by Ian Steadman
Through the woods and down the hill and over the tracks we come to a sign. It is bolted to a crumbling drystone wall, the letters obscured by moss and mildew, and what appears to be sheep shit. We can read the letters G-R-E-E-N-D— before they disappear entirely. It should be a sign, that sign.
‘Green something then,’ Debbie says. ‘Sounds nice. Should we stop?’
Our feet are aching, our packs weigh heavy on our backs. Rainwater has seeped through my jacket, leaving my neck and shoulders cold and damp. We are lost and we need to rest for the night. Our phones are off the grid. It is no decision at all.
Walking through the village neither of us mentions the emptiness. It doesn’t occur to either of us to ask where the inhabitants of all these cottages are, why the streets are empty of children, or pets, or cars. Everything looks normal. Photos are propped on window ledges. Welcome mats call out to our muddied boots. Everything is perfect and yet nothing makes sense.
‘Seems quiet,’ I say. ‘No kids.’
Debbie says nothing. Four miscarriages in the last three years will do that to you. Last month Dr Wood gently suggested that it might be detrimental to her own physical and mental wellbeing to try again. The walking holiday was intended as a distraction, while we worked out what the rest of our lives might look like. I guess I should be more sensitive.
It is at the garage that we finally see someone. He stands staring at us, a cloth cap pulled down low over his eyes. Straggles of black hair escape over the ridges of his ears. An unkempt moustache where his mouth should be. When we wave he hesitates before lifting his hand, thick fingers clutching a small metal box with wires, and levers, and what appears to be a twisted coat hanger poking out of the top.
‘Hello,’ I call. ‘I wonder if you can help us? We’re lost I’m afraid, walking holiday. Is there somewhere we could stay for the night?’
The man scratches at the nape of his neck. Then his moustache twitches.
‘I dare say so, aye. We don’t get many strangers, but you’re welcome. You’ll want to talk to P__, he’ll set you right. Wait here?’
The coat hanger wags at a wall along the front of the forecourt. As he walks back inside, Debbie and I collapse on to the stonework. I can feel a blister burning under my heel. We lapse into silence.
It starts as a purr in the distance, then a grumble, and as the van turns the corner it grows to a throaty roar. When it stops opposite I can see the front bumper, dented and twisted out of alignment, the windscreen crusted with dead insects. One wheel arch is rimmed with a dark red stain, darker than the crimson paintwork.
I almost laugh at the man who steps out. I hear Debbie snort beside me. He’s short and stocky, and his nose sticks straight out like the end of a broom handle. His jacket appears to be cut from blue felt, a row of gold-coloured buttons adorning the front, one of them so chipped and faded the plastic shows through. The trousers are of the same material, cut straight without any semblance of fashion or styling. Then there’s the hat. It looks like a child’s dressing-up outfit, but it’s hard to imagine any child wanting to dress as a traffic warden. Sown inexpertly to the front is a Royal Mail badge.
‘Well, this is a pleasant surprise,’ he says. ‘We always welcome new faces around here. T__ tells me you want to stay for the night? How can I help?’
He stands with his back to the van, keeping the road between us. Through the van’s window I can see a mangy-looking cat in the front seat, scratching at the upholstery.
‘Yes, we’re lost I’m afraid. I don’t think our map was quite right.’ I stand from the wall, hoisting my bag back on to my shoulders. ‘But we don’t want to put anybody out, we can keep on walking to the next village.’
‘No need for that,’ he says. ‘We’re happy to help. That’s how we do things around here. There’s no hotel as such, but we’ve a few people away at the moment. My wife has the keys to S__’s old cottage. You’ll like it there. How does a hot bath sound? We’ll bring you over a lasagne to heat up in the oven.’
Debbie and I share a look. The bath seals it. We hand our bags to the postman and watch him load them into the back of his van.
The cottage is simple and rustic, but more than enough for our needs. The ashes in the hearth are laced with a filigree of cobwebs, the bath is furred with a layer of dust, but everything works. On a shelf we find a photo of a middle-aged man, his sideburns growing in two broad stripes down his face, his mouth twisted into something between a smile and a grimace. The picture has been laid flat, face down. There is no other sign of the previous occupant.
As we lie in bed at night, convincing our backs to accept the mattress’s lumps and loose springs, Debbie asks me what I make of it all.
‘Honestly?’ I reply. ‘It’s a bit weird. But they seem friendly enough, and at least we didn’t have to walk another mile today. We’ll be gone tomorrow. It’ll be a story to tell when we get back home.’
‘And the postman?’ she asks.
‘He’s harmless. Small villages are full of eccentrics. I doubt we’ll even see him again.’
