Chapter 18 – Mass Production
‘Did you just throw a stone through my window?’ Sebastian asked, whispering as loudly as he dared. He was leaning out of the now open window and below, ghostlike in the moonlight, was the unmistakable figure of Emma. He couldn’t quite make out her face, but he reckoned she seemed a bit cross
‘Course I did!’ she called up, her voice defiant. ‘But I’d rather chuck them at your head! A whole hour I waited up at the church. An hour! Where the hell did you get to?’ She pulled back her arm as if she was about to launch another stone through the window.
Sebastian ducked back into the room, narrowly avoiding stepping on broken glass, but when nothing happened he peered out again. ‘Hold on! Don’t throw anything. I’m coming down.’
Virginia and Neil had already headed off to bed and the sound of his door groaning open seemed horribly loud in the stillness of the house. Not wishing to alert his hosts to his late night visitor, he tried to creep silently across the landing, but every slight movement elicited creaks and squeals from floorboards which he was certain had not made a sound during the daytime. He took the stairs two-at-a-time, the wooden treads complaining all the way, before tip-toeing across the lounge, through the kitchen and to the backdoor, where he was pleased to find the unfeasibly large key hanging on a piece of orange string. The lock screeched like a driver trying desperately to find the right gear, but the door itself swung open without so much as a whisper to reveal Emma’s face. There was more of Emma below this and Sebastian was vaguely aware of lace glowing in the moonlight, but he tried to keep his eyes trained only on her face. It was scowling.
‘Well?’ she said, jabbing him in the shoulder with a finger. ‘Let’s hear it then, where were you? And it had better be good.’
Sebastian started to explain, but a wave of exhausted anger washed over him and he suddenly didn’t want to apologise. It wasn’t his fault, after all – he hadn’t deliberately stood her up. ‘To be fair,’ he said, mirroring Emma’s scowl, ‘I never actually agreed to meet you. Your mum interrupted us, remember? You just assumed I’d come and meet you.’
‘Oh, so it’s my fault now?’ Her voice was laced with sarcasm. ‘How foolish of me. I should have known that you’d just not bother showing up when you knew I would be there, alone and vulnerable, in the dark church yard.’
‘I’d hardly call you vulnerable.’
‘No? So what would you call me then?’ She narrowed her eyes at him, daring him to say something insulting, or at least something she could interpret as being an insult.
He sighed, the fight draining out of him as the tiredness took hold again. ‘Beautiful?’ he suggested, the word hardly a whisper. ‘I’d call you beautiful.’ Emma made no response, though her scowl softened in surprise, so he soldiered on. ‘Look, I’m sorry about this evening. I did mean to come and see you, really, I did. But then the sheep started lambing and Neil took me to see and, before I knew it, it was gone midnight and it was too late. And I did want to see you. Honestly. I’m sorry.’
Emma opened her mouth, and closed it again, lost for words for the first time in her dealings with Sebastian. Instead, she took Sebastian’s hands in her own, smiling at last. ‘Okay,’ she said in a far softer voice. ‘How about we try again tomorrow, when you’re back from the market?’
‘How did you-’ he began, but stopped. Of course she knew he was going to market. Everyone in the village probably knew. ‘Sure. That’d be great.’ He couldn’t help smiling as she looked up at him, her right thumb stroking the back of his hand. Her eyes looked much bigger than usual and her long red hair glinted in the moonlight. She really was beautiful.
‘If it’s all the same to you young lovebirds,’ came a voice from the farmhouse, and Sebastian let go of Emma’s hands and span round guiltily to see Neil framed in the open doorway, ‘some of us have to be up in a couple of hours, so maybe you could continue your lovemaking tomorrow, yes?’
‘We weren’t lovemaking!’ Sebastian blurted out, thankful that the darkness concealed most of his embarrassment. ‘We were just talking. That’s all. No lovemaking. Honestly.’
Neil’s teeth sparkled beneath his moustache and he chuckled quietly. ‘My mistake,’ he said and disappeared back into the house.
‘Tomorrow then,’ said Emma. ‘After the market. I’ll be up at the shop.’
Sebastian nodded. ‘Great.’
‘And don’t stand me up, this time!’ Before Sebastian had time to reply, she lifted herself up on tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. Her lips barely brushed him for an instant, but it left him stunned, his mind blank, his mouth lolling open. He lifted a hand to his cheek as if to catch hold of the kiss, to keep it and store it away for later use.
