Chapter 21 – Love Games
Neil gripped the hammer in one hand, testing the balance, his eyes fixed on Sebastian.
‘Right, lad,’ he said. ‘This is it!’ And he raised the weapon above his head, paused for only a moment, before bringing it crashing down. The chime of the bell rang out above the sounds of the fayre and there was an appreciative applause from those looking on. ‘Come on, give it a shot,’ said Neil, holding out the long shaft of the hammer to Sebastian, who took a step backwards.
‘No, no,’ he said, holding up his hands as if to fend it off. ‘It’s not my sort of thing.’
‘Not your sort of thing?’ Neil gave him a look that suggested this was a ridiculous statement. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Just give it a good whack – you’ll ring that bell, no problem.’
‘Yes, go on,’ said Emma, who was nibbling a cloud of candyfloss in a very distracting way. ‘You don’t have to do it one-handed like Mr Show-off here.’
‘Thanks,’ said Neil, with a slight bow, still holding out the hammer.
Sebastian hesitated, battling with himself between not wanting to look like a coward for refusing and not wanting to look like an idiot for being rubbish at it. ‘Fine,’ he said at last and took hold of the handle. Neil released his grip and the weight of the hammer’s wooden head caught him by surprise. It dropped to the floor, just missing Neil’s foot, and caused Sebastian to stumble forwards.
‘Not a great start,’ said Emma.
‘Just messing,’ he lied, and hefted up the hammer, shifting round to face his target, a small wooden cylinder that protruded from the base of what looked like a large thermometer, topped with a bell. At various intervals up the thermometer’s length there were words to describe those who managed to get the red puck up to the corresponding height, from ‘Useless’ at the bottom all the way up to ‘Hercules’, which was written on the bell itself. Sebastian hoped he could at least get past ‘Weakling’.
‘Right,’ he said, gearing himself up as he raised the wooden head ready to strike. He paused for a moment, narrowed his eyes as he focussed on his target, then brought the hammer down as hard as he could.
The bell did not ring. The red marker did not move. There was no applause.
‘Call it a practice swing,’ said Neil, helping Sebastian yank the hammer’s head out of the grass where it had buried itself. Sebastian’s eyes flicked across to Emma, who was watching him over the top of her candyfloss. She winked in a way that he didn’t find especially helpful. Distracting, yes, but not helpful.
He raised the hammer again, repositioning himself to make sure of his the target this time, then slammed it down. The red puck leapt from its home at the bottom of the thermometer, shuttling up to just past the halfway mark.
‘Not bad!’ said Neil, joining in the smattering of applause, and read the corresponding label. ‘“Could Do Better”? Guess it could be right… Want to give it another shot?’
Sebastian leant the hammer against the thermometer. ‘Absolutely not!’
He and Emma continued their round of the stalls and activities, with Sebastian trying to avoid taking part in anything he might look stupid at, which as far as he was concerned meant everything, and with Emma trying to talk him into having a go. He almost tried his hand at the coconut shy, but when he saw a girl of about six knock one off with her first throw, he changed his mind. The wellie throwing was definitely out as burly farmer-looking types queued up to flick them far into the distance with barely any discernible effort, the crockery smashing was another throwing game that required aiming skills which Sebastian was fairly sure he didn’t have, and though he was tempted by the skittles, there was quite a crowd gathered around who seemed to be taking it far more seriously than was necessary.
‘What’s this thing?’ he asked, pointing the where an elderly lady was clutching a bundle of what looked like five lengths of firewood, pulling one out at a time to toss it towards a wooden doll perching on top of a long pole.
Emma, who was busy opening her tombola tickets, glanced across. ‘That’s Aunt Sally.’
‘I meant, what game is she playing,’ said Sebastian. ‘You’ve won something,’ he added, pointing at the ticket she had just opened, number 245.
‘Thank goodness you’re here,’ she said, her words laced with sarcasm, and handed the ticket to the woman behind the stall. ‘And the game is Aunt Sally. You should definitely have a go. It’s very traditional.’
When she had finished with the tickets and received her prizes, a bottle of red wine and, to her amused delight, a tub of body butter, they wandered across to the Aunt Sally as the old lady, who probably wasn’t called Sally, took her last couple of throws, missing the target altogether with the first, but managing to knock the whole structure down with the second.
‘Oh, well done,’ said Sebastian, nodding his encouragement.
‘You’re not supposed to knock it all down,’ whispered Emma, disconcertingly close to his ear.’
