A Real Tonic
Stan’s home-brew kept us hale and hearty during the cold months – but this year it was not agreeing with me!
NORA at the post office had been in full cry that afternoon. “Three sightings now!” she announced. “Two earlier on, and now Wilf Childerstone’s seen something as well.
“You know the legend, don’t you, Mrs Cornforth?” she asked when it was my turn to be served.
As if I needed any explanation of local goings on, me being born and bred in the village!
“If a body sets eye on the Beast of Umblethwaite on All Hallow’s Eve – that’s today,” she added helpfully, “a good deed must be performed before sunset or twelve months’ bad luck shall befall him.”
She fixed her gimlet gaze on me.
I was well used to the nonsense issuing forth from Umblethwaite post office, and as for this story, well, I’d never heard tell of it.
I thought no more about it until I got home to Low Farm, where I found my Stan shaking like a leaf and clutching a half tumbler of amber liquid.
It looked to be the winter health tonic he distilled every autumn from hedgerow fruits.
“Whatever’s happened?” I asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Stan took a swig, clutched the back of the settle and sat down.
“Happen I ’ave,” he said. “Two fearsome creatures up on High Moor, sometimes walking upright, other times crouching down. I could hear their grisly cries as they came towards us.”
I examined the bottle of winter health.
“How much of this have you had, Stan Cornforth?”
I hadn’t been married to him all these years without picking up a trick or two.
“Who, pray, is ‘us’?” I added. “It’s Wilf, isn’t it? The pair of you have been down the Lazy Goat, I warrant.
“Full of blether, that Wilf Childerstone, especially when ’e’s had one too many. I’ve heard the tale at the post office.”
Stan interrupted me. “Slow down. I asked Wilf to lend us a hand. The new tup has gone missing.”
“The prize-winning ram you bought at last year’s sales?” I asked.
“I took him up to tops yesterday where the ewes are, and today he’s gone. Could be rustlers, but I’ve heard of none in the area.
“Wilf’s dog Bess is the best tracker in the area so I asked him to help. We went up to the moor and that’s when we saw them. My heart’s still thudding. I’d better have another.”
I grabbed the bottle before he could reach it.
“I think you’ve had quite enough, our Stan. Pull yourself together. I’ll come with you myself to look for the tup. There’s still a couple of hours of daylight left.”
It was already perishing that late afternoon and likely to be a hard frost later. While Stan fetched the tractor I squeezed into my warmest coat and wound my scarf twice round my neck.
Two pairs of socks inside boots, sheepskin mitts and my bonnet with double thickness earflaps and I was done. I probably looked like a suet dumpling, but I’d be warm.
Just as I was about to go out the door I noticed a brown envelope on the table. Official, it said on the front. In red. Important.
Also in red.
Well, no time to look at it now. It would have to wait until we got back.
I had a hunch the tup had taken more of a fancy to the ewes on the next patch of moor than he had to the ladies we’d provided him with. Hopefully he wouldn’t be far off.
Stan and I had gone maybe a couple of miles when we saw a car stopped by the side of the lane. A tall gent was standing by, waving for us to stop.
He was no farmer, not in that overcoat and trilby.
“Thank heaven,” he said. “I thought I’d have to wait here until morning. My vehicle’s broken down. I wonder if you could oblige with a lift.”
“Aye,” Stan replied. “Hop on. We’ve a bit of business to do in the matter of a lost sheep, then we’ll drop you off at the garage back in t’village.”
introduced himself as Mr Jones from the Ministry of Agriculture and said he was up this way on matters of “‘diversification”.
Not that I was any the wiser for his explanation.
We bounced our way along the lane, Mr Jones and I perched behind Stan on the tractor.
“Rather chill for this time of year,” the man from the Ministry said by way of conversation.
Posh voice, he had. Stan pulled a bottle from his pocket.
“Nip of home brew?” My mind whizzed into gear. The Ministry? The brown envelope? Stan’s winter health?
I’d told and told Stan he’d need a licence to distil spirits, but he would have none of it. Not necessary, he’d say, not if it was for medicinal purposes like his winter health was.
Mr Jones continued with the small talk.
“There’s some weather due, I gather. Unusual lights in the sky.”
“Rory Berry Amis,” Stan said with confidence.
I gave Stan a shove. “Aurora borealis,” I explained. “Northern Lights. We get them if the weather pattern’s fixed in a certain way. In fact, I think it’s starting now.”
Just over the horizon the sky was beginning to change colour. I’d seen it many times before so I didn’t get fussed about it.
