Chapter 2 – Pheasant Pie
The journey was a misery. Although it brightened up around Basingstoke, and the evening sun the etched the surroundings in a deep orange, Sebastian’s already low mood sank with every strange-sounding station from Overton to Pinhoe. The sun also sank, and from Templecombe onwards he was spared the unnerving site of the fields stretching away towards the horizon on every side. Fields with animals in them. Large animals, that reminded Sebastian of where he was going and the fears his imagination conjured up about the week ahead – a week that last night, after a few beers, hadn’t seemed such a big deal, but today seemed like an insurmountable terror.
He changed at Exeter St Davids, relishing the short exposure to the noise of the busy platform. But it was short lived, and the train to Barnstaple was almost empty as it wound its way from one deserted station to another, each one with a more alien name than the last.
Shortly before midnight, Sebastian found himself standing on the road outside Barnstaple station, his suitcase clutched in front of him like a shield. No one else was in sight and no cars moved along the silent road. The few streetlamps cast too small patches of light.
‘It’s like a third-world country,’ he muttered. ‘Perhaps that train was some kind of time machine and I’ve ended up in the Middle Ages.’ He jumped as headlights burst around the corner accompanied by the roar of an engine, shrinking back from the curb as the large four by four pulled up in front of him. He noticed the mud crusted up the side of the vehicles and then his reflection in the driver’s window. He didn’t look happy and, even worse, his hair looked dishevelled. Distracted, he looked down as he pulled his comb from a pocket, and when he looked back at his reflection, he found the window had been lowered. In its place was large, black moustache surrounded by a weathered face, its dark eyes narrowed. Sebastian look a step backwards in surprise, letting out a small cry.
The mouth below the moustache burst into deep laughter.
‘“Hello” to you, too,’ said the man. ‘The name’s Neil Symes.’ Sebastian made no response, but stood frozen and staring in incomprehension. ‘You must be Metro, right?’
Somehow these words made an impact on Sebastian’s confused brain. One word in particular: Metro.
‘What?’ he said, gathering his thoughts. ‘No. Well, I mean… yes, that is me. But I prefer Sebastian. Sebastian Cooper. That’s me… I’m Sebastian.’
The man chuckled and opened his door. Sebastian backed away a little further as Neil unfolded himself onto the pavement. He wasn’t that tall – at least a few inches shorter than Sebastian’s own six foot one – but he seemed about twice as wide, and as he reached out a hairy arm to take Sebastian’s suitcase, his bicep bulged, straining against the sleeve of his wax jacket and freed the case from Sebastian’s grip as though he was clinging onto it with soggy noodles.
‘Right then, Sebastian,’ he said, his accent as heavy and broad as his body. ‘In you hop and we’ll get you back to the farm.’
‘Back?’ thought Sebastian as he crept around the front of the vehicle and wrestled with the passenger door handle. ‘As if I’d come to a place like this if I’d ever been here before!’
Neil jumped back in and, not bothering with his seatbelt, jammed the four by four into gear and lurched off along the road.
‘So,’ said Neil, breaking the uncomfortable silence that almost drowned out the drone and rattles of the vehicle, ‘been to Devon before?’
Sebastian shook his head. ‘No.’
‘Ah, you’re in for a treat then, and no mistake.’ This seemed to Sebastian to be highly unlikely, and though he opened his mouth for a moment, he closed it again without a word. Neil cleared his throat, which Sebastian suspected was to disguise his laughter. ‘You eaten? There’s half a pie back at the farm, if you fancy a bite.’
‘I had a sandwich on the train,’ said Sebastian. ‘I’m fine. Thank you.’
‘A sandwich?’ Neil spoke the word as though it was an entirely new concept to him. ‘You had a sandwich? You had to be travelling for six hours… and you’ve had a sandwich.’
Sebastian’s shrug was hidden in the darkness. ‘Yes,’ he said at last, and the silence spread out again, filling his world with the sounds of the four by four as it bounded along the street. Neither of them uttered a word as they turned onto the main road and headed towards somewhere called South Moulton.
The journey seemed to last an age, though it was not even ten minutes. Just as Sebastian thought it would never end, and that the loud rattling from below his seat was some defect that would soon drop him through the floor on the tarmac speeding beneath them, Neil broke the silence.
