Ravi was attempting to keep spirits up by singing Shout Out to My Ex as they trudged onward down the hill. At first it worked well. They climbed across one hilltop, singing at the top of their lungs, and yanking their suitcases behind them like they were dancing too. For ages, they were all singing a medley of pop songs (Year 3000, 5 Colours in Her Hair, Mr Brightside and Shout Out to My Ex to be precise) but one by one their voices got quieter until they just gave in. Even Tiana had given in on their twenty eighth round of McFly.
Simi was pulling along a wheelie suitcase behind her. The others all had rucksacks or handbags that hung on the hook of their elbows. All of them had a dull ache and almost no feeling in their arms, but at least they didn’t have a heavy suitcase snapping at their heels, throwing dirt up their legs, and getting caught on rocks.
Even so, tempers were beginning to flare up.
“Keep up fam, you’re lagging again!” Ravi called to Simi.
“D’you want me to abandon your damn clothes in the middle of nowhere cause I will!” Simi snapped.
“Alright don’t get grumpy, just speed up,” Ravi kissed her teeth.
“Don’t tell me what to do!” Simi spat.
“Leave off you two, we’ve still got ages to go,” Tiana groaned.
“And who’s fault is that?!” Simi spat.
“Stirring up shit won’t make things better Simi so just shut your face,” Tiana warned.
“Who put you in charge whitey?!” Simi snapped.
Tiana snapped back instantly. “No one’s in charge that’s the bloody point! That’s why we abandoned Tristan, like you suggested.”
“Oh, so it’s my fault were in the middle of nowhere because you didn’t think about tracking devices?!” Simi demanded.
“You didn’t think of tracking devices either and you know it! Don’t start pointing fingers or we won’t get anywhere!” Tiana stated sharply.
“We’re not getting anywhere, anyway are we? We’re barely five miles from the van and it’s taken hours to get here!” Tahati said darkly.
“What’d you want her to do, magic a portal to town for us to jump through?!” Ravi argued.
Tahati scowled at her. “What you think I’m dumb enough to believe in magic portals?”
“I’m not the one who said it,” Ravi muttered.
Tahati’s eyes widened behind her glasses, in the same way they always did when she tried to remember what her anger management coach had said.
Even so she couldn’t help herself from saying “God you’re a bitch!”
Zangi whipped her head around to glare at Tahati.
“Don’t start on her, what have you done that’s been of any use lately?!”
“I’m done loads!” Tahati shouted.
“Yeah, you got scared of a sheep, failed to get the tracker out of the van so we had to leave it, and punched someone so we had to leave town in a hurry. So, useful,” Zangi said sarcastically.
“Well all you’ve done is complain since we left school! We’re on our own out here you need to learn to put up and shut up!” Simi shouted.
“Guys-” Tiana began impatiently.
“Shut up,” Ravi said.
“No, you shut up!” Simi yelled.
“No, seriously, shut up,” Ravi repeated.
“Shut up, everyone, shut up now... do you hear that?” Ravi asked.
For a moment, they descended into a tense silence, ready to let all hell break loose if they needed to. They even stopped walking to try and hear whatever Ravi thought she could hear.
But they didn’t.
There was a rumbling in the distance. It seemed to be getting louder and getting closer. As it did, it got bigger.
“What is that?” Simi muttered.
“Let’s go see,” Ravi said.
Ravi left her bag on the grass where they were standing, and began to climb back up the hill they had just descended. The others didn’t feel right leaving her, so left their bags around hers, and followed.
At the peak, they could see the source of the noise. It was a huge tractor, with dry mud across its front, and wheels. It stood high above the girls, on wheels as huge as monster trucks. Tahati could stand in the tire with her arms up straight and still not touch the top. Behind the tractor was a long wooden trailer filled with bales of hay.
“D’you think he’ll give us a lift?” Zangi asked hopefully.
“If you don’t ask you don’t get,” Simi said.
“We need to get his attention,” Ravi said.
“Don’t go in front of the tractor though. It’ll be too high up, he won’t see you and you might get hurt,” Tahati warned.
“Simi, Tahati, you two go that side and get the drivers attention. Me, Zangi and Tiana will try from this side,” Ravi instructed. As Simi and Tahati ran across the road to take the tractor from the other side, Ravi yelled, ” And be careful!”
There was more space on the sides of the road than on the road itself. That gave the girls the opportunity to go as far back as they needed to, to be seen. Which meant that they were about three feet away from the tractor as it got closer, jumping, yelling, and waving their arms above their heads manically.
The tractor was moving very slowly. It was practically crawling along the road. Yet it’s huge wheels made it impossible to keep up with. Tahati kept jumping to try and be seen in the rear-view mirror. Ravi and Zangi were running along the path, trying to keep up with the window of the tractor to stay in view. Tiana and Simi just kept screaming variations of “hey” to try and get his attention. So slowly they hardly noticed, the tractor came to a stop. As it finally stopped, there was a loud clunk, to prove it.
the girls flooded with renewed hope and dashed to the driver’s door as it swung out. Simi had to duck out of the way to avoid being hit by it.
The seat was so far above them they had to crane their necks to see the driver. He was an old looking man. Wrinkled and weather beaten, with salt-and-pepper coloured hair peeking from beneath a bright blue baseball cap, that matched his beard. He peered down at them as they crowded around the steps up to his seat. A fluffy black and white collie with black ears and a white snout appeared at his shoulder to look at them.
“Ey, ey? What’re you lot doin’ all alone out ’ere?” he called.
The others shoved Tiana forwards, because they didn’t want to have to speak and she could think of lies quickly.
“We’re so lost! Like, totally lost. Can you help us?” she asked, throwing in a pout for added innocence.
The farmer cast a suspicious look across the lot of them and he screwed up his face as he thought.
“Where’re your things?” he asked.
“Down the hill,” Zangi said.
“We can move easier without them and we needed to stop you,” Tiana explained.
The farmer nodded with acceptance. “Fair enough. Where’re yeh headin’?”
“Err, only like, as far as town,” Tiana shrugged.
