Chapter 16 – Hangover Cures
‘I am so sorry!’ said Sebastian, as he stood in the village store the next morning, egg boxes clutched under one arm, the other with its hand on his forehead. He felt terrible, and not just for colliding with Emma, though the recollection of it made him shudder. Mostly it had to do with his hangover, one of the worst he could recall since downing two litres of cheap cider at his own sixteenth birthday party. On that occasion he had been enormously sick behind his dad’s van. At least this time he wasn’t physically sick, but he wasn’t far from it – he certainly hadn’t felt up to eating breakfast at the farmhouse. Everything hurt – his arms, his legs, his back, his neck, and of course his head. It felt as though a family of travellers had decided to settle in it, dragging with them their dogs, horses and a full complement of wagons. Walking hurt. Talking hurt. Moving his eyes hurt. Even thinking hurt, and all he could think was how disastrously he had muffed things up last night. ‘Sorry,’ he repeated with a shrug. It hurt.
Emma narrowed her eyes at him behind her nose. It was only slightly swollen from the clash with Sebastian’s cheek, but it was enough to be noticeable. ‘Those my eggs, are they?’ she asked, taking them before he had a chance to answer and turning to place them on the counter.
He looked at her as she worked in silence, shrouded once again in one of the shapeless dresses she seemed to like wearing, and tried desperately to think of something to say, something that would put last night behind them, something more than ‘sorry’. His eyes lighted on the picture of a large, bearded man, which graced a tub of what looked like pipe tobacco, and it gave him an idea.
‘So was Mac out with your mum last night?’ he said, trying to sound casual, but finding it hard with the hangover knowing at his nerves. ‘Only I was surprised he wasn’t at the brewing session.’
Emma turned and looked at him curiously before replying. ‘He never comes to those. But what gave you the idea he might be seeing my mother?’
‘Oh, nothing in particularly… just something Mac said when I was working with his yesterday. Gave me the impression there was something going on.’
‘Fat chance!’ said Emma, striding behind the counter and letting down the hatch. ‘Mother’s been interested in him for ages, but she’d never do anything about it. Not the done thing, a woman asking a man out. That’s what she says, anyway. Load of rubbish, if you ask me. What did Mac say?’
‘Nothing specific,’ he said, carefully avoiding any mention of his night time meeting with the butcher, in case it led to questions about his own shadowy reasons for being there. ‘But it was pretty clear he’s interested, only he seemed unlikely to do anything about it.’
Emma thumped the counter top with the palm of her hand, causing Sebastian to wince at the noise. ‘I knew it!’ she said. ‘I knew there was a reason he came skulking in here every lunchtime. So what’s his problem? Why…’ She stopped and held up a hand, her head cocked to one side, alerted by some sound in the living quarters behind her. ‘My mother’s coming,’ she whispered, leaning towards Sebastian. ‘This needs thinking about though. Are you free this evening?’
Sebastian frowned, his forehead still throbbing painfully. ‘How should I know? Everyone else seems to know more than me about my daily schedule here.’
‘Good,’ whispered Emma, as though this settled it. ‘I’ll meet you at the front of the church at ten o’clock tonight.’
‘Okay.’ Sebastian nodded, another painful action. ‘Good morning, Mrs Standfield,’ he added as Emma’s mother emerged through the doorway into the shop.
‘That’s as maybe,’ she said. ‘Though by the look of you, my morning might well be better than yours. Did you fall down a hole or something?’
He managed half a smile. ‘I ache like it! But you’re right, I need to go and freshen up. See you later, Emma. And sorry again about the nose.’
He trudged his way back to the farmhouse, dragging his hangover with him. The morning sun had risen above the treeline and fired bright needles of pain into Sebastian’s eyes. His mouth was dry, his tongue swollen and seemingly in need of a shave, and there was an insistent nagging in his head that everyone hated him. In short, it was a fairly standard hangover. Perhaps he didn’t really look as bad as all that.
‘What the hell happened to you?’ said Neil, looking up from the breakfast table as Sebastian opened the door. ‘You look like you died and someone dug you up again.’
‘However terrible I look, it’s nothing compared to how I feel.’ He raised a hand to his head as Neil dragged a chair out for him, scraping it noisily across the tiled kitchen floor. He perched on it, as though poised to depart at any moment. ‘What was in the beer we were drinking? I feel like I downed a bottle of meths.’
