Blend Number Five

“How’s the gin-making going for you, Grandpa?  Grandma said you were enjoying your new hobby.”

“You are, aren’t you, dear?” Grandma pulls a bottle out of the dresser.

“Wow, we only ever had a box of chocolate liqueurs in the house at Christmas.”

Grandpa puffs on his pipe. “There’s no harm in it, it’s just a bit of fun.”  He gives me a little wink.  “Some of this stuff is really efficacious.”

I watch Grandma’s mouth drop open into an embarrassed “o”. She turns away and Grandpa passes me a bottle. I weigh the thick heavy glass in my hand and run my thumb over the swing-top closure. A hand-written label reads <Blend Number Five>.

“What’s this going to do to me?”

“Make you irresistible to women,” chortles Grandpa.

I look at the liquid sloshing around in the bottle. “What on earth’s in it? It’s a bit green.”

“The base is vodka with juniper berries to make a basic gin. The rest is a blend of spices, botanicals and flowers.” Grandpa taps his nose. “Secret, of course.”

“Really? Where did you get the flavourings?”

“Honestly,” said Grandma, “always so suspicious.”

“Sorry, but, you know, it’s the job.” I loosen the regulation tie around my neck.

Grandpa shifts his gaze. “They’re from Uncle Robert. Go and have a look if you want.

I follow Grandma to the kitchen where there are some new potted plants growing on the windowsill, and on the table where I used to play Subbuteo with Grandpa.

“Robert says they need a bit of warmth, so they’re best in here.”

I recognise coriander in a pot on the windowsill, but the other plants are weird and wonderful.

“It’s done him the world of good this new hobby. He’s much happier; doesn’t get those pains anymore, and his muscles aren’t so stiff.” Her hands are fluttering near her face.

I put my arm around her.  “That’s good, mum,” the word slips out, but I don’t take it back.  I survey the room looking for a copper still, but there are only glass bottles, strainers and funnels, and bowls of juniper berries and coriander seeds on the table. At least they’re legal.  I pick up a thin black root.

“Liquorice,” says Grandma, “but this one is my favourite; it’s called cassia.”

She introduces me to a plant with broad, flat leaves. “Smell these. They are so lovely.” She picks off a couple of buds and crushes them in her hands: a smell like cinnamon greets me.

Grandpa calls through from the living room. “Grandma. I’m hungry. Is it tea-time yet?”

She laughs. “His appetite’s so much better these days.” She loads up her trolley with home-made sandwiches and a trifle.

Back in the living room, Grandpa and I pile up our plates. “A glass of Number Five, please.” Grandpa gives me another wink. “And one for the boy.”

“Grandpa, I’m not a boy!  I’m twenty-five.  I’ll be Detective Constable soon.”

Grandpa’s eyes mist up a little.  “You’ve done well.  You know we’re so proud of you, and Lucy would have been too.” Grandpa fills two tumblers with his home-made hooch and hands me one. “To life!”

The liquid is fiery and although it tastes of juniper and liquorice and all the other flavourings they’ve used to mask it, I know immediately what’s in it.

There is a smacking sound as Grandma pulls the spoon out of the trifle. She serves up two generous bowls.

I eat the trifle, wondering what I’m going to do. Turn a blind eye?  Give them a talking to?  They’re my family.

The mantelpiece clock chimes on the hour. Then Grandpa is up on his feet, Lazarus-like, and putting a record on the record player. It’s an old song, which he sings as he grabs Grandma and dances around the room.

I watch amazed, and a little awed. This year they celebrate fifty years of marriage.

The song ends and they sit down, red faced, breathing heavily but happy.

Grandpa shakes a box of prescription drugs at me. “Doctor finally gave me something that works.” He flops into his chair. “Now, I need some water.”

“I’ll get it,” I say, but I bypass the kitchen and make for the scullery. Sure enough there’s something hidden behind a sheet hanging on the clothes line, a plant in a grow-bag with long serrated leaves.  The buds release their characteristic musky smell.  I pick the plant up, carry it out the back door, and bury it in the compost heap.

Back in the living room, Grandpa is snoring gently. Grandma who declined a shot of Number Five is knitting.

“Everything alright, dear?”

I feel an overwhelming love for both of them.  They’ve enough Number Five in the dresser to last another fifty years.

I relax in my chair and feel a snooze coming on. “All is good, Grandma. All is good.”

© Mark Carew 2013

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