As many of you have probably guessed, I am not a country girl. I never have been, despite the fact that I spent most of my childhood hanging from tree branches and grazing my knees from playing out. But the combination of growing up in north Surrey and the occasional on and off spells of living in London, have led this little child adventurer to quickly grow out of thinking of greenery in all its glory and have a very low tolerance of nature.
I didn’t mean to become like that.
It just happened.
“You want me to come and visit you?”
Panic. That’s my initial emotion as I’m talking on the phone to Jo (who you would have met from two of my previous stories).
Jo and I were housemates in the first year of university – along with four other people – but despite the close friendship we used to have, it has slowly diminished over the last few years.
She decided to leave university after the very first year, and well, I carried on.
But my initial feeling of panic is not over the fact that I haven’t seen Jo these last few years.
It is pure and simply because Jo lives with the parents in a small town in East Sussex surrounded by farms.
In fact, Jo herself mostly resides in the farmhouse while her parents and younger sister occupy the townhouse.
But I can’t very well say no just because I can’t deal with a few cows, can I? So the next words that come out of my mouth surprise me just as much as they surprise her,
“Wonderful,” I say cheery, “I’ll even help out!”
But she wouldn’t hold me to that? Would she?
So a few weeks later I’m in my car driving down to East Sussex, with a full weekend bag and an absolutely empty brain. I just don’t know what I should be expecting. So I’ve packed everything, including a pair of wellies I haven’t seen since the age of 17.
“This is going to be fine,” I chant to myself on the journey down. “I’m getting myself worked up over nothing,”
It doesn’t take too long to reach Jo’s front door and after wrapping the brass knocker against the door a few times, Jo springs up in front of me opening the door wide and waving her arms in the air.
“I’m so excited you’re here!” she begins to jump, her long, light brown hair dancing along with her.
“It’s so good to see you,” I say, giving her a big hug. “I can’t believe it’s been so long,”
Too long, in fact. It’s bizarre to think that this time three years ago we were the best of friends. Practically inseparable. And now, we might as well be strangers.
Jo picks up my bag and shoves it in a corner of the hallway before giving me another hug. “You’ve changed your hair,” she tells me, observing me up and down and then leading me to the living room.
“Well, it’s been three years,” I say with a smile. “You’ve changed too,”
And she has. Rewind back three years and Jo would have stood in front of me with dyed, bleach blonde hair, skinny jeans, some fashionable top and a wide, endearing smile on her face.
Now, she’s wearing men’s clothing.
Or at least, I’m hoping it’s men’s clothing.
“Yes,” she nods in agreement, stretching out her baggy khaki trousers, “I’m a farmer now, and you,” she looks at me with a warm smile, “are exactly the same,”
I’m a little disappointed by this. I would have liked to think that it wasn’t just my current hair colour that had altered in the last three years. But I think Jo caught on to my facial expression because she quickly said, “I don’t mean it like that. It’s just that I always expected you to turn out like this,”
Hmm, I’m still unsure.
But I take it as a compliment nonetheless.
“How would you feel about going to the pub tonight?” Jo asks me from the kitchen as she prepares the dinner.
“Love to,” I shout over the TV.
“Oh good. I think you’ll like everyone,”
“They’re all such a good bunch and I think they’ll all really like you too,” she continues.
“Who’s everyone?” I ask while maintaining my attention on Come Dine With Me
. It’s actually a very good episode – this woman made Stilton and broccoli soup and this other woman will complain about it.
“My friends. People I work with. People that maintain the farm. You know, the usual people,” she lists.
“Wow, you actually have a local pub. Like in Eastenders,” I say through a giggle as Jo comes in with the plates.
Meanwhile, Stilton and broccoli woman is not best pleased with the complaining woman and they’re both arguing it out in the kitchen.
“It’ll be fun to go and hang out there without being behind the bar,” Jo bites into her food.
“How long have you been working there?” I ask casually with an eye on the TV. Cat man (called that because his cat licked the tuna before he cooked it) is trying to break up the argument but is failing rather badly.
“About a year,” she turns to me with a full smile, “I bloody love it though,”
I could not have prepared myself for a more picture perfect moment than when I arrived at Jo’s pub. If anyone is in ever any doubt of what a true British pub looks like, this is it.
