Chapter 5 – Gluten Intolerance
‘It wasn’t that bad!’ said Neil, chewing on a piece of bread and watching Sebastian across the table. They were back in the farmhouse kitchen where Virginia had prepared them a lunch of ham, cheese, fruit and bread together with a large jug of what Sebastian was surprised to find out was beer. Homebrewed beer at that. He’d experienced homebrew before during his student days at UCL, and while he couldn’t remember everything about the evening in question, he did remember whispering promises of abstinence to the toilet he was hugging and the two-day hangover that caused him to receive a C for his assignment due to handing it in late.
He took a sip of his orange squash. ‘Not that bad?’ he said. ‘It was bad enough that I needed a complete change of clothes and a shower. And I now have another mark on my cheek to match the one from the tent.’
‘We don’t have a shower.’ said Neil, looking confused.
Virginia reached over to turn Sebastian’s head a little. ‘Let’s have a look at this mark, then.’ Sebastian leaned forward, brandishing his injured cheek. ‘Oh, it’s quite red, isn’t it? Still, another inch higher it would’ve been your eye.’
‘Like I said,’ Neil pointed with his knife. ‘It’s not that bad.’
‘Why? Because the electric wire didn’t burn my eyes out?’ Sebastian shook his head and continued the careful operation of slicing the bread. This wasn’t something he was used to as all the bread he bought came pre-sliced. In his mind, he had imagined producing a perfectly even, straight piece of bread, but the reality was turning out more like a lump of wood that had been chopped up with a blunt axe.
‘Here, let me,’ said Virginia. Sebastian handed her the knife and, in a matter of seconds, she had not only tidied up his mess, but produced a perfect, thick slice, flicking it onto his plate.
‘He broke a nail, too,’ said Neil, scooping out an alarming amount of mustard from a small jar. ‘Show Virg your nail.’
Sebastian held out his hand towards her, titled so she could see. ‘I clipped it and filed it down after my shower,’ he said, ‘but it still feels strange.’
‘Cost him, what was it, forty pounds to have them done?’
Virginia frowned. ‘What do you mean, “done”?’
Sebastian opened his mouth to speak, but Neil got in ahead of him. ‘You know, Virg. Buffing, polishing… er, canticles.’
‘Cuticles,’ Sebastian corrected.
‘Yeah, them too.’
Virginia looked down at her own nails, which Sebastian saw were dull and cracked, with tips of varying lengths, and a few spots of red here where they had once been painted. ‘Forty pounds,’ she whispered.
Neil chuckled into his mug of beer. ‘Don’t you start getting any ideas, love!’
‘I could give you a manicure,’ said Sebastian, though he couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact with her, but kept his head down, concentrating on making sure the butter was evenly distributed across his bread. His words were followed by an awkward silence.
‘Really?’ she asked.
Sebastian looked up. ‘Sure. I’m pretty sure I know what I’m doing.’
Virginia opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She appeared, to Sebastian, to be having some kind of struggle working out what to say, but eventually the words found their way out. ‘Nah,’ she said. ‘It’s very kind of you, Sebastian, but… well, I’m a smallholder. No point in having a manicure when you could end up elbow deep in a goat an hour later, or have to claw your way through a log pile after an errant chicken or something. It’d be a waste of both our time. But thanks.’ She looked again at her nails, a wistful expression crossing her face. ‘Anyway,’ she said at last, ‘what’re you boys up to this afternoon now you’ve finished with the pigs?’
Sebastian looked across to Neil, who downed the rest of his beer in one go. ‘Actually,’ he said, wiping a couple of drips from his chin with the back of his sleeve, ‘we didn’t get them all finished. We’ve still got the weaners and Major Tom to feed.’
‘Major Tom?’ said Sebastian, his heart sinking at the idea of having to face yet more terrifying beasts.
Virginia smiled. ‘Major Tom’s our boar.’ She noticed the anxiety beaming from Sebastian’s face. ‘Don’t worry yourself about him. He’s just a big, cuddly softy – wouldn’t hurt a fly.’
