Chapter 9 – Little Miss Muffet
‘Are you okay, dear?’ asked Virginia, as Sebastian entered the farmhouse kitchen twenty minutes later.
He shrugged. ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’
‘You don’t look it. You look like you’re about to be taken away to be shot!’
Sebastian almost smiled at this. ‘So I’m told. I guess it’s just how I look.’ He glanced across to the lounge area, where the back of Neil’s head was poking up above the armchair, today’s newspaper opened out in front of him. ‘How’s the… the milking room?’ he asked.
‘The milking parlour?’ said Neil, not turning round. ‘Yes, all good. Damned idiots!’ This last comment was clearly directed at something he was reading in the newspaper. Neil huffed rustling the page over in annoyance.
‘So, you ready to make this cheese then?’ asked Virginia. Sebastian turned to see her smiling at him with the kind of smile you might give to a child who had fallen over or a friend who, after a serious two-year relationship, had just been dumped. Via text message.
Sebastian looked from her to the warm comfort of the sofa and back again, glancing quickly at his watch on the way past. It was almost six o’clock – too early to excuse himself and go to bed.
In the absence of any other suitable gestures, he shrugged again. ‘Sure.’
‘Won’t take long, anyhow,’ said Virginia. ‘It’s the waiting between each stage that’s the killer. But I’ve already got a couple of batches under way so we should be able to go through the full process in one go.’
‘Great.’ He knew it sounded insincere, but nowhere near as much as he felt. Why on earth would he care about some disgusting goat cheese?
As with the bread-making, Virginia had gathered the equipment on the kitchen table. There was the milk churn from earlier, a large stainless steel pan with a cloth covering it, a folded up piece of what looked like net curtain, a couple of ceramic bowls, a load of plastic containers with lids, a sieve, a spoon, a thermometer and a small plastic bottle half filled with a suspicious yellow liquid.
Their first task, after washing their hands, was to warm the milk before adding half a teaspoon of the yellow liquid. The bottle said “Rennet”.
‘What is this stuff?’ he asked, sniffing at it. ‘What’s rennet?’
‘A special cheese-making enzyme,’ said Virginia. ‘Apparently it’s extracted from calves’ stomachs.’
Sebastian jerked it away from his face in disgust. ‘Calves’ stomachs? We’re putting this in to the milk? Baby cow’s belly juice?’
‘We sure are. There’s nothing better for making cheese. That little splash you’ve added will eat its way through that milk in a couple of hours, gathering up all the proteins into curd and leaving behind the whey.’
‘Leaving it in it’s wake,’ called Neil’s voice from the lounge. He turned to peer at them over the back of the armchair. ‘Get it?’ he said, ‘In it’s “whey”-ke.’
Sebastian and Virginia both shook their heads. ‘Nope,’ said Sebastian and directed his attention to Virginia. ‘So what’s next?’
‘Give it a good stir to get the rennet-’
‘-yes, the calf juice mixed in, then we can leave it to do its job, while we take a look at one I started off while you were at the shop.’
This turned out to be what was hiding beneath the cloth, in the large stainless-steel pan and, when Virginia whipped the cloth away, it looked pretty much like another pan full of milk.
‘Where’s the cheese, then?’ he asked, peering at the surface to see if there was any bobbing around in there.
‘You’re looking at it. Or rather you’re looking at it in embryonic form. This here is the curds and whey.’
‘Like in the nursery rhyme,’ said Sebastian, almost sounding excited for a moment.
A voice piped up from the lounge. ‘Little Bo Peep, wasn’t it?’
Sebastian and Virginia exchanged a “look” – raised eyebrows, head tilted slightly, lips parted in an “O”. ‘I, er… I think it was Little Miss Muffet,’ said Sebastian.
‘Ah, yes.’ The back of Neil’s head nodded. ‘Wasn’t she that sissy who was afraid of spiders? Reminds me of someone else I know.’ Sebastian ignored his chuckles.
‘Here,’ said Virginia, pressing a spoon down onto the surface of the pan’s contents. To Sebastian’s surprise it filled, not with milk, but with a slightly-cloudy liquid. ‘This is the whey. The curds are the bit we want, though. We’ll give the whey to the pigs.’
‘Lucky old pigs!’
‘What we need to do is get as much of the whey out as possible, and for this, we need to use the cheesecloth.’ Virginia unfolded the net curtain material and flattened it into the sieve, which she placed over the ceramic bowl. She handed Sebastian the spoon. ‘There you go, spoon it in.’
Sebastian did not look thrilled by the prospect, but he did it anywhere, the spoon slicing into the curds and dumping them into the cheesecloth.
‘It’s a bit like one of those set yoghurts,’ he said. ‘Is that what it is?’
