John Barleycorn

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A property developer finds the English countryside a dangerous place...

Giles Whicker walked over to the pub and looked up at the sign over the door. It bore a primitive depiction of a man’s head, the eyes looking straight out at the viewer. The face was bearded and cruel. Underneath in careful sign-writer’s script was the name; The John Barleycorn. On looking closer Giles realised that the head had been severed from its torso. The pub itself belied its gruesome signage. It was of a timber frame construction with a thatched roof and leaded windows. Giles was standing in front of the massive oak door studded with ironwork, wondering how many hundreds of years old it was, when suddenly it swung open. The burly bald-headed man who stood in the doorway gave a start of surprise on seeing Giles, and then a friendly grin.

            “Well, well, that was good timing!” He stood there beaming at Giles like a long lost friend.

            “Sorry?” Giles was slightly taken aback.

            “Opening time! Couldn’t wait eh? Come in, come in!” The man pushed a wooden wedge under the door with his foot and then turned and led the way in. His manner was so friendly and natural that Giles followed him without hesitation.

            The pub was dimly lit and filled with the pungent smell of stale beer and tobacco smoke. The décor was a mixture of dark wood, horse brasses and hunting prints. There was already a man sitting at the bar with a half-finished pint of beer in front of him. He turned as Giles reached the bar.

            “Morning.” The man nodded and raised his glass to his lips. He was an old man but it was hard to determine his exact age. His face was heavily lined and darkened by a lifetime of working outdoors. He wore an old donkey jacket and a flat cap.

            “What can I get you?” The landlord had appeared behind the bar, the friendly welcoming smile still on his face.

            “Oh, how about a pint of your best?” Giles suddenly realised he had a thirst.

            “A very good choice sir!” The landlord reached for a glass and started to pull the pint. Giles was not familiar with any of the brands displayed on the taps. It was a Free House, then. Giles nodded approvingly. He couldn’t wait to tell them about this place in the office on Monday. A lot of the chaps had invested in second homes in the country, but none of them had managed to find a place as unspoilt as this.

            “Just passing through? That’ll be one ninety five.” The landlord placed a glass of dark ale with a foaming head on to the bar.

            “Yes, from London.” Giles paid the money and took a swallow of the beer. It was good.

            “Don’t get many foreigners round here, do we Walter?” The landlord’s smile seemed permanently fixed to his face.

            “No, can’t say as we do, Maurice.” Walter was far less expressive.

            “Really? I find that hard to believe. I mean it’s such a beautiful spot. Don’t you get a lot of people looking for property around here?”

            “No, not at all.” Maurice shook his head and pulled a face that expressed mystification, as though the thought had never occurred to him.

            “So you don’t have a lot of holiday homes in the village?” An idea was forming in Giles’ brain. He carefully turned the conversation towards the subject of house prices. Although Maurice and Walter were vaguely aware of the property boom they seemed to regard it as something that didn’t affect them.

            “But it’s a big issue in the country side!” Giles exclaimed, “Outsiders buying all the houses, driving prices up so the locals can’t afford to buy, young people leaving in droves!” Maurice and Walter seemed puzzled.

            “Can’t say as I’ve noticed any of that round here.” Walter was unimpressed.

            “Exactly! That’s why it’s such a great place! I knew it as soon as I saw it. Most of the villages I see are half deserted most of the time. They’re no longer functioning communities. They’re dead! But this place is alive!” Giles was on his second pint and a little light-headed. He had not eaten before leaving home that morning. He decided to order some lunch.

            Giles had come to a decision. He had been thinking of buying a house or cottage away from London for some time. Now he thought he had found the perfect place. As he ate he continued to question Walter.

            “Where’s the nearest estate agent Walter?”

            “I don’t rightly know.” Walter frowned.

            “There must be someone handling property in this area. What’s the nearest big town? Do you know of anyone trying to sell? I’d be interested in buying something around here. A cottage or a converted barn maybe.” The questions raced through his mind. He was sure he could cash in some of his share options and buy something at a knockdown price. But why limit himself? If prices in the village were as low as he thought he could get two or three properties. Maybe more if they needed work done. He could get a whole portfolio of run down places, fix them up and sell them at a tidy profit. People in the City would snap them up in no time. The landlord was mumbling something.

            “Didn’t young Jesse from The Oaks say he wanted to do something with that old barn of his?”

            “Eh?” Walter glanced up. “Oh yes. He should be in later. In a hurry, are you, to get back to London?”

            “No, not at all. In fact I could stay over night, if I can find somewhere to stay. I’ve had a few drinks so I shouldn’t drive anyway.”

            “I could let you have a room.” Maurice spoke slowly. “Then you can hang on till Jesse comes in and have a chat with him about his barn.”