“Which town?” he asked.
“Which is closest?” Ravi asked.
“Well I’m headin’ back home to Loxley. Any of yeh headin’ that way?” He asked.
Tiana’s eyes widened in surprised as she realised how far they had travelled since yesterday.
“Loxley? We’re in Loxley?”
He nodded, smiling, “Yup. Near me farm. In Loxley.”
Tiana let out a long sigh. “We were in Nottingham yesterday.”
“Yeah? Well it’s only an hour’s drive away.” The farmer said.
“Yeah. It’s taken us a day to make it,” Ravi rolled her eyes.
He tutted, bemused, “you ought-tah get a faster car you do. Where’re yeh staying?”
Tiana glanced around desperately the others to beg them to help her come up with an answer.
“Don’t tell me you lot ain’t thought about where to spend the night! It’s almost dark now y’know. Won’t be many places for yeh to stay in town either,” the farmer exclaimed.
The girls threw an accusing look at Tiana. Tiana shrugged innocently.
The farmer tutted. “Nah. You’ll have-tah stay with me. If the misses don’t mind that is.”
You know that feeling when you’re going up in a lift, and there’s a moment when you’re going between floors where your stomach bounces? That’s what hit the girls when they heard this stranger decide they were staying with him for the night.
“With – with you?” Simi said, anxiously.
“In the farm ’ouse, yeah. Not a problem, is it?” the farmer asked.
All of them were shot with lightning bolts of alarm. None of them wanted to end up in this stranger’s house but they needed the lift.
Again, the others pushed Tiana forward to encourage her to come up with a lie. She just chewed her lip and looked uncomfortable.
“Ti?” Ravi nudged her urgently.
“What choice have we got?” Tiana mumbled.
“Tiana that’s how horror movies start,” Simi hissed.
“I know,” Tiana whispered.
“Then say no,” Ravi urged.
“He’s right, it’ll be dark soon. It’s dangerous out here in the dark,” Tiana insisted.
“It’s dangerous out here in the light,” Tahati agreed solemnly.
“What cha sayin’ down there? I can’t hear easy,” the farmer called.
Ravi and Simi urged her with their eyes. Zangi and Tahati just stood there and looked exhausted. They had to get into that tractor, and stay out of the house.
“How about we start with the lift and sort the rest when we get to it?” Tiana called to the farmer.
“Cross a bridge when you get there, y’say? Sure. No skin off my behind,” was the instant reply.
He heaved himself out of his seat, swung onto the steps, and climbed down them. As he did all his joints made popping noises. He groaned and grumbled about getting old as he finally hit the ground.
“This way girls.”
The girls felt a little uneasy. This guy seemed old, but apparently strong enough to carry the hay bales that filled the back of the trailer. Tahati and Ravi were staying close behind Tiana as they followed the farmer to the back of the trailer. He heaved open the back, climbed up, and started to heave hay bales about.
The girls watched, anxiously. Their heads and shoulders were all that could reach into the back at this point. They were too short for anything else to get in. all they could see were the hay bales moving about. Then he straightened his back, dusted his hands off, and looked around with a kind of satisfaction.
now the girls could see what he’d been doing. The farmer had piled the hay bales up on top of each other, moving them out of the way so that there was a kind of circle in the middle of the trailer. It was pinned in by hay on each side, and would be shut in by the wood when that shut, but right now, looked open and inviting. It looked warm too.
“Need a hand?” He asked.
He knelt down and reached out a hand to help them up. The girls looked between each other. Tiana cleared her throat pointedly at Tahati. Tahati’s heart sank. She took a deep breath, and reached out to take his hand.
Back in high school PE lessons they had had to learn trampolining. The tall gymnastic trampoline was about the same size of this trailer. Back then though, there had been at least eight girls, (two on each side) to make sure they got onto the trampoline alright, and didn’t fall while jumping. They also had a chair to use as a stall. Even then some of the girls had needed help climbing up.
Tahati was one of them.
Even though she had someone pulling her up, her legs dangled free, and she needed someone to push them up too. Before Tiana could step forward, Zangi did. Zangi relished the opportunity to bully her friends. She grabbed Tahati’s feet, and heaved them over the side of the trailer. Tahati yelped as she did.
Zangi laughed at her with great delight. At least until Ravi grabbed her waist and Tiana grabbed her legs, and they both heaved her up right after Tahati. Ravi and Tiana helped Simi up together. Tiana linked her fingers together for Ravi to use as a step. Then she was left standing on the grass by herself.
“What about our bags?” She asked.
The farmer clicked as he swung his arm, as if he had only just remembered.
“I’ll go get them,” Tiana said.
“I’ll ’elp. Yeh can’t carry ’em all on yeh own,” he said.
Tiana kept her smile pinned on, even as she swore inwardly. The farmer jumped down from the trailer. As he walked past the open door, the border collie barked and leapt out of the hub. The farmer and Tiana and the dog ended up walking down the hill together.
Zangi leaned over the edge to watch them go. Tiana shot her a long, desperate look of dread. Zangi dropped back into the hay. After a moment, she felt warmer.
It was weird that they couldn’t feel the cold while standing in the open, but once in the trailer and warmer again, realised how cold they really were. Then again this was England. It was always that cold.
“Is she gonna be ok?” Tahati asked nervously.
“If she’s not back in ten minutes, we run,” Simi decided, “We run uphill and back to the van. Tracker or not.”
“And we leave her?” Ravi asked anxiously.
Zangi rested her hand on Ravi’s shoulder. “It’s what she would have wanted.”
“How’d you lot get ’ere all on yeh own then?” The farmer asked, conversationally.
Tiana shrugged. She didn’t want to tell him the truth, but what kind of lie would explain any of this?
She gave it a go anyway.
“We didn’t. There’s this guy... our friend - Tristan - he drove us. Only the van broke down and he went back to Bakewell and we decided we didn’t want to wait for him.”
The farmer frowned. “So yeh abandoned ’im?”
That sounded bad.
