Author's Note: I have to thank reviewer "gothewrongway" for pointing out that whiskey is a better painkiller than beer, so I've fixed that glaring error. (That username is also very ironic.) So I'm reposting this as Whiskey and Skittles. Enjoy! :)
Whiskey and Skittles
Ted Narracott had been weeding all day, picking out all of the little plants that dared to grow on the soil in-between his turnips. He was in Bottom Field, so called because it was at the bottom of a blasted hill that he now had to climb with one good but tired leg and one dodgy one.
The sky had turned into a beautiful rusty-red colour since he'd started work in the afternoon. He used his hoe as a makeshift walking stick as he hobbled to the gate. If he spotted a little green weed on his way there he'd stop and dig it out. He reached the gate with only a handful of such stops. He'd left the gate open so it was only a matter of tying it closed.
He took his time walking up the slope of the lane. There was no rush. He gazed around a little. He was usually so busy with whatever job he was in the middle of that he never really took the time to just pause and look. He did now. He was lucky to live in such a beautiful place. He turned slowly full-circle and started walking again. The pain of his leg was getting worse so he pulled out his flask and took a swig of whiskey to keep him going.
It only took a moment for the effects of the alcohol to sink in but soon enough the sharpness of the pain eased and he made it to the top of the lane and through the gate. It was just a straight line now to the front door and the warm fire Rosie would have waiting for him. He stopped halfway there when he saw that Joey was still outside in his field despite it being nearly dark. And it was just after that when he noticed Albert standing in the field too; lead rope hanging forgotten from his hand. It was like Ted was looking at a painting of his son and his son's horse.
Ted took one last swig of his whiskey before pocketing it again. Curious, he hobbled over to the stone wall lining the field. Albert was daydreaming, Ted could tell even from this distance. He knew what that was like; he'd seen that expression on men in the middle of a battlefield just before they were killed by the enemy's sword. He'd seen—
He pulled out his flask again and took another gulp of whiskey, just to settle his mind.
Joey, too, was watching Albert, his ears pricked. The horse was clearly confused about being kept outside for this long. Joey snorted and Albert was brought back to the present. "Hmm?" he said, sounding distracted. "Oh. Come on, you old silly." He attached the lead rope to Joey's head collar and the horse followed him into the stable like an obedient dog.
Ted went into the house and sat in front of the waiting fire.
A few nights later Ted was on his way back to the farm. It was a Tuesday and so he had spent the day in the public house in town after being at the auction from mid-morning. The pain his leg was numbed enough for him to have a little spring in his step despite the light rain tapping on his cap and running down his beard. The sun had already set and darkness was rapidly descending upon the valley.
Much to Ted's surprise he saw the flickering light from a candle through the stable window. He took a detour to find out why Albert was out so late and night. "Albert," he said, the wooden door banging against the stable's stone wall as he pushed it.
Even with the buzz of the alcohol in the back of his mind, Ted knew that his son had been daydreaming. While Joey gave a small whinny of surprise, Albert jumped at the bang of the door and got back to cleaning a red sore that Joey had gained from being in harness all day. Albert brought the cloth up and down with gentle strokes on Joey's shoulder.
Even though he already knew the answer, Ted found himself asking, "What are you up to this late?"
Albert dipped the cloth in the bucket of water. "Cleaning Joey," he replied simply with only a glance in his father's direction. That said, he bent down and started washing caked mud off Joey's white socks. Joey continued to munch on his hay.
If Ted had not had so much to drink he might have held the next sentence in. "No, but before that." He watched as Albert froze mid-wipe. "Before I came in," he added, noticing that his voice was slightly slurred but paying it no mind.
Albert didn't look at him. "I was cleaning Joey, Dad," he said, moving the cloth now to Joey's belly.
Ted felt a sudden flash of inexplicable anger. "Don't mess with me, boy."
"I'm not messing with you!" said Albert, raising his voice to match his father's.
"I was thinking, all right!" Albert interrupted; standing and turning to face Ted. "Thinking," he said again, quieter this time. Ted recognised the haunted look in his son's eyes from every soldier he knew, even himself. Albert started to pace but he was unable to go very far because Joey took up a lot of room in his stall. "I saw all of these men – boys, Dad, they were boys, just like me – get killed right next to me. Or they got shot and I had to leave them there because if I didn't stop runnin' I'd die right then and there just like them. And I'd duck to avoid getting hit by bullets and I'd be sitting on something soft and I'd look down—" He stopped, unable to go on. There were tears forming in his eyes. "How can I ever stop seeing that, Dad?" he asked, desperate now. "How?"
