Counting Sheep

Walking along a deserted beach, sun still below the horizon, the clucking waves rinsed the coarse, wet sand from Jack’s feet. He was enjoying the solitude, listening to the whine of the wind through the palm trees.  It felt like a good life, but something was wrong. He woke with a start and opened one eye. Dog was standing at the foot of the bed, rough tongue licking the smooth soles of Jack’s feet. He pulled his legs in under the cover and wiped his feet on the sheet. Dog moved closer and whined again, head cocked to one side, looking at Jack with his big brown eyes.

“You want to go out?” asked Jack with a groan. At the word “out” dog started wagging his tail, gave a quick bark and then ran for the stairs. Jack knew Dog would now be sitting by the front door, waiting. There was no escape.  Jack reached for his working clothes, parked on a chair by the window, and glanced between the curtains. It was still dark but the moon was up. He leaned over and kissed the bare shoulder of the woman lying in his bed. She groaned with an unfamiliar voice and rolled over. He never did catch her name.

The regular thudding of a tail against the wooden floorboards in the hall told him that Dog was getting impatient. Jack padded quickly down the stairs and climbed into his leather working boots, shrugged on a warm jacket and grabbed a short leather leash, expecting a quick walk in the dark and then back to a warm bed.

Dog was sitting with his nose up against the front door, eager to get out. Jack opened the door and reached for the long rope hanging on a hook nearby.  Dog bolted through the door, almost pulling Jack over. The sudden jerk woke him up and Jack had a gut feeling that it could be a long night.

The tall birches and pines which sheltered Jack’s cottage were outlined by sharp black contours from the new moon. The night sky was like a dark blue blanket, sprinkled with star dust. Jack liked to stand and watch the night sky, but Dog had other interests. He was a tracker, born to sniff, switching from one side of the narrow path to the other, hoovering up the scents of the night. Nose down, pulling hard, heading for his favourite spot. Jack followed. The path skirted a stand of old oaks with gnarled trunks, surrounded by a carpet of dried acorns which crunched underfoot. A good sign, thought Jack, no wild boars around. Here Dog chose to lift his leg for a long, overdue pee. Jack joined him.

The night was still, clear, just a dusting of frost on the tips of the grass. Why not make for the fields, thought Jack, who realised he was in no great hurry to get back to his bed mate. Hopefully she would be gone before they got back. He liked eating breakfast alone, alone that is except for Dog.

The dirt path snaked downwards, leaving behind the oaks and a few scrubby pines on the ridge. Dog flexed his shoulder and haunch muscles, pulling hard on the leash, knowing where they were headed. Jack jerked to slow him down, not wanting to shout and disturb the silence of the night. The temperature felt a few degrees colder when they arrived at the edge of low-lying fields. Here it was always cold and misty, a legacy from the time when this had been an inlet of the Baltic Sea, later a wide lake, now fertile land used for growing Lucerne to make winter silage for the cattle which roamed here. The second harvest was already knee-high, like a dense green carpet,  purple flowers rimmed with silver frost which glistened in the yellow moonlight.

Jack switched from the leash to a long rope, allowing Dog to run loose. Instead Dog froze and growled, trying  to catch a scent. But it was only the mist swirling across the open fields, flying around like ghostly figures . Jack hissed. Dog remained tense and wary but did as he was told. “Off you go now”, said Jack reassuringly, and Dog shot away, nose down, zig-zagging across the field, following the scent left behind by the deer. Jack followed, stumbling through the wet Lucerne which clung to his boots like seaweed.

Dog was happy, running free, stopping every so often to roll over on his back, legs pumping up and down, ending with a quick shake before running off again. So was Jack, happy, if you had asked him. They were moving south, following the banks of the narrow stream which wandered lazily across the fields, water muddy after heavy rain.  It was quiet, only sound coming from the metal links on Dog’s harness. Jack relaxed, feeling free himself, enjoying the night sky. A sudden low growl interrupted his thoughts. Maybe a deer or something out there, down by the stream where the mist was solid as a whitewashed wall. Jack called Dog in and they both crouched down, listening intensely. Jack strangled the sign of another low growl by quickly taking a firm grip on Dog’s neck, burrowing his cold hands into the thick warm fur. Dog was now panting rapidly with excitement.

Through the mist they could hear some sheep bleating, distressed. Jack knew that neighbours Frank and Della had lost some of their sheep recently, including a breeding ram. He stroked Dog slowly to calm him down, switched to a tight short leash and then they  made their way slowly in the direction of the sheep enclosure. Dog seemed to understand that he was to keep quiet and stay close, but the hairs on his neck were on end, and his tail stood right up.  Dog’s instinct was to chase anything that moved. Jack worked hard to keep him under control.

The enclosure lay on the far side of the stream, below a wooded hill. Jack and Dog crossed over by a narrow wooden footbridge and soon came to the fence. Following the fence they reached the wide gates. They were wide open. The bleating got louder as the sheep heard them coming. Through the mist Jack could see dark shapes milling around. Dog growled again, which didn’t help. Jack silenced him with a sharp tug on the leash.

The sheep had scattered over the fields along the southern bank of the stream. Jack realised he had no chance of rounding them up alone. Dog was not a sheepdog, and anyway he was too worked up to be useful. Better go and knock up Frank, thought Jack. Frank and Della lived almost a kilometre away, house and barn tucked away on higher ground over the hill. Jack and Dog made their way up there, trying not to scare any more sheep on the way. In the distance Jack heard the muffled sound of a truck, maybe a pickup, and stopped to listen. Dog didn’t react, he wasn’t interested in that kind of sound. Through the mist Jack glimpsed a single tail-light, the other one was missing.

