Chapter 14 – Pinch, Flick, Twist
‘Thanks,’ said Mac as Sebastian returned to the shop with the drinks. The butcher was sitting outside on a wooden chair, which creaked alarmingly under his bulk. He gestured to a second, equally rickety-looking seat, and tossed him a sandwich from the basket. ‘Thought we’d have lunch outside, since it’s such a nice day.’
‘Good thinking,’ said Sebastian, who couldn’t help smiling at his recent revelation as he took his place next to the butcher.
Mac eyed him suspiciously as he chewed. ‘What’re you smirking at?’
‘Oh!’ Sebastian’s smile faded. ‘Nothing… just thinking about a joke someone told me.’
‘Well, let’s hear it then.’
Sebastian thought quickly, latching onto one DeVere had told him a couple of weeks ago. ‘Knock! Knock!’ he began.
‘Heard it before,’ said Mac and took another bite on his sandwich before waving it at Sebastian’s face. ‘So what happened then? To your eye?’
Sebastian turned to look at his reflection in the large shop window. He had forgotten about the black eye. ‘Shooting accident,’ he said. ‘Took a scope in eye.’
‘Looks nasty. Still, at least you got that two pence, eh?’
Their lunch, like their morning, was interrupted a few times by customers, but Sebastian enjoyed sitting in the sun, not having to worry or even think about anything in particular. Birdsong, from the hedgerow, accompanied the meal, and one in particular that caught his attention. For the first time in his life, he found himself wondering was sort of bird it was.
‘Which bird?’ asked Mac.
‘The noisy one,’ said Sebastian, pausing to listen. ‘There! The one that sounds like a demented fax machine.’
Mac opened his can and took a sip as he tilted his head towards the birdsong. ‘Blackbird,’ he said. ‘Though I reckon the noisy buggers sound more like that R2D2 than a fax machine.’
The two man sat in silence, both listening to the blackbird as it twittered away, hidden by the foliage. ‘You might have a point there,’ said Sebastian, amused by the butcher’s comment. ‘Wonder what it’s saying.’
‘Same two things as any other animal. It’s “Come and fight me!” or “Come and…” Er, you know… What that bird and the bees do.’ The tops of Mac’s cheeks flushed again. He turned at the sound of footsteps approaching down the hill and Sebastian peered round to see an elderly lady he vaguely recognised from the church service marching towards them with a purposeful look about her.
‘Sorry to interrupt, Mr McGeenie,’ she said, in a voice so sharp it that could have through steel.
‘Not at all, Mrs Farley’ said Mac heaving himself to his feet, a look of pathetic relief on his face. Even his beard seemed thankful at being saved by this welcome intrusion. ‘How may I help you?’
‘The parish council have asked me to inspect the hog for the fayre and ensure everything is in order.’ Mrs Farley gave Sebastian a brief, laser glance, before directing its beam back at Mac.
‘Follow me,’ said the butcher, ushering her into the shop.
Sebastian settled back into his chair, which was not as uncomfortable as it appeared, and relaxed in the sunlight, a grin forming in the butcher’s wake. He leant his head back and stared up at a sky that seemed far broader than in the city. Back in London the sky was just a distant thing that you glimpsed between building and occasionally invaded the world with rain. Here, it was the backdrop against with everything moved, a living canopy that set the pace of daily life. Today it was blue. Insanely blue, as though it had been digitally enhanced, all traces of cloud edited out. Here and there birds of some description – Sebastian was about as good at identifying them by their form as by their song – flapped and glided far above him, and the sun was directly overhead, burning into his retinas.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, savouring the peaceful sounds of the nearby birdsong, coupled with a gentle breeze that rustled the trees down the hill and, somewhere far off, the sound of a lawnmower, or maybe a tractor busy at work. And tor the first time since leaving his apartment four days ago and watching the metropolis slipping into the distance, he felt content – happy to be just where he was.
‘This is no time for falling asleep!’ Sebastian jerked awake and opened his eyes to see Mac leaning over him. ‘Don’t forget about them sausages.’
‘I wasn’t asleep,’ Sebastian mumbled, though he knew he had. He wiped the line of dribble from the corner of his mouth, trying to disguise the action as a cough.
Mac pointed at his chin. ‘You missed a bit.’
Although Sebastian hadn’t been looking forward to an afternoon of further butchering, he found the process of making sausages strangely satisfying; much easier than hacking up carcasses and whittling out bones. The work was centred around a large stainless-steel contraption with a panel of buttons and winking lights. Sebastian pointed out that it looked like some kind of time machine.
‘Like a clock?’ asked Mac, that glint back in his eyes. He patted the shiny surface. ‘This is my grinder. There’s nothing she can’t turn to mince.’
Their first job was to put the diced pork through the grinder, before splitting it into four batches and mixing it with various herbs, spices and other ingredients, to produce Lincolnshire, Cumberland, Pork and Apple and Traditional sausages.
