Hugo awoke at nine, having slept badly. Not because of any noise, although the dawn chorus had woken him at five, and occasional muffled sounds did emanate from what was presumably Julia’s bedroom. No, Hugo was used to noises at night.
That was the problem. Hugo could sleep through a traffic jam, revving their engines and honking their horns: he had, once, on a road trip, while an ex drove him and kicked him awake occasionally out of jealousy. Remove the traffic noise, though, and the eerie silence wouldn’t let his mind rest. It kept waiting for a car that barely ever came.
It generated ideas for his novella instead. As he became more and more tired, they became more and more outlandish. Now, stumbling out of bed and the house, he couldn’t remember any of them.
Since he felt guilty rummaging through the kitchen cupboards to find something of Julia’s to eat, not to mention a little worried about what he might find, he decided to go for a walk to the Tree of Life, and then Pillars Shop, and see if either of them was open and in want of custom. Then he’d go and find the Rector.
The Tree of Life opened at ten. Hugo found himself, after the shepherd’s pie, almost relieved. He hoped it was a one-off, and how badly could one muck up a fried breakfast anyway? However, he was in no tremendous hurry to find out.
Happily Pillars Shop opened at nine on weekdays. The lady running it was called Melody. She called him ‘love’ and beamed kindliness through her spectacles, and Hugo had to fight an overwhelming urge to give her a hug. He did buy enough cereal to get himself through the month, and enough bits and pieces to be able to accompany that with salads and ready meals. He also bought some cleaning products for his room.
‘You just bring the basket back when you’re done,’ said she, as he hauled it off the counter. ‘Sure you’ve got enough there?’
‘Thank you so much,’ said Hugo. ‘Need to have something to compliment the Tree’s “cuisine”, eh?’
Kindly Melody’s kindly smile tightened and became that little bit less kindly. Hugo cursed himself as he shuffled out. He didn’t even know whether she was offended because he’d insulted the Tree’s cooking, or because he’d said he’d been to the Tree at all. Now he never would.
It was Tuesday morning, at around nine thirty, and the village remained as deserted as Atlantis after the whole sinking ‘thing’. Perhaps more so: Atlantis at least had sea life. Pierstree, meanwhile, had the odd butterfly. On the edge of hearing you could make out the sounds of cows, and sheep gazed balefully at him as he shuffled indoors with his haul, but that was about it.
Julia was sat at the kitchen table as he shuffled in. She was eating muffins. They had blueberries in.
‘Good morning!’ he chirped, putting the basket down heavily.
She glanced his way, nodded, and shovelled another muffin into her mouth.
He opened the cupboard. There was a sound of hasty swallowing.
‘Uh, I, you’ll, uh, want…’ Julia swallowed and tried again. ‘You’ll want somewhere to put your food, I suppose.’
‘Er, that would be nice…’
She got up suddenly and walked, or rather jerked, over to the cupboard. After a lot of rummaging, she removed some family-sized packets of pickled onion Monster Munch, and a collection of instant noodle flavours that Hugo imagined all tasted the same. These were deposited at one end of the kitchen table, knocking a stack of letters (possibly junk mail) to the floor.
‘There you are.’
This done, she nodded at him again; walked back around the table with less of a jerk and more of a swagger; and, having resumed her seat, ate her third muffin since Hugo had entered the room.
He dutifully began to unpack. The junk mail remained on the floor.
‘Can I presume that you won’t be watching the cricket match?’ he said.
She continued munching the muffin for a while. Then she looked up.
‘Were you asking me?’ she said.
‘Er, yes.’ He wondered who else it might have been addressed to. The dusty badger statue beside the hobs, perhaps. Its eyes looked like they’d been alive once.
‘This the Pan-Midlands Solstice Game?’
Which seemed to be the end of it, so he finished packing those things away that could be ‘stored in a cool dry place’ and moved towards the fridge.
‘Fuck,’ said Julia.
She leapt up again, muffin falling from her fingers, and beat him to the fridge. It was quite full, mostly of ready meals and bottled water. After a while spent trying to convince a bottle of lemonade to balance between two bottles of Pepsi, she took several of the water bottles out and put them next to the noodles.
‘Sorry, I’m not good at… sorry.’
‘Do you want me to…’
‘Put your things there. It’s fine.’
She stood awkwardly by the fridge, swaying a bit. Hugo wondered what to say, if he could help, and whether anybody in this village was a normal human being.