‘Oh, and Miss Standfield,’ said Neil, appearing in the doorway again and causing Sebastian to almost leap away from Emma. ‘I believe you owe me for a broken window.’
The fitful few hours’ sleep that followed mostly consisted of Sebastian looking at his watch every thirty minutes or so to see how long was left before he had to get up. When at last five-thirty arrived, he felt even more weary than when he’d clambered into bed, but he dragged himself out of the warm covers and staggered to the bathroom, performing the minimum requirements to get himself looking at least vaguely presentable. Downstairs, Virginia and Neil had already finished their breakfast so, grabbing a couple of hastily buttered slices of toast, he followed Neil back up the road to the small sheep barn, his eyes drawn to a strange-looking tool in Neil’s hand.
‘What’s that?’ he asked mid-yawn, as Neil pulled the gate away from the barn entrance. ‘Is that what you use to… you know?’ He nodded vaguely downwards.
Neil tossed it to him and chuckled as it bounced off Sebastian’s arm and fell to the ground. ‘See if you can work it out,’ he said and pulled a metal tin from his wax jacket pocket. ‘Goes with these things.’
Sebastian took the tin and bent to pick up the tool. It had handles such as you might get on a pair of pliers, but instead of jaws, it had four prongs that pulled apart when he squeezed on the handles. The tin offered few clues as to what this implement was for as the scratched writing on the lid declared the contents to be pipe tobacco, so he tucked the tool under his arm and wrestled to get the lid off. With a jolt, it burst open, spilling tiny rubber rings across the grass.
‘I don’t get it,’ he said as he scrabbled around trying to pick them up. ‘What are these things? I was expecting a knife or a pair of scissors or something.’
‘A pair of scissors?’ said Neil, clearly taken aback. ‘What kind of barbarians do you think we are?’
Sebastian, who was now kneeling on the floor in his quest for stray rubber rings, shrugged dramatically. ‘Well, it may come as a surprise, but I’ve not been involved in a whole lot of castrations back in the city. Our lambs tend to come vacuum packed and ready for the oven.’
‘Well, we don’t use scissors, I can assure you,’ said Neil, bending down to pick up one of the rings, holding it up between a large thumb and forefinger. ‘We use these little fellows. Come on, I’ll show you.’
In the barn, things were much as they had been the night before, with Lisa and Doris sitting in the straw while their four lambs chased each other around making little, high-pitched bleating sounds.
‘Lively, aren’t they,’ said Sebastian as one of the lambs jumped on his foot. ‘Which are the boys?’
With a single, swift action, Neil scooped up one of the lambs and turned it belly up. ‘Here’s one. You got one of them rubber rings?’
‘Er, yes.’ Sebastian opened his hand to reveal fifty or so of them.
Neil perched on the seat by the wall. ‘Slip one of them on the end of the applicator. Over the four prongs.’
Sebastian stuffed the rings into his pocket, keeping hold of one, which he tried to stretch over the prongs. ‘Damn it!’ he said, as he dropped it into the straw.
‘Want me to do it?’ asked Neil. ‘You can sit here and hold this little fellow.’
Sebastian fumbled around for the ring, holding back one of the lambs who had taken an interest in what he was doing. ‘No thanks,’ he said. ‘And anyway, I thought you said you were going to show me how this was done. This is getting a bit hands-on for my liking.’
‘Best way of showing. There’s no better way to learn than getting involved, I always say. You got that ring on yet?’
‘Yes,’ said Sebastian, straightening up and holding out the applicator, the small ring in place. ‘And I think I’ve sussed out how it works.’
‘Oh yes?’ Neil looked at him expectantly, but made no move to take the proffered tool. ‘Let’s hear it then.’
‘You open up the ring and then you put it over the lamb’s… you know, its bits.’
Neil shook his head. ‘Nope.’
‘Oh.’ Sebastian frowned; he’d been almost certain he was right. ‘What then?’
‘I don’t do anything,’ said Neil, the corners of his moustache turning up in a smile. ‘You’re the one who’s going to ring his balls.’
Ten minutes later, Sebastian emerged unsteadily from the barn. His wobbly legs were due less to tiredness that the trauma of the rings. The first had gone quite smoothly, once Neil had cajoled him into doing it, and having squeezed the handles to stretch open the ring, he had slipped it over the small, fluffy pouch that hung between the lamb’s hind legs and let go, leaving the ring firmly in place. The second lamb, however, had moved slightly at the vital moment, and the ring ended up trapping only a single testicle. Although the creature showed no discomfort, just the thought of it was enough to make Sebastian weak at the knees, much to Neil’s amusement.