That’s when things started to get interesting. Mac fitted some kind of funnel attachment to the front of the grinder, threaded with sausage skin. Sebastian was disgusted to learn they were actually sheep intestines, and he was sure Mac had waited until he had been threading them on for several minutes before he made this revolting revelation.
They then fed one batch of sausage meat at a time through the machine to fill the skins, a task which Mac made look easy, and which made Sebastian look like a bumbling idiot.
‘Try and fill it evenly,’ said Mac, his beard failing to conceal his amusement. ‘You’re gripping it too hard – There’s no need to yank at it.’
Sebastian, who was buckling under the pressure, almost yelled at the butcher. ‘I am not yanking at it! I’m doing it exactly like you showed me.’ The flow of meat sped up suddenly, causing a length of sausage to leap at him, coiling across his arms. ‘Help!’ he shouted over the noise of the machine. ‘It’s attacking me! Make it stop!’
Although Sebastian failed to get the hang of his part of the process, they did at last end up with four lengths of sausage, each in its own container. The final stage of the process was turning those snakelike lengths into individual sausages.
‘It’s real simple,’ said Mac, placing a container on a workbench and lifting out the end. ‘First you have to make a knot in the end, so it doesn’t all come oozing out. Then make a couple of pinches, like this.’ He demonstrated, squeezing the skin together between his sausage-like fingers at six-inch intervals. ‘And here’s the clever bit, where you link them into bunches of three.’
The manoeuvre that followed appeared to be both simple and impossible at the same time, as though, with a couple of twists, he had managed to defy the laws of physics and force solid objects to move through each other.
‘Whoa!’ said Sebastian, blinking in surprise. ‘What was that, some kind of magic trick? Show me again.’
Mac did so, pinching the length into two sausages, bending them together and, with a flick and a twist, somehow passed another between them to form a trio of sausages. Pinch, flick, twist and there was another trio of sausages. Sebastian’s eyebrows creased together in concentration as he motion for Mac to do it again.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘I reckon I’ve got it. Can I have a go?’
Mac gave him a “This I’ve got to see” look. ‘Sure, but it won’t work with those gloves. Too much friction. You’ll tear the skins.’
So, with bare hands and only a vague idea of what he was trying to do, Sebastian relieved Mac of the sausages and gave it a go. How hard could it be?
‘I give up,’ he said less than a minute later, as he handed the jumbled mess he had produced back to the grinning butcher. ‘It’s clearly some sort of witchcraft and I, for one, want no part in it.’
‘So how’d it go?’ asked Virginia, as Sebastian kicked off his shoes by the door. As usual, she was in the kitchen, a steaming pot clutched in oven gloved hands. She tried to blow a stray clump of her long, messy hair from her face without success. ‘Did you get it all done?’
Sebastian trudged in and propped himself against the table. ‘Most of it, I think. Mac said there’s a few bits he’ll have to finish up tomorrow.’
‘And the sausages?’ said Virginia, dumping the pot on the table and lifting the lid to peer inside. ‘Did you manage to do that weird twisting thing to make the links?’
He shook his head, catching a whiff of whatever was in the pot. It smelled delicious. ‘Not even close.’
‘Me neither,’ she said. ‘It’s clearly some sort of witchcraft. Neil won’t be back for a couple of hours yet,’ she added, with a quick glance at the clock. It was just after four. ‘Why don’t you take the weight of your feet for a while? The bathroom’s free if you want a bath or anything? You’ll find your clean clothes on the end of your bed.’
‘Thanks,’ said Sebastian. The sofa certainly looked inviting after standing up in all day, and the thought of a hot shower after the chilled air at the butcher’s was equally tempting. ‘But I feel like going for a stroll, if that’s okay.’
Virginia raised her eyebrows. ‘Oh. Well, yes, of course. You do whatever you like, dear. Dinner’s going to be early today – six o’clock – so you’ve plenty of time for tonight’s brew.’
Sebastian’s thoughts immediately turned to the making of tea and coffee. ‘Brew?’
‘Making beer,’ said Virginia. ‘Up at the vicarage. It’ll be fun, you’ll see.’
Sebastian, who had heard this promise now a number of times, decided to withhold judgement. That was something for later. Now was the time for walking.
Living in the city, he was accustomed to having to travel by foot. Only the rich or the foolish had cars in London. And taxi drivers, of course. He resisted the trend of riding a bike, mostly because he thought it wasn’t safe what with the buses mowing cyclists down at every opportunity, but also because he didn’t like the helmets people wore and didn’t want his hair getting blown about. But walking around the city streets was a different game altogether from walking in the countryside. There were no crowds here to weave through, no traffic to drown out all thoughts and clog up the air, and no tall, shiny buildings to block out the horizon.
