Peter woke up suddenly with a sinking feeling. He had had that sinking feeling before, and he knew what it meant. He was hungry. Outside the big picture-windows of the carriage, the picturesque 18th century canal lock of Great Bedwyn was passing by, a huddle of photographers and steam enthusiasts gathered on top of the little footbridge, eager to see the famous locomotive as it sped past, gleaming in the summer sunshine.
It had been an early start from Paddington Station, too early for breakfast, the train pulling out from under Brunel’s great glazed arches. He’d had a coffee from the catering trolley, of which he’d spilled at least a quarter all over the spotless white linen tablecloth, and then had fallen fast asleep. Now though, a sort of funny feeling began to creep all over him. It began at the tip of his nose and trickled all through him and out at the soles of his feet. It was just as if somebody inside him were saying, “Now then, Peter, time for a little something.”
He sat up and sniffed the air. Yes, there it was again! Wafting through the open window, mingled with the scent of coal and steam and oil, was the unmistakable smell of bacon. And not from the kitchen car, for that lay several carriages down the train behind him. No - the only possible location for this bacon was, sizzling on a shovel in the loco’s firebox. Now that would make the perfect breakfast! And this being Flying Scotsman, thanks to Sir Nigel Gresley’s ingenious corridor through the coal tender, he knew exactly how to get to it.
Peter shouldered his bag, checking first that the jar of pickled onions was still in one piece, and started off up the train, not without a rueful backward glance at the beautiful Pullman carriage that he and Ruth had filmed (and dined) in while they were working on their new TV series, but that his personal budget hadn’t quite stretched to. He had made up a little hum that very morning, as he was doing his Stoutness Exercises in front of the glass: Tra-la-la, tra-la-la, as he stretched up as high as he could go, and then Tra-la-la, tra-la - oh, help! – la, as he tried to reach his toes. On the way to the station he had said it over and over to himself until he had learnt it off by heart, and now he was humming it right through, properly. It went like this:
Well, he was humming this hum to himself, and swaying unsteadily along the train, when suddenly he came to the end of the first carriage, and at the end of the carriage was a door.
"Aha!” said Peter. (Rum-tum-tiddle-um-tum.) “If I know anything about Flying Scotsman, that door leads to the tender corridor,” he said, “and the tender corridor leads to the footplate,” he said, “and the footplate means Company and Cooking Bacon and such like. Rum-tum-tiddle-um-tum.”
So he opened the door, put his head into the corridor, and called out:
“Is anybody there?”
There was a sudden scuffling noise from the other end of the corridor, and then silence.
“What I said was, ‘Is anybody there?’” called out Peter very loudly.
“No!” said a voice; and then added, “You needn’t shout so loud. I heard you quite well the first time.”
“Bother!” said Peter. “Isn’t there anybody there at all?”
Peter took his head out of the corridor, and thought for a little, and he thought to himself, “There must be somebody there, because somebody must be driving the train!” So he put his head back in the corridor, and said:
“Hallo, Noel, isn’t that you?”
“No,” said Noel Hartley, Rail Operations Manager of the National Railway Museum, in a different sort of voice this time.
“But isn’t that Noel Hartley’s voice?”
“I don’t think so,” said Noel. “It isn’t meant to be.”
“Oh!” said Peter.
He took his head out of the corridor, and had another think, and then put it back, and said:
“Well, could you very kindly tell me where Noel Hartley is?”
“He has gone to see Peter Ginn, with whom he had great fun filming for the new BBC series Full Steam Ahead.”
“But this is Me!” said Peter, very much surprised.
“What sort of Me?”
“Are you sure?” said Noel, still more surprised.
“Quite, quite sure,” said Peter.
“Oh, well, then, come in.”
So he started to squeeze through the corridor. He pulled with his hands, and pushed with his feet, and in a little while his nose was in the cab...and then his ears...and then his hands...and then his shoulders...and then –
“Oh, help!” said Peter. “I’d better go back.”
“Oh, bother!” said Peter. “I shall have to go on.”
“I can’t do either!” said Peter. “Oh, help and bother!”
Now, by this time the fireman was thinking about going to the toilet, and he came over to Peter, and looked at him.
“Hallo, are you stuck?” he asked.
“N-no,” said Peter carelessly. “Just resting and thinking and humming to myself.”
“Here, give us a hand.”
Peter stretched out a hand, and the fireman pulled and pulled and pulled.
“Ow!” cried Peter. “You’re hurting!”
“The fact is,” said the fireman, “you’re stuck.”
“It all comes,” said Peter crossly, “of not having tender corridors big enough.”
“It all comes,” said Noel sarcastically, “of eating too much. I thought you said you’d been laying off the doughnuts, Peter.”
“I have,” said Peter; “it’s the cinnamon whirls and the triple chocolate cream slices that’s the problem.”
“If we can’t pull you out, Peter,” said the fireman, “we might push you back.”
“Having got so far, though,” said their apprentice, “it seems a pity to waste it.”
The fireman nodded.
“I was just beginning to think,” said Peter, sniffing slightly, “that Noel might never be able to use his tender corridor again. And I should hate that,” he said.
“So should I,” said Noel.
“Use his tender corridor again?” said the fireman. “Of course he’ll use his tender corridor again.”
“Good,” said Noel.
The fireman took hold of Peter’s hands, and the apprentice took hold of the fireman, and they pulled together...
And for a long time Peter only said “Ow!”...
And then, all of a sudden, he said “Pop!” just as if a cork were coming out of a bottle.
And the fireman and the apprentice went head-over-heels backwards...and on top of them came Peter – free!
“Get off!” spluttered the fireman and the apprentice.
“Whoops! Sorry!” exclaimed Peter apologetically; and he checked in his bag to see if the pickled onion jar was still ok.
