‘Thought I might find you here,’ said Nigel.
‘Hello,’ said Hugo. ‘I’ve managed not to start any more punch-ups.’
It was said as a joke, but the moment the words left his lips they shrivelled. Nigel might have raised one eyebrow slightly. It was hard to tell.
‘Hello Nige!’ said the rector. ‘How’s everything?’
‘Hello Dane,’ said Nigel. ‘Been better, been worse. How’s the team sheet?’
‘Coming along nicely, thank you! Your friend makes eight!’
Nigel seemed to stare briefly into the eyes of Jesus, gazing down in glass form from above the altar. Then he nodded good-bye to Dane and left. Hugo followed him.
‘What brings you here?’ he asked. ‘Not just me, I presume? Yesterday you couldn’t stand the sight of me.’
They walked out of the church without exchanging another word. Hugo felt annoyed with himself for attempting another self-deprecating joke, at a point when he should have known it’d fall flat. This percolated in him and became resentment towards Nigel, who he hadn’t asked to follow him. In fact, wasn’t it Nigel’s ‘intervention’ that had led to him being persona non grata at the Centipede the other day?
So when they left the church, and Nigel took a sharp right into the church grounds, Hugo didn’t. He stood still, between the church and the street, listening to birdsong from the trees above.
Nigel stopped too, and half turned back towards him. ‘Do you want to know what I’m trying to do or not?’
Hugo, never much of one for a poker face, felt his eyes widen. He didn’t move, however. Behind the eyes, cogs whirred.
‘Where did that come from?’ he said.
‘It didn’t come from anywhere, Hugo Gubbins.’ A slight break in Nigel’s perfectly even voice? ‘You’re playing in this game now, and you’re about the only person I know who doesn’t hate half the village. Thought you might be interested.’
Hugo Gubbins’ cogs continued to whirr. His irritation could be put on hold for now: curiosity trumped it. That said, he was, or fancied himself as, a writer. It was only natural for him to want to guess the ending to Nigel’s whydunnit before it was revealed to him. For this, he needed time to think.
He pondered furiously. Nigel, turned away from him, remained perfectly still.
Eventually, and slowly, Hugo let his feet walk after Nigel’s down the stone path. It wasn’t a long path, because it didn’t go around a big church. It did go past some reasonably large gravestones. Not many had flowers by them, not that weren’t in some state of decomposition anyway. Only the yews paid respect with their berries.
The morning sunlight, growing harsher, barely filtered through the needles of the evergreens. The churchyard smelled of mown grass and pine needles. An amorous wood pigeon hooted in the distance. It would have been peaceful, if it hadn’t been for…
‘So,’ said Nigel.
‘You’re trying to reunite the village for the cricket match,’ said Hugo.
They paced for a while more in silence.
‘“This is stupid, and deep down you know it.” That’s what you said, wasn’t it? And you sent me to Barbara, despite having your drinks in the Centipede. And Barbara said half the village was banned from playing. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what you’re trying to do.’
He felt a bit out of breath as they continued to orbit the church.
‘Took you long enough,’ said Nigel eventually.
Hugo’s pride hissed out of him like a popped balloon. The earlier resentment came pouring back instead.
‘W-w-well does everybody know?’ he floundered. ‘Ju- I mean you brought me here like it’s some big secret.’
‘The cricket match? Aye, that’s a secret, Hugo, and I’d thank you not to go around spreading it. Pierstree’s a proud village, just about still the one village anyway, and anybody who knew I was trying to get the two sides to talk again would resist all the more.’ He shrugged. ‘Probably blown it now, saying that to Nick.’
A couple on bicycles rode past. Nigel didn’t talk until they’d gone.
‘Not everyone’s seen what you have, Hugo,’ he continued. ‘The ‘Pede lot think I’ve only signed up for the game because my wife told me to. So they don’t tell the Tree lot I drink in the ‘Pede. Which also has beer and food that don’t taste like they’ve come out of a cow.’
‘Technically, the burgers…’ Hugo trailed off.
‘What happened to hating the village down the road, that’s what I want to know?’ Nigel spread his hands in consternation. ‘That’s a local rivalry! You don’t hate your own village! We’re not animals, we don’t shit where we eat!’
‘What did happen?’
Nigel paused mid-step and lowered his hands. They walked another few silent paces, while he drew breath. Hugo felt an exposition coming. His hands itched to take notes.
‘Used to be,’ Nigel began, ‘everyone went down the Tree apart from those that played on the slot machines down the Deep Stone, and on Christmas when the Stone did its big party thing. Then the Tree went under new management, some upper-middle-class financial analyst something-or-others who’d just moved in from the city and wanted something to do with their piles of cash.’
‘Ah. It wasn’t broke…’
‘…and they tried to fix it, that’s exactly what they did. First little things here and there, getting rid of the old paintings and sprucing up the kitchen, taking out advertisements in local gazettes. “Come visit the Tree of Life Gastropub, food like you’ve never tasted.” The food got fancier, not better; and it started to look like any other chain pub anywhere.
‘Wasn’t enough, of course. Eventually they closed it down for refurbishments. Six months it was down, during which time everyone got funnelled into the Stone. The Stone lot thought, “Hang on, we’ve got something here.” So they made it less bright lights and fancy buttons, more local beers and stuffed animals. More… traditional.’
‘And presumably stopped calling it the Deep Stone at some point.’
‘I take it all back, you’re quick as lightning on the uptake, ain’t you?’
Hugo pushed the lid down as his resentment bubbled up again.
‘Aye, called it The Centipede. Still down to earth, but a bit more lively.
