Chapter 7 – No Use Crying
It wasn’t the worst lunch Sebastian had ever experienced. That prize went to the occasion Sebastian’s parents left him at his gran’s house when he was nine. He’d not wanted to be there. She’d not wanted him to be there. He’d wanted to be out playing with his friends. She’d wanted to be out heading to an afternoon of bingo. The resulting lunch consisted of left overs from the fridge – half an egg, a mouldering piece of cheese, a slice of pepperoni pizza and some taramasalta – and three cheese crackers that had gone soft and lost their ‘crack’, all eaten while sitting on her lumpy sofa in dusty silence.
Lunch at the Green Man wasn’t that bad… but it was bad.
Issue number one was the menu. It wasn’t the fact it was printed on cheap paper with beer marks that had caused the ink to run. It wasn’t the poor spelling evident throughout in words like ‘Sousage’ and ‘Haddack’. It wasn’t even the awful font that attempted, and failed, to look ‘fun’. The problem was the choice of meals, which were as follows:
1. Sousage and chips
2. Haddack & chips
3. Ham, Egg and chip
4. Moroccan Rabbit and Sweet Potato Tagine
5. Sousage & Egg and chips
6. Beaf Burger & chps
‘Moroccan rabbit and sweet potato tagine?’ said Sebastian, turning the flimsy piece of paper over to see if there was anything on the other side. There was a letter printed on it upside down. He gave Neil a puzzled look.
‘Donald went on a course,’ said Virginia, as though the landlord had caught an embarrassing disease. ‘He only attended once and that’s the dish they cooked.’
Neil leant across the table to Sebastian and spoke in a whisper. ‘Trust me, it’s awful. It tastes like someone else ate it first. Someone ill. Who washed it down with a pint of their own pi-’
‘Ready?’ Donald was standing by the table, though Sebastian hadn’t seen him arrive. Neil glanced up at him.
‘Donald,’ he said.
‘Neil,’ replied the landlord. Afterwards, that was only thing Sebastian could recall the two men saying to each other.
‘I’m having the haddock and chips, please, Donny,’ said Virginia, ‘and Neil’s having the ham, egg and chips. Sebastian?’
He looked down at the menu again, still uncertain what to choose.
‘Spoilt for choice, is it?’ asked Donald.
Sebastian wasn’t sure how to answer. ‘It’s not exactly that…’
Donald stepped round the table to tap at the menu with his pencil. ‘I’d recommend the rabbit tagine,’ he said, pronouncing the word “taggeeny”. ‘A favourite with the locals. Well, I say it’s a favourite, but of course no one actually bothers coming here to eat, but if they did, I reckon they’d go for the tagine coz it sounds fancy, though to be fair it’d probably put most of them off, on account of them being plebs who wouldn’t know “fancy” if it knocked them down in the street and stole their shoes, but it is something of a speciality of mine.’
Sebastian was confused. ‘Stealing people’s shoes?’
‘The tagine,’ Donald tapped the menu again, causing it to fold back on itself. Sebastian looked up at him and saw, almost hidden by his grumpy exterior, a clear look of pleading in his eyes. On a table in the corner, half-hidden from view by Donald’s mustard yellow corduroys, he noticed Emma was shaking her head at him in warning. That settled it!
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘I’ll go for the tagine.’
Donald frowned. ‘Eh?’
‘Er, the taggeeny?’
‘Splendid.’ Donald headed bar to the bar, his feet scuffing along the already worn carpet tracks. Sebastian was horrified to notice he was wearing tartan slippers.
Issue number two were the two aged locals who entered the pub at this point, staggering to the bar as though they were already drunk. They clambered onto a pair of tall stools and leant against the bar.
Donald emerged from the doorway and, without so much as a, ‘Good afternoon.’ or ‘The usual, is it?’ he poured two pints of lager and placed them on a couple of ancient beermats.
‘Six-twenty,’ he said at last.
What happened next reminded Sebastian of the metallic painted street entertainers that hung around Covent Garden, who would remain motionless for inhuman lengths of time, but would burst into life when given a coin, arms flailing, head rolling and often producing a loud twittering whistle. As Donald told them the price, which sounded very reasonable to Sebastian, the two locals became suddenly animated.
