Stickwick Village, a hundred and fifty miles away from the big city that Magnus had always called home, greeted them with weak sunshine and such an overwhelming stench of farmyard that Clary demanded he roll up all the windows of the car immediately.
Magnus winced as his Audi’s road-suited tyres clunked over cracks in a road that better resembled a dirt track. He’d already scratched the paintwork on the wing-mirrors coming in along a narrow, seemingly-endless road that was enveloped on all sides by trees and terrifying bushes with sharp leaves.
“You have reached your destination,” the SatNav told them, in its tinny, robotic voice. The first time it had said that, fifteen minutes ago, it was telling them to turn right into a very large tree that had reminded Magnus of the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter.
“No we bloody haven’t,” Magnus muttered, braking to let his car roll through what looked less like a puddle and more like a small lake in the middle of the road. “We’re in a fucking river.”
“Maybe this was a bad idea,” Clary said, squinting down at the map.
From the corner of his eye, Magnus could see that she was reading it upside-down. She shoved red curls back from her face in clear irritation, before making an ‘ahah!’ sound.
“Turn left,” she said, pointing straight ahead.
“Where?” Magnus asked, glancing in his rear-view mirror on instinct to see who was behind him. Nobody was, of course. They were in some tiny, deserted little village that showed no signs of life.
Well. No human signs, anyway. They’d passed about a thousand pigs, cows, horses, and goats.
“There,” Clary said, altering the trajectory of her finger to point instead at a hedge. “After the postbox.”
“You want me to drive into a hedge? You’re as bad as her.” He jerked his chin at the offensive SatNav, which was now bleating turn around when possible! over and over again. “Turn the map up the right way.”
“No, Magnus– There!”
Hidden behind a truly enormous outgrowth of fern, there was indeed a dirt track that led down to somebody’s back yard. Magnus stopped at the turning point, though his every instinct was telling him that he could not just stop his car in the middle of the road lest he unleash a cacophony of angry drivers honking their horns behind him, and peered down the track dubiously.
No horns sounded, of course. Because there was no evidence of another living soul for miles around.
“Is that definitely it? Because I don’t want my first act in this village to be trespassing, and these people don’t seem to be very good at maintaining their fences.”
“That’s it.” Clary frowned. “It looked bigger when I was a kid.”
“Well.” Magnus released the handbrake and eyed the incline with suspicion. He had a feeling he’d be buying himself a different car soon. His automatic wasn’t going to enjoy that hill. “We’re not staying here forever. It’ll do.”
After a precarious descent, Magnus pulled up beside a large barn that looked a storm away from tumbling down, and climbed out. The landlady had left the key in a lockbox, as promised, and it only took Magnus three tries and a hard shove with his shoulder to force the back door open.
“I don’t think I’m built for the countryside anymore,” Clary said sadly, peering down at her pale blue Converse, which looked very out of place against the muddy ground. “Does it smell of farm inside, too?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Magnus said, eyeing the peeling paintwork on the door.
He clicked the button on his car keys to open the boot. The car, like Clary’s shoes, didn’t blend into the backdrop of sheep and hills and mud. “Let’s get the bags and take a look.”
The cottage was very quaint but very cold, despite the fact that it was only October. Magnus regretted kicking his shoes off in the hallway the moment the chill of the tiles bit in through his socks. At least he wasn’t so tall that he hit his head on the low-hanging wooden beams that traversed cream-painted ceilings.
They made their way through the living room, occupied by several sofas overloaded with cushions and a lampshade that Magnus took as a personal insult, and entered the kitchen. The window took up most of one wall, letting them look out onto the rolling hills of the English countryside—and, of course, several sheep off in the distance.
At least the front of the house was much nicer than the back, Magnus thought, inspecting the lightly polished oak of the kitchen table and the intricately decorated vase in its centre. The kitchen seemed like the kind of place it would be soothing to be in.
And god knew he needed somewhere like that.
“I wonder who lives over there?” Clary asked, from where she was leaning against the counter and looking out of a smaller window facing to the right. “There are tyre tracks in the driveway, so it can’t be empty.”
“Do you mean we might actually have a neighbour who’s not a four-legged farm animal?” Magnus asked, glancing in her direction. “I hope they’re nice.”
Their exploration of upstairs took mere minutes, with Clary announcing that she wanted the larger bedroom. Which was just fine, in Magnus’ book, because it faced east, so she’d be woken earlier by the sun.
At least there were no cockerels. Small mercies.
“Well,” Magnus said, stepping back into the kitchen. “I suppose we should go and find out where the nearest supermarket is. Do they have a supermarket here? Did we check? Did we actually think through anything before making the foolish decision to move here?”
“No,” Clary said, laughing. “But hey. Isn’t that the whole point?”
“There’s WiFi, at least,” Magnus observed, jerking his chin at the little modem plugged in in the hallway. “I’m sure it’ll just about manage to send a WhatsApp message.”
“I think there’s a supermarket in town,” Clary said, ignoring Magnus in favour of flicking through the papers she’d printed out from the Internet, because she, unlike Magnus, had semi-prepared for their excursion. “It’s a twenty minute drive.”
“Did we pass it on the way in?”
“Probably,” Clary admitted, sounding far too cheerful. She wasn’t the one who had to drive up that hill and manoeuvre her way past enormous tractors on a road that wasn’t wide enough for one car, let alone a monster truck the size of three SUVs.
“I think I’m going back to the city,” Magnus said, sighing. “Maybe I didn’t know what I had until it was gone.”
“No,” Clary said firmly. “We’ve rented this place for six months, and I’m damn well not going to survive here on my own. I can’t drive, for one, and apparently buses don’t exist here. Or trains. Or taxis.”
“Maybe you should learn how to drive,” Magnus teased, nudging her lightly in the ribs. “Then you won’t have to have me ferry you around everywhere.”
“Maybe I will. Maybe that will be my thing. Maybe I’ll impress all our friends back home with my driving prowess.”
Magnus snorted. “Everyone back home would think you’ve had a stroke. You hate cars.”
“Because they’re bad for the environment! But–” she shrugged diplomatically “–after half an hour here, I can see why people don’t have much choice.”
“Find some pretty countryside girl to teach you,” Magnus said, grinning. “I refuse.”
Clary sniffed in mock offence. “Rude.”
They made a half-hearted attempt at unpacking some of their kitchen things, but rapidly abandoned it in favour of discussing what food they wanted to buy.
“I’m just going to call Ragnor,” Magnus said over his shoulder, making his way into the living room. “Then we can go.”
Magnus scrolled down to his best friend’s name in his contacts list, mentally cursing the man out. This had all been Ragnor’s idea, after Magnus’ life in the city had fallen apart and he’d been at a loss as to what he could do to start putting it back together. Already, Magnus could tell that he was going to hate every second of staying in Stickwick, even if, for some bizarre, unfathomable reason, Ragnor thought it was the perfect countryside break.
Magnus was a city boy, and he liked the luxuries of the city. He liked the rapid pace and public transport and everything being within walking distance. He didn’t like farms and cattle and small towns with their small town minds and small town gossip and—
And their small town no fucking phone signal.
Sighing, Magnus slid his phone back into the pocket of his jeans. There really was no silver lining. Countryside retreats were way, way overrated. He was never going to let Ragnor hear the end of this.