Ted had listened because he was tired, because his limbs felt too heavy. But he also cared. And if he hadn't been to the auction and he hadn't been to the pub that evening he would never have pulled out his almost empty flask. He wouldn't have hobbled tiredly over to his son and he wouldn't have handed it over. But he did.
Albert held the flask at arm's length as if it was filled with a deadly poison. Perhaps it was.
"If you really want to forget then this is what helps," said Ted. At the same time as he spoke alarm bells were ringing in his fuzzy mind but he couldn't work out why. He yawned without covering his mouth and scratched the back of his neck. "I'm going to bed, Ablert – er, Albert – you can give me that back in the morning."
He stumbled back outside and into the rain.
Ted woke to the sound of the rooster crowing. He'd fallen into bed still wearing his wet clothes. I'm going to get no eggs this morning for that, he thought. He grimaced when he started to get up; his head was pounding and he was still wearing his muddy shoes from the day before. He glanced at the little table beside the bed which had his flask sitting on it. He didn't remember much of yesterday beyond the auction in town. He didn't worry. These things usually came back to him by themselves.
He picked up his flask and gingerly made his way to the window. He watched as Albert let Joey out of his stable for the day. The ground was very saturated and Joey was leaving a trail of muddy hoof prints behind him as he trotted the perimeter of his field before finding a spot of suitable grass and starting to graze. Albert had been watching him prance, but now he went back inside the stable to clean Joey's stall.
Turning from the window, Ted made his way to the kitchen downstairs. Rosie was nowhere to be seen but she had kindly left some bread and butter on the table for him, alongside a cup of stone-cold tea. He didn't deserve such a wonderful wife. He smiled before sitting down at the table.
He unscrewed the cap on his flask and turned the bottle on its head so he could pour some of the contents into his cold tea to give it a boost. One golden-brown drop of liquid was all that came out, landing feebly in his tea.
It was only then that he remembered the events of the previous night.
Ted had suddenly lost his appetite. He pushed his breakfast to one side and put his head in his hands.
The following Tuesday, as he had done for countless years, war or no, Ted went to the auction in town. When Albert was younger he would ask to come along too, but Ted had always made his excuses since he knew well enough that the pub was no place for Albert. When Albert had left for the war – no, not the war; he left for the horse – it became one of Ted's wishes in life to bring Albert to the auction.
He would stand ringside, leaning on the hurdles like he always did before, flask of whiskey in one hand. And while a war filled with unimaginable horrors raged overseas, he'd watch the horses, cattle and sheep as they were chased around the ring in circles. He would find himself thinking of Albert sometimes (all the time) instead of watching what was going on. Then he would go to the pub to forget.
But this time he had dragged Albert along with him. Albert had seemed reluctant and Ted could understand that – he wasn't dreading the auction, but rather the 'celebrations' that came afterwards. Neither of them had mentioned the events of the previous Tuesday night yet.
Albert walked ahead to have a look at the lots on sale. There were two grey Clydesdales tethered in a pen together, several lots of sheep at various stages of their lives, and a few cattle. It was a much smaller auction now than it had been before the war. Ted noticed the Fordson after Albert did. He had stopped to examine it for a few moments and Ted used these to catch up with his son.
The tractor had huge, yellow wheels that were striking enough to catch Ted's attention first. The engine was painted grey and uncovered, with the bonnet painted a deep green. "Well?" asked Ted.
"No thanks," replied Albert. "Give me my Joey any day."
Ted nodded – but not exactly in agreement – and the pair moved on again. They passed a few ploughs and a harrow but since they were for a tractor Albert wasn't interested. Ted was, however, and he stopped to examine them before limping onwards to catch up. He joined Albert at the ringside.
As the auction commenced, Ted's flask stayed full and heavy in his pocket.
The auction over, Ted turned away from the ring and leaned his back against it. Albert started to walk away. "Hey now, where are you off to?" called Ted.
Albert turned to face him and said, "I'm going home. Me and Joey—"
"Don't worry about Joey just for today, Albert," Ted said. "I've got something to show you."
He started to walk in the opposite direction and wasn't surprised when Albert followed. He allowed himself a hidden smile.