‘Should’ve brought the scissors, after all,’ he said, easing the applicator from Sebastian’s limb fingers and finishing off the job. ‘There we go, all done.’
‘And what? The rings cut off the blood supply and they just shrivel up?’
‘Exactly,’ said Neil, setting the lamb back down and watching it skip away with the others as though nothing had happened. ‘They’ll just slough off in a week or so.’
Sebastian tried not to think about the phrase “slough off” as they made their way back to the house, walking with his feet wide apart to ensure he didn’t accidentally cut off his own blood supply.
Virginia was busy loading the last of her containers into the back of the Landrover. She turned to look at them as they walked up the drive, her eyebrows raised at Sebastian’s curious gait.
‘All okay?’ she asked.
‘Except for one little balls up,’ said Neil, chuckling. ‘You all set, love?’
‘Ready to go! You got everything Sebastian?’ Uncertain what “everything” might be required for going to the market, Sebastian shrugged and made for the passenger seat. As he opened the door, he paused as he considered grabbing his mobile from upstairs, but couldn’t face the stream of text and email messages that were no doubt queuing up for his virtual attention, so he climbed into the front seat of the car, being careful not to sit in a way that might cause any intimate constriction. ‘Grab this, would you?’ said Virginia, dumping a large box on his lap, heedless of the possible damage that might be caused to his future child-producing prospects. ‘Right, let’s get to market!’
Sebastian was not a stranger to farmers markets, or at least one in particular, tucked away in a car park behind Notting Hill Gate tube station. He’d stumbled across the market by accident one Saturday morning and though he preferred his food in pre-sealed packaging, complete with lists of ingredients and the security of brand names, rather than dished out to order and wrapped in brown paper, he had returned on a number of occasions simply to enjoy the busy atmosphere and the quaint feel of the place rather than to buy any of the produce on offer. And after five longs days in the isolation of Steepleford, he was looking forward to getting out in public again and soaking up the busy surroundings and the jostling of the crowds.
‘Well, you look happy,’ said Virginia as she steered the drive along the road to Barnstaple. ‘Anything to do with your “late night visitor”?’
‘Eh?’ Sebastian blinked, confused for a moment. ‘Oh. No, nothing to do with that. Honestly. Just thinking about the market, that’s all.’
Virginia raised disbelieving eyebrows, but didn’t comment and they lapsed back into silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Sebastian was only slightly peeved that his were now focussed on Emma. Emma in her dressing gown and though he hadn’t seen what lay beneath, his mind was happy to furnish him with various suggestions, some of which were decidedly scanty.
‘Sorry what?’ he said, vaguely aware that Virginia had spoken and hoping it was nothing to do with the “late night visitor”.
‘I was just wondering…’ she began, but trailed off into what seemed to be a slightly embarrassed silence.
‘Yes?’ For a moment Sebastian thought she wasn’t going to say anything else.
‘Well…’ she said, pausing again as though uncertain how to continued. ‘It’s my hair.’
Again the embarrassed silence.
‘Yes?’ he said again.
‘Well, look at it.’ Virginia grabbed at a lock of her hair and held it out towards Sebastian, like exhibit A at a murder trial. ‘It’s awful, isn’t it?’
Uncertain how to respond to this Sebastian eventually opted for, ‘I wouldn’t say that.’, which was true. Though he certainly thought it.
‘Well it is. I know it is.’ She let go of her hair and turned to look at him. ‘A woman’s hair is supposed to be the fount of her beauty, but mine’s just plain ugly. It looks like it was woven from the hair off a dead camel.’
‘Road,’ said Sebastian, gesturing out of the window as the Landrover slewed into the right hand lane. There was nothing coming the other way, he was just glad of the distraction.
‘It’s a scratchy, brown cloud,’ she continued, eyes back on the road. ‘A wiry, dry mess, and I hate it!’ Another pause, and this time Sebastian try to fill it with the sound of tapping his fingers on the box that still nestled on his lap. ‘Anyway, ever since I noticed all those lotions and stuff-’
‘Yes, ever since I noticed the products you brought with you, I’ve wanted to ask if you knew anything that could make my hair less…’ She trailed off, clearly searching for the right words.
‘Like a scratchy, brown cloud?’ he suggested.
‘Exactly!’ Virginia turned to look at him, an eager smile on her face. ‘There are plenty of shops in Barnstaple.’
