A new bloodline – short story
December 31, 2017 § 10 Comments
‘Dad. Can we call it Lucifer?’
‘I had a bull called that once,’ he grinned, showing the black front tooth with the bit missing from when our horse kicked him.
‘And what happened to it?’ Dad drew a line with a finger from one ear to the other. Maybe it wasn’t such a good name after all.
The ram fidgeted in the back of the car and watched us with its mean slit-yellow eyes. It looked cross, and its horns curled round the sides of its head so it couldn’t see sideways. I screwed up my eyes and squinted through the rear view mirror, then turned on the radio and began to sing – I knew, and the ram knew, that frightened people don’t sing. Every few minutes a long stream of wee splashed onto the empty paper feed sacks Dad had put down to save the carpet. Strong and yellow, it reminded me of the smell when Mum scrubbed the kitchen floor. It steamed up the windows so we opened them to let out the stink.
I liked going out with Dad, and I liked being useful. Sometimes on Saturday mornings we’d go to the livestock market where he met his friends, that’s where we got the ram. I liked the cows best because they had kind eyes and cold, wet noses. There was a boy I didn’t like called Eddie who stood in the auction ring and hit the cows with a stick. ‘It’s his job,’ said Dad. ‘Makes them look lively.’ But I knew it scared them because they bashed into one another and rattled the rusty metal railings trying to get out. The men laughed and rattled the bars back. Other times we’d go and look at tractors or old bits of machinery, and sometimes we’d just go hunting for a bargain. Dad got things like warm eggs straight from the nest, or a bag of potatoes with the dirt still on. He said it kept Mum happy, which wasn’t an easy thing to do.
We often went to Marianne’s on the way home as it was a good place to go when you got peckish. She wasn’t as pretty as Mum, and her hands were hard and wrinkled like a road map. Sometimes she wore lipstick, and skirts so short you could see where her stockings stopped. Mum didn’t wear skirts like that except when she got dressed up – she said ahe didn’t have the time for that sort of thing. I liked Marianne, she was kind and smiled a lot.
We didn’t knock when we got to her cottage. ‘How are you doing?’ asked Dad. ‘Shall I put the kettle on?’ He filled it up from the cold tap without waiting for an answer.
‘You hungry?’ she said, slicing into a shoulder of ham with an evil looking knife. She sharpened it on the stone and it made a rasping sound that nearly hurt my ears.
‘Yes please,’ I said.
She made a pile of sandwiches. ‘That’s Eric the pig. You remember him?’ Eric’s skin tasted of honey. Marianne spread English mustard on him too.
After a while Dad refilled the kettle. That was his signal to me to make myself scarce, so I wandered outside to talk to the hens. Chickens are just as nice as cows. When they’re happy they sang to one another in a crooning kind of way. I sat in the grass and crumbled the bread I’d stolen from the kitchen. The chickens raced across the meadow their wings spread like sails. The cockerel always arrived first. Marianne said he was a gentleman. As his hens arrived, he stepped backwards making little bowing movements telling the hens they should eat first. After they’d had their fill he jumped into my lap and took the biggest piece he knew I’d saved for him. That was how we did things.
The ram was lying down and panting even though Dad had left the sunroof open. I went inside and told him, but as usual it was half an hour before he took any notice.’Thanks for the Eric sandwiches,’ I said to Marianne.
‘Do I get a kiss?’ she winked. I planted one on her cheek and breathed in her smell. Flowery perfume, cigarettes. Hot mustard.
The stink burned the inside of my nose as we got in the car. The ram was standing now and he’d spread his droppings in the boot. Small and round like rabbit shit, they rolled around as we drove away with the front windows open wide and the wind in our hair. It was my job to open the gates on our drive. There were three. If we didn’t keep them shut the sheep would get out and go looking for fresh grass. Dad couldn’t do the gates by himself because he’d got a bad back. I pulled the spring-loaded latch, put one leg on the gate, then pushed myself off with the other. Dad let the handbrake off, freewheeled past, then I jumped back in.
‘Tea’s ready,’ Mum called from the kitchen door pretending she didn’t mind we were late. The table was laid, and the grandfather clock with the rusty pendulum struck seven.