‘Yoghurt’s made with bacteria rather than rennet. But you’re right, it feels similar. Want to taste a bit?’
Sebastian un-thrilled look returned, though this time it had an extra layer of revulsion. ‘Taste a bit?’ he said, his voice mirroring his face. ‘But it’s made out of goat milk.’
‘Nothing wrong with goat milk,’ said Virginia. ‘Most people can’t tell it from cows milk.’
Sebastian raised an eyebrow at this. ‘I could!’
‘Really? Have you ever tried it?’
‘Cows milk? All the time.’
Virginia raised an eyebrow in return. ‘You know what I mean.’
‘No,’ said Sebastian, pausing in the act of digging out the curds. ‘I’ve never tried goat milk.’ He was distracted by a chuckle from the armchair and glanced across to see Neil looking round at him.
‘What do you think you’ve been drinking since you got here?’ asked Neil. ‘The milk in your tea and on your breakfast?’
‘I…’ Sebastian began and turned to Virginia for help. But her face only confirmed Neil’s suggestion. ‘No. Not goats milk. Really?’ She nodded her confirmation. Neil chuckled his. Sebastian returned to spooning out the curds, with a little more violence than was necessary. ‘So what do you do with all this cheese?’
‘I take it to the farmers market in Barnstaple.’
Sebastian frowned. ‘You sell it to other farmers?’
‘No. The farmers market is where farmers go to sell their produce to the public. I sell goats cheese, bread, bacon, sausages, chicken, soups, preserves, cordials… all kinds of stuff.’
‘And how often do you do that?’ he asked, tipping the pan as he scraped out the last pieces of curds and dumped in them with the rest.
‘Oh, every Thursday.’
‘Every Thursday?’ Sebastian placed the spoon on the table and looked at his hostess. ‘You must spend all your time making stuff to sell!’ And now that he thought about it, he realised that the only times he’d seen her outside this kitchen were at church and the pub the previous day.
She nodded as she gathered together the edges of cheesecloth and lifted it up so the curds inside balled together, the whey dripping through the bottom. ‘Pretty much. That’s how it’s been since, well, since we got married and I moved in with Neil, fifteen years ago.’
Sebastian was stunned. Although it might feel as though he’d been stuck here for weeks, it was only two days ago that he boarded the train and headed out of the shining city into the dark wilds beyond. The idea of being here for fifteen years – fifteen whole years – was too extreme to comprehend. Instead, it gave him an almost palpable feeling of despair, like the thought of a life sentence of hard labour, of being a Roman galley slave or of getting transported back in time to a world before humanity existed with no way to return. ‘That’s awful!’ he said, the words tripping out of him before he could stop them.
Virginia paused only briefly as she tied a knot in the top of the cheesecloth and carried it and the pan across to the fridge. ‘What do you mean, awful?’ she said at last, her face hidden as she opened the door.
‘I…I mean. No, when I say “awful”, I don’t actually mean awful,’ he replied, backpedalling as fast as his brain would allow. ‘It’s just, I couldn’t imagine living like that.’
‘Living like what?’ Virginia had hung the curd-filled cloth on a hook in the fridge, leaving it to drip into a tray beneath. She now leant with her arm on the open door, giving Sebastian her full attention.
He held up his hands at though bracing himself for an impact. ‘I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with… with this.’ He waved his hands at the kitchen as though summing up the full extent of Virginia’s world. ‘Only, living in the city, I spend most of my time out and about. I couldn’t imagine being shut away in here cooking and stuff all day. It’d drive me crazy.’
There was a long pause during which Virginia stood in front of the open fridge, hands on hips, and Sebastian backed up against the table, wondering if he should make a run for it.
‘It’d drive me bloody crazy, too!’ called Neil from his armchair, breaking the awkward silence. ‘If I had to be cooped up in the kitchen all day, I’d stick my head in the oven and turn on the gas. Better that than baking!’
‘The oven’s electric, you daft sod,’ said Virginia. ‘Which goes to show how little time you spend in here.’ And to Sebastian’s relief, she started laughing and stepped forward to pat him on the shoulder. ‘Don’t worry. It’s not the life I’d choose now either, but back when I made that decision, it was marry this old git,’ she nodded at Neil, who waved a hand over his head, ‘or be stuck in the pub with Donny for the rest of my life.’
‘Donny?’ Sebastian frowned for a moment, trying to work out what she was saying. ‘You mean you were going to marry Donald – the guy who runs the Green Man.’
‘The Master Chef himself!’ said Neil.
‘No.’ Virginia shook her head, turning her attention back to the fridge contents. ‘Donny’s my brother. I grew up at the Green Man. Hated it! And when Neil moved into the village and came a-wooing, with the promise of a life of horse-riding and freedom, I jumped at the chance to get out.’