The only correct part of that description, as far as Sebastian could see as he loitered outside Major Tom’s run some thirty minutes later, was the word ‘big’. The last bit might also have been true, since a vast quantity of flies burst from what Sebastian recognised from experience as the pig’s toilet area as he and Neil approached.
The pen was smaller than that of the piglets and their mother, and rather than being situated on the hill among the trees, this one was on part of the flat area between the hill and the river. Behind them, the horses still ambled around the field in their face masks, and beyond Major Tom’s enclosure, there was another large field which was cut off as the hill swung round to meet the river, which Neil had informed was called the Bray. Neither that field nor the pen ahead were grassy like the horses’, but were a sea of churned up earth and stones. The sun was high above the valley, sparkling on the brisk ripples of the Bray and the stagnant surface of muddy wallow in the run ahead.
Unimpressed by these surroundings, Sebastian headed towards the pen, clutching another plastic sack of pig food un his washing-up gloved hands, holding it well away from his feet. As Neil swung a leg over the electric wires – there were two here, one low like before, but a second around two foot off the ground – Sebastian paused as he considered Major Tom. Perhaps ‘big’ wasn’t that accurate a word. ‘Gigantic’ might have been more appropriate, or even ‘Monstrous’. Like Lucy – he still couldn’t get over the choice of name – Major Tom was black, no doubt being the same breed, but he was much broader and looked more menacing. As the pig swaggered towards Neil, his vast bulk swaying behind him, there was something primal the creature. Sebastian had heard of how pigs had be used in battle, back in the days when people rode horses and used swords. When the enemy cavalry came galloping in, the pigs would be released, spooking the horses and tearing at their bellies with their tusks. Though Major Tom didn’t have tusks, he could well imagine him spooking horses – he definitely spooked Sebastian.
‘Come on,’ called Neil as he poured water into a metal container. ‘The poor boy’s waited long enough for his food already.’
With a resigned sigh, Sebastian tiptoed over the electric wire and crept across the run. ‘Where shall I put it?’ he asked.
Neil looked round and waved a hand. ‘Anywhere’s fine.’
Although the boar didn’t move with the same agility as the piglets, Major Tom got up to a decent trot. As he approached, Sebastian dumped the last of the pellets in a heap and backed away behind the pig ark, taking care not to touch the dirty corrugated iron roof with his clean clothes.
‘So is this… pig the father of the ones that attacked me earlier?’ he asked.
‘Attacked!’ Neil chuckled as he sauntered over to the opposite side of the ark. ‘Course he is. And he sired the weaners we’ve got to feed next. Here.’ He beckoned Sebastian to join him. ‘Come and look at these.’
Sebastian edged round the back of the ark, so he wouldn’t have to squeeze past the bulk of Major Tom, to find Neil pointing to the end of the boar that wasn’t busy scoffing up the pellets. Beneath his not-very-curly tail and seeming to force his back legs apart, were two large bulges, about the size and shape of a couple of melons. Black, hairy melons.
‘Are those…’ he began, his voice a whisper. ‘Are those his… balls?’
‘Aye.’ Neil nodded proudly. ‘What a pair of beauties, eh? No wonder he makes so many fine, little piggies with those bad boys to work with – almost half a pint of semen in each one. Give them a little pat.’
Sebastian’s head swivelled to look at his companion. ‘Yes… That’s not going to happen. Not even with these.’ He brandished his gloves. ‘Anyway, shouldn’t we be feeding the rest of the pigs?’
‘Alright, alright. You’re keen all of a sudden.’
‘I’m really not.’ said Sebastian, heading back to the electric fence, taking a course that gave the most distance from the Major, while avoiding entering the toilet zone. ‘I just want to get it done and out of the way so I can get back and have another shower.’
‘Shower?’ said Neil, with more than a note of disdain. ‘We don’t even have a shower.’ He began to head back too, but then stopped and called to Sebastian. ‘Here, can you guess how long the Major takes to impregnate one of ours sows? Just the delivery, you know, the end game?’