‘Six pounds twenty?’ said one of them, clutching his bald head, his West Country accent even more pronounced than Neil and Virginia’s. ‘Six pounds twenty? Prices gone up again, Sid. Did you hear? Price gone up again, I tell you!’
It was hard to make out these words, however, as the other spoke at the same time and volume as his companion. ‘Outrageous! Time was when you could go out drinking with only a shilling.’ He peered around at the room in general, his eyes magnified by his thick lensed glasses. ‘A shilling, I said! Not these days, though, oh no. Robbing us blind, they are, Harry. Robbing us blind!’
And although they paid for their drinks, scattering fistfuls of change across the bar, their loud complaints carried on unabated.
‘Who’re these guys?’ asked Sebastian, gesturing to the two old men with his eyebrows.
‘Him on the left is Harry,’ said Neil. ‘And the other’s Sid. They’re always in here.’
‘But I though Donald said no one ever came in here.’
Neil shrugged. ‘That’s Donald for you. He’s just a whining old git.’
‘Be nice!’ said Virginia, nudging him in the ribs as Donald shuffled over and dumped three sets of cutlery on the table and a bowl containing sachets of sauce. ‘Thanks, Donny.’
The third issue, though Sebastian couldn’t work out if it made his lunchtime better or worse, was Emma. She was sitting far enough away that conversation would have been awkward, but close enough that he could hear her talking. She was also right in his line of vision, which was distracting. Very distracting. Thank goodness she was wearing another shapeless dress! Not that shapeless though.
‘Sorry, what?’ he said, realising Virginia had been talking to him. He tore his gaze away from Emma.
‘I asked how you were finding things here, now you’ve settled in.’
‘Settled in?’ He didn’t mean it to sound quite so outraged. ‘I… you’ve got to remember, except for a few times as a kid, I’ve never been out of the city.’
‘Why ever not?’ she asked, ‘What’re you afraid of?’
‘Nothing,’ said Sebastian. ‘Well, except for spiders.’
Virginia ignored this. ‘You shouldn’t be afraid of the countryside.’
‘Or spiders,’ added Neil. ‘Nothing scary about spiders.’
Sebastian laid his hands flat on the table top and leaned forwards. ‘I am not afraid.’
‘Except of spiders,’ said Neil, grinning.
Virginia ignored him again and laid a hand on Sebastian’s. ‘You don’t need to be afraid of the countryside,’ she said. ‘It’s just nature and that. All very peaceful and normal out here.’
‘I am not afraid of the countryside!’ said Sebastian, frustrated by the certainty this was not true. ‘And it’s not peaceful – it’s dead. There’s no life here. You know, back in London, it doesn’t matter what time you go out, there’s always something going on. There are always people around, traffic, things to do, places to go, fun to be had. But here?’ He gestured to the world beyond the grimy windows. ‘There’s nothing. It’s deader at in the middle of the day than London is in the middle of the night. I bet nothing ever happens here, just the same handful or people living the same boring day over and over again. It’s not normal… it’s… it’s medieval.’ He stopped and looked at his hosts, worried for a moment that he had upset them. Neil, however, just looked amused, the ends of his moustache stretched into a broad smile. And Virginia was doing the kind of face that you’d expect on a counsellor just before they say, “And how does that make you feel?” He sagged, all the fight suddenly gone out of him. ‘There’s not even any internet here.’
‘There’s internet up at the shop,’ said Emma from across the room. ‘You’re welcome to come and use it once you’ve finished your chores this afternoon.’
‘Er… thanks.’ Sebastian turned back to his hosts with a frown, ‘Chores? Not the pigs again?’
Neil shook his head. ‘No, no. Nothing too strenuous today. We’ll be milking the goats, is all.’