Dog pulled hard as they approached the darkened house. He could smell Frank’s two border collies. They were sheepdogs and lived in the barn, not in the house. They must have sensed Dog too, Jack thought, but he didn’t hear a single woof. Dog wanted to play when he met other dogs, but these two always ignored him. Sheepdogs don’t play.

Jack knocked on the door, calling out “Frank! It’s me, Jack. Sheep got out.” He saw an upstairs light come on and then heard the scraping of a window catch. Della appeared at the window: “Oh it’s you Jack. Bit early. What’s up?”

“Where’s Frank, Della? Sheep all over, down by the stream.”

“He’s …… gone, .. ..he’s not here. Wait a bit, I’ll be down.”

A  minute or two later she came striding out of the front door, in working gear, cheeks a little flushed and dark hair collected roughly under a cap.

“Oh I see, you and Dog out walking at this time o’ night!! Couldn’t sleep?” she asked, too cheerful at this hour for Jack’s liking.

Dog wagged his tail energetically on hearing Della’s voice, and jumped up to lick her face. She pushed him down, he had to make do with her hands.

“Something like that. Good night for a long walk, beautiful sky.”

“Lucky for us.”

“Yepp, heard ‘em from way over the fields.”

“Let’s get to it then, I’ll fetch the dogs” said Della in her business-like voice. She marched off towards the barn, letting out a sharp low whistle and the two sheepdogs came running. Dog jumped about, excited, but the sheepdogs remained quite aloof, as usual, waiting for instructions.

“Did you see anyone out there Jack?” Della asked, as they hurried down to the fields.

“No, but did hear a truck, pickup on the old dirt road. Missing a tail light too.”

“You know we’ve lost some animals these last few weeks.”

“I heard” said Jack, pulling hard to stop Dog running after the sheepdogs.

“Heel!” she ordered, keeping them close.

The mist was still lying thick over the fields when they reached the enclosure. “Not easy to find white sheep in this stuff”, laughed Della in her deep voice. Jack didn’t respond, busy wondering where Frank had got to. Jack knew him well, had worked for him, but didn’t really know Della.  She obviously felt uneasy too as they stood there together by the gate. Jack bent down to calm Dog and finally broke the silence:

“How do you want to run this, Della?” He liked using her name.

“Collect them in smaller groups then drive them here. You man the gates. Let them through one at a time, and don’t forget to count them! Have to check if we have lost any more.”

“Sounds like a long night” said Jack, pretending to yawn.

“D’you think? Don’t you go falling asleep” laughed Della again and melted into the mist, sheepdogs close behind.

“Here Dog, can’t have you chasing the sheep. No such fun” said Jack as he tied Dog’s leash firmly to a birch tree at a safe distance from the gate. “Stay” said Jack. Dog looked badly done to, but resigned and lay down to rest.

The Gates

Jack studied the gates closely, trying to work out how he could let the sheep pass into the enclosure and count them at the same time. He unfastened the chain which held the gates together and opened them inwards. The only way of doing it was to keep the left-hand gate closed and open the right one, making a small gap for the sheep to squeeze through, one at a time. Easy!

Jack could hear Della’s voice from the fields, giving orders to the sheepdogs. He was impressed by how confident she was at handling them. Before he had only seen Frank running sheep. After about ten minutes he heard the first group of sheep coming towards him,  quickly, driven by the dogs. He thought it sounded as though there could be about twenty of them. Dog heard them too. He was jumping, straining on the leash and barking as the sheep got closer. “Quiet”, shouted Jack, but it didn’t carry above the din. Dog was all worked up.

Della shouted too: “Ready now Jack, get counting!” The sheep were eager to get into the enclosure, where they felt safe. Suddenly they were up against the gates, pressing forward like a football crowd. Jack put all his weight behind the gates to stop them breaking through. They were bleating loudly, agitated, dogs driving behind and gates stuck together. “Let them in Jack, or we’ll lose them again!” shouted Della, coming out of the mist. Jack opened the right-hand gate to make a narrow gap for them to squeeze through, one by one. There was a lot of pushing and shoving as they made for the opening. “Easy, easy goes” shouted Jack but the sheep didn’t bother. He opened the gate just enough to be able to  grab  them by the neck and pull them inside. Bracing all his weight against the gates he almost forgot to count them. It came to seventeen in all, before he could lean against the gates for a rest, gloves greasy from the wet sheep. Della came up to check how Jack was doing. “How many?” “Seventeen” said Jack, breathing heavily, “That all?” “Should be ‘bout another hundred. Can you cope?” “Never learned to count that far!” “Time you did then,” said Della cheerfully, running off to round up the next bunch.

It took nearly two hours before all the sheep were safely inside the enclosure. “How many Jack” asked Della, as they leaned together against the gates again, exhausted. “Hundred and fifteen.“ “Two missing then”, said Della, hair now hanging loose and cheeks rosy from driving the sheep. “Nothing we can do about them now. Let’s go home.” By home she meant her place.

They walked back over the hill on tired legs, quiet, all except Dog. He tried to get the sheepdogs interested in playing, but had no luck. Aloof, they just ignored him, eager to get back to sleep in their barn.

“Thanks Jack” said Della as they neared the house. “Glad to help out”, said Jack, looking straight at Della, “you’re good at running the dogs.” She smiled briefly, pleased with herself. “Want to come in, join me for breakfast? Tastes better with company.”  He hesitated, still uncertain with Frank not at home. She opened the door and Dog rushed in, Della close behind “Come on in Jack, it’s warmer inside.” He smiled to himself and closed the door firmly behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left Luggage

The underground train squealed to a halt and a herd of camera-hugging tourists and overage hippies squeezed through the opening doors onto the platform. Standing as usual, I instinctively drew in my stomach and rescued my London Review of Books. Ooohs! and Aaahs! revealed that they were on a tour of “the world’s longest art gallery”, here a station with naivístic artwork in solid red and green.