Not so our Mr Jones. He stared, mesmerised, as yellow-green fingers of light fanned over the heavens and the landscape turned black as night.
I was in a helpful mood. He seemed a nice man, posh or not.
“Let’s go this way a bit, Mr Jones. We’ll be able to see better if we’re higher up. You stay here, Stan, and keep the engine running.”
Stan didn’t need telling twice. Still frit, I reckoned.
I led Mr Jones along the ridge on the western edge of the moor to a point where we could see the lights dancing on the surface of the tarn below.
“Aargh!” he cried. “Look at that!”
In the eerie light two shadowy creatures were making their way across the moor. They turned and paused, seeming to study us.
We heard them utter a series of dreadful noises before they disappeared into the darkness.
Mr Jones must have been of a nervous disposition, for he let out a second shriek loud enough to near give me a heart attack. This set Stan off hollering as well.
Mr Jones ran back to the tractor, grabbed the winter health and took a draught.
Stan reached out for the bottle but I beat him to it and took a swig myself. All this caterwauling had fair stretched my own nerves by then.
Mr Jones and Stan stopped yelling but there was still a strange noise, a kind of rattling.
I realised it was three sets of teeth – Stan’s, Mr Jones’s and mine. They weren’t chattering with cold, either. It was fear.
“The beast,” Stan stuttered. “Or rather beasts. On All Hallow’s Eve. Twelve months’ ill luck. Just like Nora said.”
Nora had obviously told the whole village her tale.
“Stan Cornforth, you superstitious I-don’t-knowwhat!” I said, trying to get my teeth under control. “For a start, the legend speaks of one beast, and there’s two of them.”
“Tupping season,” Stan said. He thought of everything in terms of sheep and shepherding. “He must have found himself a mate.”
“You daft ha’porth,” I said. “So it must have been the missing tup with his fancy woman, a ewe he’s pinched from someone else’s flock.”
Stan turned his head and looked at me pityingly.
“These creatures are dark in colour,” he said. “My ram is white.”
“Think back to the heatwave last August,” I said, “when you thought you’d cool off in the tarn and didn’t realise it was more mud than water. What colour did you end up?
“Happen the tup fell in the bog, that’s all.”
“What about the noise they were making?” Mr Jones clearly wasn’t sold by my explanation, either.
“Sweet nothings. Sheep style.”
I wasn’t convinced, though. Most amorous tups don’t make that kind of racket.
Nevertheless, it did seem the most likely explanation for our odd experiences that afternoon.
We turned tail then, dropped Mr Jones off at the garage in the village and came home.
Who, or rather what, should we find there?
Yes, that’s right – the tup, tucking into a bale of sweet meadow hay in our own barn. Must have got tired of his new lady love, felt peckish and found his way home.
There was just one problem which Stan, sounding rather smug, pointed out.
“He’s still white,” he said. “Feet are a bit muddy, but not his fleece. Can’t have ended up in the bog.
“If he had gone in, there’s nowhere he’d have been able to wash himself clean before he got to us. It couldn’t have been him up on t’moor.”
He looked at me. “Any other brilliant ideas, missus?”
Stan could be really annoying when he was right so I ignored him.
I bustled into the kitchen to cobble together a hasty supper.
That letter was still on the table. I was convinced it would be about the licence for the still.
Someone must have reported the matter and that Mr Jones had been sent to check up on us.
No use discussing it with Stan, that was for sure. I’d just have to see to it myself. I tucked it into my apron pocket for the morrow.
I had told Stan often he needed a licence to distil spirits
The following morning the new curate popped in for a cuppa. Reverend Gideon Fell, by name.
Lovely man. Not a bit holy.
He asked me about the legend of the Beast of Umblethwaite. Nora had been telling him about it, he said.
Of course, I put him straight on that one. Said it was all a lot of nonsense.
Then he said he’d met that nice Mr Jones, who’d told him – Gideon, that is – about our experience the previous day.
I finished the tale and explained we’d found the tup in the barn when we got home.
I told him my theory that it was the tup up on the moor all along, only Stan wasn’t having any of it.
Reverend Fell chuckled.
“I think I have a better explanation for you,” he said. “Yesterday morning I had occasion to visit a parishioner, Mrs Betty Skellett from High Top Farm.”
I nodded. I knew Betty well.
“Betty was telling me all about the tarn up on High Moor. Good for swimming in the summer if it’s hot. I like a swim, you see.
“Betty fetched her
I told the reverend my theory about the beast
son, Jonas, to show me where it is.” “Jonas took me along the eastern edge of the moor, just above the tarn.
