By the time he’d dusted the desk and unpacked, most of which involved transferring notes and cork boards from his suitcase to the desk and surrounding walls, it was evening. The sun was still blazing merrily down, but less violently. Hugo was hungry and tired.
The former presented a dilemma. He had no food of his own, and even if he could acquire a cab using Julia’s landline, the shops in the nearest market town would be shut by the time he got there. That left two options.
The house had two doors. The back door led out into the garden. He took the front one.
There was, he’d been told, a shop in the village. Deprived of signal, and hence of map apps., it took him twenty minutes of wandering to find it. This included two detours, as he found himself having walked back towards the Centipede (twice, from different directions), and had to beat a hasty retreat. It also included passing the church, the village school, the village museum, the Tree of Life, and the pillars.
The pillars were out of step with everything else in the village. There were three of them, jutting out of a patch of grass, about fifteen metres high. They were cuboid, sharp-edged, and a glossy black. Obsidian perhaps. The markings scratched into them, somehow red despite the base material, looked like some sort of ancient script. The Internet told Hugo that people had tried and failed already, for hundreds of years. The general conclusion nowadays was that somebody in ancient times had, to use literary terminology, taken the absolute piss.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing was that these were the only marks scratched into them. Hugo was completely able to walk right up to them, touch them if he liked (he didn’t); and yet nobody had marked them with their misspelled couple’s name and the legend ‘4EVA’, or graffitied on them, or even stubbed out a cigarette on them. The only urine on them was that taken centuries ago. They were, otherwise, unspoiled.
The shop, a hundred metres from them yet barely visible, was called ‘Pillars Shop’. It sold basic foodstuffs, a limited range of household products, an even more limited range of drinks, and a much less limited range of tourist-trap products themed around the pillars. It was selling none of these now, however: it closed at 5:30.
Plan B it was. Hugo walked down the hill from Pillars Shop, past the pillars themselves (silly though it was not to walk in between them, he couldn’t bring himself to do it), across the road, and into the door of the Tree of Life.
‘Hello there, what can I get you?’
Compared to the Centipede, it was like stepping into a city pub. A city gastropub, rather. Insincerely friendly staff, whitewashed characterless walls, chalkboard special-of-the-day menus, a list of food that wasn’t just ‘crisps or burger, take it or leave it’… For all of its faults, Hugo felt relief wash over him.
‘Gin and tonic please.’
‘Coming right up.’
It did. It came in a highball glass with ice and lemon. Hugo paid what was still a twenty percent discount from his university bars, and sat down in front of an electric fire to peruse the food menu.
He opened up his Mac. None of the other clientele, who were either drinking something similar or probably going to eat something similar, seemed to notice. If he had to pick a side…
He looked at the bloke behind the bar, who was presumably the Pierstree cricket captain. Thin fellow, but tall enough that he had to bend down to avoid head-butting the pub’s supporting beams.
Hugo Gubbins did not consider himself a cricketer. He had played it passably at school, where being able to get the ball down the other end and hit it somewhere that wasn’t the other end was enough to get you into a team. Since then, he had mostly concentrated on things that didn’t require athleticism.
Besides, he told himself, he was here to write a novella for the Sir Kenneth Thwaite Prize. What with intra-village rivalry, the house-cleaning he’d probably have to do, and the festival he’d somehow aligned his visit with, there would be more than enough distractions. So there was no need for him to walk up to the bartender and say…
‘Excuse me, I heard that you might be in need of men for the cricket match?’
…god damn it.
The man looked up at Hugo – which is to say, he looked quite a distance down at him.
‘Barbara, got one asking about the game.’
The voice sounded like it belonged to a stout middle-aged woman wearing an apron. When its source emerged, it looked like a stout middle-aged woman wearing an apron.
‘Alright love, I’m Barbara,’ said its source. ‘Nice to meet you.’
The proffered hand was oily.
‘Hugo,’ said he. ‘Are you the captain of Pierstree cricket club?’
‘Oh I dunno that we’re much of a club, but yes. What, were you expecting some strapping young bloke with arms like tree trunks?’
Hugo reddened. He hadn’t been expecting to have his prejudices challenged quite so much on his first day here. Barbara laughed at his misfortune, making him feel even more unfortunate.
‘I played for Leicestershire in my youth, thank you very much! Nagging seam movement, they used to say; explosive cameos, hands like teflon. All that’s a while ago now, but it’s like riding a bike, never really leaves you.’
Hugo, who’d forgotten how to ride a bike since childhood and had had to remember again for university, nodded dumbly.
‘What do you play, Hugo?’
‘Er, bowler. Bowling all-rounder.’ Which is to say, bad at everything. ‘Used to at least. If you’re full…’ He felt guilty about the writing, and worried about making a fool of himself in front of an ex-professional, and neither felt great.
‘Not at all. Not since half the village was banned from playing.’
Hugo felt the ice creak under his feet.
‘Okay, how do I sign up?’ he settled for.
‘Talk to the rector, he’s got the sign-up sheet. We do actually bother with match practice for this one, I’m afraid, so we’ll see you bright and early next Monday at ten o’clock.’
Hugo ordered the vegetarian shepherd’s pie, wandered back to his table, and, feeling like his second bite at the public house cherry had gone rather better than the first, knocked out two hundred words of decent quality before his meal arrived.
It tasted like semi-liquid sewer rats marinated in a cardboard casing.
There were two people. That’s what they’d remember afterwards. Two people.
There wasn’t much else to remember. Perhaps, if they tried hard, they could have remembered details such as hair colour, skin tone, gender, or even how they were dressed. All these things were fairly nondescript, however. They’d speculate that perhaps, these things were kept nondescript on purpose.
Maybe a few of the more observant of them would recall the gloves. One long glove each: one on the left hand, one on the right. Decorated with… a symbol of some kind? But it was evening, and even if it wasn’t sliding towards darkness they’d been tired, and the symbol wasn’t anything they recognised, and it was almost the same colour as the material of the gloves anyway. What was up with that?
They saw the two people in three places, that they could remember. Once was outside the Tree of Life. Here ‘they’ were some of the regulars. It had been a slow day, and they were staring out of the windows, about to consider the gamble that was dinner. They did see two people, walking side by side, up the road from the Manor. Now that they thought about it, there had been something odd about their almost perfect nondescriptness.
The people stopped in front of the pillars. This itself was not surprising: many tourists did the same. Slightly peculiar on a term-time Monday, they supposed.
The two stayed stopped for a long time. In fact, they (the onlookers) decided to give the beef stroganoff/house burger/salmon and potatoes dauphinoise a try, ordered it, came back to their tables, and found the two still there, apparently unmoved. Sadly their food then came. By the time they’d all agreed that things were much better under the old management, by which they meant not the old management but the old old management, but that they’d eat here fifty times over before setting foot in the Centipede, ghastly place… the two had gone.
The second place the two would be seen was in the church. However, that was later.