‘It’s not that I don’t like cricket,’ she said quickly, as if she’d just remembered. ‘I don’t mind it, really. I can see why people enjoy it. It’s just… once you’ve heard fifty stories about how your father met Sachin Tendulkar, “the greatest cricketer and man who ever lived”, and realised that it’s the same story told fifty times with some of the details misremembered each time, cricket tends to lose some of its appeal, you know?’
‘No no, that’s fair enough…’
‘I think it’s great that the villages get together and play, and I think what Nigel’s trying to do is wonderful stuff, and…’
‘Why, what is Nigel trying to do?’
Julia looked at him, and blinked a couple of times. Her mouth was half-open, and she had cake stuck between her teeth.
‘I… I don’t…’ She collected herself. ‘You’re his new best friend, shouldn’t you go and ask him yourself?’
‘I don’t think I’m…’
‘Anyway, I’ve talked long enough. Enjoy your… fridge space…’
She made for the kitchen door, stopped, half-turned, grabbed the muffins and a packet of Monster Munch, then left the room. Hugo listened to her footsteps as they thundered upstairs. Then he carried on unpacking.
When he’d finished, he allowed himself to wonder: how did the resident shut-in know he’d met Nigel at all?
‘Ah yes, delighted to meet you! Barbara told me you were interested. Sign-up sheet’s over here, let me just go and get it for you. Don’t suppose I can persuade you for a donation to the organ repair fund? No pressure.’
The rector was a chatty man, with large teeth and long fingers that entangled and disentangled themselves as he talked. He was very thin and rather short, and his church seemed oversized for him. It was a magnificent stone building by Pierstree standards, seating probably the entire population of the village, with large and intricate stained glass windows and an organ (presumably in need of repair) that seemed to take up an entire wall. He shuffled through it like a child in an adult’s winter coat, footsteps echoing as he went.
Hugo tried not to compare the place to his university’s chapels. Wouldn’t be fair.
The sign-up sheet was crisp white paper that crackled under his hands. ‘Father Dane van Tonder’ was the first name on the list, described in the ‘role’ column as ‘wicket keeper’. ‘Barbara Byrne (c), bowling all-rounder’ was next. Then, ‘Nigel Larrix, bat’. Nigel wrote in a tight tidy hand, joined-up but sans serifs. ‘Reggie Byrne, fast bowler’ (corrected in Barbara’s pen to ‘fast-ish’), ‘Louis Ratticombe, batsman (low priority)’, and a couple of names Hugo couldn’t read at all filled out the list. Hugo felt rather presumptuous putting himself down as a bowling all-rounder next to an ex-county player, but the alternative was just writing ‘crap’ in the ‘role’ column.
‘Eight already!’ he said, handing the sheet back to Father Dane.
‘It’s not ideal,’ said Dane, and Hugo could hear the slightest hint of a South African accent now, sanded away by years of the Midlands. ‘Usually we’ve got a full team by now, and substitutes…’ He heaved a sigh.
‘What happened this year?’ asked Hugo, wondering if he’d regret asking.
‘Oh… nothing really,’ said Father Dane. ‘Nothing that hadn’t been brewing for some time.’
He seemed not to want to talk about it. Hugo had been worried about the opposite: now he was curious. He opened his mouth again.
‘It does mean we need all the help we can get!’ said the Rector quickly. ‘Especially from somebody who can both bowl and bat. Just you and Barbara, really. I can’t bowl for toffee, it looks like a stick-insect flapping in the breeze. As for Reggie, I’m not sure if Barbara’s told him that the large wooden part of the bat goes by his feet.’
‘What about Louis?’
‘He’s seventy-five, he can’t really bat or bowl.’
‘Oh. And, er…’
‘Yes, I can’t read them either. Not sure who they are, but they came in here, said they were local, and wrote their names down. How could I refuse? What with…’ He waved his hands. Hugo saw the stick insect resemblance. ‘…everything that’s happened.’
Hugo agreed, still not knowing precisely what had happened. They exchanged a few more pleasantries, Hugo found himself putting a couple of pints’ worth towards the organ; and then he left, his footsteps deafening in the empty house.
‘If you know anybody who fancies a game, do tell them!’ shouted the rector after him.
Hugo waved farewell, veered towards the church door, and almost literally bumped into Nigel.