Tiana shrugged. “We’re only loyal when it suits us.”
That didn’t sound any better.
He hummed dubiously as they came close enough to touch the bags that they had left in a pile on the floor.
“If yeh don’t mind me sayin’, that don’t sound like loyalty. Why yeh goin’ to Loxley when yeh friend’s in Bakewell?” He said as he picked up Tahati’s rucksack.
When Tiana was in front of people she could concoct a lie with ease, if only to get them out of trouble. When she was alone, and pressed on the matter, she panicked and caved. That’s what happened here.
“Because he was miserable and we didn’t like him so we stole his van and ran away only there was a tracker and we panicked and ditched the van!”
There was a slight pause as he tried to figure out what he’d just heard. After that lingering pause, he let out a chuckle.
“Now that sounds like the truth,” the farmer said.
Tiana felt like she’d betrayed everyone. She hung her head a little. To punish herself for her betrayal, she picked up Simi’s wheelie suitcase. The collie picked up Ravi’s bag in his jaw, and wagged his tail proudly.
“What’d yeh think was a tracker?” The farmer asked curiously.
Tiana shrugged. “There was little red light underneath the bonnet and we couldn’t figure out what it was, so we decided it had to be a tracking device.”
“Well what else could it be?”
The farmer shrugged and thought for a less than a second before saying, “The reflection of the check-oil or indicator light? Or the auto light that’ll come on when the bonnet is opened, in case yeh lookin’ at it at night.”
Tiana stopped walking as the reality of their stupidity smacked her into standing straight. The farmer stopped a few steps ahead of her, and looked back.
“Are yeh ok?” He asked.
“Do me a favour and don’t tell any of the others that. That’s far too logical,” she said sheepishly.
The farmer smiled in the way that your grandfather smiles when you say something naive.
“I won’t,” he promised.
Tiana looked down at the collie. “You won’t tell anyone, will you?”
The collie whined, and shook its head so its ears flapped. Tiana grinned affectionately. The farmer looked surprised, and then impressed.
“If mah boy could communicate with animals like you can, he wouldn’t be leavin’ for uni,” he said.
Tiana smiled. She couldn’t help feeling a bit smug. The farmer helped Tiana up first, and then handed her the bags. She handed them all to their owners. Simi shoved hers into the hay in disgust. Her heels were killing her.
The girls thanked him against as he locked the trailer shut. He winked at them, before heading back to the cab.
“So? D’you think we’re gonna be ok?” Ravi asked urgently.
Tiana sat down on a hay bale against the edge of the trailer. She shrugged.
“Yeah. For now anyway.”
Simi and Ravi still looked dubious, but even they had to admit they were grateful for the lift.
Tahati would have been ecstatic if she weren’t exhausted.
The tractor lurched forward before rumbling onwards in a smoother motion. The tractor was still rumbling, and far louder than you would assume. The trailer bumped and wobbled over the rocky road. The hay was itchy and hard. It was a fairly uncomfortable ride, but they didn’t care. They were completely exhausted and grateful that they no longer had to walk. Grateful for that little extra warmth. But grateful, mostly, for the view.
All around them, black and white rock filled peaks loomed overhead. Lush sweeps of emerald green stretched as far as the eyes could see. The green waves were broken by flashes of elephant’s grey boulders.
Overhead, clouds hung low in the sky, the same shape and colour as carrot and swede. It was like a dragon’s hoard lit by the dragon flames themselves. It looked as though someone had spilled golden watercolour paints across the sky. Thin pink, pale blue, and delicate lilac streaks bled though, curling across the air.
In the distance a lake shimmered, liquid gold, turning the hills into a reflection of the sky.
It may just have been because of the fear they had experienced throughout the day finally being put behind them, or finally being completely free, or just the beauty they were surrounded by, but something about this moment was completely blissful.
They were travelling for so long that they watched the lakes of gold fill the sky and then dissipate as the sun dipped below the horizon. It was still just peaking over when they turned from a skinny country lane into a farmyard. By now Zangi was barely awake. When the tractor jolted to a stop with a relieved sigh, she just groaned.
“What we gonna do?” Simi asked.
“What can we do? It’s getting really dark now,” Ravi said.
“What if he tries to kill us?” Simi asked.
The girls looked to Tiana, either in desperation or accusation. Tiana threw up her hands helplessly.
“If it comes to it, I’ll kill him first,” she said.
She was half joking but the others weren’t in the mood for jokes. They were taking everything with a sinister level of seriousness.
“What?!” Tahati yelped.
“Well you can’t, you’ve got a God!” Tiana said.
“Yeah, and I believe you’ll be sent to my hell!” Tahati hissed.
“Clearly not,” Tiana said.
“This ain’t time for a hell isn’t real speech!” Ravi hissed.
“Oh hell is real. We’re in it,” Tiana said.
Before the argument could continue, the farmer appeared at the edge of the trailer and flashed them all a smile.
“Nice ride?” He asked cheerily.
The others glanced between each other. It had been till they stopped. They watched him wander off to a bedraggled little shack to their left, and return with a stall. It squelched in the mud as he pushed it down firmly.
“You’ll ’ave teh carry yeh bags. if yeh don’t want mud on em that is,” he explained. Then he threw a glance across their dirty and oil slick faces. “Although maybe yeh ain’t got teh worry.”
Then, with a chuckle, he held out a hand to help them out of the trailer. Tiana went first. Simi and Tahati followed. Then Ravi passed down the bags to them. They looked like trees in the mud, trying to hold the bags above their heads.
“Ravi, carry Zangi,” Tiana said.
“Why?!” Ravi demanded.
“Because Zangi won’t walk in mud. Just get her out of the trailer and then leave her in the dirt to flower for all I care,” Tiana shrugged.
Ravi looked down at where Zangi was laying half asleep in the hay. Then she looked down at the fall into the muddy farm yard. Ravi grinned.
The farmer trudged his way to the front door, with a line of nervous and uncomfortable girls following him. Zangi trudged up through the mud. It came to her ankles and she was grateful she’d chosen to wear boots.
