The bitter, driving wind had brought him to this place: a setting he was sure would look more appealing if it were daylight and summertime. However, the old, wood-panelled barn in the distance looked cold and sinister, accentuated by a pale winter moon.
Stood almost knee deep in mud, in a recently ploughed cornfield on the outskirts of a small farm near Pickering, he peered over the farm’s crumbling, dry stone wall, waiting for the occupants of the building to retire to bed. He had watched the farmer and his wife moving about the property for what seemed like hours, and now he felt the stiffness of his legs, even through the biting pain of the cold.
At last! he thought, as a light downstairs in the farmhouse extinguished and a muted glow appeared in an upper room. Animated outlines of the occupants moved about behind the already drawn drapes.
It was now or never. No turning back. He knew he had to get warm or he could very well die in this muddy field with the distinct possibility of no one finding his body for days.
If his fifteen years on this planet had taught him anything, it was where there’s a farm there’s normally chickens, and where there’s chickens there’s definitely eggs. A teacher at school had once told him that you could eat raw eggs, which was a relief; he didn’t have a way to cook them out here on the edge of a field.
The time he’d spent waiting for the occupants of the farmhouse to go to bed had been quite productive. He had noted three likely places that chickens might be kept, and had debated with himself the issue of honesty over hunger. He knew that stealing was wrong, but an empty stomach drove him. Finally he settled his thoughts by telling himself that he would repay the owner for the items he took.
Deep down he knew this was highly unlikely to happen, since he probably wouldn’t find this particular farm again, even in daylight. He reasoned then that it was the thought that counted.
One thing he hadn’t thought about was there would be no way he’d be able to get eggs from a chicken coop without creating enough noise to wake every farmer in the area.
An outbuilding, a hundred metres or more away, had caught his eye as a likely place to find chickens. It was larger, but looked similar in appearance to a doghouse, with a small arched door in one side.
Quickly and quietly he clambered over the mossy wall separating him from the smallholding, but in his haste he snagged his trousers on a sharp stone. He gave a small cry of pain as he landed heavily on the other side. Getting up, he inspected his leg. In what little light there was, he saw that he had ripped a large hole in his trousers and gashed his ankle, which was pouring with blood. Taking a tissue from the top pocket of his jacket, he gingerly lifted his trouser leg, wrapped the makeshift bandage around the wound, and tucked it into his sock. Pain from the wound seared up his leg, causing him to bite his lip with a small gasp.
Jack Simpson, you need to be more careful. If that goes septic you’re in trouble, he thought. He had an unusual habit of chastising himself when something went wrong.
Limping slightly, he made his way towards the first of the outbuildings. To get to the structure he had to pass quite close to the farmhouse. This worried him. At this stage, he couldn’t afford to be caught.
What immediately struck him about the farmhouse was that it was really no more than an extended cottage, and even in the moonlight the whitewashed brick extension looked shabby and broken down. As he limped his way past it, he glanced up at a thatched roof that had seen better days, its patchy straw overhanging the flaking, painted walls.
The doghouse-like building was bigger than he initially thought. Made of wooden shiplap panels, it had a small, double glazed window to the left side. The door to it was just large enough for a person to fit through comfortably. Creeping around to the left of the structure, he cupped his hands against the glass and peered inside. Seeing nothing, he listened for movement, and after a few seconds he heard something that sounded like scratching. His spirits lifted. Chickens?
As silently as he could, he tip-toed to the door and placed his hand on the handle, daring it not to make a sound. Turning it, it gave one small squeak of protest. He pushed the door, but it stubbornly refused to open so he tried again with a little more force. Still it would not budge. Feeling frustrated and about to give up, he noticed the hinges were on the outside, and rolling his eyes upwards in disbelief and embarrassment, he pulled the handle towards him. No one in his town would ever dream of leaving a door open, but this place was in the middle of nowhere and they obviously had different rules.
