Yeah. Uh everybody dies, don't they? That's when you coming back, isn't that? So you tried to get into the locked room today, didn't you? You tried how do that? They'd come back mama, What's the secret? Back along the old track by sam hicks. It's funny, but I can't remember how the game ended or if it ended at all. But I do remember that I had just set my last but one domino and the old wooden counter and that tom ran skin was chuckling softly as he looked at the piece. He held shield in his hand. I don't remember if he was amused by victory or defeat because then someone said, there they all go and in such comically doom laden tones that I turned from our game to see what was meant outside the deep bay windows of the old king's in a hearse was rolling past. It was moving at little above walking pace slow enough to accommodate the black clad Mourners following on foot. A dense tumble of greenery, mainly ivy I think, was heaped over the coffin piled so high that a great deal had spilled into the cavity around snaking up the windows as if it were growing. Still 10 people followed the car amongst them, two small Children heads bowed and hands clasped tightly. Prayer like in front. There was a stir of interest in the public bar and some whispered comments that I couldn't quite catch whose funeral. I asked tom that would be old john slater's He leaned on the counter with his arms straight and the fingers of his big hands spread watching the procession with narrowed eyes about time to some would say Tom was the landlord of the pub, of the holiday cottage I was renting and a man whose words you listened to. He was intelligent, well read, and possessed an air of calm sagacity. Born. I like to think of a lifetime study of the human dramas played out in his domain. So, although I was surprised to hear him make such an unkind comment, I was prepared to believe. It wasn't likely, said he continued. They'll be in here later for the wake in the back room. Sleepers have always held their wakes at the old King's. How long is always? I asked. This pub has been here since 1453 and so of the slater family. Though they were here even before then, that's how long always is, young man. Now do you need another drink? Because I better get those sandwiches laid out. Best pack Domino's away. Don't want them catching us engaged in madcap frolic. I ordered another beer. I have been meaning to leave after our game, but now I wanted to stay and take a look at the sleepers After 10 minutes or so. Tom reappeared and said to me now when they come, in make sure you don't catch any of their eyes right, Really? That bad? Not always, but I advise caution where sleepers are concerned just in case everyone in here knows about them, but you being a visitor, don't. One of the old men playing cards at a corner table and clearly not hard of hearing, spoke up. You'll do well to listen to tom young man. I still got some lively scars from the day. I looked at a sleater wrong here. You know, you can see their farm across the field, at the back of your cottage, that place, that's theirs. Oh, yes, Tom said, looking for you. There's a field in between. You're out of harm's way. Don't worry, is it their field? Oh yes, but you've seen it. They don't pay it much mind, mainly they raise goats and Bruce cider from the orchard. We sell it here, decider. People come from miles around to drink sleet or special, knock your socks off that well, said a grizzled man, sitting on his own near the door. And you know all about that, Arthur, said Tom, The public bar of the old king's in was small, making a private conversation difficult when, as on that day so few people were there, I wanted to question tom further about this notorious family, but was held back by the thought of being overheard. Had it been the weekend, which was when I first arrived, it would have been a different matter. Then the pub would be packed with people from surrounding towns. Come to enjoy some changing rustic charms, the low beamed ceilings, the thick cavelike walls open stone fireplaces in the barrels of beer stacked up behind the bar. Then even the back room would be lively with shouts and laughter and the sleepers, and their funeral gloom would be far from anyone's mind. As Tom said I was a visitor. Yet even an outsider could sense the tension growing in the room. No one left and little was said tom took to wiping things down behind the counter and quite unnecessarily. I suspected the counting the takings in the till, filling small bags with coppers and silvers, and replacing them in the drawer with an impatient sigh. Then a blast of march air put an end to the vigil as the door swung open so abruptly that it bounced off the frame with the splintering crack. Tom winced. Everything is ready, he said. Just go through. I didn't turn my head after the warning had