‘Road,’ said Sebastian, pointing again. ‘I’ve got a few ideas. I’ll have a look around when we’re in town and see what I can do.’
The rest of the journey passed without incident, or accident, and ended in a narrow street by a building which declared itself to be the Pannier Market.
‘The market’s in there?’ asked Sebastian, nodding towards one of the doors that stood at intervals along the wall, its old brickwork reminding him of the view from his window back in London. ‘It’s indoors?’
Virginia opened her door. ‘Course it is,’ she said, stepping out into the street. ‘Give us quick hand getting this stuff out, would you?’
The hand in question was not all that quick; Virginia had brought a vast amount of produce with her and it was almost eight o’clock before they had everything set up on the couple of tables that were apparently her weekly area.
‘Perfect,’ she said, placing the last loaf of bread on the pile and stepping back to survey the stand. ‘Just perfect.’ Sebastian joined her, looking at the products on offer. In addition to the loaves, sausages and goat cheese that he had helped to make, there were various other cuts of meat, mostly pork and lamb, together with jars of pickle, chutney and other preserves, containers of soups and sauces, eggs of various sizes, pies, cakes and other baked goods, all priced up and ready. He nodded, impressed by both the quantity and variety.
‘That’s a whole lot of food. How much of it do you reckon you’ll sell today?’
‘Oh, everything, I should think,’ said Virginia.
‘All of it?’ he asked, turning to look at her in surprise.
She shrugged, as though this was perfectly normal. ‘You’ll see. Come two o’clock, we’ll have nothing left but empty boxes to load back in the car. Here come the hoards,’ she added, as the main doors to the market hall burst open and people started piling in.
No longer needed, Sebastian decided to wander around, looking at the other stalls lined up between the pillars of the long hall, but soon the place was heaving with other people doing just the same. To his surprise, he found the jostling of the crowd and the din of people talking over one another annoying, even oppressive, so he pushed his way between the old ladies shuffling along with their shopping trolleys, the large men pausing in the middle of aisles for no discernable reason and the mums dragging small, unhappy children behind them, back to Virginia’s stall.
‘I’m off to the shops,’ he called, trying to make himself heard over the clamour. ‘Going to look out some products for you.’
Virginia, who was holding out a loaded paper bag to one of the old ladies, and taking a five pound note with the other, glanced across at Sebastian and gave him a quick nod.
Once out on the relatively uncrowded street, he took a deep breath, relieved to be out of the crush and noise of the market. It was worse than London in there!
‘What do you mean, “Worse than London”?’ Virginia asked as they hurtled along the road back to Steepleford. It was only just after two, thanks to her selling the last of her produce earlier than predicted. ‘I thought you loved London. “Always something going on,” you said, unlike our lifeless, Medieval little village.’
‘I don’t know,’ said Sebastian, staring out of the passenger window as the trees and fields swept past. ‘It was just all a bit too busy for my liking. Maybe I’ve just got used to the quiet or something. The town itself was alright, though, and I at least managed to find a few products to help with your “dry, wiry mess”.’
As soon as they were back at the farmhouse, Sebastian scurried off up the road to the village store, pausing briefly outside to catch his breath before pushing open the door.
‘Well, that makes a nice change,’ said Emma, as the bell jangled above his head. ‘Thought you were going to stand me up again.’
‘I told you-’ he began, but she cut him off.
‘I’m only teasing,’ she said, then turned to shout into the house. ‘I’m off out, mum. Back in a bit.’ And without waiting for a reply, she swung the counter up and walked over to Sebastian. ‘Beautiful day, isn’t it?’ she said, as they emerged into the street.
Sebastian, who hadn’t really taken any notice of the weather, looked around at the village basking in the afternoon sun. The birds were singing from their hiding places and bees buzzed industriously around the hanging baskets and wallflowers. A short distance along the road the unmistakable figures of Sid and Harry were perched on the bench in front of the Green Man, chattering away about something he couldn’t quite make out. A few people were on the village green, following around the figure of Mrs Farley, who was gesturing at areas of grass as though conducting the world’s dullest sight-seeing tour. It really was a beautiful day; warm, peaceful and so much more pleasant than being jostled around in the noisy market.
‘It certainly is,’ he said, turning to look at her and noticing with pleasure that she was in a light summer dress again, instead of one of her shapeless frocks.
‘Perfect day for it,’ she said, taking his hand in hers and pulling hism away from the shop.
Sebastian frowned, confused, but allowed her to lead him along the road. ‘Perfect day for what?’ he asked.
‘For taking a dip in the river.’