‘And making some cheese,’ added Virginia. ‘Lovely, soft goats cheese.’ She closed her eyes with a dreamy smile. ‘Ooh, I can taste it already!’ In his mind, Sebastian could taste it as well. Goats cheese. Surely the worst kind of cheese on the planet. He wasn’t sure if there was such a thing as pig cheese or dog cheese, though there probably was, but even they couldn’t be as terrible as goats cheese. He had made the mistake of trying some when he was out with his parents a few years before. He’d opted for the goats cheese and fig tart to start with, which turned out to be a mistake. It tasted like goats smell, or at least as Sebastian imagined them to smell, since he’d never actually seen a goat in the flesh so, after his first mouthful, had pushed the rest of it away, untouched. This delayed abstinence proved futile, however, as the rest of the meal was marred by the goaty taste that lingered long after the tart had been finished by his mother. He could almost taste it now. If he was expected not only to make it but to eat some as well… he couldn’t think of anything worse.
‘You rabbit taggeeny,’ said Donald, sliding the plate onto the table in front of Sebastian. He opened his mouth to thank the landlord, but the sight of the food strangled the words in his throat and all thoughts of the taste of goats cheese vanished from his mind. Donald dumped the other two meals in front of Neil and Virginia and shuffled away, disappearing through the door behind the bar.
‘What’s that?’ came a loud voice from the bar and Sebastian looked up to see Sid – or was it Harry? – pointing across at him. ‘Not that God-awful rabbit thing, is it? He tried to foist some of that muck on us once, didn’t he?’
His companion nodded. ‘Dreadful stuff,’ he said, pulling a face to match. ‘Couldn’t think of anything worse. Tasted like someone else had eaten it first.’
‘That’s what I told him,’ said Neil, but the two men had turned back to the bar, their loud complaints about the landlord’s cooking and general inadequacies battling for supremacy.
Sebastian picked up his fork and, after wiping it first on the paper napkin, skewered a piece of rabbit, sniffed at it and teased it off the fork with his teeth. Even Sid and Harry’s endless complaining paused for moment as the room seemed to hold its breath.
The silence was broken by Neil chuckling at the look of horror that spread across Sebastian’s face.
‘Why don’t I order you something else?’ he said.
The goat shed was built into the lesser of the two buildings on the smallholding, which opened onto the first and smallest of the three fields that ran along the bank of the river. This field was mostly given over to various birds, including chickens, geese, what Sebastian assumed were turkeys, though he wasn’t certain, and a number of strange, red faced birds with fat, grey-feathered bodies.
‘What are those things?’ he asked, pointing at the birds.
Neil paused in the entrance to the goat shed. ‘The chickens?’
‘No. I know what chickens look like. Those funny grey things.’
‘You mean the guinea fowl?’ suggested Neil.
‘Possibly. Those other greyish ones are turkeys, yes?’
Neil raised his eyebrows. ‘Well, look at you, knowing all about poultry! Turkeys, guinea fowl, chickens, geese and quail, though you can’t really see them from here. They’re the small birds in that separate run, there. And these,’ he drew Sebastian’s attention towards the interior of the shed, ‘are our milking goats.’ He stepped onto the straw covered floor and Sebastian edged in after him, keeping a wary eye out for any sudden movements from within.
On the ride down from the house, after Neil had shrugged off his Sunday best and emerged in his normal working clothes, Sebastian had worried about what might await him in this shed, and his imagination had been delighted to furnish him with images of demonic terrors with glowing eyes, long, curved horns to pierce his flesh, and charging furies hell bent on butting him into a broken, quivering mess. He was almost disappointed by the tranquil reality of the goat shed.
Instead of the creatures of nightmare he had envisioned, there were two piles of golden-brown fur, one nestling in the hay, another lounging on a wooden shelf, a leg draping over the edge. Neither had horns. They were about the size of large dogs and eyed Sebastian with a languid curiosity as they worked their jaws in a lazy chewing motion.
‘This here is Marge,’ said Neil, indicating the one in the straw, and Sebastian was pleased to hear this creature, at least, had a normal, animally, sort of name. ‘And this one’s Amy.’
Sebastian snorted. ‘Ridiculous!’