‘Eventually the Tree of Life opened, gutted entirely. Whitewashed from top to bottom. Offering fancy drinks instead of ales anybody’d actually want to buy, and you can’t have a gastropub with crap food. Some people came back, sure, because of blind loyalty more’n anything else. Not many of them. Couple of years later, the analysts cut their losses and fucked off to ruin some other poor village.
‘Barbara’s family have been in the village for generations. They picked up the pub after those cockwombles left, tried to undo what they’d done. More ales and stuff. Still couldn’t cook, mind. It got a trickle more people in through the door.
‘The rivalry started there, I guess. The ‘Pede lot said the Tree lot had sold out to city money. The Tree lot said that the ‘Pede lot were still bitter about a couple of fuckwits who weren’t there no more. You have to understand, Hugo, it were all good-natured at that point, just some friendly banter. Fair few people who went to both. It still wasn’t…
‘…Last Easter, the rector did a sermon that was outright an advertisement for the Tree. All about how Jesus’s cross was a tree of life itself, that sort of crap. It worked, anyway. Overnight, half the village – the more religious half – upped and started attending the Tree instead.’
Not a plot twist he’d seen coming. ‘How’d that go down with ‘Pede lot?’
‘About as well as you might guess. They didn’t much like it being implied that were attending a less godly pub. Things just escalated from there.’
He stopped, and looked at Hugo for the first time since they’d been in the church. Hugo looked back, and noticed how tired the large man’s eyes were.
‘Why’re you sorry? You’re not the rector.’
‘And you still don’t know why he gave that sermon?’
‘Heaven knows I asked. Must have asked half a dozen times. He said he didn’t mean it like that, he’d just been trying to link Jesus’ crucifixion to something local, that people knew. He tried to take it back next Sunday: gave a sermon about getting on with your neighbour, and freedom of choice. Damage was done, they’d already taken sides. He broke the entire village that day.’
‘And he didn’t mean to?’
Nigel started to pace again. Hugo followed him, keeping a corner of his eye out for any stray rectors that might try to creep up on them.
‘Maybe not at first. He’s bought into it over time. He’s taken sides like the rest of them now. He’s a good man who’s lost his way, Hugo, don’t think he’s not. Most of them are good men, except for those who’re good women.’
‘What about the cricket match?’
Another long intake of breath. ‘It’s the highlight of Pierstree’s year, and Midwick’s. They made an effort, Barbara and Rowan and Dane and Nick and a couple of others. Had a sit-down in the village hall. Was meant to be a peace meeting, turned into a punch-up. It’s how I got this.’
He pointed to the white line running along the back of his hand. Hugo winced.
‘I still don’t know where he got the bottle from. Course, Barbara’s ex-professional, and the rector does most of the admin, so when they said nobody on the ‘Pede side of the village was going to play, that was that really. Nick’s tried to raise a rebel team, but at the end of the day, it’s the Pierstree Cricket Team that Midwick’s going to play.’
‘Unless Pierstree can’t field a full team.’
‘Unless Pierstree can’t field a full team,’ agreed Nigel.
They stood there, at the back of the church, under the yews. The sun was high in the sky now. Hugo felt a bead of sweat working its way down the back of his neck, irritating him the entire way. Everything else was utterly still.
Hugo remembered back to when he’d assumed this would be a relaxing month-long trip to the countryside, the peace and quiet conducive to his writing. How young and naïve he’d been back then, all of two days ago.
Nigel, who had been hunched over, straightened up slowly and look upwards, into the nearest yew. He didn’t seem to squint at the sun.
‘Anyway, now you know why Pierstree is the way it is, and why you almost got your head done in on your first day.’
‘I do. Thank you. Anything I can do to help?’
‘Don’t reckon so. Reckon only me and my wife are in positions to help this place, and we’ve been trying for years. We’ve not done too well.’
‘I should like to meet your wife.’
Nigel half-smiled. Had he smiled since Hugo had met him?
‘Mayhap you will. She don’t go out much these days. She’d either like you or want to thump you after five minutes, I can’t tell which.’
‘Which one were you?’
‘Far as I recall, Hugo Gubbins, I’m the reason you haven’t been thumped yet, so don’t you get lippy with me about it.’
Hugo half-smiled too. He decided not to mention his earlier thought about Nigel’s intervention.
‘Now go on, get out of here,’ said Nigel. ‘You should be writing, Hugo.’
Hugo sighed. ‘You’re not wrong. See you around.’
‘I hope you will, Hugo Gubbins.’
Hugo went back to his room, cleaned it up a bit, tried to connect to the Internet, found he couldn’t, and wrote two thousands words before lunchtime at two. At this point, he had a ready meal, a rather tasteless curry of some kind. He took it back up to his room because he was on something a roll, and knocked out another five hundred while eating. Then he started to think about the first two thousand. He went back and dug into the first five hundred, polishing them up until they shone so bright he could barely look at them. Then he progressed to the next five hundred, and in doing so, remembered that he’d focussed the first five hundred around a character who had been dead for some twenty pages. He stared blankly at the first five hundred for several minutes, willing them to cure the plot hole he’d written of their own accord. When this didn’t work, he stared at the cork boards on the walls and willed their string lines to curl into something resembling a reasonable plot. When this didn’t work, he grabbed a duster he’d bought from Pillars Shop and, well and truly off the roll now, started to dust down his bedside table.
In this manner, and manners similar to this, by the time he woke up the next morning, he had seven hundred words he was happy with, five hundred he could live with he supposed, one thousand two hundred that he detested but were at least internally consistent, and no idea that somebody in the village had been murdered.