OG was in the dining room staring bleary eyed at his laptop screen as Camilla sashayed past him, brushing his arm with the folds of her newly-acquired Louis Rees Zammit satin shirt. “Shit!” he muttered to himself.
Camilla plucked a sugared almond from the silver filigree dish on the side board. She popped it into her mouth and then licked the dusting of icing sugar from the tips of her fingers and licked her lips. “What’s the matter humble scribe? Minecraft down again?”
OG looked up from the screen. “Very funny. No, tickets for the Matson Contemporary Dance and Cider Festival went on sale a five o’clock this morning. I’ve been on-line for six hours and I’m still number 176,937 in the queue.”
Camilla raised an eyebrow. “Matso’s going to be busy this year then?”
OG nodded, “It’s busier because they had one of their fallow years last summer. They do it every so often to give the sheep a chance to recover.”
Suddenly a lightbulb appeared to switch on in OG’s head. “Hey, didn’t your cousin… what’s her name – perform last time with Les Danseurs du Clog de Toulouse?
“Oh you mean, Maxime? No she got married last year to a very bright young chap, Jean. They moved to an old farmstead that he found up in Normandy. Reckons he can bring some stuff he learned at agricultural college to the local cider-making business. I’ve been giving them a little pro bono advice.”
OG scoffed. “What on earth do you know about cider-making.”
Camilla gave a dismissive smile. “Oh you haven’t heard then?”
Camilla pointed a long, slender finger to her chest. “I… have been chosen as the Face of Tom Oliver’s for 2020.”
OG whistled through his teeth. “Tom Oliver. The best cider-maker on the planet. Winner of numerous gold awards and potential sponsor of my new web-site?”
“The very same. And they’ve had me in for a few late-night pressings in the cider-shed. So, actually I have do quite a bit of experience in the business. In fact, they’re sponsoring Matso this year and I will be in the Media Centre with Jo Whiley and Lauren Laverne.”
OG could feel himself going green with envy, but tried to recover. “We’ll see each other though? We’ll be camping together?”
“Afraid not. I’ll be in the glamping yurt, with Stephanie.”
OG went for bust. “Would there be room for one more?”
“Certainly not. We have plans. Girls-only plans.”
OG felt a tinge of spitefulness flood through his veins. “And what about that chap you were seeing from Cirencester – just a hetero front I suppose?”
“Oh Charlie you mean? – that’s just a casual thing. Anyway, I’ve decided I’m pansexual”.
At that moment Baz strolled into the room in his elegant Mostert and Grobler dressing gown. He’d clearly overheard the last part of their conversation. “I invented that word.”
Camilla and OG looked at him expectantly as if to say “What word?”
“Pansexual – I invented it in 1982… at a Top of the Pops Reunion Party.” He glanced at Camilla, hopefully. “I don’t suppose they’re coming to Matso this year?”
* * *
“Bloody, bloody, bloody hell!” shouted Baz as he stormed down the only platform at the tiny railway station, somewhere in southern Normandy. “Bloody French train-drivers!”
At Gare du Nord, Baz and Camilla had been told that the way of reaching the game during the current strike was to take a train to Alencon and change from there to Toulouse. But at the sleepy hamlet of Philippe St André, the train had been forced to stop as 200 protesting strikers blocked the track ahead with piles of burning tyres and remaindered copies of Jacques Brunel’s autobiography. The driver had marched from his cab giving his passengers a friendly two-fingered wave as he headed to the station bar for a restorative Calvados or five.
Baz turned to Camilla, “Have you any idea where we are?”
Camilla checked the maps on her phone. “Actually, that’s remarkable. We are not far from Maxime’s place. According to this, she’s about five kilometres away. I could give them a call and see if they could put us up for the night and we could try and get the train down tomorrow. That would still give us two days before the game.”
Baz grunted his agreement. Camilla called her cousin. “Maxie, bonjour… Are you okay?… You sound different…. No okay… well we are stuck at Philippe St André station at the moment and we can’t get out until tomorrow… Could you? … That would be fantastic. Thirty minutes… see you then.”
* * *
In the back of the battered old 2CV van, bits of old chicken wire and curious lengths of rubber tubing whipped at Baz’s face as they careered around the bends of the narrow roads leading to the farm and Camilla tried to chat away in the front. Maxime was uncharacteristically quiet she thought.
Baz’s trip could not have got off to a worse start. “Are we nearly there yet?” he bleated.