‘Just good old homebrew, lad,’ said Neil, reaching out a hand to slap him on the shoulder, but thought better of it as Sebastian flinched away. ‘Bad, is it?’
‘You have no idea.’
‘Maybe not. But I’ve got the perfect cure. Or rather Virg has.’ Sebastian turned to look at his hostess, who was busy working at the stove, her back towards them. ‘How’s it coming, love?’ asked Neil.
The ‘cure’ turned out to be a breakfast of the full English variety. It was easily the largest such breakfast Sebastian had ever seen, his plate loaded high with sausages, bacon and eggs, beneath which were hidden slices of fried bread, tomatoes, mushrooms and no doubt other delights fresh from the frying pan. He made no move towards, but sat eyeing the food as though deciding whether to eat it or report it to the Environmental Agency.
‘Don’t just stare at it,’ said Virginia, dumping a large mug of tea in front of him. ‘Get that down you, you’ll feel ready for anything.’
Sebastian wasn’t convinced, suspecting the only thing he’d be ready for after this breakfast was to cower in bed clutching a sick bowl. ‘This is the cure?’ he said, with a sideways glance at Neil.
‘Well, it’s half of it, at least.’
‘And what’s the other half?’ asked Sebastian, as he picked up his fork and considered where best to begin.
The other half of the cure turned out to be hard labour. Or at least what passed for hard labour in Sebastian’s world, where even loading up a dishwasher was considered a burdensome chore. He had been surprised at how much better he felt once he had worked his way through the breakfast, assisted by Neil occasionally skewering stray bits of bacon or mushrooms the moment he decided Sebastian was starting to flag.
Then, bumping their way to the smallholding on the quad bike, which had only grown slightly less distressing over the last few days, they had headed to the stable block armed with a broom, something that looked like a large plastic shovel on a stick, two pitchforks and a wheelbarrow.
‘Don’t look at it like that,’ said Neil, correctly reading Sebastian’s stunned expression as he took in the size of the stable. ‘We’ll have this done in no time.’
This was clearly nonsense, but Sebastian got grudgingly to work, copying Neil’s technique of sliding a pitchfork into the straw and muck covered floor and lifting out a load to dump into the wheelbarrow. It wasn’t as easy as Neil made it look, and Sebastian keep banging the unwieldy pitchfork against the barrow or the doorway, dislodging its cargo back onto the floor. In time, though, he got into a kind of rhythm and the work began to lift him out of the last of his hangover.
‘I’ve just realised my headache’s gone,’ he said, wiping a gloveless hand across his forehead, where his fringe, usually kept until firm control, had collapsed into his eyes.
‘See,’ said Neil. ‘I told you we’d get you cured. Better than hiding away in bed all day, feeling sorry for yourself. Decent bit of grub and some work in the fresh air cures just about anything.’
Sebastian, who wouldn’t describe the atmosphere in the stable as “fresh air”, wondered if there might be something to this. ‘Do you get ill much?’ he asked.
‘Me? No, never. To much to be getting on with to have time for being ill.’
‘It’s not like people choose to get sick,’ said Sebastian, swinging his loaded pitchfork over the barrow. ‘It just, you know… happens.’
Neil paused and leant on his pitchfork, like a sage propped up on a staff. ‘There’s a farm over Brayford way that rears pigs for the supermarkets – thousands of the things, all jammed up in barns so tight you can’t see the floor between the poor creatures. Intensive farming, they call it, and Ted – he’s the farmer – has to keep them pumped full of all kinds of vitamins and antibiotics. As you can imagine, the end product gets affected – tasteless, medicine-laced pork that’s not fit for dog food – but if Ted doesn’t keep the pigs dosed up, disease’ll spread through them like a plague.’ He gave Sebastian a meaningful look .
‘Sorry,’ said Sebastian, when no concluding remarks seemed to be coming. ‘Why are you telling about this? Are you trying to convince to go organic or something?’
‘Well, it’s like you city folk,’ Neil continued, still leaning on the pitchfork. ‘Can’t be good for all being packed up together so tight, breathing in exhaust fumes, spending most of your time sitting around, cocooned in concrete. Out here in the country, it’s different.’
‘You’re telling me!’
‘Big open spaces, clean air, the earth beneath your feet and good, hard work to be done.’ Neil set down his fork and began wheeling the barrow out to the muck heap in the corner of the field, Sebastian wandered behind. ‘Poor Doctor Timmons has to cover five parishes, since so few people ever need his services.’
