Chapter 17 – The Nativity
While Sebastian had not really warmed to any of the animals encountered so far on the smallholding, with the possible exception of the late “evil chicken”, he felt there was something particularly sinister about the horses. Though he had seen them occasionally in the city, whether while walking past the crowds of tourists watching the Changing of the Guard or spotting the occasional mounted policeman bobbing along in the distance, he had never really got close to one before, so as Neil led the first of the two masked creatures in from the field to its nice, clean stable, he found himself backing away in alarm.
‘Why is it so big?’ he said, almost tripping over his own feet. ‘It’s obscene.’
Neil brought the horse to a halt and patted it affectionately on the neck. ‘She needs be big, if she’s going to carry someone like me around.’
‘She?’ Sebastian made to point at the horse, but nodded instead, not wishing to get any part of him closer to it than was absolutely necessary. ‘That thing’s a girl. And what ridiculous name have you given her?’
‘This here’s Belle.’
Sebastian thought for a moment. ‘Actually, that’s an okay name. But I still don’t see how you can keep something like this without wearing armour or something. Look at its eyes. Their like the eyes of a psycho. What if she takes a dislike to me? What happens then.’
‘In that case,’ said Neil with a chuckle, ‘I suggest you run!’
Sebastian took another step back and found himself collapsing somewhat abruptly into the wheelbarrow. He tried to make it look as though he was just having a little sit down. ‘Just put her in the stable, would you?’ he asked. ‘And keep that lethal backend away from me. Bloody hell!’ This last outcry was in response to a noise behind him which, when he looked round, turned out to be the other horse, who had wandered over to see what all the excitement was about. Sebastian jumped up, knocking the wheelbarrow towards the newcomer as he did so, causing it to lurch away with an indignant snort. To his horror, Sebastian found himself caught between two pairs of hind legs, any of which might whip out at any moment and dash him to the ground like a rag doll, tossed by an angry child.
Instinctively, he dropped to the floor, hands over his head, his eyes tight shut.
‘Please don’t kick me!’ he said, his voice a whispered shout as though afraid he might startle the horses.
He felt Neil’s strong hand gripping his arm, pulling him back to his feet. ‘Come on, lad,’ he said. ‘They’re safe enough.’
Sebastian opened one eye and was met by the sight of Belle’s rump barely a foot or two away. To his horror, he watched as Neil gave it a smack, raising a cloud of dust. But instead of lashing out with a hoof, as seemed inevitable to Sebastian, the massive creature skittered away from them.
‘See,’ said Neil, gesturing to the horses. ‘They’ll not hurt you. Couple of old softies, these two.’
Sebastian watched as Belle wandered into the stable, her flank shimmering in the sunlight, her muscles moving easily like well-oiled pistons shifting beneath its skin. ‘It doesn’t look that soft to me.’
‘Not as much as some around here,’ said Neil, chuckling once again. ‘Come on – let’s head back for some lunch before we get on to mucking out the goats.’
That evening, Sebastian returned to the farmhouse tired and filthy, his hands, which hadn’t felt the soft inside of a pair of gloves all day, nursing blisters and his arms aching from the constant forking, sweeping and shovelling. Though the idea of a proper shower at the village store was extremely appealing, he wasn’t sure his legs would get him all the way there, so he settled for washing in the farmhouse bath beneath the dubious flow of the shower attachment, and although it went cold after only a couple of minutes, he was just glad to be clean again and to no longer feel like a walking manure heap.
‘Hot water’s out,’ called Virginia from the kitchen, where she was busy boiling up potatoes and frying some of the sausages Sebastian had made the previous day, and when he came downstairs a short while later to join the Symeses for dinner, he was delighted at how well they had come out.
‘Reckon this was one of yours!’ said Neil, jabbing with his fork at a sausage so long it hung over the edges of his plate.
Sebastian just nodded, his mouth too full and his appetite too intense to permit any conversation.
For the rest of the evening, as he and Neil tackled another crossword and Virginia set about preparing to go to market in the morning, Sebastian kept one eye on the time. Ten o’clock, Emma had said, and, although it was lumbering towards him at a tedious pace, each glance at the clock to see the hands advancing felt like someone punching him in the chest. He tried to ignore it, but couldn’t help how excited he felt at the idea of meeting up with her. In the dark.
