Dylan Hardcastle frowned as he passed the stumpy church and drove down the small high street, again. The signposts in the area had contradicted his map which didn’t show this village, and somehow he’d driven in a circle for the third time. This was one aggravation he could do without, it topped off an already wearisome day spent with his most awkward client. It was early evening. He decided that the quaint looking pub was as good a place as any to stop for dinner and a beer before continuing on his journey. He could ask for directions and where he’d gone wrong in returning to the village.
Usually he would stick to the main roads when travelling to a hotel ready for the next day’s meetings with another client, but today he was heading to a hotel which was difficult to find – off the main routes and somewhere he’d not been to before. Carol, his wife, had told him to buy a new SatNav when the last one had stopped working; he almost wished he’d taken her advice.
The banks and the recession they’d caused had reduced his commission to a third of what it had been a few years ago. Until the commission improved he preferred to print off maps from the Internet rather than shell out on a replacement gadget, no matter how useful it might be.
An orange glow from Victorian style streetlights took over from the weakening twilight. A few couples strolled hand-in-hand along the high street, sometimes stopping to look into a window of one of the few shops. Dylan’s was the only car on the cobbled road. He thought it odd that no cars were parked in the handful of spaces on either side of the street – it wasn’t late and there should at least be some shopkeepers yet to leave for home.
He slowed and indicated to turn into a parking space, even though there was no need to stick to driving rules with no other traffic about. His irritation at being lost hadn’t faded; he stabbed the brake, jerking the car to a halt. On getting out of the car a middle-aged couple who were walking by waved to him.
“Good evening. It’s a wonderful evening isn’t it?” the man said. Incredibly, the man doffed his hat at Dylan.
“Yes, it is,” Dylan said, not elaborating in case he got dragged into conversation. He muttered, “It will be when I find my way out of this backwater.”
Thankfully, the couple carried on without making an attempt at real conversation. He stood watching them for a few seconds, surprised at the classic long overcoats they both wore, and the homburg worn by the man. Dylan opened the back door of the car and took his suit jacket off the hook. He slipped on the jacket and felt a bit out of place, as he always did when not in an office or hotel frequented by people on business. When not at work, or travelling for work, he felt more comfortable in jeans and a causal shirt.
The car’s indicators flashed at the same time as a brief chirping sound confirmed the car had locked and the alarm was set. Habit made him do this, but he suspected that in this place you could leave a car unlocked and it’d still be there later. Already he sensed something about the village, as if it had somehow avoided changes in society and held on to an older, kindlier, way of life.
In the pub a few people sat quietly chatting and drinking. He silently gave thanks that it wasn’t one of those weird, out of the way places where the locals stop talking and look with suspicion at any outsider. As he approached the bar a smiling landlord with ruddy cheeks greeted him.
“Nice to have a stranger here, it’s been a while since the last one. What can I get for you, sir?”
Dylan surveyed the pumps. There were several bitters and ales with odd names, but no lagers. Like most men he’d probably choose a cold one.
“Give me a pint of the strongest beer you have.”
“Had a hard day, sir?” the landlord asked as he drew out a dark ale with little froth on top. “You look like someone who has to travel a lot.”
Before entering the pub Dylan had planned to buy a drink and then sit in a discreet spot, and maybe call his wife. For the last few months his mood had been like a thin wine glass – delicate and fine if handled properly, yet always in danger of splintering into shards if too much pressure was applied. Getting lost and unable to find the way out of the village had tested the brittleness, yet the friendly and soothing atmosphere of this place had started to loosen the stress. He looked around at the other patrons, and for the first time he noticed that they were all middle-aged like the couple who’d greeted him outside. And the clothes they wore, he couldn’t decide if they were old fashioned or just classically stylish.
Those who saw him looking their way smiled, except one couple who furtively glanced at him then back to each other. Was that a look of sadness or pity that came and went before they reverted to conversing with each other? He couldn’t be sure and paid them no more attention.