Very carefully he widened the gap in the door hoping it wouldn’t creak, and listening for a moment, he stuck his head around the gap and waited while his vision adjusted to the gloom. As he did so, a large rat scurried past him and into the night. He nearly cried out in shock.
What is it about rats and me? he thought, shuddering at its appearance, his heart thumping wildly in his chest.
Stepping into the darkness of the building, he glanced at his elongated shadow cast on the floor from the moonlight, then flicked his eyes up to the ceiling where a light bulb swung precariously in the breeze.
Instinctively he put his hand to either side of the door opening. Not able to find a light switch there, he stood under the bulb and waved his hand under it until he came across a long, thin wire. Pulling it, he was momentarily blinded by the glare of the light as it shone out, and he rubbed his eyes in an effort to stop them tearing. Then he saw them. Row upon row of vegetables: peas, carrots, and cabbages. The rat that had nibbled some of them was now long gone and Jack picked up a carrot from the nearest shelf, put it to his mouth, and took a bite.
What the hell? he thought, spitting it out. It was as cold as ice.
It was only then that he noticed the temperature seemed to be even colder inside than out. Looking about him, he saw what appeared to be a large upturned radiator along one wall that had something written on it, and the walls, he noticed, were covered in white cladding.
Jack stepped over to the radiator and scrubbed off a layer of ice with his hand to reveal the writing. Freezeasi. Mobile Refrigeration Unit, it read.
‘Dammit!’ he cursed, tossing the carrot away. ‘What do I do now?’ He sat on the chilly floor for a few moments hugging his knees, and then an idea came to him. He decided to collect some vegetables, find somewhere warmer to sleep and let them defrost naturally, at which point he would be able to enjoy them. Not much fancying raw cabbage or peas, he grabbed a handful of carrots, stuffed them into his pockets and left the building much as he found it, apart from the single carrot he left on the floor.
Now to find somewhere to rest. The barn seemed like the best option, and although dreading it because it looked ominous in the moonlight, he knew it would offer the best place to sleep. It was bound to be full of lovely warm hay he could curl up in.
After plotting his route, he slowly and painfully made his way to the barn. He had quite a distance to go across a muddy, puddle-bound courtyard, and from what he could see it appeared that the whole farm was badly run down. Paint peeled from almost every window frame and jagged cracks adorned the walls of the farmhouse and outbuildings. Although the farm had stood on this location for two hundred years, Jack thought it unlikely that the majority of buildings would last another ten. He did notice farm machinery covered in a heavy tarpaulin to protect them from the elements, but even that was failing miserably, with deep gashes and holes marring the surface.
As he trudged across the courtyard, he caught a slight movement from the corner of his eye and turned to see a rather large dog just a little way off in the distance. He froze on the spot, terrified of facing his worst nightmare. Thankfully, it was leashed to a kennel and facing away from him, but he knew that any kind of sound would alert the animal and the game would be up.
Jack quickly surveyed the area for an alternative route. The best by far looked complicated, but at least he would be hidden from view. He double backed slightly to remain out of sight, and crossing the courtyard he made his way behind some machinery that screened him from the farmhouse. It was darker here, and he had to pick his way even more carefully, desperate not to make a single sound. Finally, however, he saw his goal. It was then that he tripped over a large stone sticking out of the mud, and fell against an empty plastic barrel, knocking it over. Before he had even scrambled to his feet, the dog began to bark at the top of its lungs, signalling an intruder.
Jack panicked; he had to hide. Out of fear, he did the first thing that came to mind and crouched behind the wheel of a tractor that was covered with a tarpaulin. Shaking with terror, he waited for the inevitable.
From somewhere behind him he heard a door open and the boom of an angry voice. ‘What is it Rusty?’
‘Oh, the farmer. Great!’ Jack whimpered. He’d heard stories of farmers scaring away trespassers with their shotguns and he didn’t particularly want to be on the receiving end of one. He could hear him moving about the courtyard, stopping every now and then to listen. When the farmer stopped beside the tractor, Jack held his breath. From his vantage point he could see a pair of Wellington boots and something long and cylindrical, which shone with a metallic quality through a hole in the tarpaulin. The dog began to bark again and the farmer strode away, his Wellingtons sloshing in the puddles.