The interior of it is mainly Tudor with black beams hanging from the ceiling, but it’s clearly been around since the Victorian times. The décor is definitely more Queen Victoria than Elizabeth I.
The scene in front of me is magical; there is not a single person sitting alone. All tables are filled with people drinking, talking and laughing and the staff are even joining in on the drinking games.
“Wow,” I mouth quietly, but Jo has clearly heard me because she turns towards me with a smile and says,
“I told you,”
She leads the way to the far corned of the pub towards the far edge of the bar where all her friends are situated. I see hardly anyone our age, and what’s more, I see no females. From the distance there are two quite podgy men in their fifties, three late twenty-something lads in black wellies and anoraks, and a young boy who I’m sure is only about fifteen.
“This,” Jo pushes me in front of her as if I’m the star prize of the show, “is my dear friend,”
I smile as kindly as I can and give an awkward wave.
“Hi,” I say politely.
“Hi!” they all bellow back genuinely pleased to meet me.
“Bit overdressed, love?” one of the podgy men asks as he looks down at my raincoat and shoes.
When Jo told me to bring something waterproof, she did not specify that not all coats are waterproof. So I’ve come here wearing a black mac with a happy bow in the middle of it, which so far has proved to be more absorbent than a sponge.
And as for my shoes, well, I’d rather not mention them. Let’s just say that Marc Jacobs needs to do a ‘farmyard’ collection.
“It seemed like a good idea when I left the house,” I laugh, which is soon overshadowed by podgy man’s laugh. My goodness, he certainly has an opera voice.
“May I get you a drink?” one of the late twenty-somethings asks me, but I just shake my head and point to Jo. She has dashed to the other side of the bar and is shouting at the barman who from what I can gather has given her the wrong drink.
I stand there in silence until Jo returns.
“Here’s your drink,” she says, still annoyed that they had got it wrong the first time. “Apparently that kid doesn’t know the difference between Smirnoff and Corona,”
“Maybe he just misheard you,” I say, taking pity on the new guy.
“Bloody amateurs,” she mouths and sits herself down on the last remaining bar stool.
“It’s a nice pub,” I say to no one in particular, trying my very best to start a conversation.
“Oh dear, I haven’t introduced anyone yet,” Jo realises and sets her drink down on the bar. With one quick (unladylike) jump she’s standing next to me.
“Right, this is Craig, Ben, Tim, Don, Pat and Tim,” she says.
I try to remember everyone’s names but I can feel that the Tim’s will prove to be the most difficult.
“So what do you do?” one of the guys asks. I’m pretty sure he’s Ben.
“I’m working in marketing and PR at the moment,” I tell him. “In London,” I finish off.
“Oh, right,” he says, and takes a gulp of beer.
“And what do you do?” I ask back.
He smiles at me angelically setting down his drink. “Oh, this and that,” he says, motioning his words with his hands.
I’m not too sure where to go from that. How strange that he kept it so vague.
“But, Craig here manages Jo’s farm,” Ben says, patting his friend on the back.
“Oh, wow,” I say genuinely. “That’s really awesome. How long have you been doing that?”
“About three years,” he says. “Since she came back actually,” and looks at Jo approvingly. I can tell straight away there’s something between the two of them; something that even they aren’t sure about yet.
“And how are you liking our humble village?” Ben asks me through what I can only describe as a wicked smile.
“I’m liking it very much, thanks. I think I’m a little bit out of my comfort zone, but I’m young,” I say. “I’ll learn,”
His smile widens further.
It turns out that it only takes me two and a half Coronas to loosen up a little and start enjoying myself.
We have now left the pub and are making the twenty minute walk back to Jo’s farm. Well, Jo said it would be twenty minutes.
“I know a short cut,” she had said, and the rest of us followed like lemmings. But now I’m pretty sure twenty minutes passed about ten minutes ago, and yet fields are all that are in sight.
Don, Pat and the Tims walked off about fifteen minutes ago (probably because they saw sense) and now the four of us seem to have teamed up in groups of two. Jo and Craig are walking together quite a bit ahead of us, and Ben and me are trailing behind, eyes mainly on the ground.
“Are you cold?” he asks after my teeth chatter.
“Yes, but it’s fine,” I inform. “I’m always cold,”
I take another step and wince when I hear a squelching sound beneath my feet.
