The mist was rippled by a slight breeze as he walked across the gravel to the porch and the front door. The tops of the pines at the far side of the field over the road were still hidden, but it looked as if the mist was finally moving away. The eerie, quiet whiteness unnerved him. It was when the world was at its most still that unfortunate things happened. Or so it had seemed.
He looked back along the road as he reached into his pocket for the keys. He was expecting a delivery this morning and didn’t want to miss the lorry. He was completely out of Thomas The Rhymer and his regulars wouldn’t let him off another night without any. Silly buggers, there were plenty of other bottles of cider, ales and spirits. Creatures of habit, though, the local ale was his best seller to his regulars and he’d be buggered to lose money if he could help it. No sign of the lorry, he unlocked the door and walked into his pub. Turning on the lights, he smiled as he looked around the bar.
The Hoppringle was his pride and joy, which he knew was a bit of a cliché, but one that was true. Once a large farmhouse with a stone courtyard, for at least two centuries it had served the old road as an Inn. Built of solid, stone walls, it was, he thought, a rather beautiful place. Bare wooden floors shone with a polish and colour that only the passing of time could provide. The grey walls inside showed the old prints on the plastered walls to good effect, sharply contrasting with the golden wood that panelled parts of the room. Just right.
The marks in the wooden door and window frames were all intact, he was relieved to see, and he’d already noted that there was no sign of any disturbance in the gravel outside the pub. All good, then, he sighed.
He took the log basket he’d filled the previous evening from the log store outside up to the pot-bellied stove in the corner and started building a fire to warm the bar up. He could see his breath in the air, even inside, on days like this. It was always noticeably colder up here on the ridge road, compared to down in the village. He shivered and stood up from the stove, taking from his pocket the red yarn wound tightly around an old bobbin. In his other pocket, he felt for the little plastic envelope which contained the berries and rowan twigs. He’d see to this later, he thought.
A sharp blast of a loud horn announced the arrival of the draymen. At least Janey wouldn’t have to endure another night of moaning from the locals, providing the keg of Thomas was here. And where the hell was she anyway? Not like her to be late.
He walked across the room, checking that the fire in the stove had taken, towards the door. He pulled it open and met Lanney, his regular brewery drayman. Lanney was scratching under his wooly hat with a pencil. He liked Lanney. One of the good guys around here. He was also a regular, which still struck John as odd. He’d be as well drinking at work and saving time and money than trecking up to the pub.
‘Alright, Lanney,’ he said.
‘Hiya John. Six kegs, aye?’
It was at least half an hour later than Janey finally arrived.
‘Afternoon, Janey’, said John.
‘Aye, very good, John. I’m not that late. I’m sorry, the bus was ridiculously behind,’ she replied, as she hurried across to behind the bar, taking her coat off as she walked. ‘I’d have called you, but you know what the signal’s like at the stop?’
‘Aye, alright Janey, no bother. The brewery delivered, so at least we’ve got Thomas for tonight.’
‘Thank God for that. I couldn’t be bothered having Roddie whining on and on again, like last night’.
John smiled. Maybe it was going to be a good day after all.
Around five o’clock, the pub was warm, cosy and beginning to get busier again. Outside, the land had disappeared into the night. The mist had cleared during the day and now it was cloudless and very cold. A slight frost was glistening already and, judging by how many stars glowed overhead, it was to be colder still. The sky had that faint snow smell that the farmers knew well. By the end of the week, the snow would cover the hills, much later than normal this year. Inside, the lamps gave off a warm, subdued glow. The music in the background was just right with Maddy Prior’s voice just audible above the friendly conversations that were taking place.
Roddie was perched on his usual stool by the bar, a pint of Thomas in one hand and a vaporizer in the other. He was chatting to Janey, his left leg bouncing up and down repeatedly, as always happened when he was talking about something he had an opinion on. On this occasion, Brexit. John watched them both from the corner of his eye as he collected empties from across the room. The pub has been busy that afternoon, thanks to the ramblers from Gala. Janey was smiling slightly at Roddie, whilst she twisted willow stalks in her hands.
John could tell that Janey was enjoying the chat, even if her expression said otherwise. She was used to the peculiarities of his customers after all these years. Roddie was harmless. Just lonely. And far too bloody chatty. It must be difficult for him, though, stuck up at Cauldhaugh ever since Malcie had gone.
Thinking of Malcie always made John’s cheeks burn red and he was thankful that no-one was watching him. He gathered up the empty glasses and took them behind the bar to the sink. Roddie was still talking, but John wasn’t listening. It was only when Janey touched him lightly on the arm that he began to listen again. Janey leaned in closely, turning her back on Roddie. Roddie didn’t seem to notice, or care, that his audience was moving away. Maddy Prior had been replaced by Toni Arthur and Roddie was now in full song.
‘Did you see that there’s been another one, John?’, she asked.
‘Another what, Janey?’
‘You know what. At the Sentinel Stone, this time.’
‘Ach, Janey, that was early last year. You must have seen the posters, surely? It was all over the news, too’, said John.
‘No. I didn’t. I don’t know why. That was when I went to Edinburgh, to the University, to see Bethan. But, John, The Sentinel Stone. It’s getting closer. That can’t be good, can it? What does it mean?’.
Janey looked a little scared, he was surprised to see.
“It was last February, Janey. I think we’re okay now.’
Janey wasn’t convinced. ‘You saw the marks on the wood, didn’t you? That daft bugger’s been trying to erase them, hasn’t she? She thinks if she rubs them out, it’ll let it loose, doesn’t she?’
John stopped polishing the pint glass he was holding. He turned to look at her, smiling.
‘Janey. The marks are all still there. Not that that matters a bit. If that daft old bitch wants to play games, then let her. We’re safe. We follow the rules and we stay safe. Now, don’t worry. Go and see what Roddie wants, will you? He looks like he’s never had a drink in his life, the way he’s waving that pint glass at us like a loon.’
As she walked away, John’s eyes flicked to the dark grooves and patterns in the beams by the window. They all looked right. Didn’t they? He picked up another clean glass and polished it, without thinking.