Order was restored as the driver warned he was preparing to close the doors. The carriage was now half-empty and we could relax. I returned to Seymore Hersch where I left off,  trying to grasp the complexities of the Syrian conflict. My reading was interrupted by animated female voices and the thunder of footsteps. Somebody about to miss their station, I thought, as I glanced at the sliding doors. No chance! I prepared to rescue a possible damsel in distress, caught between the doors.

A young woman in black running tights and orange sneakers came striding along the aisle of the train, dragging a black case on small wheels. Startled faces looked up at the sound of the wheels skidding across the hard floor. Approaching, she drew back her arm like a bowler going for a strike, and swung the case expertly through the gap between the rapidly-closing doors. She scored! The case sailed out onto the platform as the doors closed with a dull thud. She turned to her friend and raised her arm, clenched fist pumping in the air. “Right on!” they shouted and she returned to her seat, attracting disapproving looks from older passengers. “What if they think there is a bomb inside!” exclaimed her friend, and burst into a fit of giggles. And that’s just what they did.

The train accelerated slowly, heading for the dark cavernous tunnel. Calm descended on the carriage and passengers bowed their heads again over their cell phones.

From my vantage point by the door I could follow the case as it rolled in a wide arc, gradually coming to a halt in the middle of the platform. The train gathered up speed. I noticed people on the platform pointing in the direction of the case. Some were making quickly for the exit, others speaking earnestly into their phones.

I was not the only one watching the case on its lonely journey. The driver saw it too out of the corner of his eye, but turned to enter his cab. Already behind schedule, he slammed the door and pushed the accelerator into drive, happy to enter the safety of the tunnel and leave the problem behind.

The monitors in the railway control room flickered as they routinely switched between different stations. George and Mick, on duty but sleepy after a heavy lunch, were rudely roused when Tommy, their supervisor, shouted “What’s happening there?” Mick hit the button and zoomed in, seeing people running for the exits. They all watched as the lone piece of luggage, still upright, came to a standstill on the almost deserted platform. “Alarm, alarm“ shouted George, “stop all trains on the blue line!” Red lamps were flashing.In the background phones were ringing, but nobody answered. A robot-like voice repeated: “bomb alert, bomb alert”.

I tried to pick up the thread of the article about Syria, but the two women were still chatting loudly for me to think. A few hundred meters into the tunnel the train shuddered to a halt, ceiling lights dimmed and then came on again. It suddenly got very quiet. Behind me even the two women felt the need to whisper. I looked around. There were about fifteen people in the carriage: mothers with small children in prams, a few sleepy young men in caps, oldies  with walkers and tired-looking  middle-aged women with bulging shopping bags. Some appeared bored and resigned at the delay, others grappled with their phones.The train passed through a string of multi-ethnic suburbs. I was the odd  white man out in the carriage.

The only sound apart from phone chatter was air hissing in the braking system. A small boy started whining but was quickly silenced with thin slices of banana. A crackling sound from the loudspeakers was greeted with groans, usually meaning a longer delay. Passengers looked automatically up to the ceiling, expecting the usual excuses. The driver cleared his throat loudly, and a couple of children started wailing. An automatic “Schhh!” came from mothers.

I could hear that he was nervous, not the usual monotonous official voice. “We..ahh …. we have a delay. A brief …. delay. Train in front is, er, er, running a bit.” Fumbling with his microphone he switched it off  in a cloud of atmospherics, swallowing the final syllables.

We waited, and waited. Now everyone with a phone was telling someone else that they would be late; for a meeting, to fetch the dog/car/kids, for the kick-off or for a connecting bus or train. I tried to get the local news, but the signal was too weak in the tunnel.

An unexpected jerk and the train sprung into life again, engines throbbing and brakes hissing. The driver announced what we already felt: “Now we are on our way again, but we will only be crawling along.” Nobody cared, as long as we were moving there was hope. Passengers fed the good news into their phones, updating friends, colleagues, day care centres and the rest. Eventually we rolled slowly into the next station, out of the dark tunnel into the bright lights on the platform. Passengers were already crowding the doors, hoping to make up for lost time.

A disturbing feeling spread through the carriage; something was wrong. All the figures standing on the platform were in uniform: police in dark blue, others in black with white helmets and shields, some holding staring dogs with muzzles. They were lined up along the edge of the platform. Through the windows we saw stern, searching faces peering in at us. Some passengers instinctively took a step back from the doors, others returned to their seats. Police were not popular in this part of the city.

The train stopped with a loud hiss, but the buzzer which normally heralded the opening of the doors remained ominously silent. The doors remained firmly closed. “Open the doors”. “ I’m already late”. “What’s going on?” “Let us out!” “I’m missing the match.” “Is it a robbery d’you think?” asked someone.

Phones were again hauled out of pockets and bags, but the loudspeakers crackled and a new voice announced, “This is the police speaking. Due to a security incident we must keep the train here until further notice. We apologise for the inconvenience. Please be patient.” and then shut down. People returned to their seats, looking round suspiciously. Nobody said anything. We were in the third carriage. This is going to take time, I thought, and sat down on an empty “priority seat” across the aisle from the two women. It felt appropriate.

