The stairs were uneven; smoothed wood that bowed in the middle like limp washing lines. My legs were nervous. They had struggled enough with the flat of the landing and I could now feel my knee trembling as I forced my feet down onto each step. I clung to the balustrade like a fearful child squeezing his mother’s hand and tried to ignore the resentment towards my body that I was sure must be flushing my cheeks.
Every tiny drop my feet took down that staircase jarred my back. New sensations of pain rippled through my muscles and, as I neared the final few steps, my stomach burned more fiercely than a novice sailor on the pacific. I could only imagine the pain I must have felt when my back had been abused. I couldn’t have been conscious for long, whoever had done this to me must have continued after I was out cold. They must have harboured real anger toward me,.I must have done something horrific to them.
As I stepped into the dark hall at the bottom of the stairs, I took a moment to quieten my nerves. An open archway to my left offered the noises of an underused bar. The rare chink of glass against glass, a muffled stream of softly spoken words, the occasional but short caw of laughter. In front of me, spanning the full width of the hallway and staircase was a large set of double doors. They were made from a dark wood, curved at the top, and barred by three separate iron bolts. The bolts slotted into a wooden beam that would not have looked out of place in a train yard. The beam was at least twice as thick as the door itself, but a small metal plate had been hammered over the wood, in front of each bolts home as if someone still didn’t trust it to hold.
Behind me, the hallway ran alongside the staircase and ended in another single door. At one time it would have been heavily decorated, but its worn face and dark inexpertly applied polish reduced it to little more than a servants entrance. The disparity in size between the internal door and the large double doors of the outside baffled me slightly, but my mind was too full of conundrums to worry about such an unimportant architectural feature.
Having caught my breath and restored some respectability to my legs, I moved through the open archway, following my ears. The corridor beyond ran back along the wall of the hallway and opened on the opposite wall, through another archway, into the bar. I couldn’t see much to begin with. Rather than being an open space littered with tables and chairs as one might expect, the bar was made up of a collection of small rooms. It was a rabbit’s warren of sofas and leather armchairs tucked between thick brick walls studded with dusty and rusted agricultural implements.
From where I had entered I could see half of the ‘L’ shaped bar that curled itself around the hotchpotch of rooms. The lady who had visited me in the bedroom was stood behind the low counter. She was leant forward, reading a thin book on the bar-top, her hands either side of the small volume. She had glanced up at me as I shuffled through the archway but had shown no sign of recollection or concern.
I could see a red leather armchair, apparently only accompanied by a small side table and ashtray, in a little cubbyhole to the right. It looked comfortable and warm, but above all it looked secluded. After the effort of making my way down the stairs and following the sounds of civilisation, I felt a sudden compulsion to shy away from company. I wanted information about where I was, where I had been found, who had found me. I wanted to ask a thousand questions in the hope that one little piece of information would help me reconstruct the world around me. But I was tired. I felt alone, more alone than I had done tucked away in the bland little bedroom. I was a general who had left the comfort of his battle tent, only to stand on a open hill with unguarded flanks. I couldn’t face strangers. Not right now.
The armchair promised more than it could deliver. The lumpy leather was unforgiving against my back and the seat was too low for a man to comfortably stretch out. I resorted to leaning forward slightly and crossing my legs back under the bulk of the armchair. It wasn’t comfortable, but in my state I doubt I could have found a seat that was.
Moments after I had sat down, the bar lady breezed through my little alcove, wordlessly depositing half a glass of beer on my table. I muttered a thank you to her retreating back and stared at the glass. Nothing had seemed as enticing since I had woken up in this place, but I felt compelled not to touch it. At that moment, sitting in its unblemished glass with drops of perspiration running down its sides, this beer was untainted by the universe around it. One sip, one taste of the amber liquid could destroy its virginal innocence.
As I watched the glass, slowly the voices of the other bar goers drifted into my consciousness. I couldn’t see any of them, but their conversations twisted through the maze of little rooms and whispered their secrets to me. Two voices were clearest above the general murmurings. Presumably the owners, two gentlemen by the sound of it, were sitting in one of the nearby rooms.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better, we’ve still got another three months before the snow decides to up-sticks” said the gruffest of the two voices. A farmer’s voice or maybe a carpenter’s.