“Tight squeeze, that corridor,” grinned Noel, reaching out a hand and helping Peter to his feet. “Sure you’re alright there? It’s good to see you. Sorry about earlier, but you know how it is with steam locomotives. One can’t have anybody coming onto one’s footplate. One has to be careful. Now what about a mouthful of something?”
Peter always liked a little something at eleven o’clock in the morning, and he said to Noel hopefully, “I thought I could smell bacon?”
“Sssssh!” hissed Noel, jerking his head in the direction of the apprentice – the fireman had finally got to the toilet. “The boys have been making a snack.” He nodded in the direction of the firebox. “We’re not really supposed to use it for cooking when we’re working. Don’t tell anyone - oh, whistle!” The apprentice yanked at the cable, and the fierce high squeal of the steam whistle cut through the clattering of the wheels and the rush of the wind as they hurtled along. “Got some bacon left,” Noel continued. “If you give Alistair a break from shovelling for a bit, you can cook some for yourself and me.” He winked. “Don’t mind a bit of a dirty job, do you Peter?”
Peter looked at the clean clothes he’d put on specially that morning, and for a second or two he thought about going back to his seat on the train. But then he thought about the bacon again, decided his waistcoat would probably stand yet another trip to the dry-cleaners, and took the shovel that the apprentice offered him. He pushed it into the coal and, scooping up a big shovelful, got ready to swing it into the firebox.
“Without breaking the shovel, ideally,” Noel smirked.
“It’s a small hole!” said Peter defensively.
“It is a small hole,” Noel conceded, and added, “I’m amazed you got through there when you were checking the firebox for me.”
Peter piled on more coals, shovelling furiously; the furnace roared, the engine leapt and swung. After he’d been working for a while and was hot and sweaty, the coal dust starting to creep up his wrists and across the back of his neck, Alistair, who’d returned to the footplate, patted him on the back and indicated he could take a rest. Peter put down the shovel, straightened up stiffly and stretched himself.
“Ok, so, the fire’s going quite well now,” said Noel approvingly, “so we’d better get some bacon cooking.”
Peter eagerly heated an only slightly less blackened shovel, and lovingly laid the remaining bacon on it, watching it spit and sizzle as it made contact with the hot metal. He held it within the rosy glow of the firebox, until a delicious smell began to waft around the cab, and his stomach growled in anticipation.
Peter forked the bacon untidily onto the bread that Alistair passed him, wiped his filthy hands on his trousers, and handed one of the sandwiches to Noel. Then he turned to his own sandwich, the bread cut thick, bacon fat running through the holes in it in great greasy drops, several of which somehow found their way onto his waistcoat. Greedily he bit into it, relishing the salty tang of the bacon, with its smoky burnt flavour, its crispy texture, and the gritty little bits of coal that were unique to this particular form of cooking. “Cup of tea, Peter,” Alistair offered, lifting the flask from its shelf above the firebox.
Peter munched his bacon sandwich and smiled. “This is the way to experience train travel, isn’t it.”
Noel nodded in agreement. “It is.”
The warm wind ruffled Peter’s hair as the great loco turned down the former branch line of the Great Western Railway, steaming through the towns and villages, and passing the Iron Age hillfort of Battlesbury Camp, which Wessex Archaeology had excavated some years back. Peter could see on either side of him – to the left and to the right – a field there and a field there, and trees, and hedges, and cows, and horses, all flying past him, and he thought how every minute was bringing him nearer to that place where his friend would be waiting for him.
There were crowds of sightseers lining the route as the famous locomotive chuffed majestically into Salisbury station. Noel let off the steam whistle overdramatically and waved, raising a cheer from the people pressing forward on the platform, who were being hooshed away from the edge by transport police officers, and grinned from ear to ear. “It’s a little bit like being a celebrity,” he said to Peter. “It’s really all about the engine, of course. Still, it’s nice to get a bit of attention, sign a few autographs.”
Peter, who preferred not to get too involved with fans if he could avoid it, shrugged as the train hissed silkily to a stop, and poked his head out of the cab to see if he could spot Alex.
Alex, who wasn’t actually that interested in steam locomotives, and didn’t care for large crowds either, had found a spot at the end of the platform away from most of the people. Leaning against the Victorian red-brick wall, he let his gaze wander up one of the fluted pillars and over the decorative wrought ironwork of the station roof, and wondered how many days it would be this time since Peter had shaved, or how many weeks, or even months, possibly, since he’d had a haircut. “Well, no sign of him,” he thought, watching the passengers getting out of the carriages. Then, deciding to start walking down towards the loco, Alex noticed a sooty face looking out of the cab. “Is that Peter’s face I can see there?” he thought to himself.
Thanking Noel for the ride, the crew for rescuing him from the tender corridor, and all of them especially for the bacon, Peter picked up his bag, jumped down to the platform, and looked about him. And then suddenly through the swirling mists of steam, there was Alex in his little cap, looking smug, and beautifully dressed in a smart summer suit. Peter tried not to notice the flattering cut of the lightweight tweed trousers. Alex was also wearing his Big Boots. As soon as he saw the Big Boots, Peter knew that an Adventure was going to happen, and he brushed the coal dust off his nose with the back of his hand, and spruced himself up as well as he could, so as to look Ready for Anything.
Alex regarded his friend. He had coal dust all down his trousers and a large patch of soot on his left cheek. He was sweaty and hot and his hair was a mess. He looked idyllic, Alex thought. No, not idyllic – what was the word? Shambolic. Alex smiled wryly. No matter how dishevelled Peter was, seeing him always made Alex feel warm inside, a bit like the feeling you get after a good meal – except that the visual evidence suggested it must’ve been Peter who’d had the good meal, or indeed several.
“Hello, Cinders,” said Alex cheekily, looking his friend up and down. “Not wearing the flasher mac today then?”
Peter rolled his eyes. “It’s called a trenchcoat, Alex. Classic yet stylish. Weather’s a bit hot for it today, though.”