‘Damned dog; it’s probably a badger. Get in there, you!’ the farmer cursed, ordering it into its kennel.
A female voiced piped up. ‘What is it love?’
‘Nowt but some badger. Go on now, get back ta bed,’ was the last Jack heard as the farmhouse door closed with a bang.
Jack’s heart pounded as if it wanted to escape his chest. He breathed a huge sigh of relief and decided he would wait a few minutes before making his way to the barn, taking the opportunity to calm down.
In the end it took several minutes for him to muster up the courage to venture across the courtyard, and now, stepping up to the barn, it looked exactly as he had first seen it: old and run down. The main doors were made of sheet metal rather than wood, and there was a small door situated within the two larger ones. He tried the handle and again, to his surprise, it was open.
Checking no one was around, he stepped inside, closing the door behind him as quietly as he could. Two things hit him immediately: how warm it was, and that a small light had been left on in one corner, casting strange shadows on the walls from a range of hand tools and harnesses that hung from wooden beams. The thought of the light worried him. What if someone was in here, or was coming back? Looking around and then up, he noticed that there was a hayloft above him, dissecting the length of the barn. To his right, a wooden ladder stretched up to the loft.
The perfect place to hide! he thought.
A sudden noise came from the lit area of the barn and Jack flinched, ready to run, fearing the farmer was in the building with him. But then a long nosed, hairy head appeared from behind a wooden screen.
‘A horse!’ he laughed in relief.
The animal was a beautiful shade: white, with a few black speckles. He didn’t know its breed, but by the swell of its stomach, it looked pregnant.
Leaving his backpack at the foot of the ladder he edged towards it and lightly patted it on the neck. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. I just need somewhere to stay tonight,’ he said, and then glowed red with embarrassment at how foolish he was for talking to it, even though no one could see him.
He made his way to the ladder, grabbed his backpack and started to climb, agonising though it was due to his stiffness, fatigue and gashed leg. He was just two rungs from the top when a noise startled him, and in panic, he gripped the rungs so tightly that it made his knuckles white. Cautiously, he turned his head.
The farmer, an elderly, yet big and burly man with a large bald patch, stood in the doorway. Not again! Jack silently prayed that he wouldn’t look up, because if he did, Jack didn’t stand a chance. He was trapped.
The farmer strolled over to the horse and Jack watched as he crouched next to the animal and rubbed its neck before placing his ear to its stomach.
‘That’s it dear, not long now,’ the farmer crooned as he checked her over. ‘I’ll call the vet for you tomorrow.’
Despite the circumstances, Jack almost giggled at the sound of the farmer talking to the horse. He permitted himself a grin. At least he wasn’t the only one.
The farmer stayed with the animal a few minutes more, started to make his way back to the door, changed his mind, covered the horse in a big blanket and then, to Jack’s relief, he finally left. Jack took a deep breath and relaxed so much that he nearly lost grip of the ladder. His legs were stiff from not moving a muscle during the farmer’s presence, but finding the strength, he finally moved and reached the top. To his delight, he saw that the loft was like one big bed of straw.
He found a dry spot in the corner and sat down amid a rustling of hay. He hid his backpack in the straw next to him and emptied his pockets.
The night’s events had taken its toll on him, but only now that he had sat down had he really begun to feel it. He lay back and watched a spider on a nearby beam start to spin its web.
If only my life was as simple, he thought.
Watching the spider at work was quite hypnotic, and coupled with tiredness, he drifted into a deep sleep.
Unbeknown to Jack, a dark, shadowy figure entered the building from a side entrance while he slept, and sat waiting in an unlit part of the barn. The figure struck a match, highlighting his face in the glow. He sported a satisfied grin as he lit a cigarette.
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