He stopped nodding and whispered back, ‘How was I supposed to know? Unlucky,’ he said out loud, but the lady just ignored him and shuffled off towards the tea tent, no doubt to down her misery in caffeine. ‘So what are the rules, then?’
‘Glad you asked,’ said Jeph, emerging from the wings to gather up the sticks. ‘All you’ve got to do is knock off the Aunt Sally, without toppling her pole as well.’ He ambled up to Sebastian and dumped the five sticks into his arms. Sebastian wasn’t ready, however, and a couple of them dropped to the floor. ‘Should I count them as throws?’ asked Jeph.
‘What?’ said Sebastian, bending to pick them up. ‘I didn’t mean I wanted a go, I was just asking-’
‘All you’ve got to do is knock her off three times,’ Jeff interrupted, ignoring him and pointing to the Aunt Sally, ‘and you’ll get double your money back.’
‘But I haven’t given you any money.’
Jeff smiled. ‘Quite right. That’s one pound, please.’ Sebastian, who wasn’t entirely sure how he’d ended up in this situation, scrambled in his pocket for some change, eventually fishing out a bundle from which Jeff pecked out three twenties, a couple of tens and some fives, tutting his disapproval at the mess of coins.
‘This should be interesting,’ said a voice behind them, and Sebastian turned to see Sid and Harry approaching, each gripping a pint of what looked like real ale.
‘You ever played before?’ asked Harry. Sebastian gave him what he hoped was a withering look. ‘Something wrong with your eyes, boy?’
‘Shh,’ said Sebastian, ‘I need to concentrate.’ He turned back to where Aunt Sally perched on her pole. Teasing one of the sticks out from under his arm, he hefted it in his hand, trying to work out if he should throw it horizontally as if rolling it through the air, or vertically like a knife. He opted for the latter, chucking the stick in a high arc, sending it spinning towards the target.
‘Wow!’ said Emma, as the stick caught the doll squarely in the head, knocking her cleaning from her seat. ‘That was amazing! Do it again.’
Sebastian took out the next stick and threw is in much the same way, and again Aunt Sally toppled leaving the pole still standing. Emma tried to join in the applause from the small crowd that was watching, but it was hard while clutching her winnings. Sebastian, surprised that neither Sid nor Harry had made a comment about ‘beginner’s luck’ or anything, turned to see them staring at him, mouths open.
‘Beginner’s luck!’ said Jeph, wandering over to place the doll back on her pole.
‘Well it’s got to be,’ Harry agreed, shaking his head. ‘Takes years to master the Aunt Sally, doesn’t it, Sid? Years.’
‘Course it does, Harry. Remember old Nobby Clarke, what lived behind the forge? He had is own Aunt Sally and everything, all set up in the backyard and every evening you’d fin him -’
‘I’m sure it’s a fascinating story,’ Sebastian interrupted, ‘but could it wait til I’ve taken my shot?’ The old men fell into a sullen silence and he turned back to the game, drawing out another stick. He took aim and threw, hitting the doll, but catching the pole at the same time.
‘Unlucky,’ said Jeff, grinning from the wings. ‘Only two more left.’
Sebastian ignored him and took the fourth stick, deciding to have a go at throwing it underarm instead. It didn’t work, the stick sailed past, missing its target by several inches.
‘What did I say?’ said Sid. ‘Beginner’s luck was all.’ He lapsed back into silence at a look from Emma.
‘Come on,’ she said, giving Sebastian another of those unhelpful winks. ‘You can do it.’
Sebastian took the last stick in his right hand, deciding to revert to the overarm, knife throw, though it suddenly seemed like an impossible task – the doll was so far away and so easily missed and the pole so easily caught. As Harry had said, it must take years to master. ‘Here goes,’ he said, and tossed the stick. Everyone held their breath as it turned over and over in the air, whirling whirred towards both Aunt Sally and her pole. Sebastian was certain it was going to knock them both down, but somehow the spin caught the doll at just the right moment, sending her tumbling to the floor once more. The edge of the stick, however, brushed against the pole and it teetered on its plinth. ‘Nooooo…’ said Sebastian, the word coming out like a long groan through gritted teeth, but just as it seemed about to drop, the pole began to right itself again, eventually coming to rest still standing upright.
‘Well done!’ said Emma, as the crowd of onlookers burst into applause. ‘You did it!’
Sebastian turned to Sid and Harry, unable to supress a grin of satisfaction. They were both wearing their stunned expressions again
‘That,’ said Harry, ‘was bloody amazing.’ And took a swig of his beer.
‘Amazing,’ echoed Sid. ‘Are you sure you’ve never done this before, boy?’