Alex nodded in agreement. “Yeah. I was gonna put a tie on, Peter, but then I thought, well, it’s only you.” He sniggered. Then, noticing Noel in the cab, he waved cheerily at him. “You’ve had a good journey?” he asked his friend.
Suddenly and without warning, Peter held out his sooty hands. “Give us a hug!” he demanded, and they rushed into each other’s arms. On reflection, Alex was glad he’d only put his second-best waistcoat on. He patted Peter affectionately on the back, while shaking his head at the greasy filth around his friend’s shirt-collar. “How are you?” he asked.
Peter giggled. “Hungry!”
Alex felt a little stab of pleasure at the reference to his friend’s appetite. “The usual, then.” He leant in to Peter’s rather portly figure. “You’re cuddlier than ever, Peter!” Then, while Peter was still trying to decide whether this was a compliment or an insult, he whispered ticklishly in his ear, “D’you wanna hear a dirty joke?”
“Alright!” Peter stuck his tongue out in amusement.
“Okay. What’s frozen water?”
Peter wrinkled his brow suspiciously. “Ice?”
“Yep. What’s frozen coffee?”
“What’s frozen cream?”
“Ice cream. Oh, I think that kiosk over there sells...” said Peter, getting distracted.
“Never mind that! What’s frozen ink?”
Alex wrinkled his nose and extracted himself from Peter’s embrace. “You do,” he remarked dryly. “Go and have a bath.”
Peter, who had never been really fond of baths, shuddered a long indignant shudder.
Alex tutted, and brushed humorously at the bits of coal dust Peter had succeeded in transferring to his suit. “You’re such a bad influence!” he said. “You turn up all smutty, and now look, after only a few minutes it’s rubbing off on me!” He laughed heartily at his own joke.
Peter folded his arms grumpily. “I hate you.”
Alex whistled nonchalantly. “So you’re not coming on the picnic then?”
Peter put his hands on his hips defensively. “I never said that.”
Alex laughed. “Well, we’d better get a move on. It must be getting on for luncheon time.”
Peter rummaged in his bag. “I brought some pickled onions.”
“Excellent!” Alex nodded approvingly. “You make these yourself, don’t you Peter?”
“Run masterclasses on it.” Peter was proud of his expert knowledge of the theory and practice of pickling.
“Awwww,” said Alex caustically. “Well, it’ll be something for you to fall back on when they run out of ideas for TV series’!”
Peter groaned. “I really do hate you, Alex.”
“Come on,” Alex grinned, as the Flying Scotsman began to whistle and hiss out of the station. “Oh – just one more thing, Peter...”
Peter sighed resignedly. “Yes?”
“Please go and wash those hands of yours before you get in my lovely clean car.”
“I don’t hold with all this washing,” grumbled Peter. “This modern Behind-the-ears nonsense.” But Alex drew his arm through Peter’s and led him off to the toilets anyway, leaving a trail of dirty footprints, and stood over him until he’d washed approximately half the filth off his hands. Inevitably, sufficient soot remained around the basin to give the cleaners a fright next time they came in to check the facilities. They got into Alex’s car, and turned out past the old Railway Tavern. Alex pointed out the stables behind, where the brewers Gibbs Mew used to keep the shire horses for the dray they still used to deliver beer in the city even in the 1980s. He sighed nostalgically. “I wish they still did that. I’d’ve liked to have seen it.”
There was a long queue of vehicles waiting to pull out onto the considerably less historic ring-road, where the summer traffic was always heavy. “It’s Carmageddon,” said Alex gloomily, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.
Alex sighed. “Something I read in the Guardian.”
Fortunately they were soon off the dual carriageway, passing under the railway bridge and into the leafy suburb of Laverstock. Alex took a right-turn off the main road, up a lane that seemed to get progressively narrower and steeper, until suddenly there they were at his own house.
Parking the car, Alex went inside, threw off his jacket and cap, fetching instead his brown fedora, which he’d decided was more suitable for the hot sun, and after a short interval reappeared staggering under the weight of a fat, wicker luncheon-basket.
“Hullo, Indiana Jones,” said Peter humorously, getting his bag out the car.
Alex started to wish he’d left his cap on instead. “Do you like the picnic basket?” he asked proudly, putting it down for a moment while he rolled up his sleeves. “I made it myself. It’s all traditionally grown willow, sustainably sourced and processed.”
Peter nodded admiringly. “You’re very good with your hands, Alex.”
Alex snorted in amusement. Peter pulled a face. “That’s not what I meant! I mean, you’re good at making things.”
Alex grinned. “That’s true, Peter. There is something you’re good at making, though.”
Peter narrowed his eyes. “What’s that, Alex?”
“A mess.” Then, quickly, before Peter had time to say, “I hate you,” he added, “I think it’s time for us to ‘hurry up, and go along steady’, as they said in Devon. Leave your bag here – you won’t want to carry that as well as this extremely heavy basket. I’ll put the jar of onions in with the picnic.”
“What else have you got in there?” asked Peter, interested.
Alex smiled mysteriously. “Provisions.”
“Things to eat.”
“Oh!” said Peter happily.
“Now, before we go,” said Alex, putting Peter’s bag in at the front door, “do you need the toilet? I don’t want you being a nuisance while we’re out.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Well, alright then. Now, feeling strong?” He handed Peter the basket.
Peter almost dropped it in surprise at the weight of it. “Strong enough,” he grimaced, and set off after his friend.
Alex, unencumbered, started off at a fair pace up the path by the side of the Duck Inn. “It’s a bit suburban these days,” Alex remarked, indicating the tarmacked surface critically, “but this is ancient woodland here on our right, full of native trees. This path actually used to be the Pilgrim’s Way. People would’ve used it to travel between the Cathedral here and the one at Winchester.” He paused for a moment. “The access to the Downs has improved a lot recently. There’s open access under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, and also Defra have opened up several permissive paths, to give people more routes they can use to get out onto the open space.” He frowned at Peter, who was sniggering. “What is funny?”