received, but I watched the party as they trooped past the end of the counter through the low door and into the crooked passage that led to the back room. There was no missing the family resemblance in the three generations, although it was split between two types. The three younger men of one of the older men and a woman I placed in her late sixties, represented one branch of the clan. They had heavy prominent simeon jaws which didn't quite fit with a high narrow foreheads and small sunken eyes above the older man, and the two younger women had flat mask like faces with squashed noses and thick lidded, watery eyes. The Children, perhaps aged five or six, had these same liquid eyes and already a market thickening around their chins. An unpleasant thought occurred to me, and when they were all safely out of hearing I said to tom in an undertone close knit lot, are they? Tom raised an eyebrow and leaned across the counter. So you know, we stay slater's marry birches, and birches marry splitters. And if your cousin is your third or your second or your first, or even your half sister, well who's counting the little ones? Haven't become one or the other yet, but they always do. They don't combine. You see one side always gets the upper hand, and then the face comes out. The sleepers have that cro Magnons look, and the birches look like fish. Oh yes! You'll see it all out here and you thought all the excitement was to be out in the city for all Tom's Council. A few minutes later I did just the thing he had warned me not to. Before leaving I needed to pay a visit to the gents which was situated perilously close to the back room, just off the connecting passageway when I emerged from that tomb like chamber. I simply couldn't resist a glance through the open door. Emotions were clearly running high one of the older men. He, with the sleater looks had pulled one of the younger male sleepers towards him by the lapels of his funeral jacket and was shouting in his befuddled face. You should know what to do by now, you mangy idiot. You're less use than a turd. I'll have to take care of myself then, won't I? The rest of the party looked on, not shocked by the man's behavior, but rather approving of it. It seemed to me. The senior sleater tossed the younger one aside, sending him crashing into the table, where thomas set up plates of sandwiches and bottles of cider and beer. Then swearing loudly, he pushed his way out of the room, only to meet the eye of the puny stranger, cowering just beyond the threshold. If it weren't for his obvious distraction, I'm certain he would have punched me in the face there and then. But as it was he shoved past me, muttering something like a growl. I was shaking when I returned to the bar. You just met Jacob sleater, didn't you said tom when he saw me cheer up, You're still alive. I took the scenic route back to the cottage over a field and to lark woods, the box of dry food that tom had given me for Sanderson rattling in my bag as I went. Sanderson was a big bruiser of a ginger cat who lived in the wood shed behind the house, tom ransome fed and cared for Sanderson astray, but had utterly failed to persuade him to move into his flat on the first floor of the old king's in. Sanderson preferred his independence, and his bed in an orange crate full of rags, and wanting to life as a bachelor's companion. Tom! Said he hoped Sanderson might change his mind when he got to be an elderly cat, that he might see the wisdom of pooling resources, but that for now he was resistant to logic. As soon as I was back, I filled Sanderson's enamel bowl with the food and called for him. But then I spotted him over near the dustbin by the kitchen door. He was hunkered down, patting lazily at some small creature in the grass, so completely possessed by that feline mix of playfulness and cruelty that he was oblivious to my presence. I shouted at him and advanced, hoping to rescue the bird or mouse from a slow death by torture. Sanderson looked up amazed to see me there, and scooted away through the edge into what I now knew to be the sweetest field. I squatted down to assess the condition of his prey, then let straight back up with a yelp, armed with a stout twig. I approached again. It wasn't easy to say what it was. It was as white as squid with the same slimy gloss, but as thick and muscular as a steak, the shape I can only compare to a hugely magnified wheat berry pointed at the ends and fatter in the center, slightly convex at its widest point it lay using a thin gray liquid that shimmered as it leaked into the grass. Perhaps Sanderson had got his claws on the afterbirth of some farm animal. I thought I prodded it with the twig, then lifted it toward the dustpan as I dropped it. It twitched, retching a bit. I banged down the lid and wipe my hands on my trousers, even though I had not