Sebastian turned back, frowning as he considered the strange question. ‘Dunno. Thirty seconds?’ he suggested.
‘Thirty seconds?’ said Neil, incredulous. ‘There’s almost a full pint to offload, remember.’
Sebastian raised his eyebrows. ‘What, longer? A minute? Two minutes?’
‘Try twenty minutes!’
‘Twenty minutes?’ said Sebastian, blinking in amazement as he turned to leave. ‘Twenty whole minutes?’ Distracted, his foot slipped in a patch of mud or something worse, but thankfully there was an electric wire there to support him.
He was surprised to find out that the washing-up gloves provided almost no insulation whatsoever.
‘You’ll have to take those gloves off,’ said Virginia as she loaded bags of flour onto the kitchen table. It was just after five that afternoon on a day that Sebastian was starting to think would never end. How many different jobs could there be on a smallholding? The answer was clearly “a lot”, and this evening’s chore was baking. He was not, of course, entirely ignorant of the process, though in his mind it mostly involved clouds of flour, so he had come suitably prepared. On his head was a shower cap of the disposable, clear plastic type, and, though he had failed to bring one himself, it turned out there was a single apron in the farmhouse which he could use. Apparently it was the one Neil used when he did the cooking at the village fayre, which was due to take place this coming Friday – a treat Sebastian was already not looking forward to. The apron was designed in such a way as to make the wearer appear to be naked except for black under, complete with fishnet stockings and suspenders. No doubt it was meant to be amusing, since Neil had laughed hugely when Sebastian put it on. And then he’d pulled on his washing-up gloves.
He held them up for inspection. ‘But they’re clean.’
‘They may well be clean,’ said Virginia, not pausing in her preparations, ‘but you can’t make bread wearing washing-up gloves.’
Sebastian was about to argue, but gave up – it wasn’t worth it. ‘I still don’t get what the point is.’ he said as he wrestled with the gloves. ‘You can get bread in the supermarket for next to nothing. It’s a loss leader, to get people to use them for all their groceries and stuff. There’s no way you can make it any cheaper.’
‘Do you always buy whatever product happens to be cheapest?’ asked Virginia, crossing over to a high cupboard and lifting out a large bowl
Sebastian shrugged. ‘The cheapest bread, yes.’
‘But what about other things?’ She placed the bowl on the table and gave him a knowing look. ‘What about shampoo or aftershave or… body butter, whatever that is?’
‘It’s for super-moisturising your body,’ said Sebastian. Virginia’s face was blank. ‘You know – after you wash.’ The face remained blank. ‘It’s quite common. A lot of people use it.’
‘Not anyone I know,’ said Virginia. ‘I just happened to notice it when I was cleaning in your room this afternoon. That, and a lot of other items I’m not very familiar with. You like being clean, don’t you?’
‘Who doesn’t?’ Sebastian stopped himself glancing across to where Neil was lounging in his armchair, doing a crossword.
‘Well, you’ll enjoy bread making, then,’ said Virginia. ‘There’s nothing like it for getting your hand clean!’ She started laughing at the look of disgust on Sebastian’s face. ‘So would you?’ she asked.
‘Would I what? Enjoy making bread?’
‘No.’ Virginia turned to open the fridge and Sebastian noticed the dead birds had vanished. ‘Would you buy the cheapest washing products?’
‘No way,’ he said. ‘I’ve made that mistake before. Never again!’
She turned back and laid something wrapped in brown paper onto the table. ‘Well, it’s the same with me and bread. I’ve tried that cheap stuff before. Terrible stuff, the texture of polystyrene and with just about as much taste. Never again!’ She smiled at Sebastian and noticed he was peering at the brown paper package. ‘That’s yeast. Fresh yeast. There’s nothing quite like it.’ She clapper her hands together. ‘Right. Let’s get started, shall we?’
Although Sebastian had a vague idea about how bread was made – something to do with floor and yeast – he was surprised at how many ingredients and how much work was involved. Apparently the plan was to make two different types of loaf, a batch of rolls and some pizza dough for their evening meal, and Virginia began by introducing him to the flour.
