The battered ford focus spluttered to a stop somewhere north of Watford Gap, next to a suspicious looking field of cows along a winding country lane that looked an awful lot like every other country lane.
‘That would be because they’re not cows,’ said Martha, head down beneath the bonnet as she wrenched something one way and then smacked something else another. The little car had stopped spewing up smoke so James counted that as an improvement… maybe.
‘They’re sheep,’ she said, straightening up and wiping her hands off on her jeans. She left two long scores of grease on the denim, one down each leg. James wondered if that would require a special sort of stain remover or if the normal kind would do. He shifted slightly so she could lean against the gate with him.
It was one of those old sorts, made of that metal that turned orange and brown after a while and squealed loudly when you tried to get past. She put her foot on the bottom rung near the hinges and pushed up. James hid his wince as she swung one leg up and over, adding a series of orange streaks to the grease stains.
‘Texel,’ she said and he remembers that her mother had owned a small holding for a few years before he had turned up on the scene. ‘They can be a bit of a bastard to lamb, big heads you see.’ She dusted her hands off. ‘They were always a bit,’ she paused, ‘well difficult. Stubborn might be a better word.’ She shrugged and hopped back off the gate. ‘We better get walking.’
‘Walking?’ James shot a glance at the car and then back to her. ‘Why?’
‘Well,’ she said, already heading down the road away from him, ‘that car is utterly kaput and there’s a church spire in that direction.’
James hurried to catch up with her.
‘Why do we need a church?’ he asked.
‘We don’t. We need people. But where there’s a church there tends to be a village and where there’s a village there tends to be people so we’re going to walk in that direction and hope we find some.’
‘But it’s miles.’
‘A couple maybe.’
‘I can’t walk that far.’
‘Sure you can. You have feet don’t you.’
James glanced down at his brogues. ‘I think I’ll wait by the car for you.’
‘It will be a while, more than an hour maybe?’
‘I’ll wait.’ He dropped back and let her carry on walking up the narrow road. He felt his gut twist uncertainly as she rounded the corner and vanished from sight.’I’ll listen to the radio,’ he murmured and sloped back towards the open passenger seat. The seat squeaked sharply as he sat down, as if surprised to be used in that way. James prodded the radio dial and waited. He prodded it again a moment later when nothing happen, and a third time when nothing happened still. He stared through the fly splattered windscreen at the bonnet still propped up. ‘Ah,’ he said.
The pub was on a corner, one hundred yards from the church gateway. At two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon there were four people in the bar, a few more in the restaurant, and a shaggy looking dog with three legs finding its way into everyone else’s way. They all turned to look when Martha walked through the door. She tried to look friendly.
‘Hi.’ She waved at the landlord who eyed her up and down before placing the pint he’d just pulled onto the bar and nodding at its owner.
‘Afternoon,’ he said. ‘Can I get you somethin’. A shandy per’aps?’
‘No, no,’ Martha smiled. ‘I don’t need anything to drink, though a glass of water would be nice if you’ve got one lying about. I actually need directions if you could?’
‘Aye,’ said the Landlord. ‘I could. Where is it you wanna be gettin’?’
‘A mechanic’s. I’ve had some car trouble and my fiancée and I seem to be stuck.’
‘You don’t say,’ chuckled the patron sipping on the pint the Landlord had just passed over the bar. ‘You’ll be wanting Old Jim then.’
‘Is he a mechanic?’ asked Martha.
‘Nah,’ said the Landlord. ‘He owned the farm just ov’r, he’d give you a tow though. Get ya to were ya need to be.’
‘And where would that be exactly?’ asked Martha. ‘Do you have a mechanic locally?’
‘Aye,’ said the Landlord. ‘Aye we do. He don’t work Sundays though. No one here works Sundays.’
Martha frowned. ‘You seem to,’ she said.
‘Ah, special circumstances you see. The Lord don’t mind me workin’ on account of the need of it.’
‘The need of it?’
‘Aye, the need of it. Everyone knows that The Lord don’t mind two sorts, shepherds and pub landlords. We get a free pass on account of the need of it.’
‘Right,’ said Martha slowly. ‘In that case, can you point me towards Old Jim?’
‘Ah, apologies Miss, but I can’t.’
‘You see he died three months back.’
‘But you said he’d give me a tow.’
‘Aye, I did. I said he would’ve of if he could’ve. Unfortunately, he can’t and as of such, I can’t point you towards him.’
‘Can you point me towards someone else then?’
‘Aye, I suppose. There’s a new guy two villages ov’r who does a bit of towin’ work for town types. He left his number.’
The landlord turned and pulled a drawer from beneath the dressed behind the bar and tipped the contents out onto the counter top.
‘Found it, ‘ere you go.’ He passed Martha a dog-eared business card written in neat, sharp ink with a flourish at the end.
‘Do you have a phone I could use?’ she asked. He passed her a corded land-line and walked back to the patron sipping his pint.
The dial tone rang out the first time but on the second it was picked up by an older sounding man with a crackle in his voice. She explained the situation and he promised to be right over as soon as he’d let the dog out for a run. She thanked him and hung up.
‘Oi, Sammy!’ The pub door swung open and a thick set man in green overalls entered. ‘There’s some twonk on the road a mile and bit back trying to thumb a lift in fancy shoes. Looks like he stepped right out of some fancy pants catalogue.’
Martha cringed as the pub turned to look at her again.
‘Thank you,’ she said, and pushed the phone back towards the landlord.
‘No worries Miss.’ He accepted the phone and replaced it beneath the bar. ‘Take care of yourself now.’
‘Oh thank the gods, your back!’ James practically leapt at her, arms flailing as he pulled her in for a hug. ‘I thought a bear must have eaten you.’
‘There are no bears in England,’ Martha sighed. ‘You know this.’
‘Of course, of course, I simply thought one might have escaped from a local zoo or the likes. You can never be quite sure.’
Martha smiled tightly and resisted the urge to punch him.
‘I’ve called us a tow truck,’ she said. ‘He’ll be here in a bit.’
‘Wonderful! Someone to save us.’
Martha scowled. ‘I don’t think it really counts as saving us,’ she said. ‘We were never in any danger.’
‘I wouldn’t be so sure,’ said James. ‘Out here in the wild, things can turn sour very quickly.’
‘The what?’ Martha spluttered. ‘It’s the English Countryside James, not the Arctic tundra.’ She watched him settle into the passenger seat and examined the open engine, going through all of the bits that would need replacing. ‘Screw it.’ She snapped yanked the prop rob out and let the bonnet slam closed. James’ head jerked up.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked. ‘Is it fixed?’
Martha ignored him and pulled open the back door to retrieve her bag.
‘Martha? Martha, what are you doing?’
She slammed the door as well.
‘Ya back already?’ asked the Landlord. ‘Shandy?’
‘Whisky,’ said Martha, ‘and yeah.’
He poured the drink and handed it across the bar. She passed him a twenty and knocked back the glass.
‘The fiancée?’ He accepted the empty glass and refilled it. ‘Never considered gettin’ marri’d myself. An acquired taste I’m told.’
‘Something like that.’ She sipped the second glass. ‘When do you close?’
The Landlord shrugged. ‘When the last customer leaves.’
‘Good,’ said Martha. ‘Tell me. Is there somewhere here I can stay?’