“Oh no,” I say. Please, do not let it be cow dung.
Ben leans down to inspect, taking my arm so I don’t fall over. “Don’t worry,” he laughs. “It’s just mud,”
We carry on walking. Mainly in utter silence. It feels utterly worse that about twenty metres ahead of us Jo and Craig seem to be having the funniest conversation ever.
“So, what exactly does ‘this and that’ mean?” I ask Ben, not bearing to be shrouded by silence a moment longer.
He laughs. “You’re still thinking about that?”
I don’t respond, just smile, so he continues.
“I own the pub,” he says casually.
“That pub?” I stop in my tracks and point behind us, even though the pub in question is not there.
“Yes, that pub,” he leans in to clarify.
“So why didn’t you just say that then?”
“It’s a long story,” I can sense he doesn’t particularly want to talk about it, but carries on anyway, “I bought it from my dad. He was having financial difficulties,” He turns to me, and his deep blue eyes show remorse, even in this dim moonlight. I’m pretty sure I can see the blueness of them – in fact, I’m certain.
“It doesn’t feel right to talk about it in front of him,” he spills.
I stop in my tracks again. My brain is winding through the happenings of the night, desperately trying to recall the precise point that I met Ben’s dad.
“Don,” he says, a little impatiently. “The jolly one,”
I try to hide a grin but Ben has seen it and smiles too.
“Don’s your dad?” I ask, stupidly pointing behind me again.
“Yes,” he giggles.
“Oh,” I reply. And then after a while, “You look nothing alike,”
“I have to work tonight,” Jo comes in abruptly to the kitchen. “The manager at the pub just called and they’re short staffed. Would you hate me if I go?”
“Of course I wouldn’t,” I tell her, although a small part of me is lying. She can’t leave me here on my own.
With all these animals.
“I tried to get out of it, but I feel awful saying no to them,” she’s looking at me with big, round eyes that I almost feel like the one that should be apologising.
“I’ll be fine,” I smile. “I’m a big girl now,”
“Hmm,” she stands there pondering. I feel like I should be scared. The last time Jo looked at me like that we ended up partying with eleven army guys. And if I recall correctly, she went home with one of them.
“I’ll ask Ben to keep you entertained,” she blurts out and leaves the kitchen.
I follow her out to the hallway. “Umm, Ben and I aren’t a very good mix,” I tell her.
She looks up at me as she puts on her wellies. “Don’t you like him?”
“Of course I like him. No, it’s not that,” I’m struggling to find the right words to say. “We don’t have much in common,”
“Trust me,” she says once her wellies are well and truly on her feet, “ You and Ben have more in common than you think,”
I cross my arms and stare at her, unsure of what she could be talking about. “Does he like Gossip Girl too?” I try to joke.
Jo lets herself laugh, “No,” she clarifies. “He went to uni just like you. He lived in London just like you. He even worked in marketing, just like you,”
My lips have formed an oval shape at the sheer surprise of it.
“His dad racked up a few debts, so he came back down here, bought him out and turned the pub back around to profit,” she picks out two scarves and tries them both out in front of the mirror. “That was about…” she stops to think, “…five years ago,”
I guess looks can really be deceiving. I honestly thought he was some country boy, completely patriotic to the surrounding soil only, never having set foot in a busy town.
“So, I think you’ll have plenty to talk about,” she smiles at me. By this point I’m convinced she’s playing Matchmaker. “I’ll text him. Shall I say 6?”
I just nod, and watch her leave.
Ben has been in the living room with me for about thirty minutes. And much to Jo’s distress, the marketing talk has already run out. Although, she was right about the fact that we have more in common than I previously thought.
“You're bored, aren’t you?” he asks. I turn my head quickly to his direction. He’s sitting down casually on the armchair, one hand raking his sandy blond hair.
“No,” I say rather quickly.
“Really? Because you’ve been sighing for the last twenty minutes,” he says, that wicked smile never leaving his face.
“I’m really sorry,” I apologise sincerely.
He stands up. “Let’s go for a walk,”
“Out there?” I point outside, instantly scolding myself for sounding so stupid.
He looks around the room, “I’m not sure this room is the best place for a walk. The outside world has much more of a charm. As lovely as Jo’s living room is,”
I smile, but say nothing.