After twenty minutes the doors on our carriage opened without warning, but not to let us off the train. Each pair of doors was blocked by armed policemen with helmets and unusual, bulging uniforms. Two large policemen entered by the front doors and stood to attention,  unspeaking, waiting. The silence spread like an invisible blanket of fog through the carriage  A rather old moth-eaten police dog was then paraded up and down the centre aisle, sniffing in all the corners. It showed som interest in my feet and my first instinct was to kick out at the smelly beast, but thought better of it. Two policemen started checking ID-cards, reluctantly hauled out from pockets and handbags. I couldn’t hear what they asked, but guessed it had to do with the black case. When questioned, passengers instinctively put on their most innocent faces and slowly shook their heads. They looked uncomfortable and I felt them looking in my direction. I hoped the police didn’t notice, but they did.

They were business-like rather than polite,  have a long hard look at my ID-card. “Where you going then?” “Home”, I said, trying to stay calm. Police were not noted for their sense of humour, so I curbed my jocular tendencies. “Where’s that?” “Next station.” “What you got in there?” one asked, pointing at my rucksack. “Book, tea, dried fruit, socks.” “Open it!” I almost said “Why” but did as they asked. They rooted around and emptied the contents on the seat. When a rather dog-eared copy of “The Clash of Fundamentalisms” by Tariq Ali fell out, I knew I was in trouble.

“Did you see anything unusual on your journey?” “Unusual … no, I was reading.” “See any luggage left unattended?” “There was a black case, but one of those women threw it out onto the platform.” As I said this I pointed to where I thought the young women had been sitting, but their seats were empty. They had moved without me noticing. I turned  and saw them sitting quietly at the end of the carriage, with an older couple.

“Come with us”, said one of the policemen, in a tone I couldn’t refuse. Together they pulled me up reluctantly from my seat and dragged me towards the doors of the carriage. In the melee, my London Review of Books dropped onto the floor. Instinctively I tried to retrieve it. The last thing I remember was a big black bootprint staring at me from Seymore Hersh’s article.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Words Spoken

A man climbed slowly up to the top of the hill, leather walking boots slipping on heavy dew which coated the long grass. The legs of his worn jeans were damp. It was early, chilly. A thick sweater filled out his green jacket. At the top of the rise he stopped to get his breath, lifting the peak of his dark cap to wipe the sweat from his brow.

He looked down on a narrow valley which had been turned into a gently rolling golf course. It was knee deep in a blanket of early-morning mist. About to descend to the springy green turf, he stopped and listened to the distant clamour of crows and magpies, upset by something. Squinting, he pulled his cap down and scanned the horizon to locate the noisy creatures. There they were, occupying a small stand of old rowan trees on the opposite side of the valley. He could see nothing unusual, but was curious to find out the cause of the commotion.

Going down the hill, he almost lost his balance. Choosing a diagonal pathway which was longer but safer, it took him almost twenty minutes to reach the base of the hill. Immediately he felt the chill of the mist as it crept up his legs. On the flat turf, he lengthened his stride and made for the rowan trees with their noisy tenants, about three hundred yards away. Half-way there, a slight breeze across the flat land suddenly turned the bank of mist into a heaving grey sea. He stopped as the waves engulfed him. Fifty yards to his left he glimpsed a dark shape through a gap in the mist, like a badly focused snapshot.  The gap closed again as the breeze abated and the waves subsided.

Slowly, almost gingerly, he approached the spot where he thought it might be – whatever it was. He hoped it was just a pile of rubbish, or a sack of old leaves. He noticed that the magpies had fallen silent as he got closer. Did they know something he didn’t, but was about to find out?

Suddenly his right boot struck something solid, startling him. He instinctively bent down to investigate, hand shaking as it disappeared in the layer of mist. Waving his cap he tried to disperse the mist, and saw that he had kicked a wooden marker peg. His heartbeat slowed down with relief.

Gradually the mist thinned enough to reveal suds of greyish-white fur spread out in a circle near the marker, like clouds in a summer sky. Heartbeat accelerating again he took a couple of strides beyond the marker and bent down over a figure stretched out on the ground. It was a big, fine hare lying on its side, neck twisted as though broken, eyes staring up at the sky. Two bloody craters gaped wide where the hare had been ripped open, at the side of the hare’s chest and on one muscular rear haunch. The hawk was gone, the hare abandoned, leftovers for the scavenging magpies and crows.

Kneeling down on the wet turf, he felt a great sadness in his soul. He leant forward and stroked the fine grey fur. The hare was still a little warm, not yet wet from the dew. It had not been lying there very long. Lifting his hand he accidentally brushed against the hare’s belly and a thin line of blood trickled down his hand onto the grass. The body smelt of fresh blood, death was so close. The hairs on his neck quivered, standing on end. He had rudely interrupted someone’s breakfast, a Goshawk who had retired to wipe blood stains from curved beak and pointed talons.

Taking a step backwards he directed his camera at the scene and the victim, like a police photographer. Feeling quite sick after his intrusion into the animal world, he made to leave. The magpies and crows were getting impatient and nature must take it’s course.

The sun was beginning to warm, quickly dispersing the remaining mist. About twenty yards away he turned back for one last view of the hare, a silent sign of respect. Standing there, he felt he was not alone. Turning around he saw a movement by the wall of trees which marked the boundary of the golf course. A young, dark-haired woman wrapped up in a quilted jacket and with green rubber boots, was sitting on a fold-up beach chair. She was making notes in a pad on her knee. Taking a thermos flask from her rucksack, she poured some steaming liquid into the lid, and carried on with her notes. She made no sign that she had seen the man. No acknowledgments were made, no words spoken. The man resumed his walk, looking forward to his morning coffee.

Author’s Note: When the events which inspired this story occurred, I wrongly assumed that the perpetrator of the deed was a fox. Simply because I had recently seen a fox on the golf course. Reading Helen Macdonald’s book “H Is for Hawk”, it now dawned on me that it was the work of a Goshawk.

For those of faint heart, or stomach, I have not included the man’s photographs from the scene. If you wish, you may choose to view them here: Golf Course Victim

 

 

 

Cutting Grass

Our summer cottage overlooks an acre of meadowland which slopes down to the shore of a small lake in a series of natural terraces, a legacy from the ice age. The meadow is like a valley protected on both sides by tall, old trees: pines, firs, silver birches and oaks. By the lake  a 25-foot high outcrop of granite, worn smooth by the ice and now covered in moss, provides a natural boundary.

In summer an almost impenetrable jungle of grasses, ferns, wild flowers, bushes heavy with roses and currants and small saplings blankets the meadow. A few narrow paths which follow the contours of the terrain make it easier to move around in this undergrowth. They were originally made by the local badgers on their nocturnal excursions. We follow them too.

The Meadow
The Meadow

 

Rain and sunshine before midsummer lead to an explosion of green vegetation, and the meadowland becomes dense and entangled. The dog, a large boxer, disappears into the grass to find a good place for a snooze. The kids play “spot the dog”. Evenings are devoted to tic-picking, which he doesn’t like. Soon it will be time to harvest the currant bushes, red, white and black, if we can find them before the blackbirds do.

The grass needs cutting. For the past 60 years or so this has been done using a scythe. Before that the local farmer’s horses and cows did the job. I inherited the scythe from my father-in-law, 25 years ago. It hangs on a rusty nail in the shed, as though waiting to be used in a horror movie. There was no way back, I had to learn how to use it.

Scythe, whetstone and water
Scythe, whetstone and water

 

Mary had often seen her father in action, so she demonstrated how to swing the scythe. Over the years I have gradually got the hang of it, and in particular avoided any major injuries.

First I had to learn how to sharpen the blade using a whetstone. The picture that came to mind was of the butcher using a steel to sharpen his knives. Sharpening a scythe blade is different, stone on steel. The whetstone is a block of stone with fine and rougher grades, and has to be wetted for a good sharp edge. The action is different too – the butcher strokes his knife along the steel, the whetstone is stroked along the scythe blade. Both alternate between the two sides of the blade. To sharpen the blade, I stand with the scythe handle nestling in my armpit, arm extended along the dull side of the blade and other hand sliding the whetstone along the edge in steady strokes. I don’t use gloves but so far I have not cut myself.

It is easier to cut grass while still wet with morning dew or when the evening mist rolls in from the lake. We still use the same scythe, but switched to a heavier, shorter blade about ten years ago. Cutting grass with a scythe is quiet; only a slicing sound as the blade cuts through the stems of the grasses and like a scalpel separates the grass from its roots. It is heavy work swinging the scythe from side to side, rhythmically exposing the contours of the land one step at a time.  We usually let the grass lie for a few days, to release next year’s seeds and make it easy to rake up the grass. Over the years I have cut down a currant bush or two by mistake, but the dog still has a tail.

Swinging a scythe is a sweaty business but physically satisfying, and I tell myself it is good exercise. Often I am too enthusiastic at the beginning of the cutting season, and get a stiff, sore back which turns into a chronic condition as the summer proceeds and more grass is liberated from its roots.

In August I have a regular date with my chiropractor. He tugs and presses my body, twists and manipulates until I feel like a loose rag doll. After a particularly long and painful session he smiled ironically and pronounced:

“It’s about time you hang that scythe up for good!”

“No way, what will happen to the meadow then” I replied, despairingly.

“Get a machine, a trimmer. I have one. Perfect. Got it second-hand and share with a neighbour”.

“But we’ve never used a machine on the meadow before.”

“Mark my words. Next year I might not be able to get your old bones back into working order.”

To cut the story short, I ordered a machine for cutting grass. A month later a large, heavy box arrived. It could easily have doubled as a budget coffin.

 

The Box
The Box

The machine came in several parts which had to be assembled. Also included was a 30-page manual (four languages), safety instructions, grass cutter, trimmer head, tool kit, harness, various nuts and bolts. That was not all; the machine demands a special petrol/oil fuel, not included, a funnel, ear mufflers, face shield, heavy boots and thick gloves. I skipped the special grass cutting safety trousers.

Machine and Accessories
Machine and Accessories

 

A couple of days later I had assembled the machine and studied the manual carefully. At least half of the instructions were about safety. Sadly I couldn’t figure out how to start the machine. A safety precaution perhaps? I phoned Customer Service and explained my dilemma. The service technician agreed that the manual was rather unclear, but blamed a poor translation. I didn’t think it advisable to ask what it said in the original language. He said it was one of the easiest models to start on the market and explained the procedure slowly and with a loud, patient voice. Obviously he had been trained to communicate with regular folks.

“If you still feel uncertain, there are excellent instruction films on YouTube” he said, with a rather cheerful voice, and hung up.

I took his advice and searched YouTube using the model number of the machine. Rather unexpectedly the films which came up were all in Russian. OK, I don’t have anything about Russians, so I clicked on the first film. It was quite entertaining as far as instructional films go: two portly Russian men in shiny shorts and old gym shoes were happily prancing around an overgrown orchard like horses in a circus ring, waving their motorised grass cutters with such abandon that I expected a harvest of toes to crown their performance. They swung their machines about in a very carefree fashion, clearly not having read the extensive safety instructions. Not the reading kind, I guess.

Suddenly one of the machines shut down, rudely interrupting their pas-de-deux. The owner’s attempts to restart the machine were worthy of a performance by Coco the clown, ending with him abandoning his machine in the tall grass and stomping off for good.

As an instructional film it had some shortcomings. I suspect it was a “how-not-to-do-it” film. The user manual seemingly had the same origin, a Russian orchard.

D-day arrived. Kitted out in sturdy boots, thick gloves, jeans, harness, ear mufflers and face shield I filled the petrol tank with the correct oil/petrol mixture, carefully wiping off excess petrol, and then moved at least 20 feet away from the “filling area”, as prescribed. First I pumped the transparent fuel pump a few times until I could see the fuel bubbles, pulled up the choke and, with my hands in the right position, pulled the starting handle several times in quick succession until the engine coughed and almost started. Down with the choke, and the engine died again. Two quick pulls on the starting handle and the engine roared into life. “Eureka”, I shouted, almost falling over in shock. It worked. I lifted up the machine and hooked it onto the harness, albeit after some fumbling with my thick gloves.

Assuming the correct stance, I grasped the controls, pressed in the dead-man’s grip and then squeezed the gas pedal. It burst into action, the grass-cutting head spinning at an alarming rate as I looked round for some grass to cut. According to reliable sources, the engine was loud. Some pheasants flew squawking over the fence into the neighbour, the dog ran into the cottage and hid under the bed, while Mary took a long walk. I could hardly hear anything, thanks to my mufflers.

 

Man At Work
Man At Work

 

After half an hour or so I cut the gas and released the dead-man’s grip before pressing the “STOP” button. The engine slowed down with a grateful whine, but the blade carried on spinning for a minute or two, slower and slower.  Relieved I unhooked the machine and removed mufflers, harness and the rest. The machine left me with fingers still shaking and ears wet with sweat.

My first grass-cutting session over, I surveyed the results. Grass, ferns and flowers plus a couple of unknown bushes lay in one great tangle of vegetation. All in all a good job. But it doesn’t end there. The manual concludes with a twenty one item maintenance schedule for daily, weekly or monthly maintenance. With the scythe I simply wipe off the blade with an old rag and hang it up on its nail in the shed. At the end of the cutting season I wipe it over with oil to protect it from rust over the winter.

Cutting grass with a machine is faster than with a scythe – but, sadly, noisy and lonely. With the machine, I must focus on one thing – the machine, and not injuring anyone. It is definitely too fast and violent to avoid chopping up the wild red strawberries hiding in the grass. I miss the silence of the scythe, I miss the birdsong and the sound of the slow waves as they reach the shore. Working with the scythe I can meditate, contemplate, allow my thoughts to wander, and I get to eat more strawberries. Is the new machine a sign of progress? My answer is no – and the dog agrees.

 

 

 

The Dump

 Three ancient horseshoes with nails, two peeling window frames complete with glass, a heavy roll of chicken wire, a tired plastic bucket full of broken green glass, two tins of dried up paint, a roll of brittle black roofing felt, two pairs of skis and ski sticks anno 1950 with leather bindings,  a broken wooden armchair, two uncomfortably heavy beach chairs with lime green canvas seats, two  very rusty hand saws and pair of secateurs, an assorted pile of wood from wall fittings and dismembered wardrobes, two cupboard doors, a glass paraffin lamp with dodgy conversion for electricity, bulb included, a four feet long aluminium tube, function and origin unknown, a metal cage for poaching crayfish, probably illegal, one broken landing net for fish, camouflage net smelling strongly of rubber,  army tank size, some odd glass bottles and jars plus a few rusty tins used to store cement and plaster and a wooden window-shelf painted a sickly-green shade.

This is more or less the stuff I loaded into the back of my truck early one Thursday morning.  I felt the weak sun on my back as I opened the gates, hoping it would gradually dissolve the thin clouds which had protected us like a shroud from the night frost. The engine grumbled at the early start and heavy load. I drove slowly along the bumpy dirt road, shivering as I waited for the heater to loosen up my stiff fingers.

I had been putting off the visit to our local dump for years. It is one of those things blokes are supposed to enjoy, and now I had used up all my excuses. To get me in the right mood I played John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” on repeat for the half-hour drive.

The entrance to the dump was by an unmarked dirt track known only to locals. The track slowly snaked upwards until you got to a clearing in the woods, overlooking a deep old stone quarry. We used to drive up there with pickups full of rubbish and a six-pack to enjoy the scenery and see who was best at throwing stuff out over the edge. You backed-up as close as you dared and flung all your unwanted stuff over the edge. A dull thud as it hit the bottom was the only satisfaction needed. It was a relaxing, laid-back way of starting the weekend.

At night it was pitch black up there, frequented mainly by guys who wanted a quiet place to enjoy a beer and grilled steaks, the surrounding woods dampening the sound from their music systems. Setting fire to a stolen car and rolling it over the edge didn’t take place often, but attracted quite a crowd. Regular guys saw this as a trifle juvenile. Occasionally lovers also drove up there at night to be alone.

On the road approaching the entrance I noticed a slow sign. What now? At the turnoff I was confronted by tall metal-barred gates, and an official sign which said “Recycling Depot”. The dirt road leading up to the gate now had a hard top. Was this the old dump? And how do you get into the place? Not wanting to appear out –of –touch, I drove confidently up to the entrance like a regular visitor and waited for the gates to open. They didn’t. I waited some more. John Lennon was still howling, but even he couldn’t drown the persistent honking of the rusty red pickup which was almost climbing up my rear bumper. An old guy in heavy boots, worn jeans and greasy leather jacket knocked on my window, which I hesitantly lowered a few inches. “Forgotten your card have ya’?” he snarled. Sorry”, I said meekly, pretending to get what he meant. “You get a move on then when them gates opens, or yer’ll be in trouble.” He waved his hand in front of a box by the gates and strode back to his pickup. I got moving and drove through the gates but he revved up and overtook just inside the gates. I followed him along the road between high stands of trees, feeling the sweat trickling down my spine. Clearly this was a big mistake.

After a hundred yards or so the woods gave way to a flat ocean of concrete and tarmac. Our hill was no more. It was like a big road junction hidden in the woods, with confusing road signs and barriers with red and yellow stripes. To be on the safe side I tailed the rusty pickup, passing a depot for refuse collection trucks and mountains of green refuse bins before approaching a barrier which said “Private households”.

Now I was really lost about how to proceed. I drifted to the side and parked, to try and figure out things. I choked John Lennon so I could concentrate. The old dump was simple – just heave everything over the side into the quarry and that’s it. No big deal. Here I could see a long concrete loading bay with large skips arranged along each side, like a beetle with its legs sticking out at sixty-degrees. The top of the skips was level with the loading bay. Each one had a green wooden sign above, swinging in the morning breeze: Wood, Painted Wood, Plastic, Metal, Textiles, Electronics, Garden Waste, Paper, Cartons, Insulation, Chemicals, Tyres, Glass, Road Fill.

This was going to be one seriously challenging morning exercise. The loading bay was jam-packed with pickups, trucks, vans, cars and trailers, drivers scurrying back and forth carrying stuff and throwing it into the different skips, seemingly without hesitation. Their private collection of rubbish dumped, they navigated through the jam and turned back for the gate.

OK, now I get it. The never-ending stream of cars and vans into the bay showed no generosity to newcomers. At the risk of making myself very unpopular for a second time already that day, I speeded up and ran parallel to the queue, trying to force someone to give way and let me in. Challenging thick-necked men with shaven heads and shades in shiny new pickups was not a good idea.  I finally swerved in front of a brown saloon, deliberately choosing one with an oldie behind the wheel.

I found a gap next to the skip for “Unpainted Wood”. Not that I had any unpainted wood, but it seemed a safe bet to avoid annoying people. I looked around discretely to check out the right procedure. Folks really were in a hurry, rushing back and forth between the skips with piles of stuff. They just threw the rubbish into a skip and rushed back to their truck for more, seemingly knowing what they were doing. Another thing, they had their stuff ready in piles. I had loaded everything into the back of my truck, first come. It took me a whole hour to empty – I probably visited each skip a couple of times.

Weren’t they a little curious about the stuff in the skips? Might be something useful, but I didn’t see anyone climbing down in a skip raid so it was apparently not the done thing.

There was some good stuff dumped there, but there was official-looking shed which also had a wooden sign: “Office”, but it seemed closed. For one short moment I thought I could get away with it, the kid’s bike in the skip for metal waste. It was just the right size for Noah, purple and silver. Come on, it’s all about recycling isn’t it! Maybe I could ask – or maybe that’s not such a good idea.

The last stuff in the truck was a giant army camouflage net made out of rope and pieces of green and brown rubber, large enough to hide a Centurian tank. Don’t ask!

The net was enormous, cumbersome. I gathered it up in a large ball and held it clasped in front of me with both arms like hugging a giant. Which skip should I choose? It was difficult to see where I was going and the office was about 50 yards away. Suddenly someone shouted “Wait, stop!!” with a deep roar. What was up? I peered over the top of the net and saw a man running towards me, waving his arms and shouting.

He was big, head shaven and sporting a long tangled reddish-brown beard. I thought at once of an egg with hairy legs.  He was wearing a tight white t-shirt with SHOOT TO KILL in large letters above a large elk. It was stretched over his oversized pot-belly, which wobbled like a giant jelly as he ran towards me. With his neon-yellow working trousers and big boots I guessed that he was the supervisor, coming to tell me that I had put stuff in the wrong skip. But no, he just grabbed the net and held it tightly in his arms, taking a step backwards, all in one movement.  A wides smile split his face like a jagged crack in a hard-boiled egg. OK, no problem, I thought, but before I could say “you’re welcome” he was striding towards the white van parked next to the office. He bundled the net inside and quickly shut the sliding doors. I must have looked surprised, until he explained: “I’m a hunter, camouflage is gold to us. Cheers!”.

On the drive home John Lennon sang “Imagine” to calm my nerves. Mary was waiting with fresh coffee. “You’ve been a long time”, she said. “Come and look”, I said, opening the back door of the truck. Inside the purple and silver metal shone brightly in the noonday sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dendrocopos Major*

It hopped up from the ditch by the roadside like a miniature kangaroo and landed three feet in front of the car. “No-o-o” I shouted, even though there was no one there to hear. The young woodpecker froze, giving me time to register its bright red cap, white belly and variegated black and white wings. Then it was gone, under the car. Glancing instinctively at the rear view mirror I saw no sign of a squashed woodpecker on the asphalt. A sense of relief flooded through my veins – the bird had made it.

As I turned onto the dirt road, I could still see the bird in front of me. Woodpeckers have a very characteristic way of hopping up tree trunks, using their powerful claws situated near the bottom of their torso. This makes it easier to keep their balance while hacking away high up in the trees. On the ground they stand upright and hop along in a rather laboured, almost comical way – for a bird.

I backed the car into the gravel driveway and closed the gates behind, giving no more thought to the woodpecker.

The next day, as I opened the gate after my morning walk, my stomach lurched when I saw  what had happened:

IMG_0217 NEW

The woodpecker was there, speckled wings spread wide and red-capped head drooping, sucked into the car’s air intake. It had been there since yesterday. I just stopped in my tracks, not believing what had happened.  What if I had stopped right away and checked the car? Could I have saved it?  What now?

At least I could take a photograph of the poor bird so went to fetch my camera. Crouching down in the gravel, I thought I caught a little glimmer of life still in its eyes. But the broken neck revealed this as wishful thinking. I put on my gloves and held the opening of a white plastic bag over the woodpecker’s head, grasped round its neck and pulled gently. I expected it to be jammed hard in the air intake but the body slid out easily. The wings folded back automatically as the car released its grip on the bird. I noticed a red patch low down on its white belly. It was the same shade of bright red as the bird’s cap, not brown like dried blood. Lying there in the bag it looked peaceful, eyes tight shut. A not very dignified ending for a beautiful young woodpecker.