“We’ve gone through worse. ’72 was far colder. You’d have no sheep left to worry about if it were as bad as back then.”
“It’s not the sheep I’m worrying about, lad. I’ve long lost the will to worry for them. I’m worried about us. The cold we can deal with. We’ve got wood. We’ve got food. It’s the…” he trailed off and there was a moment of silence followed by a couple of thuds as glasses were dropped back onto their table.
“They found a survivor you know.” said the second voice, almost disbelieving his own words. “Found him up on the pine track, scratched and bruised like he were no more than a mouse. Skim found him. Lucky he did, he says he’d ‘ave been dead half an hour later.”
“What was Skim doing up on the pine track?” asked the first man I’d decided to call ‘Shep’.
“Rabbiting I guess. I dunno. Skim’s all ways been an odd one.”
“You wouldn’t catch me up there. I’d eat my whole herd before I bothered going near the pine track. You know that’s where they found the young Winchester lad’s leg? Gnawed to the bone, they say.”
“You don’t need to tell me, I saw it when they brought it back in. Strips of flesh hanging from it. I’d swear it had tooth marks on it too, on the bone and all.”
“Where’d he come from? The survivor? Is he from one of the northern villages?”
“Nobody knows. Mrs Hipsworth says he’s not from around here. Say’s his accents all peculiar and he doesn’t look like he’s worked a day in the field.”
“Nor do you though, lad, you’ve been behind that desk for too long.”
“I can still pitch in with the best of them”
“Well I hope you told Mrs Hipsworth that, lad, ’cause she wont be able to tell just from looking. And, in these dark times, if she’s looking for comfort she’s not going to run to the pale arms of a pen pusher.”
“It’d be better than waking up smelling of wet fur and sheep shit.”
“Matter of opinion, Gerry, Matter of opinion.” There was another pause and I succumbed to the temptation of the beer in front of me. It tasted sweet but watery and the liquid stuck to my lips and throat. It must have been mead rather than beer. Not my favourite. Not what it had promised.
As I had my glass raised to my lips I heard Shep ask if his companion wanted another and, without seemingly waiting for a reply, he wandered through my little alcove. He slowed his pace slightly as he saw me. He stared unerringly at me, as if I were an unusual piece of furniture he wasn’t expecting to see, but not a word was said as he moved through my room and out towards the bar.
He was tall and thin, but had the clear toning of a man who works outside for his living. He wore a thin moustache across his top lip and had small dark eyes, like two little black currents pressed deep into his face.
On his return, Shep must have chosen a different route back to his table as I heard their conversation strike up again without him moving past me. Now they both spoke in hushed whispers, or at least what their first couple of mead’s had told them was a hushed whisper.
“He’s just through there, in the next room.” Said Shep.
“The stranger, who do you think? Mrs Hipsworth’s right too, he’s never a working man. God knows where he’s come from. He’s like old Tuffer’s used to look. Skinny limbs but a belly on him that could house a couple of pigs.”
“Tuffer’s had liked his drink.”
“Yeah, and his desk. You better watch out lad, you’ll be joining them soon enough.”
“Shut up Rik.”
“Just a friendly warning lad, you’ll have no hope with Mrs Hipsworth if you turn yourself into a pigsty too.”
“Did you say anything to the stranger? What’s his name? Where’s he from?”
“Nah, didn’t say nothing. The guy looked like he might have been a mute or something. Now he’s fit enough to drink our drink though, I think we should send him on his way.”
“He’d not get through the woods. If the cold didn’t get him, the thing would.”
“It’s hardly our problem, is it? We’ve saved his life, made him well. We’ve done our duty, so let’s just send him back on his journey. He must have been going somewhere.”
“Your heartless, Rik, but I dare-say most folks are going to agree with you. We don’t have much left for ourselves, let alone a stranger. Maybe he’ll want to get on his way anyway, once he’s out the door he’ll no longer be our problem. I can’t help feeling he’s a sign though, a good omen. The only man to get past it, imagine that, he might be able to tell us something. Help us get rid of it.”