“Is this...is this path permissive, then?” Peter asked, blinking as innocently as he could manage.
Alex raised his eyebrows enigmatically. “Maybe.”
At the end of the houses they came to a gate. Skipping lightly through it, Alex held it shut and smirked at Peter.
“You know why they’re called ‘kissing gates’, of course? You have to kiss me before you can come through. It’s an ancient folk tradition.”
Peter regarded Alex with suspicion and tried to work out whether this was a genuine historical fact or a trick; but that was the problem, you could never tell with Alex. Alex leaned over the gate, pursing his lips and making kissy noises. Peter bit his lip nervously, put the picnic basket down, and gave his friend a quick, reluctant peck on the cheek. It made Alex’s heart skip.
“Oh, for goodness sake!” said Alex tartly. “What’s that supposed to be? Give me a proper one!” And he grabbed Peter’s nose and held it hard.
“Ow!” said Peter, in a pained voice. “I can’t breathe!”
“Open your mouth then,” Alex pointed out, reasonably.
Peter opened his mouth to take a big gulp of air. Alex put a hand on Peter’s forehead, tilted his head back, and pressed his open mouth softly to his friend’s.
Peter floundered and spluttered, “Led go ob by dose!”
“Sorry.” Alex released his grip, and then Peter gave in to the kiss, Alex’s tongue exploring his mouth, warm and sweet and mischievous, and a tickly feeling in his groin that he did and didn’t want to acknowledge.
Alex pulled away, sighed deeply, looked up at his friend for a moment, then down at the ground again in embarrassment, and went pink all the way up to his ears.
Peter coughed. “Well, that wasn’t very romantic.”
Alex found he couldn’t look his friend in the eye. “No,” he conceded, then shrugged. “Still fun though.” They both laughed, and he opened the gate and let Peter through.
“Oh, and by the way,” Alex added with a wink, “the reason they’re called ‘kissing gates’ is because the hinged part ‘kisses’ on both sides of the enclosure, rather than being latched like a normal gate. Nothing to do with kissing people at all.”
Alex pointed to a seat up the hill, and then strode off towards it, looking appreciatively about him. “Fantastic landscape, Peter, it really is.”
“Beautiful,” panted Peter, who was starting to struggle under the weight of the picnic basket. It tilted to one side, and the jar of pickled onions fell out and started to roll down the hill.
“Peter! Careful, mate!” cried Alex, running after the jar and rescuing it. “If that breaks, we’ll be in a right pickle!” He replaced it carefully in the basket. “Come on, Peter,” he said condescendingly. “Chop chop!”
“In a pickle, Peter, in a pickle!” Peter mocked, putting on a squeaky voice. But he trotted obediently after his friend, all the same.
They sat on the seat to admire the view. “You look hot, Peter,” Alex noted. Peter nodded, and mopped his face on his sleeve.
“Probably a hot flush, Peter, at your age.” Alex sniggered. “Sure you don’t want to take the waistcoat off?”
Peter hesitated. He was hot – the sun was very warm – but the waistcoat did a good job of hiding the fact that he’d put on a bit of weight.
“And don’t think it hides how much weight you’ve put on,” Alex added dryly, “because it doesn’t!”
Peter shot him a look and started to undo the buttons.
“It’ll probably be glad of a break, that waistcoat,” Alex persisted. “It has a hard job. Under a lot of pressure.”
Peter glared at him. “I hate you.”
Alex grinned impertinently. “So, how was Belgium?”
“Foggy. Very foggy,” Peter nodded.
“And what’s on the table?”
“Frites. Belgian chocolate. Good beer...”
“I meant with the archaeology project.”
“Waterloo Uncovered? Yeah, it’s going good. There’s lots to write up, and the veterans seem to find it helpful.”
“What is it you’re there for? Taking photos?”
Peter sat up importantly. “I’m the official videographer.”
Alex smirked. “So now you stand around taking pictures of other people doing archaeology rather than actually doing it yourself!”
Peter opened his eyes very wide. “That’s rich, coming from a man who sits around reading documents about archaeology rather than doing it himself!”
Alex went quiet for a bit, and they watched the butterflies flitting in and out of the downland wildflowers. After a while Peter started to feel a bit guilty about having been so sharp with his friend, and said, “Chalke Valley History Festival was good, wasn’t it.”
Alex sighed wistfully. “It really was. You and me, out in the field again, excavating, just like we used to.” He pointed out in front of them. “We were over there, the other side of the City.”
“What else can we see from here?”
Alex indicated the field below them. “This area here is leased by the Community Farm - you can see their buildings down by the river. They grow wheat and barley here, according to ecologically sound practices that leave space for meadow flowers and wildlife.” He smiled. “It’s lovely having something like that here – you know how much I love farming.” Peter smiled and nodded empathetically. “They’ve got a herd of cattle out on the water meadows, Wiltshire Horn sheep – the traditional breed of this area - free range hens, traditional breed pigs that they rear for pork” – Peter raised his eyebrows in interest at this – “some rare breed goats, and two donkeys adopted from the Donkey Sanctuary,” said Alex protectively.
Peter waved his hands at the spread of housing below them. “Laverstock’s quite big, isn’t it.”
“Grown a lot. It’s mentioned in Domesday Book. There were about 100 people living here then, and most of the land was owned by Wilton Abbey – it was where Wilton House is now, you would’ve come past there on the train. It was mainly an agricultural community. There’s been a lot of new housing built recently, though.” Alex stood up and stretched. “Well, come on, onward and upward.” He put his arm through Peter’s and helped him to his feet. “Come on, old man,” he smiled fondly. “Come on, you old dear.”
It was a golden afternoon. The sunshine struck hot on their skin, soft breezes caressed their heated brows, and the carol of happy birds fell on their hearing almost like a shout, as they pursued their way further up the hill and onto Laverstock Down. They stopped again at the top of the hill to look out over Salisbury. The city shimmered in the heat, the delicate point of the Cathedral spire rising from its midst.
