In the darkness of the low beamed snug of The Badger and Ferret in Little Sodding, Vicar Tiresomely-Preaching and the Squire, Sir Evershot Strangely-Bottom, sat within a fug of blue grey pipe smoke and two jugs of the session ale ‘Old Tractor’. They sat at a pub table notched and scarred with the results of sessions past and with soaked in tobacco stains. A log fire spitted and crackled with new logs. Outside, a wall of mizzle ambled by, soaking anything that was in its path within seconds. ‘Stobart’ the village donkey stood forlornly tied to a post, waiting its next trip over Sodding Hill to the village of Much Sodding. Occasionally, Stobart was diverted to Sodding Common to deliver pots of pickled cornichon that mysteriously appeared in the market at Much Sodding. Stobart was getting to know the hills of Muddlingthrewshire quite well ever since ‘Gullible Gordon’, the Little Sodding brewer’s son, pioneered trade between the two villages.
The Vicar was apt to lapse into nostalgia by about pint three of ‘Old Tractor’, and should he ever mix his session with Much Sodding’s ‘Eve’s Sin’ – a cider of such potency it could strip a Bishop of his inhibitions – his nostalgia could turn to self pity and vomiting. Squire Sir Evershot Strangely-Bottom would often listen with politeness at the vicar’s increasingly loud rumination about how things used to be before the donkey Stobart and his ilk had found a way over the hill and back again.
The road between the two villages had been repaired and was now of such a standard that its historical status as being ‘full of horse shit’ was now a distant memory. The repairs had been made easier by the funding that came from an agreement between Little and Much Sodding. This agreement amounted to allowing beer and cider to move between the villages without a tax being imposed on either. It also allowed the villagers to work and live in the other village should they so wish; it recognised that a gold coin in Little Sodding was to be as trusted as a gold coin in Much Sodding and should there be any dispute about the quality of ale or cider there was the establishment of the Sodding Court to settle it. Both Soddings diverted a little of the income tax they collected towards a common fund, which then was spent on projects that benefited them both, such as clearing and repairing the road between them. The ruts were smoothed out, the dung collected and sold for the roses in the village squares. Only the the rogues and vagabonds upon the Hill were put out, as they found the ability to accost unwary travellers was severely curtailed by the appointment of a special constable with a big stick.
Constable Portly was well known in the area, and he wielded his stick with alacrity and not a little violence should it be needed. On the odd occasion he would leave blood stains and bits of hair and skull on his stick as a warning to those not willing to play by the rules. At a recent village fayre in Little Sodding, an amateur cider maker tried to pass off his product as ‘Eve’s Sin’ thereby undermining Much Sodding’s brewer in the The Prince and Peccadillo. ‘Eve’s Sin’ was a delight, if you like to lose your sensibilities after the second pint. Aficionados of this superior cider tended to sire more children, spend more money and lose control of bodily orifices at unplanned intervals, but it was unrivalled in taste. Portly, upon hearing of the much inferior product being passed off in the beer and pie tent, intervened with advice and a stick to the naïve and errant brewer. He reminded him that not only was his product inferior, it also threatened to bankrupt the makers of Eve’s Sin…and that was not to be countenanced in any civilised village.
“We ‘ave an agreement, you see….we don’t piss in Sodding’s cider and they don’t piss in our Ale, geddit?” This was stage whispered into the recalcitrant’s ear, just as he as being carried away to see the alchemist to be treated for a head wound accidentally incurred while discussing trade law with the authorities.
The whole cosy arrangement concerning economic agreements between the two villages arose shortly after Gullible had returned with his first barrel of Eve’s Sin to The Badger and Ferret.
George the Brew, Gullible’s father, had started a discussion in the bar regarding the easy availability now of a decent cider and how he was able to send a barrel of his premium ale, ‘Rectal Bleeder’, over the Sodding Hill.
“Would it not be of benefit to us all if we entered into some sort of ongoing agreement with the trades people of Much Sodding? They have items we have little of and I’m sure we have things they’d like. The swap of Ale and Cider has gone well, so why not…leather belts, flange boxes and our famous Mag pies? We could create some sort of common market or have a union of agreement? And, should young Gullible here meet a maiden fair of Much Sodding, why should she not come here to live? I could do with another barmaid who does not look like my mother.”
At the mention of maidens, the Squire’s eyes lit up. His best raunching days behind him, nonetheless he was not above dreaming about the lingerie clad frolicking and ale encouraged liaisons indulged in under a full moon and the heartfelt permission of a lusty gin soaked maiden.
“But how do we know they will not send us substandard cider, especially if we don’t stop Stobart at the top of hill to taste it? Would we not have to permanently place Constable Portly at the top of hill, to check everything coming and going?”
This was indeed a vexed question. It involved coming to some sort of agreed standard setting about such things, so that Rectal Bleeder could go unhindered into Much Sodding’s pub and ‘Eve’s Sin’ could similarly be untroubled by the good Constable’s interference. Portly was certainly in agreement. He did not fancy sitting at the top of the Sodding Hill at all hours save only an owl for company, checking the comings and goings of beer and cider makers.
And so it was that the Sodding Union came into being. Little Sodding, Much Sodding and Sodding Common all signed up. Although, in fairness, Sodding Common had only one inhabitant – ‘Muckraker Bill’ who traded in a superior quality of dung famed for increasing the productivity of Rose and Potato growers alike. No one asked where he got the dung from or what animal it came from. Only it was known that the Common provided some of the best dung in the Shire. So much so that ‘Muckraker Bill’ was able, under the Sodding Union agreement, to get his dung recognised as special as a ‘controlled name’ referring to its land of origin. Sacks of Dung could only be called ‘Common Sodding Dung’ if it actually came from the Common and was hand shovelled by Bill himself. He even placed a mark on the sacks to distinguish his product from the inferior shit commonly found in the high streets of both Soddings. From a distance, the mark looked like a log with steam coming off it. Closer inspection would have revealed something else, but few wanted to get into the business of ‘closer inspection’ of sacks of shit.
