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.
January 4, 2015 § 10 Comments
November 11, 2014 § 19 Comments
A much revised piece blogged August 2013. Written with tongue firmly in cheek as a Sunday Supplement article for the chattering classes, but never submitted. No truth in it at all…
These days I feel qualified to spout just a little about country living. For three years I have shared this rural idyll with God’s own creatures. I have met horses with their own expensive psychiatrists, and discovered that the aim of next door’s sheep is to wriggle through the manky hedge onto the main road and cause multiple pile ups. Sheep, you will be surprised to know crave adventure, and all of them derive a great deal of pleasure from causing trouble.
Sometimes I still harbour the idea of cultivating the genteel and ordered rural existence I have read about, but it always gets scuppered. If it isn’t by being kept awake by the sociable Death Watch beetles as they tap out amorous messages to one another through the timber framed walls, it’s the delighted squeaks of rats shamelessly having sex in the thatch while the vicar raises his voice in embarrassment as we sip Earl Grey from china teacups and nibble on cucumber sandwiches. With the crusts off, of course. But what I have found most important in the absence of a companion, is an adequate supply of hot water bottles.
I am lying in my king size bed with two freshly filled luxury specimens bought by a friend who had taken pity on me last Christmas, and I am gloating. It’s the only place in this house that’s even remotely above freezing. From the tiny mullion window that pokes out from beneath the eaves of the thatch, I watch Edward my next door neighbour leading his two mares into their meadow. They have made it clear they think it’s a rotten idea. They toss their heads and skitter sideways; not in that happy rather frisky way horses sometimes do, but as if something unpleasant is imminent. It has taken them less than ten seconds to make up their minds about the cold white stuff that’s just blanketed everything. I know, and my next door neighbour knows they’ll be complaining at the gate within minutes wanting to be let back in the warm. His hens aren’t impressed with the snow, either. They peer one by one out of the opening in the chicken house, then executing a nifty on-the-spot twizzle, scoot back to the stinking fug of the nesting boxes. Edward will be rather cold out there, and I am feeling smug because I am not – I am warm as toast.
The truth is, it’s time. To throw in the towel, that is. Call it a day. Quit while I’m ahead. Moving to the country was a very nice idea, but the lenses have finally fallen out of my rose coloured specs and I’m not even going to bother looking for them. It’s mostly about the weather really. When did we last have a proper summer? And speaking of roses, the leaves of the Blush Noisette I planted to grace my front porch have turned completely black and fallen off for the second year running, and the few blooms struggling to open drooped shamefully and sprouted powdery mildew that looked suspiciously like a serious case of dandruff. Even the tulips wilted pale in the orchard and gave up. The lawn did grow some fine looking weeds though…
But it’s not just the weather, it’s also the other creatures that live in my neck of the woods. Take the sheep for instance, although I’d sooner not talk about them as whenever I do, disaster hits. So I’ll be brief. Half of Edward’s rare breed Jacobs’ went in the knacker’s van last summer with some horrible disease which sheep catch as easily as breathing, and the other half hung around rubbing themselves on his rickety fence until they pushed it over and went walkies. They were scratching themselves silly because they were being eaten alive by maggots. Real farmers call this all to common incident fly strike, and Edward had to pick off the maggots with tweezers and spray their raw open wounds with purple stuff. A fun task – almost as much fun as catching the sheep in the first place. This can take all day. I know.
The few hardy souls that survived what life has thrown at them are now loitering miserably in his bottom meadow up to their knees in mud and complaining bitterly about the clinkers* the size of tennis balls dangling from their rear ends; and if that wasn’t enough there’s a thick layer of snow covering their backs and weighing them down. Bit like icing on the cake really in a perverse sort of way. I think about the sheep a lot and wonder what they are thinking about, but Edward says I’m wasting my time as they don’t think at all except when they’re planning an escape. And that, he assures me, is the only time, apart from when they’re dead, when they are completely silent.
I have no reason to leave the house. I don’t have dogs to walk, in fact since the divorce I don’t have any pets, human or otherwise, and the truth is Waitrose do a fine delivery service, unethical though it is not to use the local shops. I can now spend the entire day in bed eating digestive biscuits and working on my laptop with its deadly slow broadband connection.
But surely there are some good points you may ask. Well yes there are – or were. There’s the peace, and then there’s the quiet, but then there’s those unidentifiable rustlings at the dead of night that have to be that weird man from the village who is probably a psychopath and out to get me. It’s a myth that the countryside is quiet, it actually never sleeps. The pheasants are largely responsible for that.