Ahead of them was a farmhouse. It was like a child’s drawing. Mostly square with a triangle roof. Oh, and completely painted sky blue with scarlet on the door and across the window panes. A rectangular window peeped out of the roof ever so slightly, to spy on the farm animals while they slept.
along the front of the house there was a small, brown picket fence. Inside, a bramble of roses was growing. None were blooming yet, but you could see the ladder where the vines crawled towards the windows. Like a prickly green monster.
the windows were bolted, and covered with black out curtains.
Tahati heard Ravi gulp. She reached her hand out, subtly, to squeeze her forearm. Nothing was said, but they knew how to read each other.
Don’t worry. We probably won’t die here.
The farmer headed up to the door. He paused to glance back at his tail. Then he shielded the door from view with his back as he slid the key into the lock. He acted as if there was something he didn’t want them to see. It sent a chill down their cynical spines.
“I miss Tristan,” Simi whispered.
Tiana linked her fingers through Simi’s. “Me to.”
The farmer opened the front door, letting out a blast of warmth from the hallway. With it came a musty scent of baking. It smelt like pastry. The farmer placed Simi’s bag on the cream carpet, and climbed over the dire boot cleaner.
“just pop yeh shoes off, quick as yeh like, and I’ll let the misses know yeh here,” He declared.
As he made his way down the corridor and into the source of the yellow glow, he left the girls huddled around the kitchen door.
“I don’t wanna be rude,” Simi said, which was usually an indicator that something rude was about to follow, “but I ain’t going in this crusty old dude’s house for love or money.”
As much as every fibre of Tiana’s body agreed, she knew they didn’t have much choice. Zangi nudged Ravi and nodded towards the sign above the door.
“McDougall Farm. Why are all farmers named mc?” Zangi asked.
“Old Donald started it,” Ravi explained.
“Yeah well he had too many chickens and needed rid of em what else could he do?” Simi said.
For a moment the mood lifted and they thought they might be ok. They could still laugh, and laughing still felt like breathing.
In the kitchen, the farmer wrapped his arms around his wife, and reached for the tarts she was cooking. She swatted him with her spatula.
“Not until puddin’ you,” she warned.
“Might not be any left. I Got some guests that need a place to spend the night. They’re all huddled by the door, too nervous to say hello,” he explained.
She lit up in delight. “Oh really?”
He nodded. “Like rabbits, the lot of em.”
“let me see,” she said, hurriedly taking off her apron.
As she hurried towards the door, the farmer reached out for a tart again. A spatula hit him between the shoulders as his wife threw it across the room.
“wash yeh hands first!” she scolded.
He grumbled, but obeyed.
From the warm glow of the kitchen came a woman who seemed to be made from dough. she was a dear, short woman, with fat that moved like smiles when she moved. She was dressed in a bright pink jump suit and a polka dot hair cover hiding a great mop of cinnamon and grey curls, all up in rollers. Honestly, she looked like she’d stepped out of a children’s book. When she smiled, her face lit up like a moon.
“’Ello girls!” she beamed.
The girls responded like meerkats, peering over each other, wide eyed and looking alarmed. The farmer’s wife seemed taken aback momentarily, but then fixed on her warmest smiled.
“All yeh must be half frozen. Come inta the warm,” she urged.
None of the girls moved. They glanced at each other anxiously instead. The farmer leaned against the kitchen doorway, across from the foot of the wooden stairs, chuckling with his tart.
“See what I mean Kel? Terrified, the lot of em. ’Ave been since I pick em up in the hills.”
Kelly’s face changed as she began to piece together what had happened, and why they were so anxious. She picked up her tea towel and whipped him with it.
“Ah Darrell yeh great oaf! Course they’re terrified! You’re a full grown old man and they’re iddy-bitty-little girls!” she tutted.
Darrel looked bewildered. “Right?”
“A strange old man too, in every sense. Yeh forget, don’t cha? They’re raised to fear strange men offering lifts!” she tutted.
It finally clicked in his mind, and you could see it happening in his eyes.
“Oh right! Oh I’m awful sorry girls. I don’t think sometimes,” he explained, apologetically.
“Clot,” Kelly tutted again. She turned to the girls with a gentle look, “Sometimes I think he only ever thinks about his cows, and forgets how humans work.”
“Ah cows are no trouble. No worries, have cows. Well, none but the butcher, ey?” Darrell threw a wink in the direction of the girls.
He won a smirk from Tahati, but she had a warped sense of humour anyway. Kelly rolled her eyes affectionately.
“Don’t mind ’im. He’s a bit of a ditz, but he’s a good ’eart. C’mon into the kitchen and let me look at yeh!” Kelly beamed.
The girls glanced up at Tiana for final say. Even though she still felt a little queasy, the cinnamon scents swirling from the kitchen were making her stomach rumble. She tugged Simi’s hand.
“Stay close and I’m sure we’ll be ok,” She decided.
The others looked unconvinced. Quietly, at the back of the group, Ravi googled the name of the farm on her phone. It was still loading as they shuffled into the kitchen. There was a wooden table by the stove that had six seats. Two on each end, and four opposite each other. Along the wall, beneath a very large window, was an oven, a dishwasher, a sink, a microwave, and a bunch of cupboard doors. One of which hid a fridge. The stove was burning, which gave the room a heavy air, which made them slightly dizzy and tired.
The girls lined up along the wall out of habit. Ravi felt like she was on display, which made her feel a little self-conscious. Especially since her tights (from her ankle up at least) were covered with a new layer of mud, a different shade to the dirt across her front. At least her tights didn’t have holes in like Tahati’s socks. But at least her socks matched, unlike Tiana’s. Zangi moved one of her feet behind the other and held her arms behind her, self-consciously. They were all vividly aware of the hay caught in their hair and the dirt on their clothes, as well as the thin scent of engine oil that was still caught in Tahati’s hair.
Despite how uncomfortable they felt, Kelly didn’t seem to mind – or notice - how they looked. She was very cheery. The kind of woman that could have a conversation, to you, rather than with.