Neil coughed loudly from the armchair. ‘It was that I my overpowering charm.’
‘Charm, was it?’ said Virginia, lifting out a second cheesecloth that had already been hanging in the fridge. ‘Lies, more like.’ She edged over the Sebastian and half-whispered. ‘You know what he told me?’
Sebastian shrugged. ‘What?’
‘He told me I was a princess and that I should be treated accordingly. He promised me the luxurious life of a country lady… but instead I ended up here in this scruffy old kitchen, with hands like a bricklayer’s and clothes you’d think were stolen from scarecrow.’
Neil turned round to peer over the back of the armchair. ‘The kitchen isn’t scruff! And anyways, you said you were going to make yourself a dress for summer, remember? But I haven’t seen much sign of it.’
‘In case you hadn’t noticed,’ said Virginia, the filled cheesecloth swinging like a pendulum in her hand, ‘I’ve not had much time to be fiddling about with dresses. And it is scruffy.’
‘It was only one dress,’ said Neil, turning back to his paper with a huffing sound.
Virginia dumped the cheesecloth into a bowl with a dull thud. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘Now that we’ve dealt with that nonsense, let’s have a look at how the curds end up after most of the whey’s been drained off. She peeled the cloth open to reveal the white ball inside.
Sebastian peered at it. ‘It looks like Mozzarella.’
‘Not quite. It’s more like a soft, spreadable cheese at the moment.’ From somewhere she produced two spoons and held one out to Sebastian. ‘Let’s try it.’
He looked at the proffered cutlery, but made no move to take it. The only movement he made, in fact, was on his face, which morphed from mild interest to slightly-less-mild disgust.
‘What’s the matter?’ asked Virginia. ‘It’s lovely, I promise.’ As if to prove her point, she cut into the cheese with the other spoon, scooping out a generous helping and slipping it into her mouth. She closed her eyes, smiling with pleasure. ‘Now that is divine!’
‘I’ll take your word for it,’ said Sebastian, still ignoring the spoon held out to him. ‘Its just… I’m not a big fan of goats cheese. I had some once before and it left a horrible taste in my mouth for hours.’
Virginia moved the spoon closer to him. ‘This won’t. I promise. It’s clean and fresh, just like it should be.’
Sebastian looked at the spoon, but still made no move to take it.
Virginia waggled it in front of his face, a silent challenge.
‘Fine!’ he said, snatching the spoon from her. He dipped it into the cheese, teasing out a tiny morsel on its tip. He raised it to his mouth, sniffing it warily, but didn’t smell of anything. Frowning, he put the spoon in his mouth and, screwing up his face, placed the cheese on his tongue. He paused, waiting for that stomach-turning goaty taste. But it never came. It tasted… like cheese. Like normal, soft cheese. Only it was better. It was just like Virginia had said, clean and fresh. His eyes widened in surprise and were match by Virginia’s broad smile.
‘What did I tell you?’ she said.
‘That’s really nice,’ said Sebastian. ‘Not at all like the one I tried before. It’s like… I don’t know. I can’t describe it. It’s just really nice.’
‘Well, I’m glad we got that settled. Now all we need to do it decant it into these pots,’ she pointed to the plastic containers with lids, ‘and get them back in the fridge ready for taking to the market.’
‘How much do you charge for one of these?’ asked Sebastian as he measured out the last four ounces of the cheese into a pot, sneaking a little out for himself in the process.
Virginia looked up from where she was labelling the pots. ‘Three pounds fifty,’ she said, ‘and they’re one of my best sellers. But I only take them along once a month, coz it takes that long to get enough milk stored up. I freeze it, see, and then I tend to make it all in one day to save time. I don’t usually do it in three goes – that was just so you wouldn’t have to hang around for ages. Talking of which, shall we have a look see how that rennet’s getting on?’
Half an hour later, Sebastian hung up the “naked chef” apron on the back of a chair and flopped onto the sofa and closed his eyes.
He sighed loudly. ‘I am shattered.’
‘You’d best get yourself a good night’s sleep then,’ said Neil, dropping his paper to look up at clock. ‘I’ve been going easy on you so far, but tomorrow your week is really going to begin!’
Sebastian opened his eyes, just a fraction, and looked at his host. ‘Seriously?’
But Neil just smiled and disappeared back behind his paper.
There was something strange about the ceiling. At first he couldn’t work out what it was, but it was definitely not right. It was the wrong shade of white, for starters, more a dirty light grey with cracks in the paintwork that he was sure weren’t there usually. And where had that dreadful lampshade come from? There’s no way he would have hung such a monstrosity on his own ceiling.
