second.’
Sure enough, as he struggled towards her with his umbrella in one hand, shielding his perfectly styled hair from the wet, and a bulging suitcase in the other, the guard appeared from the rear doors of the train, glancing up and down the platform before blowing on his whistle.
‘Hold up!’ called Sebastian.
The guard turned to face him, raising his eyebrows, ‘Quickly then!’
‘See you, Brillig,’ shouted Sebastian over his shoulder. ‘Thanks for coming to see me off. At least one person cares.’
‘Oh, it’s not that,’ she said, already turning away. ‘One of us had to check you got on the train. I just drew the short straw. See you.’ And then she was gone, hurrying towards the stairs and the cover of the tunnel.
Feeling a wrench of loneliness mixed with a stab of apprehension, Sebastian stepped onto the train and the door slid closed behind him. And as the train pulled away from the station, he sat looking out of the window at the streaks made by the raindrops and the solid bulk of the city slipping away behind him.