“As we looked across the moor to the ridge on the western edge, we saw something. Two creatures: one tall and thin, the other as wide as it was high, making their way along the ridge. Then we heard the shrieking.
“What with the Northern Lights, which had started by then, it was all rather intimidating. I think we might have cried out, as well. We were quite alarmed, I don’t mind admitting, Mrs Cornforth.”
Sometimes my mind acts like quicksilver. Other times it doesn’t. This was one of the latter.
“Sorry, Reverend, but I don’t get your point.” He chuckled.
“My point, dear Mrs Cornforth, is that I think what happened is that Jonas Skellett and I were walking – or rather stumbling, as the ground was so uneven and the light was failing – along the eastern side of the fell.
“We spotted two figures on the opposite side of the fell, the western side. That was you and Mr Jones.
“I think you and Mr Jones spotted Jonas Skellett and me at the same time as we noticed you. We all panicked together, by the sound of it.
“Jonas and I thought you and Mr Jones were the Beasts of Umblethwaite, and you and Mr Jones thought Jonas and I were!”
That would be it, then. A rational explanation for the Beast of Umblethwaite, just as I’d told Stan there would be.
One thing, though. Where did Nora get the legend of the beast from in the first place? I’d never heard the tale and I’d lived here all my life.
Reverend Fell had a theory about that, as well.
“Betty was telling me this morning about one day last summer, when she and Nora had been to a matinee of ‘The Creature From The Black Lagoon’ at the Roxy.
“Nora had been very jumpy on the way home, according to Betty.
“The next day it turned very hot and the two ladies went to the tarn. While Betty was changing into her costume, Nora said she saw a black, slimy creature pull itself out of the water, shake itself off and lumber away.
“Betty told her not to be so daft. Nora told me the tale the following Sunday. I assumed it had been the film unsettling her. She does have such an imagination. Perhaps I could have been a bit more sympathetic.”
“Well, Reverend, I think I can help you out there.”
I explained about Stan also having an idea of a cooling swim in the heat.
It’s rarely hot up these parts, and when the temperature does rise it makes us fair swelter.
Stan hadn’t reckoned on the tarn being dried out and had come out plastered in sticky, black mud. Nora must have seen him and taken fright.
As to the rest of the tale, about performing a good deed to counteract a bad omen, that was straight out of the fairy tales she would have heard as a child, so the reverend said.
At that moment that nice Mr Jones turned up. He’d obviously had his car fixed.
Reverend Fell and I took turns to explain the end of the story to him.
Laughed and laughed, he did. A good sense of humour for a civil servant.
Then I remembered something. The letter! It had quite gone out of my head.
Mr Jones spoke first. “Mrs Cornforth, I must explain my reason for being in the neighbourhood.”
“We were going to see to it,” I said, quite flustered by now. “The licence, I mean. In time. It’s just that we’ve been . . .”
He brushed my excuses aside.
“I’m from the Ministry of Agriculture, as you know, and am here to advise farmers on diversification, as we call it. Alternative sources of income.
“Sheep rarely generate sufficient income these days, so we encourage farmers to do other things as well, like bed and breakfast for holidaymakers, cream teas, that sort of thing.
“In your case, manufacturing and marketing your husband’s winter health tonic looks like a steady income source. You’d need a licence for the still, of course.”
I wondered when he’d get round to the question of the licence but he brushed my objections aside.
“It’s nothing to worry about. Many people fail to realise the niceties of the regulations concerning such matters, but I can advise and help you submit an application.
“I’d also like to add that there are grants available for new businesses and I’m sure you would be eligible. Can we go inside to discuss this further?”
That night I couldn’t sleep and set to thinking.
Not only was that nice Mr Jones not going to prosecute us for distilling the winter health, but he was actually going to help us sell it and give us money to make more of it!
He was really doing us a good turn. Of course, we’d helped him when his car broke down and given him a story worth dining out on for some time to come as well.
All Hallow’s Eve was clearly the day for doing good deeds. Just as Nora had said.
I glanced over to Stan’s side of the Cornforth marital bed, where a large hump under the covers was stirring. It began to emit the most dreadful sounds.
Snaargh, phew! Snaargh, phew!
I thought back to that hot August day when Stan had taken a very muddy dip in the tarn and Nora (my mind boggled at the thought of her wellupholstered frame in a bikini) had seen him and taken fright.
Goodness knows what she’d think if she saw him now. Or heard his snores.
Stan Cornforth – the Beast of Umblethwaite! ■
“We all panicked together, by the sound of it”
All Hallow’s Eve was the day for doing good deeds