            “That would be fantastic!” Giles could hardly believe his luck. This was turning into a very good day indeed. He felt a warm haze of euphoria rising up in his soul. “Well that’s settled then. Let’s have another drink! Same again please Maurice! Walter?” He indicated Walter’s empty glass.

            “I don’t mind if I do.” A smile flickered briefly over Walter’s oaken features.

            The pub had started to fill up over the lunch hour and Maurice was busy tending the bar. Giles downed a few more pints and chatted to Walter, who told stories about growing up in the village and how things had changed and how they generally got worse instead of better. Giles was amazed when he considered how much the world could change in one man’s lifetime. Walter talked about tin baths and outdoor privies, and about listening to the radio, the whole family gathered around the glowing contraption of valves and wires. He had lived in the village his whole life, working on the land and never travelling more than fifty miles away.

            “But you must have been on holiday. Spain or somewhere.”

            “No.” Walter pulled a disapproving face, “Just down to the coast now and then.”

            The afternoon passed quickly and the pub emptied again. Giles expanded on his plans, telling Walter about the property market and his life in London. He felt excited as he contemplated the opportunities opening up before him. This could be the start of something big and he was impatient to get the ball rolling. He wanted to meet this man Jesse to see if he could be useful. He was sure most of the business could be handled over the phone once he got it started. He could probably handle it all from his office in the City.

            Walter said he had to pop out for a while and Giles removed himself from the bar to a large and comfy armchair by the fireplace. He had drunk more than he should have and felt decidedly sleepy. He had almost dozed off when he became aware of someone standing over him.

            “Mr Whicker?”

            He looked up at the tall lean figure looking down at him. The face was lined and the dark hair was generously scattered with grey, but the blue eyes were alert and uncompromising.

            “What? Yes, um…” Giles was momentarily confused. The man held out his hand.

            “I’m Jesse. I hear you might have a proposition for me.”

            “Oh yes! Young Jesse! Ha!” Giles got to his feet somewhat unsteadily. He laughed. If this was young Jesse what would old Jesse look like? He took the outstretched hand. “Yes, pleased to meet you. Can I get you a drink?”

            They walked over to the bar. The place was empty apart from Maurice and Walter, who had reappeared. Giles bought brandies all round, and watched as Jesse carefully sipped his drink. He looked like a shrewd character. Giles wished he hadn’t had so much to drink himself but he was still confident that he could get the better of these simple country folk. He started to explain what he wanted, talking at length about his ideas.

            “It would be a goldmine! Do you see? A goldmine!” He swallowed a mouthful of brandy, “It’s all about location. If you’ve got a good location these places sell themselves you see.” The three men were content to let him talk. “It’s a win win situation. You could make a lot of money. A lot of money.”

            Giles placed his empty glass deliberately on the bar. The bar seemed far away. He laughed and shook his head. “A lot of money. I could make a lot of money.” He leaned against the bar with his eyes closed. He could hear nothing but the sound of his own breathing. His chin slowly dropped down to his chest.

            As Giles started to sway Jesse darted forward and caught him under the arms and lowered him gently to the floor. He knelt down next to him. He looked up at Maurice and Walter.

            “Out like a light.”

            It was almost midnight when Jesse and Maurice dragged the senseless form of Giles Whicker out of the backdoor of the pub and into the small adjacent field. Walter followed closely behind.

            “He weighs a ton.” Maurice was struggling for breath.

            “This’ll do.” Jesse was finding it difficult as well. They let Giles flop to the grass. The three men stood in the moonlight for a moment. All around them was the smothering silence of the countryside.

            “Who’s turn is it to do the chopping?” Maurice spoke in a whisper.

            “Yours, if I remember rightly.” Walter stared down impassively.

            “Would you mind, Walter, if I didn’t? Just this once.”

            “What do you think, Jesse?”

            “Up to you Walter, up to you.”

            “All right, give us the axe.”

            Jesse handed Walter a small axe, then joined Maurice standing a few feet away. Walter bent over the body lying face down on the ground and carefully laid the edge of the blade against the back of Giles Whicker’s neck. He made three swift chopping motions and then stepped quickly back to avoid the sudden gush of blood. They stood in silence, waiting for the first surge to slacken. After a few minutes Walter stepped forward and picked up the severed head by the hair. He held it out at arms length and slowly turned round three times as the custom demanded. As the ritual was completed Maurice let out a sigh of relief.

            “Well, that’s that.” Maurice’s voice trembled.

            “Yes.” Walter was brusque, “I’ll bury the head at the crossroads, you take the body to the woods.” He walked slowly away.

            Maurice and Jesse looked down at the headless body. All around them the village slept.

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