‘What’s the point in having so many types?’ he asked, looking at five bags lined up on the table. ‘Flour’s just flour, isn’t it? White, powdery stuff.’
Virginia opened one of the bags, revealing the white powdery stuff within. ‘You’re thinking of plain flour,’ she said. ‘This is the stuff you use for sauces and that sort of thing.’
‘Do I look like I make my own sauces?’ Sebastian tried to look like someone who didn’t.
She closed the bag and placed it to one side. ‘Well, plain flour isn’t much use for making bread. Not strong enough. Not enough gluten.’
‘I’ve head of that,’ said Sebastian, who was feeling out of depth already. ‘A friend of mine is gluten intolerant.’
Virginia nodded as though she’d expected this news. ‘Well, you get gluten in wheat. It’s when makes dough elastic and ensure your dough rises properly and makes it strong. This here,’ she indicated another bag, ‘is strong white bread flour. We’ll use this to make the rolls. If you measure out a pound of this, I’ll get the water.’
And so the baking began.
As the work progressed, Sebastian found it less and less enjoyable – and he hardly keen to start off with. The weighing scales looked like something from the reign of Queen Victoria, a brass monstrosity with crude, black weights in a series of archaic measurements that required a degree in Maths to calculate, and the feel of the dry flour on his hands set his teeth on edge. It was worse than talcum powder, a hideous travesty he would never let within a mile of his body.
Virginia added the lukewarm water, got Sebastian to measure out the fresh yeast, which he didn’t like the look of, or the smell, and mixed it all together. Dividing the dough in two, she took half and demonstrated, with practised ease, how to knead it. She made it look so easy, in fact, that he had went at it his bit with surprising confidence. But it wasn’t long before he found himself in a mess. A sticky, stretchy, impossible mess.
‘This is awful!’ he said, trying desperately to scrape the tacky dough from his hands, but the more he tried, the worse it got. ‘Mine must be too watery or something.’
‘It’s exactly the same as mine,’ said Virginia, whose dough was formed into a perfect dome. She lifted up her hands, which didn’t have even a speck of flour on them. ‘Like I said, there’s nothing like it for getting your hands clean. You just got to keep working it.’
Sebastian sighed and carried on squeezing and turning the mess of dough that was now entirely caked around his hands. If anything, this was worse than feeding the wretched pigs. Well, almost anyway. Eventually, after what felt like hours of misery, the dough began to slowly release its hold in his fingers, preferring to stick to itself instead.
‘Weird!’ said Sebastian, as a large strand of the stuff stretched out from his palm and came away with a soft sound somewhere between a slurp and a slap. ‘It’s like witchcraft.’ He regretted the words as sound as they were out of his mouth. Together with assuming all country folk were pagans, he also had a vague notion that most villages had witches in them; witches who would meet by a full moon or something to dance naked in the forest. He tried not to imagine Virginia in such a situation. ‘I, er, it’s not though, of course!’ he said, the words tumbling out of his mouth in a single burst. He smiled, trying to cover up his embarrassment, but only managing to look a bit crazy. ‘It’s just… what? What is it?’ he held up to the springy ball of dough in his now clean hands. ‘How did it do that?’
‘Gluten.’ said Virginia, as if that cleared up the confusion. ‘Pop it into this bowl and we’ll cover it up, so the yeast can get on with its thing. And we can get on with the first loaf.’
Twice more Sebastian had to go through the hideous ordeal with kneading the dough, first with a mixture made from the bread flour, rye flour and milk, and the second containing something called spelt.
‘I’ve never even heard of it,’ he said, as he measure out nine ounces into the scales. Ounces! Who uses ounces anymore? Another time travel affect of coming the countryside. ‘What’s his stuff actually made of, you know, grain-wise?’
Virginia’s brow creased in puzzlement. ‘It’s spelt. That’s what the grain is actually called. It’s an ancient type of wheat… been around for thousands of years.’
‘How’s that spelled?’ shouted Neil from the other room. Virginia ignored him.