We wake early in the morning, the sun pushing through the thin curtain and flooding the cobwebbed corners of our bedroom. The postman dropped off a selection of miniature boxes of cereal with the previous night’s lasagne, all of which are at least two years out of date. Instead we eat oat bars from our walking provisions, assuming that we’ll be able to top up with supplies during the day. The instant coffee tastes dusty and weak. Shouldering my bag, I’m already looking forward to a hearty pub lunch on the trail.
When we step outside there is a welcoming committee waiting for us. The moustachioed man from the garage is leaning against a tractor, a stout farmer beside him. He also has a moustache, and I wonder momentarily if they are brothers, or perhaps even lovers. They lift their heads from whatever they’ve been discussing to stare at us from under their caps.
‘P__ has told us to bring you to the village square,’ says the taller of the two. ‘There’s something he wants you to see.’
Debbie tries protesting that we have to hit the road, but the two men are insistent. The tractor starts with a low rumble, like distant thunder. We climb aboard, stowing our packs beneath the seat, and set off through the silent streets.
There are a few others gathered in the square, and as I step down I wonder what they can possibly want. I spot a white ecclesiastical collar on one of the men. That is a comfort, somehow. There is an old lady too, with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, and four or five unusually quiet children. I see Debbie smile briefly at them. Clearly not a lynch mob to run us out of town, then. They all appear to be waiting for something, their backs against the stone walls of the cottages.
The man from the garage points at a spot on the pavement, and mumbles into his moustache that we are to wait there. It doesn’t seem to be something worth making a fuss over, so we do as he says. Perhaps they have arranged a parade in our honour. We wait for several minutes, the vicar nervously checking his watch. It’s already past noon. I hope they don’t keep us much longer, or the mirage of that pub lunch will disappear.
Then, finally, there is the familiar purr of an engine drawing near. The vicar sighs, and we feel the villagers relax around us. As the postman’s van turns the corner they start to cheer. With a crunch of the handbrake he stops in front of us, leaping out of the cab. I’m amused to see that he’s still wearing his homemade uniform. It looks so crumpled that I wonder whether he sleeps in it.
‘Wait a minute,’ he declares with a dramatic sweep of his arm. ‘I almost forgot this.’
From the cab he takes a small parcel, wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. He presents it with a flourish to the vicar. There is no stamp on the front, and where the address should have been there is an illegible scrawl, like a child’s approximation of grown-up words.
The vicar smiles. ‘Thank you P__, just in time. Well done, I knew we could rely on you. You’ve saved the day again.’
Debbie looks at me, perplexed, as everyone begins to applaud. The postman capers around in the road, giving everyone a thumbs-up. With a sickening, sinking feeling it occurs to me that this has all been staged for our benefit. The parcel isn’t even a real parcel.
I clap when they all turn to stare at us, and do my best to smile. The postman winks. ‘Mission accomplished,’ he says.
The crowd starts to dissipate soon after, and Debbie gives me a look that reflects my own. This is too odd. The sooner we recover our bags, the better. The two moustachioed men have vanished, but we can see the tractor parked at a distance. It is easy enough to swipe our packs, and as we start off along the main road we feel them settle once again on to our backs. I think I see the vicar watching us from the window of one of the cottages, but I may be mistaken. When I look again he is gone.
We try to hurry. My blister has burst overnight and is now an open sore, and my legs are so stiff I can hear one of them creak with every step. But at least we are done with the postman and his strange games. As we limp past the windows of the cottages I try to peer inside. Nobody can be seen in any of them, and most show signs of having lain empty for months, if not years. In one I can make out a photo frame propped up on the mantel, a family of four running hand-in-hand down a golden beach. I’d swear that I’ve seen it recently in a magazine.
It’s only as we near the edge of the village that we notice it. Slight wisps in the air at first, as if there is a fire burning in one of the nearby gardens. Then a distinct haze at the level of the first-floor windows, a soft blanket of gauze laid over the houses. And finally we turn a corner to see a curtain of fog stretched across the road, static and impenetrable, like a wall of sheep’s wool.
Debbie looks at me without saying anything. In our condition, in weather like this, there is no way we should be wandering lost in the dales. We managed to get lost even before the fog came in.
Our packs take on an extra weight as we turn and walk back into the village.
It’s on the third day that someone mentions the bicycle. We’ve resisted settling into the cottage, but the villagers have made it difficult. They have knocked with homemade meals, hand-baked bread still warm from the oven, fistfuls of wildflowers to cram into dusty vases. They are trying so hard that we can’t help wondering about the fog. Neither of us says anything, but the question hangs in the air. The white wall surrounding the village seems thicker with each passing hour.
Debbie is the first to voice our discontent. The postman has gone through his routine again, handing what looks like an empty envelope to the old lady who runs the local shop. Once his cavorting is over, and the crowd is beginning to thin, she speaks to no one in particular.