‘Right then. We’re just up here.’ And without bothering to signal, he jerked the vehicle left off the main road. On the ancient-looking sign opposite, Sebastian read the words: ‘Steepleford ¼ mile’.
‘Steepleford?’ he said, frowning at the unfamiliar name. ‘Is that where we’re going?’
Neil chuckled again. ‘Course it is! Didn’t you friend, Alison, tell you where you’d be staying?’
‘Brillig? No. She didn’t really telling me anything.’
More coughing erupted from the driver’s seat and this time Sebastian was even more certain it was to cover Neil’s laughter.
‘Well, I guess you’ll find out soon enough. This is our place.’ he added, turning into a driveway on the right. ‘Home, sweet home.’ The glare of the headlight lit up the brickwork of the house for a moment, which almost brought a smile to Sebastian’s frowning face, but then it was gone as Neil swerved the four by four round, casting light across an expanse of plants and netting before he switched off the engine and darkness reclaimed the view. Sebastian’s frown deepened. That brief glimpse of the outside did not look at all appealing, and the plants looked ragged and ugly, nothing like the carefully tended parks of London, and even those were not really his ‘thing’.
Neil leapt out and dragged the suitcase from the back before heading towards the house. Sebastian tripped over something on the dark, uneven path – a root maybe or some other hazard – and would have fallen over had he not hit the broad bulk of Neil.
‘Yeah, you’ll be wanting to watch your step along here.’ said Neil. Sebastian could almost feel the man’s moustache bristling was amusement.
‘Thanks,’ he muttered.
Ahead of them came the sound of a handle being turned, and a dull, yellow light bathed the path ahead as the door was opened. Standing in the entrance was the silhouette of a woman, who called out, her accent the twin of Neil’s, ‘You found the place alright, then?’
Sebastian, realising this comment was directed at him, replied, ‘Er, yes. Though I didn’t really find it, as such. I spent all evening being a passenger while other people drove.’
‘Right. Well, come on inside. I’ll fix you up with some of this pheasant pie before you set up your tent.’
‘I’m fine, thanks.’
‘Yeah,’ said Neil, ushering Sebastian ahead of his through the door. ‘He’s not hungry. Apparently he had a sandwich on the train.’ Again he spoke the word as though it was some strange, mythological entity. Ignoring him, Sebastian wiped his shoes on the doormat, though it looked as if it’d only make them dirtier, slipped them off and placed them on a shoe rack. Then he straightened up and turned to his hosts.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Did you just say “tent”?’
It was a thing of nightmares. Its spindly limbs clawed and snapped at him, and at every moment it threatened to envelope and consume him in its wing-like folds. The wind wasn’t helping, as every time Sebastian made progress with the tent, it would snatch and pull at it, causing the material to billow out, pulling out pegs that were hardly in the ground and generally making the whole thing impossible.
‘This is impossible!’ he shouted, but there was no one around to hear. After Neil had handed him the bag of tent parts, he flicked a switch, lighting up an area of grass in front of the house and disappeared into the warmth. Sebastian looked up at a nearby window and thought he saw someone watching him in the room beyond, but his view was obstructed as the wind picked up the far side of the tent, causing it to rear up over his head. He stepped back, trying to avoid it, but tripped over the poles that were strewn across the ground and landed in a heap of metal and canvas, the instructions slipping out of his hand and blustering away on the breeze.
It started to rain.
Sebastian felt the anger welling up inside him and was almost overcome with an urge to smash the tent – to tear at it and stamp at it, and reduce it to a tattered mess – but he was worried he would come off worse. How could his friends have done this to him? How could they ever have imagined this would be anything less than a brutal torture? How could they even call themselves his friends? He tried not to imagine them all tucked up in their nice, cosy beds back in the city. And failed, which only made him even more angry.
He snatched up one of the metal poles, raising it above his head and its damp mess of hair, and was about to bring it crashing down on the flapping sheets, when he heard a cough. Looking up, Sebastian noticed the farmhouse door was open and Neil stood watching him from the entrance.
‘I take it you weren’t a boy scout, then?’ he said, the line of his moustache accentuating his grin. Sebastian made no reply, but lowered the pole before letting it slide from his fingers onto the wet ground. ‘Come on, then. Let’s get you inside. We’ll put you up in the guest room instead.’