Father and son ended up in the local public house. The post-auction crowds were only starting to gather. Ted asked Albert to choose a table and went up to the bar. The bartender already had the usual bottle of whiskey sat on the bar and the first measure poured out for him. He sat down opposite his son with the glass at an equal distance between them both. Albert looked nervous.
Ted took a deep breath. "Al—" he started, but was interrupted by the group of rowdy men cheering on the other side of the room playing skittles. Albert's gaze flicked in their direction. "Albie," Ted tried again, using his son's nickname – something he rarely did. This regained his son's attention. Ted pushed the glass of whiskey across the table towards Albert, who frowned down at it. "When you look at that, what do you see?"
"A glass of whiskey," said Albert.
"And what else?"
"I don't understand."
"When you look at that whiskey, what do you actually see?"
"Oh," said Albert. "Well... I see... you on a Tuesday night stumbling in through the door. I see your way out. I used to not believe that, you know. But then Mum told me why you drink and I still didn't understand. But now I do. When I look at that, I see you drunk on a Tuesday night. That's – that's it."
Ted nodded. "You're not far off. I look at this glass and it's what I don't see that counts. I take enough of this and I won't see all of those horrible things I saw. For a while at least. I didn't want to go to war all those years ago, Albie, but I did cos my Father sent me off. I wasn't brave like you; I didn't go off to save someone else. But I'm not proud of what happened back then." He continued, "I've made mistakes with my life. Even touching this whiskey in the first place was a mistake for me. It helped for a while, but then I just got tired of it. It's the coward's way out, I realise that. I don't want you to make the same mistakes I did. Don't drink any more of this, please, for me." He knew he was begging, but just then he didn't especially care.
Looking up at him with a confused expression on his face, Albert said, "More of it?"
"Last Tuesday night I gave you my flask and in the morning it was empty," he said slowly.
To Ted's surprise, Albert started to laugh. "I didn't drink any of your whiskey, Dad."
"You – you didn't?" Ted asked.
"'Course not. I did think about it but I couldn't do it. Maybe it's better if I remember sometimes. So I poured the whiskey out on my way into the house." Albert smiled mischievously.
"You poured it out?" repeated Ted. Albert nodded, clearly enjoying his father's reaction. Ted wished for rain so that it would hide the tears in his eyes. Instead he rubbed his eyes with his haggard knuckles. "I'm so proud of you," he said, but it was drowned out by the cheers from the men playing skittles.
When the cheering died down, Albert asked, "What did you say?"
"I said we should go home."
"But what about your whiskey?"
Ted's beard shifted with his face as he grinned. "I don't need it no more. There are small days and there are big days. Small days, well they don't mean anything to anyone. But this is a big day. I want to remember it."
The untouched glass and the bottle of whiskey remained on the table.
Over the following months Ted spent as much time as he could with Albert. He was a sensible young lad and kept them both on the straight and narrow. If either of them found themselves daydreaming they'd simply talk about it. Ted found that the talking helped them both. He kept his flask but it remained empty. At times it was hard; his leg was hurting more than it did before. When it became too much to bear and he couldn't hide it from Albert any more, his son would send him into the house. Ted would protest but it would fall on deaf ears.
Since Ted wasn't buying whiskey the family saved up a little money. It was a small amount, not really worth talking about, but Ted kept the extra money in a jar. He hoped that maybe they could afford a tractor someday. Ted knew that Albert wasn't so keen on the tractor idea, but a tractor meant that Ted would be able to help around the farm more since there wasn't so much walking around with a tractor.
Ted would take Albert along to the auction almost every week. It was a few hours of quality time away from the farm for them. Sometimes they would buy something but the money never came out of Ted's special savings. They hardly ever went to the pub, and when they did it was only to have a game of skittles. It turned out that Si Easton liked skittles too.
The jar of coins soon became two jars, and then two jars and an old shoe. Ted kept them safe and sound under the bed.
It was the goal of every farmer to have a straight furrow when he was ploughing. Albert and Joey's first attempt at a straight furrow wasn't the best, but it did save the farm so Ted was never going to complain. Years of practice the two of them had now and the furrows were as straight as a new blade. Albert was proud of his work, Ted could tell. Ted was certainly proud of Albert.
Ted had taken on the job of walking ahead of Joey to check for any stones that could break the plough, since when he got up to speed Joey didn't like to stop. Ted lifted another large stone into the wheelbarrow. They had almost finished a very long day's toil; just a few more furrows and the job would be done.
Ted was a few furrows ahead so that he wasn't in danger of being trampled by Joey. He tipped the last of the stones from his wheelbarrow out onto the unturned grass right beside the stone wall. He would build them onto the top of the wall in the morning. By the time he had taken the wheelbarrow to the gate Albert and Joey had finished the last furrow. Ted leaned against the wall and admired his son's work. The furrows were absolutely perfect.
They left the plough in the field. Albert led Joey out through the gate and Ted followed behind with his wheelbarrow. The metal wheel was squeaking. "Do you see that, Dad?" asked Albert, the tone of his voice not masking his worry.
"I do, Albert, I do," Ted replied sadly. Joey was limping and putting very little weight on his right foreleg. "That's the one that he got hurt in the wire with?"
"Yes. You can still see the scar. Maybe... maybe he's just tired."
"He can't go on forever, you know. Let him rest for a few days..." He paused, thinking. "I'll have to get a tractor if we want the ploughing done."
"We don't need a tractor," Albert said. "We've got Joey."
Albert's voice had taken on that stubborn tone that he had inherited from his father and so Ted knew not to argue further. They continued up the gradient of the lane, those three old soldiers; two of them limping and one of them not.
When they reached the stable Ted put his wheelbarrow away while Albert started prodding at Joey like a mother hen. Ted left him to it.
The next Tuesday Ted went to the auction on his own. It wasn't that he didn't want Albert there, but Albert was still against the tractor idea, insisting that they still had Joey and that they didn't need a tractor. There was a time when Ted would have agreed with that, but he wanted to be more useful around the farm than he already was.
He walked through the rows of lots. There was a tractor, another Fordson like the ones he and Albert had been seeing here before. It was shiny and new, not a handprint on the paintwork. It was just what he needed.
Still, out of habit he had a look at everything else. There were fourteen sheep, five pigs, seven cattle and three horses. Ted had always had a good eye for a horse and he knew a good one when he saw it. It was a chestnut mare that caught his eye this time. She had a white stripe down her face, light feathering above her hooves and a good, strong back. She was young but then so was Joey when Ted bought him, and look at how he turned out.
But Ted was here for a tractor. He gave the mare a tap on the nose and went to take his usual position at the ringside. He noticed that Lyons had turned up for this auction too with his son David. The two old enemies eyed each other across the ring.
The auction started with the Fordson. It was driven into the ring. The auctioneer announced, "We got a lovely Fordson Model F here, brand new and straight out of the box as it were. Any bids?"
"Ha-ha, nice try, Mr Copper, you cheapskate. Any proper bids?"
"Eight guineas," said Ted.
"Okay, we're starting the bid at eight guineas. Any advance on eight guineas?"
"Ten guineas," said Lyons.
"Ten guineas, we've got ten guineas. Any advance—"
"Twelve!" said Ted.
"Fifteen!" said Lyons. "We going to start another bidding war, Ted?" he said with a smirk.
"Twenty guineas!" said Ted.
"Any advance on twenty guineas?" asked the auctioneer.
"Twenty-five!" said Lyons.
The horse that Ted had seen earlier whinnied from her pen. Ted shook his head at the auctioneer.
"Any more bidders? Any advance on twenty-five guineas? No? Going... sold to Mr Lyons."
And for once, Ted ignored his sneering landlord's jibes.
That afternoon Ted limped along the lane, leading the chestnut mare he had bought along behind him. Albert was in Joey's field when he saw his father coming. Rosie was in the garden collecting the washing from the line. They both came running, Albert grinning from ear to ear.
Ted closed the gate and only had to walk a few more steps before Albert met him. "This seems to keep happening to me," said Ted with mock resignation, handing his son the lead rope. Albert stroked the mare's velvet nose. He turned to watch Joey lean over the stone wall surrounding his field and nicker at the new arrival.
"How much this time?" asked Rosie, always aware of the family's finances.
"Nineteen guineas. That's an acceptable amount, isn't it, Rose?"
She nodded. "She's a pretty one," Rosie said. "What are you going to call her, Albie?"
"I think I'll call her Zoey since it rhymes with Joey. That's you, Zoey," he said to Zoey. Then he looked at his father and said, "What happened to the tractor you wanted?"
"It wasn't as pretty looking as Zoey here," Ted answered.
"Thank you, Dad," said Albert, smile still stuck on his face as he led Zoey away.
Rosie nudged him with her elbow. "You're a big softy, do you realise that, Ted Narracott?"
"All the better for it, Rose."