‘I can’t believe we’re still here,’ she says. ‘The fog’s bad and all that, but am I the only one who finds this ridiculous? Is nobody driving out of town today? We’d be happy to pay someone to borrow their car, if that’s what it takes.’
They stare at her as if she’s cursed them, or threatened to kill their firstborn while they sleep. There is a leaden stillness to the air that makes it hard to breathe. Then the old lady gathers her shawl about her and speaks.
‘There might be a bicycle, I think. Miss H______ left it behind when she departed. Does anyone know what happened to that?’
The men mutter into their moustaches. The reverend looks at the shiny tips of his shoes.
‘We’d be grateful,’ I say. ‘Really grateful. We’re meant to be at work in a couple of days, this was only supposed to be a short ramble. I’d like to get back home.’
The garage mechanic lifts his cap and runs his hand through a thick tangle of hair.
‘I’ll need to ask P__. Leave it with me, I’ll fettle it.’
The next morning we wake to a commotion outside. A twitch of the curtains reveals a small crowd. Debbie hurries into the skirt and blouse that one of the women has lent her. I pull on my sweat-stained T-shirt for the fourth day in a row.
When we join them, the reverend grins at us. Several others shoot knowing smiles in our direction. We know better than to ask. Mrs G______, the old lady from the shop, tugs on Debbie’s sleeve.
‘Lucky you,’ she says. ‘It’s your turn today. I’m sure you realise how special that is.’
I would laugh, but the time for laughter has passed. Instead I stand and watch the road.
Five minutes later he comes. The scarlet van rounds the corner with a screech, almost tipping over into a bush. When he brakes there is the stink of burnt rubber in the air. As the postman flings open the back doors I am disappointed to see a small brown package sitting on the floor. Not a bike, then. Barely big enough to be a skateboard.
When he reaches us he holds my gaze for a moment longer than normal. I think I see a sneer, although I may have imagined it. As he thrusts the brown paper parcel at me I notice that his hands are unnaturally dry and hard, like untreated wood.
‘Looks like I’m just in time,’ he says. He looks around at the gathered crowd, pausing for effect. ‘Mission accomplished.’
Once the cheers and applause are over and the villagers start to drift away, I am able to sit on the porch step and unwrap the package. It is addressed simply to ‘The Strangers’. Instead of a stamp there is a crude drawing of the postman, in profile. I peel back the paper. It takes me a moment to work out what is inside. A rusted bicycle chain, snapped in two places. Several scraps of a jerky-like dried meat caught between the links.
There is no note, but the message is clear enough. Once evening falls we pack in earnest.
We rise at dawn the next morning, shovelling sticky, stale Frosties into our mouths as we pull on our clothes and shoulder our bags. Although we don’t quite understand what is going on, one thing is now clear. We need to be somewhere else.
Debbie has spotted what looks like a train station at one end of the village, and an Indian gentleman who was at the gatherings mentioned a train called the G________ Rocket. It’s a slim hope. The fog still sits around us in dense cotton-wool banks. This village is the entire world.
Creeping through the streets, holding our breath when we can, we almost laugh. As ridiculous as it sounds, part of me expects the post van to come hurtling around the next corner, a magnetic light stuck to its roof. Sirens blaring. I had my suspicions on the first day, but now I am sure that the villagers inform Him of our movements. The reverend is certainly in on it, whatever it is. And the mechanic. The little old lady from the village shop. Maybe even the kids. What hold He has over them isn’t clear, but our parcel hints that it isn’t a servitude born of kindness.
When we come to the railway station we find that it is abandoned, of course. Debbie checks the train at the platform while I walk over to the timetable board. It’s a meaningless grid of letters and numbers, like a Sudoku puzzle gone horribly wrong. Debbie reports that the train is no better. Simply a hollow shell, empty of anything other than dust and mouse droppings. There is no train, just as there is no mail service. None of it is real.
Holding each other’s hand, we clamber clumsily down to the tracks. We can see the exact point where the fog forms at the boundary of the houses. It looks as impenetrable as ever, but at least with the rails beneath our feet we can be certain that we are heading in the right direction. Someone mentioned Pencaster, although any town will do.
When we walk forward into the wall of fog it settles around us, a moist thickness that hugs our bodies and muffles our footsteps. It’s like breathing in candyfloss. It’s a couple of minutes before we hear the hum in the rails, the faint gleam of a light growing behind us. Then the whistle. Somewhere in the murk I hear a familiar voice, shouting: ‘Special Delivery, on its way.’
Hand in hand, we start to run.
Ian Steadman is a writer from the south of England. His stories have recently been published in Black Static and The Lonely Crowd, although his work has appeared in numerous zines and websites over the years. He occasionally manifests on Twitter @steadmanfiction.
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