actually touched the thing I had by then canceled my plans to drive into the nearest town for dinner that night. It struck me as far too much effort and I was instead looking forward to a cozy night basking in the warmth of the cast iron wood burner, some soup and bread, maybe a glass or two of wine and bed before 10. That after all was the idea of staying here. I had intended walks on the high wheeled, early nights, wholesome food, peace and quiet. I could just as easily have had a couple of weeks in italy or Greece or France instead of the safe option of rural Kent. But I felt tired just thinking about airports and taxis and museum crowds and hire cars, and other languages and trudging along endless, dusty, incomprehensible streets I needed at that particular time, familiarity, smugness ease. I've been working too hard for too long and after one incident to many of losing my temper with someone I shouldn't have. I finally took my head of departments advice to have some time away. A friend of mine recommended the cottage in the Hamlet of marred um, she'd stay there, one christmas. It was bliss, she said, one pub, one church, one shop houses that really look like gingerbread and everyone was so nice as dusk fell, it started to rain. I hoped Sanderson had recovered from the shock I had given him and returned to the shelter of his little nest in the shed. I looked out the kitchen window as I stirred the soup on the hob, checking for signs of him at the end of the strip of lawn, the high black thorn hedge, still winter bear for it had been a cold late spring revealed scraps of the field. Beyond where the ground rose. In the distance, I could see the ramshackle metal barn, randomly patched with bits of wood. Behind it was the buckled roof of the house, a narrow ribbon of smoke rising from one of its four chimneys. Tom ransome was right about the field. The sleepers didn't appear to pay it much mind. Earlier in the week had balanced on an upturned bucket to look over the hedge, curious to see if a crop was growing. There was left on the wiser, nothing there but a collection of diseased gray seed heads rising from collapsed rosettes of leaves, patches of thistle and rough. We'd klag e earth and stones, the fading light and the rain led to grain as to everything that evening, a dreary sudden aspect that made me glad to be indoors. The radio burbled from the mantelpiece and the simmering soup bought from a city Delhi smelled good. Then I saw something walking past the hedge in the sweetest field, the parts that were visible through the twisted thorn darkened, enlightened, then darkened again. I was sure it was a person. The person had to be a sleater with the unruffled movements of someone unaware they're being watched. I carried the soup pan to the table and then returned to the window, pulling the chintz curtains shut in a casual everyday way. If they couldn't see me, I couldn't see them, but I couldn't let it go for the rest of the evening. I was as jittery as a rabbit. Who knows. A fox has caught its scent. I forensically analyzed any unexpected sound, turned the radio down at every creak and crack of old timber and brick, and checked that the doors were locked again and again, in case I'd been mistaken The last time I pictured a sleater lurking outside waiting for me to emerge so he could inflict lively scars upon me as it happened to the man in the pub. I had after all caught Jacob sleet as I. Perhaps he would come for revenge and I could only guess at what he might think suitable in the end. The wine and the warmth of the sitting room stupefied me sufficiently for sleep and I totted up the narrow stairs to the bedroom. I had made my own. I went to draw the curtains and paused when I noticed that the rain had stopped and a perfect full moon was shining dazzling over the sweetest field. And there with the brow of the hill I saw a hunched figure with a coil of thick rope slung around his upper body, laboring head down towards the barn. He passed into the shadow of some trees. It was gone. I rose late the next morning and had a proper fried breakfast washed down with several cups of strong coffee, and seeing as it was a cheerful blue sky day set off for a walk along the river and past the old mill ponds that were dotted around the outskirts of the village. I checked the sheds before I left, but there was no sign of Sanderson and his food looked untouched, but I was pretty sure that there was no cause for alarm with a cat like that. I laughed at the state. I got myself into the night before. For God's sake, I told myself you live in a city where you take your life in your hands every time you walk home at night in a year you get jumpy the shadow behind a hedge, it was, after all, only extraordinary circumstances that had led me to know of the sweetest existence, and in all likelihood