Then there’s the business with the light. My windows are small so they keep in the heat which is good, but they keep out the light which isn’t, and everything in the cottage takes on a rather dirty, grey tinge. The lights have to be left on all day which suits me, but frequent power cuts are a normal part of rural life so I have taken to buying candles in bulk. Winter has become the time of dancing flames, but they cavort not out of happiness, but because of the vicious draughts that sneak in everywhere. The idea of the roaring log fire is seductive but needs constant attention, and in order to get warm I have to go outside, chop more wood and get frostbite. Still, I have now found a man from Essex who delivers the seasoned and chopped variety and dumps it in my front garden at vast expense.
Christmas is fine as I make sure the cottage is full of visitors and tantalizing smells in the kitchen, but it is always tempered by what I know is coming next- January and February. These are my brooding months: the time when I begin to wonder if I might be losing all my social skills, and my marbles. It is also the time when I add hard liquor to my online shopping list.
I make a kind of igloo with the duvet and plunge inside with my laptop. I type in Flats for Sale Central London. Central heating vital. No garden necessary.
*For those not in the know, clinkers are a combination of loose excrement mixed up with fleece that is still attached to the sheep. In the spring sheep are clipped at the back end and the tail – this is called dagging – in order to stop the dreaded fly laying its eggs amongst such rich nutrients…
April 25, 2014 § 30 Comments
This is a fanciful haiku, as in reality what I am about to describe probably wouldn’t happen. No matter you say – it’s one of those Japanese poems after all where you can write whatever you fancy. And of course you’d be right; but the desire to communicate, using something other than the time honoured 5-7-5 syllable arrangement of the form, has propelled me to ramble on a bit about stuff you probably couldn’t care less about.
It’s about the nature of sheep, of which I know more than a little. Apart from their two defining characteristics, which are to escape when you’re all dressed up for a night out, and to die before their time; there is one other – they do not do alone. Like wildebeest and sardines, they appear to have a collective conscious. If they find themselves devoid of company, they take on personality traits unknown in their species, and as sure as eggs are eggs, will not survive five minutes. Try to imagine a lone sardine in the wild Sargasso Sea. Think of a single wildebeest trying to outwit a float (or a pod if they’re little) of hungry crocodiles at a Sudanese river crossing. It would be messy but quick.
Put a sheep anywhere by itself, and if there’s no question of escape, before it dies of a broken heart or something more bloody, it will get depressed. This is where the haiku comes in. In the days before old barns were done up for city types to live in with their white carpets, sparklingly irritating 4 x 4’s and mud-free green wellies, there was a lovely old barn not far from our farm where I often walked. It was falling down gracefully and surrounded by a higgledy-piggledy brick wall covered with moss and lichen. Within this enclosure lived a very sad sheep. I used to hoist the children onto the wall and we would converse. At least we would try: the sheep, suffering from melancholia, took no notice. Then one day the builders arrived and the sheep disappeared. Where to? That great green field in the sky, I expect.
But back to the matter in hand. I wanted that sheep in a haiku, but could not for the life of me confine it and the barn to the 5-7-5 rule (that could be broken if I wanted – except I didn’t). So instead I transplanted the animal to an abandoned hill farm. When a hill farmer sells up or dies, the odd sheep is often left behind, either because it jumped out of the holding pen and ran off because it didn’t like the look of the lorry, or it simply didn’t get rounded up as it was busy elsewhere. Having a lie-in behind a tuft of grass perhaps, or having a swim in a dangerous tarn. Who knows. It could have been anywhere. So, it found itself alone. This is where poetic licence comes in. It would not have hung around waiting for its relatives. It would, like any creature that had lost its amorphous identity and reason d’être when it lost its mates, have gone looking for others. But this one didn’t. Perhaps the moon was enough…
the ewe lives alone
on the abandoned hill farm –
she talks to the moon
Image courtesy Robin Shillcock
April 12, 2014 § 6 Comments
March 21, 2014 § 9 Comments
January 8, 2014 § 9 Comments
Another attempt at nature writing.
Again set by my local river, but this time closer to its source.
It’s muddy on the old cart track leading down to the river, and I’m happy to be outside. Faint wisps of cumuli sit peacefully beneath an otherwise clear sky, and there is no trace of a wind to pummel me, even though I am on top of a long, low ridge known rather strangely as High Suffolk. It’s a fine day for a winter walk, but, as usual, I have not left enough time. It will be dark in less than two hours.
It is three weeks since the shortest day, and this confuses me. It’s getting lighter as the seasons nudge us closer to springtime, yet the bitter cold that keeps me indoors is still to come. Part of me will crave to be out in this stark, bare landscape feeling the earth beneath my feet, while the rest of me will demand I hibernate close to a spitting log fire – feet toasting, pen and paper on my lap – making time for pauses of nothingness that always quieten my mind.
But today I take the track that leads to the river. It is concave – worn down by the passing of many boots and hooves over the centuries – and, with the overhanging oaks and horse chestnuts either side, forms a natural tunnel. But it’s difficult to enjoy the view as I have to watch where I put my feet, picking my way through the ancient roots, which, like thick varicose veins, spread over its surface.