“Oh, you’re all very pretty ain’t yeh? I always wanted a little girl of my own y’know. Got a couple boys instead. Only got Rodge now though. And he’s off to uni tomorrow. Ey, now we’ve got enough people for a proper celebration! Let me fetch ’im!”
“You really don’t need to-” Tiana began, as politely as possible.
“Don’t bother,” Darrel chuckled.
With a voice suddenly like a megaphone, Kelly hollered, “OI! RODGE! COME SAY ’ELLO TO OUR GUESTS!”
Tiana’s hand whipped to her ear as it began to ring.
“Jesus!” she whispered to Tahati.
Tahati replied with, “Bismillah.”
That caught Kelly’s attention, and suddenly she was like living sunshine again.
“Oh, Muslim are yeh love? Yeh be wantin’ a special supper then?” she smiled.
“No that’s Christianity,” Tahati said.
She hadn’t meant anything by it. It wasn’t a joke, or her being stupid, it was just the first thing she thought of. The kind of innocent mistake you make when you’ve stepped into Wonderland and have no idea what’s going on anymore.
But it made Kelly howl with laughter. “Oh, that’s Christianity! Oh, yeh a hoot you!”
Tiana shot a glance at Darrel, who had sat down into a rickety old wooden chair at the end of the table. He gave her a look that said: “I know she’s a bit much, but I love her anyway.” Tiana couldn’t help smiling as her attention was stolen back by Kelly.
“No, no, I mean an... ooh what’s the word?” she pressed a finger to her double chin as she hummed thoughtfully.
Even while thinking she couldn’t be silent. A man, who looked more like a tall boy than a man, stepped out from the bottom of the stairs and slipped into the kitchen. He unfolded into his full high, and towered over the girls.
“Halal mum. The words halal,” he explained, in a voice like melted chocolate.
Incidentally, that was what his sparkling eyes and messy hair looked like too. Kelly beamed at him.
“That’s it! Yeh need a halal chicken. Rodge, go fetch one from Uso’s freezer for us,” she beamed.
Rodger’s shoulders sagged. “Ah ma! What’ll Uso eat when he gets back?”
“We’ll replace it later! God knows Jessie’s gotta go soon, Poor love,” She turned to Zangi and added, in a low voice so the chicken wouldn’t hear her, “Running low on eggs, and high on fat.”
Bewildered out of words, Zangi just nodded. All of them were shook to the core by the juxtaposition of the last few minutes. They had been terrified, then exhausted, then terrified, and now just confused.
“Now, Rodge, show the girls the way to the bathroom. I’m sure you’re all dying for a shower after walking through the mud outside, I am sorry about that. I’d have rolled out the carpet if I’d known we were having guests.”
Kelly shot an accusing look at her husband, who just laughed.
“I didn’t know they were goin’ teh be ’ere any more than you, my love,” he said.
She tutted at him accusingly. Then she shot a glare at her son, as if both of them were trying to embarrass her.
“Rodger. Take them to the bathroom!”
“I thought I was getting the chicken,” Rodger grinned.
“Well yeh not now, duck. Take ’em to the bathroom, Darrel, get the chicken,” Kelly ordered.
Darrel groaned as he climbed up from his seat, made a show of bowing low, and saying, “as you wish!”
Ravi and Tahati chuckled. Darrel grinned at them. Kelly just tutted, but there was a kind of spark in her eyes. A spark of joy.
Darrel rested one of his large hands on Zangi’s shoulders. He smiled at her, so she smiled back, feeling ten times more awkward than she had ever had before.
“This way,” he said.
He turned his back on them to head for the stairs. Tiana – who had been about to ask if she could have a tart – was dragged to the front of the line, and shoved to follow Rodger.
you don’t know it when you’re tall, but when you’re taller than a girl, and older, you’re twice as intimidating. Add farm boy manners, and the muscles to throw bales of hay too, and it’s something that can be hard to handle.
These girls were fresh from a flabby all-girls school, where they were about average height too. Rodger made them a little flustered, because he was unlike anything they had seen before. At least, not for years.
“I’m sorry about my mum,” he explained as they climbed the stairs, “she’s a little excitable. Nice, sure, but full on.”
“Yeah, right,” Tiana said, awkwardly.
“She’s extra full on right now though. I think she’s gonna miss me when I go,” He said.
“To uni?” Ravi asked.
Rodger paused on the stairs. A surprised smile crossed his face. “Dad told you about that? Huh. He must be prouder than I thought.”
“You didn’t think he was proud you got into uni?” Tahati wondered aloud.
“No. I mean, yeah, but no, because, like, well - I just - sort of - err,” Rodger stammered.
Suddenly, Rodger was a lot less intimidating. It’s hard for someone to fluster you when they’re panicking themselves. Simi hit her. Tahati’s eyes widened in alarm. She suddenly realised that she was being rude, but she hadn’t meant for it to be rude.
“Take a breath. It’ll help you think,” Zangi said, helpfully.
Rodger gave an uneasy chuckle. He started to continue up the stairs again, so he didn’t have to look at them.
“It’s just that, I’ll be the first in my family to go to university. My brother was an apprentice, and he went on to work with some film and photography company in the city. We don’t see him much anymore,” Rodger explained.
Tahati drew a breath. Before she could form a word, Simi elbowed her. Tahati squeaked, but said nothing.
“Once I go, it’ll just be them. Dad made it seem like I was just going away for a bit, and I’d be back to help on the farm later. Like it was no big deal. It’s nice to know he’s proud of me,” Rodger explained.
The others weren’t sure what to say. While they were busy thinking, they weren’t paying attention to Zangi.
“I’d be proud of you, if I knew you well enough to be,” She declared.
Rodger furrowed his brow at her a little. “That’s weird.”
Zangi blushed red and lowered her head. She murmured, “Sorry.”
“No, no. it’s a nice kind of weird. Mum’ll like you,” Rodger chuckled.
Zangi perked up a little, but was still hot under the collar.