They turned off down a rutted track at the end of which was an old farmhouse from pre-revolutionary times. Large areas of brick were revealed by the crumbling stucco and parts of the roof had been patched with tarpaulin. Old copies of L’Equipe had been stuffed into the gaps between the window frames and the walls. Baz didn’t think his heart could have sunk any deeper, but somehow it did.
Inside, the farmhouse was even more shabby than the exterior, with wallpaper hanging from the cracked plaster and threadbare carpets revealing old wormy floorboards. Jean came out to greet them. Was this really the same person who Camilla had met at the wedding? Instead of the strapping young man, straight out of agricultural college, here was a broken figure, hunched, unshaven with deep dark bags under his eyes.
“Welcome both of you” he rasped. “I’m so pleased you could come. Can I offer you a glass of cider?”
Maxime interrupted, “Jean no… I think.”
Camilla held up her hand. “No, I’d love one. Just the thing after our journey” She turned to Baz. “You’d like one too wouldn’t you Baz?”
Baz hesitated, but accepted. Jean pouted a glass of thick orange liquid into a jam jar and proffered it to Baz. Baz took the jar and sniffed at it. Closing his eyes he took a gulp. “Jesus Christ!” he spluttered as he sprayed Jean with offending juice. “What the hell is that?”
Jean’s chin sunk even deeper into his chest. “Maxime, it is no use. Not even the English can drink this.”
Camilla took her cousin by the shoulders. “Maxime, what is going on here?”
Maxime couldn’t help herself. Her explanation was interspersed with deep, breathless sobs. “When we arrived here, the old cistern up the hill that we rely on for water for the apple trees was brimming with clear spring water. Now when we go to look, there is barely a puddle and even that little bit smells like the devil himself had put it there.”
“We cannot survive another season here. Not without water. The apples are too few and too small. They are so bitter – too bitter even for cider.”
After a miserable supper of old bread and stale cheese, Baz and Camilla turned in for the night. Around 4.00 am, as had become customary in recent years, Baz got up to empty his bladder. As he lifted his exclusive Fuimano-Sapolu nightshirt and took casual aim at the chamber pot he noticed something strange through the broken shutter. A light appeared to be moving about up on the hill overlooking the farm. Baz quickly pulled on his clothes, crept downstairs and out through the kitchen door. He found the little path that led up the hill and followed it.
As he neared the top of the hill by the old cistern he could hear a cackling sound. It sounded like the voice of an old crone. “Ah mon cher Mutée, you are so clever and so naughty. You make all my juices run so ‘ot.”
A figure in the darkness replied. “Would you like to do ze ‘onours and add a little jus de Sirène?”
Baz watched as the hideous crone straddled the opening to the cistern and lifted her skirts. Baz immediately leaped forward, knocking her to the ground with his fist. She screamed like a Banshee. “Get ‘im Mutée! Kill le bâtard!”
He turned to see the prongs of a pitchfork heading straight towards his chest. Baz leaped to one side and felt a deadly prong scratch his face. He dived backwards and then jumped forward towards the shadowy figure and slammed his forehead towards it. There was a scream. “Oh non! Pas mon nez! Paz mon nez.” Baz had delivered a perfect Matson handshake.
La Sirène screeched and ran off into the darkness with Mutée close behind, groaning as he nursed his flattened nose. Baz looked around him found the torch lying on the ground. He flashed it through 360 degrees and saw that there was a low barbed wire fence which had been trampled by the retreating couple. Baz stepped over it gingerly and crossed over onto the neighbouring land. He used the torch to follow the course of the dried-up spring a hundred metres further up the hill. Out of the gloom suddenly appeared a crudely-built wooden barrier made from old cider cases. A dam had been built to stem the flow of water onto Jean’s land. Baz cast around for a heavy stone, picked up the biggest one he could lift and slammed it into the uprights supporting the barrier. A trickle of clear water started to flow around the edge. Baz hammered again and again and again until the flow had turned into a steady stream. The dry earth turned from grey to brown and the cistern started to fill.
Baz filled his lungs with the clear night air, listening to the gentle babble of the stream. Down in the farmhouse Jean tossed and turned as Maxime slept quietly next to him, dreaming of rich ripe apples and the purest crispest cider – cider that would rival that of the great Tom Oliver himself.
To be continued…
Yves Montand as Mutée
Gerard Depardieu as La Sirène
Special storyline credit: GlawsyD