“Sorviodunum, Searobyrg, Sarisberie,” intoned Alex solemnly, indicating with a sweep of his hand the conurbation spread out below them. “Supposedly a medieval city. Personally I think the topographical evidence suggests there was some kind of settlement there in Anglo-Saxon times – St Thomas’s Church is right in the middle of the main north-south route through the city, which would be a bizarre place to put it, unless of course it had been there already.” He smiled wryly. “Anyway, that’s my personal conjecture.” He pointed to a green hill somewhat to their right. “Old Sarum, of course, was the earliest settlement in the area. That started out as an Iron Age hill-fort. Waterless and windswept, but unrivalled as a defensive site.”
Peter nodded in agreement. “It commands the whole area.”
“Later there was a Norman castle and cathedral there,” continued Alex. “Until the 1200s, when they decided to move the cathedral to its current site. Legend has it that Bishop Poore stood on the ramparts of Old Sarum castle and shot an arrow in the air, vowing to build his new cathedral wherever it landed.” He snorted with derision. “Except it’s pretty unlikely he managed to shoot an arrow 2 whole miles! Still, there it is; the medieval cathedral. And that spire is just fantastic, isn’t it. It’s still the tallest in the UK. You can do a tour through the roof space of the nave and right up to the base of the spire. Fascinating, it is.” He grinned. “We should get you up there, Peter. 332 steps! Might burn off a few calories!”
Peter rolled his eyes. “If you don’t stop talking soon neither of us are going to get any calories!”
Alex smiled. “My home city - one of my favourite subjects. But you’re right,” he agreed. “It’s downhill for a bit now, so I can tell you some more while we’re walking.”
They continued along the chalky path, Peter following dutifully in his friend’s track. “Whatever you think about the legends,” Alex continued, “the city was certainly thriving in medieval times. The main industry was making broad cloth. It was processed – fulled – by beating it with wooden hammers worked by watermills.”
“Oh, I know about this!” put in Peter, eagerly. “Ruth did that on Tudor Monastery Farm!” He grinned. “They soak it in wee-wee!”
Alex sighed. “Fancy you remembering that, Peter.”
Peter winced and glanced around. “Talking of wee-wee...I could do with one.”
Alex put his head in his hands. “Goodness,” he groaned, “I can’t take you anywhere! I told you you should’ve gone at my house.” He rubbed his forehead despairingly. “It’s like looking after a toddler! Well, I don’t have a potty in my picnic basket like Ruth did when we were filming, so it’s no good looking at me like that! Perhaps you should’ve brought one of those ‘attachable external bladders’ from the old Harrods catalogue you embarrassed everyone with.”
“I didn’t embarrass everyone, Alex, I embarrassed you.”
“And now you’re doing it again! Well, you’ll just have to go in the hedge and hope no-one comes along.”
After Peter had finished producing the substance formerly used in fulling, they walked on until they were at the bottom of a hill with a clump of trees on top.
Alex pointed up the hill. “This is Cockey Down.”
Peter snorted with laughter.
“Cockey...” Peter sniggered. “Bit like you then!”
Alex pulled a face. “I hate you.”
“Oh, don’t you start!” Peter put the heavy picnic basket down again and rubbed his wrist. “Are we ever going to stop and actually eat this picnic, Alex?”
“Just on the hill there,” laughed Alex, indicating the spot. “It’s nice and grassy and the view’s amazing.” He rubbed his friend’s back consolingly. “Not far now. Oh, COME along, do!”
“There, what did I tell you?” exclaimed Alex in great triumph a few minutes later.
It all seemed too good to be true. They stopped and listened, and everything stopped and listened with them, and the downs were very lone and still and peaceful in the sunshine, until suddenly a hundred miles above them a lark began to sing. Peter gazed out at the scene – first fields, then the city, with the pinnacle of the Cathedral spire rising heavenwards from it, to the great ring of downs out to the southwest, and finally the astonishing blue of the summer sky.
“It’s beautiful up here,” he breathed softly. “And not another soul about.”
“Hopefully not!” put in Alex, close by his shoulder.
“What was that?”
Peter sighed and went to put the basket down. Alex grabbed urgently at it.
“Don’t put it there – there’s an orchid!”
Alex crouched down and caressed the delicate pink flower-spike.
Peter grasped at a word he recognized. “A pyramid?”
Alex sighed. “The pyramidal orchid. Named from the Greek, ‘anakamptein’, meaning ‘bend forward’...” Peter stifled a snort of laughter. “Ooh, saucy!”
“Oh, grow up! And ‘pyramidalis’ because...oh, for goodness sake, you of all people should know what a pyramid is!”
Peter put the picnic basket down as near to the orchid as he dared, and sat down heavily in the grass. “I’m knackered!” he gasped, sprawling on the soft turf. “I could lie here for days!”
Alex pulled a face. “No you couldn’t, you’d get hungry.”
Peter rubbed his arm, which was aching from carrying the heavy basket. “I hate you. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get up again!”
“So erm...I’ll leave you here then Peter, shall I?” said Alex in his usual dry manner, standing over his friend. “’Cause I wouldn’t be able to lift you!”
Peter glowered at him. “I hate you. You wait till you’re as old as me!”
“I am as old as you, Peter.” Alex paused for effect. “I just don’t look it.”
“Age and experience, Alex, age and experience.”
“Yeah, well, I’d rather have my youthful good looks, thank you very much!”
At this, Peter struggled to his feet again and chased Alex 3 ½ times round a nearby blackthorn bush, but Alex was much faster than he was, and he was soon doubled up, puffing and wheezing. Alex got hold of a branch of the bush on which a couple of small oval fruits were starting to ripen, and brandished them mockingly at his friend. “Two sloe!”
Peter groaned. “What a terrible joke!”