Sebastian climbed the hill, waving to Mac through the butcher shop window on his way, and stopped at the crossroads. To the right lay the other shops and the pub and straight ahead the small church peeped out between the yew tree branches. He considered taking the road on the left, since it was invitingly named ‘High Street’. But this appeared to be some sort of country joke as it appeared to lead to only a handful of houses before becoming a dirt track that disappeared over the hill. Instead he struck out to the right, past the hairdresser and the village store on the right – no sign of Emma… not that he was looking, of course – and past the village green and the pub on the left, after which a run of picturesque cottages lined the road. And they were cottages, he was sure of that. His great aunt Joan, she of the house that smelled of cat, had owned a small collection of pottery models that looked like these buildings, complete with thatched roofs, wooden frames and front doors that were surely too short for anyone to walk through without ducking. She had always referred to them as her ‘dream cottages’ and had been most upset when Sebastian knocked one off her dresser when he was six.
Most of these cottages were named after flowers, ‘Lavender Cottage’, ‘Bluebells’ and so on, but as Sebastian made his way along the gently curving street, he noticed some that had more descriptive names – names from Steepleford’s past. ‘The Old School’ towered over the surrounding cottages. It had large, arched windows and a garden to one side, bordering the road. In an alcove above the porch, a brass bell glinted in the sunlight, as silent as the playground and classrooms that must once have been full of life.
Opposite this stood the ‘Post Office’, though its days of delivering the mail had clearly been over for many years. There was a stone trough in front of it, filled not with water, but with hyacinths and wall flowers. Next door was ‘Forge Cottage’, where no doubt the postal horses would have been shod before motor vehicles drove them out and the post office closed its doors.
Sebastian looked up as an eerie, squeaking sound caught his attention, but it was only an old horseshoe that hung above the door swinging gently on its rusty chain. He turned to look back along the empty road. Everything was quiet, the old village dozed in the warm afternoon, the busy days of its life now over.
He felt a curious sadness wash over him at the thought that, once upon a time, maybe fifty or sixty years ago, this street would have been as busy as those in London. Not in terms of the volume of people, but in terms of activity. He imaged horses clip-clopping along the street, pulling carriages and wagons behind them. A postman leaning against a cottage wall, chatting with folk as he did his rounds. The shout and laughter of children playing in the school playground, waiting for the bell to call them back to class. The clang of the hammer and the puff of the bellows as the blacksmith worked his craft, repairing a gate or fashioning a set of door hinges. Shopkeepers and shoppers, frequenters of the pub, cricketers on the green and farmers bringing in their produce.
As he stood in the road, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun, the only sounds were the birds singing from their hiding places, the only movement a discarded paper bag nudged along by the breeze. No one came or went along the empty street. No cars rolled by, no children played.
Sebastian wasn’t sure how long he stayed there, gazing into the distance, thinking of nothing, but after what seemed like an age, the sound of a door banging open and jumble of raised voices startled him out of his reverie. Instinctively he scurried around the side of the old Post Office, much as he had hidden the previous night and peered through the wisteria that grew across the front of the building. Across the street, two houses up from the old school, three people emerged from a cottage. Two of them were men Sebastian hadn’t seen before, but he recognised the woman standing in the doorway. He couldn’t recall her name, but it was the woman who had come to see Mac at lunchtime. And she didn’t look happy.
‘Well, I don’t know what you expect me to do about it at such short notice,’ she said, her voice clipped and angry, making it sound even more posh than earlier. ‘What am I supposed to do now?’
One of the men, who had an impressive set of side whiskers and was clutching a cloth hat in his hands, spoke though he addressed his comments to her feet. ‘Sorry, Mrs Farley.’ Yes, that was her name – Sebastian remember now. ‘But there’s nothing to be done about it. I came to tell you soon as it happened.’
‘Can’t you take better care of your beasts, man?’ said Mrs Farley, unmoved by the man’s words. ‘Especially with the fayre only three days away.’
‘Something’ll come up,’ said the other man, younger than the first and sporting a less commanding display of facial hair. He didn’t have a hat. ‘Always does.’
Mrs Farley said nothing, but even at this distance Sebastian could feel the force of her glare. The man fell silent.
‘Here’s a though,’ said the first man, brightening up suddenly. ‘Why don’t we let you have a couple of our cows instead?’
‘Don’t be preposterous!’ said Mrs Farley, astonishing Sebastian with a word he’d never heard spoken out loud before.
The man, however, seemed offended. ‘But they’re good strong girls, they are.’
‘Or there’s old Geronimo,’ suggested his companion.
‘Old Geronimo?’ Mrs Farley spoke the words as though they had been found in a dead rat. ‘Who is that, exactly?’
‘That’s our Aberdeen Angus bull,’ said the hatless man. ‘Massive, he is, but soft as cake and no mistake.’
Mrs Farley shook her head. ‘No, no, that won’t do at all. Just forget it. I will just have to find a replacement myself. Good day.’ And with that she backed into the cottage and shut the door. The two men, looking relieved that the ordeal was over, hurried away, ducking into the Green Man and leaving the street empty once again.
Sebastian let out a long sigh and stepped out from the side of the old Post Office, wondering what that had been all about.
‘You lost or something?’ said a voice, so close behind him he nearly tripped over his boots.