‘Don’t need tea,’ said Dad grinning. ‘Come and see what I’ve got.’ He opened the tailgate and the ram jumped out. ‘The new bloodline,’ he announced, puffing out his chest. The ram hobbled towards the ewes holding his head in the air and snorting. A ewe stood still and he mounted her. ‘Pretty good timing, eh?’ he said. Mum said nothing, and pulled the soggy paper sacks from the car boot and dragged them to the compost heap.
‘Looks like he’s been in there for hours,’ she said, holding her nose. ‘And he’s limping. We’ll have to disinfect the car.’ She muttered something about infectious disease and went to the barn for disinfectant. We scrubbed until the car smelled like a hospital.
Dad couldn’t help, he was getting ready to go down the pub. Mum sat at the table eating spoonfuls of stew straight from the casserole. ‘Why are you not using a plate?’ I asked.
‘Lost my appetite,’ she said.
We watched TV for a while then went to bed. ‘Mum?’ I asked, as she came to tuck me in. ‘Why don’t you ever wear lipstick?’
‘I used to,’ she replied. ‘But I don’t get much opportunity these days.’ Mum had sad eyes that night. She didn’t sleep when Dad went out, and neither did I. I listened to her waiting. She read a lot and sighed, and blew her nose. When she heard the car coming up the drive she’d turn the light off and pretend to be asleep. I wondered how he managed to do the gates with his back.
After Dad went drinking he had a lie-in. Mum laid the table for breakfast and we ate our toast and eggs without him. We filled buckets for the sheep. Every morning they had to be counted. Mum liked that bit. She leaned on the sheep gate and blew smoke rings as she counted. She said it was like being on holiday for half an hour.
A week after the new ram came, most of the ewes had gone lame. The vet came and shook his head. The next day he came back and brought men with guns. Mum went indoors, closed all the windows and turned the radio up loud so she couldn’t hear. It took all day to shoot them and the bonfire kept smoking for days.
Dad did a lot of sleeping after that, but on New Years Eve he got out of bed. Mum and I dressed up for the party in the village hall. She looked beautiful. She wore a silky dress the colour of poppies, and shiny, black high heels. She piled her hair on top of her head, and wispy bits dangled around her face. She put on some red lipstick, and I wore my best red velvet dress. Dad looked at himself in the mirror and trimmed his beard with the bacon scissors.
The band was playing and Mum and I danced. Dad leant against the wall and watched us for a while, then disappeared. ‘I’m thirsty, Mum,’ I shouted above the music. Dad was laughing at the bar with his friends.
‘You’re well away there,’ one of them said. ‘Not a bad pair of legs either, and very accommodating so I hear.’ They watched Marianne and sneered. She had her red lipstick on too, and was wearing tight black jeans and a glittery top. She looked very nice. Dad walked over to her, then I didn’t see them after that.
‘What would you like to drink?’ Mum asked.
‘Orange juice, please,’ I replied. She ordered a double something for herself. We pushed our way to the front to see the band. Mum danced by herself. She was better than everyone else – wilder and faster – and she flung her arms above her head. Her hair fell down around her shoulders and she kicked off her shoes.
It was nearly midnight and we waited for Big Ben on the radio so we could link arms and kiss. I still couldn’t see Dad anywhere, but I knew he was supposed to kiss us. Mum was swaying from side to side and her lipstick was smudged. ‘Someone should get her home,’ said the barman. The clock struck twelve and people hugged. Mum sat on a chair wiping her face with a handkerchief. Dad appeared and tried to drag her outside but she wouldn’t budge. She screamed at him, then he slapped her face and she went quiet. I followed them out to our car. It still smelled of sheep. Mum said nothing. Neither did Dad until they got to the first gate on our drive.
‘I’m waiting,’ he said.
‘Wait all night then,’ said Mum. Dad leant across and pushed open her door. She slammed it shut.
‘You’ve made a complete fool of me,’ he shouted.
‘And you have made a fool of both of us,’ she replied, ‘for years’. Suddenly Mum wasn’t drunk. ‘I will not open the gates anymore.’ I wanted to tell them they needn’t fight about the gates because the sheep were dead. Mum turned in her seat and looked at me as if she wanted to ask me something. I made myself very still and looked back at her in the dark, then at Dad. I made up my mind and put my hand on Dad’s shoulder. Mum opened the door, kicked off her shoes, and ran down the road towards the village.