I wouldn't see them again before I went home. It was possible I've been told to walk in a circle from my cottage through meadows and small orchards and scraps of cops, whilst never leaving the banks of some water course or another. The area had once been home to several water mills and a leather dying industry remembered in names like Tanner's Lane and Mill road, and the first stream I was to follow the Middle Eat. I found this stretch of water. Sheeni leaf clogged, barely moving at the edge of a meadow that was halfway turned to liquid mud, a comparatively dry footbridge at the far corner took me over a white swirling were, and then I was on the bank of the little river Chase, who's monitoring sediment id course. I followed for the next mile or so. The path then cut away from the bank through sharp hawthorn thickets, past scattering of leafless apple trees, and on to skirt round pastures, whispering with the bubbling, licking sounds of watery earth. I passed a series of ponds covered in floating islands of broken reads, a collapsed and abandoned tractor trailer, a pile of man sized concrete pipes, moss grown and forgotten in the field. And then I was again by the river crossing a rusty metal bridge back in the direction of the village. My hope had been that a walk would lift my spirits, but in fact, it seemed to have left me feeling a bit demoralized, perhaps due to the effects of the sludge underfoot and the sluggish, despondent look of the landscape in those few square miles, even the willow branches overhanging the river held snags of decaying vegetation circling in the breeze like corpses of tattered birds, knowing that the final section of any walk always seems the longest, I increased my pace, which wasn't easy with boots plastered with wads of grass and mud. Then I came to a sudden stop. A deep, masculine shout rang out, as clear as a cannon from somewhere back the way I came, but it was more of a bellow than a shout, aggressive, full of guttural threat, the kind deployed to scare a savage animal away. Nightmare! Images of violent pursuit sprang panting into my mind, bloody wounds, and matted fur, yellow teeth bared in gruesome, slavering mouths. I pictured the crazed dread of the animal as it tore through the spiked thickets headlong, dangerous, like the man giving chase, prey, and predator deadly to anything which crossed their paths. Having turned myself lightheaded with fear, I broke into something near a jog and didn't dare slow, for the last half mile, not until the path turned back to the lane where my cottage was. My breath was still ragged when I walked into the back garden and saw framed in the open door of the shed, the goblin form of a sleater child. I recognized it as a larger of the two I had seen in the old king's, in my guess was that it was a boy from the cut of the stiff hair. But the features of the child were ambiguous to say the least. He gazed at me listlessly and stretched out a stubby arm. I was looking, he said, for a moment, I was a total loss. What did you do in situations like that? Is your daddy here? I ventured, or mommy, someone? I went to the back door and found it locked as I had left it, The child began to sniffle. Always looking. He whimpered. Well, that's all right, I said, looking is all right now. How did you get here? Do mommy and daddy know you're here? He shook his head and poured his cheeks with his shrimpy fingers. What the hell was I meant to do of all the kids that could end up in my wood shed? Why? This 11 thing I was sure of was that I was not going to be the one to return it to the sleet of farm. Then I thought of tom I only had to get the childhood tom He'd know what to do now. I bet your mummy and daddy are looking for you. We'll go and see tom at the old King's. You know where you were yesterday. And then he'll get your money. How about that? The child nodded, staring at me with a sort of aw. I suppose he was trying to work out what I was sleater or burchard or something entirely wonderful and new. I got him to follow me to my car, strapped him into the front seat, feeling exactly like an abductor and drove the half mile to the pub. There was only one punter in the public bar. Much to my relief, an ancient, flat capped fellow lingering of the dregs of his beer. Tom ransome was behind the counter drying a glass, holding it up to the light for smears, humming a merry tune to himself when he saw me, he put the glass down with care. Well, now, what's all this? He said. I went up to the bar and slid onto one of the high stools. Tom I've just found a sleeping child in my wood shed. He's outside in my car. I don't know what to do. Tom scratched his head and blew through his teeth. Now, let's see, Take him back. I know. I know, but what with them being a bit hostile? You wonder if I might do instead? Well, I thought it might