John Saturnall’s Feast

Lawrence Norfolk

The chimneys of Buckland Manor tunnelled up from the depths of the kitchens, through the dark tonnage of stone and brick above. Sliding between walls and driving through floors, the hot channels funnelled heat, smoke and smells as they twisted past receiving rooms and jinked around chambers, wriggled past corridors and galleries, leaving enigmatic traces in the fabric of the house. Purposeless buttresses bulged from walls. Smoke percolated through cracks in the plaster. Certain corners of the house were inexplicably hot and chambers adjoining both the east and west wings were infiltrated by the smells of roasting meat, or baking bread, or soup . . .

The whiffs and stinks came and went. Hotspots drifted, as if the flues of whirling fire and fumes writhed within the massive stonework, splitting and rejoining, rearing and rising until the thick brick fingers broke into the root-stores and apple-lofts under the eaves, driving through the attics where the maids huddled in the depths of winter, pressing themselves to the hot walls and waking to the morning tocsin of ladle on cauldron which resounded up from the kitchens below.

Now that din resounded in the crowded passage where two boys shuffled, wincing and grunting under the weight of a basket of onions.

‘Philip,’ the panting, brown haired boy introduced himself. ‘Philip Elsterstreet.’

‘John,’ John gasped back. The pole dug into his bony shoulder.

‘Just John?’

‘John Saturnall.’

The passage led to a courtyard surrounded by high walls where liveried men rolled barrels, toted crates or trays or walked with braces of birds swinging from their hands. Others drew water from the well at the far end. Nearer, from a row of curtained stalls rose the sharp reek of ordure. A sour-faced old man was scraping out the nearest bucket into a barrow. John set down the basket at Philip’s signal. Beside a large basket of feathers lay a tray of part-plucked birds. The boy’s faint smile appeared to be permanent. He eyed John’s coat and filthy smock, his sunken cheeks and tufted scalp.

‘Where are you from, John Saturnall?’

‘Flitwick,’ John answered carefully. ‘Been riding with Josh Palewick.’

The boy’s eyes widened. ‘He goes all over. His brother’s the Cellarer here.’

John nodded. ‘I might be stopping here myself,’ he offered casually. ‘Might be joining the Household.’

Philip’s eyebrows rose. ‘The Household?’

‘Josh can’t keep me on forever, can he? It’s hard enough feeding the horses.’

The barrow and its stench approached. The scowling old man who pushed it was Barnaby Curle, Philip told John.

He looked down at the basket. ‘Come on. I can’t lug this lot on my own. I’ll show you the kitchens. You’ll need to know your way around, won’t you? If you’re coming here . . . ’

John looked at him suspiciously then bent and gripped the pole again. Both boys grunted and staggered across the crowded courtyard into the passageway opposite. After a turn they came to a high arched entrance from which cooking smells drifted. Philip led the way, lugging the basket into a vaulted room. The boys dumped the basket next to a table where a stout man with a round face was slicing onions, his knife a blur on the wood.

‘Underneath the bench, Philip,’ sniffed the man. He frowned at John. ‘Who’s the stranger?’

‘Joining the Household, Mister Bunce,’ explained Philip.

‘Who says?’

‘Sir William himself, I heard,’ Philip answered without a pause.

‘All right,’ Mister Bunce muttered. Then he lifted his head and called, ‘Stranger in!’ With this salutation, Philip ushered John into the room.

The kitchen was not as large as John had imagined. A line of tables ran along one wall. At the end, three pots stood over a flickering fire tended by a ginger-haired boy. From a doorway opposite came the sound of water splashing and the banging of pots and pans. A man so expressionless he might have been any age looked out from that room.

‘That’s Mister Stone,’ said Philip. ‘Head of the Scullery. And that boy over there’s Alf.’

‘It’s not so big,’ John ventured. ‘The kitchen,’ he added when Philip looked puzzled. How could all the men in red livery work in here?

Philip grinned. ‘Kitchen’s not big enough,’ he said to Alf who looked puzzled too for a moment. Then he too smiled.

Philip led John across the flagstone floor and pulled aside a thick leather curtain. A deep hum reached John’s ears. A short passage led to some steps and a set of heavy double-doors. As he followed Philip, the din got louder. Then the boy heaved on a handle and the door swung open.

‘This is the kitchen.’

