“When I was cleaning I found this in your brother’s cabinet,” said Miss Henderson, passing Sir John a piece of paper. “Is it some sort of New Year’s message?”
“What on earth is this now?” said Sir John, reading the sheet. “How to do what?”
The day was getting late and the sky was wrapping orange heat over the yard. The group sat around the large bubbling vat, which was emitting potent fumes.
“Matjo,” said an old man, “didn’t you get chased down this road once?”
He indicated the nearby path with a crooked finger.
“Ah, yes, Piotr!” said Matjo, same age and demeanour. “Many, many years ago. I was in the neighbouring village to see a girl. I had a ribbon to give her as a present. Well, there was a group of lads there who didn’t like that, see. They told me to go home, so I told them to go somewhere else. Heh. They came after me, and I ran like the wind down this hill. I could hear them right behind. One got a punch in, right on my head, and it just made me faster. They left me on the outside of the village.
“The joke was that the next week they had to come to our village, and the leader had to apologise to me. He was the girl’s brother of course.”
Matjo absently tossed the ribbon he had been twirling around his finger into the large vat.
“Did you get the girl?” said Leesa, a younger woman.
“No,” said Matjo, “all that running for nothing. She wanted to be with my friend instead. Took the ribbon though. Thing was, he didn’t really want her either, not that it stopped him. She married a pig farmer in the end. Her brother, the one who chased me died in the war. He was on a boat.”
“Were you pleased?” said Leesa.
“He’d become a friend,” said Matjo. “He’d read somewhere about making explosives with fertilizer. We tried to make some together. Lit it and it didn’t go off, so like idiots we looked to see why. Boom!”
Matjo gestured with his hands, then tossed some chemical into the vat.
“You were an idiot,” said Klarise.
“Thank you, wife,” said Matjo.
“It was me that found you both, hair charred, eyebrows gone. My god what a horror. And both laughing like lunatics.”
Klarise glanced at her husband, “I helped you up and bandaged your hand. You made me swear to tell no one. Now, I hear this story every month.”
She threw a scrap of material into the pot.
“How did you explain the burns?” asked Leesa.
“Ah, I said there had been a fire in the forest, that we had put it out. They cooked us a feast for our bravery. A whole lamb. I couldn’t eat a morsel of it. I fed most to the dog. Then the damn thing followed me around for 20 years waiting for more,” said Matjo, casually slipping some meat into the vat.
“He was smart,” said Klarise, absently turning the ring on her left finger. “I followed you for 40 years.”
“I think it’s done now,” said Piotr. He went to the vat and attached a long pipe with a tap on the end. The old man put an empty bottle under the tap and opened the valve. As the distilled sunshine poured into the bottle, he smiled.