“anyway,” they came to the top of the stairs, and Rodger pushed open the first door, “this is the bathroom. Shower, sink, toilet, everything a bathroom needs.”
He moved to the second door, but didn’t open this one. “This is Uso’s room. Uso’s a refugee who’s working as a farm hand with us for a while. He’ll be moving on in a month or two. Right now he’s out at a farm skills fair with our local farm hand. I’ll be gone before they get back.”
He pointed in turn to the last two doors. “Mum and dads room, and my room. Until tomorrow that is. They’ll be making it into a guest room for another refugee until I leave uni and decide what I want to do.”
The girls murmured in mock approval. Really none of them could care less about his life right now. Some of them really wanted a shower, or food, or to sleep.
“Where’ll we be sleeping then?” Ravi asked, quietly.
“Hay loft, if that’s alright. It’s warm and dry and safe. Usually private too, but sometimes Cheddar slips his pen, and then he likes to play in here,” Rodger explained.
“Cheddar?” Tahati repeated.
“Our goat,” Rodger explained.
“This is a weird place,” Simi muttered, a little too loudly.
Rodger chuckled and nodded, “Yeah it is.”
“I like it,” Tiana declared.
Partly because she wanted to cover up in case Simi caused offence, and partly because it was true.
“Same,” Tahati agreed.
The other girls murmured in agreement. Rodger chuckled, and told them that he’d bring up their bags for them to get changed after their shower.
Once he was gone, the girls realised something. There was one shower, six girls, and limited hot water. It was Ravi who realised first. Tahati was seconds behind. Which lead to a footrace between Ravi and Tahati. They both dashed into the room, colliding in the doorway as they tried to get through at the same time, and dart into the shower. The other girls just shoved them to try and get them through.
the faster they showered, the faster they could.
Tahati made it into the shower first, and slammed the glass door shut behind her. Ravi pressed her middle finger to the glass as Tahati jumped up and down victoriously.
“Let it go Ravi. Tahati’s covered in oil. You aren’t,” Zangi stated.
Ravi huffed. She glared at Tahati through the glass. “Be fast!”
“I’ll take as much time as I want,” Tahati’s voice was echoed by the shower.
“Be fast though. We all need a shower too, remember,” Simi called.
“I will be!” Tahati promised.
The dinner that was cooked for them was immaculate. Slow roasted chicken, glazed with fresh lemon-juice and home grown herbs, that filled the room with a mouth-watering scent. Broccoli and carrots steamed with butter and rosemary. Handmade Yorkshire puddings were soft inside, and crunchy outside. Fluffy roast potatoes captured everything that was good with the world. Thick, dark, smooth gravy was drizzled over everything.
All of it was bursting with flavour, and smells that made their mouths water and stomachs rumble.
Since they could have been called up to take a shower at any time, the girls inhaled their food. They barely took time to savour it, but when they did, it tasted like heaven.
“Slow down or you’ll give yourself-” Kelly began.
“HIC!” Zangi squeaked.
With less enthusiasm, but more humour, Kelly finished with, “The hiccups.”
Zangi’s plate was cleaned faster than anyone else’s. Mostly because the others were trying to make sure they remembered to thank them for cooking, and point out how amazing the food was, and at least try to be polite. When Tahati appeared again, Zangi was forced to get up and go to have a shower. Despite Ravi’s objections that she should be next, Kelly pointed out that she hadn’t finished her dinner. Ravi shrugged. The food was good enough to wait for a shower.
“This is amazing Kelly,” Simi declared.
“Thank you dearie,” Kelly chuckled.
“Yeah, it really is,” Ravi agreed.
“Yeh sweet as sugar you lot,” Kelly smiled.
“I like the gravy especially,” Tahati said.
“That’s my speciality actually,” Rodger grinned, proudly.
“You added lemon zest, right?” Tahati asked.
His smiled changed mildly. “How’d you know?”
“It’s enough of a kick to be lemon, but not enough for lemon juice,” Tahati explained, before shovelling more food into her mouth.
Kelly laughed. “Intelligent girl. I like that.”
“No, no, she’s just greedy,” Tiana said.
“That’s true. She’s terrible in Ramadan,” Simi said.
“She steals our food and takes it home to eat after dark,” Ravi said.
“Genius!” Darrel beamed.
Tahati grinned smugly towards Simi, with a full mouth. Simi ignored her, and kept eating.
“Then you’ll love my tarts,” Kelly said, with a twinkle in her eyes.
Tiana opened her mouth to make an inappropriate joke. Across the table, Ravi glared at her. Tiana thought better, and carried on eating. Ravi had to go for her shower before the tarts came out though.
They were perfect circles of pastry that could fit comfortably, in the palm of your hand, with assorted colours of jam in rings from the outside in. First it was red, then pink, then blue and finally black. Like little targets.
“Strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and black current,” Kelly explained as the girls looked at them in wonder.
Sneakily, Simi snuck her phone into her hand, and snapped a shot of her tart for instagram later. Darrel chuckled at Simi’s smile when she thought no one had seen.
They looked marvellous. However, there was a lot of sugar in the jam that made it sickly sweet, and the various flavours hit the tongue in unusual ways that felt strange. The butter in the pastry combated that, but not enough to take it away.
“Marvellous,” Tiana said, politely.
She only took two though. Well you have to make sure you don’t like them. Rodger stood up to get something out of the fridge.
“This’ll help,” Rodger said, as he placed some clotted cream on the table.
Tiana in particular didn’t see how that would help, but somehow it did. It soothed the flavour in some way, making it less sour, and tangier.
“Brilliant!” she laughed.
Rodger gave a pointed nod at his mother, as if settling an argument from much earlier in time.
While Ravi was showering, Simi and Tahati went to pray, and Zangi went to help Rodger and Darrel carry the bags into the barn, it was just Kelly and Tiana in the kitchen. They stood beside the table, collecting up the plates to take to the sink.
“Need a hand washing up?” Tiana asked.
Kelly began to chuckle to herself. Tiana frowned.