“A mysterious shrub, the blackthorn,” Alex expounded, more seriously. “Traditionally it was associated with darkness, winter and sinister magic. Whatever you think of that, the wood certainly makes excellent walking-sticks, as well as teeth for hay-rakes, and the thorns used to be used as awls for leatherwork. It has medical uses, too – the herbalists Gerard and Culpeper both mention it. And sloes are full of vitamin C.”
“So sloe gin must be really good for you,” remarked Peter, flopping back down in the grass next to the picnic basket.
“I bet you sat on an orchid that time.”
“I don’t care.”
“Lots of daisies, too.” Alex sat down next to Peter and plucked one of the little flowers, turning it round and round thoughtfully between his fingers. Delicately he pulled off a petal. “He hates me,” he began, giving his friend a questioning glance. Peter nodded solemnly at this, but under Alex’s gaze he couldn’t stop a smile breaking out and had to look at the floor. Alex picked the next petal, leaned closer to Peter, and intoned meaningfully, “He hates me not.” He removed another. “He hates me, he hates me not, he hates me, he hates me not...” Suddenly there was only one petal left. Alex screwed the daisy up in disgust, threw it away down the hill, and started to link the flowers into a chain instead. Forming them into a circlet, he placed it gently on Peter’s hair. “The Queen of Summer,” he declared, trying hard not to laugh.
Peter looked at him fondly. “I hate you – you know that?” he said with affection.
Alex looked into his startlingly blue eyes, and sang:
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,
I’m half crazy, all for the love of you.
It won’t be a – “
“Achooooo!” Peter sneezed messily and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. “Hay fever.”
Alex pulled the picnic basket towards himself and sat up coyly. It was finally time to get around to the part of the day that he’d only been putting off for as long as possible, because he was looking forward to it so much. “Right, okay...” he said archly; “Peter, what do you like doing best in the world?”
“Well,” said Peter, “what I like best – “and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called. His mouth began to water. He had taken much hard exercise since the excellent bacon sarnie provided for him on the Flying Scotsman. Peter now knew well that he had not been really hungry before. What he had felt earlier in the day had been a mere trifling qualm. This was the real thing at last, and no mistake; and it would have to be dealt with speedily, too, or there would be trouble for somebody or something. He leaned across, put his arm around Alex’s shoulders, and started to nibble his earlobe experimentally. “What’s for lunch, Alex?”
Alex ducked away from him humorously. “Me, apparently! Now, before we start – are your hands clean?”
Peter sat on them and looked a bit shifty.
Alex took out a packet of wipes and cleaned his own hands in a sarcastic way. “Peter...”
Peter shrugged. “You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die.”
“I think you already have, Peter!” Alex snorted derisively. “Oh well, a bit more won’t kill you, I suppose?” He put on a hopeful look.
Taking out his fairly-traded picnic rug, hand-woven using recycled wool, Alex knelt and spread it on the grass in front of them. While he was occupied, Peter quickly stretched over and reached into the picnic basket.
“Hey!” said Alex suggestively. “I didn’t say you could put your hand in there!”
Peter felt around in the basket and pulled out an enormous swirly red and white lollipop. His brow wrinkled in puzzlement. “What’s that doing in there?!”
Alex grinned, and broke into song again:
“My boy Lollipop,
Never, ever leave me,
Because it would grieve me,
My heart told me so.”
Peter regarded him doubtfully. “That’s sweet, Alex, if you’ll pardon the pun...”
Alex nodded deliberately.
“...but I don’t believe for a moment that’s the real reason.” He thought for a moment. “Is it to give me practise sucking something big?!” he suggested naughtily, sticking his tongue out.
Alex looked at him with a disgusted expression. “Hopefully,” he said at last, “you’ll be quiet for a very long time once you’ve got that in your mouth!” After a meaningful pause, he added straight-facedly: “And the lollipop.”
Peter thought about this for a moment or two and then started to go an interesting shade of magenta. He bit his lip and sniffed with suppressed laughter.
Alex ran his tongue teasingly around his lips, and then opened the picnic basket and took out a large, round, foil-wrapped object, which he started to open provocatively. Peter was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. “D’you fancy a pie?” Alex asked, placing it majestically on a plate and starting to cut it into wedges. “It said it ‘serves 4’, but I thought, as you were coming...” He grinned cheekily.
Peter frowned. “I hate you.”
“So you won’t be wanting any of my big delicious pie then?”
Peter opened his mouth to repeat “I hate you”, but then he realized he would much rather be putting pie in it, so he shut it again and opened the jar of pickled onions instead. “Ooh, that looks good!” he said, rubbing his hands in hungry anticipation as Alex passed him a slice.
He bit into the crisp, biscuity pastry. “Did you know,” said Peter, chewing thoughtfully, “that pie-making originated in Ancient Egypt?”
Alex wanted to argue that pies as we understand them today derived rather from medieval pastry “coffyns”, but for once he bit his tongue. The one kind of argument with Peter that he could never win was an Egyptology argument, so he wasn’t even going to try. He forked an onion out of the jar instead and said nothing, only taking care that Peter had what he wanted, and plenty of it.
When about two-thirds of the pie was gone, Alex sat back. “I think if I eat any more of this pie I’m going to have a heart attack,” he remarked dryly.
“You don’t mind if I carry on?” Peter said questioningly.
“No, no, you go ahead.” Alex regarded his friend wistfully. “I wish I could eat like that.”
“No you don’t,” said Peter through a mouthful of pork. “If you did that you’d be as fat as me.”
Alex considered this for a moment and crunched on a pickled onion. “Oh yeah,” he agreed, nodding.
Peter raised his eyebrows sardonically and indicated the pickle jar. “Keep the rest of the onions, won’t you.”
“I will; thank you,” Alex said genuinely. “Fat. Round. Pickled.” He paused for comic effect. “They’ll remind me of you!”
Peter crossed his arms sulkily. “I hate you.”
“Peter Ginn, former historian and pickling expert...” giggled Alex, fetching a couple of glasses out of the picnic basket and fishing in his waistcoat for his pocket-knife.
“It’s food historian, Alex, not former historian!”
Alex continued ironically: “You know you’re supposed to research the foods rather than just eating them all?!” Before Peter had time to say, “I hate you” again, he pulled a bottle out of the basket and waved it about temptingly. Peter’s eyes glazed over a bit and fixed themselves on the bottle.
“This is a proper craft cider, Peter,” said Alex proudly, opening the bottle. “Made with locally grown apples in the Chalke Valley.” He started to divide it between the two glasses.
Peter smacked his lips. “How many bottles each did you bring?”
Alex scowled disapprovingly. “One One!” He wagged his finger at Peter accusingly. “I’m watching you.”
“You always say that.”
“Yes, I know, exactly.”
Peter took a sip. “Wow...” he murmured to himself, “that is absolutely amazing.”
Alex whipped a hip flask out of the picnic basket and hid it behind his back. “Oh, Peter,” he said. “I don’t know if you are interested in Poetry at all?”
“Hardly at all,” said Peter.
“You’ll like this piece of poetry,” said Alex. “It was written by a man called Alfred Williams, who worked as a steam-hammer operator at the Great Western Railway works in Swindon.”
“You must listen very carefully,” said Alex.
“So as not to miss any of it,” said Alex.
“Oh, yes,” said Peter, but he still looked at the cider.
Alex gave a little cough and began.
“Now jolly-hearted Summer reigns
On the clover-tinted field,
And the golden-lettered blooming plains
The honey-harvest yield;
The rose-wreath, dropping on the bough,
Gleams red against the vine,
And the crimson honey-suckles blow
Round the fresh young eglantine.
O the sunny gleam
Of the meadow hour!
To dream, dream, dream
On the soul of a crystal flower.
The sun burns from the blue-lined hill
And burns the sweating air,
His burning atoms seem to fill
The valley everywhere;
And to my whirled brain mounts up,
Like a drunken draught of wine...”
“Yes, it is, isn’t it?” said Peter, taking a big sip of the cider and running it round and round his mouth. Alex fidgeted with the hip-flask behind him.
“Talking of Poetry,” he said quickly, “have you noticed that airstrip right over there?”
“Where?” said Peter, swallowing the cider. “Now –“
“Right over there,” said Alex, pointing in the direction of Old Sarum.
“No,” said Peter, about to take a bigger sip.
“You ought to look at that airstrip right over there,” said Alex. “Put your glass down a minute.”
Peter put the glass down and shaded his eyes.
“I can see a plane taking off,” said Alex. “Or is it a bird?”
“We could make a series about planes,” said Peter, gazing distractedly at the cider. “Chocks Away! - the history of British aviation.”
“It isn’t a bird, it’s a plane,” said Alex.
“What kind of plane is it?” asked Peter.
“That’s the whole question,” said Alex. “Is it a Harvard or an Auster?”
And then at last Peter did turn his head to look. And the moment that his head was turned, Alex unscrewed the hip flask and tipped the contents into Peter’s glass.
Peter turned back to the picnic and took a large mouthful of cider. He looked up at the sky with his head on one side, and made exploring noises with his tongue, and considering noises, and what-have-we-got-here noises...and then he said in a very decided voice:
“What have you done to my cider, Alex?”
Alex blinked disingenuously. “I haven’t done anything to your cider!”
Peter glared suspiciously. “Are you sure?”
Alex whistled innocently, then noticed he’d left the hip flask on the picnic blanket and made a move to hide it. Peter lunged for it and got hold of it first. He sniffed it suspiciously.
“Cider brandy,” Alex admitted, realizing the game was up.
“So that’s what it is.” Peter grinned victoriously. “Got you! You thought you could spike my drink without me noticing and render me insensible!”
Alex pulled a face. “You’re never very sensible, Peter, at the best of times!”
Peter ignored the insult and lay back in the grass. “You don’t need to get me drunk,” he said, looking coyly up at his friend through his long dark eyelashes. “I submit. Do what you want to me.”
Alex stroked his chin thoughtfully, and then laughing, said, “I can’t do that, Peter, that’s illegal!”
Peter frowned questioningly. “Fornication’s not illegal.”
“Not fornication, Peter. Murder.”
Peter sat up again in annoyance. “With a friend like you, Alex, who needs enemies?”
Alex grinned winningly and took a second hip flask out of the picnic basket. “More brandy?”
Peter took the flask and knocked it back. He shook his head and wiped his mouth, and then smiled grudgingly. “It’s good.”
Alex watched in admiration. “I love it. I just love it.”
Alex took a draught of his own cup of cider. “That is delicious,” he said. “And a perfect complement to our next course – a selection of local cheeses.” He removed a series of greaseproof paper packages from the picnic basket, and started to unwrap the first one onto a clean plate. “Peter, can you open these biscuits for me?” While his friend tried to find the easy-open strip, he revealed the creamy blue cheese inside the packet. “This is Old Sarum;” he said reverently, “named for Old Salisbury hill over there.” He started to cut it into pieces. “I’m not even going to try and do clever carving,” apologized Alex. “This is...lumps.”
Peter nodded approvingly. “I like lumps. I don’t like...thin slices.” He passed over the opened biscuit packet. “Your crackers.”
Alex pulled a sarcastic face. “Speak for yourself, Peter!” He held up a jar with a little scroll attached. “And to go with them, a medieval chutney.”
“A medieval chutney?”
“Yeah. This local guy – he’s a retired submariner – researched it for the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, of which we have one of the copies in our cathedral.”
Peter examined the jar. “What’s it made with?”
“There’s burdock, apples and onions, which would all have been familiar to ordinary people in the 11th century. The honey and spices, though...they would’ve belonged to the higher levels of society. Here – have a taste.”