“Would you like to order a meal with us, sir? Our dining room is open,” the landlord said.
“Yes, think I will. Might as well eat before getting on my way.”
A brief look of disappointment crossed the landlord’s face on hearing the last few words. Dylan pretended not to have noticed as he was ushered into the small dining room, with his drink carried for him on a tray. The oak tables were all neatly set, but the room had no other diners in it. Once he was seated the landlord went over to a nearby shelf to fetch a menu for him. The menu consisted of typical pub fare. Dylan shifted in his chair as the landlord stood leaning next to him explaining the dishes. He didn’t need a bloody menu explained to him as it was all there written down, and he wasn’t illiterate. After hearing about the first three things Dylan took the menu from the man’s hand, trying not to snatch it.
“Don’t worry, I’ll have a read through this and order something in a couple of minutes,” he said.
“Thank you. I’ll be at the bar if you decide earlier than that, sir,” the landlord said.
Earlier than a couple of minutes which would be barely enough time for the man to serve someone a couple of drinks and take payment. Dylan couldn’t remember ever receiving such unctuous and attentive service. Not in Britain anyhow, as he hadn’t been to any top class hotels or restaurants. He scanned the menu and stopped at the reasonably priced steak. No point in going further down the list, a steak was always hard to resist. Cooked medium with a dollop of mustard on the side, he decided.
He ordered when the landlord returned.
“My wife is the chef here. Does a marvellous job with the steaks, and she’ll bring it out to you soon. Just call over if you need anything in the meantime, sir.”
“Thanks. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
Dylan, discreetly shaking his head, watched the man return to the bar. This place is odd, he mused. At least he’d be out of here in maybe an hour if he stayed for dessert. Then he’d ask for directions and get on his way, get to the hotel he’d booked when it’d be safe to sink more beers once there was no more driving to do for the day. He gazed around the room and noticed the pictures. Some pubs had pictures on a wall showing people in various states of inebriation having a good time together, but the ones here were sedate. They showed people sat at the tables in the bar smiling at the camera. None had people hugging, or mugging their drunken faces close to the camera.
A faint aroma caught his attention but he couldn’t quite make out what it was. Possibly lavender or rose water, something barely discernible yet cloying at a subconscious level. The lines on his forehead compressed a little as he struggled to understand what it was about this place, not just the pub but the whole village and its peculiar atmosphere. That was it – peculiar because everything and everyone he’d encountered so far was nice. Too nice.
Pleasant and peaceful, an atmosphere that was increasingly hard to find. It’s not as if he longed for it; a break from the grind of modern working life would be welcome for a while, but he knew it would turn insipid and stifling if he had to stay here a long time. Balance in all things, that’s what he needed and never seemed to find. His day was turning out to be too much like sitting on a lopsided seesaw – up and down, never a manageable place in the middle.
The pub had no TV on the wall to occupy him while waiting for the food, so he reached into a pocket to take out his phone, intending to check any messages and maybe have a quick read of the news. No reception bars showed, and none appeared when he waved the phone around trying to find a signal. He sighed.
“We don’t get a signal here, sir,” a woman said. “There’s no call for them things in this village.”
He looked up. The landlady stepped over to him and placed a variety of condiments on the table.
“Surely somebody must want to use a mobile phone?” he said. Like most people he’d consider someone who didn’t have a mobile phone to be unusual. Oldies he could understand not having one, but not everyone in the village.
“We don’t need them, too distracting is what I says. Well, I’d better return to the kitchen and attend to your steak, sir. It will be ready in a few minutes,” she said, smiling.
The food arrived as promised after a few minutes. To Dylan it seemed like longer as he was not used to sitting in silence with nothing to do. There were games he could have played on his phone while waiting if that had not seemed inappropriate here.