The log logo became a symbol of excellence recognised by prince and pauper alike. Other trades persons adopted the practice and should one’s product not come up to scratch, or another tried to pass their product off as something it was not, then a visit from Portly would soon set the worlds to rights.
Roses bloomed and Potatoes were in abundance and everyone was happy.
Except the vicar.
He was now onto his third pint of ‘Old Tractor’.
The mizzle outside the pub abated for a few seconds and then returned along with a shower and then a long belt of rain. This altered the mood somewhat inside, a gloomy mood for the Vicar facilitated in its gloominess by beer. The weather this side of the hill was affected by being on the wrong side of the rain shadow. Little Sodding’s annual rainfall could be measured in buckets, while Much Sodding’s rainfall was measured in thimbles. The Hill acted as natural barrier to rain clouds that came racing across the Muddlingthrew plain before they reached the hills. This climate seemed to fit the mood of folk, who lived within it…rain, mist, mizzle with the occasional sunbeam popping up on holidays and feast days. This was an indoor culture in which beer, pies and ‘furtive fettling’ in dark corners were the norm.
“I hear there’s a new barmaid coming here from over the Hill. I would not be surprised if she brings with her Much Sodding’s ways.”
Over the hill was Cider culture, while this side was Ale culture and it was ‘well known’ that those who prefer to drink cider were ‘different’. They’d bake pies with garlic, infuse their cheeses (plural!) with apple and some such nonsense, and have started to make a drink from grapes.
“No good will come of it, grape juice drinking. That’s the devil’s work, you mark my words, Squire, they’ll be selling all of their cheeses here next, fancy that more cheese than you can poke a stick in”.
Cheese this side of the hill came in just one variety, and was named after ‘Steep Hill Valley’, flanked by rolling milk producing fields. ‘Stipill’ cheese was a firm favourite. It was a firm favourite because it was the only favourite available. The folk of Little Sodding were simple folk, preferring simple tastes and predictability. ‘Stipill’ cheese was “good enough for grandma and so good enough for us”. The cheese was made simply, had one flavour and was unencumbered by such additives as herbs. It was a solid, traditional, dependable yellow block of cheese which if sliced in the proper manner delivered a tasty slice every time. It was often put on toast, but otherwise eaten with glass of beer and an apple. The cheese was not used for cooking, as Little Sodding’s cuisine did not include fancy dishes that includes sauces, garnish, shelled gastropods or garlic.
The Vicar liked his cheese this way. The Squire was little more adventurous. He had secretly purchased some of the cheeses that came from the other side of the hill. There was the soft creamy white garlic infused roll, the rind enclosed wheel called ‘Brea’, and his personal favourite, the blue veined hard cheese called ‘Madame’s Fancy’ which was, when really hard and vintage, positively pulsing with taste. The latter he had eaten with a small glass of the strong alcoholically reinforced red grape juice known colloquially over the hill as ‘Haven’, the roots of the name were lost in the mists of time and story telling. The combination of ‘Haven’ and ‘Madame’s Fancy’ could easily lead to lewdness of thought if not debauchery of action. This is why the Squire liked it.
The Vicar, began to get some steam up, in the face of the silence of the Squire. It was all very well young Gullible opening up the trade over the hill, but one has to be very careful when dealing with folk from strange villages. They were not the quite the same as the solidly dependable folk around Little Sodding. Fancy foodstuffs were one thing but what if they brought with them new fangled ways in how to dress, how to speak or how to go about courting?
It was of course true that before the road was cleaned up, relations between the villagers on both sides of the hill were pretty much non existent. The fact that your cousins often were encumbered with some form of body defect was taken as quite normal. In fact not seen as defect at all. Extraneous hair around ears, lips and navel, a very prominent Adam’s apple and flat barrel chest was seen among the women to be an asset rather than something evolved from lack of travel, and lingering too long in Steep Hill Valley. It was quite common for cousins and siblings to be mixed up due to the close resemblances to each other. Wedding ceremonies were often fraught with unwise couplings at the reception afterwards, especially after several ales and two or three slices of ‘Stipill’ cheese. ‘Madame’s Fancy’ was banned from such gatherings lest its heady taste lead to charges of ‘licentiousness aforethought’.
The advantage of seeing strangers in the village was that native Little Sods could easily be distinguished from the strangers from over the hill due to the peculiar configurations of noses, foreheads and ears on show. The result was to bond them even closer together, but from an evolutionary point of view, this really should not have been encouraged. Courting rituals involved tracing ancestry to try to ensure you were not marrying a direct relative, but this was not always observed. There was somehow a comfort derived from ‘bonding’ shall we say, with someone who looks like you. The disadvantage of seeing strangers in the village was that aesthetic comparison was immediately simplified and obvious. Long flowing nasal hair was beginning to be seen not as an asset to be lovingly encouraged among the women. They began to compare themselves unfavourably with the Much Sodding women who began to arrive without the accoutrements of hirsute olfactory decoration.
There was envy in the air. The Vicar was picking up on these disturbances, and began to think whether all this mixing and trade was a good thing after all. Where would it all lead? Would the young men start urinating in public like they did in front of The Prince and Pecadillo on busy market days? Things were not what they used to be.