‘You alright, lad?’ asked Neil, giving him a quizzical look. ‘You look like you’re about to be sick again. Shall I go get the dog?’
Sebastian swallowed. ‘Yes,’ he squawked, and quickly cleared his throat. ‘Yes. I’m fine.’ His eyes flicked up to the clock again. It was only quarter to nine. ‘I, er. I might go and have a read upstairs. Thought I might go out for a stroll a bit later.’
‘Right you are,’ said Neil, folding up the newspaper. ‘Got to nip out myself and check on the sheep.’
Although Sebastian hadn’t actually brought anything to read from London, there was a small bookshelf in his bedroom that was mostly filled with an obscene amount of well-thumbed romance novels. From among them, he drew out a copy of ‘Great Expectations’ and settled down on the bed to read it. The book was not his sort of thing at all, but since he wasn’t really taking any of it in, just scanning blankly over the words, it didn’t really matter. His watch was of far more interest and, after its slow start, ten o’clock seemed to approaching at a decent pace at last.
At nine-fifty, he could take it no longer and, closing ‘Great Expectations’, having got little more from it than the vague idea that it had something to do with a boy in graveyard, he got up, pulled on his coat and headed downstairs.
He was just pulling on his shoes, when the back door burst open and Neil leapt inside. He had clearly been running and was breathing hard.
‘Thank goodness I caught you,’ he said and pointed at Sebastian’s shoes. ‘Don’t bother with those dainty little things, it’s your boots you’ll be needing.’
Sebastian stared at him in confusion. ‘Eh?’
‘Come on! They’re lambing. You don’t want to miss this.’
‘But I was just going out,’ said Sebastian, a half-on shoe dangling from his foot.
Neil grabbed up a sack from the corner of the small room. ‘That’s okay,’ he said. ‘You’re still going out.’ Sebastian continued to stare at him, unmoving. ‘Boots!’ said Neil, kicking the wellingtons across the floor at him. ‘Let’s go.’
Sebastian gave up. There was no point arguing with Neil – he was clearly excited by the prospect of the lambing and wanted Sebastian to join him. But what about Emma? In a few minutes, she’d be there, waiting in the shadow of the church for him. He imagined her standing there, a delicate dress barely concealing her figure, arms open to welcome him, to hold him, to draw him in and…
‘Wipe that stupid look off your face, lad,’ said Neil, yanking the door open. ‘We don’t have all night.’
Sebastian, kitted out in his wellies, followed Neil as he strode up the hill, towards the centre of the village. Just before the butcher shop, Neil turned off to fiddle with the latch on a small gate.
‘Where are we going?’ asked Sebastian, staring longingly up at the crossroads and the yew trees that concealed the small church were, even now, Emma was no doubt waiting for him in the gathering dusk. He turned back at the sound of the whining hinges as the gate swung open.
‘Top field,’ said Neil, gesturing through to the grassy expansive that swept steeply away downhill. ‘The sheep are in the barn there.’
The building in question was not what Sebastian thought of as a barn; not that it was a concept he had spent much time considering, but as he peered at the structure that huddled on the hillside, it was more what he would call a shack, a few short walls that looked like a hastily piled jumbled of grey stones, topped off with a roof that looked like the tiles had been Frisbeed on, rather than set in place in the usual way. The only break in the stone walls was a single, lop-sided doorway and Neil dragged back the metal gate that was blocking the way in. Beyond, the straw-covered floor and spider-covered walls were lit by the glow of a couple of oil lamps.
‘Is this where Jesus was born?’ asked Sebastian, leaning against the doorway. ‘It’s like a nativity scene.’
Neil crouched down next to one of the two sheep thant was slumped in the straw. ‘It’s about to be a nativity scene!’ said Neil. ‘Lisa here’s getting very close.’
‘That’s right,’ said Neil, looking up at him over his shoulder.
‘You shouldn’t be allowed to name the animals.’ Sebastian inched forwards to have a look at the sheep in question. Although he was no expert, Lisa certainly seemed to be bulging and was panting in a way that certainly gave the impression that something was about to happen. Something he wasn’t especially keen in watching. He jabbed a thumb towards the entrance, or rather the exit as he was now thinking of it. ‘Shall I wait outside?’