Great steak and chips. He was savouring the meal, one of the best he’d had in ages, but wished the landlady would return to the kitchen. Instead she remained in the dining room and stood a table away; occasionally she’d ask if there was anything he needed and if the food was to his satisfaction. The overly attentive and polite service was beginning to grate his nerves and bring back the stress that had temporarily eased.
When he’d finished the landlady took taken his plate away and promised to bring the dessert menu, ignoring his claims that he was full. He left the dining room to use the gents toilet. Soon after someone else came in, the man who’d glanced at him differently to the others when he’d entered the pub.
“Did you find the village and was then unable to leave it?” the man said.
Dylan hated talking to people in toilets, he just wanted to finish and wash his hands. Without looking at the man he responded, “Funny you should ask because that’s exactly what happened.”
“And you ate the food?”
The conversation was taking a worrying turn.
“Yeah, cracking steak and chips.”
He finished his business at the urinal and shuffled over to the sink. There it was again on the man’s face, through the mirror Dylan could see an expression of pity.
“What’s going on?” Dylan said.
The man gazed down as if inspecting his shoes. “They are always nice because they know it’s torture to us after a while. And they won’t tolerate us being anything other than polite and respectful back. If you do that they’ll…”
Another man entered the toilets, stopping their conversation.
Having finished drying his hands Dylan returned to the bar area, walking behind the man who’d accosted him. Dylan was annoyed at how the man now skulked back to his table and now ignored him after seeking him out to utter a strange warning. Nobody can be nice all the time, not even as some kind of elaborate practical joke. It’s not in human nature to be consistently like that, he mused.
Back in the dining room he picked up his coat and went to the bar to settle the bill.
“Something the matter, sir? You haven’t ordered dessert,” the landlord said.
“I’ve changed my mind. Tell me how much I owe for the steak.”
“Sorry, sir, but I cannot do that. We don’t accept payment here, your company is satisfaction enough for us. No doubt we’ll be seeing you again tomorrow.”
Why bother having prices on the menu then, Dylan wondered. No point in asking. He rummaged in his jacket pockets to find his keys and eyed the landlord. There was no menace or threat in the man’s face, only a pleasant and docile expression. But what he’d said was a threat, at least the certainty in the statement could only be considered to be a threat. Dylan had no intention of staying in this place. It wasn’t even a throwback; no period in history, no matter how genteel, was all smiles and perfect behaviour. No, he was going to be on his way and get to the hotel he’d booked.
“I’m not staying. Goodbye and thanks for your hospitality,” he said.
“We’ll see you again, sir,” the man, ignoring what Dylan had said about not staying.
I’ve strayed upon a village of nutcases. Dylan hurried out of the pub without asking for directions. He was so focused on getting to the door and leaving that he didn’t notice any of the other customers. Only two of them reacted in a normal way, albeit briefly to not draw attention to themselves. The rest had expressions of bovine mentality, they might as well have been cows stood in a field chewing the cud.
He almost expected the car not to start as he finally slotted the key after fumbling it around the keyhole. But the car revved into life as it had always done. He switched the headlights on, pulled the gear stick into reverse and swung the car back into the road. There had been no point in checking for other traffic as the village was still devoid of other vehicles.
Dylan’s sanity was being steadily stamped on by the maddening and futile attempts to escape the village. It didn’t make any sense. He’d given up trusting the road signs, instead he took different routes each time, but five times he’d driven away and whichever route he chose the road always brought him back to the village.
He screeched the car to a halt outside the pub, misjudging the stopping distance. The front wheels banged against the kerb so hard that the air bag spat out of the steering wheel to meet his head flipping forwards. If it hadn’t then his face would have crashed into the windscreen because in the panic to leave the village he hadn’t fastened his seatbelt. He considered this while sat shaking at the shock of being brought to an explosive halt. In all the years of driving this was the nearest he’d come to a real accident.
Remembering something he’d seen on TV he took a few deep breaths which settled the shock, which was soon replaced by anger. Why hadn’t he been able to leave, what was going on here? Somehow the answer lay with the people in the pub. The landlord and his wife had been too keen for him to stay, suffocating in their pleasant manner and continually calling him sir.