A wave of noise broke over John, voices shouting, pots banging, pans clanging, knives and cleavers thudding on blocks. But he hardly heard the din. A great flood of aromas swamped the noise, thick as soup and foaming with flavours: powdery sugars and crystallized fruit, dank slabs of beef and boiling cabbage, sweating onions and steaming beets. Fronts of fresh-baked bread rolled forward, then sweeter cakes. Behind the whiffs of roasting capons and braising bacon came the great smoke-blackened hams which hung in the hearth. Fish was poaching somewhere in a savoury liquor at once sweet and tart, its aromas braided in twirling spirals . . . The sylphium, thought John. A moment later it was lost in the tangle of scents that rose from the other pots, pans and great steaming urns. The rich stew of smells and tastes reaching into his memory to haul up dishes and platters. For a moment he was back in the woods. His mother’s voice was reciting the dishes and the spiced wine was settling like a balm in his stomach, banishing his cold and hunger, even his anger. He closed his eyes and breathed in the scents, drawing them deeper and deeper . . .

‘Are you all right?’

‘What?’ John opened his eyes with a start. Philip Elsterstreet was peering anxiously at his face.

‘You not going to be sick, are you?’

John managed a shake of his head.

‘Good.’ Philip pointed to a dark wooden board nailed above the door. ‘Being sick’s against the rules.’

Thick pillars supported a vaulted ceiling. Half-moon windows were set high in one wall. Heavy tables filled the middle of the kitchen where men wearing aprons and headscarves chopped, hacked, jointed and tied. Boys lurched between them, staggering under trays and pans towards the wide arches and passage on the far side. At a table near the centre, a circle of men whirled white cloth bundles about their heads as if performing a strange dance.

‘Kitchen’s older’n the house, Master Scovell says,’ Philip went on. ‘The fire’s even older. If it goes out.’ The boy drew a finger across his throat. ‘That’s it.’

At that moment the men whirling cloths all flung them down at once. Out tumbled a heap of bright green leaves.

‘Sallet board,’ Philip explained. ‘Nothing but leaves allowed on that.’

Behind the sallet board, a cook was hauling down trays the size of small cartwheels from a heavy rack mounted beside a tall dresser. As John watched, he began rolling them over the floor with a call of ‘Mind yer backs!’ Men and boys swayed aside as the rumbling disks teetered across the room to topple into a pair of waiting hands. A stack of pewter bowls clattered onto each tray which was carried to the far side of the kitchen. There an enormous hearth stretched the full width of the room. At one end, a long-moustached man drew slow figure-of-eights with a stirring-lathe in a pot while his stockier companion wielded a ladle. Fist-sized gobbets of steaming grey porridge slopped stickily into the bowls.

‘End of breakfast service,’ said Philip. ‘For us, I mean. Them up there are still stuffing their faces.’

He gestured up at the ceiling with a dismissive look.

‘Up there?’

‘The Household. We don’t have much to do with them down here. Except feeding them, of course.’

All around the kitchen, the cooks barked orders: ‘Water here!’ or ‘Sharpener!’ or ‘Dressed and in!’ Then an under-cook or a boy would run over to deliver something, or take it away, or lend a hand in another of the kitchen’s inscrutable operations.

Beyond the tall dresser John glimpsed a passageway and the foot of a staircase. Across the kitchen, flanked by stacks of firewood, a great chimney breast rose above a gaping hearth. Then a new scent wafted past John’s nostrils: sharp but rich. Nestled in straw in a wooden crate on the nearest bench lay a dozen or more fruits, bright yellow with waxy finely mottled skins. He had seen them in the book, but now he stared.

‘Ain’t you never seen a lemon before?’ Philip Elsterstreet asked.

‘Course I have,’ John muttered. ‘I just didn’t know.’

‘Know what?’

John hesitated. ‘I didn’t know they were yellow.’

Philip gave him another odd look. At the far end of the hearth near the arches and the passage, a great cloud of steam billowed up. The smell of fish soup wafted across the kitchen. John saw four men dressed in tunics and aprons step back from the scalding steam. One turned and caught sight of the boys.

‘You two!’ called the short bald man across the kitchen. ‘Come here!’

‘That’s Master Henry,’ whispered Philip. ‘Josh’s brother.’

‘I know,’ said John, trying to remember how exactly he was meant to address the man. Look at their faces, he thought. Or not look.

‘The other three are the Heads of the Kitchen. Mind your tongue. Especially around Vanian.’

‘Who’s Vanian?’

‘In the middle. Looks like a rat.’