I slowly tied up the bag and fetched my spade to dig a hole down by the lake, where the woodpeckers hunt for grubs in the dead branches of the gnarled old oak trees.

* The great-spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos Major) is the most common and widespread of the British woodpeckers. The woodpecker is 23–26 centimetres (9.1–10.2 in) long, with a 38–44 centimetres (15–17 in) wingspan. It has black and white plumage, a prominent oval-shaped white patch on each wing and a red patch under the tail. Males also have a red patch on the rear of the head. Juveniles can be identified by their red crown.

 

 

 

How Old Are You Granddad?*

Waiting at the bus stop, my six year old grandson was talking about his favourite sports just as he would with another six year old. We were on our way to Thursday’s football practice – his.

“What’s your favourite sport granddad?”

“Do you mean to watch or to play?” I asked.

“Both I suppose. My favourite to play is indoor hockey, and to watch either swimming or football. What are yours?”

“To play it’s rugby, then I like watching basketball” I said.

“Rugby?”

“You play with a ball like an egg” I said, drawing a rugby ball in the air.

“Is that like American football?”

“More or less, almost the same” I said, nodding and raising my eyebrows like Groucho Marx to show I was impressed.

We were early for practice, so we did some passing and dribbling to warm up. He collected the ball from halfway across the pitch, after one of my badly skewed passes. After almost half an hour in the afternoon sun I was sweating profusely. His cheeks were blossoming, but otherwise he seemed unaffected.

He stood there holding the ball and looked straight into my eyes in that innocent way of his, head on one side and squinting against the sun. “How old are you granddad?” he asked, right out of the blue. “Seventy”, I said. He didn’t react, just nodded slowly, tucked the ball under his arm and backed off so that we could carry on with our passing game.

A simple question opened up a generation gap between us, a gap that had not been there before. Later I wondered what had prompted his question. And what he thought of my answer.

Most likely he was looking for an explanation for my poor performance  – “Granddad is really hopeless at passing a football. OK – that’s because he is old and tired, but he’ll do if there’s no one else around.”

A more (for me) flattering explanation could be that he was impressed by my fitness, enthusiasm and prowess with a football and thought perhaps I was younger than I looked with my balding head and white hair. Or maybe he thought, “you’re not that old, only seventy, now it’s your turn to fetch the ball”.

(A week or so later we were sitting in the park eating ice cream. He was at home with a cough, I was keeping him company. I asked why he wanted to know how old I was. With a wide smile he confirmed my worst fears – I was past it as a football player.)

I joined the football (soccer) mums sitting at the side of the pitch, ostensibly watching their sons going through their training programme.  In fact they were involved in an intense heated discussion about the new city rules for placement of six year olds in schools next autumn. After almost half an hour of listening to their views I felt exhausted. But not our soccer mums. They turned to the merits of living in the asphalt city with small children contra the option of buying a house in the leafy suburbs.

I tried to interest them in the football training which was taking place under their very noses, but to no avail. Their thoughts were elsewhere: what to put on the table for dinner, how to get for sitters or grandparents to look after the kids at the weekend, conflicts at work, and the rest.

Another age gap opened up, like cracks in a road after an earthquake.

Afterwards we took a short cut through the park to reach our bus stop, passing a large old apple tree in full bloom.

“What kind of tree is that” I asked grandson, trying to interest him in nature.

“No idea” he said, disinterested.

“It’s an apple tree.” His favourite fruit.

“How do you know that?”

“I saw some people picking apples from it last autumn.” I said.

“Can you still remember things from last year?”

“Of course, I walk past here quite often.”

He looked confused, probably thought it was another peculiarity about 70 year olds.

On the bus home he preferred to sit with a couple of his teammates, waving and pulling faces at the driver of the bus behind us in the traffic jam. She responded by waving her wipers and flashing her headlights. My role was reduced to bag man and general dogsbody.

At home, grandma and little sister, three years old, were sitting on the settee looking at old family photos, waiting for the potatoes to boil. “Who’s that?” asked grandma, showing her a picture of two girls standing next to a large brown pony in the stables. They were about twelve and eight years old. Little sister looked puzzled, and so did big brother when grandma showed him the photo.

“This is your Mummy and her sister when they were little girls”, explained grandma.  “No way” said the six year old, while the three year old preferred children’s TV. Grandma tried to arouse interest in more photos of their Mummy as a young girl, but to no avail. The idea that their Mummy had a life before she was their mother was completely alien to them. The kids seemed disturbed by the idea that their Mummy had once been young like themselves. I tried again: “Where do you think those girls went to, where are they now?” No answer. Grandma and I gave up and set about fixing dinner.

Interest in family history and delving into the lives of previous generations is something that comes late in life, often when people have more life behind them than in front of them. “Oh, I should have asked Aunt Mary or Grandma Perkins about this when they were still alive!” is a common reaction after hitting a stone wall in their genealogical endeavours. Another common sign of interest in the past are the rows of biographies and historical novels which dominate the bookcases – if not the reading – of older people.

Are they trying to cling to the past, a past which has long since disappeared into the mists of time? And where does the past go to? Who stores the events of yesterday and yesteryear? Or does the past just disappear into a black hole, sucked from our memories as we desperately try to cling onto what we have lived? Why do old people try to remember the past, with failing memory, while young people’s hippocampus is set by default to “full steam ahead”? Is it simply that for old people with little future, the past is more interesting and there is more of it, while for younger people it is the opposite?