Only two people appeared startled as Dylan entered the pub by shoving the door with such force that it cracked against the wall when it could swing no further. Most of the patrons gazed at him as though worried for his wellbeing rather than perturbed by his aggressive entrance.
“Welcome back, sir,” the landlord crooned from behind the bar. “We’ve been expecting you to return. Did you have a pleasing drive?”
Again Dylan took some deep breaths, using the pause to try and calm himself so he could think.
“Have you got a phone,” Dylan said, walking up to the bar.
“We don’t get a signal here, sir. And we don’t need them, we prefer to talk to each other in person,” the landlord replied.
“Not a mobile! A landline?” he said, exasperation creeping into his tone of voice.
“Oh, no, sir. In the village we don’t hold with them things either.”
Dylan’s anger returned. He clenched his fists.
“If I can’t call anyone then tell me why I can’t get away from here. It doesn’t matter which direction I take, the road keeps bringing me back here,” he said, thumping the bar with the edge of his fist.
He wondered if the man behind the bar was feigning ignorance. The frustration was like that from talking to a kid playing the annoying and vaguely unsettling game of repeating everything you say.
The landlord swept a hand in the direction of the pub’s patrons. “We’re happy here, sir. We don’t need to leave. It’s only you newcomers who don’t understand and try to leave, and what good does it do you? Please sit down and make yourself comfortable. I’ll bring you another drink.”
Darkness began to fill the edge of Dylan’s vision. He could feel rage building up; this situation of being a prisoner was pushing him beyond self-control. It wasn’t as if he’d done anything wrong, and besides, prisons weren’t like this except in anxiety dreams. But it couldn’t be a dream. The unreality of it was real, too real. If he didn’t get out and back to his normal life then he would crack – insanity would burst out also like an inmate who’d been suppressed too long.
He swivelled round and pointed to the man who had spoken to him in the toilets. With his hand shaking he shouted, “Why did you ask me if I’d eaten the food?”
Before the man could respond the landlord proffered the answer.
“It will help to calm you, sir. We add something for all our new residents to help them get used to it here. Unfortunately, it’s stressful getting used to us at first, but you’ll come to terms with it eventually. You have no choice.”
The landlord smiled. To Dylan it seemed more like a smirk.
Dylan’s tunnel vision worsened. If he was going to be sedated then he’d fight first. He’d never felt anger like this; it was frightening yet liberating. There was nothing to hold him back, surely any court would understand that he’d been forced into this action after being held against his will and apparently drugged. He ran to the dining room and grabbed a steak knife from one of the tables that had been set.
As he strode back to the bar wielding the knife he didn’t notice that the landlord’s demeanour remained placid. Too placid given what he’d just admitted to Dylan. Well, he was going to pay for pushing him this far. Dylan hurried round the back of the bar and lunged, stabbing the man in the neck.
The blade went in right up to the handle. To Dylan’s insensate fury the sensation of sticking the blade in felt good as yielding flesh gave way to the metal – it felt like stabbing plasticine.
His victory and sense of power were short lived. The landlord casually pulled the knife from his neck and carefully put it on the bar top. There was no blood on the knife, or the wound which leaked nothing at all. Dylan felt more faint at witnessing this than if the man’s neck had spurted blood, which it should have done. He swayed and put a hand out to the bar to steady himself.
“That wasn’t very nice of you, sir. Please go back to your seat in the dining room and my wife will bring you the dessert menu. You might as well finish your dinner because you have a long stay ahead of you.”
“But… but what are you and where am I?” Dylan pleaded now he knew for certain that he was trapped.
“Such questions don’t have an answer I can give you, sir. There is no where, what and when to our lovely village. We leave it to yourselves to decide what this place means to you.”
“Here, let me help you to your table, sir,” the landlord said as he took Dylan’s arm and led him back to the dining room.