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!

The People's Friend - - This Week - by Deb­o­rah Rogers

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.

“Or her.”

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.

Stan nod­ded.

“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.”

The man

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

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