There was a door in the far wall and the goats, once roused from their afternoon stupor, ambled through this after Neil, followed at a safe distance by Sebastian. The room beyond was a stark contrast to the goats’ living quarters. Instead of straw, the floor was grey-painted concrete with a central channel running from the rear wall to the front, where it disappeared through a hole in the brickwork. The walls were also painted, in white, and the whole area had a lingering smell of bleach about it. On one wall hung a coiled length of hosepipe, attached to a brass tap. On another were two tiled benches, about knee-height from the floor, on which the two goats had hopped and were loitering with an air of resigned expectation.
Sebastian’s eyes were drawn to the two bags of tight, pink skin and long horn-shaped teats that protruded from between their hind legs.
‘Are you really expecting me to… milk these things?’ he asked, his face echoing his distaste.
Neil chuckled. ‘Course. There’s nothing to it. In fact, I reckon you’ll enjoy it once you get into your stride.’
The only stride Sebastian wanted to get into was one that took him away from the goat shed, but instead he inched closer to where Neil was drawing a short stool out from beneath one of the benches.
‘Which one’s this?’ he asked.
‘This little beauty is Marge,’ said Neil, running an affectionate hand across the goat’s flank. ‘She’s a champion milker. Gives up to three quarts of milk most days.’
There was an expectant pause, and Sebastian felt some comment was expected of him. ‘Really?’ he said, trying to sound impressed while wondering if a quart was a lot.
Neil placed a stainless steel bucket beneath Marge. ‘Pull up a stool, lad, so you can see what’s going on down here.’ And once Sebastian was perched next to him, he reached under the goat and grasped hold of the two teats, one in each hand. The goat didn’t even seem to notice, but was contentedly nibbling from at a bucket of food. ‘Look at that! Not even a flinch. Good girl. Right, now, can you see what I’m doing here?’ he asked, but didn’t wait for a response. ‘I’m pinching the top of the teat between finger and thumb, look.’ He did this a few times to make sure Sebastian had seen. ‘That closes it off, making sure the milk won’t escape back into the udder. Then all I do is squeeze out the milk using my free fingers. He demonstrated, causing a spear of white milk to jet into the bucket with a gong-like clang. ‘See? Then you release your grip to allow more milk to drop into the teat and go again.’ He repeated the action a few times, and the sound of the milk hitting the bucket ringing around the room.
He turned to look at Sebastian, a grin peeking out from his beneath his moustache. ‘Give it a try,’ he said. Sebastian opened his mouth to reply, but made no sound nor any move towards Marge’s udder. ‘Come on. Get involved, lad.’
‘Fine!’ said Sebastian, in the way that suggests it isn’t, and reached out a hand towards the goat’s underside.
‘You haven’t got them things on again, have you?’ said Neil, shaking his head at the sight of the bright yellow washing-up glove.
Sebastian shrugged. ‘Of course I have. These are a new pair.’
‘Marge won’t like them on her.’
Where before the goat had been indifferent at Neil’s touch, as though unaware she was even being milked, the moment Sebastian’s gloved hand made contact with her skin, a hoof nipped up and flicked it away. His next two attempts were similarly rebuffed. Marge’s investigation of the food bucket, however, continued uninterrupted.
‘You’re going to have to go in without them,’ said Neil. ‘Skin on skin.’
Sebastian sighed and began to tug off his gloves, his head hanging forward dejectedly, until he got too close to Marge and got clipped across the forehead with her hoof. It took all his wherewithal not to jump backwards off his stool.
‘You’ll need to look,’ said Neil as Sebastian reached gingerly beneath the goat, his face directed at the adjacent wall. ‘That’s right. Don’t brush at it – hold it like you mean business.’
To Sebastian’s relief, Marge made no attempt to kick his hand away as he made contact with the teat, but the sensation was far from pleasant. It was like touching a warm, hairy balloon, but one made from skin and filled with milk. Gritting his teeth, he squeeze the teat as gently as he could. Nothing happened.
‘Remember to pinch the top,’ said Neil, ‘or you’ll be milking her in the wrong direction. We want it to come out, remember.’