‘Once you’ve got your nine ounces, add it into the bowl of bread flour and crumble in the yeast. Sebastian wrinkled his nose. He was not at all keen of the yeast. It felt strange in his fingers and had a strangely unpleasant smell that still lingered on his skin, despite the fact he had washed his hands twice already since he last touched it.
By the time he’d kneaded all four batches of dough, including the one for the pizzas – the thought of it made him realize just how hungry he was after the day’s labours – and left it to rise, Virginia announced the dough for the rolls was ready.
‘Read for what, exactly?’ he asked, already dreading the answer. He felt as though he’d been stood in this kitchen forever, and his back, which had rarely ached before, was killing from leaning over the table to work the dough.
‘We need to knock it back,’ said Virginia, sounding far too much like she was enjoying herself for Sebastian’s liking. No matter how much better this turned out to be than the cheap stuff from the supermarket, it couldn’t possibly be worth this much effort.
He shrugged. ‘Knock it back?’
‘You know – get all the air out.’ But Sebastian clearly did not know. ‘Basically we’ve got to knead it again,’ she explained.
Sebastian shrug slumped and he looked almost on the verge of tears. ‘We’ve got to knead it? Again? What on earth for?’
‘Like I said, we’ve got to get the air out. It makes sure the yeast is spread throughout the whole lump of dough so when it rises the air bubbles are even and small.’ She looked at Sebastian and her words seemed to have made no difference to his dejected expression. ‘You’ll see,’ she said.
Seventy minutes later, leaving Virginia to load the loaves, rolls and pizzas into the over, Sebastian slumped onto the sofa, having first removed his apron and cap so he wouldn’t get flour on it. Not that it would matter, since it turned out to be covered in dog hairs. He tried to ignore this and remained in a human-shaped heap, hoping there weren’t any fleas. It was then that he noticed what was missing from the room.
‘Where’s your telly?’ he asked, looking around as though one might be concealed behind one of the awful Toby mugs on the windowsill or under one of the mismatched cushions.
The newspaper drooped slightly, revealing Neil’s face as far as his moustache. ‘We don’t have one,’ he said. ‘Never seen the need.’
‘Never seen the…’ Sebastian almost couldn’t take it in. ‘But everyone has a telly! Surely. I mean… how do you find out what’s going on in the word? How do you get entertainment? The internet?’
Neil’s face, or what could be seen of it, looked confused. ‘Internet? Oh, you mean on the computer? Ah. No, we don’t have one.’
‘No internet?’ Sebastian really couldn’t take this in. ‘But… how? What do you do in the evenings?’
‘Well, I’ve got my paper,’ said Neil, holding it up as evidence. ‘And there’s books. Virg always picks up a few from the library when she goes to town for the market.’
‘We play games sometimes,’ added Virginia, wandering through from the kitchen.
‘Games?’ Sebastian’s gaming was entirely played out on the computer. Surely nothing else was worth bothering with.
Neil snatched up a deck of cards from the shelf below the coffee table. ‘Ever played Cribbage, lad?’
That night, as he lay awake in his bed, listening to the strange sounds of the countryside, or rather the eerie lack of the normal sounds of London, he found it impossible to sleep. And yet he felt so weary. Maybe he was too tired to sleep – he’d heard of that sort of thing.
Instinctively, he grabbed his mobile phone from the bedside table to look it up, but, as on the thousand other times he’d checked, there was no reception here whatsoever. It was as though the village was lined with lead. Or as though all the satellites had ceased to exist.
‘Bloody time travel,’ he muttered and turned over onto his side to face the window, but it made no difference. There was no light outside to coax him to sleep, no bricks and mortar to comfort him. There was only the stifling darkness of somewhere without light. Somewhere wild. Somewhere dangerous. Somewhere humanity had not fully conquered.
He found his mind drifting back to the pigs and his near addition to their breakfast menu. In the darkness, his brain projected images of their sunken eyes, their muscular bodies, their mouths salivating, teeth bared. He thumped the pillow.
‘I’m never going to get to sleep!’