Peter stuck a spoon in the jar, inserted it thoughtfully into his mouth, and pondered long and deeply. “That’s really interesting,” he said at last. “It’s so simple, yet so complex. The burdock’s a bit chewy, though.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Peter put a piece of the blue cheese on a cracker and bit into it. The cracker broke into pieces and showered him with bits. “Oh crumbs!” joked Peter, brushing them from his trousers, and starting to cough. Alex patted him on the back. “Don’t talk while you’re eating!” he said with his mouth full. “Here, look, have some more cider.” He opened the other bottle and filled his friend’s glass almost to the brim.
After they’d additionally tasted a green-marbled nettle and wild garlic cheese, and a spice-flecked pepper and beer variety, Alex got out a paper bag from the basket and folded his hands loftily. “Now,” he announced, “for our dessert course, I have for you first, some lovely juicy cherries.”
Peter waggled his toes from sheer happiness, spread his chest with a sigh of full contentment, and leaned back blissfully into the grass. He thought that he had never eaten so good a picnic in all his life. Alex proffered the bag and, taking a handful of the sweet, shiny fruit, Peter popped one into his mouth, rolled it around for a few seconds, and then tried to spit the stone into a bush. It dropped onto his waistcoat instead, where the deep red stain made by the juice found lots of other dirty marks to be friends with.
“Oh no, don’t spit them!” cried Alex. “We can do the cherry stone rhyme.” He started to arrange his cherry-pips around the edge of one of the empty plates, and while his friend continued to eat, he started to count:
“Who shall I marry?
Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor,
Rich man, poor man...”
Peter propped himself up on one elbow. “Is that me?”
Alex wrinkled his nose. “I think I need to eat some more of those cherries!”
Meanwhile, Peter had been collecting the stones from his fruit, and he continued the rhyme:
“Where shall we get married?
Church, cathedral, pigsty, loo...”
“What?” said Alex. “Pigsty, loo? That’s not very traditional!”
“That’s what we always used to do at school.” Peter shrugged and carried on counting. “Church, cathedral, pigsty.”
“Looks like it’s round at your place, then!” said Alex tartly. He pushed his cherry-pips around the plate.
“When shall we get married?
This year, next year, sometime, never.”
He threw the rest of the stones into a bramble bush. Peter gave him an injured look. Alex put an arm round him and squeezed him fondly. “You know I love you really.”
Peter rested his head on Alex’s lap and said dolefully, “Sometimes I wonder...”
“Well, don’t,” said Alex firmly. “I can’t imagine my life without you in it.” He ruffled his friend’s hair carelessly.
“Go gently, Alex,” Peter joked. “I’m losing my hair fast enough as it is!”
Alex flattened his palm and rubbed hard at the thinning patch at the back of Peter’s head.
“I hate you.” Peter rolled over and pushed Alex down into the grass.
Alex blinked up at him. “No you don’t, you love me really.”
Peter sat up and crossed his arms. “No I don’t.”
“Why are you sitting on top of me then?”
Peter grunted and rolled off him. Alex sat up and brushed himself down. “Thank goodness for that, you weigh a ton,” he said, with a mixture of relief and disappointment. “Now, how about some cake?” He rummaged in the picnic basket and brought out a large cloth-wrapped bundle.
“Oh, stop, stop,” cried Peter in ecstasies: “This is too much!”
“Do you really think so?” enquired Alex seriously, unwrapping the cloth to reveal a beautiful, round, golden-brown cake, studded with raisins and dusted with sugar. He patted Peter’s full belly fondly and grinned. “It’s fat, it’s round, it’s full of fruit...it’s a nice lardy cake as well, isn’t it.”
Peter raised his eyebrows interrogatively. “Lardy?”
Alex brandished an enormous bread knife. “Yes,” he said; “bit like you, really!” He sniggered. “And it’s a Wiltshire speciality. Bit like me.”
Peter gasped, laughing at his friend’s audacity. “You green-eyed monster!”
Alex started to saw big slices off the side of the cake. After that, conversation was impossible for a time, and when it slowly resumed, it was that regrettable sort of conversation that results from talking with your mouth full. When they’d both finished eating at last, and each of them felt that his skin was now as tight as was decently safe, and that by this time he didn’t care a hang for anybody or anything, they lay in the grass and sighed at the greenness of the fields, the blueness of the sky, and the soporific warmth of the summer sunshine.
“Well, this is nice,” Alex said sleepily.
“It is, isn’t it,” Peter yawned.
“Lovely, isn’t it.”
Finally, Alex sat up, and began to smile long, slow smiles. Then he took to giggling in a shy, self-conscious manner. Looking about him, he tried to beat down the tremors, the yearnings, the old cravings that rose up and beset him and took possession of him entirely.
“It is fate!” he said to himself at last. “Why strive? why struggle?” He opened the picnic basket and took out a fluted metal mould. Flipping it upside-down onto a plate, he agitated it gently, and then lifted it off to reveal a shimmering pink jelly, which seemed to Peter to sparkle hypnotically in the afternoon light. “Wow!” he said, sitting up. “My goodness!”
“An organic elderberry and elderflower jelly,” said Alex proudly. “I gathered the ingredients myself from the hedgerows.” Lifting the plate to his nose, he inhaled deeply. “Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. Yeah, smell that, Peter.” Alex lifted the plate to his friend’s nose. Peter shut his eyes dreamily and took a big sniff.
Suddenly, Alex grabbed at the open neck of his friend’s shirt, and with a grin of satisfied deliberation emptied the jelly down it. Peter’s eyes flew open again in confusion, until he looked at Alex, who was grinning and licking his lips expectantly.
“I’m terribly sorry, Peter,” said Alex disingenuously; “I’m terribly sorry. Goodness me, how are we going to get that cleaned up?!” He paused, and then with a mischievous expression, went on. “Pass me that pot of cream from the basket, Peter. I’ve got an idea...”