‘Outside?’ Neil looked at him as though he’d suggesting eating his way through the wall. ‘What do you think you’re going to see from out there?’
The image of Emma standing by the church filled Sebastian’s head again and he glanced at his watch. Ten past ten… she would still be there. He blinked and realised Neil was looking at him through narrowed eyes. ‘Nothing,’ he said.
‘That’s right.’ Neil turned back to Lisa, running a huge hand over her swollen flank. ‘There isn’t anything to be squeamish about, lad. Certainly nothing worse than you’ve been through already this week.’
‘Who said anything about being squeamish?’
‘The look on your face was yelling it loud enough, I’m surprised the whole village didn’t hear. Easy, girl,’ he added as Lisa shifted slightly, her breath rasping through her nose.
As Neil continued to stroke her side, Sebastian looked around the small barn, at the other sheep, no doubt also ridiculously named, panting in the straw, at the buckets of water standing by the entrance, and noticed a small wooden stool leaning in a corner. He shuffled across to it and, despite the fact it looked so ancient that the old stone walls might well have been built around it, he sat down. It creaked alarmingly, but held his weight.
How long he sat there, Sebastian wasn’t sure, maybe minutes, maybe hours, as the combined effect of the warm night air, the flickering orange glow from the oil lamps, the rhythmic panting of the sheep and Neil’s gentle murmurings sent him into some kind of trancelike state, his mind blank, his mouth lolling open. Something he couldn’t discern, some change in the air or unseen movement, brought him, blinking, out of the stupor, consciousness flooding over him like a rush of cold water. He cleared his throat.
‘Did you say something?’ he asked, wiping the back of his hand across his chin, just in case he’d been dribbling. He had.
‘I said it’s time,’ said Neil, easing himself round in the straw to look at Sebastian, his eyes sparkling in the lamplight. ‘Her lambs are coming.’
‘How can you tell?’
In response, Neil pointed towards the rear of the sheep, leaning to the side so Sebastian could see. There, just below the dirty stump that passed for Lisa’s tail, something was glistening. It was round and dark red, about the size of Neil’s fist, and even in this light Sebastian could see it was translucent. A stab of nausea forced him to his feet, one hand over his mouth as though afraid of breathing the same air as the protrusion.
‘What the hell’s that?’ he said, trying to keep his voice calm as he spoke through his fingers. ‘She’s given birth to a bloody cricket ball!’
‘That part of the sack,’ said Neil, his voice full of concealed amusement. ‘It’s what the lambs are grown it.’
‘What? Like some big, floppy egg? That’s horrific!’
Neil chuckled, clearly enjoying Sebastian’s reaction. ‘It’s perfectly normal,’ he said. ‘In fact, it’s very similar to the sack you would have grown in before you were born.’
‘There’s no way!’ he said. ‘I was never born. They produced me in a sterile lab, vacuum-packed and pristine.’
‘Wouldn’t surprise me,’ said Neil.
Against his will, Sebastian’s gaze dragged itself back to the bulging water sack just in time to see it rupture, gushing a pinkish stream of fluid across the straw. Sebastian span round and supported himself on the wall with one hand, panting hard in an effort not to throw up.
‘Thar she blows!’ said Neil, still stroking Lisa’s flank. He glanced up at Sebastian. ‘Come on, lad. You’re missing it. One of nature’s most glorious moments, this is.’
‘One of it’s most goriest moments, you mean,’ said Sebastian, not turning round. ‘What you going to do now, put your hand in there or something?’
‘No, no. Lisa doesn’t need my help. This is her third lambing – she’s a pro!’
Sebastian continued leaning against the wall as Neil kept up a running commentary: “Here come the nose and feet”, “Look, the head’s out” and “Just one more push!” Having finally got control of his insides, Sebastian turned to look at Neil’s cry of, “And it’s out!” to see what looked just like a small, sticky lamb, still half shrouded in the water sack.
‘It’s not moving,’ he said. ‘Is it dead?’
‘No,’ said Neil, slipping a hand under the lamb and dragging across to Lisa’s head. ‘Watch this.’ Sure enough, as it’s mother nudged it and licked at it, the lamb twitched suddenly, then started shifting around as though trying to get away from all this unexpected attention. Sebastian crept forwards to watch as the tiny creature struggled in the straw and within a couple of minutes, it had managed to heave itself up onto its legs, wobbling like someone trying to walk with stilts for the first time.
‘That’s unbelievable,’ he said. ‘It’s standing up.’
Neil beamed up at him. ‘Course it is. Course he is.’
‘How do you know it’s a he?’ asked Sebastian, then immediately regretted it. ‘Forget that. Dumb question. But standing up just minutes after being born! My cousin, Emily, had a baby and it didn’t start walking until it was almost a year old!’
‘He,’ corrected Sebastian. ‘He’s called Leif.’
Neil raised his eyebrows. ‘And you think the names I choose are odd! Hold on,’ he added, peering across at the other sheep. ‘Looks like Doris is about to pop too.’
Outside the barn, the last of the light slipped from the sky when Sebastian and Neil emerged, leaving behind them Lisa and Doris with their four healthy and amazingly energetic lambs. Except for another brief moment of stomach-squeezing nausea, when his hand brushed the straw soaked with amniotic fluid, Sebastian had found the whole experience exhilarating, watching the birth of Doris’ twins between his fingers, while stroking her flank and even lifted one of the lambs so she could nudge and lick it into life.
‘I can’t believe how quick the whole process was,’ he said, peering at the luminous arms hands on his watch as they made their way down the road towards the farmhouse. It was twenty past midnight. ‘Just over two hours and you’ve got three times as many sheep as you had before, all running around and everything. I am going to need to wash my hands fairly soon, though.’
‘I can hardly believe you came out without those wretched yellow gloves of yours. It’s a bleeding miracle.’
‘Not exactly. I ran out and failed to buy more from the village store.’ At the mention of the shop, Sebastian couldn’t help gazing back over his shoulder towards the place where Emma had arranged to meet him. For a moment he wondered if she was still there, but it was over two hours since he had failed to show up and though the night was glowing with moonlight, it had become bitterly cold.
‘Easy, lad!’ said Neil, as Sebastian tripped over a pothole in the road.
When they entered the farmhouse, Sebastian was surprised to see Virginia still standing at the kitchen sink as though she hadn’t moved since he left, though the table, which had been piled high with Tupperware containers, was now completely clear.
‘How was it?’ she asked, settling down her drying up cloth and collapsing into a chair. ‘How many lambs?’
‘Four,’ said Sebastian. ‘Half boys, half girls.’
Virginia raised her eyebrows. ‘Really. Must be pretty funning looking!’
‘Not at all,’ said Sebastian, who hadn’t noticed the amused look on her face. ‘They look just like normal lambs, trotting about and everything. Or is it gambolling that lambs do?’
‘Only if they can get hold of the cash,’ said Neil, who was chuckling away behind him. ‘And how’ve you got on, love? All set for the market?’
Virginia sighed and swept her unruly hair out of her face with a hand, looking genuinely surprised to find it holding a wooden spoon. ‘I think I’m just about there,’ she said, laying down the spoon. ‘I’m whacked.’
‘Best get to bed, then. And so should you,’ he added, patting Sebastian on the shoulder. Sebastian tried not to think about what nastiness was on Neil’s hand. ‘We’ve got to be up in five hours.’
‘Five hours?’ Sebastian stared wide-eyed at his hosts. ‘Why only five hours?’
‘Leaving for market at half six,’ said Neil. ‘And before that, we’ve got to castrate the boy lambs.’
Sebastian opened his mouth to comment, but couldn’t come up with any words. Instead, he shrugged wearily, bid them goodnight and trudged up the stairs, resigned to whatever horrors tomorrow might bring.
Ten minutes later, after multiple hand washings, he sank into bed, nestling into the warm sheets and the soft pillows. But despite being shattered after the long day, he spent what felt like an age battling with the insomnia that comes from knowing you have to get up in a few hours. He was just drifting off when the sound of something hitting the window startled him. For a moment he wasn’t sure if it had really happened or if it was one of those weird dreams that jolt you awake, but then the sound came again; someone was throwing stones at his window.