“You can’t honestly be that much of a city girl,” he says, sitting down on the sofa next to me. “What’s wrong with outside?”
“There are animals and stuff,” I argue back like a little child.
He laughs at that. “There are also animals in London, you know. Foxes and pigeons,”
My head swivels in his direction in the blink of an eye. I look at him sternly. “Don’t even get me started on pigeons!”
“Grab your coat,” he says, rising from the seat. “Actually, on second thoughts, grab Jo’s coat,”
Ha! Ha! Very funny!!
So far on our walk the outside world has been rather friendly (mud and puddles aside). There is a sparkling moon out which leaves behind the most amazing shade of silver on the outskirts of clouds, and the sky is that perfect shade of blue and black.
“I can hear an owl,” I say to Ben, scanning the surrounding. Despite the romantic view, there is definitely an eerie air around. It must be the silence. I can’t say I’m used to this.
“Keep walking,” he tells me, not even bothering to look at me. Somehow though I know he’s smiling.
We walk a further twenty seconds.
“You and your dad have very normal names,” I decide to inform him. This time around he does look at me. Quizzically. “Don. Ben.” I say aloud, liking the way they form on my tongue. “Do you have any other brothers or sisters? And if so, what are they called?”
That quizzical look in his eyes does not part immediately (and who could blame him). “I have an older brother, and he’s called Don. After my dad.”
“Don.” I say again, emphasising each letter. “Just Don and Ben?”
He stops abruptly which causes me to bump into him. “Sorry,” I whisper, sensing that he’s annoyed with me.
But I’m completely wrong, because when I look up, his smile is broad and he’s gazing down at me with intensity.
I remain there, looking up at him unsure of what to do. “Or is it short for Benjamin?” I say sheepishly, fully aware that he hasn’t spoken.
But still with a smile on his face, Ben turns away from me and continues walking, “This way,” he says, “And it’s short for Benedict,”
“Benedict,” I repeat the name aloud. “It’s a rather unusual name these days,” and start following him on the walk.
“Blame my mother,” he says, kicking a loose rock with his boot.
“I like it,” I run a couple of steps so we’re walking side by side. “I just finished reading a book when the hero was called Benedict,”
“Oh yeah?” he turns to me, “What was it called?”
“An Offer From a Gentleman
. It was a very good read,”
“Did it have a happy ending?” We’ve both stopped and are facing each other.
“You’re not shivering,” he says.
I look down at Jo’s coat, a bit bewildered by the subject change.
“See? All you needed was a good coat,” His hand sweeps along my arm and it feels like it’s burning into me. His eyes are twinkling brightly in the moonlight and at this closeness I can see every contour of his face. Every sleek line of his bone structure. He’s incredibly attractive and I have no idea how I’ve only just come to realise this.
“Are we almost there?” I ask, desperate to move on. The atmosphere around us is palpable and it’s taken me by surprise. Only a moment ago I was reciting his name like a two year old learning new words, and now I’m mesmerised by him.
“Just around the corner,” his voice is so gentle and he doesn’t take his eyes off me.
Thirty seconds later we have arrived at Ben’s chosen destination.
“I didn’t realise it was literally around the corner,” I muse as I pull my feet away from another patch of mud.
“Come and sit down,” Ben says patting his hand on an empty spot next to him.
“On a tree trunk?” I ask, eyeing it as if a swarm of wasps will appear from the other side.
“Yes. A tree trunk,” he begins impatiently rising from his seat and pulling me down next to him. “Now sit down and look,” I follow his gaze.
And I’m lost for words.
Ahead of us lies a view of overlapping fields bathing in the silkiness of the moonlight. For miles ahead all the eye can see is a beautiful stretch of a midnight landscape. This is a blank canvas. No concrete jungle has intertwined its vines here yet. Even Monet wouldn’t have been able to do this scene justice.
“So, city girl,” Ben’s voice sounds velvety in my ear, “what do you think?”
“It’s stunning,” I say, realising that I haven’t blinked yet.
“The country isn’t all bad, eh?”
I shake my head.
“Are you warming up to the country?” he asks, edging closer, his hand covering mine with one slick move.
I turn towards him, our noses practically touching. “It’s not so bad,” I say with a hint of a smile.
“Good,” he says, approving. “Now,” his other hand reaches around my shoulder, stroking the back of my neck, “Kiss me,”