And then he remembered. This wasn’t his ceiling. For the briefest of moments he thought he was back in London, a bright Monday morning and a promising week ahead. But no, he was still on the smallholding. And the week ahead promised nothing but hard work, mud, barely-domestic animals and more mud. And manure.
‘Great,’ he muttered, dragging himself out of bed and yawning hugely. ‘Could it be any worse than this?’
There was no hot water.
‘Sorry about that,’ said Virginia, as Sebastian emerged into the kitchen, still shivering a little from the cold shower, his face unshaved. ‘Boiler conked out in the night. Neil out getting a new thermistor. Should be sorted for later.’
Sebastian nodded, wondering what a thermistor was, and offered to help with the breakfast things. It was a proper fry up, something he rarely treated himself to back in London, despite the greasy café being less than fifty metres from the entrance to his apartment block.
‘Thanks,’ he said, as Virginia slid the fully laden plate in front of him.
She turned back to the stove, where the kettle was steaming away. ‘It’ll help you get your strength up for the day. You’re going to need it. Tea?’
Once he had finished, Sebastian headed out to the chickens, armed with gloves and boxes, ready for the daily tussle with the evil chicken.
‘There you are, you little bugger!’ he said as he closed the enclosure door behind him and spotted the chicken in question watching him, no, glaring at him, as it sat on the hen house roof. He knew it was the evil chicken, because it had distinctive black markings on its neck and its wings. ‘How did you get up there?’
The chicken made no reply, but kept its eye fixed on Sebastian as he approached the nesting boxes. Carefully, so as not to disturb the crazed bird, he lifted the long lid, placed the boxes in one of the compartments and began collecting the eggs.
He was five eggs in, when the evil chicken stood up suddenly and began walking along the ridge of the roof as though on a tightrope. Sebastian paused as the hen drew level with him and sat down.
‘I’m not falling for any of your tricks today,’ he said, tensing himself for the expected attack. But the chicken began preening itself, pecking at the features on its tail as though oblivious of Sebastian’s presence, so he returned to collecting the eggs.
Another five eggs were safely in the boxes, when the chicken’s head snapped back round to face him again, as though he’d done something to offend it. Again Sebastian paused, his eyes narrowed at the bird, and again it started preening itself, this time pecking at the feathers on the front of its neck, as high up as it could manage. It was such a ridiculous display that Sebastian started laughing, causing the bird to stop and glare at him again.
It was then that Sebastian felt something walking across his skin.
The action of reaching in to collect the eggs had exposed a few inches of forearm between his shirt cuff and the rubber glove and a tickling sensation on this area caused him to look down. And for an instant the world seemed to freeze. There standing on his arm was a spider. A large spider. The kind of spider you see scampering across your living room carpet in the light of the television, making a dash from one piece of furniture to another. It had a fat body, rat brown and shiny-eyed, with thick, hairy legs that looked as though they could puncture your flesh. Sebastian took all this in in that one, frozen instant. And then he screamed.
It wasn’t a manly scream, in fact it was more of a shriek, and he leapt to his feet shaking his arm as though it had caught fire, thrashing at it with his other hand. The evil chicken, whose existence he had forgotten in his panic, jerked to its feet, startled by all this sudden movement. With a piercing squawk, almost as loud as the shriek that was still bursting from Sebastian, though it had dropped in pitch slightly, the bird launched itself off the roof, straight at Sebastian. It touched down on his head, its claws, or maybe they were talons, scrabbling at his scalp.
‘Get off!’ he yelled, flapping his now spider-free hands at the chicken. He made contact and, with another loud squawk, it dropped to the ground and scuttled across the enclosure. Grabbing the nearest missile to hand, Sebastian threw it at the evil chicken. It was an egg, and though it missed the hen by a couple of metres, it struck one of the fence post squarely in the middle and burst in a shower of shell and yolk.
‘Double-yolker, I reckon,’ said a voice, and Sebastian turned to see Neil standing at the gate of the chicken run. ‘Another accidental breakage, is it?’
‘I…’ he pointed at his feathered nemesis, now watching him from behind a water trough. ‘That wretched chicken attacked me. Again.’
‘So you thought you’d try and kill it with an egg?’
‘If only!’ said Sebastian, glaring at the chicken which was now idly scratching away in the corner as though nothing had happened. ‘There was a massive spider on me, as well! It was terrifying.’ He bent forwards, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. He could hear his heart thumping in his ears and it sounded upset. ‘Sorry. I’m not doing too well at this egg collecting, am I?’
‘Well, things might go a little smoother tomorrow,’ said Neil, and nodded towards the evil chicken, ‘since you won’t have that pesky bird to worry out.’
Sebastian raised his eyebrows. ‘Really? How’s that?’
‘Because, after you’ve dropped the eggs up at the shop, you’re going to get your wish and kill that chicken.’