‘You really love it here, don’t you,’ said Sebastian, looking around at the smallholding as it bathed in the mid-morning sunlight.
Neil upended the barrow and turned to join him. ‘What’s not to love?’ he said. ‘It’s all so glorious – the sights, the sounds, the smells. Look at it – the sunlight sparkling on the Bray, everything so still and peaceful, while also subtly stirring. The birds are in fine voice, the trees are whispering to each other on the breeze, and beneath them the low murmur of the water as it winds its way south.’ He patted Sebastian on the back. ‘Breathe it in, lad – the smell of the earth and the nettles basking in the sun. Glorious, I tell you. The space, the freedom, the beauty of nature and the wonder of life itself. It makes me feel like singing!’
Sebastian laughed, the last of the hangover slipping away. ‘You did sound like you were gearing up to a song.’
‘Well, I’ll save you from that particular torture. For now.’ He retrieved the wheelbarrow from where it lay upside on the manure heap. ‘Let’s get back to it.’
‘I have to admit,’ said Sebastian, following him back into the stable, ‘it is much nicer than I thought it would be. And far less threatening. But it’s not much of a life, is it?’
‘How do you mean?’ asked Neil, setting down the barrow and snatching up the pitchfork.
‘Back in London, I work eight hours a day, five days a week – in at nine out at five. That’s it. I don’t take anything home with me, I don’t worry about the business when I’m not there. I do my job and the rest of the time is my own. But here,’ he gestured to the fields beyond the doorway, ‘Weeds and the like are always trying to take over, animals fall sick or escape or get up to who knows what, and you’re at the mercy of the England’s famously unpredictable weather. You don’t have a job, so much, as a never-ending battle with nature twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And I bet there’s no day of for Christmas. When did you last go for a holiday, for instance?’
Neil frowned in thought, as he switched his fork for the brush and started sweeping straw against one wall. ‘Me and Virg went for a weekend in Torquay a few years back,’ he said, smiling at the memory. ‘Good time it was, too. Jeph, who you met last night, looked after things here while we were away.’
‘A few years ago?’ Sebastian was stunned, not only by the length of time, but by the fact that Neil seemed quite okay with this situation. ‘One weekend off in a few years? That’s terrible – it’s like slavery.’
‘It’s ecstasy. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, to work on the land, living in harmony with the seasons. It’s not slavery, lad, it’s freedom. If anyone’s a slave, it’s you, locked away in your dingy office while the sun shines and the birds sing, then trudging through the grey streets to some flat or suchlike, where you lock yourself away again like a caty-pillar in its cocoon. The problem is, you never get the chance to be a butterfly, unless you count slapping on a bit of hair gel and dressing up in sharp suits.’
Sebastian lifted a self-conscious hand to his fringe, which had flopped down in front of his face again. ‘I use wax actually,’ he said. ‘It tends to produce a more natural hold – less shiny and rigid than gel – though I didn’t use any this morning. I do have some sharp suits, though.’
‘See,’ said Neil, as though his point had been proven. ‘That’s what the city does to you. Makes you a catty-pillar dressed up in butterfly wings. But look what a difference the country has made already. Like you say, you’ve not bothered with hair today. You’ve given up using those ridiculous yellow gloves and that hand gel stuff. And, between you and me, you’re clothes look a bit… well, scruffy. And your flies are undone.’
Sebastian looked down and quickly adjusted his zip. ‘So, what you’re saying is that, thanks to my few days in the country, I’ve become a dirty tramp. Hardly a butterfly, is it? More like a moth!’
‘Forget the damn butterfly,’ said Neil, sweeping the last of the straw into a corner with more enthusiasm than was really necessary. ‘All I’m saying is you’re emerging from your shell…’
‘You mean, “cocoon”?’
‘Whatever. You’re emerging from whatever it was you were locked up in. You’re being liberated.’ He leant on the broom and jabbed a finger at Sebastian. ‘That is what the countryside does.’
‘You have some hay in your moustache,’ said Sebastian.
Neil pulled the strand from the bush of hair with a grunt. ‘It ain’t hay, it’s straw,’ he said, and pointed to the shovel-on-a-stick implement leaning against the wall. ‘Grab that scoop and let’s get these last bits swept up, then we can start on the other stable.’
‘The other stable?’