To the north, a stand of winter wheat pokes itself out of the soil. It is planted in the chalky boulder clay, grown sodden and claggy after all the rain. Autumn sown crops often yellow and wilt as if they will suffocate and drown, but they rarely do. Instead, the seedlings put down deep, fibrous roots in preparation for their magical growth in the spring.
Last year’s sugar beet thrives to the south of the track, and will be harvested over the next few weeks after the cross-bred Suffolk ewes have been let in to graze off the green foliage. It’s not a pretty sight. The ewes are not yet heavy with their lambs, but I still think they deserve better care. They go into the field clean, and will be herded into a cattle truck a month later, their belly fleece caked with dried mud, their delicate hooves and lower legs encased in thick layers of the stuff. It seems cruel to me.
I come to the bottom of the hill where a rusty barbed wire fence bars my way. The track clearly continues – although much overgrown – onto the Saxon church at the far side of the valley. A sign says, ‘Private Fishing. Keep Out.‘ I continue along a narrower track that follows the fence to the north. Blackening comfrey leaves rot in large clumps either side. I cannot guess why there is so much growing here – there is no evidence of a house ever being this close to the river. Perhaps they’re the consequence of bird droppings and subsequent self-seeding. Bending over the comfrey are the spiny seed heads of the bush-like burdock plant. My mother, brought up in the country, would make us a cooling cordial of dandelion and burdock, but I have no memory of whether I liked it or not.
A bridge large enough for a small tractor, with a modern kissing gate alongside for walkers, leads onto the marsh meadow. A large stream passes under the bridge through a small sluice gate draped in water mint. It seems to be jammed half open with debris, letting little more than a trickle of water pass. The stream leads to the disused watermill, and the water between here and the mill moves very slowly. It is perfect for the nervous or novice canoeist, and there are always dozens of dragonflies here in July. But the water is stagnant, and algae and pondweed appear overnight on its surface turning the water a slimy dark green.
Cattle are kept on this marsh all year round, and they are blocking my way as I swing the kissing gate open. They are a motley crew – no pedigrees here. Long legged bullocks and heifers bunch close together raising their tails at me. They are skittish, nervous – curious, yet ready to run. Rarely handled and never confined, they will be taken off the marsh in the summer and sent straight to market. I shout at them unkindly: ‘beef burgers, fillet steak, roast beef and Yorkshire pud’ – and they scatter and let me pass.
The river this side of the sluice spills over onto a neglected willow coppice on the far bank. A few trees still stand straight, but many, now with multiple trunks, lean at drunken angles. Some have fallen into the water. A cuckoo lives here in the summer, and it is a favourite habitat of the water rat.
I follow the river upstream round a sharp bend, and it becomes suddenly wider. This section is called Fisherman’s Deep. I have no idea what was fished here; it is not a popular place these days. I know there are river trout, which are still eaten even though it is said they leave a muddy taste; and I expect there are many pike in this deep, dark water; but few people eat them these days.
A concrete weir divides the river a little further upstream. The water passing over it continues on its normal river route, while the rest is siphoned through the sluice to the watermill before it rejoins the river. A mill has been on the site for at least two hundred years. Corn, flax and linen have all been processed there. It was also a good place to catch eels – many being sent, presumably still alive, to Billingsgate market.
The soft ground is uneven from the deep hoof prints the cattle have made when coming to drink. I am in ankle breaking territory. Nothing makes a sound today, and I am grateful for the peace. The cattle are gone to the far side of the marsh, no birds warn of my intrusion, no fish rise, no heron glides overhead. My eye follows the line of the river further upstream to the site of an abandoned mixed wood. It is maybe a quarter of a mile away – and there they are – a family of swans. Both parents float as if suspended above the water; their adolescent offspring between them. It is almost the size of its parents, yet still with the pale pinky brown plumage. They are like apparitions – they do not move. I watch them as the mist forms over the water as the temperature drops for the night. I turn away briefly, then look back – but they are gone. Were they really there?
A cripple of a crack willow leans into the river. Most of its branches are gone. A rope with an old car tyre tied to it dangles from a thick, dead branch. The village boys come in the summer because they know this stretch is deep.
The weir has only one function for me, and it is for playing Pooh sticks. It is also the place where my husband proposed. I collect a handful of seedless teasel stalks and throw them upriver. They hesitate, begin to spin, then are sucked over the ledge into the shallow sandy water downstream. River trout hide in the reeds where the water is still. They make their own light, flicking gently to stay stationery in the current, their bellies sparkling. The teasels have separated into single stems, and all but one has caught in the reeds in the far bank. I watch the single stem float downstream until I can’t see it anymore.