be better. But you could phone them, couldn't you? They could come and get him. The thing is, I don't have a phone, barely got electricity. And the thing is, they'll know you've found him soon enough and they'll wonder why you didn't take him back yourself and we don't want sleater is set. All the wonder. So what I suggest is to come with you and then we'll return the errant child together. How about that? Just give me a minute to lock up. I'd rather hope not to involve myself at all. But I deferred to Tom's judgment. I wasn't in the least surprised that there was a handmade keep out sign at the start of the pothole drive that led to the sleater place. The drive branched off a narrow lane that ran past the tiny medieval church and graveyard. I had already walked the lane and discovered that soon after the church it became unser fist track through apple orchards, narrowing to a dirt path that led up modern hill. The child sat quietly in the back seat as I drove, sniffing every now and then. I thought he was probably enjoying his little adventure. You better wait here, Tom said, when we pulled up in the yard in the front of the house, I'll see if anyone's about. I nodded assent as I looked at the smashed windows on the ground floor of the dirt colored buildings, the door swinging on one hinge, the bits of clothing and pots and pans and glass strewn around the muddy concrete yard christ! I said, What the hell has been going on here! Sleep has been going on here, Tom replied. I watched him go up to the house and call out. When no answer came he walked around the side, probably to check the barn. I didn't like him being out of sight. What if they turned up now with me and their child in the back of the car? The yard was situated behind the miserable field that backed onto my cottage and through a gap in the trees, stricken wind, cheered things. I could see the upper floor and the humped clay tiles of the roof. I sat forward in my seat. Through the caps of the hedge, I could see something white moving slowly, in a way that even from there was suggestive of a living thing, a big hand thumped onto my near side window in the door. Behind me, clicked. It was tom across the yard, hovering at the side of the barn was a sleater matriarch, her arms crossed over her old cocky sweater, a face set in an inexplicable expression of defiance. Come on little and Tom said, helping the child from the back seat grandma is waiting for you. The boy hopped out and scampered over to the woman who made no move to hug him or even roughly his hair. Instead she kept her eyes on Tom and me as I started the engine and reversed the car out of the yard. Well, I asked him as we jolted back up the track, why was the household smashed up and had they even noticed the kid was gone? Tom shook his head wearily. What can I tell you? I asked if there'd been any trouble and you know what she says. Ha! She tells me a goat got out the top field and went a bit mad, that's where the rest of them are, she says, putting the mad goat back in the field. Little adam must have wandered off in all the fuss, she says, a goat. A goat that rips doors off and needs a whole gang of sleet is to restrain it. He looked at me inside. What can I say? I'd like to say, be nice for them to do something normal for a change. But I suppose the shock would kill me if they did. Now how about a whiskey in the pub before you head back on the house? I said it would pass on the offer, but agreed to go to the old King's in that evening. Tom promised me free beer to make up for all this fuss. Back at the cottage. I inspected the garden for evidence of an animal having been there, particularly a white one but there was nothing I could see. Not even Sanderson. I reminded myself to let tom know that the cat had made himself scarce. Perhaps someone in the village had seen him. Perhaps he moved in somewhere else, but maybe he was sick. Perhaps that stuff he got hold of. Didn't agree with him. I cautiously lifted the dustbin lid to have another look at it, but either it had sunk down to the rest of the rubbish, or it had dried up into the shriveled black curl of stuff that lay on top of yesterday's papers. I ended up passing a pleasant evening in the old king's. I got roped into game after game of yuca, which, luckily I played a few times before with three of the old boys, and what with a generous supply of beer from tom, the gruff, sarcastic banter and the soothing crackle of the log fire. I wandered back to the cottage with a satisfied feeling of a few hours well spent. There had been, however, one moment of awkwardness, although I swept it aside at the time when I returned from the bar after a pause in play, my three companions cut short a hushed conversation. The last few words sounded like one more day, but I wouldn't have dreamed of asking what they meant.