Sebastian, who was entirely ambivalent about whether or not any milk came out, tried again, pinching the teat where it joined the udder. With a deep breath, he contracted his other fingers and was surprised to hear that same ringing clang as the milk spurted out into the bucket.
‘I did it!’ he said, turning wide eyes on Neil. ‘I actually just did it.’
Neil patted him on the back. ‘Give it another go,’ he said, ‘just to check it wasn’t a fluke.’
A second jet of milk nailed into the bucket. And a third.
‘Look!’ said Sebastian, his disgust forgotten for the moment in the light of his success. More milk filled the bucket. ‘How many quarts is that?’
Neil laughed at Sebastian’s excitement. ‘Alright, alright. Leave some for me to milk out. Why don’t you go over there and get started on Amy? Poor girl must be bursting.’
With an eagerness that belied his hatred of all things to do with the countryside, Sebastian scuttled across to the other bench, his stool in one hand and an empty milking bucket in the other.
Sliding the bucket under Amy, he got himself comfy and, after a couple of false-starts, he got into his stride, the milk clanging into the bucket in a steady rhythm, one jet to every four of Neil’s.
‘How are you going so fast?’ Sebastian asked, ‘Your bucket must be almost full!’
Neil shrugged without affecting his pace. ‘Practice, I guess.’ He leaned back to watch Sebastian for a moment. ‘Try using your left hand too. That’s why God gave them two teats. Two teats, two hands, get the job done twice as quick.’
Sebastian watched Neil’s double-handed action for a while, then lifted his left hand to give it a go. Not watching what he was doing, he caught hold of Amy’s right hind leg. Her reaction was instantaneous. Up flicked the other leg, her hoof knocking his hand away before dropping down into the rim of the bucket. The clatter of its fall echoed around the room and, though Sebastian had barely achieved half a pint, the milk went everywhere! But mostly, it ended up in his lap.
Neil coughed, covering his amusement. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘that can happen sometimes. Goats are funny creatures.’
‘But look at me.’ Sebastian held up the bucket in his hand and used it to indicate the wet patch the spreading from his belt down towards his knees. ‘I’m covered in the damn stuff.’
‘Well, you know what they say about spilt milk?’ said Neil, whose silent laughter had forced him to stop milking Marge.
‘Don’t get it all over trousers?’ suggested Sebastian, shoving the bucket back on the bench and trying to flick his hands dry. The action startled Amy, who turned to look at him and bleated loudly in his face. He jerked backwards in alarm, barely keeping from slipping off the stool. ‘That’s bloody terrifying.’ he said. ‘It sounded like a sheep trying to neigh!’
‘You alright?’ asked Neil, still chuckling as he resumed milking. ‘Going to be able to carry on and get that bucket filled?’
Sebastian shrugged as he got himself settled back in position. ‘I guess,’ he said, ‘though I’m going to have to change when we get back. And I’ll need a shower.’
‘Well, you’ll be hard pushed to get one back at the house.’ Neil paused, glancing across at Sebastian as he began milking Amy again, one-handed. ‘Here, let me give you a hand with that.’ And with a quick twist of his arm, he squirted milk at Sebastian.
Sebastian almost jumped to his feet, but managed not to in an attempt to keep from startling the goat. ‘What the hell was that?’
Neil burst out laughing, causing Marge to look at him in evident surprise. ‘Any of that go in the bucket?’ he said, before sending another jet towards Sebastian. ‘There you go, lad. Must be almost full!’
Jerking up his left arm to shield himself, Sebastian attempted to return fire, but managed instead to squirt milk at himself. Mostly in his eye.
‘Eurgh! Some of that went in my mouth,’ said Sebastian, trying not to gag at the warm, cloying taste. He spat on the floor, something he would never have dreamed of doing back in London, but then people in the city didn’t spray each other in face with a goat’s udder. As a rule. Amy bleated again as another spray hit Sebastian, accompanied by more laughter from Neil, who sounded like he’d not enjoyed himself this much in years.
‘That’s the only shower you’re going to get around here!’ he said.
Sebastian wiped the milk from his eyes with his sleeve and blinked at Neil. ‘It’s not fair,’ he said. ‘Show me how your doing that.’