“I was just thinking of how shy yeh were. Scare stiff bless yeh ’earts. Get some food in yeh and look now! All cheered up and hard working,” Kelly explained.
Tiana smiled. “We’re just grateful to have somewhere to rest.”
Kelly smiled down on Tiana. “Yeh always welcome here.”
Tiana smiled back, gratefully. “So, shall I wash up?”
Kelly threw her head back and laughed loudly.
“My boys never washed up for themselves. I’d ’a loved to ’ave a girl!”
Tiana laughed despite herself and slipped in front of Kelly to get to the washing up. Kelly, with nothing else to do, sat on one of the wooden chairs and watched her clean up.
Tiana had a dishwasher at home. The only time she’d ever had to wash up like this was after cooking lessons in school. She was relying on that experience to deal with the mess that lay before her. As she turned on the hot tap there was a short sharp scream from upstairs. Tiana snapped upwards as if looking up at the ceiling would allow her to see the cause of the sound.
“Sounds like yeh got yeh friend,” Kelly chuckled, “my boys used to wind each other up with that all the time.”
“Ah she’ll be fine. It’ll make sure she doesn’t waste water,” Tiana shrugged.
“Yeah my boys used tah say that too. Mean, they were. My eldest ’specially. Never stopped till he got what he wanted,” Kelly sighed.
Tiana was pouring far too much Fairy liquid into the sink because she was distracted by the conversation.
“What happened to him?” She asked.
“I dunno. One day he decided what he wanted, was tah be far away from ’ere. So he left and I ain’t seen ’I’m since. Keep the door open for travels though, case he ever needs a bed.” Kelly explained.
Tiana filled the sink with water again, making Ravi scream again. Kelly laughed just as hard as Tiana herself.
“Y’know, if you were my mum, I don’t think I’d ever wanna leave home,” she said.
“Yeh sweet tah say it, but yeh know it ain’t true,” Kelly said.
“A farm in the middle of nowhere surrounded by animals and people who are clearly kind hearted and joyful is pretty much the dream,” Tiana said.
Kelly leaned her head against her hand. “Dreams don’t pay the bills honey. Besides, yeh on a journey right now. A long one by the looks of it. Yeh gotta break the wanderlust in yeh ’eart before yeh can settle somewhere.”
Tiana shrugged, “I don’t have wanderlust.”
Kelly raised an eyebrow. She knew wanderlust when she saw it. Those that had it passed through her doors and out within two days. Those that didn’t lived there until they were forced to move on. The girls were planning to leave in the morning. Wanderlust was like the struggle.
“Can yeh stay still for more than five minutes without gettin’ impatient?” Kelly asked.
“Can anyone?” Tiana smirked.
“No one with wanderlust,” Kelly said.
Tiana was going to retort, but then she thought about it. How excited she’d been for this adventure. How disappointed shed been to go so slowly. How delighted she was when they were free. How heart-breaking it would be to go home.
It was something that she hadn’t realised before, but yeah. Her boots were made for walking.
“Huh,” she said in wonder.
Kelly smirked. Children were so obvious, and just so oblivious. There was a squeak from upstairs, followed by a creak of floorboards as Ravi stepped out of the shower. Kelly stood up, waddled to the sink, and took a saucepan from Tiana’s hand.
“Sounds like the showers free. Go get yeh self-clean. I’ll deal with this,” Kelly said.
Tiana was still busy thinking, so she just nodded and headed towards the stairs. Ravi was sat on the edge of the toilet lid, as she put on her lotions.
“Can’t you do that downstairs?” Tiana asked.
Ravi tutted at her. “Gimme a minute to put on some clothes.”
Tiana nodded and waited outside for her.
Kelly glanced up from the dishes to see Ravi wandering into the kitchen. Her hair was wrapped up in a white towel that fell about her shoulders like Simi and Tahati’s hijabs. Kelly’s large stomach jiggled like a bowl full of jelly as she chuckled.
As she did, she reminded Ravi of one of the hens that usually roamed the yard.
“Nice shower?” Kelly asked.
“Yes, thanks,” Ravi sat by the table and opened a pot of lotion. “I might have used up all the hot water though. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry dearie. My Darrell’s used to cold showers,” Kelly said just as Rodger entered the kitchen.
“There’s an image that’s gonna scar me for life.”
“Well you gave it to yerself,” Kelly tutted.
Once again Ravi was reminded of a hen. Kelly reached up as high as her flabby arms could reach, and rested her hand against Rodgers cheek. Rodger had to stop for her to be able to reach.
“My baby boy,” Kelly whispered, emotionally.
Rodger shook his head and gave another laugh.
“Honestly mum I’ll be fine! I’m twenty years old, I can survive on my own!”
“Yeh don’t have teh. Yeh only an hour’s drive away, yeh can come back whenever yeh need,” Kelly insisted.
“I know mum, I know. But I’ll be fine,” Rodger promised.
Kelly held onto his hands for a while longer. Her last chick was flying the coop. The nest was feeling a little empty.
Of course it wasn’t.
There was still the local farm hand, and the refugees that they were letting work on the farm and teaching English too, and the customers, and - at the moment - the girls, that needed her attention, not to mention the animals, or Darrel.
But children are special. When they’re around you want them out and when they’re out, you feel empty.
Ravi broke the silence. “What uni you going to?”
“Lancashire. To study creative writing and business,” Rodger explained.
“Strange mix,” Ravi said.
Rodger shrugged while sitting down next to her. “Gotta have a fall back.”
“Smart,” Ravi said. “Tahati’s the writer of our group. She writes, I dance, Tiana photographs, Ravi acts and Simi thinks she sings.”
Simi walked through the back door as Ravi finished speaking.
“No I don’t, you think you sing. I’m more of a hostess, video maker, web designer type person,” Simi argued.
“Don’t put down yeh skills, duck. If yeh didn’t make websites and videos, who’d know these lot existed,” Kelly grinned.
“Exactly,” Simi agreed.
Simi didn’t feel the need to say she wasn’t amazing at making websites, or that she hadn’t tried to make one for any of these lot.