‘Never. I’m as surprised as you are… I’ve never won anything before in my whole life!’
‘Must be your lucky day,’ said Jeff, looking slightly put out. ‘Here’s your winnings.’ Sebastian held out a hand and Jeff dropped a pile of silver coins into it. ‘Two pounds. Sorry about all the small change.’
A short while later, Sebastian and Emma emerged from the tea tent, each carrying a steaming mug and a plate with a scone lavished in jam and clotted cream, and headed to the straw bales that ringed the central area of the green. The Punch and Judy show was drawing to a close, with the eponymous baddie getting his comeuppance for assaulting not only the devil, a clown and a crocodile, all of which surely deserved it, but also his wife, a policeman and his own infant son.
‘Should children really be watching this?’ asked Sebastian, as Punch took a bow and flounced off with his string of ‘saus-um-ages.’
‘Oh, the kids love it,’ said Emma, nudging him towards an appropriate bale.
Sebastian sat down, frowning. ‘I’m not sure that’s a relevant answer.’
Emma smiled. ‘You think that’s odd? Just you wait for the Morris dancers.’ A burst of feedback echoed across the green and they both turned to see the vicar fiddling with the microphone on the stage behind the roped-off area. He tapped at it before announcing, to the accompanied of further feedback, that the dancers in question would be performing in a matter of minutes, so would people please gather around the central arena.
‘Arena?’ said Sebastian, nodding at the roped-off area, his hands filled with the various components of his cream tea. ‘Bit of a grand title, isn’t it?’
Emma shushed him. ‘Here they come,’ she said, pointing with her scone in the direction of the church. Sure enough, a troupe of thirteen men and women were heading across the grass, three bearing instruments, the rest kitted out with an assortment of tassels, bells, handkerchiefs and sticks. They all wore knee-length socks and their faces had been painted to match their green and red patchwork attired. Some of them had hats.
‘What the hell are they supposed to be? They look like the jokers from a pack of worn-out cards.’ Emma’s mouth was full, so she nudged him in the ribs, which he interpreted as another request for him to shut up.
And even though the Morris dancing was weird, and the combined noise of the accordion and fiddle sounded to Sebastian more like a session at the dentist than a song, he was sitting on a village green next to a girl whose company, and pretty much everything else, he adored, bathed in warm sunlight beneath a bright, blue sky, assailed by the mingled smells of grass, candyfloss and roasting pig, and surrounded by the gentle movement and conversation of people enjoying themselves at the fayre. He couldn’t think of anywhere else he’d rather be, and as he leaned gently against Emma, he would have happily sat there, watching the dancers skipping around smacking their sticks together in vague time with the musicians, forever.
‘Have you fainted?’ said Emma, nudging at him with her shoulder. Sebastian, who was quite comfortable and not about to be pushed away so easily, mumbled for her to be quiet and carried on watching the display.
‘How’re you two lovebirds enjoying the Morris dancing, then?’
‘We’re not lovebirds!’ said Sebastian, jerking upright and turning his scathing look towards Neil, who grinned back at him.
‘Something wrong your eyes, lad?’
‘No. And yes, I am enjoying the Morris dancing. Well,’ he glanced back at the group whose hopping, skipping and tapping was at last coming to a close, ‘kind of enjoying. It is a bit odd though.’
‘Odd’s right,’ said Neil. ‘Bunch of weirdoes the lot of them, if you ask me. Wouldn’t catch me prancing about like that! Anyways, can’t hang around chatting all afternoon. Got to help out setting up for tonight.’ And with that he stomped off across the green towards the stage.
‘Did he seem a little anti-Morris dancing to you?’ said Sebastian, leaning towards, but not quite against, Emma.
She leaned also, in a conspiratorial fashion. ‘Maybe they turned him down; refused to let him join in, or something. By the way, and when you insist we’re not “lovebirds”, could you try not to sound quite so outraged? It is a bit hurtful.’
‘It wasn’t anything against you!’ he said, pulling away in alarm. ‘I didn’t mean, you know… I’m sure you’d be a wonderful lover, er, lovebird. It’s just… I didn’t want to assume, I mean, I didn’t want Neil to assume… you know.’ He coughed to hide his embarrassment.
Emma smiled, laying a hand on his. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘Just teasing. Anyway, it’s getting on for five o’clock and I also have to get ready for this evening. And help my mother get ready to. Big night tonight!’
‘That reminds me,’ said Sebastian, jumping to his fault, all the awkwardness vanishing as he stood on tiptoes to look across to the hog roast. ‘I’m supposed to be helping Mac get ready later, too.’