The hearth yawned wider as they approached. John stared up at the wheels and chains of an enormous spit. Above a low fire, an array of simmering pots rose rising in size to a cauldron large enough to boil a pig.

‘That’s Master Scovell’s copper,’ Philip told him in an undertone. An under-cook was applying gentle blasts from a bellows to the glowing embers beneath. John caught the strange smell again. Lilies and pitch, thinner than he remembered.

‘Where’s Joshua?’ Henry Palewick demanded as they approached. ‘And that other fellow. Face like a horse.’

‘Ben Martin,’ said John. After a long pause he remembered to add, ‘Master Henry.’

Henry Palewick began questioning Philip on what they were doing in the kitchen where, as Philip and everyone else knew, no one but kitchen-staff were permitted unless by invitation. Not even Mister Pouncey could enter unbidden, as Philip well knew. Not even Sir William himself . . .

The rat-like Vanian flicked shrewd black eyes over John then returned to his discussion with the other two, which centred on a kettle suspended in the cauldron. The whiff of Ben’s parcel hovered under the delicious aroma of fish. Suddenly John felt hungry. The men, he saw, were sipping from a ladle which they passed between them. The tallest of the three slurped and smiled.

‘Whether or not Miss Lucretia consumes it, the kitchen has discharged its duty,’ he declared cheerfully. He towered a whole head over the others. ‘A simple broth is most apt for a young stomach, especially a stomach which chooses privation over nourishment. Lampreys. Crab shells ground fine. Stockfish and . . .’ He sniffed then frowned.

‘Simple, Mister Underley?’ jibed Vanian in a nasal voice. ‘If it is simple, then how is it spiced?’

‘Came in a parcel this morning,’ Henry Palewick offered. ‘Down from Soughton. Master Scovell had it out in a moment. Smelled like flowers to me. Whatever it was.’

‘Which flowers?’ demanded the fourth man of the quartet, in a foreign accent. He pointed a large-nostrilled nose at Henry. ‘Saffron, agrimony and comfrey bound the cool-humoured plants; meadowsweet, celandine and wormwood the hot. Which did this smell resemble?’

‘That’s Master Roos,’ whispered Philip to John. ‘Spices and sauces.’

‘What does it matter, Melichert?’ answered Henry with a weary sigh. ‘It is a broth of fish and lampreys.’

‘Hardly a full description,’ Vanian snapped disdainfully. ‘One might as well ask a laundry maid how to weave a sheet. One may as well ask this boy!’ he concluded contemptuously.

Heads turned. The other cooks peered down. John realised belatedly that Vanian was indicating himself. Before he could retreat, the rat-faced man had beckoned John forward and lifted the lid of the pot.

‘Approach, boy,’ he ordered, then turned to the others. ‘Let us discover how well the untrained palate performs.’ Vanian smirked. ‘Or fails to perform.’

Beads of yellow oil trembled on the surface. A deep orange liquid shimmered beneath. A puff of pungent steam wafted up, carrying a rich salty smell. Lilies hung behind it, and the pitch. But they were blanched, or blended somehow. John sniffed and the aroma began to uncurl, the flavours separating on his palate, a strange sensation rasping the back of his throat. For the first time since Buckland, John’s demon brought out his spoon.

‘Observe,’ began Vanian in a lofty tone, ‘how the broth subsumes its parts into a single liquor, each one transformed. Let us begin with the spices.’ He looked expectantly at John for a moment. ‘No? Then allow me . . .’

‘Mace,’ said John.

Underley’s head turned. Roos raised his eyebrows. Henry Palewick stared.

‘Crushed cumin,’ John continued. ‘Coriander seeds, marjoram, rue. Vinegar. Some honey and . . .’ His voice trailed off. All four Head Cooks were staring at him. Vanian’s black eyes narrowed.

‘And?’

He could smell the plant from the wood. But something in Vanian’s look made him hold his tongue. Before the cook could ask again, a commotion sounded across the kitchen.

From the door, Mister Fanshawe and Mister Wichett approached like complementary red and green islands, surrounded by their clerks. At the rear, trailed a stoney-faced Josh Palewick. At the front, leading the little mob, was the black-haired kitchen-boy. Coake’s gleeful face found John.

‘There he is!’ the boy shouted.

‘Hold him!’ called Fanshawe. ‘Take that boy!’

But none of the kitchen staff moved at the Household man’s order. As Fanshawe’s green-liveried clerks strode forward, John thrust his way between a startled Henry Palewick and Melichert Roos and ran.

This is an extract from John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk.