Chapter 15 – Damsons in the Nose
‘Bloody hell!’ said Sebastian, spinning round. ‘You scared the life out of me!’ He was surprised to find Emma smiling up at him, clearly amused at his reaction. There was something different about her as well. ‘Are you wearing make up?’
‘Yes,’ she said, a defiant look on her face to go with the lipstick and rouge. ‘Like it, do you?’
Sebastian did not, and he seized the opportunity to take the upper hand for once. ‘Not really,’ he said. ‘I prefer you with nothing on.’
There was a pause, during which Sebastian shut his eyes in despair at his own rubbishness with women. He peeped out at her with his right eye, and wasn’t sure whether her grin was a good sign or not.
‘I think I’ll probably just take that as a compliment,’ she said at last, moving closer to take his hands in hers. He was certain she only did it to see how flustered she could make him. Very was the answer. ‘Want to come back to mine and check your emails again?’
He did want to – of course he wanted to! – but a quick glance at his watch, without dislodging his hand, confirmed the suspicion that he’d been out for quite a long time. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to get back for dinner soon. We’re eating early so Neil and I can go and make beer with the vicar or something.’ He shrugged to indicate how daft he thought this sounded.
‘Oh, you’re going to be there, too?’
Sebastian frowned. ‘How do you mean?’
‘I’ll be there,’ said Emma and, to Sebastian’s disappointment, she released his hands and started off up the street. ‘It’ll be fun!’
‘So people tell me,’ said Sebastian, hurrying after her.
And, in the end, it really did turn out to be fun. It was just the hangover that let it down. And the head-butt, but that wasn’t until much later.
It was just before seven o’clock when he and Neil arrived at the vicarage, a ludicrously large building, consisting of three storeys in grey stone and grounds that could have housed half the village.
‘This place is bigger than the church,’ said Sebastian, looking back through the tall hedge that separated the vicarage from St Bartholomew’s. ‘A lot bigger.’
‘Course it is,’ said Neil. ‘That’s ‘cause vicars are notorious for having vast quantities of children. And they need space for taking in all the waifs and strays and that.’
‘Get many of them around here, do you?’
Neil chuckled. ‘Only the ones that come here from the city.’ He pulled an old iron handle that protruded from the stone and, somewhere beyond the door, a bell rang.
‘Hey!’ said Sebastian, realizing what Neil had been inferring. ‘What do you…?’ But then the door swung open to reveal their host.
‘Good, good,’ said the vicar, smiling at his guests and stepping to one side. ‘Come on in, come on in.’
Sebastian followed Neil into the entrance hall, amazed not only by the fact that there was such a room, but by its immensity and stately décor. It reminded him of the stag do of an old school friend earlier that year, which had been held in one of the more salubrious gentleman’s clubs London has to offer, though it was mostly the oak panelling that gave this grand effect, accentuated by the large staircase with its deep, stair-rodded carpet, and the ancient-looking doors, no doubt hand carved and weighing a ton. The effect was slightly spoiled, however, by the curious smell of the place – the mingled odours of meatloaf, tea, disinfectant and moth balls, though Sebastian suspected it contained none of those individual ingredients, it was simply the scent he thought of as “old people’s houses”.
‘That’s right,’ said the vicar, who wasn’t really as old as all that – somewhere in his late fifties, Sebastian judged, though the dog collar and the dour, grey uniform of the off-duty clergyman made him appear older. ‘Second on the left. Usual place. Second on the left.’ He pointed to one of the heavy oak doors, which was indeed the second on the left.
Neil opened it and strode in, followed, with a more uncertain gait, by Sebastian. The room itself was very much in keeping with the entrance hall, with the addition of a large oriental style rug and a host of antique furniture that had been pushed against the walls. Above a large mantelpiece a stag’s head peered down at the gathering from beneath the expanse of his antlers.
The gathering itself consisted of the three who had just entered the room, and three more who were already assembled, made up of Emma and, to Sebastian’s surprise, the two men he had seen speaking with Mrs Farley while he’d been peeking out from behind the old Post Office.
‘Allo,’ said the older of the two, the one with the more striking whiskers – and they really were impressive now Sebastian could see them close up. ‘And who’s this then, Nelly? Not that lad from up the city you was telling us about?’
‘The very same,’ said Neil, patting Sebastian on the shoulder. ‘Lads, this is Sebastian. Sebastian, this is Archie,’ he gestured to the first man, ‘and this is his boy, Jeph.’
‘Short for Jephthah,’ said the younger guy, stepping forward to grasp Sebastian’s hand in what felt like a rough leather sack filled with stones, ‘which is a rubbish name. Nice to meet you.’
‘You too,’ said Sebastian, glancing down to check Jeff wasn’t wearing gloves or something, and was surprised to see his hands were bare. ‘Hi Emma,’ he added, allowing his eyes, at last, to shift across to her. She just raised her eyebrows at him and flicked a loose strand of red hair away from her face – a face which, he was pleased to notice, was free from all signs of makeup. She winked at him.
‘Lovely, lovely,’ said the vicar, rubbing his hands together. ‘Now we all know each other. Oh, and feel free to call me Vic, by the way.’ He nodded to Sebastian.
‘What’s that short for? Victor?’ he asked, ignoring what sounding like a snort of laughter from Emma.
The vicar smiled. ‘No, no, young man. Nothing like that. It’s short for vicar. Ah!’ he said, as a bell rang out from the hallway. ‘That must be the last of our number.’
He shuffled out and, a few seconds later, he shuffled back in again, followed by another familiar figure.
‘Donald?’ said Neil, clearly surprised at the landlord’s presence. ‘What’re you doing here?’
‘Checking out the competition, is it?’ asked Jeph with a grin.
‘Oh, come now,’ said the vicar. ‘There’s no need for that sort of talk.’
Donald placed a hand on the vicar’s shoulder. ‘Don’t worry about it, Vic. I’m used to these two ganging up on me. Been that way since school. But since you ask,’ he directed his words towards Jeph and Neil, ‘I’m not here as competition – as if any of us call ourselves such a thing in this village. I’m here to learn.’
‘To learn?’ Neil stared at his brother-in-law in open amazement.
‘Indeed,’ said Donald, puffing out his large belly. ‘It was your young visitor here that gave me the idea.’ He swung a hand out to indicate Sebastian. ‘Gave me a few ideas, in fact. It’s high time I got the Green Man back in the business proper. And when I overheard this pair,’ the hand swung round to Archie and Jeph, ‘talking about this here brewing session in the pub this afternoon, I though I’d come along and see how the whole thing’s done.’
‘Don’t you know it’s rude to eavesdrop?’ said Archie, frowning at the landlord and twisting his whiskers in one hand. Donald ignored him.
‘Shall we get started then?’ asked the vicar. ‘I believe everything’s ready… including a fine collection of our previous efforts for us to sample on our journey.’
Sebastian turned to look at one of the tables that stood against the wall opposite the fireplace, on which was displayed a number of large, stainless steel containers, lengths of plastic tubing, bottles and other items that he did not immediately recognise. In pride of place was an urn, a red light winking above its black dial, and he wondered if its main role, when not being used for clandestine beer making, was in some church hall boiling up water for W.I. meetings or the yearly flower show or such parochial activities.
Emma strode across to this table and snatched up a sheet of paper.
‘Right,’ she said. ‘This week we’re going to attempt a porter from a recipe I found online.’
Donald nudged Sebastian with his elbow and whispered. ‘I’ve been having a look into that myself after what you said. Apparently the telephone company can get me “on the line” using some sort of golem.’
‘You mean a modem,’ Sebastian whispered back.
‘Excuse me,’ said Emma loudly. ‘Do you want to hear about this recipe or not?’ Sebastian and Donald both nodded apologetically. ‘Good. Well, the guy on the forum said it will produce a dark, full-bodied beer, bitter-sweet with…’ she consulted the piece of paper, ‘with liquorice notes, whatever that’s supposed to mean.’
‘I can taste it already,’ said Jeph.
‘Well, perhaps you, Donald and Neil could sort out the grain – it’s mostly pale malt, but there’s a little roast barley and chocolate malt in there too? Archie and Vic, could you handle the other dry ingredients? Sebastian and I will get the water ready in the mash tun.’
‘So are you the leader then?’ asked Sebastian, as the team got to work with Emma and him measuring the temperature of the water and positioning the mash tun, which looked him like a plastic picnic box with a tap on the front, beneath it.
‘Don’t be silly,’ said Emma, her attention focussed on the thermometer. ‘I just happen to be the one who comes up with the recipes, thanks to being the only person here with access to the internet. That’s seventy-two degrees – let’s get a couple of gallons in there. Where are we at with the malt?’ she added, calling towards the others over her shoulder.
‘Just coming,’ said Neil, ‘only Donald here got a little mixed up weighing out the chocolate malt.’
The landlord straightened up, indignant at this slur. ‘It’s hardly my fault. How was I to know it wasn’t ounces?’
‘The word “grams” after the number there,’ said Neil, flicking a finger at the sheet of paper. ‘Not enough of a clue for you?’
‘Well, we’re up to temperature here,’ interrupted Emma as Donald was gearing up to respond. ‘Let’s get what you’ve got in the mash tun and we’ll get this brew going.’
As the grain and water was mixed together, making something that looked to Sebastian unpleasantly like porridge – something he had avoided since being forced to eat a bowl of the gritty mess by his gran when he was eight – he sidled over to Donald.
‘So, you’ve never done this before either?’
Donald shrugged. ‘Never really seen the need. I put in my order to the retailer, they send a dray with the barrels loaded up, and I connected them to the pumps and give it to customers, well, I mostly give it to those two old gits, Sid and Harry, but on those rare occasions when another customer does happen to stray in and order a pint, that’s what they get. I’ve never really been much for all this real ale lark, myself – always struck me as a bit full of itself, if you catch my drift, a bit too much like the old wine-tasting weirdoes you get on the telly, all “I’m getting stirred up leaves on a crisp, autumn morning” and “Fresh coriander and blackberry on the palate, with clear notes of damsons in the nose”. Give me a cold pint of lager instead, any day of the week, but it’s not my taste what matters – that’s what you said. I got to give people what they want instead, and that’s what this here’s all about.’
Sebastian, who couldn’t recall saying anything of the sort, decided to deflect the conversation back to the current proceedings. ‘So, do you know what they’re up to here?’
‘Not a bloody clue.’
‘This is the mash,’ said Emma, clearly taking Donald’s profession of ignorance as an opportunity to show off her insight. ‘It’s where the complex sugars and starch in the grains get turned into less complex sugars.’
‘By heating it up?’ asked Sebastian, unconvinced.
‘Exactly. That’s why we needed to get that temperature just right. The pale malt contains enzymes that carry out the conversion, but they work best in the high sixties. And we have to keep them at that temperature for about ninety minutes or thereabouts.’
‘Blessings be on this brew!’ intoned the vicar. ‘How about we crack out a few bottles of one of our previous brews?’
‘Sounds good to me!’ said Neil, with feeling.
Donald shrugged again, a gesture that Sebastian thought suited his angular frame. ‘Let’s see what all the fuss is about.’
‘Damned fine stuff,’ said the landlord, as he led others from the vicarage a few hours later. They had completed the brewing process for the evening, most of which Sebastian hadn’t understood – the terminology was confusing enough, with words like sparging and wort being thrown around as though they were standard conversational material – and each step had been followed by the sampling of their previous efforts including two strong ales and a stout that almost needed to be chewed before swallowing. Now they were headed to the Green Man for a last tipple to ‘round off the evening’ as Jeph had put it.
Sebastian had felt quite sober throughout the proceedings, but as the fresh night air hit his lungs, he found his steps were not quite as certain as he had expected and he staggered slightly on the drive.
‘Oops!’ he said, grabbing at someone for support. ‘Bit of uneven ground there.’
‘Don’t pull me!’ said Emma, whose arm he was clinging on to. ‘You’ll have us both over.’
After a brief battle with himself, in which the idea of sprawling on the ground with her had the upper hand for a moment, he let go. ‘Sorry,’ he said, noting a slight slur to his voice. ‘Didn’t see you there.’
‘No, I’m not!’ he insisted, wishing the words hadn’t come out sounding more like, “Narm a not” – it seemed to undermine his point somewhat.
The small group traipsed together across the village green, lit by stars peeking through the clustered clouds and a handful of lighted windows from the nearby cottages. Donald arrived first at the pub, tripping over the step as he tugged out his keys.
‘Hate that stupid step,’ he mumbled, scratching the key around on the door until it slotted into the keyhole. The door banged open and he flicked on the lights before heading off behind the bar.
‘After you,’ said Sebastian, waving Emma in first and rapping his knuckles on the door frame as he did so.