She felt a strange like of affection towards Kelly. Almost, childishly, like she was her mother. Or surrogate mother. Just supportive and cheerful. Like living sunshine.
“If yeh ready for bed the barns open,” Darrel declared.
“Is there Wi-Fi in the barn?” Ravi asked immediately.
Both parents looked at Rodger expectantly. Clearly, he, like all other youths, were the technical wizzes for their parents.
“We’ve got a projector out there and I can wire it to a laptop, but the laptop would have to be close to the wall,” Rodger explained.
“But we can watch Netflix?” Ravi asked.
“Yeah, I guess,” Rodger shrugged.
“Brilliant! We won’t miss Pretty Little Liars after all!” Ravi grinned.
Simi groaned and rolled her eye. Sarcastically she muttered, “Yeah great.”
“I’m gonna go settle the pigs, and I’ll check on yeh later teh make sure yeh ain’t gettin’ cold,” Darrel promised. Then he turned to Rodger. “If yeh don’t mind, I could use a ’and about the farm tah morrow, before yeh leave.”
“Yeah dad, course,” Rodger promised.
Ravi and Simi shared a look. There was a lot of hospitality here, and they didn’t want to seem ungrateful. They said nothing though. They didn’t want to make promises they couldn’t keep. Tiana came downstairs in white fleece pyjamas trousers with pink love hearts, and an oversized shirt that said, “make spaceships not war.”
“What are you wearing?” Ravi sniggered.
“I don’t need to answer your questions you took all the hot water,” Tiana said.
“That explains why you were so quick,” Simi said.
Tiana threw a glare at Simi in annoyance. Simi just smiled back.
“Into the barn then?” Ravi asked chipperly.
Tiana threw a look towards Simi, hoping for more detail. Simi just shook her head to say she didn’t want to know. Tiana took her word for it.
Rodger and Darrel had - at Kelly’s demand - laid out some wooden planks and carpets on top of the mud to form a path to the barn.
The barn was made of wood tightly pinned together to make sure it was warm inside. A row of long rectangular lights lit the barn with a blue-white gleam.
The yellow hay bales had been taken from the trailer and piled up around the wooden barn floor. Loose hay had been scattered about to help make things more comfortable. There was a ladder leaned against the wall for access into the hayloft. Up there was a couple of plain mattresses, and a pile of blankets, folded neatly.
In the corner of the barn there was an extension cord with a plug connecting a work table to a laptop that rested on top. Zangi had already plugged in her phone.
Some old wooden stalls were dotted about, once used by refugees who had stayed here, or for milking before the machines arrived. There was even a rocking chair nestled in and surrounded by hay.
Rodger moved the ladder from the wall, and leaned it against one of the roof beams.
“Hold the end for me girls,” he ordered.
Obediently, Simi and Ravi latched onto the ladder to make sure it didn’t fall. He climbed it until he got to reach the orange projector hanging from the rafters.
“What cha doing?” Zangi asked in a sing-song voice.
They hadn’t seen her laying in the hay loft, on a mattress, watching them.
“Fixing up the projector to make sure it works,” Rodger explained.
He fiddled about with it, and then a navy-blue screen poured out to light up the plain back wall of the barn. Rodger made a victorious laugh and the girls gave a cheer. Once his feet were firmly on the ground, he opened the laptop. The back wall revealed a pair of cows eating grass as the background.
“If you wanna log into Netflix, you can use the wall as a TV,” Rodger indicated to the wall.
“Awesome!” Tahati breathed, appearing from behind a hay bale.
“I’d love to play Mario kart on that!” Zangi grinned.
The others murmured in agreement as they imagined Luigi throwing a blue shell at Mario and making him skid through the ice. Rodger chuckled, which made him sound like his mother.
“Good night girls,” he said.
“Night,” the girls chorused.
“Breakfast will be early, but I’ve no doubt Mum’ll let you have a lie in if you want it,” He said.
None of the girls doubted that either. He shut the barn doors behind him, shutting out the cold breeze, and instantly warming the wooden building.
Tiana plugged in her camera charger. There was a very weak link back to the Farm house Wi-Fi, but it was just about strong enough to back up the pictures. Before long every spare plug was filled with a charger, and the lights dimmed. Ravi was worried about breaking a bulb, which made Zangi worry about a fire, so they turned off the lights, just in case. The projection was dull, but bright enough to see by. It was aided by a small, round window in the wall above the hayloft, which allowed the moonlight to stream though.
Zangi climbed down from the hayloft to join the others in the hay. Ravi was using a bale as a seat, but Simi was laying across one. Zangi built a seat from haybales, with Tahati’s help. Three were laid on the floor, and one was laid on top of the last, for a back rest. She leaned against that, and laid her legs out in front of her. Tahati was using the front bale of this seat as a backrest, as she sat on the floor. Tiana sat in the rocking chair.
There was a bit of an argument about what to watch. Ravi wanted Pretty Little Liars, Simi wanted a rom-com, Tahati wanted anime, Zangi wanted a horror movie, and Tiana wanted a comedy. Eventually they agreed on Over the Hedge, but that wasn’t available, so they watched Flushed Away instead.
Before the movie ended, Tahati was the only one awake. She picked up Tiana’s camera. The spare battery flashed green. She smirked. There was a flash as she took the picture of her friends huddled in hay, which made them whine. It made Zangi wake up.
Zangi decided that it was more comfortable in the hay loft. Tahati followed her up the ladder. Within minutes they were struggling to keep their eyes open. By the time, Kelly and Darrel came to check on them, they were asleep.
Darrel threw the blankets from the hayloft to the hay bales. Kelly unfolded them, and laid them over the girls who were sleeping in the hay, and Tiana on the rocking chair. Simi stirred as she was tucked in, but she just pulled the new warmth around her tighter. Kelly smiled affectionately. Darrel turned off the projector though the laptop, and shut the laptop down afterwards. The only light in the barn came from the slither of moonlight. Not that any of the girls noticed.
They were busy gathering strength for the hard day’s travel tomorrow.
Because nothings ever easy.