Sebastian gestured to the tangled mess of the tent. ‘But what about-’
‘Ah, don’t worry about that old thing. Just leave it there.’ And with that, he disappeared back into the house.
Almost tearful with gratitude, Sebastian trudged back inside, leaving the hated tent to the mercy of the wind and rain.
‘Are you sure you won’t have a slice of this pie?’ asked Neil’s wife as he entered the living room. She had introduced herself as Virginia, a short lady with mousey-brown hair of the sort that defies any attempts at styling, preferring instead to throw out wispy strands in a more or less random haze. She was wearing a dressing gown that was far too long for her and holding out a plate with a generous triangle of pheasant pie, its lattice top gleaming temptingly. Sebastian checked his watch, upset to find it smeared with dirt. Having failed to take in the time, he glanced at it again. It was almost one in the morning.
‘I shouldn’t really,’ he said. ‘It’s late and I won’t have time to digest it. Thanks though.’
Virginia frowned, still holding out the plate. ‘No time to digest it? What else has your body got to do while your snoozing away?’
‘And besides,’ said Neil, who had settled into an armchair loaded with an excessive amount of cushions, ‘you’ll need all the energy you can get for tomorrow!’ There was a slight clatter as Virginia placed a fork on the plate.
He took the pie and sat himself down at the kitchen table.
‘So then, Sebastian,’ said Virginia, perching on another chair, ‘Neil tells me you’ve never been to Devon before.’
He paused, fork halfway to his mouth. ‘To be honest, I’ve only been out of London a few times, and all of them were as a kid.’
‘Really?’ asked Neil, peering round the back of the armchair. The kitchen and living room were really a single space, the wall between having been knocked through at some point, and although he couldn’t quite work out what it was, there seemed to Sebastian to be something missing. Something important.
‘Why would I?’ said Sebastian, giving Neil a look that echoed the apparently obvious nature of the question. ‘There’s everything anyone could possibly need in the city. Why venture out into the… the…’ He waved his fork at the surroundings, noticing the piece of pie had fallen off, as he sought for a term that wasn’t too derogatory.
‘The real world?’ suggested Virginia, her eyebrows raised in mock challenge.
Sebastian coaxed the pie back onto his fork. ‘That’s not exactly what I was searching for.’
‘You don’t like the countryside?’
Sebastian felt the irritability returning and took a deep breath, steeling himself to tell her exactly what he thought about the wretched countryside. But before he could utter a word, Neil spoke up from his armchair.
‘Leave the poor lad to eat his pie, Virg. It’s late and we have to be up at five-thirty.’
The pie fell off the fork again.
‘Five-thirty?’ said Sebastian, in a voice that begged it to be mistake. ‘In the morning?’
Neil was hidden by the back of the chair, but Sebastian could hear him chuckling again. ‘Don’t worry yourself,’ he said. ‘It’s only us that have an early morning. You can get up when you’re ready.’
Sebastian speared the pie and ate in silence. When he had finished, Virginia took his empty plate and set them down next to the large Belfast sink.
‘Right,’ she said as Sebastian got to his feet, ‘Your room’s straight up the stairs, second door on the left. Neil’s already put your suitcase up there,’ she added, noticing he was looking around for it.
‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘And thanks for letting me stay in your house. I don’t think I’d’ve survived the night in the tent.’
Neil chuckled again. ‘I don’t reckon you’ve got it up before morning.’
‘There’s space for your clothes in the wardrobe,’ said Virginia, ‘and you’ve got your own sink. Not that you’ll use it, if you’re anything like Neil. You boys never seem to both with unpacking clothes, and the lengths you go to to avoid washing yourselves…’ She left the sentence unfinished, as though the lengths were too extreme to even mention.
For a moment, Sebastian was about to correct this assumption, but he couldn’t be bothered. He was too tired and too miserable. He felt as though he was trapped in some kind of medieval purgatory, and, even worse, he had a bit pheasant stuck in his teeth and suspected he had forgotten to bring his floss.
‘Thank you.’ he mumbled, and trudged up the stairs. As he clambered into his bed, his worries and anxiety about what awful experiences lay in wait for him tomorrow threatened to keep him awake for hours, but as he rested his uncombed head on the too-soft pillow, he slipped into unconsciousness in moments.