‘What’ll you have?’ called Donald as the others bumbled in and arranged themselves on barstools. ‘I’m for a whiskey, myself.’
‘Same for me,’ said Archie, taking up position at the end of the bar.
‘And me,’ said Jeph next to him. ‘Joining us, Nelly?’
Neil squinted at him. ‘Eh? Whiskey? Yes, thanks.’
‘What about you, Vic?’ asked Donald, turning to the vicar who was next in line.
He shook his head. ‘Not whiskey – afraid it doesn’t agree with me at all. Not at all. Perhaps a little port?’
‘I didn’t realise that vicars are allowed to drink,’ said Sebastian, leaning towards the clergyman as Donald hunted around behind the bar. ‘But then I thought you weren’t allowed to marry either.’
The vicar’s eyebrows, which would not have looked out of place on Neil’s sheepdog, shot up at this. ‘Not allowed to marry? Heavens no – that’s the Catholics, dear fellow. No, it’s not the case at all in the Anglican church, thank goodness. Wouldn’t have signed up otherwise.’
‘But what about alcohol?’ asked Sebastian, wishing the word “alcohol” wasn’t so hard to pronounce with a slurring tongue. ‘I thought that was frowned upon or something.’
The eyebrows dropped again as the vicar considered this. ‘We would certainly discourage drunkenness, or at least being a drunk, as it can be such a destructive idol as you can imagine. But let’s not forget that our Saviour’s first miracle was to provide a group of wedding guests with the equivalent of around eight baths filled with wine when they had already drunk the place dry!’
‘Really?’ said Sebastian, who hadn’t heard this before, but felt he probably wouldn’t forget it in a hurry. ‘Where did you hear that?’
‘The Bible, dear boy. The Bible.’
‘Found it!’ said Donald, jamming a bottle of port onto the bar top. He jerked out the cork and slid it across to the vicar. ‘Fill your boots, Vic! It’s on the house. And what can I get for you two?’ he added, focussing blurrily on Sebastian and Emma.
When the party eventually broke up, with Donald wishing them all farewell – even Neil, whom he had been speaking to almost normally – the vicar pronounced a parting blessing and trotted back to his palatial home, barely affected by the evening’s alcohol intake, while the others headed vaguely towards the crossroads, with Archie, Jeph and Neil in the lead, deep in conversation about something which Sebastian thought had to do with the coming village fayre.
He lagged behind with Emma, angling towards the village store.
‘Here we are then,’ he said, waving a hand towards the door.
Emma turned to look at him, her face mostly hidden in shadow. ‘Thanks for walking me all the way home,’ she said, though her voice lacked its usual mocking edge.
‘A pleasure, my lady.’ He had decided to produce a dramatic bow at this point, but instead, his left knee gave way for a moment and he nearly collided with Emma. She placed a hand on his chest to help steady him.
‘Have you been drinking?’ she asked.
He held up a hand, his forefinger and thumb held in a slightly broken “O”. ‘I might have a teensy little tipple earlier, officer, but I assure you, I’m quite safe to drive.’
‘Can you drive?’ asked Emma, ‘I mean, actually drive?’
‘Nope.’ He shook his head, but stopped quickly – it was a bad idea. He looked down at her and the moon chose this point to emerge from among the clouds, etching their surroundings in its ghostly light.
‘Good night,’ she said, looking up at him, her face serious, but made no move to leave.
‘Good night,’ he said back, a wave of sobriety washing over him. He was suddenly very aware of how close she was. And how beautiful she looked in the moonlight, her eyes huge, her hair almost silver. He also realised he was shaking, his breath almost shuddering in his chest, despite the warmth of the night air. Was this it? Was this the moment he was supposed to kiss her? Once again, his schooling and his experiences to date had in no way prepared him for this. What if he tried and she didn’t want him to kiss her? That would be awful. And yet she wasn’t moving away. If anything she seemed to be drifting closer, though that could be the alcohol – even the buildings seemed to be drawing slowly in. He looked up at the shop for a moment, attempting to catch his breath, and decided to just go for it. Now. Before she vanished away and he never got to the opportunity again. What’s the worst that could happen?
He screwed up his eyes, formed his mouth into an approximation of kissing lips… and head-butted her in the nose with his cheek. Hard.
On reflection, closing his eyes had been a mistake.